Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli war of narratives
Published by Open Democracy – 19 April 2010
The Arab-Israeli war of narratives that has led to Holocaust-denial on the one hand and Nakba-denial on the other opposes two entirely symmetrical visions of the origins of this intractable conflict. In The Arabs and The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, Gilbert Achcar traces a complex history of interpretations from Arab responses to the earliest intimations of the Nazi genocide, through the creation of Israel and the occupation of Palestine, to last winter’s Israeli offensive against Gaza. Demonstrating that to the present day there has never been one Holocaust-denying ‘Arab’ narrative, Achcar calls for a genuine dialogue based on a full and mutual recognition of both the Holocaust and the Nakba. We publish two extracts from the book’s Introduction which trace the origins of the narratives around these two terms.
Part One: Zionism, Colonialism, Uprootedness
Zionism, considered as the political movement to create a Judenstaat (‘state of the Jews’) in the title of the famous book by its principal founder, Theodor Herzl, was first and foremost a reaction to anti-Semitism that envisioned an ethnic-nationalistic segregation and regrouping of Jews on a territory of their own. It often found itself in virulent opposition to competing options that promoted the individual and collective rights of Jews, where they already resided, whether via autonomy or social integration.
The beginnings of the Zionist colonization of Palestine considerably antedate Hitler’s assumption of power, as do the first hostile Arab reactions. The Arab inhabitants of Palestine perceived the Zionist undertaking there as one more avatar of European colonialism, particularly since it mostly unfolded under the post-First World War British colonial mandate. In his famous 1917 letter addressed to the Zionist movement, British Foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour declared His Majesty’s government favourable to ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.
From the inception of European-Jewish colonization in Palestine in the latter half of the nineteenth century – a movement accelerated above all by pogroms in Russia – to the outbreak of the First World War, Arab peasants squared off with Jewish settlers in repeated and sometimes bloody confrontations. These were not xenophobic or even anti-Jewish reactions on the part of the Palestinian villagers, at least initially, but rather altogether predictable reactions by farmers who had been expelled from their lands. The clearest proof is that when the settlers allowed the peasants to remain on the land and gave them the opportunity to continue working it, they acquiesced in the new arrangements. When, in contrast, the new owners sought to expel them or to induce the Ottoman authorities to do so, as they increasingly did after the turn of the century, the farmers rebelled.
The hostility of the native population, both Muslim and Christian, would increase over the years in direct proportion to the expansion of this colonization and to the growing awareness that the Zionist movement was seeking to create a state in Palestine. Thus, well before the First World War, opposition to Zionism was a key component in the formation of a Palestinian identity and of an Arab nationalistic consciousness. Witness the articles published from the late nineteenth century on – with greater frequency after mid-1908, thanks to the political liberalization in the ottoman empire at that time – in newspapers in not only Palestine but Cairo, Beirut and Damascus as well.
The number of Jews living in Palestine doubled between the dawn of the twentieth century and the First World War. It increased by a factor of ten under the British mandate, rising from 61,000 in 1920 (out of a total population of 603,000) to more than 610,000 (of a total population of nearly 1,900,000) on the eve of the proclamation of the state of Israel. In the early 1920s, Jews were migrating to Palestine at an average annual rate of 8,000; this migration then intensified, cresting at 34,000 in 1925. Inevitably, the first major anti-Jewish Arab riots broke out shortly after the de facto establishment of the British mandate. Beginning in Jerusalem in 1920 and Jaffa in 1921, the initial violence culminated in the riots of 1929.
The fact remains, however, that the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933 and its aftermath were much more than a mere stimulant to Jewish immigration to Palestine. They were the decisive factor lending credence to the views of the Zionists and leading ultimately to the realization of their project – as the immigration statistics make clear. After the 1925 peak (a result, in particular, of both the Depression and of anti-Jewish measures in Poland coinciding with new restrictions on immigration to the United States) the number of immigrants sank to fewer than 20,000 for the entire five-year period 1927-31 – that is, an annual average of fewer than 4,000. In 1931, Jews made up one- sixth of the population of Palestine: according to the British census, the country counted 175,000 Jews and 880,000 Arabs that year. Immigration levels rose to higher than 12,500 in 1932, then shot up to more than 37,000 in 1933, 45,000 in 1934, and 66,000 in 1935. The influx was then slowed by the 1936–9 Palestinian uprising, after which the British colonial administration imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration.
