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Defending Jon Voight's freedom to choose

This is a response to Levine and Hochburg’s answer to Jon Voight’s letter to the Spanish movie industry for calling the Israeli defense in the recent Gaza war “genocide.” There are four main arguments that the two authors assert a distorted, and at times, a non existent history. One, 19th century Palestine before Zionism. Two, the Palestine Mandate. Three, the war of 1948. Four, the Six Day War and the aftermath to look for peace. I will attempt to clear up some vagaries and what I term as half-truths. Quotes from the article are in bold type, my answers are in regular text. To read their original article published by the Huffington Post entitled ”A Dear Jon (Voight) Letter About Gaza and the History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” click on the link.

Or longer version in Tikkun Magazine

Levine and Hochburg wrote:

“Zionism arrived on the soil of a Palestine that was already in the midst of its own modernization,”

What modernization? Zionist settlement began in earnest in 1881. Palestine in the 1880s was only a shadow of what it had been at the height of Ottoman rule two centuries earlier. The land was fallow, the cities were disintegrating into ruin, Jerusalem was devoid of industry, much of the population destitute. Mark Twain wrote about these conditions in his 1867 work “Innocents Abroad” only fourteen years earlier.

Furthermore, according to the 1851 Ottoman census only about 300,000 people lived in that entire district, an area that today contains over 28 million people, that is modern day Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the northern parts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The Ottoman Empire’s Tanzimat reforms during the 19th century attempted to restore the greatness of the earlier Ottoman period, not just in Palestine but all over the empire.

However, "Limited financial resources, the lack of competent administrators, the growing technological gap between Europe and the rest of the world, and the constraints imposed by Turkey's social structure and weakened international position all combined to set strict limits on the types of economic politics pursued." Roger Owen The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914.
Those “strict limits” was the Palestine that Mark twain and others at the time reported on. There was no modernization of Palestine in the 19th century. Since I have heard this a number of times from Western Anti Zionists, I have to believe that this is clearly a construct of Muslim/Left wing mythology that spearheads Anti-Jewish nationalism. Modernization came much later and only with Zionist infrastructure.

Levine and Hochburg wrote concerning the creation of the State of Israel:

“…to facilitate the creation of a Jewish "national home" at the expense of fostering Palestinian Arab nationalism, outright civil war became inevitable. When war finally came, the Zionist leadership "accepted" the terms of the 1947 Partition Plan.”

This statement does not clarify British culpability and points the finger at Palestinian Jews, a typical leftwing revision lending to another diatribe on Zionism which isn’t true.

But to answer the question if the British really wanted to create a Jewish national home at the expense of the Arabs, they would have been able to do so as early as 1929 or ’30. By that time the Zionists clearly demonstrated that they had fulfilled the mandate requirements for self-determination. A Jewish infrastructure was in place, schools, hospitals, roads, industry, a thriving middle class, and self government. Check out Sachar’s, survey work “The History of Israel: from the rise of Zionism until our time.” All the British had to do at that point was walk away. But, to the dismay of the Jews they didn’t because they felt an obligation to the Arab population which in terms of infrastructure was totally non existent.

The Arabs were a full 30-40 years behind the Jews in building a state like infrastructure. They only expressed a willingness to do so for the first time at the Jerusalem conference held in 1931. (And please, I don’t want to mislead anyone here. The Jerusalem conference was only attended and supported by about 200 people. The vast majority of Palestinian Arabs in 1931 sought their allegiance elsewhere. The most populist of these were the fiefdoms of Nashashibi or Husseini families or to Abdullah of Transjordan or several other smaller sects like the Arab Palestinian nationalist movement discussed here.) But, historians generally agree that the Jerusalem Conference of 1931 was the beginning of the Arab national movement in Palestine.

The British, denied Jewish fulfillment of self-determination and gave the Arab Palestinians time to organize and bring their governing level up closer to the Jews. Well, they wasted away the 1930s, then World War II happened, then the Holocaust, then Jewish refugees and by the late 40’s time had just run out on the Mandate. Post World War II Jews and Arabs both wanted the British out. And, well you know the rest.

Levine and Hochburg wrote regarding Jewish intentions of carrying out partition:

“…In reality, they had little intention of actually fulfilling them, (terms of partition) and over the next year, through intercommunal conflict and then all-out war, three quarters of a million Palestinians were permanently forced from their homes, and over 500 villages were destroyed.”

