VIIIB Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians:

Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time

History is at war with nostalgia. In history, what takes place in the world – events and actions – matter more than what you think about them. With nostalgia, as in Marcel Proust, the mind has primacy. What you feel, what you think, what you experience is the real determinant of how the world is regarded and how we respond to it.

That is why Part I of Peter Beinart’s essay is so important. As the war rages in Gaza, and emotional identification battles reality within the hearts of both Palestinians and Jews in Israel, as the public relations battle takes place for the hearts and minds of Arabs in surrounding countries and in the citizens of Europe and North America, the symbolism of Jerusalem and the fight over the right of return has once again moved to centre stage as nostalgia has risen to challenge history’s monopoly of power and influence and authority on the political, social and economic dimensions of the conflict.

In that battle, Peter Beinart set down four basic propositions:

  1. Palestinian displacement is recent, within personal memory; Jewish displacement was centuries old.
  2. Jews are responsible for the Palestinian displacement; Palestinians are not responsible for the Jewish displacement.
  3. There is a bitter irony in Jews telling another people to give up on their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands.
  4. Jewish leaders keep insisting that, to achieve peace, Palestinians must forget the nakba, the catastrophe they endured in 1948.

Why does the timing of the displacement matter? It does not. Except in memory. Except in experience. Making that proposition the opening salvo not only prioritizes nostalgia over history but reduces the Jewish desire for return to a nostalgic wish and not a desperate survival mechanism married to an ideology to ensure that Jewish survival.  The intent is to make memory rather than reality the battleground for legitimacy.

And then responsibility. For if memory has priority in determining responsibility, Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, are self-evidently not responsible for the Jewish exile from Palestine whereas Jews in Israel are, at least partially (though that is bracketed and put in a side column) responsible for the Palestinian exodus. But responsible as a cause as history likes to determine, or responsible normatively within a subjective moral framework? To make the latter prior requires omitting the historical fact that the Palestinian leadership, from the time of the Balfour Declaration promising Jews a homeland in their ancient land, adamantly opposed the migration of Jews to Palestine, adamantly opposed the sale of Arab-owned land to Jews. By leaving this out, the demand for self-preservation of a Palestinian domination in all of Palestine is sidelined in favour of a narrative of settler colonialism and the will of the Jews to displace Palestinians and become the dominant demographic force in all of Palestine.

But the reality is that there is no irony. Jews do not insist now that Palestinians give up their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands. The vast majority of Palestinians continue to live in Palestine and Jordan. The goal of the two-state solution is that, given the adamant opposition of Arabs to Jewish return migration and settlement, the homeland be divided into a Jewish majoritarian part and a Palestinian majoritarian part. The push for assimilation in foreign countries, which was a proposal for the relatively small groups of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, becomes the dominant story for Beinart, and not the division of the land.

Finally, the statement that it is a war, and that history would express its domination over memories and nostalgia, is the insistence that Zionists want to erase Palestinian memories and experience by not only denying that the nakba occurred in 1948 but extirpating the memory from experience. Further, in so doing, Zionists can prevent Palestinians from seeing and understanding that the nakba was not something that just took place in 1948 but has been a continuous pattern from the first arrival of the Jewish return to Palestine to the expansionist dreams of the settlers.

However, the nakba is taught – by Jewish progressives and the Jewish Voice for Peace. In that version, the nakba is not taught as if a significant percentage of the 720,000 Arab refugees fled their homes and the land that became Israel, but as “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment.” (

Note what is missing. There were approximately 750,000 Palestine refugees from the fighting in 1947 and 1948. But 37,000 of them were Jewish Palestine refugees who were forced out or fled areas that Jordan took over and made judenrein, empty of Jews. Nostalgia works by making history highly selective and restricted, to turning objectivity simply into a reflection of personal memory and experience.

Further, the history initially taught in Israel of the War of Independence was a mythological tale of moral heroes and bravery beyond any expectations. That heroic method of writing and teaching history in Israel has been displaced by far more objective and comprehensive accounts. Since 2007, the Israeli Education Ministry, in response to requests from its Palestinian population, has, in fact, included the tragedy of the Nakba in its curriculum. Rather than being extirpated, it has been adopted and included as part of the understanding of Israeli history and, in particular, of the Palestinian experience that constitutes part of that history.

