The Israeli-Palestinian Mess: Some Historical Context

I just finished up an anthropology course on the Middle East as a culture area, and for reasons beyond my explanatory power, I got to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a bit more in depth. A brief narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict follows.

The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can best be understood by breaking it up into three separate but interrelated segments: the collapse of cosmopolitan empires, the emergence of nation-states, and seismic shifts in demography that accompanied collapse and rebirth.

The post-World War I era can be defined largely in terms of the collapse of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The spectacular collapse of these centuries-old empires has been attributed to the policies of democrats in western Europe and the President of the United States at the time, Woodrow Wilson, by a number of historians. The underlying idea being promoted by Western elites for central and eastern Europe was that of national self-determination, a belief that each ethnic and linguistic group should have the right to govern itself within a free and democratic state. The movement was intended to break the back of “despotism” in eastern and central Europe (as well as the Near East), but the policies unleashed instead a hotheaded nationalism amidst pockets of power vacuums prevalent throughout the now-dead empires.

Jews, a long-persecuted minority in eastern and central Europe, began to scramble for a state of their own. Many Jews argued that there was no place for a Jewish nation-state in Europe because Jews were a minority everywhere on the continent, and many more Jews argued that Palestine would be a good place for European Jews to establish a nation-state. Palestine was chosen not only for its religious undertones but also because of its relatively close proximity to Europe: the distance from Vienna to Jerusalem is about the same as the distance between Los Angeles and Houston. Both the religious appeal and the close proximity were seen by nation-building elites as two key pillars necessary for attracting settlers to Palestine.

While the Jews struggled to find a state of their own, the collapse of the Ottoman empire gave rise to a number of new nation-states, including Greece and Turkey. For Greek and Turkish elites, a population transfer agreement was made by the two sides in the Swiss city of Lausanne in 1921 after a few years of intermittent fighting. The agreement stipulated the following: Greek families who had lived in Turkey for centuries suddenly found themselves ordered to get out and head to Greece, while Turkish families who had lived in Greece for centuries had to do the same thing.

As Ottoman territory in Europe got carved up by aspirant national movements (taking cues from examples in the formerly neighboring Austro-Hungarian empire), Britain and France moved to establish dominance over Ottoman territory east of modern Turkey. The British were more open than the French to Jewish lobbying efforts, and some efforts were made on behalf of London to establish an official Jewish presence in the British mandate of Palestine. However, the British and the French had much more to deal with than a relatively small-in-scope Jewish lobbying effort. London and Paris were losing influence across the globe, Germany was beginning to rearm itself and Russia’s experiment with socialism was supposedly leading to rapid economic and industrial development.

The burgeoning states in eastern and central Europe began policies designed to make their new states ethnically pure, in line with the argument that each nation should have control of its own government. In 1941, Czechoslovakia’s President reaches out to Adolph Hitler with an enquiry about a possible population swap between the two leaders’ states. Along with the Jews, Germans made up the largest minority population throughout eastern and central Europe, a remnant of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like the Jews, German populations in central and eastern Europe are not treated as well as they were under the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian empire. In fact, Hitler’s rearmament campaign was largely undertaken with the policies towards Germans undertaken by the new nation-states of eastern Europe in mind.

The Jews, unlike the Germans, did not end up with a state when Germany began to annex a number of nation-states in central and eastern Europe. Citizens in the West are often flummoxed when the weight and scope of the Holocaust is brought up. What is often hard to conceptualize for Westerners is that Germany was fighting two fronts in World War 2, and most of the carnage took place on the front that didn’t involve the West. Shifting the focus of World War 2 to the eastern front brings the Holocaust into a social, political, and economic clarity that is hard to grasp when looking at the war with a Western lens. The Holocaust is firmly connected to a broader pattern that emerged with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the rise of the nation-state outside of western Europe.

The British and French empires took a bit longer to collapse. Like their earlier counterparts in Istanbul and Vienna-Budapest, though, they too collapsed after a world war, but unlike their earlier counterparts, Britain and France did not lose in World War 2, and as a result both states had more say in how their empires would recede. The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves looking at French policy specifically in the Mediterranean state of Algeria just before and during the era of decolonization, despite the fact that it was the British who governed over Palestine.

French policy in Algeria from just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars (around 1830) to the early 1960s is important largely due to a process historians refer to as ‘settler-colonialism,’ but also because Algeria is in the same social, geographic, political and economic region as Israel and the Palestinian territories and thus provides a pertinent example of things to come in the region.