Over the forty-year period 1882–1931, a total of nearly 187,000 immigrants arrived in Palestine. Between 1932 and 1938, a period of only seven years, more than 197,000 people poured into the country, followed by 138,300 more in the ten years between 1939 and 1948. In sum, a total of nearly 313,000 immigrants settled in the area between Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 and the end of the British mandate in 1948, according to official Israeli statistics. One hundred and fifteen thousand of them came illegally. In the three years between the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 and the proclamation of the state of Israel in May 1948, 80,000 Holocaust survivors came to Palestine illegally, according, once again, to official Israeli figures
In 1932, the Jewish population of Palestine – almost 181, 000 – constituted 18.3 per cent of the total population. By 1946, it represented more than 35 per cent, reaching 37 per cent at the moment the state of Israel was proclaimed two years later. Of the 716,700 Jews living in the new state six months after it declared its independence, 463,000, that is, nearly two-thirds, had been born abroad, according to the 11 November 1948 census.
Thus the ‘state of the Jews’ plainly owes its creation to the Holocaust, for more than one reason. The Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies were initiated with the expulsion, under increasing duress, of German Jews. Until 1939, the Nazis preferred that these Jewish émigrés leave Germany for Palestine:
“Jewish emigration to Palestine … is a lesser evil for Germany. ‘I know from my own experience,’ wrote an official of the Auswärtiges Amt [the German Foreign office], ‘how unusually unpleasant the influx of Jewish intellectuals is for us.’ He pointed out that the emigration of Jews to the United States, Turkey and Iran influenced intellectual life in the direction of strengthening anti-German feeling, and that Jewish immigrants in Latin America caused the Germans much economic, propagandistic and political harm … but in Palestine, argued that official, the Jews are among themselves and cannot harm the Third Reich.
Within Germany, Hitler actively intervened in the debate over Palestine in 1937 and early in 1938. He insisted on the stepped-up promotion of Jewish emigration and deportation by all possible means, regardless of destination. According to Hitler, Palestine was to continue as a prime destination for German Jewish refugees, and became an even more significant factor in Nazi emigration policies in 1938 and 1939 as the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst collaborated with underground Zionist organizations in the ‘illegal’ immigration of Jewish refugees past the British blockade into Palestine.”
Nearly 53,000 Jews from Germany alone left for Palestine between 1933 and 1939, taking only legal emigration into account. German Jews represented one-quarter of all legal Jewish immigrants in 1933; by 1939, the proportion had risen to 52 per cent. Their emigration was facilitated by a 25 August 1933 agreement between German Zionists and representatives of the Jewish Agency, on the one hand, and the Nazi government on the other. Known as the Haavara (‘transfer’ in Hebrew), it authorized German Jews emigrating to Palestine, and these Jews alone, to transfer part of their assets there in the form of goods exported from Germany. The agreement was the more controversial in that it subverted the economic boycott of Nazi Germany which many believed capable of precipitating the downfall of the Hitler regime, which at that time was still being put in place. On the other hand, the Haavara agreement shored up the then almost bankrupt Jewish Agency for Palestine, the institution responsible for organizing Jewish immigration and overseeing the Yishuv (the community of Jews living in Palestine).
In spite of all the Zionist movement’s efforts, a majority of the German and Austrian Jews who left continental Europe by September 1939 went to the Americas – 95,000 of them to the United States and 75,000 to Latin America, over against the 60,000 who emigrated to Palestine. Yet the fact remains that, in 1948, 170,000 Jews from Poland constituted the largest segment of the Yishuv. When all is said and done, it is obvious that National Socialism, by substantially boosting Jewish emigration to Palestine, allowed the movement to attain the critical mass that enabled it to triumph politically and militarily in 1948. ‘The rise of the Nazis thus proved advantageous for the Zionist movement,’ Tom Segev has accurately pointed out.
History was thus confirming Herzl’s vision – in a way that he could not have imagined in his worst nightmares. ‘The present scheme’, Herzl had declared in the preface to his 1896 manifesto in book form, ‘includes the employment of an existent propelling force … And what is our propelling force? The misery of the Jews.’ This vision underlies the same ‘philosophy of the beneficial disaster’ that Shabtai Teveth, the biographer of the president of the Jewish Agency’s executive committee and the most important of the founding fathers of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, attributes to the man whom he knows better than anyone else does. Teveth cites Ben-Gurion: ‘The harsher the affliction, the greater the strength of Zionism.’
