Thursday, April 19, 2007

Determining Historical Consensus on Israeli Ethnic Cleansing

Cross-posted from Daily Kos and Progressive Historians

There's been this debate going on in the Israel/Palestine diaries over what historians believe about the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. In particular, I've been positing a degree of historical consensus over the New Historians ethnic cleansing thesis (see this diary for some of the arguments). Others have argued that because we can identify two or three historians who disagree with the New Historians, therefore no consensus exists.

Over the last few days, I've been conducting a search in the Social Sciences Citation Index, looking for recent scholarly articles that cite Benny Morris's work, especially his landmark Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. I found 228 of them, and I sampled a few of the ones that looked interesting.

The first article I checked was Asher Kaufman, "Between Palestine and Lebanon: seven Shi'i villages as a case study of boundaries, identities, and conflict" The Middle East Journal 60.4 (Autumn 2006): p685(22). As a case study of seven Arab villages in the north of Israel, Kaufman doesn't address the broad historical question of whether or not Israel committed ethnic cleansing; he simply cites the evidence confirming that his seven villages were cleansed. First the Israeli account of the cleansing of the village of Hunin:

On September 2nd, 1948 and as a result of patrolling operations in the area of Manara (on the Lebanese border) a battle broke out between a unit of our military and a Lebanese unit. Four of our men were killed and two went missing in this clash. During the withdrawal of our unit near the village of Hunin, a number of shots were fired at us, and in retaliation, our forces penetrated the above village and blew up 24 houses. The son of the mukhtar was killed, and a number of people were taken prisoner. The rest fled. In the wake of this event, the negotiation which had begun with people from the village of Hunin, the details of which were forwarded to your office in a report of 14.8.48, has, (for the time being) been removed from the agenda.

Here's how the village elders of Hunin reported the incident to the Lebanese government:

Our houses have been blown up, places of worship destroyed, our elders and young ones have been massacred and taken captive, our wives are prisoners in the hands of the Zionists. We appeal to your sense of justice and request the assistance of the Lebanese guard in the nearby region to rescue what is left of us.

A little further on Kaufman uncritically cites Benny Morris to support the following statement:

All in all, the Jewish forces did not spare the villages in the region and the seven Shi'i villages were no exception. In Salha, one of the seven villages, moreover, there was a massacre of 60-70 inhabitants of the village in the course of Operation Hiram.

The next article I checked was Fiona B. Adamson, "Crossing borders - International migration and national security" International Security 31.1 (Summer 2006) 165-. Adamson also is not interested in a broader discussion of the historiography of the 1948 war, but rather cites what she understands to be the state of the research:

Many of the major migrations throughout history have occurred as a result of forced migration or expulsion. The formation of the Jewish diaspora after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in B.C.; the mass migration flows that occurred during the transatlantic slave trade, in which approximately 15 million Africans were transferred to the Americas prior to 1850; the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey at the end of World War I; the forced migration of Jews during the Russian pogroms and later during the Holocaust; the expulsion of Germans from the Sudetenland following World War II; the expulsion of indigenous Arab populations with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948; the ethnic cleansing that characterized the Balkan wars in the 1990s; and the coerced trafficking of women in many parts of the world (especially Eastern Europe and East Asia) that has been referred to by many as a contemporary form of slavery—all are examples of largely involuntary waves of migration.

The footnote supporting that passage cites four general studies of migration and Benny Morris on the Palestinians.

The next piece I looked at was Alon Kadish and Avraham Sela, "Myths and historiography of the 1948 Palestine War revisited: the case of Lydda" The Middle East Journal 59.4 (Autumn 2005): p617(18). Kadish and Sela frame their article as a critique of the New Historians, stating in their abstract:

Arab and Israeli revisionist historiography has taken the events in the town of Lydda (Lod, al-Lud) during the 1948 Palestine War (Israeli War of Independence) as an example of Israel's premeditated expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs in 1948, coupled with a massacre of civilian Arabs by the Israeli forces. Using newly released documents, the article explains the origins of these claims. It concludes that the expulsion was not pre-meditated but a consequence of a complex and ill-conducted battle, nor is there any direct evidence that a massacre took place.

Specifically, they wish to challenge two claims of the New Historians, that the expulsion in Lydda was "pre-planned and deliberate" and that in the wake of the fighting POWs were murdered. What they don't challenge, however, is that civilians were massacred in the battle, nor that civilians were expelled by the IDF from Lydda on July 12, 1948:

It is indisputable that unarmed civilians had been killed in the streets of Lydda, especially when the situation turned chaotic following the arrival of the Legion's armored cars at midday July 12....

