Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Tamir Sorek reviews Dear Palestine

Shay Hazkani. Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2021. 352 pp.

Review by Tamir Sorek

22 September 2021

Whether it is called Nakba (“the disaster”) or the War of Independence, the 1948 war is a founding myth in both the Palestinian and Zionist collective consciousness. It has been a subject of a tremendous number of books, some of them actively participating in constricting mythologies and others in deconstructing and undermining them. Very few, though, have been genuinely interested in the process through which regular people were convinced to travel thousands of miles to fight, kill, and expel, nor have these books been concerned with the interplay between official propaganda and everyday perspectives of soldiers on the ground. Shay Hazkani—in his thorough, original, and well-written monograph—opens for us a new angle from which we can look at that war. Against the focus on national mythologies, the book portrays “identities and space in formation, as well as normal, everyday people’s fear, bravery, failure, cruelty, lies, and exaggerations” (p. 23).

One powerful aspect of this book is the way Hazkani juxtaposes the propaganda that was directed toward soldiers with the thoughts, emotions, and experience of the indoctrination’s target audience. For this purpose, the study relies on two types of sources: first, military propaganda aimed at indoctrinating Arab soldiers in the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) and Jewish soldiers in the Israel Defense forces (IDF); and second, personal letters of soldiers. The letters of Jewish soldiers were collected by the military censor, and the letters of ALA volunteers were obtained by Jewish forces during the war. All these private materials were kept at the IDF Archive, and Hazkani gained access to them only after a long legal battle. The letters are complemented by statistical summaries of their content, which the IDF prepared at the time, and provide a bird’s-eye view of the soldiers’ opinions and thoughts. The author used these documents to develop comparative insights along many dimensions: between Jews and Arabs, between propaganda and its reception, between Arab/Zionist propaganda out of Palestine and the messages directed toward Arab and Jewish soldiers after their arrival to Palestine, and between the daily experience of Jews of European origins and those who came from Muslim countries.  

A particularly interesting comparison is the one made about the propaganda on both sides of the fighting line. Hazkani concluded that the ALA’s propaganda was more measured, less violent, and placed a greater emphasis on universal values and international law. Still, both sides relied heavily on religious imagination; while the ALA presented Jews as dhimmis who overstepped their bounds, the IDF was likening the Arabs to biblical archnemeses of the Israelites, Amalek and the Seven Nations of Canaan, that the Bible commands to annihilate.

The comparative examination reveals also how official propaganda is only partly echoed in private words. While many ALA volunteers emphasized religious and pan-Arab motivations for their fighting, many others hoped that their enlistment would elevate their status among their families. Some mentioned that the fight for Palestine is only a first step in an anti-colonial revolutionary plan; a message that was in line with the Ba’ath propaganda but contradicted the messages of more conservative Arab elements who feared this scenario. The IDF effort to present the “marriage between Jews and the use of force” as natural did convince most Ashkenazi soldiers, but some, especially among US volunteers, resisted the idea and detested violence, to the dissatisfaction of Palestine-born Jewish soldiers (p. 175). One of the latter wrote to her parents that she did not like the “philanthropic approach” of her American colleagues and described them as “soft-hearted” (p. 184).

One of the most striking revelations in the book is about the experience of Jewish Moroccan soldiers and their expression of disappointment that sharply contradicted the official efforts to nurture pan-Judaic solidarity. It turned out that more than 70 percent of Moroccan soldiers wanted to return to Morocco because of Ashkenazi racism. Hazkani points to the irony in the policy of Israeli authorities, who, at the time, went to any effort to thwart the return aspiration of two groups: Palestinians returning to Palestine and Moroccan Jews returning to Morocco.

Dear Palestine is not just another book about the 1948 war. Even though it continues the growing tendency of historians to shift the gaze toward microhistory, it does more than that. It takes us on a fascinating journey to the space between efforts of official indoctrination and the unpredictable ways in which they are processed.