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Published on April 15th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © Zeeweez


Defending the Holy Land? Israel’s independence day


In 1897, two Rabbis went travelling around Palestine to see if a Jewish state could be set-up there. They cabled back to the Zionist congress in Switzerland “The Bride (Palestine) is beautiful, but she is married to another man”.  Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall

16th April 2013- Israel celebrates its 65th anniversary of gaining independence from the British and the birth of a Jewish state. As Israel celebrates, it own future is as uncertain as ever- the Arab spring, Iranian nuclear programme and ‘peace’ with the Palestinians are causes of anxiety for the Jewish state. Over the last 65-years Israeli society has lived from war to war- in most cases these wars were wars of ‘choice’ for Israel as pre-emptive strikes is a key military doctrine. Indeed Israeli culture has war deeply ingrained into it, everything the Jewish state does is about survival in the eyes of this culture.  Because everything is about survival anything Israeli state does is justified- but it does force Israeli historians to ask some rather ugly questions.

Is it ever morally justifiable to forcefully expel an indigenous local population (the Palestinians) from their land, as Israel did in 1948, before and during the independence war? The answer to this question is very much political and answering it ‘incorrectly’ could lead to social isolation and worse. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe had to go into self-imposed exile in Britain because he answered this question ‘incorrectly’. Historian Benny Morris had to revise his opinions so that he didn’t have to go into exile. The ‘wrong’ answer led to MA-student Teddy Katz being sued and as a result had a stroke.

The ‘correct’ (mainstream Israeli) historic narrative is important for today’s governmental policies, as it ‘explains’ why the Israeli government must do what it does. Early Zionists, who later go on to be Israelis, are depicted as ‘moral’,’ western’, ‘philosophical’, ‘cultured’, ‘intellectual’ and above all ‘civilised and humane’. The reason for today’s occupation is because of the ‘Arabs’ past and present ‘transgressions’ and these ‘transgressions’ are because of the ‘nature of the Arab’- which is ‘backwards’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘dishonest savages’. Because of this, what happened in 1948 is all their fault- the Zionists wanted ‘peace’ and accepted UN-partition plans and the Arabs being ‘war-hungry’ rejected it. The Arab states invaded ‘tiny’ Israel in ‘great numbers’ and sought to ‘destroy’ it- it was a David and goliath story. Whilst invading, the Arab states told the Palestinians to leave their homes and wait for ‘liberation’ (which is why they became refugees) – but Israel ‘miraculously’ fought them off and won.

This story is what is taught in Israeli classrooms today and it serves the ‘legitimise’ the state, not only politically, but also morally. In short we are right- We did ‘nothing’ to the Arabs their hatred of ‘us’ is due to their ‘primordial anti-Semitism’, we want peace but there is no one to make peace with. However, this story came under serious scrutiny in the 1980’s when Israel opened up its archives to the public. They did so naively, as they didn’t understand what people would find- a group of Historians went into the Central Zionist Archives, the Haganah Archives, the IDF Archives, the Labor Party Archive and Ben-Gurion Archive.  And what they found turned all of these ideas on its head, it is true that many Palestinian historian such as Walid Khalidi had written about what Israel had actual done in 1948. But he is an Arab and Arab opinions ‘do not matter’- but these Israeli historians who now had first hand material would be harder to dismiss.

What the ‘New Historians’ as they came to be known, discovered was a systematic attempt by early Zionist leaders to expel and destroy the Palestinians. Throughout the British mandate of Palestine, the overwhelming majority of the population was Palestinian and not Jewish. This was a threat to them- and so they (the Zionist leadership) drew up plans in the late 1940’s to forceful remove the Palestinians, they then began on a programme of what Ilan Pappe called ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Palestine, before the Arab states declared war on Israel.  This cleansing took on the form of systematic murder of unarmed civilians in villages and towns, rape, cultural vandalism and book theft as well as transfer of the Palestinians out of Palestine. They also discovered plans to reject the UN partition and grab more land than allocated to them by the UN. Crucially, not only was the Israeli army bigger and technological superior to the Arab armies- but that the Arab states had no interest in destroying Israel and some even collaborated with Israel (reversing the David and Goliath image) .

This new revelation came as a bombshell for Israeli society, as this new narrative questioned the moral foundations of the state. It also ‘legitimised’ the Palestinian and Arab claims to the land. The ‘New Historians’ were academics and in the 90’s were briefly tolerated by Israeli society, however this change with the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000. The ‘New Historians’ found themselves at the sharp end, Ilan Pappe started to receive death threats and even had his pictured published in the newspaper with a snipers cross-hair on him. The Universities in Israel enjoy a close relationship with the military establishment- the archives at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan centre of Middle East and African studies requires security clearance as it contains ‘sensitive material’ (including stuff looted from Palestinian archives in Beirut by the Israeli army in 1982). This relationship means that the universities were reluctant to support the ‘New Historians’.

The ‘New Historians’ opened up a can of worms, which Israeli society as it approaches it’s 65 birthday still cannot handle. The reluctance to acknowledge the past is helping to fuel the current conflict. It is also helping to expand the conflict as Israel contemplates military action against Iran. Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion once said “They (the Palestinians) must never return..the old will die and the young will forget”. But it seems it is Israel that wants to forget.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.


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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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