Zev Farber

Palestinian Nakba and Israeli Independence: Telling Two Incomplete Stories

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has proven to be one of the most intractable problems in modern times. Putting aside blame and strategic solutions for a moment, is it possible to tell the Zionist story and the Palestinian story back-to-back, in a cogent and empathetic way, remaining as true as possible to factual accuracy? Though admittedly I live on one side of this dual narrative (I am a Jew living in Israel), on this year’s May 15, the day after the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence and the day of Palestinians nakba (“catastrophe”), I want to try:

The Zionist-Jewish Narrative

The Cisjordan (and part of the Transjordan) was the homeland of Israelites and Judahites thousands of years ago. Although the ancient polities of Israel, Judah and later Judea were conquered by Assyria, Babylonia, and Rome, respectively, and their populations were exiled to other countries, the Jews — physical and spiritual descendants of these nations — always yearned to return to the land.

For two millennia, only a small number of Jews remained in the Cisjordan, living as a minority group in the land that was once theirs. Most Jews during this time lived as exiles in other countries, suffering bouts of persecution and slaughter.

The Zionist movement emerged in 19th century Europe, when a handful of mostly secular Ashkenazi Jews said that enough is enough; the Jews need to take their fate into their own hands. Starting in 1881, waves of Jews started making aliyah to Israel, joining the local Sephardic Jews. The immigrants began to build an infrastructure by buying land from the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Palestine, and establishing farming collectives and cooperatives (moshavim and kibbutzim) as well as urban settlements.

Eventually, when Palestine was taken from the Ottomans in World War I, and given as a mandate to the British, the Jews were finally promised a homeland in Palestine. This was made explicit in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Nevertheless, the British soon went back on their word.

First, Transjordan became a separate polity, and the promised homeland became only the Cisjordan. Then, beginning in 1922, a series of White Papers were issued calling a halt to Jewish immigration to Palestine, and emphasizing the rights of the local Arabs to future self-determination. But this did not stop Jewish immigration, fueled by the desire to bring the two-thousand-year exile to an end.

In 1936, the League of Nations’ Peel Commission suggested establishing a Jewish State on around 25% of the Cisjordan, with the rest going to the local Arabs, but this was rejected by the Arab High Committee as a non-starter and the idea was dropped. As Ben-Gurion noted years later, if this plan had been accepted, six million Jews would have escaped the Nazi genocide.

In 1939, Great Britain issued its final White Paper, curtailing Jewish Immigration to Palestine, and stating that the Jews currently living there should be permitted to live inside a future Arab Palestine. All the while, Jews were still moving to Palestine in a significant trickle, trying to escape from the Nazis.

Following World War II, and the decimation of Ashkenazi Jewry in the Shoah, the world finally saw  — if only for a brief moment — the real plight of Jews in exile, and on November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted on a new partition plan, this one granting 56% of the Cisjordan to the Jews. Again the Arab leadership rejected the plan, and on May 15, 1948, when the British officially left Palestine, the Jews were attacked on all sides.

Unexpectedly, the new and tiny State of Israel succeeded in defending itself against multiple standing armies and won stable borders on 78% of the Cisjordan. The rest of the Cisjordan — the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — did not become a Palestinian state, but was taken over by Egypt and Jordan respectively.

During the decade that followed the War of Independence, the Sephardic Jews were expelled from virtually all their native, Muslim countries, in protest against the founding of Israel. These Jewish refugees came to Israel — 850,000 in total — and the fledgling state absorbed them all. Despite the economic strain, this ended up strengthening the country and filling the void left by the missing six million European Jews, who never arrived and never would. All this time, the Arab states absorbed none of the 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinian refugees at all, preferring to keep them in refugee camps for decades.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Arab neighbors remained hostile. In 1967, Israel preemptively struck Egypt, which had been preparing its army to attack. Jordan joined the war on Egypt’s side, and in a few days, Gaza and the West Bank were taken by Israel from Egypt and Jordan respectively. At this point the Jewish state had 100% of the Cisjordan as well as the Golan Heights, which were taken from Syria, who also joined the war. Since then, other wars have been fought, but Israel remains independent and strong, and Jews have a home again in their native land.

This is what Israelis and Jews all over the world celebrate on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. This is the Zionist narrative, or at least one version of it, and it is true. BUT, it is also selective. The Palestinian nationalists also have a narrative. Here is one version of it as I understand it:

The Palestinian Nationalist Narrative

The Palestinian people have been living on both sides of the Jordan for as far back as they can remember. It may not be thousands of years, but it is probably hundreds, if not more than a thousand. For all that time, they were ruled by a series of outside powers.

