Philip Gold

Talking Israel to Americans: Part Two, A Strange Thing Happened in May 1948

This is a series about Americans talking to Americans about Israel. The purpose is to add a few items that are not often mentioned in the various approved scripts. Six in particular.

The first came last Thursday. An evocative bit of historical demography: According to British census statistics, between 1922 and 1942 the non-Jewish population of Palestine doubled, to well over a million. Now, why would half a million Muslims choose to enter Mandatory Palestine?

The answers are complex and varied, from Egyptians fleeing famine to Muslims choosing not to live in the now-European sections of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Importantly, the British offered relative stability and justice. More importantly, the Zionists were transforming the place. Perhaps “resurrection” might be a more applicable term, building and planting after a millennium-plus of malign neglect.

The British never contributed much in Palestine. Their interests in the Arab world went mostly elsewhere, to the oil-rich, and to their Jordanian and Egyptian surrogates. It was the Jews who were working the miracle.

In other words, Muslims came to Palestine during the Mandatory period, not despite the Zionists, but because of them . . . and because of the very tangible benefits, from clinics to bus service, the Zionists offered.

So what went wrong?

Many, many things. If in America all politics is local, in Israel, all politics is, and always has been, national. The complexities and injustices of Zionist land purchases — for example, Arab effendi selling land registered to them under Turkish law, but not really theirs — are part of the story, as is Zionist expansion under questionable conditions. So was the endless debate over whether to employ Arabs, and at what and for how much, and whether to buy Arab products.

In a small, poor country with little to export, and with a rapidly rising immigrant population, forming a seasonal labor force plus an urban proletariat, i.e., cheap exploitable labor . . . strife was inevitable. Now factor in the religious differences and the sense that Zionist penetration was merely another form of European imperialism.

And worst of all, in many ways . . .

To the Jews, the Palestinians simply didn’t matter. And the Palestinians knew it.

They mattered as enemies, of course. They mattered as obstacles to be dealt with. But despite the occasional rhetoric (Is there anything David Ben-Gurion didn’t say?) about a common future, and occasional genuine regard, the Palestinians were no more important to the Zionists than the Native Americans had been to the white settlers on their three-thousand mile westward push.

People don’t like to feel that they don’t exist, or live as strangers in their own homes.

For millennia, a Palestinian people hadn’t existed. But by the late 19th century, it was clear that the Ottoman overlords wouldn’t be around forever and that fierce ethnic nationalism, that splendid European invention, was the wave of the future. You can trace the beginnings of the Palestinian people, of a national consciousness, back at least that far.

But it was the Jews who acted. Needless to say, before World War I, they dealt primarily with established governments: Ottoman, British, French, German. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, a three-sentence document as mealy-mouthed as it was desperate, made no mention of indigenous political rights or aspirations. The League of Nations, in assigning the Palestine Mandate to Britain, paid as little attention to Palestinian national aspirations, assuming they were even recognized, as the Versailles Peace Conference and the League had paid attention to, say, Ho Chi Minh.

It was simply how things were done back then. You might wish a great independent future for the natives, someday. But consult them now? Not hardly.

Which brings us to the second vital point. Not just that the Palestinian Muslims were not consulted by all those European gentlemen who presumed to rule the world – they have never been seriously consulted by anybody.

To put it a bit differently: The Palestinian people, as a national entity, has never had a chance to express its own desires as a people. Europeans had no interest in listening. Neither did all the Arabs who set themselves up as their leaders and protectors, and who enforced their leadership and protection with guns and other instruments for procuring, if not enthusiasm, then at least silent acquiescence.

The list is long, from the Grand Mufti and the Arab League to the various dictators of the “front-line” and other involved Muslim states, to the PLO and its breakaways, to the present Hamas and Palestinian Authority and BDS and the UN’s professional dole-keepers, and not even the experts know who might be lengthening the list next.

To repeat: Never, not under the British, not from the Arabs, not from Israel, have the Palestinian people, as a people, been free to express their own desires. Given that, since 1948, their experiences have been so diverse, it is hard to say what their choices might be, were they capable of choice.

A referendum asking, “Would you like Israel to disappear tomorrow?” might draw a hefty majority.

But beyond that . . . what?

So the second point, to which we shall return: The Arab Israeli middle class, the exploited residents of the Territories, the stateless scattered throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. . . yes, they’re a self-conscious people. But what does that lead to?

It leads to the third point. The Israeli War of Independence, aka the Palestinian Nakba, was a long and vicious affair. By some estimates, half the Palestinian population fled voluntarily or was forced to leave.

Half didn’t. And on 14/15 May 1948, the new State of Israel declared them citizens. By international law and by the usage of the era, Israel could have declared them enemy aliens, perhaps expelled them, or worse. Who would have stopped Israel? Not an America with far greater concerns. Not an exhausted Soviet Union with a new empire still to subdue and garrison. Certainly not the laughably-mal-monikered United Nations.

Three years after World War II, millions of refugees and displaced persons still wandered the globe; communist victories in China, Tibet and Indochina would add millions more. A few hundred thousand Palestinians with all those rich Arabs to take them in? Who cared?

Israel cared. Israel cared enough to declare its enemies within its borders, citizens. Not a full or equal citizenship. Arabs lived under military law for the next ten years and today, no one would claim even a rough equality, or a chance of achieving it.

But in human affairs, the standard is not perfection. The standard is the alternative. What Israel might have done to the remaining Palestinians, against what Israel did.

Next Thursday: Nothing Works

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.