No that’s wrong. It would be counterfactual and thus not conducive to debate what might have happened had the Arabs agreed to partition. But, there is no reason to believe that the new Jewish State back in 1948 would have wanted to violate those terms and risk having their new liberty snatched away being that they had just been legally granted a real sovereign piece of historic Palestine as a homeland, a fulfillment of Jewish hopes and dreams for the first time in 1900 years. They had no intention whatsoever of violating the terms of partition. They were attacked. They responded. They won. That’s why we are going through this exercise today.

Levine and Hochburg fail to mention that Jewish casualty numbers when stating Arab numbers. There were around 6,000 Jewish deaths, by far the highest price Jews paid in any war in the history of Israel, thousands injured, and countless displaced from their homes, not to mention a half million Jews displaced in Arab countries as a result of establishing the State of Israel.

Levine and/or Hochburg can correct me if I’m wrong but I have a strong suspicion that the figure “Three quarters of a million” Palestinian Arabs includes both the displacements from the War of Independence and the Six Day War. Please provide the data to show these numbers if it is only for the 1948 war.

The displacement of Jews from North Africa and the Levant and the displacement of Arabs from what was Western Palestine and now is Israel by the end of the war, was originally thought to be an exchange of populations like that which only months before separated the Hindu Muslim populations with the creation of Pakistan. Also, a rather tense standoff for the last 67 years but nobody denies India’s sovereignty today and Pakistan for better or worse is a country unto its own. Why couldn’t the Palestinians do that?

“Avi Shlaim and Eugene Rogan demonstrated in their book The War for Palestine, Rewriting the History of 1948, minimal and badly trained and equipped forces were sent; their main goals were to prevent themselves from looking like collaborators and their rival Mufti of Jerusalem from establishing a state, and, where possible, to take whatever territory they could for themselves.”

This is only a partial truth. There were rivalries. Egypt did not want to leave western Palestine to Jordan and Jordan did not want to give it up to Egypt. What neither of them figured was that Jewish defense would be so tenacious and obstinate, fighting never to yield even one inch of their legally given right to that land. They grossly under estimated Jewish strength as 1947 rolled into 1948 to the end of the Mandate. Shlaim does go into those kinds of rivalries between the Arabs themselves, which contributed to their defeat. Thinking the Jews would not be a problem the Arabs failed to coordinate their military command to defeat the Jews, a fatal miscalculation on their part.

While Shlaim certainly supports Levine’s and Hochburg’s left wing view of the history he had one momentary lapse of truth and honesty in all the work I have read by him. He wrote this in “The debate about 1948” reprinted from an earlier article in “the International Journal of Middle East Studies, The Israel/Palestine Question: Rewriting histories, edited by Ilan Pappe, Routledge, 1999, P. 180:

It is true that the senior military advisors told the Political leadership on 12 May 1948 that the Hagana had only a “fifty-fifty” chance of withstanding the imminent Arab attack. It is true that the sense of weakness and vulnerability in the Jewish population was as acute as it was pervasive and that some segments of this population were gripped by a feeling of gloom and doom. And, it is true that during the three critical weeks, from the invasion of Palestine by the regular armies of the Arab states on 15 May until the start of the first truce on 11 June, this community had to struggle for its very survival.

Reading Levine’s and Hochburg’s letter to Jon Voight one gets the distinct impression that the new State of Israel and Palestinian Jewish community before statehood was emboldened, extremely confident and Inspired by their position in that part of the world to the point that they could run roughshod over the country side, kick out its inhabitants and take over whatever land they wanted. Shlaim’s comment above describes a nation which was more about survival than “conquest.” Would either Levine or Hochburg care to comment on Shlaim’s quote.

About the Arabs being badly trained and equipped:

Again, that is only partially true. The best trained and equipped force in the Middle East was the Jordanian Legion. Led by John Bagot Glubb, a retired British officer, his force was much better equipped and trained than the fledgling IDF. Military historians regard the Jordanian Legion as the best in the Middle East during that time. Glubb’s force was commanded by battle hardened World War II British officers seconded from the British army, with only the rank and file being of local Arab stock. Their weapons came directly from British store houses in Egypt. They were well armed, well trained, and presented a formidable opposition to Jewish war aims. All these claims can be substantiated in Glubb’s memoir of the time “A soldier with the Arabs.” Luckily, since they were considered by all intents and purposes to be a proxy British force when the regular forces left, Glubb was given strict instructions by Foreign Secretary Bevin not to violate the UN partition areas. In Jerusalem however, the inferior Jewish forces fought the Legion to stand still, with armistice granting West Jerusalem to Israel and East Jerusalem to Jordan.

