It should surprise no one that the devastating impact of the events of 1948 on the Palestinian people was, with a few grudging exceptions, generally forgotten in the rush to observe the fiftieth birthday of Israel. Indeed, this latest episode fits well into the larger pattern of the repression of history which, since the beginning, has characterized the struggle between the two peoples, each trying to come into being at the expense of the other. Such a pattern was natural given that Zionism was struggling to establish a Jewish state in a land with an Arab majority, and to impose the fact of Israel's existence on the stubborn reality of Palestinian peoplehood in Palestine. While Israelis and their friends have much to celebrate in 1998, which marks their victory in this struggle, Palestinians and those who know their history have much to mourn. For them, the fiftieth anniversary of Israel's establishment marks what since 1948 has been universally known in Arabic as al-Nakba - the Catastrophe - meaning the disappearance of Arab Palestine in 1948.
The year 1948 has many meanings for Palestinians. It means the year in which they lost their country. As the entity called Palestine disappeared, for several decades the Palestinians' hopes for self-determination and statehood receded. It means the year in which about 750,000 Palestinians - out of the total population of 1.4 million - became refugees, some fleeing the violence and chaos of war, others driven out of their homes by the forces of the nascent Israeli state. Of these, many ended up in refugee camps, although the majority of them have left the camps over the past two and a half generations, achieving prosperity, mobility and success elsewhere. It means the year in which the two cities with the largest Arab populations in Palestine, Jaffa and Haifa, the centers of the country's Arab economic and intellectual life, together with many other cities and towns, as well as a total of 418 villages, were overrun and emptied of most of their Arab inhabitants. It means the year in which the vast bulk of Palestine's land and huge amounts of other property passed out of the hands of the country's Arab population and into that of the new State of Israel. Finally, it means the year in which the Palestinians disappeared from the world stage as a people, instead becoming a "refugee problem," losing their voice to the Arab regimes, which purported to speak for them, until the Palestinians wrested back the right to represent themselves in the 1960s.

Collective Trauma

Clearly, Palestinians have little cause to celebrate anything in 1998. Indeed, it marks a collective trauma in their national history of the order of the defeat of Sedan in 1870 for France, or Pearl Harbor in 1941 for Americans. Of course, both France and the United States eventually turned the tables, and overcame the humiliation of defeat on the battlefield. This is highly unlikely, to say the least, in the Palestinian case. In this respect, the trauma of the Palestinians is much more akin to that of the Armenian and Kurdish peoples, who, like the Palestinians, were victims of brutal campaigns of what we have learned to call ethnic cleansing. For these two peoples, to the injury of losing their respective national homelands, and with them the prospect of an independent national existence, was added the insult of decades of non-recognition of the hurt that had been done to them. The denial that the Armenians were the victims of genocide, and the curtain of silence drawn over several generations of repression of the Kurds by three different Middle Eastern governments, those of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, constitute close parallels to what has happened to the Palestinians.
For the Palestinians, this non-recognition of their national agony has been in some ways the unkindest cut of all, as they felt, not incorrectly that they were the victims in 1948, losing their country, most of their property, and seeing 13,000 of their fellow citizens killed. (It is worth noting parenthetically that 6,000 Israelis died in the conflict, and in each case these death tolls amounted to about one percent of the respective total populations. The differences were that most of the Palestinians killed were civilians, while most of the Israelis were combatants, and, most importantly, that the Israelis won the war, got their nation-state, and ended up with all that property.) Beyond this, because the Palestinians were the victims of victims, and were defeated and dispossessed by the survivors of the modern era's greatest human atrocity, the Holocaust, their own suffering was forgotten or ignored. Even worse, as the history came to be written, they were depicted as the villains, the latest incarnation of a sequence of tormentors who have persecuted the Jewish people throughout their history.

