The past few months have seen voices raised from within the media and Westminster establishment concerning the supposed culture of anti-semitism nurtured under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This has reached a peak today with the suspension of former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingston, from the party. But, what is anti-semitism and how does that relate to Zionism and the state of Israel? In this article, originally written for Italian newspaper Il Manifesto in 2004, Tariq Ali analyses the history of anti-semitism in light of the similar allegations of anti-semitism thrown towards critics of Israeli state policy in continental Europe twelve years ago. The same type of argument has now reached Britain.

tariq ali
1. Anti-semitism is a racist ideology directed against the Jews. It has old roots.

In his classic work, The Jewish Question, A Marxist Interpretation, that was published posthumously in France in 1946, the Belgian Marxist, Abram Leon, (active in the resistance during the Second World War, he was captured and executed by the Gestapo in 1944) invented the category of a ‘people-class’ for the role of the Jews who managed to preserve their linguistic, ethnic and religious characteristics through many centuries without becoming assimilated. This was not unique to the Jews, but could apply just as strongly to many ethnic minorities: diaspora Armenians, Copts, Chinese merchants in South East Asia, Muslims in China, etc. The defining characteristic common to these groups is that they became middlemen in a pre-capitalist world, resented alike by rich and poor.

Twentieth century anti-semitism, usually instigated from above by priests (Russia, Poland), politicians/intellectuals (Germany, France and, after 1938, Italy), big business (USA, Britain), played on the fears and insecurity of a deprived population. Hence August Bebel’s reference to anti-semitism as ‘the socialism of fools’. The roots of anti-semitism like other forms of racism are social, political, ideological and economic. The judeocide of the Second World War, carried out by the political-military-industrial complex of German imperialism, was one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century, but not the only one. The Belgian massacres in the Congo had led to between 10-12 million deaths before the First World War. The uniqueness of the judeocide was that it took place in Europe (the heart of Christian civilization) and was carried out systematically— by Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, French and Italians— as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Hence Hannah Arendt’s phrase, ‘the banality of evil.’ Since the end of the Second World War popular anti-Semitism of the old variety declined in Western Europe, restricted largely to remnants of fascist or neo-fascist organisations.

In Poland, a country where virtually all the Jews were killed, it remained strong, as it did in Hungary. In the Arab world there were well-integrated Jewish minorities in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. They did not suffer at the time of the European judeocide. Historically, Muslims and Jews have been much closer to each other than either to Christianity. Even after 1948 when tensions rose between the two communities throughout the Arab east it was Zionist provocations, such as the bombing of Jewish cafes in Baghdad that helped to drive Arab Jews out of their native countries into Israel.

2. Non-Jewish Zionism has an old pedigree and permeates European culture

It dates back to the birth of Christian fundamentalist sects of the 16th and 17th centuries who took the Old Testament literally. They included Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. Later, for other reasons, Rousseau, Locke and Pascal joined the Zionist bandwagon. And then for vile reasons the Third Reich, too, supported a Jewish homeland. The introduction to the Nuremburg Laws of 15 September 1935 state:

“If the Jews had a state of their own in which the bulk of the people were at home, the Jewish question could already be considered solved today, even for the Jews themselves. The ardent Zionists of all people have objected least to the basic ideas of the Nuremberg Laws, because they know that these laws are the only correct solution for the Jewish people.”
Many years later, Haim Cohen, a former judge of the Supreme Court of Israel stated:

“The bitter irony of fate decreed that the same biological and racist argument extended by the Nazis, and which inspired the inflammatory laws of Nuremberg, serve as the basis for the official definition of Jewishness in the bosom of the state of Israel” (quoted in Joseph Badi, Fundamental Laws of the State of Israel NY, 1960, P.156)

And Zionist leaders often negotiated with anti-semites to attain their objectives: Theodor Herzl talked openly with Von Plehve, the chief organiser of pogroms in Tsarist Russia; Jabotinsky collaborated with Petlura the Ukrainian hangman of the Jews; ‘revisionist’ Zionists were friendly with Mussolini and Pilsudski; the Haavara agreements between the Zionists organisations and the Third Reich agreed the evacuation of German-Jewish property.

Modern zionism is the ideology of secular Jewish nationalism. It has little to do with Judaism as a religion and many orthodox Jews to this day have remained hostile to Zionism, like the Hassidic sect which joined a Palestinian march in Washington in April 2002 carrying placards which said: “ZIONISM SUCKS” and “SHARON: PALESTINIAN BLOOD IS NOT WATER”. Zionism was born in the 19th Century as a direct response to the vicious anti-semitism that pervaded Austria. The first Jewish immigrants to Palestine arrived in 1882 and many of them were interested only in maintaining a cultural presence. There is no such thing as the ‘historical rights’ of Jews to Palestine. This grotesque myth (already in the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza referred to the old testament as ‘ a collection of fairy-tales’, denounced the prophets and was excommunicated by the Amsterdam synagogue as a result) ignores real history. Long before the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 AD, a large majority of the Jewish population lived outside Palestine. The native Jews were gradually assimilated into neighbouring groups such as the Phoenicians, Philistines, etc. Palestinians are, in most cases, descended from the old Hebrew tribes and genetic science has recently confirmed this, much to the annoyance of Zionists.

Israel was created in 1948 by the British Empire and sustained by its American successor. It was a European settler-state. Its early leaders proclaimed the myth of a ‘A Land without People for a People without Land’, thus denying the presence of the Palestinians. Four weeks ago the Zionist historian Benny Morris in a chilling interview with Haaretz (reprinted as a document in English in the New Left Review, Mar/Apr 2004)admitted the whole truth. 700,000 Palestinians had been driven out of their villages by the Zionist army in 1948. There were numerous incidents of rape, etc. He described it accurately as ‘ethnic cleansing’ not genocide and went on to defend ethnic cleansing if carried out by a superior civilization, comparing it to the killing of native Americans by the European settlers in North America. That too, for Morris, was justified. Anti-semites and Zionists shared one thing in common: the view that Jews were a special race that could not be integrated in European societies and needed its own large ghetto or homeland. The fact that this is false is proved by the realities of today. The majority of the world’s Jews do not live in Israel, but in Western Europe and North America.

