a book review of
Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948
by Noga Kadman
(Indiana University Press, 2015)
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 39, number 1 (2015). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The story of what happened to the Palestinians at the birth of modern Israel in 1948 is not well known to most Christian intellectuals in the West. The popular narrative we have received over the decades has been simplified into a simple plot line: many Jews fleeing the extreme persecution of Europe arrived in Israel in the 1930s and 1940s hoping to rebuild a Jewish homeland that would bring long-needed security. On their arrival, they found an empty land—a barely-used land—that was awaiting its rebirth. And the story interpreting this arrival found a useful proverb that had been in use since the mid-nineteenth century. The incoming Jews were a people without a land, and they had come to a land without a people. Christian Zionists repeated this phrase repeatedly, as did Jewish Zionists who would be the architect of what would arise in 1948. “A land without a people” appeared in more evangelical sermons about Israel in the 1940s than we might imagine.
The problem was that this proverbial interpretation was not true. When the Israeli flag went up on May 14, 1948, there were Palestinians living in the Holy Land. A British census in 1947 counted 1.3 million Palestinians and 600,000 Jews living there. Thus 69 percent of the country was Arab. And the 31 percent Jewish population owned only 6 percent of the land. Israel Zangwill, Ze’ev Jabotinksy, Theodor Herzl, and other early Jewish Zionists knew this meant trouble. In 1916, Zangwill famously said, “If you wish to give a country to a people without a country, it is utter foolishness to allow it to be the country of two peoples. This can only cause trouble. The Jews will suffer and so will their neighbors. One of the two [must happen]: a different place must be found either for the Jews or for their neighbors.”1
Therefore (so the thinking went), there had to be forced movement of the population. And the Israeli leaders who were planning the government before 1948 embraced this strategy. In the mid-1940s, Palestinian villages were mapped and surveyed. And a strategy unfolded that has been made clear by historians only in recent years: Israel’s first national act would be cleansing the Holy Land of over 700,000 of its native Palestinian population.
Jewish Israel scholars have written about this for many years, but oddly little of it has influenced the now-mythological explanation of Israel’s founding in the American church. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has made this a career endeavor with his important book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld, 2006). And today many Israeli writers have courageously embraced this dark chapter of Israel’s history. Ari Shavit’s new My Promised Land (Spiegel and Grau, 2015) does this masterfully and explains why Israelis themselves need to change their historical narrative. Remarkably, this truer story is rarely taught in Israeli schools.
Confronting History. Noga Kadman is contributing in this revision of Israel’s early history. Until now, the evidence for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine has been available only through websites that record what happened (palestineremembered.com) or general historical surveys. Now Kadman has provided an exhaustive treatment. And for historians, this will be the go-to volume for years to come. After an advanced degree from Gothenburg University (Sweden) in peace and development studies, she became an activist, a tour guide, a researcher at the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, and an author chronicling the history of what happened to the Palestinians. Her book Erased from Space and Consciousness was originally published in Hebrew in 2008. This 2015 release through Indiana University Press is now its English translation by Dimi Reider and Ofer Neiman. In other words, this is an entirely Jewish-Israeli revision of what has been denied for decades. It is like a white American author with deep roots in the American colonial project telling the heart-wrenching story about the Cherokee. It might be so painful that many of us will prefer to look the other way.
The substance and beauty of the book can be found in its opening paragraph: “When one travels in Israel, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing piles of stones, ruins, collapsing walls and structures overgrown with uncultivated almond and fig trees, rolling terraces crumbling with disuse, and long hedges of prickly cactuses. These integral parts of the Israeli landscape are all that remain of the Palestinian villages.”
Erasing Memory. What the Palestinians call “the catastrophe” (Al-Nakba) refers to over four hundred ancient villages that Israel deliberately depopulated by force, ejecting their populations and refusing to let them return after the war. In most cases, the villages were destroyed so that the residents would have no place to stay if they returned. In a minority of cases, the villages were given to incoming Jews. In these cases, the new immigrants not only stole the homes but also took possession of mountains of personal possessions left behind.
