Charging Israel With Original Sin
A trend has recently emerged in Israel and elsewhere to rewrite the history of the founding of the Jewish state. The trend has several leading protagonists. One is Avi Shlaim, the author of Collusion Across the Jordan,1 who immigrated from Iraq to Israel as a child, then moved to England, where he lectures at Oxford. Another is Benny Morris, an Israeli journalist who has a doctorate from Cambridge but whose academic qualifications are less than complete—his Arabic does not meet research requirements. Yet Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-19492 is probably the most influential work to have come out of the revisionist trend so far. There is also Simha Flapan, who before his death in 1987 had served as the director of the Arab department of the left-wing Mapam party and editor of the English-language monthly New Outlook; his book, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities,3 is, as Morris himself has noted in an essay in Tikkun, not a “history” at all but a polemical work written from a Marxist perspective.4
In that essay Morris hails the “new historiography,” as he calls it, for shattering a number of “myths” about the birth of Israel. Together, these myths make up the “old history”:
The essence of the old history is that Zionism was a beneficent and well-meaning progressive national movement; that Israel was born pure into an uncharitable, predatory world; that Zionist efforts at compromise and conciliation were rejected by the Arabs; and that Palestine’s Arabs, and in their wake the surrounding Arab states, for reasons of innate selfishness, xenophobia, and downright cussedness, refused to accede to the burgeoning Zionist presence and in 1947 to 1949 launched a war to extirpate the foreign plant.
Elsewhere in the same essay Morris (summarizing Flapan) enumerates four cardinal points of the “old history”:
(1) That the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine] in 1947 joyously accepted partition and the truncated Jewish state prescribed by the UN General Assembly, and that the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states rejected partition and attacked the Yishuv with the aim of throwing the Jews into the sea; (2) that the war was waged between a relatively defenseless and weak (Jewish) David and a relatively strong (Arab) Goliath; (3) that the Palestinians fled their homes and villages either voluntarily or at the behest/order of the Arab leaders; and (4) that, at the war’s end, Israel was interested in making peace, but the recalcitrant Arabs displayed no such interest, opting for a perpetual—if sporadic—war to the finish.
These, then, are the assumptions which Morris and his fellow revisionists have set out, in his words, to “undermine, if not thoroughly demolish.” They have tried to do this, moreover, for a purpose that goes far beyond the academic:
The new history is one of the signs of a maturing Israel. . . . What is now being written about Israel’s past seems to offer us a more balanced and a more “truthful” view of that country’s history than what has been offered hitherto. It may also in some obscure way serve the purposes of peace and reconciliation between the warring tribes of that land.
In other words, it is the commitment to the “purposes of peace” that determines eligibility in this new historical club. And what are the “purposes of peace”? While Morris does not attempt to define them, it would appear that one of their essentials is a sympathy somewhat inclined to the side of the Palestinians. Another, therefore, is the desire to delegitimize Zionism:
How one perceives 1948 bears heavily on how one perceives the whole Zionist/Israeli experience. If Israel . . . was born pure and innocent, then it was worthy of the grace, material assistance, and political support showered upon it by the West over the past forty years—and worthy of more of the same in years to come. If, on the other hand, Israel was born tarnished, besmirched by original sin, then it was no more deserving of that grace and assistance than were its neighbors.
The terms “born pure” and “original sin,” touching as they do on Christian sensibilities, can hardly be accidental in this all-but-explicit appeal for worldwide censure of the Jewish state.
But what, precisely, is the original sin? For both Shlaim and Morris, who are the more important of the “new” historians, and to whose work we shall shortly turn, it is the denial to the Palestinian Arabs of a country and a national identity. Shlaim professes to demonstrate that even prior to the 1947 UN resolution calling for the establishment of two states in Palestine, the leaders of the Yishuv had, through a “collusion” with King Abdullah of Jordan, sealed the fate of the prospective Palestinian Arab state. Morris seeks to prove that Israel, by preventing the return of Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled in 1948, is therefore to blame for creating the refugee problem. As it happens, both claims as stated are false.
Before examining the specific theses of Shlaim and Morris, a few general observations are in order.
First, the “new historiography” is not new. The notion of a historical original sin—the dispossession of Palestine’s Arabs—is as old as Zionism itself. In 1930 it formed the backbone of a White Paper offered by the British Colonial Secretary, Lord Passfield. It has also been a staple of intra-Jewish politics since the beginning of the century, when it was raised by the anti-Zionist Bund. Of particular note in this regard is a trenchant attack published in 1915 in the New York Jewish Daily Forward under the headline, “The Jewish Colonies in the Land of Israel Are Built Upon the Misfortunes of the Arabs.” According to the author, the Arabs were merely engaged in a “tenacious, systematic, and prolonged national war against the Jews who want to oust them from their land.”
Secondly, the “new historiography” rests in part on defective evidence, and is characterized by serious professional flaws. Thus, testimony has been drawn from Israeli, British, and American primary sources but in no case from Arab primary sources, since Arab states do not permit access to archival material in the Western manner. Collusion Across the Jordan “became possible,” Avi Shlaim explains, “following the release of the official documents for research in British, American, and Israeli archives”; he does not even mention the absence of source material from across the Jordan. Morris, for his part, acknowledges honestly that the “continued unavailability” of Arab state papers and the virtual nonexistence of Palestinian state papers “leaves the historian burdened by a major problem,” but nevertheless avers that he has done his best “to reduce the ‘area of darkness’ . . . by integrating the Arab ‘side’ through culling heavily from Jewish and Israeli intelligence reports and from British and American diplomatic dispatches . . . which go a long way toward filling out the picture. . . .” Yet how it is possible to determine on the basis of Israeli documents the nature and contents of missing Arab documents remains a mystery.
