The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

Armstrong Is More Partisan Than Innocuous
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 16 2001 8:36 AM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

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Dear all,

Ted makes a good point. I did not really explain why I have a problem with Armstrong's two sentences on the state of Israel. Let me do so clearly and in detail. (I'm going to go on at length, so readers whose eyes glaze over at this sort of thing may want to check out here.)

Here are her sentences:

In 1948 the Arabs of Palestine lost their homeland to the Zionists, who set up the Jewish state of Israel there, with the support of the United Nations and the international community. The loss of Palestine became a potent symbol of the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the Western powers, who seemed to feel no qualms about the dispossession and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Obviously, to summarize anything as complicated as the creation of a new country, you've got to leave out a lot of detail, but Armstrong's omissions go so far as to constitute error.

Let's take the first sentence: "In 1948 the Arabs of Palestine lost their homeland to the Zionists, with the support of the United Nations and the international community."

There is a limited truth to the first clause of that sentence ("In 1948 the Arabs of Palestine lost their homeland to the Zionists"). In 1948, Israel declared its independence and several Arab League nations—Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, aided by some Palestinians—attacked it, lost the ensuing war, and thereby also lost their hope of retaking the land it now occupied.

But Armstrong's use of the word "homeland" is troubling, and as soon as she adds the second clause "with the support of the United Nations and the international community" it becomes clear that she is conflating two distinct events.

Why? The U.N. and the international community weren't the key players in 1948, except in trying to stop the fighting, so Armstrong has to be thinking of something that occurred a year earlier, in 1947. That's when the United Nations voted to partition the then-British Palestinian territories into three regions: a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a small zone that included Jerusalem, to be administered by an international body. Armstrong fails to mention that when the U.N. sanctioned a Zionist state, they sanctioned a Palestinian one too.

That's why I'm bothered the word "homeland": Before the partition, the Palestinians didn't have a homeland any more than the Jews did. Palestine, ruled by the Ottomans then colonized by the British, hadn't belonged to the Palestinians for hundreds of years, if ever. The U.N. partition gave them recognition as a group and self-determination for the first time in their history. The political form the self-determination took was unacceptable to them and their Arab neighbors, and they rejected it. You can see their reasons for doing so, but the fact remains that had the Palestinians and the Arab League not turned down the deal and attacked Israel instead, the Palestinians would have been in possession of a homeland for the past 53 years.

Now let's look at the second sentence: "The loss of Palestine became a potent symbol of the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the Western powers, who seemed to feel no qualms about the dispossession and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians."

Let's start with part of the second clause, "the dispossession and permanent exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians." How did the Palestinians become homeless? Not as a result of the creation of the state of Israel but as a result of the war against it. When the Arab League states launched their attack, they broadcast messages urging the Palestinians to get out of the way of the soldiers. That's when the Palestinians fled—not at the declaration of independence. Those who stayed live relatively peacefully in Israel today. There's a big debate about whether the Israelis asked their Arab neighbors not to leave—Zionists say they did, revisionists and Palestinians say they didn't. I just checked with a friend who knows a great deal more about this history than I do, and he says both things are true: In Haifa, Israelis drove around trying to convince the Palestinians to stay calm. In some other towns, the Israelis rounded the Palestinians up and dumped them on the West Bank in a move almost reminiscent of the early stages of ethnic cleansing.

Now let's look at whether it was the "Western powers" who "seemed to feel no qualms" about the refugees. After the war, most of the territory in the U.N.-created Palestinian state fell into the hands of Jordan and Egypt. Israel refused to take back any Palestinians who had fought against it, so those refugees as well as the residents of what would have been that state became the responsibility of their conquerors. How did they handle it? Jordan handled it well, giving citizenship to all the Palestinians under its control on the West Bank. Egypt handled it rather unsympathetically, refusing citizenship and imposing military law and curfews on Gaza and restricting travel to Egypt—only a few young men were allowed to come and study in Cairo. In fact, no Arab state beside Jordan ever showed much willingness to absorb the refugees.

And now let's get to the humiliation. Why did the Arabs feel it so keenly? In part because they lost a war, in part because Israeli rule seemed a continuation of colonial rule, but also in part because—as Lewis makes clear in his book The Middle East—the wartime alliance between Germany and many Arab states brought new levels of anti-Semitism to the region. Being defeated by Jews after having accepted the Nazi view of them! Colonialism was bad enough, but that was unthinkable.

Look. Israel exists on land the Palestinians consider to be theirs. That is the core of the thought Armstrong is trying to get across. If she'd said that, I would have had no problem, because it communicates the two key facts of the matter: Israel exists, and the Palestinians and many in the Muslim world think it shouldn't. But when you consider how she draped the thought with loaded phrases—"homeland" (when the Palestinians had never had one); "the Zionists … set up a Jewish state there" (when the United Nations also set up a Palestinian state); "Western powers" (when it was actually the Arab powers that had direct responsibility for the refugees, whose condition the Arab League had created); and so on—you begin to see why I consider her characterization of the Israeli-Palestinian situation to be more partisan than innocuous.

Best,
Judith

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.