Israel, the spectre of 1948, and genocide scholars (2)

The genocide psychologist, Israel Charny, having read my exchange with Omer Bartov in the Journal of Genocide Research, first posted an abusive, defamatory rant against me (on the International Association of Genocide listserve), including accusing me of ‘anti-Semitism’. The President of the IAGS, Professor William Schabas, quickly apologized for the inadvertent publication of this abuse. Yet far from apologizing himself for his disgraceful departure from the standards of scholarly debate, Charny then repeated the libel (in the US Jewish newspaper Forward), by implication accusing me as well as the whole of the International Network of Genocide Scholars of ‘anti-Jewish sentiment’. (The Forward has now published letters by Juergen Zimmerer, of INOGS, and myself, in reply.)

Charny has now, finally, calmed down enough to post a semi-reasoned response about Palestine in 1948 on the IAGS listserve (although a colleague of his, Elihu Richter, has posted another aggressive libel) and on H-genocide. It might well be argued that one does not reply to abuse and libel with reasoned argument, but with lawyers’ letters. But since some IAGS and H-Genocide members may have missed the original defamatory rant, and therefore believe that Charny is simply debating, I intend to answer his points.

First it is important to note that Charny relies for his comments on my views entirely on the JGR debate, and has not bothered to go back to the original article in Holy Land Studies, in which I set out my arguments in full. In this respect he could be accused of violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’ (to remind Charny of one of his own accusations). But it also means that he has missed quite a lot of my argument. Let us take his points in turn.

  • First and foremost, there is nothing to quote of Shaw about the War of Independence in 1948 being a direct result of Arab refusal to accept the UN  partition plan which the Jews did, and Arab attacks on Israel from a whole  constellation of Arab countries coming to invade the new State of Israel together with Arabs living in then Palestine.

I already addressed this point (made originally by Omer Bartov) in the JGR debate which Charny is supposed to have read. I said that ‘to say that the Yishuv compromised, the Arabs not, needs to be contextualized by the fact that the UN plan grossly favoured the Jewish state, in relation to the sizes of the respective populations – as well as, indeed, in relation to the Arab opposition to partition as such.’ Typically, Charny just repeats Bartov’s point, and doesn’t deal with my reply.

  • Shaw’s conception of the war is as if the Jews are an invading colonial force doing genocide like had just taken place (guess against whom) in Europe as a result of “European nationalisms” (I hardly recognize Hitler and Nazism in such phrasing).

This wild, sarcastic comment is why I said that Charny’s response was ‘semi-reasoned’. But I did say in HLS: ‘The Nakba was not the Final Solution, and a simple comparison of the two is utterly inappropriate’. I also said ‘Palestine in 1948 was … much more like Bosnia, where a minority of the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population was murdered as part of a violent and coercive campaign to terrorise the majority of the population into leaving the territory controlled by Republika Srpska’.  I added, ‘However one should not push any analogy too far. Genocide studies is bedeviled by excessive case-to-case comparison at the expense of the clear application of concepts.’

  • Little did I know until Shaw that were I some generations back a chalutz [pioneer] coming to drain the swamps in Northern Palestine to create a kibbutz or in later years a passenger on Exodus leaving Holocaust Europe, I was busy dreaming, planning and scheming to kill Arabs, and now that my capable national psychoanalyst Shaw has set me straight, I will have to get to more work on my lousy killing mind than I had realized I had to do.

Nowhere did I suggest that any section of the Zionist movement was ‘planning or scheming to kill Arabs’. What I did say is that the logic of ‘transfer’ (removal of a large part of the Arab population of Palestine) was built into Zionism and that in the war of 1948, either ‘opportunistically’ or as a result of pre-planning, one of the Zionist movement’s aims, in which it was largely successful, was to remove a large part of the Arab population from the future Israeli state. Obviously none of this means that either individual Zionist ‘pioners’ or Holocaust survivors had migrated to Palestine with this goal in mind.

I have argued explicitly against any kind of ‘national psychology’, let alone psychoanalysis, as it seems to me a racist argument. But it is worth noting that Charny himself is not averse to this kind of argument – look at his sneers about ‘English manners’ in his comments to the Forward, sneers which if made about Jews would undoubtedly be regarded as antisemitic.

  • In my judgment the complete failure of Martin Shaw to refer to the origin of the war, and the insistence on a preconceived genocidal intention at the core of Zionism violate every sense of historical factuality and academic integrity. That is the essence of my protest.

If Charny had bothered to read my HLS article he would have seen several references to the origins of the war, and to the fact that it was started by the Arab side. If he had even read the debate carefully it would be seen that I do NOT ‘insist on a preconceived genocidal intention at the core of Zionism’. Instead I stress that while the logic of removing part of the Arab population was inherent in the project of a Jewish-majority state (since Jews were a small minority of the Palestine population until the Second World War), Zionist thinking also included more enlightened strands. I quoted with approval Mark Levene’s comment that

  • drawing a straight line from Herzl through David Ben-Gurion, to Ariel Sharon and beyond, accusing them of aiming to get rid of the Palestinians, elides all manner of Zionist thinking and practice which has been more circumspect, cautious, and often energized by the potential for a Zionist – Arab relationship in which the two peoples might live together’ (Levene 2007: 676-77). Moreover, he points out, Zionist thought did not develop in a vacuum. Zionist rejection of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was conditioned by Arab attacks on Jewish communities, especially during their 1929 uprising. (HLS article)

Yet ‘the logic of a transfer solution to the “Arab problem” remained ineluctable; without some sort of massive displacement of Arabs from the area of the Jewish state-to-be, there could be no viable Jewish state’.  This quote is from none other than the Israeli historian, Benny Morris (2004: 43), of whom Charny writes:

  • Morris has been criticized by some for remaining a Zionist … in the face of the findings that show the Israelis also committed genocidal massacres; and for elements of callousness in his justification of the Israeli actions in a broad historical context; but to the best of my knowledge rarely for the integrity of his historical research and reporting.

