The Founding Myths of Israel

Palestinians thrown into the sea in Jaffa, 1948. (From Sanbar's The Palestinians. Photographer unknown, 1948)

Recently, a veteran of the 1973 October War admitted on Israel’s Channel 2 news that he had made up one of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) most hallowed tales of “heroism” in order to boost soldiers’ morale.

Yair Nafshi, a battalion commander during that war, fabricated a tale of a daring mission starring tank commander Lt. Zvika Greengold, whom Nafshi credited with single-handedly destroying 60 Syrian tanks, thus holding off the Syrian offensive in the occupied Golan Heights. Greengold later received the IDF’s highest military honor, the Medal of Valor. “What did you want?” an unapologetic Nafshi said in the news broadcast. “We needed some kind of story.”

Nafshi’s admission raises questions about other stories Israel has spun to salvage Zionism’s legitimacy.

A land without a people for a people without a land

Perhaps the earliest story buttressing Zionist myth-making originated with Christian Zionists advocating the “return” of European Jewry to Palestine in the middle of the nineteenth century. Israel Zangwill, an ally of Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, popularized this myth. In 1901, Zangwill told a British audience that “Palestine has but a small population … Restore the country without a people to the people without a country.”

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Into exile. (anonymous, 1949)

Like many fictions, this one contained a seed of truth. Only half of Zangwill’s claim was true, however. In the age of European nationalism, European Jewry had “no country” akin to, say, the French in the state of France. Thus, Zionists yoked an accurate observation in Europe to a false assertion in the Middle East, thereby erasing the Palestinians from the debate.

The 1917 Balfour Declaration, a formal letter of support for Zionist hopes delivered by British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, was the most consequential version of this myth. It offered the military might of the British Empire to the Zionist campaign to colonize Palestine, which came under British occupation that year. The Balfour Declaration set the benchmark for subsequent Zionist mythology, dismissing the views and desires of an Arab population supposedly lacking “peoplehood” or any claims to the land. The declaration recognized “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities,” implying that Palestinians were incidental to the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” In one stroke, the overwhelming majority of Palestine’s inhabitants were recognized and denied simultaneously. The meaning of “a land without a people for a people without a land” rang no less true to Zionists and British ears. In the framework envisioned by the declaration, Palestinians might be worthy of civil and religious rights, but political rights were to be the exclusive privilege of the “Jewish people” favored by His Majesty’s Government.

The absurdity of reducing the Palestinian people to the status of “non-Jewish inhabitants” became especially clear in a 1920 official British paper on the demography of Palestine, which reported that four-fifths of the country’s 700,000 inhabitants were Arab Muslims, while 77,000 were Arab Christians. The Jewish population numbered 76,000 at the time.

Whether the Palestinians had a sense of national identity akin to the emerging nationalist sentiments in Europe is irrelevant given that Palestinians had inhabited cities, towns, and villages for centuries, tilling the soil, building a distinctive society and culture, and coalescing into a new urban middle class well before Lord Balfour’s declaration. Even Zangwill came to recognize this. Although echoing Balfour’s claim that there was “no Arab people living in intimate fusion with the country,” the presence of an Arab population was all that was needed to recognize that “Palestine proper has already its inhabitants.” In that light, Zangwill presciently warned that Zionism in Palestine would cause harm to Arabs and Jews.

These myths fostered a view, held largely in the West, that although the Palestinians were a verifiable fact on the land, they were less deserving than the Jewish people to a full spectrum of rights.

The Zionists compromised and accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, while the Palestinians rejected it and chose war

The Arab-Israeli conflict originated not with the crystallization of the Zionist movement per se, but rather, from the decision of one party –the British– to hand over the land of a second party, the Palestinians, to a third party, the Zionists. The newly established United Nations aimed to partition Palestine and effect what the British could not achieve on their own: a Jewish state in a majority Arab country whose indigenous inhabitants had no desire to concede any part of their land.

