JHR Archive

How Zionist Leaders Doctored Historical Documents About Plans for Mass 'Ethnic Cleansing' of Palestinian Arabs

In spite of the unusually close tie between the United States and Israel — a bond that several US Presidents have called a “special relationship” — Americans are remarkably ignorant about the true history of the Zionist takeover of Palestine, the machinations behind the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948, and the covert side of relations between their own country and Israel. So pervasive is American fear of offending Jewish sensibilities that it is not surprising that Israel's Hebrew-language press is frequently more ready than the American press to shed light on the embarrassing side of Zionist history.

In the following essay, which is excerpted from the Israeli Hebrew-language daily paper Haaretz, February 4, 1994, writer Benny Morris explains how Zionist leaders doctored the official record of speeches at the 20th Zionist Congress of 1937, notably those in which Zionist leaders spoke in favor of plans to expel or relocate ("transfer") as many as 300,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes as part of a plan to impose Jewish rule in Palestine. As this essay explains, Zionist leaders “rewrote history” for self-serving propagandistic purposes, and in such a way as to deceive even supposedly careful historians. (This translation is from the May 1994 issue of From the Hebrew Press, which is prepared by Dr. Israel Shahak and published by Middle East Data Center, P.O. Box 337, Woodbridge, VA 22194.)

There are nations and political movements which, in seeking to create an unblemished image, rewrite not only their own history but also the documents on which that historiography is based. The Zionist movement is perhaps one of the most skillful practitioners of this strange art. In its case, the rewriting concerns the most sensitive area of Zionist history — the conflict with the Arabs, and especially the events and policies in which the Zionist side thought or acted in a manner that could be considered to be immoral.

In the course of the past decade the secrecy has been lifted from most documents of the [Israeli] state and its political parties. Now historians are able to re-examine the historic Zionist documents and protocols. A large part of what has been opened up now appears to be deficient and faulty, if not patently false.

The year 1937 was important in the development of the Zionist movement and the Zionist-Arab conflict. In 1936 the Arab Revolt broke out. The purpose of the revolt was to halt the turning of Palestine into a Jewish homeland and, more specifically, to stop the massive Jewish immigration and the purchasing of Arab land by Jews. They feared that the Jews would quickly become a majority and that the establishment of a Jewish state was just a step away.

At the end of that year, during a lull in the revolt (which the British totally repressed only in 1939), the British government sent an inquiry commission to Palestine, headed by Lord William Robert Peel, to investigate the reasons for the Revolt and to make recommendations. On July 7, 1937, the commission duly published its recommendations: to divide Palestine into three parts — a Jewish state, an Arab state, and a British enclave consisting of Jerusalem with its surrounding area and a corridor to the Mediterranean at Jaffa.

In order to guarantee the homogeneity of the proposed Jewish state and to prevent irredentism, there was a crucially important recommendation by the Peel Commission: to conduct a transfer of 225,000 of the Arab minority (which numbered 300,000) that were living in areas allotted to the Jewish state. They were supposed to be transferred to the new Arab state or to neighboring Arab countries, hopefully, willingly and with proper compensation, but if not — then by force. The report chastely termed the transfer “a population exchange.” The exchange was to involve 225,000 Arabs, as well as 1,250 Jews who were then living in areas allocated for the Arab state. The transfer plan was shelved by a subsequent inquiry commission (the Woodhead Commission) and by the British government itself in 1938.

The idea of partition gave rise to a major dispute within the Jewish community. While the recommendation for transfer was almost universally accepted by the Jews, many doubted whether the British would indeed implement it. Nevertheless, [Zionist leader] David Ben-Gurion, who headed the struggle for the acceptance of the Peel plan, was extremely conscious of the sensitivity regarding the transfer plan and the dynamite inherent in it. Some minority populations in parts of Europe and in Turkey and Greece had indeed been forcefully transferred not so long ago [in 1923-24, a million Greeks and 400,000 Turks were forcibly exchanged, under League of Nations auspices], but the concept remained a morally questionable step.

