Nation Building and Dispossession

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…

4 thoughts on “Nation Building and Dispossession

  1. Edmund

    The third way is to create a democratic state that represents all people regardless of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. Peoples affiliations to nation change with the wind.

  2. Shirley Gould

    It seems to me ths “third way” you seek is evident in the efforts being made to form friendships/accommodations between the two main groups. It may not reach fruition in my lifetime, but unless we can all accept that we are humans, there is little hope. Both “sides” need to recognize one another and figure out how to live together. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but it’s all we have.

  3. larry rosen

    Again a belated welcome home.

    A third way would be what is now being explored after 60 years: a two state solution.

    I pray for the negotiators for the benefit of all involved.


  4. l s

    yet another way exists – the one taken by the u.s.: genocide. in fact, a genocide so extreme that not only were entire peoples massacred, and their cultures destroyed, and their languages disappeared; even the memory of their names has been eradicated. all residents, no matter when our ancestors – or we – arrived, benefit from that genocide and live here as occupiers.

    at last year’s open mike (a yom kippur tradition when congregants can speak briefly about any subject close to their hearts), one person spoke about the powerfully deleterious effects of unprocessed trauma. as a society – and a matter of public policy – we have never dealt with the trauma at the heart of our country’s existence. (bernard-henri levi traveled through the u.s. in the steps of de tocqueville a few years ago, and concluded that this trauma exerts enormous unspoken influence. he suggested building a national holocaust of the native americans museum.)

    I wonder how much more productively we could assist others in managing their conflicts over territory and identity if we could speak from a position of maturity regarding our own. what awareness – of the perpetrator role as well as of the victim – we could bring. how well we could honor the complexity of the situation, not to be silenced or paralyzed by it, but to engage with it. what possibilities might result.

    to say nothing of the plight of the few survivors’ descendants.


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