In 1983, one year before she died, as part of putting her things in order–and perhaps as part of her preparations for death–my mother presented me with a large plastic bag in which she kept my letters to my family in Hadera, ever since I left home at the age of 16 in order to study at Beit HaKarem High School in Jerusalem.
One of the first letters I pulled out of this bag was written to my parents on October 30, 1948, in the midst of the war in which I served in the “Harel” Brigade of the Palmach. This letter is the main motive for this article, but before I describe its contents, I would like to dwell on a number of details in my own history that are typical of what is known as the 48 Generation. The details provide some background for understanding the spirit of its emotional life and its ethics, which are reflected in the letter we are considering.
The day after the UN resolution declaring the partition of Mandatory Palestine on November 29, 1947, I terminated my studies at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, which I had begun only one month earlier. I came then to Jerusalem after I finished my “year of work” at Kibbutz Hachotrim, which was a precondition for continuing studies after high school, according to a decision of the Zionist “national institutions.”
I, like many other students, hastened to enlist in the Jerusalem Brigade of the “Hish” (“Field Units”) associated with the Hagana, although university classes continued to be held on Mount Scopus, and later, when the road to the campus was blocked, in the Rehavia Gymnasia in West Jerusalem. My decision to enlist flowed from my feeling of deep commitment to Zionism and its leadership–a commitment which overrode every personal consideration, including the opposition of my parents to my leaving school.
Two months later, I deserted the Jerusalem Brigade of the Haganah, and joined the Palmach, which was in my eyes, as was generally accepted then, the crowning achievement of Jewish Zionist youth. I identified with the Labor Zionist movement, which led the Palmach, and I admired the “sabra” image which characterized the world view, style and modes of conduct of the Palmach’s members.
Like many of my generation, I was captivated by the external appearance of an ostensibly guerrilla army, fighting for the freedom of its people. Such appearances helped to blur the admiration for a “might makes right” attitude and for militarism that were already deeply implanted within us (1) and which contributed to strengthening the myth of “self-defense.”
According to this myth, cultivated by the Labor Zionist movement, the military strike force–the Palmach–which it established was a purely defensive force whose purpose was to defend the innocent Jewish inhabitants of this land against whoever attacked them. The position we internalized pretended that we were not dealing with the development of a military force that was waiting for an opportune time to realize the Zionist plan for the conquest of the land and the dispossession of its Palestinian inhabitants, but rather a “revolutionary army” of the oppressed.
Such a view was a typical expression of the 1984 double-speak and Orwellian thinking which particularly characterized the “socialists” among us. In the two years preceding the war of 1948, I thirstily drank in all the Marxist literature in Hebrew translation I could lay my hands on: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Plekhanov, Rosa Luxembourg and so forth.
It is therefore not surprising that–in the light of the contradiction between the universalist values I absorbed from socialist sources, on the one hand, and the particularistic values I imbibed from Zionism and the Labor Zionist movement, on the other–I came to depend on the cynical and hypocritical exercise (as it has been called even by the well-known Zionist historian, Professor Anita Shapira) which was expressed in the myth of “self-defense.”
Indeed, I was one of the “salt of the earth,” a member of the praised 48 Generation that faithfully represented the mythological sabra. This was the generation viewed admiringly by its parents, teachers, leaders, and (up to the most recent decade) the best social scientists in Israel–as the “jewel in the crown” of the Zionist enterprise. Indeed, the 48 Generation was the most “glorious” product of Zionism, the outcome of successful social-cultural engineering (as described Professor Baruch Kimmerling (2) which made itself into a most efficient instrument for the realization of Zionist aims; the “silver platter on which the Zionist state was delivered to the Jewish nation.”
Long after I had already, from an ideological and political perspective, learned to view Zionism as a colonialist enterprise which from the beginning had sought to build an exclusivist Jewish state in all of historic Palestine, inevitably by using force to dispossess the Palestinian people-I was still captive to the myths that continued to be cultivated by Israel’s social and cultural elites. With sentiment and nostalgia, I would return in my imagination to the places where I spent my youth, “to the innocence of youth, and the beauty of fair hair and form,” (as is described of the 48 Generation), to the open, informal social norms that characterized their relationships, and above all, to the comradeship in arms which was the emblem of the generation, and which I still saw as an expression of supreme values.
