Some Context for the Current Crisis in Gaza

Zeev Sternhell, an important Israeli historian, commented in 2013 that

 Israel is gradually being distanced from the family of the world’s enlightened nations – by laws being proposed in the Knesset that are founded on openly declared ethnic and national discrimination, and by the oppressive regime in the West Bank.

Gershom Gorenberg describes Jerusalem as “ripping apart” under the tensions and racism now rising to the surface. He is referring to the ruthless rage  and violent tribalism of people such as news blogger David Rubin, who, on the Israel National News site, writes the following:

Saul, the first king of ancient Israel, was removed from the throne by Samuel the Prophet because he didn’t completely obliterate the enemy’s animals, even though he did destroy virtually all of the enemy’s people.

Yes, Saul was in defiance of a specific command to obliterate the Amalekites, but the general lesson for our times is clear: When fighting a war against an enemy, the enemy must be destroyed, and decisively, without excessive concern for who is an active soldier.

However, the first step is to identify the enemy. In this case, the enemy is not just Hamas, which kidnapped and murdered the teenage boys and has been firing rockets at Israeli cities from their strongholds in Gaza for years. The enemy is also Fatah . . . .

And yes, the enemy is also the civilians who voted these two terrorist organizations into power. Not every German was an active Nazi, just as not every Gazan is an active Hamas member, and not every Arab resident of Samaria is an active member of Fatah paying the terrorists to kill Jewish children.

Nonetheless, an enemy is an enemy and the only way to win this war is to destroy the enemy, without excessive regard for who is a soldier and who is a civilian…. [1]

 The trend Sternhell describes is an increasingly explicit racism emerging at all levels of Israeli society. We should note, however, that this is not a new phenomenon. It is an extension of a long history of ethnic exclusion and racist ideology inhabiting central strains of Zionist ideology and practice.

Contempt for Arabs generally and Palestinian natives specifically has from the start been a dominant motif in political Zionism. Racist ideology tends to emerge whenever there is a need to justify racist practices: in this case, those who desired an ethnically pure state in a place that was inhabited by an unwanted ethnic group (see below) were forced to find ways of interpreting and justifying the situation. The earliest emergence of political Zionism was keenly aware of this contradiction. In the wake of the first Zionist Congress, in 1897, the rabbis of Vienna sent a fact-finding mission to Palestine. The mission struck directly at the problem: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”

This did not bother Theodor Herzl, however. The father of modern Zionism had already reflected in his diary that to found a Jewish state, the native population would first need to be removed. Herzl notes:

We must expropriate gently . . . We shall have to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country . . . Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly. [2]

 This nationalistic vision of ethnic expulsion was shared by the Israeli state’s founders, including Ben Gurion. One of the primary instruments for the process of ethnic homogenization was the Jewish National Fund, whose purpose was to transfer property and wealth out of the hands of Arabs and into the hands of Jews. This was euphemistically referred to as “redeeming” the land. The quality or type of person owning the land was irrelevant; in this logic, only ethnicity mattered. Once in the hands of the JNF, the land was considered inalienably Jewish and was never to be sold or rented to any non-Jew, in perpetuity (more on this below).

While the operations of the JNF have been a mostly non-violent means of creating an ethnically-pure ownership class throughout Israel, there has always been a corollary of violence. Israeli commanders from the 1948 war freely talk today about having razed villages and perpetrated acts of terror in order to purge the land of its Arab inhabitants. In 2004, for example, Yitzhak Pundak, commander during the war, told Haaretz:

There were two hundred villages [in the front] and these are gone. We had to destroy them, otherwise we would have had Arabs here [namely in the southern part of Palestine] as we have in Galilee. We would have had another million Palestinians.