Although Ben-Gurion [who later served as Israel's first Prime Minister] and Chaim Weizmann [who later was Israel's first President] and other Zionist leaders wished for transfer, they usually expressed their opinion on this matter only in closed Zionist forums. They sometimes spoke in more public forums, but tried to censor the publication of their speeches afterwards. The result was not only a rewriting of Zionist history but also rewriting of Zionist documentation …

Rewriting the documents of the 20th Zionist Congress, which met in Zurich [Switzerland], August 3–21, 1937, was certainly a collective effort. It was the Zionist movement and not [merely] individuals that attempted to polish up the protocols of the speeches made for the use of future generations. The delegates spoke German, Yiddish, English and Hebrew. Stenographers recorded what was said in the course of the consecutive Zionist Congress meetings. Translators used the stenographers' notebooks and supplied transcripts in Hebrew and German. The original notebooks no longer exist, but many of the speeches and debates exist as Hebrew photocopies. Two or three days after they were made, the speeches supposedly were printed verbatim in the Congress “Newspaper.” This periodical was published in Zurich every day or two in the course of the Zionist Congress, and was edited by Moshe Kleinman. For his publications Kleinman apparently referred to the Hebrew transcripts. But many of the speeches had undergone political editing and censorship between the time they were made and publication. One may notice this immediately when comparing the original Hebrew texts of the speeches and as they appeared in the Congress “Newspaper.” The editing was done by each speaker himself or by [Zionist] movement leaders, or by Kleinman, acting on orders from his political superiors.

In the course of the following months, Leo (Aryeh) Lauterbach, head of the Zionist movement's organization department, prepared the speeches for publication in book form. Lauterbach, assisted by Moshe Gordon, a Jewish Agency official, explained in his hand-written autobiography (written in English and never published) that his goal was “to guarantee the original integrity.” From the version that was published in February-March 1938 in Hebrew (and in German) [was produced] The 20th Zionist Congress and the 5th Session of the Jewish Agency Council, Zurich, August 3–21, 1937, A Stenographic Report (published by the management of the Zionist Movement and the Jewish Agency, Jerusalem). It is obvious that instead of referring to the stenographers' notebooks or the Hebrew typed texts, Lauterbach simply chose from what appeared in the “Newspaper,” corrected typing and grammatical mistakes, and published it.

The articles appearing in the Congress “Newspaper” and in the Congress Stenographic Report are identical. As the title indicates, the Stenographic Report professed to be a verbatim record of the statements voiced at the Zionist Congress. In fact, the speeches as they appeared in this Stenographic Report are, in many cases, significantly different from the original typed text.

The major differences focus on the Zionist movement's attitude towards the Arabs and its policy towards them, mainly concerning the question of transfer. Up to now the Congress Stenographic Report has been the major or exclusive source used by historians for the statements made at the Zionist Congress. (For example it is used by [historian] Shabtai Teveth, for whom it serves as the [only] source. Teveth either could not locate the original transcripts or preferred to use the official and censored Zionist versions.) But in the Congress Stenographic Report, portions of the original speeches were totally deleted in order to significantly alter the meaning of the speeches. Usually, the omitted sentences and entire paragraphs concerned the issue of transfer.

The most important alterations are found in speeches and declarations of the movement's leaders. Weizmann clearly expressed sympathy and support for the transfer recommendation of the Peel Commission in his speeches, above all in his “political speech” on August 4. Unfortunately, neither the stenographic version nor the typed text of the speech survived, but there are repeated references to Weizmann's statements concerning transfer in the speeches of others, as they appear in the original typed texts as well as in the Congress Stenographic Report and in the Congress “Newspaper.” For example, Dr. Moshe Glikson, one of the founders of the Zionist Democratic Party, said in his speech on August 9:

There is a heavy cloud over the issue of the transfer. We should not be surprised to find some among us enthusiastic about it. They believe that it is possible to remove hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the Jewish state, just like that, in one sweep. Dr. Weizmann, who was more cautious than many of the supporters of this proposal, said that it would be possible to transfer 100,000 Arabs to the Arab state within 20 years.

