An acrimonious debate about whether Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing in 1948 has erupted after Professor Daniel Blatman, a Holocaust researcher and head of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, took to the pages of Ha’aretz to slam Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent controversial contention that Palestinian demands for the removal of the Jewish residents of Israeli settlements amounted to a call for ethnic cleansing.

In an op-ed under the title “Netanyahu, This Is What Ethnic Cleansing Really Looks Like,” Blatman acknowledged that “ethnic cleansing” is a relatively “new concept” that emerged only in “the legal and public discourse in 1992 during the Bosnian War;” he also conceded that it is “not easily defined” but he claimed that there is by now “widespread agreement in the research field that ethnic cleansing is a form of forced migration — which can become violent and murderous — of an unwanted population from a specific territory because of a racial, ethnic, religious, political, strategic or ideologically based hostility.” According to Blatman, this is “exactly what happened in 1948” to the Palestinian Arabs:

“about half a million Palestinians were cleared by force from the territory where they lived, because they were an unwanted population from an ethnic, racial, religious, strategic perspective, or from all these perspectives together. The hundreds of communities in which the Arab population lived were razed to the ground or given over for Jewish settlement at the end of the war. Arab property worth tens of millions of Palestinian pounds was stolen and confiscated. Those who tried to return were forcibly expelled or shot. The ethnic cleansing carried out in Palestine in 1948 was one of the most successful of the 20th century.”

Blatman relied for his argument on the work of Israeli historian Benny Morris – but Morris wasn’t at all happy about it and responded with an op-ed in which he stated right away that as a historian, “Blatman betrayed his profession when he attributed to me things I have never claimed and distorted the events of the 1948 war.” Morris emphasized that

“at no stage of the 1948 war was there a decision by the leadership of the Yishuv or the state to ‘expel the Arabs’ – neither in the Jewish Agency nor in the Israeli government; neither in the Haganah General Staff nor in the Israel Defense Forces General Staff. Nor did any important party in the Yishuv, including the Revisionists, adopt such a policy in its platform.”

Morris acknowledged that there were instances when Arabs were expelled, but ascribed these to the exigencies of a war in which the Jews of British Mandate Palestine fought for their survival; he also noted that “for the most part the Arabs simply fled” and that “in 1948 about 160,000 Arabs remained in Israeli territory.” As Morris noted, it is hyperbole to describe this outcome as “one of the most successful” examples of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century; after all, about a fifth of Israel’s population was Arab in 1948. No less relevant is a fact that Morris doesn’t mention: more than 6,000 Jews – i.e. about one percent of the Jewish population – were killed in the war that the Arabs had started to prevent Israel’s establishment.

Though Morris focused in his response on highlighting the complexities of the situation, Blatman was apparently unwilling to leave it at that and responded with yet another op-ed, where be bitterly denounced Morris right at the beginning: “[A] historian who, at the start of his career, determined that Israel is responsible for the mass flight of the Palestinians in 1948 and later changed his views until he became the darling of the settler right, is a pathetic phenomenon. Benny Morris has followed that path.”

It is hard to believe that Professor Blatman is unaware of the fact that becoming the “darling” of the right (settler or otherwise) is not a good career move for any academic – and most certainly not for an academic in the humanities. What this swipe shows is that Blatman’s argument is ultimately political. He insists on making the case that in the 1948 war, Israel was guilty of the “war crime” of “ethnic cleansing” and dismissively argues: “Had Morris bothered to properly study the documents of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, he would understand why his statements would be considered absurd at any serious scientific conference.”

One would hope that at any serious scientific conference, the participants would focus on urgent current cases and not waste their time and expertise trying to retroactively accuse countries – or perhaps just Israel – of “war crimes” that were allegedly committed decades before the war crime was defined as such.

However, given the fact that the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II were also controversial because, as critics argued, they relied on ex post facto law, I should perhaps note at this point that I’m well aware that a humble blogger has no business whatsoever commenting on a dispute between two well-known academics. But as it happens, I have a Ph.D. in contemporary history, and the controversy between Blatman and Morris reminded me of the nicest compliment I got for my dissertation. My research focused on a group of German refugees who worked for the predecessor of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in the 1940s – incidentally, the group was also involved in the preparations for the Nuremberg trials – and not long after the book based on my dissertation was published, I got a call from the German-born American scholar John Herz, who had been a member of this group and had read my book. I got ready for what I thought would be the inevitable criticism of someone who had actually been a participant in what I had reconstructed from documents in the National Archives, but to my great delight, Herz told me he loved the book because it described the work of the group in the context of the time and carefully explained assessments that were possible only with the benefit of hindsight.

So if Professor Blatman wants to accuse Israel of perpetrating the “war crime” of ethnic cleansing in 1948, I think the context of the time matters a great deal – particularly given his claim that “[the] ethnic cleansing carried out in Palestine in 1948 was one of the most successful of the 20th century.”

For anyone who knows just a bit of post-World-War II history, this is a truly preposterous claim. At the time, the ethnic cleansing of Germans from various territories – including areas where Germans had lived for centuries – was actually the policy of the victorious Allies. As the historian R. M. Douglas put it in an article that introduces his book on this subject:

“By mid-1945, not merely the largest forced migration but probably the largest single movement of population in human history was under way, an operation that continued for the next five years. Between 12 and 14 million [German] civilians, the overwhelming majority of them women, children and the elderly, were driven out of their homes … conservative estimates suggest that some 500,000 people lost their lives as a result of the operation.”

According to Douglas, the first draft of the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention included a provision that outlawed the “forced and systematic exile of individuals representing the culture of a group,” but this provision “was deleted from the final version at the insistence of the U.S. delegate, who pointed out that it ‘might be interpreted as embracing forced transfers of minority groups such as have already been carried out by members of the United Nations.’”