3. Anti-Zionism was a struggle that began against the Zionist colonisation project and intellectuals of Jewish origin played an important part in this campaign and do so to this day inside Israel itself.

Most of my knowledge of Zionism and anti-Zionism comes from the writings and speeches of anti-Zionist jews: Akiva Orr, Moshe Machover,Haim Hanegbi, Isaac Deutscher, Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff), Ernest Mandel, Maxime Rodinson, Nathan Weinstock, to name but a few. They argued that Zionism and the structures of the Jewish state offered no real future to the Jewish people settled in Israel. All they offered was infinite war. After 1967, there was a revival of the Palestinian national movement and many different groups arose, most of whom were careful to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Nonetheless the role played by Israel undoubtedly fuelled popular anti-semitism in the Arab world. But these are not old roots and a sovereign Palestinian homeland or a democrat single state would soon bring this to an end. Historically, there have been very few clashes between Jews and Muslims in the Arab Empires.

4. The campaign against the supposed new ‘anti-semitism’ in Europe today is basicly a cynical ploy on the part of the Israeli Government to seal off the Zionist state from any criticism of its regular and consistent brutality against the Palestinians.

The daily hits carried out by the IDF have wrecked the towns and villages of Palestine, killed thousands of civilians (especially children) and European citizens are aware of this fact. Criticism of Israel can not and should not be equated with anti-semitism. The fact is that Israel is not a weak, defenceless state. It is the strongest state in the region. It possesses real, not imaginary, weapons of mass destruction. It possesses more tanks and bomber jets and pilots than the rest of the Arab world put together. To say that the Zionist state is threatened by any Arab country is pure demagogy. It is Israel that creates the conditions, which produce suicide bombers. Even a few staunch Zionists are beginning to realise that this is a fact.. That is why we know that as long as Palestine remains oppressed there will be no peace in the region.

5. The daily suffering of the Palestinians does not excite the liberal conscience of Europe, guilt-ridden (and for good reason) by its past inability to defend the Jews of central Europe against extinction. But the judeocide should not be used as a cover to commit crimes against the Palestinian people. European and American voices should be heard loud and clear on this question. To be intimidated by Zionist blackmail is to become an accomplice of war-crimes.

Originally published in il manifesto. 26 Febbraio 2004.
Carried on Verso publishers website here

by Gabriel Piterberg
New Left Review 10, July-August 2001

How the founding myths of Israel dictated conceptual removal of Palestinians, during and after physical removal. The invention of 'retroactive   transfer' and 'present absentees' as the glacial euphemisms of ethnic cleansing. Three foundational myths underlie Israeli culture to this day.  These are the 'negation of exile' (shelilat ha-galut), the 'return to   the land of Israel' (ha-shiva le-Eretz Yisrael), and the 'return to history' (ha-shiva la-historia).

They are inextricably intertwined in   the master-narrative of Zionism, the story that explains 'how we got to where   we are and where we should go henceforth'. The negation of exile establishes a   continuity between an ancient past, in which there existed Jewish sovereignty   over the land of Israel, and a present that renews it in the resettlement of   Palestine. Between the two lies no more than a kind of interminable interim.   Depreciation of the period of exile is shared by all Zionists, if with   differing degrees of rigidity, and derives from what is, in their outlook, an   uncontestable presupposition: from time immemorial, the Jews constituted a territorial nation. It follows that a non-territorial existence must be  abnormal, incomplete and inauthentic. In and of itself, as a historical   experience, exile is devoid of significance. Although it may have given rise to cultural achievements of moment, exile could not by definition have been a wholesome realization of the nation's Geist. So long as they were condemned to it, Jews—whether as individuals or communities—could lead at best   a partial and transitory existence, waiting for the redemption of 'ascent'   (aliyah) once again to the land of Israel, the only site on which the   nation's destiny could be fulfilled. Within this mythical framework, exilic   Jews always lived provisionally, as potential or proto-Sharett was the 'moderate' wing of the Zionist ethnic cleansing programmeZionists, longing 'to return' to the land of Israel. [1]

Here the second foundational myth complements the first. In   Zionist terminology, the recovery by the people of its home promised to deliver   the normalization of Jewish existence; and the site designated for the   re-enactment of Exodus would be the territory of the Biblical story, as   elaborated in the Protestant culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth   centuries. Zionist ideology defined this land as empty. This did not   mean Zionist leaders and settlers were ignorant of the presence of Arabs in   Palestine, or mulishly ignored them. Israel was 'empty' in a deeper sense. For   the land, too, was condemned to an exile as long as there was no Jewish sovereignty over it: it lacked any meaningful or authentic history, awaiting redemption with the return of the Jews. The best-known Zionist slogan, 'a land   without a people to a people without a land', expressed a twofold denial: of   the historical experience both of the Jews in exile, and of Palestine without   Jewish sovereignty. Of course, since the land was not literally empty, its   recovery required the establishment of the equivalent of a colonial   hierarchy—sanctioned by Biblical authority—of its historic custodians over such   intruders as might remain after the return. Jewish settlers were to be accorded   exclusive privileges deriving from the Pentateuch, and Palestinian Arabs   treated as part of the natural environment. In the macho Hebrew culture of modern times, to know a woman, in the Biblical sense, and to know the land became virtually interchangeable as terms of possession. The Zionist   settlers were collective subjects who acted, and the native Palestinians became   objects acted upon.

The third foundational myth, the 'return to history', reveals,   more than any other, the extent to which Zionist ideology was underpinned by   the emergence of Romantic nationalism and German historicism in   nineteenth-century Europe. Its premise is that the natural and irreducible form   of human collectivity is the nation. From the dawn of history peoples have been   grouped into such units, and though they might at one time or another be   undermined by internal divisions or oppressed by external forces, they are   eventually bound to find political self-expression in the shape of sovereign   nation-states. The nation is the autonomous historical subject par   excellence, and the state is the telos of its march toward   self-fulfillment. According to this logic, so long as they were exiles, the   Jews remained a community outside history, within which all European nations   dwelt. Only nations that occupy the soil of their homeland, and establish   political sovereignty over it, are capable of shaping their own destiny and so   entering history by this logic. The return of the Jewish nation to the land of   Israel, overcoming its docile passivity in exile, could alone allow it to   rejoin the history of civilized peoples.

