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Archives Reveal Ruthless Settlers, Say New Historians

THE INDEPENDENT, 04/1998

By Adam LeBor

 

As Israel approaches its 50th birthday a fresh generation of Israeli-born scholars is using official government archives and declassified documents to deconstruct the myths surrounding the state's founding.

Sometimes reviled as "traitors" and "self-haters" - Jews who are themselves anti-Semitic - the "new historians" as they are dubbed, are illustrating how the Palestinians who fled in 1948 were the victims of organised and systematic ethnic-cleansing, much as happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Israelis have for decades been taught in school that Palestine was largely uninhabited until the arrival of the first Zionist settlers from central Europe at the turn of the century. This theory was encapsulated in the motto "a land without a people for a people without a land".

Israeli students also learn that the few (according to the mainstream Zionist perspective) Arabs who lived in Palestine upped and ran away after being told to flee by neighbouring Arab governments as they attacked the new-born state, while the Israelis made valiant efforts to try and persuade them Palestinians to stay.

Documents and letters preserved by the key players tell a different story. "Previously, Israel had no historiography, only ideology, myth and indoctrination," said Tom Segev, author of 1949 and the First Israelis, one of the first works of new history to challenge accepted wisdom.

"Israel has a relatively liberal policy on access to archives and so it is possible to check their contents against the myths and ideology. When you read these papers you think 'wow, that's not the way we learned this at school'. Some of the facts that emerged from Israeli archives are very shocking," said Segev.

Such as this extract from the diaries of Yosef Nahmani, a director of the Jewish National Fund office in eastern Galilee for 30 years. Nahmani's diaries were originally published in an abridged version, but Israeli new historian Benny Morris published this extract from the unedited manuscript in the Journal of Palestine Studies, describing events in the Arab village of Safsaf, during the 1948 war of independence: "The inhabitants had raised a white flag, the [Israeli] soldiers collected and separated the men and women, tied the hands of 50-60 fellahin [peasants] and shot and killed them and buried them in a pit. Also, they raped several women.

"In Saliha, where a white flag had been raised.they had killed about 60-70 men and women. Where did they come by such a measure of cruelty . is there no more human way of expelling the inhabitants than by such methods?"

That these are Israeli sources, and so cannot be dismissed as foreign propaganda increases their shock value, said Tom Segev. "We were told that we did everything to try to prevent the Arabs escaping. Today you can go to the Israeli army archive and find generals' reports on how they expelled the Arabs."

Other documents unearthed by the new historians reveal the extent of institutionalised racism against Jewish immigrants from Arab countries among the European elite, who largely came from Poland, central Europe and Russia.

Officials at one Jewish Agency meeting in 1949 discussed how a forthcoming influx of Polish and Russian Jews could not be housed in the same tents as the Jews from Arab countries, because they had higher standards of living, agency officials claimed.

Instead, the European Jews would be housed in hotels. The remainder of the meeting was devoted to ensuring that the decision would not be discovered by the press.

- Adam LeBor is the presenter of The Promised Land, a four-part series on the 50th anniversary of Israeli independence, broadcast on Radio 5 Live, which started last Sunday, 12 April.



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