Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (New York: The Free Press, 1986).

Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York: Pantheon, 1987).

Officials responsible for organizing the celebration of Israel’s fortieth anniversary must be rather depressed these days. They had planned a collective submersion in the warm bath of national mythology, a triumphal tribute to Israel’s birth, survival and achievements that might — at least for a while — allow its Jewish citizens to forget their troubles. But reality intruded, in the form of the massive Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It is bad enough that the Palestinians have ruined Israel’s party; even worse, the brutal repression with which the Israeli government has responded has shattered Israel’s image in the US and the world.

Now this fortieth anniversary project must become a celebration with a purpose: to purge American and European minds of those awful images of Israeli soldiers shooting and beating Palestinians. Brace yourself for prime-time broadcasts of “Exodus,” choruses of Hava Nagela, stories about hardy pioneers making the desert bloom, and countless op-ed articles extolling Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. No hard questions to mar the festivities, please.

But the questions will not go away. Significantly, since 1982 Israeli Jews themselves have been posing them with increasing force. Some have begun to wonder out loud if its present predicament does not stem, at least in part, from the traumatic events of Israel’s first year of existence, and they have undertaken a politically important reappraisal of some of the myths surrounding Israel’s foundation. The most central of these myths concerns the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem.

With a Wave of His Hand

On July 9, 1948, the month-long truce that had temporarily halted the war between the newly-created state of Israel and the Arab states bordering Palestine came to an end. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had taken full advantage of the truce to reorganize, train new Jewish immigrants and equip itself with the weapons flowing in from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.

Now it took the offensive. Its main objective during the ten days of fighting that ensued before the United Nations again imposed a truce was to relieve pressure on the Jewish sector of Jerusalem, besieged by the Arab Legion. Operation Dani was to secure Israeli control of the corridor to Jerusalem by conquering Lydda and Ramla, the largest Arab towns on the central coastal plain, as well as Latrun, where a police fort controlled the Jerusalem road. Ramallah, in the hill country north of the road, would be conquered in a later phase of the operation.

At that time Lydda and Ramla had a combined population of some 50-70,000, about 15,000 of whom were refugees from Arab towns and villages that had already fallen under Israeli control. The IDF quickly conquered the two towns, only lightly garrisoned by the Arab Legion. In Ramla there was no civilian resistance to the conquest, but in Lydda there was an outbreak of sniping and Israeli soldiers were ordered to open fire on anything that moved. Between 250 and 400 Palestinian civilians were killed in the massacre that ensued, as compared to four Israeli soldiers.

The Israelis wanted the region cleared of its large Arab population and hoped that the inhabitants of the two towns would flee as a result of the fighting. When this did not happen, Israeli commanders confronted the question of what to do with them. Their fate was sealed at a meeting attended by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and top IDF commanders on July 12. “According to the best account of that meeting,” Israeli historian Benny Morris tells us, “someone, possibly [Operation Dani commander Yigal] Allon, proposed expelling the inhabitants of the two towns. Ben-Gurion said nothing, and no decision was taken. Then Ben-Gurion, Allon and [Allon’s deputy Yitzhak] Rabin left the room. Allon asked: ‘What shall we do with the Arabs?’ Ben-Gurion made a dismissive gesture with his hand and said, ‘Expel them’ (garesh otam).” [1]

Over the next several days, tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children were forced out of Lydda and Ramla with the few possessions they could carry, most of them walking miles to the Arab Legion’s lines without food or water under a hot summer sun. Many had their money and valuables stolen as they passed through IDF checkpoints; some died along the way. The towns they left behind were thoroughly looted by Israeli soldiers and civilians.

This is not the official Israeli version, of course. For 40 years Israeli propagandists have stubbornly insisted that there were no deliberate expulsions of Palestinians in 1948. Rather, they argue, the Palestinians themselves must bear responsibility for their own dispossession and exile, along with the Arab regimes. The Palestinians, the official version claims, ignored repeated Jewish pleas that they remain and become equal citizens of the new state; instead, they obeyed orders from their leaders and the Arab governments to evacuate their homes in order to allow the invading Arab armies freedom of action.

The specious character of this official version of history has been clear for many years. The 700,000 Palestinian refugees themselves certainly knew what had actually happened to them, even if they could only rarely find a Western audience willing to listen. Many Israelis have also known for a long time that this was not the way things actually happened. In his book 1949: The First Israelis, Israeli journalist Tom Segev reproduces an excerpt of a Knesset debate from August 1949. A member of Menachem Begin’s Herut Party had boasted that “thanks to Dayr Yasin we won the war, sir!” At Dayr Yasin, a village near Jerusalem, military forces from Begin’s Etzel (known to Americans as the Irgun) and Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi had massacred Palestinian civilians on April 9-10, 1948. When Knesset members from the Labor Zionist MAPAI party headed by Ben-Gurion protested, the Herut member told them, “If you don’t know [about the Dayr Yasin-type massacres that you yourselves performed], you can ask the minister of defense [Ben-Gurion].”

