The Absolute Relevance of 1948

The Absolute Relevance of 1948

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the current spate of books marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I) but, in general, old controversies are superseded by new ones.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.

I’ve reviewed both books, Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land and John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, so I won’t discuss them in detail here.  The play is The Admission, which I wrote about several months ago as well.  The Admission is about to begin its run this week at Theater J in Washington, D.C., and there’s a very recent article about the controversy here.  So I’d like to step back and discuss the phenomenon they represent.  I think we’re at a watershed for the American Jewish community.

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.
By | 2014-03-17T01:16:00-04:00 March 17th, 2014|Blog|14 Comments


  1. Jerry Blaz March 17, 2014 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Those who were not around in ’48 cannot understand the utter subjectivity of response to the results of that war. The 6,400 fatalities in the ’48 war was the greatest loss of life suffered by the Israelis among all its wars out of a Jewish population of 717,000. And had the Palestinians and the Arab League agreed to the UN partition plan, there would have not been so many fatal casualties and the Palestinians would have had a larger state.

    No, Israel has little to bear on its conscience because it paid a price in every way that a nation can pay a price to exist, and the Palestinians and the Arab states reacted like children who lost at a game of marbles saying they didn’t know “we were playing for keeps.”

    Israel has committed sins, but they happened much later, most of them after ’67 when Israel became an occupier. Many Arabs, among them Palestinians say the occupation started in 47-48, but it was paid for in Israeli blood at a top price, contrary to the UN Partition Plan as it should have been implemented. Is Israel to be faulted because it disagreed with the Arab hegemenists?

  2. Jeff Green March 17, 2014 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Good thinking,Paul. The Palestinians (or some Palestinians) want to undo the results of the 1948 war, and the Israelis (or some Israelis) seem to think we are still on the brink of that war. We should all be thinking: What is the best that can be done for ourselves now, in the present historical circumstances? But that will only work if we take a broad view of who “ourselves” are.

  3. Paul L. Scham March 17, 2014 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Jerry, there’s nothing in my piece that blames Israel for winning the war in 1948. I think we agree, though,that Israel today has a role in setting right the consequences of the war for Palestinians, not least because that’s in Israel’s own self interest. I absolutely agree that 1948 was a major trauma for Israelis, regardless of whether today we know that Israel was much more likely to win that it appeared then. HOwever, 65 years later, it’s time to push past that trauma.

    I don’t think the “spoiled child” image was helpful even then, certainly not now. A child is punished and put to bed; the Palestinians have been punished for 65 years and the vast majority of them weren’t alive then. They did what they felt was right, as did Israel. I have never said Israel should adopt the Palestinian narrative that they were right; likewise Israel has no business in forcing them to say they were wrong. The consequences speak for themselves.

  4. warren March 17, 2014 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    Paul, again thanks for the opportunity to discuss such serious issues. You raise interesting points that need to be addressed. I do find it troubling that you don’t recognize the increasing attempts at “deligitimation” of Israel and instead blame this awareness on the “American and Israeli right wing”. Surely you have to understand that Israeli’s enemies have given up the military option of destroying Israel after five attempts and are now engaged in a more insidious effort to eliminate the State of Israel.

    You also use the term “occupation” , the narrative used by the Palestinians claiming Israel stole their land. As you well know, most all so-called “settlements” in Judea and Samaria were Jewish communities for centuries EXCEPT for the period 1948 – 1967 when Jordan invaded and destroyed every community killing most of all its Jewish inhabitants. Many of the names of these communities are mentioned in both the Christian and the Jewish Bibles and interesting, not in the Koran which has no mention even of Jerusalem. Additionally, how can this land be “stolen” when in fact, today’s Arab Palestinians, called such starting in 1964, are descendants of Arab nationals who flooded into the then British Mandate in the 1930s from surrounding Arab nations. Yes, there were some Arabs including Beduins who lived on the land, but not the multitude you see today. So if most all “settlements” were Jewish Communities (the Gush Etzion bloc that includes the maligned Ariel and Efrat were established in the 1920s), then how can it be said that the land has been stolen from the Palestinians? Seems that Palestinian “rights” should be questioned more so than any Jewish rights.

    Regarding the comments about 1948: U.N. Partition Plan – Res. 181 – was the third of 5 attempts ( 1922, 1936, 2000, 2008) at a two state solution, each accepted by Israel and absolutely rejected by Arabs. Contrary to what you posted, – Res. 181, gave Israel only 13 % of the original land (not 78%) of the British Mandate – (77 % was split off by the British in 1922 into the nation of TransJordan).

