Shay Hazkani, Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War (Stanford University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Shay Hazkani (SH): The idea to write this book goes back to the time I worked as a journalist. That was a time so different from my life today that it is sometimes feels strange to think back to those days. From 2001 to 2008 I was a radio and then television correspondent in Israel, covering the Israeli military and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I was in my early 20s and very much a product of the Israeli education system. Unsurprisingly, I guess, I had some major misconceptions about what the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” was all about.
One day in 2007, I was looking through records in the Israeli army archives for a television piece on Israel’s first arms deal with West Germany in the late 1950s, when I stumbled on a strange document. It summarized the views of rank-and-file Israeli soldiers about the deal. It may not seem particularly interesting today, but the thought that Israel would sell weapons to Germany a decade after the Nazi extermination campaign was very controversial in Israel at the time. The document stated that the soldiers’ views were extracted from their personal letters, but I was not sure what that meant. I could not understand how the Israeli army had got a hold of these private letters. So, I did some digging and discovered that from 1948 to 2004 Israel operated a massive Big Brother apparatus that secretly copied and stored letters for the purpose of sociological research. Israeli soldiers, it turned out, were a late addition to an operation that also copied letters by Palestinians and many others.
Getting those documents marked the first time I fought for declassification of documents in the Israeli archives. To my surprise, it was quite successful (unlike most of my later battles) and I was allowed to copy many of these sources.
These documents were remarkable, because they told an unvarnished story of the establishment of modern Israel on the ruins of Arab Palestine. I found these letters so exciting that I ended up devoting the next twelve years, through an MA and then a PhD in the United States, to studying them. The result is Dear Palestine.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SH: Dear Palestine is primarily concerned with the way non-elites interacted with the elite narratives promoted during the 1948 war. The book is based on hundreds of personal letters of ordinary Jews, Palestinians, and other Arabs who came to Palestine as volunteers. I study the elite narratives, meanwhile, by looking at previously unexplored propaganda, disseminated by Israel and Arab states during the war. These two narratives—the official and unofficial, the propaganda and the personal letters—flesh out the fissures between sanctioned nationalism and individual identity.
To make this slightly less cryptic, let me give a few concrete examples: by looking at the printed education materials produced by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the war, I show that education officers tried to teach Ashkenazi Jews that organized violence was in line with Jewish tradition. Officers tried to convince Mizrahi Jews that killing the Arab enemy in Palestine would be payback for their parents’ suffering under Arab rule. But Ashkenazi soldiers were not so easily convinced, and many Mizrahi soldiers did not feel that the Arabs were necessarily the enemy. This tension between the official narrative and lived experience also surfaced in the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), the Arab League’s volunteer army that fought alongside Palestinians in 1948. The army’s propagandists aimed to restrict Arab volunteers’ revolutionary zeal to fighting Jews by promoting the view that Jews transgressed the boundaries of their traditional place in Islamic society, only to discover that some volunteers and their families were not willing to separate the fight in Palestine from their struggle against their own corrupt governments.
A different kind of interaction between elites and non-elites took place among Palestinians in 1948. The promises of political elites to “liberate Palestine” and carry a swift victory against Zionism in the name of pan-Arabism are well-documented. What is less known is the way these narratives were perceived by Palestinians from different classes as they were being expelled from their towns and villages by Jewish forces. Some decried the frequent use of “empty words” by leaders or demanded that these elites be held accountable for their failures. Others continued to believe that true pan-Arabism could triumph over Zionism, and most worked to imagine a grassroot movement of return to their old villages, possibly without the participation of the old class of elites.
The questions I ask about the interactions between elites and non-elites stem to a large degree from the rich collections of oral histories of the nakba that have been published in recent decades. These testimonies have this candor to them that we typically do not see from politicians, generals, or the various histories that have relied on their words. Scholars who are reluctant to use oral history sometimes cite the lack of sources as a reason why perspectives “from below” are missing from their work. The most famed historian of the 1948 war, Benny Morris, claimed that “for all intents and purposes, the masses were silent. […] We have no records, or almost no records, about what the masses of peasants and urban poor and soldiery thought or felt, certainly not from their own pens or mouths.” This quote is a favorite of mine since Dear Palestine makes the exact opposite case. While it is concerned less with “what really happened” in 1948 (something we have a good record of), it focuses on what sense Arab and Jewish soldiers (and some civilians) made of the nakba and Israeli statehood in real time.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SH: This is my first book, so not much “previous work” to speak of. It continues my interest in the representations of non-elites and its relation to nationalist narratives. In an article I wrote with Samuel Dolbee a few years back, we investigated a series of columns ostensibly authored by a Muslim peasant in the Jaffa-based newspaper Filastin in 1911 to 1912. What we found was that the author was a prominent Zionist agronomist, Menashe Meirovitch, who partnered with the editor of the newspaper Filastin, ʿIsa al-ʿIsa, considered one of the “founding fathers” of Palestinian nationalism. Their concealed cooperation attested to the complicated possibilities of the late Ottoman period, often elided in conventional narratives about this time.
