Unmasking Gershom Gorenberg, historian and apologist for ethnic cleansing



The expulsion of Palestinians for the benefit of Jewish settlement is still ongoing.

The popular internet magazine Slate recently published an excerpt from The Unmaking of Israel, a new book by the historian Gershom Gorenberg. The title of the excerpt asked “Did Israel actually plan to expel most of its Arabs in 1948? Or not?” (The Mystery of 1948,” 7 November 2011).

As most critical scholars of Palestinian history and the Zionist-Palestinian conflict would likely agree, this is an odd question to ask. Since Israel’s “new historians” began publishing revised histories that undermined the long-held official Zionist ideological narrative of the creation of Israel (in which the Arabs left Palestine voluntarily, or in response to urgings from the Arab states) it has become increasingly clear that Ilan Pappe was correct in suggesting a paradigm shift in historical analysis of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). Instead of viewing the violent, bloody events of 1948 through the lens of “war,” Pappe proposed a framework of “ethnic cleansing” — which, as he demonstrated, is well supported by the available evidence. But despite such growing clarity and consensus, Gorenberg implicitly rejects Pappe’s framework.

Since the early Zionist leadership formed a planning body (the Situation Committee) to determine how the Palestinian minority who remained within the borders of the future Jewish state would be managed, Gorenberg concludes that David Ben-Gurion and his affiliates had no firm plans to cleanse the territory on the eve of the 1948 conflict. Of course, these leaders had contemplated “transfer,” but this was an understandable manifestation of demographic unease and only one possible option among others. Though Ben-Gurion and the liberal Zionists likely had the best of intentions toward the Arabs, the right-wing spoiled the hopes of the more progressive and committed violent atrocities.

Gorenberg thus presents an image of a powerless Zionist left, which was presented with afait accompli by the radical right and the unpredictability of the “chaos of war,” then attacked head-on by the confused natives and forced to defend itself.

By relentlessly placing the blame on a few “crazed” right-wing groups and the whims of fate, Gorenberg exculpates Zionism as such from responsibility for its brutal colonial history and leaves room for some “good Zionists,” who can doubtless count him among their number. In Gorenberg’s version of events one can detect the revenge of the “old historians,” mediated through several decades of the revisionists: the discredited fictions proffered by the Israeli state and allied ideologues are revitalized while simultaneously acknowledging the now-undeniable crimes of Zionism’s past. Though some misguided right-wing Zionists committed or caused horrendous injustices against the Palestinians, fuelling the conflict, there is a “pure” left-wing Zionism that stands apart from these acts and which was dragged against its will into a situation from which there was no easy escape. It was all an accident.

The myth of “accidental” ethnic cleansing

Gorenberg’s central conclusion requires a considerable jump in logic: as the historical record shows, though the Zionist leadership meticulously planned and executed the expulsion of the indigenous Arab population, even the most radical never imagined they would be able to completely eliminate the Palestinians. The plan was to conquer as much land and reduce the native population as much as possible. Indeed, the problem of how to establish a state with at least a large Jewish majority on territory inhabited overwhelmingly by Arabs had haunted Zionist leaders from the very beginning.

Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, wrote in his diary in 1895 that “we shall endeavor to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed.” These sentiments were also reflected in the enthusiastic embrace by Ben-Gurion and other prominent Zionist leaders of the British government’s 1937 Peel Commission report calling for the forced expulsion of the Arab population, which was referred to by Ben-Gurion as an “unparalleled achievement.” The plans of the “Situation Committee” Gorenberg points to, insisting that their existence is proof that there was no plan for the systematic cleansing of the locals, was no more than Ben-Gurion and the rest of the pre-state leadership determining what the Jews would do with the Arabs that remained after the expulsion.

That 1948 constituted a consciously planned ethnic cleansing on the part of the Zionist leadership is hardly in doubt. Though not mentioned by Gorenberg, Plan Dalet, devised by Ben-Gurion and the security and political leaders who joined him in a body known as the Consultancy, called for the Palestinians’ “systematic and total expulsion from their homeland” (Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2008).