Once the French established control of Algeria, policymakers began the process of removing indigenous inhabitants from their lands by seizing private property, seizing communal religious property, creating laws that favored one indigenous group (the Berbers) over the other (the Arabs), and creating laws that favored French citizens over their indigenous counterparts in the region. Once the property of the indigenous had been seized, and once the two-tiered legal system of imperial France established itself as the sole purveyor of justice in Algeria, the French began to promote Algeria as a destination for poor French citizens. Unskilled workers or small farmers (or political dissidents!) were often given a small stipend and a plot of land in Algeria by the French state as an incentive for people to migrate there.

The French state had two goals in mind when it came to settler-colonialist policies: one, to alleviate the overpopulation in France that authorities felt burdened with, and two, to establish a convenient cash crop economy to feed French industrial centers, much like the British had done in Egypt. The indigenous population, mostly Muslim and lightly peppered with Jews, was offered full French citizenship provided that individuals from these native groups reject portions of their religious mores (marriage rites, rights to property, educational rights) and completely submit to French civil law. The few individuals who did end up disavowing their indigenous culture in favor of becoming full French citizens ended up becoming the intellectual fountainhead of the Algerian War for Independence.

The contextual importance for students concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that settler-colonialism was, and continues to be, an important tool for policymakers in states attempting to establish hegemonic jurisdiction over a certain piece of territory. In the nineteenth century, Europeans and their nation-states perfected the settler-colonial process. In the twentieth century, settler-colonialism has been adopted by a number of states seeking to establish legitimacy and hegemonic jurisdiction, much to the detriment of indigenous populations everywhere.

As World War 2 came to a close the carnage on the eastern front of the war was readily apparent. Nobody had been spared on the eastern front, especially as the Wehrmacht and the Soviet military seesawed back and forth through the eastern and central parts of the continent. One thing that had become clear to many observers both within Europe and around the world is that those peoples who had managed to secure a nation-state for themselves, such as the Romanians or the Czechs, were in a much better position to both negotiate with conquering armies and provide refuge for those who needed it. The peoples who were not able to secure a nation-state for themselves had ended up like Europe’s Jews.

In 1947 the United Nations, a new organization charged with overseeing the orderly transition of British and French territories (amongst other things) voted to recognize the independence of Israel, a Jewish state in the British territory of Palestine. The vote was 72% in favor and 13% against with 15% abstaining. In 1948, Israel declared its independence and a war immediately ensued between the new Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. Like their Jewish neighbors, elites in the newly formed Arab states were attempting to build nations out of the ashes of British and French imperialism. Unlike their Jewish neighbors, however, the domestic legitimacy of elites within the new Arab states was far from established.

Arab states, in addition to attacking their new neighbor, expelled most of the Jews living within their borders. These Jewish communities had been in Arab lands for centuries. The expulsions weren’t a novel idea undertaken to establish domestic legitimacy, though. The expulsions were in response to the new Israeli state’s expulsion of Arabs from within its borders. These Arab communities had been in what is now Israel for centuries.

The population transfer between Jews and Arabs after the 1948 war was much more haphazard than the one between Greece and Turkey. The Treaty of Lausanne gave the population transfers a sense of respectability, even legitimacy, and most of the ethnic cleansing and demographic purges had been done prior to the official population swap anyway. The retaliatory expulsions undertaken by Israel and its Arab neighbors is also different from the post-imperial population transfers that took place on the Indian subcontinent as well. The scope and context of global events after the two world wars is important here, if only to keep larger historical processes connected in some superficial sense. When Pakistan and India split, Muslim families who had lived among Hindus for centuries had to pack up and leave for Pakistan, while Hindu families who had lived among Muslims for centuries had to pack up and leave for India. This process was undertaken just as haphazardly as in Palestine and the Aegean, but the sheer population density of the region ensured higher casualties than elsewhere.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands out from other post-colonial population transfers, though, in one important respect: the Arab states who had expelled Jews from their jurisdiction after the various wars with Israel were not interested in actually helping the Palestinians. The expulsion of Jews, the hostility geared towards Israel in state-run media outlets, and the occasional war against the Israeli state undertaken by Arab governments have largely been done so to shore up legitimacy domestically rather than to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. Palestinians, unlike Indians or Pakistanis or Czechs or Germans or Israelis or Turks or Greeks, did not (and do not) have a state of their own to be expelled to. Like the Jews of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Palestinians have been caught stateless in an era of nation-states.

