Catastrophic Thinking: Did Ben Gurion Try to Rewrite History?

Catastrophic thinking: Did Ben-Gurion try to rewrite history?
The file in the state archives contains clear evidence that the researchers at the time did not paint the full picture of Israel’s role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem.
By Shay Hazkani May 16, 2013 | 1:28 PM |

The Israeli censor’s observant eye had missed file number GL-18/17028 in the State Archives. Most files relating to the 1948 Palestinian exodus remain sealed in the Israeli archives, despite the fact that their period as classified files − according to Israeli law − expired long ago. Even files that were previously declassified are no longer available to researchers. In the past two decades, following the powerful reverberations triggered by the publication of books written by those dubbed the “New Historians,” the Israeli archives revoked access to much of the explosive material. Archived Israeli documents that reported the expulsion of Palestinians, massacres or rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, along with other events considered embarrassing by the establishment, were reclassified as “top secret.” Researchers who sought to track down the files cited in books by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim or Tom Segev often hit a dead end. Hence the surprise that file GL-18/17028, titled “The Flight in 1948” is still available today.

The documents in the file, which date from 1960 to 1964, describe the evolution of the Israeli version of the Palestinian Nakba ‏(“The Catastrophe”‏) of 1948. Under the leadership of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, top Middle East scholars in the Civil Service were assigned the task of providing evidence supporting Israel’s position − which was that, rather than being expelled in 1948, the Palestinians had fled of their own volition.

Ben-Gurion probably never heard the word “Nakba,” but early on, at the end of the 1950s, Israel’s first prime minister grasped the importance of the historical narrative. Just as Zionism had forged a new narrative for the Jewish people within a few decades, he understood that the other nation that had resided in the country before the advent of Zionism would also strive to formulate a narrative of its own. For the Palestinians, the national narrative grew to revolve around the Nakba, the calamity that befell them following Israel’s establishment in 1948, when about 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.

By the end of the 1950s, Ben-Gurion had reached the conclusion that the events of 1948 would be at the forefront of Israel’s diplomatic struggle, in particular the struggle against the Palestinian national movement. If the Palestinians had been expelled from their land, as they had maintained already in 1948, the international community would view their claim to return to their homeland as justified. However, Ben-Gurion believed, if it turned out that they had left “by choice,” having been persuaded by their leaders that it was best to depart temporarily and return after the Arab victory, the world community would be less supportive of their claim.

Most historians today − Zionists, post-Zionists and non-Zionists − agree that in at least 120 of 530 villages, the Palestinian inhabitants were expelled by Jewish military forces, and that in half the villages the inhabitants fled because of the battles and were not allowed to return. Only in a handful of cases did villagers leave at the instructions of their leaders or mukhtars ‏(headmen‏).

Ben-Gurion appeared to have known the facts well. Even though much material about the Palestinian refugees in Israeli archives is still classified, what has been uncovered provides enough information to establish that in many cases senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces ordered Palestinians to be expelled and their homes blown up. The Israeli military not only updated Ben-Gurion about these events but also apparently received his prior authorization, in written or oral form, notably in Lod and Ramle, and in several villages in the north. Documents available for perusal on the Israeli side do not provide an unequivocal answer to the question of whether an orderly plan to expel Palestinians existed. In fact, fierce debate on the issue continues to this day. For example, in an interview with Haaretz the historian Benny Morris argued that Ben-Gurion delineated a plan to transfer the Palestinians forcibly out of Israel, though there is no documentation that proves this incontrovertibly.

