Margins of History: On Shay Hazkani’s “Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War”

By David N. MyersNovember 24, 2021

Margins of History: On Shay Hazkani’s “Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War”

Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War by Shay Hazkani

In the margins of your history, in distant countries,
For what was once our history. And in the end, we will ask ourselves:
Was Andalusia here or there? On the land … or in the poem?

One could easily imagine these lines issuing from the pen of a Jewish émigré from Spain, victim of the Alhambra Decree that interdicted Jewish presence on Spanish soil in 1492. The poet’s aching refrain — “in the exodus I love you more” — captures a loss so deep that he is compelled to ask whether the lost country was real or a figment of imagination.

The ode was written not in 1492, but in 1992, which was the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Its author was not a Jew or a descendant of Jews burdened by the lingering pain of the expulsion. Rather, it was written on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Muslims from Spain by Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian national poet. Darwish’s “Eleven Stars over Andalusia” harked back to the hallowed cultural ground of southern Spain to grasp the sense of exile that Palestinians felt in the wake of the Nakba, the mass dispossession of 1948.

Darwish was not the first to summon up this historical image. Writing in the midst of intense battles between Jewish and Palestinian forces in the Jezreel Valley in April 1948, Burhan al-Din al-`Abbushi, a poet from Jenin, reported that “the Jews took revenge by launching an attack on the village of Abu Zurayq and drove away all the women and children.” He continued that “[t]he exodus of these people — and the people of [neighboring] al-Mansi is just like the exodus of the sons of al-Andalus.” Three years earlier, he expressed the fear that if Palestinians did not prepare themselves adequately, “[w]hat happened to al-Andalus could happen to you.”

The fact that not only Jews but Arabs — and indeed, Palestinians in war — looked to medieval Spain as a historical referent for exile is one of many rich nuggets mined by Shay Hazkani in his pathbreaking new history, Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War. Hazkani has followed an intuitive but all too infrequently traveled path in attempting a shared history of Jews and Arabs in Palestine in 1948. He attempts a fusion of historical horizons by joining a careful analysis of wartime propaganda by both sides with the honest accounts of soldiers on the ground. This interplay of top-down and bottom-up sources yields striking dissonance, which a skilled historian such as Hazkani uses to great advantage. For example, he juxtaposes al-`Abbushi’s invocation of Andalusia with the fiery rhetoric of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) propaganda wing’s description of a sweeping Palestinian victory in the Jezreel Valley. In fact, the Labor Zionist Haganah paramilitary force was not only notching steady wins on the battleground in April 1948 but was expelling Palestinian residents of captured towns and villages in accord with the group’s “Plan D” from the previous month.

What is so impressive and interesting about this book is that it upends our received wisdom at many turns. Thus, it is not surprising that the ALA dissimulated in exaggerating battlefield triumphs. But it is surprising that its propaganda was not filled, according to Hazkani, with ritualistic calls to cast the Jews into the sea nor even with large doses of antisemitism. Rather, a recurrent motif in Arab and Palestinian propaganda was the view that it was legitimate and necessary to wage battle against Jews since, as a result of Zionist designs on Palestine, they had violated the terms of their historical status under Islam as ahl al-dhimmi — that is, as protected, albeit decidedly second-class subjects. This line of argument anchored the “pan-Arab” nature of the ALA’s appeal in seeking to mobilize volunteers across the Middle East.

In a similar vein, Hazkani’s dual-lens approach demonstrates how unvarnished was the theme of murderous revenge as a catalyst for Jewish battleground behavior. Of particular note is the work of poet Abba Kovner, heroic survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, mastermind of a plot to poison German cities after World War II, and influential education officer in the nascent Israeli army. Kovner authored more than 30 “combat bulletins” that served as motivational fodder for young conscripts in the heat of battle. The bulletins were stunning in their brutality and disregard for the lives of the Arab enemy. In one riposte from July 14, 1948, Kovner announced: “Don’t flinch, sons; these are murder dogs — their sentence is blood!” Even more striking was the call to kill as a liberating and even aesthetic act, as we hear in a post three days later: “As you improve in killing the murderous dogs, so would you improve in your love for what is beautiful, what is good and for freedom.”

It is far from coincidental that this call was issued three and a half years after the liberation of Auschwitz — and that Kovner was a Holocaust survivor. Survivors constituted a disproportionately large percentage of the soldiers in the Jewish fighting forces; in fact, Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany became important recruiting stations for these forces, with Zionist officials declaring that all DPs were citizens in potentia of the soon-to-be-created Jewish state, and thus subject to extraterritorial conscription. These recruits brought to Palestine their own distinctive motivations for avenging the loss of their loved ones, even though the Palestinian and Arab combatants they faced were not responsible for the Holocaust.

Kovner and other Israeli educational officers invoked the Holocaust and the need to prevent its recurrence as part of their wartime propaganda. They also made recourse to well-known biblical tropes depicting Arabs (and Nazis) as descendants of Amalek, the ancient nomadic tribe that was a perennial enemy of the Israelites and whose memory the Hebrew Bible enjoined Jews to blot out. The fusing of ancient and modern enemies was part of a “pan-Judaic” strategy that Hazkani identifies — an appeal intended to attract and motivate Jews from around the world to answer the call to wage battle on behalf of the Jewish nation.

