Robin Rothfield on the Occupation and the Nakba

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By Robin Rothfield.
The Jewish Left has been strident in its appeal for an end to the occupation following the recent 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.
But there has been division among the Left over whether to connect the occupation with the Nakba, the term used for the exodus of Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence of 1948.
As previously quoted, Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace (USA)  has written: “Confronting the Nakba is not optional. Because working for a truly just peace without addressing it is impossible.” Rebecca Vilkomerson has further written: “The seeds of the occupation were laid in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes.”
Why mention the Nakba?
The proponents of the case for mentioning the Nakba argue that Israel was to blame for the  exodus of Palestinians. Those I have spoken to also argue that the State of Israel should not have been created. They claim that other solutions should have been found to accommodate Jews who were forced to flee from their homeland.
Historian George Antonius in 1938 wrote: “….The treatment meted out to Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. Help for the Jews must be sought elsewhere than in Palestine”
It is easy to say “help for the Jews must be sought elsewhere than in Palestine” but where, exactly where? The last place Jewish survivors of the holocaust wanted to be was in Europe. Where else could the Jewish survivors go? Two other places have been proposed, Uganda and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Re the Uganda proposal offered by Britain, in 1904 a three-man delegation from the World Zionist Congress was sent to inspect the plateau. Its high elevation gave it a temperate climate, making it suitable for European settlement. However, the observers found a dangerous land filled with lions and other creatures. Moreover, it was populated by a large number of Maasai who did not seem at all amenable to an influx of people coming from Europe.
After receiving this report, the Zionist Congress decided in 1905 to politely decline the British offer.
Re the Kimberly region proposal:
Steinberg was sent out from London to further investigate the scheme’s feasibility and to enlist governmental and communal endorsement. He arrived in Perth on 23 May 1939. Steinberg was a skilled emissary, and based his campaign on the officially declared need by Australia to populate northern Australia.
A 1944 opinion poll found that 47% of Australians opposed the scheme. Opposition was primarily based on concerns that the settlers would inevitably drift away from Kimberley and begin migrating to the cities in large numbers. On 15 July 1944 the scheme was vetoed by the Australian government and Labor Prime Minister John Curtin with bipartisan support informed Steinberg that the Australian government would not “depart from the long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia.”
How realistic then is this claim that other solutions should have been found?
The support of the Jewish Left 1945 – 48 for a Jewish national home in Palestine
The Jewish Left received the news of the November 1947 decision of the United Nations General Assembly to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state with rejoicing and enthusiasm.
As a member of the executive of the Jewish Council to combat fascism and anti-Semitism Evelyn Rothfield wrote two pamphlets in support of Israel’s statehood, Whither Palestine (1947) and Israel Reborn (1948).
Details of these publications are provided by Jewish historian Philip Mendes in an article in Labour History, November 2009, as follows:
“As early as 1945, the Council expressed its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. A pamphlet by Evelyn Rothfield, the information officer of the Jewish Council, called for free Jewish immigration into Palestine, and the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth [Evelyn Rothfield, The Jewish People, RAAF Educational Services, Melbourne, 1945, pp.44-47.]. A further pamphlet issued by the Council in March 1947 titled Whither Palestine was issued with a supportive foreword by the Victorian Attorney General William Slater. This pamphlet firmly attacked the British White Paper on immigration, defended the right of the large number of homeless and displaced Jews to enter Palestine, and attributed Arab-Jewish conflict to the malign influence of exploitative Arab landowners, and the extremist Mufti of Jerusalem who had collaborated with the Nazis. The pamphlet called for Arab-Jewish friendship and cooperation in an independent Palestine [Evelyn Rothfield, Whither Palestine, Dolphin, Melbourne, 1947. The Council strongly supported the creation of Israel in 1948, and played a key role in promoting public sympathy for the fledgling state. The Council established a joint committee with representatives from the politically diverse Zionist Federation of Australia, Kadimah Cultural Centre and the Jewish Progressive Centre to organize pro-Israel broadcasts, newspaper articles and other publications, and public addresses. Young people and churches were specifically targeted. For example, the Council organized a ‘mass rally for youth to support the Yishuv (Jewish community) in Israel in its struggle for freedom and independence’. This rally was addressed by Presbyterian Minister and peace activist Reverend Alfred Dickie and Council President Norman Rothfield. In addition, the Council organized a mass Jewish rally to demonstrate the Australian Jewish community’s solidarity with Israel [Australian Jewish News, 10 & 17 September 1948; Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, Annual Reports 1947-48, 1948-49; Norman Rothfield, Many Paths To Peace, Yarraford Publications, Melbourne, 1997, p.22.].