Clear Consciences

While Israeli rightists boasted about the expulsions and massacres that accompanied Israel’s creation, liberal and left-wing Zionists in Israel and abroad have tenaciously defended and propagated the official version. There is some irony in this, since the Israeli officials and army officers who actually oversaw the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 were overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the Zionist left — from MAPAI and (especially in the case of the IDF) from MAPAM (the United Workers’ Party). Believing themselves to be good socialists, democrats and humanitarians, they could not acknowledge their complicity in deeds that contravened the moral and political principles they professed.

There was and still is a powerful need among many liberal Israelis to deny responsibility for Palestinian suffering. This denial, manifested throughout the official histories, served as an effective mechanism for avoiding guilt or political responsibility for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians. Labor Zionism’s long record of denying the very existence of a distinct Palestinian Arab people whose interests might be damaged by the Zionist project facilitated this process. Yet the suffering of the Palestinians was incontrovertible, and so responsibility for it had to be assigned. To whom better than the Palestinians themselves?

The official version of what happened in 1948 also fit in nicely with the political need for a wholesome Israeli image abroad. It has been the historic task of the left and liberal wings of the Zionist movement to explain and win support for the Zionist project as not only necessary to Jewish survival but also as entirely consonant with the highest ideals of “Western civilization.” Thus Zionism’s victims must be made to disappear or, if that fails, to bear the blame for their situation.

The myths surrounding Israel’s establishment and the simultaneous dispossession of the Palestinian Arab people have proven remarkably tenacious. In Israel itself, the educational system and a well-developed propaganda apparatus constantly reinforce them and, as a consequence, most Jewish Israelis have assimilated an official discourse that all but excludes thinking of Palestinians as real human beings. This discourse, fixated on a manipulated conception of Israeli security and given tremendous emotional force by a narrow interpretation of the Holocaust, indeed of all Jewish history, contains little room for any empathetic understanding of Palestinian pain or aspirations. It hardly seems able even to acknowledge that Zionism may not have been an unmitigated blessing for the Palestinians.

The myths have also been pervasive among American Jews. Debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the US is usually so much cruder than in Israel because most American Jews are ignorant about things that are common knowledge in Israel and regularly discussed in the Israeli media. The role of such organs of misinformation as the New York Times in abetting this ignorance requires no elaboration.

Israeli liberals sometimes aid this conspiracy of silence with a self-censorship intended to "protect" American Jews, and Americans in general, from the seamier aspects of Israeli reality. They understand Israel’s total dependence on US good will and, when addressing foreign audiences, take on the role of unofficial ambassadors by toning down the criticism of official policies they are only too happy to voice at home. Ze’ev Schiff, for instance, military correspondent of the liberal daily Haaretz and a critic of the invasion of Lebanon, wrote a history of the Israeli army intended for an American audience in which he concludes his discussion of Operation Dani with this masterly euphemism: “Some 50,000 Arab inhabitants of Lydda, Ramla and neighboring towns fled the region, this time without the Israelis preventing them or suggesting that they remain.” [2] Sometimes dangerous information is withheld from both Israelis and foreigners. When Yitzhak Rabin published his memoirs, Israeli censors forced him to excise passages describing the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda and Ramla from both the Hebrew and English editions. [3]

It must also be said that most American Jews have displayed little desire to know too much. Denial plays its part here, too, reinforced by the guardians of ideological purity, ever vigilant for signs of slackening fervor. The initial weakness of American Jewish protest against Israel’s attempts to crush the present uprising again demonstrated the effectiveness of the mechanisms of denial and rationalization that have evolved over the years.

Historical Demolition

Alternative perspectives on 1948 have long been available to those who were interested. In May 1961, for example, Irish journalist Erskine Childers conclusively demonstrated the falsity of Israeli claims that Arab leaders had ordered the Palestinians to leave. He showed that while there was no record of Arab radio broadcasts calling on the Palestinians to leave, there were numerous appeals from Palestinian and Arab officials telling the Palestinians to stay put. [4] Childers later published additional evidence refuting Israel’s version of events and documenting Zionist complicity in the flight and expulsion of the Palestinians. [5] Other research on the events of 1948 has been published by Palestinians, Europeans and occasionally Americans. [6]

Except for some short articles by members of the tiny anti-Zionist left, however, Israelis did little new research. From time to time, as memoirs appeared or as political parties jockeyed for advantage, the question of 1948 would briefly surface, generally when the Zionist right would argue that it was only advocating policies that Ben-Gurion and the Zionist left had implemented in 1948: aggressive expansionism, a hard line against the Arabs, the confiscation of Arab land and annexation of occupied territories. But for three and a half decades the subject was virtually off limits to any Israeli scholar or journalist engaged in serious and objective research.