I did not realize that this warm humanism was limited to those “like us,” and that the other side of the coin was alienation from, and dehumanization of, all who were “other”-East European Jews, with their typical appearance, Mizrahim, and above all–Arab-Palestinians.
Reading the above-mentioned letter fourteen years ago was a turning point for me on the emotional-experiential level, which supplemented the ideological and political alienation from Zionism that had crystallized for me much earlier. The reading changed my personal and moral self-image and my view of my generation, because the letter revealed how the glorious “48 Generation” was programmed to reject with disgust the concept of human rights as an absolute value and to accept its subjection to “the collective aims” (to use the sociological jargon of the Eisenstadt school of thought centered at Hebrew University)–namely, the aims of Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state.
The letter uncovers an advanced stage in the dehumanization process and the emotional crippling that my generation had to undergo in order to fulfill the missions which were assigned to them: conquering the land, expelling its indigenous Palestinian residents, expropriating most of their lands and turning them into “state lands,” and imposing a military government on those who remained, which lasted until 1966!
The letter to which I referred was written near Hartuf, Beit Jamal, Beit Nabala and Zakaria, whose inhabitants had been expelled and on whose lands a moshav (cooperative farm) for new Misrahim immigrants was established. It was written several days after the Palmach had conquered the area, in the former Hartuf gas station, on office stationary on which was printed on top, in Arabic and English: “Ahmed N. Sharabti, Manager, Hartuf Petrol Station, PO Box 712, Jerusalem, Palestine.”
In my letter, I do not refer to what was written on the stationery on which I was writing, not even a word. As I tore page after page from the block of paper that I found on the table of the gas station’s manager, I had to have confronted the amber words printed on the top of each page; indeed, I must have known, mustn’t I, that here was a man who lived and worked, and was expelled or forced to flee by “all my glorious brothers” in the unit in which I served?
This complete ignoring of the personhood of the “enemy,” the serenity lacking in all feeling-without gloating or hatred were characteristic of the remote stance, the apparent lack of affect, of the 48 Generation towards the Palestinian Arabs. This stance was congruent with the perception of the latter as an “environmental nuisance” which should be dealt with in a rational manner, and without hatred, and when necessary–as in the case of the stationary–to make use of the spoils left behind after their removal. By then I was already experienced in the mental acrobatics involved in ignoring the “nuisance.”
All throughout the years of my childhood in Hadera, I used to see the Arab women who came from the surrounding villages, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the open-air market in the center of town, with the fruits and vegetables they were selling spread out around their feet. I became an “expert” in the art of passing by them, and even stepping over their feet which stuck out into the street–without even glancing at them.
I cannot recall a single time I entered into a conversation with one of them, or a single time when they were even mentioned in a conversation with one of my friends. I barely knew the names of the villages from which they came. Indeed, there was no hatred. It was simply a case of the complete objectivization of the “enemy,” which allowed us to maintain our falsified self-image of ethical superiority.
However, the internal contradiction between our self-righteous self-image and the violent “might makes right” ideology which was already implanted in us, is found in full flower in this letter as well. After beginning with a description of “the holiness and quiet which rests on the surrounding mountains, which our soldiers captured a few days ago,” and after mentioning the villages that were “emptied” of their inhabitants and that I had met a few Arab families during my visit to the church in Beit Jamal (without even mentioning the village behind it)-I made a sort of complaint: “We don’t know how to be conquerors. Maybe it’s because of the centuries we spent in the Exile as not knowing how to be conquerors, which formed us.”
What exactly were we, as “conquerors” supposed to do that we didn’t? I handed down my judgment, but I failed to explain it. The universal values which the Labor Zionist movement ostensibly stood for preventing me from continuing with my modest attempt at some thinking, and to argue openly and explicitly for demolishing villages, and expelling and killing Arabs.