If their research is incomplete, Morris and Shlaim also ignore essential facts and background material necessary to a proper understanding of the historical scene. It is, for example, impossible to describe Israel’s War of Independence, and the flight and expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs, without taking into account the tripartite struggle among Jews, Arabs, and British that had racked the country for the previous three decades. The important landmarks in this struggle were the Arab riots of 1929 and 1936-39, the Peel Plan of 1937, the White Paper of May 1939 and the Land Ordinance of early 1941, the efforts of the Yishuv to increase immigration and settlement, and, beyond all these, the Holocaust. Yet these matters are invoked by our authors, and then just barely, as if they were a set of technical specifications. What we have here is not only a case of historical foreshortening but an attempt to disconnect the birth of the state of Israel from the experience and tribulations of the Jewish people at large.
Nor does either of the two historians make an effort to understand the deep effect the earlier phases of the struggle produced on Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine, and particularly during the year 1948. They do not look around them; like a hunter adjusting his sights, they close one eye and narrow the other, oblivious of their surroundings, and blind beyond the ends of their noses. The method may work for target shooting, but it is hardly the way of the responsible historian.
If, finally, we may liken a historical study to a large lake, then the successful historian is one who can cross this watery expanse without getting wet. This he does by building a solid bridge whose pylons are constructed of evidence strong enough to support the span of interpretation. At times, indeed, the “new” historians appear to be crossing just such a bridge, but then we find that a quarter or a third of the way across the lake their bridge comes to an abrupt end. The only way to reach the far shore (absent an intention of walking across the waters) is to leap into the air and hope to glide home. The tendency to glide over and beyond the sources is common to both these “new” historians.
In Collusion Across the Jordan, Avi Shlaim maintains that in 1947 a secret agreement was entered into by King Abdullah of Jordan and the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE) in Jerusalem. Meant to become operative at the end of the British Mandate over Palestine, it would deceive the Arabs, cheat them out of their proposed Palestinian state, and divide its prospective area between Jordan and the future Jewish state. Thanks to this agreement, the two parties refrained from fighting each other during the 1948 war, and collaborated immediately thereafter to rob the Palestinians permanently of their intended country.
This, in Shlaim’s view, was an imperialist collusion par excellence—and certainly so on the part of the Jews. During the period of Ottoman rule, he writes, Palestine was inhabited by nearly 500,000 Arabs and some 50,000 Jews, and the Arabs owned 99 percent of the land. “But, in keeping with the spirit of European imperialism, the Jews did not allow these local realities to stand in the way of their national aspirations.” From the very start, the aim of the Zionist leaders was a Jewish state in Palestine, and the methods they employed to achieve it “included bribery, deception, coercion, and physical force.” Of course, being smart politicians, they “tried to project an image of reasonableness and moderation and proposed numerous compromise plans for the dispute with the Palestine Arabs.” Yet during the half-century that elapsed between the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 and the establishment of Israel in 1948, “the emphasis gradually shifted from persuasion to coercion, from the peaceful to the violent end of the spectrum.” With the establishment of Israel, a state resting on “superior armed forces,” the true face of Zionism was exposed.
Shlaim apparently does not know that in Zionist political thinking, a state was consistently perceived as a means rather than an end: a sovereign Jewish state, it was thought, would be better positioned than any alternative arrangement to gather the beleaguered Jewish people into their homeland. Nor does Shlaim take note of the permutations undergone by the state-idea until, with the Holocaust, it became clear that the Zionist end could not be achieved except by means of a state.
This failure of understanding becomes particularly salient when Shlaim relates that in 1934 David Ben-Gurion, the heroic Zionist figure later to be Israel’s first Prime Minister, “concentrated his formidable energies on the acceleration of Jewish immigration to Palestine but, recognizing that his movement faced a strong Arab national movement, he initiated talks with Arab leaders” to see if a common platform for the aspirations of the two national movements could be found. It is true that Ben-Gurion made extensive efforts to meet with Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, despite the latter’s notoriety as the initiator of an Arab boycott of the Jews (itself ignored by Shlaim). Proposing the formation of an Arab federation with which a Jewish state would be affiliated, Ben-Gurion hoped to get, in exchange, Arab acquiescence in Jewish immigration from Hitler’s Europe. Shlaim does not see the obvious point: that the salvation of Europe’s Jews, and not the establishment of a state, was Ben-Gurion’s chief priority, and for its sake he was prepared to forgo an independent, sovereign state even as a vision for the distant future.
In assigning to Zionism an innate lust for power and aggression, Shlaim scants or is ignorant of the fears of total destruction which constantly beset the Yishuv. This anxiety grew to a high pitch during the 1929 Arab riots, then subsided, only to rise again during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt. After the outbreak of World War II, it was exacerbated once again by the Mufti’s alliance with Hitler. At the time, the high command of the Jewish Defense Forces (the Haganah) doubted whether the Yishuv could, in the event of a British withdrawal, survive the conquest of Palestine by Nazi troops and their Arab allies. These fears reemerged when the Yishuv was attacked by Palestine’s Arabs following the UN resolution of November 1947 and again when, on the morrow of its birth, Israel was invaded by the armies of five Arab states.
“In retrospect,” Shlaim writes, “the period from 1936 to 1938 can be seen as one of exemplary opportunity and unmitigated failure for the Zionist movement.” The putative opportunity was the partition plan put forward in 1937 by the Peel Commission, and the man who missed it was David Ben-Gurion.
