Thinking about 1948

Last month, protestors in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement who disrupted a Students Supporting Israel event at UCLA shouted the following clarifying words: “We don’t want two states.  We want 48!”  They were affirming that the BDS movement wishes to turn the clock back in the Middle East to 1948, before there was a State of Israel, and thereby to undo history.  They were saying they oppose the existence of any Jewish state in any part of Palestine.

This negationist viewpoint is not well known by many who experience the frequent BDS campaigns protesting Israel’s violations of human rights on US campuses. Truly, it should be better known, since BDS leader Marwan Barghouti and others speak clearly on the question.  Barghouti speaks and writes of a one state solution, arguing that “accepting Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ on our land is impossible.” He believes that a two-state solution is “an immoral solution.” The simple belief by many BDS adherents that, as if by some magic, Israel would not have been created, there would be a Palestinian state also doesn’t withstand careful examination.

A single Palestinian state is not what Palestine in the late 1940s was destined to be, nor were Palestinians sufficiently powerful or advanced in the arts of intergroup solidarity, leadership, and governance to assure that any such thing could or would happen at that time. Scholars who study Palestine recognize that the land designated by the UN in November 1947 to be partitioned and in which were would be two states, one Jewish one and one Arab, was also an object of inter-imperial rivalry before and during the Israeli War of Independence and after.  Although Great Britain, the League of Nations mandatory power governing the land had announced its intention to end its role and to abandon Palestine, leading to the UN General Assembly discussion and vote on partition, Great Britain continued to be deeply involved in intrigue in the area and had serious designs to restore British influence under new conditions.

The whole Western Levant was an arena of imperial rivalry pitting Great Britain against France, and there were specific designs held by regimes in Syria, Iraq, and Transjordan on pieces of Palestine territory.  It was more likely that without a Jewish state, or with a delimited Jewish state confined to the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa (Atlit to Ashdod), the remainder of the land would be carved up and divided among important regional rivals rather than be a building block for a Palestinian state.  A clandestine plan existed for a time involving British intelligence whereby Lebanon would take up the Western Galilee, Syria would grab the Eastern Galilee, and Egypt and Transjordan would absorb all the rest; partition would be reversed and abandoned.    Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was aware of these British machinations and openly alleged that Britain in 1947-48 was seeking to block partition and encourage the advance of Arab armies.

The scholarship suggests that Britain conducted a two-track policy in the Middle East in these years before, during, and after the War of Independence: one, an official policy that was defined by Whitehall; the second, a more informal and secretive “regional” policy implemented by “agents in the field.”  A small, influential group of Arabist secret agents manipulated the cabinet in London and implemented their own policies. They did not merely gather and interpret information and recommend policy but controlled the flow of information and implemented their own policies while keeping London decision makers in the dark. They employed undercover political operations, clandestine diplomacy, and covert propaganda to manipulate Arab leaders and public opinion.

The framework that BDS supporters employ in understanding Israel’s origins emphasizes the concept of a settler colonial regime that insinuates itself under imperial rule and then, at a further stage of development, takes over from and replaces the original imperial power, replacing one structure of power over the indigenous people or peoples with another in a new situation.  But a different intellectual framework, inserting Palestine into the story of great power and regional rivalries in the area, indicates some limitations of this approach.  As well as erasing the specific circumstances of Jewish migration from situations of persecution in European empires, which shaped Zionist intentions and the patterns of Jewish adjustment in Palestine, the settler colonial framework imagines a land easily and independently partitioned into two parts or into a single new state arising from the indigenes separate from any influence by key forces in the international system interested in Palestine.

After the war, British and French, and now Soviet and U.S. interests clashed in this regional arena – whether such principals were involved in efforts to sustain colonial influence, pursue oil interests, or build defense alliances in a new Cold War – and rivalries among relatively newly created regimes in the region added an additional layer, with grasping neighbors and unstable regimes interested to participate in and benefit from the great game. Iraqi leaders had their own designs on gobbling up Syria, and the rulers of Transjordan were interested in a Hashemite alliance including Transjordan, the West Bank, and Greater Syria. Additional intrigues were involved in strategically stirring up separate actions at times by Druze, Bedouin, and – in Syria and Iraq – Kurdish forces. Indeed, the region was replete with competing actors with differing visions and interests, much as it is today, with not one of these actors interested in a Palestinian state in the sense of the independent national liberation kind contemporary BDS supporters imagine and desire.

In the end, a Jewish state emerged in 1948, and Arab territories in Palestine were gobbled up by these other regimes, with Jordan annexing the West Bank and Egypt taking Gaza.  Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi also retrospectively assesses and laments “the striking lack of organization, cohesion, and unanimity” in “the Palestinian polity” during the late 1940s.  There were no functioning national representative institutions, no centralized para-state mechanisms; there was no central financial mechanism; Arab leaders were sharply divided; and no central military apparatus existed.  Indeed, even Palestinian fighting during the war had a local rather than national character.  During the Mandate years, the British had done woeful little to  help build national political institutions and a state structure or prepare Palestinian Arabs for national self-rule;  as a consequence of this reality and also due to the failed Arab rebellion 1936-39 which British forces put down harshly, the Arab movement was neither strong or focused enough to create and build a state of its own at the time.

BDS folks think in formulas and simplistic models, abstracting from the complexity and dynamism of actual history and from the need of those who might wish a state to be prepared and ready to act unitedly together to build it. Despite interest in a Greater Syria during these years, that vision did not come to pass.  Despite interest in a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one, that did not come to pass either.  BDS partisans imagine an outcome that was unlikely at the time and for which the Arabs in Palestine were too weak, divided and unprepared to create.  Many of those weaknesses, failures, and divisions continue to characterize the Palestinians and their national movement up to today.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.