Examining ‘Original Sins’ for Yom Ha’atzmaut

Examining ‘Original Sins’ for Yom Ha’atzmaut

Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims (a history through 2001) is perhaps the most comprehensive and fair-minded book yet written on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I don’t agree with the author’s post-2001 assertion that the Palestinians resist making peace out of religious bigotry against the very idea of a Jewish state, but this book (written before he reached this conclusion) is very thorough and balanced. Still, its encyclopedic scope may be too detailed and tedious for many readers.

The following is a review article I wrote on a livelier book by Meron Benvenisti; it was published in approximately this form in the Nov. 2001 issue of Jewish Currents magazine. Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, became embittered by events and moved to the opposite conclusion to Morris, but he is also very factual and makes no apology for having been born as a Jew in pre-State Palestine. His book is emotionally wrenching and vivid. My understanding is that Benvenisti has become even more exasperated and caustic in his criticisms of Israel in the ensuing years. My own views fall in between what Morris and Benvenisti believe today.  Here’s what I wrote in 2001:

Iconic photo of Holocaust survivors reaching Haifa

Original Sins Revisited
SACRED LANDSCAPE: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 by Meron Benvenisti. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 2000, 366 pages, indexed.

Meron Benvenisti writes both analytically and personally. As a boy during the time of the British Mandate, he would accompany his father, a cartographer for the Jewish Agency, on his travels to map the countryside; his father was especially engaged in work to Hebraicize as many place names as possible. His son drew from these trips an initial appreciation for the Arab landscape of pre-state Palestine which has matured over the decades of conflict into this poignant reflection on a deliberately destroyed society.

In all, 9,000 Arabic place names were renamed after the 1948 war, to reflect biblical/ Jewish themes – usually without exact historical justification for that particular location – or to convert Arab or Muslim sites to bogus Crusader castles. Benvenisti quotes Ben-Gurion in his charge to the Negev Naming Commission: “We are obliged to remove the Arabic names for reasons of state. Just as we do not recognize the Arabs’ political proprietorship of the land, so also do we not recognize their spiritual proprietorship….”

Benvenisti has obtained prominence as deputy mayor of Jerusalem under the legendary Teddy Kollek and as a dovish chronicler of the Arab-Israeli struggle as a journalist and author. He is well known for having documented how Ariel Sharon’s efforts to colonize the West Bank in the 1980s and ’90s were designed to forestall the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. What endears him to this reviewer, but also must make him somewhat enigmatic to others, is that he remains a Zionist [less clear to me now] even as he constructs a long narrative of moral wrongs — even crimes — committed by the Zionist movement.

Meron Benveni

 He decries the “need to depict the Palestinians as defenseless and peace-loving people who fell victim to evil forces….” He sees “no need to prove here that the 1948 War started because the Palestinians refused to accept the United Nations Partition Plan… [And I] cannot accept the contention that my birth in this land was an imperialist sin. No attempt to manipulate my sense of guilt will succeed in shaking my belief in my birthright to this Land [sic].”

The most telling part of this book to me, as well as the most pivotal episode in the history of the conflict, comes about 100 pages in, when he relates the dynamics of the first Arab-Israeli war — less about the invasion of the newly declared Jewish state in May 1948 by a half dozen of Israel’s Arab neighbors, than the fighting between the Yishuv, the pre-state self-governing Zionist entity, and the Palestinian Arab irregulars who sought to destroy it after the United Nations General Assembly had voted for partition in November 1947. He recalls that the Palestinians initially launched frontal assaults against many Jewish communities that were repulsed with heavy losses. They then changed to a much more effective strategy, to disrupt traffic between the Jewish towns and settlements by killing people on the roads.

This “war of the roads” besieged the entire Yishuv, threatening starvation to 100,000 Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem in particular. The Haganah‘s successful counteroffensive against the villages which served as bases for ambush began with a critical battle fought at Qastal. Here the father of the late Faisal Husseini, Abd Alqadir al-Husseini, also a revered charismatic leader of his people, and their most able military commander, was killed. This was the first of several villages rapidly taken and destroyed by the Palmach and other Jewish forces in fulfillment of Plan D or Daled, explicitly described by Benvenisti as a Haganah defensive strategy rather than a premeditated blueprint for aggression as charged by pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist writers.

In the first half of April 1948, with the loss of their commander and a rapid succession of defeats, the Palestinian forces appear to have suffered demoralization and collapse. It was exactly at this time, on April 9, 1948, that the Irgun and Lehi [Stern Gang] extreme nationalist militias massacred about 200 men, women and children at Deir Yasin, stimulating widespread panic among the Palestinians. The slaughter ended with the intervention of the Palmach.

Benvenisti remembers those days vividly as a boy in Jerusalem, greeting news of the victory at Qastal and then witnessing in disgust the “victory parade” of survivors of Deir Yasin marched under guard through the streets. He also recalls playing soccer with young men who were among the 35 dispatched to reinforce the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem but were wiped out en route by Palestinian irregulars. The Etzion Bloc itself fell shortly thereafter, with kibbutzniks at one of several settlements murdered as they attempted to surrender.