Shlaim posits that in 1937 it was possible to establish, under British aegis, two states—Jewish and Arab—and that had this been done history would have followed a different, and much happier, course: the Jews would have been spared the Holocaust, and the Palestinian Arabs would not have had to go into exile; above all, there would have been no need for the JAE-Abdullah “collusion.” Yet this benign outcome, in Shlaim’s view, was squandered by Ben-Gurion’s political maneuvering, which by “inadvertently obstructing [British] parliamentary ratification, and hence [British] government action on the Peel Plan, . . . also provided a breathing space during which the full weight of Arab opposition could make itself felt,” thus enabling Britain to retreat from its own initiative.
Here it is not only Arab sources that Shlaim has missed. Had he read the minutes of the Zionist Congress of August 1937, or studied the ancillary documentation in the Central Zionist Archive, he would have learned of the efforts made by Ben-Gurion to persuade his friends and rivals, both before and during the Congress, to endorse the Peel Plan. Stranger still is Shlaim’s apparent failure to consult the relevant documents in the British Public Record Office, where he would have discovered that both the Woodhead Commission (established ostensibly to flesh out but in reality to jettison the partition plan recommended by the Peel Commission) and the St. James Conference (where the Arabs refused to sit at the same table with the Jews) were nothing but stages in a grandiose exercise in deception, designed by the British to impose immigration restrictions on the Yishuv. Had he opened his eyes, moreover, Shlaim might have understood that it was not Ben-Gurion’s “tactics” that generated this policy but rather the British government’s fear and appeasement of the Arabs.
Where does Shlaim derive his authority for his “new” construction? It rests on a single excerpt from the autobiography of the Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann:
If there has been a tragedy in the history of Zionism, it is the fact that largely through our fault, partition was not put into effect the first time it was suggested, in 1937. . . . The Zionist movement’s attitude toward this first partition plan was a major sin of our generation.
Quite apart from the anomaly of a historian seeking to support a far-reaching conclusion with a single reference, Shlaim distorts his own source. For Goldmann does not blame the “tragedy” on Ben-Gurion, or intimate that the partition plan was obstructed by his “tactics.” To the contrary, Goldmann points out that Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, and the majority in the JAE (including Goldmann himself) supported the Peel Plan. His anger is reserved for those, called at the time “the nay-sayers”—among them Menachem Ussishkin, Berl Katznelson, Louis Brandeis, and Stephen Wise—who fought the Peel Plan from beginning to end.
True, for Goldmann the “small majority expressing willingness to consider the partition plan” came “too late. The aceptance was too vague and the British government itself had begun to waver in the face of Arab categorical rejection.” But Goldmann’s memory is playing tricks on him here. One might think from his account that the Zionists were given only three weeks, four at the most, in which to make up their minds; obviously, no issue of this magnitude could have been decided upon in so short a time. The fact is that the British government—Goldmann has apparently forgotten the Woodhead Commission—had “begun to waver” all on its own, Zionists or no Zionists.
The Peel Plan is invoked by Shlaim not only to pique Zionism for its “unmitigated failure,” but also to establish a link with Abdullah’s design to annex Palestine—the axis upon which Collusion Across the Jordan revolves. Here Shlaim honors the Woodhead Commission with his only reference to it, not, however, as the undoer of the Peel Plan but rather as the recipient of Abdullah’s twelve-point proposal for constituting a United Arab Kingdom in which the Jews would enjoy self-government and representation in proportion to their numbers.
Here, in connection with Abdullah’s proposal, the issues of immigration and land for settlement, which were central to Zionism and to the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine, make one of their infrequent appearances in Shlaim’s work. In the designated Jewish districts (he writes), the Jews were to be permitted a “reasonable” level of immigration; outside those districts, they would have no right to buy land or settle immigrants. There is not a word here about the pressing need for physical rescue, the impact on Zionist consciousness of the suffering of the Diaspora, the fear of annihilation, the Holocaust. Shlaim’s eyes and ears are attuned only to the plight of the Arabs and to their complaints against the Jews. Of course, no one blames the Arabs for the death of the six million. Still, it is astounding that Shlaim cannot comprehend the degree to which Jewish attitudes were formed by more than the effects of Arab raids on Jewish settlements and transport. Nor does he appreciate the part played by the Arabs in the British decision to lock the gates of Palestine and thus prevent the rescue of Hitler’s victims. The fact is, however, that were it not for the violence of Arab opposition, it is unlikely that the British would have issued the 1939 White Paper, which by locking those gates sealed the fate of so many Jews, or that Whitehall would have launched its all-out war against illegal immigration.
In addition to misunderstanding the existential motives of the Yishuv and of the founders of the Jewish state, Shlaim has also missed the motives and considerations of Abdullah. On November 17, 1947, a meeting took place between Abdullah and Golda Meir. Neither side made any substantial commitment, and both were left with a large degree of freedom of action. A second meeting was held on May 11, 1948, just prior to Israel’s declaration of statehood, and it reinforced yet further the two parties’ respective freedom of action.
The purpose of Mrs. Meir’s first talk with Abdullah in November was to try to persuade him not to attack the nascent Jewish state. This, for Shlaim, is the main evidence of “collusion.” Yet several facts cut against such a reading. First, at the time of the November meeting, which occurred before the UN partition resolution, it was inconceivable that the future Jewish state would be able freely to dispose of territories destined for the Arab state, or prevent the entry into them of Arab armies. Second, the Arab Legion was deployed throughout Palestine; Abdullah had no need of a green light from the JAE in order to enter territory destined for the Arab state, for he already occupied that territory. Third, as early as January 1948, key leaders of the Palestinian Arabs, including the mayors of Gaza, Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, and Tulkarm, asked to be taken under Abdullah’s wing. Finally, had the Arabs sought then to realize the UN partition resolution in full, and had they directed their efforts toward establishing an Arab state, it would not have been within the capacity of the newly born Israeli state to prevent them, even had it wished to do so.
The implication of Shlaim’s argument is that in order not to be accused of “collusion,” Israel would have had to fight not only for its own existence, but also for that of the proposed Arab state. Was this indeed Israel’s political and moral obligation?
