A study conducted by the Hebrew University shows that most Israelis are aware that many of the Palestinians made refugees in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence were in fact expelled. Akiva Eldar thinks this is a landmark finding. I have to disagree.
It’s odd for me, as an American Jew, to argue with an Israeli about this. But I can only go from my own experience.
That experience started in the early 1970s, when, as a child, I began to learn my community’s narrative. According to that narrative, Israel was born pure; the Arabs of Palestine fled against the wishes of the Zionist establishment, not out of fear, but because they thought the Arab armies would “drive the Jews into the sea” after which they could return to their homes, minus their Jewish neighbors, and live happily ever after.
By the time I celebrated my bar mitzvah, I had already read some translations of very mainstream Israeli history books, and had spoken with more than a few Israelis. I knew the narrative I had been taught was a lie. And off I went to UC Berkeley, to study history, current events and politics, something that continues to this day, as a journalist.
Israelis always knew there had been significant degree of expulsions, both in the 1948 and 1967 wars. There might have been some differences about the extent of them. However, to find Jews who really thought the Palestinians left of their own accord, you had to come to New York, not Tel Aviv.
The real question is not what most Israelis know of their own history, but what they are, collectively, willing to discuss in public, and what they agree to project to the outside world.
Denial can be a very powerful, and often a very destructive, dynamic. It is virtually impossible, in interpersonal relationships, to bridge differences when one party insists on a false version of the past in order to validate their own self-image. Few of us can claim that we have never succumbed to that dynamic, at some point in our lives.
Nations are no different. This is hardly peculiar to Israel. Only in recent decades has the United States begun to come to grips with the genocide of Native Americans that was part and parcel of its founding. Mere mention of the Armenian Genocide continues to create sputtering fury in Turkey.
In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy characterized the treatment of the “American Indian” as “a national disgrace,” our conflict with Native Americans was over. In the ensuing years, consciousness grew of the crime that had been perpetrated against them. Slavery and segregation have become a part of US narrative, even while racism still exists, and we still have a long way to go to set these things right.
For Israel, which is still embroiled in conflict over the events it continues to collectively deny, it is more difficult. Neither African Americans nor Native Americans pose any threat or perceived threat to the US’ continued existence. Not so the victims of the Nakba, the Palestinian “catastrophe,” and the massive dispossession they suffered as a result of Israel’s birth.
It is this, more than any other single obstacle that needs to be overcome. But willful denial is very difficult to overcome.
Despite the rightward shift in Israel in recent years, Israelis as a whole continue to hold largely liberal values which are not easily reconciled with the massive dispossession of the Palestinians. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to admit — not so much to themselves, as to the rest of the world — that they know that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled during the War of Independence.
Israel’s massive advantage in political, military and economic power over the stateless Palestinians also makes it much easier to deny history, than to risk giving diplomatic credence to the Palestinian claim to the Right of Return to their former lands.
I understand that reluctance. As with many other aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are risks here for Israel, and not a lot of incentive for Israelis to take them. And that’s why the international community, and especially the United States, would have to uphold an accurate historical narrative if there is to be resolution and reconciliation in this conflict.
We all know that hasn’t happened.
This is why I question Eldar’s conclusion that the Hebrew University study’s findings are a sign of Israeli maturity. There is some maturation reflected there, but it is a stunted one, that is less of the grand step forward that it ought to be. Such maturity ought to have concrete political consequences. It’s hard, under present circumstances, to see what they might be, without a responsible leadership willing to cultivate it.
Tales of Israeli soldiers emptying Palestinian villages, like S. Yizhar’s novella Khirbet Khizeh, are as old as the state itself. That fact, combined with my own personal experience, which also pre-dates the revolutionary publications of Israel’s so-called New Historians makes me question whether this study represents real growth in Israeli society, or a phenomenon which has always been there, and which really illustrates a fault line between Israel’s public stances and what most Israelis really know to be true.
That same experience, however, also has demonstrated massive ignorance among Americans, Jewish and otherwise, of that same history. The fact that a repeatedly debunked book like Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial (a proven fraud which attempted to show that the old myth about Palestine being virtually empty when the Zionists got there was true) can continue to be supported in the US (the noted propagandist and lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, cribbed a great deal of it for his books) when it was laughed off the shelves upon publication in Israel speaks volumes.
The Jewish immigrants to Israel from the US, and from the former USSR, who are currently helping to pull Israel to the right, may not have this background. However, their children, who grow up in Israel, as Hebrew-speaking Israelis, will. This is a potential basis for reconciliation.
Until the understanding of history this study refers to finds a real political expression, within mainstream Israeli politics, the practical benefits of a more “mature” Israeli society will unfortunately remain theoretical. Why perpetuate this age old-situation, when there is every incentive to overturn it?