1948 as the original sin


There is only one country in the world whose right to exist is persistently cast into question: the State of Israel. It’s no coincidence that it is the world’s only Jewish state that is subjected to this delegitimization, not only in private conversations, but in university lecture halls, the top newsrooms in the world, and the General Assembly of the United Nations. For centuries, the right of Jewish people to live — the “Jewish Question” — was cast into doubt. Today, the Jewish state is subjected to the very same rhetoric. How is “does Israel have a right to exist?” even considered a legitimate question? Why are we even entertaining it, instead of flagging it for what it is — blatant xenophobia, at best?

The anti-Israel crowd justifies its flagrant bigotry by depicting Israel’s founding as illegitimate, thereby delegitimizing the country in perpetuity. This, of course, is a blatant double standard from the get-go, as hundreds of countries across the globe had bloody establishments. What’s worse, though, is that to delegitimize Israel’s founding, these people push a blatantly false narrative. According to their story, European settler-colonizers with the backing of the European empires, America, and/or the United Nations violently came to Palestine, seized lands, and, in 1948, massacred and displaced Palestinians to establish the Jewish state. Except this is not what happened.

To be sure, Palestinians were massacred and displaced in 1948, with 750,000 fleeing or being expelled from their homes. The displacement of Palestinians completely fractured Palestinian society, and it remains an open wound to this day. 

But the very real suffering of Palestinians should not be used to fuel an ahistorical narrative with the purpose of delegitimizing the Jewish state, and, by extension, the lives of nine million people in it. 



The outbreak of the 1948 war was the culmination of almost three decades of Arab-Jewish violence in Palestine. The first of these violent incidents took place in 1920, during the Nebi Musa festival, when Arab rioters descended upon the ancient Jewish population of Jerusalem, murdering, pillaging, looting, and shouting “Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs!” and “death to the Jews!”

It was this event that first prompted the Jewish community in Palestine to organize a paramilitary. Arab antisemitic violence continued to escalate, with massacres in 1929, 1936, and 1938. In 1936, the right-wing Jewish paramilitary, the Irgun, began carrying out retaliatory attacks against Arabs. 

Given the rapid escalation of violence, in 1937, the British first proposed partitioning Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state. The Jews accepted the plan reluctantly — to quote future first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist movement was prepared to accept a state “even if it’s the size of a tablecloth” — but the Arabs rejected it, so the plan was scrapped. But it wasn’t only partition that the Arabs were opposed to, seeing that two years later, the British offered the Arabs an entirely Arab state, so long as they could guarantee the rights of a tiny Jewish minority. The Arabs rejected the proposal — they wanted no Jews, period — and would continue to reject such proposals well into 1947. 

In 1947, the British handed the problem over to the United Nations, which voted in favor of partitioning the land. The Jews accepted the plan, while the Arabs infamously rejected it. For months, the Arab states had been threatening genocide of Jews should partition come to pass. After the partition vote, the Arab leadership in Palestine issued a leaflet quite explicitly threatening a second Holocaust in the Middle East, writing, “The Arabs have taken into their own hands the Final Solution of the Jewish problem. The problem will be solved only in blood and fire. The Jews will soon be driven out.” 

It wasn’t just threats. The morning after partition, Arab mobs in Palestine attacked Jewish buses, marking the start of the Palestine Civil War, which later turned into the 1948 war, after five Arab states invaded immediately following Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14. 



Contrary to the ahistorical depiction of European settler-colonizers with the backing of European empires, the Jews fighting in 1948 were largely refugees and Holocaust survivors. An international arms embargo had been placed on Palestine, affecting both Jews and Arabs, but the Arabs already had established militaries and even the unofficial support of the British, whereas the Jews had nothing and had to go through incredibly risky lengths to obtain the necessary arms and equipment. 

It’s really important to remember that all this took place less than three years after the end of the Holocaust, which eradicated nearly 70 percent of Europe’s Jewish population. For the Jews of 1948, the Arab threats of extermination felt very much existential. For example, prior to the partition vote, the General Secretary of the Arab League had threatened, “Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because it will be a dangerous massacre which history will record similarly to the Mongol massacre or the wars of the Crusades…We will sweep [the Jews] into the sea.”

Imagine this for a second: before World War II, the Jewish population around the world stood at 16 million (to this day, our population still hasn’t recovered). Just six years later, the global Jewish population had dwindled to 10 million. Three years later, the Arabs, outnumbering Jews about a million to one, were threatening to carry out another genocide against the very same people.

Of the Israeli casualties during the 1948, about one third were Holocaust survivors. Many were also Jewish refugees from elsewhere in the Middle East, as the Arab countries expelled some 850,000 Jews from their homes in retaliation for the 1948 war. No country in history has ever had to absorb as many refugees proportional to its total population as Israel did, in such a short amount of time. Because of this, conditions in Israel were dire, with an economy on the brink of collapse and food shortages. This picture is the opposite of that of a powerful foreign empire coming to conquer.