Suddenly, in the last three or four years, Israelis have published a number of books and articles explicitly and self-consciously challenging many of Israel’s foundation myths. These include a series of articles by Benny Morris, a journalist on the staff of the Jerusalem Post, which Cambridge University Press is publishing as a book entitled The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Tom Segev’s 1949 and veteran peace activist Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, published in 1987 just after Flapan’s death. All three authors see themselves as breaking free of Israeli consensus history. All three works help to undermine the “heroic” version of the foundation of the state and constitute part of a broader “revisionist” tendency among Israeli historians and social scientists.

What accounts for this upsurge of Israeli revisionism? In part it is because many important government and IDF documents and private papers on the events of 1948-1949 were declassified and released in the early 1980s, giving researchers access to a wealth of new information. But this project of historical demolition and revision has much more to do with a shift in the outlook of a small but significant segment of the Israeli left and liberal intelligentsia in the wake of the Lebanon war. Before discussing this shift and its significance, let us take a look at what these books and articles have to say.

The Transfer

Benny Morris analyzes material from a variety of state, Zionist and military archives, as well as private papers, in order to explain the Palestinian exodus of 1948 and, more broadly, to outline the process by which a relatively homogeneous Jewish state was erected on the ruins of Palestinian Arab society. His findings are important not so much because they tell us something radically new but because they furnish a wealth of detail, drawn from unimpeachable Israeli sources, that shows us more clearly than ever before how the job was done.

In “The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus,” Morris discusses an IDF Intelligence Branch report of June 1948 analyzing the causes of Palestinian flight. [7] This report, which Morris finds to be generally accurate, determined that as of June 1, 1948, some 240,000 Arabs had fled from towns and villages located within the area assigned to the Jewish state by the United Nations; another 150,000 had fled their homes in areas earmarked for the Palestinian state or from the Jerusalem region, which was to be internationalized. The report attributed some 70 percent of this exodus to “direct, hostile Jewish operations against Arab settlements” by the Haganah/IDF and the right-wing Jewish militias (Begin’s Etzel and Shamir’s Lehi), or to the “effect of our hostile operations on nearby [Arab] settlements” — for example, the fall of nearby towns. Another 2 percent is attributed to Jewish psychological warfare aimed at frightening Arabs into fleeing, and 2 percent more to “ultimative expulsion orders.” Morris suggests that this last figure is an underestimate, with several instances of deliberate expulsions being counted under the rubric of military operations. By contrast, evacuation orders by Arab leaders and military commanders account for no more than 5 percent of the total, and these were issued for local strategic reasons. The remainder of the exodus is attributed to “general fear” (10 percent) and “local factors” (8-9 percent).

Morris points out that while this report demolishes the Israeli claim that the Palestinians fled their homes on Arab orders, it also refutes the claim put forward by some Palestinians that this first phase of the exodus was the result of a deliberate Zionist plan of systematic expulsion. In this period, he argues, the depopulation of villages was usually an “incidental, if favorably regarded, side effect” of military operations.

Three other articles by Morris draw on many of the same Israeli sources to take us beyond May 1948. They provide a nuanced but powerful portrait of what was happening on the ground in those chaotic months that witnessed the radical demographic transformation of Palestine. [8] His work helps us determine the degree of Zionist/Israeli complicity in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem more precisely than ever before.

Most of the exodus of 400,000 Palestinians from their homes in the period from December 1947 through May 1948 — the period covered by the IDF report — can be explained as the natural response of unarmed civilians to war: As their towns and villages were attacked or threatened, Palestinians sought refuge in safer places. But from June onward, deliberate expulsions by the IDF multiplied, helping to create an additional 300,000 refugees. Besides Lydda and Ramla, there were many other, less well-known, incidents of expulsion by IDF commanders in the second half of 1948 and beyond. At the same time, it became Israeli policy not to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes behind Israeli lines, transforming temporary wartime displacement into permanent exile.

Was there an explicit Israeli policy to expel Palestinians from the territory of the new state? A motive certainly existed. As of November 1947, Arabs constituted some 45 percent of the 1.1 million people living within the territory assigned by the UN to the Jewish state, while there were very few Jews in the proposed Arab state. Many Arabs had already fled or been expelled from their homes by May, but large pockets of Arabs still remained and Israel was moving to conquer more of Palestine. Unless the number of Arabs living within what would become Israel’s borders could be drastically reduced, its viability as a Jewish state would be in serious doubt. Furthermore, the idea of “transfer” — the removal of Palestine’s Arab majority outside the country to facilitate the establishment of a homogeneous Jewish state — had long enjoyed an important place in Zionist thinking, going back to Herzl. It became more prominent from the late 1930s, when the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine began to seem a realistic prospect. In effect, liberal and left Zionists like Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann adopted the strategy if not the rhetoric of Jabotinsky and the right-wing Revisionist Zionists. Never having accepted that the Arabs of Palestine constituted a distinct people entitled to self-determination, they naturally saw no great injustice in moving the Palestinians — against their will, if necessary — outside of Palestine.

