“Scores of Arabs Were Killed”

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

On Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land, the phenomenon of Palestinian-blindness, and the legitimation of massacres.

Palestinians walk next to the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem. Credit: Hannah Stonebraker

In February 2014, I heard Israeli Knesset Member Merav Michaeli tell a story: Twenty years prior, she had been a host on Friday Live, a popular weekly television program. In the tradition of the upcoming Purim holiday, the program’s hosts had planned to dress up in silly costumes. But just after 5:00 a.m., an American-Israeli physician had entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in Israeli-occupied Hebron and opened fire on the Palestinian Muslims who worshipped at their Friday morning prayer, murdering twenty-nine people. When Michaeli had heard the horrific news, she had assumed that Friday Live’s festive Purim episode would be cancelled. To her chagrin, she had been the only one who thought so. After arguments with the producers, the channel’s president had been called in and had issued an ultimatum to the 29 year-old Michaeli: Do the show, or you lose your job. So Michaeli and her co-host had hosted the show, dressed in silly costumes, with a moment’s recognition of the massacre—intended as genuine but turned lugubrious by context and costume—and then continued the celebratory Purim broadcast as planned.

Michaeli left no room for ambiguity when she recounted the story on the twentieth anniversary of the massacre: “Whether it is a horrible car crash in an Arab town in the Galilee, or a massacre in Hebron, Arab deaths don’t really matter to Jewish Israel.”

Reading Ari Shavit

A week after the talk, I read Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, billed as an “authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel.” Shavit makes sure to let readers know where he sees his book’s authoritative location: between a naive Left that overlooks Arab intimidation and a narrow Right that dismisses the Israeli occupation. He writes: “The truth is that without incorporating both elements into one worldview, one cannot grasp Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”[1]

By the time I picked it up, the book had already been showered with accolades: the New Yorker’s David Remnick told Charlie Rose that it was the “most extraordinary book” on Israel since the 1960s. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recommended that Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama read it, citing Shavit as one of the “handful of experts” that he, Friedman, had relied upon over the past three decades. The Economist gushed that Shavit’s “prophetic voice carries lessons that all sides need to hear.” Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic, wrote that the book constituted “the epic history that Israel deserves.”

One could thus expect Shavit’s book to be an extraordinary, expert, epic and authoritative history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I disagree: Shavit’s book further entrenches a local and global (the book was written originally in English) deafness to Palestinian voices and indifference to Palestinian suffering and deaths. Let us call it: Palestinian-blindness. It is the same blindness that Michaeli mentioned, and the same blindness that has enabled Israel to maintain its brutal 47 year-old military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, not to mention seven earlier decades of struggle with—and displacement of—the native population.

I make no pretense at holding some omnipotent center-ground of truth. I am a Jew from Ohio, whose favorite book at the time of my Bar Mitzvah was Leon Uris’ Zionist epic, Exodus. I am a college-educated American, whose Exodus-fueled fantasy of an Israeli “purity of arms” was cracked by the bloodshed of Israel’s attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. I am a Jerusalem-born Israeli citizen, whose soldier aspirations were finally laid to rest at age 22 when I refused to enlist and spent a month in military prison. I am an Arabic-speaking left-wing activist, and when I write about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, my aim is to bolster the struggle against Other-blindness in general—which facilitates violence—and Palestinian-blindness and the Israeli occupation in particular, an occupation that can be summarized as systematic violence against the entire Palestinian population.

Not only does Ari Shavit claim his book is an authoritative work of history, he also paints himself, as I paint myself, as Left-wing and anti-occupation. So when Ari Shavit set out to write My Promised Land, the burden was on him to ensure that Palestinian voices were represented and heard. But Shavit’s book falls neatly within the annals of more than a century of Zionist blindness to Palestinian voices, Palestinian deaths, Palestinian suffering and justifications of the expulsion and even massacre of Palestinians. This blindness was present in the early Zionist mantra of “a land without a people for a people without a land,”[2] it was present in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s 1969 declaration that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian People,”[3] it is present when self-proclaimed left-wing politicians refer to Arabs as a “demographic threat,”[4] and it is present throughout Shavit’s book.

