Johann Hari’s Tirade Against Israel

When Johann Hari peers down at Israel from his perch at London’s Independent, he sees avaricious land-grabbing Zionists and smells Jewish excrement (refer to his April 28, 2008 piece, “Israel is suppressing a secret it must face,” which falsely accuses Israel of poisoning Palestinian drinking water with Jewish fecal waste). At least that’s what he tells us. Thoughtful criticisms of Israel’s imperfections do not interest him. Instead Hari prefers to indict Zionism using crude imagery meant to invoke disgust. He also has a penchant for misrepresenting the intentions of the Jewish state’s iconic founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Hari revives classic libels against the Jewish community. In recent years, such tactics had been mostly relegated to fringe publications and Internet hate sites, but Hari represents a return to the mainstream of old Jew-baiting tactics. His views reflect the pernicious influence of Israeli revisionist historians, often called “new historians”, a small, but well-publicized group in high demand among anti-Israel agitators because their Jewish and Israeli heritage serves as cover for their defamation of the Jewish state.

For example, on Nov. 13, 2006, Hari cited an alleged quote by Israel’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, as proof of a sinister plan to expel the Palestinians:

When it became clear these Palestinians would not welcome becoming a minority in somebody else’s country, darker plans were drawn up. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1937: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.”

After the column was published by the Independent, Benny Morris, one of the “new historians,” who Hari relies upon, wrote to the newspaper denying that Ben-Gurion ever said that. Morris wrote:

Hari quotes David Ben-Gurion as saying in 1937: “I support compulsory transfer … The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.” The first part of the quote (“I support compulsory transfer”) is genuine; the rest ( ‘”The Arabs will have to go … such as a war’”) is an invention, pure and simple, either by Hari or by whomever he is quoting (perhaps Ilan Pappe)…

Neither Ben-Gurion nor the Zionist movement “planned” the displacement of the 700,000-odd Arabs who moved or were removed from their homes in 1948. There was no such plan or blanket policy. Transfer was never adopted by the Zionist movement as part of its platform; on the contrary, the movement always accepted that the Jewish state that arose would contain a sizeable Arab minority.

Despite the fact that the most prominent of the “new historians” repudiated his claim, Hari recycled the same quote in his April 28, 2008 piece. If Hari could claim ignorance the first time, what is his excuse for using the false quote a second time?

Not surprisingly, Hari assumes the role of victim of a Zionist smear campaign when confronted with outrage for his falsifications. But his disingenuous defense against his critics falls apart under scrutiny.

Responding to his critics in the Independent’s Open House blog on May 9, 2008, Hari draws upon the work of revisionists to cherry-pick quotes from Ben-Gurion’s letters in order to demonstrate that the Zionist leader supported expulsions. He quotes, for instance, an Oct. 5, 1937 letter from Ben-Gurion to his son Amos:

We could not tolerate vast areas of Palestine that would not be colonized by us. We will expel the Arabs, the Arabs would have to go… If we have to use force, we will use force. The appropriate moment would come if not now, later…We wait for great revolutions to come. [Ben-Gurion Archives, the Correspondence Section, doc. 19-22]

Professor Efraim Karsh of King’s College in London devotes an entire chapter in his book, Fabricating Israeli History, to an examination of the letter and other written statements by Ben-Gurion used by revisionists to support their allegation that he supported expulsion. Karsh reviewed the hand-written original of the letter to Amos, not the digital archive that revisionist Ilan Pappe – and by extension Hari – apparently rely upon. Karsh writes that the one phrase Hari cites as evidence of Ben-Gurion’s support for expulsion is at odds with the expressed intent of the rest of the paragraph and the letter as a whole. According to Karsh, Ben-Gurion inadvertently left out the Hebrew word for “not” before “expel” and this “has become a pointed weapon in the hands of future detractors, though only if the sentence is taken out of context and presented in a truncated form.”

After reading Karsh’s book, Morris, who had originally contended that Ben-Gurion unequivocally supported forced expulsions, reconsidered his view and admitted that he should have examined the original letter rather than rely on a secondary source. In an otherwise critical review of Karsh’s book appearing in the Journal of Palestine Studies (Volume XXVII, Number 2, Winter, 1998), Morris wrote:

Had I gone to the original, I would have noticed that the quotation is problematic, as three lines had been crossed out (by Ben-Gurion or someone else, subsequently), vitally changing the meaning of the passage. The text (with the lines crossed out) reads: “We must expel Arabs and take their place…”(which is how Teveth quoted the passage). But if the crossed-out lines are deciphered and reintroduced, then Ben-Gurion’s stance becomes equivocal, rendering the passage: “And then we will have to use force… without hesitation though only when we have no choice. We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place…”

Although Morris continues to maintain that the Zionist leadership supported the idea of transfer, “whether ‘voluntary’ (with Arab agreeement and compensation) or compulsory, as a solution to the ‘Arab problem,’” he acknowledges that Ben-Gurion viewed transfer as a humane solution to an intractable problem, not as the “ethnic cleansing” that Hari distorts it into.