A Smoking Gun?

Although historians have been able to point to numerous specific cases of expulsion, particularly from June 1948 onward, no one has come up with the “smoking gun” — evidence of an explicit decision taken at the highest levels of the government and the army to render the new state more homogeneously Jewish by expelling Palestinians and barring their return.

Morris brings us as close to finding the “smoking gun” as we are likely to get. His work suggests that there was in fact no explicit and general Israeli decision to expel. Instead, a number of individuals and agencies, with the tacit but nonetheless clear support of Ben-Gurion and other top leaders, worked throughout 1948 to take advantage of what began as the limited and spontaneous flight of segments of the Palestinian urban middle and upper classes and help transform it into the “miracle” of permanent mass depopulation, clearing the way for the settlement of abandoned towns and villages by new Jewish immigrants. In a chaotic situation, various officials and IDF commanders, acting with the unspoken approval of their superiors, took the initiative and made decisions designed to rid the new state of Arabs and make their return impossible.

Morris shows that Jewish leaders were at first surprised when well-to-do Palestinians began to move to safer places at the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1948, and they did not foresee that larger numbers of Palestinians would flee their towns and villages as they were threatened or conquered in the Jewish military operations of the winter and spring of 1948. But some began to realize that it was to their advantage to transform this still limited exodus into a deluge. Plan Dalet, adopted in March by the Haganah as its blueprint for seizing the offensive and gaining control of areas assigned by the UN to the Arab state, provided for the “expulsion over the borders of the local Arab population in the event of opposition to our attacks” and the destruction of villages. When Plan Dalet was actually implemented, in a series of military operations beginning in April, it opened the floodgates. Largely unarmed and without leadership, unable to mount effective military resistance, still demoralized by the brutal suppression of their revolt a decade earlier and frightened by Zionist “whispering campaigns” and terrorist actions, the Arab populations of Haifa, Jaffa and scores of smaller towns and villages fled when attacked by Jewish forces. News of the April 9-10 massacre at Dayr Yasin accelerated this mass flight. This massacre, perpetrated by Etzel and Lehi forces, was condemned by the Jewish authorities, but the attack on Dayr Yasin had been approved by the Haganah as part of its strategic plan to gain control of the Jerusalem corridor.

Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency executive and after May 15 prime minister and defense minister of Israel, was quick to grasp that a demographic transformation was underway from which the new Jewish state could benefit if it could be made permanent. He also understood, however, that an explicit expulsion policy would not go over well with those on whose good will the new state was still dependent: the United Nations, the United States and the Soviet Union. Such a decision would also be unacceptable to MAPAM, a member of the coalition government, and would trigger a political crisis the new state could ill afford in wartime, especially as so many of the IDF’s best officers belonged to that party.

Ben-Gurion therefore sought less public and direct ways to implement a transfer policy, without any formal cabinet or IDF command decision and without leaving a paper trail which might someday prove embarrassing. This indirect approach — conveying approval of controversial policies in private conversations or obliquely through hints or silences — was in keeping with Ben-Gurion’s personal style and had served him well throughout his long career in Zionist politics and diplomacy.

Perhaps the key figure lobbying for and actually implementing a coherent transfer policy in 1948 was Yosef Weitz, and Morris has made an important contribution by bringing his role to light. In 1948 Weitz was the director of the Lands Division of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Zionist movement’s land acquisition agency, as well as the JNF’s representative to the committee which coordinated the activities of the various Zionist agencies and also chairman of the committee responsible for governing the Jewish settlements in the Negev. Weitz had friends in many Jewish settlements, ready access to top government officials, and close links with the IDF, and he was widely respected as an expert on land affairs and on Arabs. From early in 1948, Weitz began pushing the Jewish authorities to take advantage of the anarchy and violence that were engulfing Palestine to gain control of more land and evict Arabs from their villages in regions he considered vital for future Jewish settlement. Working with local Haganah commanders and kibbutzim, he succeeded in getting Arabs expelled in the Haifa and Beisan regions and establishing new kibbutzim on their lands.

But these partial and local successes were clearly inadequate, and in March Weitz began lobbying for a coordinated national policy. He insisted that the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) “help create conditions that will bring about an [Arab] evacuation.” [9] Frustrated that the Yishuv’s leaders were apparently too preoccupied with other matters to make the decisions he deemed necessary, and fearful that this historic opportunity to resolve the “Arab problem” once and for all would slip away, he took the initiative, for example by drawing up lists of Arab villages to be evacuated and destroyed. By June he had set up an informal “transfer committee” that sought official recognition as the body that would coordinate “retroactive transfer” — the systematic destruction of abandoned Arab villages and the establishment of Jewish settlements in their place. He never obtained written authorization from Ben-Gurion to carry out his plans, but Morris demonstrates that there is no doubt Ben-Gurion knew and approved of what was being done.

