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Gershom Gorenberg and 'The Mystery of 1948'

An excerpt of Gershom Gorenberg’s book published on Slate promises to shed more light on the Palestinian refugee question, but ends up blurring Israel’s part in creating it


Palestinian refugees in 1948 (photo: wikimedia, Israeli copyrights expired)

Slate has published a few experts of Gershom Gorenberg’s book, “The Unmaking of Israel.” I like Gorenberg very much, and I think he is doing a very important job regarding the Israeli settlements (check out his excellent blog for more). Still, I haven’t read his book yet (I hope to review it here sometime in the future), so I don’t know if the provocative title of the published piece, The Mystery of 1948: Did Israel actually plan to expel most of its Arabs in 1948? Or not?, was chosen by Gorenberg or the editors of the magazine who posted it, because I am not sure whether Gorenberg actually intended to resolve “The Mystery of 1948.”

In the beginning of the piece, Gorenberg discusses some of the internal debate regarding the Palestinians before the beginning of hostilities. He states that Zionist leaders were concerned about the size of the Palestinian population, and that at the time—the late 40’s, right after the WWII—transfer of population was not unheard of. Gorenberg ends this part in saying that

… evidence is missing to back up the claim that the Jewish leadership planned from the start to expel the Arabs. In fact, there is strong evidence for the opposite: The leaders of the state-to-be expected and planned for the Arab population to stay put. That evidence comes from the report of the opaquely named body known as the Situation Committee.

Gorenberg goes on to quote plans made by the Situation Committee for civil services in the new state of Israel which include the Arab population; this is the “strong evidence to the opposite” he is referring to. Yet the reason “evidence [for plans of transfer] is missing,” is because Israel has never released these bits in the archives, like it did with most documents from that time. So the public papers reveal what’s necessary to be revealed and conceal the rest – and I have a feeling Gorenberg is falling for this trap. More importantly, by concentrating on the debate in the Jewish leadership before the war, Gorenberg omits the decisions on this issues that were made during the war.

This is the part in the article dedicated to 1948:

In April—perhaps while a typist in Tel Aviv was working on the mimeograph stencils of the Situation Committee Report—the nascent Jewish army known as the Haganah went on the offensive. It aimed at taking control of the land assigned to the Jewish state, opening the road to Jerusalem, and preparing for defense against the coming Arab invasion. In some places, Jewish commanders expelled Arabs from conquered villages. In many more, panic led to mass flight, especially after fighters from Irgun and Lehi, far-right Jewish undergrounds, perpetrated a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin outside Jerusalem.

By early May, Shertok was speaking of the “astounding” and “unforeseen” Arab exodus, as if describing an unexpected inheritance. Going back to the status quo ante was unthinkable, he said. When Israel’s provisional government discussed the issue in June, the consensus was to prevent the refugees from returning. The policy was partly defensive, to avoid a fifth column. But in the June cabinet meeting, Shertok also described all “the lands and the houses” as “spoils of war,” and as compensation for what Jews had lost in a war forced on them.

Afterward, as the fighting continued, cases of the Israeli army expelling Arabs grew more common. The decision to prevent return was the turning point, transforming what began in the chaos of war into a choice.

These paragraphs create the impression that in some cases, local initiatives by commanders led to forced evacuations, but it wasn’t policy. Yet we know for example that by early July 1948, Ben-Gurion had ordered the army to expel the entire populations of the Palestinian towns Ramle and Lod. The orders were given to Yigal Alon, and carried out by Yitzhak Rabin. Many of the refugees were looted by IDF soldiers as they were leaving their homes (see for reference Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli war, p.317 of the Hebrew edition; in a footnote Morris states that there is a censored part in the government’s meeting protocols dealing with the evacuation). This is the most famous case; there were others.

I have to say that I don’t know to what extent Arabs were expelled and how many of the fled, and whether expulsion was a well-conceived plan or an “opportunity” sized by the Israeli leaders. I am not sure that things were that coherent during the war of 1948, which was basically a civil war (with the participation of outside forces). Still, when debating the issue of the refugees, it’s important to note that the expulsion of some Palestinians and the flight of others didn’t necessarily have to lead to the creation of the refugee problem: It was the Israeli decision right after the war to prevent them from returning and confiscate their land and their homes that did it. Some Palestinians who fled from the battle tried to come back to their homes even before the war ended, in weeks and months after their departure – yet they were prevented from doing so by the IDF. This act, and the introduction of “the absentee law” which turned the confiscation of property into a formal policy, makes the entire debate on the Israeli leadership’s pre-war intentions a bit meaningless, I think.

In the months after the war, Palestinian farmers were still crossing the borders into Israel in attempts to harvest their crops, believing that they would be able to go back to their homes. IDF soldiers were ordered to shoot at anyone trying to “infiltrate” the state of Israel.

