Back to the Future

National Public Radio’s look back to the beginnings of the Arab-Israeli conflict moved in its third installment to the 1948 period, centering on Israel’s War of Independence, and like the first two segments, this one was marred by grave errors and omissions. For example, in discussing British restrictions on Jewish immigration, NPR mentions only the postwar period, when displaced persons and Holocaust survivors were confined in European camps. But NPR ignores the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims who died during World War II solely because Britain barred Jewish immigration to pre-state Israel, the only place willing to accept Jews in those desperate days. NPR listeners might have better understood the history supposedly being covered had this segment mentioned, for example, the British government’s opposition in 1943 to a plan to evacuate Jews from Rumania and France for fear they might end up in Mandate Palestine. As an official British memo put it:

… the Foreign Office are concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy occupied territory. … They foresee that it is likely to prove almost if not quite impossible to deal with anything like the number of 70,000 refugees whose rescue is envisaged. (David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews)

With no country willing to accept these people, many, like the refugees on the steamer St. Louis, died in Nazi death camps after they were forced back to Europe. Others, such as 768 passengers on the Struma, died when their unseaworthy vessels foundered.

Unfortunately, NPR’s version of history obscured from view the callousness and cynicism of the pro-Arab British Foreign Office during the war, and left mysterious the quite natural reaction of the leaders of pre-state Israel. Instead of explaining any of this, NPR’s Mike Shuster informed listeners that, “Once it was certain that Hitler’s Germany was defeated, the Zionists turned on their erstwhile allies” …But the British had not been allies, erstwhile or otherwise.

While the segment dealt extensively with the Palestinian refugees, it ignored entirely the roughly 700,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who were expelled during and after 1948. Many of these families were able to trace their roots in their former homes to before the Islamic conquest of what is now called the “Arab world.” More than 500,000 of them made their way to Israel. Despite this, their history was erased by NPR.

Besides these crucial omissions, the segment also abounded in errors. For example, in describing the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Irgun, an underground Jewish group, Shuster called the hotel the headquarters of the “British administration,” and stated that “Ninety were killed: roughly 30 Jews, 30 Arabs and 30 British.” In fact, it was British military headquarters, warnings from the Irgun that there was a bomb in the building were ignored by the British, and the actual death toll was 41 Arabs, 28 British, 17 Jews, and 5 others.

Once again Philip Mattar was featured, repeating some of the same falsehoods he had uttered in the previous segment:

The Jews were being offered 55 percent of Palestine when in fact they had owned only seven percent of the country. Four-hundred-fifty thousand Palestinians were going to end up within the Jewish state, and they did not see any reason why they should go along with that kind of inequality, that kind of injustice.

Mattar’s clear, and false, implication is that if Jews owned only some small percentage of the land, then Arabs must have owned the rest, in this case more than 93% of the country.

But this is nonsense – in Mandate Palestine the Arabs owned little more land than did the Jews. Indeed, going back to Ottoman times, most of the country was state-owned land, not under any individual ownership. Thus, under the Ottoman code one of the main land categories was miri, meaning land belonging to the Emir. During the Mandate, the British carried out detailed land surveys, marking off who owned what, and according to figures in the British Survey of Palestine (republished and endorsed by Mattar’s Institute for Palestine Studies), at least 65% of the country was state land, and probably much more than that.

As for Mattar’s statement that it would be an “injustice” for 450,000 Arabs to live under Israeli sovereignty (actually it would have been closer to 350,000 Arabs), one wonders if he felt it was a similar injustice that at the same time more than 700,000 Jews lived under Arab sovereignty throughout the Arab world. Unfortunately, it apparently never occurred to Shuster to ask.

Discussing the war that the Arab states launched after Israel declared its independence, Shuster did say, “The new Israeli state fought for its very existence on four fronts,” but he followed this with the misleading claim that the “Arab armies were disorganized and weak. By November it was clear they could not defeat Israel.”

In fact, Israel was almost overrun in the first days of the war. An Egyptian armored column advanced up the coast, getting within 21 miles of Tel-Aviv before it was finally halted by ill-equipped Jewish defenders armed with Molotov cocktails and old rifles. Well- equipped Jordanian forces moved through the West Bank, overrunning Israeli communities such as Gush Etzion, whose defenders surrendered after a two day fight and were then massacred by Palestinian forces. The Jordanians also took the ancient Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, expelling all the Jewish residents. This was ethnic cleansing par excellence, though unmentioned by NPR.

