Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: The Past and the Future

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Colin Rubenstein


Last month, Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary while Palestinians mourned the same event as their naqba (“catastrophe”). The duelling commemorations prompted considerable media commentary, some of which provided highly distorted views of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. It’s time to set the record straight.

One pernicious way critics seek to cast aspersions on Israel’s right to exist is by portraying the country as an alien population imposed on the Palestinians to atone for Europe’s crimes. Israel’s establishment was not the product of the Holocaust, but the fulfilment of the Jewish people’s long-standing dreams for self-determination in their ancestral homeland. Jews began immigrating en masse to what would become British Mandatory Palestine in the late 19th century (joining a long-standing and substantial Jewish population) and received an international legal imprimatur for their hopes from the League of Nations in 1922.

When the prospect of a Jewish homeland became a reality with the 1947 UN partition plan, the Jewish leadership accepted the compromise - happy to have any state at all.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian Arab leadership and neighbouring Arab states rejected it, having also strongly rejected the other major option the UN was then considering - a single federated Jewish-Arab state. This response was rooted in xenophobic Arab nationalism - the only acceptable outcome was a purely Arab Palestine, with non-Arabs allowed there, if at all, only on Arab sufferance.

This ideology also explains the explicitly genocidal goals proclaimed by the five Arab states that invaded Israel immediately after it declared independence. As the then-Secretary General of the Arab League stated, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre…”

Yet despite clear evidence of Arab aggression and genocidal aims, it is Israel that is somehow blamed in too many quarters for the last 60 years of conflict and the plight of Palestinian refugees. Proponents of this view often cite “new historian” Ilan Pappe’s writing as evidence that the Jews implemented a plan to expel the Palestinians. But Pappe’s historical works have been comprehensively discredited.

As Benny Morris, the most academically reputable of the “new historians” has noted, “Pappe regard[s] history through the prism of contemporary politics and consciously wrote history with an eye to serving political ends.” Pappe himself admits as much, writing “Mine is a subjective approach” motivated by “compassion for the colonised” and sympathy for the “occupied” and dismissing those who suggest he stick to “facts”. Demonstrating what this means, Morris identified several historical “facts” asserted by Pappe which are complete fabrications.

As Morris’ own work, as well as several articles in this edition of the AIR, make clear, whatever Palestinians have been taught to believe, they were not the subject of deliberate ethnic cleansing in 1948. The exodus resulted from the weakness of Palestinian society and the mistakes of the Palestinian and Arab leadership, who deliberately encouraged the evacuation of some areas, and inadvertently caused additional flight by spreading false horror stories. The Israeli authorities actually made genuine efforts to encourage Palestinians to stay.

Almost half the 1947-48 refugees fled before Israeli independence was declared, and before any significant military offensives by Jewish forces (including the oft-cited events at Deir Yassin). Certainly, a minority were later physically expelled, but this was motivated by purely military considerations in a particularly ugly war with no fixed front lines, and in which the Jewish community’s only alternatives were to prevail or be slaughtered.

The Israeli Government and public today are committed to a two-state resolution, just as they were in 1948, 1967 and 2000. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert currently is pursuing negotiations toward that end with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

One of the greatest obstacles to such a resolution and ending the real suffering many Palestinians continue to endure is the often promulgated false stories about the “naqba”. It is understandable that Palestinans wish to remember the suffering of the 700,000 or so Palestinians who lost their homes (though the failure to permanently resettle the vast majority of these people, as well as their descendants, 60 years later seems an even greater cause of ongoing suffering). However, too often, the actual “naqba” is seen by many Palestinians and their partisans as the fact of Israel’s existence.

The determined efforts to maintain the false stories about the origins of the refugee problem are part of the same tradition that has kept Palestinians in camps all these years. Both the myths and the ongoing displacement were created in an effort to forge an ethos of perpetual struggle against Israel by Arab leaders in the grip of the same xenophobic Arab nationalism which caused the rejection of any and all compromise in 1947-48.

These myths still dominate Palestinian society. Hamas has melded these myths with the older Islamist revolutionary ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Fatah too remains heavily tainted by them - not least in its insistence on a legally-baseless, historically unprecedented, Israel-destroying “Palestinian right of return.”

As the Jerusalem Post recently noted (May 14), the way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to agree that it is “about borders” - about claims to land. But ideology and the myths it has spawned about Israel’s supposed genocidal and colonialist past and ongoing genocidal intentions has meant that the conflict with Israel has almost never been viewed this way on the Arab side.

Westerners often ask why the Israelis and Arabs cannot simply forget the past, focus on the present, and make the “obvious” deal needed for a lasting peace. The debate about 1948 helps answer this question. Unless there is enough agreement between the two narratives to genuinely perceive the conflict as one “about borders”, lasting peace will remain all but impossible.

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