The difficulties of serious debate about Palestine: this short commentary has just appeared in Holy Land Studies (12, 1, 2013, 1-8; below is a draft version). The same issue includes an excellent piece by Farid Abdel-Nour, ‘From Critic to Cheerleader: The Clarifying Example of Benny Morris’ “Conversion”‘, the clarification being relevant to all who try to square the events of 1948 with their moral and political commitments.
I wrote in this journal about ‘Palestine in an International Historical Perspective on Genocide’ (Holy Land Studies, 9:1, 1-25). The reaction to the article has shown the possibility of serious debate among scholars transcending political differences – but also how political interests can trump intellectual coherence in academic circles concerned with these issues.
A serious intellectual response came in my email exchange with the Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, published in the Journal of Genocide Research (12:3-4, 2010, 243-59). Among many points, Bartov took issue with what he called my ‘conflation’ of ‘ethnic cleansing’ with genocide, which he saw as an unacceptable broadening of the latter concept. He offered some plausible historical counterpoints, for example the threats to Jewish as well as Arab society in Palestine during the 1948 war. However at two points he made rather surprising comments. First, he introduced the question of the Palestinian right of return, implying that in the light of my argument I must regard Palestinian claims as superior to those of other victims of expulsion. Endorsing Israel’s need to prevent Palestinian return in order to maintain the Jewish character of the Israeli state, Bartov asked rhetorically: ‘What makes their Nakba “better” from all others? If Germans from the Volga and the Sudetenland settled down in Freiburg why could Palestinians not settle down in Damascus?’ Secondly, he concluded his final response with the allegation that ‘the argument of Israeli genocide of the Palestinians is clearly meant to delegitimize the state and to say that it was born in the blood of innocents and should therefore also go down in blood.’ He added, ‘You do not make peace with people by telling them that they have no right to exist because they were born in sin.’ In fact, I had not even referred to the right of return (although I believe that in principle all expelled populations can claim this), and the last thing I intended to say was that Israel should ‘go down in blood’. Yet in the end Bartov was incapable of interpreting my suggestion that we should frame the removal of the Palestinians as ‘genocide’ other than in these emotive terms.
Bartov’s comments were moderate compared with what followed, notably a splenetic outburst from Israel W. Charny on the list-serve of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Charny, a past president of IAGS, runs Genocide Prevention Now which focuses primarily on the ‘genocide threat’ of the possible Iranian development of nuclear weapons to Israeli Jews. After reading my exchange with Bartov (it is not clear that he read my Holy Land Studies article), he accused me, directly or indirectly, of ‘insincerity’, ‘a delusional projection of an angry soul’, being ‘a prejudiced genocide scholar’, violating ‘the elementary requirements of assembly of established information’, utilizing ‘a device that we have documented in past research as a familiar one of deniers of Holocaust and genocide’, ‘bitter condemnation of a given ethnic identity’, and following (whether I am ‘anti-Semitic or not’) the ‘primary form/outlet’ of ‘contemporary anti-Semitism’. In sum, Charny accused me of prejudiced scholarship; he tarred me with both anti-Semitism and Holocaust/genocide denial; and he even psycho-pathologized me. Not surprisingly, the IAGS executive apologised for the publication of these comments, but they were picked up by the US Jewish newspaper, Forward, making the issue a minor cause célèbre.
These responses ultimately interpreted my article in terms of the politics of genocide recognition, neglecting its intellectual core, so here I restate it more sharply. My target was not benign views of Zionist policies in 1948; I assumed that these were already discredited. Rather it was the widespread assumption of critical scholars that Palestine represented primarily a case of settler-colonial genocide, comparable to (for example) the destruction of Indigenous Australian societies. I argued that we should also see the 1948 destruction of most of Arab society in Israeli-controlled Palestine in the context of East European nationalism – which had lain behind so much genocide in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and had peaked in the Second World War – and of the battles of decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century. To put it more concisely than I did in the original article: the Naqba brought together elements that can be found in other cases, but elsewhere were often separated in time. It was the concentrated outcome of no less than three modern patterns that produced genocide: settler colonialism; European nationalism; and the competition for control of independent statehood as European empires retreated.
And yet because of this combination, the case of Israel and the Palestinian Arab population appears highly distinctive in relation to each pattern. Considered as settler colonialism, Zionist was an unusual late case. European colonisation was everywhere a multinational process, but normally there was an imperial power and a settler core was recruited from its nationals. Jewish settlers in Palestine were different in that they although they constituted the majority of the European population, they established themselves under empires (Ottoman and British) with which they had no organic national connection. Palestinian Arabs, too, were unusual indigenes: they had not lived in their own polities, like peoples in the Americas, Australia and much of Africa, but as part of the Muslim majority in the Ottoman empire. The lateness of the Zionists’ colonial enterprise would lead them to seek wider international sponsorship; Palestinians had access the potent ideas of nationalism spreading in the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century.