Douglas also notes that

“expelling states continue to go to great lengths to exclude the deportations [of Germans] … from the reach of international law. In October 2009, for example, the … President of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, refused to sign the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty unless his country was granted an ‘exemption’ ensuring that surviving expellees could not use the Treaty to seek redress for their maltreatment in the European courts. Facing the collapse of the accord in the event of Czech non-ratification, the EU reluctantly acquiesced.”

Another even more relevant example from the post-World-War II period is what happened during the partition of India. As William Dalrymple wrote in a New Yorker article last year:

“In August, 1947, when … the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.

Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented.”

Quoting Nisid Hajari’s “Midnight’s Furies,” Dalrymple provided a horrifying glimpse of the violence:

“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”

According to Dalrymple, by 1948, “more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead.”

This then is the contemporary context in which the “ethnic cleansing carried out in Palestine in 1948” occurred – a context that makes it arguably all the more bizarre for a Holocaust researcher who heads the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University to claim that this was “one of the most successful” ethnic cleansing campaigns “of the 20th century.”

However, there are some additional factors that need to be taken into account. As I showed in a relevant post that I wrote when veteran anti-Israel activist Ali Abunimah claimed a few years ago that in 1948, “Zionist gangs perpetrated the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian coastal city of Jaffa,” it is well-documented that there was “substantial … Arab immigration” in the decades between 1880-1947. According to one report, an estimated 500,000 Arabs migrants came just between 1932 and 1944, and the 1937 report by the British Peel Commission suggested that much of this immigration was due to “Jewish development.” This is not irrelevant, particularly when we consider the possibility that “for the most part the Arabs simply fled,” as asserted by Morris.

An account by an Arab eyewitness clearly confirms Morris’ view: Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a former resident of Jaffa with impeccable anti-Zionist credentials recalled his last months in his hometown for a 1998 Al-Ahram special dedicated to “commemorating 50 years of Arab dispossession since the creation of the State of Israel.” Abu-Lughod had obviously no reason and definitely no intention to downplay any supposed “ethnic cleansing” efforts by Jewish forces – so here are the relevant passages of his story [PDF, the quoted piece is pp.91-93 under the title “After the matriculation,” also available here] together with my added comments from the cited post:

“No sooner had the UN General Assembly passed its partition resolution in November 1947, than Palestine was torn apart by a war waged between its two historically antagonistic communities — Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews. […]  The first shots were exchanged between Jaffa and Tel Aviv on the eve of 30 November 1947 during a three-day general protest strike declared by the Arab Higher Committee. […] On the eve of the UN Partition Resolution, Jaffa’s Arab population numbered over 70,000. By and large they supported the traditional Palestinian leadership headed by Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti.”

Understandably, Abu-Lughod, a professor of political science, didn’t mention the fact that the man who headed the popular “traditional Palestinian leadership” in the second half of the 1940s had spent the first half of the decade in Berlin, where he lived in considerable comfort as a well-paid guest and committed ally of Nazi Germany. Likewise, Abu-Lughod didn’t mention that some of the Bosnian Muslims recruited by Al-Husseini as volunteers for the notorious Nazi Waffen-SS had made their way to the Middle East in order to avoid war crimes charges and were fighting for the Arabs in Jaffa.

Abu-Lughod went on to note that most Arabs in Jaffa and elsewhere seemed confident that “as the country belonged to the Arabs, they were the ones who would defend their homeland with zeal and patriotism, which the Jews – being of many scattered countries and tongues, and moreover being divided into Ashkenazi and Sephardic – would inevitably lack. In short, there was a belief that the Jews were generally cowards.”

When this belief proved mistaken, people started to leave Jaffa. According to Abu-Lughod, at first mainly the rich left, but as more and more people began to flee the fighting, the “National Committee…decided to levy a tax on every family who insisted on leaving.” Abu-Lughod volunteered to help with collecting this “tax:”

“I worked in a branch of the committee based in the headquarters of the Muslim Youth Association near the port of Jaffa. Our job consisted mainly of harassing people to dissuade them from leaving, and when they insisted, we would begin bargaining over what they should pay, according to how much luggage they were carrying with them and how many members of the family there were. At first we set the taxes high. Then as the situation deteriorated, we reduced the rates, especially when our friends and relatives began to be among those leaving.

We continued collecting this tax until 23 April, when the combined force of the Haganah and the Irgun succeeded in defeating the Arab forces stationed in the Manshiya quarter adjacent to Southern Tel-Aviv. On that day, as we realised that an attack on the centre of Jaffa was imminent, I and my family decided that they had to be evacuated temporarily. We rented a van, into which we crammed all the women and young children and sent them to Nablus.”

Abu-Lughod himself stayed in Jaffa until May 3, when he left by ship together with two friends to make the short trip to Beirut. By July 1948, he was already back with his family in Nablus, from where he soon made his way to the US to study and to build a successful career at Northwestern University. He left there in 1992 to become vice-president of Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.

So in what was – according to Professor Blatman “one of the most successful” ethnic cleansing campaigns “of the 20th century” and a “war crime” perpetrated by the fledgling Jewish state – the supposed victims in Jaffa were mostly supporters of the man known now as “Hitler’s Mufti,” and their fighters had help from some of the Bosnian Muslim Waffen-SS volunteers he had recruited; the exodus of Jaffa residents unfolded gradually over several months of fighting during which the local Arab “National Committee” obviously felt that there was no need to flee and that therefore, families who chose to do so would have to pay a “tax.” Moreover, many of the refugees found safety just a few dozen miles away, often in places where they had relatives.

How does that compare to the ethnic cleansing going on at the same time in Europe and in India?