Robert Werdine

Playing the Race Card

Youssef Munayyer, writing in Peter Beinart’s Open Zion of late, made an ungrudging concession to incivility in his latest article, “Blaming the Victim,” where, referencing an article by yours truly among others, he discerned the true motive of those who dare to decry the politicized, semi-fictional, and deligitimizing pro-Palestinian narrative of the 1948 nakba: racism.

Says he:

“Just like those who argue that slavery was good for blacks because it rescued them from the misery of Africa, or like colonialists who argue brutish policies are ultimately good for the natives because they are becoming “civilized,” these arguments about a “self-inflicted” Nakba similarly rely on the dehumanization of the other to justify their mistreatment.”

Allowing for the hyperbole (who argues that slavery was “goodfor blacks?), this seems to be an instance of what psychologists call projection: where a person ascribes his or her own feelings and motives on to others. Mr. Munayyer complains here of the “dehuminazation of the other,” yet he blandly indulges the spurious, ahistorical, left-stereotype of the murdering, land-stealing, ethnic-cleansing Jewish aggressor against a peaceful, helpless Palestinian victim. Distortion of the facts aside, does he see nothing “dehumanizing” about that?    

Also, it was not a war of “resistance” by the Palestinians, as he suggests, but a war of aggression against the Yishuv. Resistance infers a defense against aggression; in this instance it was the Arab forces who were attacking the Yishuv. Indeed, Mr. Munayyer speaks as if peace and harmony were prevailing throughout Palestine, and the forces of the Yishuv just happened out of bed one fine morning and, acting on a whim, expelled some three quarter of a million Arabs.

 But he seems to need reminding that between the passing of the partition on November 30, 1947, and April 2, 1948, the Arab militias (most of whom were from outside Palestine) launched company sized (80-225 soldiers) and battalion sized (300-1200 soldiers) assaults against the Efal neighborhood outside Tel-Aviv (December 4), the Hatikva quarter of Tel-Aviv (December 8 &10), Jewish Jerusalem (December 10), a major convoy to Ben-Shemen (December 14), the settlements of  Kfar Yavetz (December 27),  Kfar-Szold (January 10),  Kfar Uriah (January 11), and on January 14, a Palestinian militia attacked Etzion Bloc, taking heavy casualties, but, in the next two days, wiping out a platoon of 35 Jewish fighters sent in as reinforcements. The Arab Liberation Army also attacked the Jewish settlements of Yechiam (January 20), Tirat Svi (February 16), Magdiel (March 2), Ramot-Naftali (March 4), and Arab militias also successfully ambushed three major Jewish convoys on March 27, 28, & 31, 1948.

The Haganah, in this period (Nov.30, 1947-Apruil 2, 1948), adopted a posture of “aggressive defense.” The policy, such as it was, was to retaliate for individual attacks against the Yishuv, but to avoid large scale attacks that could escalate the level and scale of hostilities. Of course, the Stern and Irgun militias were trading terrorist attacks in the urban areas in this period with their Arab counterparts, but the fact is that the Arabs engaged in more than three times more terrorist bombings, and Arab militias had launched no less than 12 company and battalion sized attacks on Jewish settlements.

Mr Munayyer dismisses the annihilationist and expulsionist sentiments expressed by Palestinian and Arab leaders at the time. Let him. Posterity, thankfully, has preserved both their words and the actions which flowed from their words at Etzion Bloc, Jewish Jerusalem, and elsewhere for us to remember.   

These sentiments, indeed, predated the war. In 1937, when the British Peel Commission recommended thatPalestinebe partitioned into a state where the Jews would get some 15-20% of Palestine and the Arabs would get the rest, Haj Amin al Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, violently rejected the proposal out of hand, and without discussion. Like Hamas leaders today, he would not agree to the creation of any Jewish sovereign entity, no matter how microscopically small. Not only that, but all of Holy Palestine must be Arab and Muslim, and that was that.

What to do about the 400,000 Jews then living in Palestine in 1937? They would have to go, the Mufti said. Like Arafat later on, he was quite explicit and graphic about the means by which they would “have to go” before Arab audiences, but before Westerners he was always more evasive and equivocal. Benny Morris, in his most recent history of the 1948 War, cites some of his testimony before the Peel Commission in 1937:

Question: “Does his eminence think that this country can assimilate and digest the 400,000 Jews now in the country?”


