Tuesday, October 29. 2013
From the start of hostilities in 1947 through the declaration of a borderless Israel's independence in mid-1948 and the subsequent war between Israeli militias and various Arab armies up to the signing of the armistices which established Israel's unhappy "green line" borders in early 1950, over 700,000 Palestinians fled their ancestral homes and/or were driven into an exile. Following the armistices, Israel's Knesset passed a series of laws determined to make the exile permanent: Palestinians who escaped the expulsions were granted what turned out to be second-class citizenship -- they lived under military law until 1967, and even today are denied opportunities afforded to Israel's Jewish citizens -- while those who left had their property expropriated and were denied any chance of returning to their homeland. Sixty-five years later millions of their descendants still wait in refugee camps, a stubborn obstacle to ending the conflict.
Many years later, Serbian military commanders in Bosnia coined an euphemism for genocide which has turned out to be a fair description of many historical events: ethnic cleansing. One way to effect ethnic cleansing was to kill everyone you wanted to get rid of. That was, for instance, Germany's response to the Herero rebellion in its Southwest Africa territory (1904-07, in what is now Namibia), and there have been many more examples, most famously the mass slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during WWI and of Jews by Nazi Germany in WWII. But the words "ethnic cleansing" also describe a case just short of genocide -- as a norm, not that murder is not a substantial part of the story -- namely, the forced exile of one ethnic group leaving a piece of territory more completely in control of some other group.
A classic example came out of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-22), which resulted in a "population exchange" as Greeks fled Asia Minor and Turks repatriated from Greece. Some examples were notoriously bloody, such as the British partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (especially but not limited to Punjab and Bengal). Some were more efficiently managed, such as the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after WWII, but they've never been done without bloodshed and great hardship. An example from American history, the forced transfer of Cherokee and other Indian tribes to Oklahoma Territory in the 1830s, is remembered as Trail of Tears.
For a long time Israel denied responsibility for and evaded discussion of the expulsions. Benny Morris, in his 1988 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, was the first Israeli historian to systematically document what happened, including more than a hundred massacres which set up a pattern of orchestrated terror. (Morris, by the way, has lamented that Israel didn't drive out even more Palestinians. For a more recent summary, see Ilan Pappé: The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.) Morris took pains to deny that the Israeli leadership had any "centralized expulsion policy as such," but there were at least two cases where David Ben-Gurion personally directed mass expulsions: the centrally located towns of Ramle and Lydda (population 50,000 or more in 1948).
Lydda and Ramle were Arab towns on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the main airport in Israel-Palestine was adjacent to Lydda. After Ben-Gurion lobbied for UN approval of a plan to partition Palestine in November 1947, he began plotting how to expand Israel's allotment of the territory. In particular, the UN had kept Jerusalem as an internationally administered region rather than attempt to split it up, but he plotted to seize at least the western half of the city, and that meant he had to capture the corridor between his partition area and Jerusalem. (Israeli forces were only partly successful in this: they captured the cities in the valley but failed to claim the Latrun heights, which like their inability to capture the Old City in Jerusalem remained as a spur to future expansionist wars, an itch not satisfied until 1967, when Israel immediately annexed its most coveted territories.)
The reason I'm dredging up all this history is because I was struck by a passage in a new article on "Lydda, 1948" by Ari Shavitt in The New Yorker (behind their paywall). The article covers the Israeli military campaign to take Lydda -- Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin were leading officers there -- and the expulsion, with some background suggesting that Jewish-Arab relations in and around Lydda were relatively benign before the war. No real news there, but after noting that: "By evening, approximately thirty-five thousand Palestinian Arabs had left Lydda in a long column, marching past the Ben Shemen youth village and disappearing into the east," Shavit adds:
This whole paragraph is sort of a black box about Zionism -- what you get out of it is a reflection of what you put into it. It's easy enough to understand Ben-Gurion's tactical thinking in emptying Lydda and Ramle. He was in the midst of a war where the survival of the Israeli state was at great risk. He had to claim at least half of Jerusalem, and therefore he had to secure the path connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. On that path were close to 70,000 Arabs, and in the hills above that path was the British-led army of Transjordan, his most formidable adversary. Expulsion was an alternative to occupation, and a relatively cheap one under the circumstances -- assuming, of course, that one doesn't have moral qualms about such things.