Weitz worked tirelessly, travelling around the country to press for the expulsion of Arabs, oversee the destruction of villages and plan new settlements. He got the government to order the IDF to prevent displaced Palestinians from returning to their villages, even to harvest their crops or retrieve their possessions. Although his semi-official “transfer committee” ceased to function at the end of June for lack of funds, manpower and explicit government authorization, the work went on unabated through 1948 and into 1949. [10] IDF officers and local officials expelled Arabs who had surrendered to Israeli forces and destroyed their villages. Their orders were usually couched in terms of security, but in fact these were secondary. By the summer of 1948 the unofficial policy was unmistakeable: the residual Arab population within Israel’s borders was to be made as small as possible.

Morris also shows that a powerful lobby quickly developed which opposed the return of Palestinians, even those from “friendly” villages. Older kibbutzim which took over Arab lands, new immigrants settled on the sites of destroyed Arab villages or housed in former Arab neighborhoods, settlement officials with big plans for the future — these and others pressured the government to take a hard line against any return of refugees to their homes. Even as the Israeli government was solemnly stating its willingness to be flexible on the refugee question once the war was over, the bulldozers were at work erasing all traces of some 350 Palestinian villages and setting up Jewish settlements in their place. As early as June 1948, in fact, the cabinet had reached a consensus against allowing the refugees to return to their homes.

There is more information in Morris’ articles than can be summarized here. But one further issue is worth raising: Who invented the official Israeli version of the Palestinian exodus? It seems that it was none other than Weitz and his colleagues. The very people who had spent the previous nine months working to rid that part of Palestine which became Israel of as many Arabs as possible were apparently the first to claim, in an October 1948 report to the government, that the flight was “deliberately organized” by the Arab leaders to arouse feelings of revenge, to create artificially a refugee problem and to prepare the way for the Arab invasion. This cynical lie quickly became the mainstay of Israeli propaganda, and remains so to this day.

From Ben-Gurion to Begin?

Despite — or perhaps because of — the political dynamite they represent, Benny Morris presents his findings in rigorous scholarly fashion, without extraneous comment or moralizing. Simha Flapan has a more explicit political and personal agenda in The Birth of Israel. He covers much of the same ground as Morris and uses many of the same sources, but he rejected the advice of his friends and colleagues to present his findings in a “noncommittal, academic manner…leaving the conclusions to the reader.” Instead, he is intent on destroying the “long-held and highly potent” myths surrounding Israel’s foundation, on undermining “the propaganda structures that have so long obstructed the growth of the peace forces in my country.”

Flapan was a leader of MAPAM, founder of New Outlook magazine and for many years active in the Israeli peace movement. Writing this book must have involved a painful process of self-examination for him:

There is also a personal issue — for me as for tens of thousands of Israelis, ardent Zionists and socialists, whose public and private lives have been built on a belief in those myths, along with a belief in Zionism and the state of Israel as embodying not only the national liberation of the Jewish people but the great humanitarian principles of Judaism and enlightened mankind. True, we did not always agree with many official policies and even opposed them publicly…. But we still believed that Israel was born out of the agony of a just and inevitable war, guided by the principles of human dignity, justice, and equality. Perhaps it was naivete. Perhaps it was the effect of the Holocaust that made us unable, unwilling to be fundamentally critical of our country and ourselves. Whatever its sources, the truth cannot be shunned. It must be used even now in the service of the same universal principles that inspired us in our younger days.

Flapan was shocked when Menachem Begin claimed, during the Lebanon war, that the only difference between his policies and those of Ben-Gurion was that the latter had resorted to subterfuge. Now Flapan admits that Begin was basically right, and contrasts the Israeli/Zionist myths about 1948 with the truths his diligent research has uncovered. In a less detailed and scholarly but more lively manner than Morris, Flapan argues the following:

  • Zionist acceptance of the UN partition plan was only a tactic, part of a larger strategy aimed at thwarting the creation of the proposed Palestinian Arab state through a secret alliance with King ‘Abdallah of Transjordan and the conquest of territory beyond the borders proposed by the UN.
  • While many Palestinians were willing to accept partition, it was Ben-Gurion’s adamant opposition to the creation of a Palestinian Arab state that destroyed hope for a peaceful partition.
  • Israel’s political and military leaders prompted the flight of Palestinians.
  • The Arab states intervened in Palestine not to destroy Israel but to prevent ‘Abdallah from implementing his schemes for a Hashemite-ruled Greater Syria with Israeli collusion.
  • The Arab invasion became inevitable because the Jewish leadership was unwilling to postpone declaring Israel’s independence while exploring a political solution.
  • Israel was on the defensive for only the first four weeks of the war, after which the IDF had the upper hand.
  • Israel rejected many peace proposals made by Arab governments and neutral mediators in the belief that its military superiority would allow it to dictate terms.