The Jordanian army, known as the Arab Legion, was led by an experienced British soldier, General Sir John Bagot Glubb, and its leadership included 40 British officers. The Israelis had no such experienced senior officers, and through the first desperate weeks of the war had only 3 tanks, 5 artillery pieces and no air-force, to confront invading Arab armies that boasted 270 tanks, 150 field guns and 300 aircraft. (The Arab Israeli Wars, A.J. Barker)

That the Israelis held off the Arab assault for nearly a month until the first UN-imposed truce was nothing short of miraculous. During the brief lull in the fighting Israel worked desperately to build up its strength, with arms buyers scouring Europe for surplus weapons, and Jewish veterans from the US and Australia arriving to bolster depleted ranks. The reinforcements in men and material, and the experience gained in the first round of fighting, allowed the Israeli Army to go on the offensive when the combat resumed, and eventually to push most of the Arab armies out of the country, with the exception of the Jordanians, who continued to occupy East Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and the rest of the so-called West Bank (the British Survey termed the area Judea and Samaria).

In trying to make the war seem like a walkover for Israel, NPR also neglected to mention the enormous casualties Israel suffered – more than 6000 dead, fully one percent of the population. In equivalent U.S. terms today, that would be 2.7 million dead.

Ignoring all these relevant facts, NPR and its handpicked “experts” instead repeated claims that I srael systematically expelled the Palestinians, denying that the refugees were in some cases encouraged or even ordered to flee by Arab leaders. Howard Sachar, for example, claims that:

No Arab government was ordering these people to flee. On the contrary, they were ordering them to stay put, under no circumstances to give over their territory to the Jews. It is a myth to assume that these people left voluntarily.

Shuster then informs listeners that:

Over the past two decades younger historians in Israel have argued, using declassified government papers, that in fact Zionist military operations caused the Palestinians to flee. There is now some agreement on this greatest of controversies, between traditional Zionist historians and the so-called revisionists.

But contrary to this claim, even Benny Morris, introduced in this segment as one of the leading revisionists, has admitted that Arab leaders did encourage and even order Arabs to leave:

In early May [1948], units of the Arab Legion, entered the town of Beisan and reportedly ordered the evacuation of all women and children. At about the same time, the Arab Liberation Army was reported to have ordered the villagers in Fureidis, south of Haifa, to “evacuate the women and children from the village and to make ready to evacuate the village entirely.” (Morris, 1948 and After, p 100)

In addition, according to Morris, a key factor in the Arab exodus was the voluntary departure of women and children from Arab villages:

This tended to sap the morale of the menfolk who were left behind to guard the homes and the fields, contributing to the final evacuation of villages. Such two-tier evacuations – women and children first, the men following weeks later – occurred in Qumiya in the Jezreel Valley, among the Ghawarina beduin in Haifa Bay, and in various other places. (Morris, p 100)

Even Morris admits, elsewhere in his book, that the huge Arab exodus from Haifa was voluntary, to the amazement of British officers and Jewish town leaders, who pleaded with the Arabs to stay:

Under British mediation, the [Israeli leadership agreed to a ceasefire], offering what the British regarded as generous terms. But then, when faced with Moslem pressure, the largely Christian leadership got cold feet; a ceasefire meant surrender and implied readiness to live under Jewish rule. They would be open to charges of collaboration and treachery. So, to the astonishment of the British and the Jewish military and political leaders gathered on the afternoon of 22 April at the Haifa town hall, the Arab delegation announced that its community would evacuate the city.

The Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, and the British commander, Major-General Hugh Stockwell, pleaded with the Arabs to reconsider … but the Arabs were unmoved … (Morris, p 20)

For some reason, Shuster apparently felt it would be of little interest to his listeners that the largest single group of Arab refugees, those from Haifa, left voluntarily, that they amounted to 10 percent of the total number of Palestinian refugees, and that this happened after the Jewish leadership pleaded with them to stay.

Predictably, Shuster extolls what he terms “younger historians in Israel,” the so-called revisionists, who by supposedly scouring newly opened Israeli archives have rewritten the history of the conflict, exposing Israel as a country born in the “original sin” of expelling native Palestinians. In fact, the revisionists have now been subject to “revision” themselves. Other historians have checked the work of revisionists such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappe, and found nothing less than fraud, including blatant rewriting of archival material.

Benny Morris, for example, claims in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, that the Israeli leader David Ben Gurion wrote to his son, “We must expel Arabs and take their places,” which fits quite well with the assertion that Israel banished the Palestinians.