Ben-Gurion certainly didn't have any such qualms. When Britain's Peel Commission, in 1937, first proposed partitioning Palestine, they also proposed forced transfer of a small number of Jews and a much larger number of Arabs to create two ethnically cleansed states, Ben-Gurion was among the first to stand up and applaud. (The Arabs staged a revolt for independence from Britain and majority rule. When they were finally suppressed in 1939, the British tore up the Peel proposal and never brought it up again. It was Ben-Gurion pushing for partition in 1947, then going to war to secure and to expand his territories, and while no one spoke much of transfer, at least in public, it was deep in their minds -- and I might add it was all too common in fact, as can be seen by the mass violence in partitioning India and Pakistan, by the eviction of Germans from Eastern Europe, by the shift westward of the Polish border, by the massive displacements of the recently ended WWII.
But while it's easy to see the tactical value of emptying Lydda in 1948, and in retrospect it does look like Israel got away both with ethnic cleansing and with its persistent resistance against any return of its refugees -- a combination that shows that justice doesn't always prevail. Still, it's a rather deep and dark statement to see Lydda as something intrinsic to Zionism -- especially looking back from now, when the Jewish State has never been more secure. It's worth recalling that in the 1940s Zionism comprised a range of opinion, ranging from Jabotinsky's "revisionism" on the right -- Netanyahu's father was Jabotinsky's secretary, in case you've ever wondered about his bona fides -- to "cultural" Zionists like Martin Buber and Joseph Magnes whose vision for Israel included an accommodation that would allow Jews and Arabs to live within one state together. The idea that Zionism excludes the possibility of Arab-majority towns like Lydda and Ramle reflects the fact that cultural Zionists have been systematically excluded from popular memory in Israel. That forgetting is ultimately as poisonous as the insistence on drumming into every schoolkid a legacy of fatalistic Jewish heroes from Masada to the Warsaw Ghetto.
Ben-Gurion wasn't a moderate on this scale. He differed from Jabotinsky in his commitment to building the social institutions of the Yishuv, using them as his power base and recognizing that they provided a form for Jewish solidarity before a Jewish state became possible. But his commitment to "Jewish labor" was every bit as exclusionarily racist as Jabotinsky's terrorist militias. Ben-Gurion's great claim to fame was his pragmatism, which let him act ruthlessly while appearing to be reasonable -- in large part due to his remarkable insight into other folks' prejudices. Those skills helped him to use the British colonial administration to destroy his Arab enemies while undermining British rule. They helped him negotiate emigration from Nazi Germany. They helped him gained arms support at critical times from the USSR, France, and the US. They helped him negotiate reparations from Germany. But his compromises with the religious parties precluded development of a broader secular society, and his obsession with maintaining Israel's warrior spirit prevented him (and especially his successor, Moshe Sharrett) from gaining Israel legitimacy as a normal country.
So the view that Israel depends on an Arab-free Lydda (or Lod, as they call it now) should be viewed as a consequence of endless struggle, defined now (as ever) around ethnic cleansing. And if Lydda is key, what's to stop the call for an Arab-free Bersheba, Nazareth, or even Jerusalem? And Shavit, by celebrating Lydda as an essential event in the founding of his beloved Jewish state, leaves himself little defense against even more ethnic cleansing, ever more strife and struggle. It may be pointless to condemn past atrocities, but consecrating them is even worse: it's just a way of surrendering the future to a fate as dismal as the past.
Let me reiterate a bit. Shavit writes:
Or one can search for a different flavor of Zionism that would allow different peoples to live together in peace, or one could shift the import of Zionism into the past (the "post-Zionism" approach), or one could recognize that the mainstream of Zionism was profoundly racist and, given sufficient power, unjust, and try to chuck its dead weight off. By not doing any of these things, Shavit dooms himself to repeat history even though he is aware enough to know better.
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