Lydda and the ‘Liberal’ Zionist View

Ruins of Lydda.

By Jeremy Salt

A racist ideology gives birth to a racist state. Founded on territory belonging to another people it strips them of their possessions and drives them away.  It buries the ruins of their villages and cemeteries beneath thick forests of pine trees, complete with paths and picnic tables.  These forests are dedicated to distant politicians who either do not know or do not care that their names are being used to cover up, literally, mass destruction, pillage and theft. Having embarked on a life of crime, the state continues to live outside the law for every second of its existence for more than six decades. To remain what it is, to further its ideological and territorial imperatives, it must live outside the law.  Most states commit crimes but this state is defined by criminality.   All change is cosmetic, relative and designed to conceal the true agenda.

The recently made Australian documentary on Israeli brutality directed against children on the West Bank (‘Stone Cold Justice’, ABC television, February 10) leads to one central conclusion:  a state that has not changed its violent ways for the past 65 years is not likely to change now. There was nothing in the documentary that was really new. Iron cages in which children are kept outdoors are no more than a variation on a theme. Women and children have always been the victims of Zionism and Zionism is nothing if not inventive in knowing how to tighten the screws. A future of deliberately induced hopelessness is continually being created for the Palestinians. This was spelt out unambiguously and brutally in the Australian documentary by Danielle Weiss, a founding figure of West Bank settler colonies: ‘This land was promised to the Jews by God … that is what you have to put deep, deep into your mind, that you do not have any chance whatsoever in any point of history, neither you nor any of your offspring, to ever have an independent state of your own here.’ This is what Ariel Sharon, praised with a faint damning by Avishai Margalit in the current New York Review of Books, believed and this is what Netanyahu believes.

It is a fantasy of so-called ‘liberal’ Zionists that somehow things were different before 1967. Things have never been any different, not since the late 19th century when the Zionist idea took root in the mind of Theodor Herzl. The object has always been the same: to take the land and get rid of the people, by whatever means happen to be at hand. In 1948 and 1967 the fog of war was the screen behind which the bulk of the population could be driven away.  Since 1967 the campaign has continued through structural discrimination inside the state and slow strangulation in the territories seized during the war of that year.

Margalit’s depiction of Sharon as a heroic warrior followed Ari Shavit’s portrayal of the Zionist settlers as peace-loving agriculturists who tended their orchards and fish farms during the day and played chamber music by night.  Shavit is usually described as a ‘liberal’ Zionist.  Last year the New Yorker ran an excerpt from his recently published   book, My Promised Land (‘Lydda, 1948’, October 21, 2013). The excerpt is based on conversations with the architects of the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Lydda, which he calls the ‘black box’ of Zionism. In fact, Zionist ideology is the ‘black box’ of Lydda and every other massacre committed across Palestine in 1948.  As a ‘liberal’ Zionist who justifies these massacres, Shavit himself is part of the ‘black box’.

His account is largely based on an officer who led the armed gangs who turned Lydda into a charnel house and the ‘military governor’ who remained in his office while hundreds of Palestinians were being butchered on the streets or in the Dahmash mosque.  He could hear the shots and no doubt the cries of terror but he stayed put. ‘Gutman described the horrific noise that followed as the worst half hour of his life. The shooting that would not stop. The wrath of God. And when the shooting finally did stop, the sweet silence.’ These are Shavit’s words.  The wrath of God, and therefore justified?  Directed from the barrels of machine guns against civilians sheltering in a place of worship, a traditional place of sanctuary?

If Gutman stayed in his office while the Palestinians were being slaughtered it was because he knew beforehand what had to be done. ‘[Gutman] was fully aware of the strategic and moral dilemmas that he faced.  He knew that his generation’s mission would be to rid the country of Arabs and he also knew how terrible that would be.’

After the slaughter is done Gutman calls in the town elders. They have just heard, witnessed or escaped from what undoubtedly must have been the worst half hour of their lives.  Their shock and terror can be imagined.   Gutman presents them with options:

DIGNITARIES: What will become of the prisoners detained in the mosque?

GUTMAN: We shall do to the prisoners what you would do had you imprisoned us?

DIGNITARIES: No, no please don’t do that.

GUTMAN: Why, what did I say? All I said is that we will do to you what you would do to us.

DIGNITARIES: Please no, sir. We beg. We beg you not to do such a thing.

GUTMAN: No, we shall not do that. Ten minutes from now the prisoners will be free to leave the mosque and leave their home and leave Lydda along with all of you and the entire population of Lydda.

DIGNITARIES: Thank you, sir. May Allah bless you.