On November 30, 2012 the same body that gave birth to Israel’s sovereignty, the United Nations, voted to grant the Palestinian people a measure of statehood. The vote was 73% in favor and 5% against with 22% abstaining. Partisans on the Palestinian side have lauded it as a big step in the right direction, though the Israelis have accused the Palestinians of acting in bad faith. In response to the bad faith, state-sponsored settlements in the West Bank have begun again after previous negotiations between the two groups agreed to halt further settlements inland.

The prominence of this conflict in Los Angeles is hard to grasp from a historical perspective. The United States is a global hegemon and UCLA, where I did my ethnographic snooping around, serves as a center of education for elites (Westwood is where elites send their youngest daughters to study, of course, but it is considered elite nonetheless) in one of the hegemon’s most important cities. The position of the US, Los Angeles, and UCLA doesn’t explain why the Indian-Pakistani conflict or the Greek-Turkish conflict do not seem to garner the same amount of intensity from the student body, though. One other angle that could be used to understand campus activism on the part of this conflict is that the US is, and has been, involved in most of (if not all) the major Middle Eastern wars since the collapse of British and French imperialism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exploited by Washington continuously in pursuit of a national interest.

Washington’s influence in the conflict does not necessarily explain its scope at UCLA either. Another angle to look at stems from a fellow anthropology student’s remark about the conflict. He wrote:

Perhaps the reason why activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more pronounced in Los Angeles is because the US Government gives three billion dollars in aid to Israel every year.

This comment is striking to me as both an ethnographer and a student of politics and war for a couple of reasons, and helps to shed light on the conflict’s influence throughout the world despite the small magnitude of the thing. Three billion dollars is less than one half of one percent of the Los Angeles area’s gross domestic product (economic output). Additionally, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories – Israel’s closest neighbors that are on good terms with the United States – received around $3.37 billion in 2009 (Israel received $2.55 billion in 2009). If one takes into account aid that other Arab or Muslim states receive from the United States the amount comes out to around $18 billion dollars.

To logic behind the argument that money plays an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on UCLA’s campus thus looks something like this: “The cat is black, therefore it is unlikely to chase the car.” A deeper glance at the comment that money plays a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at UCLA reveals a much more brighter and broader picture of the 60-year conflict, and one that ties in directly to some patterns in data that was gathered during fieldwork: the topic of Jews, Arabs and Muslims.

Both sides of the conflict on campus  have tried their hardest to focus on the political situation of the Israeli state and the Palestinian governing authorities (Fatah and Hamas) and avoid talking about ethnicity or religion at all. We all know, however, that the social (and the economic) is intricately intertwined with the political, so I think there is something deeper that drives or fuels this conflict.

When speaking about Israel or the Palestinians, the students interviewed often slipped in their speech and the keywords mentioned above were uttered in relation to the conflicts in the region. These utterances – these slip ups – did not seem to be consciously undertaken. Both sides have maintained that they are inclusive groups who oppose racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, etc., but there is a sense of a spoken silence about some deeper underlying issues in the conflict: while members of both groups try to maintain a public discourse that is overtly political, the silence surrounding the rhetoric of the social and the economic is deafening (it is also worth noting that the rhetoric employed by both sides is something that may be affected by outside influences such as free speech codes on campus or the relative tolerance that life in the affluent parts of Los Angeles requires).

I suspect that there is still a lot of anti-Semitic prejudice on one side, and a lot of racism on the other.

Just curious: what are your thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian mess? I know I’ve asked before, but writing is thinking and so is reading!

15 thoughts on “The Israeli-Palestinian Mess: Some Historical Context

  1. After reading your article I understand that my knowledge about hystorical influences on novaday’s conflict is a little bit out of date… Thanks, Brandon, for your article!

  2. Ha! The way you described the situation in Algeria made me think of how similar it was to what happened in the United States. Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase, Manifest Destiny, Jackson’s Indian Removal, the Republican Party’s Homestead Act, the Indian Wars, and tribal reservations.

    • Yeah, the American state has always been an enemy to liberty. It’s creepy to see how the state operates in the same manner no matter where it is established.

  3. You’re serious that you can’t figure out why the issue is such a big deal in Los Angeles? Really?


    Here’s a clue: Los Angeles has a LOT of Jews with a LOT of money and power, and they care a LOT about the issue. Ditto for the mainstream media as a whole.