Jewish Trauma

In light of the enormity of the evil done to the Jews - albeit elsewhere and at the hands of others - the specificity of Palestine, and of what had actually happened in this small Mediterranean country in the years leading up to 1948, quickly faded in the international imagination. This specificity was replaced by a narrative in which Israel and the Jewish people figured predominantly, and in which the centerpiece was not the tragedy of the Palestinians, but rather the greatest trauma in Jewish history, and one of the greatest in modern human experience: the Holocaust. This powerful narrative, which described what was happening in Palestine in terms of Jewish national redemption and resurrection, firmly reoriented Jewish history on a completely new axis, with the birth of Israel serving as the bright counterpoint to the black horror of what had happened in the death camps of Europe only a few years before. In this grand scheme of things, the Palestinians could only be an annoying complication, to be written out of the history, painted out of the pictures, the names of hundreds of their ancestral villages erased as new Hebrew names were concocted or resurrected, and their very name and that of their country becoming almost epithets in polite company.
As if all of this were not enough, an insidious process of blaming the victims ensued, ensuring that even if a few inconvenient facts about what had happened in 1948 did come out, they could be laid at the door of the Palestinians themselves, or of their fellow Arabs. Thus the scandalous canard that "their leaders told them to leave" was concocted, which assiduous research has shown to have been an essentially false story devised and propagated by Israeli apologists, and which untold multitudes in the West have come to believe to be gospel truth in the intervening decades. Thus, we had the self-deluding but comforting argument that, while the Zionist leadership was willing to share Palestine and live in peace with the Arabs before 1948, it was the Arabs who refused accommodation, started the war, lost it, and deserved all the consequences. From this premise followed logically the conclusion that 1.4 million Palestinians and their descendants unto the third generation and beyond somehow deserved everything that happened to them in 1948 and afterwards because of the sins or the stupidity of their leaders.
Like all successful big lies, each of these embodied some element of truth, however small. Thus, in beleaguered Haifa in the spring of 1948, some Arab League representatives did tell the population to leave, although other Arab leaders told them to stay. In fact, the Arab leadership all over the country futilely tried to keep the Palestinian population from fleeing their homes. They did this as the refugee tide turned into a flood as defeat turned into rout in the spring of 1948 under the hammer blows of Plan Dalet. This was the Zionist master plan for the conquest of the coastal strip, including Jaffa and Haifa, and other key strategic regions of the country, which was implemented before the Mandate ended on May 15, 1948.

Winning the Whole Country
Thus, while a very few important individuals of integrity and courage, like Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, sincerely called for sharing Palestine with the Arabs, the hard pragmatists who led the Labor Zionist parties, like Ben-Gurion, and their even harder rivals among the Revisionists, like Jabotinsky and Begin, knew from at least the 1930s onwards that this was a fight to the finish over who would dominate the country. These leaders intended to win the whole country for the Jews exclusively, and knew from the mid-1940s onwards that the big battalions were on their side.
By the time the Arab armies entered Palestine on May 15, 1948, the miserably disorganized Palestinians had been crushed by the victorious military forces of the nascent Jewish state, which had already turned into refugees perhaps half of the 750,000 Palestinians who ultimately fled their homes. The Palestinians and the Arab states were hamstrung by crippling internal divisions and appallingly bad leadership at the local and national levels. This is not to speak of scrupulously respected secret commitments to restrict the sphere of action of his forces made to the Zionist leadership before and after May 15, by King Abdullah, who controlled the two best Arab armies in the field, Jordan's Arab Legion and the Iraqi contingent. There is much still to be told of the events of 1948, and little of it will reflect favorably on any of the actors on the Arab side.
The 1948 war was nonetheless a closely fought affair, at least at the outset, and was very costly to the new State of Israel. Coming in the wake of the Holocaust, the losses which the nascent Israeli state incurred were particularly painful. But these losses, combined with the sweet intoxication of victory as a new Jewish national polity arose in the ancestral homeland of the Jews, and with the vindication of the central premises of Zionism which the atrocities of the Nazi era appeared to provide, blinded Israelis and those who sympathized with them to the losses involved in the dispossession of an entire people.
From the celebratory frenzy that seized Israel, the United States and other Western countries in 1998, it was clear that little has changed since 1948, as far as the international representation of this event is concerned. We were told that this was Israel's jubilee birthday, a holiday, an occasion for universal rejoicing. We did not hear the heads of state or governments the world over phoning one another to commemorate the simultaneous passing of Palestine in 1948, nor were there plans anywhere in the world (outside of Palestine and a few Arab capitals) for a solemn observance of the dispossession of the Palestinian people. Just as they have been for the past fifty years, the Palestinians are forgotten in all the festivities.

Confronting 1948

But a genuine celebration, one which would commemorate the establishment of a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors, cannot take place until two things happen. The first is a realization that in the zero-sum terms in which both communities understood reality in 1948, the birth of Israel necessarily involved the bloody infanticide of Palestine. The second is the righting of the wrong, insofar as this is possible, via the much-delayed birth of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine. This state will not be born, and peace will not come, until the reality of what happened in 1948 has been confronted. For there can be no progress towards the reconciliation which is necessary to resolve this conflict unless we can get out of the closed box which posits Israeli innocence regarding what has happened to the Palestinians, and which places the primary onus for their own victimization on the Palestinians themselves.
In other words, history - meaning history which is not obsessively self-reflexive as so much of Israeli and Palestinian history is - has to be let back in. While neither people should be expected to change its national narrative, it will be necessary for both to take account of elements of that of the other. For Palestinians, this does not require acceptance of the idea of Israeli innocence. It requires rather coming to understand the oppressive weight of the European context which drove Jews to Zionism - and drove many of them to Zion - and to doing what they did in Palestine to the Palestinians. We know, or should know, of the direct impact of these events in Europe on the balance of power in Palestine: thus, the proportion of Jews in the total population of Palestine had grown from under 10 percent in 1918 to 19.4 percent by 1926; however, from 1926 until 1932 this proportion actually declined to 18.3 percent. After the rise of Hitler in 1933, the number of Jewish immigrants shot upwards, until only five years later Jews were a full 30 percent of the population. Over 60,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine in 1935 alone, more than the country's entire Jewish population in 1918. Thus this post-1932 exodus from Europe provided the critical demographic mass which made Jewish statehood in Palestine possible, a critical mass which very possibly would not have been reached but for the rise of the Nazis to power.
Edward Said stressed recently that if the Palestinians are ever to comprehend and come to terms with what has happened to them over the past half century and more, they must understand fully the European context which drove Jewish refugees to the shores of Palestine, and then drove them to do grave deeds here. Palestinians must understand why a narrative centered on the Holocaust is so compelling, which they cannot do unless they understand in detail the history of the Holocaust, and how it affects Israelis, Jews and others in the West. I agree with Said, and as I have argued elsewhere, in order to come to terms with their own history, it will also be necessary for the Palestinians to accept some responsibility for their people's failures in the 1930s, 1940s and afterwards, as a few Palestinian historians have begun to do. Specifically, Palestinians must confront sensitive issues like the mistakes of their leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, and why their society fragmented so rapidly and so totally under the blows of Plan Dalet in 1948. This means doing something Palestinians have thus far been reluctant to do: accept at least partial responsibility for their fate. For, however powerful were the great powers, Zionism and the hostile Arab regimes before 1948, it must also be accepted that the Palestinians were an independent actor, one which had agency and had choices in the difficult circumstances of the 1930s and 1940s.

Victims by Definition

On the other hand, taking account of elements of the narrative of the other will require Israelis to do a number of things. Foremost among them is the need to accept and atone for the fact that, however pure their motives and intentions may or may not have been in the 1930s and 1940s, and however pressing their circumstances at the time in view of the looming Nazi threat, in the process of constituting their nation-state they did grievous harm to a weaker people which had done nothing to them before this conflict began, harm which has continued and multiplied in the succeeding half-century. This will require confronting a potent and well-entrenched reading of Jewish history (one embodying profound distortions of Palestinian history) which is relatively new, but which will not surrender the hegemony it has attained over the past fifty or sixty years without a struggle.
None of this will be easy. Both Palestinians and Israelis are accustomed to viewing themselves as victims, and to seeing the other as no more than one of a series of accessories involved in inflicting suffering on them. Rather than granting the Palestinians agency and accepting that they may have had honorable, or at least rational motivations for their actions, many Israelis and Jews see the Palestinians as motivated by the same blind hatred which has driven so many persecutors in Jewish history. There is no room in such a scheme for the idea that Israeli actions may have some bearing on, or could even cause, Palestinian behavior: by definition, Israelis are victims, no matter what they do, and their adversaries are oppressors, no matter how weak they may be in contrast with Israel.
Similarly, for Palestinians, Israel and Zionism are only part of a vast concatenation of forces including Britain, the United States and the Arab regimes, which has conspired throughout this century to deprive them of self-determination, and ultimately of their very land and homes in many cases. And since the Palestinians are by definition victims, they are not responsible for their actions, and these actions are invariably justified, even if they cause great suffering to Israelis, since the suffering the Israelis have inflicted on the Palestinians has generally been even greater.

