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Reflections on Israel: From Idealism to Ethnic Cleansing
Posted on Jun 8, 2011
By Larry Gross
Which brings me to the crux of the issue, the Palestinian Problem. When I was a youngster learning Jewish history in Jerusalem’s schools, the story was clear and even simple. In many ways, it could be encapsulated in a saying one heard occasionally, attributed to early Zionists: “A land without people for a people without land.” Well, there are several striking problems with this aphorism, the most obvious being that there were people already living in the Holy Land, the Palestinians. This phrase originated in writings of British clergy and statesmen who viewed with favor what later became the Zionist cause, decades before Theodor Herzl wrote “The Jewish State” (see the fascinating and important article by Diana Muir on the history of the phrase).
Not surprising for the people who retell the ancient story of liberation from slavery in Egypt every year at Passover, the official Zionist story was frequently retold. The story I was taught in school was repeated in the nearly obligatory youth movements that organized much of our out-of-school lives (the choice was between youth movements, each aligned with a political party; not belonging to any movement carried a sentence of total social isolation). This story was also repeated on the frequent occasions for public expression of nationalistic fervor (the Zionist leaders of the day were reminiscent of Fidel Castro in their love of delivering long speeches). It was the story of the return to The Land, the Rebuilding of the Land and the People, and the continuity of Jewish identification with the Land, from biblical times to the present. The Arab residents of the land—Palestinian was not a term used at that time, either by the Jews or, as far as I can recall, by the Arabs—were generally viewed as peasants, shopkeepers or craftsmen, living in the Levantine past, neither part of the romantic Hebrew past nor the modern new state being built around them.
Then there were the “infiltrators”—Arab peasants, taken from their refugee camps in Gaza or the West Bank, armed by the cynical Egyptians or Jordanians, and sent over the border to kill Israelis, unless, as usually happened, the Israelis killed them first. I well recall spending time with my high school class doing “national service” on a kibbutz near Gaza—helping out in the fields as replacement for kibbutzniks off on military service—when the army killed several infiltrators not far from where we were working. It was a familiar story that fit with the national narrative that blamed the neighboring Arab states for the plight of the Palestinian refugees kept confined in camps reminiscent of the Maabarot, in which the Israeli government settled immigrants from Arab countries. True, of course, the Egyptian, Jordanian and Lebanese governments were callous and calculating in their realpolitik treatment of the refugees. But the larger story, and a key foundation of the mythology of Israeli nationalism, is that the refugees had not been deliberately driven out by the Israeli army in an act of what we now call ethnic cleansing.
In the Jerusalem of my youth the nicest houses by far were the Arab mansions of certain West Jerusalem neighborhoods, many of them truly beautiful examples of Eastern Mediterranean architecture, with thick stone walls, cool courtyards and tiled floors. These “abandoned” homes, technically controlled by the government as trustee for “enemy property,” were given out to politically favored or wealthy Israelis, without any visible irony or candor. I recall visiting Golda Meir’s apartment in the mid-1950s with my parents—Golda, then minister of labor, was an old friend of my Labor Zionist grandparents, and my father was consulting for her as well—which occupied the top floor of one of these mansions, its large stone-tiled balcony overlooking lush gardens. The floor below was the home of a Supreme Court justice whose son was my youth movement group leader.
Somewhat later my family became close to a young Yemenite woman who worked for us as a housekeeper (most middle-class Ashkenazi families employed Sephardic housekeepers—I heard Tel Aviv housewives refer to them as the “Schwartzeh”). We came to know her family, headed by an elderly patriarch who succeeded in marrying her off to someone she neither knew nor wanted. The family lived in Liftah, a run-down “abandoned” Arab village just below the main road at the entry to Jerusalem; a common pattern in which Jews from Arab countries were settled in former Arab villages.
The Israel of my youth was not only hostile to its Arab citizens and neighbors, it was also frequently contemptuous of European Jews, especially the Shtetl Jews who had been massacred in the Holocaust. I recall my grandfather’s dismay and anger at the Israeli rejection of Yiddish, truly my grandparents’ mother tongue, which was treated as a badge of the old Jewry, deformed by exile and now to be replaced by the New Jews building a new country. Long before Hannah Arendt was attacked for seeming to blame the victims for their fate under the Nazis (this was the grounds for the firestorm of criticism leveled at her “Eichmann in Jerusalem”), it was common to hear the charge that Ghetto Jews had gone like sheep to the slaughter, not fighting back as Sabras would as a matter of course. In this context, understandably, the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto were among the most celebrated of the Holocaust victims.
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