You’ve likely seen or heard the famous words attributed to Israel’s first prime minister.
Yet research by The Electronic Intifada has also shown that Ben-Gurion did once write to his son: “We must expel Arabs and take their place.”
This quotation is from Nur Masalha’s seminal work Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (page 113). This important 1992 book draws extensively on declassified Israeli archives in the original Hebrew.
Professor Masalha’s tireless work shows that Zionists were obsessed with the idea of removing the indigenous people from the land to make way for their colonial project: the “Jewish state.”
They euphemistically called this “transfer” and, as Masalha shows, often entertained the fantasy that Palestinians would not mind being uprooted from their historical homeland.
There is no doubt about the historical culmination of these schemes. Over months, from the end of 1947 and on through 1948, some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from the part of historical Palestine that today is known as Israel – under Ben-Gurion’s leadership. Those same refugees and their children have never been permitted to return.
It is also often forgotten that the expulsions continued after the foundation of the state, and several thousand Palestinians were forcibly removed from al-Majdal – now Ashkelon – to the Gaza Strip in 1950.
This catastrophe is commemorated by Palestinians today as the Nakba.
Check your sources
From time to time, such quotations illustrating the contempt Zionist leaders have for the indigenous people of Palestine are passed around the Internet.
But how often are sources provided?
I have seen some such quotations passed around social networks that strike me as either false or falsely attributed.
Often attributed to Ben-Gurion, one quotation is said to be a reference to Palestinian refugees: “the old will die and the young will forget.”
This line is often set in opposition to the reality that while Palestinian refugees may unfortunately grow old and die before any return to Palestine, the descendants of Palestinian refugees have never forgotten about their right to return, and will not do so.
This quotation has made it into several draft submissions to us at The Electronic Intifada over the years, with some making it to publication.
But more recently, we began removing it from drafts during the editing process. Despite looking hard, we have been unable to locate a primary source for the quotation. No one yet has one, to our knowledge.
The quotation is sometimes said to be found in the US edition of Michael Bar-Zohar’s 1968 book Ben-Gurion: The Armed Prophet (Prentice-Hall, p. 157). However, I bought a second-hand copy of the book and the line is nowhere to be found.
Bar-Zohar himself is a former member of Israel’s parliament for the Labor party, and the book looks to be something of a hagiography. He was the official biographer of Ben-Gurion and current president, Shimon Peres and describes himself as “a friend of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.”
Referencing this incriminating quotation from such an impeccably Zionist source gives it an air of credibility.
But it simply does not check out.
On the available evidence, the quotation appears to have been misattributed. It strikes me as a summary an author might have written to describe Ben-Gurion’s opinion (but that is speculation on my part).
However, there is little doubt that Ben-Gurion did think along these sort of lines. He did everything in his power to stop Palestinian refugees from returning to what became Israel after 1948.
Indeed, Bar-Zohar’s book does contain another related quotation proving as much (page 148):
Ben-Gurion … insisted on Jewish Jerusalem becoming part of the State of Israel. As for the Arab refugees, “We must do everything to ensure that they never do return!”
Experts weigh in
Avi Raz of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford emailed saying:
I don’t recall ever seeing the exact quote you’ve mentioned, but it definitely reflects Ben-Gurion’s wishful thinking at the time. On p. 31 of 1949: The First Israelis, Tom Segev mentions an idea to resettle Palestinian refugees in Arab countries with Israeli money: “Ben-Gurion held that this was an unnecessary expenditure, as the refugee problem would solve itself. ‘In his opinion … time will cure all, and all will be forgotten.’” (second footnote).
Raz also checked, and found that the line does not appear in Ben-Gurion’s war diary on the date that some renderings of the quotation place it:
There is no mention of Palestinian refugees in the 18 July 1948 entry (Ben-Gurion’s The War Diary, vol. 2, pp. 598-602), let alone the quotation “The old will die and the young will forget.” In fact, BG relates in this entry that on that day he reversed one of his generals’ order to expel the inhabitants of Nazareth (p. 599).
Avi Shlaim is professor of International Relations at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and the author of such books as Collusion Across the Jordan and Iron Wall. He told me in an email that he had come across the line, but never associated it with Ben-Gurion:
I [have] read his diary from 1947 to 1963, all his books, and many of his prolix speeches and as far as I can remember this quote did not feature in any of them. My hunch is that the quote is wrongly attributed to BG but I could be wrong.
No doubt about intent
One infamous Ben-Gurion quotation illustrates that he had every intention of expelling as many Palestinians as possible – long in advance of 1948, when the militias under his command in fact would do so.
In a 1937 letter to his son, Ben-Gurion wrote:
We must expel Arabs and take their place. … if we are compelled to use force – not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev or Transjordan, but in order to guarantee our right to settle there – our force will enable us to do so.
Last year, pro-Israel propaganda group CAMERA disputed the validity of this quotation, as part of an attack on Ilan Pappe and the Journal of Palestine Studies.
(CAMERA is the group that back in 2008 was behind a plan to rewrite Wikipedia in favor of Israel, while taking over the online encyclopedia’s administrative structures to ensure such changes stuck. The plot unraveled after being exposed by The Electronic Intifada).
Without getting into the entire dispute, it suffices for our purposes to note that CAMERA’s argument against this quotation’s accuracy was faintly ridiculous.
The Journal of Palestine Studies published a typed transcript of the entire original Ben-Gurion letter to his son in Hebrew, along with their own English translation – the first time the entire letter had been made available in English. But CAMERA managed to obtain a copy of the hand-written original, publishing a small portion of it.
CAMERA’s explaining away of a clearly-worded sentence written in Ben-Gurion’s own hand frankly verges on conspiracy theory.