As with Morris, most of what Flapan has to say will not come as a big surprise to anyone outside the Zionist mental orbit. But the book is in general well-argued and based on careful use of the documentary record, and it is worthwhile reading for students and activists alike.


Wishful Thinking

On two related issues, however, Flapan’s analysis is open to criticism. It is true, as he argues, that the Palestinians were divided, demoralized and relatively passive in 1948. But it is wishful thinking to claim that many would have rejected the Arab Higher Committee’s call for resistance to partition and accepted the loss of half their country had not the Yishuv taken a hardline stance and colluded with ‘Abdallah to abort the unborn Arab state. Flapan acknowledges that acceptance of partition was regarded as tantamount to treason in the Arab community. He nevertheless suggests that the communist-led League for National Liberation — which followed the Soviet lead and endorsed partition — might have been the Arab partner with whom a more enlightened Zionist leadership could have cooperated to achieve peaceful partition. This greatly overestimates the League’s strength. More importantly, it assumes there was some real possibility of the Zionist movement making a different choice in 1948. In fact, with the exception of Flapan’s own faction and a few isolated liberals, the Zionist movement had for some time been operating from the premise that it was strong enough to achieve its goals without far-reaching concessions. Then as now, Israeli leaders believed that if Israel needed a local ally, it should be not the Palestinians but the Hashemite dynasty in Amman.

Flapan must also confront his own party’s behavior in 1948. As information about expulsions, looting of Arab property and the destruction of villages began to circulate, some of MAPAM’s leaders did protest in party forums and in the cabinet. But others, drawn from the party’s right wing which later split off and rejoined MAPAI to form the Labor Party, defended the IDF’s actions. Many of the IDF officers who oversaw expulsions were MAPAM members. On the whole, MAPAM’s protests were weak and ineffectual. To people like Weitz, they also appeared hypocritical: even as MAPAM’s leaders were protesting the transfer underway, he noted, kibbutzim affiliated to the party were taking over Arab lands, stealing abandoned Arab property and lobbying against any return of refugees. By the end of 1948 MAPAM had come to accept the fait accompli.

Flapan is honest enough to admit that “Hashomer Hatzair [MAPAM’s left-wing component] was unable to wage an uncompromising struggle because its fight for the rights of the Palestinians conflicted with the reality that the members were building their lives on the property of an expelled population.” He is still sometimes a little too easy on MAPAM, though, perhaps because, as he notes in his introduction, “I have never believed that Zionism inherently obviates the rights of the Palestinians and I do not believe so today.” Flapan is willing to criticize Israel’s foundation myths, to acknowledge the culpability of former heroes like Moshe Sharett and Chaim Weizmann, to admit his own party’s failings in 1948 and even to assert that “the line from Ben-Gurion to Begin is direct.” But he cannot quite bring himself to take the next step and see that most of what happened in Palestine in 1948 was inherent in the Zionist project of creating a Jewish state in an Arab land. The entirely predictable rejection of that project by Palestine’s Arabs made Ben-Gurion’s path all but inevitable if Zionism was to achieve its goals. Flapan clings to the notion that things might have been different had the more enlightened and humane Zionists somehow triumphed over the “hardliners.” He does not explain, however, why the hardliners won out so consistently. To do so might undermine his vision of “another Zionism,” benign but also outside of history.

That caveat notwithstanding, Flapan’s book marks a significant departure from the left-Zionist historical consensus. He explicitly rejects the Labor Party’s attempt to present Ben-Gurion’s idea of a democratic Jewish state as the alternative to the Likud’s Greater Israel. He insists that the Zionist left must thoroughly reexamine and criticize its past record, acknowledge that the establishment of Israel resulted in the dispossession of the Palestinians, and recognize their right to self-determination. Only then will the forces of peace and progress within Israel have any real hope of winning out. The Birth of Israel is a fitting testament to this veteran activist; despite its flaws one hopes it will have the impact Flapan wished.

The Year After

Tom Segev’s 1949 covers some of the same ground as Morris and Flapan, but he adopts neither Morris’ scholarly distance nor Flapan’s explicit political agenda. His book draws a portrait of Israeli society in the first full year of the new state’s existence by using government documents, the press, personal diaries and interviews. It aroused controversy in Israel because it too “shattered a firmly established self-image and exposed as mere myths a large number of long accepted truisms.” The book’s rather offhand iconoclasm and its lively, engaging style make it fascinating and important reading, differentiating it from much of the popular literature about Israel, so steeped in forced nostalgia.

Segev deals with three aspects of Israeli history: relations with the Arabs inside and outside the new state; the social, political and cultural impact of the massive wave of immigration that by the end of 1949 had increased Israel’s Jewish population by 50 percent; and the conflicts between religious and secular Jews. In the chapters on the Arabs are scattered numerous tidbits of information which, though not analyzed in depth or used to construct a coherent critique of Israeli policy, nonetheless add up to a rather damning indictment. For example, Segev shows that expulsions of Palestinians went on well into 1949 and beyond, long after the fighting between Israel and the Arab states was over, and that it was official policy to shoot Palestinians trying to cross the armistice lines and return to their homes. Many Israelis, he also notes, were disturbed by reports of widespread atrocities, rape and looting committed by IDF soldiers. So much for the “purity of arms” myth.

