In the last few weeks two liberal New York institutions, The New York Times and the 92d Street Y, have published discussions about a central Palestinian experience– the Nakba, or catastrophe that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948– and in these three discussions, there was not a Palestinian in sight. Though three or four Zionists got to weigh in on the issue.
Of course non-Palestinians have the right to free speech about Palestinian history. What is so desperate and unfair about these three discussions is that they demonstrate a racist pattern in our public culture, in which leading U.S. institutions grant authority about Palestinian history only to non-Palestinians.
It is very much as if the history of Jim Crow and slavery and the civil rights movement could only be told by white people.
Here are the three cases.
1. Last Sunday the New York Times Book Review ran a review by Dexter Filkins of the novel Khirbet Khizeh. The novel is the late S. Yizhar‘s beautiful rendering of the ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian village in 1948. Yizhar published the book in 1949 several months after he had participated in such activities as an Israeli intelligence officer.
Yousef Munayyer promptly tweeted:
This Dexter Filkins review for @nytimesbooks gets some VERY BASIC historical facts wrong which should be corrected
Donald Johnson summarizes the review, “Admit the Nakba, but paint it as inadvertent and even make basic mistakes on the chronology. … Don’t mention Plan Dalet, which some historians think wasn’t meant to be a permanent expulsion plan (yeah, right). Don’t mention that it was clearly ethnic cleansing in the later stages.”
Munayyer enumerated 13 errors in the review. One of those errors was Filkins’s description of the Nakba beginning after the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948.
The Israelis, fearing extinction (the Holocaust had ended only three years before), struck back; in the course of the fighting, they not only repelled the invading armies but also set the Palestinians — some 700,000 of them — to flight.
The flight/expulsion of the Palestinian refugees actually began weeks before the declaration of the state of Israel. Deir Yassin was in April 1948. So was the siege of Jaffa that emptied a leading Palestinian city and pushed some Palestinians into the sea.
Munayyer also offered evidence that the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba was intentional:
“For years before the war, Yishuv military intelligence collected nuanced data on all Arab villages, paving way for Nakba.”
Myself I thought Filkins’s review was a plus, providing an account of the Nakba in the Times. But my point here is that Palestinians, who are generally far better acquainted with this history than I am, and obviously more sensitive to that history, in the way that, say John Lewis is sensitive to the history of the civil rights movement — don’t even get included in the official conversation. You’d be angry too! As Munayyer pointed out:
Has @nytimesbooks review ever reviewed a book on the Nakba by, say, a Palestinian?
2. Last month, the 92d Street Y published a video of an event from December, in which Anita Shapira, a historian who lately authored a biography of David Ben-Gurion as the father of modern Israel, was on stage with David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, and Steven Zipperstein, the scholar of Jewish history. Shapira is a hardline Zionist. Zipperstein is an avowed liberal Zionist. Remnick would seem to be a Zionist-in-crisis a la Peter Beinart. You can watch their session below, but the motif of the conversation was Zipperstein and Remnick’s attempts to prod Shapira toward the possibility that Ben-Gurion had made some mistakes in his policy vis-a-vis Arabs, and Shapira’s insistence that her “hero” subject had not planned the Nakba, it had just happened.
Zipperstein asks Shapira at minute 26 whether she didn’t ever imagine sitting down with Ben-Gurion to “persuade him that in some respects his obstinacy actually led him to blindness not illumination.”
Shapira: Let me tell you something, you [would] like me to say that his politics towards the Arab question should have been different. And I wonder what you have in mind. Because maybe — maybe — you think that the Jewish state shouldn’t have come into being. Maybe! But if you think it should have come into being, I don’t see–
Zipperstein: This is what it’s like to argue with an Israeli!
Shapira: –how he could differently have done it. Because the fact was, he understood it as a realist. That the Arabs would not give up. Why should they for god’s sake give up their predominance in the country? Until I would say the 1920s, they were actually the lords of the country. So Ben-Gurion understood that and he acted I would say in defense of history, because he felt that the Jews don’t have an alternative, and he felt that the time was running out, and he had to achieve what he could as soon as possible.