Even before the war of 1948 ended, Israeli public diplomacy sought to hide the cases in which Palestinians were expelled from their villages. In his study of the early historiography of the 1948 war, “Memory in a Book” ‏(Hebrew‏), Mordechai Bar-On quotes Aharon Zisling, who would become an MK on behalf of Ahdut Ha’avoda and was the agriculture minister in Ben-Gurion’s provisional government in 1948. At the height of the expulsion of the Arabs from Lod and Ramle, Zisling wrote in the left-wing newspaper Al Hamishmar, “We did not expel Arabs from the Land of Israel … After they remained in our area of control, not one Arab was expelled by us.” In Davar, the newspaper of the ruling Mapai party, the journalist A. Ophir went one step further, explaining, “In vain did we cry out to the Arabs who were streaming across the borders: Stay here with us!”

Contemporaries who had ties to the government or the armed forces obviously knew that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been expelled and their return was blocked already during the war. They understood that this must be kept a closely guarded secret. In 1961, after John F. Kennedy assumed office as president of the United States, calls for the return of some of the Palestinian refugees increased. Under the guidance of the new president, the U.S. State Department tried to force Israel to allow several hundred thousand refugees to return. In 1949, Israel had agreed to consider allowing about 100,000 refugees to return, in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement with the Arab states, but by the early 1960s that was no longer on the agenda as far as Israel was concerned. Israel was willing to discuss the return of some 20,000-30,000 refugees at most.

Under increasing pressure from Kennedy and amid preparations at the United Nations General Assembly to address the Palestinian refugee issue, Ben-Gurion convened a special meeting on the subject. Held in his office in the Kirya, the defense establishment compound in Tel Aviv, the meeting was attended by the top ranks of Mapai, including Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Agriculture Minister Moshe Dayan and Jewish Agency Chairman Moshe Sharett. Ben-Gurion was convinced that the refugee problem was primarily one of public image ‏(hasbara‏). Israel, he believed, would be able to persuade the international community that the refugees had not been expelled, but had fled. “First of all, we need to tell facts, how they escaped,” he said in the meeting. “As far as I know, most of them fled before the state’s establishment, of their own free will, and contrary to what the Haganah [the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews] told them when it defeated them, that they could stay. After the state’s establishment [on May 15, 1948], as far as I know, only the Arabs of Ramle and Lod left their places, or were pressured to leave.”

Ben-Gurion thereby set the frame of reference for the discussion, even though some of the participants knew that his presentation was inaccurate, to say the least. Dayan, who as GOC Southern Command after 1949 ordered the expulsion of the Negev Bedouin, was not in a position to take issue with the prime minister’s statement that the Arabs had left “of their own free will,” despite being well aware of the facts. Ben-Gurion went on to explain what Israel must tell the world: “All of these facts are not known. There is also material which the Foreign Ministry prepared from the documents of the Arab institutions, of the Mufti, Jamal al-Husseini [He probably meant Haj Amin al-Husseini; Jamal al-Husseini was the Palestinians’ unofficial representative at the United Nations − S.H.], concerning the flight, [showing] that this was of their own free will, because they were told the country would soon be conquered and you will return to be its lord and masters and not just return to your homes.”

In 1961, against the backdrop of what Ben-Gurion described as the need for “a serious operation, both in written form and in oral hasbara,” the Shiloah Institute was asked to collect material for the government about “the flight of the Arabs from the Land of Israel in 1948.”

Nakba between the lines

The Shiloah Institute was an odd bird in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. The idea of establishing a research institute akin to an Israeli version of Britain’s Chatham House was conceived by Reuven Shiloah, a Foreign Ministry official and former Mossad man. Shiloah died shortly after he finished planning the new institute. At the ceremony marking the 30th day after his death, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Teddy Kollek, announced that the institute would bear Shiloah’s name and explained, “The institute’s purpose will be to study current problems at a scientific level … The institute will also make known to the world at large Israel’s views concerning the region.” The institute was established in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and the Israel Oriental Society ‏(the umbrella organization of the Middle East scholars‏). It was managed by Yitzhak Oron, a major in the Intelligence Corps. A study by Prof. Gil Eyal of Columbia University, proved that the institute worked closely with the IDF’s Intelligence Corps, which regularly provided it with intelligence documents. As a result, most of the papers written in the Shiloah Institute’s first years were classified and not accessible to the general public. Researchers who worked in the institute in the 1950s described their activities as largely secret and considered themselves civil servants in every respect. The institute’s studies had a reputation for thoroughness and quasi-academic quality. In 1965, the institute came under the auspices of Tel Aviv University, though its clandestine ties with the intelligence community continued for many years thereafter, ending in recent decades. In 1983, the institute changed its name to the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