    It should not be difficult to understand why Israel insists on being recognized and accepted as a Jewish state. The term – “nation-state of the Jewish people” – is NOT a meaningless phrase. Accepting Israel, by actions, not only by words – but this is another story, means that Palestinians would have to give up their so-called right of return (again, most Palestinians are not indigenous to the land). It would cause them to question their Islamic ideology that Islam replaces both Christianity and Judaism so how can they recognize a Jewish state at the same level as a Muslim state? Additionally, according to many Islamic scholars, infidels can never control a piece of land that was once controlled by, lived on, or governed by an Islamic entity like the Ottoman empire that ruled that area for over 500 years. AND, they would have to give up their incessant incitement to violence in their schools, on TVs, radios, mosques, etc.

    One last thought. The statement that “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” is disingenuous adopting the Palestinian narrative. If Arabs (back then, both Jews and Arabs were called “Palestinians”), had accepted Ben Gurion pleas that they accept the U.N. Partition Plan and live together, perhaps there would be no “refugee” situation. No, one people was not displaced and were not a fractured nation, for there was not an Arab Palestinian nation.

  5. Anonymous March 17, 2014 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    Dear Paul,

    I appreciate your efforts to grapple with these issues. But I am not sure you’re dealing with all of them in a clear-headed manner.

    Did people who sought equal rights for blacks in South Africa, or an end to Jim Crow in the US’ South seek the demise of South Africa, or the demise of the US’s South, or rather the end of a discriminatory regime in those places and it’s replacement by one more closely aligned with values of equality?

    What do you see as the difference between seeking equal rights in South Africa, the US’s south and in the land from the river to the sea controlled by Israel?

    Secondarily, I am not attempting to speak for Ali Abunimah in any way, but do you really equate him with Ahmadinejad? Do you think that calling for one state with equal rights for all people is really equivalent to the ideology of Ahmadinejad, which I would argue was actually anti-semitic and quite possibly saw no place for Jews in Israel/Palestine except perhaps the Neuteri Karta?

    Have you actually read either of Abunimah’s books?



  6. Paul L. Scham March 18, 2014 at 12:47 am - Reply

    Dear Warren and Ted,
    You’re coming from totally different places. Warren, we disagree fundamentally on facts. I’ve tried to answer you in the past. Much of what you assert (e.g. that Palestinian Arabs only came during the Mandate) has been disproved by Israeli historians.

    Ted: There are enormous differences between Jim Crow in the South and today’s Israel. For one, African-Americans wanted rights in the US; Palestinians want their own state, which they’re entitled to. Israeli Palestinians certainly have far more rights than Blacks in the south in the 1950s but they are still 2d class citizens, which I don’t justify. However, the analogy really doesn’t work.

    I’ve read articles by Abunimah but not his books. However, I don’t think it’s at all polemical to say that he wants Israel replaced by a democratic secular state in which Palestinians would be the majority. I don’t think he wants to exterminate Jews; I didn’t say or imply that. He and Ahmadinajad are prototypes of different enemies Israel faces. That is all they have in common. I’m merely mentioning them to make the point to my friends on the right that I recognize Israel has different types of enemies.

  7. Anonymous March 18, 2014 at 2:49 am - Reply

    Dear Paul,

    Thanks for your response.

    Do you think Palestinians want a bantustan state (which is basically the remaining options at this point)? And when you say “Palestinians” does that for you mean only Palestinians in the OPT? Also in Israel? Also in the diaspora?

    Do you believe that Palestinian Bedouins in Israel are currently better off than black Americans were under Jim Crow or black South Africans under apartheid (please do remember the Prawer Plan, frequent demolitions of communities, planned displacements, lack of basic services,discrimination, etc.)?

    Even bearing in mind your response to that, we are not talking about the status of one subset of Palestinians in a divide and rule system but are talking about the situation of a Palestinian collective.

    Do you believe Ali (and others) only take a position in support of one state because they will be the majority population?

    I think putting Ali in the same statement as Ahmadinejad in your original post was a bit of a dirty trick that is beneath you.

    The simple reality is that in one state (which is de facto what we have now anyway) Palestinians will be a majority shortly anyway, regardless of what happens with right of return.

    Thank you,


  8. Anonymous March 20, 2014 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    Hi Paul,

    Per my earlier comment, I am sincerely wondering if you believe Israel’s Palestinian Bedouin citizens “certainly have far more rights than Blacks in the south in the 1950s”? (Per your earlier comment)I would pose the same question btw re Israel’s Palestinian Bedouin citizens and blacks under apartheid South Africa.

    Again, this is not to suggest that either are/were lacking or had/have the same rights, but rather an effort to evaluate globally the degree to which both’s rights are violated.

    Thank you,


  9. Paul L. Scham March 20, 2014 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    Dear Ted,
    Yes I do think they have more rights and possibilities. I am not in any way defending how the Israeli government has treated them but since (excuse the expression but it’s true) I have very good friends who are Israeli Bedouin, who have PhD’s and other advanced degrees (from Israeli and foreign universities) and who are successful professionals, I know that mobility is possible. There are Knesset members and others who are Bedouin. You would not have had that in the American South in the 1950s or in apartheid South Africa. Though it’s undeniable that Arabs are 2d class citizens in Israel, there is not the corrosive ideology of Jim Crow or apartheid that existed in the other societies. Of course I”m talking about Israeli citizens, not Palestinians in the West Bank. Even there, where conditions are worse, it’s not apartheid; it’s different enough so that it’s hard to compare.

