Iconic photo of concentration camp survivors in port at Haifa

Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims (a history through 2001) is perhaps the most comprehensive and fair-minded book yet written on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I don’t agree with the author’s post-2001, Intifada-inspired assertion that the Palestinians resist making peace because of a religious prejudice against the concept of a Jewish state, but this book (written before he reached this conclusion) is very thorough and balanced in depicting the history. On the other hand, its encyclopedic scope may be tedious for many readers.

What follows is an abridged version of a review I wrote (published in the Nov. 2001 issue of Jewish Currents magazine) of a livelier book by Meron Benvenisti. This author, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, moved to an opposite conclusion to Morris, but he is likewise very factual and makes no apology for having been born as a Jew in pre-State Palestine. His book is emotionally wrenching but more fluid and shorter than Morris’. My understanding is that Benvenisti has become even more exasperated and caustic in his criticisms of Israel in the ensuing years. My own views fall in between what Morris and Benvenisti believe today.

Original Sins Revisited

SACRED LANDSCAPE: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 by Meron Benvenisti. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 2000, 366 pages, indexed.

Meron Benvenisti writes both analytically and personally. As a boy during the time of the British Mandate, he would accompany his father, a cartographer for the Jewish Agency, on his travels to map the countryside; his father was especially engaged in work to Hebraicize as many place names as possible. His son drew from these trips an initial appreciation for the Arab landscape of pre-state Palestine which has matured over the decades of conflict into this poignant reflection….

In all, 9,000 Arabic place names were renamed after the 1948 war, to reflect biblical/ Jewish themes – usually without exact historical justification for that particular location – or to convert Arab or Muslim sites to bogus Crusader castles. Benvenisti quotes Ben-Gurion in his charge to the Negev Naming Commission: “We are obliged to remove the Arabic names for reasons of state. Just as we do not recognize the Arabs’ political proprietorship of the land, so also do we not recognize their spiritual proprietorship….”

Meron Benvenisti

Benvenisti has obtained prominence as deputy mayor of Jerusalem under the legendary Teddy Kollek and as a dovish chronicler of the Arab-Israeli struggle as a journalist and author. He is well known for having documented how Ariel Sharon’s efforts to colonize the West Bank in the 1980s and ’90s were designed to forestall the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. …

He decries the “need to depict the Palestinians as defenseless and peace-loving people who fell victim to evil forces….” He sees “no need to prove here that the 1948 War started because the Palestinians refused to accept the United Nations Partition Plan… [And I] cannot accept the contention that my birth in this land was an imperialist sin. …”

The most telling part of this book to me, as well as the most pivotal episode in the history of the conflict, comes about 100 pages in, when he relates the dynamics of the first Arab-Israeli war — less about the invasion of the newly declared Jewish state in May 1948 by a half dozen of Israel’s Arab neighbors, than the fighting between the Yishuv, the pre-state self-governing Zionist entity, and the Palestinian Arab irregulars who sought to destroy it after the United Nations General Assembly had voted for partition in November 1947. He recalls that the Palestinians initially launched frontal assaults against many Jewish communities that were repulsed with heavy losses. They then changed to a much more effective strategy, to disrupt traffic between the Jewish towns and settlements by killing people on the roads.

This “war of the roads” besieged the entire Yishuv, threatening starvation to 100,000 Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem in particular. The Haganah‘s successful counteroffensive against the villages which served as bases for ambush began with a critical battle fought at Qastal. Here the father of the late Faisal Husseini, Abd Alqadir al-Husseini, also a revered charismatic leader of his people, and their most able military commander, was killed. This was the first of several villages rapidly taken and destroyed by the Palmach and other Jewish forces in fulfillment of Plan D or Daled, explicitly described by Benvenisti as a Haganah defensive strategy rather than a premeditated blueprint for aggression as charged by pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist writers.

In the first half of April 1948, with the loss of their commander and a rapid succession of defeats, the Palestinian forces appear to have suffered demoralization and collapse. It was exactly at this time, on April 9, 1948, that the Irgun and Lehi [Stern Gang] extreme nationalist militias massacred about 200 men, women and children at Deir Yasin, stimulating widespread panic among the Palestinians. …

Benvenisti remembers those days vividly as a boy in Jerusalem, greeting news of the victory at Qastal and then witnessing in disgust the “victory parade” of survivors of Deir Yasin marched under guard through the streets. He also recalls playing soccer with young men who were among the 35 dispatched to reinforce the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem but were wiped out en route by Palestinian irregulars. The Etzion Bloc itself fell shortly thereafter, with kibbutzniks at one of several settlements murdered as they attempted to surrender.

This is a book which is unsentimental in its depiction of horrors and wrong-doing inflicted by both sides, but on balance concentrates on the plight of the Palestinians because they are the historical and ongoing losers in the conflict. … After being mortally threatened by their Arab enemies, the Jews of the [Mandate-era] Yishuv and then the newly independent State of Israel triumphed in battle beyond their expectations. They took advantage of their victories to depopulate over 400 Arab villages and to loot and take possession of Arab neighborhoods and homes in (West) Jerusalem and in other major towns.

In the cities, the Arab refugee population began with the desertion of their communities by people of means — the upper and middle classes. Such semi-voluntary departures were soon joined by the mass panic created by the Arabs themselves spreading the story of, and somewhat exaggerating the horrors at, Deir Yasin. Then Jewish forces evicted people from their homes at gunpoint in many distinct military operations. …

The Palestinian Authority’s demand in negotiations for an “apology” or statement of Israel’s responsibility is reinforced by this book, but not unambiguously. …. Benvenisti does not let us forget that the Palestinians chose war to the alternative of partition. …

The author does not endorse an unlimited right of return. Benvenisti contends that the landscape of the Andalusia region in southern Spain today would be far more recognizable to their former Moorish inhabitants of 500 years ago, than modern Israel would be to the few surviving exiles who actually lived in the Palestine Mandate a little over 50 [now 63] years ago. This argument cuts both ways in that it simultaneously illustrates how the hope of regaining the lost Palestinian homeland is unrealistic, and how Israel, in various ways, made this so. …

This is about two thirds of my original article. You may click here for the entire piece.

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