Al Husseini: “No.”


Question: “Some of them would have to be removed by a process kindly or painful as the case may be?”


Al Husseini: “We must leave all this to the future.”


To which the commissioners responded: “We are not questioning the Mufti’s intentions…but we cannot forget what recently happened, despite treaty provisions and explicit assurances, to the Assyrian [Christain] minority in Iraq; nor can we forget that the hatred of the Arab politician for the [Jewish] National Home has never been concealed and that it has now permeated the Arab population as a whole.”

The process by which the Mufti, a staunch, dear friend and ally of Hitler, would remove the Jews, would not be “kindly” to say the least. To call the Mufti and other like-minded extremists of the time proponents of ethnic cleansing, would thus hardly be a slander. Their words and their actions convict them without question or ambiguity. On March 10, 1948, the Mufti promised the Jaffa daily Al Sarih that the Arabs would not only reject the UN partition but “would continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated and the whole of Palestine became a purely Arab state” and later added that the Arabs should “murder the Jews. Murder them all.”  He had been saying the same thing repeatedly for more than two decades, and his were not idle words.

Nor was he alone. Said Ahlman Azzah Pasha, the Arab League’s Secretary General in 1947: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”

Said Ahmed Shukairy, then the Mufti’s spokesman: the war would result in “the elimination of the Jewish State…it does not matter how many Jews there are. We will sweep them into the sea.”

Fawzi al-Qawuqji, commander of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), told Al-Ahram onMarch 9, 1948 that the ALA was fighting for “the defeat of the partition and the annihilation of the Zionists.”

A March 17 NY Times article notes Arab military activity in the Nablus-Tulkharm-Jenin triangle, saying that “the army’s strength was reported to have reached close to 8000 men, with more arriving daily.”

 It also records Abd al-Qader al-Husayni, the Mufti-appointed commander of the Jerusalem front of the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (“Army of the Holy War”) as saying he was “not willing to consider a truce under any circumstances.”

 A March 28 NY Herald Tribune report has Hussein Khalidi, Secretary of the Arab Higher Executive Committee for Palestine pouring scorn on “what he termed ‘sudden Jewish efforts’ to obtain an international force to protect the Holy Land’s Shrines,” adding that this was “due to a realization by the Jews that they could not protect their 100,000 people in Jerusalem.”

 Other than laying bare for all to see their annihilationist and expulsionist ambitions toward a defeated Yishuv should they be victorious, the sentiments of the Mufti, Ahlman Azzah Pasha, and Ahmed Shukairy, as well as those expressed above by al-Qawuqji on March 9, by Abd al-Qader al-Husayni on March 17, and Hussein Khalidi on March 29 also gave voice to the well founded confidence among the Arabs that they were winning the war against the Yishuv at this stage. This was also the consensus view in the international community at the time.  A British report in late March similarly commented:

 “The intensification of Arab attacks on communications and particularly the failure of the Kfar Etzion convoy (March 27-28), probably the Yishuv’s strongest transport unit, to force a return passage has brought home the precarious position of Jewish communities both great and small which depend on supply lines running through Arab controlled country. In particular, it is now realized that the position of Jewish Jerusalem, where a food scarcity already exists, is likely to be desperate after 16 May.”

  Another British report in early April read:

 “It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Yishuv and its leaders are deeply worried about the future. The 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem have been held to ransom and it is doubtful that the Arab economic blockade of the city can be broken by Jewish forces alone. If the Jewish leaders are not prepared to sacrifice the 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem, then they must concede, however unwillingly, that the Arabs have won the second round of the struggle which began with a Jewish victory in the first round on the 29th of November.”

 This then was the dire situation facing the Yishuv in early April of 1948. After the successful ambush of the latest Jewish convoy to Jerusalem on March 31, it was precarious to say the least. The sabotage of the convoys was increasing, the strangulation of the roadways and all arteries of communication between the scattered communities of the Yishuv were sharpening, the attendant shortages of basic commodities and weapons inside Jerusalem were growing, and the siege around the city was tightening.

