Back To Basics: The Heartbreak Of 1948

I have been backing off this blog lately, finishing up longer projects, but also trying get some distance from events that are forcing us to face up to things in a radical frame of mind. The U.N. vote on Palestine is going ahead, and I'll have more to say about it. In the meantime, I can't add much to Brad Burston's reasons for Israeli liberals to support statehood.

Yet a move to statehood, even if this were to precipitate more productive negotiations, or just make Israeli hardliners increasingly besieged--even if it led to a Palestinian state founded in a border deal with Israel--will only open the door to even more more basic and long repressed challenges, namely, the relations between Israel and a Palestinian state and the kinds of states these will be: the cultural distinction of each and the rights of individuals in each, including rights accorded citizens of the other state.

As I argued in The Hebrew Republic, and subsequently with my friend Sam Bahour in Haaretz, independence will in any case need to be shaped by interdependence if, for example, the Palestinian right of return is ever going to be resolved or, indeed, if the economic integration both sides need is going to be managed. What we think of as states will have to be expanded; much of what has been built will gradually have to be redesigned. Dafna Leef, the remarkable young woman who helped rally 450,000 Israelis a couple of Saturdays ago, told the assembled throngs in Tel Aviv: "Every heart is a revolutionary cell." I suspect that hearts will be tested and changed a good deal in the months ahead.

So perhaps this is the time to open them some, by looking back, in sadness and new found empathy, at the formative events of 1948. What happened then still matters now--the pain still matters now. Most readers of this blog have, I suspect, a pretty vivid image of Israeli military heroism in the 1948 war, and the justifications for making a stand. Just this morning, I was sent a bulk email exhorting me to watch this moving film, "The Volunteers," about Jews from around the world who came to Palestine in 1948 because they believed they might be needed. (I did the same in 1967, though I was clearly not needed by the time my plane took off.)

But I wonder how many readers have ever seen this stunning film, "Sands of Sorrow," about the Palestinian refugees of 1948. There has been much dispute about whether (or how many of) these shocked people left out of fear or by expulsion. This has been a silly dispute. The governing fact is that they were not allowed back, and that Israel formed around that decision.

Before the war--so the historian Hillel Cohen shows--Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had planned a democracy with a large Arab minority living, Ben Gurion wrote, in “complete equality, ” and “ethic autonomy.” Even during the war, debate about the nature of the state was tortured.

“An Arab also has the right to be elected President of the state, if he is chosen for this role,” Ben Gurion told the government in June 1948; “If in the United States, it is not possible for a Jew or a Negro to be elected president of the country, I have no faith in the quality of its civil rights…Were we to enforce such a regime—well then we will have missed the raison d’être of a Hebrew state… denying the most treasured elements of our Jewish tradition.” Nevertheless, Ben Gurion’s mounting fear of a fifth column eventually proved decisive. He wrote in his diary: “We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinian refugees] never do return... The old will die and the young will forget.”

Anyway, the young did not forget--and will not. Nor should we forget "the most treasured" Jewish values underlying a "Hebrew state." Is it really too late, even after 60 years, to design political institutions in a way that reconciles the Israelis' stand to the Palestinians' justice? Do we care?