Cleansing Palestine

Metaphorically empty, factually inhabited by Arabs, how was   Palestine 'emptied' to enable the creation of Israel? Recently, long overdue   controversies have broken out over the origins of the present state, prompted   by the work of historians who are not committed to its founding myths. This is   a welcome development: much hallowed mystification has been cleared away. But   there is a danger that debate could become too narrowly focused on the single   issue of whether or not there was an Israeli master plan to effect a   comprehensive expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs from their homes in 1948. [2] The   moral pressure behind this obsessive question is understandable, and should be   respected. But it is also true that it takes for granted that what matters is   the framework of the perpetrators, not the perspective of the victims. The   existence or otherwise of an explicit Zionist intention to unleash ethnic   cleansing, under cover of war, poses problems that Israelis certainly need to   confront. But to Palestinians who lost their homes, their goods, their rights   and their identities, it matters little whether the disaster that befell them   resulted from decisions taken by military commanders and local bureaucrats on   the spot, or from an implicit understanding that this was the wish of the   Zionist political leadership, or through a diffuse atmosphere and ideology that   treated massive expulsions as desirable—or any combination of the above. What   counted for the Arabs driven off their lands was the fact of their   dispossession and transformation into refugees. Retrospective rituals of bad   conscience risk becoming luxuries that only the victor can afford, without   consequence for the victims who have had to live with the results.

The reality is that the eventuality of massive expulsions was   inherent in the nature of Zionist colonization in Palestine long before war   broke out in 1948. Consideration of notions of population 'transfer' ceased to   be just an abstract idea after the report of the Peel Commission in the late   1930s. After all, as Zeev Sternhell correctly observes, Zionism was in many   ways a typical example of the 'organic'—as distinct from 'civic'—nationalism of   Central and Eastern Europe. [3] This kind was   feral in its demand for ethnic homogeneity, ruling out from the beginning any   possibility of the Zionist movement accepting a bi-national state in Palestine.   Given the demography of Palestine in 1947, the establishment of a Jewish state   inexorably required the removal of Palestinians from their farms and towns.   However, the form that this 'population transfer' was to take did not need a   premeditated plan of expulsion by the Israeli government (as distinct from the   calculation of individual officials and bureaucratic agencies). Rather, the   crucial decision was to prevent Palestinian Arabs at all costs from   returning to their homes, regardless of the circumstances in which they   had 'left' them, and no matter how plainly their 'departure' had been envisaged   as a temporary move made under duress, in the midst of war. There were, of   course, deliberate and massive expulsions. The infamous Operation Danny of July   10–14, 1948, which resulted in a massacre at Lydda and the forcible transfer of   the entire population of the townships of Ramlah and Lydda—ten miles south-east   of Tel Aviv—to Jordan, is a well-known case in point. [4]   But the really crucial decision, which was fully conscious and explicit, was to   make sure that the collapse of the Palestinian community that unfolded under   the pressures of all-out war between Israel and the Arab states would be   irreversible.

For what followed, we are indebted to outstanding recent   research by Haya Bombaji-Sasportas of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. [5] In April 1948,   Haifa fell to an Israeli assault. In June, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett—a   darling of Israeli 'moderates' to this day—said to his colleagues:

To my mind this is the most surprising thing: the emptying of   the country by the Arab community. In the history of the land of Israel this is   more surprising than the establishment of the Hebrew State itself . . . This   has happened amidst a war that the Arab nation declared against us, because the   Arabs fled of their own accord—and their departure is one of those   revolutionary changes after which history does not revert to its previous   course, as we see from the outcome of the war between Greece and Turkey. We   should be willing to pay for land. This does not mean that we should buy   holdings from each and every [Arab]. We shall receive assets and land, which   can be used to help settle Arabs in other countries. But they do not   return. And this is our policy: they do notreturn. [6]

A day before, in a letter to an important official in the Jewish   Agency, Sharett defined the emptying of the land of its Arab inhabitants as 'a   wonderful thing in the history of the country and in a sense even more   wonderful than the establishment of the State of Israel.' [7]

'Retroactive transfer'

Bureaucrats everywhere have particular ways of thought and forms   of expression, which sometimes produce chillingly apt terms. Yosef Weitz, the   director of the Jewish National Fund's Lands Department, and one of the most   relentless proponents of transfer, serves as an outstanding example. As early   as May 28, 1948, when he headed the semi-official three-member Transfer   Committee, he noted in his diary a meeting with Sharett. On this occasion,   Weitz asked Sharett whether he thought orderly action should be taken to ensure   that the flight of Arabs from the war zone was an irreversible fact, and   described the aim of such action as a 'retroactive transfer' (transfer   be-di 'avad). Sharett said yes. [8]

Weitz's term underlay the confidential discourse of Israeli   officials and politicians of the time. Probably from the seizure of Haifa, and   with increasing intensity and ferocity during the autumn of 1948, Palestinian   territories conquered by Israeli arms were voided of Arabs, without a master   plan being needed to remove them. There was a range of ways in which the land   became 'Arabless': flight of the wealthy; temporary escape of civilians from   areas under threat of heavy fighting; encouragement of panic by Israeli   military violence, terror and propaganda; and full-fledged expulsion. [9]   What is amply documented and demonstrable is the cold deliberation of the   policy of 'retroactive transfer' which issued from these movements. This was   the fundamental decision that was systematized, bureaucratized and legalized in   the 1950s, with far-reaching consequences for both Palestinians and Jews,   within Israel and without. To this day, what structurally defines the nature of   the Israeli state is the return of Jews and the non-return of Arabs to   Palestine. If this dynamic of return/non-return were to disappear, the Zionist   state would lose its identity.

