Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, Colonizing Palestine: The Zionist Left and the Making of the Palestinian Nakba (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2023).
Palestinian scholar Areej Sabbagh-Khoury was traumatized in her childhood by the loss of her loving father whom, she avers, could perhaps have been saved by medical staff at a Galilee hospital were it not for the breakout of the 1982 Israeli war on Lebanon and the priority given at the hospital to injured Israeli soldiers. She has made such Israeli contradictions the focus of her research, zeroing in on the inner deliberations and actions of the Israeli Left during the establishment of the state. MAPAM kibbutz members were declared Marxists and called for all the proletariats of the world to unite in their revolutionary struggle for liberty and equality regardless of ethnicity or nationality. Their international slogans declared that “the land belongs to those who work it.” Yet Palestinian scholars like Sabbagh-Khoury are unsettled by the contradictions between such slogans and what they and their parents experienced on their skin at the hands of the very same “leftist revolutionaries” during and after the Palestinian Nakba. In Colonizing Palestine: The Zionist Left and the Making of the Palestinian Nakba, Sabbagh-Khoury takes a close look at the archives of three kibbutzes—Mishmar Haemik, Hazorea, and Ein Hashofet—in the southeast corner of Marj Ibin A’amer (the Jezreel Valley). She analyzes how these so-called leftist settlements dealt with their neighboring Palestinians who worked the land and the farming villages that were then wiped out of existence. She examines how the ideology and practice of these socialists came to diverge.
The author goes to the core contradictions of these kibbutzes, illuminating in detail the false pretensions of the Israeli left before and during 1948, some for the first time. This treatise is an ambitious intellectual exercise, even if limited geographically and temporally. The author studies the opinion and actual behavior of members of the three mentioned Jewish cooperative farm villages by examining the official records of the debates that their members held regarding the war and the neighboring Palestinian villages that were then erased and replaced by the expansion of the very same kibbutz farms. Though the writing is dense and academically specialized, it is also incredibly moving in parts. I found myself crying profusely while reading the story of a woman from kibbutz Ein Hashofet who relates, years later, her parting with a necklace of Hebron glass beads that her father had salvaged for her in 1948 from a home in the demolished neighboring Palestinian village of al-Kafrayn. Her kindergarten teacher in 1948 asked the children in his class to vote on what to do with similarly purloined items their parents had given them. Following the children’s decision, he then took the loot and buried it in a neighboring forest in a spot he later claimed he could no longer find. Yes, I am sentimental when it comes to Palestine, but to be driven to tears even on the second reading is a testament to the author’s effective narrative style.
Marj Ibin A’amer was targeted by the Zionist settlers for its fertility and strategic location as well as for the fact that many of its lands were formally registered as owned by “foreign landlords.” Earlier in the 1920s, the British Mandate Authority had changed the Ottoman land purchase and ownership rules to fit its overall pro-Zionist settler colonial plans. Quickly, Zionist organizations started to purchase land tracts and to expel native Palestinian tenant farmers who, until then, had inherited the usufruct of the land down through the generations. At the same time, Zionist immigrants started to establish their armed militias, supported by Britain and the West. Sabbagh-Khoury explains “the implementation of private land ownership, which effectively made land liquid for purchase by Zionist institutions who evacuated the land of its tenants, brought about the formation of a tenant class stripped of any cultivation rights” (57). As a result, the 1936-39 native Palestinian peasant uprising against the British and the Zionist-sponsored settler colonialists started in the Palestinian countryside like a series of simultaneous wildfires.
What the settlers ignored was that these Arab land tenants “turned over a share of the crop to the landowner as a condition of their permanent presence. They did not anticipate that sale of the land would change their usufruct” (88-90). Zionist settler colonial agencies, such as the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, realized the nature of their purchasing land from absentee owners and sought to obligate them to handle the expected tenant farmers’ rebellion against their intended exiling. The settlers thus collaborated with the absentee landlords and the British officials, as illustrated in a scouting visit to the Palestinian village of Joara reported by Weitsz, a participating settler official. The visit, declared as intended to plan a police station and not a settlement, “needed to be planned so that no premature suspicions would arise among the Arabs of the region” and “to mislead the inhabitants” (109). Here we have the full details of the trickery used in collusion between three external participants to cheat the tenant farmers. Sabbagh-Khoury’s reconstruction of this from the kibbutz archives begs for a corresponding exploration of Palestinian views of this process—the voices, experiences, and actions of the villagers of Joara are unsurprisingly missing from the kibbutz archives Sabbagh-Khoury mines.
