2019 06 – Labour and Israel

The Nakba and British Labour Party divisions.

Mark Cowling.


A toxic atmosphere has developed in the Labour Party round the issue of Israel, the Palestinians and anti-Semitism. People horrified at the sufferings of the Palestinians are prone to, for example, compare at least some Israeli actions to those of the Nazis, and therefore to fall foul of the IHRA examples of anti-Semitism. In turn, a counter-claim is made that accusations of anti-Semitism are intended to close down discussion of Israeli actions and to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. Sensible attempts to discuss the issues are drowned in a flood of accusations and counter accusations. In this article and those that follow, my aim is to get a more rounded picture and hopefully better understanding.

An important starting point for critics of Israel is the Nakba, the event in which some 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from Israel in 1948, and not permitted to return. In this article I shall look at the background to this event, and argue that some of the more extreme claims about expulsion as ethnic cleansing are not valid,

Historical Background.

Ultimate responsibility for the problems of the contemporary Middle East lies with the Romans, who, following their defeat of a spectacular Jewish revolt in A.D. 67, demolished the Second Temple, the main centre of Jewish worship in Judaea , and engaged in genocide and expulsion of the Jews, which led to the dispersal of Jews around the known world. Some Jews remained in what was now designated as Palestine, but the majority became widely-dispersed marginal populations, vulnerable to re-expulsion. Jewish religion and culture retained a strong link with Israel/Palestine, with aspirations to return.

With the development of nationalism in the 19th century, Jews tended to be seen as distinct from the rest of the national population. There were particular problems in Russia, where Jews suffered officially sponsored pogroms, with the result that about a million Jews left for the United States and Western Europe, but also thousands left for Palestine. There is a particularly good description of a pogrom in Trotsky’s 1905.[A] Russian Jews in Western Europe were more obviously distinct from the rest of the population than Jews who had been there for generations, thus adding the sort of resentment against immigrants which frequently arises to other sources of anti-Semitism.

One solution to the problems the Jews were experiencing was Zionism, the aspiration for a Jewish homeland, ideally in Palestine/Israel. Although there were other earlier advocates of this, undoubtedly the most important was Theodore Herzl. Herzl was a secular Jew. He concluded that with the rise of nationalism in Europe Jews would be bound to be oppressed, and needed their own state.  Although he started as an advocate of Jewish assimilation, he became convinced by the Dreyfus affair in France that Jews would never be properly assimilated. Briefly, Dreyfus was an army officer falsely accused of spying. The affair lasted from 1894 to his eventual exoneration in 1906, but it revealed a massive reservoir of anti-Semitism in France which belied equality, liberty and fraternity. Herzl put forward the idea of a separate Jewish homeland in the Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State] (1896).

The book is a curious mixture between extremely detailed accounts of arrangements for the immigration of rich and poor Jews to the new homeland, together with the working day of poor Jews, and assumptions which with hindsight proved disastrously wrong. For example, like many Jews in Germany in the early 1930s, he assumed that attacks on Jews would rebound on the attackers because of the economic role played by Jews. [B] He also assumed: ” “But the Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies.” [C]

For the rest of his life Herzl worked tirelessly to achieve his goal, and was an important figure in setting up the World Zionist Organisation. This in turn set up the Jewish National Fund, devoted to purchasing land in Palestine, and increasing numbers of Jews settled in Palestine, particularly encouraged by the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.

Arab Reaction.

From the end of the First World War until 1948 Palestine was governed by the British under a League of Nations mandate. Arab resentment of the Jews increased. However, the development of a full Arab national consciousness and of a coherent strategy for dealing with relations with the Jews was hampered by two factors at least. The Palestinian Arabs had not really built up a full national consciousness. Around 1930, the rate of literacy amongst Jews was measured at 88%, whilst that amongst the Palestinians was 22%.[D] Thus books, pamphlets and newspapers, which could normally be expected to play a central role in the building up of a consciousness of nationhood, commanded a relatively small audience. The other problem was divided leadership. The most effective leader on the Palestinian side was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was so strongly motivated by fanatical anti-Semitism that it precluded a rational consideration of Arab interests. Husseini played the principal role in fomenting the riots of 1936-39, which involved attacks on Jews, and which became known as the Arab Revolt, but which was put down by the British. [E] By 1948 the Arabs were still suffering the after-effects of this defeat.

The Mufti’s anti-Semitism was considerable. He was interviewed in 1936 by the Peel Commission, and made it clear that his aspiration was for an Arab/Muslim Palestine, from which 400,000 Jews would be summarily evicted. [F] He had spent the Second World War in Germany, where he had encouraged Adolf Hitler to pursue the final solution.  He toured the death camps and encouraged pro-Nazi leaders in Eastern Europe to send their Jews to Poland, meaning send them for extermination.[G].  During the Second World War he made frequent broadcasts across the Arab world in favour of a Nazi victory.[H] This contributed to an irrational intransigence on the Arab side.

