(This text was written to be presented at a conference in Beit Berl in 2006. Today I might have written some things differently. But in response to Ariella Azoulay’s request to publish it in English, I think it’s also worth publishing it in Hebrew for the first time. All I now added, in May, 2013, are the references I was able to reconstruct.)
The catastrophe of the Palestinian Nakba was the destruction of more than 500 Palestinian localities in 1948 and turning some 80% of the Palestinians living on the territory where the state of Israel was established into refugees. It’s possible to see the Nakba as the result of the implementation of the Haganah’s Plan Dalet from March, 1948, an intentional policy of ethnic cleansing, which was an idea that had already often been expressed in writing and discussion by various Zionist leaders as far back as the early twentieth century. But it’s also possible to see the Nakba as a series of acts that weren’t the result of an overall plan but which were carried out by local commanders, in which villages were destroyed, most of them immediately following their capture, and their inhabitants made refugees and not allowed to return home because of decisions the government made as early as June, 1948.
In any case, the important, determinant outcome was a demographic/ethnic and geographic/spatial upheaval that transformed a Jewish minority into a majority in the land where it established its state. It would be historically accurate to describe what happened here in 1948 as a Zionist victory and a Palestinian defeat. The Zionist victory led to the establishment of the state of Israel, and since then the Nakba has been viewed as a necessary historical component of that process. That’s true if we look back on history from our perspective today. The Zionist victory included all the combat in which Jews were involved, during which Palestinians were expelled and/or their localities destroyed and/or they were prevented from returning, etc. And, in fact, most Jews in Israel certainly participated in that foundational historic process, whether in military operations or on the home front. So it wouldn’t be absurd to conclude that most of them were pleased with the outcome.
For that reason it’s surprising to discover that not a few Jews in 1948 were already voicing their opposition to the consequences of the Palestinian Nakba – to the expulsion of Palestinians, destruction of their localities and, in rare cases, by attempts to return Palestinians to where they had lived. There were Jews who, for a variety of reasons, helped Palestinians remain within Israel’s borders, Jews who protested the killing of Palestinians and Jews who tried to prevent destruction of Palestinian localities after the expulsions.
There’s a village called Miska, not far from Beit Berl, whose inhabitants were expelled toward the West Bank. One of the families, Shbeta, remained in Israel thanks only to the intervention of Jews who were well-acquainted with a senior military commander. (1)
Residents of the village of Al-Haram (Sidna Ali) were expelled eastward; some settled in Muqeibla. But one family, the Masarawwis, remained in Israel thanks to a Jew from the Rishpon area nearby who was their friend and good neighbor. (2)
The village of Ayn al-Mansi, near the Megiddo junction, was captured during what is known in Israel as the “Battle of Mishmar HaEmeq.” There were Jews from Mishmar HaEmeq who approached Palestinians, urging them to remain, not to abandon the village. (3)
These and other testimonies are very important to me, particularly because they come from Palestinians, from those who were expelled from their homes and not permitted to return until this very day, despite their desire to do so. It’s important for me to hear these accounts, to understand that the Palestinians are not thirsting to revenge the Nakba, to show that there were also Jews then who tried to help them.
It’s true that some of these accounts may refer to Palestinians who collaborated with the Jews, but the Jews who helped Palestinians in return for the help they provided could have ignored their pleas. And there were also a not insignificant number of cases of Jewish ingratitude, Jews who were unable or who didn’t wish to protect Palestinians despite mutual defense pacts. And we’re also aware of accounts of Jews who insisted on helping Palestinians even though it would have cost them nothing had they refrained from doing so.
There were members of Kibbutz Sarid who opposed harming Palestinians. They were ordered to fire on farmers from Mujeidal in the adjoining fields to chase them away. One young member who was still a youth urged his father not to fire at them. Another member tried to prevent the demolition of the homes in the small village of Dar Tawil next to the kibbutz. (4)
So we learn that there were also Jews who tried to oppose the expulsions and demolitions because of a feeling of responsibility to their Arab neighbors and simple, unsophisticated humanity. In other cases people apparently behaved according to their personal, political or other interests.
Rokach, who was the mayor of Tel Aviv in 1948, protested to Haganah commanders about the blockade of Sheikh Muwanis village which forced its residents to abandon it because they knew they’d have no chance to remain there without work or food.
Benny Morris reports occasional cases in which Jewish opposition succeeded. Members of Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’Amaqim objected to the Golani brigade’s plan to blow up the homes of the adjoining village of ‘Arab Zubeidat after its inhabitants had been expelled. Despite the army’s recommendation, the village’s inhabitants were allowed to return home after a few months. (5)
A member of Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov who was a Haganah intelligence officer protested the destruction of Palestinian villages. He wrote Ezra Danin, one of the principal supporters of the violent policy: “…The feeling prevailing among the public is that the Arabs are nothing. Every Arab is a murderer. They should all be slaughtered. All the captured villages should be burned down…I…think that feeling, that they all should be killed, destroyed, eliminated, is dangerous.” Danin replied that “if the commanders believe that by destruction, murder and human suffering we’ll attain the goal we’re yearning for – I wouldn’t stand in their way.” Danin’s aggressive approach reflected what in fact occurred in most places in the country. The Palestinians were expelled and their homes destroyed. But that goes without saying. The exceptions were those Jews who tried and even occasionally succeeded in opposing the actions that contributed to the Palestinian Nakba.
Morris notes that a not inconsiderable number of Mapam members tried to oppose destroying villages – for example, 'Inaba, Al-Biriya and Barfiliya in the center of the country. We should also remind ourselves, of course, that many kibbutz members supported the destruction of the villages and even helped to demolish them.
In 1949, members of Kibbutz Bar’am settled in the houses of Bir’im village. They quickly developed friendly relations and solidarity with those who had been uprooted from Bir’im, which continued after the kibbutz moved to its permanent location. When the members of Bar’am learned in 1953 of the plan to demolish the village they met with the Mapam leadership to ask them to prevent the demolition. Their attempt failed; the village’s buildings were blown up the next day. (6)
In 1948 the Kibbutz Artzi movement published a circular which was clearly a protest: “The demolition continues of abandoned Arab villages…it’s difficult to avoid the impression that there’s a guiding hand which is comfortable with the possibility that the Arabs will have no place and nothing to return to.” Zvi Luria called for a law to be passed against demolishing villages. Mapam’s Aharon Cohen wrote: “Ben Gurion orders the destruction of villages in the absence of any strategic reason for doing so…There’s a desire on the part of Mapai to erase more than one hundred Arab villages. Will our state be built on the destruction of Arab localities?” (7) I’m afraid the answer to that question is “yes.” The state was in fact built, in large part, on the destruction of the Arab localities and the expropriation of the land of the refugees and of those who remained in the country. But there were voices raised in opposition, and not only among non-Zionists. I view those voices as imposing an obligation. They obligate us to accept responsibility for what they ultimately failed to accomplish. It’s clear that we can’t turn back history but we can try to behave correctly going forward; in order to do so we must recognize injustices committed in the past.
Eliezer Bauer, a member of Kibbutz Hazore’a, protested to Yisrael Galili and other senior defense officials: “When (Abu Zreik) village was captured its inhabitants fled to fields in the valley to save themselves. Forces from the nearby villages overtook them. Some of the Arabs were killed in an exchange of fire. Others surrendered or were captured unarmed. Most were killed. They weren’t members of marauding bands, as Al-HaMishmar later reported, but defenseless, defeated fellahin …And in the village, where a few hours after the battle had ended a few people were discovered to be hiding – they were killed…there’s also a report of a rape...everyone took whatever he could from the property in the homes and the livestock abandoned by the herders…that’s just looting…”
It’s interesting that even today (2006), when this excerpt appeared in a publication of Kibbutz Hazore’a it aroused a stormy response. Those oppositional voices were not only few and far between at the time, but today as well it’s hard for Jews to put up with anything that defies the grand chorus supporting aggressive and violent behavior, even when the events occurred in 1948.
