Commentary Magazine


Perspectives on 1948 — and the Present

The current issue of The New York Review of Books includes a lengthy essay by Gershom Gorenberg, entitled “The War to Begin All Wars,” discussing the 1948 War and Benny Morris’s successive histories of it.  It is a useful summary and a thoughtful reflection on how the present affects our understanding of the past (and vice versa), and the changing perspectives of historians.  But the essay has a historical slant of its own worth examining, not least for its contemporary significance.

Gorenberg provides a 100-word summary of the 1948 War that contains within it themes that would recur in the sixty-year history that followed:

The conflagration began on November 30, 1947, the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. A band of Arab fighters fired the first shots at a bus east of Tel Aviv, killing five Jews. The last military operation ended on March 10, 1949. In those fifteen months, Jewish forces defeated first the Arab irregulars of Palestine, then the invading armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The new Jewish state’s borders, and its survival, were a product of victory. Yet in those same months, somewhere around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees.

The war started, in other words, not with Israel’s May 14, 1948 declaration of independence, but with the Arab rejection of a two-state solution six months before, immediately after the international community endorsed it, and the war commenced with a terrorist attack on Jewish civilians.  It featured a victory, in a period of 15 months, over local Arab forces and four Arab armies.  It was, for the Jews, a war of survival, coming three years after the end of the Holocaust.  “Yet . . . around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees.”

It is the “Yet” that reflects the perspective that underlies Gorenberg’s essay – a moral equivalence between the consequences of the war for Jews and Arabs.  Imagine a history of World War II describing that it began after Germany reneged on the Munich agreement, lasted six years until the initially more powerful Axis powers were defeated, and resulted in the borders of modern Europe – and then concluded with “Yet millions of Germans became refugees.”

Two important facts, and an important moral perspective, are missing from Gorenberg’s essay.  The first fact is that nearly one-percent of the Jewish population was killed in the war – a figure that would translate, in comparative demographic terms today, to more than three million Americans.  The second is that the war resulted in approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees expelled from the Arab countries in which they lived, who were resettled in the new state of Israel with no compensation (much less a “right of return”).

The 700,000 Arabs who became refugees fall into three categories – some fled amidst the panic of the war; others were ordered out by Arab leaders to make way for the invading armies; and others were expelled, for various reasons, during the course of the fighting.  The numbers in each category are still a matter of dispute (and the subject of tendentious Palestinian “scholarship“), but one fact is indisputable:  there would not have been a single refugee had the Arabs accepted the two-state solution and not started a war.

That fact has particular relevance for contemporary history, as still another iteration of the “peace process” begins.  The reason for rejecting a Palestinian ”right of return” is not simply the practical one that it would demographically destroy the Jewish state; nor the legal one that there is no such right; nor the logical one that there can be no such right for Palestinian refugees where there was none for the more numerous Jewish refugees.

The even more compelling reason is the moral one that those who started a war have no claim to be relieved of its results.  In a more moral world, they would be paying reparations – not only for the “War to Begin All Wars,” but for the subsequent ones they caused as well.  But at the least, in the imperfect actual world, they have no standing to argue that those they sought to defeat must help exempt them from the consequences of history.