Authors: Ilan Pappe
This did not mean, of course, that the Arabs did not appear in Zionist historiography of the war. When the story of 1948 or the preceding years of the Mandate was told, researched, or taught, the Arab side was mentioned as yet another hardship that the Jews had to bear. The message throughout the story was clear: the Jews in Palestine won against all odds, and this imbalance was supremely evident in 1948, when the community, consisting of Holocaust survivors who could barely fight, was faced with a hostile British government and a united Arab world preparing for a war of annihilation. Since the victory was a miracle and was won thanks to the ingenuity of David Ben-Gurion and the heroism of the soldiers on the ground, all that was left for historians to do was to re-create this battlefield heroism while analysing the tactical decisions that made the miracle come true.
The task of exploring and describing the Arab side of the story was entrusted to Israel’s established, Orientalist historians. On the whole, these scholars were more neutral in their research than their colleagues in the Jewish studies departments, but most of them seemed interested neither in the Palestinians nor in the 1948 war. Even the most prominent among them, Yehoshua Porath, who, as mentioned in the previous chapter, provided the first balanced Israeli view on the Palestinians, never wrote about 1948. He was content to recount Palestinian history up to 1939; beyond that date he lost interest and
The few Israeli Orientalists who did write about the 1948 war avoided dealing with the Nakba as a human or national tragedy, and showed no understanding of its impact for the Palestinian side. Instead, they focused on political and military manoeuvring in the Arab world outside Palestine before and after the war. Similarly, when more recent generations of Orientalists dealt with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, they did not (with the notable exception of Moshe Shemesh
) take 1948 as a starting point. The Palestinians of 1948 were erased from Israeli academic discourse.
The absence of the Palestinian tragedy from the Israeli historical account was indicative of a more general Israeli Orientalist view. The historiographical view of the Palestinians up to the 1980s was monolithic and based on stereotyping. The local population in late Ottoman times was mentioned only in passing as a marginal component in the geographical panorama of the promised and empty land waiting to be redeemed. From 1948 until 1967, the Palestinians were mostly ignored as academic subject matter, except for being mentioned here and there as refugees. Post-1967, they were depicted as threatening terrorists, as was shown in the previous chapter. But even in this portrayal, the Palestinians were not granted an independent role; instead they were presented as pawns within an all-Arab conspiracy to annihilate the Jewish state.
There was a reason for this. Recognition that there existed an independent Palestinian (even if small and weak) national group fighting for its rights contradicted the Zionist self-image of underdog, as well as the Zionist myth of the few who had miraculously beaten the many. The heroic Zionist story of 1948 has an internal paradox (probably more than one) that troubled, at least for a while, those loyal Zionists who tried to reconstruct the events of 1948 without challenging the foundational mythologies. If the Palestinians fled without fighting, then what was so heroic about 1948? And even if the story told is not one of Palestinian heroism, it would still be one of Palestinian tragedy. The best way to deal with this predicament, academically, was simply not to deal with the Palestinian side of the story at all and, if possible, not to deal, beyond reverence and obedience to the ideology, with the history of 1948 altogether.
Those who did deal with the Palestinians and the Arab states in the context of the 1948 war focused on motives, or rather the absence of any ‘logical’ motives for Arab behaviour during that year. The Arabs appear to have been animated by an emotionalism that defeats any logical explanation. As a result, it remains unclear why the Arabs launched a war against Israel in 1948. Such books as
The History of the Resurrection
(1959), prepared by the History Branch of the IDF;
The History of the War of Independence
(1963), by Netanel Lorch; the popular version of Jon and David Kimche’s
On Both Sides of the Hill
(1973); and the prefaces and annotated material accompanying the publication of David Ben-Gurion’s
1948 War Diaries
(1984) offered the same explanation, or rather the lack thereof.
As Ben-Gurion noted in the diaries, ‘immediately after the decision in Lake Success [the venue where the UN partition resolution was adopted] the troubles began in the country’.
Here is the portrayal, then: troubles seemingly erupt out of the blue and Arabs assault Jews, just like that. Thereafter, this is the essence of the ‘troubles’ – attacks driven by incomprehensible and unintelligible hate, against which the Jewish forces defend themselves with valour and determination.
Evil that is not decipherable is especially cruel. Every Arab operation, in the official historiography until 1982 and from 2000 onwards, was murderous – a boundless spree of bloodthirsty and heartless barbarian acts. This unexplained violence was identified academically as an essential feature of Arab culture and life. It is shocking but true that this portrayal recurs, without amendment, in Volume 6 of the
(the Israeli equivalent of the
), in the relevant entries that deal with 1948 and the earlier clashes between Arabs and Jews during the Mandatory period.
This sixth volume is devoted entirely to Eretz Israel and has been only slightly revised in recent years). All through these encyclopaedic descriptions of the period, the Palestinian resistance to Zionism at notable historical junctures such as 1920, 1929, 1936, and 1948 is portrayed as the end product of the incitement of a mob that lacked any will or intention of its own.
The incited mob recurs as the weapon used by anti-Zionist British officials or fanatic Muslim notables for the purpose of destroying the future Jewish state. Never
are the Palestinians considered to be endowed with a desire to defend their homeland or to be part of a national movement struggling for independence.
As for the Israeli violence, there was a clear distinction in the classical version between mainstream Jewish forces and splinter groups. On the eve of the 1948 war, three main paramilitary groups stood at the disposal of the Jewish community. The main one was the Hagana, founded in 1920; this group was ideologically close to the Labour movement, which dominated political life in the Jewish community before 1948 and for the next thirty years within Israel. The second, the Irgun, was founded in 1931, by officers of the Hagana, who left the mother organisation because of what they deemed its focus on defensive rather than offensive operations. This group was associated with the Revisionist movement, which later became the Herut Party in the newly founded state, headed by Menachem Begin; already in the 1930s it had targeted British forces as well as the Palestinian population. The third group, the Stern Gang, was founded in 1940 by people who had left the Irgun, feeling that even that organisation was not assertive enough in its struggle against the enemies of the community.