But Professor Efraim Karsh, in his book Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians, refutes this, showing that the Ben Gurion letter actually states the opposite, “We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places.” (Karsh, p. 46-51) And this is just one of the many examples of fraud and misrepresentation Karsh exposes in the work of Morris, Shlaim, et. al.

While NPR has never interviewed Professor Karsh, one of the guests featured by NPR in this series, Anita Shapira, has herself written extensively about the scholarly failings of Morris and his colleagues, in one article comparing them to Soviet propagandists:

In fact, the ideas advanced by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe, the vanguard of the “new historians,”were nothing new. An anti-narrative of Zionism, counterposed to the Zionist (and Israeli) narrative of Zionism, had existed since the very inception of the Zionist movement. Opponents of the movement, Jewish and non-Jewish, had created an entire literature explaining what was foul in Zionism and why Zionism was destined to fail, and later why the state of Israel was an illegitimate and unjust construct that had to be resisted. The Soviet propaganda machine excelled in developing this anti-narrative, and in proliferating it. Arab propaganda also did its work. And at the margins of the Israeli left, there had always been groups and currents that doubted the right of Israel to exist and stressed the wrongs that were perpetrated against the Arabs. Yet these heretical elements remained marginal in Israeli politics and culture, and failed to gain wide public support. The advent of the “new historians”changed all that. These views now gained a certain legitimacy, since they appeared in the context of a debate between ostensibly objective scholars. (New Republic, November 29, 1999)

While Shuster clearly knew how to contact Professor Shapira, he apparently felt NPR listeners would gain no benefit from knowing that Shapira and other reputable scholars have found the work of the “new historians” deeply flawed.

Shuster apparently also did not bother to ask Professor Shapira about other aspects of her easily accessible New Republic article, such as Arab massacres of Jews, including at Gush Etzion. As previously mentioned, NPR ignored that Arab massacre, and also ignored the Palestinian attack on April 13, 1948 against a Jewish civilian convoy headed to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. In that attack, witnessed by British soldiers who declined to intervene, 77 Jewish doctors, nurses, teachers and students were massacred over the course of several hours, most shot or burned alive.

But Shuster did mention one massacre, in the village of Deir Yassin, which took place just four days before the Hadassah attack:

The Palestinians call the war An Naqba, the catastrophe, and point to massacres at villages such as Deir Yassin as evidence that the Jews forced them to leave.

Apparently Deir Yassin was newsworthy in the estimation of NPR because it was an Arab village attacked by Jewish forces, who were accused of perpetrating a massacre. It should come as little surprise that in covering the story, NPR managed to omit statements from Arab residents who maintain that only fighters were killed. A resident of the village and a survivor of the fighting there, Ayish Zeidan, for example, recently stated:

The Arab radio talked of women being killed and raped, but this is not true… I believe that most of those who were killed were among the fighters and the women and children who helped the fighters. The Arab leaders committed a big mistake. By exaggerating the atrocities they thought they would encourage people to fight back harder. Instead they created panic and people ran away. (Daily Telegraph, April 8, 1998)

While NPR happily provides a platform to any Israeli or Palestinian who is willing to bash Israel, one rarely if ever hears on the network’s broadcasts a statement like Zeidan’s. Even though he’s certainly no apologist for Israel, Zeidan’s admission that most of those killed in Deir Yassin were involved in the fighting is enough to raise deep suspicions at NPR. And his admission that false Arab radio broadcasts panicked Arab villagers and caused them to run away no doubt would lead the commissars at NPR to brand him a Zionist.

The last omission of the segment concerned Palestinian refugees, with Shuster informing listeners that they fled:

… to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, and what is now called the West Bank. Thousands with their children and grandchildren live in those camps until now. And from those camps would spring the Palestinian movement – the guerilla fighters and bombmakers and political leaders – who would continue to fight Israel and challenge its right to exist, down to this day.

All those fighters and bombmakers and politicians, but apparently not even one terrorist. And not one mention that the PLO threatened to kill anyone who dared to move out of the camps – as the PLO slogan goes, “A refugee never moves except to go home.”The UN even got in on the act, passing resolutions condemning Israel for building permanent housing for refugees outside of the camps, and demanding that Israel force these poor families back into their previous state of squalor. But, again, Shuster is unaware or uninterested.

Either way, NPR is simply a parody of journalism, and Shuster’s series on the Middle East is merely the latest installment.


For more of CAMERA’s critique on the series, click here.

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