On the afternoon of May 14, 1948, hours before Britain’s Royal Navy flotilla would sail from Haifa harbor, marking the end of Britain’s mandatory rule over Palestine, leaders of the local Jewish community hastily assembled at the Tel Aviv Museum to hear the head of the Zionist leadership, David Ben-Gurion, declare, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. …We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State … the State of Israel.” Palestine was then in the midst of a civil war. The U.N. had decided, six months earlier, to partition the land into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Jews of Palestine accepted the plan, which gave them a majority of the land despite their making up less than a third of its inhabitants. The Arabs rejected it.
But the Jews were better organized and better armed. By May 14, they had expelled or encouraged the flight of some three hundred thousand Palestinians. The war that followed ended in 1949 with Israel expanding its boundaries to 78 percent of what had been Palestine. Within that territory, eighty percent of the Arab population had been exiled and Jews now made up a majority. To preserve it, Israel prevented the non-Jewish refugees from returning, in defiance of the U.N.’s call to allow them to come home.
Both Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism came to be defined by the idea of return. Israel, which was founded on the principle that Jews had a 2,000-year-old connection to the land and a right to return to it, established unlimited immigration for any Jew in the world—regardless of national origin. At the same time, Israel denied return to Palestinians who had been exiled from homes they inhabited in their own lifetimes. [Continue reading…]