Deny at your peril

There are too many political forces in Israel that, to the present day, insist on disavowing the complex reality of our history, especially if it strengthens the Palestinian narrative.

Back in the early 1960s, like other Israeli students abroad, I frequently participated in debates on the Arab refugee problem. Among the arguments we raised were that during our War of Independence, then- Haifa mayor Shabtai Levy had begged the Arab population of the city not to flee, but Arab leaders had pressured the people to leave their homes until the war was over and Israel was defeated. The massacre of civilians in Deir Yassin was a lone exception.
Today we know that the reality was much more complicated: that even though there was no official Israeli policy of “ethnic cleansing,” there were cases of organized expulsions of Arabs from territories occupied by Israeli forces; that even though there were specific cases in which Arab leaders tried to convince Arab civilians to temporarily leave their homes, this was not a general policy; that while in Haifa, the mayor had genuinely tried to prevent the flight of the Arab inhabitants, in April 1948 the Hagana fired mortars into a crowded Arab market, killing dozens of civilians, including women and children, and causing many to flee the city; that Dir Yassin was not the only massacre of Arabs by Jews, though the number killed in such events was relatively small; that tens of thousands of Arab inhabitants of Lod and Ramle were systematically expelled, but that Arabs of Nazareth were not.

And yet there are political forces in Israel that to the present day insist on denying this complex reality, especially if it strengthens the Palestinian claim that what happened in 1948-49 was a Palestinian tragedy – the Nakba. “Nakba Harta” (Nakba Rubbish) is the name of a pamphlet recently published by Im Tirtzu – an organization that has undertaken to counter the Palestinian narrative (as well as that of Zionist left-wingers) in the name of strengthening “the values of Zionism in Israel.”
It is beyond me why an ideological group that believes in the right of the Zionist cause needs to pervert the truth in order to propagate its views. As a left-winger, I have no problem defending the Zionist cause while admitting that I am not very proud of certain actions taken by the state.
IN THE memoirs written by the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1979, a chapter dealing with the expulsion of the Arabs of Lod and Ramle (in which he was directly involved) was deleted from the manuscript by the military censor.
Somehow the deleted text found its way, in English translation, to one of the major US papers. The late Yigal Allon, with whom I was working at the time, was furious with Rabin. I confronted him, arguing that there were tens of thousands of living Palestinians who had personally experienced this expulsion, and several hundred Israeli fighters who had participated in the act, and that he himself had approved it.
“In the modern day and age,” I argued, “with communications being what they are, you cannot hide the facts. So if you still believe the policy was right, defend it. If in retrospect you believe it was wrong, say as much. But if you insist on denial, you undermine the whole moral basis of the Israeli case, for if you choose to deny facts, why should anyone believe you on anything else you say?” Allon remained silent.
Back in 1945, the philosopher Martin Buber wrote an article in the journal Be’ayot about “Policy and Morals.”
In this article, he argued that “life, by its very nature, involves doing wrong... We cannot avoid doing wrong; but we are granted the following grace: that we need not do more wrong than is absolutely necessary; in other words... the grace of being human.”
He projected the same principle to nations, and used it to argue against the expulsion of Arabs in the course of realizing the Zionist endeavor, which he regarded as a just endeavor. Of course there may be differences of opinion about what is “absolutely necessary,” but this principle is nevertheless a worthy one.
As we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem 44 years ago, and prepare for a battle in the UN over recognition of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital of two nations, we should ask ourselves whether all the measures we have taken with regard to the Arab residents of the city – such as refusing to allow those who have lived outside it for more than seven years to return to it, or enabling Jews to reclaim property previously owned by Jews in east Jerusalem while denying Arabs the right to reclaim property previously owned by Arabs in west Jerusalem – have indeed been absolutely necessary.
I have my doubts.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.