Dear Palestine takes place in 1948, where it was considerably less likely for two figures like Meirovitch and al-ʿIsa to cooperate for a shared vision of any sort. Still, as late as 1949, elites had their own interests and concerns in Palestine, and those did not necessarily align with those of non-elites. In fact, the experiences of Jewish and Arab non-elites sometimes intersected in surprising ways. In my previous work, I often had to speculate what sense non-elites made of the enfolding reality. In Dear Palestine answering this question—with actual evidence—became my main endeavor.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SH: The obvious audience would be scholars of Palestine/Israel, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. However, I also hope that some of those who care for Palestine or Israel from outside of academe may be interested. While Dear Palestine clearly does not discuss the recent May 2021 conflagration in Palestine, it provides some of the “prequel” history to today’s violence. It sheds light on the affinity between Palestinians who became Israeli citizens and those who were made refugees, all of whom had risen up in the latest round of violence. Dear Palestine also tells the history of some of the mixed cities, and the way ordinary Palestinians narrated the violent process of “mixing” in real time.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SH: The intercepted personal letters I worked with in Dear Palestine continue to intrigue me, and I intend to use them to tell another story, that of Moroccan Jews. Moroccan Jews were the largest group of Jews from the Arab world who fought in 1948, and the book follows those who were disenchanted with Israel because of racism against them by Ashkenazi Jews (a staggering seventy percent of Moroccan Jews wished to leave Israel and return to Morocco in the aftermath of the war). But while Dear Palestine ends in 1949, the Moroccan story does not. In some ways 1949 marks the beginning of a process that would culminate in the Moroccan uprising in Haifa against Ashkenazi hegemony, known as the Wadi Salib revolt. I argue this is a process of major radicalization, which stemmed to a large degree from a transnational and anti-colonial consciousness which evolved in Israel. This consciousness initially developed against the backdrop of the Moroccan struggle for independence against French colonialism; however, other anti-colonial and antiracist struggles of the 1950s also became influential. In other words, the prevailing assessment of the Wadi Salib revolt as primarily “an Israeli event” diminishes the longer trajectories of Moroccan radicalization. It is often assumed that communist Jews in Israel spearheaded radical politics post-1948, and I hope to make the case that this view needs to change.
Excerpt from the book (from “Where Are Those Beautiful Days?”, pp. 185-190)
Return was a central and acute issue not only for Palestinians forced from their homeland but also for Moroccan Jews who became disenchanted with Israel and wished to return to their former homeland. For Palestinians in the aftermath of the nakba, the struggle for survival and return was literally a matter of life or death. Moroccan Jews in Israel faced different but related challenges, including extreme poverty and Ashkenazi racism.
In the aftermath of the nakba, whatever did not involve immediate subsistence or the prospects for return had to wait. Palestinian refugees were scattered in hundreds of makeshift refugee compounds in Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Egypt, and Iraq. The Israeli intelligence apparatus invested substantial resources in following the lives and sentiments of Palestinian refugees in their new diaspora. The refugees’ letters were used to track the exact place of residence for each group of Palestinians, and their activities in their host countries—making sure they could not return. It appears that refugees in Lebanon were in especially dire straits. “We have 60 more Palestinian liras and 70 Lebanese liras. After that there would be no other option but to starve to death,” announced ʿAdil from Lebanon in September 1948 in a letter to his family in Israel. “I often work so we can keep on living,” wrote Marwa in an effort to explain the reversal of traditional gender roles that had caused her to seek employment. “There is no way to live but [taking on temporary] daily work,” she added. But temporary work did not make much of a difference. Letters indicated that most refugees were denied permanent job permits or Lebanese ID cards that would allow them to secure higher-paying positions and move around freely. The Lebanese government saw Muslim refugees in particular as a threat to Lebanon’s delicate demographic balance. Banning them from much of the job market and from renting apartments was in line with its overall policy of restricting their activities and encouraging their departure. Christian refugees, meanwhile, fared better. Many of them received Lebanese citizenship and were allowed to rent apartments in the larger cities and open businesses.
