Letters / On “Our Catastrophe”
I was troubled to see Jewish Currents commemorate the Nakba, an event that lacks critical context, in the photo essay “Our Catastrophe.”
The article operates under the framing that Palestinians were forced from the land that became Israel. The reality is that two-thirds of the Arabs who fled Palestine in the 1940s left the area before the events of 1947–48. It is well documented that the Arabs who deserted left on the heels of the elite, who had moved to their summer homes, or fled at the behest of Arab leaders so as to minimize collateral damage. The Zionist community in Palestine, the leaders said, would be quickly crushed, and the Arab population would be able to return and enjoy the spoils.
It is true that after the Jews withstood the combined fire power of the invading Arab armies, the displaced Arabs were designated “Palestine refugees” and placed under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which failed to find new homes or employment for them. But of the fewer than 700,000 Arabs who fled Palestine in the 1940s, no more than 30,000 are still alive, and yet the UNRWA has 6,000,000 Palestine refugees on its rolls. Here, the UN abets Palestinian leaders, who demand that Israel “give back” the homes that “refugees” claim their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents lost when the Jewish ancestral homeland became a sovereign Jewish state. Such an inflated number of “refugees” ensures that Israel will never accede to a Palestinian right of return. Considering their vast land holdings and wealth, Arab countries who invaded Israel in the first place should certainly have taken in the Palestine refugees.
In contrast to the deliberately unresolved situation of the Palestine refugees, a tiny, renascent Israel absorbed some 800,000 Mizrahi Jews driven from their homes across the Middle East and North Africa after 1948 while also rehabilitating Holocaust survivors, recovering from damages inflicted by Arab armies, and dealing with terrorist attacks. The majority of Israel’s current Jewish population descends from those 800,000 Mizrahi Jews, and virtually every position in Israel’s government except Prime Minister has been filled, at one time or another, by someone with roots in Mizrahi communities. Perhaps these events would be a better choice for commemoration in a Jewish magazine.
We received a number of responses to our photo essay on the Nakba like the letter above. These letters reflect the story that most American Jews have been taught about the founding of the State of Israel—and a current of Nakba denialism commonly expressed in synagogues, Jewish day schools, and even Congress.
Contrary to the popular Zionist narrative, Arab residents did not abandon the land en masse because they were told to leave by Arab leaders. In 1959, Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi studied the Arab League archives, Palestinian and Arab press releases, Arab newspapers, and Arab and Haganah radio broadcasts to determine whether evidence existed to support the claim that Arab leaders urged Palestinians to leave their homes. He found none. Instead, he found evidence that Arab officials wanted Palestinians to stay, and even took action to prevent Palestinian refugees from entering bordering countries. Israeli historian Benny Morris’s 2004 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited complicates Khalidi’s research, but only slightly: Morris found evidence that some Arab officials urged women, children, and the elderly to flee so as to improve Arab fighters’ prospects for defending their villages. But Morris ultimately concludes that “what the Arab states . . . did or did not do . . . to promote or stifle the exodus was of secondary importance; the prime movers throughout were the Yishuv [the Jewish community in pre-state Israel] and its military organizations.”
Estimates vary on the number of Palestinians who fled in the first six months of the civil war following the approval of the UN partition plan. Some historians put the number at 250,000–350,000, while others put it much lower. Regardless, it is clear that the vast majority fled during the fighting, not “before the events of 1947–48,” as the letter writer claims. The rest of the refugee flight occurred after Israel’s declaration of independence, which precipitated the Arab armies’ entry into the fight against the new state. The letter writer presents a common misconception that Jewish forces were at a profound military disadvantage throughout. In fact, “at each stage of the war, [the] IDF significantly outnumbered all the Arab forces ranged against it and by the final stage of the war its superiority ratio was nearly two to one,” as the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim wrote in 1995.
The letter writer also takes up a familiar complaint that the UN has “inflated” the number of Palestinian refugees by according refugee status to the descendants of those who fled historic Palestine, implying a unique sympathy with Palestinians. But the passing down of refugee status is by no means particular to the case of Palestine; refugee status has also been conferred on descendants in other protracted refugee crises, such as in Somalia and Afghanistan. In the case of Palestine, the descendants of refugees encounter the same political problem their parents and grandparents do: Israel’s denial of their right to return to the lands they were expelled from. Many millions of people live in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, where they are subjected to Israeli military rule. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face various forms of discrimination, while in Syria they endured a brutal civil war.
While we cannot hope to fully deconstruct this narrative about the events surrounding Israel’s founding in a response to a letter to the editor, we have aimed to provide a few sources that correct prevalent misconceptions. Though it took decades for the rest of the academy to catch up to Palestinian scholarship published soon after the founding of the state, our account reflects the contemporary consensus among those who study this period. We know that learning an accurate history does not necessarily ensure just outcomes. This is clear from Morris himself, who suggested in 2004 that Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion “should have done a complete job” of expulsion, rather than let a substantial minority of Palestinians remain within the Jewish state, and from the Israeli politicians who promise another Nakba, expressing the desire for further expulsions while implicitly acknowledging the veracity of the first one. And still, we know a just future requires a reckoning with the injustices of the past. We offer our coverage of the Nakba in that spirit.