A Separate Peace

Israel’s military operation in Gaza earlier this year, Protective Edge, and the Jerusalem synagogue massacre this week lend great salience to the issue debated in this book by two emeritus professors of religion. One, an American–born rabbi, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, argues for the moral and legal legitimacy of the creation in 1948 of Israel as a Jewish state, as well as the current need for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

His co-author, Mary Grey, is a Christian feminist liberation theologian who considers Israel’s creation both morally illegitimate as well as ill-advised. In her view, Israel was grounded upon the forcible and unjust expropriation and expulsion of the indigenous Arabs of the territory in which it was founded. That injustice, she thinks, understandably has bred considerable resentment and anger towards Israel and its Jewish inhabitants, as well as the many acts of violence against its citizens that these passions have inspired. Now that Israel does exist, she concedes, its right to do so should not be violently contested. Instead, as does her protagonist in this book, Mary Grey agrees on the need for a Palestinian state. Unlike him, however, she thinks that it should only last until Israelis acquire sufficient magnanimity and moral courage to embrace what she considers to be the ideal solution to the Palestinian problem. This is the creation in the whole of what was formerly known as Palestine before Israel’s creation of a shared bi-national state.

The form their discussion takes is an exchange of letters in which each protagonist offers their own account of the steadily mounting conflict between Jew and Arab in the Holy Land. Two widely conflicting narratives result, between which the reader is left to decide. The format and subject-matter of their book makes it a lively read. Few will complete it without learning a great deal, if only about how each party to this vexed controversy views it.

The book, however, is not without several serious shortcomings of which one comes courtesy of the puff-quotes on its jacket, which proclaims that the book’s discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is well-informed. Sadly, it is not. While the sources on which Cohn-Sherbok draws are unimpeachable, those his protagonist cites in support of many of her most central claims about the historic injustices suffered by Palestinian Arabs at the hands of Israelis are anything but.

Consider, for example, what Grey contends has been the worst historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian Arabs, the so-called Nakba or ‘catastrophe’, when, as Grey puts it echoing the view of most Arabs: ‘the inhabitants of 533 villages were driven out of their homes and forced to become refugees’. Concerning this matter Grey writes:

It is important to note the degree of planning of this exercise [that became known as Plan Dalet for the forcible removal of the Palestinians from their land] … Following the period of preparation, a series of massacres began. The first and most horrific was Deir Yassin – and was a contributory factor to the exodus of Arabs from their villages… Other massacres followed… Nearly 800,000 Palestinians were forced into becoming refugees… Possibly, the worst story is the massacre of Al Tantura… [where] up to 250 men died.

On these alleged events, Grey has no hesitation in claiming them to have involved systematic ethnic cleansing and genocide. In making these assertions, she cites and primarily relies on the writings of two Israeli historians, Ilan Pappé and Teddy Katz. The former is someone whose work Grey claims has been ‘based on the most thorough research’. The latter is the principal source of the claim that a massacre of Arabs took place at Tantura, having advanced it in his MA thesis for the University of Haifa, which he claimed was based on extensive oral testimony that he acquired in interviews with Arab eye-witnesses.

The standing of these two historians among their academic peers is highly contentious to say the least, as are their various contentions on which Grey grounds so many of her principal claims about the historic injustices incurred by Palestinian Arabs at the hands of Israelis. Consider, first, what has been observed of Pappé by Israeli historian Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London. In a review of Pappé’s 2004 book, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, Karsh has remarked of its author:

Unlike his colleagues, who pretend to base their anti-Israel writings on recently declassified documents from the British Mandate period and the first years of Israeli independence, Pappé is an unabashed “relativist” for whom historical research is a backward-looking projection of political attitudes and agendas regardless of actual facts. He himself explains this in the introduction to A History of Modern Palestine: “My bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the “truth” when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous”.’

Pappé, an historian ‘whose work is based on the most thorough research’? I don’t think so, Professor Grey. A review of Pappe’s 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, written by an Israeli historian, who did base his historical researches about the matter on primary material from the period, found its accusation of systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist forces at the time of Israel’s founding to be singularly lacking in warrant. Seth J. Frantzman, a one-time doctoral student in historical geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now a fellow of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, wrote of the claims made by Pappé in his 2006 book:

Pappé might be onto something if Plan D[alet] had been drafted in the absence of Arab violence against Jews, or if the Arab states surrounding Palestine were not so serious about answering the declaration of a Jewish state with a war of annihilation. But inconveniently for Pappé, those were the realities of the time—realities that undermine the thesis of his book… [T]he Haganah lists [of residents of Arab villages] were not a blueprint [for ethnic cleansing and genocide] but rather an intelligence assessment. In 1943, the Palmach (the Haganah’s regular fighting force) and the Haganah Intelligence Service began to survey villages in order to evaluate their capabilities should hostilities erupt… The British kept similar intelligence about kibbutzim… Such British lists are evidence of military preparedness and routine intelligence collection, not evidence of plans to ethnically cleanse the Jewish population.