He reiterated these comments to IDF Radio in 2013. But this was already well-known, and freely discussed by Israeli figures of state. Moshe Dayan said in a 1969 Haaretz interview, for example,

We came to their country which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is a Jewish state here. […] Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. […] There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

But before the Arab towns and villages were flattened, their residents were put to flight, and not permitted to return. The IDF archives from the 1948 war supply voluminous documentation. For example, historian Benny Morris (who has offered the most authoritative accounts of the archives) cites a 1948 IDF report assessing the flight of several hundred thousand Palestinians between December 1947 and June 1948. The report concludes that “at least 55 percent of the total of the exodus was caused by our [Haganah/IDF] operations and by their influence.” [3]

This comes as no surprise, since anti-Arab terror was feature of the war effort. The Irgun command, in the wake of the Deir Yassin massacre, sent an internal message about the “wonderful operation of conquest,” saying: “as in Deir Yassin, so everywhere.” This attitude was not merely a local aberrance, but reflected sentiments from the highest places. Morris reports on a meeting in which Ben Gurion, Allon, Yitzhak Rabin, and others reflected the Hagana attack on Lydda and Ramleh. In response to Allon’s query about what to do with the towns’ 70,000 Arabs, “Ben Gurion made a dismissive, energetic gesture with his hand and said: ‘Expel them (garesh otam).” [4]

This is one example of the ethnic expulsion that took place during the 1948 war (and was extended during the 1967 war). Benny Morris summarizes thus:

During the second stage [of the 1948 war], while there was no blanket policy of expulsion, the Haganah’s Plan D clearly resulted in mass flight. Commanders were authorized to clear the populace out of villages and certain urban districts, and to raze the villages if they felt a military need. Many commanders identified with the aim of ending up with a Jewish state with as small an Arab minority as possible. Some generals, such as Allon, clearly acted as if driven by such a goal. . . .

On June 16, the cabinet . . . resolved to bar the return of [Arab] refugees. The IDF general staff ordered its units to stop would-be returnees with live fire. At the same time the army, the settlements, and the JNF Lands Department took a number of initiatives designed to obviate a return [of Arab refugees to their former homes]. Abandoned villages were razed or mined or, later, filled with new Jewish immigrants, as were abandoned urban neighborhoods; fields were set alight, and landowners still in place were urged to sell out and leave; and new settlements were established on Arab sites and began to cultivate the abandoned fields. (256-57.) [5]

The ideological groundwork for the violence of expulsion had been laid in the decades prior to the war. Pre-state Zionists had developed a consensus that the native Arab population would need to be expelled in order to make room for an ethnically pure Jewish state. Among the most telling documents on this subject is Ben Gurion’s diary. In a 1937 entry, Ben Gurion wrote:

 With the evacuation of the Arab community from the valleys we achieve, for the first time in our history, a real Jewish state [. . .] We achieve the possibility of a giant national settlement, on a large area that is all in the hands of the state [. . .]. As with a magic wand, all the difficulties and defects that preoccupied us until now in our settlement enterprise [will vanish]. [. . .] We are given an opportunity that we never dreamed of and could not dare dream of in our most daring imaginings. [. . .] A continuous block of two and a half million dunams [. . .] the possibility of the new settlement of fifty or one hundred thousand families [. . .] when we have a Jewish state in the country and [outside] a Jewish people 16 million strong we must first of all cast off the weakness of thought and will and prejudice that [says that] this transfer [of the Arab population] is impracticable.”

 [. . . ] Any doubt on our part about the necessity of this transfer, any doubt we cast about the possibility of its implementation, any hesitancy on our part about its justice may lose [us] an historic opportunity that may not recur.”