Absentee landlords were committed to handing over the area “free of land tenant rights,” though it was not free of the land tenants themselves, some of whom were still living in the village. The author states early on: “I center the role of 1948 throughout this book in discussing the Zionist Left’s views about the legitimacy of settler colonial violence. The 1948 mass displacement of Palestinians fundamentally transformed the Zionist project from colonization of land by purchase to colonization by warfare, ethnic cleansing, and mass dispossession” (30). Put simply, the Israeli left’s principles of international brotherhood of proletariats didn’t stop it from attacking Palestinian farmer neighbors, evicting them from their homes, pilfering and demolishing their homes, and replacing them physically by adding their property to the lands of the settlement.
Sabbagh-Khoury notes that most interactions between kibbutzes and the neighboring inhabitants were “confined to a limited number of figures charged with maintaining relations with the Arabs, some of whom were recruited officially by the settlement institutions and the Zionist military establishment. Eventually, for many of them, relations with the Arabs became their primary work” and “constituted an informal form of intelligence gathering in the period before the establishment of official Zionist military intelligence bodies” (125). The author digs into the limited and cautious interactions of the newly arrived Jewish settler colonialists in the three kibbutz communities with the neighboring native Palestinian tenant farmers. The select few Jewish settlers who were formally assigned the function of maintaining relations with the Arab peasants learned Arabic and were tasked with the secret mission of collecting sociocultural and security-related material for the Jewish military forces. This process culminated in secret Village Files for the use of the military, especially in the infamous Plan-D for the ethnic cleansing of their assigned communities. For this handful of specialized settlers, “relations with Arabs was an occupation, tied inherently to the ultimate cleansing of the lands of their neighbors” (132).
The author gives a glimpse of the limited socializing on special occasions such as weddings and holidays, even if this was weighted to the advantage of the settlers, who come across in the text as cagy and opportunistic (as settler colonialists classically are: witness the white European immigrants as newly arrived in North America and their invented Thanksgiving celebrations.) The alliance of Zionist settlers with British Mandate authorities weighs heavily in their favor, even when the British feign mediating between the two sides. This British-Zionist alliance against the native population is best illustrated by the collective punishment of house demolition that Israel inherited from the British Mandate system and still uses against Palestinian natives till the present day.
More conflicted members of these kibbutzes make for more interesting characters. As someone who has dabbled in fiction writing, I noted that Colonizing Palestine offered a few complex personalities that would make for excellent inspiration material. Take Hillel Meirhoff, the locksmith of Hazorea who seriously addressed himself to establishing friendly relations with the residents of the neighboring Palestinian village of Abu Zureiq:
The only person in the small group of kibbutz settlers specializing in relations with Arab neighbors whose actions, according to the archival records, was unconnected with security, settlement, or politics is Hillel Meirhoff of Hazorea, who helped his neighbors technically as a locksmith and gathered ethnographic material on the villages in the area as well. Meirhoff was also the one person who, in his kibbutz’s tenth-anniversary book, argued explicitly that there were no real contacts between most of the kibbutz settlers and the Arabs. (130-131)
In 1949, Meirhoff left the kibbutz: “he saw the villagers as permanent neighbors. What occurred in 1948 was apparently hard on him. In 1967 he traveled to Jenin in search of the uprooted villagers of Abu Zureiq and met the widow of a good friend, who shed tears upon their encounter” (131-132). Sabbagh-Khoury writes that “Meirhoff exemplifies the tensions of an internationalist-cum-colonialist movement” (132).
