What’s left out

By Lorenzo

In a his excellent The World Is Not Enough blog, Charles Richardson comments on an essay by Israeli journalist Yossi Gurvitz.  Gurvitz’s essay applies the analogy of Germans expelled from the Sudetenland, Silesia, Prussia etc after 1945 to the Palestinians expelled from Israel in 1947-48. As Charles notes, it is a revealing analogy. But revealing not only in what it covers but what it does not.

First, as Gurvitz notes, the expulsion of Arabs from the 1948 borders of Israel was not nearly as complete as the expulsion of the Germans from the reborn Poland and Czechoslovakia and expansion of Russia to Prussia. There remains a sizeable Arab minority in Israel; there are no sizeable German minorities in Poland, the Czech Republic or the bits of Prussia that are now parts of Russia.

Second, much more seriously, there is no mention whatsoever of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. Which makes Gurvitz’s essay fairly typical liberal-progressivist effort–wanting to take Palestinian experience and perspectives more seriously while completely ignoring those of Israelis who fled the Arab and Muslim countries, and now have the dreadful bad taste to vote Likud.

Said Jewish refugees are not only of substantial numbers of people (roughly equivalent to the number of Palestinian refugees, which perhaps makes the 1923 exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey a better analogy), but came to outnumber European migrants to Israel (at least until the arrival of the Russian Jews in large numbers). As Wikipedia puts it:

From the onset of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War until the early 1970s, 800,000–1,000,000 Jews left, fled, or were expelled from their homes in Arab countries; 260,000 of them reached Israel between 1948 and 1951 and amounted for 56% of the total immigration to the newly founded State of Israel. 600,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries had reached Israel by 1972. By the Yom Kippur War of 1973, most of the Jewish communities throughout the Arab World, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, were practically non-existent.

Even the use of the term Sephardi obscures their Middle Eastern status. There is a blog dedicated to those refugees and their history. It provides a useful corrective to much mainstream commentary.

Israeli camp for Jewish refugees: a temporary erection

Israeli camp for Jewish refugees: a temporary erection

Such as Yossi Gurvitz’s effort.

If one is trying to be persuasive, taking Palestinian refugee status seriously while completely ignoring the refugee origins of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel is not a clever move. If, however, one is trying to establish one’s moral superiority, pushing buttons in such a way will more or less guarantee a hostile response, which can be great for playing status games. We also see this ignoring of inconvenient interests and experience to play status games in much progressivist commentary on immigration.

Eternal refugees
There is a very unfortunate irony here. Precisely because the Jewish state was so accepting of Jewish refugees from the Middle East (lingering internal cultural prejudices aside), it has been easier for the Jewish Middle Eastern refugee experience to be written out of the story. Conversely, precisely because the Arabs were generally such shits to the Palestinians–preferring to, as Charles Richardson alludes to, leaving them as stateless sticks to beat Israel with (and despising them for being beaten by Jews)–they remain a “refugee problem” to be blamed on Israel. So, Israel loses both ways from being much more decent in its behaviour than the Arab states.

Palestinian refugee camp: a permanent state of affairs

Palestinian refugee camp: a permanent state of affairs

Furthermore, thanks to the special definition of refugee applied to Palestinians (anyone resident for 2 or more years within the 1948 borders or who is descended from same), the Palestinians are refugees in perpetuity. We have second, third, fourth, etc generation “refugees”.

That two year residency rule is significant also. Why so short a period? Because it is embarrassing how much the Jewish influx to Palestine led to Arab (Christian and Muslim) immigration to Palestine. A significant proportion of Palestinians only have any connection to Palestine because of the Jews. The Jews brought in capital–human, financial, physical–stimulating economic activity and generating job opportunities which attracted migrants from the rest of the Middle East.

The threat of modernity
This led to a dispute within the local Arab community between those who wanted to make some sort of mutually beneficial deal with the newcomers and those who wanted to block the disruptive effect they were having on local mechanisms of social control–particularly debt bondage–through rising wages and employment opportunities. The 1936-39 Arab Revolt in Palestine was, in part, a Palestinian civil war, whereby Haj Amin al Husseini, the Grand Mufti, used religion and the politics of righteousness to bind Muslim peasants to the ruling landlord class on the basis of “hate the Jews”. Anti-Zionism-as-scapegoat-relief-valve has been a staple of Arab politics ever since–the principle was that Arabs didn’t  get democracy or (in countries without much oil) development, they got to blame and hate the Jews. (The Arab Spring was possibly a sign that such politics has been losing some of its power.)

