Response

06.19.12

One-Note History: A Response to Yousef Munayyer

One of the most moving Jewish prayers begins by saying, "MiPnai Chataeinu Gilinu MeArzenu," we were exiled from our land, because of our sins. The prayer captures the humility of the Jews in exile, and explains a fundamental force that propelled the Zionist movement. Some Jews, overwhelmed by the sins of fraternal hatred that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, preached passivity, awaiting Messianic redemption.  Others, fearing national paralysis but nevertheless humbled, reacted and acted.

Awareness of national sins, of collective imperfections, helped make most Zionists pragmatists. They were trying to fix a problem—the problem of statelessness—and were willing to compromise to achieve their goal. Most dramatically, in 1947 David Ben-Gurion led his people to accept what the Peel Commission had acknowledged was a proverbial half loaf—a partition of the Jewish homeland into Jewish and Arab parts, with Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s geographic heart and soul, internationalized. This compromise preceded other compromises, including the 1979 Camp David treaty with Egypt, the various Oslo Accords of the 1990s, and the Gaza Disengagement of 2005—all of which involved withdrawing from territory for the hope of peace.

By contrast, the dominant Palestinian narrative has long been about the sins of others leading to their exile and suffering. In "Blaming the Victim" Yousef Munayyer once again offers such an account of his people as blameless, claiming that any suggestion of Palestinian responsibility is "ahistorical," condescending, and, invoking the accusation du jour, a reflection of "racism."  Setting up a straw man—or straw passage—he targets his enemies with his own improvised quotations, writing, "'Those Arabs had a chance to make a deal by accepting the 1947 UN Partition,’ the narrative often goes, ‘but they chose war and thus deserve whatever befell them.'" Munayyer’s characterization drains the nuance from the discussion and turns an assessment of historical responsibility—losing wars you trigger does have consequences—into a condescending moral judgment. 

Then, trying to cleanse Arabs of responsibility and blame the Jews he writes: "Given the discussion of 'population transfer,'"—again undocumented—"Palestinian Arabs knew that the Jewish state might very well act to remove them from its territory to solidify its demographic control."Here, using historical slight of hand with no proof, he implicitly accuses Israelis of a pre-crime, speculating that the Jews "might very well act." Finally, reversing historical causation, he makes the Arab military attack on Israel a justified reaction rather than an aggressive invasion when he writes, again without evidence, "The influx of refugees pouring into Arab states pushed those governments into a war they were neither prepared for nor really desired."

This account ignores the well-documented research of historians such as Efraim Karsh who in Palestine Betrayed (2010) presents a nuanced, multidimensional perspective. Karsh explains that some Palestinians had strong ties with Jews, some accepted the partition compromise, but that extremist leaders such as Hajj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, betrayed their people by being so uncompromising. (And Karsh’s portrait is far from "monolithic," mocking another Munayyer complaint which is undermined by Munayyer’s own sweeping claim that "the native Palestinians opposed" partition—as if all acted as one).

Rejecting the Palestinian claim that Palestinians were passive pawns, Karsh quotes Radio Baghdad in May 1948 that "Fright has struck the Palestinian Arabs and they fled their country." The Palestinian leader Musa Alami admitted in 1949 that his people "were told that the Arab armies were coming, that the matter would be settled and everything return to normal."

Most damning, Karsh dares introduce complexity into the story by noting that after 1948, many Palestinians blamed their Arab brethren not the Jews. Sir John Troutbeck the pro-Arab head of the British Middle East office in Cairo, reported in June 1949 that the Gaza refugees "Express no bitterness against the Jews," but "speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states.” Many told Troutbeck: "we know who our enemies are." He concluded, the Gaza refugees "have no quarrel with the Jews." He explained: "they have lived with the Jews all their lives and are perfectly ready to go back and live with them again."

Johnny one-note history is anathema to a two-state solution. The dominant, monolithic woe-is-us, we-were-"ethnically-cleansed" Palestinian narrative undermines any spirit of pragmatism or compromise in a demand for absolute "justice" rather than a search for a subtle solution. Many Israelis have spent over two decades now arguing about their history, acknowledging the messiness of the past, the complexity of the conflict, the dual claims of two people in love with the same land. Parallel Palestinian discussions, acknowledging some of their sins and miscalculations too, would help lay the ideological and conceptual groundwork for the kinds of compromises they—and the Israelis—will have to accept for peace to be achieved.

CORRECTION: The caption that originally ran with the photo in this article misidenitified the center figure as Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The photo from Getty Images actually depicts Abdel Qadir al-Husseini.  We regret the error.