Historical events usually recede in importance over time, relegated to the care of historians. They are pulled out and dusted off for anniversaries (note the current spate of books marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I) but, in general, old controversies are superseded by new ones. Rather surprisingly, the events of 1948 have assumed center stage, literally in one case, asserted as supremely relevant to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and BDS campaign. In the last few months, the uproar over two books and a play have brought this out for all to see. This is further very much related to the Hillel controversy, banning “BDS supporters” (using a very wide definition) from campus Hillels, and as well as the spate of disinvitations to controversial figures, invariably on the left, from speaking at Jewish communal institutions.
The American Jewish and Israeli right wing, including the current government, see all of this as evidence of the increasing attempts at “delegitimation’ of Israel. Those who question Israeli actions anytime, but particularly in 1948, are labelled anti-Zionists, BDS supporters, or antisemites, or all three, increasingly conflated as the same. All of them, so this narrative goes, naively or intentionally, are undermining Israel’s right to exist.
What world are the people who believe this living in?
They seem to think they are back in the 1930s (something they frequently assert), before the establishment of Israel, before its acceptance at the UN, before its military, cultural, and economic achievements, before its nuclear bomb and regional superpower status, and before it became the closest ally of the United States. They, who pride themselves on their support for a “strong Israel” are the clearest examples of what Zionists used to call the “Galut
(diaspora) mentality.” While they kvell
at Israeli and Jewish successes (see all the interminable lists of Israelis winning Nobel prizes, reading more books, and winning more prizes than anyone else), they seem to regard Israel as a fragile little toy, liable to break if insulted, unable to withstand anything, and vulnerable to every threat.
As Gideon Levy pointed out in a recent Ha’aretz column
, it is mostly rightwing Israeli politicians who are cynically exploiting those who attack Israel, making them seem far more powerful than they are, and exaggerating the import of those who merely criticize Israseli actions. Instead of looking at real trade ties and unquestioning support for Israel’s existence over decades by the whole western world, they insist that any criticism is existential. Thus, they very deliberately lump together those like me, who believe strongly that the occupation is corrupting the country while absolutely supporting its existence, with those like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Abunimah (he of the Electronic Intifada), who indeed devoutly seek its demise.
It should go without saying that Israel does indeed have real enemies like these. But they are far fewer and far less influential than the right pretends, and what traction they do get is generally possible only because of the far wider anger against the perpetuation of the Occupation.
What does this have to do with 1948? Quite a bit.
Israel’s birth was indeed controversial, and Israel indeed fought to exist in 1948 (though its situation then was far better than most Israelis realize, as pointed out by virtually all contemporary Israeli historians, regardless of political views). But its stunning victory in that war, its economic accomplishments in the next two decades, and its victory in 1967, all solidified its existence and rendered those debates as to Israel’s existence primarily of historical interest. For Palestinians, however, 1948 is still existential, though not for Israelis. And both sides have to absorb the lessons of Israel’s asymmetric victories because, for all Israel’s power and accomplishments, it cannot have peace or long-term security without a mutually-agreed-upon resolution of the “1948 file.” These works and events are integral to that process. And Israel’s “right” to exist, like that of all other nations, is primarily that it does. No nation has an inherent right to exist, and in this Israel is like all the other nations.
Somehow guaranteeing the results of 1948 is the genesis of Netanyahu’s favorite demand, that Palestinians recognize Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” a meaningless phrase
if they are forced to utter it. Thus, questioning the received version of 1948, as if any war is pristine, is considered treasonous. Thus, a book like Judis’s Genesis
, which dares to question why American Jewish liberals forsake their liberal principles when it comes to Palestinians, in 1948 and today, is trashed, though historically his account largely corroborates the traditional narrative that American Zionist lobbying was crucial in obtaining and maintaining Harry Truman’s support for Israel.
Israel was established through a unique set of circumstances that involved the displacement of one people by another but which left the displacees as a coherent (if politically fractured) nation that demands its rights. The Palestinian narrative now does not endanger Israel, but is essential to the Palestinians. Under any workable peace deal, Israel gets to keep 78% of historic Palestine, but the Palestinians will refuse to give up their narrative. And it should be noted that Israeli mainstream and conservative historians have steadily moved towards accepting large elements of the Palestinian narrative, not that Palestinians were right, but that they indeed suffered expulsions and massacres, as they have always claimed, and were not told to leave by their leaders, as generations of Israelis have been taught. See, e.g., Yoav Gelber’s Palestine 1948: War, Escape and the Emergence of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (2001); Gelber is an uncompromising opponent of the “new” historians.
The Kulturkampf being waged now in American Jewish communities (and in Israel, in different ways) is a crucial test of whether those communities will circle their wagons to keep out different views and thus make themselves increasingly irrelevant to the increasingly diverse American Jewish population, or whether they can accept and assimilate different perspectives. It is not the legitimacy of Israel that is at stake but, rather, the ability of American and Israeli Jews to accept these perspectives and move forward, past 1948. Israel is a living fact. To move forward, the old pieties will not suffice.