In the 1980s in Israel a new generation of men and woman who had not lived through the Holocaust or the creation of their country came of age intellectually and embarked on a remarkable period of change. This change is indicative of how Israel’s intelligentsia has gradually matured to a point where it is now able to judge the country’s past without hang-ups, and free itself from the myths and taboos propagated by the country’s leaders.
The anti-conformism of this generation of intellectuals – which includes historians, sociologists, philosophers, novelists, journalists, filmmakers and artists – first made itself felt after the Six Day war in 1967. Events since then have only fuelled their dissent: the occupation, Palestinian resistance, the coming to power of the religious, nationalist right in 1977, the growing influence of settlers and expansionist rabbis, and the worsening tensions between clerics and secular society have all played their part. “Religious people often talk about Tel Aviv as if it were Sodom and Gomorrah,” says Michel Warshawski, a leader of the radical wing of the peace movement, “whereas for secular Israelis, Jerusalem is the Tehran of the ayatollahs.”
Peace with Egypt in 1979 raised hopes of a final peace settlement, but these hopes were dashed in 1982 with the invasion of Lebanon. This invasion, widely seen as Israel’s first offensive war, was launched on what turned out to be a false prospectus. Contrary to the Israeli government’s claims, the Palestine Liberation Organisation – which Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon set out to destroy – had not behaved provocatively. Indeed, it had shown signs of readiness to compromise, and in any case did not pose a serious threat to Israel’s existence. At the time, many Israelis were shocked by their army’s extreme brutality and the high death toll among the Palestinian and Lebanese population. The worst atrocity, the terrible Sabra and Shatila massacres, was committed with the full knowledge of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
These events provoked an unprecedented response: around 400,000 protestors took to the streets of Tel Aviv; 500 officers and soldiers deserted; and the refusnik movement was born as young people refused to serve in the army, first in Lebanon and then in the occupied territories. The “purity of arms” which Israel had boasted of since its birth was seriously undermined.
Unintentionally, young historians further contributed to the discrediting of Israel’s self-image. From official archives which were declassified in 1978 under Israel’s 30-year rule, they discovered that the conduct of the Israeli forces before and during the war of 1948 departed significantly from the idealised propaganda version. Simha Flapan, a fervent Zionist right up to his death, was the first to make use of official documents in a book that exposed the seven main myths which have been used to dupe the public for decades (1).
Dominique Vidal’s book, written with Sebastien Boussois, is the first to set out and analyse the conclusions of the so-called new historians (2). They are the first researchers since the foundation of the state of Israel to base their work not on secondary sources, as their predecessors did, but on documents from unimpeachable sources such as the archives of the cabinet, the army, the Palmach (shock troops), Zionist organisations, and the diaries of David Ben Gurion, who held the posts of defence and prime minister.
The book describes the circumstances which led to war with the Arabs, pays special attention to the role of Ben Gurion, which is ambiguous to say the least, and devotes a chapter to Benny Morris, the most prominent of the new historians and author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Question (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Vidal and Boussois refer to Morris as schizophrenic because of the gulf between his quest for historical truth and his political position on the far right. The book also examines Ilan Pappe’s most recent book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications, 2006) which provoked a furore in Israel that forced its author – like so many others – to resign from the University of Haifa and go into exile at a British university.
Pappe is not the first dissident intellectual (nor is he likely to be the last) to leave his country to escape the suffocating atmosphere reserved for “lepers” such as him. But unlike his predecessors, it is much harder to dispute his versions of events, because they are so much more detailed. Pappe has had access to documents from 60 years of Israeli archives (unlike most of his colleagues who only had access to 40 years’ worth).
Pappe has also made use of the work of Palestinian historians in his writing, often for eyewitness accounts. He has collected the testimony of survivors of ethnic cleansing, a source thus far studiously avoided by his fellow historians, either through an instinctive rejection of such material or through mistrust, or more prosaically because of their ignorance of the Arabic language. Such eyewitness accounts are all the more valuable as, so far, no Arab country has opened its archives to researchers.
Ultimately, the points of difference between Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris are not substantial. Both maintain that the 1948 war was not a David and Goliath struggle as is claimed, since the Israeli forces were clearly superior to their adversaries in both manpower and weaponry. Even at the height of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there were only a few thousand poorly equipped Palestinian fighters, supported by some Arab volunteers from the Fawzi al-Qawuqji liberation army.
