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The Myth of Palestinian Victimhood

By Rodman, David | Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Palestinian Victimhood


Rodman, David, Middle East Quarterly


Palestine Betrayed. By Efraim Karsh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 342 pp. $32.50.

The Israeli war of independence may have ended with a decisive victory on the battlefield in early 1 949, but the war over the war still rages in academic circles. For more than twenty years, a furious debate has raged in Israel between the so-called "New Historians" and, for lack of a better label, "traditionalist historians." In a nutshell, the New Historians consider the Jewish state to be the villain of the drama while traditionalist historians lay the blame on the Arab world.

Now Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London and the first traditionalist historian to systematically rebut the New Historians in his earlier book, Fabricating Israeli History,1 has put the most devastating nail yet in the revisionists' coffin. In this well researched and well written work, based almost entirely on Israeli, Arab, and British documents, Karsh places special emphasis on the Arab side of the story. Through extensive use of Arab primary sources, an approach rarely employed by the New Historians, Karsh paints a picture in which the Arabs are no longer reduced to ing the part of passive "objects" of history, powerless to influence their own destiny but rather become its active "agents," shaping their own future for better or worse.

Karsh's sweeping history begins in the decades of the British Mandate, highlighting the massive socioeconomic benefits obtained by the Palestinian Arabs as a consequence of the prestate Jewish community or yishuv's steady development and assistance. In contrast to the latter's willingness to reach a reasonable political compromise on the basis of the mutual recognition of national rights - witness its endorsement of the 1937 Peel partition proposal, which would have created a tiny Jewish state alongside a much larger Arab one in western Palestine^ - the intransigent, self-serving leadership of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states would not reconcile themselves to Jewish sovereignty in any part of the territory, all the while fanning the flames of conflict with calls to panArab and Islamist ambitions.

While Karsh does examine the leading events of the war of independence, Palestine Betrayed focuses mainly on the collapse of Palestinian Arab society, a process, he makes clear, begun well before the actual end of the British Mandate. In doing so, he also offers a compelling rebuttal of two central New Historian myths, namely that the Zionist leadership formulated and then acted upon a policy of "ethnically cleansing" the Palestinian Arab population and that it collaborated with Transjordan to deny the Palestinian Arabs a state of their own.

In regard to the first contention, Karsh demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the dispersion of the Palestinian Arabs constituted a self-inflicted calamity. For starters, during the mandate period, the Palestinian Arabs, in contrast to the Jewish community, utterly declined to develop those national institutions that are so vital to sustaining any population during wartime (e.g., health and welfare organizations), so the masses had no system of support when hostilities began. Additionally, while Palestinian Arab leaders, epitomized by the "Nazi mufti," Hajj Amin el-Husseini, pressed the masses to join the war, sometimes even threatening recalcitrant individuals or reluctant villages, they themselves promptly fled the fighting for safer havens, often not even waiting for battles to start. As one might expect, the masses followed suit. Karsh goes on to trace in considerable depth how both the Palestinian Arab leadership and neighboring Arab states deliberately orchestrated the flight of the populace on numerous occasions, particularly in the cases of the mixed cities of Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.

Palestine Betrayed makes clear that most of those Arabs who would become refugees actually began their self-imposed exile either before the Jewish community took the offensive in April 1 948 or before Jewish forces approached their homes.

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