Read also:

Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba: My personal journey

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    1. Dan Kelso

      Please! it was the Arabs who wanted ethnic cleansing, the way they’ve ethnic cleansed the Kurds, Jews and Black Christians of Sudan.
      After the 5 Arab armies attacked Israel in 48, the Arab League Secretary General Azzam Pasha declared “jihad”, a holy war. He said, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades”.
      Hajj Amin Al Husseini stated, “I declare a holy war, my Moslem brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Louis

      Good point at the end… It is not what was planned or not that is important… it is like hit and run… did the driver intend to run down the pedestrian? When the driver leaves the scene and leaves the injured person to die well then it is no longer relevant if there was intent to hit the person… the intent is transferred to the subsequent act… leaving the person, abandoning her to suffer and perhaps die… so did Israel intend to expel as a policy? Maybe yes maybe no… were there policy based decisions to expel? so it seems… did Israel effectively ‘expel and run’, leaving the expelled and fleeing without any way or right to return? Certainly… thus expulsion becomes as good as policy

      Reply to Comment
    3. Sinjim

      @Steve Maher: Yes, but EI is part of what Gorenberg calls the radical Palestinian diaspora. We’re just too uppity for his tastes, and people like Noam are just encouraging us. 😉
      @Noam: I always wonder why it isn’t considered ethnic cleansing that Palestinians fled when they heard of what happened in Deir Yassin and other places. Wasn’t the point of those massacres to drive fear into people’s hearts and cause them to flee? If they had the intended effect, it ought to be considered ethnic cleansing, no?
      Additionally, the international legal definition for ethnic cleansing doesn’t necessitate that the entire population be removed. It also counts if part of the population is affected. There is a mystery about what happened to my grandparents’ generation only for those who want to keep their eyes wide shut.

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    4. Lauren

      One thing I know for sure…. if anyone were to come to my home, evict me, run me out of the country of my family, I’d be angry also. The ethnic cleansing started long before 1948. The Arabs had nothing to do with WWII Nazis. Why do they suffer the brunt of abuse by Europeans who have no genetic ancestral ties to the region? Using centuries of ancient MAN WRITTEN text to validate ethnic cleansing is not unsimilar to the Nazis claiming other countries as historical parts of Germany. The Nazis also used ethnic cleansing…. just like Israel. Too bad that the Israelis can’t see anyone’s suffering other than their own. That is why the world is turning it’s back on Israel. And anyone who doesn’t go along with the savagery, is called an Anti-semite, self-hating jew, sworn enemies or not useful to Israel. The backlash is coming. And unfortunately, good Jews will be affected by this.

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    5. @sinjim Exactly. Though it is good that it questions Gorenberg, Noam’s piece essentially replicates his ambiguity, and continues to ignore (as Gorenberg does) the mountain of evidence for the intentional, premeditated cleansing of the Arabs.

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    6. Bosko

      Lauren said: “The backlash is coming. And unfortunately, good Jews will be affected by this”
      What? Another backlash against Jews? What a surprise. Did anyone tell you that holier than thou attititudes are unseemly? Kelso is right in his post above. The Arabs clearly stated what their intentions were towards the Jews in 1948. And in places such as Jerusalem and Gush Etzion they showed that they were not kidding.
      What pisses me off is this one sided attitude. Sure, the Jews committed wrongful acts in 1948 but so did the Arabs. Yet all we are doing is beating our chests about it without putting things in perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not talk about it but let’s talk about it in a more balanced way.
      Take the partition of India in 1948. There was massive suffering, ethnic cleansings and millions died and were maimed on both sides. And how do we talk about that today? We talk about it in fairly neutral terms. There isn’t this massive blame game against one side or the other. Both sides are blamed equally.
      I know that in Israel’s case the results were more skewed. The victory of the Jews was more complete. But it does not mean that it is then necessary to punish them for the “crime of winning the war”. The bottom line is that both sides committed atrocities. The bottom line is that the Arabs started the war (I know that there are revisionist historians who attempt to deny this) and I also know that because of that war there were massive numbers of Jews who became refugees from Arab countries. You want blame? Ok let’s play the blame game but then be fair and spread it around. Because not all the blame should be against Jews. The Arabs have plenty to answer for too.
      So Lauren, please try and keep it in proportion, stop with your Nazi analogies and stop your threats.

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    7. Palestinian

      The Mystery of 1948: Did Israel actually plan to expel most of its Arabs in 1948? Or not?
      There was no Israel in 1948 ,…. “its Arabs”?! as if they were only part of the population although they were the only population , with immigrants/invaders settling and living among them preparing and plotting to take over their land and kick them out.

      It wasn’t a civil war , it was a fight between the indigenous population and invaders .

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    8. Bosko

      Once again: the pretense that in 1947 every square inch of the land in Palestine was owned by Arabs and Arabs only is just that: a monstrous pretense. This self deception was the cause of all the wars that followed. And the consequent sufferings by both sides.

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    9. Most of the Palestinian Arabs were expelled or fled (and is it unexpected or unworthy to flee a war zone if you are a non-combatant?) BEFORE Israel was declared a state and BEFORE the Arab armies joined the fray.

      The Arabs of Palestine did not accept partition and did not propose (or accept) creation of a Jewish state in (or “of”, as today) Palestine.

      Israel was only created after Jewish terrorism persuaded the Brits to abandon their Mandate. The desire to replace the state of Palestine (as it then was, a Mandate looking forward to transformation to a self-governing democracy) with one or more (other) states was a Jewish idea and put into place by Jewish violence. (NB: Israel did not spring into being as a consequence of peaceful parliamentary democracy, in case you thought it did.)