Regarding the question of expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda, it is noteworthy that throughout Operation Dani, the IDF encouraged the local population to escape eastwards. On the night of the July 12-13, following events in Lydda, the Dani headquarters concluded that pressure should be exerted to encourage Lydda's inhabitants to leave. The action, however, required the authorization of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. After consultations with Dani Operation commanders, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, Ben-Gurion approved the request by waving his hand in a gesture, which was interpreted as "expel them." Later on, Allon disputed this by saying "there was no expulsion order but rather a provoked exodus."

This article is quite telling. Even though it challenges details of the New Historians' interpretation of the 1948, it winds up supporting the general outlines of their narrative. Far from standing as evidence of ongoing controversy, it shows how fully the New Historian consensus has been established, even as the authors continue to insist on fundamental differences. Morris himself, of course, wrote in the first edition of his book:

the Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab (Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 286).

The next piece I looked at was Robert Blecher, "Citizens without sovereignty: Transfer and ethnic cleansing in Israel" Comparative Studies in Society and History 47.4 (October 2005) 725-754. Blecher's focus is the ideology of "transfer" in contemporary Israel, but he briefly reviews the literature on 1948. Here's what he says:

The War of 1948—known to Israelis as the “War of Independence” and to Palestinians as “The Nakbah [Disaster]”—partook of this zeitgeist.6 Within a few years, 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced and 450,000 Arab Jews were “ingathered” in Israel, partially unscrambling the region’s own “belt of mixed populations.”7

The passage contains two extensive footnotes, which I reproduce here:

6 The literature on the Palestinian refugees is now vast, but the classic treatment remains Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Crisis 1947–1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). One of the few scholars to argue specifically for ethnic cleansing in the Israeli-Palestinian context is Meron Benvenisti, although the way he delimits the war and haltingly uses the term indicates uncertainty. See his Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), especially chapters three and four. Nur Masalha argues that the displacement of the Palestinians was intentional, yet generally uses the more specific term “transfer”: Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882–1948 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992); and “A Critique of Benny Morris,” Journal of Palestine Studies 21, 1 (Autumn 1991), 90–97. Laila Parson’s work on the Druze during the 1948 War also suggests a certain (though lesser) amount of intentionality on the part of Zionists/Israelis: The Druze Between Palestine and Israel, 1947–49 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). On the significance of preventing the refugee’s return, see Gabi Piterberg, “Erasures,” New Left Review 10 ( Jul./Aug. 2001), 31–46. As of 31 March 2003, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) put the total number of Palestinian refugees at 4,055,758 (

7 Estimates of the number of Palestinian refugees produced by the 1948 War range from 550,000 to one million; 700,000 is a conservative yet realistic figure. 450,369 Jews immigrated from Asia and Africa from 15 May 1948 through 1956. S. N. Eisenstadt, The Transformation of Israeli Society: An Essay in Interpretation (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985), 295. The quotation is from Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1973), 276.

One thing Blecher shows is that when scholars are looking for a shorthand on the 1948, they resort to Morris. Morris is the standard work on the period.

I'll finish with the conclusion of a review essay written by an Australian graduate student and published in the Australian Journal of Political Science. Kristen Blomely, "The ‘New Historians’ and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict," Australian Journal of Political Science, 40.1, (March 2005), pp. 125–139. Although Blomely considers all the major critics of the New Historians (Teveth, Karsh, and Shapiro), she concludes her review like this:

As the debate within Israel continues it is clear that the scholarship of the ‘new historians’ has fundamentally altered the discourse and common understanding of the events of 1948 for ever. The investigation of ‘myths’ has led to a wider examination of the history of the Zionist project and what it meant for those who encountered it, namely the Arab population of Palestine. Though not setting out with an agenda for change, the work of the ‘new historians’ has inevitably led to a shift in Israeli discourse with the emergence of ‘post-Zionism’. Whether this shift will bring the whole pack of Zionist cards down, as Shapiro fears, or will lead simply to a more honest and realistic understanding of Israeli history, is yet to be experienced. Perhaps the most crucial contribution of the ‘new historians’ is that they have created hope where before there was none. Hope that one day soon Israeli and Palestinian history books might vaguely resemble one another. Hope that one day Israelis and Palestinians will share a common history and a common narrative. And hope that one day this might lead to a just peace.

Historical consensus does not mean that all historians agree on all particulars. It does, however, mean that most historians agree on the broad outlines. In the case of the New Historians, their critique of the traditional Zionist narratives of the founding of Israel has come to dominate the field of Israeli history.

There's no doubt about it.

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