Official narratives

The physical implementation of the policy of non-return meant   the brutal wartime demolition of occupied villages, and in some cases of urban   neighbourhoods; the confiscation of lands and properties; the settlement of   Jews in places rendered Arab-free. The results were completed with systematic   legal measures in the 1950s, affecting both refugees outside Israel and those   within, whom the state defined as its (second-class) citizens. But the erasure   of Arab existence in Palestine was not just physical. It was also discursive. A   group of officials in command of what was considered expert knowledge of 'the   Arab question' was responsible for this side of the operation. It comprised two   distinct types of functionary. One had come through the foreign-policy   department of the Jewish Agency or the intelligence unit of Haganah, in the   pre-state period. These could speak Arabic, had experience of dealing with   Arabs, took pride in being field-experts, and were known as Arabists   (Arabistim). The other contingent were the better educated products of   European—mostly German—universities, and/or the Hebrew University in Jerusalem;   they knew written Arabic (fusha), believed they had a wider and deeper   understanding of the enemy than their field counterparts, and were known as   Orientalists (mizrahanim). Once the state was established, most of   them held posts in its intelligence machinery, or in the research and Middle   East departments of the Foreign Office, or were advisers on 'Arab affairs' to   the Prime Minister. [10]

After the war, an early key move of this apparatus was to define   the plight of Palestinian refugees as a 'humanitarian' issue tied inextricably   to an overall resolution of the Arab–Israeli conflict, in the full knowledge   that such a resolution would not be forthcoming. Bombaji-Sasportas correctly   observes that this strategy was instrumental in cancelling the subjectivity of   the victims of Israeli expansion: ignoring their identity, memory and   aspirations in favour of a deliberately constructed Gordian knot that has been   accepted as a fact of life ever since by Israeli scholarship, whether   mainstream or critical. [11] In his own way, Asher Goren—an official in   the Israeli Foreign Office—also noticed this. In a memorandum of September 27,   1948, summarizing the refugee problem, he concluded, after reiterating that it   was pendant on the conflict with the Arab states as a whole: 'The   compromise-seekers [among Arab statesmen] want return [of the refugees to their   homes]. The warmongers object to it. The will of the refugees is unknown nor   does anyone ask them.' [12]

It was the semi-official Transfer Committee headed by Weitz,   which submitted its first report in November 1948, that formulated what would   later become the official Israeli narrative of the 'refugee problem'. [13] The Committee's main function   was to execute and oversee the policy of non-return by systematic demolition   and erasure of Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods, and then the systematic   seizure of land and property owned by Palestinians. The report was a massive   document containing much detailed information on the Palestinians and the   activities of the Committee. Its textual purpose was to enforce the conclusion,   laid out with every appearance of authority and objectivity, that the only   solution for the refugees was their resettlement in Arab countries. In   hindsight this report may be seen as the Ur-text of all Israeli   discourse—academic, bureaucratic, political—on the fate of 'those who left', at   least until the publication of Benny Morris's work in the 1980s and 1990s. It   supplied the account that became the standard version of history for propaganda   and foreign-policy purposes.

The narrative was fraudulent, and there is reason to believe   that it was consciously fraudulent. [14] Its burden was   that the Palestinians themselves, their leaders, and accomplices in the Arab   states bore sole responsibility for the creation of the 'refugee problem'. The   Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, had advised the Palestinians to leave   their homes in order to return with the victorious Arab armies, and claim not   only their property but also that of the defeated Jews. It was therefore the   responsibility of the Arab states to see that the refugees were resettled   there—not just because they had incited their displacement but also because it   was a 'scientific fact' that Arab societies were now the only appropriate home   for such people, since the map of Palestine had been transformed and Israel had   its hands full with the absorption of Jewish refugees driven out of the Arab   world.

The disappearance of Shaykh Mu'nis

A logical concomitant of this schema was a sustained campaign to   wipe out any traces of the Palestinian past on conquered soil. A striking   example of how this policy worked in practice is offered by the recent memoir   of Zvi Yavetz, Professor Emeritus of Roman History, a founder of Tel Aviv   University and a powerful kingmaker in its Faculty of Humanities for three   decades. Reminiscing about his role in the early negotiations with academics,   politicians and bureaucrats to set up the university, he describes how a   decision was taken to move the nascent campus from provisional quarters in the   heart of Tel Aviv to Shaykh Mu'nis. [15] It so happens that Golda Meir (then Myerson) also mentioned   Shaykh Mu'nis, in early May 1948—just after the fall of Haifa. Speaking to the   Central Committee of Mapai, she said she wished to raise the question of what   was to be done with locations that had become substantially Arab-less. A   distinction, she told her colleagues, should be drawn between 'hostile' and   'friendly' villages. 'What do we do with the villages that were deserted . . .   without a battle by [Arab] friends?' she asked. 'Are we willing to preserve   these villages so that their inhabitants may return, or do we wish to erase any   trace [limhok kol zekher] that there was a village in a given   place?' [16] Meir's answer was   unequivocal. It was unthinkable to treat villages 'like Shaykh Mu'nis', which   had fled because they did not want to fight the Yishuv, in the way that hostile   villages had been treated—ie, subjected to 'retroactive transfer'.

But the inhabitants of Shaykh Mu'nis did not gain much from   their classification as 'friendly'. Until late March 1948, the leaders of this   large village north of Tel Aviv had prevented Arab irregulars from entering it,   and even loosely collaborated with the Haganah. Then, however, the Irgun   abducted five of the village notables. Thereupon the population fled en   masse, and Shaykh Mu'nis literally vanished—a disappearance confirmed   three months later by IDF intelligence. Golda Meir's seemingly poignant   question in early May, in other words, was asked in the full knowledge that it   had ceased to exist at the end of March—a typical soul-searching in the manner   of Labour Zionism: crocodile tears over a fait accompli. What was once   Shaykh Mu'nis became part of an affluent neighbourhood in northern Tel Aviv,   which took the name of Ramat Aviv. There, in the 1960s, the University of Tel   Aviv was built on the site where Shaykh Mu'nis had been less than twenty years   before. Yavetz, a well-known 'leftist' veteran of the war of 1948, not to say   an eminent historian, utters not a word of this. Shaykh Mu'nis was no longer   there, and for thirty years it could not be remembered. But eventually there   was one twisted, colonial exception. In the 1990s, as the university grew   larger and wealthier, a luxurious VIP club was built on the campus, called the   Green House. Its architecture is an Orientalist Israeli version of an 'Arab   mansion', and its location is the hill where the house of the mukhtar   of Shaykh Mu'nis once stood (it is a VIP club, after all). The information on   the site's past, and who owned it, may be found in the menu of the Green House.

