Book Review: Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh
Book Review: Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh
Yale University Press, London, 2010.
Reviewed by Jim Miles
Was Palestine betrayed? Of course it was, by the British, the United States, France, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the remnants of the Ottoman empire, all of the regional Arab countries, and by certain elites and powerful of Palestine itself. Efraim Karsh makes the latter two the main if not the sole responsible for the nakba - the disaster - that occurred in 1947-48 with the announced partition of Palestine followed by the declaration of the state of Israel. “Palestine Betrayed,” as portrayed by Karsh, is the story of the connivances of the Arab leaders in the region along with the elites of Palestine while the Jewish population continually offered peace and coexistence with their brethren and encouraged them to stay in their villages and towns to become partners in the new state enterprise.
Karsh is both right…
Karsh is right in that, yes, the Palestinians were in essence betrayed by the Arab leaders at the time more concerned about their own scenarios and power bases than that of a nascent Palestinian nationality. Further he is correct in that some of the local Palestinian leadership - or what remained of it after the British military violently dealt with them in the previous ‘Arab revolt’ - told the people of the towns and villages to evacuate and retreat away from the advancing Jewish forces. He presents many quotes from Jewish leaders, Ben Gurion in particular, that attempt to show that the Jewish people wished to live in peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbours.
…and horribly wrong.
His approach and methodology of trying to reconstruct the arguments around the nakba are horribly wrong in several ways.
In the introduction he writes, “It is understandable for leaders and politicians, culpable for their nation’s greatest ever disaster, to revert to hyperbole and lies in their quest for personal and collective exoneration, it is inexcusable for future generations of scholars and intellectuals to substitute propaganda for incontrovertible facts.” In other words, “These politicized historians have turned the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with the aggressors transformed in hapless victims and vice versa.”
His main historical criticism is directed at the “new historians” - who have “total unfamiliarity…with the Arab world…and their condescending treatment of the Palestinians as passive objects.” He says that, “rather than unearth new facts or offer novel interpretations”, they have “recycled the standard Palestinian Arab narrative of the conflict.” Karsh then continues to announce that “the recent declassification of millions of documents from the period of the British mandate and Israel’s early days, documents untapped by earlier generations of writer and ignored or distorted by the “new historians.”
The result is that the new documents reveal “that there was nothing inevitable about the Palestinian-Jewish confrontation….that the claim of premeditated dispossession is not only baseless but the inverse of the truth,” and that it was the Arab leaders “against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival.”
“It is to reclaim this historical truth that this book has been written.” Karsh succeeds, and he fails.
If the reader is unfamiliar with any other writings on Israel, the “new historians” that Karsh so disparages (and to the uninitiated, the new historians are predominantly if not solely Israeli academics), and if the reader is unfamiliar with the larger historical contexts of the world’s empires during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century and their impacts within the Middle East, the reclamation of historical truth works. That is, it does present a picture of a peaceful Jewish population betrayed by a greedy, backwards, ineffective, and self-serving Arab leadership.
Unfortunately there are several problems with this presentation. The first is that while Karsh casually dismisses the new historians, he does nothing to deconstruct their arguments. And while he attempts to present the situation as a new revelation that the “new historians” have ignored, he is fully wrong. Karsh cherry picks his arguments (looks for quotes that support only his idea) without making any attempt to contradict or counter the arguments of the new historians, with no demonstration of where their arguments are wrong.
Much more revealing for anyone who has read the “new historians” is that they agree with Karsh - the Palestinians were betrayed by their own kind - and several of them spend a fair amount of time criticizing the actions of the leaders of the Arab nations struggling for their own position and power in a world still largely controlled by old empires. But that is only one side of the coin, and where Karsh goes wrong is not representing the overall aim of the original Zionist enterprise and its ongoing belief and attitude towards its domination and control over a “land without people for a people without land.”
Demographics - as always.
Population demographics is another theme where Karsh goes wrong. He has many chosen quotes about how peaceful and trusting the Jewish people were and that they wished the Palestinians to work with them in their new state. The error is that of demographics: this wish for peaceful coexistence was always expressed with the accent on the Jewish people having the majority of the population. By distorting this item, and then ignoring the many statements about the plans for ethnic cleansing via population transfer, expulsion, and/or outright killing of the local inhabitants, Karsh denies support to his argument that “premeditated dispossession is baseless.” From its inception, to the current reality of the ongoing settlements, demolitions, expulsions, and biased civil and military laws, and possible future population transfer during some large military event (created for that purpose, as one could imagine with Iran), the idea of dispossessing the Palestinians cannot be denied.