Up until April 2, the Arabs had developed a shrewd, sensible strategy of tying up the settlements with attacks and attacking the vulnerable roadways between them. Abd al-Qadir al Husayni, the Yishuv’s principal military antagonist in this period, was a very clever and cunning warrior. Rather like the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the American Civil War, he understood how to turn his enemy’s strength into weakness: attack his communications and the roadways by which he receives them. And it worked: by tying the Haganah up with scattered attacks on all sides of the Yishuv communities at carefully placed intervals, and causing them to disperse their superior numbers in defense, Husayni was able to negate his enemy’s superior forces, strangle the Yishuv’s vulnerable supply lines with virtual impunity, and successfully besiege Jerusalem. Despite their weaknesses and disorganization, the Palestinian militias and the ALA had found the Yishuv’s weak spot: the crucial roadways between the scattered settlements, and they hammered home their operational and geographical advantages with a tenacity and a skill that stretched the Yishuv almost to their breaking point. Before early April, the Haganah was, by and large, on the defensive, and fighting for its existence.

The Haganah could count on their tactical superiority and the advantages inherent in the defense and interior lines to fight back the assaults, but the Arabs had retained the operational and geographical advantage: they could attack anywhere, anytime, and the Yishuv could not bring their superior strength to bear on meeting every attack. Until April 2 the Haganah had been on the defensive; now they would either counter-attack or perish. They counterattacked.

As Benny Morris has written, “Given the state of the Yishuv after the terrible losses along the roads, it had no choice: Either it went on the offensive, or it would lose Jewish Jerusalem, and, perhaps, the war.”

 Operation NACHSHON (April 2-April 15), the first of several counter-offensive operations launched by the Haganah outlined by Plan Dalet against Arab and Palestinian militias before May 15, was thus not the unprovoked, optional, and leisurely campaign of ethnic-cleansing and conquest as it is portrayed in the pages of Ilan Pappe and Walid Khalidi; it addressed a deteriorating situation and a grave, existential threat to the Yishuv. NACHSHON was thus launched to defeat and beat back the ALA and the militias besieging the settlements and roadways, to clear the path to besieged Jerusalem, and to consolidate control of the Jewish settlements in danger of being cut off or overrun. The Yishuv took to the offensive in response to this, and only to this.

 Said Mr. Munayyer,

“In reality, the 1947 partition plan was disastrous, and any fair-minded person could see why the native Palestinians opposed it when looking at the plan. Yes, the partition plan called for the creation of two states (two geographically unviable states) which were barely contiguous in some areas and not contiguous in others. In the proposed Jewish state, only 55 percent of the population would be Jewish, the remaining 45 percent would be Palestinian Arab. Given the discussion of ”population transfer,“ Palestinian Arabs knew that the Jewish state might very well act to remove them from its territory to solidify its demographic control.”

In the first place, there was no “discussion of population transfer,” and the partition envisaged no expulsion or transfer of any Palestinian Arabs.

The Zionists who accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan could hardly have been clearer on this. Said Abba Eban during the UN negotiations:

“We relied on the general premise of a historical connection, but made no claims whatever about for the inclusion of particular areas on our side of the partition boundary on the grounds of ancient connections. Since Hebron was full of Arabs, we did not ask for it. Since Beersheba was virtually empty, we put in a successful claim. The central Zionist thesis was that there existed sufficient room within Eretz Israel for a densely populated Jewish society to be established without displacing the Arab populations, and even without intruding upon their deep-rooted social cohesion.”

These sentiments hardly express the language of racism, ethnic cleansing, or any dispute about the Arabs’ attachment to Palestine; quite the contrary.

(Just compare Eban’s comments to the sentiments expressed above by the Mufti, Ahlman Azzam Pasha, Ahmed Shukairy, Hussein Khalidi, and Fawzi al-Quwaqji).

  Secondly, while it is true that some 550,000 Jews and some 400,000 Arabs would be living in the proposed 55% allotted to the Jewish state, and some 800,000 or more Palestinian Arabs would be living in the 41% of the Arab Palestinian state, 62% of the Jewish state envisioned by the partition would have consisted of desert, while the Palestinians were offered the most fertile land. (Some 100,000 Jews and an equal number of Arabs would inhabit the 4% international protectorate ofJerusalem).

