Sunday, June 19, 2011

It isn't only "Who Started?" - it is "Who wanted to live in peace?"

Last week, Shlomo Avineri wrote a nice essay in Ha'aretz called "The truth should be taught about the 1948 war." Excerpts:

In recent debates about the Palestinian "Nakba," the claim has been made that there are two "narratives," an Israeli one and a Palestinian one, and we should pay attention to both of them. That, of course, is true: Alongside the Israeli-Zionist claims regarding the Jewish people's connection to its historic homeland and the Jews' miserable situation, there are Palestinian claims that regard the Jews as a religious group only and Zionism as an imperialist movement.

But above and beyond these claims is the simple fact - and it is a fact, not a "narrative" - that in 1947, the Zionist movement accepted the United Nations partition plan, whereas the Arab side rejected it and went to war against it. A decision to go to war has consequences, just as it did in 1939 or 1941.

The importance of this distinction becomes clear upon perusing the op-ed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently published in The New York Times. Abbas mentioned the partition decision in his article, but said not one single word about the facts - who accepted it and who rejected it. He merely wrote that "Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs."

That is like those Germans who talk about the horrors of the expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after 1945, but fail to mention the Nazi attack on Poland, or the Japanese who talk about Hiroshima, but fail to mention their attack on Pearl Harbor. That is not a "narrative," it is simply not telling the truth. Effects cannot be divorced from causes.

The pain of the other should be understood and respected, and attempts to prevent Palestinians from mentioning the Nakba are foolish and immoral: Nobody prevents the descendants of the German refugees from Eastern Europe from communing with their suffering.

But just as nobody, even in German schools, would dream of teaching the German "narrative" regarding World War II, the 1948 war should also not be taught as a battle between narratives. In the final analysis, there is a historical truth. And without ignoring the suffering of the other, that is how such sensitive issues must be taught.
Dimi Reider in the anti-Zionist +972 magazine, takes issue with Avineri:

The problem with Avineri’s answer to the question of “who’s to blame for the beginning of the war in 1948″ is that politically speaking, the question itself is no longer relevant.

...But what caused the war isn’t and has never been the true challenge of the Nakba. The true challenge is what happened after the war was caused. Even if we accept Avineri’s argument that “they started”, it’s still unclear why Israel had to expel neighborhoods, towns and villages; and if, somehow, we accepted that, it’s very unclear why this had to be accompanied by massacres; and even if we accept (heaven forbids) that massacres and expulsions happen in wars, no amount of “they started” can excuse the still-standing ban on the refugees and survivors to return.

Since this is a little discussed aspect of Israel's War of Independence, and since Israel's detractors like to hold up "The Nakba" as one of the biggest single tragedies of the twentieth century, it is worthwhile to answer this.

While this is a much bigger topic than can be dealt with adequately in a blog post, I would like to republish a Palestine Post article by Dorothy Bar-Adon from August 17th, 1948, where she describes exactly why the Arab residents of Zer'in - her neighbors, who she knew by name and was on friendly terms with - should not be allowed back.

The reason is simple. The Arabs that she thought were her friends happily and lustily took up arms against the Jews. Their women encouraged them with war cries that the Jews in the valley below could clearly hear. The idea of allowing a hostile population back where they could again menace their Jewish neighbors was out of the question.

Read this article, and you can see that the Jews who didn't let their Arab neighbors back were not monsters, but were acting out of real fear and a very definite sense of self-preservation. This account is obviously not written by someone trying to rewrite history and fit it into 21st century ideas of morality; it was written by a real human being who had real feelings for the Arabs of the village.

The anecdote about the paralyzed Arab woman whose family deserted her when they fled, and who was taken care of by Jewish troops, says more than any number of history books about the 1948 war.

(This article originally mentioned on this blog in 2006.)

Correction: I had originally attributed the +972 article to Joseph Dana.)