Kadman chronicles how this effort went forward. In a series of mind-numbing chapters, she provides meticulously researched data on the villages and the Israeli plan to destroy their culture, or “erase their memory,” as she prefers to explain it. About 80 villages were completely razed beyond recognition. Almost 150 demolished villages have piles of masonry or the remains of houses clearly visible. Sixty still have buildings with complete walls and no roofs. And about 70 are intact and were taken by Jewish families but later abandoned. Of the 140 mosques standing there in 1948, only 40 remain. This is a remarkable tally. And if someone visits Israel, it isn’t hard to find these remains. The catch is that if you are being led by an Israeli-licensed tour guide, he or she won’t want to take you there, and may well refuse if asked.
But the effort was not simply the destruction of a culture. It also involved the Judaization of that land, and here Kadman provides evidence that even the most experienced reader of Israel’s history will find surprising. In much Zionist ideology, the land was not just being claimed but also was being redeemed for purposes intended for it from antiquity. This meant the renaming of locations and the obliteration of Arab names and history. It meant rewriting maps, changing spellings, and removing any signs that would help a person find ancient Palestinian locations. For instance, many of these villages are buried in forests where reforestation projects covered over what had happened. And in all but a very few brochures given to visitors, there is never any mention of the Arab village destroyed there.
Acknowledging Reality. Scholars will find one feature of the book to be absolutely invaluable. In three important appendices, Kadman supplies us with meticulous catalogues of each destroyed village (pp. 151–220). Their names are given, maps pinpoint their location, and statistics supply us with insight into what was destroyed. For example, the village of Abu Zurayq had 550 residents in 1945 and sat on 1,604 acres of land but was emptied by force on April 12, 1948. It appears on no official Israeli map.
To be sure, Kadman will hear the same critique that has come regularly to all Israeli revisionist historians. Scholars Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris have similar commitments, and their critics have been unrelenting. The chief problem with the history of the post-war era (1948–1955), and in particular the period of the fighting itself (1948–1949), is the Israeli claim that Palestinians themselves called for the emptying of these villages. By this account, what happened was not a catastrophe of ethnic cleansing but Arab leaders moving their own populations out of the way and perhaps exploiting the progress of Israeli advances by dramatically putting their own populations on the road (as it were). Either way, even if this criticism is granted, there is still no explanation for why the Israelis blocked the return of so many refugees. And the immediate destruction of their homes is a matter of record (which is where Kadman provides an invincible bit of historical research). Israeli behavior after this Palestinian flight betrays Israeli innocence.
However, because the British were monitoring much of this fighting as they departed, there are rich archives in England that not only record all radio transmissions during this period but also provide records of what Arab leaders said. And—at least for the Israeli revisionists—there is no evidence of an Arab call to flee. On the other hand, there are numerous evidences within the Palestinian community that record the reason for the flight (panic, desperation, shootings in villages, large-group killings in mosques, etc.). This is the great merit of Ari Shavit’s courageous and thorough history mentioned above (My Promised Land). He admits this. And he reconstructs the absolutely horrific experiences of a number of villages.
This does not mean that these Palestinian villages were innocent of their own atrocities, and, to a degree, this is what Kadman fails to record. There were many instances during the war where Arab villages were caught in the fighting, experienced war crimes, and then perpetrated their own revenge on innocent Jews who happened to be nearby. These Palestinian crimes are also inexcusable. However, this isn’t Kadman’s assignment. In her Israeli society, the Palestinian attacks on Jews from 1920 to 1950 are told repeatedly. Any tourist visiting Hebron will hear about them as if they happened yesterday.
Both sides witnessed terrible things, but nothing can quite compare with the Palestinian losses of life, residence, and culture that we see here. It is difficult to imagine the expulsion of 700,000 Arab people, the demolition of their homes, and the many atrocities they suffered after 1948.
When I read Kadman’s appendices and saw the list of villages now empty of Palestinian life, my mind raced back to my various visits to Holocaust memorials where on graphic display one can see the lists of European villages that were likewise emptied of Jewish life. The deepest irony—an irony that Shavit mentions but not Kadman—is that the story of 1948 lives with strange echoes that originate in what happened in Europe fifteen years earlier. —Gary M. Burge
Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School in Chicago and holds a PhD in New Testament studies from Aberdeen University, Scotland. He is the author of Whose Land? Whose Promise? (Pilgrim Press, 2003, 2013) and Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology (Baker Academic/SPCK, 2010).
- Yosef Gorny, Zionism and the Arabs, 1882–1948 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 271.