The Egyptians, the largest force to invade Palestine on May 15th, were also far better equipped and trained than the Zionists in 1948. They had the benefit of Britain leaving behind all of its World War II surplus. For example, O’Balance writes in “The Arab Israeli War” that they had over thirty British spitfire fighter planes and four Hawker Hurricanes, all operational. In Pollack, “The Arabs at War,” he says in addition to the fighter planes they also had twenty C-47 transports. Plus British personnel were in Egypt training Egyptian fliers since the early days of the North African campaign of World War II. The Jews had no fighter aircraft of any kind on May 15, the day the war broke out. Pollack also covers the rest of the actual one on one disproportionate forces between Egypt and Israel during that time and those numbers are striking. British further involvement in actually commanding or other actions violating British army regulations is sketchy and speculative. But, it wouldn’t surprise me if some researcher down the line exposes direct British involvement on the Egyptian side in that war.

The weakest force was the Arab Liberation Army (ALA). In Walid Khalidi’s “Selected Documents of the 1948 Palestine War” published in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1998, he discusses among other things the preparations and assessments of both the ALA and the Jews. An invention of the Syrian regime to organize both indigenous Palestinian Arabs and Muslims from everywhere who wanted to take part in the Jihad against the Jews, the ALA never really amounted to much of an army and if forced to stand alone, would not have been able to last long with new IDF.

Translated by Khalidi and Jenab Tutunji, he documents a report from General Ismail Safwat commander of the Arab League Military Committee to the Chairman of the Palestine Committee, Syrian Prime Minister Jamil Mardam Bey on the status of defenses, both Jewish and Arab.

Safwat was way off on his intelligence estimates in most areas of Jewish strength. He makes several gross errors in numbers. For example, he says that “the reports indicate that the Jews have…100 tanks in Tel Aviv alone.” In March when this was written the Jews had but two tanks in their arsenal. They had four by May 15 though. I have the feeling that the Haganna had known about his mission to assess their strengths and fed him this info purposely to lower the Arab soldier’s morale. That wasn’t uncommon for Jewish counter intelligence to conduct mis information campaigns like claiming 250 dead Arabs at Deir Yassin when Bir Zeit University could not substantiate more than 107 Arab casualties total. His letter to Prime Minister Mardem Bey was filled with these sorts of distortions and screwball assessments.

On the other side he describes paltry enlistments from foreign Muslims totaling no more than 5,200 armed men, with virtually low numbers in ammunition and training of these men to fight as a group.

He does however get one thing right that the ALA by itself was no match for Jewish defense. He calls for the Arab States to invade if there is any chance for an Arab victory. He did know that the Jews had many innovations including a clandestine small arms industry hidden well out of sight of Mandate authorities.

Levine and Hochburg wrote briefly on the 1956 Sinai campaign even though Mr. Voight did not mention it in his letter:

“Let’s leave aside that you don’t mention the 1956 tripartite invasion by Israel, France, and the UK on Egypt, which not even Israelis argue was a defensive war.”

This, like so many things in the Middle East is a complicated issue which requires more than a flippant explanation that this wasn’t “a defensive war.” I would remind readers that Gamul Abdul Nasser nationalized the Suez canal and was holding Western Europe hostage, threatening to close the canal to all Western shipping resulting from the U.S. backing out of helping Nasser get the arms he needed to defeat Israel and not following through on a promise to help Egypt to get loans for building the Aswan High dam.

If interested you can read my scholarly take on this subject in The International Journal of History.

I argue that failures in American diplomacy caused the actors to go to war rather than Israeli imperialist moves or British and French strong arm tactics that has been argued by pro Eisenhower critics.

Levine and Hochburg called “historically inaccurate” Mr. Voight’s assertion that the Six Day War of June 1967 was a war for survival.

Levine and Hochburg wrote:

“There was certainly many threats emanating from Arab capitals in the late spring of 1967, but ultimately it was Israel that clearly launched a “sneak attack,” not the Arab states.”

