Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)
Efraim Karsh is head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London, and one of the preeminent historians of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This author has had the privilege to be one of his students and to be exposed to his research and teachings.
In this, his latest book, Karsh tackles one of the core narratives that continue to fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the Nakba, the Arabic term for catastrophe. The Nakba represents much more than just the physical creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, which Palestinians decree as the cataclysmic disaster, but also the Palestinian process of refusing to accept the fact that a sovereign Jewish state could be allowed to come into being.
The greatest irony is that of all places, Arab Members of Knesset proposed establishing a “Nakba Day.” Although the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs eventually banned this from coming to fruition, it does indicate the challenges of Israel in 2010, which is still debating Israel of 1948. To the Knesset’s credit there was an understanding that marking the Nakba is harmful and propagates the notion that Israel’s birth as illegitimate.
But what was this “Nakba” all about? On the one hand, it highlights the extent and openness of Israeli society that such ideas, even ludicrous ones, could be raised in its parliament. On the other, such a proposal would require Israeli society to forget what Zionism is all about.
By examining the historical record in detail, Karsh is able to test Abba Eban’s observation that the Palestinians and the Arab world at large never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Karsh clearly shows how the Yishuv (the prestatehood community) under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion sought ways to come to terms with the Arabs, and how Arab rejectionism has favored the Nakba mentality over a cooperative relationship. Just three days after the second ceasefire during Israel’s War of Independence, Ben-Gurion told the Knesset that Israel needed actively to seek peace with its Arab neighbors. He explained: “only through an alliance with the State of Israel and the Jewish People will the Arab world be able to free itself from its overt and covert subservience and reliance on oppressive and exploitative foreign forces, and only through collaboration with the neighboring [Arab] states will we be able to stabilize peace in our state and country.”
Moreover, Karsh describes the reasons for the Arab states effectively sending the Arabs of Haifa into exile: “The Arab leadership preferred exiling Haifa’s Arabs to any truce with the Hagana [the Jewish military force at the time]. For given the UN’s assignment of the city to the new Jewish state, any agreement by its Arab community to live under Jewish rule would have amounted to acquiescence in Jewish statehood in a part of Palestine. This to both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab world at large was anathema. As [Arab League secretary-general Abdel Rahman] Azzam declared shortly after the fall of Haifa to the Hagana: “the Zionists are seizing the opportunity to establish a Zionist state against the will of the Arabs. The Arab people have accepted the challenge and soon they will close their account with them.”
While figures such as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, maintained open ties with Hitler and Himmler, Palestinian society has adopted Holocaust rhetoric to describe its own predicament, claiming that Israel perpetrated a “Palestinian Holocaust.” The security fence is seen as a means to “ghettoize” Palestinians. Those are just examples of Palestinian denial of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and use of claims about the Nakba to perpetuate this denial.
Karsh documents the fact that the so-called Palestinian catastrophe is a self- inflicted one. It is much easier to pose as a victim, especially as part of a more general Arab inferiority complex, and to exploit the mentality of victimhood than to take responsibility for one’s own actions. As Karsh notes, “the prevailing conviction among Palestinians that they were the victims of their fellow Arabs rather than Israeli aggression was grounded not only in experience but in the larger facts of inter-Arab politics. Had the Arab states pressured the AHC [Arab High Command] to accept [the] partition resolution rather than abort it by force of arms, or forgone their own attempt to destroy the Jewish state at birth, the Palestinian tragedy would have been averted altogether.”
Finally, Karsh’s timely historical study illustrates the relevance of these issues – and myths – today, as they still form the foundation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Karsh’s insights should clarify especially now, as the Obama administration tries to unravel the Middle East knot and jumpstart yet another Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that first the full significance of the self-inflicted Nakba, which forms a barrier to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, must be grasped. Only when there is full mutual acceptance, and Palestinians and Arab leaders begin to view Israel’s existence as a right, can real change occur. Until then, the fabricated narrative and myth of the Nakba will continue to hold Palestinian society in its grip.
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ASAF ROMIROWSKY is a senior fellow at EMET (the Endowment for Middle East Truth) and an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.