Here’s an eye-opener. My latest Commentary, for May, has as its top story
not a celebration of Israel’s birth, but a denial of the Nakba: "1948,
Israel, and the Palestinians–The True Story," by Efraim Karsh, who has something of a history in the denial of Palestinian humanity.
The piece is aimed at the Nakba-recognition groundswell that I seek to
foster on this site. It begins by saying that Israel is subject "to a
constant outpouring of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and
blood libels," a central plank being the "claim of premeditated
dispossession" –ethnic cleansing–perpetrated by the "’new
historians.’" Hold on, says Karsh. The "recent" declassification of thousands of
documents, "untapped by earlier generations of writers and ignored or
distorted by the ‘new historians,’" reveals that this claim is "the
inverse of the truth."
Then Karsh acknowledges the generosity of "Roger and Susan Hertog" in supporting his research. Hertog is chairman of the New-York Historical Society, a recipient of a Humanities award from President Bush last year, an owner of the New York Sun,
formerly a backer of The New Republic, and former chairman of the
Manhattan Institute. Wonder where all those august institutions will
come down on this?
Karsh’s piece is almost laughable in several respects. First, it is
not until the final line of a 6000- or so word article that he refers
directly to the target of his attack, the Nakba, when he says that only
when Arabs have "fundamentally different" leadership will they put
their "self-inflicted ‘catastrophe’ behind them." Nakba is Arabic for
catastrophe; this is the only use of that word in the article.
Shouldn’t a scholar be straightforward and specific about his target? Also, I have to wonder who those Palestinian leaders are
who will put the catastrophe behind them. I’ve never met a Palestinian
who denies the Nakba, or does not think that the right of return is an
important issue in the "peace process".
For another thing, Karsh doesn’t offer much evidence of recent declassification. Many of the sources seem very familiar indeed. The
Peel report, a British factfinding mission in 1949, and so forth. No footnotes.
But let’s address the substance: Karsh claims that the Arabs were "driven" out by their own leaders, "out
of military considerations or in order to prevent them from
becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state." Thus: "In Jaffa,
Palestine’s largest Arab city, the [Arab] municipality organized the
transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea…"
I have not studied the Nakba in any great detail, but I know that with respect to Jaffa, this is grotesque misrepresentation. The other night, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod stated flatly that her father was "driven" from his home in Jaffa by the Yishuv. A second speaker read aloud this letter from Shukri Selameh to the New York Times in 1988:
At 4 A.M. on April 25, 1948, almost
three weeks before the termination of the British mandate over
Palestine, Jaffa was subjected to an intensifying barrage of
concentrated mortar bombing from Tel Aviv, Bat Yam and Agro-Bank. I
twice risked my life and that of my family by attempting to escape in
my car with my pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter. Halfway out of
the city, I had to turn back and return to the center of town…. [P]anic was so intense and irreversible that
almost 90 percent of Jaffa’s population of 80,000 escaped in the next
People scurried for their lives, cramming into cars,
pickups, trucks, buses, and a large number fled on foot. Many of them
sailed out in small boats, some of which capsized in stormy weather,
resulting in substantial loss of life.
It is absolute nonsense to allege
that the Palestinians were advised or encouraged to leave their homes.
People who plan to do so would take at least their precious belongings
with them. The vast majority of the refugees, including us, left with
only a few pieces of clothing.
Karsh’s refusal even to allude to such accounts is evidence of
racism. Equally offensive is his characterization of Deir Yassin, the
village outside Jerusalem that famously was attacked by Israeli forces
in April 1948, with nearly 100 killed– including 30 babies–as a place of a "battle." Even Benny Morris, whom Karsh cites approvingly, states that Deir Yassin was the site of "atrocities." Ilan Pappe writes
in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine that Deir Yassin was the "epicenter" of the Yishuv’s "Plan D" that spring, in which soldiers were directed to "villages which you will capture, cleanse or destroy" so as to cleanse the land of non-Jews. And duly the Arabs fled when they heard what had happened there. Shlomo Ben-Ami:
Deir Yassin was part of a campaign in which "a panic-stricken Arab
community was uprooted under the impact of massacres that would be
carved into the Arabs’ monument of grief and hatred."
(Wikipedia states that Morris has accused Karsh of distorting facts and has written "Karsh’s way [is] to belabor minor points while completely ignoring, and hiding from his readers, the main pieces of evidence.")
Anyway, what does it matter who drove out the Palestinians? As
Selameh wrote, "under international law, particularly the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the Geneva Convention of 1949,
it hardly matters why unarmed civilians run away for their lives in
areas of hostility. They do not forfeit their right of return."
Israel’s refusal to let them back to their villages argues
that the intention of the original attacks was ethnic cleansing.
U.N. Partition had awarded the Jews a state that was narrowly-majority-Jewish. Ben-Gurion wanted a distinctly-Jewish state and exulted to see cities with only Jews walking around.
The Commentary piece is notable because it comes at a time when even The New Yorker is acknowledging the Nakba.
Commentary knows this and is pushing back, out of ur-nationalist feeling.
The worst thing about this piece is the refusal to dignify Arab
testimonies as worthy of mention, let alone credence. Imagine if the head of the New-York
Historical Society underwrote a paper that said that my ancestors’ claims of
being forced out of small towns in Russia during the pogroms were lies. He would pay with his job. Nakba denial is still rewarded.
P.S. Since I posted this entry, Commentary has put up an annotated version of Karsh’s piece, complete with footnotes. To their credit! I’m gonna have a look soon…