This of course is only Gutman’s account.  He was only obeying orders because the commander of this operation, Yitzhak Rabin, like the massacrist Menahim Begin, an Israeli Prime Minister and future winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had specifically directed that the entire civilian population of Lydda and the adjoining town of Ramle be expelled. On the basis of this despicable conversation, even as relayed by himself, Gutman argues that he was not responsible for the flight from Lydda: it was the Palestinians themselves who made the decision. ‘Like the ancient Jews the people of Lydda went into exile’, comments Shavit.  Was this like the exile of the Jews? In The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand says there was no exile but even if there was, was it anything like what was done to the Palestinians in 1948?  And what is the point of this reference, anyway, except to trade off the past to justify slaughter and dispossession in the present?

Shavit closes this examination of Lydda by justifying it. Here we have the ‘liberal’ Zionist in full voice. ‘I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the 3rd battalion soldiers. On the contrary. If need be I’ll stand by the damned because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them I would not have been born.’ Of course he would have been born. The stirrings in the loins of his parents are unlikely to have had anything to do with politics.  Shavit would have been born anyway, but, alternatively, in a state formed through the consent of its people and in a region where Jews throughout their long history have never had to endure more than a fraction of the intense suffering Palestinians have experienced at the hands of Jews over the past 65 years. By standing by the damned Shavit damns himself. There is still a handful of Germans who talk about their old war criminal comrades in the same way:  ‘Why, I knew him and he was a decent guy. There was nothing he liked more than playing Bach on his cello.  He was no monster. He was only obeying orders.  Do you think he actually liked what he had to do? That half hour when he had to hear the sounds of people being killed must have been hell. The poor guy. Why do they keep saying these dreadful things about him?’

In 1942 the Nazis murdered 173 males over the age of 15 in the Czech village of Lidice.  The massacre still stands alongside Oradour-sur-Glane (642 civilians massacred in 1944) as a symbol of 20th century barbarism.  In 1948 the Zionists massacred more than 400 Palestinian civilians inside the Dahmash mosque and on the streets of Lydda.   Perhaps the New Yorker can look around for someone to write with sympathy and understanding of why the Nazis did what they had to do in Lidice.

Israel has introduced a form of institutionalized racism without precedent in the region. What the Zionists did in 1948 falls squarely within the definition of genocide as defined in the convention on genocide passed by the UN General Assembly that year.  What they have been doing 1967 is a  slow- burning extension of 1948,carried out over decades and intended to extend deep into the future until Palestine disappears as a name on the map and as a presence in history, its people reduced to an ethnic remnant living at best  on the margins on the land that God promised to the Jews. This is the precise future spelled out for the Palestinians by Danielle Weiss, and pursued behind the talk of peace by the Israeli government.

Brutality and dispossession on the West Bank is no more than an extension of the brutality and dispossession of the past. If children have to be arrested, so be it; if children have to be dragged out of their beds at two o’clock in the morning, so be it; if they have to be turned into informers, so be it;  if a five year old has to be dragged screaming from the arms of his family, so be it; if  the soldiers have to stand by while Jewish settlers stone and spit at children, so be it; if the heart has to be  torn out of Hebron by the closure of its ancient market, so be it; if the Palestinians in Shuhada street have to enclose their houses with meshed wire to block the filth and stones being pelted at them by settlers, so be it;  if the streets have to be divided between a broad section for the settlers and a narrow strip for the Palestinians, so be it.

The Palestinians have been deliberately stripped of all but two options: accept the fate imposed on them or resist with all means at their disposal, including armed resistance to occupation, their right under international law. As Israel has never moved from 1948 the Palestinians should go back to it themselves and declare all bets off.  They went as far as they could – much further than they should have in the eyes of many – in agreeing to accept only 22 per cent of the land as the territorial basis for a Palestinian state but even that was not good enough.  Their principled position now should be that there are no ‘occupied territories’ but only the single occupied territory of all Palestine. They have nothing to lose because almost everything they had has already been taken.   Let the Zionists do their best to prove otherwise. Let them try to show the difference between the occupation of land and destruction of Palestinian property before 1967 and after it. Let them try to show that the Palestinians did not own the bulk of the land in private hands and were not entitled to regard Palestine as their collective inheritance.   The fact is that they cannot do it: all they can do is keep repeating their claim that an invisible entity whose existence they cannot prove gave them this land.   What solution lies in the future no one can say but for the moment there is obviously no point in negotiations, no point in artificially extending the life of a brain dead ‘peace process’,   no point in expecting anything from a failed Palestinian leadership or from the settler colonial state but more lies, more brutality, more killings, more theft, more deception and more settlements.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to

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  1. A start history of Israel’s violence. Based on that foundation, it could and cannot be anything other than it is: a deeply racist, violent, abusive and dysfunctional society. To think that it could be what its propagandists and others (such as the US government) claim for it is delusional. I hope Professor Salt’s article is distributed everywhere.

  2. Zionism is at its very core, root and branch, tooth and claw a vile racist belief system and a violent, rapacious, expansionist practice that has taken Apartheid to a level that Afrikaaner neo-nazis could only dream about. It has delivered perhaps that most absurd species of human being and oxymoron, the liberal Zionist.

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