Although the Palestinians had a short-lived rebellion against the Ottoman Turks in 1834, in which they had self-rule of a sort, when the Zionists started to arrive in 1882, the Palestinians had long been subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Before the first Aliyah, the population of Palestine was around 320,000, with only 25,000 of these being native, Arabic speaking Jews (that is less than 13%).

Although official Ottoman policy was not to sell land to the Eastern European Zionist immigrants, the rule was often “honored in the breach” and Zionist Jews succeeded in purchasing land from Turkish land owners, often absentee landlords, mainly in the Sharon, Jezreel, and Jordan valleys, as well as the coastal plain. The new Jewish owners then built Jewish-only farms and villages, and the Palestinian peasants who had been living there needed to look elsewhere for a place to live.

Though at first, most Palestinians believed the Zionist enterprise would fail or prove to be insignificant, by the early 1900s it was clear that the movement was taking root. In keeping with the nationalist Zeitgeist driving the Zionist movement and the Young Turk revolution, the Palestinians also began a national awakening. As part of this, they began to mobilize to stop the Zionist threat.

World War I changed the picture entirely, since for the first time since the crusades, Palestine was ruled by a European power, with which the Ashkenazi Jewish culture of Europe was much more attune than Palestinian Arab culture. Even worse, the British released the Balfour Declaration (1917), stating that the United Kingdom looked favorably upon the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. This shocking declaration was composed in large part as a token of gratitude for the help given the British army by the ardent Zionist chemist, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, whose lab developed a way of producing large quantities of acetone, which the British Army needed for its canons.

Soon after, the British came to their senses. First, reality forced them to make Transjordan into a Hashemite Kingdom — not a Jewish state, though admittedly not a Palestinian one either (Hashemites are Saudi Arabians). Second, under pressure from the Arab world, the UK rolled back its bombastic promises to the Jews, and for the first time, began to discuss the possibility of Palestinian self-rule in the Cisjordan.

In 1936, the League of Nations suggested a partition, in which 25% of Palestine would be given to the Jews, and the native Arab population of that area forcibly transferred to the rest of Palestine. This plan was refused; why should any Palestinians need to leave their homes, and why should any native Palestinian land be given to European Jewish immigrants to rule?  The League of Nations backed away from this idea, and yet, even with the British White Papers curtailing legal immigration, the Zionists kept coming.

After the Holocaust, the world felt guilty — understandably so — for what it had done to the Jews, which is what led so many countries to vote for the UN’s revised partition plan in 1947. But this is unfair, passing-the-buck behavior: The Palestinians did not genocidally massacre European Jews — the Germans did. Why should the solution to this problem be at the expense of Palestinian sovereignty over part of their own territory? Let the Ashkenazim have a piece of Germany or Poland!

To be clear, the Palestinians were not asking for a Judenrein Palestine. Palestinians never had a problem with the idea that Arabic speaking Jews, who were native to the land, would remain as citizens of an independent Palestine, but the Zionist Europeans were a different matter.

Sure, all Jews, even European Ashkenazim, have some antiquated connection to the land from thousands of years ago, but for the past two millennia, they lived in Europe and became an integral part of European society. Surely ancient history is not enough of a reason to give sovereignty to European immigrants over native Palestinians. But this is what happened when the UN voted to give 56% of the Cisjordan to the Zionists.

The vote passed by a slim majority. Not only the Palestinians, but the entire Arab world rejected the Zionist state concept, and when the British left and the Israelis declared an independent state, a concerted effort was made by many Arab polities to conquer it and have Arab rule in what was, essentially, a historically Arab land.

Many Palestinians temporarily left their homes in mixed cities such as Haifa so that the Arab armies could retake the land without accidentally killing Palestinians. When the Jews ended up winning, and in control of 78% of the land, these Palestinians were locked out permanently as refugees.

In addition, the Jews cleared thousands of Arabs out of some demographically Palestinian areas, such as Ramla, for what they considered safety reasons, such as wanting a Jewish corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These exiles too have never been allowed to return. This is the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem and the reason the Palestinians still demand the right of return.

In future years, attempts to retake Palestine only led to more land ending up under Zionist rule. In 1967, the newly conquered Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza were not even made citizens of Israel, but were forced to live under the rule of the Israeli military. The settlement enterprise almost guarantees that this arrangement will be permanent.

In short, the Palestinian people, the actual natives of Palestine east and west of the Jordan for the last few hundred years if not longer, have never been given the opportunity of self-rule, and if the Zionists have their way, they never will. This is what Palestinians mourn on Nakba Day, the day of Palestinian catastrophe.

This is the Palestinian narrative as I understand it, or at least one version of it. Like the Zionist narrative, it is true as well as selective.

The next question is: can we weave these together into an integrated story — a tale of two peoples and one land? Admittedly, doing so will not solve any problems, but maybe it can be a start.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He is also the senior editor of and a novelist (writing as Z. I. Farber).
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