Thoughts on Farha: Why 850,000 Versus 800,000 is a Dumb and Destructive Argument
I watched the Jordanian candidate for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Farha, a few nights ago on Netflix. It personalizes the Nakba, the 1948 conflict that left approximately 800,000 Palestinians as refugees. As a film, I found it moving and effective. The story focuses on a tale told by one of these refugees to the director’s mother, who then told the director. The protagonist, Farha, is a preteen girl living in a village just outside of West Jerusalem meant to suggest Deir Yassin. The opening conflict is compelling: this young woman wants an education. Palestinians at the time did not routinely educate girls, grooming them instead for marriage. With the aid of an uncle who lives in “the city” (presumably Jerusalem), she manages to persuade her father to let her go live with her uncle and attend school. The strength of her desire to make something of herself resonates, as does the close bond between father and daughter. The acting was spectacular—it’s hard not to identify with this family facing change and emerging stronger.
But then the war comes. With bullets flying, Farha’s father locks her in a storage room of her home and goes out to protect his village. In the movie’s politics, the father staunchly defends the neutrality of the village, refusing to fight because of the lack of decent weapons, and feels betrayed that the promised support of Arab armies was not forthcoming. Farha witnesses the Jewish fighters take over and murder a family right before her eyes.
Fiction has the right to be whatever it wants, but this story claims to be based on true events. From what the director has said (not that it wasn’t obvious), the comparison is to the Deir Yassin Massacre. Before going on to my more substantive points, I will note a few details of history. The real Deir Yassin had made an agreement of neutrality with the Jewish authorities and of mutual support with the closest village to it, which was populated by Chassidic Jews. These folks did manage to stop the killings eventually, saving most of the residents of the village. However, before that, 107 people were executed.
At the time, the mainstream Jewish world recognized Deir Yassin as an atrocity. It was condemned by the Jewish Agency (the “government” of the Jews in British Mandatory Palestine). It was condemned by prominent Jews in Israel and in the US. And the condemnations came easily because the murderers were terrorists of the Irgun and Lehi engaged in their first military endeavor. (Previous actions focused more on planting bombs—several British politicians had been killed.)
So, the Israeli propaganda version of Deir Yassin was that this was an aberrant, isolated atrocity committed by horrible terrorists and that it in no way reflects upon the morality surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel. The propaganda continues that the refugee crisis emanated from the Arab nations’ messages to the population that they should flee and would then be returned to their homes once Israel was wiped off the map. In this view, the Palestinian refugee crisis was solely a creation of Arab genocidal intransigence and is in no way the moral responsibility of Israel or the Jewish people.
I grew up as an American Jew hearing that story. The problem is that very little of it is true. To distinguish it from 2022 propaganda (addressed later in this post), I’ll call it 1948 propaganda. I’m drawing for my arguments mainly from two sources. The first is the book 1949, written by Israeli author Tom Segev. He did painstaking research on who fled the area and why. Based on it, he argued that not only was the later Palestinian claim that most of the refugees were forcibly evicted by Israel a lie, the claim that most left because of messages broadcast by Arab nations encouraging them to leave wasn’t true either. Both things happened. They happened to very few people. The vast majority of 800,000 Palestinian refugees left because there was a war going on and they feared being killed in the chaos of the battle. Yes, an Israeli did this research, and although I read the book, I didn’t try to cross-check any of the data. However, the frequency with which Palestinian activists cite this book would argue that it’s probably correct in its conclusions.
So, the claim that ethnic cleansing was conducted on a mass scale is a lie, as is the contention that the Israelis are entirely blameless because the Arab governments are responsible for the Palestinians leaving. There was a war; people fled. Current international law has made conquering territory by war illegal and demands that refugees have the right to return to their homes. Sure, that wasn’t the law of the time, but the main reason that didn’t apply was that Israel remained in a state of war with the neighboring Arab countries. Returning of territory and population takes place in peacetime.