Like Flapan, Segev argues that Israel’s short-lived offer to accept the return of 100,000 refugees was never intended seriously, and he describes how Israel spurned repeated Arab peace proposals. Israel’s leaders, convinced that time was on their side, had lost interest in trying to achieve a final peace settlement, especially one that might require the return of the refugees and perhaps the cession of some territory. One of Segev’s most poignant passages describes how, by the summer of 1949, new Jewish immigrants had already settled on the site of Dayr Yasin.

In other chapters Segev details the manipulative methods used by Zionist agents to induce Jewish immigration, mainly in order to enhance the state’s military might and permit the rapid settlement of the conquered Arab lands. His descriptions of the terrible conditions that prevailed in the camps housing the new immigrants are chilling. Perhaps most importantly, he shows how the Ashkenazi elite which ran Israel — good socialists all — immediately stereotyped the immigrants from the Arab countries as ignorant, lazy savages and thieves. Immigrants from Poland received preferential treatment in housing and jobs, while the Moroccans and Yemenis were dumped in remote border settlements. The section on the conflicts over issues of religion and state reminds us that not much has changed in the last 40 years.

There is a great deal more to 1949, despite its reluctance to draw explicit conclusions. The book shows the Israelis of that year, elevated in the official mythology to the status of selfless and flawless Zionist heroes, to have been more or less normal people displaying the entire range of human behavior. “The everyday routine of the first Israelis was thus less pioneering and heroic than they had dreamed it would be,” Segev concludes, “and the society they shaped was less enlightened, less idealistic, less altruistic and less Ashkenazi than they had hoped.” And yet, he insists, “They argued, they struggled with themselves, hesitated, and sometimes changed their minds, but the road they took was the road they believed to be right, and they followed it with wholehearted confidence and belief in their cause. For that, they are to be envied.”

Lost Innocence

Envied by whom? Clearly by today’s liberal intellectuals, who have come to feel that they have lost their way, their self-confidence, their faith in the righteousness of their cause. Indeed, many feel that they have just about lost “their” country, that Israel has been taken over by a strange new breed of hysterical nationalists, religious fanatics, avowed racists, feuding and bumbling politicians and an illiberal Oriental Jewish majority.

The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 marked a watershed for many liberal Israelis. The national consensus that had prevailed during all of Israel’s previous wars began to crumble, although most liberals and left Zionists criticized not so much the use of military force against the Palestinians as the duration and visible brutality of a war directed largely against civilians.

The anti-war movement faded away when Israeli soldiers stopped coming home from south Lebanon in coffins. But Lebanon had left an indelible imprint on the consciousness of many Israelis. In the 1984 elections the Labor Party promoted itself as the party of “sane Zionism,” heir to what it claimed were Ben-Gurion’s policies of military self-restraint, democracy and tolerance, which it contrasted with the Likud’s belligerence and extremism. This did succeed in restoring to the fold many Israelis who harkened back to the days when Israel won its wars quickly and cheaply, was not a pariah in the world community and allowed its liberals to live with their consciences. More reflective and honest Israelis, however, were induced by the traumatic events of 1982 to ask themselves some hard new questions about what was happening to their country. Was Begin right when he claimed to be the heir of Ben-Gurion? Why did the secularists always seem to be on the defensive? Why had the problem of the Palestinians not gone away?

The erosion of the national consensus created some new political space. Grappling with the realities of an Israel which had turned out to be something from which they were profoundly alienated, a Frankenstein monster, some Israeli liberals and leftists were receptive as never before to a critical reexamination of the country’s history. They began to sense that a Labor Party victory would not solve Israel’s problems, that the rot had set in long before the Likud’s victory in 1977 and even before 1967, that there was some original sin in Israel’s very birth that had to be confronted: the dispossession of the Palestinians which had accompanied and made possible the creation of Israel. The release of rich new sources of information allowed this work of historical revisionism on 1948 and its aftermath to take place, but liberal Israelis were motivated to undertake this project by the post-1982 mood of confusion and self-doubt.

Initially, it was not mainly the persistence of the Palestinian question, the continuing resistance of the million and a half Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, that compelled Israeli liberals to push toward the margins of the national consensus and sometimes beyond. “Quality of life” issues, such as the growing religious coercion which threatened secularists (witness the battles over showing movies on Friday nights) usually had a more direct and palpable impact on people’s daily lives than the Palestinian question. One could argue about the fate of the Occupied Territories, but in the meantime the army seemed to have things well under control.