An imagined reality
There, I stepped into the boundary I do not like to cross, that of conjecture. But that introduces another failing of Karsh’s arguments, that of using conjectural material as if it is valid factual support for his presentation, especially fictional material about a supposed happy future as compared to historical fiction that incorporates the actual events of history. He quotes the Zionist novel “Alteneuland” (1923) by Herzl as if the imaginary speaker’s voice represents the reality of the Palestinian people. In an academic argument that is simply baseless and false, a reversion “to hyperbole and lies in their quest for personal and collective exoneration.”
It continues in other arguments, where Karsh describes a besieged kibbutz and how it fought to the last man, followed illogically - at least for an academic argument and not one based on politicizing the saga of Israel’s birth - by the comment “True or not….” Well, is it, or is it not? By the manner in which it is presented I would have to guess not, but it apparently does serve as “a symbol of heroism” for the “Israeli collective memory.” A true ‘false flag’ operation.
Another theme that is constantly reiterated throughout the work is the “massive” amounts of armaments that the Arab Palestinian population received contrasted with the isolated, over-whelmed, and poorly armed Jewish citizens. Alongside that, the Haganah is mentioned a few times but never described as to its overall purpose or power, nor are the other Jewish paramilitaries (Irgun and Stern gangs) and their effects and power presented.
Karsh never does put a number on the “massive” amounts of armaments although elsewhere in the work he seems quite capable of finding historical records that put very precise numbers on items for discussion be it economics, land sales, food distribution, or the inevitable figure of discussion, the refugee populations and the villages from where they originated. In contrast, the “new historians” are quite capable of finding references to armaments obtained by smuggling in European arms, and their relatively high sophistication compared to the arms of the Palestinians.
Similarly with the Jewish paramilitaries, the “new historians” present much documented material concerning the role of these militaries, their training during the Second World War with the British command, and their superiority in numbers compared to the number of Arab fighters in Palestine, before or during the 1948 war. Karsh seems to be able to find all sorts of numbers by town and village for the Arab fighters, but provides little of anything for the Jewish forces, nor does he mention their training and overall superiority in numbers.
Deir Yassin - a unique tragedy.
Karsh deals with the displacement and expulsion of the Palestinians dismissively. Except for the one exception of Deir Yasin, a “tragedy” or at worst a “carnage”, all the villages and towns of Palestine as well as the cities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Jerusalem were vacated on the orders and recommendations of the existing Arab authorities. He complains that Dier Yasin “would become the most effective Arab propaganda tool against Israel….the widely exaggerated descriptions of Jewish atrocities, especially of alleged rapes of women that never took place, spread panic across Palestinian society and intensified the ongoing mass flight.”
Well, again, true and not true. It certainly became the “most” effective propaganda tool against Israeli military occupation, and yes it did spread panic, as that is the intent of any military action on a populace. However it is not the only incident of massacres of civilians, nor does it allow that over 450 Palestinian villages were immediately destroyed in order to prevent the return of the refugees, who under international law have the right of return.
Beit Daras - a reality
Any incidence of massacres or forced evictions and destruction of villages of towns would obviously be downplayed in any Haganah/Israeli records. The language of the victors would certainly minimize anything that might incriminate themselves and thus the reports would indicate only that the residents fled on their own initiative, at the urging of their own leaders, in spite of Haganah’s supposed efforts to retain the population in the villages.
Beit Daras was situated 46 kilometers north east of Gaza city, with no real claim to fame other than that of a long standing local village that survived many series of invading armies passing over and around its location. However, shortly after 1917, the British built a police station east of the village which served to “ensure the safety of a Jewish colony known as Tabiyya.” While the record supports Karsh’s contention that the Jews and the Palestinians coexisted peacefully, there was till an underlying tension, in particular from the British patrols into Beit Daras. In contradiction to Karsh’s contention however, is the knowledge within the Palestinian population that the “Jewish immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not the typical seekers of religious salvation and escapees of oppression. They were part of a Zionist program to conquer Palestine, all of it, and eject its people.”