Two Palestinian People

Throughout the first 100 pages of his book, which cover the period from 1897 until 1948, Shavit’s history is rich with personal stories of Jewish Israeli pioneers, farmers, educators, military-men, kibbutzniks, and more. Yet, throughout the same pages, Shavit only names and gives personal narrative to two Palestinians (whom Shavit primarily refers to as “Arabs”, as most Israelis do).[5] Let us look at these two stories, and what they can tell us about Shavit’s [non-] vision of The Palestinians.

Palestinian #1: Abed

“One Arab is different from the others: Abed,” Shavit writes. In the mid-1930s, Abed watched over a Jewish-owned orange grove in the city of Rehovot, 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. He was loyal and trusted. He wore “a knitted white cap, billowing Oriental pantaloons, and a proud black mustache” and when the Jewish grower went away, “he [ruled] over his fellow workers with stern dignity.”[6] Shavit goes on to assert that the Jewish orange grower “can conclude” that Abed was not a threat and that Jews and Arabs could live together in peace, “but in the far north, a great distance from the orange grove, other voices are beginning to be heard…”[7] Voices like that of:

Palestinian #2: Izz Abd al-Kader Mustafa Yusuf ad-Din al-Kassam

Shavit introduces the reader to Izz Abd al-Kader Mustafa Yusuf ad-Din al-Kassam, making careful note that he was born outside of Palestine (in Western Syria), studied Islam outside of Palestine (in Cairo), and then returned to Syria where he “became a fundamentalist revolutionary.” He began gathering weapons, information and money, initiating underground cells, “killing Jews,” and preparing for an armed struggle against the Zionists, which he decided to launch in 1935. “‘I taught you religion and I taught you nationhood,’ he said to his followers, ‘Now it’s your duty to carry out jihad. Ho, Islamists, go out on jihad.’”[8]

These are the two relevant Palestinian narratives, according to Shavit’s history, between 1897 and 1948. The local, loyal, uni-named farmer with a proud mustache, and the foreign-born, militant septi-named Islamist with Jew-hatred in his heart.[9] Shavit doesn’t quote either of their writings or speeches, aside from the two dubious lines of al-Kassem’s “sermon.”[10]

The lack of compelling, nuanced, human narratives about Palestinians and their lives in Shavit’s book is not only a failure of academic rigor or diversity of voices.[11] It is illustrative of a broader blindness that shapes Shavit’s view—along with the views of many others throughout the historical and modern Zionist movement—of the history, present and future of this place. For when the lives of the Other are pared down to a marginal series of stereotyped snippets, then the ending of those lives, whether by design or by circumstance, need not be seen as much more than an unfortunate blip. This is best illustrated, in Shavit’s case, through a specific, odd, and recurring phrase: “Scores of Arabs were killed.”

“Scores of Arabs were killed”

History’s slide towards 1948 began, in Shavit’s telling, with the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. In describing this period, Shavit acknowledges that there was a mutual “dance of blood,” but he dramatizes Jewish deaths while minimizing Palestinian deaths (or Arab deaths, as he calls them). For example, Shavit tells of Chaim Pashigoda, a 23-year old law clerk, who was murdered by a crowd of Arabs brandishing stones, hammers and knives; and of David Shambadal, an electrician, who was “hacked to pieces by a group of young Arab men” upon arrival at a café to fix the lights; and of Arabs attacking a car in March 1938 and murdering six of its Jewish passengers, including a young girl who “was raped, then killed and dismembered”. Rage triggered by the incident “brought about a failed attack of Jewish extremists on an Arab bus in the Galilee.” Arabs kill, Jews seek revenge.[12] Jews then carried out a number of successful bombings, including a market-bombing in Haifa that “killed more than thirty-five Arabs.” In an Arab-led “massacre in Tiberias, eight [Jewish] adults and eleven children were slaughtered.”

