History is a funny thing. It is like a piece of clay that changes shape depending on the hands that hold it. After a war, it is generally first picked up by the ones who won. They like to tell tales of heroes and bravery. Those who lost will see things quite differently, yet generally do not have a voice.
In the documentary The Fog of War (2004), former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claimed that had the US not won WWII, the country would have been prosecuted for war crimes, because of the massive bombing campaign on Japanese cities.
On May 15 the world commemorated 60 years of Israel and 60 years of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe). These are of course twin events, intertwined like a Gordian knot, yet when speaking to the Knesset on Israel’s latest anniversary, US President George W. Bush proved hopelessly one-sided in his Bible-fuelled admiration for the Jewish state, while mentioning the Palestinians only once.
Having set the tone by calling Ariel Sharon “a man of peace, a friend,” Bush argued that Israeli independence was founded on “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate” and “the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David.”
Israeli MPs awarded Bush with a standing ovation, yet both friends and foes must have shivered hearing his sermon-like speech. Now, of course the Jewish people have a right to self-determination. Who could disagree with that? However, one’s right ends where the other’s begins, and who could argue that deportation and confiscating land and property are an acceptable part of a people’s path to self-determination?
Illustrating his status of a born-again Christian, Bush’s claim that Israel’s right to exist is God-given is a direct reference to the Torah and Old Testament. With it he not only delighted Israeli nationals and an estimated 90 million evangelicals within the US, but probably also Osama Bin Laden and anyone else eager to take the world back to the Crusader era.
Golda Meir, for one, would have been pleased, having herself once said: “This country exists as the accomplishment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be absurd to call its legitimacy into account.” Who would dare argue with God?
In his speech Bush went on to compare the foundation of the US to that of Jewish state. “When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted the words of Jeremiah: ‘Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.’ The founders of my country saw a new promised land and bestowed upon their towns names like Bethlehem and New Canaan.”
There are indeed many striking similarities between the US and Israel. Both are built by colonists, God-fearing “farmer-fighters” in search of a better future and a better life. In many ways both succeeded, yet they only did so at the expense of the native population, a reality both nations rather ignore.
Israel’s history has been largely written by the Zionist victors who were greatly inspired by the tale of David and Goliath. In short: tiny little Israel was forced into a battle with a sea of armed Arabs. Against all odds, it won. Meanwhile, the local inhabitants had fled, as they were told by their leaders, and thus Israel miraculously ended up with twice as much land as it was given in the UN partition plan.
This is still being taught in Israeli schools today. Only last year, the Israeli Ministry of Education allowed the word “Nakba” to be mentioned in schoolbooks, yet solely in Israeli Arab ones. Israel’s Jewish children continue to be fed “the miracle of 1948” even though since the 1980s the Zionist version of events has largely been destroyed by a new generation of Israeli historians, who based their conclusions on declassified Israeli sources.
Take Benny Morris, who has shown that most Palestinian did not leave because their leaders had told them so, but because they were forced at the barrel end of a Zionist gun. Avi Shlaim shattered the prevailing view that Israel always wanted peace, while the Arabs were always unwilling to negotiate.
Ilan Pappe showed that the Jews in 1948 were better armed than the Palestinians and in fact executed a strategy known as “Plan D” that aimed at surrounding villages and deporting its inhabitants. Thousands of people were executed on the spot. According to Pappe, it is a classic example of ethnic cleansing, not much different from what happened in Kosovo and Bosnia in the 1990s.
If there is one thing to celebrate about 60 years of Israel, it is the fact that the country has a relatively free intellectual climate able to give birth to academics such as Morris, Shlaim and Pappe who dare to confront Israeli society with its painful hidden past.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist.