Guest Post: Israel in 1948, vindicated by those who lived at the time

This is another guest post by Brian Goldfarb (with some input from me).

Robert Kennedy, correspondent for the Boston Post in 1948

The thesis of this article, “Israel Vindicated“, from The Times of Israel is hardly new to (most) readers of this site: that the Jews of the Yishuv (who became Israelis after May 15 1948) were not responsible for the Arab/Palestinian refugee problem. If they were involved at all, it was only as minor (even “bit-part”) players. Anyone who has read Benny Morris’s book “1948: The First Arab-Israeli War” (among any one of a large number of sources) will already know this, and, if they followed up on the footnotes, have the evidence to demonstrate it.

What is different and new is who is being cited to make this point: Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was employed, in 1961, by The Atlantic to produce an article on “The Arabs of Palestine“. Oh for the days when monthly journals could afford to commission someone to journey to somewhere, spend many days (or even weeks) talking to people and then come back and write a 25-page article about it. And get paid for it! I’ve read shorter, seminal, social science journal articles. Regarding Robert F. Kennedy:

Kennedy was, in 1948, a reporter for the Boston Post, which sent him to Mandate Palestine in spring of that year to report on the lead up to the end of the Mandate. His dispatches [I have amended the link – Ed.] are a fascinating glimpse back in time and invaluable historical records.  And yet they are also a testament to the ideological stagnation of the Arab world vis a vis Israel.

Philippe Assouline, the author of the article, argues that not only are Kennedy’s reports “a fascinating glimpse back in time and invaluable historical records” they also point to “the ideological stagnation of the Arab world” with respect to Israel. Reading those reports, Assouline takes Kennedy to be showing that the soon-to-be-Israelis saw themselves as fighting for survival against an enemy determined to destroy them (as documents from the Arab side have shown since was indeed the case). Again, he reads Kennedy’s articles as demonstrating:

“then as now” an Arab world implacably hostile the the “very idea of a Jewish presence in its midst.”

Kennedy added:

“The die has long since been cast; the fight will take place. The Jews with their backs to the sea, fighting for their very homes, with 101 percent morale, will accept no compromise. On the other hand, the Arabs say: ‘We shall bring Moslem brigades from Pakistan, we shall lead a religious crusade for all loyal followers of Mohammed, we shall crush forever the invader. Whether it takes three months, three years, or 30, we will carry on the fight. Palestine will be Arab. We shall accept no compromise.’”

The arming and directing of Arab militias into the areas set aside by the UN Partition Plan for the Jewish state is demonstrated by Kennedy, according to Assouline, much as Morris shows it decades later. This led to the creation of the refugee population, as Assouline says:

“In such a war, where people who have immutably refused partition also relish the thought of murdering thousands of innocents because they are Jews (a mere 3 years after Arab leaders supported the Nazis), expulsions are to be expected. Between suffering another genocide and expelling those who have attacked you to satisfy maximalist imperatives, the moral if unfortunate choice is undoubtedly the latter. And yet, if we are to trust first hand accounts over later renderings, the Palestinian Arabs who left overwhelmingly did so not compelled by Jewish forces. They left, rather, because of their own leaders and, by and large, without having ever seen a Jewish soldier.”

Then, not cited by Kennedy, because it has only recently been released, there is the following extract from a British military intelligence report of 1948 (pre the end of the Mandate and referring to the Arab militias):

“The Arabs have suffered a series of overwhelming defeats…Jewish victories…have reduced Arab morale to zero and, following the cowardly example of their inept leaders they are fleeing from the mixed areas in their thousands. It is now obvious that the only hope of regaining their position lies in the regular armies of the Arab states.”

Assouline goes on to argue that:

“One would expect an intelligence report by the British military about the 1948 war to at least mention expulsions which, we are told today by myriad activists, were rampant. And yet there appears to not have been mention of such. On the contrary, the British report — and bear in mind that according to R.F.K. the British forces in Palestine were exceedingly hostile to Jews– mentions only flight fueled by hysteria, groupthink and “cowardice.” That is, the exact opposite of forced expulsion.”

In fairness to Kennedy (but not to Assouline, he should know better), the claims concerning forced expulsion by the Israelis refer, in the main, to the period after 1948, and British military intelligence would have had, by definition, no better information sources than anyone else outside the region.

Martha Gellhorn

To consider this time period, we need to turn elsewhere. This takes us to Gellhorn and her 1961 Atlantic article.  I’ve already noted the length of that article (I haven’t yet had the chance to do more than sample it; it’s sitting there among my on-line documents, waiting for me) and I’m going to confine myself to the following brief comment.

Gellhorn travelled extensively through the region, including Lebanon, the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza strip, as well as Israel. Everywhere, she met the same story: one of forced expulsions by the Israelis, with or without the threat or actuality of massacres. While we know that some massacres did, in fact, take place, had they all been true, there wouldn’t have been anyone left to become a refugee.

It was slightly different in Israeli-Arab villages: there she found an attitude among some that, in effect, they acknowledged that there there had been few massacres or forced expulsions, but they weren’t going to change their story. Beyond that, many still retained the ideology of reclaiming the land – which brings us full circle to today.

As Assouline notes:

Her piece, though long, is a must-read study on the birth of anti-Israel propaganda, and the pathologies that fuel it:


Indeed, Palestinian refugees interviewed by Gellhorn, time after time recounted tales of massacres and atrocities that could never, it seemed, be verified. Then as now, an echo chamber of myth and embellished tales of victimhood substituted for what ought to have been a sober look at the role of Arab leadership in bringing about the refugee crisis. Gellhorn paints a picture of widespread auto-indoctrination and an enforced orthodoxy of blame. To read the claims made by NGOs and Palestinian advocacy groups today is to notice that not much has changed at all. Today, as then, bien-pensants dogmatically cling to a version of events whereby outnumbered and outgunned Jewish forces were entirely to blame for the often destructive and foolish choices of Arab leadership, including the choice to wage genocidal war on nascent Israel.

However Gellhorn eventually got tired of the fake-atrocity stories that she kept hearing:

The stark difference between today and the years following the Israeli War of Independence, however, is that journalists then were willing and even eager to challenge the accounts that they heard in order to ensure veracity. Coverage of the Middle East today is all too often a stale mix of cliché and condescension peddled as fact. It is an exceedingly rare thing to see a Palestinian account taken as anything less than the Gospel by today’s Western press.

Not so Gellhorn in 1961. Upon hearing tales of atrocities allegedly committed by the Jews of Jaffa against the city’s Arab inhabitants in 1948, Gellhorn reported the following:

Arab refugees tell many dissimilar versions of the Jaffa story, but the puzzler is: where are the relatives of those who must have perished in the fury of high explosive the infallible witnesses? No one says he was loaded on a truck (or a boat) at gun point; no one describes being forced from his home by armed Jews; no one recalls the extra menace of enemy attacks, while in flight. The sight of the dead, the horrors of escape are exact, detailed memories never forgotten by those who had them. Surely Arabs would not forget or suppress such memories, if they, too, had them.

As for those Arabs who remained behind, they are still in Jaffa–3000 of them–living in peace, prosperity, and discontent, with their heirs and descendants.

Even today, every survey of Israeli-Arabs tells us that, overwhelmingly, they desire a two-state solution, they have no desire to live in a Palestine that in any way resembles the surrounding Arab states and can they please have the full de facto equality that their existing de jure equality says they are supposed to have.

Commenting on the Holocaust, its after-effects, and finally Holocaust-denial by both Palestinians and their supporters, Assouline says:

It is interesting to note how, a mere 13 years after the end of the Holocaust, weaponized revisionism was already in vogue among some pro-Palestinian advocates. Specifically, the Holocaust – which Palestinian Arab leadership eagerly supported – was already then recast to serve as a cognitive tool against its Jewish victims. Gellerhorn reports being told, when mentioning the 6 million who were butchered:

Oh, that is all exaggerated. [Hitler] did not [kill 6 million Jews]. Besides, the Jews bluffed Hitler. They arranged in secret that he should kill a few of them–old ones, weak ones–to make the others emigrate to Palestine.