The Council also distributed 25,000 copies of a pro-Israel pamphlet, Israel Reborn. The pamphlet argued that the only Arabs who opposed partition were the feudal landlords and chieftains from surrounding countries who ‘fear the progress and enlightenment which the Jews have brought to the Middle East’. These war lords were allegedly not representative of the broader mass of Palestinian Arab peasants, workers and middle classes. According to the pamphlet, ‘Arabs in Palestine have displayed little enthusiasm for the war. Many of them, to escape fighting, have tried to leave the country…The fact is that the large mass of Arabs inside Palestine have little quarrel with their Jewish neighbours’ [Evelyn Rothfield, Israel Reborn, Dolphin Publications, Melbourne, 1948.].
The Council organized a petition in favour of immediate Australian recognition of Israel. The petition attacked the Arab invasion of Israel, stating that ‘those Arabs who have attacked the Jewish State are not Palestinians, but outsiders led by rulers from neighbouring countries. They have attempted to prevent the establishment, not only of the Jewish State, but of an independent Arab State in Palestine as well. They seek to divide the country of Palestine amongst themselves’ [Brian Fitzpatrick and 23 others, Australia and Israel, Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, Melbourne, July 1948.].  The Council distributed 55,000 copies of a brief pamphlet based on this petition.
The dispossession of Palestinians (the Nakba)
There are members of the Jewish Left who argue that the establishment of the State of Israel led to the dispossession of Palestinians. Historian Benny Morris is the accepted expert on this subject and in his book “The Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem he writes (chapter 3, first line:)
“The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab.”
In other words had the Arab world, instead of going to war against the fledgling state, been prepared to live in peace with Israel then there would have  been no Palestinian exodus.
Excerpts from this chapter by Benny Morris are attached. On the one hand there was a voluntary Palestinian exodus with the departure of many of the country’s upper and middle class families. On the other hand the “atrocity factor” played a major role in precipitating flight from certain areas of the country.
Whether the decision on partition taken overwhelmingly by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 was a good or bad decision, it was the decision of the international community and should have been accepted by the Arab world.
Palestinians and Israeli Jews could have lived side by side in peace and  harmony.
If one only accepts decisions with which one agrees then chaos is the end result.
Progressive Jews should continue to campaign for the end of the occupation while not forgetting that the 5 Arab states which went to war with Israel must bear the primary responsibility for the dispossession.
Members of the hard left are aware of the UN decision on partition and of the war waged by 5 Arab states but these facts appear not to have penetrated their sub-conscious.
The effect of Jewish immigration on the Arab population
Evelyn Rothfield in Israel Reborn argued that the only Arabs who opposed partition were the feudal landlords and chieftains from surrounding countries who ‘fear the progress and enlightenment which the Jews have brought to the Middle East.’
In searching for examples of how Jewish migration has benefited the Arab population I came across the following extract  from the Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003.  The complete article is attached.
The Arab Palestinian populations within those sub-districts that eventually became Israel increased from 321,866 in 1922 to 463,288 in 1931 or by 141,422. Applying the 2.5 per annum natural rate of population growth to the 1922 Arab Palestinian population generates an expected population size for 1931 of 398,498 or 64,790 less than the actual population recorded in the British census. By imputation, this unaccounted population increase must have been either illegal immigration not accounted for in the British census and/or registered Arab Palestinians moving from outside the Jewish-identified sub-districts to those sub-districts so identified. This 1922-31 Arab migration into the Jewish sub-districts represented 11.8 percent of the total 1931 Arab population residing in those sub-districts and as much as 36.8 percent of its 1922-31 growth.
Atrocities committed during the 1948 war
My brother David has informed me of atrocities committed in the area of Kibbutz Barkai, the kibbutz where he settled after ‘making aliyah’ in 1965. He says that at some point after settling in, they were told that the land on which the kibbutz settled in 1949 belonged to an Arab village prior to the war.