I would take issue calling this a “sneak attack.” Of course, this depends largely on the point of view of the observer. In 1967 the Soviets called it a “sneak attack” during their original condemnation of Israel’s actions at the UN, as did their Arab partners.

Calling it a “sneak attack” means you would have to hold Nasser with such contempt to think he was so stupid to make bellicose statements like "our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel'' as late as May 27th, close the Suez canal, kick out the UN peace keepers, build up aggressive forces in the Sinai and could not extrapolate from that Israel might be forced to respond, unless he was going to hit first.

The news in Israel was coming through for weeks, the threats of ending the Zionist entity, of killing all the Jews in Israel, of finishing Hitler’s work, of taking back what was stolen in 1948 went through the fabric of Israel thinking right down to the man on the street, or kibbutz as it were. Israelis were extremely circumspect in their moods just before the war began.

From “The Seventh Day: Soldiers talk about the Six Day War, Steinmetzky Ltd., 1967

In the chapter “The night before the war” several motifs seem to keep arising in Israeli thinking. The Holocaust, Israel alone in the world, the single mindedness of the Israeli people to defend their land.

Soldier one:

“Suddenly everyone was talking about Munich, about the holocaust, about the Jewish people being left to its fate. A new Holocaust did not seem as real a possibility to us as it did to the people of Europe, for us it was a concrete picture of an enemy victory.”

Soldier two:

“They (the Israeli people) shared the general feeling in the country, that the political aspect of this business was justified, and that it was a just war, you had the feeling, long before the call up, that we were really going off to defend the country, to defend the Jewish people. That was the way we all felt.”

Soldier three:

“I have seen nations go to war…But,never before have I seen a country rise so silently to answer the call of duty. This nation went to war filled with a sense of destiny, gravely and quietly prepared, in a way that cannot be surpassed. They went from Natanya and Kiryat Shimona, from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beersheba…

By suggesting that the war was not one of survival for Israel, Levine and Hochburg obviously take the Arab and Soviet point of view on this issue. It is not hard to see how one would reach that conclusion if one believes that Nasser and his allies were only playing some kind of game. Saber rattling to the point of stopping just before the first shot is fired. We don’t know what the Arabs would have done, and might never know. We can only be sure of what Israel did and why it did it. Israel could not afford to take a chance on this being some kind of huge geo political joke on the part of the Arabs. They were left with no other choice. Believing its very existence was threatened, it acted in self defense. Mr. Voight’s assertion that Israel was facing extinction if it didn’t act is therefore correct, Levine and Hochburg are wrong.

“While presented to the world as a war of survival, 1967 was in fact a war of conquest and expansion. How do we know this? Quite simply because that’s just what Israel did—it conquered and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights and, against the stern advice of a then ailing David Ben Gurion, who advocated returning the territories as soon as possible, proceeded to settle them intensively, particularly in the Biblical heartland of the West Bank.”

No, within weeks of ending the war, the government of Israel made it known that with the exception of Jerusalem Israel was prepared to give back all the land that it took during the Six Day War in return for peace with normal relations of all the belligerents.

Israel’s first hope for a peaceful settlement:

After the very disappointing famous three no’s came out of the Arab summit in Khartoom in September, Israel felt it was lost. However, at the urging of the United States in November, the UN passed the American backed Res 242,
Israel’s second hope for a settlement which called for:

Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict; Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

Israel, encouraged by the American involvement accepted the terms of 242. Syria set unworkable preconditions before they would consider accepting it. Egypt was amenable if the Israelis would withdraw from the entire territory it took during the war, but when pressed, Nasser would not say that he would accept Israel’s right to exist. That didn’t come until his successor Anwar Sadat did that ten years later.

A dispute arose that the wording of 242 should read “all territories” rather than just “territories” and had became a sticking point to the Arabs. The Americans, not the Israelis, were responsible for what the Soviets and Arabs thought was ambiguous language. Dean Rusk, Secretary of state at the time said “We wanted that (the language)to be left a little vague and subject to future negotiation because we thought the Israeli border along the West Bank could be ‘rationalized’; certain anomalies could easily be straightened out with some exchanges of territory, making a more sensible border for all parties.” Anecdotally, this part of the resolution became part of the 2000 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It helped to make very difficult negotiations a little easier. However, Arafat ended up rejecting it anyway.