The Israeli scholar Hillel Cohen poses the following question: What defines a massacre?[13] Is it the number of casualties? Is it the means by which they are killed? Is it the degree of helplessness or innocence of those killed? Or is it the writer’s opinion as to which side is truly to be blamed, whether they are killing or being killed? In other words, why was the murder of nineteen Jews in Tiberias framed by Shavit as a “massacre,” while the murder of “more than thirty-five Arabs” was framed as a “killing”?[14] The crux of Shavit’s slanted retelling comes in what might seem like an even more minor semantic oddity: After the massacre in Tiberias, Shavit writes, Jewish guerilla units “took revenge” by attacking indiscriminately on the road to Safed, in the village of Dabburiya, and in the village of Hittin: “Fourteen Arabs were killed on the Safed road, fifteen were killed in Dabburiya, and scores were left dead in Hittin.”[15]


“Scores”, meaning “twenties?” Meaning that at least 40, maybe 60, maybe even 80 people were killed in this single attack? Enough to qualify it as a massacre? And how many children were killed here? When I read the word “scores”, I do not think “40 or 60 or 80.” I think: “A bunch. A bunch of anonymous Arabs are left dead when understandably angry Jews take revenge for the massacre of eleven children.” In other words: too bad, but not too bad. A bunch of Arabs were killed: enough to note, but not enough to stop the Purim Show.

The phrase “scores of Arabs” appears a second time, when describing “scores of Arabs” killed in bomb attack in a Haifa market, and a third time, when a describing how a Jewish doctor, named as Siegfried Lehmann, and humanized as he rushed to attend to the survivors of the “devastating earthquake that killed… scores of [Lydda’s Arab] residents.” Which brings us to Lydda.

Lydda, 1948: A Non-Reckoning

During the Nakba (the Arabic term for “catastrophe”) of 1948, proto-Israeli forces destroyed 530 Palestinian villages, committed dozens of massacres, and created a general climate of terror in which 600,000 – 800,000 Palestinians were either expelled or fled and were subsequently denied reentry by the newly founded Israeli State.[16] In a booklet titled Remembering al-Lydd, the non-profit organization Zochrot tells that in April of 1948, the Hagganah, the largest of the proto-Israeli forces, conquered and occupied a series of villages between the coastal city of Jaffa and the city of al-Lydd. Refugees from these villages fled to and gathered in al-Lydd. On July 10th, thousands of Hagganah troops stormed al-Lydd, killing residents along the way, “primarily elders, women and children” and continuing until “the streets were filled with bodies.” The Israeli soldiers proceeded to take residents from their houses and gathered them around al-Lydd’s central mosque and its courtyard. Hundreds of other residents of al-Lydd sought shelter inside a smaller mosque, the Dahamsh mosque, convinced that they would be safe from attack while in a house of prayer. But they were not: Hagganah soldiers proceeded to kill 176 Palestinians who hid in the Dahamsh mosque. According to historian Benny Morris, reports say that when David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, was asked what to do with the remaining Palestinians in al-Lydd, he waved his hand and said “expel them.” Of the 50,000 residents who had once populated al-Lydd, only 1,003 remained by the summer of 1948.[17]

“Lydda, 1948” was Shavit’s most talked-about chapter, and was published in the New Yorker as a stand-alone essay. It has been framed by many[18] as a Zionist’s reckoning with the crimes committed by the Zionist movement in 1948. “Lydda is our black box,” writes Shavit. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.”[19]

In other words, what happened had to happen. It was a zero-sum game. Or, to borrow a word that Shavit himself uses throughout the book, it was “tragic.” The use of this word is not accidental: if history is tragic, then violence is inevitable. As Shavit writes, “in the cataclysmic summer of 1948, contradiction struck and tragedy revealed its face. Lydda was no more.”

Those who call Shavit’s work groundbreaking praise his acknowledgment that crimes were indeed carried out by the Zionist movement against the Palestinians in 1948. This sets him apart from many Zionist writers and historians who either minimize the severity of events that took place or deny that a Nakba took place at all. And indeed, Shavit does not deny what happened. He writes about the killing of women and children, the massacre at the mosque (which he does call a massacre), Ben Gurion’s orders. This is worthy of acknowledgement. But does acknowledgement truly qualify as reckoning? And if it does not, how different is it from outright denial?