This philosophy explains, in Teveth’s view, Ben-Gurion’s relative indifference to the Holocaust, for which he has been much criticized: ‘two facts can be definitely stated: Ben Gurion did not put the rescue effort above Zionist politics, and he did not regard it as a principal task demanding his personal leadership… ’
The head of the Jewish Agency gave stark expression to the implacable logic of Zionist priorities when he declared, in December 1938, not long after the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht: ‘if I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second – because we face not only the reckoning of these children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.’ He added: ‘like every Jew, I am interested in saving every Jew wherever possible, but nothing takes precedence over saving the Hebrew nation in its land.’
In the opposing camp, the most eminent members of the Brit Shalom and, later, Ihud circles, both of which rejected Zionist statism in favour of a binational state in Palestine – Hugo Bergmann, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold – waged, unsurprisingly, a desperate struggle to persuade the Yishuv to put rescuing Europe’s Jews ahead of all else. Late in 1942, when news of the ‘Final Solution’ began to reach the Yishuv, members of these circles played a pivotal role in founding an association called Al-domi (biblical Hebrew meaning ‘do not remain silent’) that worked actively, albeit in vain, to attain this end. The very existence of this association appears to have been blotted from memory.
The American Council for Judaism (ACJ) followed an equally consistent line. An anti-Zionist organization founded by Reform rabbis and lay-people in the 1940s, the ACJ favoured a single democratic, secular Palestinian state in which Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal rights. The UN Special Commission on Palestine took note in 1947 of the ACJ’s position that ‘proposals to establish a Jewish state … are a threat to the peace and security of Palestine and its surrounding area, are harmful to the Jews in Palestine and throughout the world, and are also undemocratic.’
The ACJ, which boasted more than 14,000 members at its apogee, fought energetically to open America’s doors to the displaced. This was the logical corollary of its opposition to the Zionist project in Palestine in a context of solidarity with European Jews. Its attitude was not unlike that of the British writer Israel Zangwill who broke with the Zionist movement when it opted for Palestine as the only territorial objective of the future ‘state of the Jews’ – this despite the fact that Zangwill is said to have been the author of the notorious phrase that has it that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ (an attribution that is imprecise and has been contested). Zangwill – who knew well that, unless the Arabs were driven from Palestine, creating a Jewish state in this country implied domination of an Arab majority by a Jewish minority – militated in favour of ‘territorialism’, the project of regrouping Jews on a territory better suited to the purpose than Palestine, wherever it might be – preferably in the United States. ‘America,’ he wrote,
“has ample room for all the six millions of the Pale [i.e. the Pale of settlement, home to most of Russia’s Jews]; any one of her fifty states could absorb them. And next to being in a country of their own, there could be no better fate for them than to be together in a land of civil and religious liberty, of whose Constitution Christianity forms no part and where their collective votes would practically guarantee them against future persecution.”
Conversely, the Palestinian project determined the American Zionists’ position on the question of immigration to the United States by Holocaust survivors. The extraordinary Congress that brought American Zionists together with leaders of the world movement in New York’s Biltmore hotel in May 1942 demanded only that the doors of Palestine be opened to Jewish refugees – not those of every country at war with the Axis, beginning with the United States. As Aaron Berman has shown, this stance was not modified – quite the contrary, in fact – when it was learned that the Nazis were carrying out a systematic genocide:
“American Zionist leaders decided that their primary task had to be the building of support for the immediate establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Their decision did not reflect a callousness about or disinterest in the terrible fate of the European Jews. Rather, American Zionists believed that there was nothing unique about Hitler’s plan for genocide … believing that Jewish homelessness was the basic cause of all anti-Semitism, American Zionists resolved to put a final end to Jewish statelessness …”
“Sadly, the American Zionists’ calculation was faulty. … once the Nazis embarked on their program of genocide, the American Zionist decision to make the establishment of a Jewish state their primary goal handicapped any attempt to build a powerful lobby to force the American government to undertake the rescue of European Jewry.”