One of the most effective arguments deployed against the Palestinians states that the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community) accepted the 1947 Partition Plan while the Palestinians rejected it. This myth consolidates the view that a peace-loving Israel confronted Palestinians bent on war instead of compromise.

Let’s consider the merits of the Partition Plan, first from a demographic perspective. In 1947, Palestine was two-thirds Arab (Muslim and Christian) and one-third Jewish. Land ownership was even more asymmetrical: Jewish land ownership did not exceed 7 percent. The Partition Plan contradicted the reality on the ground. It allocated nine of Palestine’s 16 districts to the Jewish state, i.e., 55 percent of Palestine’s territory. An additional five percent—comprising the holy sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem–were designated a Corpus Separatum – an international city to be administered by the UN. Of the nine districts allotted to the Jewish state, only one had a majority Jewish population; the other eight districts’ Jewish population ranged between one and 47 percent. Jewish land ownership did not exceed 39 percent in any of the nine districts. Jewish land ownership in all of Palestine totaled 420,000 acres, while the Jewish state under the Partition Plan would comprise more than 3.7 million acres. Within these 3.7 million acres, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would become a minority in their own country overnight.

So, if you’re keeping score, the Palestinians, who comprised two-thirds of Palestine’s inhabitants and owned nearly all the land, would retain only 40 percent of their country. 

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Zionist and Palestinian landownership 1945
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Population distribution 1946

Is it any wonder that the Palestinians were adamantly opposed to the Partition Plan? Where was the compromise? The Yishuv conceded nothing but gained territory all out of proportion to its population. Zionist propaganda, however, portrayed the Yishuv’s acceptance of partition as a generous compromise (perhaps because the Yishuv would obtain less than their initial aspiration of 100 percent of Palestine. (It is important to note that the second and third largest factions in the Yishuv rejected partition precisely on these grounds.)

Never mentioned in pro-Zionists accounts of the Partition Plan is that the Arab League offered an alternative plan: a single state with equal rights for Arabs and Jews in which the Yishuv would enjoy autonomy and Jewish representatives would have a veto over legislation in a national parliament.

Why, the Palestinians wondered, was it acceptable for Western powers to impose a Partition Plan in which they forfeited more than half their country, but they were prohibited from defending their patrimony? Why was it acceptable for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to become refugees, while hundreds of thousands became a minority in the Jewish state. Why was it unacceptable for Jews to be a minority in a Palestinian state, as was already the case?

The Partition Plan reflected Western prejudice in favor of Zionism, best encapsulated by Balfour’s words in 1919: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

In the end, as Walid Khalidi has pointed out, “the genius of the Zionist narrative is its ability to depict the Palestinians’ resistance to this plan to dispossess them as Palestinian aggression, and the Zionist drive to impose this revolutionary status quo on the Palestinians by force of arms as Jewish self-defense.”

The Arabs want to push the Jews into the Sea

Elias Sanbar, in his magisterial work The Palestinians: Photographs of a Land and its People from 1839 to the Present Day, wrote that “In 1948 a country disappeared, drowned… Absence swallowed up the thousands who left their homes on foot or aboard trucks, boats, or other makeshift means of transportation… Alongside this monstrous act of plunder came an egregious narrative that accused the victims of the crime that has just been inflicted on them. The cry went up, ‘The Palestinians want to throw the Jews into the sea!’ when the Palestinians had only just pulled themselves out of the sea into which they had actually been thrown.”

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Palestinians thrown into the sea in Jaffa, 1948. (From Sanbar’s The Palestinians. Photographer unknown, 1948)
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Jaffa was supposed to be the main port of Palestine in the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced into the sea, and scores drowned, by the Zionist paramilitary Irgun. (From Sanbar’s The Palestinians. Photographer unknown, 1948)

Thanks to the work of Palestinian historians, in which the Institute for Palestine Studies has played an instrumental role, scholars of the Middle East, including those at Israeli universities, no longer accept the Zionist myth that a “David” Jewish state was nearly strangled at birth by an Arab “Goliath.” Zionist paramilitaries far outnumbered the Arab forces in 1948. A year prior to the United Nation’s November 1947 Partition Plan, the Anglo-American Committee estimated Zionist armed forces at roughly 62,000. It made no mention of an Arab force.