    Personally, being neither Arab nor Jew, I vaguely wish them all well, and get mildly annoyed whenever I pick up the NY Times or turn on NPR, and tune into the latest bout of obsessive-neurotic hand-wringing about the wretched mess.

    News flash, Jews and evangelicals: the rest of the world is not as obsessed with this issue as you are.

    • Hi “dudelet,”

      Welcome to the blog. Antisemites are usually not tolerated here but you seem to be of the passive variety, so I don’t mind exploiting you for educational purposes. Let’s pick this apart bit by pernicious bit. “Dudelet” begins this conversation in a most abrasive manner:

      You’re serious that you can’t figure out why the issue is such a big deal in Los Angeles? Really?

      It becomes apparent, once the abrasiveness is pushed aside, that “dudelet” hasn’t even bothered to read my thoughts. For those (few) curious readers out there, if somebody engages with you in conversation, and his tone is abrasive, then chances are good you are doing something right. If somebody engages with you in conversation, and it is apparent that he has not informed himself enough on the topic at hand, then chances are good you are being trolled.

      “Dudelet” continues:

      Here’s a clue: Los Angeles has a LOT of Jews with a LOT of money and power, and they care a LOT about the issue. Ditto for the mainstream media as a whole.

      “Dudelet” may be right about this, but he doesn’t deign it necessary to provide any of us with any data whatsoever to back up his claim. This is probably because there are not that many Jews in LA, and that many of them are not as rich or powerful as he claims (how do you measure something like power?), and that most of them do not care about Israel at all. Bringing data to the table might help to clarify his position, but it may also prove to be his argument’s undoing. If you read my post again you will see that I have already addressed everything “dudelet” brings up. If there is something that bothers you, or that you are confused about, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

  4. Interesting article, but as a student of the Israel-Palestine conflict this write-up misses the mark on two very important issues.

    First, it is way too simplistic to claim ‘Israel was created and the Arabs invaded.’ The secretive deals between the Jewish Agency and the King of Jordan are quite important in understanding the old narrative of ‘the Arabs attacked.’ It would also be helpful to examine the quality of each sides forces as well as the reluctance of the Arab states to actually become militarily involved.

    Second, it is also far too simplistic a claim to say ‘the Arabs expelled the Jews.’ Please do not think I am attempting to lessen the severity or the atrocious nature of this. BUT, it was just outright expulsion. Another reason, not considered here was the fear that these Jewish populations would advocate on behalf if Israel and send money to support the newly created state. The concern was of a development of a fifth column.

    Additionally, members of the Jewish Agency actually went into North Africa and Iraq to stir up fears among the Jewish populace to encourage emigration. Now in the case of Iraq it was a combination of financial and property-related restrictions that led to the Jews exiting en masse. This is terribly sad given that Iraq’s Jewish population was one of the wealthiest in the world.

    Also, the part about US aid in comparison to Los Angeles GDP doesn’t really shed light on the reasoning such aid is opposed. The reasoning behind such opposition is largely two-fold. 1) Israel is the largest single recipient of US aid and it is utilized to oppressive the Palestinians whilst further militarizing the region. 2) when comparing US aid to Israel and Palestine it is clear what American interests are in the region. Palestinian aid is currently around 3-400 million compared to 3.2 billion for Israel. Palestine being horrifically disadvantaged in terms of economic stability and Israel in essence without need for such high levels of assistance.

    I appreciate the post very much, but it misses quite a bit of the discussion.

    For a more nuanced discussion see Michael Fischbach, Ella Shohat, Yehuda Shenhav, Aziza Khazzoum, and Michelle Campos.

    • Hi Marshall,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. It appears that we’ve had a lot of readers over the past couple of days. Unfortunately, your argument looks suspiciously like the old “blame teh secretive Jooz” canard that my education required we identify quickly and ruthlessly. The more I read what others have to say about the Middle East, the more thankful I am for my education.

      I’ll go through your arguments as best I can:

      First, it is way too simplistic to claim ‘Israel was created and the Arabs invaded.’

      Is this not what happened? It’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question Marshall.

      Second, it is also far too simplistic a claim to say ‘the Arabs expelled the Jews.’ […] it was just outright expulsion.


      Another reason, not considered here was the fear that these Jewish populations would advocate on behalf if Israel and send money to support the newly created state. The concern was of a development of a fifth column.

      So you are telling me that Sephardic Jews were expelled from their ancestral lands because Arab leaders were paranoid that Jews (and, of course, Jewish money) were going to support Israeli-friendly fifth columns.

