Unsettling 1948 – the nakba revisited

JVL Introduction

A recently published book by on the 1948 war, reviewed here by Josh Ruebner, throws valuable new insight into the hidden complexities of that conflict.

Among other things, the author Shay Hazkani exposes Ashkenazi racism towards Moroccan Jewish soldiers, as well as revealing the tensions between the Arab League Army (ALA) and those of the indigenous Palestinians.

When all is said and done, this account reinforces the view that there never was any genocidal intent on the part of the ALA to “throw the Jews into the sea” nor any encouragement by them for Palestinians to leave their homes. Quite the contrary.

It also reveals “disturbing, blood-curdling calls to genocide in the indoctrination materials produced by the Israeli military”.

[updated 27 June]

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Thu 24 Jun 2021. Read the original here.

Unsettling 1948: A Review of Shay Hazkani’s ‘Dear Palestine’

Shay Hazkani’s “Dear Palestine” is an incredibly valuable contribution that uses meticulous archival research to upend our understanding of the 1948 war.

“History as well as life itself is complicated — neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency,” wrote Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

This quote would make a fitting epigraph for Shay Hazkani’s daring and illuminating new book Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War, which upends truisms, and unsettles the binaries of most nationalist historiographies of the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba.

Hazkani, an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, who has been among historians at the forefront of struggling for greater access to and declassification of Israel’s state archives, has utilized heretofore untouched portions of those archives to present a new interpretation of the seminal events of 1948.

He does so by utilizing captured soldiers’ diaries and battle orders from, transcripts of radio broadcasts by, and Haganah intelligence reports about the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), the several-thousand-strong pan-Arab volunteer force established by the Arab League and trained in Syria to forestall the implementation of the UN partition plan.

Hazkani also makes use of the files of Israeli military and civilian censorship bureaus, which surreptitiously intercepted, copied, and collated data not only from soldiers to gauge morale and levels of indoctrination in the army, but also from Palestinian refugees for the more nefarious purpose of tracking their movements and obtaining information about their property in order to better prevent refugees from returning and dispossessing them.

In an extremely rewarding webinar entitled “Palestinians, Israelis, 1948, & Now: On Researching, Teaching, and Asserting the Reality of the Nakba,” hosted earlier this week by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which featured profound interventions by Hazkani and fellow historians Professors Sherene Seikaly and Leena Dallasheh, the author termed these censorship bureaus a “Big Brother” apparatus that Israel operated until 2004.

Hazkani mines these archives and strikes a rich lode of information that allows for a reinterpretation of 1948 which complicates and sometimes transcends the simple dichotomies of Jew versus Arab prevalent in most histories of the period.

He begins his book with the curious tale of Abdullah Dawud, an Iraqi Jewish volunteer for the ALA who fought against his coreligionists in the April 1948 battle of Mishmar ha-Emek. Dawud subsequently immigrated to Israel in 1950 and kept his participation in the ALA secret until a death-bed confession.

In a revealing footnote, Hazkani relates that Dawud’s son said that his father regretted immigrating to Israel and “refused to follow social norms and separate himself from his Arab past. Not only did he continue speaking Arabic almost exclusively, he mostly fraternized with Palestinians, leaving every Sunday on a donkey to visit nearby Palestinian villages.”

While noting that Dawud’s case was “certainly exceptional,” it serves as one of many examples in Hazkani’s book that “complicates 1948, and suggests far messier battle lines than previously considered.”

One effective way in which Hazkani “seeks to destabilize” the Arab/Jewish binary is by examining the experiences of Moroccan Jews who volunteered to serve in the Israeli army in 1948. Although the bulk of Moroccan Jewish immigration to Israel came in the lead up to and in the aftermath of French decolonization and Moroccan independence in 1956, Hazkani notes that 20,000 Moroccan Jews immigrated to Israel in 1948-1949, approximately 1,000 of whom also fought in the Israeli army.

Often shunted into segregated army units, Moroccan Jewish soldiers were subjected to the same racist debasement by Ashkenazi elites that would characterize Israeli society’s overall discriminatory treatment of Mizrahi Jews.