Even when the Arab states intervened on 15 May 1948, their forces were still far inferior to those of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organisation which later formed the core of the IDF, which was able to keep drawing on reinforcements. Morris and Pappe agree that the Arab forces invaded Palestine reluctantly as a last resort, not in order to destroy the fledgling Jewish state, which they knew they were incapable of doing, but to prevent Israel and Transjordan – “in collusion” according to historian Avi Shlaim – from carving up the territory granted to the Palestinians under the United Nations plan of 29 November 1947.
“I have no doubt we are capable of occupying all of Palestine,” Ben Gurion, the father of the Jewish state, had written to Moshe Sharett (Israel’s second prime minister, who served between Ben Gurion’s two terms) in February 1948, three months before the Arab-Israeli war began and a few weeks before the delivery of massive consignments of arms sent via Prague by the USSR. This boast did not stop him claiming publicly that Israel was threatened by a second Holocaust.
In the first week of the war in May 1948, carried away by news of Israeli victories according to Ilan Pappe, Ben Gurion wrote in his diary: “We shall establish a Christian state in Lebanon… we shall break Transjordan, bomb its capital, destroy its army… we shall bring Syria to its knees… our air force will attack Port Said, Alexandria, and Cairo, and this will avenge our ancestors who were oppressed by the Egyptians and the Assyrians in Biblical times.”
In similar fashion Morris and Pappe demolish the Israeli leadership’s carefully maintained myth that the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily in response to calls from the Arab authorities and radio stations (these broadcasts are entirely the inventions of Israeli propaganda, as complete recordings made at the time by the BBC reveal). In fact, the two historians confirm what has been known since the end of the 1950s: it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror.
They diverge, however, over the meaning of these expulsions: for Benny Morris, they are simply “collateral damage”. “All’s fair in love and war”, he explained, adding more recently (3) and somewhat cynically, that Ben Gurion ought to have kept going until the very last Palestinian was gone. Where Morris sees an exodus resulting from war and “not the intention of either Jew or Arab”, Pappe shows that the ethnic cleansing was planned and executed in order to extend Israel’s territory – in effect to judaise it.
And with reason. For although the Zionist leadership had publicly approved the UN plan, in reality they thought it intolerable: their consent was just a tactic, as several documents in the archives and Ben Gurion’s own diary show.
True, they had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs, who were twice as numerous as the Jews. However, they viewed the territory earmarked for Israel as too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract. Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state. Thus Zionism risked losing its very raison d’être: “making Palestine as Jewish as America is American and England is English”, in the words of Haim Weizmann, who went on to become Israel’s first president.
That is why thoughts of the transfer (in plain terms, expulsion) of the indigenous Arabs haunted the Zionist leaders, who debated the question endlessly, usually behind closed doors. At the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl had suggested that the Ottoman sultan should deport the Palestinians to clear the way for Jewish colonisation. In 1930 Weizmann tried to persuade the British, who held the Mandate for Palestine, to do the same.
In 1938, following the proposal of a tiny Jewish state accompanied by a transfer of some Arabs envisaged by a British commission under Lord Peel, Ben Gurion declared before the executive committee of the Jewish Agency: “I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.” The war of 1948 was to offer him his chance to put his plan into action by launching an offensive designed to uproot the indigenous population six months before the Arab armies intervened. To facilitate this process, Pappe has revealed, Ben Gurion had a file created by the Jewish Agency in 1939 on all the Arab villages, which was regularly updated throughout the 1940s. It recorded demographic and economic facts as well as political and military information.
Ilan Pappe has analysed in detail the measures the Israeli forces resorted to. They make chilling reading, even if they are reminiscent of atrocities committed during ethnic cleansings carried out by other peoples from late antiquity on. The statistics produced by the historian are telling: in a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; 11 ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.
On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948. Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a high-ranking officer in the military, ran the operation. Rabin wrote about it in his memoirs published in the United States, though they were later censored in the Hebrew edition. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border. There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant Zionist organisation, and fearful of more massacres. This is what Morris calls the “atrocity factor”.
These horrors are all the more unjustifiable since a large number of Arab villages, by Ben Gurion’s own admission, had declared their willingness not to fight the partition of Palestine. Some had even reached
non-aggression agreements with their Jewish neighbours. That was the case in the village of Deir Yassin, where the irregular forces of the Irgun and the Lehi nevertheless massacred a large part of the population with the tacit agreement of the Haganah, according to Simha Flapan.
