“Narratives” and what happened in 1948

One of the key questions that always comes up in debates on the Middle East are the details of what happened during the 1948 war. Among Palestinians and their advocates, the whole war is generally presented as a Zionist plot to steal the land and expel its indigenous inhabitants – which was understandably resisted by both Palestinian militias and the armies of neighbouring Arab states. This is the Palestinian “narrative” and more or less what is meant by the common use of the word Nakba, “catastrophe”, for the events of 1947-48.

But as US statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. Similarly, ‘Narratives” cannot trump historical truth or facts, as noted Israeli political scientist Prof. Shlomo Avineri recently wrote in a piece for Haaretz:

In recent debates about the Palestinian “Nakba,” the claim has been made that there are two “narratives,” an Israeli one and a Palestinian one, and we should pay attention to both of them. That, of course, is true: Alongside the Israeli-Zionist claims regarding the Jewish people’s connection to its historic homeland and the Jews’ miserable situation, there are Palestinian claims that regard the Jews as a religious group only and Zionism as an imperialist movement.

But above and beyond these claims is the simple fact – and it is a fact, not a “narrative” – that in 1947, the Zionist movement accepted the United Nations partition plan, whereas the Arab side rejected it and went to war against it. A decision to go to war has consequences, just as it did in 1939 or 1941.

Dr. Avineri goes on to note that there are German and Japanese narratives about World War II, as well. However, he adds:

But just as nobody, even in German schools, would dream of teaching the German “narrative” regarding World War II, the 1948 war should also not be taught as a battle between narratives. In the final analysis, there is a historical truth.

So how does one know the historical truth about what happened in 1948? Naturally, one reads and listens to the historians who have the greatest command of the sources from that period, and the best reputation for disinterested loyalty to those sources.

One of the historians whom this describes is Professor Benny Morris, the author of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, both of which have become essential work for anyone who wants to understand this period.

Prof. Morris has just done a lecture at the London School of Economics (LSE) which sets out much of what needs to be known about that war – you can view it here (you may have to scroll down and select the lecture entitled ““Reconsidering the 1948 Arab-Israeli War”, on June 14, 2011, to get the correct lecture.)

A briefer, less historical, discussion of past and present Middle East realities by Prof. Morris, complete with much demolishing of widespread myths, appears in this recent interview with a Turkish newspaper.