Stronger and Weaker

The fact that there is some truth in the world view of both only makes each more stubborn. To underline these similarities, however, is not to say that the two are the same: historically, in the conflict between the two sides in Palestine over the past century, one side eventually grew far stronger and became the winner, while the other grew far weaker and ended up the loser. In this conflict, one became the victimizer and the other the victim. And yet this is not the way in which these two peoples are regarded by the world, or at least in the United States. As I was writing this paper in the spring of 1998, a debate was raging in the United States about whether Yasser Arafat should, or should not, be invited to visit the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and learn about a crime committed against the Jewish people on another continent by another people when he was a 13-year-old boy. Completely different though the events were in scale, scope and universal historical importance, there is no museum, no memorial, no notice anywhere that records what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1948. Nor would Binyamin Netanyahu visit one if it were to exist, even though he is head of government of a state which stands today on the ruins, and in the place, of Palestine.
While the fiftieth anniversary of 1948 therefore does not mark a universal jubilee, it could still provide a valuable occasion for reflection on the differing meanings of the events of that climactic year for these two peoples, which in turn could be a stepping-stone to something else more substantial. However, if instead of sober reflection, this anniversary continues to be used by Israel and its friends for the kind of triumphalist crowing of which we have already heard so much, and which rubs more salt into the wounds of the Palestinians, it will take us further away from the possibility of peace and reconciliation between the two peoples.
Nor is it acceptable that this occasion be used solely to mourn the sad fate of the Palestinians. In fact, after fifty years, it is time for the Palestinian people to put mourning behind them, and to move on to attempting to achieve restitution for the wrongs done to them. Certainly, if the Palestinians are ever to put forth a credible demand for recognition of the injury they have suffered, and atonement and restitution for it, they will have to do two things. The first is to shed the passive attitudes associated with mourning, and the second is to see their own history in a broader context. Specifically, they must attempt to understand why the awful course of Jewish history in Europe led Zionism to do what it did in Palestine, unjust though this was to the Palestinians, and why that same history might lead some to celebrate this outcome, tragic though it was for the Palestinians. Moreover, it is vital to understand fully why and how recognition, atonement and restitution were achieved in the case of the Holocaust, since, as the most horrific crime against humanity in modern times, this is the paradigmatic case for all offenses directed against an entire people.


If there is ever to be a universal celebration which Palestinians and Israelis can share, much will have to change in the way of attitudes, and it is clear that today we are very far from such changes - much farther away today than we were five or six years ago. Among many other things, the Palestinian historical narrative will have to be explained more fully and less apologetically and diffused more widely, and the Palestinian attitude towards Jewish history will have to evolve. However, such an evolution is exceedingly difficult to expect today, while the Palestinian people rightly feel themselves to be oppressed by the overwhelming power of the Jewish state, more than half of them living in exile from their homeland, and the rest under military occupation or living as second-class citizens within it.
Most importantly, however, if such a celebration, such a jubilee, is to be truly universal, the Palestinians must have something concrete, such as independent statehood and national self-determination, to celebrate alongside the Israelis. For this to happen, Israelis and their supporters must recognize and make restitution for the grievous harm that was done to the entire Palestinian people in creating the State of Israel in 1948. After half a century, such a process is long overdue.

This lecture was given at a conference organized by Sabeel, at Bethelehem University 10-15, 1998. The lecture will also be published in book due to appear in London in October 1998. Printed by permission.