Benny Morris, the historian cited in Zochrot’s booklet, is the most well-known representative of the strand of Zionist historiography that both acknowledges that an ethnic cleansing was carried out in Palestine in 1948, and frames such a cleansing as just. In emphasizing its justness, Morris goes so far as to fault David Ben Gurion not for the expulsion of 600,000 – 800,000 Palestinians, but for his failure to expel the remaining 150,000. In a 2004 Haaretz interview, Shavit asks Morris if, perhaps, Zionism—which is “dangerous” for the Jews and “makes the Arabs so wretched”—was a mistake. Morris responds that it was not, adding a sweeping, orientalist generalization to the mix:

No, Zionism was not a mistake. The desire to establish a Jewish state here was a legitimate one, a positive one. But given the character of Islam and given the character of the Arab nation, it was a mistake to think that it would be possible to establish a tranquil state here that lives in harmony with its surroundings.

Shavit then tells Morris that this “leaves us with two possibilities: either a cruel, tragic Zionism, or the forgoing of Zionism”. Morris responds: “Yes. That’s so. You have pared it down, but that’s correct.”[20]

In My Promised Land, Shavit sets up the same binary: “I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”[21] Like Morris before him, Shavit tells readers that he chooses the latter. And his choice is reflected in the stories he tells. For example, in the Lydda chapter, we meet a Jewish man named Bulldozer, a tired, traumatized, dopey-sounding (he loots a camera store because “he so loves cameras”) Jewish soldier who shoots a rocket and kills seventy (exactly seventy?) Palestinians in the small mosque. We hear of young Jewish boys who philosophize on capitalism, read Gandhi, listen to classical music and who become corrupted as the war goes on and their friends are murdered. They want revenge and they become like “lustful Arab assassins” and end up killing “scores of Arabs” in the Galilee and then in Lydda (where their victims “shriek, howl and cry”). Only in the final pages of the chapter are readers introduced to a Palestinian’s perspective on the events through the eyes of a local man, Ottman Abu Hammed. It is framed with the following caveat: “Lacking a good education and any political awareness, he does not really comprehend what is going on.”[22]

How can Morris, Shavit and others read and internalize facts about the murder of innocents, about intentional expulsion and ethnic cleansing, understand that such acts were an inherent part of the way Zionism manifested itself, and still remain staunch supporters of the political Zionist movement of the present and future? Here is where it all connects back to stories and voices, to “scores” of victims, and finally to the justification of massacre.

From Lydda 1948 to Gaza 2014

Shavit’s book endeavors to widen the scope of the Israeli Zionist narrative, but his writing is ensnared by his inability to see the Zionism’s Other—the Palestinian people—as layered and complete human beings. They are barely present in his narrative of early Zionism, which is otherwise full of stories of Jewish pioneers with individual quirks and passions. When Palestinians are mentioned, they are stereotyped and caricatured as loyal Abed or fundamentalist Izz Abd al-Kader Mustafa Yusuf ad-Din al-Kassam. Later, when a Palestinian person is finally given voice in the description of the Lydda massacre, he is described as uneducated and uncomprehending. When Jews are killed by Palestinians, their killings are dramatized and poignant: a girl is dismembered in Haifa, a massacre takes place in Tiberias. When Palestinians are killed by Jews (often out of revenge), “scores of Arabs” are left dead. When Jews commit intentional acts of ethnic cleansing and massacre, Shavit recognizes the historical facts, but preserves his allegiance to Zionism: Israel did what it had to do, scores of people died, end of story.

As I finish writing, in late July 2014, the Israeli military is engaged in what I would describe as a massacre in the Gaza Strip, forty miles south of my Tel Aviv home. The majority of Israeli society—people who, like Ari Shavit, describe themselves as liberals, profess an interest in peace, and do not actively want to harm Palestinians—is overwhelmingly supportive of Israel’s actions. We are doing what we have to do, scores will be left dead, end of story.

Ari Shavit’s book reflects much of what is wrong with how Zionism has unfolded: Israeli society has failed to truly reckon with its past. One consequence of this collective failure is a seamless continuum between past and present: what is happening in Gaza is intrinsically linked to what happened in Lydda, and before. We continue justifying our acts of murder and massacre, and we do so not because we are bad, but because we are blind.

