The Baltic countries’ attempts to reconcile histories (or “narratives”) contrast with the relative lack of progress in this regard for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs [see Part 1 and Part 2]. In a conversation with Roberta Newman of YIVO, I suggested a reason: The truth of what happened during the Holocaust is “merely” history, even considering the guilt of Lithuanians who murdered Jews directly (e.g., most of the shooters in the Einsatzgruppen — mobile killing squads — by a ratio of 8:1) or abetted the genocide in other ways; whereas the truth of the Nakba (the Palestinian disaster) is part of an ongoing conflict.
As related in an article by Danya Cohen in our former print journal Israel Horizons, in the Spring 2005 issue, one Israeli group, Zochrot (transliterated therein as Zokhrot), campaigns to commemorate the Nakba, memorializing sites of former Arab villages and of massacres during the 1948 war; but in the process, Zochrot explicitly rejects any concept of Jewish national rights. Unlike Dr. Donskis’ acknowledgment that this is about the past, Zochrot’s head, Eytan Bronstein, intercedes in the current conflict by declaring:
Zokhrot supports the right of return of Palestinian refugees. That means that we do not accept Zionism or the Jewish state as legitimate. We, of course, do not suggest expelling anyone from Israel… but there is no way [for Israel] to be both a Jewish and democratic state.
We dispute this view, but there’s not just one right answer. There are some members of the current government of Israel, and many others in Israeli society, who define a “Jewish state” in ways that would more or less exclude Arab citizens from equal civil rights with Jews. For example, there’s the effort made a couple of years ago to criminalize commemoration of the Nakba. And there are other ways discussed in other posts on this blog (recently here and there) that Arab citizens are disadvantaged vis-à-vis Jews.
But Israel should not be considered undemocratic for favoring Jewish immigration, especially for Jews in need of refuge from the kinds of persecution or discrimination to which they’ve so often been subjected to in other countries. Nor should state-sponsored programs to cultivate Jewish culture or identity necessarily be considered undemocratic (although I can appreciate liberal objections to such programs, including — if I’m not mistaken — by members of Meretz).
Jews have generally lived as a minority in many lands — sometimes happily, often not. It is not wrong or undemocratic for Arabs to live as a minority in Israel, but they should be accorded every right and dignity owed them as citizens of a democratic state.
In the same issue of IH, I report on the documentary films of Pierre Rehov, a French-Jewish filmmaker who completely exonerates Israel from responsibility for the Nakba. As I wrote then:
He blames it all on the Arabs themselves for that alleged radio broadcast urging that Palestinians leave temporarily so that Arab armies from the outside can destroy Israel in its infancy. . . .
It is true that if there had been no Arab war on the Yishuv (the pre-state organized Jewish community in Mandate Palestine) there would have been no refugees, but Israel’s War of Independence occurred in two distinct phases. The first, battling Palestinian Arab attacks in late ’47 into the spring of ’48, was won by the Yishuv before Israel declared independence and foreign Arab armies attacked. Numerous refugees fled during this period because the Hagana and other Jewish militias forced them out. Most of the remaining Arabs fled because the new Israeli army forced them at gunpoint or terrified them into leaving after the invading Arab armies were stopped. In short, the Arab side was to blame for starting the war, but there are many morally troubling questions on how the Jewish side finished it.
As recently noted on this blog by Paul Scham, Israel’s willful amnesia on the Nakba may be beginning to change, as exemplified by Ari Shavit’s high-profile book, My Promised Land. Shavit’s account of the brutal expulsion of 35,000 Arabs from the town of Lydda (now Lod), in 1948, is an admission of what happened in the Nakba by a mainstream Israeli writer. (So far Shavit’s book has only been published in English, but Yitzhak Rabin actually included this episode — along with the concurrent forced evacuation of Ramle — in his 1979 Hebrew memoir.)
Still, Shavit rationalizes away some of the moral stain by claiming that Israel had to expel masses of Palestinians in order to make it possible for Israel to take in Jewish refugees. Simultaneously and paradoxically, Shavit’s explanation exempts Arab political leaders from their responsibility by ignoring their attempt to preempt Israel’s independence or strangle the new state in its infancy by going to war in the first place. It is hardly likely that the tiny Palestinian Jewish community of 600,000 would have mobilized to go on the offensive in the absence of widespread and serious Arab attacks from late 1947 (following the November vote of the United Nations to partition Palestine) through the first half of 1948, after Israel’s declaration of independence in May ”48.
Still, there was no intention of inviting the expelled communities back once victory was achieved; abandoned towns, villages and neighborhoods were clearly considered spoils of war. Historian Benny Morris, despite his embrace of some right-wing views in the wake of the Second Intifada, is still the premiere source of original research and an unflinching account of misdeeds committed by both sides during Israel’s violent birth in 1948. [Click for Part 1 and for Part 2 of this piece.]