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

Even so, the behavior of the Jordanians is hardly more inspiring, since they were no more willing than the Palestinians to consider the possibility that Jews might continue living under Arab rule in any part of Palestine. For example, when the Jewish defenders of the Old City of Jerusalem surrendered to the Jordanian forces on May 28, 1948, the Jordanians, in addition to evacuating the surrendering soldiers to Mafraq, also undertook to forcibly expel the elderly, pious residents of the Jewish Quarter, who had not participated in the fighting. It seems not to have entered the mind of the Jordanian commanders that they might leave the non-belligerent Jewish population in its place. In light of these facts, can one seriously examine the war of 1948 without noticing that while a significant Arab minority remained in that part of Palestine that became the State of Israel, the Arab parts of the countrywhether under Jordanian or Egyptian rulebecame Judenrein? The Jews had every reason to believe that the Arabs war was absolute, aiming at nothing less than the mass expulsion or slaughter of the Jewish community in Palestine.

The contributors to The War for Palestine do not even mention these events, much less allow them to mitigate their harsh conclusions. Only Rashid Khalidi comes close, when he concedes that “some Jews in Palestine perceived themselves as facing an uphill fight against the Arabs” because they understood, as did the Palestinians themselves, that the neigh­boring Arab states would not stand aside indefinitely, and that the Arabs fighting capability would ultimately grow dramatically. Yet Khalidis nod to Jewish fears is a far cry from facing up to the reality of Arab aims and resources in the broader context of the war.


Indeed, the most significant effort in The War for Palestine to address the question of the relative strengths of the Jewish and Arab forces is steeped in anti-Zionist bias. One of the “myths” which the new historians are most fond of smashing is that the Israelis faced an enemy that was far greater in numbers and strength. In his essay, “Israel and the Arab Coalition in 1948,” Avi Shlaim discusses the issue of relative manpower, offering a remarkable study in scholarly distortion. True, his figures are technically accurate: The yishuv, pushing its resources to the absolute limit, managed to field 35,000 soldiers by mid-May 1948, against 25,000 Arab fighters; by the wars end it had increased its forces to more than 95,000. Nevertheless, Shlaims assertion that “at each stage of the war, the IDF outnumbered all the Arab forces arrayed against it” is absurd. Shlaim himself admits that the Arab states sent only a small portion of their armies to fight in Palestine, and that they could have sent additional divisions if they had wished. Furthermore, he ignores the huge difference in manpower reserves available to each side: In early 1949, at the end of the war, Israels Jewish population numbered no more than 750,000, whereas the seven Arab nations at war with the Jewish state had a combined population of fifty million. By the wars end, the yishuv had reached the limits of its ability to draft soldiers, and its economy, with the exception of a small number of vital industries such as electricity, water, and food production, had ground to a complete halt. The Arab states, by comparison, could have fought the war indefinitely without seriously affecting their citizens way of life.

To think that the question of “the few against the many” can be answered by merely counting heads of soldiers on the battlefield, as Shlaim does, is simplistic at best. Not just available manpower, but the presence of a governmental mechanism capable of leading and organizing it, the capacity for industrial production, and the ability to enlist help from outside all play important roles in determining the strength and durability of warring nations, and any serious comparison must take all these into account. Shlaim undoubtedly sees himself in the vanguard of the iconoclasts, but in this caseas in his earlier theory that a “collusion” between Israel and Jordans King Abdullah was the real cause of the Palestinians’ defeatall he has succeeded in damaging is his own credibility as a historian.


The climax of The War for Palestine, and the most eloquent expression of its guiding spirit, is its closing essay, “The Consequences of 1948,” by Edward Said, the respected professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. His essay is not meant as an academic contribution, but is rather a personal account incorporating passages from the authors memoirs. Said tells, for example, of the winter of 1948, when conditions forced his family to leave their home in Jerusalems Talbieh neighborhood and relocate to their second home, in Cairo. With all due respect to the travails of a family forced to flee one home for another in time of war, this story loses much of its impact when seen against the backdrop of the fate of refugees throughout Europe only a few years earlier. The Polish Jews who fled the German occupation to Siberia or to Soviet Central Asia, or the millions of Germans who fled from East Prussia to Germany in the heart of the winter of 1945, fled on foot or in wagons, with no clear refuge awaiting them at the other end. In the best case, they made their journey in unheated railway cars, constantly harried by Soviet, British, or American bombers. They had no second home in Cairo.