From there the reality became that of another massacre of civilians by Jewish forces, unrecorded in the history books but well represented in the personal lives of those who lived there and survived as refugees retaining the eternal hope of their right of return. Beit Daras was part of the plan in the region to deny Palestinian base operations, create panic and break morale in order to cause the exodus of the inhabitants.
On May 21, 1948 the village was surrounded by Jewish forces. News of the Deir Yasin massacre had reached the village and the women and children were encouraged to leave. When the fleeing families reached the outskirts of the village “they were faced with indiscriminate Zionist shelling no less ugly than that of Deir Yassin…265 victims fell on that day, mostly, children, elders, and women.” Another witness recorded that “The Jews let the people get out, and then they whipped them with bombs and machine guns.”
I would wonder what the Haganah record shows for the fight for Beit Daras, and how many other Beit Daras’ and Deir Yasin’s there are that would simply be recorded as ‘villagers fled…men of fighting age detained’.
Another massacre occurred within recorded history at Tantura, a village on the Tel Aviv/Jaffa coastline. Attacked from four sides, the captives “were moved to the beach. There the men were separated from the women and children….Two hundred men between the ages of thirteen and thirty were massacred by the Alexandroni and other Jewish forces.” Another incident of the not unusual scenario where military actions go against international and humanitarian laws, both for civilians and military prisoners.
Certainly two massacres would have been enough to cause widespread panic and fear as an inducement to flee the villages. Yet another “new historian”, Benny Morris (who has more recently rescinded his earlier ideas and become a recidivist historian - yet whose research cannot be denied) reported “a far more plausible reason for the Palestinian flight: a systematic Israeli policy of massacres in Palestinian towns and villages, at least 24 according to his most recent, conservative estimates; the rape of women and girls by Israeli soldiers; and arbitrary killings.” Further:
…in the country’s northern Palestinian heartland there was an unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion. That can’t be chance….various officers …understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads…Ben-Gurion [see below] silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres.” 
Karsh argues that there was no plan to systematically ethnically cleanse Palestine, yet it is known that the idea is an underlying theme of Zionist thought from its inception. And truthfully, again, there was no “systematic plan,” just the underlying motive combined with whatever local situation evaluation the field commander found themselves dealing with while operating under a general plan to gain land and more land with as few Palestinians as possible.
Unfortunately for Karsh, the record of anecdotal histories of the massacres, killings, expulsion and destruction of villages immediately after the expulsions - while it does not deny the wish to live peacefully alongside the Jewish people - does not support his thesis that the Jewish leaders and military were at all accommodating to the Palestinian people. Nor does it support his argument that the Palestinians initiated all the fighting and that the supposedly under-armed, under-manned Jewish forces prevailed over enormous obstacles.
Ben-Gurion and “Jewish coexistence”
Ben-Gurion is frequently quoted along the theme of desiring the Arabs to remain in place and live peacefully in coexistence with the Jewish population. As mentioned previously, that was generally within the context of the main Zionist fear of demographic dominance by the Arab population. In his conversations with political leaders from the Arab countries around the region, his tone was always one of restraint and egalitarian purpose, accepting that the Arab population remain in place. Similarly with the local Palestinian leaders, his rhetoric as quoted was all about coexistence with the Arabs participating in the wonderful modernity of the Jewish people.
Any reader who follows politics should know that the rhetoric provided by political leaders has many purposes: to hide, conceal, manipulate, placate, dissimulate, and on. The rhetoric differs in tones of condescension depending on whether the target is considered to be in a superior position in consideration of the aid that could be provided, or whether the target is considered inferior and, as in this case, backwards, uncivilized, and potentially hostile to one’s real intentions. Ben-Gurion spoke well, disarming his European critics, placating the antagonistic but manipulable Arab neighbours, yet ultimately saying nothing to the everyday Palestinian working and living in the villages and towns of the area he wished to control - other than what was spoken by the deeds of the Jewish militaries.