This raises the issue of the war between mythological memory, a partner often of nostalgia though not equivalent to it, and objective history. Peter Beinart in his comprehensive defence of the right of return, or, at least, one version of it, posed three further propositions, namely that Israeli history itself is founded on myths that stand at odds with the reality of history:

Myth: Palestinians fled because Arab leaders urged them to do so.  

Truth: Arab officials often pleaded with them to stay.

Myth; Zionist militants only fought a defensive war against invading Arab armies.

Truth: Zionist military operations were the major precipitants to flight.

Myth: Arab governments rejected the partition proposal of 1947.

Truth: Jews accepted partition nominally but, in reality, undermined partition.

It is a myth that most Palestinians fled at the urging of their own leadership. This was part of the initial heroic phase of Israeli historiography in which Jews were portrayed as morally pure heroic figures. Some Palestinians did flee as a result of such urging and stay as a result of other urging. But most did not. Most fled to get out of the way of the violence and many fled and were uprooted because of the “strategic” ethnic cleansing of the Israeli military forces, the Hagannah and the Irgun. This militance was a major precipitant to flight but not the major precipitant.

However, the above are all subtle differences between myth and truth. The claim that Arab rejection of the UN partition proposal as a myth is, in fact, a blatant lie. Arab governments did reject partition. They even rejected the minority report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommending a federation of two polities, a Jewish one and an Arab one. Arab initial absolute rejectionism is an incontrovertible element in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What about the portrait of the Zionist leadership accepting partition rhetorically while working assiduously to undermine it? This is, of course, a more subtle argument when appearance is juxtaposed with opposing reality. Fortunately, the overwhelming proportion of historical evidence supports the proposition that the Zionist leadership, reluctantly since 1936, had accepted partition as the only realistic solution while the Arab leadership adamantly rejected it.

The reason these fundamental historical propositions matter so much is because some critics of Zionism and of Israel want to make the battle one of consciousness, one of memory, one of experience, rather than a battle over what actually happened. There are many areas in which conflicts remain over the details of the story. But the broad objective outline has been established and this nostalgic version on the side of the Palestinians is not worth anymore than the initial heroic histories written by Israelis.

Now to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is, as Beinart declares, that it has been a demographic, and continues to be a demographic battle. But that does not mean that the Palestinian presence in the new Israel was intolerable. It was accepted, but only so long as it did not threaten the majoritarian Jewish character of the state either in terms of numbers or in terms of ideology. The Zionists, both because of internal factors and external forces, were determined to create a majoritarian Jewish state and not just a homeland in a territory ruled predominantly by Palestinians, in this case, Palestinians who rejected the increased presence of Jews and Jewish immigration.

It is simply not true that “in most cases” in the 1948 war, Arabs offered peace agreements with the Jews but that these were rejected out of hand and the Palestinians were ejected. This certainly did happen in some cases. In other cases, Palestinians were ejected without making an offer of peace or threatening resistance. In still other cases, the Palestinians were regarded as a strategic threat given their location. But there was never any effort to make Israel Arabrein or Palestinianrein.

Thus, the big new myth to replace the old myth that Jews bore no responsibility for the exodus of the Palestinians – Zionist forces were responsible for evicting 710,000 to 720,000 Palestinians. Zionists were not responsible for evicting the upper class leaders who left early for the safety of Cairo and Beirut. The Zionists were not responsible for the Palestinians who fled in panic. The Zionists were not responsible for those who fled on the advice of their leaders. The Zionists were not responsible for those who fled when actual clashes broke out between an Arab town and Israeli forces.

That does not mean Jews bore no responsibility. Depending on the case, they carried different degrees of responsibility and, in a few cases, did use Palestinian civilians as human shields, in many cases, stole the property of Palestinians, and in even a few cases executed unarmed Palestinians and raped Palestinian women. But the effort to place the total blame for the nakba on Israel and let Palestinians off the hook is just a myth to strengthen the moral battle for “the right of return”.

Tomorrow: Current Israeli Policy: Displacement and Replacement


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