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Amitai Etzioni, Nakba and Moral Blindness

Amitai Etzioni (blog) is a distinguished Israeli-American social scientist who teaches at George Washington University.  He is a sociologist who founded a school of thought called communitarianism, which attempts to balance the needs and rights of the individual with the interests in society in maintaining coherence and order.  Etzioni is steeped in issues and problems of American society and rarely addresses the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Last week, he made the mistake of doing so in the pages of The Forward, where he published a querulous op-ed attacking Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land.  There are several astonishing aspects of all this.  First, Etzioni and Shavit are liberal Zionists.  Shavit is one of Haaretz’s “centrist” columnists, which means he’s an apologist for liberal Zionist values.  His book, while attempting to address difficult moral issues like Nakba, essentially adopts Benny Morris’ view that ethnic cleansing was an unpleasant, perhaps even immoral response to the predicament, but one that was necessary in order to build the new Jewish state.  Therefore, I was quite shocked that Etzioni felt it necessary to attack the book.  But attack it he did.  And in a most strange way.  But I’ll get to that later.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of all this is that Etzioni recalls his family’s flight from Nazi Germany in 1935 and their aliyah to Israel.  At this point, let’s hear from Etzioni himself on this period of his family’s history (italics are mine):

…My family escaped, joining four other families of the same background to form a new settlement in Palestine in 1936. They named it Kfar Shmaryahu (it’s next to Herzliya). The five families occupied 600 “dunams,” cleared the rocks, drilled a water well, paved a road before erecting a bunch of modest homes and farming the land. All this was done on previously unoccupied land — land that was lying fallow next to an Arab village called Sidney Alley [sic]. (Wandering Bedouins occasionally used the land next to my parents’ home, between Kfar Shmaryahu and that of Rispon, for grazing, but the area on which Kfar Shmaryahu was erected was not even used in this way.)

The relationship between my parents’ village and Sidney Alley varied over the years, ranging from comfortable to tense. However, as far as I recall, no shots were fired, and most assuredly, no one was driven off land or out of a home. Those who lived unmolested in Sidney Alley until 1948 left at that point. We were told that they took with them keys to our homes that they somehow acquired, and had agreed among themselves who will get which of our homes after the seven Arab militaries that attacked the weak and newborn Israel defeated it. I never saw any evidence that supports this tale, but I know firsthand that no Israeli forces drove out the people of Sidney Alley.

al haram mosque

al-Haram mosque (formerly Sidna Ali)

I was first alerted to this story by my friend, Maher Mughrabi, a staff writer for The Age (Australia).  He sent me a letter to the editor he wrote to The Forward with his own response to Etzioni’s op-ed.  It was Maher who discovered there is not, nor has there ever been a place called “Sidney Alley.”  Here is Maher:

Etzioni recalls the neighbouring village’s name as “Sidney Alley”. This surely must strike anyone with an ear for Arab idiom as improbable…However if you think a bit about what this place might be called in Arabic, it turns out the mosque is of Sidna (or Sayyidna, meaning “our lord”) Ali. And it turns out that if you are not Etzioni, you can remember a history of displacement from this place.

Zochrot offers its own historical narrative of Sidna Ali, which is a critique of the history offered at Herzliya’s founder’s museum.

Now is the place to refresh Prof. Etzioni’s memory, or relieve him of the serious case of historical amnesia allowing him to make such a hash of the actual history of “Sidney Alley.”  In the narrowest sense, his characterization may be correct.  It may be so that no one from Kfar Shmaryahu fired a shot at anyone from Sidna Ali.  And no one from the Jewish village expelled anyone from the Palestinian village.  But to leave it at that is to do a grave historical injustice, for the villagers of Sidna Ali were indeed driven from their homes by blood-curdling murder perpetrated by Jews.

lehi massacre

contemporaneous account of Lehi massacre of al-Shubaki clan

The story is that there was a farming family from the village named al-Shubaki.  They had a dairy and orchard just outside the village.  They also had a Jewish family that was a tenant on the farm.  Apparently, that family allowed the Jewish terrorist group, Lehi, to maintain a training base in the orchard.  In November 1947 a British military raid on the orchard resulted in the killing of four Lehi trainees and a commander.

A few days later, Lehi came for the Shubakis to extract its revenge.  They lined up five family members (allowing several to escape) and shot them in cold blood, believing that the Shubakis had informed to the British on them.  Though the State had not yet been declared and there was not yet any organized expulsions carried out by the Palmach, many residents of Sidna Ali fled in terror when they heard of the massacre.  Those who remained were forced to flee in 1948 by menacing gun fire which frightened them away.

