Monday, 21 November 2011

A concocted quotation

Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1937: " The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war".
The quotation, from a 2008 column in The Independent by Johann Hari, gets "about 5,640" hits on Google.  Happily, after developments described below, the first few pages currently reported by Google are quoting it in order to point out that Ben-Gurion wrote no such thing.  But most of the pages using it treat it as authentic: it seems to be attractive to supporters of the Palestinian cause.

I was surprised when I read the column, because the quote seemed to contradict what I thought I knew about Ben-Gurion (not that I am an expert).  So I looked it up, and found that Hari had already used it, a year or so earlier, in a longer version "I support compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral ... The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war."  At that time, Benny Morris, an Israeli historian generally sympathetic to non-Zionist perspectives on the founding of Israel, wrote to the Independent saying that whereas the first part of the quotation is genuine (more on that here), everything after the ellipsis - that is the quote at the head of this piece -  is an invention.  I left it at that.

A few months ago, I saw these screenshots from the 2010 film With God on Our Side, which speaks against Christian Zionism, and decided to find out the truth of the quotation.

As I write this piece, I find that I've been overtaken by events.  CAMERA, a media-monitoring organization sympathetic to Israel, has done its own investigation and has persuaded the director of the film to issue a correction.  Nevertheless, the quotation is still widely used, and I'm going to try here to convince any believers that it's a dud.

The source of the quotation is a 2006 book by Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, on page 23:
Ben-Gurion himself, writing to his son in 1937, appeared convinced that this was the only course of action open to Zionism: 'The Arabs will have to go', but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war [40].
Reference [40] is given on page 266:
40. Ben-Gurion's Diary,12 July 1937, and in New Judea, August-September 1937, p.220
This is already strange.  How can there be two sources for the quotation, neither of them the letter mentioned in the text?  And what's going on with the quotation marks around the first six words only?  Pappé used the quotation again, in an essay titled "State of Denial: Israel 1948-2008"; you can find it on page 6 here:
This link between purpose and timing had been elucidated very clearly in a letter David Ben-Gurion had sent to his son Amos in July, 1937: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as war.”
 Pappé seems to have tidied up his earlier version.

David Ben-Gurion's diary is in the Ben-Gurion archive at the University of the Negev.  I asked them for a facsimile of the 12th July 1937 entry and they kindly sent it to me.  It's nearly four pages of unpointed typewritten Hebrew, and not easy to make out.  But I needn't trouble you with my own attempts at translation, because in checking for alternative readings I found that Benny Morris published one already, in his contribution to The War for Palestine, first published in 2001, on pages 41-43.  Morris doesn't say so, but, with minor elisions, this is all but the last half page (which is about what Ben-Gurion did that day) of the diary entry.

Morris is writing about Zionist interest in the idea of forced transfers of the Arab population of Palestine, and cannot reasonably be suspected of suppressing evidence favouring his argument.  Ben-Gurion discusses with some enthusiasm the proposals of the Peel Commission, including forced transfers, but he does not write the words Pappé quotes.  (Nor does he mention a letter to his son.)

The other source Pappé gives is "New Judea, August-September 1937, p.220".  The publication in fact calls itself "The New Judaea", and is available in Copyright Libraries.  I have a copy of page 220 in front of me; it contains a minute of Ben-Gurion's speech to the Twentieth Zionist Congress in August that year.  He is reported as saying "[Jews] would never dispute the rights of the Arabs in Palestine, and there was no contradiction between this and the principle that as many Jews as wished should come into Palestine".  There is nothing remotely like Pappé's quotation.

I am in no doubt that Pappé simply invented sources for his quotation.  I assume that he did so because no genuine source exists.  The quotation is a fabrication by Pappé.

(If you want to know more about Ben-Gurion's thinking on population  transfers, including in his letters to his son, Chaim Simons has some useful pointers.)

Does this matter?  Well, if you think you can advance your argument by quoting Ben-Gurion, you should quote Ben-Gurion.  If you make a documentary film your facts should be factual - a later statement of correction doesn't change the film.  If you base an argument in a serious newspaper on something somebody is supposed to have said, you should take care that they have really said it (Hari has since got into a lot of trouble over his freedom with quotations).  If a university cares about its academic reputation, it should make sure that its employees' "incisive thought" on the "methodology of historical enquiry" does not extend to making stuff up.  And if you're a historian, you should write about what people said, not what you would have liked them to say.

But I don't think the truth of this has got anything to say about what should happen now in Israel.  Whatever Ben-Gurion's private thoughts, the events of 1948 - the Nakba that befell the Arabs of Palestine - are as much in the past as the building of the Dome on the Rock on the site of the Second Temple.  The writings of Ben-Gurion, any more than the histories of the Caliphate or the Kingdom of Israel, are not going to help in finding a compromise for the future.


  1. The Dome on the Rock is built upon the remains of Fort Antonia, a Roman encampment. EVERY stone of the Second Temple was removed, even down to the foundation stones. The Romans were determined to not leave any stone atop any other and with the exception of Fort Antonia, Jerusalem was literally leveled. The Wailing Wall is actually a remaining wall of the fort, not the Second Temple.

  2. Not an exact quote but it conveys Ben-Gurion's intent:

    David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, told a Zionist Conference in 1937 that any proposed Jewish state would have to "transfer Arab populations out of the area, if possible of their own free will, if not by coercion."[8]Report of the Congress of the World Council of Paole Zion, Zurich, July 29-August 7, 1937, pp. 73-74.

    We were told not to try to speak to Ben Gurion, but when I saw him, I asked why, since Israel is a democracy with a parliament, does it not have a constitution? Ben Gurion said, "Look, boy"-I was 24 at the time-"if we have a constitution, we have to write in it the border of our country. And this is not our border, my dear." I asked, "Then where is the border?" He said, "Wherever the Sahal will come, this is the border." Sahal is the Israeli army. Article by Naim Giladi, author of Ben Gurion's Scandals: How the Haganah & the Mossad Eliminated Jews,

  3. Whatever was said, not said, written, not written, contested, uncontested...willingly transferred, educated into agriculture and secured in settlement, construction commerce and trade by the Reich from 1933 onwards the Zionists, despised and feared by the Jews who refused to go to Palestine/Canaan have murdered their victims on an immense scale. They murder at will in Palestine and has murdered tens of thousands elsewhere Mossad does so and in the most sadistic manner in some cases (as example see "Profits of War" ben Menashe)...filmed for pleasure and education and using a vast network of facilities including houses, cars, hospitals, university and military sayannas (See 'By Way of Deception' and "The Other Side of Deception' ..Ostrovsky) in genocide and the killing of people in any country, without restriction.
    The mass murders are are supported by USA, Australian UK and European governments and many citizens and the deluded, indoctrinated, Judicial system
    Whilst there is argument about '911' there is no argument that the Israelis were in place, prepared for the event and some were observed dancing in joy and eroticism at the destruction. Straw splitting over some comment is just a distraction from the murders and terrorism of Zionists since it was harmoniously created, secured, educated, constructed and commercialised with the Reich and Hitler's generosity...although the transferred Zionists did have to contribute. The jews who feared and despised Zionists became the shoa. Straw splitting with the evil leaders of Israel, one and all, is pointless. They are what they are, terrorists after the fashion of the Reich.