David Wyman, who can hardly be accused of hostility to American Zionists, has drawn up a balance sheet of their actions in this field: ‘An unavoidable conclusion’, he writes, ‘is that during the Holocaust the leadership of American Zionism concentrated its major force on the drive for a future Jewish state in Palestine. It consigned rescue to a distinctly secondary position.’ However, he adds, ‘substantially more was possible than they recognized’.
Of all the arguments invoked to justify the Zionists’ undeniable lack of enthusiasm for the demand that the United States, Great Britain and the other allied countries open their gates before continental Europe’s Jewish refugees, even the most reasonable constitute mitigating circumstances at best. The political motivation for this lack of enthusiasm is equally undeniable, as is indicated by a comment of Ben-Gurion’s that Segev cites: ‘in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogroms,’ Segev reports, ‘Ben-Gurion commented that “the human conscience” might bring various countries to open their doors to Jewish refugees from Germany. He saw this as a threat and warned: “Zionism is in danger!”’
Francis Nicosia sums up the consequences of the Zionists’ attitude towards Nazism:
“If, as the Zionists had always claimed, the assimilationists had been living an illusion, the Zionists had undoubtedly lived one of their own. it was rooted in the fallacy that if anti-Semitism was natural and understandable, as Herzl and others had insisted, there was room for its accommodation to the principles and goals of Zionism. Herzl and others believed that anti-Semites would accept Zionism, even if they disliked or hated Jews, and that they might indeed do everything necessary to support Zionist efforts until Jews and non-Jews reached their common goal of removing Jews from Germany. What they had not understood, and what post-World War 1 German Zionists apparently would not understand until after 1933, was that whatever appeal Zionism had for most anti-Semites, even for the Nazis after World War 1, it was of a purely pragmatic nature, and therefore problematic. Indeed, an understanding of National Socialism and precisely how Zionists should respond to it seemed to elude the entire Zionist movement, including the Yishuv, until well into the Second World War.”
The fact remains that responsibility for the failure to grant haven to European Jewish refugees ultimately lies with the governments of the allied countries that were in a position to do so. Although Berman’s judgement can seem excessively severe, he is not wrong that ‘while Germany was primarily responsible for the Holocaust, the democratic governments of the United States and the United Kingdom must be considered at least accomplices in genocide’. Nothing is more revealing in this regard than the international conference held in Evian, France, from 6 to 15 July 1938. Initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, its mission was to reflect on the fate of the Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, whose numbers had increased considerably as a result of the Anschluss and the intensification of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic program. Thirty-two countries sent delegations.
“As the conference proceeded, delegate after delegate excused his country from accepting additional refugees. The United States delegate, Myron C. Taylor, stated that his country’s contribution was to make the German and Austrian immigration quota, which up to the time had remained unfilled, fully available. The British delegate declared that their overseas territories were largely unsuitable for European settlement, except for parts of East Africa, which might offer possibilities for limited numbers. Britain itself, being fully populated and suffering unemployment, also was unavailable for immigration; and he excluded Palestine from the Evian discussion entirely. The French delegate stated that France had reached ‘the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees.’ The other European countries echoed this sentiment, with minor variations. Australia could not encourage refugee immigration because, ‘as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.’ The delegates from New Zealand, Canada, and the Latin American nations cited the Depression as the reason they could not accept refugees. Only the tiny Dominican republic volunteered to contribute large, but unspecified areas for agricultural colonization.”
It was due to this set of historical circumstance that the Jewish tragedy, which peaked in the Shoah, also culminated in the Palestinian tragedy, the Nakba. In a pivotal essay, Edward Said underscored the ‘link to be made between what happened to Jews in World War II and the catastrophe of the Palestinian people’, going so far as to add that ‘the Jewish tragedy led directly to the Palestinian catastrophe by, let us call it, “necessity” (rather than pure will).’ Of course, the Holocaust was incomparably crueller and bloodier than the Nakba. This consideration, however, in no way diminishes the tragedy of the Palestinians, particularly since they did not, as a people, bear any blame for the destruction of European Jewry.
In an attempt to show conversely that ‘the Jewish tragedy did not create the Palestinian catastrophe’, Joseph Massad criticizes Said’s contention. The Zionist project, he argues, antedated National Socialism and the Holocaust; furthermore, ‘only one-third of holocaust survivors ended up in Palestine, mainly because they could not go to the United States.’ His argument, however, is aimed at the wrong target. When Said speaks of ‘the Jewish tragedy’ he obviously means the Holocaust in the broad sense of the tragedy spawned by the Nazis’ accession to power and its aftermath, not in the narrow sense of the 1942–5 ‘Final Solution’.