So the story of the fleeing villagers who took with them the keys to the Jewish settler homes which they’d “acquired” and which they planned to occupy when they returned, appears to be psychological-assuasion of their guilty consciences.  If victims of Nakba harbored evil intentions as they fled, then the Jews who remained had no guilt in their expulsion.  It’s a deft, but dishonest bit of psychic self-manipulation.

Here is an account of a tour of the ruins of Sidna Ali (called al-Haram here) sponsored by Zochrot, the Israeli group dedicated to preserving Nakba villages destroyed by the new state.  The tales of heartache and memory tell a tale altogether different than Etzioni’s version:

Muhammad al-Masri, who was born in al-Haram, told us about his memories of life in the village. He explained how the villagers were forced to leave following violence by Jews in the area and the massacre of the Shubaki family near their village. Masri’s family left for Taibeh, as good relations with Jews enabled them to stay in the country….

Issam Massarweh was also born in the village. This was only the second time he had returned to visit the place. Massarweh told us that as a boy he had had a special relationship with a Jewish family and children who lived with him in the same neighborhood in Rishpon, which was part of al-Haram…

Dana, also a [Jewish] neighbor, listened with great emotion to the testimonies and asked to say a few words. She wanted to personally and publicly ask the uprooted villagers of al-Haram for their forgiveness — for not knowing about them, and for living there, in some way, at their expense…

A sign was posted in Arabic and Hebrew designating the village of al-Haram. It was taken down half an hour after the event.

sidna ali well

Palestinian women drawing water from Sidna Ali well (Palestine Remembered)

Zochrot also filmed a video on the spot where the Shubaki farm stood with a narrative recounting the massacre and its aftermath.  It also published a book (which appears to be in Arabic and possibly Hebrew) about the history of Sidna Ali and its destruction.  Another historical footnote missing from Etzioni’s airbrushed version of Israeli history is that Palestinian fighters then exacted their own form of revenge a few days after the Shubaki murders.  They attacked two Israeli buses and killed seven passengers in total.

How does a distinguished professor of sociology with virtually unlimited research assistance not bother to do any research before making the false (or at the very least, misleading) statements he’s made?  I can understand that he was a young man at the time of these events.  He may or may not have been in Kfar Shmaryahu when they happened (Wikipedia says that he first arrived in Palestine in 1947).  His family may’ve offered him this narrative which he may’ve internalized as if it was solid truth.  But as any social scientist should be able to tell you: people have narratives, but that doesn’t make them true.  Truth lays somewhere behind the narrative and must be ascertained by research and probing the historical memory.

The most important lesson from all this is that the most distinguished of Israeli Jewish intellectuals, someone with a world-wide reputation can distort history in such a way.  This speaks volumes about the overall Israeli national narrative.  It is based on hazy memory and wishful thinking.  It forgets what is unpleasant and replaces it with “facts” that show itself in the most flattering light.  If Amitai Etzioni can do this, than anyone can.  But Etzioni has far less excuse.

Another aspect of the sociologist’s narrative also deserves attention: he argues that the land next to Sidna Ali was deserted (“fallow”).  That seems to justify the Jews’ appropriation of it for their new settlement.  This is an extension of that weird Zionist bromide: “a people with a land for a land without a people.”  Just because land isn’t worked doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an owner.  So by what right do Jews come and take that land?

Etzioni doesn’t even mention whether the new Jewish settlers paid for the land or got anyone’s permission to take it.  Thanks to an Israeli friend, I’ve discovered that Davar in 1937 did say that the land was purchased by the Jewish Agency.  The Herzliya museum also indicates the funding came from wealthy American Jews, but doesn’t say who owned it and what they were paid.  You’d never know that from Etzioni’s account.  Nor is this an issue that overly concerns him.  As far as he’s concerned, whoever makes the most efficient use of the land deserves it.

For the Israeli-American academic, his main argument against Shavit is that the population numbers of Jews and Palestinians in 1948 show clearly that there was more than enough room for both groups.  Therefore there was no need for expulsion.  Here is his argument:

He [Shavit] maintains that the Jews escaping Nazi Germany were so eager to find a place to make their home, finding all other doors locked, that they suppressed what they witnessed — the Arab natives. My observation is much more straightforward. In 1936, my parents and others saw large parts of the land that were lying fallow, uncultivated and not settled; they believed there was no reason that they could not share the land with the Arabs, and they did hope that Jews and Arabs could all live together in peace..

If both Jews and Arabs can forgo exclusive claims to the land, and arguments that one people or the other are in place because of some gross historical misunderstanding or psychological distortion, they will realize that there is ample room for both people to live next to each other, with each other, in peace.

Etzioni’s argument is astonishingly ahistorical.  For at least a decade or more before 1948, Ben Gurion argued that the new state would have to expel Palestinians in order to guarantee it would be a Jewish, and not multi-ethnic state.  Ben Gurion did not care whether there was “room at the inn” (as Etzioni put it).  Room was not his main concern.  It was building a state in which there was a firm and permanent Jewish majority.  It was for this reason that 1-million Palestinians were expelled in 1948 and never allowed to return.