Morris quotes Ben-Gurion from the Twentieth Zionist Congress of Aug. 7, 1937:

We must carefully examine the question whether transfer is possible, whether it is necessary, whether it is moral, and will it bring benefit. We do not want to dispossess.You must remember, that this method contains an important humane and Zionist idea, to shift parts of a people [i.e., Palestine Arabs] to their own country and to settle empty lands.

On May 7, 1944 Ben-Gurion declared:

There are Arab states around [Palestine]… and it is clear that if the Arabs are dispatched [out of Palestine], this will ameliorate their situation, not the contrary.

Whether one accepts Karsh’s view that Ben-Gurion opposed compulsory population transfer or Morris’s view that Ben-Gurion supported transfer as a humane solution to an intractable problem, neither of these views is reflected in Hari’s distorted depiction.

Hari cites another letter in his May 8 response, writing:

In a letter to the Executive on 13 July 1937, Ben Gurion wrote: “There is one point which is more important than any achievements of the Jewish people, even during the first and second Temples when the Jews were independent, and this [is] the concept of enforced transfer…With the enforced transfer we can envisage a real Jewish state….Enforced transfer is more important than a state, a sovereignty. It is the only way to ensure our national settlement in the land…The uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes, is this something Britain would dare to do? No, we have to push it to do it…and if not we will have to do it…We should release ourselves from the feebleness of thought that enforced transfer is not possible.” [source, ibid, doc. 63-67]

Hari ignores the context that both Karsh and Morris understand; the subject of population transfer was a central part of the recommendations produced by the British in their July 1937 Peel Report on the basis of its successful implementation in resolving the crisis between Turkey and Greece (See Section 10: Exchange of Land and Population under the Peel Report “Plan of Partition.”)

Although they disagree on whether Ben-Gurion supported population transfer, both Karsh and Morris agree that no plan to “ethnically cleanse” the Palestinians was ever implemented.

Anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, who clearly influences Hari’s views, continues to promote this canard, but Pappe openly disparages objective historical scholarship. While no one denies that incidents of violence against civilians occurred on both sides, Karsh has documented how Jewish officials sought, unsuccessfully, to convince the Arab population to stay put (see his piece in Commentary, July-August 2000). The Arabs themselves have been more honest and candid about this topic than Hari. A number of officials and commentators have bitterly bemoaned the fact that the early flight of the upper and middle class Arabs and the urging of Arab leaders convinced many Palestinian Arabs to flee their homes. For example, Syrian Foreign Minister Haled al Azm acknowledged Arab responsibility for the flight of Palestinian Arabs from their homes, writing,

Since 1948, we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return. (The Memoirs of Haled al Azm, p. 386-7)

Hari also presents population transfer as unquestionably evil and makes no reference to the fact that it has been applied in a number of instances with the full support of Britain and other Western powers. At the Potsdam conference in 1945, the allied powers supported the forced transfer of the ethnic German population out of several Eastern European countries. This successfully eliminated a continuing source of conflict that sparked the most devastating conflagration. While the expulsions were carried out with much brutality, the result has been lasting stability in the region. Britain and all of the Western powers recognize the result of this population transfer, as does the German government itself. In recent years, Benny Morris has even suggested that the situation might have worked out better if Israel had in fact expelled all Arabs from its territory. But the salient fact is Israel did not have such a plan.

Hari also misattributes another quote, claiming,

Towards the end of his life, Ben Gurion wrote: “Why should the Arabs make peace? . . . We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them?” [As quoted in a New Yorker profile of Benny Morris.]

In his book, The Jewish Paradox, published in 1978 (significantly, after Ben-Gurion’s death), Nahum Goldmann claims that Ben-Gurion spoke these words. Here, Hari confuses hearsay with historical evidence.

Hari gets away with fabricating and misrepresenting quotes because the anti-Israel echo-chamber at the Independent insulates him from serious scrutiny and refutation. His columns raise the question of where to draw the line between provocative writing – which newspapers understandably seek in a columnist – and irresponsible accusations that incite hatred. Misrepresenting facts and distorting the words of the an eminent founder of the modern Jewish state in order to resurrect classic anti-Jewish canards would seem to cross that line.

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