Ethnic Cleansing: Some Common Reactions

by Ran HaCohen

Dissident Voice
January 13, 2003



My previous column – "Ethnic Cleansing: Past, Present and Future" – attracted more reactions than any other. Some of them were supportive and encouraging, for which I am grateful. Many were outraged and even offensive, for which I am even more grateful: not just for enriching my English vocabulary in certain semantic fields (I have been called everything from "anti-Semitic renegade" to "stupid dump ass"), but for reassuring me that I am not wasting my time writing for those who agree with me anyway.


Almost all the fire was aimed at my claim regarding the ethnic cleansing carried out by Israel in 1948. These copious reactions reaffirm my argument that this is still a taboo in pro-Israeli discourse. Even when protesting the present "quiet" ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Territories or warning of future Israeli intentions is tolerated, saying that Israel owes its existence as a Jewish State to ethnic cleansing is evidently beyond the pale. As I said, fighting the present strangulation of the Palestinians should be the top priority of any peace activity on the ground; but on the level of consciousness, coming to terms with the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is an inevitable precondition for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.


In spite of the heated tone of many reactions, not many of them were seriously argumentative. Several readers want me to stop criticising Israel and to focus on Palestinian terrorism instead. I get this advice regularly, as if Palestinian terrorism were a never-heard-of scoop just waiting for me to discover. Sorry, friends: I am convinced that stopping the occupation, the colonisation and the dispossession of the Palestinians is the only way to end both the justified Palestinian resistance and its unjustifiable terrorist actions. Pointing a finger at the Palestinians may serve the Israeli propaganda, the settlements and the gigantic American aid to Israel; but all these make my life in Tel-Aviv neither safer nor more moral.


One reader claims that I "imply that the Palestinian Arabs who fled or were driven out […] are in the same boat as the Jews of Nazi Germany were". I did not imply that at all. The expulsion of the Palestinians took place within what can be termed a civil war (a war crime), whereas Hitler’s war on the Jews was an unprovoked genocide of defenceless civil populations (a crime against humanity). I used the Nazi case just to show that the way from mass-deportation to mass-murder is a dangerously short one, and that every Jew, including those calling for "transfer", should be aware of that.


Another reader claimed that Palestinian nationalism was quite young, and that there was no Palestinian people prior to the twentieth century. Though this is true – Palestinian nationalism is even younger than the relatively young Jewish nationalism (a.k.a. Zionism), and is to some extent a reaction to it – I fail to see why this justifies an ethnic cleansing. Are human rights applicable to nationalists only?


Pavlovian Reaction


One issue, however, was repeated in many reactions: the so-called ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Arab countries. This seems to be the Pavlovian pro-Israeli reply whenever the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is mentioned. It can be traced back to official Israeli State propaganda as early as the 1950s. I say Pavlovian, because it is invoked instinctively and irrationally, just like the saliva of Pavlov’s dog.


The argument of my article was that Israel carried out an ethnic cleansing in 1948, and that it may be prone to repeat it. As a reply, I am told that the Arab countries carried out an ethnic cleansing. What does this have to do with my argument? The assertion that Arab countries may be guilty of a similar crime does not make Israel’s crime any better; it definitely does not disprove that Israel is prone to repeat it. Again, the rhetorical trick here is the same as asking me to talk about Palestinian terrorism: whenever Israel is criticised, simply change the subject and talk about Arab or Palestinian faults instead (luckily for Israel, there are always enough of them). This is demagoguery, not a fair debate.


However, irrelevant as it is to the argument of my previous column, the analogy between the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and the exodus of Jews from Arab countries is worth relating to in its own right.


'Arab Ethnic Cleansing'?


First let us recall the chronology. The ethnic cleansing of 600.000 to 720.000 Palestinians from Israel preceded the Jewish exodus from Arab countries. The exodus of some 125.000 Iraqi Jews to Israel started in 1949; that of about 165.000 North-African Jews took place as late as 1955-1957. It is therefore somewhat awkward to claim that Israel had deported its Arabs because of the exodus of Arab Jews that occurred years later. There is no doubt, however, that the establishment of the State of Israel played a major role in the deplorable deterioration of living conditions for Jews in many Arab countries.


Whereas Jews had been living in the Arab and Muslim world for more than a millennium, for better and for worse but under generally more favourable terms than under Christianity (and with nothing even slightly comparable to the atrocities of the Crusaders or the Holocaust), Israel’s ethnic cleansing coincided with the Jewish State’s birth. And not by chance: the 600.000 Jews living in Palestine in 1948 could not have achieved a solid majority in the areas they occupied without getting rid of a similar number of Arabs. Unlike the Arab countries, that can show a long tradition of coexistence with Jews (notwithstanding discrimination though), and for which getting rid of the Jews had no demographic significance whatsoever, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was both historically and demographically the constitutive event of the Jewish State.


Moreover: even though Jews were indeed harassed (by the people and/or regimes) in Arab countries following the 1948 war, blaming the Arabs of ethnic cleansing is shamefully cynical when it is imputed by the very Zionists who demanded "let my people go", or by the same Israel that did all it could to force those very countries to let their Jews leave. The global Zionist pressure on each and every country, from the Soviet Union to Syria, to let its Jewish citizens go, was part of Israel’s efforts to consolidate its Jewish majority; that is why Israel always urged Western countries not to let those Jewish immigrants in, lest they fail to make Aliya.


So oriental Jews were pushed out of Arab countries as a result of the conflict with Israel, and at the same time pulled by Israel, to consolidate its Jewish majority, and by Zionism, that regarded the Jewish state as the only proper place for Jews to live in. It is a major case of hypocrisy to compare those Jewish immigrants to Palestinians who fled or were driven out of Israel to other countries during a war, people for whom Palestine was their only homeland and who found themselves against their will as refugees in foreign and hostile Arab states, people who were willing but not allowed to return home, and whose property was dispossessed by Israel.


Furthermore, this hypocrisy is symptomatic of the way the Israeli establishment treated the oriental Jewish immigrants. They were lured to come to Israel by promises of equality and welfare. They were zionistically indoctrinated to see Israel as their new homeland, in spite of their systematic discrimination compared to Jewish immigrants from European countries. Those who refused this zionisation were outcasts; those who did become Zionist and consider themselves as people returning home from a long exile, now have to take the insult of being described as foreign refugees, just like Palestinians in Kuwait.


The cynicism of the Israeli establishment reached its highest peak when Israel raised the claim that the property of the Palestinian refugees, confiscated by Israel after 1948, was "balanced" by Jewish property left behind in Arab countries. This is a further development of the same manipulative analogy, in which the oriental immigrants are assigned the role of wretched pawns. The masses of oriental Jews, who lost their home and property as a direct result of the establishment of Israel, and then came to Israel and were housed here in poor slums hired to them by the State, never got any compensation for their lost property; Now they hear that the State that they see as their homeland considers them to be mere refugees, and that their lost property is bargained off by this State against some Palestinian property it confiscated, of which they themselves have not seen a cent.


The State of Israel produces a lot of propaganda which is refuted by the slightest critical analysis. The analogy drawn between the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and the Jews from Arab countries is an especially repulsive example of this. It reveals not only how absurd Israel’s propaganda can be, but how humiliating, scornful and dangerous it is for many Israelis. A State that has been unable to grant its own citizens a day of peace in more than 50 years cannot be expected to treat them any better in its propaganda. Supporting Israel’s propaganda and war machines is definitely not the right way to help both peoples of Israel/Palestine to peaceful coexistence.


Ran HaCohen teaches in Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature, and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. HaCohen’s semi-regular “Letter from Israel” column can be found at, where this article first appeared.