Any conspiracy to divide the territory of the future Arab state would have been conditioned on an agreement of nonaggression—a possibility that never existed for the two parties, Israel and Jordan. Prior to the war, when the balance of forces was uncertain, Abdullah’s Arab Legion aroused the worst of Jewish apprehensions, and the Yishuv wanted to avoid combat in order to save lives. Abdullah too wanted to avoid losses, as the Legion had no reserves. The King preferred to wait on events, hoping that the Jews would expend their strength in battles with the other Arab armies and so allow him to consolidate his gains. Were the Arab archives ever to be opened, we might discover what Abdullah really intended to do with the Jews in the event of an Arab victory: keep his promises to Golda Meir and award them with autonomy and representation in parliament, as Shlaim is convinced, or deal with them far more harshly, as many Jews feared at the time.
These fears themselves are proof that the Yishuv would hardly have put its faith in a deal with the King. Ben-Gurion, for one, never trusted Abdullah. Once his confidence in Israel’s military abilities was bolstered with the improving fortunes of war, and as the Legion seemed to pose less of a threat, he proposed to the Provisional Government (on September 26, 1948) an effort to dislodge Jordan from its holds in Samaria. But a cabinet majority, worried that Britain would then rush to Jordan’s side, rejected Ben-Gurion’s motion, in an action he termed “a setback for generations.” Some evidence of collusion.
Clearly, Israel and Jordan did maintain a dialogue, but at most theirs was an understanding of convenience, in which each side had a fairly good appraisal of the goals and the “red lines” of the other. There was nothing in such an understanding to suggest a collusion designed to deceive a third party, in this case the Palestinian Arabs.
In any case, only if one could show that the Palestinian Arabs had accepted partition from the outset would a charge of collusion against them become credible. But the Palestinian Arabs and their leadership, with the Mufti at the head, flatly rejected partition and a Jewish state. This left Israel with two choices: either take control of all of mandatory Palestine or, alternatively, acquiesce in the control of the Arab sections by the party which came closest to accepting the Jewish state—i.e., Abdullah.
Without doubt, Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem is the centerpiece of the “new” historiography. His main concern is the Arab exodus in 1948, the repercussions of which are felt today more than ever. And a fairminded reader cannot but accept his overall conclusion: both Arabs and Jews are to blame for it. But as such a fairminded reader soon discovers, under the guise of even-handedness Morris unfolds a grave indictment of one party alone, namely, Israel. It is this, perhaps, that has won him the approval of apologists for the PLO like Edward Said: in al-Majalla (October 28, 1988), Said wrote that Morris’s book
undermines the existing notion that it was Arab policy which encouraged the Palestinians to leave their country, emphasizing that it was a sequence of Zionist terror and Israeli expulsion that were behind the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Morris’s purpose becomes patently clear in his periodization. It is common to divide the events under discussion into two phases: from late 1947 up to the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948, and from then until the spring of 1949. This makes sense not only from the political but from the military point of view. Before the invasion of Palestine on May 15 by the five Arab armies, the conflict was essentially a civil war, fought between Jewish and Arab militias; following the invasion, Israel’s conscript army—the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—confronted the forces of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in battles involving infantry, artillery, armor, as well as air and naval power.
Such a breakdown highlights as well a change in Jewish attitude: before the invasion the Palestinian Arabs were seen, for the most part, as citizens of a future Jewish state; after it, as declared enemies. Accordingly one may properly speak, in the former period, of an Arab flight, and in the latter of expulsion by Israel.
Morris, however, is loath to accept any suggestion that the Palestinian Arabs fled voluntarily or by order of their leaders, or that, when Israel expelled them, it did so because they were enemies whose interests lay in abetting the invading Arab armies. Therefore, he offers his own, idiosyncratic division of the Arab exodus into four “waves”: (1) December 1947-March 1948; (2) April-June 1948; (3) July 9-18 and from then to October 15; (4) October-November 1948. A fifth period—November 1948-July 1949—he does not consider a wave but a movement of “expulsion and population transfer.”
Except in the case of this final phase, Morris offers no explanation for his periodization. Its tendentious nature is borne out, however, by his own admission that he has found neither a “pattern” nor “patterns” in the Arab flight, and by his insistence that the causes of it were “complex” and “varied.” Actually, given Palestine’s puny size, this is hardly tenable. How complex or varied could be the causes of flight from the Galilee, for instance, an area which, despite its grandiose designations—Western and Eastern Galilee, Lower and Upper Galilee, and the “panhandle”—covers less than 700 square miles in all?
There is a reason for Morris’s failure to discern any “patterns.” It absolves him from dealing with a fundamental question: what caused the first flight of 75,000 Arabs between December 1947 and March 1948, at a time when the Arabs had the upper hand and were assured of good prospects? This first “wave” (in Morris’s periodization) remains buried in mystery—just as it was over forty years ago when David Ben-Gurion, after his first visit to Jewish-occupied Jaffa (May 18, 1948), noted in his diary, “I couldn’t understand: why did the inhabitants of Jaffa leave?” Morris does not attempt to answer Ben-Gurion’s question.
Yet Ben-Gurion, at least, was later to learn the answer; his most succinct formulation of it is to be found in a statement to the Knesset on October 11, 1961:
The Arabs’ exit from Palestine . . . began immediately after the UN [partition] resolution, from the areas earmarked for the Jewish state. And we have explicit documents testifying that they left Palestine following instructions by the Arab leaders, with the Mufti at their head, under the assumption that the invasion of the Arab armies at the expiration of the Mandate would destroy the Jewish state and push all the Jews into the sea, dead or alive.