Until recently,  it never occurred to him to investigate this matter further. But then he came across the following passage at,_Haifa
During the 1948/1949 war the locals in the area experienced violence at the hands of Israeli forces. A member of the Kibbutz Be’eri, assigned to the Guard Milices testified in a study undertaken by Israeli historian Yitzhaki and Uri Millstein: “We were in Wadi ‘Ara. We raided a nearby Palestinian post and brought a prisoner for interrogation. A soldier beheaded him and scalped his head by knife. He raised the head on a pole to strike fear among Palestinians. Nobody stopped him.”
David adds, ‘It was this barbaric act that took place over the boundary of partition and within territory designated as the Palestinian state, together with reports of other atrocities elsewhere, that no doubt led to the flight of the villagers who were never permitted to return. Kibbutz Barkai was later established on this site, occupying the land of the villagers, who had been effectively evicted from their land and their homes.’
This is horrendous but atrocities were committed on both sides.
One of the greatest massacres that the Arab forces perpetrated against Jews during Israel’s War of Independence was the massacre of a convoy of doctors and nurses at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on April 13, 1948, when 79 innocent people, many who were working to save other lives, were slaughtered. Tamar Fuchs, who was 12 at the time, remembers the massacre vividly.
“At about 10 a.m. a neighbor burst in shouting, ‘They’re attacking the convoy to Mt. Scopus.’ From the roof, we saw black smoke and passing British cars which did not offer help,” Fuchs said, recalling “the sharp smells of burnt flesh drifted with the eastern winds in our direction. Until 2 p.m. we saw smoke and heard explosions. My friend’s sister, Nurse Ziva Barazani, was in the convoy. Her remains were not found.”
Another horrific event was the Gush Etzion massacre on May 13, 1948. All 133 inhabitants of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion were slaughtered, although after several days under siege they had emerged with white flags. This did not prevent the Arab forces from opening fire at the group and stabbing the ones who survived that attack with knives. Nor did they spare the women of the kibbutz. The kibbutz was then looted and burned.
While recognizing that atrocities were committed by both sides the fact must be accepted that it was the 5 Arab states of  Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, which declared war on the fledgling state of Israel.
The underdog
I suspect that a key factor in the thought processes of young left Jews is a feeling that the Palestinians are the underdog in the Israel Palestine conflict. This may be the case today but it was not the case in 1948.
“After the Partition vote, some Arab leaders threatened the Jewish population of Palestine. For example, they spoke of “driving the Jews into the sea” or ridding Palestine “of the Zionist Plague”.[1] (Benny Morris)
Just before the 6 day war President Nasser of Egypt declared a blockade against the Israeli port of Eilat and 9000 tanks were moved to the borders of Israel. On 27 May 1967 Nasser declared:
“Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight…The  mining of Sharm el Sheikh is a confrontation with Israel. Adopting this measure obligates us to be ready to embark on a general war with Israel.”
Consider also this statement in 1967 by Ahmed Shukairy, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization:
“We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants and as for the survivors – if there are any – the boats are ready to deport them.” – Shukairy, June 1, 1967, speaking at a Friday sermon in Jerusalem.
In 2007 I was in Israel attending the wedding of my niece Ilana. During my stay I was invited to spend a day at Kibbutz Negba, a kibbutz belonging to the Left Hashomer Hatzair federation. My hosts made a point of explaining how in the 1948 War of Independence it was at Kibbutz  Negba that the advance of the Egyptian army was halted. Using only small arms the fighters of the kibbutz overcame the Egyptian heavy armour. Kibbutz Negba has erected a monument to these fighters. This was a clear example of Jews fighting for their survival.
Must one mention the Nakba when referring to the Occupation?
Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace (USA)  has written: “Confronting the Nakba is not optional. Because working for a truly just peace without addressing it is impossible.”
But  here are the names of 5 organisations which have which have issued statements against the occupation but without mentioning the Nakba.
T’ruah – Rabbis for human rights (USA)
Amnesty International
Machsom Watch
New Israel Fund
Meretz Australia
All of the above organisations are committed to human rights.
Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS)
The AJDS was formed in 1984. In 1989 the AJDS published a “Statement of Concern” in the Jewish News signed by over 550 Australian Jews. The statement included the following:
“The time has come to establish a peace of mutual recognition, based on territorial compromise and self-determination. Only such a peace will guarantee the security of Israel, the realization of Palestinian aspirations and regional stability.”
The words “mutual recognition” and “territorial compromise” clearly imply support for a two state solution. And a two state solution implies the valid existence of the state of Israel.