Both the Jews and Arabs — including, yes, Palestinian Arabs — were responsible for expulsions and massacres during the 1948 war. In many cases, events described as “massacres” were actually battles between the two opposing parties. All of this, of course, happened within the context of a war. Framing it otherwise is a blatant distortion of the facts of history. 

Palestinians were not expelled from their homes because of their identities as Arabs or Palestinians; in the cases in which they were expelled, this occurred within the context of the Jewish paramilitaries and later the Israeli army battling with a hostile village, though, of course, innocents were caught in the crossfire and suffered the consequences. Any attempt to frame it as persecution of Palestinians on the basis of them being Palestinian is to try to draw a moral equivalence to the Holocaust, a crime which was entirely unrelated to the German war effort during World War II; in fact, the Nazi extermination campaign of Jews at times hindered the war objectives. The Nazis persecuted Jews because they were Jews, not because they were members of a hostile nation during wartime. 

“Nakba,” just like “Shoah,” the Hebrew word for Holocaust, means “catastrophe.” Constantin Zureiq, the Syrian intellectual who coined the term “Nakba,” described the Nakba not as the tragedy of the displacement of Palestinians, but rather, as the tragedy that “seven Arab states declare[d] war in an attempt to subdue Zionism, then stop[ped] impotent before it, and return[ed] on their heels.” 

The catastrophe, according to Zureiq himself, was not that innocent people had been displaced from their homes, but that the Arabs had lost the war that they started. 



The anti-Israel crowd depicts the 1948 war as a case of an oppressor (Israel) versus the oppressed (Palestine). In reality, there was was a victor (Israel) and a loser (Palestine), with both sides committing war crimes. As far as who started the war, there is absolutely no question that the Arabs were the aggressors. As always, the true victims of the war were the innocent civilians.

The anti-Israel narrative consistently ignores the Arab atrocities that very much shaped Zionist morale during the 1948 war. The Arabs besieged 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem, depriving them of food and water, and destroying all relief trucks en route to the city. In fact, it was this siege that, four months into the war, prompted the Zionists to go from the defensive to the offensive, and subsequently led to the expulsions and massacres of Palestinians. 

Though the Arabs ended up conquering few Jewish communities, those communities that they did conquer suffered from expulsions and massacres. For example, on December 30, 1947, Arab mobs lynched 39 Jews in Haifa. On April 13, 1948, the Arabs attacked a Hadassah Hospital medical convoy, killing 79 people, mostly patients, doctors, and nurses, and burning most of them beyond recognition. On May 13, 1948, 157-220 Jews were murdered, many execution-style, by the Jordanian and Palestinian Arab forces in Kfar Etzion, with at least one attempted rape documented. When Jordan expelled the entire Jewish population of East Jerusalem, 600 Jews were murdered. The Arab forces also decapitated and paraded the heads of Jewish soldiers, disemboweled pregnant Jewish women, mutilated and dismembered Jewish women and prisoners of war, and more. 

The Palestinian Arabs were not the pure innocent victims of the war. They were the losers of the war. Those are two different things. 

Notably, while Israel has declassified many of its 1948 archives, the Arab countries have not and probably never will. As such, the historiography of 1948 is inherently biased, and the true extent of the atrocities the Arabs committed against the Jews might never be known.



About 750,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1948. Of these 750,000 refugees, 100,000 or so of wealthy means left Palestine before any documented expulsions. The majority of Palestinian refugees of the war, as is usual during wartime, fled out of fear, with many fleeing their villages before the Jewish forces even captured them. About 5 percent of Palestinians were actively forcibly expelled by the Jewish forces, while some 10 percent were evacuated or encouraged to leave by the Arab forces and/or the British. 

Without downplaying the pain of displacement, it’s really important to note that, unfortunately, every war produces refugees. What happened to Palestinians was sadly not unique. Yet Israel-detractors frame it as such to characterize Israel’s founding, and therefore, its entire existence, as uniquely evil and unjustifiable. If Israel was born out of sin, then Israel’s entire existence is a sin, and therefore, the moral thing to do would be to destroy it. 

As mentioned, the originator of the term “Nakba,” Constantin Zureiq, was describing the Arab military defeat, not a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people. 

Since then, however, the story of the Nakba has been distorted to completely de-emphasize the actual circumstances of the displacement, the genocidal war that the Arabs started.

The allusions to the Holocaust are intentional, beginning with the choice to use the word “Nakba,” a direct translation of the Hebrew word for “Holocaust,”  “Shoah.” In reality, the Nakba and the Holocaust have absolutely nothing in common; a more apt comparison would be the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923 or the Hindu-Muslim population exchange during the Partition of India in 1947. But nothing could possibly delegitimize the Jewish state more than comparing the Jewish state to the Jews’ worst historic oppressors. In fact, many Palestinian writers, such as Edward Said, even depicted themselves as the ultimate victims of the Nazis (despite the Palestinian leadership’s alliance with Nazi Germany). 

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