Refugees in Transjordan were better off than those in Syria and Lebanon, and they also received better treatment from the government, though poverty was still widespread. The snow in Amman in January of 1949 was one source of hardship, and the Hashemite government moved the refugees from one place to another, fearing they would freeze to death. Although renting apartments in Amman was allowed, rent was beyond the reach of most refugees. “Because of the high rent we live in the mountains. Most people live in tents and caves,” explained Amjad in February 1949. Work in Transjordan, though not formally banned, was also hard to come by. From Salt, Fuad wrote to a relative, “Your brother was unable to find any job. He goes from one house to the other and sells zaʿatar [an herb that is a staple of the Palestinian diet].”
The nakba not only brought material losses and displacement but also depression and grief. Refugees missed Palestine’s beloved landscapes, and especially its celebrated oranges, as Iskandar from Amman wrote to a POW inside Israel in February 1949: “How are you and how are your oranges? We don’t get to see them here. One orange here is worth a camel’s head [i.e., very expensive].” Life in a POW camp would seem unenviable. But it appeared differently from Iskandar’s vantage in Amman, where he was deprived of the citrus so evocative of home. From this perspective, being a POW meant maintaining a connection to these mundane aspects of life that for refugees had altogether disappeared. With the exception of pleas for monetary support, many Palestinians in their new diaspora chose not to write. Mona, a Christian Palestinian refugee in Transjordan, explained in February 1949 to her cousin who was a POW in Israel:
You ask me why I don’t write. The heart is heavy and is not free to write. There is nothing beautiful in this world . . . Where are those beautiful days? The laughter had stopped and there is no trace of humor . . . The entire life is a burden on us.
Alongside despair, however, was also optimism, especially on the west bank of the Jordan River, the part of historic Palestine now under Transjordanian rule. Being so close to their former dwellings stoked the flame of hope: “Everyone is waiting for the imminent solution. With the help of God this will end soon with an agreement between the two rival sides, and then we can all go back to al-Ramlah, and life will return to what it used to be,” wrote Jalal in December 1948. Munir added in January 1949, “May God make Transjordan and Israel into sisters.” The optimistic view expressed by the refugees that they would soon return to their villages persisted throughout the armistice negotiations in Rhodes in 1949. Even as the talks were concluded without the return of Palestinians, the hope in the refugees’ letters did not diminish.
While waiting to return, Palestinians were concerned with the status of their property left behind (as early as May 1948, Ben-Gurion issued an order to move new Jewish immigrants into houses emptied of their Arab inhabitants). Letters of refugees from Jaffa who ended up in Transjordan were especially imbued with such anxiety over the Jews looting their belongings: “Please inform me,” wrote Maha to an acquaintance still in Jaffa in October 1948, “if the house was completely ransacked or only partially, because there is a lot of news about stealing and robbery in Jaffa, and I am very concerned.” ʿAzzam too wrote to a relative in Jaffa asking him to check on his house, and if it was indeed ransacked, to bring a carpenter to fix the door so that it could be locked again. He also instructed the relative to hire a guard for which ʿAzzam would pay. In answering such queries, Habib from Acre wrote to his family abroad in July 1949 that “most buildings were taken by Jews and the gardens and vegetables [fields] were transferred into their hands in full. All this is the result of Arab men sitting in coffeehouses, speaking empty words.” Although Habib did not explain what these empty words were exactly, it is likely he was referring to Palestinians echoing the propaganda of Arab leaders that the battle for Palestine would be an easy one.
By 1949 many Palestinians realized that a return to Palestine at that point could only be facilitated by their families still in Israel. The letters intercepted by the censorship bureau extensively discuss the arrangements made with the state authorities for the return of relatives, even though most of the details of these arrangements had been redacted by the archives. For the majority of Palestinians who were unable to obtain the government’s permission for the return of their loved ones, calling on their families to sneak across the border into Israel was the only way of reuniting their families. But as a letter from Iman in Haifa to her family in Lebanon from February 1949 indicated, not all Palestinians were easily convinced to let smugglers bring them back home:
How is our dear father, and why doesn’t he listen to what I say and take my advice? After all, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Read him my words . . . As long as the movement [of people] continues [between Arab states and Israel] . . . and others are paying thousands of liras to do it, why did your feelings die and your right mind disappear?
Iman was trying to get her family to cross the border into Israel despite the dangers. She realized that what was possible at that time would not be possible soon. But most Palestinians, even in late 1949, continued to hold onto the hope that the refugees would be allowed to return legally. According to the censor, Palestinians chose to believe “the rumors on the willingness of the government to return hundreds of thousands of refugees.” A typical line in letters from July 1949 was that “the compassionate government of Israel will not agree to the splitting of the families of its citizens.” Much like the laudatory portrayal of Israel in the letters of POWs, such messages were likely sarcastic or intended for the censor.
Excerpted from DEAR PALESTINE: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE 1948 WAR by Shay Hazkani, published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.