Nonetheless, it gradually became clearer to those willing to think it through that such things as the spread of racism, the growing strength of the right, the country’s economic difficulties, the erosion of democratic norms, the decline of Israel’s image abroad and other symptoms were in large measure the consequence of the occupation and could not be effectively fought unless one was willing to end the occupation. In the final analysis, it was the fact that the Palestinians had not gone away, had refused to acquiesce in Israeli occupation or in some deal with Jordan — that apparently ineradicable fantasy of the Labor Party — which ultimately fused together disparate issues and focused attention on the question of the territories and Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Hence the need to confront the past as a way of making sense of the present and of finding some guidepost toward an acceptable future.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that so far only Segev’s book has been published in Israel. The fate of another recent book, Yehoshafat Harkabi’s Fateful Decisions, may tell us something about the ultimate political impact of the revisionists. Harkabi, former head of IDF intelligence and once the chief propagator of the doctrine that the PLO’s “National Covenant” of 1964 proved for all time the impossibility of Israel’s negotiating with the Palestinians, now argues forcefully that Israel must, out of self-interest, seize the opportunity to make a deal with the PLO and accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The defection from the official consensus of an establishment figure like Harkabi did allow other Israelis to voice their dissidence more safely, but his book ultimately failed to alter the terms of Israeli political debate. Although there are today more Israelis than ever before who favor negotiating with the PLO and would accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, they still remain a small and relatively isolated minority of the Jewish population, even among intellectuals.

By contrast, most Israelis responded to the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza that began last December by backing the government’s hardline stance, apparently unfazed by the unprecedentedly brutal methods used to crush resistance. Even as Shimon Peres droned on about the "peace process," his Labor Party colleague Yitzhak Rabin was busy orchestrating the killings, beatings, detentions, curfews and torture in the territories, with the support of most party members. The response of the left-liberal opposition was initially weak and fitful: The usual suspects published statements of protest in the newspapers, the small left parties submitted motions of no confidence in the Knesset, and Peace Now organized demonstrations, although it still would not allow groups like Yesh Gvul to share its platforms.

The American Jewish community was also slow to respond. Many Israeli dissidents have seen Jews abroad as their country’s last hope, which perhaps explains why Flapan and Morris first published their research in English, and why Harkabi has spent so much time lecturing in the US and Europe. But despite growing unease, most American Jews still take their cues from Israel. The monolithic character of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel has eroded considerably since 1982, but the sizeable and vocal dissident bloc which many Israeli liberals have come to see as their country’s salvation has not yet coalesced.

Still, the uprising has created important new political space in Israel and undermined key arguments used to justify the occupation. The Palestinians have forced their way onto the Israeli political agenda, destroying long-held illusions, dispelling the pessimism and inactivity into which opponents of the occupation had sunk, and compelling Israelis to face facts. The Palestinian insistence on being heard will further polarize Israeli Jews. Most will want to cling to the illusion that domination and repression provide security. But some will make the choice to finally come to terms with Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian rights, if only because continuing occupation will increasingly turn Israel into a place in which they do not want to live. The publication of these books and articles may help provide Israelis and Jews abroad with the new historical understanding that they will need in order to accept their share of responsibility for what has happened to the Palestinians and go on to develop a new discourse of peace, justice and equality.


[1] Benny Morris, “Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramla in 1948,” Middle East Journal 40/1 (Winter 1986), p. 91.
[2] A History of the Israeli Army (New York, 1985), p. 40.
[3] See Peretz Kidron, “Truth Whereby Nations Live,” in Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, eds., Blaming the Victims (New York: Verso, 1988).
[4] Originally published in The Spectator of May 12, 1961, “The Other Exodus” has been reprinted in Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, eds., The Israel-Arab Reader (New York, 1984), pp. 143-51 and in Walid Khalidi, ed., From Haven to Conquest (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987).
[5] This article is included in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed., The Transformation of Palestine (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971), pp. 165-202.
[6] See, for example, Nafez Nazzal, The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1978).
“The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: The Israel Defence Forces Intelligence Branch Analysis of June 1948,” Middle Eastern Studies 22/1 (January 1986), pp. 5-19.
[8] “Yosef Weitz and the Transfer Committees, 1948-49,” Middle Eastern Studies 22/4 (October 1986), pp. 522-561; “The Harvest of 1948 and the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” Middle East Journal 40/4 (Autumn 1986), pp. 671- 685; and “The Crystallization of Israeli Policy Against a Return of the Arab Refugees: April-December 1948,” Studies in Zionism 6/1 (1985), pp. 85-118.
[9] Morris, “Yosef Weitz,” p. 528.
[10] In a few cases, expulsions were fortuitously averted. A few days after the depopulation of Lydda and Ramla, for example, the IDF commander responsible for Nazareth, just conquered, was ordered to expel its inhabitants. He refused to carry out the order, which was eventually rescinded by the high command. However, as Flapan notes, the fact that the order was given suggests “the existence of a definite pattern of expulsion.”

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman "Original Sin," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This