Now all this, to Morris, as to Simha Flapan in The Birth of Israel, is a “myth.” Morris in particular attests that in his exhaustive research he has “found no evidence to suggest that the AHC [Palestine’s Arab Higher Committee] issued blanket instructions, by radio or otherwise, to Palestine’s Arabs to flee.” Very neat—the only problem being that neither Ben-Gurion nor anyone else ever spoke of “blanket instructions.” What Ben-Gurion spoke of was “explicit documents”—namely, items of Haganah and IDF intelligence brought to the attention of the cabinet. These documents exist in great abundance. From December 1947 to the armed invasion in mid-May 1948, the Arab section of Haganah intelligence—code-named Tene (basket)—provided the general staff and Ben-Gurion with hundreds if not thousands of intelligence reports. Put together they paint a clear picture of an ever-growing migration of Arabs from the designated Jewish state and the bordering areas.
That Morris is familiar with these documents is plain: he uses them extensively in his book, though in a highly biased fashion. Nevertheless, shorn of its bias, Morris’s account produces the same picture which emerges from Ben-Gurion’s statement. And in both, one phenomenon stands out: more often than not, the flight was led by Palestinian Arab notables, national and local, civilian and military, with the wealthy and senior municipal officeholders as well as members of the AHC and local National Committees (NC’s) pointing the way. Furthermore, in every locality where the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) took charge, the evacuation of non-combatants—women, children, and elderly—repeated itself.
The flight of members of the upper and middle classes from the better part of Palestine’s Arab towns, which had begun already in December 1947 (as we can gather from Morris), acquired momentum in January-May 1948. The disintegration accelerated in April. Even policemen ran off with their weapons; increasing numbers of officials failed to arrive for work. In Jerusalem, only one out of the seven members of the AHC still remained by January 10. In Haifa, 11 of the 15 members of the local NC had deserted by March 23, nearly a month before the battle for the town reached its peak. The remaining four followed suit shortly thereafter. Acre, Haifa’s neighbor, underwent a similar fate.
“It is pathetic to see how the [Jaffa] Arabs have been deserted by their leaders,” recorded Palestine’s Chief Secretary, Sir Henry Gurney. The High Commissioner, Sir Alan Cunningham, pointing directly to the leaders’ flight as a precipitant of the mass exodus, reported on April 26 that the mayor of Jaffa had twelve days earlier gone on “four days’ leave” and had not yet returned, and that half the members of the city’s NC had also left. By May 5 Cunningham reported that “Nearly all [Jaffa’s city] councilors and members of National Committee have fled.” Even Morris admits that the steady exodus of the middle and upper classes considerably demoralized the remaining inhabitants and provided a model for their own departure.
Instructions to abandon whole villages or for the evacuation of noncombatants were issued mainly by the AHC, the NC’s, officers of Jordan’s Arab Legion, and commanders of the ALA and the “irregulars.” In several cases such instructions were given by the Mufti of Jerusalem, the acknowledged leader of Palestine’s Arabs. Thus, on January 22, he told a delegation of Haifa Arabs “to remove the women and children from the danger areas in order to reduce the number of casualties.” In April, the Mufti continued to permit and even to encourage the evacuation of noncombatants from potential combat zones. Characteristic of the atmosphere in which these instructions were given and received was the warning by the Jerusalem NC that resistance to the evacuation order would be seen as “an obstacle to the Holy War [jihad] and in the way of the fighters, and would hamper their actions in these neighborhoods.”
Among the Tene reports from the period prior to the invasion there is one in particular which lends credence to the idea that the Arabs were fleeing Palestine on the orders of their leaders. On April 24 Tene quoted a “reliable” source:
Rumors have it that the AHC in Jerusalem ordered the evacuation of Arabs from several localities in Palestine, seeing that Arab governments intend to dispatch tanks and aircraft in great numbers, to bombard all of Palestine’s towns, while wishing that their Arab residents remain unhurt. Arab residents are advised to flee Palestine as soon as possible, and after its fall into the hands of the Arab governments, they will be returned as victors. [Emphasis added]
The question is not whether the “rumors” were correct, or whether the AHC had actually issued orders to this effect—although the fact is that by May 14, the day Israel was established, the major towns of Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias, and Safed had indeed been abandoned by their Arab residents. The question, rather, is how Morris, who bases a good deal of his own account on the Tene reports, comes to grips with this evidence. The answer is that he does not. Is the April 24 report unreliable? He does not cite it, not even to shoot it down. In any case, he would not be in a position to check its veracity without conducting a comparative examination in Arab archives—an impossibility, as we have seen.
The “documents,” then, present an unmistakable picture: the Arab exodus from Palestine—the flight of the first 75,000, the flight of the leadership, civil and military, the evacuation of non-combatants, and the desertion of the ALA and the “irregulars” by officers and troops alike—was all the work of instruction, whether by personal example, by word of mouth or in writing, or even better, by the quickest telegraph of all, rumor. Having been set so authoritative an example by their leaders, the simple folk did not think twice. In much of the populated areas of Palestine, many an Arab village fell into Haganah hands entirely empty. The Tene reports—the ones we see in Morris’s book, as well as the ones we do not—show that in speaking of “explicit documents” testifying to orders by Arab leaders to flee Palestine with the hope of a triumphant return, Ben-Gurion stood on firm ground. Morris’s “myth” is to a large degree based on fact.
It is important to bear in mind here that virtually up until the invasion of the five Arab armies on May 15, 1948, the Yishuv leadership was prepared to accept an Arab state in Palestine so long as it did not endanger the Jewish state—in other words, if it accepted the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947. Indeed, the leadership even accepted an Arab minority of 40 percent within the Jewish state as specified in the resolution’s border demarcation. Any other approach, it feared, would cause the family of nations to judge the Jews unworthy of a state of their own.