If we follow Etzioni’s reasoning to its natural conclusion and argue that making efficient use of the land is determinative of who should have sovereignty over it, since there is wide open unused space in Israel and former residents and their immediate descendants (Palestinian refugees) want to return, there should be nothing standing in the way of their doing so.

Further, Etzioni should have no problem with Jewish settlements in Palestine either since settlers argue (often wrongly) that they are actually improving the ‘uninhabited’ land on which they’ve built their settlements.  If no Palestinian lives on land in the West Bank, then it’s up for grabs based on who can make best use of it.  Right?

I think you can see that this theory, while on its surface makes some superficial sense, actually makes no sense given the political dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.  Asking Jews and Arabs (as he calls them) to forgo historical claims to the land is like asking the lion to give up his mane.  Land and power are at the heart of this conflict.  Pretending they aren’t for the sake of some ahistorical academic reverie, makes a hash of everything and should be beneath anyone of Etzioni’s intellect.

Not to mention the irony of a sociologist who studies community, how its developed, maintained and nurtured; yet who hasn’t the least understanding of what divides the Israeli-Palestinian community and how to make it right.

RESPONSE: After publishing this post, I wrote to Prof. Etzioni and offered him an opportunity to respond.  He sent this:

I have just one question: what makes you think that the clip you used has anything to do with Sidna Ali, however way you want to spell it?  And will you, once you realize that there is no connection, have the decency of informing those who read your blog?

His reply shows that he didn’t bother to read any of the links to the Zochrot sources, which prove incontrovertibly that the massacred family was from Sidna Ali and that the actual crime occurred in current day Herzliya, which is next door to Kfar Shmaryahu.  The sources indicate the family lived in Sidna Ali.  All of which is stated in the links I offered.  The power of Nakba denial is terribly strong.

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Shoshana March 19, 2014, 7:24 AM

    Richard.
    Was the acquisition of your Seattle from the Puget Sound Native Americans moral, just and bloodless?

    • Richard Silverstein March 19, 2014, 12:44 PM

      @ Shoshana: Do you know how many times hasbarists before you have tried this little rhetorical trick? What never ceases to amaze me is people like you who think you’ve come up with a masterful argument no one’s ever thought of before!

      So here’s the boring response I gave to the last people (yes, more than one has tried it) who offered that argument. First, the native tribes here were among the first in the U.S. to make a massive claim against the U.S. government for their dispossession. As a result they received compensation in a negotiated resolution of those claims. Not to mention other consideration Native Americans receive for their special status as indigenous peoples.

      Not that I justify their treatment or the genocide perpetrated against them. Their treatment was inexcusable. It’s a dark stain on our country. One that, were I alive at the time, I would’ve protested strenuously. In fact, none of my antecedents were even in this country at the time of the Native American genocide. So attributing personal blame or responsibility to me is a nifty trick.

      • Shoshana March 19, 2014, 1:58 PM

        You live on stolen, blood soaked land, no less than any other Israeli.

        • Richard Silverstein March 19, 2014, 9:17 PM

          You apparently haven’t read carefully. NW tribes were compensated for loss of their lands. Aare you compensating Palestinians for theft of theirs? Not to mention that we ‘re no longer engaging in genocide against Native. Americans while Israeli dispossession of. Palestinians continues unabated.

          You might want to explain the Bible’s call for genocide against non-Israelite tribes like Amalek, the Moabites, etc. Israelite genocide far predates. U.S. genociide.

    • David March 20, 2014, 11:57 PM

      @Shoshana Hundreds of years separate these “conquests.” Second, if the Zionists stole the land, as you appear to accept, then reparations are owed. Israel — not the survivors as I understand — has been receiving reparations for harm done from European states for some time. Why shouldn’t the Nakba be recognized by Israel and reparations offered? Israel won’t admit to any hand in the misfortune of these people and this is telling of the mindset that feels entitled to whatever it wants, just like most crooks.

  • ToivoS March 19, 2014, 11:30 AM

    My understanding is that Etzioni served with the Palmach in 1947-1948 so it was quite possible that he did not witness the ethnic cleansing in his own village. He was likely stationed in some other part of Palestine doing whatever in those locations. I once asked him if he ever apologized to any Palestinian for having driven them out when he served in Palmach. He acted deeply insulted and responded the question did not deserve an answer.

