by Sol Stern
The Palestinian national narrative is the biggest obstacle to peace in the
A specter is haunting the prospective Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations—the specter of the Nakba. The literal meaning of the Arabic word is “disaster”; but in its current, expansive usage, it connotes a historical catastrophe inflicted on an innocent and blameless people (in this case, the Palestinians) by an overpowering outside force (international Zionism). The Nakba is the heart of the Palestinians’ backward-looking national narrative, which depicts the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as the original sin that dispossessed the land’s native people. Every year, on the anniversary of
Other, the last victims of Western racism and colonialism.
There is only one just compensation for the long history of suffering, say the Palestinians and their allies: turning the clock back to 1948. This would entail ending the “Zionist hegemony” and replacing it with a single, secular, democratic state shared by Arabs and Jews. All Palestinian refugees—not just those still alive of the hundreds of thousands who fled in 1948, but their millions of descendants as well—would be allowed to return to Jaffa, Haifa, the Galilee, and all the villages that Palestinian Arabs once occupied.
Such a step would mean suicide for
If words have any meaning, it is certainly accurate to describe the outcome of the 1948 war as a catastrophe for the Palestinians. Between 600,000 and 700,000 men, women, and children—even more, depending on who is telling the story—left their homes.
Palestinian civil society disintegrated. At the war’s end, the refugees dispersed to the Jordanian-occupied
During the 1948 war and for many years afterward, the Western world—including the international Left—expressed hardly any moral outrage about the Palestinian refugees. This had nothing to do with Western racism or colonialism and much to do with recent history. The fighting in
In the 1940s, moreover, most of the international Left actually championed the creation of a Jewish state in
In fact, I. F. Stone, the most revered left-wing journalist of the day, was one of the most influential American advocates for the Zionist cause. I have in my possession a book by Stone called This Is Israel, distributed by Boni and Gaer, a major commercial publisher at the time. The book, based on Stone’s reporting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, has become a collector’s item by virtue of the fact that Stone’s fans want to forget that it ever existed. Of the four adoring biographies of the great muckraker published in the last decade, only one even mentions that Stone wrote This Is Israel—and then shrugs off its significance in a few paragraphs.
It’s obvious why the book would be embarrassing to today’s leftist critics of
Accompanied by famed war photographer Robert Capa’s iconic images of male and female Israeli soldiers, Stone’s text reads like a heroic epic. He writes of newborn
Palestinian leaders reminded Stone of the fascists he had fought with his pen since the Spanish Civil War. He ticks off the names of several Nazi collaborators prominent among the Arab military units that poured into
And how does Stone explain the war’s surprising outcome and the sudden exodus of the Palestinian Arabs? “Ill-armed, outnumbered, however desperate their circumstances, the Jews stood fast.” The Palestinians, by contrast, began to run away almost as soon as the fighting began. “First the wealthiest families went,” Stone recounts. “While the Arab guerrillas were moving in, the Arab civilian population was moving out.” Stone blames the grand mufti for giving explicit orders to the Palestinians to abandon
What is most revealing about the book is the issue that Stone does not write about: the fate of the refugees after their exodus. Stone undoubtedly shared the conventional wisdom at the time: that wars inevitably produced refugees and that the problem was best handled by resettlement in the countries to which those refugees moved. Stone surely expected that the Arab countries to which the Palestinian refugees had moved would eventually absorb them as full citizens. That outcome wouldn’t be perfect justice, but it would limit Palestinian suffering and open the doors to a reasonable and permanent settlement of the conflict. Stone also knew that Israel was in the process of absorbing an almost equal number of impoverished Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, most of whom had been forced out of their homes and lost all their property in places where they had lived for hundreds of years.
Stone could never have foreseen that for the next 62 years, the Palestinians would remain in those terrible refugee camps—not just in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but in
Stone’s reporting on the 1948 war has turned out to be a pretty decent “first rough draft of history,” to quote publisher Philip Graham’s definition of journalism. But that’s a judgment that Stone himself discarded, as the Left gradually abandoned Israel over the next 30 years and accepted the Palestinians’ portrayal of their nakba as the Nakba—a capitalized instance of world-historical evil.
In Stone’s later writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict, he was at pains to forget what he had said in This Is Israel. Moving in lockstep with the Left, he had turned into a scathing critic of
Revisionist historiography also appeared to nullify Stone’s earlier journalism. Starting in the mid-1980s, a group of self-styled “new historians” in
Yet unlike most of his left-wing revisionist colleagues, Morris asserted that the Palestinian calamity and the refugee problem were “born of war, not by design.” Morris was—and is—a committed Zionist of the Left. He believed that his work as a truth-telling historian might have a healing effect, encouraging Palestinian intellectuals to own up to their own side’s mistakes and crimes. The process might lead to some reconciliation, perhaps even to peace. But Morris was shocked when Palestinian leaders launched the second intifada, with its campaign of suicide bombings, just as President Clinton offered them a generous two-state solution at
Israel-haters are fond of citing—and more often, mis-citing—my work in support of their arguments. Let me offer some corrections. . . . In defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29th, 1947, [the Palestinians] launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence of the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes. . . . On the local level, in dozens of localities around
The displacement of the 700,000 Arabs who became “refugees”—and I put the term in inverted commas, as two-thirds of them were displaced from one part of Palestine to another and not from their country (which is the usual definition of a refugee)—was not a “racist crime” . . . but the result of a national conflict and a war, with religious overtones, from the Muslim perspective, launched by the Arabs themselves.
Coming from the dean of Israeli revisionist historians, this was a significant rejection of the Nakba narrative and, incidentally, an endorsement of Stone’s forgotten book.
Earlier this year, another pathbreaking work of historical scholarship appeared that, if facts mattered at all in this debate, would put the final nail in the coffin of the Nakba myth. The book is Palestine Betrayed, by Efraim Karsh, head of the
For example, using detailed notes kept by key players in
In describing the battle for
Unfortunately, no amount of documentation and evidence about what really happened in 1948 will puncture the Nakba narrative. The tale of dispossession has been institutionalized now, an essential part of the Palestinians’ armament for what they see as the long struggle ahead. It has become the moral basis for their insistence on the refugees’ right to return to
Nor will the facts about 1948 impress the European and American leftists who are part of the international Nakba coalition. The Nakba narrative of Zionism as a movement of white colonial oppressors victimizing innocent Palestinians is strengthened by radical modes of thought now dominant in the Western academy. Postmodernists and postcolonialists have adapted Henry Ford’s adage that “history is bunk” to their own political purposes. According to the radical professors, there is no factual or empirical history that we can trust—only competing “narratives.” For example, there is the dominant establishment narrative of American history, and then there is the counter-narrative, written by professors like the late Howard Zinn, which speaks for neglected and forgotten Americans. Just so, the Palestinian counter-narrative of the Nakba can now replace the old, discredited Zionist narrative, regardless of actual historical facts. And thanks to what the French writer Pascal Bruckner has called the Western intelligentsia’s new “tyranny of guilt”—a self-effacement that forbids critical inquiry into the historical narratives of those national movements granted the sanctified status of “oppressed”—the Nakba narrative cannot even be challenged.
This makes for a significant subculture in the West devoted to the delegitimization of
Several years ago, I briefly visited the largest refugee camp in the West Bank: Balata, inside the city of
For half a century, the United Nations has administered Balata as a quasi-apartheid welfare ghetto. The Palestinian Authority does not consider the residents of Balata citizens of
In Balata, history has come full circle. During the 1948 war, Palestinian leaders like Haj Amin al-Husseini insisted that the Arab citizens of
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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