Israel's Original Sin
By Jeet Heer
May 7, 2008
As part of our series of opinion articles marking the 60th anniversary of Israel, Jeet Heer offers a radically different --and less celebratory --perspective.
Sixty years ago, a 12-year-old boy witnessed the slaughter of his family. His name was Fahim Zaydan, and he lived in the Arab village of Deir Yassin in Mandate Palestine, which was attacked on April 9, 1948, by Irgun and Stern Gang troops, paramilitary forces allied with the right-wing of the Zionist movement. These troops swooped into the village and started machine gunning civilians. Those that survived this initial attack were then forced by the troops to gather outside.
"They took us out one after the other," Zaydan recalled. "Shot an old man and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him -- carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her -- they shot her too."
Irgun commander Ben Zion-Cohen offered a more succinct account of what
happened: "We eliminated every Arab that came our way." This statement glosses over the fact that some of the Arab women were raped by Irgun and Stern Gang troops before they were killed. At least 93 civilians in the village were murdered that day, not just women and children but also babies.
The massacre at Deir Yassin is one of the most famous atrocities of 1948, but it was not the only one nor the largest. In fact, if one were cynical one could argue that Deir Yassin gets publicized only because its perpetrators were Irgun and Stern Gang troops, easy scapegoats who can be blamed for the violence in order to make the mainstream Labor Zionism of David Ben-Gurion look more respectable.
Deir Yassin was in fact a microcosm of what happened in Palestine as a whole in 1948: Zionist troops, including those under Ben-Gurion's command, used terror tactics to force the indigenous population to flee. Israel was founded through an act of ethnic cleansing, of a type all too familiar in recent history.
The creation of the State of Israel was both a triumph and a tragedy.
The triumph is well known: how the fledgling and precarious Zionist movement, still recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust, waged a war of national liberation in Palestine, creating a new Jewish state while fending off hostile Arab armies. It's an inspiring story of a scrappy underdog who wins against the odds. This triumph is often celebrated in religious and mythical terms (think of the title of Leon Uris's hugely popular novel Exodus, evocative of Moses).
But there was a tragic side to Israel's founding. The ethnic cleansing that allowed Israel to emerge was a terrible trauma for the Arab victims, and it continues to haunt the Jewish state to this day. The external war against Arab armies was mirrored by an internal war against Arabs living inside Palestine. Because of this tragic legacy, uncritically celebrating 1948 does a disservice to Jews and Arabs alike.
I know many readers will be shocked by my use of the words "ethnic cleansing," which seem so harsh to those raised on the myth-making of Leon Uris. But the fact is that the best recent historians of Israel's founding, some of whom are ardent Zionists, have made it clear that the events of 1948 were an ethnic cleansing. The only serious debate is whether this ethnic cleansing was a deliberate policy by Zionist leaders or an accidental byproduct of the fog of war.
To understand what happened, consider the situation that the Zionist movement faced in Palestine before 1948: They had too few Jews (less than half the population of Mandate Palestine), too little land (Jews owned less than 6% of the land) and too many Arabs.
In 1938, David Ben-Gurion told the Jewish Agency Executive, "I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it."
Ben-Gurion and his followers were remarkably successful in this policy of "compulsory transfer." By 1949, more than 700,000 Palestinians had been made into refugees, more than 500 villages had been destroyed and many Arab urban neighbourhoods were depopulated. As Israeli military commander Yitzhak Pundak recalled in 2004 of events he participated in, "There were 200 villages and these are gone. We had to destroy them, otherwise we would have had Arabs here [in the Southern part of Palestine] as we have in Galilee. We would have had another million Palestinians."
If you look at Zionism from a Western perspective, its logic is clear and compelling. Anti-Semitism has deep roots in European history and the Holocaust demonstrated what happens to Jews when they don't have the protective shield of their own state. And the guilt for the Holocaust belongs not just to the Germans, who were the primary perpetrators, but also their many collaborators in Poland, Ukraine, France and elsewhere. Nor were the English-speaking peoples innocent:
England, Canada, the United States and the other members of the anglosphere made extraordinary efforts to keep out Jewish refugees.
Western civilization committed terrible crimes in the 1930s and 1940s, and the West owes the Jews a state.
But if you look at Zionism from a global perspective, one that acknowledges that Arabs are human beings, then the morality becomes much murkier. Unlike the peoples of Europe, the Palestinians weren't direct participants in the Holocaust. Why should Palestinians lose their land because of crimes committed by Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and other Europeans? It's difficult to look at the founding of Israel, the displacement of the indigenous population and the ongoing occupation, and not conclude that the Palestinians are paying a huge price for other people's sins.
In an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, the historian Benny Morris, a mainstream Labour Zionist, offered a partial justification of the ethnic cleansing of 1948. "There is no justification for acts of rape," he admitted. "There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands."
Morris went on to say: "There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide -- the annihilation of your people -- I prefer ethnic cleansing." (One might question whether in 1948 the indigenous Arab population of Palestine, a peasant population far less organized than their Jewish rivals, wanted genocide or were even capable of it.)
The events of 1948 continue to shape Israel's destiny. In many ways, Israel has been a remarkably successful nation. When I visited it in
2004 I was struck by the good humour and decency of Israel's citizens, the liveliness of its political culture, its prosperity and its cultural achievements. Still, Israel is very different from what the original Zionists wanted. Their dream was that it would become a normal nation, a Jewish counterpart to England, France or Canada.
But in fact, because of its unique security situation, Israel is far from a normal country. Politically, socially and economically, it is hugely militarized (arguably, its recent economic boom has come in part from the new market for arms created by global instability). Like ancient Sparta, the citizen-soldiers of Israel have to constantly be on guard lest the helots revolt. The Arab population, both those who live in Israel as citizens and those under military occupation, are a constant source of worry. Israel's greatest point of pride, its claim to be a democracy, is undermined by the decades old occupation of Palestinian lands, a situation that resembles apartheid-era South Africa.
Moreover, Israel is completely dependent for its survival on the goodwill of the United States, a diminished imperial power. If the United States were ever to turn its back on Israel, as the superpower did to other controversial allies such as South Vietnam and apartheid-era South Africa, the Jewish state would face a friendless world.
Throughout the globe, Israel is losing legitimacy. This can be seen among young Jews in Canada and the United States, who are much colder toward Zionism than their parents and grandparents.
Despite all its great achievements, Israel's situation 60 years after its founding is deeply problematic. The best solution for Israel's problems is to make restitution for the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and help create a viable Palestinian state. Only when this happens will the dream of Israel as a normal nation be fulfilled
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