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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Myths and Facts

June 2, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

I Attended a lecture by Prof. Ilan Pappe, one of the “new historians,” on Jewish and Arab perspectives on the War of Independence. He and his colleagues argue that the documentary evidence and interviews with witnesses indicate that the War of Independence was not exactly the way we have traditionally been taught to see it. It was not the courageous stand of the pure few Jews against the vicious multitude of Arabs - and the Arabs who fled did not do so on their own initiative. Rather, he argues, there was a conscious and concerted effort by the Jews to get as many Arabs as possible to flee. There were massacres, there were campaigns of intimidation: the Jewish leadership understood that an ethnic Jewish state would need a clear Jewish majority to be viable, and that given the hopelessness of any kind of multicultural coexistence, and given the recent Jewish experience in Europe, the ends justified just about any means. Thus, according to this analysis, while there was certainly Arab brutality, they by no means had a monopoly on it. It was a nasty war, and terrible things were done by both sides. And therefore, it is not just antisemitism or mean-spiritedness that causes the Palestinian Arabs of Israel to see Independence Day as a time of mourning instead of celebration (they call it the “Nakbeh,” or catastrophe). The new historians argue that the historical memory of the Arabs living in Israel has validity, and that it would be helpful for ultimate reconciliation if the Jews were to admit that the myths on which we grew up - of the Arabs’ self-motivated flight, of the “purity of Jewish arms” - don’t represent the whole truth.

Most of the people at the lecture, residents of the Galilee who attended the lecture in the context of their activity in Sikkui, an organization that engages in education, research, and advocacy for equal rights, pretty much knew what to expect, and listened calmly. A few squirmed, and in the question period argued: “but it was do or die - it was a struggle for survival - how could we have been expected to act differently...”

The man sitting next to me, however, who looked to be about 15 years younger than the state, couldn’t take it. We could see and feel his agitation, and finally he blurted out his response. “Are you trying to tell me that my father was a liar - that all of our fathers were liars? You are as bad as the Holocaust deniers! You manipulate history for your own ends! Who is to say that your version is correct? This is our land and we have a right to it. Don’t you believe in the Bible? Don’t you believe in the UN? They both say it is ours! What are we supposed to do, get up and go back to Europe?” Any attempts by the speaker to respond calmly only made him angrier, and after another outburst, he finally left.

He spoke, I think, for everyman, for most Israelis, who are not ready to hear the story of the other, not yet able to question our sacred myths and heroes without feeling threatened and betrayed. Maybe it’'s a maturity thing: little kids insist on knowing who are the good guys and who are the bad guys; as they get older, they can begin to understand that all guys are a mixture of good and bad, and that there are no simple stories. Most Israelis - Jews and Arabs - are not mature or secure enough yet to climb down from their safe, simple myths to the dangerous territory of complexity, ambiguity, and willingness to consider that the other may have at least a partially valid story.

The new historians are not trying to send us back to Europe, to deny the right of Israel to exist. On the contrary, it seems to me that by studying our past honestly and openly, we don’t lose the high moral ground - we gain it.


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