On the other hand, I could not completely ignore what lay under the complaint “we don’t know how to be conquerors,” and I was forced to deal with the words, even if only indirectly. This I did by projecting the discussion into an attack on Jewish Zionist “others,” non-sabras who dared to challenge “our” Zionist morality. Those were two Mahalniks (volunteers from abroad) attached to the unit in which I served, and who were part of a large group of recently-discharged Jewish-American soldiers who had served in the Second World War, who had volunteered to help the Jewish community in its war.
I wrote in my letter to my parents: “Among our patrol, there are two Americans who only came to the country a month and a half ago. Nice fellows. But yesterday when they saw all the Arabs–the women and children returning to their villages starving for bread, they became ‘soft-hearted and had pity on them,’ and in the evening they began to shout that if the Jewish state lacked the means to take responsibility for the economy in the territories it occupied, it should never have gotten involved in a war. And that there’s no reason just to kill Arabs without any justification. In short, this America, with its idealistic Zionists, gets on one’s nerves sometimes. Their entire philanthropic approach towards life and the world is also expressed in their attitude to Zionism, and of course also in regard to this problem which I have mentioned.”
When I concluded these words, I only had to breathe once and I was immediately overcome with anxiety for having broached this subject, and as one who had learned very well not to ask questions, I hastened to return to everyday topics: how was my brother-in-law doing and where was he serving; I told about the shirt I had bought on my last leave in Jerusalem, and I asked my mother to send me fresh sheets.
However, it seems that even this moving to everyday, routine matters was not sufficient to return my self-satisfied peace of mind which had been shattered by the two “American Zionists.” I felt compelled to return to the ranks as fast as possible: to strengthen my attachment to Zionist values, to reassert my solidarity with the group fighting for their implementation and to cling once again to the “myth of self-defense.”
And this is how I concluded my letter: “Our morale is high here. There is a group of people that were in Gush Etzion (south of Bethlehem) for a long time and returned from there after the area was captured by Jordanian troops, with the famous convoy (which was attacked and rescued by the British). They are full of enthusiasm to redeem Gush Etzion once again. Similarly, the road to the Negev is open from here, and we hope that it will become more and more secure.”
Typical of the 48 Generation: in contrast to my distancing myself emotionally from the plight of Palestinian women and children “starving for bread,” as I myself had written, I turned my strong feelings of disdain and rage precisely on those who had dared to express human emotions towards them and who refused to subordinate universal values to the aim of establishing a Jewish state. Moreover, I was quick to label them as inferior, soft-hearted and even as lacking in “true” morality–for that is what is implied by my referring to them, in this context, as “idealists” and “philanthropists.”
Of course, my criticism and denial of their morality were not directed just against these two volunteers personally, but against all the “American Zionists,” whose Zionism, in contrast to “ours,” was “idealistic”–i.e., divorced from the reality which forced us to dispossess and to starve. These American Zionists were also “philanthropists”–in other words, representatives of a Zionism of smug satiety prepared to throw the Arabs crumbs from someone else’s table, and for all the wrong reasons (and apparently… “at our expense” as well).
As said, in the world of thought that characterized my generation, there was no place for criticism of Zionism and its leadership. In the essays I used to write, which were hung in a prominent place on the wall in my elementary school in Hadera, I repeated the mantra which had been drummed into my head: “We sow, and they come and uproot; we plant and they come and burn them; we build and they destroy.” We never ever asked the obvious question: “But why?” We were indeed well-trained not to think and not to challenge.
We learned to accept in an absolute fashion the assumption implied by this question that “they” uproot and destroy and burn simply because they are evil by nature, and even too backward and ignorant to value the benefits of civilized life. That was the only way to bring the 48 Generation to “give their utmost” and sacrifice their lives for the sake of starvation, expulsion, uprooting and destruction.
Tikva Honig-Parnass originally posted this essay here, on May 16, 2017.