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Reviewed by:
  • Palestine Betrayed
  • Charles D. Smith (bio)
Palestine Betrayed, by Efraim Karsh. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 342 pages. $17.95.

Efraim Karsh undertakes to rewrite the scholarship covering 1948, the independence of Israel, and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. He argues that the Palestinian "catastrophe" (his quotation marks) of 1948 was "self-inflicted" (p. 257). Palestinians could have lived in prosperity with Zionists but rejected all offers [End Page 155] of Zionist friendship. This was the fault of their leadership, which was fragmented and corrupt, as opposed to the Palestinian masses, which were eager to work with Jewish immigrants to Palestine. The Palestinians have only themselves to blame. In making this argument, Karsh takes aim not only at the Palestinian version of the nakba, but at the scholarship of Israel's New Historians, never named in the text, whom he accuses of accepting that account, as opposed to the truth he will reveal in this book.

There is nothing surprising about Karsh's approach or the trappings of scholarship that accompany it. In his Empires of the Sand, which dealt with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Anglo-French division of the spoils after World War I, Karsh argued that the Arabs and Turks were the true imperialists, greedy and duplicitous, as opposed to the British and French, who were always honest and open in their dealings with the corrupt Middle Easterners. Moreover, these Arabs and Turks, being imperialists, could not have been nationalists. This meant, as I noted in my review of the book, that the only true nationalists were the Zionists, thus invalidating any Palestinian claim to Palestine and justifying Zionism. Empires of the Sand, I concluded, was essentially a work of propaganda, but still of use to students who wished to see how scholars could misrepresent sources.1

Here Karsh applies the same template to the mandate period, 1920-1948, after a brief overview of World War I. Three chapters cover "Pan-Arab Ambitions," "The Most Important Arab Quisling (Haj Amin al-Husayni)," and "The Road to Partition" that deals with the Peel Commission Report of 1937, with the next eight chapters devoted to the post World War II period, Palestinian-Israeli clashes, Israeli independence, and the Arab assault on Israel that followed. Throughout, the Zionists are sincere and open with Palestinians, as are the British: British officials in this book invariably support Zionist positions. Palestinians and other Arabs, especially their leaders, are corrupt and untrustworthy. Karsh offers the numerous examples available of the divisions among the Palestinian elites, the lack of interest of other Arab leaders in the Palestinian cause during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, Haj Amin al-Husayni's flight to Nazi Germany and collusion with Hitler, and the squabbling, self-interested actions of Arab leaders during the attack on newly independent Israel in May 1948 which overrode concern for the fate of Palestine as an entity; there is ample scholarship on these subjects.

On the other hand, this scholarship and that treating related topics contradicts his basic claims which rest on careful evasion of the real thrust of his sources. Indeed, Karsh uses the examples he presents to suggest that average Palestinians would have preferred to live under a Jewish state — a prospect supposedly offered them by Zionist leaders on numerous occasions. What did these offers constitute? In the 1930s, the Zionist leadership offered to support a Pan-Arab confederation outside of Palestine to which Palestinian Arabs could be linked, although they would live in a Jewish state and have no political rights (pp. 26-29). Here and elsewhere, Karsh refuses to addresses the question of Palestinian Arab national aspirations even though his sources do, notably the Peel Commission Report. Karsh stresses its finding that Palestinian society had benefitted indirectly from Zionist immigration, the better to illustrate how ungrateful Palestinians could [End Page 156] be. But he never mentions the Commission's conclusion that the Mandate's denial of political rights, a state, meant far more to Palestinians than living in a Jewish state. After all, as he argued in Empires of the Sand, Arabs could not be nationalists since they were imperialists...


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