As for Theodore [‘Teddy’] Katz, his academic standing is even lower than Pappe’s as has been noted by Ricki Hollander, a senior analyst at CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Katz argued in a story carried by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that members of the 33rd battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade had committed war crimes against Palestinians in the Tantura massacre. These veterans filed a libel suit against Katz that exposed his inaccuracies and false reporting. As Hollander notes:

Under court order [Katz] later signed an apology and agreed to publish ads at his own expense publicising his disavowal of the massacre… Meanwhile, [the] University of Haifa appointed a committee to re-examine Katz’s thesis… [It] discovered fabrications and distortions of quotes in Katz’s work and disqualified the thesis… Katz… resubmitted it in 2002 to five new university-appointed examiners but the new, lengthier thesis did not receive passing grades. …

For Cohn-Sherbok’s and Grey’s book nowhere to have mentioned how contentious are the historiographical sources on which one of these two authors principally relied is potentially highly misleading.

Equally as large a shortcoming of the book is the apparent lack of awareness by its two authors of a more creative, non-oppressive alternative to the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem for which both authors opt in preference to the three that they both rightly reject – viz. first, a Palestinian State replacing Israel; second, a mirror-image Jewish State that covers both present-day Israel and the occupied territories and from which all Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed; and, third, a United Palestine-Israel which Grey ultimately favors but acknowledges to be unrealistically utopian at present.

The fifth possible solution that goes without mentioned in the book would arguably be an improvement on the two-state solution which suffers from the major drawback that any Palestinian state situated on Israel’s doorstep would prove a magnet to every crazed violent Islamist extremist bent upon waging jihad against the little Satan. (No prizes for guessing who the great Satan is in their eyes.)

Dubbed the ‘humanitarian solution’ by its proponent, Israeli Professor Martin Sherman of the University of Tel Aviv, this fifth possible solution involves Israel appealing over the heads of the Palestinian authorities directly to the heads of Palestinian families who for decades have been languishing in refugee camps. The idea is that Israel should offer them very substantial cash sums to emigrate along with their families to somewhere elsewhere. As Sherman described the proposed scheme for their voluntary resettlement in an article published in August 2010:

After decades of disastrous failure, it should be clear that there is little chance of resolving the Palestinian issue if we continue to consider Palestinians as a cohesive entity with which contacts are conducted via some sort of “leadership.” Efforts should therefore be devoted exclusively towards individual Palestinians and towards allowing them, as individuals, free choice as to how to chart their future. These efforts should be channelled in two major ways:

* Generous monetary compensation to aid the relocation and rehabilitation of the Palestinian residents in territories outside the confines of the 1967 “Green Line,” presumably — but not necessarily — in the Arab/Moslem world.

* Making the offer of compensation and relocation directly to the heads of families and not through any collective Palestinian entity or organizational framework.

While doubtless Mary Grey would object to this proposal on the grounds that the Palestinians are a people who merit a national homeland of their own, there is reason to think not a few of them would be happily accept the offer. Sherman relates that: ‘A November 2004 survey… conducted by a reputable Palestinian polling center… to gauge Palestinians’ willingness to emigrate permanently in exchange for material compensation… showed that only 15% of those polled would absolutely refuse to accept any such inducements, while over 70% stated that they would be willing to take the bargain.’ Sherman has done the arithmetic and calculates the scheme would affordable for Israel, even were every Palestinian to take it up.

Voluntary emigration by Palestinians can no more be considered ethnic cleansing than wholesale voluntary emigration to Israel by Jews can, as happened, for example, in the case of the Ethiopian Jews who Israel helped leave their country to escape civil war there. Again, this scheme was not mentioned, let alone considered, in Cohn-Sherbok’s and Grey’s book. Its omission is another grave shortcoming of the book.

The current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians calls for more creative solutions than those offered in this book, as does the current carnage being caused in Gaza by the militancy of Hamas towards Israel. Operation Preventive Edge might well prove to have marked the demise of the two state solution. Let us pray that what replaces it is an improvement on the status quo which surely in the name of Heaven can no longer continue.