Between Two Catastrophes: Look at Syria, and Question Everyone’s Stories about 1948

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column is up at The Daily Beast:

Lebanon is teeming with refugees. This isn’t news, you might say. Palestinian refugees have dwelt in Lebanon since 1948. Back then, between 100,000 and 130,000 people, expecting a temporary sojourn, entered a country with a population perhaps ten times that number. The news is the Syrians: Over 700,000 who have fled the current catastrophe, according to the United Nations; a million according to the Lebanese government; possibly 1.4 million if you include Syrian guest workers who came before the war, in a country whose current population may be only three times that number.

That Lebanon is still functioning is a miracle. Only slightly less startling, the refugees aren’t living in vast tent cities; they’re in rented apartments and schools and empty buildings. This, I’m told, is partly due to a lesson that Lebanon learned after 1948: Refugee camps can become autonomous armed enclaves.

There are also lessons about 1948 to be learned—very carefully—from today’s crisis. Not that history repeats itself. The Syrian catastrophe can’t resolve arguments about what happened 65 years ago. It can, however, raise necessary questions about the narratives that both Israelis and Palestinians tell about 1948.

A core tenet of the Palestinian narrative is that the Nakba happened because Zionist leaders intended from the start to expel the Palestinians. This is a more serious charge than saying that Israel bears responsibility for the refugee problem, or that there were expulsions in particular places, or that the Israeli government decision in the summer of 1948 not to let refugees return made them homeless to this day. The charge is of prior intent. That makes it typical of communal narratives. As political scientist Marc Ross has written, a consistent feature of such accounts “is the attribution of motives”—confidently explaining the intentions of the community’s enemies. And please don’t mention any evidence that Zionist leaders planned, before the war, on Palestine’s Arabs staying put.

Let’s look at all that in light of the present: The Syrian civil war has become a communal conflict, Alawites against Sunnis. The words “ethnic cleansing” or “sectarian cleansing” appear fairly regularly in news reports from Syria. But read carefully: The reports usually refer to fears or allegations by one side about the other’s intent: Christians in Aleppo, aligned with the Alawite regime, fear expulsion; Sunnis charge that the regime is expelling Sunnis from Latakia to carve out an Alawite state. There’s plenty of evidence of atrocities and horrific fighting, of flight and steady separation of sectarian communities. But as a Beirut-based expert told me, when the regime bombs a rebel-held Sunni neighborhood or rebels conquer an Alawite enclave, it’s not proof of a policy of expulsion, even if people flee. …

Read the rest here.