 [. . .] There are a number of things that [we] struggle for now [but] which we cannot achieve now. For example the Negev. [On the other hand] the evacuation [of the Arabs from] the [Jezreel] Valley we shall achieve now–and, if not, perhaps we will never achieve it. [. . . ] This thing must be done now–and the first step–perhaps the crucial [step]–is conditioning ourselves for its implementation. [6]

The mind frame of one of Zionism’s central players comes across clearly. One month later, Ben Gurion would make the following statement to the 20th Zionist Congress, convened in Zurich:

We do not want to expropriate, [but] transfer of population has already taken place in the [Jezreel] Valley, in the Sharon [Plain] and in other places. You are aware of the work of the Jewish National Fund in this respect. Now a transfer of wholly different dimensions will have to be carried out. In various parts of the country new Jewish settlement will not be possible unless there is a transfer of the Arab fellahin . . . The transfer of the population is what makes possible a comprehensive settlement program. . . . The growing Jewish power in the country will increase our possibilities to carry out a large transfer. [7]

Note again euphemism “transfer” for what we would now call expulsion, ethnic homogenization, or ethnic cleansing. Ben Gurion continued promoting the idea of expelling Arabs from the land, stating in 1938: “I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see in it anything immoral.” [8] There was, according to Morris, a consensus on the matter within the nascent state. The director of the Jewish Agency’s immigration department (Eliahu Dobkin) would say, for example, that “There will be in the country a large [Arab] minority and it must be ejected. There is no room for our internal inhibitions . . . .” [9] These views express an internal consensus within the nascent Israeli state to expel the Arab population from desired territory in Palestine. These views have been copiously documented by during the last three decades, and quotes like those above can be extended considerably.

During the 1948 war, the ideology of expulsion outlined above translated operationally into a strategy of terrorism designed to produce the desired flight of the local population. Morris summarizes thus:

Almost all the massacres followed a similar course: a unit entered a village, rounded up the menfolk in the village square, selected four or ten or fifty of the army-age males (in some cases according to prepared lists. . .), lined them up against a wall, and shot them. Some of the massacres were carried out immediately after the conquest of the village by the assaulting troops, though most occurred in the following days. In some cases (as in Majd al Kurum on 5 or 6 November) the massacres occurred ostensibly as part of the unit’s efforts to forces the villagers to hand over hidden weapons, though more often it seems to have been connected to a process of intimidation geared to provoking the villagers into flight. (as in Ilabun, Jish, etc.). (2007, 55.)

 The systematic discrimination against the Arab population of Israel and Palestinian Territories has been codified into law from the start. Embedded in the JNF’s charter is a notion of explicit ethnic discrimination, such that Jews, and only Jews, may access lands acquired by the JNF. The Israeli state has used this agency as a mechanism for systematically transferring land and property into Jewish-only hands. A 2014 Haaretz editorial reports that

 The JNF owns 13 percent of the regulated lands in Israel, and wields governmental authorities like the power to confiscate lands (purchasing them for public needs). It has signed deals with the state including land swaps and money transfers estimated in the billions of shekels. In 1961 the JNF signed a pact with the state stipulating that JNF lands would be passed to the Israel Land Authority, which would pass the income from the lease-holders and tenants back to the JNF.

After the establishment of Israel, the state sold the JNF lands it had confiscated from Palestinians. In 2009 the state and the JNF signed an “agreement on principles” aimed at giving those who leased JNF lands full ownership of them.

A report by Human Rights Watch outlines the ethnic discrimination at the heart of the JNF’s mission:

 The JNF has a specific mandate to develop land for and lease land only to Jews. Thus the 13 percent of land in Israel owned by the JNF is by definition off-limits to Palestinian Arab citizens….

The JNF acquired approximately 78 percent of its land holdings from the state between 1949 and 1953, much of it the land of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that the state confiscated as “absentee property.”

. . . The Jewish National Fund was established in 1901 with the aim of acquiring land in Israel for the settlement of Jews. Under Israeli law the JNF enjoys a special status and is granted the privileges of a public authority. The 1961 Memorandum and Articles of Association of the JNF state that the ILA will administer all JNF-owned lands and that the objectives of the JNF remain to acquire property in Israel “for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands and properties.” The JNF interprets the Memorandum as prohibiting the allocation of its lands to “non-Jews.”