CAMERA points out that, immediately before the line “We must expel Arabs and take their place” there are another few lines that have been crossed out. CAMERA then argues that part of the lines immediately before “We must expel …” were “mistakenly erased” by unknown persons. They claim the crossed-out passage is an “integral part of the sentence.”
When added to the surviving sentence, they claim, the real meaning was precisely the opposite – “We do not want to and we do not have to expel Arabs and take their place”!
(Interestingly, CAMERA consults the very same Zionist historian-politician already mentioned in this post to back up their strange theory – Michael Bar-Zohar).
But this is pure speculation.
I asked two professional Hebrew translators and a linguist for their opinions. Each considered the evidence independently. All three dismissed CAMERA’s theory.
Accurate and complete
Dena and Daniel Shunra run their own Hebrew-English translation business in the US and frequently help us at The Electronic Intifada with translation from Hebrew.
The JPS response has a very fine translation, which corresponds very well with the Hebrew and is an accurate, complete translation.
The Hebrew letter has the full sentence: “we must expel the Arabs and take their place.”
It is not quoted out of context.
CAMERA claims that the clearly crossed out text in their sample should not have been crossed out. That’s speculation. The text that remains (with a very heavy Cyrillic style to the characters … ) is as Pappe reports it.
There is no explicit “up to now” – but the text implies it through the combination of present tense with the concept of aspiration (inherently forward-looking).
CAMERA are correct about the use of “but” in the Hebrew, rather than “And”; however, that “and” is used to provide a contrast. I think “but” is an acceptable translation there.
CAMERA “guilty of a misleading translation”
Uri Horesh is a linguist who is about to join Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois as Lecturer of Arabic and Language Coordinator. He wrote:
I find it difficult to decipher what exactly is written underneath these scribbles, except for a couple of words, which appear to be repeated after the “we must expel Arabs and take their place” bit. So my hunch is that DBG simply wrote something and then decided to rephrase for clarity or style.
I tend to completely reject Michael Bar Zohar’s assertion … After all, that sentence is part of the text that WASN’T scribbled on! Furthermore, there is a grammatical peculiarity in it, which Ben-Gurion was known for. It lacks the direct object-marking particle “et.” That’s why the English translation reads “we must expel Arabs” and not “we must expel the Arabs.” That particle only goes in Hebrew with the definite article, but Ben-Gurion, having grown up speaking Slavic languages, which lack articles altogether, argued that this little word was a nuisance and that Hebrew didn’t need it. So if anyone were to fabricate this sentence, they would have to really know BG’s idiosyncratic linguistic style and mimic it.
There is also another important discrepancy in the two versions. CAMERA accuses JPS (or really, the Beirut Hebrew translators) of “mistranslating” the letter. In fact, it is CAMERA who is guilty of a misleading mistranslation.
After BG says “we must expel Arabs and take their place,” he talks a bit about the prospects of living side by side after all, and then returns to fighting with the Arabs. According to CAMERA, that paragraph ends with: “And if we will have to use force, not for the sake of evicting the Arabs of the Negev or Transjordan, but rather in order to secure the right that belongs to us to settle there, force will be available to us.”
I take issue with the final phrase “force will be available to us.” What BG literally says is “our force will stand up for us,” which idiomatically in Hebrew is much more consistent with the JPS translation: “our force will enable us to do so.”
We can argue that the CAMERA translation of this phrase deliberately toned BG’s tenor down, to make him sound less belligerent (we’ll merely have force at our disposal), while what he really said was, “our force will enable us to overcome the Arabs.”
“A great piece of Hasbara”
Daniel Shunra wrote:
[Ben-Gurion] explicitly says: “anu tzrikhim legaresh aravim velakakhat mekomam”
Due to BG’s characteristic grammatical idiosyncrasy, it is arguable whether this should be translated as “We must expel Arabs and take their place” or “We must expel THE Arabs and take their place,” but apart from that, the quote is definitely there.
As far as I can see, CAMERA appears to [be] correct about JPS’s insertion of the phrases “up to now” and “but”, which would be regrettable, though immaterial and blown out of proportion. …
Altogether, I think that CAMERA’s statement is a great piece of Hasbara [propaganda], well-crafted, and rather persuasive to people who can’t read the source.
Why it matters
So if the line “the old will die and the young will forget” does in fact represent an accurate summary of Ben-Gurion’s thinking (though not his actual words), why does all this matter?
Accuracy and fidelity to the truth is at the heart of what we do here at The Electronic Intifada. We have been able to unravel so many hoaxes, fabrications and lies by Israel and its supporters because of this attention to detail.
For the most part, people using the quotation seem to have passed it on in good faith. This particular quotation looks convincing, because it does sound like something Ben-Gurion could have said or written. But on the available evidence, it does not appear to be Ben-Gurion’s words.
While it is possible that someone could one day turn up evidence in the form of a primary source, until then people should stop relying on the quotation.
The question remains: if it is not from Ben-Gurion, where is the quotation really from? We have so far not uncovered evidence the quotation was deliberately fabricated.
Some versions of the quotation are immediately preceded by the genuine line from Bar-Zohar’s book “We must do everything to ensure that they never do return.” This suggests the possibility that it could have appeared in a different edition, or in the Hebrew version of the book. Some attribute the quotation to Golda Meir, another former Israeli prime minister, but I could find no primary source for this claim.
(The Electronic Intifada emailed Bar-Zohar to ask him if he ever wrote the quotation, and to ask for his response to the issues raised in this article. We did not receive a reply.)
A more likely explanation is that the quotation came from someone else and it got mixed up and misattributed, or that it was originally an author’s summary of Ben-Gurion’s thought.
If any reader ever comes across the original source, please get in touch via email, or in the comments below.