      Aside from blaming the acts of state-sponsored expulsion on the victims, what does this tell you about the post-war Middle East? That Jews are to blame for their own expulsion (your argument), or that Arab leaders were seeking ways to shore up their own domestic legitimacy by bullying minorities (as outlined in the original article)?

      Additionally, members of the Jewish Agency actually went into North Africa and Iraq to stir up fears among the Jewish populace to encourage emigration.

      Do you really think that this argument, which harbors conspiratorial notions, is more explanatory than the one about Arab states passing harsh laws targeting Jews? Look at what you are actually stating: a small organization composed of European Jews sends its agents into North Africa and Iraq in order to “stir up fears” among their fellow Jews, and this is done in order to get those Jews to immigrate to Israel. This narrative is in opposition to the fact that Arab states enacted harsh, blatantly antisemitic laws that were designed to oppress Jews and shore up the legitimacy of new regimes. One narrative blames the Jews for their own oppression and eventual expulsion (yours). One incorporates standard public choice theory in regard to new states (mine).

      You then go on to blame Israel for the militarization of the Middle East. I already dealt with this in the original article, and you simply ignored it so that Israelis (and Americans) could be blamed for the region’s problems.

      Ultimately, I think your opinions are important because, aside from being factually wrong and passively antisemitic (your argument assumes that Jews living in Arab countries implicitly supported the Israeli state rather than their own new countries, for example), they give us a glimpse into one of the major moral failures of the West in the post-WW2 world: that of relieving non-Western societies of any responsibility for their actions. I think you’ll find that this blog treats the situation in the Middle East like it treats every other social problem or puzzle: fairly and objectively. I wish you would tell your friends about this blog. If you had professors that encouraged you to think about the Middle East in the way that you currently do, please direct them to this blog as well.

    • Your lack of maturity truly shines through by ignoring the scholars I cited. I don’t usually get into these unproductive online discussion once someone starts throwing around allegations of anti-Semetism. The research that my comment was culled from is mostly Sephardi and Mizrahi scholarship. Does that make them self-hating Jews for conducting research critical of the colonial project?

      I didn’t shift all blame onto Israel or America, I merely offered an alternate viewpoint which is in no way controversial. I would have thought someone taking the time to ‘educate’ on the topic could handle intellectual discussion without condescending- seems I was wrong.

      If one bothered to read the scholarship of Mizrahi scholars like Ella Shohat, Aziza Khazzoum, and Yehuda Shenhav you would realize that these idea aren’t conspiratorial.

      You appear to present the supposed ‘correct’ interpretation of the conflict which is far too sclerotic to accommodate the realities.

    • Hi Marshall,

      Thanks for coming back. Really quickly, before we get too far off-topic and start discussing all of my shortcomings as an individual, can you answer my simple question of whether or not Arab states invaded Israel in 1948?

      If the answer is ‘yes’ then your argument becomes null and void. If the answer is ‘no’ then you have some serious explaining to do. If you cannot do this serious explaining without relying upon secretive deals or conspiratorial speculation then your answer becomes null and void. Here are two other questions you failed to answer:

      Was a small British lobbying group really responsible for the expulsion of the Jews from North Africa and Iraq?

      Are the Israelis really responsible for the militarization of the Middle East?

      If the answer to these questions is ‘no’ then your argument becomes null and void. If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ then you have some serious explaining to do. If you cannot do this serious explaining without relying upon secretive deals or conspiratorial speculation then your answers become null and void.

      I appreciate your efforts to add context and depth to my argument, but unfortunately all I think you’ve done is prove that “blaming the Jews” is still an acceptable theory to adhere to, provided it is dressed up in an appropriate manner (anti-Western multiculturalism). Again, there is plenty of discussion on this blog that involves criticizing Israel and the West for their part in the Middle East’s current mess, and none of it relies upon the notion that Jews are to blame for their own oppression, or that they operate in secret, or that “their money” is widely feared and distrusted by Arab governments.

    • On second thought, I think your narrative is actually much more consistent with my last point (that many Western observers would rather shift the blame of the Middle East’s failures onto the West rather than onto its actual inhabitants).

      This anti-Western narrative fits your argument much better than the “blame teh secretive Jooz” narrative I originally pegged you with. I could be wrong, of course, but now that I think about it your argument seems much more in tune with the anti-Western narrative than the antisemitic one. Either way, both angles are weak – factually and theoretically.