For Ben-Gurion, the Shiloah Institute was the perfect place to conduct the type of study he wished to arm himself with. Still, his request to the institute to collect material about “the flight of the Arabs” seemed a bit unusual. Since the end of the 1948 War, Israel had dealt with the issue of the Palestinian refugees almost exclusively as part of the diplomatic struggle in the international arena; hardly any attempt had been made to investigate this aspect of the war. But there was at least one person in the Shiloah Institute who knew something about the Palestinian exodus of 1948.

Rony Gabbay immigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1950. After four years in a transit camp he obtained a B.A. and subsequently earned a doctoral degree in political science in Switzerland, completing his dissertation on the Arab refugee issue in 1959. However, on his return to Israel he found himself involved in a fierce controversy with the Ashkenazi academic establishment after he accused a well-known political science professor of racism.

“At that time, many like me, of Mizrahi origin, who were ambitious, saw that the door was almost closed to us, so many left for Canada and America,” he says in an interview from his home in Perth, Australia, where he has lived for more than 40 years. “I ended up here and I do not regret it in the least.” Before leaving Israel, Gabbay spent a few years at the Shiloah Institute as deputy director. He was there at the time Ben-Gurion’s request had arrived.

It is quite unlikely that Ben-Gurion knew the topic of Gabbay’s doctoral dissertation, since it had not gained much publicity in Israel. Had he known, he might have looked for an alternative candidate to write this study, which was to serve as the linchpin of Israeli public diplomacy. A perusal of the book Gabbay published based on his dissertation shows that, three decades before Benny Morris published his groundbreaking book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” Gabbay’s study confirmed what Palestinian refugees had been claiming since 1948. “In many cases,” Gabbay wrote, “such as during the battle to open the road to Jerusalem, Jewish forces took Arab villages, expelled the inhabitants and blew up places which they did not want to occupy themselves, so that they could not be reoccupied by their enemies and used as strongholds against them.”

Writing in the late 1950s, Gabbay drew on British statistics, UN documents, the Arab press and a number of Israeli documents he was able to obtain. He had no access to official IDF documents or to the minutes of cabinet meetings, of which Morris availed himself in the 1980s. Gabbay became convinced that there had not been a policy of systematic expulsion of Palestinians coming from the top, but rather that Palestinians were evacuated at the direction of local commanders ‏(such as Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin‏), although this occurred in “many cases.”

Fifty-four years later, Gabbay is astonished to find that he was able to depict the events accurately with so few Israeli documents. “To this day I am still amazed that a researcher who was very methodical and very objective was able to read between the lines of open sources,” he says.

Ben-Gurion’s unusual request to the Shiloah Institute was accompanied by rare authorization to examine Israeli archives that were closed to the public. The institute’s researchers were allowed to peruse captured documents that had been collected by the Intelligence Corps and, more important material compiled on the subject by the Shin Bet security service, some of which had been transferred from the Haganah after 1948. Gabbay: “We were told, ‘We don’t know what to do with all this material, with this crate.’ So I went to Shin Bet headquarters for three or four days and went through all the material. After that they burned it, of course they didn’t give it to us.”

But there was one stack of documents that not even the Shiloah Institute team was allowed to read through. It consisted of the transcripts of the cabinet sessions during the war, in which the ministers discussed the Palestinians’ flight and, in some cases, their expulsion by IDF units.