Israel’s third hope for a settlement

Jordan was skeptical but after American assurances that it would work to have the West bank returned to its dominion they accepted. The Israelis were anxious to see some concrete results from the war they fought a year earlier. In July of 1968, George Ball, then newly appointed American ambassador to the UN met with King Hussein and conveyed to him that he had been “Authorized by the Israelis that they were prepared to return the West Bank, with minor modifications to his authority in return for peace.” Quandt, Peace Process, p. 410, n. 89.

The Nixon Administration sent Ball to Jordan with Israel’s “authorization.” That does not jive with Levine and Hochburg’s argument that the Six Day War was one of “conquest.”

Because of growing PLO intimidation in the region a formal agreement was not signed with Jordan until the 1990s. But a de facto recognition between Israel and Jordan took place long before formal recognition. They engaged in trade across their borders, cooperated on a number regional projects and Israel even supported militarily King Hussein’s ousting of the PLO in 1971, thought of as a common enemy to both.

Through terror and threats by 1972 the PLO became the de facto leadership of the Palestinian people. That reduced King Hussein’s role as far as seeking some kind of return of the West bank for peace. In November 1974, Hussein said, ''A new reality exists and Jordan must adjust to it. The West Bank is no longer Jordan and we have no place in the negotiations over its future'' (reported by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times August 7, 1988 about Jordan cutting all historic ties with the west bank forever.) That, and the PLO’s recent history of Skyjacking, Munich, committing international terror, killing Jews in and outside Israel pushed the idea of the return of the lands back to some kind of Arab control way out of reach. As long as the PLO engaged in terror and were supported by the Palestinian people, no Israeli government was going to negotiate with them. The PLO’s objective in the 1970s was almost the same as Hamas today, a state in all of historic Palestine. Their wording was a little different but it was and is the same objective.

Syria has never come any closer to peace with Israel. Several attempts by Israel to return the Golan, in exchange for a formal peace did not yield results. Of course, it will probably never happen now since Syria might not even be there in another year.

Israel actually walked away, taking their settlements and all from Gaza in 2005, which was something they said they would never do without a peace treaty. Within days of leaving, rockets were fired into Israel prompting the Israeli government to take security measures against Gaza for the safety of its citizens. That history since requires a post of its own so I won’t go into that here.

Jerusalem is another issue. Since partition Israel has always stated that it was not happy about not being granted Jerusalem within the framework of UN res. 181 and upon accepting partition announced publicly that it would work in the future to change that status. Never hiding from its desire to retain Jerusalem as its capital that fulfillment came in 1967. It has no desire to return it and any final agreement with the Palestinians will reflect that notion. It is the undivided capital of the Jewish people.

If Levine and Hochburg want to point to that as expansionist Israeli policy, then so be it.

There is a Youtube video of a 2007 conversation between Allen Gregg and Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter at the International Toronto Film Festival for the North American premiere of “Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains,” in which he said the first time he visited Israel was in 1972 and the “presumption was from all the Israeli leaders is that ‘we are going to withdraw from all of the occupied territories and have peace with our neighbors.’”

Again, this does not jive with Levine and Hochburg’s arguments about Israel’s motives for the Six Day War.

This shows a very credible left wing voice, a staunch critic of almost everything in Israel’s history, Jimmy Carter, expressly stating Israel’s willingness to give back the land it took for a genuine peace. Even after the disappointing breakdown of negotiations with Egypt, discussed in detail by William Quandt, in his book “Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli conflict Since 1967.” The Egyptians, the Jordanians and the complete refusal of the Syrians to even engage, by 1972, five years after the war, clearly points to Arab intransigence holding up peace with Israel on all fronts, not the other way around.

Carter also makes the comment that “there were not that many settlers during that time” in 1972. What there was were Mitzpaot, mountain top settlements built as military watch stations giving Israel the high ground in case they were ever attacked from there again. There was also the beginning of Kiryat Arba in Nablus. Moshe Levinger, the spiritual head of Gush emunim, had without the consent of the government checked himself into a hotel during Passover 1968 and refused to leave afterwards.

But, according to Carter, if the Arabs had been smart and made a real peace, moving out any settlers at that time would have been very easy, but, of course, their intransigence to make peace cost them a unique opportunity. What was that famous Abba Eban line, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Unless you view this history through a Left wing prism it’s impossible to blame the Jews for any delay finding a solution during what has become historically during the years 1967 to 1977, a pivotal and crucial decade with multiple missed opportunities for peace.

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