Ilan Pappe has demonstrated how, after several revisions, the final plan included a detailed description of the methods to be used in driving the population out of their lands that included “large-scale intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centers; setting fire to homes, properties, and goods; expulsion; demolition; and, finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning.” In short, Dalet was “an initiative to ethnically cleanse the country as a whole.” With the order to begin the operation, “each brigade commander received a list of the villages or neighborhoods that had to be occupied, destroyed, and their inhabitants expelled,” Pappe wrote. Accidental, indeed.

Though Gorenberg presents a picture of “two [presumably equal] national groups claiming the same territory,” the 1947 UN Partition Plan actually handed a mostly European colonial population owning just 12 percent of the land in Palestine fully 60 percent of the territory, including some of its most valuable regions. The demand that the indigenous Palestinian population accept partition was unprecedented: no colonized population had ever assented to the division of its national lands with a foreign colonizer. Even within the territory allotted the Jewish state, Palestinian Arabs made up 40 percent of the population, a troublesome fact for the Zionist leadership.

As Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders had made clear in the period prior to the founding of the state, not only did they consider the UN Partition Plan as simply the launching pad from which they would dramatically expand the borders of the Jewish state (as they did), but they also had no intention of tolerating such a large Arab minority in their midst afterwards. “Recently declassified Zionist documents,” historian Benny Morris has written, “demonstrate that a virtual consensus emerged among Zionist leadership … in favor of the transfer of at least several hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs — if not all of them — out of the areas of the Jewish state-to-be.” (Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001, 2001). All one needed to do was to wait for an opportune moment to carry out such an operation, such as a war.

Arguments don’t hold water

As those familiar with Gorenberg’s work will recognize, this thesis has become his regularmodus operandi. His 2006 book The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 argues that the Israeli occupation and colonization of the remaining Palestinian territories after 1967 was an “accident,” echoing the “quagmire” argument thoughtlessly repeated in relation to supposedly failed US imperial adventures.

Though Israel went into the enterprise with the noblest of intentions, it was quickly dragged into a complex situation from which it could not extricate itself. Apart from the sophisticated arrangements needed to ensure Israeli security, the argument goes, a fringe settler lobby hijacked and corrupted Israeli policy. The vast colonial settlement enterprise that sprung up across the West Bank and Gaza after 1967 was thus the “accidental” product of a directionless but well-intentioned Zionism manipulated by a radical minority.

But like Gorenberg’s take on the Nakba, these arguments simply don’t hold water.

In the precise inverse of the relationship between the state and Jewish religious fanaticism portrayed by Gorenberg, the post-1967 settlement enterprise was characterized not by the haphazard eruption of housing construction maniacally driven by a small gang of religious fanatics. Rather, the Israeli state consciously executed a carefully planned settlement program directed to meet specific objectives. “What is now plain with hindsight,” Donald Neff, a journalist specializing in the Middle East, has written, “is that Israel operated on a premeditated and pragmatic plan of settlement” in the period after the 1967 war (Donald Neff, “Settlements in US Policy,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1994).

This “premeditated and pragmatic plan” was unveiled in 1968 by staunch Labor politician Yigal Allon, the goal of which was “to have as much land as possible with as small a number of Arabs as possible” (Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy, 2006). The Allon Plan proposed “annexation of 35 to 40 percent of the territories to Israel, and either Jordanian rule, or some form of self-rule for the rest of the land on which the Palestinians actually lived,” as Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart put it (Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, 2005). “For all practical purposes,” Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, wrote, the Allon Plan became “the accepted map of Israel’s security, and of her settlement priorities in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”

Yitzak Rabin, mythic leader of the pathetic Zionist left, harnessed the messianic religious fervor of Jewish fundamentalists in order to finally realize the Allon Plan, and to lay the infrastructure for the apartheid system that was formalized in the occupied territories following the signing of the Oslo accords.

While intensifying restrictions on Palestinian movement and sealing off the West Bank and Gaza in a brutal closure regime (implementing checkpoints and a pass system similar to that used in South Africa), Rabin initiated a distinction between “good” and “bad” settlements. That is, he favored settling in areas deemed important to the overall colonial plan (such as those built atop vital water resources, or in a region considered to be of strategic importance), while criticizing those “ideological” settlements that did not fit the contours of the broader plan for territorial annexation. As former Jerusalem mayor Meron Benvenisti wrote of Rabin’s settlement scheme, “the geographic boundaries on Rabin’s map [left] Israel in control of … the same areas included in the infamous Allon Plan of 1968-70, except that Rabin [had] added large areas of [the northern West Bank]” (Meron Benvenisti, Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land, 1995).

With the first intifada, which began in 1987, leading Jordan to renounce all claims to the West Bank the following year for fear the uprising would spread to the kingdom, and Israel desperately desiring an end to the uprising, it was the Palestinian variant of the Allon Plan that was realized with the signing of Oslo and Rabin’s settlement initiative. Though wanting to retain Israeli control over the entirety of historic Palestine, Rabin realized that the survival of the Jewish state depended on minimizing its Palestinian population, lest Israel be forced to abandon even the semblance of formal democracy and equal rights. Accordingly, the “ideological” settlements he condemned lay in densely populated Arab areas, which were to be disowned but encircled by Israeli-annexed and Jewish-settled areas.

Meanwhile, Israel would be absolved of responsibility for the welfare of the suffering Arab population. After the inauguration of the post-Oslo era, such expenses were pushed onto international donors and the occupied themselves, circumventing the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulating that these sizable costs fall upon the occupying power. Clearly, none of this was an accident.

Good guys and bad guys

I raised some of these issues with Gorenberg after a talk of his I attended in Jerusalem in June 2008. “You’re not doing history right,” he informed me, “it is never the case that one side is always in the wrong, always the bad guy.” In fact, it is Gorenberg that misses the meaning of history. Good and bad aside, there are colonizers, and there are colonized; oppressors and oppressed. Unfortunately for Gorenberg, as the evidence shows, Israeli leaders from the left to the right have been unanimously in agreement over the continuance of a colonial policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza (fighting tooth and nail to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state), as well as on the nearly constant waves of violence unleashed on Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Indeed, as Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, “the record of Labor has been much worse on human rights violations than the record of Likud,” noting how “Mr. Rabin used to boast that he had demolished many more homes than any Likud government” (Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami debates outspoken professor Norman Finkelstein on Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process,” Democracy Now!, 14 February 2006).

And indeed, though disowning the strategically problematic “ideological” settlements, Rabin’s record on settlement construction was worse than the record of his obstinate right-wing predecessor Yitzak Shamir.

It was Ehud Olmert, then prime minister and leader of the supposedly center-left Kadima, who was responsible for the destruction of much of southern Lebanon in 2006, including littering the countryside with cluster bombs that have rendered vast tracts of agricultural land inaccessible. His successor Tzipi Livni oversaw the slaughter of over 1,000 impoverished, defenseless Palestinians in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, including the deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools, medical personnel and aid workers, UN facilities, and the few remaining organs of economic production. Were these “accidents” too?

An essential part of the “peace process” for the Zionists — in particular the left — has always been washing away responsibility for the colonialism inherent in the notion of Zionism. From the humiliating White House ceremony in which Yasser Arafat presented himself to the world as its repentant assailant, to today, when Zionism demands the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” on which the indigenous Palestinian community was merely a temporary historical aberration, it is clear that Zionism seeks to erase and rewrite history. It does so in order to avoid accepting its ugly colonial legacy.

But if the Palestinians are merely trespassing in the “Jewish state,” the occupation, the wall, the settlements, are all legitimate: the Jews are simply “defending” what is theirs. Part of the struggle, then, takes place in the realm of the past.

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