“Palestinian narrative of 1948 is not immune.” A response

Journalist and historian Gershom Gorenberg answers Joseph Dana and Noam Sheizaf’s criticism on his recent writings

—This post was updated with responses from Joseph Dana and Gershom Gorenberg—

A Palestinian man and a girl in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via Wikimedia, license CC)

By Gershom Gorenberg

I’ve recently read Joseph’s piece mentioning me and Noam’s piece responding to my book excerpt in Slate. Out of respect for +972 and its readers, and surprise at the imprecision of both these posts, I’m taking the time to respond.

First, regarding Joseph’s piece, “A Sad Commentary”: In the course of criticizing an article by Bernard Avishai, Joseph, you also refer to a recent column I wrote in the American Prospect. Brief as the reference is, it includes two errors.

Introducing your criticism of what you claim are my views, you refer to me as “living in the same formerly Palestinian Baka neighborhood of West Jerusalem.” As a point of fact: I don’t live in Baka. I don’t believe it would be relevant if I did, for the same reason that I wouldn’t make an ad hominem argument against a Palestinian living in a formerly Jewish house in Sheikh Jarrah. I don’t think the current residents are responsible for events of 63 years ago. That said, reporting that I live in Baka without checking is sloppy journalism.

And a point of substance: Contrary to what you wrote, I have never claimed that “Western liberal Zionists living in Israel” are the “true ‘realistic, moderate progressives’ who will solve the region’s problems.”

My article, “Why Are They So Angry,” describes the shrill debate about Israel within the American Jewish community. I criticize a particular kind of diaspora nationalist who takes an uncompromising and rigid position on events in a far-away homeland. I mention diaspora Palestinians who do this in the context of a more extensive critique of diaspora Jews who do the same. And I argue that fear of being associated with such an extreme position is no excuse for moderates to remain silent.

The position you ascribe to me is not one I expressed in this article or elsewhere, and attributing it to me is, again, sloppy.

Noam’s post, “Gershom Gorenberg and ‘The Mystery of 1948,” on the Slate‘s excerpt from my book, The Unmaking of Israel, begins by asking whether Slate’s headline fits my intentions and whether I wrote it. I’d think that anyone working in journalism would know the answer to the latter question: Headlines are written by editors. They are packaging.

In the excerpt, I addressed – inter alia – an issue that arises frequently in debate about 1948: whether the “Jewish leadership planned from the start to expel the Arabs.” I answer that the evidence is lacking for existence of such a plan – and that the report of the Situation Committee, hitherto not examined by historians studying this issue, provides evidence of the opposite: Zionist planning for the new state anticipated that the Arab population would remain in place.

Noam, your response to my first point is:

…the reason “evidence [for plans of transfer] is missing,” is because Israel has never released these bits in the archives, like it did with most documents from that time. So the public papers reveal what’s necessary to be revealed and conceal the rest…

It’s true that some material from 1948 has not been released. A tremendous amount has, and the documents shattered the classic Israeli narrative that denied all Israeli responsibility for the Nakba.

But to profess to know what’s in the material that remains secret, and why it is still classified, is to draw conclusions in advance and insist that the evidence must exist for what one already “knows.” Neither in journalism nor in historical research is this acceptable.

Here my personal experience of looking at new material is relevant. I examined the Situation Committee report on a colleague’s recommendation while researching The Unmaking of Israel. He knew of the report – the Zionist leadership’s administrative plan for the state-to-be – and suggested that if it made no mention of the Arab population, the strong implication would be that Jewish leaders planned to expel Palestine’s Arabs. Had the report borne out the hypothesis, I would have reported this.

In the event, I discovered that the plan, completed in April 1948, assumes that the Arab population of Safed, Tiberias, Beit Shean and other towns, and of 248 Arab villages assigned by the UN partition decision to the Jewish state, would remain where they were living and would be the new government’s responsibility. Having found the opposite of the hypothesis I was checking, should I have refrained from reporting it?

You argue, as well, that the question of whether Israel planned the expulsion in advance is meaningless. It certainly hasn’t been treated that way in Palestinian or pro-Palestinian accounts of 1948. And regardless of present-day power relations, the Palestinian narrative of 1948 is no more immune from historical research than the Israeli narrative.

On a philosophical level, the question is legitimate. Malice aforethought adds to the moral weight of an offense. On the other hand, a common and egregious flaw of communal narratives is ascribing malicious intent to the community’s enemy, regardless of whether evidence exists for such intent. People tend to assume that if something happened, it had to be planned. And they tend to think that their enemies are much more united and capable of planning than their own side is.

What emerges from careful study of 1948 is a picture that is more complex than either national narrative. Indeed, as you say, Noam, there was a chaotic civil war. The critical Israeli decision to prevent the refugees’ return began taking shape in June, in the midst of that war. I describe the background to that decision, in pre-war Zionist thinking and in the international silence toward massive forced population transfers in Europe after World War II.