Third, the partition would at least have given the Palestinians a state of their own, and, as we know of those who became Arab citizens of Israel, those living in the Jewish state would have been living in a democracy whatever its flaws and imperfections, and at a much higher standard of living than those living anywhere else in the Arab world; absent the partition, Arabs and Jews alike would have been subject to Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian rule, or, rather, misrule, as all the surrounding states had no intention of allowing an independent state to be formed.

Indeed, the fortunes of those Arabs who remained in Israel after the war, compared to those who were now living in the West Bank and Gaza, including those 400-500,000 who were not refugees and were already living there, only underscores this reality. To describe those oppressed and left rotting in refugee camps for decades as being as being merely denied the “self-determination” that Mr.Munyyer claims the partition denied them, would thus be an understatement, and dhimmi status subjugation, expulsion, or worse awaited any Jews left living in Palestine at that time, for the Mufti had more than made clear how he would treat any Jews in his midst if he were their master.


Israeli historian Yoav Gelber made a very sharp observation about Arab historiography of the 1948 War:

“Arab scholars have scarcely endeavored to find out what really took place in that war. Instead, they have elaborated extensively on the rightness of their own case and illegitimacy of the Israeli arguments. In these discussions, exact chronology, reliable sources and accurate arguments have been marginal.”

This is unfortunately true. Mr. Munayyer might have made an argument buttressed by an honest marshalling of facts and evidence. But no. Clearly that would not do. It only serves to also illustrate a grim but unremarkable truth about today’s political discourse, especially on the left: That it is never enough to merely disagree with someone’s views and politics. That it is necessary to deligitimize and even destroy them as moral beings, leaving nothing but a crude, slanderous caricature of hate in place of what might have been an honest, but strong disagreement.

It also serves to underscore how cynically and dishonestly the subject of race is used and abused here. After all, what better way to shut down any rational discussion of a contentious historical issue or someone’s dissenting views than to wave the bloody shirt of “racism.” That will do the trick. Every time. It sucks all of the air out of the discussion and instantly focuses odium on the those who are so accused; it sticks, it stinks, and it works. The accused, now wrong-footed, will then protest their innocence, to skeptical and doubtful notice, while their accuser retains the initiative and the momentum from attention to the charge. Everyone may not know what might or might not have happened in 1948, but everyone sure knows what a racist is.

These continuing efforts to rewrite the events of 1948 are, in the larger picture, merely a bit part of the entire apparatus of long standing assault on, and deligitimization of, the Jewish state: The recasting of the events of the wars of 1948, 1956,1967, Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2009 into wars of unprovoked aggression; the release of the one-sided blood libel of the Goldstone Report in 2009; the recasting of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 into a vicious, unprovoked attack on “peaceful” club and knife wielding activists—it’s all a vast, sordid enterprise of brazen historical revisions, rewrites, distortions, and out and out lies in the service of the Orwellian Big Lie: that this nation, Israel, is uniquely evil and whose antagonists are all, without exception, innocent, virtuous victims.  

 The efforts of Mr. Munayyer, Ilan Pappe, and others of their ilk on the anti-Israel left to combat what is called “Nakba denial” is in fact nothing but an effort of propaganda and politics. It seeks to rewrite history according to a certain perspective, in this case Palestinian, and to make this perspective into a reality as unassailable and inarguable a fact as the Holocaust. It seeks to deny or downplay the Arabs’ rejection of the partition, the war of aggression that was waged against the Yishuv, and which led to the refugee crisis that followed. It recasts the events of 1948 in crude, primary colors, where one side is all evil, and the other is all virtue and victimhood.

 A truly balanced and nuanced reading of this epochal event neither paints the Israelis as evil, denies the suffering and victimhood of the Palestinians, nor denies the tragedy of their dispossession. These efforts to stamp out “Nakba denial” are a brazen attempt to silence debate on a historical event, and is, therefore, a mere extension of political activism and propaganda. It has nothing to do with historical truth as it is known in free societies, which is always subject to a rigorous process of scholarly debate, research and scrutiny, and it is exactly the knowledge that this narrative of 1948 does not and cannot withstand the impact of reasoned debate and scrutiny, that necessitates this effort.

 How sad.




About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.