In addition to being repelled by this racism, some Moroccan Jewish immigrants also recoiled at Israeli militarism. “All of the Jews of Europe have imported the totalitarian spirit of Nazism,” wrote Marcel from Wadi Salib in Haifa to his friend Ellie in Morocco. “The country doesn’t lack attractions, but because of these Hitlerites everything is under a shadow.”

Hazkani found that 70 percent of Moroccan soldiers wished to return home, but through a combination of Israeli passport confiscations, lack of financial resources, and Moroccan hesitance to accept the repatriation of Moroccan Jews who fought in the Israeli army, only six percent succeeded in doing so.

Hazkani’s account also lays bare some of the rivalries and tensions between the ALA and the Army of the Holy Jihad, the indigenous Palestinian military forces led by Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni and financed by Palestinian subscriptions to a national fund. In addition, the book also shows sometimes the motivations and actions of ALA recruiters and soldiers clashed with the attitude of Palestinians themselves.

Lack of coordination between the two military forces hampered an effective response to the better-trained and better-equipped forces of the Haganah. Meanwhile, some ALA soldiers derided the supposed complacency of Palestinians in defense of their homeland, while some Palestinians objected to ALA interference in communal affairs and disparaged the ALA’s level of military readiness.

And while recruits to the ALA often volunteered out of a true sense of pan-Arab nationalism, Hazkani notes many recruiters for the ALA did so less out of unadulterated fervor and more so to burnish badly tarnished records of collaboration with Zionism. In this regard, Hazkani relates the story of ALA recuiter Ahmad al-As’ad, a Shi’a clan leader in Jabil Amil in Lebanon, who sought to rehabilitate his image after selling land in the Galilee to the Zionist movement and even taking refuge in a Zionist settlement during the French Mandate when he was pursued by the French.

Despite the ALA’s limitations, Hazkani portrays its commander Fawzi al-Qawuqji, a Tripoli-born veteran of the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine, as a competent and able professional. Despite sometimes veering into anti-Jewish rhetoric in his radio broadcasts, al-Qawuqi insisted on the ALA’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war.

In contradistinction to Zionist myth-making surrounding 1948, Hazkani searched the archives in vain for any genocidal intent on the part of the ALA to “throw the Jews into the sea.” Nor does he find any archival evidence of the ALA encouraging Palestinians to flee; on the contrary, the ALA issued military orders for Palestinians not to leave their homes.

Hazkani does, however, find disturbing, blood-curdling calls to genocide in the indoctrination materials produced by the Israeli military. One educational pamphlet distributed to soldiers instructed recruits that God “demands a revenge of extermination without mercy to whoever tries to hurt us for no reason.”

Hazkani finds that “the suggestion that there were parallels between the war in 1948 and biblical wars of extermination was not a fringe view,” but one shared by segments of religious Zionist leadership, as well as Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself.

Through meticulous archival research, deep engagement with Hebrew and Arabic primary source material, and cogent and attractive writing and argumentation, Hazkani’s book is a unique and incredibly valuable contribution to the academic literature that succeeds in profound ways in unsettling our understanding of the 1948 war.


A Social History of the 1948 War, by Shay Hazkani
352 pp. Stanford University Press $28.00

Josh Ruebner
Josh Ruebner is Adjunct Lecturer in Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University and is beginning his PhD studies at the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Comments (1)

  • Kuhnberg says:

    The secret history of colonialism is replete with stories of unimaginable cruelty. Inevitably, in the interests of constructing a sanitized history, much of it gets suppressed or erased, but when a great body of ordinary people is caught up in events of this magnitude, enough accounts survive to give us an idea of what really occurred.

    I remember a Jewish friend telling me that the story of 1948 – the founding of Israel – was a great modern miracle, an unfolding of God’s masterplan, not just for the Jews but for the whole of humanity. For the sake of our common humanity it is essential that such dangerous notions are subjected to a cold bath of reality. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, the oppression of one people by another: if we allow such abuses to be covered up, validated and perpetuated by a deceptive coating of heroism and religiosity, we will all have to suffer the consequences.

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