A Response

(Mis)Interpreting Zionist History

Brent Sasley responds to Yousef Munayyer's article on how President Obama should recognize the nakba.

When I first came to teach at the University of Texas at Arlington, I was asked by a colleague whether I was uncomfortable using the term “Zionist” in my courses on the Middle East and on Israel. My response was, of course, “no,” since although some have tried to tar the term with racist, murderous overtones, it is as legitimate a nationalism as American, British, German, Turkish, and Chilean nationalism.

This tarring fits with an ideological or political agenda, but it is a misunderstanding (for some, willful) of what Zionism is and what its leaders and thinkers sought to build and how they wanted to do so. Yousef Munayyer’s piece in these pages is a good example of this.

Munayyer is not un-informed, but his article is tendentious. He has a particular point to make—that Barack Obama needs to account for the nakba, too, while in Israel—and his explanation of Zionist history is made to squeeze into that particular framework of blame. It is a very partisan and one-sided reading that might work for those (like Munayyer) who advocate for a one-state solution, but it is incomplete.

There are four main problems/gaps/misinterpretations in Munayyer’s piece. First, Zionist thinking was far more varied and complex than Munayyer allows. In a conversation about the piece on Twitter, Munayyer explained that he was referring to the main actors in control of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) at the time. That makes sense, but even the labor Zionists were divided into factions. And they simply weren’t “anti-Palestinian” in the way Munayyer implies. Though he doesn’t repeat the tired (also misunderstood) complaint that the Zionists believed in a “land without a people for a people without land,” he ignores the fact that many Zionist leaders (not all, to be sure) were not bloodthirsty villains but rather saw the Palestinians through a paternalistic lens, and were simply naïve and deluded enough to think their efforts in Palestine would be welcomed.

Certainly by the 1930s and 1940s that changed, as the Zionist community saw the Palestinian Arab community as a threat: two competing peoples fighting for the same piece of land. But by then increasingly large-scale violence had broken out, and the inter-communal war between the two was almost at hand. It’s to be expected that the Zionist community would come together (more or less—labor-Revisionist disputes continued even then) in the face of what they saw as an existential threat.

Second, Munayyer notes that the U.S. withdrew its support for the Partition Plan in March 1948. But he then reads from that diplomatic failure the Zionist resort to ethnic cleansing (Munayyer doesn’t use that term, but I think that’s what he meant): “If the international community wasn’t going to give the Zionists a state of their own in Palestine at the expense of the natives, the Zionists were determined to take it by force.”

The Zionists certainly, by this point, intended to use force to create and defend their state. But Munayyer is implying that the Yishuv was waiting for international consent before establishing the state. That is simply not true. Zionism itself was created as a vehicle for the reconstitution of a Jewish national home. The movement was riven by debates over how to achieve this. Theodor Herzl and, to a lesser extent, Chaim Weizmann and—believe it or not, even Ze’ev Jabotinsky to a certain degree—thought that only with the support of the world’s major states could Zionism achieve its goals. But by the 1930s the labor Zionists were in control in the World Zionist Organization and in the Yishuv, and they scoffed at the notion of outside diplomatic support. They believed a Jewish entity could only be achieved through their own efforts, and not through the international community’s agreement.

Moreover, the purpose of building proto-state institutions (an organized party system, a parliament, an executive, a separate Jewish economy) was to prepare for Jewish statehood. This reflected one of the main motivations behind the Zionist movement—the effort to seize control of the Jewish destiny and not let the Gentile world decide the Jews’ fate anymore.

Third, Munayyer references Plan Dalet as an example of Zionist perfidiousness, a “military plan for the conquest of Palestine.” Putting aside that the Plan was designed to secure the borders of the Jewish state allotted to it by the Partition Plan only, the evidence that it was implemented through orders to local commanders is debatable at best. It’s not at all clear that the Plan was put into effect across the Yishuv, or that expulsion was considered a necessity in every case or implemented in each case. In other instances, too, local commanders took action on their own, without coordination with the Yishuv’s main military organization, the Haganah.

Fourth, following from his reference to Plan Dalet, Munayyer tries to make the case that the Zionists engaged in atrocious violence against Palestinian civilians, cowing them in an aggressive military surge that began before the Arab armies attacked Israel—implying that the Zionists went on an unnecessary and gratuitous shooting spree.

By doing so Munayyer ignores the fact that by the 1930s, Jewish and Palestinian nationalism were already driving clashes between the two. Large scale violence occurred throughout the period, including Palestinian attacks on Jewish civilians. By the mid-1940s, an inter-communal war had broken out as both sides sought to defeat the other. That the Palestinians were weaker, less mobilized, and less successful doesn’t make their role in the fighting any less important for understanding the contours of the conflict.

In isolation each of these points may seem like only minor complaints. But taking Munayyer’s argument at face value paints a picture of the Zionist movement that is simply inaccurate, and it contributes to a demonization of its leaders and its goals. This is not a useful basis for conceiving solutions to the conflict.

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I agree that President Obama should discuss the nakba while in Israel. He has been lauded for his recognition in his Cairo speech of Israel’s right to exist and the need to come to terms with it; he should do the same for the Palestinians now. But it must be on the basis of historical accuracy, which in turn requires nuance and context.