From the start, Israeli officials were well aware of the   significance of memory and the need to erase it. Repression of what had been   done to create the state was essential among the Jews themselves. It was still   more important to eradicate remembrance among Palestinians. Shamai Kahane   composed one of the most striking documents of the official campaign to this   end. A high-ranking functionary in the Foreign Office, Kahane served as   personal and diplomatic secretary to Sharett in 1953–54, and was instrumental   in the creation of the huge bureaucratic archive known as 'Operation Refugee   File'. [17] On   March 7, 1951, he made a proposal to the Acting Director of the Middle East   Department of the Foreign Office, Divon. Here is the text of his memorandum:


You should be efficiently assisted by propaganda of photos that   would very tangibly illustrate to them [the refugees] that they have nowhere to   return. The refugees fancifully imagine that their homes, furniture and   belongings are intact, and they only need to return and reclaim them. Their   eyes must be opened to see that their homes have been demolished, their   property has been lost, and Jews who are not at all willing to give them up   have seized their places. All this can be conveyed in an indirect way that   would not provoke feelings of vengeance unnecessarily, but would show reality   as it is, however bitter and cruel.

Ways of infiltrating such material: a brochure or a series of   articles accompanied by photos published in Israel or abroad, in a limited   circulation that would not make waves in the non-Arab world, but would find its   way to Arab journalists who by prearrangement would bring the pertinent   materials within it to the notice of the refugees. Another way: to print the   photos with appropriate headings (the headings are what matters!) in a brochure   that was supposedly published in one of the Arab countries. The photographic   material should draw a contrast between Arab villages in the past and how they   look today, after the war and the settlement of Jews in the abandoned sites.   These photos ought to prove that the Jewish settlers found everything in ruins   and have put a great deal of work into restoring the deserted villages, that   they tie their future to these places, look after them and are not at all   willing to give them up.

There is a certain risk in this proposal, but I think that its   benefits would be greater than any damage it could do, and we should consider   very carefully how to carry it out efficiently. [18]

Kahane's memorandum is a faithful illustration of the ruthless   state of mind of the Israeli establishment as it set out to transform the   consciousness and memory of its victims. It can be seen as a preamble to a   thorough report on every imaginable aspect of 'the refugee problem' that Kahane   prepared later that year, with an eye to the activities of the UN Appeasement   Committee and a conference it was sponsoring in Paris. [19] This is a remarkable document in a number   of ways: evidence of how swiftly the Arab heritage of Palestine had become a   transient episode in the official mind; and of how completely any return by the   refugees was now presented as an objective impossibility, rather than as an   eventuality that the state itself was resolved at any cost to block.   Reaffirming the familiar thesis that Arabs were the culprits of their own   displacement, Kahane revealed the extent to which Palestine had already become   Arab-less for him. 'Nationally', he wrote, 'the growth of an Arab minority will   hinder the development of the state of Israel as a homogeneous state.'   Repatriation, he added altruistically, would be a misfortune for the refugees   themselves:

If the refugees had returned to Israel they would have found   themselves in a country whose economic, social and political structures   differed from those of the country they left behind. The cities and most of the   deserted Arab villages have since been settled by Jews who are leaving their   ineradicable imprint on them . . . If the refugees had come back to the   realities that have developed in Israel, they would have certainly found it   difficult to adjust to them. Urban professionals, merchants and officials would   have had to wage a desperate battle for survival in a national economy within   which all the key positions are held by Jews. Peasants would have been unable,   in most cases, to return to their lands.

Here Kahane was rehearsing the argument of an earlier Foreign   Office report, of March 16, 1949, also composed with a view to the Appeasement   Committee which had just been set up under UN Resolution 194. Its authors seem   to have been Michael Comay, director of the Commonwealth Department in the   Foreign Office, and Zalman Lifshitz, former member of the Transfer Committee   and adviser to Ben-Gurion on land issues. Written in English and entitled 'The   Arab Refugee Problem', this document too emphasizes the impossibility of any   Palestinian 'repatriation' in a detached, reality-has-changed, rhetorical   register. [20] It adds, however, a tragic emplotment. In this narrative the plight of   the refugees is depicted as if it were the result of a natural disaster, whose   outcome is mournful, but inevitable and irrevocable. The perpetrator of   expatriation, the state for which the document speaks, and which the authors   serve, has nothing to do with it. Note the use of impersonal constructions and   of the passive voice:

During the war and the Arab exodus, the basis of their [the   refugees'] economic life crumbled away. Moveable property which was not taken   away with them has disappeared. Livestock has been slaughtered or sold.   Thousands of town and village dwellings have been destroyed in the course of   the fighting, or in order to deny their use to enemy forces, regular or   irregular; and of those which remain habitable, most are serving as temporary   homes for [Jewish] immigrants . . . But even if repatriation were economically   feasible, is it politically desirable? Would it make sense to recreate that   dual society, which has bedevilled Palestine for so long, until it led   eventually to open war? Under the happiest of circumstances, a complex and   uncertain situation is created where a single state must be shared by two or   more people who differ in race, religion, language and culture.

'Present absentees'

Weitz's chillingly precise administrative term, 'retroactive   transfer', tells the story of the Israeli drive to transform Palestine into an   unreturnable and irrecollectible country for the external refugees who lost   their homes during or after the war. Another term, of similar administrative   and legal effect, and moral bearing, was coined for internal refugees within   the borders of the state. These became known as 'present absentees'   (nokhehim nifkadim). [21] Of course, as   Bombaji-Sasportas amply demonstrates, in this context 'external' and 'internal'   are further markers of the determination of the Israeli establishment to   objectify, control and dispossess the refugees. [22] If we use them here, it is to show the realities   behind them. What the term 'present absentees' designates is the history of the   dispossession and displacement of those Palestinians—their number is estimated   at 160,000—who found themselves within the state of Israel between 1948 and   1952. It tells of the tacit axis of apartheid that defines the state of Israel   to this day: the interplay between the formal inclusion of Palestinians as   citizens and their structural exclusion from equal rights within the state.   This is the particular dialectic of oppression—of a population formally present   but in so many crucial ways absent—that makes the legal-administrative   definition of these Palestinians so coldly accurate.

