What happened in 1948—both historically and morally—lies at the heart of the Palestinian refugee issue. How one views the events of that period has fundamental implications for how one regards the variety of issues that arise in refugee negotiations, from the right of return, to moral acknowledgement, to material and nonmaterial claims for reparation. More fundamentally, for both Israelis and Palestinians their respective narratives of 1948 are intimately tied to their very national identity.
At the same time, if the two sides are ever to reach a peace agreement, leaders will have to find some way of bridging the gaps, or at least finding outcomes upon which they can both agree and which are also acceptable to the broader publics on both sides. In Israel, a key contribution in this regard has been made by the various revisionist historians, who have highlighted the degree to which the refugee issue was a function of forced displacement, and not some fantastical voluntary departure of 80% of the non-Jewish population from the borders of the soon-to-be-Jewish state. Refugee proponents, however, often misjudge the extent to which those accounts have influenced Israeli political or public thinking.
The sensitivity of the issue was highlighted by comments made by Daniel Levy (a former Israeli negotiator on the refugee issue, and an important architect of the Geneva Accord) in panel discussion Doha in May. There he suggested that a moral wrong might have been done to Palestinians in the establishment of Israel, even if to him the Zionist desire to establish a Jewish state was understandable within the post-Holocaust Jewish context of the time:
Despite being a very conditional and limited expression of moral responsibility, Daniel is now being attacked by some within the Jewish community for being anti-Israeli, and for pedalling a “shameful” and inaccurate version of history (see, for example, here and here and here). Ironically, I suspect most Palestinians would argue that he didn’t go far enough, and that by linking the events of the 1948 to the aftermath of the Holocaust he was implicitly making a two-wrongs-make-a-right argument (which I don’t think is what he was trying to do—he’s a very thoughtful guy on these issues—but that’s the problem trying to address incommensurable national perspectives in a two minute answer).
The vehemence of the reaction to any suggestion that wrong was done by Israel in 1948 is often defended on the grounds that all of this is really a closet attempt to delegitimize, and ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. That position is a rather odd one, however, given that we generally accept that the creation of most modern states (and especially settler/immigrant states) involved widespread violation of the rights of the indigenous population. My own country, Canada, was certainly founded at the expense of its original First Nations inhabitants, who lost their lands and rights in the face of European colonial conquest and expansion. In the years since, it has also perpetrated a range of human rights abuses against Asian immigrants, Jews fleeing the Holocaust, Japanese-Canadians during WWII, women, homosexuals, and other groups. Recognizing these past wrongs, however, doesn’t make me anti-Canadian, any more than accepting that colonial settlement involved a degree of “original sin” somehow implies that modern Canada should be stripped of its current rights of self-determination and eliminated. On the contrary, I think it is fair to say that many or most Canadians (like many or most Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and white South Africans) would say that recognizing the moral abuses of the past is an essential part of becoming a modern, tolerant country.
What I’m suggesting here, in a way, is that Israeli acceptance of the harm done by the establishment of Israel should not be seen as somehow giving comfort to the enemy or accepting delegitimation, but rather as part of a process of political maturity. Given its demography, economy, and military power, Israel is not likely to vanish nor stop being a predominately Jewish state. At what point, therefore, will it finally gain enough self-confidence to empathize with how the victims of its creation might view its history?
In this regard, Daniel Levy seems much more confident in Israel and the possibility of a progressive Zionism than do his “pro-Israeli” critics.