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Reflections on Israel: From Idealism to Ethnic Cleansing

Posted on Jun 8, 2011
AP / Muhammed Muheisen

Backdropped by a section of Israel’s separation barrier, Israeli troops fire rubber bullets at Palestinian stone throwers, not seen, during clashes in the West Bank in 2007.

By Larry Gross

(Page 2)

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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By DavidByron, June 9, 2011 at 7:54 am Link to this comment

It just seems like even the best people who were raised by the genocidal regime come out racist still.  There are a number of places in this article where the author display racist prejudices against the Palestinians even while apparently the whole purpose of the article is to oppose that sort of sentiment.

At the end of the article he finally cops to the parallel between the Nazis and the Israelis.  Just after a series of comments saying both sides were equally to blame.  So he goes back and forth quite a bit.  he is condemned by his own words,

“it leaves us with a false equivalence of competing claims and culpability”

In addition the author seems to largely ignore the initial invasion of territory in 1948 by talking more about 1967 as if that was anything but a small continuation of the genocide that has always been at the very heart of Israel, far more so than any other state.  At least Germany had other things going on.  With Israel its all genocide all the time.  With Israel genocide is the sine qua non, the birth and the sustenance of that racist state.  In that sense their guilt is far worse than the Germans who could well say they didn’t know what was going on.  In Israel everyone’s business is genocide, even (as he reports here) children.

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By Tobysgirl, June 9, 2011 at 7:04 am Link to this comment

I had personal contact with two Israelis, one whose book I proofread, the other through meeting her and her husband when they were vacationing in the U.S. Both contacts were extremely depressing. The first man, quite sensitive and thoughtful, sent me a clipping about his wife, a judge, who lashed out at “bleeding heart liberals.” I was, needless to say, revolted. I asked the second person what she and her husband thought of the Christian fundamentalists who support Israel, and I never heard from her again.

If Israel ever has to answer for its crimes—how about the U.S. answering for its much worse ones?—I’m sure Israelies and Americans will offer up the same excuses as Germans did.

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By colindale, June 9, 2011 at 4:16 am Link to this comment

It is abundantly clear to anyone willing to spend
just 30 minutes on research, that there is only one
indigenous people of the land between the Sea and the
River, the area known as Palestine - those are the
Arab families who have lived continuously there for
over one thousand years.

In all that time, there has only ever been a small
Jewish minority.  Until the UN resolution of 1947 and
the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

That the only indigenous people should have been
forcibly displaced by Americans and Europeans who
claim lineage from an obscure Hebrew sect that once
lived in Jerusalem 3000 years ago, is patently

But that is what happened and that is what the
Christian Zionists support - notwithstanding the
injustice and suffering caused.  A extraordinary way to follow a faith and secure peace in the world.

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By madisolation, June 9, 2011 at 3:41 am Link to this comment

Thank you, Mr. Gross, for this eye-opening column.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, June 9, 2011 at 2:18 am Link to this comment

I always wondered why a social justice site like BDS movement dot org could be blacklisted but a manevolent site such as is not.

Truthdig is one of the truely open sites allowing different perspectives on issues, however the morality filter for their ‘blacklisting’ needs some adjusting.

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By MeHere, June 8, 2011 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for a very thoughtful article.  L. Gross says it all, with compassion, integrity, and without any animosity.

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By Son of Palestine, June 8, 2011 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment

I have already commented positively on Larry Gross’ informative piece. However, I don’t like the part of the title that says, “From Idealism…;” for indeed there was never anything “ideal” about the colonialist, racist and terrorist Zionist project, except in the crooked and perverted minds of those who conceived it.

A project that had in it any grain of idealism would not have ended being a project of colonialist militarism, savege occupation, terrorism and ethnic cleansing. My point is that “idealism” is a mutally contradictory term with what Zionist Israel ended up to be in reality.

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By Son of Palestine, June 8, 2011 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another truthdigging by another good and noble Jew within a period of less than a week!

Thank you Larry Gross for telling it as it should be toled! And thank you Truthdig for being a forum for truthdigging, for only the truth will eventually liberate the Palestinians from their oppression and their “minor” Holocaust, and it will, likewise, liberate the Jews from their racist entity’s falshoods, deception and terrorism.

If there is a chance for reconciliation and peace it will come through the courage of people such as Larry Gross, Miko Peled and other vetrans of Jewish truth and peace movements, as well as through forums of truthdigging and education, such as Truthdig.

Forget about hypocrite Obama, fanatic Netanyaho or meek, stupid Mahmoud Abbas for those three are symbols and symptoms of the problem and not the solution!

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By john from ojai, June 8, 2011 at 6:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks Truthdig for the fine article.

One of the ways that people can address the injustice is to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel and any corporation that profits from the illegal occupation.

One of the ways that Truthdig could address the injustice is to stop blacklisting the major sight that supports BDS. They could also answer emails complaining about said blacklisting.

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