In 1945 an umbrella organisation for the Jewish Underground movements was established to coordinate strategy for all three paramilitary outfits. However, when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) was officially created on 26 May 1948, it included only the Hagana. Several days later, Menachem Begin’s organisation joined, as did the Stern Gang, and for most of the war these two groups continued to act independently in the area around Jerusalem. Thus, during the crucial stages of the war, when the urban space of Palestine as well as sizeable areas of the countryside were being depopulated by the Zionist forces, the splinter groups remained independent.
The vast majority of historians who have written on the 1948 war, both before and after the appearance of the more revisionist history, belonged to the Labour movement, which was responsible for the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. When doubts were first raised about the moral validity of the policy, they made a clear distinction, according to which the Hagana never engaged in violence for the
sake of violence, and that if atrocities were committed, they were the doing of the other two splinter groups. This is best illustrated by the work of a leading Zionist historian, Anita Shapira. In her book
Walking Along the Horizon
(1988) she writes,
In the attitude to the Arabs of Eretz Israel, and even to the British, the readiness to use force was not taken for granted. It was accompanied by severe internal dissent and moral agonising. But its demonic magic attracted quite a few, and in time of trouble a justification for its use was offered, while using socialist argumentation.
Shapira could reach this conclusion because her history of the Zionist use of violence does not reach as far as 1948. She could thus avoid the need for a thorough discussion of the moral dimensions of the Zionist project and of Israel’s early history. Earlier historiographical treatment of Jewish behaviour on the battlefield ignored such insights as well. Instead the narratives of the battles of 1948 chronicled heroes fighting Arab villains, and this heroism was presented as a salient feature of Jewish history from time immemorial.
In his famous and well-read introduction to the voluminous history of the Hagana, Ben-Zion Dinur reproduced the myth of heroism and redemption that had been invented by earlier Zionist historians. Like them, he lumped together the heroic days of King David, the anti-Roman Bar Kokhba revolt, and the Warsaw Ghetto partisans with the heroes of the 1948 Jewish community.
This representation was reinforced at the time by commemorative academic institutes such as Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ben Zvi, as well as by commemorative museums such as the Hagana Museum. At Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust History Museum, invited and captive (often VIP) visitors are taken on a guided tour from extermination camps through the Warsaw Uprising to the heroic 1948 story of revenge – namely, that Arabs paid for what the Nazis did to the Jews. Only with the advent of the ‘new historians’ of the 1990s was the 1948 war treated as anything other than a show of heroism, with no reference to the origins of the violence or its potential victims.
For example, in 1976 the scholarly journal
devoted its first issue to a discussion of the military moves of the 1948 war. Although conducted almost thirty years after the event, the discussion did not raise any new questions of historiographical research, and the agenda was exactly the same as that of the official history books published by the Ministry of Defence soon after the war.
Yet the discussion was presented as being historiographical, and revolving around the following questions: Who was the first Israeli officer that called to his soldiers, ‘Follow me’? How long did the war last (a question that would at least not be considered historiographical in regard to the Six-Day War of 1967)? What were the different stages in the war? Was the war a single campaign in a wider conflict or a separate and exceptional historical event? Should the war be discussed within the context of operative or tactical military history? And finally, how was the war financed?
That first question is of a particular interest: Who issued the call of battle? It was an exploration of heroism that blurred the boundaries between telling fables and spinning mythologies on the one hand, and conducting an ostensibly neutral, professional inquiry on the other. The call ‘Follow me’ is more like a slogan. It is not part of what happens on the ground, and one doubts that anyone really used it on the battlefield.
The boundaries were further blurred in 1985 when in another Israeli journal,
, a messianic tone replaced the scholarly language. In an article titled ‘The Prophecy of a Jewish State and its Realisation’, it was claimed that the success of the Zionist movement to establish a state in Palestine defeated any logical analysis or rational explanation. The project should have been a failure, and yet it miraculously succeeded. This assertion is quite similar to the depiction of the war in the present chapter’s opening quotation by Netanel Lorch. It does not necessarily mean, however, that the author thinks divine intervention lay behind the success, as religious scholars would contend, but that only a unique group of people could have defied history and fate against all odds in pursuit of a manifest destiny.
It is thus evident that the classical scholarly representation of the
1948 war consisted of several foundational mythologies. The most important one was that the Jewish community faced the danger of total annihilation in 1948 – a danger that predicated everything that happened afterwards and that justified in hindsight the future extreme use of force. The second, better-known tale is that of an Israeli David facing an Arab Goliath – a mythology portrayed mainly through cartographic images in which thick arrows of Arab armies pour into Palestine, where they are met by almost invisible trickles and flecks of Jewish forces. From the viewpoint of professional and populist historians, that this clash ended in a total Zionist victory was miraculous.
According to this version, the odds were very bad. British policy was especially hostile and worsened further when Ernest Bevin was appointed foreign secretary. Bevin is often portrayed as an anti-Semite; I myself still remember burning Bevin effigies in bonfires, along with those of Gamal Abdul Nasser and Hitler. Indeed, when Bevin’s biographer, Allan Bullock, visited Israel for a series of lectures in the 1980s, he was bewildered by the depth of hate still expressed towards his subject. Yet even before the appearance of the ‘new history’, this image changed. Research in British archives done during the 1970s by sensible Zionist historians such as Gavriel Cohen and Michael J. Cohen revealed a far more pragmatic and sensible Bevin than was depicted in the myth.