The gap between myth and reality in Israel’s history

The gulf between rhetoric and reality will have to narrow if there is any hope for an honest narrative about the pivotal events of 1948, argues Joseph Dana

Palestinian refugees stream out of Palestine on the road to Lebanon in northern Israel to flee fighting in the Galilee region in the Arab-Israeli war on November 4, 1948.  AP Photo
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In two weeks, Palestinians around the world will commemorate their forced displacement in 1948, known as the Nakba. Falling just five days after Israel’s independence day, Nakba day has become a global event on which Israel’s foundation myths are revisited, rejected and recast.

Every nation has foundation myths. In many cases, they consist of sloppy acts of historical revision designed to inspire a specific brand of nationalism. During Thanksgiving, for example, Americans engage in collective cognitive dissonance about the violent settlement of the United States with rituals pretending that Native Americans and settlers peacefully broke bread together.

Israel’s foundation myths are no different. They are predicated on a narrative of victimhood that wilfully ignores the unsavoury behaviour of Israel’s founding generation.

As the story goes in Tel Aviv’s retelling, Israel was little more than a small settlement when the Second World War broke out. Without the resources to fight Nazi Germany, Israelis focused on statehood by fighting the British, who controlled Palestine by mandate.

With the British retreating and refugees pouring into Palestine in the late 1940s, Israel fought a war of independence with neighbouring Arab countries that had rejected the United Nations plan to partition historic Palestine.

The picture is, of course, much more complex, as former London mayor Ken Livingstone found out last week. In comments defending Labour MP Naz Shah from allegations of anti-Semitism based on her support for moving all Israelis to the US as a solution to the conflict, the Labour party politician said Hitler had supported Zionism in the 1930s.

For segments of the British left connected to the Palestinian issue, equating Zionism with other extremist nationalist ideologies is a core component of their thinking. In 2001, parts of the British left strongly supported efforts to have Zionism labelled as a movement based on racial superiority at a UN conference on racism in South Africa. The efforts failed, but the connection between Zionism and racism has remained a driving force for Palestine activism in Britain today.

While Mr Livingstone’s comments about Hitler’s support of Zionism were incorrect, they didn’t come out of thin air. Beginning in the late 1980s, a group of Israeli historians have systematically revisited the country’s foundation myths and challenged them with newly released records from Israel’s state archives.

The so-called new historians uncovered explicit evidence of Israel’s plans to carve out a state by conquering Palestinian villages and conducting a regime of terror to scare Palestinians out of their homeland, regardless of the UN partition vote. Israel’s pre-state foreign policy was also put under the microscope.

Israeli historian Tom Segev discovered documents connecting the Jewish Agency, a Zionist organisation tasked with bringing Jews to Palestine, with the Nazi party. Segev documents in his respected book, The Seventh Million, how the Jewish Agency entered into a transfer agreement with Nazi Germany in 1933 to facilitate the emigration of 20,000 German Jews to Palestine.

Segev argues that the agreement was based on the “complementary” interests of Nazi Germany and the Zionists in Palestine: “the Nazis wanted the Jews out of Germany, the Zionists wanted them to come Palestine”.

While Hitler might have been aware of agreement, to say that Hitler supported Zionism based on this episode alone is quite a stretch; and for that, Mr Livingstone has been rightly condemned for his ill-informed statements. There has been similar controversy about the involvement of pre-state Israeli militias with fascist Italy.

The Stern Gang, a Jewish extremist group that carried out attacks against British forces in mandate Palestine, also sought links with European fascists in the 1930s and 1940s. Led by Avraham Stern and later Yitzhak Shamir, who would become Israel’s prime minister in the 1980s, the Stern Gang attempted to align itself with Mussolini’s Italy. According to the historian Joseph Heller in his book, The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror, 1940-1949, a draft agreement was created that would see the transfer of Jews under Axis control to Palestine and include Axis military assistance to Israel’s nascent army. Eventually, the plans to cooperate with the Italian fascists were scrapped altogether but the matter remains a source of controversy.

State building is a nasty business and the lines of acceptable behaviour are often blurred. This is not unique to Israel: every country has its dark spots. What is unique, however, is that these foundation myths continue to play such a dramatic role in the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr Livingstone has done the Palestinians no favours with his incorrect recasting of history, Israeli politicians such as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have also cynically recast the events of the Second World War for their own political gain.

The more historians continue to uncover buried facts from Israel’s foundation period, the more politicians and activists will twist these facts for short-term gain. The gulf between rhetoric and reality will have to narrow if there is any hope for an honest narrative about the pivotal events of 1948.

On Twitter: @ibnezra