      Update: Upon even further reflection, I think that the “blame teh secretive Jooz” narrative actually goes hand-in-hand with the anti-Western narrative. What better way to relieve non-Western peoples in the Middle East of responsibility for their failures than to blame Jews for bringing Western ideals into the region? Employing this strategy will not only attract socialists and other anti-liberals into one’s camp, but it will also bring in foot soldiers and other, non-intellectual components that are integral to any political movement.

  5. So this will be my last comment here. I find your lack of maturity to be very off-putting. I will make clear that I am no established scholarly expert as of yet, but I have gained my knowledge from such experts. I do not believe you are an authoritative voice on any of these matters, so you can disagree all you want- it doesn’t make your snarky replies legitimate or informed. Feel free to ignore the evidence presented below

    To address your overly simplistic claims that “Israel was created and the Arabs invaded,” I would point to Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel (Pantheon, 1987). I didn’t not deny that the Arab states invaded, and you can clearly see that in my comment. I took issue with the very bland and un-enlightening way you gloss over this subject.

    My previous comment: “First, it is way too simplistic to claim ‘Israel was created and the Arabs invaded.’”

    — So you overreacted to my comment in the first place.

    According to Flapan:

    “In summing up the complicated developments during this fateful period in the Jewish-Arab conflict, one reaches the paradoxical conclusion that, although militarily this was a war between Arabs and Jews, politically it was a war between Arabs and Arabs. The issue was not the existence of the Jewish state, because both Arab camps were ready, under certain conditions, to recognize the new reality. Rather, the central issue at stake was the relationship of the Arab world to the great powers outside the Middle East. One side sought the establishment of an Arab kingdom, under the aegis of the British Empire; the other sought the economic and political independence of the Arab countries as a prerequisite of Arab unity and progress. Both were ready to consider an alliance with Israel to further their aspirations.

    The future of the Palestinian people was bound up in the resolution of this rivalry. Both Transjordan and Israel pursued a policy of “politicide,” seeking to liquidate any Palestinian leadership striving for an independent state. Israel encouraged Abdallah to annex certain areas of Palestine and to mobilize areas of Palestine and to mobilize the Palestinians to call for unification with Transjordan under his rule. Abdallah encouraged Israel to drive the Egyptians out of the Negev, to attack Gaza, and to liquidate the mufti’s All-Palestine government. In March 1950, Abdallah issued a royal order to erase the word “Palestine” from the map and from all official statements; thereafter the area was to be known as “the West Bank of the Hashemite kingdom.”

    Once Israel and Transjordan had decided to partition Palestine between themselves by force of arms, they refused to explore an interim solution that might have prevented the outbreak of a total war. They rejected the last-minute American truce proposal of May 11, which, which might have opened the way to negotiations and, perhaps, to a gradual reconciliation. As will be seen in the next chapter, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon were ready to accept the truce proposal. It was Abdallah’s refusal that prevented common acceptance and provoked the intervention. Yet what must be stressed is that the order for the invasion of Palestine by the Arab armies, issued in Cairo and Damascus, was not aimed at destroying the Jewish state. It was intended to prevent Abdallah from annexing the Arab part of Palestine as the first step in implementation of his British-inspired Greater Syria plan.

    Official Israeli historians have been unable to ignore the deep split between Abdallah and the other Arab leaders. The History of the Haganah, for example, admits that the Arab armies refused to accept his authority as their commander in chief. Yet, it claims that the decision of Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt to invade Palestine was due to the fear that Abdallah might occupy the whole country after collapse of the US truce proposal on May 11-12. This interpretation of events in highly inaccurate. Even though the Arab Legion was a crack army, it had at most five thousand men and no no air force or heavy artillery. It could hardly be expected to defeat the fifty-thousand-strong, well-trained, and well-equipped Haganah. What the Arab states actually feared was that the implementation of Abdallah’s secret agreement with Israel would be the first step toward the creation of a Hashemite kingdom extending over Syria and Lebanon. This fear explains not only Egypt’s intervention- which was undertaken mainly to foil the plans of Abdallah and his British backers- but also the overall logic of its military operations. The best of the unites, nearly half of the invading force, did not attack Israel. They were sent to the Arab cities of Beersheba, Hebron, and Jerusalem to prevent Abdallah’s annexation of these areas, which had been designated by the UN for the Palestinian state.”

    Flapan, S. (1987). The birth of israel: Myths and realities. New York: Pantheon.