‘Pure research’

The file in the State Archives contains a letter Gabbay had written on his research project after he completed the work, dated August 26, 1961, and addressed to the director general of the Foreign Ministry. Gabbay writes: “With the exception of isolated cases, the flight of the Arabs was due to the cumulative effect of a number of elements in the political, military, economic, social and psychological realms … Chapters 1-6 present documents, quotations and other material which prove the ‘contribution’ of this or that cause among the causes of the flight and underscore the blame of the Arabs. Thus, for example, there is a clear proof that the Arab states encouraged [Palestine’s] Arabs to flee, that the leaders fled [first], that atrocity stories were made up, and that Arab military leaders pressured to have villages evacuated from their inhabitants etc. The seventh and last chapter cites the documents which prove the efforts of the Jews to stop the flight.” Gabbay concludes the letter by expressing “my hope that this booklet will faithfully serve Israeli foreign policy.”

More than half a century later, Gabbay recalls the conclusions differently. As part of his research, Gabbay read Intelligence Corps transcripts of local radio broadcasts of propaganda aimed at the local population by the Arab armies that operated in Palestine. The broadcasts, Gabbay says, did not support the Israeli claim about the part played by the Arab and Palestinian leaders in the flight. “There was no mention of the local Arab leaders urging the Arabs to flee, that they ‘pushed them,’ as we claimed in our hasbara. I saw nothing like that.” It is noteworthy that Benny Morris, who researched the subject 20 years later, also found no directives by Palestinian leaders or Arab rulers calling on the villagers to leave.

In the conversation from Australia, Gabbay finds it difficult to explain the disparity between his letter of 1961 stating that the Arabs were to blame, and his account today. Only in Haifa, he says, did the local leadership urge the Palestinians to leave, even though the Jewish leaders there urged them to stay. That, though, was a singular case and even there, the calls to stay were undercut by the Haganah’s shelling of the Arab market, in which civilians were killed. Gabbay denies that his work at the Shiloah Institute prompted him to change the opinion he arrived at when he wrote his doctoral dissertation.
He insists that he and the others on the research team ‏(Yitzhak Oron and Aryeh Shmuelevich‏) were asked only to collect and summarize material.

“What we did at the Shiloah Institute was pure research. In other words, what we submitted, what we got our hands on and examined was what we wrote. There was no fear. We didn’t know, we didn’t think about public opinion, we didn’t consider anything like that.”

Prof. Gil Eyal, who has studied the connection between Israeli Middle East experts and the intelligence community, explained in a phone interview from New York that the research study on the refugees could in no way be viewed as an academic text. “Without going into the motives of those who were involved, it is clear to me that this study falls into the general category of public diplomacy ‏(hasbara‏). Public diplomacy, even when academics engage in it and make use of documents according to the research methods of historians, is still very different from academic research or from other forms of objective research. That is because in public diplomacy, what to look for in the files and what to prove is set forth in advance. Naturally, then, if there are other things in the file [that do not concur with the goals], they are simply not inserted into the study, because that is not what the authors wanted to find.”

Second try

Ben-Gurion, though, was not pleased with Gabbay’s report. Immediately after its completion he ordered his Arab affairs adviser, Uri Lubrani, to write a new study. Lubrani assigned the project to Moshe Ma’oz, now a professor of history specializing in Syria, then a student at the Hebrew University and an employee of the adviser’s unit. “I went into Middle East studies with the mind-set of ‘Know the enemy.’ It wasn’t until I did a Ph.D. at Oxford that things changed for me and I started to discover the Arab side, too,” Ma’oz says by telephone.

Ma’oz was assigned a number of researchers to assist him with the study, and received a budget. He started to collect dozens of documents, in Israel and from around the world. He interviewed Israeli and British officers as well as Palestinians who remained in Israel. The 150 documents and interview transcripts were cataloged meticulously and prepared as a file of evidence. Ma’oz notes that his findings were very similar to those of Benny Morris and pointed clearly to cases of expulsion, particularly in Lod and Ramle. “I don’t think I was biased or influenced by the boss,” he says, “but it is possible that I over-emphasized the issue of the flight. The dosage was different, because I was still under the influence of the nationalist conception in which we were educated at school and in the army.”

