But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harrass you in the land in which you live; so that I will do to you what I planned to do to them. (Numbers 33:55-56)
These verses from this week’s Torah portion recalls a famous (some would say infamous) 2004 Ha’aretz interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris. Among other things, Morris adressed the disturbing nature of nation-building, which in the case of Israel “necessitated” the uprooting of the Palestinian population in 1948:
There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.
And that was the situation in 1948?
That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.
The term “to cleanse” is terrible.
I know it doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.
What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hard-hearted.
I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv (pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine) was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war.
Though the Torah has religious cultic concerns that are centuries removed from the phenomenon of modern nationalism, I believe the intrinsic issue here is essentially the same. Is it truly possible for a people to create a state without dispossessing another? Though we may recoil from the kinds of attitudes expressed in the Bible – or by Morris – this central question remains, and it challenges us to the core.
I’ll add another while we’re at it: are ethnic cleansing or eternal state of war the only options available to nation builders? Might there be a “third way?” I’d love to hear some thoughts…