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.
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.
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.
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.