    I could go on here, but there are an immense amount of details which tends to undermine the ‘Israel created, Arabs attacked’ simplification. This is just not historically accurate if one is concerned with vigor and detail.

    You have repeated in various language:

    “This anti-Western narrative fits your argument much better than the “blame teh secretive Jooz” narrative I originally pegged you with.”

    Aside from bad spelling and insinuation that I am uneducated, I will address the real issues here: the subject of the Mizrahim, Jewish Agency, and expulsion. I number of authors will help illuminate this subject.

    To begin, I never ‘blamed the Jews’ and I find it terribly disingenuous for you to make such claims. As evidenced by my original comments, I never said it was the fault of the Mizrahi / Sephardi. What I did say, however, was that there are additional details in the story that are left out. Namely, Israel’s culpability in the ‘transfer’ as you put it, and the Jewish Agency’s potential role in created inter-communal tensions.

    As stated by Yehouda Shenhav:

    “In the period from 1949 to 1951- when the drama described in the article was played out- about 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq, consisting 3 percent of the country’s populations. The largest community was in Baghdad, followed by Basra. Together these two cities accounted for some 75 percent of the JEws in Iraq. Three decades earlier, the supplanting of the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East by the French and the English during World War I had engendered two significant developments in the region. First, a potent Iraqi nationalism sprang up as the Iraqis realized that the British had not come as liberators. The immediate result was an Iraqi uprising against the occupation in 1920. Iraq gained independence in 1932, and four years later the perpetrators of a military coup seized power in the country. Until 1941, when the revolt of Rashid Ali al-Kilani failed, Iraq was under the sway of a powerful nationalism that did not balk at forging ties with Nazi Germany in order to throw off British influence. Second, Zionist activity in the Middle East became more extensive, although in Iraq intensive activity did not begin until World War II. The interaction between these two social forces- Zionist nationalism and Iraqi-Arab nationalism- shaped the life of Iraq’s Jews and finally transformed it beyond recognition.

    In June 1941, following the flight of pro-Nazi Rashid Ali and just before British forces re-entered Baghdad, the city’s Jews were brutally attacked by Iraqi nationalists. The assault, known as the farhud, left some 250-300 people, mostly Jews, dead or injured. The Iraqi government, under Nuri al-Sa’id, did not shirk responsibility, eight of the assailants, among them army officers and policemen, were condemned to death. Following the 1941 attack, the Zionist leadership began contemplating means to “Zionize” Iraq’s Jews and perhaps organize the immigration of part of the community to Israel. The Va’ad Leumi (National Council) of the Yishuv- the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine- disseminated an exaggerated and distorted account of the farhud, and Yishuv institutions described the event as a calamitous massacre and even as a Holocaust. The assessment of Yishuv leadesr was that the impact of the farhud would be to intensify Zionist feelings among Iraq’s Jews and that the momentum should be exploited to bring the community to Palestine….Representatives of the Labor movement within the Zionist leadership believed it was urgent to infiltrate Iraq and establish a united Zionist movement there- not least to pre-empt attempts by the Revisionist movement or the Communist Party to gain a foothold among Iraq’s Jews. The Zionist activists who set up the Halutz movement in Iraq were ruthless in their efforts to oust emissaries who were not under the control of the Jewish Labor movement….In July 1949, the British, fearing the decline of their influence in the Middle East, pit forward a proposal for a population transfer and ried to persuade Nuri al-Sa’id to settle 100,000 Palestinians refugees in Iraq, A letter sent by the British Foreign Office to its legations in the Middle East spoke of an “arrangement whereby Iraqi Jews moved into Israel, received compensation for their property from the Israeli government, while the Arab refugees were installed with the property in Iraq…Although Zionist circles at the time accepted ideas involving population exchange as a solution to the conflict, the proposal did not generate an Israeli response….

    Agitation over the possibility of a population exchange faded only in March 1950, with the enactment of the denaturalization law in Iraq, enabling Jews to leave Iraq after renouncing their citizenship. Pressure for the law’s enactment was exerted by Prime Minister Tawfiw al-Suwaidi, a graduate of the French-Jewish Alliance network of schools. His many Jewish friends included the leader of the community, Yeskail Shemtob, and the Zionist emissary Mordechai Ben Porat, who were also instrumental in getting the law passed. In addition to giving up their Iraqi nationality, those who left under the law waived the right to return to Iraq ever again.The law was to remain in force for one year; it said nothing about property. However, the passage of the law itself did not induce Jews to register for emigration. Indeed, the question of what motivated the Jewish population to leave en masse remains unresolved. We do know that on 8 April 1950, a fragmentation grenade exploded near a Jewish cafe in Baghdad, that in the wake of that incident there was a huge rise in the number of candidates for emigration, from 150 to about 23,000. Over the next year or so, until June 1951. According to this view, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Zionist emissaries made use of the incidents to frighten hesitant Jews and prod them to register. A third version finds a reasonable possibility that the bombings were a local initiative by the Zionist underground, unknown to the leadership in Israel….To date we do not have clear evidence that would support any of these versions.”

