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Palestine Betrayed

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Palestine Betrayed. Efraim Karsh. Yale University Press, London, 2010.

Was Palestine betrayed? Of course it was, by the British, the United States, France, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the remnants of the Ottoman empire, all of the regional Arab countries, and by certain elites and powerful of Palestine itself. Efraim Karsh makes the latter two the main if not the sole responsible for the nakba - the disaster - that occurred in 1947-48 with the announced partition of Palestine followed by the declaration of the state of Israel. Palestine Betrayed, as portrayed by Karsh, is the story of the connivances of the Arab leaders in the region along with the elites of Palestine while the Jewish population continually offered peace and coexistence with their brethren and encouraged them to stay in their villages and towns to become partners in the new state enterprise.

Karsh is both right...

Karsh is right in that, yes, the Palestinians were in essence betrayed by the Arab leaders at the time more concerned about their own scenarios and power bases than that of a nascent Palestinian nationality. Further he is correct in that some of the local Palestinian leadership - or what remained of it after the British military violently dealt with them in the previous "Arab revolt" - told the people of the towns and villages to evacuate and retreat away from the advancing Jewish forces. He presents many quotes from Jewish leaders, Ben Gurion in particular, that attempt to show that the Jewish people wished to live in peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbours.

...and horribly wrong.

His approach and methodology of trying to reconstruct the arguments around the nakba are horribly wrong in several ways.

In the introduction he writes, "It is understandable for leaders and politicians, culpable for their nation's greatest ever disaster, to revert to hyperbole and lies in their quest for personal and collective exoneration, it is inexcusable for future generations of scholars and intellectuals to substitute propaganda for incontrovertible facts." In other words, "These politicized historians have turned the saga of Israel's birth upside down, with the aggressors transformed in hapless victims and vice versa."

His main historical criticism is directed at the "new historians" - who have "total unfamiliarity"with the Arab world "and their condescending treatment of the Palestinians as passive objects." He says that, "rather than unearth new facts or offer novel interpretations," they have "recycled the standard Palestinian Arab narrative of the conflict." Karsh then continues to announce the recent declassification of millions of documents from the period of the British mandate and Israel's early days, documents untapped by earlier generations of writers and ignored or distorted by the "new historians."

The result is that the new documents reveal "that there was nothing inevitable about the Palestinian-Jewish confrontation," that the claim of premeditated dispossession is not only baseless but the inverse of the truth," and that it was the Arab leaders "against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival."

"It is to reclaim this historical truth that this book has been written." Karsh succeeds, and he fails.

If the reader is unfamiliar with any other writings on Israel, the "new historians" that Karsh so disparages (and to the uninitiated, the new historians are predominantly if not solely Israeli academics), and if the reader is unfamiliar with the larger historical contexts of the world's empires during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century and their impacts within the Middle East, the reclamation of historical truth works. That is, it does present a picture of a peaceful Jewish population betrayed by a greedy, backwards, ineffective, and self-serving Arab leadership.

Deconstructing Palestine

Unfortunately there are several problems with this presentation. The first is that while Karsh casually dismisses the new historians, he does nothing to deconstruct their arguments. And while he attempts to present the situation as a new revelation that the "new historians" have ignored, he is fully wrong. Karsh cherry picks his arguments (looks for quotes that support only his idea) without making any attempt to contradict or counter the arguments of the new historians, with no demonstration of where their arguments are wrong.

Much more revealing for anyone who has read the "new historians" is that they agree with Karsh - the Palestinians were betrayed by their own kind - and several of them spend a fair amount of time criticizing the actions of the leaders of the Arab nations struggling for their own position and power in a world still largely controlled by old empires. But that is only one side of the coin, and where Karsh goes wrong is not representing the overall aim of the original Zionist enterprise and its ongoing belief and attitude towards its domination and control over a "land without people for a people without land."

Demographics - as always.

Population demographics is another theme where Karsh goes wrong. He has many chosen quotes about how peaceful and trusting the Jewish people were and that they wished the Palestinians to work with them in their new state. The error is that of demographics: this wish for peaceful coexistence was always expressed with the accent on the Jewish people having the majority of the population. By distorting this item, and then ignoring the many statements about the plans for ethnic cleansing via population transfer, expulsion, and/or outright killing of the local inhabitants, Karsh denies support to his argument that "premeditated dispossession is baseless." From its inception, to the current reality of the ongoing settlements, demolitions, expulsions, and biased civil and military laws, and possible future population transfer during some large military event (created for that purpose, as one could imagine with Iran), the idea of dispossessing the Palestinians cannot be denied.

An imagined reality

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Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and analyst who examines the world through a syncretic lens. His analysis of international and domestic geopolitical ideas and actions incorporates a lifetime of interest in current events, a desire to (more...)

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