The nightmare of armed Jewish women

The nightmare of, not merely armed Jews, but armed Jewish women

Precisely because scapegoat and righteousness politics have been so much a part of the mix, seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict as grounded in legitimate, and so manageable, grievances, is to misunderstand it. For example, characterising Palestinian use of terrorism as “asymmetric warfare” is to miss much of the point. Massacring Jews (whether they were settlers or not) was part of the game decades before Israel existed; when Jews were still very much a minority. Such killing of Jewish civilians was very useful in undermining those Arabs and Muslims who wanted to come to some sort of arrangement. Indeed, massacre as a response to the insult of equality has been part of the Muslim Middle East ever since European powers started putting pressure on for equality before the law. Culminating in the Armenian Genocide. (“Who remembers the Armenians?” is perhaps the most chillingly resonant of Hitler’s observations.)

Not only was, and is, the Arab-Israli conflict driven by the insult of equality (the “insult” of treating unrighteous Jews, or Christians in the c ase of the Armenians earlier, the same as righteous Muslims) and the authorised malice that are so much parts of the politics of righteousness; it was also a reaction against the modernising, democratising threat to traditional (and not so traditional) authoritarianism the Jewish influx, and the later State of Israel, represented.

The nightmare of armed queer Jews

The nightmare of armed queer Jews

Even European resentment of Israel is affected by a form of the politics of righteousness. By subsidising Palestinian fertility, the EU is conducting a sort of demographic war against the Jewish state. A fundamental prop of the “European project” is Europe-as-moral-beacon-and-arbiter. Now, for a continent that, in the last century or so, brought us imperialism, Leninism, fascism, Nazism, two World Wars and the Holocaust it is, as they say, a bold claim. (But a convenient one; how many of the problem conflicts the Europeans sneer at the Americans over has been the US trying to manage the poisonous legacies of European imperialism?)

The most niggling contradict of such a self-given higher moral status for Europe is, of course, Israel. A country born out of the Holocaust and based on Zionism, whose fundamental principle–Jews were not safe in Europe–turned out to be so appallingly correct. So, blaming Israel is a very congenial game for the Europeans: and the more so the more they are committed to the moral splendour of the “European project”. Even better if you can use the toxic reminder of Auschwitz against Israel, or otherwise equate Zionism and Nazism.

Seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict as “the” Middle Eastern conflict, “the” source of instability is part of this. The conflicts of the (Muslim) Middle East (the Algerian Civil War, the Syrian Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Sudanese Civil Wars, … ) regularly generate more deaths than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the “prime” source of conflict in the Middle East is nonsense-on-stilts. Blaming the Arab-Israeli conflict is just putting the Jewish state into the same role that Jews used to play–convenient and congenial scapegoat.

Gratuitous Ethiopian IDF eye candy

Gratuitous Ethiopian IDF eye candy

The politics of righteousness
That the Middle East is so riven with the politics of righteousness, which itself is so endemic to Islam, is a much more de-stabilising factor. Just as said politics are now driving out the Christians from the Middle East (including the Palestinian territories). Israeli Jews (and Israeli Christians) are the only safe non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East because they have the IDF to defend them. The fundamental principle of modern Zionism–Jews in the Middle East are only safe with the IDF to defend them–which motivated that flight to Israel from Muslim and Arab countries is also clearly true.

These other conflicts also continue to generate refugees, while Israel continues to be a receiver of refugees. Why anyone would want Israel to be more like the rest of the Middle East–such as, through the One State “solution”, creating a new Lebanon–escapes me. Except as moral posturing.

But it is not about murder, death, misery and human experiences. It is about Israel (and Palestine) as symbols. About hating a Jewish state, hating an ethnic identity state, a European settler state.

Except the last is precisely what Israel is not. Yes, European Jews founded Zionism. Yes, European Jews led the creation of the Jewish state and their political vehicle, the Israeli Labour movement, dominated it for decades. But to see Israel as a settler state is to profoundly mischaracterise it. It was not created as the colonial outreach of some metropolitan coloniser. It is and was a refugee state. And, from the beginning of Israel to recently, most of those refugees came not from Europe but from the Middle East. To see Israel as a European settler state, as a wholly alien intrusion in the Middle East, is to hugely mischaracterise it.

So, by buying into the Jews-are-settlers Palestinians-are-refugees dialectic which is so congenial to the progressivist conscience but is so profoundly wrong-headed, Gurvitz is not part of the solution, he is part of the problem. After all, if he wished to be broadly persuasive to his fellow Israelis, talking about the experience of Middle Eastern Jews would have been a great “hook” to connect with Palestinian refugee angst. Conversely, asking Israeli Jews to “factor in” the Palestinian refugee perspective while so completely “factoring out” Israeli Middle Eastern refugee experience is seriously offensive. Not helped by the suspicion that pissing on one’s moral, social, cultural and political “inferiors” might have been much of the point.

