A new angle on Israel’s dilemma

If you’re at all interested in the question of Israel and Palestine, and particularly if you think that understanding their tangled past is important for building a more hopeful future, then don’t miss a fascinating article by Yossi Gurvitz published a few days ago at +972 Magazine. (Thanks to Sol Salbe for pointing it out to me.)

Gurvitz has the sort of novel take on history that makes you wish you’d thought of it first. His idea is that the population transfers that accompanied and followed Israel’s war of independence in 1947-48 – in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven out from the territory that became Israel – can be thought of as analogous to the expulsion of ethnic Germans from territory in central Europe immediately following the Second World War.

Here’s how Gurvitz puts it:

As far as its Jewish population is concerned, Palestine in 1947 was a branch of Eastern Europe, and it can be argued that its history in 1947-1948 simply cannot be understood without knowing what happened, two years earlier, in Europe. What took place there, echoed here, and when “normal” acts of hostility exploded, in November 1947, into war, tens of thousands of people who could not bring their families back, and who could not avenge themselves on the Germans – for other people already did that, yet another so-called proof of Jewish powerlessness – did on their new land what Eastern Europeans carried out on their side: they acted out an ethnic cleansing and looted the property of the other people.

Leaving aside the politics of it, each event was a humanitarian catastrophe for its victims. But of course the politics can’t be left out, and in each case the winning side – the Poles and Czechs in Europe, and the Jews in Israel – wants to believe in its own rectitude and so is deeply resistant to any recognition of the suffering of others.

And each of them has a case; that’s what makes these issues so difficult. Writing about the European expulsions a few years ago, I said they “represented the sort of rough justice that history often comes up with; after all, the Germans started the war.” The Israelis can similarly argue that the Arabs attacked them and they fought in self-defence.

That doesn’t mean that injustices shouldn’t be recognised. I have as little sympathy with the Israeli politicians who want to ban any commemoration of the “Nakba”, or “catastrophe” (as the Palestinians call the events), as I have with the Czech and Polish politicians who foam at the mouth whenever anyone mentions the wrong suffered by the Germans.

But both sets of transfers are, for practical purposes, irreversible. While Gurvitz perhaps exaggerates when he says “There are no active nationalist conflicts in Eastern Europe today,” the boundary changes there cannot be undone, and nor can Israel’s victory in the 1947-48 war.

Yet peace for Israel did not result: “The conflict in what used to be Mandatory Palestine never ended.” The Germans at least had another country, Germany, to go to; they were not exactly welcomed with open arms, but they were able to settle there and eventually make new homes. The Palestinians had no such luck. Jordan and Egypt occupied parts of historic Palestine, but no Palestinian state emerged, and the Arab countries, for their own political purposes, were happy for the Palestinians to remain refugees – as many still do.

By the time Israel overran the rest of the Palestinian territory in the Six-Day War of 1967 (also, arguably, fought in self-defence), it was too late to repeat the exercise: international opinion would not have accepted ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and Gaza, even if the Israelis had been minded to try it.

The moral Gurvitz draws is that Israel needs to come to terms with the moral ambiguities of its founding:

When the Czechs prefer to keep silent and repress their history, it’s a problem, but it is not an imminent danger to the country, just to its national character … When Israelis prefer to pretend there was no ethnic cleaning here, it’s a wholly different question: the conflict won’t end unless Israel admits to the injustice it caused.

But I’m not sure that this is right. While no doubt it would be helpful for Israel to try to be more understanding about this particular set of Palestinian grievances, I don’t think they are the main game. The problem is 1967, not 1948.

The cases are really more similar than Gurvitz allows. The Germans who were expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia would like recognition and compensation, but they have no ambition to return en masse. Similarly, while Palestinians argue for a “right of return” to what is now Israeli territory as part of a peace settlement, they know that it will be a symbolic matter involving some sort of compensation, not a reversal of history.

Yet there’s also another difference. The Czechs and the Poles were settlers in the new territories, but they were historic inhabitants of neighboring areas; the land acquired from the Germans just represented an addition to their existing national community. But the Jews of Israel, although they had historic links to Palestine, were almost all recent immigrants.

That gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a peculiar intensity. It combines simultaneously the sort of historic conflict that has plagued central Europe with the “settler” type of conflict that was typical of European colonialism in Africa and the Americas (and Australia).

But each produces the same fundamental need: to somehow come to terms with their shared history.

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