A compromise solution reached by the current AJDS executive
When debating whether or not to refer to the Nakba in the statement issued on the 50th anniversary of the Occupation, the compromise reached by the executive was to ascribe the term “Nakba” to the position held by the Palestinians i.e. the term was used but not as an expression of AJDS opinion but as an acknowledgement that this is the term favoured by the Palestinians. The statement is attached.
A section of the Jewish left (the hard left) claims that we cannot discuss the occupation without addressing the Nakba. However at least 5 human rights organisations, have done just that. Progressive Jews need to work for an end to the occupation without having to take a position on the validity of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Reading the work of historian Benny Morris reveals that the dispossession of the Palestinians is not a straight forward issue. There is more than one explanation.
The hard left, while aware of the UN decision on partition and of the subsequent  war waged by 5 Arab states against the state of Israel, appears not to have fully absorbed these events and their implications.
Claims that the international community should have found a solution to the problem of Jewish refugees other than Palestine ignores the fact that two attempts were tried i.e. Uganda and the Kimberley but that both failed.
Jewish immigration to Palestine in the period 1922 to 1932 resulted in an increase in the Arab population.
During the 1948 war of independence atrocities were committed on both sides but the most important point to note is that the war was waged by 5 Arab states against the fledgling state of Israel.
It is suggested that young members of the Jewish hard left feel a sense of solidarity with Palestinians whom they see as the underdog. However they need to appreciate that in 1948 Jews in Israel may also be viewed as the underdog.

The Smoking Gun: Arab Immigration into Palestine, 1922-1931
by Fred M. Gottheil
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2003, pp. 53-64

The Arab Palestinian populations within those sub-districts that eventually became Israel increased from 321,866 in 1922 to 463,288 in 1931 or by 141,422. Applying the 2.5 per annum natural rate of population growth to the 1922 Arab Palestinian population generates an expected population size for 1931 of 398,498 or 64,790 less than the actual population recorded in the British census. By imputation, this unaccounted population increase must have been either illegal immigration not accounted for in the British census and/or registered Arab Palestinians moving from outside the Jewish-identified sub-districts to those sub-districts so identified. This 1922-31 Arab migration into the Jewish sub-districts represented 11.8 percent of the total 1931 Arab population residing in those sub-districts and as much as 36.8 percent of its 1922-31 growth.
That over 10 percent of the 1931 Arab Palestinian population in those sub-districts that eventually became Israel had immigrated to those sub-districts within the 1922-31 years is a datum of considerable significance. It is consistent with the fragmentary evidence of illegal migration to and within Palestine; it supports the idea of linkage between economic disparities and migratory impulses—a linkage universally accepted; it undercuts the thesis of “spatial stickiness” attributed by some scholars to the Arab Palestinian population of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and it provides strong circumstantial evidence that the illegal Arab immigration into Palestine, like that within Palestine, was of consequence as well.
The following is an extract from chapter 3 of The Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem by Benny Morris:
Since 1948, two mutually exclusive, all-embracing explanations have dominated discussion of the Palestinian exodus. The traditional Arab explanation has been that the yishuv in 1948 carried out a pre-planned, systematic expulsion of the country’s Arab inhabitants. The official Jewish explanation, somewhat more complex, has been that the exodus occurred “voluntarily” – that is, not under Jewish compulsion – and on the orders or at the behest of Palestinian and external Arab leaders, in order to tarnish the emergent Israel’s image and to clear the way, as it were, for the invading Arab armies. However, the massive documentation now available in recently opened Israeli and British archives definitively demonstrates that both these single-cause explanations are fallacious or at least grossly insufficient and that the process by which some 700,000 Arabs departed Jewish/Israeli territory over 1947-49 was multi-staged, varied and complex.
The exodus occurred in four clearly identifiable stages, with an obvious chronology: December 1947-March 1948; April-June 1948; 9-18 July 1948; and October-November 1948. These stages were inextricably linked to the “stages” and development of the 1948 war. To them one may add the series of population transfers and expulsions that occurred along Israel’s borders during the immediate postwar period, November 1948-July 1949.