In fact, the documents in the file of the State Archives demonstrate the exact opposite. According to Ma’oz’s own telling of the documents, they ostensibly prove, without exception, that the Arabs fled of their own volition at their leaders’ orders. In December 1961, before embarking on the project, Ma’oz wrote to David Kimche, a senior Mossad official ‏(and years later director general of the Foreign Ministry‏), to ask for help in compiling the documents. “Our intention is to prove that the flight was caused at the encouragement of the local Arab leaders and the Arab governments and was abetted by the British and by the pressure of the Arab armies ‏(the Iraqi army and the Arab Liberation Army‏) on the local Arab population.”

In a letter of summation dated September 1962, which Ma’oz wrote to Lubrani after he had completed the task of collecting the documents, he noted that he had fulfilled the assignment, and proved what he had been asked to prove: “You assigned me to gather material on the flight of Palestine’s Arabs in 1948 which attests to and proves that: “A. Arab leaders and institutions in Palestine and elsewhere encouraged Palestine’s Arabs to flee, and the local notables, by being the first to flee, prompted the people to flee.

“B. The foreign Arab armies and the ‘volunteers’ abetted the flight both by evacuating villages and by their harsh attitude toward the local population.

“C. In a number of places, the British Army assisted the Arabs to flee.

“D. Jewish institutions and organizations made an effort to prevent the flight.”

Immediately after submitting the summary report, Ma’oz left the office of the Arab affairs adviser and went to Oxford to begin his Ph.D. studies. He was replaced by another M.A. student, Ori Stendel, who continued to write the study of the Palestinian exodus. Shortly after taking over from Ma’oz, Stendel met with Ben-Gurion, who described the project as a “White Paper,” referring to the reports by British commissions of inquiry in Palestine and elsewhere in the empire. “I remember Ben-Gurion saying something like, ‘We need this White Paper, because people are saying that the Arabs were expelled and did not flee,” Stendel recalls. “As far as I remember, Ben-Gurion said, ‘They did flee, but the truth has to be told. Write the truth.’ That’s what he said.”

Stendel continued to collect material for a short time. He is convinced that the study he and Ma’oz wrote is a scientific work that proves Arab leaders called on the Palestinians to leave, though it does not avoid uncovering the cases in which expulsion occurred. After all the material had been collected, Stendel was again summoned to a meeting with Ben-Gurion, who wanted a summary of the findings. “I told him that it is impossible to speak in terms of uniformity. There was no [organized] expulsion activity, on the one hand, but on the other hand it is impossible to say that we tried to prevent the Arabs from fleeing in all parts of the country. I told him that I had no doubt, for example, that there was an expulsion in Lod and Ramle, pure and simple. He asked me, and I remember being surprised by this, ‘Are you sure?’ I replied, ‘I wasn’t there, I can’t tell you, but according to everything we read and collected, an expulsion took place there.”

As we saw, the documents in the archive make no mention of Stendel’s assertion that the research project included documents attesting to expulsion. Stendel does not rule out the possibility that an attempt was made to play down such documents, but rejects the possibility that they were deliberately hidden. “There was no guideline to the effect that this would be a propaganda study, that things would be filtered in order to help with hasbara. In practice, that might be what happened … Obviously, we worked in the Prime Minister’s Office and we wanted to help Israel in its struggle, so it was natural that we would look for the truth to prove that we did not expel people. It’s definitely possible that that was the motive, but I don’t remember that Ben-Gurion or Lubrani said, ‘You should do this and that.’”

