Gershom Gorenberg
Slate (Opinion)
November 7, 2011 - 1:00am

The most basic question about Israeli democracy has existed from before its birth: What would be the status of Arabs in a Jewish state? The answer is riddled with contradictions.

On the surface, the partition of Palestine approved by the United Nations in November 1947 offered a straightforward way to deal with two national groups claiming the same territory: Each would get part of the land. The problem with that solution was the same one faced in drawing borders between nation states in Europe after both world wars, or in partitioning the Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947. No clean geographic line separated the groups that were to be divided. They lived among each other. The U.N. plan for Palestine gave 55 percent of its territory to the Jewish state and 40 percent to the Arab state, with Jerusalem as an international enclave. In the area designated for the Jewish state lived 500,000 Jews and 450,000 Arabs. Another 100,000 Jews lived in Jerusalem, and a small number in scattered communities in the land assigned to the Arab state.

Given those numbers, and given what happened to the Palestinian Arabs in 1948, it is easy to conclude that the founders of the Jewish state adopted a policy of expulsion and proceeded to carry it out. The conclusion, however, suffers from the fallacy of intent—assuming that if things turned out a certain way, someone planned it that way. More subtly, it fails to distinguish between political mood and explicit policy.

The partition map was based not only on the 1947 population of Palestine. It assumed that the Jewish state would absorb up to half a million European Jewish refugees, who did not want to want to return to their pre-Holocaust homes and were not wanted there. In this sense, the argument that the Palestinians paid for Europe's crimes is correct. Nor were the European refugees the only prospective immigrants; the founders of Israel hoped to "ingather" Jews from around the world.

Even so, Zionist leaders were concerned about the expected size of the Arab minority. A good example of that concern is an October 1947 telegram from Moshe Shertok to David Ben-Gurion. Shertok was the "foreign minister" of the Jewish Agency, part of autonomous government of the Jewish community in Palestine; Ben-Gurion was head of the Agency. Shertok was in New York, where the final version of the partition plan was being hammered out. The plan allowed Arabs living in the Jewish state to opt for citizenship in the Arab state or the Jewish state, and for Jews living in the Arab state to do the same. Jerusalem residents could also choose to be citizens of one of the states.

Were the U.N. plan to include a population transfer, that would be ideal, Shertok implies, but this was not in the cards. Since the Arabs would stay put, it would be best if they chose citizenship in the Arab state, so that they would not be able to vote in the Jewish one. Meanwhile, the Jewish political majority would be boosted by Jews living outside the state.

It should be no surprise that Zionist leaders thought about transfer. Population transfer—less politely, the forced uprooting of men, women and children in order to create ethnically homogenous states—was part of the Zeitgeist. The original British proposal for dividing Palestine, submitted by the Peel Commission in 1937, included transfer of Arabs out of the Jewish state, and cited the forced exchange of 1.3 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks in 1923 as a positive precedent. After World War II, that precedent became the brutal norm in Europe, as Tony Judt writes in his epic work Postwar: 160,000 Turks expelled from Bulgaria to Turkey; 120,000 Slovaks sent from Hungary to Slovakia in exchange for the same number of Hungarians going the opposite way: nearly 3 million Germans expelled from the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, with the approval of Britain, Russia and America. The full list is much longer.

"The term 'ethnic cleansing' did not yet exist, but the reality surely did," Judt writes. It was a crime against humanity, described as such at the time by morally awake observers, yet accepted by pragmatic statesmen as a necessity.

All the same, the evidence is missing to back up the claim that the Jewish leadership planned from the start to expel the Arabs. In fact, there is strong evidence for the opposite: The leaders of the state-to-be expected and planned for the Arab population to stay put. That evidence comes from the report of the opaquely named body known as the Situation Committee.

In October 1947, it was clear to the heads of the Jewish governing institutions in Palestine that the British Mandate would soon end. They needed to plan how to run a country—build roads, deliver mail, provide health care, maintain sewage lines. The Situation Committee was created in order to draw up a blueprint. Ben-Gurion chaired it. Other senior politicians, including Golda Meir, headed subcommittees that designed ministries, down to the number of district veterinarian officers and school inspectors, and the precise budget needed to pay them.


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