But the author highlights Meirhoff’s rarity in grappling with the ramifications of settlers’ actions. Many of his fellow settlers instead wax poetic on the beauty of the newly emptied, now Jewish land. As Shmuel Ben-Tzvi, a settler of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, wrote on May 20, 1948:
At the lookout post—the sound of the yelping dogs in deserted al-Kafrayn. Its houses are largely ruined and only the unending yelping of dogs attests to their having had owners. In the [Jezreel] Valley to the east, at sunrise, the morning was dreamlike—a silver sea, with islands overhead, their peaks reaching the sky—Moreh Hill, Mount Tabor, and among the hills of Umm al-Fahm [a large Palestinian town], the peaks of Mount Gilboa are revealed as morning clouds hover above....Our country is beautiful, and we are fortunate to protect it. (156)
Ben-Tzvi better exemplifies the Zionist left’s involvement in the cleansing of the newly emerging Israel of its native Palestinian farming population, residents of the same farming villages with whom the nascent settlement residents had signed some hundred mutual peace agreements before proceeding to advise them to stop resisting and to abandon their homes. David Ben-Gurion saw these actions as being the first acts of evicting Palestinians out of their homes, “in effect…accusing MAPAM of hypocrisy for their own participation in and benefiting from violence done to the Arabs,” an accusation that Sabbagh-Khoury found no evidence of them attempting to refute (168) When members of Kibbutz Hazorea decided on their own to interrogate the “defeated” Palestinian men of neighboring Abu Zureiq, they considered their action part of the ongoing relations with those neighbors (171-172). Sabbagh-Khoury concludes: “The settlers of Hashomer Hatzair tended to disavow their responsibility for military operations and saw themselves as dovish leftists. Yet during the war, as previously shown, the kibbutzim played a major role in expulsions, through both local initiatives,” such as the above interrogation, as well as “their members’ participation in the Haganah, the Palmach, and later the Israel Defense Forces” (171).
In the Kibbutz Hazorea archive, we meet Bracha, a school teacher who worried about Arab children, but “in purely humanitarian, not political terms.” She was conscientious enough to acknowledge the right of the Palestinian villagers to fight for their home, but their capacity to do so “came to justify their expulsion” (170-171). Members of Kibbutz Hazorea met repeatedly and discussed the fate of the defeated native village. They decided amongst themselves—democratically, it should be noted—that any remaining Arabs have to serve the new masters and that their property can be looted, but collectively for the benefit of the Kibbutz and not individually.
Sabbagh-Khoury focuses on how the three colonies belonging to Hashomer Hatzair remembered the displaced Palestinian former neighbors, asking: “How have memory and forgetting been organized and wielded among the kibbutzim? How have settlers’ memories reproduced, legitimated, erased, or questioned their settler colonial practices?” (192). The author delves into a lengthy philosophical exploration of “the binary of memory and forgetting” and the relevance of the Holocaust to these workings of memory. She notes that “Kibbutz discussions about the lands and properties of their former neighbors died down in the early 1950s. Normalization of the disappearance of entire villages and their inhabitants took hold relatively quickly, and a significant gap opened between the formal political positions of their movement and the actions of settlers on the ground” (199).
The archives Sabbagh-Khoury mines “include rare testimonies about Palestinians”; she recognizes that the colonization processes and interactions in question are presented in the archives “from the point of view of the settler colonizers, not the natives.” For this reason, she seeks to “execute a double move: reconstruct the settler colonial practices and relationships and then reassess attributions of political meaning through representations and memory” (27). Yet in my reading, the reconstructions from the kibbutz archives still beg for more corresponding exploration of Palestinian views of this process. That the voices and actions of the villagers are unsurprisingly absent from the colonial archive is hardly surprising, but more creative approaches to address this archival absenting are urgently needed.
Sabbagh-Khoury offers a close reading of kibbutz archival materials, most of which she translates and analyzes for the first time: “These materials contrast official memory production with the more fractured terrain of local settler colonial memory” (215). The author expands her findings “to trace patterns and identify both unified logics and fissures across the labor Zionist settlement movement” more generally. I hope that this courageous researcher will be awarded the attention and recognition she well deserves. To zero in on these contradictions and to use a settler colonial lens on Zionist archives is a risky task within Israeli academia, and Sabbagh-Khoury is based at what is often considered the major Zionist university, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Other scholars who have dared to tread in this direction have been subject to attacks and academic ostracism. That she relies on archival written documents rather than Israeli oral testimonies may spare the author from some of the susceptibility of Israeli narratives to public pressure. Undoubtedly, this book is a courageous step on her part.