Robert F. Kennedy, martyred liberal icon, was a reporter for the Boston Post in 1948. He was sent in the spring of that year to Mandatory Palestine to cover the lead up to the British withdrawal. His dispatches are a fascinating glimpse back in time and invaluable historical records. And yet they are also a testament to the ideological stagnation of the Arab world vis a vis Israel.
Then, as now, Israelis saw themselves as fighting for survival against irrational enmity. Then as now, the Arab world abounded in hostility to the very idea of a Jewish presence in its midst which it justified by casting itself as the victim of Western conspiracies. R.F.K.’s accounts and other primary sources would appear to vindicate Israel’s version of events.
At the heart of Arab grievances against Zionism lay the claim that an indigenous people (the Palestinian Arabs) were ethnically cleansed by Zionist colonialists aided by the West. Zionists have long held that, though the Holy Land was not empty at the dawn of political Zionism, the Turkish backwater was in no way inhabited by a distinct people, nor did the Zionists ever adopt a policy of ethnic cleansing.
Kennedy in his first dispatch, puts the Arab claim (which was perhaps more controversial then) to rest almost as an afterthought:
The Jews point with pride to the fact that over 500,000 Arabs in the 12 years between 1932 and 1944, came into Palestine to take advantage of living conditions existing in no other Arab state. This is the only country in the Near and Middle East where an Arab middle class is in existence.
Kennedy later interviewed many people on the ground, on both sides of the conflict, and found himself focusing on the struggle for Jerusalem. The ancient Jewish Quarter of the city had been besieged by Arab forces and almost cut off from the rest of the Jewish population centers, long before the British left Palestine in May of 1948. What Kennedy observed is rampant hatred of Jews – not merely Zionists – on the part of ordinary Jerusalem Arabs, i.e., their neighbours:
The Arabs living in the old city of Jerusalem have kept the age-old habit of procuring their water from the individual cisterns that exist in almost every home. The Jews being more “educated” (an Arab told me that this was their trouble and now the Jews were going to really pay for it) had a central water system installed with pipes bringing fresh hot and cold water. Unfortunately for them, the reservoir is situated in the mountains and it and the whole pipe line are controlled by the Arabs. The British would not let them cut the water off until after May 15th but an Arab told me they would not even do it then. First they would poison it.
Within the Old City of Jerusalem there exists a small community of orthodox Jews. They wanted no part of this fight but just wanted to be left alone with their wailing wall. Unfortunately for them, the Arabs are unkindly disposed toward any kind of Jew and their annihilation would now undoubtedly have been a fact had it not been that at the beginning of hostilities the Haganah moved several hundred well-equipped men into their quarter.
(Emphasis throughout is mine)
Kennedy went on to recount how the Arabs had been arming volunteer fighters from as far as Pakistan and sending them into the borders of Mandatory Palestine long before May 1948, that is, under British noses. Once the war of ’48 started in earnest, after May 15 of that year, R.F.K. made the following observation that, 65 years on, remains an accurate description of the current impasse:
The die has long since been cast; the fight will take place. The Jews with their backs to the sea, fighting for their very homes, with 101 percent morale, will accept no compromise. On the other hand, the Arabs say:
‘We shall bring Moslem brigades from Pakistan, we shall lead a religious crusade for all loyal followers of Mohammed, we shall crush forever the invader. Whether it takes three months, three years, or 30, we will carry on the fight. Palestine will be Arab. We shall accept no compromise.’
In such a war where, as Kennedy reported, people who have immutably refused partition also relish the thought of murdering thousands of innocents because they are Jews (a mere 3 years after Arab leaders supported the Nazis), expulsions are to be expected. Between suffering another genocide and expelling those who have attacked you to satisfy maximalist imperatives, the moral if unfortunate choice is undoubtedly the latter. Indeed, as noted by Benny Morris, a number of expulsions occurred when the Jewish community faced potential extinction. And yet, if we are to trust first hand accounts over later renderings, the Palestinian Arabs who left overwhelmingly did so not compelled by Jewish forces. They left, rather, because of their own leaders and, by and large, without having ever seen a Jewish soldier.