On this, at last, Charny and I can find something to agree. If he had read my HLS article, he would have seen that Morris was one of my main sources. But I can only conclude that Charny has read Benny Morris very selectively. Let me point out to him some more of the things that I quoted from Morris in my article, and the conclusions I drew:

  • ‘Transfer’ thinking was persistent in Zionism: ‘by the early 1930s a full-throated near-consensus in support of the idea began to emerge among the movement’s leaders‘ (Morris 2004: 44); yet the pre-war Zionist consensus for transfer ‘was not tantamount to pre-planning and did not issue in the production of a policy or master-plan for expulsion …‘ (Morris 2004: 60).
  • This is why I concluded ‘that pre-war Zionism included the development of an incipiently genocidal mentality towards Arab society, rather in a manner that many European nationalist fantasies of the time tended to regard “other” populations in territories that they regarded as properly part of  “their” own nation-state.’
  • ‘A complete transfer of the bulk of the Arab population could only be carried out by force, by “ruthless compulsion”, in Ben-Gurion’s phrase. However recent European history, Ben-Gurion pointed out, had demonstrated that a massive, compulsory transfer of populations was possible – and the ongoing world war had made the idea of transfer even more popular as the surest and most practical way to solve the difficult and dangerous problem of national minorities. The post-war settlement in Europe, he envisioned, would include massive transformation transfers.’ (Morris 2001: 45).
  • In conversation with Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador in London, Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organisation, canvassed Maisky on the prospects of moving the Palestinian Arabs ‘into Iraq or Transjordan’. ‘Dr. Weizmann said that if half a million Arabs could be transferred, two million Jews could be put in their place.’ However he did explain ‘that they were unable to deal with [the Arabs] as, for instance, the Russian authorities would deal with a backward element in their population in the USSR. Nor would they desire to do so’ (Morris 2001: 46.)
  • ‘the Yishuv [the Jewish community] and its military forces did not enter the 1948 war, which was initiated by the Arab side, with a policy or plan for expulsion’ (Morris 2004: 60). Rather, he suggested in his first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1947 (1986), the circumstances of the war brought about the flight of much of the Arab population, although Israeli forces did coerce and deliberately expel some Palestinians.

I pointed out, however, that other historians have gone further, including Ilan Pappe who has produced much evidence for a more pre-planned, coordinated campaign by the central Zionist leadership, from which Levene concludes: ‘Pappe unequivocally demonstrates that the drive towards the removal of the Palestinians came from the top.

I argue, however, that this disagreement is about the degree of central and pre-planning. There is a consensus, which includes Morris, that to some degree, the destruction of Arab society in Palestine was the result of deliberate Israeli policies. Therefore it was not just a question of ’crimes committed by the Israelis in several specific locations’, as Charny argues. The strategy of Israel in the war included as one of its aims the removal of a large part of the Arab population, and the removal of that population was in significant part the result of this aim, on the part of the Israeli leadership, as well as of local actions by Israeli commanders, officials, etc., and not simply the result of the dislocations of the war (let alone the policies of the Arab leadership).

I have little confidence that Israel Charny is capable of addressing this case in a balanced way. But I am confident that members of IAGS and H-Genocide will recognize that there is a serious argument here, and I hope you will be inspired to read the original texts.

References in the HLS article.

ADDENDUM (7 July 2011) David Moshman, who blogs for Huffington Post, writes: ‘I write a blog on intellectual freedom in education for the Huffington Post, which with one exception has published all of my posts.  The exception was [a] piece in which, following the recent controversy over Tony Kushner’s honorary degree at CUNY, I summarized your JGR debate about 1948.  The Huffington Post informed me that they would “pass” on this one, thus proving my point about the stringent limits on what can be discussed about Israel in the American mainstream.’

Web checklist – this is the latest instalment in a controversy which has taken place across a number of sites:


  1. Martin Shaw, ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’, Holy Land Studies, 9, 1, 2010, 1-24.
  2. The question of genocide in Palestine, 1948: a debate between Martin Shaw and Omer Bartov, Journal of Genocide Research, 12, 3 & 4, 2010, 243-259.

THE CONTROVERSY, January-February 2011

  1. Israel Charny’s abusive and defamatory attack on the IAGS listserve: first post on International Association of Genocide Studies listserve, together apology by William Schabas, President of the IAGS, for publication of Charny’s abuse.
  2. Martin Shaw, comment on Bartov and Charny.
  3. Report on the controversy in the US Jewish newspaper, Forward, in which Charny extends his ‘anti-Semitic’ libel to the International Network of Genocide Scholars.
  4. Charny, second post on IAGS listserve and H-Genocide.
  5. (this post) Martin Shaw, reply to Charny.
  6. Juergen Zimmerer and Martin Shaw, letters to Forward

1 thought on “Israel, the spectre of 1948, and genocide scholars (2)”

  1. […] In 2010, a piece in the journal claimed Zionism “was based on a genocidal ideal” and that the 1948 War of Independence was the “fulfillment of that intention,” Charny writes. The article, by sociologist Martin Shaw, postulated that pre-war “Zionism included the development of an incipiently genocidal mentality towards Arab society.” Shaw is cited as concluding that Israel can only hope for security if it comes “to terms with the genocide of 1948.” (Shaw has replied to Charny’s criticism here.) […]

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