Homicidal response (1895) to the insult of equality: Armenians with no one to defend them.

Homicidal response (1895) to the insult of equality: Armenians with no one to defend them.

There is a lot more to the Arab-Israeli conflict than loss-of-land-and-property grievances. But if we are going to talk about such grievances, lets talk about all of them. The Middle Eastern refugee-and-descendant Jews look at the Arabs in precisely the same way as the Palestinians look at the Israeli Jews–as the bastards who drove us from our homes and took our property. Except the Middle Eastern Jews were taken in by a liberal-democratic polity and made full citizens; the Palestinians were stuck with their fellow Arabs. But it is precisely because the Middle Eastern Jews see their story written out of history and “global opinion” that they are so ready to vote for folk who give said opinion the finger.

Yes, Gurvitz has a point in that Israel cannot prosper as a Shin Bet state. Nevertheless, no perspective that writes the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands out of the framing has any chance of getting sufficiently broad Israeli acceptance to be the basis of any solution.

NOTE ON COMMENTS:  Anything on the Arab-Israeli conflict–precisely because the symbolic content is so high and the factual grounding so erratic–has a strong tendency to generate threads of doom. Comments will be policed for civility.  


  1. Adrien
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Anti-Zionism-as-scapegoat-relief-valve has been a staple of Arab politics ever since–the principle was that Arabs didn’t get democracy or (in countries without much oil) development, they got to blame and hate the Jews.

    Since the Holy Roman Empire equalized the balance of power with the Ottomans there’s been a concerted effort on behalf of Middle-Eastern leaders to learn our ways for their benefit. They have thus far ceased to get it. You can bet shiny yellow money they will pick a loser every time.

    Politically that is. Ethically, it’s a different matter.

    But if we are going to talk about such grievances, lets talk about all of them.

    Sure, let’s. Can we?

    Second, much more seriously, there is no mention whatsoever of..

    The fact that the number of Sephardim displaced was roughly equal to Palestinian numbers? Or at least that’s a standard riff by people attempting to be sensible.

    Hitler had influence amongst various sections of the Arab ruling classes during the 20th century, and yes, they’ve deployed anti-Semitism etc. The business about the Grand Mufti is oft paraded out in these sorts of arguments.

    But what is serious is not that this sort of thing is regularly left out but that two seperate historical narratives are on offer and you’re obliged, finally, to choose one or the other of them. It is almost impossible to discuss this matter with all the facts in attendance.

    This is more than merely a matter of manners, it has serious political consequences. One of which is that the Israeli posture, which has established a certain security but created much more dangerous emnity, needs a shift in paradigm perhaps? The US could certainly use a renovation.

    I fear it’s too late for that. So let’s get down to the war, that’s right. Get in it.

  2. Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the plug, Michael. Interesting stuff. I’m afraid it’s not clear to me why you think the expulsion of Jews from the Arab countries is relevant here. The debate isn’t about the political future of those countries; no-one is suggesting there should be autonomous Jewish territories carved out of Syria or Iraq or whatever. The debate is about the future of historic Palestine, so the focus naturally is on the provenance of its population.

  3. derrida derider
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Well I dunno. I stayed a week in Jerusalem about a decade ago – it converted me from a nice conventional “Israel is the living in a tough neighnourhood – it aint perfect but as its a democracy that’s who we should back” view to a much harder “both sides are full of revanchist religious bigots, though only one set of bigots currently has guns” view.

    No doubt you’re absolutely right that the conversion of idealist Zionism into squalid bigotry, complete with lebensraum tendencies, was a product of large scale bigotry and oppression by others. Plus of course sixty years of a state of siege does tend to warp the mind anyway.

    But to explain a fact does not change it, and anyway the list of moral outrages perpetrated by all players in that part of the world is so long that I defy anyone to draw up a sensible balance.

  4. kvd
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Does anyone still think there is a possibility of a resolution? Maybe the very best to be hoped for is ongoing harm minimisation and threat containment. To argue over the exactitude of the historical record at this point is to avoid the truth of Lorenzo’s “Note on comments” – which probably should have been placed as the leader to the post.

    God must have been really bored on the 8th day to have engineered this mess: it’s like a badly organised real world version of the Hunger Games, complete with sponsors (political, religious, blood kin) and lucrative television fodder.

  5. stuart chignell
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    @derrida derider

    Do you refer to ” lebensraum” tendencies to refer to the ongoing occupation of the Golan heights, bits of Jerusalem, etc. ?

    Were not those territories taken during the wars against their neighbours. Wars that their neighbours started. Fortunately because they promised to wipe out every jew if they won.