Shlaim and Morris completely ignore all this, no doubt assuming that the Zionists, in their aspiration to conquest and violence, never intended to honor the UN resolution. Yet the sincerity of the Zionists is substantiated in remarks made by the Yishuv leaders before and after the General Assembly vote on partition. At a meeting of the Mapai Secretariat in September 1947, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, chairman of the National Council and later Israel’s second President, stated that “upon the establishment of the state we will have to care for 500,000 Arabs within the Jewish state.” Eliezer Kaplan, who was to become Israel’s first Minister of Finance, argued that “we must . . . [establish] a veritable government. And in it not only the Jews will play a role, but also the Arabs who remain in our part of Palestine, for it is our duty to serve all residents of our area.” Levi Eshkol, later Israel’s second Minister of Finance and third Prime Minister, readily accepted a proposal to grant the Arabs the right to vote for the Elected Assembly (the former Knesset): “I was glad to hear it said here that the Arabs should take their place in the Assembly. Of this we must remind ourselves day and night, repeat it to our youth and our labor movement, lest we be too quick to start shooting.”
As for Ben-Gurion, he noted that “if they [the British] go . . . we will confront the problem of services for the Arabs. It will be of great value if we succeed in arranging services for the Arabs.” And he added, as if in anticipation of Shlaim: “If there is a positive UN resolution, a Jewish government will be formed. It will not conquer that part of Palestine in which an Arab state arises . . . nor will it try to take control of Jerusalem and Kfar Etzion.” Ben-Gurion believed, indeed, that peace could prevail between the two future states; a mass exodus of Arabs from the Jewish state never occurred to him.
True, Ben-Gurion also realized that without a defensive capability the Jewish state would never come into being. Although for a while he hoped that war could be prevented, by December 1947 he noted regretfully that “the Arab world is beginning to fight the Jewish state, this war has already begun.” From intelligence reports he learned that the Mufti had gained control over the Arabs of Palestine, and that there was Arab talk of a “total war.” Still he sought to avoid a bloody conflict, preferring a defensive strategy. His key word was “self-restraint.” This resulted in limited mobilization, which in mid-December 1947 amounted to only 6,700 new Haganah recruits. It was only with the siege of Jewish Jerusalem in April 1948 and the danger of the city’s falling to the Arab Legion that the Haganah, at Ben-Gurion’s instigation, moved from the defensive to the offensive.
This background, which is so necessary for understanding the Abdullah-Golda Meir meeting of November 17 and the Yishuv leadership’s attitude toward the Arab exodus, is completely missing from the books of Shlaim and Morris. Thus they cannot explain why it took until May 6 for Ben-Gurion to issue the following order: “The Arab Affairs Department is authorized to decide on the removal of any Arab village that obstructs the [defense] plans of the Jewish Yishuv or acts provocatively.” For contrary to these historians’ claims, even at this late date the Yishuv leaders were still assuring the Arab minority of equal rights in the future state, and, no matter how many Arabs had fled, were still far from conceiving of a mass exodus.
Here is Ben-Gurion’s diary entry of May 1, 1948, describing a visit to Haifa:
At dusk I again passed through . . . the Arab quarters. A frightening and fantastic spectacle. A dead city, a corpse of a city. Only at one spot did we see two old men sitting in a half-empty shop, and in another alley we met an Arab woman leading her child. . . . How did tens of thousands of people leave in such a panic—without sufficient reason—their city, their homes, and their wealth?
One thing the Yishuv leadership did suspect was that the Arab flight which was already taking place in late 1947 and early 1948 had been engineered in order to portray the prospective Jewish state as inimical to its Arab minority. This explains the efforts Jews made in various places, including Haifa, to persuade the Arabs to stay. It was this same desire to present an image of a civilized and law-respecting entity that moved the Yishuv leadership to pledge to the UN a constitution guaranteeing the rights of all citizens of the state, regardless of religion, race, or nationality. On December 3, 1947, Ben-Gurion told his party, Mapai, that “a constitution that would debar an Arab from becoming President is unthinkable . . . every citizen is eligible to be elected President,” and if a majority did elect an Arab as President, “so be it, there shall be no discrimination in the Jewish state.”
The invasion by the five Arab armies on May 15 of course put an end to all this. Henceforward the Arabs, both inside and outside Israel, were seen as sworn enemies. The 1948 war and the fears of a second “round” banished all thought of the promised constitution. In this way the war that the Arabs started in 1948 not only sealed the fate of the Palestinian Arabs themselves; it also formed a different Israel from the one intended by its founders. The latter had never imagined in their wildest thoughts that Israel would one day be obliged to impose military government in Arab districts or invoke other such restrictive measures. Nor did they imagine another, equally remarkable consequence of Arab enmity: the harsh persecution of Jews in all Arab-speaking countries, sparking a mass emigration to Israel that would radically change the ethnic make-up of the Jewish state.
Morris turns a blind eye to this chain of events, as if aware that in order to unveil the “true,” impure face of Israel he must show that the Arab flight conformed with Zionism’s most evil designs. Thus, while on the Arab side he finds no “patterns,” on the Jewish side he manages to find quite a few. The most important has to do with “transfer.” Very early on in his book he is already hard at work to implant the mistaken notion that a transfer of Arabs from Palestine to neighboring countries “had a basis in mainstream Jewish [sic] thinking, if not actual planning, from the late 1930’s and 1940’s.”
Yet the issue of such a transfer, like the issue of a population exchange (Arabs from Palestine in exchange for Jews from Arab lands), was not even placed on the agenda of the Zionist Organization until the Zionist Congress of 1937, which deliberated the partition and exchange programs proposed by the British government following the Peel Commission report of July 7. Those in the Congress who supported partition favored transfer—but only because it was suggested by Britain, which intended to implement this arrangement under the auspices of the League of Nations. When Britain retracted, as it soon did, partition scheme and transfer clause alike came to naught.