The category of 'absentees' was originally a juridical term for   those refugees who were 'absent' from their homes but 'present' within the   boundaries of the state as defined by the Armistice Agreements of 1949. The   vast majority of the Palestinians so classified were not allowed to return to   their homes, to reclaim their property, or to seek compensation. Instead the   state promulgated the Law of Absentees' Properties in 1950, which legalized the   plundering of their possessions. The looting of Arab property was given the   guise of a huge land transaction that the state had conducted with itself. A   thinly disguised official entity called 'The Custodian' was authorized to sell   absentees' land (defined in Clause 1[b] of the Law) to the Development Agency,   a government body created specifically to acquire it. This agency then sold it   on to the Jewish National Fund. At the end of the chain these lands were   privately farmed out to Jews only (this was the procedural significance of the   JNF), and gradually became de facto private property, while remaining   de jure in the keeping of the state. [23]

Cultural obliteration

If such was the outcome of the legal status of absentee, the   fully dialectical notion of 'present absentees' was devised in more literary   fashion by yet another high-ranking bureaucrat in the Foreign Office, Alexander   Dotan. In the early summer of 1952 he was working in its Department for   International Institutions when UNRWA wound up its activities in the country   and passed responsibility for 'internal' refugees to the Israeli government. In   July, Dotan was appointed inter-ministerial coordinator and chair of the   Advisory Committee on Refugees. After some research, he then wrote a series of   memoranda that offered background briefing and solutions for 'the refugee   problem'. The first document, dated November 9, 1952, was specifically   concerned with those refugees within Israel who had not been allowed to return   to their homes, and many of whom dwelt in other Palestinian villages and towns.   Dotan identified and defined these people—for the first time, it would seem—as   'present absentees'. [24] The literary features of the memorandum are striking. Tragic   emplotment, ostensible empathy and anthropological detachment are all deployed   to generate a Realist depiction of the way 'present absentees' are likely to   remember the past:

The fundamental problem of the refugee, who is wholly dependent   on government policy, is land. The current position is that a refugee will   often live in a village in Galilee, adjacent to his deserted lands and village,   as if at an observation post. The distance is usually just a few kilometres   and, in most cases, the refugees would have been able to cultivate their land   from their present place of residence, if they had been allowed to do so, even   without returning to the deserted and destroyed village. From his place of   observation and present shelter the refugee follows what is happening on his   land. He hopes and yearns to return to it, but he sees the new [Jewish]   immigrants who are trying to strike roots in the land, or those who have farmed   it out from the Custodian, or the way the orchards are gradually deteriorating   because no one looks after them. The refugee desires to return to his land, if   only to some of it when it is mostly already settled by Jews, and he therefore   usually seeks to farm it out from the Custodian, something that is denied to   him.

Dotan was adamant that prolongation of these conditions was   politically and culturally impossible. His conclusion, however, was not to   return the properties and grant real citizenship to the 'internal' refugees, at   least. The foundational myths of Zionism made—as they still do—any conjunction   of the words 'return' and 'Arabs' or 'Palestinians' unthinkable. What Dotan had   in mind was something else: a comprehensive assimilation (hitbolelut) of these   Palestinians into the Jewish state and society of Israel by obliterating their   memory, identity and culture. Dotan deliberately used the very term that was   pivotal in the self-justification of the Zionist movement: hitbolelut was the   disaster that recovery of the land of Israel would prevent—the disappearance of   the Jewish people through assimiliation in the Diaspora. Such was the future   now to be benignly extended to the Arabs within Israel. In a second memorandum,   of November 12, 1952, Dotan warned that current state policies could induce the   Palestinians within Israel to feel that they were 'a persecuted national   minority that identifies with the Arab nation.' [25] To avert this risk, he proposed a new   strategy that would aim on the one hand 'to integrate the Arabs into the state'   by 'opening the gates of assimilation to them', while on the other it would   'fiercely combat those who are unwilling or unable to adapt to the [Jewish]   state'. Dotan was aware of the likely objections to such a policy, and met them   head on. 'It may rightly be asked: what are the prospects that the Arabs would   assimilate? This can be answered only through experience, but if one wished to   draw a lesson from history one could say that assimilation has been a very   common feature in the Middle East since time immemorial.'

The colonial logic of this conception was spelt out with   arresting clarity, as Dotan went on to explain how an irreversible obliteration   of Palestinian identity might be achieved:

The realization of such a new policy requires a comprehensive   onslaught upon the Arab minority by both the state and the Jewish public in the   country, and it seems that an important instrument of it might be the formation   of a secular Jewish cultural mission. The mission would act as the emissary of   the Jewish people and Israeli progress in the Arab village. Under no   circumstances should party politics be allowed within or through it. This   mission would establish special training seminars for Jewish counsellors to   operate in Arab villages, on the lines of our counsellors in the   ma'abarot or in the new settlements, and like the missions to the   Indian villages in Mexico. [26] These counsellors would infiltrate the villages together with the   refugees, who would begin to settle them, and would accompany the refugees from   the first day of their installation . . . Missions of two to three male and   female counsellors for every twenty to thirty villages should suffice to effect   agrarian changes within them. Such a mission would reside in a village; teach   Hebrew; offer agricultural instruction, medical assistance and welfare; supply   social guidance; act as natural mediator between the village and the   authorities and the Hebrew community; and keep a security check on everything   that happens in and around the village. Such a mission could acquire influence   on all village matters and fundamentally alter them within a few years.