In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property. According to an official Israeli estimate, the Jewish National Fund seized 300,000 hectares of Arab land, much of which was given to kibbutzim. The operation could not have been better planned: the day after the vote on 11 December 1948 on the famous resolution on the “right to return” by the UN General Assembly, the Israeli government adopted the Emergency Absentees’ Property law which, added to the law on the cultivation of abandoned lands of 30 June 1948, retrospectively legalised seizures – and forbade the victims of seizures from claiming any compensation on returning home.
Despite the protests from some members of the Israeli government, shocked by the brutality of the ethnic cleansing, Ben Gurion – who had not himself given an explicit written order – did nothing to stop it. Nor did he openly condemn it. He limited himself to condemnation of the raping and pillaging which the Israeli soldiers carried out, though they benefited from complete impunity.
What is most astonishing is the silence of the international community, which has lasted for decades although international observers, including those from the UN, were aware of the atrocities. This makes it easier to understand why the Palestinians commemorate the nakba (catastrophe) rather than celebrate the Israeli war of independence.
Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. The title of his book is taken from the doctrine of the father of the ultranationalist right: in 1923 Zeev Jabotinsky declared that there should be no negotiations over a peace accord until the Jews had colonised the whole of Palestine behind a wall of iron, since the Arabs only understood the logic of force.
By adopting this doctrine, Israel’s political and military leaders on both right and the left have managed to sabotage successive peace plans. Reckoning that time is on their side, and claiming, in the words of Ehud Barak (then prime minister), that Israel has no “partner for peace”, the leaders in Jerusalem chose to wait for their adversaries to accept Israel’s territorial expansion and the splitting-up of a hypothetical, demilitarised Palestinian state which is condemned to become a collection of Bantustans.
Shlaim’s book was a bestseller when it was published in English in 2000 and was translated into several languages, but had to wait five years before appearing in Hebrew. Most Israeli publishers deemed it to be of little interest. Yet Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”
Almost all of the historians, sociologists, novelists, journalists and filmmakers who belong to the new wave of the intelligentsia are Zionists of a new sort – known as post-Zionists. They share a desire to espouse the cause of peace by establishing historical truth and recognising the wrongs done to the Palestinians.
To get a sense of the scale of the change which has taken place since the 1980s, it is worth reading the research carried out by Sébastien Boussois in Israel among new historians and their opponents (4). Some observers have concluded that the advent of a stable Israel at peace with its neighbours will depend in large part on the impact these intellectuals have on Israeli society and especially its political class.
This is how Yehuda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to France and the US, put it: “The ‘new historians’, even a radical such as Ilan Pappe, bring light to the dark region of the Israeli collective consciousness and pave the way for a stronger adherence to mutual respect for and peace with the Palestinians.
“Their work, far from representing a threat to Israel, does their country honour, and more: it is a duty, a moral obligation, a prodigious
assumption of a liberating enterprise in order that the fault lines, the healthy interstices, necessary to the integration of the discourse of the Other, may take their place in Israeli experience” (5).
(1) The Birth of Israel, Myths and Realities, Pantheon Books, New York, 1987.
(2) Comment Israël expulsa les Palestiniens (Editions de l’Atelier, Paris, 2007) is an updated and expanded edition of Le Péché originel d’Israël (Editions de l’Atelier, 1998).
(3) From an interview in Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 8 January 2004.
(4) In Vidal, op cit.
(5) From the preface to Vidal, op cit.
Judaism is universal
By Eric Rouleau
Avraham Burg is the scourge of the Israeli establishment. Though he has been in turn a prominent leader of the Labour Party, chairman of the World Zionist Organisation and speaker of the Knesset, he regularly expresses opinions at odds with those of most of his fellow Israelis. Burg lost hope of influencing those in power and quit politics in 2004.
The views he expresses in his latest book The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from Its Ashes (to be published by Macmillan in autumn 200 are brutally frank. On the occupation of the Palestinian territories he writes: “For years I tempered my position to avoid a breach within Israeli society. I have now changed. Today I ask: are [all Jews] my brothers? My answer is no… Since the Shoah, I believe there is no such thing as genetic Judaism, only Jewish values… Even if they are circumcised and respect the Sabbath and the Ten Commandments, the wicked occupiers are not my brothers.”
Throughout the book Burg contrasts the “Judaism of the ghetto”, whose racism he deplores, with “universal Judaism”, whose humanism he supports. He rejects the Old Testament notion that the Jews are God’s chosen people, as that amounts to a claim of racial superiority. “The cancer of racism is eating away at us,” he told the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth in 2003. He has also written that the terrible tragedy of the Shoah demonstrated that Jehovah was not the protector of the chosen people any more than He was responsible for their misfortunes. He believes in a God who has given man the power of decision-making and thus responsibility for his actions.