Remnick also pushed on the question, at minute 43, pointing out that Shapira’s handling of the departure “of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians” was “rather brief.” But the matter was a point of great controversy to this day, Remnick said, citing Israeli historians, and politely asked Shapira about Ben-Gurion’s view of “the Palestinian experience on the ground in 1948, meaning their exile.” Shapira offered a very Zionist-centric rendering of the Nakba. The expulsion of the Palestinians was never planned. Ben-Gurion was willing to accept a Jewish state with 40 percent Palestinians. But when the war began, Jewish hearts hardened toward the Arabs, and in the end the Jews were pleased to see the refugees gone from the country.
Why weren’t they allowed to return? Because everyone was very happy with having a unitarian Jewish state and having a small Arab minority.
Shapira went on to say that ethnic cleansing– “population movements” — was the norm at that time of history. They happened across Europe and in India and Pakistan. Judging Israel for its conduct then by today’s standards is like judging George Washington for holding slaves.
The fact that of all the refugees, the many millions of refugees at that time, only the Palestinians remain as a problem was something that nobody expected.
The only thing to be said about Shapira’s comments is that they are very deeply immersed in the Zionist narrative. Remnick and Zipperstein did nothing much in the end to counter that view. I don’t think the word Nakba was used.
I am very curious about how a Palestinian would respond to Shapira. But I guess expecting the 92d Street Y to invite a Palestinian to that conversation would be like expecting George Washington to free his slaves. (And p.s., why did Zipperstein and Remnick go along with this entre-nous setup? Here is what happened when Shapira had to actually engage a Palestinian.)
3. A month ago the New York Times Book Review ran a review of Shapira’s book by Ilene Prusher, a Jerusalem-based novelist. Prusher had a very similar quibble to Zipperstein and Remnick, Shapira didn’t have much to say about the Nakba:
Some readers may find it hard, as I did, to read Shapira’s brief treatment of the moment in 1948 when the commanders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking whether to carry out “a large-scale population evacuation.” Rabin reported that Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of the hand, saying “Expel them.” Shapira explains here that while he forbade the evacuation of some areas, like Nazareth, “like most of his ministers, he saw the Arabs’ exodus as a great miracle, one of the most important in that year of miracles, since the presence of a hostile population constituting some 40 percent of the new state’s total populace did not augur well for the future.”
Shapira doesn’t subject this incident to any ethical scrutiny or judgment, reporting it almost matter-of-factly. She does, however, note that given the history of the time — which included moving enormous masses of people across Europe and carrying out huge population transfers as part of the partition that divided Pakistan from India — Ben-Gurion’s decision wasn’t beyond the norm. “The decision not to allow the return of the Arab refugees was accepted as self-evident, and gained broad public support.”
Not to worry. At the end of her review Prusher reveals her own Zionist bona fides:
I last visited Ben-Gurion’s grave in 2012. I was working on a book and looking for a quiet writing retreat before the birth of my second child. I came to appreciate the appeal of the remote place where Ben-Gurion chose to live out his later years. There, on the edge of a majestic desert precipice, Israel isn’t a country the size of New Jersey constantly struggling for its survival. Rather, it is a place of proud, rugged expanses, a homeland of the reborn Jew comfortable in nature, re-establishing himself in a timeless landscape, neither oppressed nor oppressing. It was this yet unfulfilled promise in the promised land that Ben-Gurion wanted people to contemplate when they took a minute to envision what had been, and what was to come.
Again I ask: What would a Palestinian say? Do they ever get to register an opinion in the mainstream press on these historical events?
To be clear, I am not offering myself as any kind of expert on that point of view. I’m just a privileged American Jewish reader who cares deeply about US foreign policy. But I must say I think this situation is sick and is one reason the U.S. has lost its way in the Middle East: Our press doesn’t grant Palestinians (or Arabs) narrative authority when it comes to their own fucking experience.
(P.S. I happen to share some of Shapira’s realist ideas re population transfers in the second world war era; they’re ancient history. But the answer to her question about why the Palestinian refugee problem persists is that Palestinians were never granted the sovereignty the world promised them, in stark contrast to Pakistan and countless other nations. And in part for that very reason, the ethnic cleansing never stopped, no, it goes on merrily on the Zionists’ part to this day, in spite of the Green Line, the armistice, Truman and Kennedy and Nixon’s efforts to honor the right of return, Oslo, the Arab Peace Initiative, international law, liberal Zionism, the UN General Assembly, etc., and has led many to wonder when and how this problem all began.)