    I think it is fair to criticise Isreal for individual actions but I struggle to find any reason to chide them on their overall stance. How can we expect them to behave any differently in the face of the consistent threats of annihilation. The worst jew may wish for the death or expulsion of every palistinian within Isreal but even the worst do not preach the extermination of every non Jew from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt or the like.

  6. derrida derider
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Stuart, I’m not going to respond to most of that purely because it would make the thread degenerate into the typical “yer a bunch of antisemites/ yer a murderer of palestinian chidren” I/P flame war. All sides here have too much to be ashamed of to make an exchange of moral reproofs profitable..

    But my reference to lebensraum tendencies was not so much about the ongoing occupation (awful and incredibly damaging to Israel itself as it is) so much as some Israelis’ messianic wish to make that occupation complete and permanent. If extremist Pals want the name of Israel “erased from the pages of history” then they are matched by settlers and various orthodox who want the name “Palestine” similarly obliterated. And in both cases I think that if push came to shove they’d not be too upset if that means obliteration of the actual inhabitants too.

    It comes under the much wider rule where anyone who says “I’m doing this [obviously obnoxious] thing because God told me to” (eg “God gave this land to us”) should be immediately treated as a fascist. Because we know where that shit leads.

  7. kvd
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree with [email protected], and I didn’t find anything untoward in the earlier comment. ‘lebensraum’ is probably an IDF term for ‘strategic buffer’, nothing darker than that, and perfectly understandable. However…

    The other thing I’d politely venture is to say that sooner or later we need to ‘get past’ The Holocaust – capital letters and all. It happened, it was unthinkably evil, it was not the last, it will not ‘never again’ happen. Some of Lorenzo’s links to his earlier writings seem to place this of a higher importance than I’d suggest is now healthy.

    And we could maybe go from there.

  8. stuart chignell
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink


    Lebensraum is German for living space and was a term used during the Third Reich. The germans need for “lebensraum” was one of the apparent driving forces for Hitler leading the Germans into the second world war.

    If Derrida was referring to the occupation of say the Golan Heights as analogous with Hitlers invasion of Poland then at best she/he (where is the english neuter) is mistaken.

    If we are to move on form the Holcaust and forgive but not forget then surely we should also move on from an event that happened only a few years later. Namely the formation of the state of Isreal and the consequent displacement of non jewish population whether voluntarily or otherwise.

    Personally I don’t see either happening and while I deplore the human rights record of Isreal I am not going to beat them with a verbal stick until Hezbollah, Iran and others forsake their stated aim to destroy the state and people of Isreal.

  9. kvd
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Stuart. I also own a copy of google – along with a long memory. But that aside, understand that your words ‘forgive and forget’ should not be confused with, nor appended to my own.

  10. stuart chignell
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink


    Sorry KVD I didn’t mean to insult if I did but just wanted to be clear that Lebensraum was not an IDF term.

    I didn’t say forget. I think it is very important for individuals, families, communities, nations to forgive but to forget is to invite history to repeat. It has enough of a tendency to do that despite our best efforts.

  11. derrida derider
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Oh, one other thing. If it’s true that ME Jews are forgotten people its also true that there are another forgotten people here – Christian Palestinians. For differing reasons all sides have been determined not to acknowledge their existence or importance (the Israelis don’t want their American backers to notice, Fatah is traditionally hard leftwing secular and recognises no religions, and Hamas and Hezbollah don’t want people to notice they’re fighting for infidels).

  12. stuart chignell
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Or while we are at it Messianic Jews who also cop a fair bit of discrimination. Although not as much as the Palestinian Christians from what I have heard (from Messianic Jews).

  13. Posted February 21, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Actually, the cycle of violence in the conflict has been on a downward trend. For four decades, there were interstate wars in the Arab-Israeli conflict every decade–1947-48, 1956, 1967, 1973. Then it stopped (essentially because Egypt decided it was losing game it did not want to play anymore). Sure, there have been infitida‘s and various Lebanese unpleasantnesses, culminating in the recent Hezbollah war, but the scale is just not the same.

    [email protected] The issue is that it not just a one-sided pattern. Seeing Israeli Jews as foreign interlopers in the region is to mischaracterise what has been much more like an exchange of populations.

    Moreover, the Palestinians pulled the ethnic cleansing lever first, driving out the Jews of Hebron. The Jews were better organised, which is why convincing them that cohabitation was not a serious option turned out to be such a disaster for the Palestinians. Buying into a simple “blame the Jews” feeds into the worst political habits of the Palestinians and infuriates many Israelis. It will not provide any way forward. Yes, there was Jewish ethnic cleansing and that needs to be acknowledged. But so does the Palestinian habit of following truly awful political leaders.

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