While the JNF’s activities are explicitly discriminatory, Israel’s Basic Laws regarding land fare no better, though they are less explicit in their rhetoric about ethnic-based discrimination. A 2013 report appearing in Haaretz (‘Discrimination Against Israeli Arabs Still Rampant, 10 Years On’) on the legacy of the [Justice Theodore] Or Commission describes the situation as follows:

Based on our organization‘s [i.e., the State Commission of Inquiry] ongoing monitoring of government policy toward Arab citizens, we see that 10 years after the report, not only has there been no redistribution, but the ongoing allocation of resources in almost all spheres is still very unequal. The result is acute inequality in all areas of life.

. . . specifically in the important sphere of land allocation, there has been almost no improvement in the past 10 years.

In order to demonstrate the depth of discrimination we can point out that since the foundation of the state until this day, the two groups – Arabs and Jews – have grown at similar rates (eight to tenfold), but that the state has established 700 (!) new communities for Jews (including new cities) – and not a single one for Arabs, with the exception of permanent towns for Bedouin citizens who were removed from their homes.

But unfortunately, it can be said that not only was there no progress in this sphere, but in recent years a very dangerous political trend is on the rise: Groups on the extreme right, which are members of the governing coalition and even the ruling party, are conducting a political campaign against the rights of Arab citizens. In the previous Knesset, we saw many anti-Arab legislative initiatives, some of which received broad support and, unfortunately, led to new discriminatory laws.

Historian Ilan Pappe summarizes the effect of the ethnic discrimination embedded in Israel’s land laws:

The bottom line of this almost two-decade-long bureaucratic process (1949-1967) was that the legislation regarding the JNF, barring the selling, leasing and sub-letting of land to non-Jews, was put into effect for most of the state lands (more than ninety per cent of Israel’s land) . . . .  [Hence] the Palestinian minority in Israel, seventeen per cent of the total population . . . has been forced to make do with just three per cent of the land. They are allowed to live on only two percent of the land; the remaining one per cent was defined as agricultural land which cannot be built upon. In other words, today 1.3 million people live on that two per cent. (2006, 222.)

 It is in light of this pervasive discrimination and the desire for ethnic purity at the center of Israeli state power that we should assess the current situation in Gaza and the intentions of the present Israeli administration.

Returning to the comments by Zeev Sternhell, he concludes that the racism now emerging in force in Israeli society [10] is a function of the ethnic discrimination at the heart of the state and its Zionist ideology. For Sternhell

 The source of the problem is to be found in [Israel’s] culture, in the concept of the nation as a tribe and in the problematic definition of Jewish identity. It is even harder to avoid the conclusion that the Israeli right – from the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu to Habayit Hayehudi – is very far to the right of [French far-right leader] Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Compared to most of the cabinet ministers and Knesset members, Le Pen looks like a dangerous leftist.

The path forward, for Sternhell, is clear. Nothing less than an utter rejection of the forms of thinking that lead to ethnic violence, extermination, and prejudice. His assessment is that

In the situation currently prevailing in Europe and Israel, those who do not wage an all-out war on xenophobia and racism are, in effect, making peace with the existence of the most destructive phenomenon in modern history. Ultimately, one must ask whether the current wave of xenophobia is not in principle similar to the anti-Semitism that, in the 1930s, confronted the Jews who lived in western Europe or immigrated there. In other words, is “Islamophobia” today replacing anti-Semitism as a social ill?”