Moreover, the direct relationship between the Palestinian drama and the Jewish tragedy was inscribed in the fact that Zionism was first and foremost a reaction to anti-Semitism. Certainly, if one takes the Holocaust in the narrow sense of the ‘Final Solution’ initiated in 1942, it becomes harder to maintain that the state of Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust. And it is indeed primarily pro-Zionist authors who have combated such a thesis. Yehuda Bauer, who, like Massad, reformulates the idea in narrow terms (‘Israel was created by the Holocaust’), advances the opposite thesis:
“On the contrary, if the German Reich had held out one more year, it is doubtful whether there would have been any survivors at all … The Holocaust prevented a Jewish State from coming into existence with, as new-minted citizens, the millions of Jews who were murdered. Indeed, because of the Holocaust, the attempt to establish a state almost failed. There were almost not enough Jews left to fight for a state. The ones who survived the Holocaust were central to that effort, and had there been more, the effort would have been easier and the outcome more certain. My answer, therefore, is unequivocal: The view that Israel was created by the Holocaust is erroneous. The opposite is true.”
Bauer’s contention is the more surprising in that a few lines earlier he declares: ‘if the United States had opened its gates to Jewish immigration … it is highly probable, in my view, that a much larger proportion of Jewish D.P.s would have gone to the United States than did.’ The notion that the ‘millions of Jews who were murdered’ might have constituted ‘new-minted citizens’ of the state of Israel, many of whom would have fought for its creation, is of a piece with the one that led Mordecai Shenhabi – the man credited with the idea of founding Yad Vashem – to propose in 1950 that Israeli citizenship be posthumously conferred upon all Holocaust victims.
Discussing the debates that this proposal touched off, Segev describes it as ‘utterly spurious’: ‘There is no way of knowing which, or how many, of the Holocaust’s victims considered themselves “potential citizens” of Israel. Many of them died precisely because they had preferred not to move to Palestine when that option was opened to them. And most of the world’s Jews, Holocaust survivors among them, chose not to come to Israel even after the state was founded.’
It remains true, however, that Holocaust survivors in the strict sense made up about one-third of the Zionist forces who fought in the 1948 war. Nevertheless, the motive common to the authors just cited, over and above the fundamental differences dividing them, is their legitimate rejection of the idea that the creation of Israel was an answer to the Jewish genocide. Bauer passionately disputes it: ‘I do not think I have to deal with this because the very line of thought is so repugnant. I think most Jews would have preferred saving the lives of the Jews who died in the Holocaust to establishing the state.’
Said’s thesis is no different. His recognition of the ‘necessity’ informing the historical process that culminated in the creation of the state of Israel by no means implies approval or legitimization of its creation or of the ways in which it was achieved: ‘I do not accept the notion that by taking our land Zionism redeemed the history of the Jews, and I cannot ever be made to acquiesce in the need to dispossess the whole Palestinian people.’ Historical ‘necessity’ implies no political or moral justification for such acquiescence. Nor does it imply any imperative reason to endorse Zionism. As Isaac Deutscher explained in 1954:
“From a burning or sinking ship people jump no matter where – on to a lifeboat, a raft, or a float. The jumping is for them an ‘historic necessity’; and the raft is in a sense the basis of their whole existence. but does it follow that the jumping should be made into a programme, or that one should take a raft-state as the basis of a political orientation?”
The rising tide of refugees to Palestine was not Nazism’s only contribution to the creation of the state of Israel. In 1947 there also existed a mass of concentration-camp and other Jewish survivors of Hitler’s genocidal enterprise who had been reduced to a state of extreme poverty and profound distress. Supporting the creation of the state of Israel was the way that North America, Europe and the Soviet Union solved, on the cheap, the embarrassing problem represented by this multitude of unfortunates whom neither the Americans nor the Europeans nor the USSR wished to take in.