  • Deïr Yassin March 19, 2014, 11:38 AM

    Thank you, Richard, that was a very good article. I hope someone will send it forward to this Amitai Etzioni guy. Isn’t it amazing, we’re in the time of the internet and this guy didn’t do anything to find out about his “Sidney Alley”. I guess he didn’t really want to know. In “Salt of this Sea” by Annemarie Jacir, Juliano Mer-Khamis is an Israeli schoolteacher taking his students to see some ‘old ruins from their past’, it’s in fact the ruins of the Palestinian village al-Dawayima whose inhabitants were massacred in october ’48, described by Israeli testimonies as being at least as violent as Deir Yassin (cf. al-Dawayima massacre, wiki).
    I tried to find some informations about the village al-Haram [the sanctuary] that Walid Khalidi also mentions in his masterpiece “All that Remains”, and came across what seems to be a just published book based on a doctoral thesis: “Zionism and Land Tenure in Mandate Palestine” by Aida Asim Essaid. Routledge 2014. Chapter 6 is a case study of the village of al-Haram. It’s on google.books, but only a few pages of chapter 6 is available, starting p. 175 (I haven’t read it but will later). Maybe Amitai Etzioni should buy that book too….

    • Aida Essaid May 8, 2014, 3:55 PM

      Would love your feedback on my research. My objective was to dissect the land tenure system to understand how ownership actually changed before 1948…unfortunately the methods used by Zionist actors then are still being used today. I chose Al Haram as one of the case studies to show how the system was being implemented. Thanks for the mention.

  • Fred Plester March 19, 2014, 1:43 PM

    Perhaps he’s going to try and sell us Sidni Ali Harbour Bridge?

  • David March 20, 2014, 11:48 PM

    I do not understand the heartache about whether Palestinians were expelled or not. There is plenty of proof that they were driven out, either directly or by instilling fear in them. The fact is that they were not allowed to return which, as far as I can see, is expulsion in any case.

    Finkelstein does a masterful job of taking on Shavit’s silly book and I recommend it highly. There are special attributes of the Zionist narrative. This story has unspoken parts: The silence about what to do with the Arabs is one of these. So little is actually said in the record. What were they thinking? Did they hope that enough Jews would settle in Palestine to make a majority in some part and, when that didn’t quite work out, the unspoken policy of cleansing went into effect without clear written orders?

  • pabelmont March 21, 2014, 9:32 AM

    Yes, everybody lives on blood-soaked land. Doesn’t the story go that ancient Israel took its lands from more ancient peoples? With [Hebrew] God’s blessing, to be sure. (No info in the Hebrew Bible about what the Gods of those other folks had to say about it all.) So 1948 was a replay. Same territorial drives, although different “laws”.

    As to blood-soaking, for me (is this MY escape hatch from guilt?), the distinguishing event is that the UN was formed BEFORE Israel self-declared and the UN charter, which Israel seems to have declared its approval of, declares the impermissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. so that the creation of Israel violated the sense of the UN Charter. See also UNSC 242.

    As to “fallow land”: today meat is “cheap” in the USA because we factory-farm beef, et al., on a small territory (a factory feed-lot, very closely and inhumanely cooped-up chickens and pigs) and meat from “free-range” beef and sheep and swine and chickens are very expensive. The cheaper meat is heavily loaded with antibiotics, some quite unnecessary (call it added poisoning) but some to combat the diseases of this land-free method of animal husbandry.

    My guess is that grazing people (perhaps Bedu in Palestine) used the land as efficiently as possible (for meat production anyhow (sheep and goats) — vegetarianism not having become popular at the time I suppose — and “fallow land” was really grazing land.

  • Donald March 21, 2014, 9:38 AM

    Were my comments removed? I’m surprised–neither seemed out of line. Maybe it’s a technical glitch. The first one was in agreement with Richard in his argument with Shoshana and the second asked a question about what Etzioni was trying to say when he claimed that there was enough room for both Palestinians and Jews in Israel–it almost sounded like an argument for a one state solution. Which was puzzling, given his resort to standard hasbara claims about why the Palestinians in the neighboring village left.

    • Richard Silverstein March 21, 2014, 12:32 PM

      @ Donald: Apologies to you & others for any lost comments. I reverted back to a previous version of my installation in an attempt to fix a website problem. THis caused the loss of comments published yesterday. Though I know it’s inconvenient. If you can republish them, I’d appreciate that.

      • Donald March 21, 2014, 4:33 PM

        Thanks–I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t on your bad side, so to speak. The first was basically about how odd it was that modern day Zionists use American treatment of the Native Americans as a defense of Israel. Benny Morris is the first person I’d seen ever do that back in 2004. Before then the only people who made that comparison were people like Norman Finkelstein, who was pointing out the racism and immorality common to both situations. The second was basically just what I rewrote above–Etzioni almost seems to be arguing for a 1SS in his piece, claiming that both sides could have lived together, but he also repeats the usual nonsense about why the Palestinians left. I suppose he could be claiming that the Palestinians had their chance for a 1SS and blew it but it sounded a little self-contradictory.

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