Ben-Gurion was no saviour offering freedom and democracy, which is really above and beyond coexistence, as evidenced by informative quotes that Karsh simply decided to ignore. Ben-Gurion “clarified in his diary that settlement and, when circumstances would allow it, the transfer of the indigenous population would ensure the realization of the Zionist dream….For Ben-Gurion, land was everything.”  Early in 1948, he indicated, “If we receive in time the arms we have already purchased…we will be able not only to defend but also to inflict death blows on the Syrians in their own country - and take over Palestine as a whole….This is not a mystical belief but a cold and rational calculation based on practical examination.”
Earlier, in 1937, before the holocaust added its impetus to the desire for Palestine, Ben-Gurion “demonstrated a clear stand: it was better that the smallest possible number of Arabs remain with the area of the state.” In 1947, before the UN General Assembly Resolution was adopted, Ben-Gurion spoke to the Executive of the Jewish Agency indicating “in the clearest possible terms that ethnic cleansing formed the alternative or complementary means of ensuring that the new state would be an exclusively Jewish one. The Palestinians inside the Jewish state…could become a fifth column, and if so ‘they can either be mass arrested or expelled; it is better to expel them.”
And finally on Ben-Gurion exclusively, he stated in a closed forum meeting, “With compulsory transfer we have a vast area [for settlement]...I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.”  Other than perhaps it is against international law, against the will of the people, against common sense, and the means to the end is by way of massacres and demolitions, certainly gives another meaning to Ben-Gurion’s sense of morality, the Jewish overlord ridding himself of the pestilent, backward, and uncivilized and uncultured Palestinians. How neighbourly, how democratic. These are not statements extolling the virtues of peaceful coexistence, either with regional neighbours or within Palestine.
New Historians and others
The new historians, as quoted above, were overwhelmingly Israeli academics and researchers availing themselves of both the newly released confidential government files as well as having direct access to the Palestinian population. Karsh’s condescending - and with a high probability, erroneous - remarks that the new historians were “[totally unfamiliar] with the Arab world - its language, culture, history, and politics - and their condescending treatment of the Palestinians as passive objects….” needs to be reflected in turn upon Karsh himself, as he appears to have viewed the whole spectrum of ideas through rose-coloured polarized laser narrow lenses.
The few new historians quoted above are not the only few that have searched the records and examined the history of Israel from a new perspective such that the “saga of Israel’s birth” has been given a new critical perspective that reaches beyond the officially proclaimed propaganda. Beyond those of Israeli heritage are other academics who are able to look at the historical record and give it its proper perspective, not just for the events of 1947-8 but within the overall context of Zionist intentions from the nineteenth century onward.
Avi Shlaim notes the “popular heroic-moralistic version of the 1948 war is the one that is taught in Israeli schools and used extensively in the quest for legitimacy abroad….Until recently this standard Zionist version of the events surrounding the birth of the State of Israel remained largely unchallenged outside the Arab world.” The “new historians” he indicates are not all that new as “Many of the arguments that are central to the new historiography were advanced long ago by Israeli writers, not to mention Palestinian, Arab, and Western writers.” His first example of the different interpretations concerns Ben-Gurion as being the driving force behind “the policy of expelling the Palestinians,” but follows with the note that these ideas are foreshadowed by Lieutenant-Colonel Israel Baer a former official historian for the IDF in 1966. Shlaim also indicates “Although many of the arguments of the new historiography are not new, there is a qualitative difference…” the difference being “access to official Israeli and Western documents.” 
As for the role of the historian, Shlaim says,
“the historian’s most fundamental task is not to chronicle but to evaluate…to subject the claims of all the protagonists to rigorous scrutiny and to reject all those claims, however deeply cherished, that do not stand up to such scrutiny. In my view many of the claims advanced by the old historians do not stand up to serious scrutiny. But that does not mean that everything they say is untrue.”
From my perspective, as an analyst and advocate, that reflects back onto Karsh, who says much of what is true, but again has only viewed the spectrum of ideas through rose-coloured polarized laser narrow lenses - he saw only what he wanted to see.
