osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Interesting Article on the Founding of Israel

this piece by Efraim Karsh in Commentary presents an interesting new perspective on the state of the Jewish/Arab conflict at the founding of the Jewish state.

(long, below cut)

Karsh argues, in part based on recently declassified and released documents from the Mandate period, that mainstream secular Zionists (and even to some extent the more militant and religious Zionists) sought a broader inclusion of Palestinian Arabs into the Jewish state as a survival strategy. Quoting Ben Gurion in 1947, Karsh argues that Zionist actively pursued economic and political inclusion because:
If the Arab citizen will feel at home in our state, . . . if the state will help him in a truthful and dedicated way to reach the economic, social, and cultural level of the Jewish community, then Arab distrust will accordingly subside and a bridge will be built to a Semitic, Jewish-Arab alliance.
Accordingly, even the more militant Jabotinsky proposed a Constitution stating that "in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice-versa," making Arabic as well as Hebrew the official languages of the new state, and prohibiting any form of discrimination or exclusion based on status as an Arab or Jew.

While this may seem ridiculous to both partisans and detractors of the concept of the "Jewish State," it is necessary to place ourselves in the mindset of early Zionists for whom mere equality as citizens would be such a radical advancement that its achievement would be viewed as a complete fulfillment of the Zionist aspiration for a Jewish state. Mere acknowledgment of Jews as integral -- rather than tolerated -- members of society would constitute a radical improvement over the state of Jews in Eastern Europe and a significant advancement even from England or America (under which Jews could hope for tolerance and legal equality subject to an informal understanding that they were not genuine equals). Further, secular Zionists had npo particular aversion to ultimately melding into a "Semetic league" and losing the distinction as Jews. That Pan Arabists would regard Jews as incurably European would not be understood, given the Europeans regarded Jews as incurably Semitic.

Even among religious Zionists, the modern notion of a "Greater Israel" with a numerically dominant Jewish population had not yet emerged. Rather, Rav Cook and other religious Zionists looked to create a land in which it was possible to live a life defined by Jewish law without the compromises and hardships made necessary by living in exile. This was not, at this point, seen as inherently conflicting with widespread Arab settlement and equality as citizens.

Karsh also argues that this proposal was not rejected by a broad base of the population, as is generally supposed, but was actively resisted by a subset of Arab leaders. Here, while I think Karsh presents reasonable arguments, I believe he does a poor job at looking at motivations. As is often the case in the analysis of complex historical events, Karsh simplifies the motives of those he dislikes (Arab leaders resistant to Zionist overtures) to simple political expedience. Karsh fails to consider the role of Arab nationalism in Arab leaders -- particular the interest of Arab leaders in creating a Pan-Arab movement that would reverse European imperialism. It is completely consistent with the evidence Karsh discusses that the bulk of the Arab population of historic Palestine had little interest in conflict to say that the political leaders of the Pan-Arab movement genuinely regarded the introduction of Jews into the region as a Trojan horse by which European nationalism would be permanently extended, and that Self-Determination 101 instructed these leaders to vigorously oppose Jewish overtures and prevent even routine economic coexistence as a necessary means of securing the success of the genuine Pan-Arab revolution.

Nevertheless, Karsh's failure to take a more complex view of the motivations of Arab leaders should not obscure his primary point, which stands or falls on its own merit. He points to a number of individually negotiated joint-defense agreements between Arab villages and local Jewish settlements as well as statements by contemporaries. He also points to the considerable rise of Arab prosperity and general quality of life metrics during the mandate period, as distinct from the other Arab countries administered by Britain or France, as evidence of economic cooperation and the influx of capital from Zionist settlers.

Karsh's final point is a challenge to both the Arab and Zionist description of the origins of the Palestinian diaspora. Both Palestinian and Zionist historians view the declaration of ISraeli Independence and subsequent war as the critical moment triggering mass migration. In the Palestinian narrative, this was a consequence of an explicit Jewish policy. In the Zionist version, Arab villagers willingly left their homes -- despite Jewish pleas to the contrary -- in response to the urging of Arab leaders that civilians should leave until the Arab armies could "sweep the Jews into the sea."

Karsh presents a more complex (and to my mind more realistic) picture. Karsh presents evidence that flight from the region by Palestinian refugees began after the U.N. vote for partition in 1947 as a consequence of the attendant political violence. With forces jockeying for position in what amounted to a situation (if we adjust for population density and the norms of the time) on par with the current violence in Iraq, it is no surprise that civilians who could -- beginning with wealthier Arabs and culminating in full fledged flight by the middle class -- began leaving the disputed Palestine and sought to relocate elsewhere until after the violence ended one way or another. Karsh further argued that the efforts of Pan-Arabists to gain support by exaggerating the supposed widespread dangers from supposedly bloodthirsty Jewish partisans (with a basis in incidents such as the massacre at Deir Yasin) backfired significantly, prompting panicked flight out of the region rather than inspiring armed resistance.

Anyone familiar with periods of civil unrest (and we have become all too familiar with these in recent days) will recognize Karsh's description of Israel in the period after the U.N. partition vote and the Declaration of Independence by Israel. Wherever one wishes to assign blame for the current state of affairs (to the extent anyone finds it helpful), Karsh's description, supported by evidence, of a trickle of refugees becoming a flood makes a good deal of sense. More so, it seems to me, than either the idea that the poorly armed and numerically outnumbered Jews were able to engage in a policy of dispossession while simultaneously repelling an invading army, or that tens of thousands of Arabs suddenly picked up their gear and left at the prompting of a handful of leaders.

Karsh's article is merely a beginning, of course. Assuming Karsh is correct, it is necessary to explain in a sequel what prompted such dramatic change in the policy of Ben Gurion and others. Without further research, it would seem that the shift came as a natural consequence of survival without equality and the distrust that followed the 1948-49 War for Independence. Although Karsh is not nearly so explicit about it (which is a shame, as it would bolster his argument IMO), the early Zionists placed an emphasis on coexistence with Palestinians because it seemed to them the most likely path toward formation of a State. Forced to fight the War they had hoped to avoid, it is unsurprising that the victorious Israeli forces saw little reason to offer as good a deal as they had offered in the 1920s and 1930s, and many good reasons not to. If the appeal to Pan-Arabism had not prompted Palestinians to turn en masse against Jewish settlers, neither had the economic benefits of coexistance inspired most Palestinians to stay and join the Army of Israel. When we add the natural human nature to respond to a war of extermination by one tribe with an increase in tribalism of its own, combined with the rationalization that the condition of Israeli Arabs would still be superior to that of Arabs in the region even without full civil rights and living as a de facto underclass, it is easy to see why Jabotinsky's proposed constitution fell by the wayside.

Similarly, although Karsh's explanation is not inconsistent with existing Palestinian nationalism, an explanation of the transformation from apolitical refugees to a self-identified people with coherent nationalist aspirations is useful.

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded