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Excusing ethnic cleansing: Liberal Zionists, Israel and the Nakba

The Nakba, Arabic for ‘Catastrophe’, was the ethnic cleansing by pre-state Jewish forces and the Israeli military of up to 90 percent of all Palestinians inside the newly-established State of Israel. It is marked annually on 15 May, the date in 1948 when Israel was born in a process of conquest, expulsion and settlement, dating broadly 1947-’49. An estimated 400-500 Palestinian villages were destroyed; refugees attempting to return were shot dead.

For those who self-identify on the left, who support liberal causes and advocate social-democratic politics, this should be an open and shut case. This is as clear a case of ethnic cleansing as you could wish to see.

In 1994, the European Journal of International Law published an article by Drazen Petrovic on identifying a ‘methodology’ of ethnic cleansing. Policies include “the creation of fear, humiliation and terror for the ‘other’ community” and “provoking the community to flee”, with the overall aim “the extermination of certain groups of people from a particular territory, including the elimination of all physical traces of their presence”.

In the short term, Petrovic wrote, the goal “could be effective control over territory for military or strategic reasons”, but long term, the objective is “the creation of living conditions that would make the return of the displaced community impossible”. The Nakba ticks all the boxes.

And yet, when it comes to Israel, there are prominent voices on the liberal-left who justify what in other circumstances they would never consider tolerating. One such example isJonathan Freedland, senior columnist at The Guardian, who also regularly contributes toThe Jewish Chronicle and other national and international media outlets.

Freedland is significant in his own right, but he also represents a point of view and bulwark of support for Israel beyond his own sphere of influence. Liberal Zionists and their sympathisers obstruct the growth of Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, and often try to define the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Freedland may have found Hebron appalling, for example, but as we shall see, he twists and turns in order to apologise for and justify the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba.

In 1999, Freedland railed against Serbian military operations in Kosovo, painting a picture of forces “slaughtering innocents, shelling and burning villages, [and] forcing a mass exodus of refugees”. In 2005, he wrote movingly of displaced Sudanese and “the eight-year-old refugee burnt out of her home in Darfur”, and in 2011, Freedland invoked the spectre of the Srebenica massacre to justify his support for NATO’s bombing of Libya. Debates about these specific cases aside, it is clear that for Freedland, opposition to atrocities abroad is an important part of his outlook – he pulls no punches, paints vivid pictures, and urges action.

When it comes to Freedland’s treatment of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians there is a marked difference in tone – gone is the clear moral outrage, and in its place is moral ambiguities and angst. Zionist approaches to the Nakba vary: some completely deny that ethnic cleansing took place, while others acknowledge it and have no qualms whatsoever (or even wish it had been carried out more comprehensively). The liberal Zionist does not fit easily into either category, flitting between acknowledgement, denial (at least of intent), and most problematically of all, justification.

In his contribution to a 2004 essay collection called ‘Those Who Forget The Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism‘, Freedland reflects candidly about the meaning of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’, and the dispossession of the Nakba. Referring to what he describes as “challenges to Zionism”, Freedland writes: “I have long believed Israel should be strong enough to admit the reality of 1948 – and to defend it all the same.”

“Jews”, he says, “should turn to the anti-Zionists who claim that Zionism’s moral claim was voiced by the presence of another nation” and tell them: “We needed a home and we had every right to demand it – even if that meant forcing another people to share their land with us.” It is unlikely that Freedland, in another context, would consider ‘sharing’ to be an appropriate way to describe systematic ethnic cleansing.

But Freedland goes further. Writing of what he describes as the “Zionist crimes of 1948”, he acknowledges that “four hundred villages” were “emptied”. But his conclusion leaves no room for doubt: “We can still insist that the creation of a Jewish state was a moral necessity even if, like so many moral necessities, it was bought at a horribly high moral price.” A price paid – and still being paid – by millions of Palestinians.

The following year, Freedland published ‘Jacob’s Gift‘, a highly personal meditation on fatherhood, Jewishness, and Zionism, among other things, including a continuation of his argument advanced in the previous essay. Here too, Freedland admits that “Zionism was realized at a very great cost”, with Palestinians experiencing “flight, expulsion and dispossession, the emptying of 400 villages and the creation of around 700,000 refugees.”

So how exactly does Freedland justify, to himself as much as others, the massacres and ethnic cleansing he today condemns when they occur in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East? In ‘Jacob’s Gift’, Freedland observes that “some Zionists” appeal to a “chronology of ancient claims” – an unconvincing rhetorical displacement given that he goes on to state that Jews “had a right to come back to [Palestine]”.

But Freedland does not, however much he believes in it himself, base his argument on a narrative of Jewish exile and return. Rather, in both the 2004 essay and his book, Freedland reaches for an analogy credited to Amos Oz, of a “drowning man reaching for a piece of driftwood”, who is “allowed to grab it, even to make another man budge up to share it”. The Jews of “the mid-twentieth century”, claims Freedland, had “the right…of the drowning man”.

According to Freedland, this “parable” is no less than “Israel’s ultimate moral defence” – and yet it is profoundly flawed. Just like another analogy beloved by both Oz and Freedland, ofthe married couple in need of a divorce, the driftwood picture obscures the settler colonial history of the Zionist movement in Palestine. Decades of settlement and incremental displacement, culminating in a long-foreseen wave of ethnic cleansing, disappear behind the smoke and mirrors of an alluring fable that promises a resolution of contradictions it cannot deliver.

The Palestinians were not asked, or even forced, “to share a plank of driftwood”. What sort of ‘price’ would that be, anyway? Rather, Palestinian communities were destroyed, children separated from their siblings, schools blown up, villagers gunned down in the homes – and, crucially, until this very day, millions remain excluded from their homeland simply because they are not Jewish.

The second element of Freedland’s argument is where he suggests ways in which Israel can approach the Nakba today. “Israel”, he wrote in his 2004 essay, “should make amends – through compensation, restitution, and commemoration”. He adds: “let Palestinians remember what they see as the naqba, the catastrophe, their way”. It is unclear why Palestinians need this permission, and given what comes next, it seems less like a concession and more of a limitation: remember, yes – but never return.

Freedland believes that “Israel and the Jews should have that reckoning with our recent past” but that there is no need “to renounce Zionism itself.” In ‘Jacob’s Gift’, Freedland phrases it similarly, suggesting that “the Jewish people ought to confront the reality of 1948”. He then cites the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau by way of illustration, writing that it was “only after Jacob has faced up to his own conduct…wrestling with his own conscience” that his name changed to Israel. “The meaning is clear”, Freedland says. “Israel could not be Israel until he had scrutinized his soul.”

A reckoning with the past, confronting reality, conscience-wrestling, and soul-scrutinizing. Not once does Freedland suggest that Palestinian refugees should actually be allowed to return home, or that a political system based on racial privilege and exclusion should be replaced by a genuine democracy. In his (unsurprisingly) adulatory review of Ari Shavit’s new book, Freedland states that “much of what Palestinians demand is precisely the acknowledgement that in 1948 they did indeed suffer a nakba”. Well, yes, the “admission” is important – but no, that does not constitute “much” of what Palestinians demand. Palestinians have not fought for seven decades for a therapeutic hug, but for return and decolonisation.

For a long time, Freedland and other liberal Zionists were not required to justify their support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But times are changing. Instructively, Shavit’s book was promoted by the Israeli embassy in London – not, one suspects, because of its much-publicised description of the ethnic cleansing of Lydda, but because Shavit defends Israel as a ‘Jewish state’, Lydda and all.

Freedland, like other Zionists of different political persuasions, have charged Palestine solidarity campaigners with ‘singling out’ Israel for attack (not an accusation they normally have the temerity to level at Palestinians themselves). In fact, it is Zionists, and liberals in particular, who are guilty of an exceptionalism that excuses past ethnic cleansing and justifies eternal ethnocracy – and Palestinians continue to pay the price.

Published first by Middle East Monitor

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