Where then does Morris derive his fallacious idea? He rests his case entirely and solely on one source, Joseph Weitz (1890-1972), for many years director of the Land Development Division of the Jewish National Fund.
All his life Joseph Weitz was given to self-aggrandizement, desperately filling thousands of pages, in manuscript and in print, in diaries and letters, with his ideas and opinions, only to meet frustration at every turn. The broad recognition he coveted always eluded him. Now comes Benny Morris to rescue from oblivion every line Weitz ever wrote, published, or bequeathed to the Zionist Central Archives; in them, he has found more support for the idea of an Arab transfer than in the memoirs of all other Zionists combined. In the index to Morris’s book only David Ben-Gurion is honored with more space than the frustrated Joseph Weitz.
To cover the discrepancy between Weitz’s true status in the Zionist and Israeli hierarchy and the major role he plays in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris presents him as “an initiator of thinking and policy.” (In an essay published in Middle Eastern Studies, Morris goes even further, introducing Weitz as a major leader who in 1948 “sat astride the crossroads of power in the new state.”) Yet he does not make the slightest attempt to show any connection between what Weitz claimed for himself—mostly, an assumed intimacy with IDF officers and cabinet ministers—and what actually transpired either in the field or in cabinet meetings. Furthermore, he admits explicitly that Ben-Gurion and his defense deputy, Israel Galili, “either rejected, or were unwilling to commit themselves to, a general policy or strategy of [Arab] expulsion.” But Morris is not one to be deterred by simple contradiction.
Weitz owes his prominence in Morris’s thinking to his membership in what Morris calls the “Transfer Committee” of 1937. This merits an explanation: early in November 1937 the JAE appointed a “Population Exchange Committee,” whose main role was to prepare proposals the JAE might wish to submit to the Woodhead Commission (dispatched to Palestine, as noted above, to provide cover for the British government’s decision to renege on its partition policy). Morris fails to point out that this was merely a study committee, not a policy committee, and also does not tell the reader that in June 1938 it held its last meeting, then disbanded quietly and unofficially. Among the thirty papers and memoranda the JAE submitted to the Woodhead Commission there was not one regarding population exchange or transfer.
We next come upon Weitz, still following his ambition, in 1948, when he is bringing heavy pressure to bear on Ben-Gurion and others to reappoint a “transfer committee.” Morris now expects us to believe, without a shred of evidence, that “Weitz regarded the Arab exodus, which he helped to promote, . . . as an implementation, albeit unplanned and largely spontaneous, of the transfer schemes of the late 1930’s.” He plants the erroneous impression that an executive committee was set up by the JAE to furnish the “nudge” necessary to turn the Arab exodus into an organized, one-way transfer. Although he concedes at one point that “official authorization and appointment of the committee by either Ben-Gurion or the cabinet continued to elude” Weitz, he persists in referring to this nonexistent body as “the first transfer committee,” and in suggesting that it energetically exercised its executive powers by sending Arabs away from Palestine by the truckload.
Finally we are told of a “consultative” meeting with Ben-Gurion and others, held on August 18, in which Weitz proposed “once again” the appointment of “a non-governmental authority” to formulate a “plan for the transfer of the Arabs and their settlement.” Morris takes this from Volume III of Weitz’s published diary, but his English rendition casts fresh doubt on his academic honesty. For even Weitz did not propose any such “authority,” nor did he suggest the policy it should formulate. Here is the relevant passage:
I proposed the appointment of a special committee, to deal with the material and to prepare a few alternative schemes. This ought to be a non-governmental committee, yet one with governmental powers.
No formal decision was taken at this meeting, which does not, however, prevent Morris from reporting that “a committee—the second and official Transfer Committee . . . was at last appointed by Ben-Gurion at the end of August.” Suffice it to say that Weitz neither proposed nor claimed that the committee ultimately appointed was such an executive transfer committee. His diary entry for September 1—which Morris withholds—establishes beyond doubt the nature of the body:
The Transfer Committee today laid down its work order: a) facts and procedures in migrations of peoples resulting from war in the last century; b) census of Arabs who left Palestine—the villages, the areas, the inhabitants, evaluations, etc.; c) the neighboring countries and their absorption capacities; d) conclusions and proposals. We agreed on the staff to assist the Committee in data gathering, etc.
So a study committee it was, which concluded its work in two months, whereupon it handed Ben-Gurion an eight-point conclusion regarding “the refugee problem” which suggested, inter alia, a population exchange (Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Syria against resettlement of Palestinian refugees in these two countries and in Jordan) as Israel’s proposed position at the forthcoming peace talks.
As it came to pass, this, indeed, would be Israel’s position; it is reflected in a passage contained in Ben-Gurion’s aforementioned Knesset statement:
Immediately after the establishment of the state, while the invasion of the Arab armies was still under way, there commenced a large Jewish immigration, especially from Arab countries. . . . The number of the Arabs within the area earmarked by the UN resolution for a Jewish state, and who left it . . . is not greater than the number of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, to the extent that an unplanned yet de facto exchange of population did in fact take place, and there is no practical possibility, nor a moral necessity, to turn the wheel back.
So bent is Morris on showing that the transfer idea had been, all along, the chief motor behind the actions of Ben-Gurion and Weitz that he translates the Hebrew designation for the transfer committee as the committee for “Retroactive Transfer.” The correct translation, as Ben-Gurion’s statement implies, is “de facto transfer”—i.e., a committee to relate to what had already happened, a transfer the Arabs had brought on themselves.