The Palestinian Arab exodus began in December 1947-March 1948 with the departure of many of the country’s upper- and middle-class families, especially from Haifa and Jaffa, towns destined to be in, or at least at the mercy of, the Jewish state-to-be and from Jewish-dominated districts of western Jerusalem. Flight proved infectious. Household followed household; neighbour followed neighbour; street, street; and neighbourhood, neighbourhood (as, later, village was to follow neighbouring village). The prosperous and educated feared death or injury in the ever-spreading hostilities, the anarchy that attended the gradual withdrawal of the British administration and security forces, the brigandage and intimidation of Arab militias and irregulars, and more vaguely but generally, the unknown, probably dark future that awaited them under Jewish or, indeed, Husayni rule (the Husayni family and its supporters), Some of these considerations, as well as a variety of direct and indirect military pressures, also during these months, caused the almost complete evacuation of the Arab rural communities of the coastal plain, which was predominantly Jewish and which was to be the core of the Jewish state.
Most of the upper- and middle-class families who moved from Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ramale, Acre, and Tiberias to Nablus, Amman, Beirut, Gaza, and Cairo probably thought their exile would be temporary. These families had the financial wherewithal to tide them over; many had wealthy relatives and accommodations outside the country. The urban masses and the fellahin (peasants), however, had nowhere to go, certainly not in comfort. For them, flight meant instant destitution; it was not a course readily adopted. But the daily spectacle of abandonment by their “betters”, the middle and upper classes, with the concomitant progressive closure of businesses, schools, law offices, and medical clinics and the abandonment of civil service and municipal posts led to a steady attrition of morale and a cumulative sapping of faith and trust in the world around them: their leaders were going or had gone; the British were packing. They had been left “alone” to face the Zionist enemy. Palestinian urban society began to disintegrate.
…To what extent was the Arab exodus up to July a product of yishuv or Arab policy? The answer is as complex as was the situation on the ground. Up to the beginning of April 1948, there was no yishuv plan or policy to expel the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, either from the area destined for Jewish statehood or from those areas lying outside it. The Haganah adopted a forceful retaliatory strategy against suspected bases of Arab irregular bands which triggered a certain amount of flight. But it was not a strategy designed to precipitate civilian flight.
The prospect and need to prepare for the invasion gave birth to the Haganah’s Plan D, prepared in early March. It was not a grand plan of expulsion (as Arab propagandists, such as Whalid Khalidi, have depicted it). However, it gave the Haganah brigade and battalion-level commanders carte blanche to completely clear vital areas; it allowed the expulsion of hostile or potentially hostile Arab villages (and “potentially hostile” was, indeed, open to a very liberal interpretation). Many villages were bases for bands of irregulars; most villages had armed militias and could serve as bases for hostile bands.
During April-May, the local Haganah commanders, sometimes with specific instruction from the Haganah General Staff, carried out elements of Plan D, each interpreting and implementing the plan in his area as he saw fit and in relation to the prevailing local circumstances. In general, the commanders saw fit to completely clear the vital roads and border areas of Arab communities – Allon in eastern Galilee, Carmel around Haifa and western Galilee, Avidan in the south. Most of the villagers fled before or during the fighting. Those who initially stayed put were almost invariably expelled.
There was never, during April-June, any national-political or General Staff decision to expel “the Arabs” from the Jewish state’s areas. There was no “plan” or policy decision. The matter was never discussed in the supreme, political decision-making bodies; but it was understood by all concerned that, militarily, in the struggle to survive, the fewer Arabs remaining behind and along the front lines, the better and, politically, the fewer Arabs remaining in the Jewish state, the better.
As to April and the start of the main stage of the exodus, I have found no evidence to show that the AHC issued blanket instructions, by radio or otherwise, to Palestine’s Arabs to flee. However, AHC and Husayni supporters in certain areas may have ordered or encouraged flight for various reasons and may have done so, on occasion, in the belief that they were doing what the AHC wanted or would have wanted them to do. Haifa affords an illustration of this.
While it is unlikely that Husayni or the AHC from outside Palestine on April 22 instructed the Haifa Arab leadership to opt for evacuation rather than surrender, Husayni’s local supporters, led by Sheikh Murad, did so. The lack of AHC and Husayni orders, appeals, or broadcasts against the departure during the following week-long Haifa exodus indicates that Husayni and the AHC did not dissent from their supporters’ decision. Silence was consent. The absence of clear, public instructions and broadcasts for or against the Haifa exodus over 23-30 April is extremely instructive concerning the ambivalence of Husayni and the AHC at this stage towards the exodus.
AJDS Statement on the 50th Year of the Occupation


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