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1949 THE FIRST ISRAELIS : by Tom Segev (Free Press: $19.95; illustrated, 379 pp.)

March 16, 1986|Marvin Seid | Seid is a Times editorial writer

The story of how Israel achieved its political rebirth, secured its national survival and provided haven to hundreds of thousands of the dispossessed and endangered has been told many times. Even discounting for rhetorical excesses, it is an impressive saga of faith, perseverance and triumph over great odds. But there is a less familiar and darker side to the story, one marked by instances of brutality, insensitivity and failed idealism. Drawing on recently available archival material and contemporary diaries, letters and newspaper accounts, Israeli journalist Tom Segev here recounts some of the less prideful events that occurred in Israel during and immediately after its war of independence.

Segev largely lets the record speak for itself. Many will not like what it says. As a friend who read the Israeli edition of the book remarked, "It told me things I would rather not have known." But what happened nearly four decades ago left a deep imprint on Israeli society and national attitudes. Understanding the present demands an honest confrontation with the past. "1949" is an important contribution to understanding.

No issue touching Israel's establishment has been more subject to conflicting claims than the origins of what came to be known as the Arab refugee problem. The official Israeli version, supported in good part by independent evidence, is that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs became refugees when their own leaders and invading Arab armies urged them to flee, promising a speedy return once victory over the nascent Israeli state was achieved. But what also happened, as Israeli records show, is that thousands of Arabs were forcibly and sometimes violently expelled, both during and after the war, from areas originally assigned to Israel in the U. N. partition plan or subsequently conquered as the invading Arab armies were thrown back.

Both during and after the war, plundering and looting of Arab property was common and, despite official efforts at suppression, largely uncontrolled. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told his cabinet he was appalled by the "moral failings" that secret reports on the pillaging revealed. Millions in Arab goods and property was seized. Some found its way into the hands of official custodians. Much was simply privately stolen.

Tens of thousands of Arab dwellings were taken over, many destined for the new immigrants from Europe and the Arab world. The welcoming of these immigrants in their hundreds of thousands has long been regarded as a remarkable success story. The record, Segev writes, shows that it was in many cases a tragedy. To begin with, the program was vastly overambitious, deliberately involving numbers far beyond the nation's immediate capacity to settle and absorb. Thousands who came found themselves condemned to languish helplessly in squalid detention camps, ill-fed, without elementary privacy, harassed by a callous bureaucracy. The new land they had prepared themselves for was unprepared for them.

No group of immigrants had a harder time of it than those Jews who came from Arab countries. Culturally and socially, they found themselves in an alien environment, often scorned, exploited and humiliated by a then-majority European population that in many cases regarded them as a backward people. Yemenites were especially beset, their religious practices and antique culture both denigrated. Segev raises a sensitive point that other writers have also touched on: Was the early departure of Jews from Arab lands in every instance justified by a genuine or imminent threat to their security? His answer, again documented, is that it was not. Some Jewish communities in nearby Muslim countries faced no greater dangers than those they had always lived with. Their flight to Israel nonetheless was sometimes encouraged, even deviously coerced. The aim was not to assure the personal security of those involved, but to bolster the interests of the state.

There is much more in this account that throws a shadow across the fostered image of Israel's earliest days and that alters the tones of a picture that has taken on almost mythological qualities. Ultimately what it shows is this: that the idealism of the founding generation was sometimes compromised by a fair measure of cynicism; that compassion was often modified by calculated self-interest; that tolerance and decency sometimes were replaced by callous narrow-mindedness and ugly expediency. In this sense, there is something of the universal in the darker side of the story of Israel's first year.

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