Considered as a case of late 19th/early 20th century East European nationalism, Zionism was exceptional in not aiming to consolidate and expand its people’s existing homeland into a nation-state. Although the impetus for Jewish nationalism came, as with others, from the situation in their East European homelands, Zionists were ready to abandon places where Jews had been large minorities and even locally majorities for centuries – in the Middle East as well as Europe – in order to colonise Palestine where initially they were a tiny minority. Whereas other East European nationalists expelled and murdered their longstanding neighbours, Zionists ended up expelling new neighbours among whom they had only recently established themselves. These expulsions were not linked to national fascism and aggressive war, as in many European cases, but – much more like the simultaneous Czechoslovak and Polish removals of the Germans – to ‘counter-genocidal’ politics and Soviet, British and US sponsorship. However unlike Czechoslovak and Polish policies, Zionist motives hardly involved revenge, as Palestinians were not seriously complicit in the Jewish genocide.
Considered as a case of decolonization, Zionism was also unusual. Despite their lack of an organic connection with the British empire, Zionists aspired nonetheless to present themselves as its natural heirs. Britain had committed itself to a Jewish national home, but it was ambivalent about the Zionist bid to monopolise land, wealth and power in Palestine, and it prioritised its own interests as decolonisation loomed. Zionists were not unusual in having, in the end, to fight the empire that protected them (so did Algerian and Rhodesian colons), but they were unique in lacking traditional national leverage in the imperial nation. They would compensate for this by seeking the protection of the United Nations, and as pioneers of the ethnic lobby in US domestic politics.
Among the reasons that Zionist critics have given for rejecting the genocide frame are the low civilian casualties among Palestinian Arabs as a result of direct Zionist violence against them in 1948. A death toll of around 5,000 is generally accepted, compared to 750,000 people removed, a relatively low ratio suggesting that killing was a spur and aid to expulsion rather than an end in itself. This point was, of course, acknowledged in my original article, and explained as a result of the type of genocide that destroys the attacked society (most of Arab society in Israeli-controlled Palestine) without killing most of its individual members. This is the most common type: cases like the Holocaust and Rwanda where violence escalates to all-out mass murder are the exception. So that far from it being unusual to frame the Palestinian case in this way, it places it alongside a large number of historical episodes and contemporary cases like Bosnia and Darfur. Relatedly, critics have pointed out that a substantial Palestinian population remained in Israel after 1948 and has continued up to the present day. This too is not so unusual: neither Bosnia nor Darfur has seen total population removal either.
The international historical perspective offered suggests reasons for both the occurrence of this type of genocide in Palestine and why it would produce the contradictory situation that has now persisted for six-and-a-half decades. The lateness of Zionist colonization, its expansionary ambitiousness compared to the consolidating projects of other East European nationalisms, and its lack of organic imperial protection all made the removal of Palestinians higher-risk than many genocidal projects. Israel was dependent on the support of the UN and its great powers, and that was also a constraint. Many European nationalist genocides had been carried out under the cover of general European and world war; Israel’s destruction of Palestinian society responded to a short window of opportunity offered by the 1948 war. Although Palestinians were weakly organized in that year, the Naqba and their ongoing persecutions under Israeli rule and later occupation eventually catalysed a strong national consciousness, in turn a key reference point for wider Arab nationalism and later Islamism. All this has ensured an ongoing struggle in which Palestinians can provoke but not overthrow Israeli power; Israel can military defeat but not politically subdue Palestinians.
Within the long political and military conflicts there have been subdued but continuing genocidal dynamics, to which I referred only passingly in my original article. Israel has constantly extended the confiscation of Palestinian land and the removal of Palestinians themselves from various parts of the West Bank: a slow-motion, piecemeal consolidation of the dramatic, large-scale destruction of Arab society in 1948. Powerful elements within Israeli politics push towards further ‘transfer’, or forcible removal, of Israeli Arabs – while accentuating the racially Jewish character built into the state since its foundation – fearing that Palestinian birth-rates and national consciousness will destabilize its heavily fortified but ultimately precarious edifice. Yet the push towards expulsion has ultimately been constrained, so far, by Israel’s dependence on a range of international support that will tolerate its violence when it appears to have some connection with Israel’s military security, but might be spooked by wholesale attacks on the existing Israeli Arab population.
So, as I suggested in my article, genocide has long been overall a subordinate theme in the Palestine-Israel conflict, which has overall seen mainly degenerate warfare, with widespread civilian targetting supposedly serving military goals on both sides. Futile attacks by Palestinian armed groups on Israelis help provoke more extensive and lethal violence against Palestinians by Israel. The resulting wars may at times become partially genocidal when certain civilian groups (like the Gaza police in 2009) are specifically targeted for destruction. But so far this tendency has been contained. Rhetorically, of course, the ‘genocide wars’ with which I began my article continue in full spate, ratcheted up with the aid of President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and wild anti-Israeli rhetoric into the spectre of a ‘second Holocaust’ that haunts the speeches of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the propaganda of his ‘genocide-scholar’ accomplices.
The only presently forseeable circumstance in which genocide is likely to become, once again, a major theme in Israeli-Palestinian relations is if the Israeli campaign against Iran succeeds in provoking a serious regional war. Not only might an Israeli strike contain genocidal elements (for example, general targeting of groups of Iranian scientists along with nuclear facilities), but a serious Iranian counter-attack on Israel could provide the cover the Israeli right needs to start implementing its wilder ideas of ‘transfer’. Despite the combustible state of regional relations as I write in late 2012, exacerbated by the Syrian crisis, it seems unlikely that a general war would develop. However if Israeli-US overreach did provoke such a development, it might ironically also begin to produce the serious threat to its own society that is currently only a figment of Iranian rhetoric and Israeli ideology.