Dotan's proposal incurred the wrath of Ben-Gurion's powerful and   ruthless adviser on Arab affairs, Josh Palmon, who favoured the continuation of   a notoriously oppressive military government in the hope that this would extend   the process of 'retroactive transfer'—ie, de facto expulsion—to the   'internal' refugees as well. But Dotan reiterated his argument undeterred. His   next report, of November 23, 1952, warning that outside powers might otherwise   try to impose 'cultural autonomy' for the Palestinian minority on Israel,   pressed home his scheme for an Arab hitbolelut. There could hardly be   a more tangible example of the deliberate attempt to erase the very memory of   an Arab Palestine than the final brick of Dotan's assimilationist edifice. This   is what he wrote to the Foreign Minister:

An important tool for us is accelerated reconstruction of   ancient geographical names and Hebraicization [shi 'abur] of Arabic   toponyms. In this respect the most important task is to disseminate the   practical use of the new names, a process that has run into difficulties among   Jews too. In Jaffa the name 'Jibaliyya' is still current, although 'Giv'at   Aliya' is gradually disinheriting it. By contrast, a Hebrew name has not been   found yet for 'Ajami', and some new immigrants still incorrectly call the Arab   neighbourhood within it the 'Ghetto' or 'Arab Ghetto'. It is possible, by being   strictly formal and with adequate indoctrination, to make the Arab inhabitants   of 'Rami' [in the Upper Galilee] get used to calling their village, in speech   and writing, 'Ha-Rama' (Ramat Naftali), or to make the inhabitants of 'Majd   al-Krum' [also in the Upper Galilee] become used to calling their village 'Beit   ha-Kerem'. From the inhabitants of what the Arabs called 'Shafa'amer [near   Haifa], I have already heard the [Hebraicized] name 'Shefar'am'. [27]

Dotan described his second memorandum as a 'Final Solution of   the Refugee Problem in Israel'. The easy use of the term is striking. Here lie   the historical roots of the obsessive refusal to concede to the Palestinians   the right of return, which—more than the unity of Jerusalem—is the widest   consensual basis of Israeli politics today. It is this which explains the   genuine—preposterous—belief that withdrawal from the territories occupied in   1967 and dismantling of the settlements would be a painful compromise.

[1] This article is based on part of a longer essay, entitled 'Can The Subaltern Remember? A Pessimistic View of the Victims of Zionism', to appear in a volume edited by Ussama Makdisi and Paul Silberstein on memory and violence in the Middle East and North Africa. My definition of the foundational myths is obviously critical. It is informed by Boas Evron, National Reckoning [Hebrew], 1986; Yitzhak Laor, Narratives with no Natives: Essays on Israeli Literature [Hebrew], 1995; David Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past, Oxford 1995; Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, 'Exile within Sovereignty' [Hebrew], 2 parts, Theory and Criticism, 4, 1993, pp. 23–56 and 5, 1994, pp. 113–32; see also my 'Domestic Orientalism', British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 23, 1996, pp. 125–45.

[2] The literature on this question is substantial. For notable examples, see Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed., The Transformation of Palestine, Evanston 1971; Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said, eds, Blaming the Victims, Verso: London and New York 1988; Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–49, Cambridge 1987 and 1948 and After, Oxford 1990; Yigal Elam, The Executors [Hebrew], 1990, pp. 31–53; Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of 'Transfer' in Zionist Political Thought 1882–1948, Washington, DC 1992, and 'A Critique of Benny Morris', in Ilan Pappé, ed., The Israel/Palestine Question, London 1999, pp. 211–20. For a recent and qualitative addition, see Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds, The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge 2001.

[3] Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel, Princeton 1998, pp. 3–47.

[4] Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pp. 203–12.

[5] Haya Bombaji-Sasportas, 'Whose Voice is Heard/Whose Voice is Silenced: the Construction of the Palestinian Refugee Problem in the Israeli Establishment, 1948–52', unpublished MA thesis, 2000. I am deeply grateful to the author for making the documents available to me.

[6] Elam, The Executors, p. 31; emphasis added.

[7] Elam, The Executors, p. 43.

[8] See Morris, 1948 and After, pp. 89–144.

[9] See especially Morris's careful attempt to classify each and every case on which he could gather information, in the maps, appendix and invaluable index to the maps, in Morris, Birth, pp. ix–xx.

[10] See Bombaji-Sasportas, 'Whose Voice is Heard', pp. 17–22; Joel Beinin, 'Know Thy Enemy, Know Thy Ally', in Ilan Pappé, ed., Arabs and Jews during the Mandate [Hebrew], 1995, pp. 179–201; Gil Eyal, 'Between East and West: The Discourse on "the Arab Village" in Israel' [Hebrew], Theory and Criticism, 3, 1993, pp. 39–55; Dan Rabinovich, Anthropology and the Palestinians [Hebrew], 1998.

[11] Bombaji-Sasportas, 'Whose Voice is Heard', pp. 31–3.

[12] Israeli State Archives/Foreign Office/Corpus of the Minister and Director General 19–2444, vol. II, p. 6: henceforth SA/FO/CMDG.

[13] SA/FO/CMDG, 3/2445. This particular file contains documents of the period August–November 1948, including the report of the Transfer Committee, so named by Weitz.

[14] Comparison between the official narrative and the confidential papers of the period strongly suggest deliberate deceit; Yaacov Shimoi, a high-ranking functionary of the time, admitted in 1989 that a 'fraudulent version' had been concocted. See Elam, The Executors, endnote 17, pp. 48–9.

[15] Zvi Yavetz, 'On the First Days of Tel Aviv University: Memories', Alpayim, 11, 1995, pp. 101–29.

[16] See Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 133. The translation of Meir's words is mine, from the 1991 Hebrew edition of Morris's book, p. 185.

[17] For more details on Shamai Kahane, see Bombaji-Sasportas, 'Whose Voice is Heard', pp. 100, 119 and 163–8.

[18] SA/FO/CMDG 18/2402.

[19] SA/FO/CMDG 18/2406.

[20] SA/FO/CMDG 19/4222, vol. II; for the identification of the authors, see Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 255 and Bombaji-Sasportas, 'Whose Voice is Heard', p. 148.

[21] The haunting nature of this term was also noticed by David Grossman, who duly entitled his Hebrew book on the Palestinian Israelis Present Absentees (1992). The English translation is Sleeping on a Wire.

[22] See especially her discussion of 'the construction of a body of knowledge and the framing of the refugees as a scientific object', and 'the categorization of the refugees', pp. 44–99.