While the Soviet authorities encouraged illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine from the Central and Eastern European countries under their control,65 Washington asked London to allow Jews to immigrate legally into the country, which was still under British mandate. ‘On June 6, 1946, President Truman urged the British government to relieve the suffering of the Jews confined to displaced persons camps in Europe by immediately accepting 100,000 Jewish immigrants [in Palestine]. Britain’s Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, replied sarcastically that the United States wanted displaced Jews to immigrate to Palestine “because they did not want too many of them in New York.”’ Long before Bevin, Mussolini had responded in much the same vein to Truman’s predecessor, who asked him, in 1939, to grant the Jews refuge in Italian colonies: ‘President Roosevelt asked Benito Mussolini to allow Jews to move to Ethiopia, which was under Italian rule; Il Duce wondered why the refugees could not be settled in the United States.’
Once the war had ended and the horror of the camps had been fully revealed, the desire to get rid of the devastated Jews by sending them elsewhere persisted. The foundation of the state of Israel directly served that end: 200,000 Holocaust survivors settled there in the year following its creation. According to the official statistics, more than 76,500 immigrants arrived there from Europe between 15 May 1948 and the end of the year, followed by another 122,000 in 1949. In addition to the sordid fact that certain states sought to resolve the problem of the Holocaust survivors at the Palestinians’ cost – as some states nowadays seek to rid themselves of their radioactive waste by exporting it to poor countries – the Zionist movement naturally tried to exploit the shock waves that followed the liberation of the camps in 1945. A former foreign minister of Israel, Shlomo Ben-Ami, has explained this stratagem:
“The target of Zionist diplomacy was no longer Britain but the United States and international opinion. There was little hope of averting an open clash with the mandatory power now entangled in the conflicting pledges and promises to Arabs and Jews. And as has happened frequently in the history of Zionism, the cause was enhanced by the Jewish catastrophe. It was the full truth and the awesome impact of the Holocaust of European Jewry, as it was exposed worldwide after the war, that served now as the platform upon which Zionist diplomacy could mobilise governments and international opinion in order to attain its major political objective, a Jewish state in Palestine. Once again, Jewish catastrophe was the propellant of the Zionist idea and a boost to its prospects.”
Finally, the National Socialist enterprise steeled the Yishuv for war in both the physical sense, since Palestinian Jews took part in the British war effort, and also the psychological sense, since it imbued Zionist militants with great determination, born of the feeling (the illusion, in the view of critics and sceptics) that they were fighting to establish the definitive response to the Holocaust. From the moment it was proclaimed, the state of Israel laid full claim to its legitimization based on the Holocaust and the anti-Nazi struggle. The terms of the ‘declaration of independence’ read out by David Ben-Gurion on 14 May 1948 are well known:
“The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish state, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.
Survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
In the second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.”
The subsequent war between the new state and the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries ended with the defeat of the Arab camp and the emergence of the Palestinian refugee problem. The two narratives of these events, Israeli and Palestinian-Arab, inevitably turned, from the outset, on two very different sequences. The Israeli narrative featured extermination – the Shoah – and rehabilitation by the state. The Palestinian and Arab narrative revolved around the usurpation carried out by the state and the attendant expulsion – the Nakba.
Part Two: Victim narratives and the last anti-colonial struggle
The Syrian academic Constantine Zurayk (Qustantīn Zurayq), a liberal Arab nationalist, is generally credited with having put the term nakba into broad circulation as a designation for ‘The Catastrophe’ (al-nakba) in a pamphlet that had a profound effect on public opinion: The Meaning of the Catastrophe (or disaster), published in 1948 and reissued in a second edition the year after. In the introduction, the author declares: ‘The Arab defeat [hazïma] in Palestine is not a mere setback [naksa] or a simple, transitory misfortune, but a catastrophe [nakba] in every sense of the word, a calamitous ordeal among the most difficult that the Arabs have undergone in the course of a long history full of ordeals and calamities.’
The extraordinary complexity of the problem before us, like the passion it arouses, is more than just the result of two experiences of persecution. History, after all, abounds in instances of the emigration or forced exile of persecuted people who become persecutors in their turn. Oppressed religious sects and people deported for ethnic or political reasons are among the examples that spring to mind. What makes the Israeli–Palestinian problem exceptional is, above all, that no other population actively involved in a colonial–settler project was fleeing a form of persecution as long-standing and brutal as European anti-Semitism, or was made up of survivors of such a stupefying crime against humanity.