Glikson argued that “5,000 per year” would not solve the demographic problem, in light of the much higher birthrate among the Arabs. “Of course,” Glikson went on, “there are those who believe in the possibility of a complete transfer in the course of a short period …” Glikson named Shmuel Zokhowitzky, a leader from the agricultural settlements, as one who had “even asked Dr. Weizmann not to show any mercy” in this matter. Glikson explained:

Dr. Weizmann told us about the plan to establish a fund for a large scale resettlement of Arabs. Jews would contribute three million pounds to it … I think there is reason to fear … we will not be able to find so many Arab peasants willing to leave the area of the Jewish state. We will not be able to remove them from the Jewish state by force, and no resettlement plan will encourage them to leave the Jewish state and go to the poorer eastern Jordan.

The editors of the Congress Stenographic Report left most of the text intact, although they deleted the sentence regarding Zokhowitzky's request that Weizmann address the question of the transfer unmercifully.

Other speakers at the assembly also associated themselves with Weizmann's statement about the transfer. Ussishkin said on August 10:

When I heard the statement of the head of our movement … Dr. Weizmann, about his support for transfer of 300,000 Arabs out of the Jewish state … I said to myself: “My God, how far has this psychosis spread even among the greatest people!” … Will a Mohammed suddenly leave our state? Why? … Is there any hope that the Arabs living in our country will of their own volition agree to grant us those millions of dunums [of land]?

But the most blatant distortion of the original was achieved by the editors of the Congress “Newspaper” and the Stenographic Report in omitting from Ben-Gurion's speech on August 7 all reference to the transfer problem. According to the original typed texts of the speech, Ben-Gurion declared:

We must thoroughly examine the question whether the transfer is possible, necessary, moral and useful. We do not wish to dispossess anybody. Population transfers have been carried out previously in Palestine in various places. Now the transfer will have to be done on an entirely different scale. In many areas there will be no possibility for new Jewish settlement being established except by transferring the Arabs out of these areas. The British commission addressed this question seriously and it is important that transfer should appear as coming from the commission and not from us … Population transfer allows us to draw a comprehensive settlement plan. To our joy, Arabs have huge and desolate lands. The growing Jewish strength in Palestine will increase our possibilities of conducting a large scale transfer. You must remember that this method also contains an important Zionist and humanist idea — to transfer parts of the people to their own land.

This clear statement was entirely omitted from the Zionist Congress assembly's official printed [record of] speeches. Indeed, both speeches — the original and the rewritten version that appeared in the “Newspaper” and in the Stenographic Report — are fundamentally different as far as they concern the Arab problem. It may only be concluded that immediately following what he said in his speech, Ben-Gurion had second thoughts, and gave a rewritten version to the editors of the Congress “Newspaper.”

In the published version, both in the “Newspaper” and in the Congress Stenographic Report, Ben-Gurion made an effort to expand this paragraph, and this is [accordingly] how it appeared:

We are asked, how will we manage with the Arab minority, a minority of 300,000 Arabs among 400,000 Jews … The Jewish people … cannot forget the lesson of 2,000 years of Diaspora [dispersion] and the fate of its sons in foreign lands … [In the anticipated Jewish state] there will be one law both for the foreigner and the citizen. A just regime, brotherly love, true equality. The Jewish state will be a shining example for the world in treating minorities and foreigners … An Arab policeman supporting rioters from among his people will be punished with all the rigor of the law, just as a Jewish policeman will be punished if he does not protect an Arab from a Jewish hooligan if, Heaven forbid, a Jewish hooligan will appear in our midst.

But because he supported transfer of the Arabs, this paragraph must be regarded as being lip service.

These hitherto unpublished documents add to our understanding of the attitude of the Zionist leaders toward the idea of transfer prior to the establishment of Israel. But there is a broader lesson to be learned by historians from them, and not only with regard to the 1937 documents. The speeches, debates, diaries and memoranda that the Zionist bureaucrats issued wholesale passed through the sieve of political censorship on the way to publication; a large portion disappeared or was distorted. What happened to the 1937 documents also happened to Zionist documents from other years. Historians and students using those sources would do well to employ a large measure of caution in their use.


From the Journal of Historical Review, July/August, 1994; vol. 14 no. 4: p. 25.