      So, the first shots fired were those of the Jewish terrorists who set the whole thing in motion. Jabotinsky would have understood and been proud. Israel was not ready for a largely Arab population when it started any more than it is today (after massive Jewish immigration). does anyone really think Ben Gurion and his associates thought differently in 18947-8? Does Deir Yassin adn Plan-D not make things clear? C’mon!

      What’s the question about 1948, again?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Bosko

      The Jews fired the first shot? Well I’ll be … Then what happened to Hebron’s Jews who were massacred in 1929? Who massacred them? Little Green Men from Mars?
      Revisionist historians are alive and well on this site.

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    11. AT

      @Lauren Hitler was a vegetarian and PETA loves animals – just like the Nazis. Sigh, please there is enough to criticize Israel for without false analogies and skewed logic.

      I am sick of historical fights as well about who “owned the land”. Historically Palestine in 1948 was in British hands, and before that it was in Ottoman Turk hands. In 1948, there was a large Jewish and Arab population in what remained of Palestine (part had been partitioned out to Jordan). To say the land “belonged” to either Jews or indigenous Arabs is historical envisioning. That’s the situation.

      the British wanted out because they were sick of the fighting and terrorism on both sides. Just as a reminder, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights list national self-destination as one human right. As such, Jews have the right of national self detmination just as any other people. This is not racism. Or the exclusion of any other people. Of course, Palestinians have the exact same right. Hence anyone who supports liberal values (then and now) needs to support partition –  2 states for 2 people. The counter argument that ALL the land belongs to one or the other people, or alternatively they must be forced to share the land, is historically disingenuous, practically impossible and a violation of this basic human right of self determination.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Sinjim

      @AT: Putting aside your ahistorical summary, ethnic nationalism is an outdated 19th century idea. The United States isn’t an ethnic nationalist state. Neither is Canada or Great Britain or even France.
      This insistence that Israel belong to the Jews alone, despite 1 out of 5 of its citizens not being Jewish (not to mention all the Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed), is the very definition of exclusion and discrimination. How can a state call itself a liberal democracy when it tells 20% of its people that it is not for them, when its most prominent politicians openly speak of population transfers?
      And I have no idea why Zionists insist on having an ethnically Palestinian state (on the territory that they don’t want, of course). You go on and on about how self-determination is so sacrosanct, yet you’re lecturing Palestinians on how theirs should look like and how it should be realized.
      Two indigenous populations having their equally valid claims recognized and respected in their homeland is not a violation of anyone’s human rights. Neither is entitled to exclude the other.

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    13. directrob

      “Just as a reminder, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights list national self-destination as one human right. As such, Jews have the right of national self detmination just as any other people. This is not racism.”
      “National self-destination”, This combination of words is not part of the declaration. Please cite the article you have in mind, I cannot find it. By the way Google finds 4 documents with “national self-destination”.
      “This is not racism”, If you say so …

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    14. Bosko

      “Two indigenous populations having their equally valid claims recognized and respected in their homeland is not a violation of anyone’s human rights. Neither is entitled to exclude the other”
      Nice theory. Now, how did that work out in Sudan, the Balkans, Rwanda, Lebanon, Cyprus again? And that is not an exhaustive list.
      People who advocate utopian solutions even if they have genuinely good intentions (which is not always the case), have the propensity to create calamities. History is full of sad tales that confirm that sad reality.

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    15. directrob

      Very few countries have uniform populations. It is no violation of human rights if Jews have to live with Palestinians in one country and it is no law of nature that Jews cannot live in peace with Palestinians.

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    16. Abu Nuwas

      “of 1948, which was basically a civil war” Are F”””””” kidding me? Do you also describe the Algerian war of independence as a civil war? Since Algeria had a lot of french colonists who where not natives to the region but arrived their and displaced the natives? Natives fighting colonists is a civil war?

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    17. Bosko

      Show me one country in history, with a non uniform population, where the different groups have the type of hostile history with each other as the Jews and the Arabs, which did not end in massacres sooner or later.

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    18. directrob

      Up to now for example the Republic of Namibia.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Bosko

      I am glad you added the qualifier “up till now”. Now please read this:
      The heading is “Whites Could Be Killed”
      “Berlin – A high-ranking representative of the Herero tribe in Namibia said there could be a Zimbabwe-style backlash against ethnic German whites if Berlin refuses to pay reparations.

      “Don’t forget, our young generation does not have the angelic patience of the elders,” Mburumba Kernina, an advisor to Herero Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako, told Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel”
      doesn’t sound promising to me. But even if it turns out well, it would be an exception to the general rule.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Volodinjev the Great


      “Why do they suffer the brunt of abuse by Europeans who have no genetic ancestral ties to the region?”

      Genetics determines the right to the land? And you call Zionism racism?

      Reply to Comment
    21. […] post, “Gershom Gorenberg and ‘The Mystery of 1948,“ on Slate’s excerpt from my book, The Unmaking of Israel, begins by asking whether Slate’s […]

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