[23] The text of this law is rather long, but is accessible in any official collection of Knesset legislation. For critical comments on the law, see Alina Korn, The Arab Minority in Israel during the Military Government (1948–1966), unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 91–6, and Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 93–5 [both in Hebrew].

[24] SA/FO/A/2/2445 (a-948 II).

[25] SA/FO/CMDG 2/2445 A (a-948 II).

[26] Ma'abarot: the transition camps built for the massive Jewish immigration of the 1950s—transitory for Ashkenazi arrivals, less so for Sephardi; emphasis added.

[27] Cited in Yitzhak Laor, Narratives with no Natives, p. 132. Laor's critical work is the most sensitive attempt to date to show how the literary establishment has been co-opted by the Israeli state to write the hegemonic script that deletes the memories of the Palestinians. See especially 'The Sex Life of the Security Forces: On Amos Oz', and 'We Write Thee Oh Homeland', pp. 76–105, 115–71.


Original article in New Left Review Jul-Aug 2001

Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 By Gershon Shafir

[Shafir] "excavated the impact of settler colonial thinking in Europe upon the early Zionist settlers. For instance, the impact of the attempt by the German state in the east Prussian marshes to dispossess the Poles who had a hold on the land there and to basically Germanise that area in the closing part of the 19th century. This project was very influential on the settlement experts of the Zionist movement, especially Arthur Ruppin, who is probably the most important individual in the history of early Zionist colonisation."

Shafir explains why Israel is the product of a settler colonial project, European Zionism
Q: Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a fundamental and radical critique of the early history of Zionist settlement in Palestine. Can you tell us more about it?

A: I think that Gershon Shafir's book is probably the most important landmark in the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he's the one who really introduced into it the framework of comparative settler colonialism. I think it's the most fundamental book for understanding the challenge to the Zionist Israeli hegemonic story about Israel-Palestine from 1882 onwards. Although the book is quite well known, people seem not to understand that this actually is a much more radical criticism of how Israel came into being than the story of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which has got a lot more attention.

Q: What do you mean when you talk about the framework of comparative settler colonialism?

A: This is a field of study that looks comparatively at white settler colonial societies since the 16th century, and makes a conceptual distinction between metropole colonialism (eg, British India) and settler colonialism (eg, the US, Australia and Argentina). This implies neither that all settler societies are identical nor that their historically distinct trajectories should be discarded; rather that they are comparable and that the comparison adds invaluable insight to the study of these societies. The importance of comparative settler colonialism is, furthermore, also an ethical and political concern. Many settler projects gave birth to powerful nation states, which have asserted their hegemonic narratives nationally and internationally.

The comparative field not only serves to refute these narratives through evidence and interpretation but also creates a language that offers a powerful historical alternative to the hegemonic narratives conventionally generated by these settler societies. Most potently, perhaps, this field unmasks the attempt to create settler narratives in which the identity and institutions of the settler nation is bifurcated and separated from that of settler-indigene relations. What is unyieldingly insisted upon is the fact that the dispossession and elimination of the indigenous people is not one of many facets of the settler nations' history: It is the most pivotal and fundamental constituent of what they actually are.

Q: How does this book differ from the previous histories written about early Zionist settlement in Palestine?

In three ways, but they are all interconnected. First, he introduces the framework of comparative settler colonialism to the understanding both of the history and the ongoing politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shafir's book first appeared in 1989 and more than 20 years later it is quite clear that as a critical framework the comparative settler colonial paradigm is the one that's becoming more and more acceptable to those who want to understand the conflict.

Second, he has completely refuted the traditional Zionist narrative whereby there were two separate historical trajectories of two self-contained communities – the Zionist settlers and native Palestinians – which were impregnable to one another. The first trajectory is the Jewish community of settlers in Palestine, the Yishuv, and then Jewish society as it developed in Israel. The other is that of the Palestinians, or the local Arabs, which Zionist historiography says had a completely different trajectory, nothing to do with that of the Jewish side.

What Shafir shows is that they actually shaped one another and that the most important feature for understanding who and what the early Jewish community was and Israeli state is, is the conflict with the Palestinians. The need to dispossess the Palestinians is not an extraneous factor in the history of the Yishuv and the Israeli state; it's the most important constituent of what it actually is. Third, Shafir presented a viable alternative to the purely ideational way – which is typically Zionist – of telling the story of the creation of the Jewish state as a set of wonderful ideas that realised themselves on the ground. He puts much more emphasis on the socio-economic foundation of this conflict and how the settler-colonial need for land and labour really shaped the conflict rather than utopian ideas imported from Europe.

Shafir rejects the idea that the kibbutzim were first set up by the Jewish settlers in Palestine because of their socialist beliefs. Instead, he argues they were the most effective way of settling the land and providing work for Jewish immigrants.

This was the big innovation that he introduced. To argue that Zionism was colonial in the same sense that the British were colonial in India or Africa is, of course, nonsense. It was settler colonialism. It was an attempt by a community of European immigrants to carve out for themselves a country in a colony that was conquered by Britain, the imperial power. At least until 1967, the conflict with the Palestinians was not a conflict between a metropolitan colonial power and natives. It was a settler colonial clash between two national movements. One was a national movement of white settlers and the other was an indigenous national movement reacting to this threat. No one is arguing that this is a conflict in which the coloniser comes to exploit the resources and native population of the conquered territory and is eventually driven out. The colonial settlers always come to stay and carve for themselves a national patrimony. As one of the founding scholars of comparative settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, famously wrote: "Invasion is a structure, not an event." So in this sense the transformation of our understanding of the history of Israel/Palestine that Shafir introduces is really paradigmatic.

I would like to add that when you read this book – which I think is magnificent but is not easy to read as it's a complex argument – you see how he excavated the impact of settler colonial thinking in Europe upon the early Zionist settlers. For instance, the impact of the attempt by the German state in the east Prussian marshes to dispossess the Poles who had a hold on the land there and to basically Germanise that area in the closing part of the 19th century. This project was very influential on the settlement experts of the Zionist movement, especially Arthur Ruppin, who is probably the most important individual in the history of early Zionist colonisation.

Original piece in The Browser

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