In your conclusion, you write:

…the expulsion of some Palestinians and the flight of others didn’t necessarily have to lead to the creation of the refugee problem: It was the Israeli decision right after the war to prevent them from returning and confiscate their land and their homes that did it.

Does this mean that trying to portray and understand what happened, locally and internationally, before that decision is without value?  I can’t see why – unless one wants to avoid a picture more complicated than complete, premeditated Israeli culpability. I can’t imagine that this is your goal.

So to respond to your opening question about the headline, “The Mystery of 1948.” Perhaps it is inappropriate, if it inadvertently suggests that 1948 is a mystery novel in which a detective can “solve” the crime and identify the culprit behind everything.

As a historian, I don’t feel any obligation to do that. I certainly don’t need to decide between popular narratives and crown one as being correct. I’m obligated to report honestly what I find, and I’ve sought to live up to that commitment.

Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and historian, is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.


Joseph Dana:


Thank you for taking the time to respond to our pieces referencing your work. Concerning your first point, you are correct, you do not live in Baka and it was ‘sloppy’ that I wrote that you did. I find it curious, however, that you do not include where exactly you do live. If you are living in Talpiot, another formerly Palestinian area of West Jerusalem located next to Baka, you might understand how I confused the location given their close proximity and similar history. However, my flaw stands and we all need to be called out when making easy mistakes like the one I did.

In reference to your second point, I wrote that you (and Avishai) assume a ‘shared authoritarian understanding that as Western liberal Zionists living in Israel [feel] they are the true “realistic, moderate progressives” who will solve the region’s problems’. Of course, I stand by the statement. I believe that your comment, in fact, strengthens my position since you have not discredited this reading of your work by engaging in the material I presented. While you might not have claimed this position in such explicit language, your body of work, taken as a whole demonstrates that moderate Zionists provide the most equitable solution to conflict’s problems.

Furthermore, you don’t deny your position on diaspora Palestinians, rather you state that moderates like yourself, based on your public political positions, should not be afraid of guilt by association and that it was part of a greater critique. You note here that you were speaking about a “particular” kind of diaspora “nationalist” but I do not feel that is clear from your original piece.

I accused Avishai of sloppy reporting in his Harper’s piece and so I am happy that you have drawn attention to my mistake in writing that you live in Baka as opposed to the neighboring West Jerusalem community. However, I would have liked to see you engage in a more substantive discussion with the crux of my piece. Namely, the merits of liberal Zionist thinking in the current political landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its continuation by authoritarian writers.


Gershom Gorenberg:

Dear Joseph,

I live within the Green Line in Jerusalem. I don’t think more information than that is relevant to our discussion. I find your interest in my address a curious distraction. Sadly, there are reasons these days for an Israeli critic of the settlements not to announce his address on-line. In any case, your history is mistaken. Talpiot has been a Jewish neighborhood since it was established in the early 1920s. Its residents included S.Y. Agnon. Amos Oz, in his A Tale of Love and Darkness, describes his family’s pre-1948 Saturday walks to the neighborhood to visit his uncle, Prof. Joseph Klausner.

You argue here that your original assertion about my “authoritarian understanding” stands because I “have not discredited this reading of your work by engaging in the material I presented.” Frankly, this comment is bizarre. To back up your claim, you presented one quote from one article I wrote. I’ve already noted above that you took that sentence to mean something entirely different from what I intended or believe. You present no other material with which I could engage. Rather, you claim that my “body of work, taken as a whole” substantiates your reading. If you are indeed familiar with the whole of what I’ve written over the past 25 years – including three books, not to mention more articles than I remember that I wrote in the print-only era – I’m impressed with your dedication and interest, though I believe your reading is mistaken. If you are talking about my latest book, The Unmaking of Israel, it describes the impact of the occupation and of established religion on Israeli society. It doesn’t focus on Palestinian society, for the simple reason that the impact of the occupation on Palestinian society has already been covered ably and extensively by other writers. As for the “crux” of your piece about “liberal Zionist thinking… and its continuation by authoritarian writers”: The term “liberal Zionist” is used most commonly today by writers who want to attack a grab-bag of people whom the critics believe are insufficiently critical of Israel. You’ve added to this rhetoric by asserting that liberal Zionists are “authoritarian.” When I fail to “engage” with this unsubstantiated claim, you announce it proven. Who, exactly, is being authoritarian here?

One last note in response to some of the comments here: Sheikh Jarrah includes both a small area of land that belonged to Jews before 1948, on which houses were built later, and another small group of houses where Jews lived until early 1948, in what was known as Nahlat Shimon. Hence, perhaps, the confusion.