Pretending away the Nakba only perpetuates the conflict

When the Czechs prefer to keep silent and repress their history, it’s a problem, but it is not an imminent danger to the country. When Israelis prefer to pretend there was no ethnic cleaning here, it’s a wholly different question: the conflict won’t end unless Israel admits to the injustice it caused.

Palestinian refugees ‘making their way from Galilee in October-November 1948’ (Fred Csasznik, copyright expired)
Palestinian refugees ‘making their way from Galilee in October-November 1948’ (Fred Csasznik, copyright expired)

A few weeks back I watched The Gatekeepers, a movie which interviews six of the chiefs of Shin Bet, from Avraham Shalom to Yuval Diskin. The movie is shocking and well worth your time. The most surprising character was Diskin, who obviously underwent a great change upon leaving the service: at the end of the movie he adamantly agrees with Yishayahu Leibowitch’s famous dictum that the occupation will turn Israel into a ”Shin Bet state.” And over the weekend we learned Diskin went through another metamorphosis: he recommended to the Turkel Committee that the Shin Bet start video-taping its interrogations, which the service has long resisted.

Diskin is merely the latest in a series of senior security officials who, as soon as they leave office, see the light and understand just how ruinous the office they headed was, and how they represented positions that were damaging to the country. The last great show in this genre was the bunch of senior commanders of the IDF’s Northern Command, who upon retirement were astonished to find out that the Security Zone in Lebanon was a huge mistake – often, after defending it in uniform as vital to security just a few weeks prior.

In that regard, the most interesting speaker is certainly Avraham Shalom, the oldest interviewee. Shalom thinks strategic errors were made, particularly by the politicians, but he himself regrets nothing. When asked about moral problems, he laughs. “Morality?” He asks, “Morality? Look for it first among the terrorists.” One assumes former chiefs, assuming they would even bother to be interviewed, would supply similar remarks. It’s very hard to see Issar Har’el, for instance, the closest thing we’ve got to J. Edgar Hoover, providing the camera with anything aside from a mocking, world-weary grin, saying in effect “you’ll never understand, so don’t even try.”

Superficially, Shalom, born in 1928, and Diskin, born in 1956, are separated by just one generation. Actually, they come from different worlds. Diskin grew up in Givatayim, possibly Tel Aviv’s most secure suburb. Shalom was born in Vienna. It was not a safe place for Jews even then, and in 1938 came the Anschluss, the annexation by Nazi Germany, which the Viennese used as an excuse for an orgy of violence against resident Jews. Shalom was lucky: his family understood early on where things were going, and fled to Palestine in 1939. They arrived penniless – this was Adolf Eichmann’s specialty, how he made his name – but they survived.

Not everyone was that lucky. Uri Ben-Ari, who would one day create the IDF’s doctrines of tank warfare, saw as an eight-year-old child in Berlin (he was still called Heinz Benner) how a gang of SA gunmen severely beat his father, after which they urinated on him. On Kristallnacht, the father and son saw the synagogue where he had recently celebrated his bar mizvah being set on fire. Several days later, Benner was kicked out of his school in a humiliating public spectacle: “Heinz Benner! You are a member of the Jewish race which committed heinous crimes against mankind and against the German people! The school vomits you from its ranks and you are hereby expelled! Go through our gate and be gone from our sight forever. Forward march! Heil Hitler!” Ben-Ari emigrated to Palestine, alone, in March 1939. His father was left behind.

In that regard, Ben-Ari was more typical than Shalom. The Palmach generation is often described as composed of native-born, but a significant number of them were European refugees, not natives. For a generation, the symbol of the Palmach sabra was Dan Ben-Amotz. He was actually born in the Ukraine under the name Moise Tehilimzuger. Like Ben-Ari, he too came to Palestine alone; his family, too, was murdered. The number of Jews then residing in Palestine who lost their family in Europe was staggering. To the rest of their trouble – the relative poverty and primitiveness of Palestine, at least when compared to central Europe; the conflict with the Arabs; the significant suffering inflicted on teenaged refugees by teenage sabras and often even by the grown-ups, who couldn’t comprehend what was happening “over there” – must be added survivor’s guilt. The refugees who made it to Palestine prior to 1941 believed they were pioneers, and that their family and friends would join them after a while; many of them saved money diligently to aid in this immigration. At the end of 1945, most of them would realize they were either the last survivors of their family or very nearly so. The fact that they not merely survived, but lived in relative comfort, must also have been a burden.