The prominence of poets as propagandists and the wider pan-Arab and pan-Judaic appeals are but two of the similarities that Hazkani notes in Dear Palestine. The attempt to tell the story he tells — through a pair of contiguous prosopographies, or collective biographies — carries a high degree of difficulty. The first historiographical challenge, and a live one for Hazkani, is the question of sourcing. Are there parallel and equivalent bodies of evidence to undergird these two narratives of wartime attitudes and behavior? Yes and no. Hazkani did mine the depths, as noted, of two main types of sources: wartime propaganda materials produced on both sides; and letters written by soldiers on and off the battlefield. Curiously, all of the sources he uses, Palestinian and Jewish, came from Israeli archives. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) not only preserved a vast trove of documents attesting to the training and action of Jewish soldiers but also swept up archival materials from the ALA, from post offices in Arab towns, and from the bodies of dead Arab soldiers in 1948. The Arab sources it collected made their way to a variety of Israeli repositories, especially the IDF archive. Hazkani has exhaustively examined these holdings — and even gone to court to gain access to some of them, which Israeli officials acknowledge openly call into question some of the foundations of the Israeli narrative of the 1948 War. Hazkani also makes ingenious use of another key repository — the Haganah and then Israeli censorship office, which intercepted letters from soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Hazkani skillfully captures the voice of soldiers through the censored letters, as well as by making his way through the censors’ fortnightly summary of soldiers’ letters, The Soldier’s Opinion, that articulated shifting sentiments and sensibilities during the war.

The fact that the sources Hazkani used — both Arab and Jewish — are housed in Israeli archives is itself a reflection of an asymmetry of power. Israel not only won the war of 1948. It also commandeered — and, in some cases, hides — the evidentiary record of the losing Arab side, including decades after the war (for example, when the Israeli army looted the archives of the PLO research center in Beirut in 1982). The reliance on Israeli archives means, necessarily, that we receive a richer account of Israeli strategies and attitudes than we do of the Arab side. But there is more than enough of a historical record on both sides for Hazkani to upend received truths. For example, a recurrent claim of Israeli propagandists and their scholarly allies was that Palestinian fighters, abetted by their Arab brethren, were prompted to act by a murderous jihadi impulse to exterminate Jews. The obverse of this assertion is that Jewish fighters were informed by an overarching code of honor that demanded the highest moral standards in wartime.

It is one of the surprises of the book that this much heralded code in Zionist history, known by the Hebrew term “tohar ha-neshek” (purity of arms), makes virtually no appearance. Hazkani’s investigation of wartime attitudes and propaganda yields far fewer references to this code than to the kinds of appeals to violence, at times blood-curdling, made by Abba Kovner and his colleagues in 1948. His approach to the history of Israeli military behavior challenges a long-held Manicheanism that starkly contrasts the forces of good (Israel) with the forces of darkness (the Palestinians), often depicting the former as an upstart David engaged in a heroic, long-shot battle against a beastly Goliath.

This upending is not Hazkani’s scholarly innovation. For more than 30 years, researchers making use of newly opened Israeli archives have revised our understanding of the events of 1948, including about the balance of forces, observing that the Jewish and later Israeli side had not only a qualitative but a quantitative advantage. For example, the historian Avi Shlaim concluded that by the final stage of the conflict, Israeli forces outnumbered soldiers of all Arab armies by two to one.

In this regard, Hazkani is heir to the work of a cohort of Israeli scholars including Shlaim, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and Tom Segev who came to public attention in the late 1980s in Israel and elsewhere as the “New Historians.” At the same time, Hazkani, who is an Israeli teaching at the University of Maryland, belongs to a later historiographical generation that endeavors to produce a more complex history of the war by taking equal stock of the accounts of Jews and Arabs as reflected in Hebrew and Arabic sources. A prototype of this work is the Side by Side volume of parallel Arab and Jewish historical narratives by Palestinian scholar Sami Adwan and his Israeli colleagues Dan Bar-On and Eyal Naveh. A more theoretical case study, The Holocaust and the Nakba, edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, juxtaposes the relatively coterminous national tragedies of the 1940s. There have also been efforts by Palestinian and Israeli Jewish scholars to craft a shared narrative of the events of 1948, as in the work of Adel Manna and Motti Golani (Two Sides of the Coin) and that of Mahmoud Yazbak and Yfaat Weiss on Haifa.

Shay Hazkani has produced a book that is neither a parallel history nor a fully integrated shared history. Rather, it dwells between those poles, allowing Hazkani to attend both to the common experiences of wartime undergone by Arab and Jewish soldiers and to the fissures and asymmetries between Jewish and Arab war efforts. Hazkani tracked down an impressive body of evidence to produce an elegant, indeed masterful, social history of the 1948 War and the people swept up in its wake. Dear Palestine tells a human — and decidedly inhumane — story. After all, it is about war, which produces winners and losers, those who live and those who die, those who remain and those who are forced out.

In the final analysis, Dear Palestine makes a compelling case that war and morality are antipodes. To state this is not to abandon one’s scholarly balance nor to retreat into Pollyannish platitudes. But it does require that we confront the past with unsparing honesty, pierce the veil of self-virtue, and then repair the deep injustices that war inevitably causes.


David N. Myers teaches history at UCLA, where he holds the Kahn Chair in Jewish History.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including the forthcoming American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York (with Nomi M. Stolzenberg). 

LARB Contributor

David N. Myers is Distinguished Professor and Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA, where he directs the Luskin Center for History and Policy and the UCLA Initiative to Study Hate.


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