If Sternhell is right, if the regular mass slaughter of Palestinian Arabs and the systematic discrimination against Israeli Arabs is tolerated, if the social categories for success and opportunity thriving on one hand, for suffering and violence–or the very ability to remain alive–on the other, are parsed along ethnic or religious principles, then the true tragedy is that the great lessons of the 20th century’s greatest horrors will not have been learned. If state power is permitted to sort out the forms of life that will be permitted to flourish and those that will be discarded, if the notions of equality before the law and the universality of rights are to remain meaningless in the face of tribal hatred and bloodshed, then civilization will not have advanced beyond those years of horror that formed one bookend of the Israeli state. Rabbi Henry Siegman, born in 1930 in Frankfurt, Germany and escaping Nazi-occupied Europe in 1942, former head of the American Jewish Congress, summarized this point in a recent interview: “The great lesson of the Holocaust is that decent, cultured people, people we would otherwise consider good people, can allow such evil to prevail.” For Siegman, if we are free, and privileged, and live in a democratic society, we have not only the freedom to act, but the responsibility. “The point isn’t, you know, what exactly [the Nazis] did, but the point is the evidence that they gave that decent people can watch evil and do nothing about it. That is the most important lesson of the Holocaust, not the Hitlers and not the SS, but the public that allowed this to happen.”


[1] As horrific as Rubin’s comments are, they are par for the course among bloggers on the Israeli National News site. For a grasp of the pervasive dehumanization of Palestinians that has become normalized in right-wing Israeli discourse, see the site’s political cartoons (example) or other bloggers on its Zion’s Corner blog, like William Levinson’s stunningly toxic piece, in which “the entire civilized world” is invited to realize that Islam is equivalent to Nazism, and the prophet Muhammad to Hitler; followers of Islam being “worse than rabid animals (no mammal would choose to get this horrific disease)” and extermination being the only remedy, since “Islamism is a mental disease every bit as deadly as Ebola or the Black Plague.” One might normally assume that fellows like Rubin and Levinson are extreme outliers, except that one hears similar comments, regularly now, coming from the Knesset itself, and anti-Arab mob beatings or lynch attempts have become weekly occurrences in both Jerusalem and the West Bank.

[2] Theodore Herzl, The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, Raphael Patai, ed., 1960, vol. I, 88 (June 12, 1895).

[3] “The Emigration of the Arabs of Palestine in the Period 12/1/1947-6/1/1948.” Benny Morris, 1948 and After, 1990. Cited by Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 2009, 297.

[4] Cited in Tessler, 297. Morris summarizes the Dair Yassin massacre’s planning in the following terms:

 “The IZL men . . . [informed the Haganah that they were] interested in mounting a separate, independent operation. Deir Yassin was targeted. In the planning meetings between IZL and LHI officers, they agreed to expel the inhabitants. The LHI men proposed that villages who did not run away should be killed in order to terrify the country’s Arabs.”

 “. . . [T]he news of what had happened . . . had a profoundly demoralizing effect on the Palestinian Arabs and was a major factor in their massive flight during the following weeks and months. The IDF Intelligence Service called Deir Yassin “a decisive accelerating factor” in the general Arab exodus.” (1999, 207-209.)

 [5] Note the euphemism “abandoned” in place of emptied, cleared, or evacuated. Note as well that  Morris’s conclusion that “there was no blanket policy of expulsion” is not shared by other important historians, such as Walid Khalidi, Ilan Pappé, Simha Flapan, and Avi Shlaim, who do find evidence of a blanket policy of expulsion (i.e., Plan Dalet). Morris acknowledges the expulsion plan’s existence. Morris came under fire for his exclusive use of Israeli state sources, and failure to acknowledge Arab sources. In more recent work (2007) he has admitted that the situation is more “ambiguous” than he had claimed (55).

[6] My emphasis. Cited by Morris, “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,” in Rogan and Shlaim, ed., The War for Palestine, 2007, 41-43.)

[7] Cited by Morris, 2007, 43.

[8] Morris, 2007, 44.

[9] Morris, 2007, 47.

[10] Besides the instances referenced above, see this 2012 survey reported by Haaretz, finding that “A third of the Jewish public wants a law barring Israeli Arabs from voting for the Knesset”; “Almost half the Jews, 49 percent, want the state to treat Jewish citizens better than Arab ones; 42 percent don’t want to live in the same building with Arabs and 42 percent don’t want their children in the same class with Arab children.”

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