There was an explicit order to expel the inhabitants of Abu Ghosh, but people from Kiryat Anavim defied it, convincing the commanders to let them stay. The same thing happened with Fureidis and Jisr-a-Zarqa, when people from Zichron Ya’akov asked Haganah commanders not to expel the residents. So, of approximately 60 Palestinian localities between Tel Aviv and Haifa, only these two remained. In retrospect, the reasons given by the people from Zichron aren’t particularly flattering. They explained that if all the Palestinians are expelled, they won’t have anyone to work for them. Testimony about the massacre at Tantura indicates that people from Zichron were the ones who stopped the killing. I know there’s an argument among Israeli historians over whether there was in fact a massacre at Tantura, but my point is to show that this history also includes voices opposing the violent acts that were major causes of the Nakba. After the village of Mashad was captured the local Haganah commander told the village mukhtar that those who fled could return to their homes. He had served in the British army with some men from the village. All the residents of Mashad remained in their village. (8)
These voices from the past were silenced in the uproar of battle and of victory and the pain over the death of so many Jews which permeates the history books we still study today. These silenced voices refuse to be muted. They are addressed to us. Some claim they’re fantasies. They administer medications in an attempt to get rid of the troubling voices. I don’t think it will work. These voices are stubborn; they won’t leave us alone. Perhaps if we pay attention to them we’ll understand the roots of the conflict in which we live. Not only to learn something that we, Jews living in Israel, don’t know, but primarily to grasp these voices as a way forward to a process of reconciliation with the Palestinians, residents as well as refugees.
We must find these stories, hunt them down, be sophisticated in our search. They won’t give themselves up easily. They’re hiding below a surface covered by the standard narratives. It’s no accident that we hear some of them on Zochrot’s tours, when Jewish and Arab participants want to know what happened in 1948. These accounts are necessary so we can build an alternative genealogy. To discover a history and tradition that will enable us to think about a very different way to live in this land. They are necessary in order to understand that there were always more possibilities than were described by those who wrote our history retrospectively. Historians always represent the victors, which is why these accounts of Jews who ultimately failed to prevent the horrors remained on the margins. But it’s never too late to give them their due, and even renew them.
Do these examples of Jewish opposition to the Nakba help ease the feeling of responsibility (some would say “guilt”) we bear as Jews in Israel? I think the opposite is true. None of them reduce in the slightest the responsibility of Jews for their part in the Palestinian Nakba. The very fact there were Jews who opposed the Nakba underscores the injustice done to the Palestinians. That’s because there were Jews who thought differently and tried to behave differently in real time, but the Nakba occurred in spite of them. That’s why the moral burden and responsibility we bear is doubled and redoubled. These other oppositional voices teach us that there were always other options, but in order to realize them we must be committed to a struggle for a different way of living in this country. A life of “peaceful neighborliness” together with its residents and refugees.
I began by saying that the Nakba is the Palestinians’ catastrophe. In concluding, I believe we can understand the Nakba as being the history of the Jews living in Israel. Because the failure of those Jews who tried to prevent the Nakba or reduce its scope is the reality of the conflict in which we continue to live today.
1. Conversations with the Shbeta family during 2002-2006.
2. Conversation with 'Isam Masarawwi, 2005.
3. Conversation with refugees from Ayn al-Mansi, 2006.
4. Conversation with Tsfira Yonatan, from Kibbutz Sarid, 2003.
5. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugees Problem, page 228 at the Hebrew edition.
6. Conversations with members of Bar’am, 2004.
7. Benny Morris, op. cit. Page 226.
8. Conversation with Jamil Arafat, 5 April 2006.
Translation to English: Charles Kamen