This is a book which is unsentimental in its depiction of horrors and wrong-doing inflicted by both sides, but on balance concentrates on the plight of the Palestinians because they are the historical and ongoing losers in the conflict. Benvenisti knows wrong-doing when he sees it. After being mortally threatened by their Arab enemies, the Jews of the [Mandate-era] Yishuv and then the newly independent State of Israel triumphed in battle beyond their expectations. They took advantage of their victories to depopulate over 400 Arab villages and to loot and take possession of Arab neighborhoods and homes in (West) Jerusalem and in other major towns.

In the cities, the Arab refugee population began with the desertion of their communities by people of means — the upper and middle classes. Such semi-voluntary departures were soon joined by the mass panic created by the Arabs themselves spreading the story of, and somewhat exaggerating the horrors at, Deir Yasin. Then Jewish forces evicted people from their homes at gunpoint in many distinct military operations. The author cites mostly Palestinian sources which document frequent massacres of village males –10 or 15 here, 30 or 40 there — usually by the Palmach.

There was a time when I didn’t believe such things, that the famed left-wing Palmach would engage in atrocities, but when the likes of Benvenisti and of Benny Morris (the first great pioneer of the New History and not an anti-Zionist) give them credibility, who am I to reject this out of hand? There is also archival evidence from the Central Committee of the left-wing Mapam party of the time, demanding that “their” commanders report on the truth of ugly rumors being heard from the field (the Palmach was informally Mapam‘s militia).

Some 30,000 people became internal refugees — ironically dubbed “present absentees” — who remained within Israel’s borders and became Israeli citizens, but were not allowed to return to their homes. Most of their villages were dynamited in short order, but others were resettled by Jews newly arrived from Europe or from Middle Eastern countries. New impoverished hamlets and villages of present absentees sprang up illegally — the Arabs had to live somewhere but were not granted legal permits to build, nor provided with sanitary and other services — with some living within sight of their former homes, even working the fields or constructing the houses of its new Jewish owners.

Abandoned mosques and graveyards were desecrated or left desolate. Depending on the location or the building’s particular charm, a few mosques became restaurants, or shops, or even barns. In many cases, the former inhabitants attempted to retrieve their property or to take vengeance on their conquerors. Israel’s early years were times of legitimate concern and widespread fear of “infiltrators,” at least some of whom became murderers.

As Israeli citizens, present absentees pursued efforts politically and through the courts to regain property in instances where buildings were not destroyed, or simply to repair or maintain abandoned cemeteries and mosques. These efforts have almost invariably been unsuccessful, running up against deep-rooted Jewish fears that such change of policy would set a bad “precedent” (Golda Meir’s word in rejecting the appeal of evicted inhabitants of the Galilee villages of Bir’im and Ikrit).

The conquered rural properties also became a source of tension between kibbutzniks, who were generally allotted the best land for agriculture, and the moshavim (cooperatives as distinct from the communes/kibbutzim) and towns populated mostly by new immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. The economic prospects for the new “development towns” were particularly dubious given their location far from the commercial center of the country. These prospects were further restricted by kibbutz “ownership” of nearby property which inhibited the natural expansion of such towns.

Benvenisti makes an ironic observation that with the contraction of the kibbutz movement over the past 20 years, kibbutz possession of these originally Arab properties have made some kibbutzniks wealthy by their sale to real estate developers. Benvenisti launches a similar barb at Ariel Sharon, in noting that he “is the owner of a vast agricultural estate” by having been leased “state land” originally owned by Arabs.

The Palestinian Authority’s demand in negotiations for an “apology” or statement of Israel’s responsibility is reinforced by this book, but not unambiguously. It also substantiates the notion that both sides were responsible. Benvenisti does not let us forget that the Palestinians chose war to the alternative of partition. As the historical losers, however, they have clearly suffered more.

The author does not endorse an unlimited right of return. Benvenisti contends that the landscape of the Andalusia region in southern Spain today would be far more recognizable to their former Moorish inhabitants of 500 years ago, than modern Israel would be to the few surviving exiles who actually lived in the Palestine Mandate a little over 50 [now 63] years ago. This argument cuts both ways in that it simultaneously illustrates how the hope of regaining the lost Palestinian homeland is unrealistic, and how Israel, in various ways, made this so.

In studying poll data through 1999, Benvenisti states that the Palestinians’ willingness to compromise on their right of return is inversely correlated with their level of “despair” on the success of the peace process. In other words, when the peace process seems to be going well, the right of return becomes less important; alas, the converse is also true.

But the author must have been surprised by the progress toward resolution of the refugees’ problem made at negotiations in Taba, Egypt in January 2001. Teams were about to be appointed to assess lost Arab properties in Israel. The fact that negotiations had to be suspended for the disastrous ballot of February 2001 — which overwhelmingly elected Ariel Sharon and negated all of this progress — is the kind of disappointment to which this somber observer must be very accustomed.

By | 2012-04-25T10:34:00-04:00 April 25th, 2012|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Anonymous April 27, 2012 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Most likely. Most likely.

  2. flash April 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm - Reply

    I appreciate this detailed accounting of events from Benevisti’s work surrounding the founding of the state of Israel at this time of Yom Ha’atzmaut. These stories should be acknowledged as a key a part of the national narrative for the sake of truthfulness, for debunking self-serving mythologies and stereotypes of the early settlers and of Palestinians. These are like the drops of wine spilled at Passover in recognition of the hardships that befell the Egyptians, but run far deeper since they shine on historical fact and present day traumas.

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