War and Remembrance

Reviewed by Yehoshua Porath

The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948
by Eugene L. Rogan, Avi Shlaim,
Cambridge, 234 pages

Rather than acknowledge the sharp asymmetry in freedom of research and expression between Israel and the Arab world, Shlaim and Rogan try to persuade the reader that Israeli historical writing is in its essence no different from the narratives produced in Arab statesa version of history that attributes the 1948 defeat to a conspiracy of imperialist powers, or to a vast web of international Jewish power, combining corrupt Jewish money, deception, and such devilish tactics as poisoning the wells in Arab villages.

In this spirit, the editors overlook even the most striking examples of integrity by traditional Israeli historians. For example, it was the “official” Israeli historiography that was the first to report on the existence of the Dalet Plan, a controversial Israeli military strategy during the War of Independence which called for the expulsion of Arabs from demographically mixed areas that endangered transportation lines or that could function as guerrilla bases. It was Yigael Alon and Israel Galilis analysis of this plan in the early 1950s, published in The Book of the Palmah, that allowed Harvard historian Walid Khalidi to argue famously in 1959 that the Dalet Plan was none other than the master plan of the Zionists for the wholesale expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. Furthermore, when the last volume of the monumental work The History of the Hagana was published in 1973, the books editors, led by the prominent defense-establishment official Shaul Avigur, took the bold step of including the Dalet Plans full text, including the section that provided a justification for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs. However painful this step was for the Israeli historians, they nevertheless understood it to be a landmark in the history of research on the War of Independence. But this episode, which flies in the face of the claim that no scholarship of substance was done on the war before the new historians came along, does not suit the authors of The War for Palestine; indeed, they do not give it so much as a mention.

What is true for the Dalet Plan is doubly true for a whole string of “discoveries” that the new historians have claimed for themselves, but which were in fact well documented in the traditional historiography. Among these claims: That the Arabs failed in part because they lacked a unified command with the allegiance of all the different Arab forces; that sharp disputes and conflicting interests drove apart the various Arab states; and that the Arab regimes, wary of leaving themselves vulnerable to conspiracies back home, hesitated to send large armies to the front. No one familiar with the traditional literature will find anything new in these claims. Nor will the new historians depiction of the internal weakness of Palestinian society, which further increased the Israelis prospects for victory, come as news: The Palestinians lack of resolve during the war and the breakdown of society resulting from a lack of effective wartime leadership and organization have received extensive attention in many studies over the years. Suffice it to name, in this regard, Nathaniel Lorchs History of the War of Independence, the concluding volume of The History of the Hagana, the various works of Meir Pail, and numerous articles published over the years by the Defense Ministrys journal of military affairs, Maarachot.

But beyond their unfair depiction of the traditional historiography, the revisionists introduce a degree of bias which is at least as severe as the school they seek to replace, albeit in a different direction. This is evident already in the first few pages of The War for Palestine, where a chronology lists November 30, 1947 as “outbreak of civil war in Palestine.”  Outbreak of civil war? This ‘civil war” was an assault upon the Jewish civilian population undertaken by the Palestinian Arabs following the Jews acceptance, and the Arab states rejection, of the UN Partition Plan that had been approved the day before. In the same list, April 9, 1948 appears as the date of “the massacre of Deir Yassin,” in which Jewish fighters killed some 100 Arab civilians. Other massacres during the period in questionsuch as the murder of about fifty Jewish workers in the refineries in Haifa by their Arab co-workers on December 30, 1947, or the massacre of more than eighty doctors, nurses, and Hebrew University workers in a convoy to Jerusalems Mount Scopus on April 13, 1948merit not a word, neither in the chronology nor in the text of the book. The impression created, of course, is that Deir Yassin was the only massacre worth mentioning during the course of the war.


The bias of The War for Palestine is not limited to the editors contribution. The entire collection shows a clear tendency to emphasize certain points while ignoring others, leading to severe distortions in the historical record. Of course, special attention is paid to the question of how many Palestinian Arabs were forcibly expelled by Israel. Benny Morris essay “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,” for example, reexamines the thesis of his seminal work, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, and claims that the Israelis intentionally expelled large numbers of Palestinians in 1948. To his credit, Morris rejects the more extreme charge that these expulsions were part of a larger, premeditated planthough this argument appears elsewhere in the collection, in Laila Parsons’ “The Druze and the Birth of Israel.”  Although Morris is normally a more careful historian than most of those appearing in The War for Palestine, and his factual findings are credible, here he ignores the broader context, without which it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the creation of the refugee problem: Left out of Morris analysis is any discussion of the specific nature of the war that the Arabs had declared upon the Jews of Palestine and upon the State of Israel.

To understand the character of this war, one need only examine the story of the Palestinians most important spiritual and political leader of the time, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. The Mufti puts in an appearance in The War for Palestine in Rashid Khalidis analysis of the Arab defeat, “The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure,” which is not overly kind to Husseini. Yet even Khalidi makes no mention of the Muftis activities before and during World War II, just a few years earlier. Contemporary readers looking for an honest picture of events could certainly have benefited from the knowledge that this revered Palestinian leader was also an ardent and influential supporter of the Nazis and the Holocaust. The day after Hitlers rise to power in January 1933, Husseini went to the German consul in Jerusalem to convey his blessings in the name of “three hundred million Muslims,” along with his wishes that “the Nazi regime should spread to the entire world.”  He spent much of the war in the company of the senior staff of the SS and Heinrich Himmler, the man in charge of implementing the Final Solution. By all reports, the Muftis aim was to lobby Himmler to stay the course in carrying out the program; when, in 1943 and 1944, Himmler was considering trading the lives of a certain number of Jews for millions of dollars and military hardware needed for the Nazi war effort, the Mufti pressed Himmler not to allow any Jews to escape their fate. He even tried to extract a promise from the Nazis that they would apply their genocidal techniques to the Jews of Palestine.

The Jews of Palestine were fully aware of Husseinis activities during the world war, and as the 1948 war approached, the knowledge that this man was now the principal leader of their assailants contributed greatly to the belief that the Arabs ultimate aims were not so different from those of the Nazis. The threat of genocide was real: At the end of 1947, the Palestinian Arab leadership declared that their war against the Jews of Palestine and against the UN Partition Plan was absolute. Their express goals included the total physical destruction of the yishuv. And once war had begun, the Palestinians did everything in their power to convince the Jews of the sincerity of their intentions.

One gruesome example from among many: In the middle of May 1948, the defenders of the four Jewish settlements of the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem, surrendered to the Arab forces besieging them. The force that accepted their surrender included a Palestinian unit, arrayed against Kibutz Kfar Etzion, and a unit of the Arab Legion of the Kingdom of Trans­jordan, which had fought against the other three towns. The Jordanian unit behaved like a disciplined army subject to the rules of war: They took those who surrendered as prisoners of war and brought them to POW camps in Jordan, at Mafraq; the prisoners remained in the camp until the signing of the armistice agreement. Those who surrendered to the Palestinian force, however, were murdered almost to the last man. Out of some 131 people, only two survived to recount what they had witnessed.

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