That being said, Saids story does make a useful, if unintended, con­tribution to the history of the Arab departure from Palestine in 1948. It was always a claim of the traditional Israeli historiography that during the winter of 1948, the urban Palestinian elite grew weary of the difficulties of war, and many chose to abandon their homes until the crisis passed, traveling to distant citiesto stay with relatives, in rented houses, or even in hotelsfar from the scene of battle. The memoirs of Palestinian educator Khalil al-Sakakini contain one of the best-known accounts of this voluntary exodus. He describes his familys departure from their home in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, first to eastern Jerusalem and then to Egypt. Israeli and British sources of the period note that the flight of the upper classes had a disastrous impact on the morale of Palestinian society, and served as a model for the lower classes to emulate. Though Palestinian historiogra­phy has preferred to ignore this episode in their history, Saids account matches the testimonies of Sakakini and many others like him, and serves therefore to confirm further the traditional account.

After discussing his own past, Said sets out his vision for the future. Perhaps the most articulate spokesman for the Arab-Palestinian cause in the English language, Said ostensibly seeks to remodel Israel and Palestine along American lines. He envisions a single state, formed among citizens who share no common ethnic origins or political or cultural traditions. According to Said, only a new political communityegalitarian, secular, and tolerantin which “citizenship should be based on the just solidarities of coexistence and the gradual dissolving of ethnic lines,” can end the Israeli-Arab conflict. But Said never ventures a guess at what kind of identity his ideal community would have, or what sort of relations it would have with neigh­boring Arab states; nor does he address the feasibility of creating such a community. Apparently, he assumes that secular liberal democracywhich has not been particularly successful in the Arab worldwould flourish in Palestine, of all places. With a wave of Saids hand, official secularism would overcome a century of deep antagonism between the two communities, and the Palestinians would adopt a form of government that is more tolerant than any other in the Arab world.

Among other problems with his approach, Said seems unaware of the bitter experience of non-Muslim communities in Arab countrieslike the fate of Arab Christians, the Muslims supposed partners in Arab nationalism. What return should Israelis expect for abandoning their national sovereignty, when Coptic Christian churches in Egypt are burned, and Coptic priests and laymen physically assaulted? The Copts are an integral part of the Egyptian people, yet many of them suffer from persecution at the hands of radical Muslims, and many have fled Egypt. A similar fate has befallen Palestinian Christians, who have lived in perpetual fear of the Palestinian security forces and the armed groups in the areas under their control. Christians have emigrated in large numbers, and the relative proportion of Christians within the Palestinian Authority has steadily declined since its establishment in 1994. At least ten thousand Christian Arabs have fled, including some three thousand since the outbreak of hostilities in September 2000. In the final analysis, Saids humanistic and superficially liberal vision is just another enlightened attempt to justify abolishing the State of Israel, and replace it with a multi-national, democratic, secular stateall without recourse to violence, of course.


The War for Palestine is not completely without scholarly merit; it does provide some valuable information about the events of 1948, especially for those unfamiliar with the extensive research that has already been published in the field. Readers not versed in the history of the Middle East are likely to learn of many things here for the first timesuch as the disunity among the Arab forces; the conflicting motives of the Jordanians, the Syrians, and the Egyptians; and how the infighting and organizational ineffectiveness of Palestinian society facilitated the Israeli victory. They will learn about the yishuvs massive recruitment efforts, through which the Jews managed to field a disproportionately large army relative to its population. And yes, they will discover that the Israeli victory did not come without the expulsion of more than a few Palestinians.

None of this, however, is new. There are only two genuinely innovative claims in this collection: The equivalence it draws between the traditional Israeli historiography and its Arab counterpart, and its accusation that Israel carried out a deliberate and systematic expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs. Neither of these claims is remotely substantiated by the extensive research that has been carried out in the last few decades. Rather, both are the product of an ongoing effort among a small yet vocal group of academics who are willing to go a great distanceincluding at times the abandonment of their own scholarly integrityto prove, once and for all, that Israel has no place among the community of enlightened, liberal nations.

Yehoshua Porath is Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a Contributing Editor of AZURE.

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