Refugees by choice
Consider in support of this contention the recently released British intelligence archives from 1948:
The Arabs have suffered a series of overwhelming defeats… Jewish victories … have reduced Arab morale to zero and, following the cowardly example of their inept leaders, they are fleeing from the mixed areas in their thousands. It is now obvious that the only hope of regaining their position lies in the regular armies of the Arab states.”
One would expect an intelligence report by the British military about the 1948 war to at least mention expulsions which, we are told today by myriad activists, were rampant. And yet there appears to not have been mention of such. On the contrary, the British report — and bear in mind that according to R.F.K. the British forces in Palestine were exceedingly hostile to Jews– mentions only flight fueled by hysteria, groupthink and “cowardice.” That is, the exact opposite of forced expulsion.
The Refugees Speak… “Mad Hattery” and Myth
Most compelling perhaps is a 1961 in-depth and extensive jewel of a piece on Palestinian Arab refugees by author and journalist Martha Gellhorn (wife of famed author Ernest Hemingway) for The Atlantic. Gellhorn travelled to numerous Arab states bordering Israel as well as to Israel itself in order to put a human face on what she called the “undifferentiated mass” of Palestinian Arab refugees. Her piece, though long, is a must-read study on the birth of anti-Israel propaganda, and the pathologies that fuel it:
Sitting in his neat office, with my guide, the principal of the school (a former member of the Palestinian police), and the camp leader, I listened to the first of what became an almost daily Mad Hatter conversation.
It went like this:
“The Arab countries invaded Israel in 1948 to save the Palestine Arabs from being massacred by the Jews.”
“Were there massacres? Where?”
“Oh, yes, everywhere. Terrible, terrible.”
“Then you must have lost many relatives and friends.” This, being a tiresome deduction from a previous statement, is brushed aside without comment.
Indeed, Palestinian refugees interviewed by Gellhorn, time after time recounted tales of massacres and atrocities that could never, it seemed, be verified. Then as now, an echo chamber of myth and embellished tales of victimhood substituted for what ought to have been a sober look at the role of Arab leadership in bringing about the refugee crisis. Gellhorn paints a picture of widespread auto-indoctrination and an enforced orthodoxy of blame. To read the claims made by leftist NGOs and Pro-Palestinian advocacy groups today is to notice that not much has changed at all. Today, as then, bien-pensants dogmatically cling to a version of events whereby outnumbered and outgunned Jewish forces were entirely to blame for the often destructive and foolish choices of Arab leadership, including the choice to wage genocidal war on nascent Israel.
The Last Vestiges of Journalistic Integrity and Professionalism?
The stark difference between today and the years following the Israeli War of Independence, however, is that journalists then were willing and even eager to challenge the accounts that they heard in order to ensure veracity. Coverage of the Middle East today is all too often a stale mix of cliché and condescension peddled as fact. It is an exceedingly rare thing to see a traditional pro-Palestinian account taken as anything less than the Gospel by today’s Western press.
Not so Gellhorn in 1961. Upon hearing tales of atrocities allegedly committed by the Jews of Jaffa against the city’s Arab inhabitants in 1948, Gellhorn reported the following:
Arab refugees tell many dissimilar versions of the Jaffa story, but the puzzler is: where are the relatives of those who must have perished in the fury of high explosive the infallible witnesses? No one says he was loaded on a truck (or a boat) at gun point; no one describes being forced from his home by armed Jews; no one recalls the extra menace of enemy attacks, while in flight. The sight of the dead, the horrors of escape are exact, detailed memories never forgotten by those who had them. Surely Arabs would not forget or suppress such memories, if they, too, had them.
As for those Arabs who remained behind, they are still in Jaffa–3000 of them–living in peace, prosperity, and discontent, with their heirs and descendants.
