Tel Aviv University recently extended an invitation to Aluf Rehavam Ze’evi to lecture on “The freedom of speech and the exchange of populations”. The careful mention of “freedom of speech” in the title indicated the caution and nervousness of the organizers in broaching the long-forbidden subject of deporting the Palestinians en masse. Yet before Ze’evi, now the curator of the Tel Aviv Museum, was able to begin, an old man rose from the audience to quietly ask the sponsors of the lecture whether it was legal to permit such a subject for discussion since the Knesset had legislated against racism. It later transpired that the old man was a Holocaust survivor.
Although Ze’evi is to some extent a political maverick, he also represents a growing tendency on the radical right of Israeli politics to resolve the Palestinian problem once and for all. Its appeal should not be underestimated. In a survey for the magazine Israeli Democracy, Professor Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar, Dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at Tel Aviv University, found that 40.3 per cent of those Israelis who were asked believed that the state should encourage Arab emigration—and this poll was conducted before the onset of the Palestinian uprising.
Clearly, in an atmosphere of uncertainty moulded by the intifada, the idea of a truly Jewish state, free of Palestinians and the threat of terrorism, in the whole of Eretz Israel, is an attractive proposition. And “population transfer” will certainly be trumpeted in the coming electoral battle to harvest the votes. Moreover, the feasibility of the idea has spread far beyond the verbal violence of Meir Kahane and now encompasses the likes of Raful Eitan of Tsomet and Yuval Ne’eman of Techiya. Even within Likud itself, there are fellow travellers such as Deputy Minister Dekel who openly endorse such a policy. Some attempt to humanize the fact of expulsion by terming it “voluntary transfer” or advocating financial inducement to leave the West Bank. Thus, Minister without Portfolio Schapira suggested recently that Palestinians should be encouraged to leave the West Bank and Gaza with a $20,000 hand-out. All this betrays a deep-seated aversion to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of mutual recognition.
Although the far right sells the idea as a direct palliative to solve a complex problem, it was Labour’s Shimon Peres who paradoxically opened this Pandora’s box. In stressing the demographic conundrum, he has constantly pointed out that the only way to safeguard the Jewish and democratic character of the state is to withdraw from the territories. Yet it can be argued with equal conviction that the demographic problem can also be solved by ridding Israel of its troublesome Arab minority. This would also produce a Jewish state—in all of Eretz Israel—but whether it it would be a democratic one is another matter.
The intellectual justification for the expulsion of the Palestinians was recently voiced by Joel Carmichael, editor of the American magazine Midstream.
It may be necessary, in the near future to consider practical solutions of the [demographic] problem and to contemplate an extension of population transfers that in any case underlie Israeli society, with some eighty to ninety thousand Jews having been propelled into Israel by the various expulsions from Arab countries after 1948. The five million square miles of total Arab territory or even the one million contiguous with Israel, could obviate all such problems (Commentary, February 1988).
The proposal belies a misunderstanding of the circumstances which led to the establishment of the Jewish state. How did the Palestinians leave? Did they heed the call from their Arab brothers? Did the “Zionists” expel them? Such accounts only fit the demands of the propaganda war which has produced rival mythologies from both sides. But history cannot be re-written to fit the political convenience of the present.
With the departure of the Palestinian professional class from Jewish areas to await better times, a mass hysteria gripped the Palestinian Arabs. In the advent of a Jewish victory, there was the fear that they would be treated in the same fashion as the Arabs would have dealt with the Jews. Dr Benny Morris, in his important book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-49 (Cambridge University Press) comments that “flight became infectious” and virtually overnight, entire streets were emptied of their inhabitants, neighbourhoods were hastily evacuated, bustling rural conurbations became ghost villages. The urban Arab masses and fellahin were fixated by the spectre of the disintegration of their way of life. Exodus into instant destitution was at least a means of escape from this psychological trauma. In Haifa and Tiberias, Jews made strenuous efforts to ensure that the Arab population did not leave their homes. Not so the Irgun whose conscious aim was the expulsion of Arabs. If this could be provoked by the use of terror, then so be it.
EVEN so the sight of those who did depart conjured up all too familiar scenes. Golda Meir visited the Arab part of Haifa shortly after its conquest. In her report to the Jewish Agency executive, she dramatically described her feelings.
It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. I found next to the port [Arab] children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pitot were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this indeed had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe during World War II].
At this point, as Dr Morris shows, history in all its complexity parts company from today’s authorized version of events. In early 1948, the Haganah went on the offensive to open contacts with isolated settlements. A number of Arab villages which had become bases for attacks were surrounded and the inhabitants expelled. Such selective expulsion for military reasons was also practised by the Arabs whose local commanders ordered the evacuation of twenty villages. Even though the Haganah rejected the political crudity of the Irgun, the sentiment that the continuing Arab exodus was “good for the Jews” was increasingly acceptable to hard-pressed troops on the ground. The leadership of the Yishuv, whilst aware of the immorality of situations not of their making, realized their benefit at a time when Israel’s survival was uncertain. Thus whilst Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir bemoaned the Arab exodus, it does not follow that they wished them to return. The hard-line position was expounded by Moshe Sharett in a letter to Nahum Goldman only a few weeks after independence:
The opportunities which the present position open up for a lasting and radical solution of the most vexing problem of the Jewish state [i.e., the Arab minority] are so far-reaching as to take one’s breath away. Even if a certain backwash is unavoidable, we must make the most of the momentous chance with which history has presented us so swiftly and so unexpectedly.
Such “opportunities” were exploited at local level, sometimes with a wink and a nod from the leadership and at other times in contravention of their wishes. For example, the non-return of the refugees was made more certain by the destruction of conquered villages which sometimes encountered protests from neighbouring kibbutzim. Intellectuals such as Martin Buber and dovish government ministers attempted to hold back the bulldozers but to no avail.
Like chief Rabbis Kook and Herzog, Ben-Gurion formally opposed expulsion; yet Benny Morris records that in the case of Lydda Ben-Gurion did not vacillate and was explicit in his intention:
Allon asked “What shall we do with the Arabs?” Ben-Gurion made a dismissive energetic gesture with his hand and said “garesh otam” (“expel them”).
Dr Morris also records the impressions of a number of Jewish onlookers who witnessed the expulsion of the 10,000 inhabitants—some who died from exhaustion, dehydration and disease on the roads eastward. One soldier from Kibbutz Ein Harod wrote about the thirst and hunger of the refugees, of how “children got lost” and of how a child fell into a well and drowned, ignored, as his fellow refugees fought each other to draw water.
IN HINDSIGHT, it is all too easy to offer absolute solutions to the events of forty years ago. The fundamental difference between then and now is that a situation of open war existed and the survival of the state was at stake. Some paint today’s crisis in these colours and conjure up demons to enhance insecurity. But the advocates of “population transfer” never look at the minutiae of the deportation mechanism. At a symposium at ZOA House in Tel Aviv earlier this year, it was argued that expulsion would be “a humane and practical solution”. But suppose the Palestinians refused to board the deportation trucks? Suppose the Jews refused to carry out orders? The scenario is a horrendous one to contemplate, but sadly it is not an implausible one, albeit on a limited scale, in the present Political climate in Israel. Selective deportation by default is more likely than by design as the Beita tragedy has shown.
Let us hope that the concept of “population transfer remains on the political fringes, but it is clear that the run-up to the November election will be a difficult time for those who defend the tenets of Israel democracy.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1988