Yet, Israel is still partially culpable for several reasons. The news of the massacre at Deir Yassin spread far and wide and is credited with persuading many Palestinians to flee their homes for fear that the same thing would happen to them. This still isn’t the majority of the refugees (according to Segev), but it is an appreciable number. Secondly, it wasn’t just the Irgun and Lehi terrorists involved. Here I am drawing from the memoir of a spy for the Haganah (what became the Israeli Defense Forces) embedded with the terrorists. I will draw on the testimony of this spy, Meir Pa’il, who later became a history professor and then a member of the Israeli Parliament. Again, some would object that I’m using an Israeli source. Darrin Sallam, the Jordanian director of Farha, has said in interviews that she relied upon Pa’il’s testimony in investigating the history on which to base her film. I’ll let that attest to the credibility of this source. You can check it out for yourself here: https://www.israel-palestina.info/achtergrond/deir-yassin-meir-pails-eyewitness-account/
At the time of the massacre, the Haganah was trying to consolidate and take over the area around Jerusalem. The terrorists presented as a fait accompli that they intended to take over Deir Yassin, and the Haganah was too busy fighting a war to argue. According to Pa’il, they did not even consider the possibility of a massacre. Pa’il’s role was to determine if the terrorists could fight well enough to be incorporated into the regular army post-statehood.
They weren’t that great. Indeed, the villagers had made a pact with the Jewish Agency to stay neutral and not to fight, and by all accounts, they held to that pact. Despite a nearly defenseless village, the Irgun/Lehi fighters were trapped. The elite unit of the Haganah, the Palmach, sent in soldiers to cover their retreat. When they found they couldn’t evacuate these men without taking over the village, they did so. They then left the village in the control of the Irgun/Lehi. These 130 or so fighters (of ~400 total Lehi/Irgun stationed in and around Jerusalem) never could have taken over Deir Yassin without the Palmach’s help. The murders happened after the fighting was over and the Palmach left.
A further reason the Israeli government bears responsibility is that these “terrorists” took over the Israeli government in 1977. Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister that year—he had headed the Irgun and lavishly praised the massacre at Deir Yassin at the time. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli Prime Minister, comes from the same party.
How the terrorists took over the government is key to understanding 2022 propaganda. The 850,000 number in this post’s title is the number of Jews from Arab countries who emigrated to Israel between 1948 and the early 1970s. Prior to 1948, most Arab states had sizable Jewish minority populations. With the establishment of the state of Israel, conditions soured. The propaganda line I was fed as a child was that the Arab countries kicked all of them out, further bolstering the argument that a Jewish homeland was necessary for the physical survival of the Jewish people. However, prominent Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews have pushed back against this argument. They claim to have emigrated out of patriotism (Zionism). Others left because of economic insecurity. Some were allowed to bring their money; some weren’t. it’s complicated.
What isn’t complicated is that by the 1970s, these Jews were the majority of the Jewish population of Israel. Their cultures were not always respected. The immigrants from Europe, intent on building a socialist paradise (the second homeland of all workers, after the Soviet Union, was a slogan of the time), did not see the family-oriented traditional cultures as the equal to their “superior” European ones. There was a lot of resentment.
Menachem Begin took advantage of this resentment, recasting his party as that of the disenfranchised. And they bought into his Israel-as-a-fortress ideology. Those who flee a country are often receptive to the idea that the country they have fled is the bad guy. The 1977 elections were in part a triumph of the working class, darker-skinned, Middle Easterners (led by a pasty white ex-terrorist, yes) against the socialist, white establishment.
Still, it wasn’t that simple. Begin would never have won without coopting the support of two war heroes, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizmann, who later pushed him, kicking and screaming, to make peace with Egypt. He also would never have won without an anti-corruption party that took 15 seats in Parliament going into a coalition with him. But the right was in power.
Following two more wars, a new argument emerged: 800,000 Palestinians fled in 1948; 850,000 Jews fled Arab countries soon after. It was a population exchange. Israel absorbed the 850,000, so the Palestinian refugees should be the Arab states’ problem, not Israel’s. I have seen this comment over and over on social media this week. The impetus was Farha coming out on Netflix and the Arab sports fans waving Palestinian flags at FIFA games.
Before I digress into more history to explain what I’ll call 1973 hypocrisy, allow me a moment to discuss 2022 hypocrisy. The Qataris have been permitting the Palestinian flags. They’ve been allowing no other protests (prominently banning rainbow flags, for example). Think about this from the point of view of the leaders in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is run by a monarch who just decided to allow women to drive cars a few years ago. He and the leaders of the UAE are conducting a genocide in Yemen, using American weapons. The Egyptian leader is a strongman backed by religious fundamentalists; the Syrian leader has dropped chemical weapons on his own people: these are not nice guys. They don’t want the Arab street revolting against them. The people tried, and the Arab Spring that resulted was thoroughly crushed. However, demonstrating against Israel, sure, why not? It takes the attention off of the corrupt and dictatorial rulers. As this is the only allowed protest, it becomes a surrogate protest for all human rights in the Arab world. You can see the appeal, no?