The founding of the State of Israel.

Zionist aspirations were given a massive boost by the Second World War. In the years before the war, other countries were far too reluctant to receive Jewish refugees from Germany. During the war there was clear evidence of the Holocaust from 1942 onwards, but nothing was done to stop it. After the war, when the full horrors of the Holocaust emerged, there was a growth in international sympathy for Zionist aspirations. Anti-Semitism persisted in Poland,.[I] which again increased Jewish feelings that they needed a safe refuge.

In the tense situation in the years following the end of the Second World War, the Jews were generally keen for the British to leave Palestine, and a minority, including some future leaders of the Israeli state, engaged in terrorism, notably the blowing up of British officers in the King David Hotel.  The Palestinians rejected UN proposals for the partition of Palestine. In the light of what happened subsequently, it would have been at least worth seeing what would happen if partition were accepted. The Palestinians would have been able to set up their own state in their part of Palestine, and would have been able to appeal to the United Nations and other international bodies as a nation state. The Jewish leadership under Ben Gurion accepted the Partition plan, but Ben Gurion doubtless had aspirations to extend the Jewish area. Partition with some transfer of population was certainly being used as a solution to conflicting national aspirations in other parts of world, notably in India.

The British essentially decided to give up and go home.  At that point the Jews under the leadership of Ben Gurion declared the existence of the state of Israel on May 14 1948.  Israel was invaded by the armies of no less than five Arab states, who denied the right of Israel to exist.  The assault on the Jews was assisted by at least some of the Palestinians, and more particularly by Arab fighters from outside who based themselves in Palestinian villages.  One aspect of this was that some 750,000 displaced down Palestinians left their homes in Israel – as it now was – and ended up as refugees in Gaza, on the West Bank of the Jordan, in the Lebanon and in Syria. There they or their descendants have largely remained as refugees ever since. The above is intended as a relatively neutral introduction to the really controversial matters below.

Pappé and Chomsky.

Many people on the left today appear to take as a starting point the views of the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, which are also accepted by Noam Chomsky[J] . Pappé sees the expulsion of the Palestinians as the implementation of Plan D, which he presents as a concerted Israeli plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.[K]  The declaration of the State of Israel was merely one day in a process of cleansing which began five months earlier. To try to halt this the Arab states dispatched a small army compared to their military strength, an invasion which was easily repulsed by the Israelis.[L] For Pappé, the Palestinians left as the result of a mixture of Jewish intimidation and encouragement by the Arab leaders to think that they could soon return to Palestine cleansed of Jews. This process was encouraged by the most serious massacre of the ethnic cleansing, the killing of what was initially believed to be 254 Arabs at the village of Deir Yassin. This horror was repeatedly broadcast by Arab radio channels.

The work of Pappé, along with that of other Israeli revisionist historians such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim is an important corrective to previous Israeli  accounts  in which the Palestinians  vaguely disappear.  However, Pappé’s account creates a seriously misleading impression, and its ready acceptance leads to a distorted view of the origins of the Israeli State, which conflates the 1948 conflict with the current dreadful behaviour of the Israeli government

Here are some of the problems with Pappé’s account. To start with, for people with such a detailed plan, the Israelis do not seem to have been very good at ethnic cleansing.  Their massacres, while totally unacceptable, were really very small compared to those practised by other people engaged in ethnic cleansing, such as Serbs in Bosnia during the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, in which over 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.  The state of Israel currently has a population of about 8.5 million, of whom about 1.7 million are Palestinian Israelis.  Ending up with a fifth of your citizens being people who were supposed to have been ethnically cleansed is quite an oversight!

Another immediate point is that although Israel was decisively victorious over the five Arab armies which invaded her territory in 1948, it was by no means an easy victory.  Israel lost about 1% of the Jewish population in the course of the war, which lasted a few months.  This compares with Britain losing just under 1% of her population over the five years of the Second World War, or Belgium, whose Jews were subject to the Holocaust, losing just over 1%.

Another fact which is not generally very much remarked on is that, although 750,000 Palestinians became refugees, Israel took in 350,000 Jews from Arab countries where they were no longer welcome.  There are no strident assertions of a right of return, nor are these Jews still living in refugee camps.

Benny Morris.

Returning to the crucial issue of ethnic cleansing, there is a much more detailed and plausible account of why the Palestinians left Israel from another Israeli historian, Benny Morris.[M] He documents Ben-Gurion, who became the first Prime Minister of Israel, advocating the compulsory transfer of Arabs to relatively empty Arab lands in 1937.[N] By the time we get to the 1948 war, which was initiated by the Arab states, the idea of transfer was certainly in the air on the Zionist side, but the war was not entered into specifically with a view to engaging in transfer.[O] Morris also stresses the role of both the Mufti and the Arab states in encouraging Arab flight. The British were surprised at the poor quality of Arab leadership. [P]  The Israeli leadership were very surprised at how easily the Arabs fled.[Q] Rather than a concerted plan of expulsion, Morris traces Israeli actions in some detail, and argues that there were considerable variations in the ways that local commanders behaved;    rather than blanket expulsions,  expulsions were directed to  securing Jewish supply routes,  or dealing with particular Arab threats.

In December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly passed one of the landmark resolutions on Israel, General Assembly Resolution 192, stating that the refugees had a right of return or recompense.  However, according to Morris, there was a general international recognition that there was no way the resolution could be fully implemented: the Israelis would not permit the bulk of the refugees back; they would be returning to wrecked villages, or villages now occupied by Jewish immigrants; the Israelis had legitimate security concerns about a fifth column.[R] An interesting fact about General Assembly Resolution 192 is that it also calls for the setting up of a commission to establish peace between the Arab states and Israel. All six of the Arab states which were members of the United Nations at that stage, the Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen voted against the resolution. In other words, the resolution was supposed to provide a right of return in the context of assurances of Israel’s security. When supporters of the Palestinians assert a right of return, supported by Resolution 192, they generally do not refer to this question of peace treaties. However, for full implementation of the Resolution, there would need to be agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, and also peace treaties between Israel and enough Arab states to assure Israeli security – at least, therefore, the Lebanon and Syria, but ideally including Iraq and Saudi Arabia in addition, of course, to those already signed with Egypt and Jordan. As the biggest success against Israel so far has been that of Hezbollah, negotiations with them and also with Iran, their major supporter, would be appropriate. In other words, full implementation is a very tall order.

Morris concludes that the majority of the refugees left not because of direct Israeli coercion, but because of concern about what would happen as the Israelis conquered their area, and also with the idea that they would be able to return after a few months when the Arab armies had defeated Israel.[S] The Israelis, he reminds readers, suffered one in every hundred of population killed and a further one injured, as a result of an onslaught by Palestinian Arabs and irregulars, followed by an invasion by Arab armies.  From this perspective, denying any right of return was a reasonable response, particularly given the danger of the Arabs acting as a fifth column.[T]


What emerges from the above account is that people on the left  can  easily see Israel as a state founded simply on stolen land, land stolen according to  a deliberate plan and  with great violence and  a totally unreasonable  willingness to  accommodate with the Palestinian exiles.   However, as a result of poor leadership, both by the Mufti  and by the  Arab states,  the Palestinian Arabs failed to obtain  their own state, and left their land for  exile much more readily than  was necessary.   The invasion by the Arab states was very badly thought out and coordinated, and thus offered the Palestinian Arabs a false promise that the Jews would be expelled.   Resolution 192 does commit the United Nations to supporting a right of return, but only in the context of a general settlement.  The only Arab state to accept exiled Palestinians as full citizens is Jordan. The others have simply allowed them to remain  in miserable conditions as  refugees.

[A] [A] Trotsky, L.,  1905, Pelican, Harmondsworth, 1973, pp.  149-152.

[B] [B] ibid.,  Kindle edition, location 1166.

[C] [C] ibid., Kindle edition, location 1154.

[D] [D] Wikipedia: obviously, there are different ways of measuring literacy, but these figures are so drastically different that the overall contrast is dramatic. Added to this, Palestinian men had a much higher rate of literacy than Palestinian women. And a proportion of the Jews were what might be described as hyper- literate. Thus Ben Gurion, who eventually became Israel’s first prime minister, spoke some 10 languages, and was notoriously addicted to visiting bookshops.

[E] [E] Morse, C., The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, Washington DC: WND Books, 2010, p. 43.

[F] [F] Morse, C. The Nazi Connection, p. 44.

[G] [G] Morse, C. The Nazi Connection, pp. 60-7.

[H] [H] Morse, C. The Nazi Connection, p. 57.

[I] [I] Gilbert, M., The Holocaust, p. 819.

[J] [J] Pappé, I. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, London: OneWorld, 2011; Pappé, I. and Chomsky, N., Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War against the Palestinians, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2010.

[K] [K] Pappé, I., The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, locations 202-8.

[L] [L] ibid. Location 289.

[M] [M] Morris, B. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge Middle East Studies) Second Edition, Kindle Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[N] [N] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 40.

[O] [O] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 51.

[P] [P] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pp. 97-104, 185-190.

[Q] [Q] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pp. 155-7.

[R] [R] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 540.

[S] [S] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, location 15955.

[T] [T] Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, location 15955.