Unreconciled History 

Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.

Israeli flag, 1948

The flag of the future Jewish State was raised at a training base of the fledgling Israeli Defence Forces on April 27, 1948, in what was still the British Mandate for Palestine.

Photo by Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images

In 1947, as the British Empire officially abandoned its rule over Palestine and scuttled away, the surrounding Arab countries launched a military attack on the new Jewish state of Israel. The Jews fought back. And when the dust had settled, 700,000 Palestinian Arabs had abandoned their homes and villages, where some had lived for generations. Most moved into refugee camps not unlike the displaced-persons camps across Europe where Jews were still living, three years after the end of World War II, waiting for the United States or some other country to let them in.

Millions of people were forcibly relocated by World War II and its consequences, including Jews from Arab countries like Morocco and Arabs from what became Israel, along with Poles from Germany, Germans from Poland, and so on. Anyone whose views, or even whose existence, irritated Josef Stalin was well-advised to leave wherever he or she was and go somewhere else. (See Tony Judt’s book Postwar for the gory details.)

At the cease-fire that ended the War of Independence in 1949, the population of Israel included 700,000 Jews and 150,000 Arabs. The Arabs were those who were living on the west (Israeli) side of the 1949 cease-fire line and had not fled.* These Arabs were given citizenship in the Jewish state, representation in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), and just about all the rights and duties enjoyed by Jewish citizens.

The Arabs call what happened to them in 1948 and what followed the Nakba, which means—very roughly—catastrophe or holocaust. It was not the Holocaust, as we now use the term. But it wasn’t pretty.

The official Israeli line on 1948 is that the Arabs in the little villages and bigger towns that dotted the Holy Land were misled by their leaders, who made up stories about Israeli atrocities in order to scare the populace into leaving. (Otto Preminger’s movie Exodus dramatizes the official line pretty clearly.) The Jews, goes the storyline, wanted nothing more than to work side by side with their Arab brethren to build the new Jerusalem in the desert. But the Arab leaders wouldn’t play, the story continues. They urged people to abandon their homes and property and flee. (One version of the official story has it that Arab leaders themselves scared people out of their homes by threatening to kill anyone who tried to stay.) Therefore, the story goes, the Arabs themselves, and their leaders in particular, are primarily to blame for everything that has happened to their people ever since. The Jews, meanwhile, can chalk this up as a rare lucky break for a people who, until recently, had not had a lot of these. This is the version I was taught in Jewish religious school in Detroit in the 1960s.

Most of the Arabs who abandoned their homes probably thought they would be back in a few days. But once they left, they were not allowed to come back. The Arabs’ decisions to flee their homes, therefore, made it possible for Israel to be what it wanted to be: a democratic Jewish state. Without this “lucky break,” Israel would have had to decide: democratic or Jewish? Because of the Palestinian Arabs’ high rate of reproduction, this demographic threat hasn’t gone away, but something has always come along to put off the day of reckoning: the 1967 Six-Day War, for example, which drove another generation of Arabs out of their homes and into refugee camps, or the flood of Russian Jews in the 1970s.

The Israelis concede that 1948 wasn’t pretty. But they claim historical necessity: Survivors of the Holocaust needed and deserved a place to go and the countries of Europe would not take them back. They blame Arab leaders for urging their people to flee and for turning down a “two-state solution” of side-by-side Jewish and Arab states. In 1948, the Jews were reluctantly willing to accept a two-state solution. Soon they weren’t. (Now they are willing again, they say, under the right circumstances.) And of course Israel’s leaders noted then and note today continuing Arab atrocities against Jews.

Israelis also acknowledge one dreadful massacre of Arab men, women, and children at a village called Deir Yassin. Deir Yassin has become, in the words of Israeli historian Benny Morris, “the one Jewish atrocity that it was permissible to write about.” And therefore, under the dubious logic of the exception proving the rule, Deir Yassin has become in a way evidence of Israeli good behavior.

Trouble is, all this is not even close to being true. Terror and the decisions by Arab families to flee were not regrettable side effects of the war, but the result of purposeful strategy by the Israelis. This strategy and its execution were endorsed by the Israeli leadership and not just rogue behavior by more ruthless Jewish militias (another common excuse).

Call me naive, but I was shocked to read, in books published in the past couple of years by two liberal Jewish newspaper columnists—Richard Cohen of the Washington Post (Israel: Is It Good For The Jews?) and Ari Shavit of Israel’s Haaretz (My Promised Land)—about what happened in a village called Lydda, now the site of Ben Gurion International Airport.* None of this is exactly a secret. Morris has written several books that discuss it in detail. But like the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, which were in public documents for years before they became common knowledge, it’s possible for something to be known and unknown at the same time.

As Shavit, especially, describes it, with a lot of new research, the attack on Lydda was part of a purposeful strategy of Arab removal, approved at the highest levels. It had everything we have come to associate with a human rights atrocity: people who had been neighbors for generations turning on and slaughtering one another, Rwanda-style. Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire. Torturing people, allegedly to extract information, and then killing them when they’ve been squeezed dry. Going house to house and killing everyone discovered inside. And so on.

In Lydda and elsewhere, residents were told they had an hour and a half to get out, so they “voluntarily” fled places their families had lived for centuries. Yes, the Arabs might have done worse to the Jews—did do worse when the opportunity arose. And the Germans of course could have taught both sides a lesson or two. So what?

Shavit and Cohen both decline to condemn Israeli behavior in places like Deir Yassin and Lydda. Shavit sees the whole business as a human tragedy, with invisible fate directing the players. Cohen emphasizes practical necessity: It was this or be pushed into the sea. And, to be clear, I don’t condemn the Israel of 1948 either. As a diaspora Jew living in the comfort of America in 2015, I lack standing to criticize.

But no thinking person can control the direction his own thoughts take him. And I can’t help thinking that even history’s victims don’t have the right to rewrite history. Some of the Israelis of 1948 had gone from German concentration camps to United Nations displaced-persons camps with barely an opportunity for a free breath, losing everything they owned and everyone they loved along the way. If Israelis and their supporters believe that the tragic history of the Jews—especially the recent history of the Jews in Europe—entitles them to a few atrocities in the bank, let them say so, and defend this proposition, instead of pretending it never happened.

What would such a defense be? Here’s my best effort; it’s not an impossible case to make. Of the millions of innocent people driven from their homes during and after World War II, virtually all have been comfortably relocated for decades by now, usually in the lands of their ethnic origins. Only the Palestinian Arabs still fester in refugee camps, because the Arab leaders prefer not to give up a useful grievance.

Is it fair that Arabs should have to share their land with the Jews just because an Austrian madman took over Germany and invaded Poland? No, it’s not fair. But as the unfairnesses of World War II go, this one is not the largest.

In law school, they teach you that “necessity” can temporarily give you rights that you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you are in a boat in the middle of a storm, and about to capsize, you are entitled to tie up to a stranger’s dock, even if he or she objects, rather than see your boat capsize. But you are then responsible for any damage your boat causes to his dock.

That damage to the dock is a loss. No one is to blame, and litigation or negotiation can only allocate the loss. There is no way to make everybody whole. There also is no way a judge or a court can sensibly rule about whose side justice is on. It is on both. And ultimately it will be necessary for both sides to give up their respective grievances, or nurse them quietly. That’s hard to do when the grievance is valid. It must be harder if the grievance isn’t even acknowledged.

*Correction, Feb. 13, 2015: This article originally misstated that the cease-fire in the War of Independence took place in 1948. It was 1949. The article also misstated that Richard Cohen and Ari Shavit’s books were published last year. Shavit’s book was published in 2013.