As for the 1973 hypocrisy, here’s the most important point I’m going to make, important because I don’t see it being made on social media right now: semantics are essential. If you call it an Arab-Israeli conflict rather than a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the 850,000 versus 800,000 argument sounds logical. Here’s why it isn’t:
It’s true that in 1948 a Palestinian consciousness had not yet developed. The region was a backwater of the Ottoman Empire prior to WWI and then a territory controlled by Great Britain. The British were great at setting one side against the other, but they didn’t create the Palestinian identity. Islam (and in Bethlehem, Christianity) was a part of identity at the time. Arab was a part of identity. Loyalty to one’s village or extended family was important. On the higher, political level, the grand idea of one large Arab nation running from Morocco to Iraq, Arab nationalism, promised by the British in the 1915 McMahon Pledge, still held sway.
The Palestine Liberation Organization wasn’t created until 1964. Then a project of the Arab League, it was dominated by old men who could fundraise and run charities, but it wasn’t a revolutionary organization. After the 1967 War, Fatah took it over. Fatah was a guerilla organization. By 1974, Fatah had evolved to the point of arguing for a state on whatever part of Palestine the world would give them. In that year, the UN and most governments of the world recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. After the 1967 War, the Arab powers that had lost territory to Israel refused to negotiate peace, culminating in the 1973 War. Only at that point did any of these leaders seriously consider the possibility of a peaceful settlement. Signing on to the idea that part of the territory they lost (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) should be Palestine freed them to negotiate bilateral issues with Israel. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in the Camp David Accords Peace Treaty.
I don’t want to underestimate the courage it took for Anwar Sadat to negotiate peace—he was assassinated for it. But the two-state solution, embraced by the United States, the Soviet Union, and every other major world power transformed the conflict into a Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Palestinians were not the ones who expelled 850,000 Jews. That’s why the semantics are important.
As far as morality goes, the best analogy I’ve seen was made by a German historian (whose name eludes me right now). He asked the reader to imagine a burning building. The occupant jumps out the second-floor window and lands on someone, wounding him badly. From the point of view of the person fleeing the house, one could not morally ask them to stay in the house and die. From the point-of-view of the person who was landed upon, they flying denizen of the house came out of nowhere.
If you define Zionism narrowly as the idea that Jews, like every other people in the world, deserve a homeland that is both a physical refuge and a center of culture, you are arguing from the point-of-view of the person jumping out of the burning building. If you define being pro-Palestinian as saying Palestinians deserve exactly the same, you are arguing from the point-of-view of the one landed upon. It’s not a perfect analogy (the Mufti of Jerusalem, the most important Palestinian leader of the 1940s, spent WWII in Berlin doing Nazi propaganda over the radio in Arabic; and the Jewish Agency leaders knew that the population living in Palestine had rights and chose to downplay them for propaganda reasons, so nobody is angelic here), but it’s useful for arguing questions of morality.
Israel exists as an 80% Jewish state and isn’t going anywhere. The Palestinian Authority exists and does govern over part of the Palestinian population. This population isn’t going anywhere. The two-state solution is the only one anyone ever came up with that’s at all even theoretically feasible. The West Bank and Gaza are not Israel. Those are the facts on the ground.
All this being said, rather than engage in futile social media propaganda, what is productive for those of us living outside the region to do? This post is already long, so I’ll restrict myself to one suggestion: demand that the Israeli government release its archival files on Deir Yassin. Journalists and scholars, primarily Israeli, have requested these files be released for a long time. The government says it won’t for national security reasons.
That’s obviously bullshit. The right-wing party in power doesn’t want to do anything that would cast Israel in a bad light. With the most recent election, a party openly advocating ethnic cleansing, not just in the Occupied Territories but also within 1948-boundary Israel, has been included in the government.
My take: hatred needs to abate. Coexistence needs to be fostered. An honest accounting of the ethnic cleansing of Deir Yassin would force the next generation of Israelis to confront what a broader ethnic cleansing would look like. The plans of the new Israeli Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, are Deir Yassin writ large.
The increase in compassion and empathy likely to result from the release of these archives to journalists might prevent this atrocity from occurring. The Israelis need this to happen as much as if not more than the Palestinians do.
And the rest of us should refrain from putting knee-jerk, bumper sticker propaganda on social media. If you care about what’s going on, invest the time in learning the history of this conflict. Spouting off in ignorance only fans the flames, making practical steps toward a just solution near-impossible.