During the Palestinians’ 1936-39 revolt against foreign occupation and Zionist immigration, the British had disarmed much of the Palestinian population . In 1947, the Palestinians turned to the Arab League for military support, but the League did not take meaningful action until September 1947, when it formed the Technical Military Committee. Two months later, the League supplied the Committee with ten thousand rifles and a force of 3,000 irregular soldiers, the so-called Arab Liberation Army.

Between the Partition Plan announcement in November 1947, and the scheduled British withdrawal from Palestine the following May, the Zionist leadership had a window of opportunity to make a Jewish state a fait accompli while the British could still fend off any Arab force attempting to come to the Palestinians’ aid. In April 1948, the Zionists launched Plan Dalet, a military offensive designed to achieve a demographic reversal between the Palestinians and the Yishuv by inducing the Palestinians to flee the country, or through forcible expulsion. “By the end of April [1948],” Khalidi writes, “the Palestinian community was badly mangled. Tens of thousands of refugees were on the trek overland, with thousands more in transit at sea. The Arab governments could no longer ignore the pressure of public opinion on them to send their regular armies to help the Palestinians.”

On May 14, the British bid farewell to the tragedy they had midwifed. The following day, Israel declared its independence. While Arab armies had agreed to aid the Palestinians a few days earlier, Israel’s victory was all but certain given its superior fighting force: Arab governments “estimated that the minimum force required to overcome the Haganah would be six divisions and six air squadrons,” Khalidi relates, but “when the time for intervention came, a force less than half the minimum considered necessary was all that was sent.” Little was done to save the Palestinians from their Catastrophe, the Nakba.

Feigning victim-hood at the hands of the defeated Arabs, victorious Israel immediately moved to expropriate the property of over 750,000 Palestinians refugees booted out of the country. Today, a nuclear-armed Israel parrots the same myth that its very survival is threatened by menacing Arabs even as the Palestinians are still being pushed into the sea by Israel’s suffocating policies.

As for the expression “the Arabs want to push the Jews into the sea,” it was fabricated by Israel and falsely attributed to Palestine Liberation Organization founder Ahmad Shuqayri and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But threats of that nature were later voiced by Israel: to push Arabs and Palestinians into the desert. In his partisan history of the 1967 June War, former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recounts that IDF Air Force Commander Motti Hod instructed his fighter pilots “to strike the Egyptians . . . and scatter them throughout the desert . . .” After Israel occupied the West Bank, Oren relates, Yigal Yadin, special military adviser to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, proposed sending Israeli settlers to colonize Hebron. When Eshkol expressed skepticism about occupying a major Palestinian city, Yadin responded, “truth is, your honor, once our forces arrive [the Palestinians] will flee to the desert.”

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The list of Zionist myths is virtually endless. New ones emerge all the time. Some others include: “Israel made the desert bloom,” “Israel wants peace with the Palestinians,” “the IDF is the most moral army in the world,” and “Israel and the U.S. share common liberal values.”

The ones deconstructed here are the foundational myths. Before Zionism could propagate additional fables, it had to convince the world that Palestine was a land without any people, that the Palestinians were acting in bad faith by refusing to “compromise” on partition, and to supplement sympathy for Israel by portraying the nation as an underdog facing an existential threat from hostile Arabs. These myths all served to anchor a narrative of righteous nationalism, which is still potent today. Dispelling this fiction is the first step toward correcting the record.

Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer for the Institute for Palestine Studies based in Tunis. He previously served as Online Content Editor for IPS-USA in Washington, D.C.

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