It was with this circumstance in mind that Mahmoud Darwish exclaimed, in an exchange with Helit Yeshurun, ‘Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? It’s because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestinian question flows from interest in the Jewish question. Yes. People are interested in you, not me … ! The international interest in the Palestinian question merely reflects the interest people take in the Jewish question.’ This was, of course, an exaggeration blurted out in the heat of the moment: the Palestinian tragedy would certainly have resounded if the Westerners who settled in Palestine had been, say, members of a Protestant sect rather than Jews. How, then, are we to explain the importance accorded to the Palestinian tragedy apart from the Jewishness of Israel?
It cannot fairly be said that the ‘uprooting’ of the Palestinians – to borrow the expression used by Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad to describe the rural populations ‘regrouped’ by the French army in camps in colonial Algeria – has been exceptionally extensive or cruel. Compare it with the Algerian case, in which some two million ‘regrouped persons’ came under the direct control of the French colonial army: measured against its standards of brutality, the Israeli army pales. None of the massacres of Palestinians carried out by Israeli forces compares in scope to the one perpetrated by the French army in May 1945 in the Algerian cities of Setif and Guelma, to cite only that case: several thousand Algerians – tens of thousands, by Algerian estimates – were massacred there in the space of a few weeks. And what the black population of sub-Saharan Africa had to endure during the long ‘civilizing’ period in the history of the colonial empires, from slavery to veritable genocides (which all too often go unmentioned even today), was far more terrible than even the Algerian horror.
As colonial abominations go, the fate of the Palestinians is far from being the worst. The only people who can be excused for thinking differently are those who are directly subject to this fate and lack the necessary basis for comparison. The Palestinians cannot, however, advisedly and legitimately apply to their own case the superlatives appropriate to the Jewish genocide. ‘Who would want morally to equate mass extermination with mass dispossession?’ Said exclaims in the essay cited above. ‘It would be foolish even to try.’ Similarly, Benny Morris is correct to point out that Deir Yassin – the Palestinian village where 120 people were massacred by the revisionist Zionist Irgun in 1948 – ‘was no Srebrenica’ (the Bosnian city in which eight thousand people were slaughtered by the forces of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia in 1995).
How, then, are we to explain the immense place that the oppression of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis holds among the passionately debated issues of our day? There are several reasons for this. One is that Israel is the only European colonial settler state in which the political rights of the native population have yet to be restored (apart from places like North America and Australia, where colonization all but wiped out the native population). With the disappearance of the South African apartheid system in 1994, the Palestinian question became the last major burning issue of European colonialism. Israel is currently the only state in the world that combines three modes of colonial oppression: members of the indigenous minority who remained after 1948 (the ‘Israeli Arabs’) have the status of second-class citizens; since 1967, the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza have had the status of a population under either foreign occupation or direct control by the former occupiers; and the great majority of Palestinians have the status of people uprooted from their land and barred from returning. Most of this last group live in refugee camps on the periphery of the colonial state or in the territories it controls; others have joined the vast Palestinian diaspora; still others are living uprooted within the 1949 borders as ‘internally displaced persons’.
The persistence of these colonialist modes of oppression makes Israel, in some sense, an anachronism. A colonial state born at the very moment in which the process of decolonization was first gaining strength, it both proved the rule and constituted an exception. Hence the profound ambiguity of a ‘war of independence’ that grew into a war of colonial conquest, by way of a declaration of independence perceived as a declaration of annexation by a majority of the people of the country – Mandatory Palestine – on whose soil it was solemnly read out on 14 May 1948.
Even on the territory attributed in November 1947 to the ‘Jewish state’ by a United Nations General Assembly in which the future ‘Third World’ was barely represented – a territory that would be substantially enlarged manu militari in the course of the first Arab–Israeli war – close to half the resident population received Israel’s declaration of independence as an outrage. At the time, a yawning gulf separated those who regarded the creation of Israel as an act of liberation of the first importance – the redemption of European Jewry’s centuries-old history of oppression – and those who perceived it as the establishment of a colonial entity at the cost of the indigenous population. As the American journalist I. F. Stone wrote in 1967: ‘The fact that the Jewish community in Palestine afterwards fought the British is no more evidence of its not being a colonial implantation than similar wars of British colonists against the mother country, from the American Revolution to Rhodesia.’