Stendel remains convinced that Ben-Gurion really did not know how the refugee problem of 1948 was caused, because he was busy with strategic affairs and did not take the time to deal with the refugees. The proof of this, he says, is that he asked a number of organizations to research the subject, so he would get a full picture. “If Ben-Gurion had decided on a policy, then there would have been a policy, and then also, let’s put it like this: I think the Arab minority in Israel today would be a lot smaller. That is why I think that Ben-Gurion did not exactly know. It’s possible that he authorized an expulsion in one case or another, when he was told it was important for security reasons; but my conclusion is that Ben-Gurion did not authorize a policy of expulsion, and so he wanted to know exactly what had happened.”

Most historians who have researched the subject paint a radically different picture. They present evidence that Ben-Gurion knew in real time about the expulsion of Palestinians and apparently authorized expulsions in a number of cases. In the absence of reliable information from the period, it is difficult to determine with certainty whether Ben-Gurion had actually persuaded himself that the majority of Palestine’s Arabs had left of their own volition, or did not even believe this himself but wanted history to believe it.

In the meeting about the refugees at the end of 1961, Moshe Sharett, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency, suggested a modern spin: to leak the material that would be collected to foreign correspondents so that they would publish it as “objective” investigative reports without revealing their sources. “We need to see to it that articles appear in the major newspapers,” Sharett said. “That means we need to draw up a plan for each [foreign] capital, decide on a ‘victim,’ who the man will be, provide him with all the required information and all the arguments, and ensure that extensive articles appear ahead of the General Assembly session, because this issue is again becoming one of the more urgent ones.”

Ben-Gurion apparently adopted this idea. In the office of the Arab affairs adviser, Stendel did as he was asked and approached Aviad Yafeh, who headed the Foreign Ministry’s information ‏(hasbara‏) unit. According to a letter from May 1964, the two agreed to make available the material that had been collected to a correspondent of one of the major foreign magazines, so he could write a series of articles about the “flight.” According to Stendel, the plan was never implemented.

Rose-tinted history

Even though the Ma’oz-Stendel report on “the flight of the Arabs” appears to be lost for all time, the file in the State Archives contains clear evidence that the researchers at the time did not paint a full picture of Israel’s role in creating the refugee problem. The story of how the study came to be written, juxtaposed to the way the authors see it today, reflects the evolution of Israeli society’s relationship with the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba. In the 1960s, no one dared to admit publicly that Israel had expelled Palestinians, whereas today, in the post-Oslo period and following the research by the “new historians,” the subject of Israel’s culpability is no longer taboo.

After rereading the file in the State Archives, containing summaries he himself wrote in the 1960s, Moshe Ma’oz sent me the following email: “At that juncture I basically shared the views of most Israeli Jews, and that of the establishment, that most Arabs fled because their leaders escaped first and that other Arab leaders instructed them to do so. On the other hand, I did mention that Jewish organizations requested Arabs to stay and not to leave, but I did not mention that many Arabs fled for [reasons of] panic, war, massacres, etc. and that in certain places they were deported by the army. Perhaps these facts did not appear in the materials or were not known or appreciated.”

Ma’oz, then, underwent a conceptual shift at Oxford. After returning to Israel he worked for the military government in the occupied territories, but says he identified more closely with the Palestinians than with the Israeli government. Finally, he was booted out of the military government by the chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, after stating in a television interview in the early 1980s that Israel should hold talks with West Bank leaders affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Most historians in Israel and abroad no longer dispute the fact that IDF soldiers expelled large numbers of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war, and banned their return after the war. However, the debate over whether this was a preconceived plan authorized by Ben-Gurion continues. File GL-18/17028 shows that throughout Israel’s 65 years of existence, the answer to the question of “What really happened?” varied according to who was responding. Still, it is unlikely that Gabbay, Ma’oz, Stendel and Lubrani lied knowingly. More likely, they wanted to deceive themselves and create a slightly rosier picture of 1948, a formative year that changed the history of both the Jewish people and of the Arab Middle East for all time.

Shay Hazkani is a doctoral student in history at the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University.


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