None of this is to suggest that the Jews were sorry to see the Arabs’ backs. Morris, however, discounting Ben-Gurion’s amazement at the Arab flight, portrays him as a leader who made sure that his will would be carried out by others while he himself retained clean hands. Chief among these others was Major General Yigal Allon; wherever he “was in command, almost no Arab civilians remained anywhere.” Allon simply “tended to expel and let his subordinates know what he wanted.” And this was in no way peculiar: “At each level of command and execution, Haganah officers in those April-June days . . . simply ‘understood’ what the military and political exigencies of survival required.” Thus Ben-Gurion was able to enjoy the best of both worlds: “he was happy that the work was being done but could not . . . bring himself to openly support the policy and Weitz’s activities in the field.”
The evidence Morris can, and does, offer in support of this contention is nil. Faithful to his manner, when in difficulty he falls back on a highly personal reading of Hebrew texts, at one point attributing to Ben-Gurion himself the thoughts and words of a general briefing him on an ongoing campaign, at another completely distorting, or even reversing, Ben-Gurion’s recorded reaction at a cabinet meeting to news of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers in the Galilee. The list of such misrepresentations could be extended indefinitely.
In Morris’s picture of the 1948 war, Israel is already a military “superpower,” a juggernaut crushing the Palestinians and the Arab armies alike. Nowhere in his book does Morris present a coherent account of the creation of the IDF or of the Arab forces that fought it on all sides. Morris takes no notice of the initial Arab advantage in war materiel and manpower, and does not compare the artillery, armor, or naval and air forces at the disposal of the combatants. Yet he writes that already in January-March “the Yishuv was militarily . . . vastly superior to the Palestinian Arabs,” and that during April and May it was “bringing its military superiority . . . to bear.” In May, we are told, the “Haganah demonstrated almost unchallenged superiority.” No wonder, in this reading, that the early “waves” of Palestinian Arabs ran away.
As it happens, however, the first shipment of artillery to Israel’s forces—5 out of 51 pieces—did not arrive in Tel Aviv until May 7. These were 65mm light portable mountain guns made in France in 1906, and were immediately dubbed “Napoleonchiks” to denote both origin and age. A primitive gun it was, with a range of 3.5 miles, two separated sights for elevation and traversing (instead of the modern integrated one) and no shield. Its only safe ammunition was the 5.5 pound HE shell, the equivalent in destructive effect of two infantry hand grenades. During the second half of 1948 it saw service as the IDF’s main standard field gun.
As Morris does not name or enumerate the Arab forces engaged against the “vastly superior” IDF, it is not from him that a reader will learn that in July the Arabs had the upper hand in artillery and armor in the northern front. In the western sector the ALA had 13 pieces of 75mm French guns and 27 armored vehicles. In the southern sector the Iraqis deployed at Jenin 6 artillery batteries (24 to 36 pieces of 25-pounders of British make), and at the eastern sector at Tel Saqi the Syrians deployed 3 batteries (12 to 18 75mm pieces of French make). Against them, Israel could come up then with three operative “Napoleonchiks” and one in repair; one 20mm anti-aircraft gun mounted on a half-track in an anti-tank role; two 75mm anti-aircraft guns, captured in May from the Arabs and used as multi-purpose guns; and three 20mm anti-aircraft guns committed to Haifa’s air defense.
On the southern front, Egypt’s army had the upper hand in equipment both in the air and on the ground. The Napoleonchik was no match for Egypt’s British 25-pounder, with twice the range and five times the shell. Here, however, Morris lays the emphasis on Israel’s air power. Operation Yoav, we are told, began on October 15, “with bombing and strafing attacks on Beersheba, Gaza,” and 11 more towns and villages listed by name. In explaining the ensuing flight of the Arab populace, Morris goes on to say that while by World War II standards
these attacks were minor and not particularly accurate, most of the affected communities had never experienced air attack and were not “built for it,” either psychologically or in terms of shelters and ground defenses. Artillery was also used far more extensively than in any previous IDF offensive, though mostly directed at Egyptian and Arab militia positions.
For this preposterous allegation—that the IDF used its air power specifically against defenseless, unprepared Arab “communities” in the south—Morris offers no reference or authority. Nor does he mention that the Egyptians were the ones to bombard, from the ground and from the air, civilian Jewish communities in Tel Aviv, Rehovot, and their vicinity, and especially the handful of Jewish agricultural settlements in the south and the Negev, which were isolated by the invading Egyptian army. For months on end these settlements sustained successive air and artillery bombardments as well as repeated infantry and armored assaults. Yad Mordechai and Negba, which were practically razed to the ground, do not merit a mention in Morris’s book. This is perhaps just as well, for he would be hard put to explain how it was that Jewish settlers, unlike their Arab neighbors, stood their ground even under the fiercest shelling and bombardment, or in what way the Jews were “built for it” better than the Arabs. Finally, the Arab villages that Morris lists as the innocent victims of Israeli aerial bombardments all served the Egyptian army and the Arab “irregulars” as operational and logistical bases.
What, in the end, is one to make of the farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications offered by the “new” revisionist historians? That they fail in their intention to “undermine, if not thoroughly demolish” the “old history” is patently the case; history, thank goodness, is made of sterner and more intractable stuff than even their wholesale efforts of free interpretation can dissimulate. But whether they will yet succeed in their larger aim of serving, in Benny Morris’s Orwellian words, the “purposes of peace”—i.e., by providing fresh sources of political sympathy for the Arabs, and fresh sources of antipathy to the Jews—is unfortunately another and more troubling question, to which the answer is much less clear.
4 Still another revisionist historian is Ilan Pappe, the only one of the group to have studied Middle Eastern history (at Jerusalem), and to teach it (at Haifa). His book is titled Britain and the Arab-Israel Conflict (Macmillan/St. Anthony, England).