Nov 3, 2010 Cape Times
Tutu was right
Behind Israel’s walls – the big lie
ARCHBISHOP Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of performances
in Israel by South Africans has provoked the ire of the Israeli Embassy, Rhoda Kadalie (who sees critics of Israel as pro-ANC
leftists who ignore far worse human rights abuses in our own country) and Sydney Kaye (Cape Times letters, October 28), who
implies that Israel is responding legitimately to threats to its existence. The issue here is about historical truth. And
how can we be sure of the “facts” that are propagated?
Dominant groups in society (such as the State of Israel in the Middle East) are able to propagate their viewpoints in a hegemonic manner.
It is said: “The truth will always out”; however, truth
is elusive, and it has to be sought out, as it does not simply “appear” for all to see (if only they would open
Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic Church suppressed Galileo and
his heliocentric view of the universe (which today we know is the truth).
In the context of modern democratic rights and the freedom of speech,
the views of Tutu and others cannot be suppressed in the same way – but they are systematically rubbished as irrational,
devoid of truth and reinforcing an antiSemitic agenda. Their claim that they are in fact fighting a non-racial cause is then
set against the alleged racist consequences of their actions, to further undermine them.
That Israel is,
and has always been, under threat, from the birth of the state to the present day, is a myth perpetuated by Zionist ideology,
and is borne out of the notion that before 1948 the Jews in Palestine
invited the Arab Palestinians to remain in the country and participate in the new state.
Supposedly, this generous gesture was rejected by the Arabs who instead
opted to leave the land of Palestine while
it was being invaded by Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian troops, on the assumption that they would return on
the back of a victorious Arab military victory and drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea.
This myth was actively perpetuated by the Zionist youth movement that
I participated in during the 1960s. Growing up in the South African Jewish community, less than a quarter of a century after
the Holocaust and only a few years after the formation of the State of Israel, my generation internalised this view as the
“truth” and it created a moral basis for “our” state which was consistent with our status as God’s
chosen people who had almost been obliterated by Nazism.
The myth has been undermined by recent Israeli historiography. For
instance, Bennie Morris ( 1948 – the First Arab-Israeli War, 2008) showed that Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Jordan
were reluctant to confront the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun and Stern Gang (the Jewish community’s forces, which became the
Israeli Defence Force after May 14 1948) because – with the exception of Jordan’s Arab Legion (led by the legendary
John Glubb Pasha) – their forces were significantly inferior both in terms of military organisation and hardware.
These countries, as well as the small forces of Arab volunteers which
had moved in to support Palestinian villages, were unable to procure arms due to a comprehensive arms embargo enforced by
the US and Britain, while the IDF received significant shipments of arms from the Communist bloc.
Arab states’ leaders generally encouraged Palestinians to remain
in their villages – with devastating consequences – rather than to flee. This questions the veracity of the “flee,
return and drive them into-the sea” assumption.
Economically and politically, Palestinian society was fragmented (the
nascent Palestinian movement having been smashed by the British mandatory power during the suppression of the 1936 revolt),
hardly a basis for co-ordinated and organised population movement in and out of the country to take strategic advantage of
an invasion by a regular force. Besides, why should settled peasants and villagers have trusted regular forces from foreign
countries with whom they had little if any contact, to wage war on their behalf, to the extent that they would abandon their
homes and livelihoods and run the risk of endemic poverty and displacement should this not have come to pass?
By Morris’s own account, much of the Palestinian population
had already fled to inland areas or out of the country altogether by May 15 1948, the day that regular Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian
and Jordanian forces moved into Palestine (the Lebanese forces chose to stay on their side of the border), a flight consequent
on armed and violent conflict with Zionists.
Morris’s history remains descriptive rather than analytical.
He simply depicts the Palestinian refugees as victims suffering hardships in times of war, which explains nothing about what
happened. He undermines, but stops short of challenging, the myth of the benign Israelis and the warlike, irrational Arabs.
Illan Pappe, one of the “new”Israeli historians, did address
these questions ( The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006). In 1947 the UN resolved that 499 000 Jews were to share a state
with 438 000 Palestinians – these figures are significant because they indicate a tenuous Jewish majority in the designated
Jewish state. Pappe found evidence of an elite group, which he refers to as “the Consultancy” (consisting of the
heroes of Israel’s War of Independence, including David Ben Gurion),
that between June 1947 and May 1948 debated how to create a state with a Jewish majority over as much of Palestine as possible. They came to the conclusion that this could only be achieved through
transfer of the Arab population out of the territory. The strategy was encapsulated in Plan Dalet (D), which was a blueprint
for ethnic cleansing, which is designated a crime against humanity in international treaties.
The orders which went out to various brigades that constituted the
Jewish armed forces often explicitly used Hebrew terms for “cleansing” to describe their operations. Plan D referred
explicitly to encircling villages, wiping out resistance and expelling the population beyond the borders of the state.
By September 1948, after the IDF had conquered large parts of the
area designated as a Palestinian state, almost 800 000 people had been uprooted, 531 villages destroyed and 11 urban neighbourhoods
emptied of their inhabitants. The evidence referred to is the diary of David Ben Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister), in the Ben Gurion archives, the private archive
of Israel Galili (who was present at all the meetings of the Consultancy), and interviews with other members who participated
in Consultancy meetings. Unlike Morris, Pappe also draws on oral testimony from Palestinian refugees, which he identifies
as a serious gap in Morris’s research.
In rejecting the analogy of Zionism with apartheid, Kadalie and her
daughter Julia Bertelsmann ( Franchising ‘Apartheid’: Why South Africans Push the Analogy, 2008) argued that apartheid
was characterised by job reservation, separate amenities and disenfranchisement of the black majority, which were not actions
taken by the Israeli state against its Arab citizens.
Notwithstanding Kadalie’s and the Israeli Embassy’s protestations,
both apartheid South Africa and Israel share the fact that ethnic cleansing played a significant role in establishing both
systems. In South Africa, between 1960 and 1983, 3.5 million people of
colour were forcibly relocated from their homes in areas prescribed for whites, to other group areas, mainly Bantustans
(Platzky and Walker, The Surplus people – Forced Removals in South Africa, 1985). As in the case of Zionism, apartheid
required ethnically cleansed areas in which the “white population” would be the majority of the citizens. Both
apartheid South Africa and Israel
can be characterised as societies in which ethno-national control was extended over contested territory, through land ownership
and land usage legislation (cf. Kedar and Yiftachel, Land Regime and Social Relations in Israel,
in De Soto and Cheneval Realising Property Rights, 2006).
Questioning why Israel
is singled out for criticism while other abusers of human rights, such as Robert Mugabe, are not, is a diversionary tactic.
Tutu is on record for criticising the regime of Mugabe years ago. He can hardly be called an ANC hack, given his brave and
principled stand against Thabo Mbeki regarding the latter’s autocratic style of governance as well as his administration’s
policies on Zimbabwe, HIV/Aids and human rights abuses elsewhere in the
world that South Africa avoided criticising
in the UN.
Unquestioning support for Israel has been based on the assumption
that the Jewish people are justified in their actions against the Palestinians (including the 1948 ethnic cleansing) to prevent
being annihilated in an anti-Semitic, Gentile world, even if this means covering up or being economical with the truth. A
different view of Jewish identity could be that we honour our six million martyrs through committing ourselves to uncovering
the truth about all human rights abuses and war crimes, wherever and whenever they occur, and especially when they are committed
in our name.
Dr Hendler is an independent analyst of social, political and economic
processes and a practitioner who advises on urban development and human settlement.