  10. warren March 20, 2014 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    Paul:I would apprediate if you would point out where may “facts” are wrong. Benny Morriss? Ephraim Karsch? Which Israeli historians are you referring to. How can you question that there was not a huge immigration of Arabs from surrounding Arab countries in the 1930s? Heck, even the Arafat family came from Egypt about that time.

    There were a number of British reports (not sure whether one was the Root Commission report, but do not hang me if not) that clearly reported the British could not count the huge numbers coming in. Yes, there were native Arabs there along with Bedoins – I never said otherwise. I have just been pointing out that the vast (a subjective word) number of today’s Palestinians are descendants of the huge inflow during the British Mandate. Let me know if you still question and I will spend the time to do more in-depth research.

    Again, how can these today Palestinians claim Isael stole their land when most all the land were Jewish communities for centuries until destroyed by Jordan in 1948. Please Please examine the true history of Judea and Samaria.

    Rearding the charge that Israeli Arabs are 2nd class citizens, well, dont understand that people can make this charge and at the same time point out that Israelis Arabs are elected to the Knesset, are on the Supreme Court, hold high positions in all professions, benefit from all types of state benefits, etc. Bedoins do serve in the Army, but Israel Palestinians do not for two reasons – to prevent them from killing their brethern in combat (during WW II, Germans serving in the US Army were sent to the pacific against Japan and Japanese Army people were sent to Europe). and a second reason is that, tragically, there is a question of security. Perfectly normal.
    Look at Afghanistan where Afgan soldiers being trained by Americans turn against them and kill. When one is in combat, one does not want to worry that his fellow soldiers might turn on him.

    Should part of this argument be how regional countries treat their citizens? How is a dhimmi treated in those Muslim countries? How are women treated? Why is the spotlight shining so intently on Israel, a true democracy, and not on these other countries? Lets be balanced in “solving world problems”

    Is it possible that under this veneer of concern for Palestinians lurks a latent anti-Israel sentiment? Just wondering.

  11. Anonymous March 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    Dear Paul,

    Re this: ” I have very good friends who are Israeli Bedouin, who have PhD’s and other advanced degrees (from Israeli and foreign universities) and who are successful professionals.”

    I assume you realize that Nelson Mandela studied law at the white University of Witwatersrand and then worked at a law firm, as just one of many examples from South Africa? Did he and others not also prove that indeed some mobility for exceptional people was possible in white-ruled South Africa?

    Probably you have, but I must ask if you have visited some of the Bedouin villages in Israel that are under threat of demolition, or that have been demolished?

    All in all I’m a bit surprised by your response. I must say I think you are underestimating or understating the extent of repression experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, which by the way, includes Gaza, which you seem to have forgotten.

    How do you respond to the many black South Africans, including Desmond Tutu, who have visited and say that the conditions that Palestinians live under are as bad as or worse than those that they experienced?

    Finally, I assume that you realize that while comparisons with apartheid in South Africa can be useful in a general sense, the situation is not the same, as you noted. The exact forms and mechanisms of repression and the context are all different, despite some important similarities. This is why there is an international definition of the crime of apartheid that does not simply conform to the the exact form of repression under apartheid in South Africa, and ultimately this is the more appropriate and universal standard by which we should be judging Israel’s repression of Palestinians, rather than judging whether it corresponds exactly to the characteristics of Jim Crow in the US or Apartheid in South Africa. I think there is a very strong argument to be made that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid, and that is among the next major issues that people around the world will be examining very seriously in the coming years. I do believe we will be hearing a lot more about this in the years to come, and that a very serious discussion of the crime of apartheid will be breaking to the mainstream as experts increasingly examine it.


  12. Paul L. Scham March 21, 2014 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    You might be interested in the book coming out in July by my friend Benjamin Pogrund, discussing the issue of Israel and apartheid; similarities and differences (Rowman & Littlefield). I agree with you that conditions are bad, and much worse for non-Israeli citizens. And I agree that different from apartheid doesn’t necessarily mean better.

  13. Anonymous March 21, 2014 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    Thanks Paul,

    I’ve read Pogrund’s work, and am very familiar with it. He’s one of the (white) South African dissenters from the apartheid analogy.

    But if you prefer to stick with white people’s analyses, I’m sure you’ve also read Chris McGreal, Roni Kasrils and John Dugard as well, no?



  14. Paul L. Scham March 22, 2014 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    No, I don’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable about South Africa or apartheid. I think the situation for Palestinians in Israel, and the far worse situation in the W. Bank (and Gaza of course) are all different and have to be addressed in their own terms. And, in my view, a one-state solution would be worse.

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