References and Footnotes

  1. Avi Shavit. My Promised Land. Spigel & Grau, New York, N.Y., 2013. Page xii.
  2. Anita Shapira. Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992. Page 41.
  3. Frank Giles’ Interview with Golda Meir, “London Sunday Times,” June 15, 1969.
  4. “Netanyahu: Israel’s Arabs are the real demographic threat.” By Gideon Alon and Aluf Benn, in Haaretz, December 18, 2003.
  5. One need simply to google the terms “Israeli,” “Arab,” and “conflict” together to encounter countless examples in which media and politicians are able to recognize the national identity of Israelis, but fail to do the same for Palestinians, especially Palestinian citizens of Israel or “Israeli Arabs.” When quoting or paraphrasing Shavit, I will use “Arabs,” otherwise, I will use “Palestinians.”
  6. Shavit, page 57.
  7. Shavit, page 58.
  8. Shavit, page 59.
  9. The man is usually referred to as Izz a-din al-Kassem. Providing his full name only makes him sound more foreign and scary, à la Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga.
  10. Was this a direct quote? Did he really call his followers “Islamists?” Was this a rough translation? How does one say “Ho” in Arabic? Was this just what Shavit imagined al-Kassem saying? Shavit never tells his reader. The only sources he cites for the chapter in which the “sermon” is quoted are “numerous conversations with Rehovot’s elderly orange growers, who were still alive in the late 2000s, and the local records stored in the Rehovot.”
  11. For an excellent treatment of how Shavit’s book fails across the board to include a diversity of voices, whether Palestinian, Mizrahi/Arab Jews (or “Oriental Jews” as Shavit calls them), or women, see Noam Sheizaf’s “Book Review: On Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land” in +972 Magazine, December 19, 2013: http://972mag.com/book-review-on-ari-shavits-my-promised-land/83686/
  12. When discussing the 1994 massacre in Hebron, many commentators note that Dr. Goldstein was taking revenge for the murder of Jewish members of his community by Palestinian terrorists. The day after the massacre, the New York Times quoted Noam Arnon, a settler, as saying that “Dr. Goldstein had suffered a ‘mental crisis’ brought on by frequent killings of Jews at Arab hands.”
  13. Cohen does not directly answer the question he poses. For the purpose of this essay, the dictionary definition of a massacre—to “deliberately and violently kill (a large number of people)”—suffices, although it still leaves questions unanswered (How many is a large number? Does it matter if they are armed or unarmed? Does it have to take place at once? And so on).
  14. A similar semantic question could be asked about the words “killed” and “murdered.” While it seems that Shavit is more predisposed to describe the killings of Jews as murders, there is not a consistent pattern, and he uses the words interchangeably for rhetorical emphasis, as in my own writing of this essay.
  15. Shavit, page 78.
  16. Different sources provide different numbers. The Israeli NGO Zochrot argues that 530 villages were destroyed and 800,000 Palestinians displaced. The Palestinian human rights organization Badil mentions 30 massacres (http://www.badil.org/al-majdal/item/1096-massacres-and-the-nakba#4). Israeli historian Benny Morris estimates number of Palestinians who were expelled or fled at between 600,000 and 750,000, and records 24 massacres.
  17. Remembering Al-Lydd, on Zochrot’s webiste (Hebrew and Arabic only), October, 2012: http://zochrot.org/sites/default/files/lydda.pdf
  18. Leon Weiseltier in the New York Times framed Shavit’s writing as having “the unrelenting tone of a genuine reckoning.” “The State of Israel: ‘My Promised Land’ by Ari Shavit,” in the New York Times, November 21, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/books/review/my-promised-land-by-ari-shavit.html?pagewanted=all
  19. Shavit, page 108.
  20. Survival of the Fittest?: An Interview with Benny Morris by Ari Shavit” in Haaretz Weekend Edition, January16-18, 2004. Full text available in English on Counterpunch: http://www.counterpunch.org/2004/01/16/an-interview-with-benny-morris/
  21. Shavit, page 131.
  22. Shavit, pages 128-130.