…a final few offerings…
Up to this point I have concentrated on Ben-Gurion, as he was central to the whole expulsion/war process and is frequently referenced by Karsh as extolling the virtues of retaining the Arab population within some scheme of peaceful co-existence. Again a reminder that what political figures say to different other people can be many faceted, used to argue, persuade, dissimulate, obfuscate, manipulate but very rarely to provide a balanced honest view with an advocacy of a truly legal humanitarian goal. There is far too much evidence that Ben-Gurion, particularly during the period preceding the Arab revolt before World War II discussed frequently and strongly the need to expel the Palestinian population in order to avoid the demographic problem (which ironically plagues the current situation in Israel, especially if one incorporates Gaza as a de facto Israeli protectorate).
To fully deconstruct Karsh’s arguments would involve a much longer article than the present one. The topics would still include more on Ben-Gurion, but also on other ideas that Karsh continually brings forth. But the overall themes, of Jewish acceptance and tolerance of the Palestinians, of Ben-Gurion’s advocacy of coexistence, and the “massive” military confronting the heroic outgunned Jewish settlers are all part of the canard that Karsh creates.
Karsh frequently uses the word “canard” to describe the historical record created by the new historians. The word itself is defined as “false report; hoax.” This does not mean that what is said is a “lie” as a false report or a hoax can be created by manipulation of data - omissions, insertion of hyperbole - “massive “ - conjectural statements - “
what ifs - maybe “true or not” - dissimulation - concealing and not acknowledging information - obfuscation (the use of big words to confuse the issue) - so Karsh is not accusing the new historians of lying, but of creating a hoax.
The bigger hoax upon analyzing and evaluating Karsh’s work is his own attempt to “reclaim the historical truth,” whereas in reality he does what he accuses, “to substitute propaganda for incontrovertible facts.” Karsh does have “facts”, but used as propaganda - the two actually go quite well together when one is creating a hoax. The missing information, the hidden information, the complete and fully analyzed historical record supports the ideas as represented by the “new historians.”
One of the particular outcomes of this work is both subtle yet obvious - a nuance of the idea of betrayal. The Israelis have always claimed that there are no leaders to negotiate peace with. This problem started particularly with the brutal British repression of the Arab revolt of 1937-39 and continues through to the present with the few leaders that rise to the occasion being assassinated, imprisoned and tortured, expelled, or bought out to become quisling representatives of the Palestinian people. The message, not stated, is clear from Karsh: the Arabs cannot be trusted as they would betray their own kind - and if they would betray their own kind, how could one expect to negotiate a peace treaty with them now? When one’s leaders are continually done away with in one form or another, yes, it is certainly hard to negotiate with them. One could of course be more democratic and give the people of occupied Palestine a referendum on what they wanted for their own future - as if the answer is not already known.
Karsh’s writing is a betrayal - a betrayal of truth, morality, and reality. Yes, the Palestinians were betrayed, yes they were betrayed by their own self-proclaimed leaders, but they were also betrayed by the presumption of Zionist moral superiority, by the British, the French and just about anyone else they came in contact with. That betrayal continues today, with the ignorance and arrogance of U.S. support for a militant, unforgiving, immoral occupation of a people who had little say in their own destiny as the imperial overlords fought to control and colonize their lands, farms, fields, towns, and villages, and to expel them in order to create a “pure” Jewish state.
“Palestine Betrayed” is a hoax - one that speaks the truth, yet conceals much more than it reveals, and creates a ’neo-revisionist’ canard about the Palestinian expulsion. In his own words, “rather than unearth new facts or offer novel interpretations”, Karsh has “recycled the standard [Zionist/Israeli] narrative of the conflict.” By all means read it, but also read the sources referenced here and follow along with other sources cross-referenced within them.
 Baroud, Ramzy. My Father Was a Freedom Fighter - Gaza’s Untold Story. Pluto Press, London, 2010. p 32-3.
 Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006. p. 136.
 Cook, Jonathon. Blood and Religion - The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State. Pluto Press, London, 2006. p. 112.
 Pappe, ibid. p. 93-4.
 Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 2006. p.46-49.
 Morris, Benny. One State, Two States - Resolving the Israeli/Palestine Conflict. Yale University Press, London, 2009, p.67.
 Shlaim, Avi. “The Debate about 1948.” Ed. Pappe, Ilan. The Israel/Palestine Question - A Reader. 2nd Edition. pp 139-160.
For further readings, a list of book reviews
is available at Palestine Chronicle (search: Jim Miles); or