Nevertheless, the notion of Israel as the product of an anti-colonial war of independence long held sway in the West. It was decisively modified by the June 1967 war, when the myth of Israel as a David facing the Goliath of the surrounding Arab countries gave way to an image of Israel as the state of ‘an elite people, self-assured and domineering’, as General Charles de Gaulle put it. The phrase was widely criticized because it was not free of anti-Semitic overtones: the French president was targeting what, in his view, the Jews ‘had always been’.
Recognition that Israel is a colonial power was long in coming in the West – longer on the left than the right – and, of course, in Israel itself. The considerable distance covered runs from the period when Jean-Paul Sartre’s review Les Temps modernes published a thick issue on the Israeli–Arab conflict following the 1967 war, in which the title of Maxime Rodinson’s remarkable contribution characterizing Israel as a ‘colonial-settler state’ could still be qualified by a question mark, to the unabashed 1999 admission by the most famous of the ‘new Israeli historians’, Benny Morris, that ‘Zionism was a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement.’ Uri Ram has summed up Israeli ‘post-Zionist’ discourse on the question:
“Israel is a settler-colonial society on a par with other white European societies such as Australia or South Africa. Whether or not the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was premeditated (the transfer issue), or an unintentional consequence of the war, Israel is largely responsible for the refugee problem. The conquest of land and labor was an avowed principle of labor Zionism, and its logical derivative is dislocation of, and discrimination against, Palestinians.”
Against this backdrop, the Palestinian struggle appears for what it is: the last major anti-colonial struggle. The indigenous population of ‘Rhodesia’ obtained the same political rights as the population of colonial origin in 1960; the country then experienced a second independence and genuine decolonization under the name Zimbabwe. South Africa’s indigenous population, in its turn, had gained the same rights as the population of colonial origin by 1994. Yet the indigenous population of Palestine is still waging a bitter struggle for recognition of its right to sovereignty over as little as one-fifth of its ancestral lands – the portion that Israel did not immediately conquer in 1948, but occupied nineteen years later.
The persistence of Israeli colonial oppression, flying in the face of the prevailing tendency of world history, has been made worse by a rising curve of violence. Israel has fought seven major wars in its six decades, in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006 and 2008–9, the latter two the most brutal of all. Each one profoundly alarmed the world because of the strategic location of the conflict. (Contrast the 5.4 million war-related deaths in the Congo in the ten years since 1998 – 45,000 a month or 1,500 a day in 2008, on the estimate of one American ngo. Black skins are of small worth in comparison with black gold.)
The international implications of the conflicts in the Middle East do not, however, alter the fact that Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is now at its highest level ever. In recent years, it has soared from one peak to the next, beginning with Ariel Sharon’s assumption of the leadership of the Israeli government in 2001, followed by the 2002 reoccupation of the West Bank for the purpose of crushing the Second Intifada, continuing to the 2006 blockade of Gaza and the repeated assaults on it since. Zionist colonial power clings to its 1967 conquered territory in the face of resistance of an intensity and tenacity that would surely have beaten back other forms of colonialism, at considerable cost to Israeli society.
The result is hardly surprising: Israel’s image has, inevitably, deteriorated. According to a BBC poll conducted in thirty-four countries and published on 2 April 2008 – several months before the cruel assault on Gaza unleashed at the end of the year, which has surely had a powerfully negative influence on perceptions of the country – Israel was, after Iran, the state with the poorest image: 54 and 52 per cent cited the influence of Iran and Israel, respectively, as negative. Another poll, in 2003, indicated that 59 per cent of Europeans considered Israel a threat to peace, whereas only 53 per cent thought Iran was. The more the image of the ‘Jewish state’ suffers – above all in the West, where its image counts for a great deal – the more it turns to the Holocaust to shore up its legitimization.
The reason is that the West (vestiges of Judeophobia and anti-Semitism aside, which today persist only among a minority) continues to regard the Shoah from the standpoint, and sense of responsibility, of the culprits, whereas the Arab world and most of the Third World regard the state that claims to represent the victims of the Shoah from the standpoint of the victims of both the Nakba and Israel’s subsequent acts. This fact weighs very heavily on the reception of the Holocaust in the Arab East, which got ever more complicated from the time of the Shoah itself to the time of the Nakba up to our own day.
The Arabs and The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives will be released for publication by Saqi Books on 11 May 2010