Burg is the son of a universally respected rabbi who was leader of the National Religious Party and its representative in the Knesset in nearly every government since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Burg himself was educated in a yeshiva (religious school) and his work quotes liberally from the Torah and the Talmud to show that holy texts can often be misinterpreted and distorted, or simply have lost their relevance.
Burg accuses Zionist leaders of having appropriated the Shoah – a tragedy not only for the Jews but all humanity – for often shameful ends. He takes issue with the fact they have turned it into an essential part of Jewish identity, which they’ve thereby reduced to a litany of past persecutions. In Burg’s view, this distorts Jewish history and conceals centuries of peace and good relations with other peoples.
Burg reminds readers, for example, of the concern shown towards his Jewish subjects by the ancient Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great; of the fruitful relations that Jews enjoyed with their Muslim compatriots in the Middle Ages in places such as Aragon, Castille and Andalucia; and the privileged position of Jews in the Americas and other countries across the world. He also points out that for centuries Jews lived alongside Germans before the Nazis came to power. He believes that Jews who are well integrated in their societies should not be stigmatised for not wanting to emigrate to Israel, especially as the diaspora plays a positive role in world
Burg is against the use of the word Shoah (catastrophe) for the Holocaust, since it gives it a unique character, beyond comparison with other genocides. This exclusivity, he believes, undermines compassion and solidarity with non-Jewish victims. It also feeds the paranoia that anti-semitism is a universal, timeless phenomenon: “The whole world is in league against the Jews.”
Zionist leaders have made use of the Holocaust in a variety of ways. It can be used as emotional blackmail to bring both political and financial advantage. Or serve as a reminder to the Germans of their criminal guilt and to the Americans and Europeans that they looked the other way while the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis. The Israeli authorities thereby guarantee themselves impunity, whatever their violations of international law and human rights, and whatever war crimes they carry out, such as targeted executions of Palestinians.
Burg takes issue with Israeli scholars who ignore all genocides but those suffered by the Jews, and with laws which punish only crimes against Jews. He opposes Jewish immigrants being automatically granted Israeli
citizenship on religious and genetic grounds. A committed secularist, he has also criticised the “religious fundamentalists” who show contempt for national sovereignty. Noting that his country often picks its leaders from members of the military or the secret services, he has warned that “the nightmare of a state run by rabbis and generals is not impossible”.
He thinks that it is time that Jews and Israelis freed themselves from the nightmare of the Holocaust, “which must of course be remembered forever, but no longer by prostrating ourselves in the dust” because “we must get rid of the Auschwitz mentality as well as the culture of trauma and terror”.
Burg does not consider himself anti-Zionist, except when the principles of Herzl and the values of the declaration of independence are betrayed. That is what happens when Israel is transformed into a “colonial state run by an immoral clique of corrupt outlaws”, as he put it in his Yedioth Aharonoth interview. In the same article he went on: “The end of Zionism is nigh… A Jewish state may endure, but it will be a state of a different sort, dreadful and alien to our values.”
Such views unsurprisingly provoked an outcry in Israel. But they also drew enthusiastic support from those Israelis who are eager to see root and branch reform of their country. Avraham Burg, who is in his early 50s, can hope that his dream may one day become reality. And, like the wave of iconoclasts in the Israeli intelligentsia who have absorbed the work of the new historians, he is living proof that his society is undergoing profound change.
Are the Jews an invented people?
By Eric Rouleau
How the Jewish people were invented, from the Bible to Zionism is the provocative title of the most recent book to be published in Israel by Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University (forthcoming in French with Fayard). Sand, one of the “new” historians, attacks what he calls the myth that the Jews are the descendants of the Hebrews, exiled from the kingdom of Judaea. He has attempted to show that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. According to Sand, the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.
Sand doesn’t challenge Israel’s right to exist or the notion of its sovereignty, but he thinks that sovereignty is undermined by its exclusively ethnic base, which stems from the racism of Zionist
ideologues. In other words, Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish state, but a democratic secular one which belongs to all its citizens.
Quoted in Haaretz on 21 March 2008, Sand was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”
Sand may be mistaken. A no less challenging work which presents the Torah as in large part a collection of myths and legends, has been well received by the Israeli media and in secular circles.
In their book The Bible Unearthed, two eminent Israeli archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, present an argument based on excavations and ancient documents which calls into question long-cherished convictions.
Israeli society may be more receptive to challenging questions than it is given credit for.