Ben-Ari and Shalom joined the Palmach in 1946, the year the organization began preparing itself for the coming independence war, which would come within 18 months. This was the same period in which Eastern Europe convulsed in a series of terrifying national struggles which followed the border changes the Soviet Union forced on the region following its victory over Nazi Germany. These struggles – a more apt title would be “ethnic cleansing” – were bloody, and included the murder of possibly millions of people: Ukrainians, Poles, and many Germans. The Czechs murdered, in a savage outburst of hatred only occupied people who felt their chains slip away can understand, some 20,000 Germans in the days immediately following liberation. Most of the victims were women, children and the elderly. The Czech don’t talk much about it nowadays, nor are they fond of speaking of the expulsion of some 1.5 million Germans, or the pillaging of their property. During a tour in Prague two months ago, the tour guide described what happened there as ‘genocide.’ Most of his people prefer to look the other way. The Poles made it clear to Jews who thought they could return home, with the pogrom in Kielce and by hundreds and thousands of terror killings on the roads and on trains, that they, too, are an ethnic minority whose historical role is over. Without understanding these events, it’s impossible to understand some of Alterman’s most haunting, poisoned lines in “The Child Avram”:

Before him stand, then, the Seventy Nations,
And say: We are upon you!
With seventy acts of laws and seventy axes,
We shall return you to this house!
We shall make you lie down in the ready bed,

And you slept in it as still as your father!

Orwell understood what was going on in 1946, in his Politics and the English Language, so reminiscent of Tacitus about the ways the Roman used language: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.” Orwell was speaking of the need of newspapers written in English to speak about what their governments agreed to, without making the readers understand what is it that they mean. In Eastern Europe, it was well understood. There, a “mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details” would simply not be enough; hence they spoke of the events as little as possible.

As far as its Jewish population is concerned, Palestine in 1947 was a branch of Eastern Europe, and it can be argued that its history in 1947-1948 simply cannot be understood without knowing what happened, two years earlier, in Europe. What took place there, echoed here, and when “normal” acts of hostility exploded, in November 1947, into war, tens of thousands of people who could not bring their families back, and who could not avenge themselves on the Germans – for other people already did that, yet another so-called proof of Jewish powerlessness – did on their new land what Eastern Europeans carried out on their side: they acted out an ethnic cleansing and looted the property of the other people. Afterwards they removed everything which might remind them of the people who lived here before them. And when the refugees tried to return, they shot at them. And that, not the expulsion during wartime but the refusal to let them back at peacetime, was the true birth of the refugee problem.

And then came the great silence. There are things of which you cannot speak, because you cannot live with the words. The generation of Ben-Ari and Shalom was famous for its silence. Even the well-known expulsion order, Ben-Gurion’s famous hand gesture when he was asked what to do with the captured population, was a wordless order.

“Hold on to that,” sang the Biluiym (for full English lyrics, click here),

“We tried very hard,
We covered all the ruins,
Changed the names of the streets,
We tried very hard,
We silenced the rumors…”

We silenced the rumors. Anyone who wanted to know, could. The ethnic cleansing of 1947-1948 was an ill-kept secret. But most of that generation did not want to know. And several years later massive waves of immigration changed the country irrecoverably. Many of those immigrants came from Eastern Europe, where people were experienced in entering a house whose occupants abandoned it in a hurry, leaving most of their property behind. A decade after 1948, and Ben-Ari and Shalom’s generation was already a minority. Most of the people did not know on whose lands they were sitting and liked it that way. A common legend arose, which said that the Palestinians left of their own will. A Czech history textbook, published recently, sums up the events of 1945-1946 with the words “and then the Sudeten Germans returned to their homeland.”

Shalom, as a representative of his generation, knew full well why he must not enter a debate about morality. It would open the gaping bottom under Israel’s feet, expose it as a country whose very existence relied on ethnic cleansing. It would open the question whether, given for instance Israel’s way of treating the Negev Bedouin – it now wants to expel thousands of them from the places to which it expelled them in 1948 – can we speak of the Nakba as a finite, finished event, or is it an ongoing process.

The East European ethnic cleansing had a certain advantage over the one carried out by Shalom and his generation: they were final. The German groups in Eastern Europe, which caused much of the instability following the First World War, ceased to exist. Eastern Europe, which until Stalin’s victory was a bubbling cauldron of minorities, some of them with delusions of grandeur, became homogenized. The process was murderous and agonized, caused the death of millions and brought untold suffering to many millions – only the war itself caused more suffering – but it is over. There are no active nationalist conflicts in Eastern Europe today.

The conflict in what used to be Mandatory Palestine never ended. To a certain extent, this was for two reasons: Israel was too weak to conquer the West Bank in 1948, and 1967 was not 1948. While a minor ethnic cleansing took place in 1967, Moshe Dayan knew it was too late to do in the West Bank what the IDF did in would-be-Israel in 1947.

When the Czechs prefer to keep silent and repress their history, it’s a problem, but it is not an imminent danger to the country, just to its national character; and a young and aware generation is trying to raise the issue. When Israelis prefer to pretend there was no ethnic cleaning here, it’s a wholly different question: the conflict won’t end unless Israel admits to the injustice it caused.

But it is so deep, so basic, that many Israelis would prefer to give up a solution so long as they don’t have to face the injustice and admit to it. We would be better off were Shalom’s generation to open its mouth at last; they would be believed. But he who grew accustomed to silence for so long, will not break it easily. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might say.