    Shenhav, Y. (1999). The jews of iraq, zionist ideology, and the property sequestration of palestinian refugees of 1948: an anomaly of national accountin . International Journal of Middle East Studies, 31(4), Retrieved from

    I do not have hardcopy access to Shohat’s Sephardim in Israel, so I will just leave this citation here for you to examine if you please.

    Shohat, Ella. (1988). Sephardim in israel: zionism from the standpoint of its jewish victims. Social Text, 19/20. Retrieved from Stable URL:

    She provides an excellent discussion of the creation of an atmosphere in which Arab Jews were eventually seen as a fifth-column, which aided in their decision to pass repressive measures as well as outright expulsions. AGAIN, this is not so cut and dry as to say ‘the Jews were expelled if you truly want to inform your audience.

    NOWHERE in my comments will you find me ‘blaming the Jews for their own repression.’ For you to reach that conclusion you must have read into something that was not written. I don’t know how you behave in normal face to face discussions, but you have demonstrated a lack of integrity and clarity on the subject.

    • Hi Marshall,

      I see you are still obsessing about me rather than dealing with the issue at hand. I am pretty but that in and of itself is no excuse for your atrocious table manners.

      The inter-Arab rivalries (addressed here on this blog) that followed the collapse of the British and French empires are interesting and important, but the thesis of this piece was the Israeli-Palestinian mess and not the inter-Arab rivalries of the post-WW2 Middle East. You could have easily said “the interesting inter-Arab rivalries that formed after the collapse of the British and French empires are also worth checking out.” Instead, you boorishly introduced a new topic into the discussion (for reasons that I think will become clear shortly).

      You also continue to deny that the Arab states attacked Israel in 1948. How am I supposed to have a reasoned conversation with somebody who cannot acknowledge simple facts?

      Likewise, you are still blaming the Jews for getting expelled from their ancestral homes. Did the newly established Arab states not expel the Jews? Can this expulsion really be attributed to a small British lobbying group rather than, as I have argued, a reaction to the expulsion of Palestinians and the defeat of Arab armies at the hands of the Israelis? Which one makes more sense?

      My suspicions of your (quite passive) anti-Semitism are not unfounded. Your failure to answer my simple questions in a definitive manner is telling in this regard. For example, you seemed quite eager, earlier in this conversation, to blame Israel and the United States for the militarization of the Middle East. You also seem convinced that US aid to Israel (which you falsely stated was disproportionate to the amount of aid given to Israel’s Arab neighbors) is used to “oppress Palestinians.” These arguments have been roundly ignored, by you, in the ensuing dialogue, and for good reason: They are serious charges. No wonder you are afraid to use your real name (speaking of manners).

      Here is how your argument went down in this dialogue “Marshall.” You first stated that the Arabs did not attack Israel in 1948 (you still deny this). Then you went on to suggest that a small lobbying group based in Great Britain was more responsible for the expulsion of the Jews in the Muslim world than were the Arab states that actually expelled them. Then you went on to suggest that American aid to Israel is regionally disproportionate and responsible for both the militarization of the region and the oppression of the Palestinian people (in direct contradiction to the facts I presented in the original article). This is the standard Leftist account of Israel in the Middle East, and it is anti-Semitic only because Israelis are more Western than are the Arabs.

      As my patience and logic slowly guided you towards clarifying your thoughts, your eagerness to blame Israel for the militarization of the region dissipated, and your argument evolved ever so subtly from one of blame to one of nuance and complexity (albeit in a spoiled little white boy manner). I have been happy to have helped you think harder about the implications of the arguments that you have regurgitated. However, if you cannot see that you are indeed blaming Jews for their own oppression then you should hang around this blog a little more often; it’ll help you to think things through using the principle of fairness as your guiding light. The world could use a bit more fairness, if you ask me.

Please keep it civil

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