Greta Berlin, organizer of the 2010 Flotilla to Hamas was lambasted for peddling the same arguments last year. Indeed conflation of Zionism and Nazism has become ubiquitous among so many claiming to defend justice.

Having encountered similar attitudes over and over in Beirut, the Jordanian-Occupied West bank, Gaza and Israeli Arab villages, Gellhorn’s frustration turned to outrage. Her pithy observation of the unspoken rules of victimhood is a perfect encapsulation of the moral nuance that is lacking today in reports and histories of the Middle East:

It is hard to sorrow for those who only sorrow over themselves. It is difficult to pity the pitiless. […] Some of them may be unfortunate human beings… [b]ut a profound difference exists between victims of misfortune (there, but for the grace of God, go I) and victims of injustice.


Gellhorn presciently concluded that the West, when speaking to or about Palestinian Arabs, would “require[] non-Arabs to treat Arabs as if they were neurotic children, subject either to tantrums or to internal bleeding from spiritual wounds.” While her language is incendiary, it is a fact that today, the politically correct all too often hold Israel responsible for the Arabs’ self-inflicted wounds — to put it bluntly, as if Arabs are essentially not fully capable adults.

Assouline concludes:

Indeed, what do the Palestinians have to show for 65 years of moral deflection, canonized exaggerations, and cultivated victimhood?

Well, that’s an easy one to answer.  Assouline himself puts it so succinctly:

Today, victimhood – however counterfeit – compels sympathy, even when it shouldn’t. And to compel sympathy is to be right. With respect to the Middle East, moral standing and moral choices no longer intersect in public consciousness.

Brian Goldfarb puts it thus:

The attitudes towards Israel and the ‘refugees’ (as only UNRWA  could still call them, 65 years on) remained unchanged, to say nothing of their fixed belief that every last one of the original refugees was deliberately and cold-bloodedly driven out of their homes by the Israelis. That is, no-one left voluntarily, or under pressure from the Arab leaders, or to escape the sound of gunfire coming closer. It has to be thus, because to admit anything else would, of necessity, open the door to understanding and reconciliation. And that would never do.

Anne adds:

This spurious “moral standing” of the Palestinians brings down the wrath of the world onto Israel’s head while simultaneously compelling the world to pour in massive financial aid for the Palestinians. This in turn enables the Palestinian kleptocracy to pocket vast fortunes while allowing the “plebs” to remain idle, simmering on the sidelines and waiting for revolution or jihad. The world is thus forced to take control of their situation, (i.e. treating them as non-responsible infantiles) while at the same time enabling them to blame Israel for all their self-imposed woes.

It’s a win-win situation all round for the Palestinians.

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3 Responses to Guest Post: Israel in 1948, vindicated by those who lived at the time

  1. Pingback: Good News Friday | Anne's Opinions

  2. Philip Blue says:

    The question of ethnic cleansing does not simply concern whether refugees were forcibly evicted, but also, and rather, whether they were allowed to return. On this Benny Morris is quite clear, though he is, of course, morally ambivalent about it. Ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs in what is now Israel does appear to have taken place.

    We can go into the ‘cowardice’ of leaders, poor treatment of refugees in neighbouring countries, who is to blame for peace talks breaking down, etc. and agree and disagree variously about these. But not, it would seem, on ethnic cleansing.

    A final point on the question of nomenclature. Yes, UNRWA designates Palestinian refugees, and yes Palestinian refugees can pass on their status to their children, and yes this is different from other kinds of refugee, and yes this raises some difficult questions in international law. But nevertheless, it is the body of international public law that designates Palestinians as refugees, not simply UNRWA.

  3. Pingback: The artificial Palestinian identity and the “right of return” | Anne's Opinions

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