It is said that supporters of the Soviet Union grappled with the reality of Stalin’s gulags in three stages. During the first stage, they denied the gulags’ existence; in the second stage, they accepted their existence but defended their necessity; in the third, they apologised for Stalin’s crimes and promised never to repeat them again.
If the recent work of the liberal Zionist author Ari Shavit is any indication, Israel has reached the second stage in its own national reckoning with the Nakba, or the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 indigenous Palestinian Arabs during 1947 and 1948.
In his bestselling 2013 book, My Promised Land, which was embraced by a pantheon of liberal Jewish-American pundits, Shavit documented with fairly remarkable honesty the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian city of Lydda by the Israeli military in 1948.
He detailed the horrors of the so-called Lydda Death March, when forces led by Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon drove tens of thousands of Palestinians from the city and towards Ramallah, where they would become refugees and never return. And he recounted the hideous massacres that occurred in the process, calculated acts of slaughter that have never been officially acknowledged by the state of Israel.
“Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda,” Shavit writes. “Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.”
If one were to stop midway through Shavit’s section on Lydda, it would seem as though one of Israel’s most prominent columnists, a figure regarded as his country’s equivalent of Thomas Friedman, was attempting to stage a significant historical and political intervention. But the author concludes his chapter with a stunning statement.
“If need be, I’ll stand by the damned,” Shavit writes. “If it wasn’t for them,” he says of the soldiers who ethnically cleansed Lydda, “the State of Israel would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to be alive.”
Not only did Shavit declare that the Jewish state could not have come into being without ethnic cleansing committed on a mass scale, he insisted that such crimes were necessary to preserve his own existence and that of his entire family in Israel.
His argument echoed that of the Israeli revisionist historian Benny Morris, another leading light of the Zionist left, whose early work exposed the mass expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and before, but who declared in a shocking interview with Shavit during the height of the Second Intifada that Israel had not gone far enough.
The Jewish state would never be at peace, Morris suggested, until it purged the rest of the Arab demographic contaminants living within its realm.
“I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands,” Morris told Shavit. Building on his zero-sum analysis, he continued: “A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.”
While Shavit justified ethnic cleansing as a historical necessity, Morris’s remarks can be seen as a defence of the current reality dictating the existence of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
Indeed, the Nakba is not a tragic episode conducted within the framework of a decades-old war, but a continuous, ongoing process of criminal dispossession and expulsion necessary to the maintenance of an ethnically pure Jewish state in historic Palestine.
As Ilan Pappe, the renowned Israeli historian and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, remarked in a recent panel discussion with me: “Not a single day has gone by in the history of Israel without one act of ethnic cleansing or another.”
Palestinians living under Israeli control experience the Nakba on a daily basis, whether through home demolitions, the uprooting of their orchards, eviction notices, or the routine encounters with humiliating mechanisms of control legalised under a lawless occupation. For them, every day is 1948. As William Faulkner said of the American South: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
Finishing the incomplete Nakba of 1948 is the ultimate and unapologetically stated goal of Israel’s right-wing. Among Israel’s post-Oslo generation, it is the source of their popularity, enabling a coalition of secular right-wing hyper-nationalists and messianic settlers to supersede the Labor Zionist forces that embody the legacy of Israel’s founders.
The right-wing rulers of Israel not only accept the Manichean logic underlining the arguments of Shavit and Morris, they are taking concrete action to see it through.
Their mantra is simple: Finish ’48.
To mark the tragedy of their dispossession, many Palestinians mourn Israel’s foundation as their Nakba Day. This year, when 10,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel rallied in northern Israel in memory of the Nakba, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lashed out. Denigrating the demonstrators as a “fifth column”, Mr Lieberman declared: “To those Arabs that took part today in the Nakba Day procession and waved Palestinians flags, I suggest that next time they march directly to Ramallah and stay there.”
As the leader of the increasingly popular Yisrael Beiteinu party, Mr Lieberman is the face of Israel’s secular right-wing. He rose to prominence in 2009 with a promise to strip Palestinian citizens of Israel of their rights if they failed to submit to the discriminatory imperatives of Zionism. “No Citizenship, No Loyalty” was his campaign slogan.
Since then Mr Lieberman and his allies have introduced law after law to fulfil his pledge, placing increasing pressure on Palestinians in Israel to “take their bundles and get lost”, as he once said. Among the most draconian of the laws is the so-called Nakba Law that slaps financial penalties on any organisation or entity that participates in Nakba Day memorial ceremonies.
The legislative agenda of Mr Lieberman and his confederates is guided by a clear goal: Finish ’48.
While Palestinians observed the Nakba this year, many Israelis celebrated their Independence Day on the verdant grounds of Canada Park, built on the ruins of the Palestinian towns of Beit Nuba, Yalu, and Imwas, whose residents were forcibly marched to the refugee camps of Ramallah in 1967 after watching Israeli troops demolish their homes.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF), an Israeli government-linked entity that raises tens of millions of dollars in tax deductible donations from affluent Jews in North America, built Canada Park to ensure that the refugees would have nothing to come back to. JNF forests are layered atop the ruins of Palestinian villages across Israel and there are plans to plant more.
First, however, more villages need to be destroyed. The Prawer Plan would have forcibly uprooted 40,000 to 70,000 Bedouin citizens from their communities in the Negev Desert. Although its implementation was indefinitely delayed by massive worldwide pressure and raucous protests across Israel-Palestine, Mr Lieberman explained the stakes for his government.
“Nothing has changed since the days of the tower and the stockade,” Mr Lieberman thundered, referring to the earliest stages of Zionist colonisation of Palestine. “We are fighting for the lands of the Jewish people and there are those who intentionally try to rob and steal them.”
For Mr Lieberman, the second most popular politician in Israel and the potential successor to prime minister Netanyahu, Palestinians are the real occupiers. And as long as they remained on the land of the “Jewish people” – land guaranteed to them by the Bible according to the atheist Mr Lieberman – Israel could not be free.
In its ruthless drive to finish ’48, the Israeli government has confirmed Shavit’s most disturbing conclusion: if Zionism is to be, the Palestinians cannot be.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel
On Twitter: @MaxBlumenthal