Ilan Pappé and CAMERA: how Zionists are fighting history

During the autumn of 2006, Ilan Pappé published an article in the Journal for Palestine Studies titled “The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” as sort of a preamble to his forthcoming book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. The article does in short what Pappé aspires his book to do: shift the paradigm used to study 1948 from a case of war to a case of ethnic cleansing.

In addition to the many Palestinian accounts of massacre, rape and expulsion, Pappé relies on the personal diaries and correspondence of Zionist leaders to prove that what has come to be called “ethnic cleansing” (as was established by The Hague for the case of the former Yugoslavia) occurred inside Palestine in 1948. Indeed, Pappé’s claim of ethnic cleansing would necessitate such evidence from the perpetrators, because intention lies at the core of ethnic cleansing—an intention to “cleanse” (the precise word Zionist leaders used at the time) villages of its Arab residents.

Pappé provides the U.S. State Department’s definition for ethnic cleansing:

“The systematic and forced removal of the members of an ethnic group from communities in order to change the ethnic composition of a given region.”

Naturally, David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first Prime Minister of Israel, is the focal point of this study. In his article, Pappé attributes the following quotation to him:

“The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.”

But the JPS version of the article provides the wrong citation for the quotation.

CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) found this error and ran with it in November 2011—contacting JPS and demanding they publically correct the false quote; CAMERA went on to assert that Pappé had deliberately “fabricated” the quote.

In fact, the quotation Pappé refers to did not appear in the original citation, but does appear in the letter Ben-Gurion wrote to his son in 1937 after the Palestine Royal Peel Commission recommended partition of historic Palestine into one Arab and one Jewish state.

Good things came out of CAMERA’s crusade. JPS points out that the letter in question is well known by scholars of the conflict, but until now no fully translated English version existed. The controversy spurred JPS to have the letter (in Hebrew here) translated into English by their Hebrew Department at the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) in Beirut.

Now everyone can read the letter in full in English:

The quote in question is as follows (my emphasis):

“This is so because we can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs. We must expel Arabs and take their place.  Up to now, all our aspirations have been based on an assumption – one that has been vindicated throughout our activities in the country – that there is enough room in the land for the Arabs and ourselves. But 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.”

Pappé’s interpretation of the quote is slightly different. His version renders Ben-Gurion’s words as more passive, writing “The Arabs must go.” In this translation, Ben-Gurion takes full responsibility for conducting the expulsion: “We must expel the Arabs and take their place.”

It is somewhat perplexing that CAMERA would take such umbrage with attributing this quotation to Ben-Gurion, when Pappé could have picked any number of excerpts from the letter in question to make his point. In fact, when reading the letter, the now infamous words hardly jump out as particularly outrageous.

The letter in itself is meant to inspire, motivate and boost morale amongst the ardent Zionists, who were disappointed with only the portion of Palestine the Peel Commission was giving them. The letter is a kind of rallying cry, saying don’t worry son, we will not be satisfied with anything less than the whole of Israel being Jewish:

“The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.”

And just in case you are tempted to interpret Ben-Gurion as envisioning harmony between Arabs and Jews, here is one excerpt to remedy you of such delusions:

“What we really want is not that the land remain whole and unified. What we want is that the whole and unified land be Jewish [emphasis original].  A unified Eretz Israeli would be no source of satisfaction for me— if it were Arab.”

CAMERA does choose to interpret of Ben-Gurion’s letter in that way, claiming Ben-Gurion actually said this:

“We do not want and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places. … All our aspiration is built on the assumption - proven throughout all our activity - that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs.”

This begs the question—what does CAMERA think  Zionism is? If CAMERA wishes to pass Zionism off as an inclusive ideology, then why are they so adamantly against the right of return? They know as well as Ben-Gurion did and Benny Morris does, that the Jewish State does not want Arabs.

So, why is CAMERA, the self-appointed watchdog for Israel and defender of its right to exist as a Jewish state, trying to hide what its beloved founding father Ben-Gurion said, wrote and wished?

As offensive and noxious as CAMERA are, they are ultimately fighting a defensive war—call it damage control if you like. They were founded in 1982, right about the time when Israel’s impregnable reputation was starting to crack during its horrific incursion into Lebanon. If you visit America and meet with long time Jewish Palestine solidarity activists, you will discover that many of them took their Zionist coats off at around this time.

I remember reading the words of Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi, who was ravaged by what he saw his people doing in Lebanon:

“I reply that the blood spilled pains me just as much as the blood spilled by all other human beings. But there are still harrowing letters. And I am tormented by them, because I know that Israel was founded by people like me, only less fortunate than me. Men with a number from Auschwitz tattooed on their arms, with no home nor homeland, escaping from the horrors of the Second World War who found in Israel a home and a homeland. I know all this. But I also know that this is Begin’s favourite defence. And I deny any validity to this defence.”

CAMERA’s emergence is a testament to that shifting current that unnerves the guardians of Israeli exceptionalism. And while the shift is slow it is nevertheless progressing right along.

Ben-Gurion got a lot of things right that he predicted in the letter—Israel would have one of the strongest armies in the world, Jews would continue to settle all of “Eretz Israel” after the partition, and the Arabs (as he calls them) would not welcome Zionists as their new patriarchs with open arms.

But there was one thing he got wrong in the letter: “There are not millions of Arabs who are compelled or willing to settle in Palestine.”


The historic event of ethnic cleansing that Pappé uncovers was implemented through the Dalet Plan and lasted six month. At the end of the period: “more than half of Palestine’s native population, over 750,000 people, had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed, and 11 urban neighborhoods had been emptied of their inhabitants.” It cannot be repeated enough.


Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.