Gellhorn eventually tired of the tales that she was hearing. When she arrived to Israel, at the end of her trip, she confronted an Israeli Arab who, being in Israel, was more free to speak candidly. The conversation is telling of the banalized double standards and lack of accountability that characterize the anti-Israel mindset and stain too many diplomatic initiatives to this day:
“In 1947, the United Nations recommended the Partition of Palestine. … The Jews accepted this Partition plan; … Are we agreed so far?”
“It is right.”
“The Arab governments and the Palestinian Arabs rejected Partition absolutely. You wanted the whole country. There is no secret about this. The statements of the Arab representatives, in the UN are on record. The Arab governments never hid the fact that they started the war against Israel. But you, the Palestinian Arabs, agreed to this, you wanted it. And you thought, it seems to me very reasonably, that you would win and win quickly. It hardly seemed a gamble; it seemed a sure bet. You took the gamble and you lost. …”
“Yes.” It was too astonishing; at long last, East and West were in accord on the meaning of words.
“Now you say that you want to return to the past; you want Partition. … Please answer me this, which is what I must, know. If the position were reversed, if the Jews had started the war and lost it, if you had won the war, would you now accept Partition? Would you give up part of the country and allow the 650,000 Jewish residents of Palestine -who had fled from the war–to come back?”
“Certainly not,” he said, without an instant’s hesitation. “But there would have been no Jewish refugees. They had no place to go. They would all be dead or in the sea.“
The More Things Change…
It is interesting to note how, a mere 13 years after the end of the Holocaust, weaponized revisionism was already in vogue among some pro-Palestinian advocates. Specifically, the Holocaust – which Palestinian Arab leadership eagerly supported – was already then recast to serve as a cognitive tool against its Jewish victims. Gellerhorn reports being told, when mentioning the 6 million who were butchered:
Oh, that is all exaggerated. [Hitler] did not [kill 6 million Jews]. Besides, the Jews bluffed Hitler. They arranged in secret that he should kill a few of them–old ones, weak ones–to make the others emigrate to Palestine.
Greta Berlin, organizer of the 2010 Flotilla to Hamas was lambasted for peddling the same arguments last year. Indeed conflation of Zionism and Nazism has become ubiquitous among so many claiming to defend justice.
Having encountered similar attitudes over and over in Beirut, the Jordanian-Occupied West bank, Gaza and Israeli Arab villages, Gellhorn’s frustration turned to outrage. Her pithy observation of the unspoken rules of victimhood is a perfect encapsulation of the moral nuance that is lacking today in reports and histories of the Middle East:
It is hard to sorrow for those who only sorrow over themselves. It is difficult to pity the pitiless. To wring the heart past all doubt, those who cry aloud for justice must be innocent. They cannot have wished for a victorious rewarding war, blame everyone else for their defeat, and remain guiltless. Some of them may be unfortunate human beings… [b]ut a profound difference exists between victims of misfortune (there, but for the grace of God, go I) and victims of injustice.
Today, victimhood — however counterfeit — compels sympathy, even when it shouldn’t. And to compel sympathy is to be right. With respect to the Middle East, moral standing and moral choices no longer intersect in public consciousness.
Gellhorn presciently concluded that the West, when speaking to or about Palestinian Arabs, would “require non-Arabs to treat Arabs as if they were neurotic children, subject either to tantrums or to internal bleeding from spiritual wounds.” While her language is incendiary, it is a fact that today, the politically correct all too often hold Israel responsible for the Arabs’ self-inflicted wounds — to put it bluntly, as if Arabs are essentially not fully capable adults. To thus pity the Arab “other” regardless of his choices is an egregious, despicable form of Orientalism. To rob Arabs of their agency is nothing more than racism masquerading as compassion. To hold them to no standard at all is to despise them.
Indeed, what do the Palestinians have to show for 65 years of moral deflection, canonized exaggerations, and cultivated victimhood? If the Palestinians deserve self-determination, as I think they do, they most certainly deserve accountability as well.