In 2005, Palestinian civil society implored people of conscience around the world to stand up for justice by honoring its call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. A decade later certain segments of the US left are still debating whether this Palestinian request for solidarity is a worthy enough cause.
The Nation magazine, a bastion of progressive journalism, has been at the forefront of indecision on this issue, regularly hosting debates on whether the indigenous non-Jewish inhabitants of historic Palestine merit equal rights in their native land.
Last year, following my criticism of The Nation’s unwillingness to take a stand, I was assured by multiple sources inside the magazine that there would be an editorial meeting to discuss endorsing BDS. In the end, The Nation’s leadership decided against supporting boycott.
And so The Nation continues to hold debates on BDS, despite the growing urgency for Palestinians, whose lives are at the mercy of an increasingly fanatical regime led by people who openly promise to slaughter civilians and incite to genocide.
While The Nation celebrates 150 years as a progressive magazine committed to social justice and advocacy journalism, its record is tainted by the refusal of its leadership to take a decisive moral stand against Israeli ethnocracy, a pattern that dates back to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, in which The Nation was deeply complicit.
Indeed, The Nation assisted in Israel’s foundation as a Zionist settler state, which the magazine’s current editor-in-chief, Katrina vanden Heuvel, boasted about to the Forward, saying, “[W]e have a great history … lobbying Truman, the UN, for the creation of the state of Israel.”
Freda Kirchwey, The Nation’s former publisher and editor, not only lobbied the US government and United Nations for the creation of a Jewish settler state in historic Palestine, she mobilized the full weight of her magazine to justify the ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 indigenous Palestinians in 1948 — what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe — while agitating against their right to return.
Campaigning for Zionism
A review of The Nation’s coverage during the period leading up to Israel’s creation reveals a drastic shift from the inclusion of somewhat reasonable, albeit Orientalist, news reports and analyses in the 1930s to exclusively fanatical support for Zionism in the 1940s.
In 1936, for example, renowned writer Albert Viton reported from Palestine on the “Arab anti-imperialist struggle” against “reactionary” Zionists who want to establish “a Jewish state in which the Arabs, the indigenous population, will live as a minority.”
“But if a national state is to be founded here, I believe the Arabs have the most right to it. They have been living here for the last 1,200 years,” wrote Viton (“A solution for Palestine,” 26 December 1936).
Such honesty about the impacts and aims of Zionism on the ground in Palestine is totally absent from The Nation’s coverage in the subsequent decade.
In all fairness, The Nation was not alone in propagandizing for Zionism. As John Judis explains in his book Genesis, most American liberal publications at the time supported Zionism, viewing it as a morally appropriate response to the Nazi genocide of European Jews. Combined with Western anti-Muslim and anti-Arab tendencies, denying the humanity and basic rights of Palestinians was a no-brainer, especially with the Jewish Agency — the de facto representative of the Zionist project in Palestine — stage-managing the propaganda.
The Nation’s Kirchwey, in particular, “regularly exchanged information with Jewish Agency representatives in New York,” explains Judis. “These relationships were not those between journalists and sources, but between political allies.”
These relationships were reflected in the propaganda that saturated The Nation’scoverage.
Kirchwey juxtaposed what she viewed as “the leavening effect of Jewish enlightenment and social ferment in the vast lump of Arab misery and ignorance” (“The Palestine inquiry,” 12 January 1946).
Jewish contributions to “sparsely settled” and “backward” Palestine were nothing short of miraculous, according to Nation writer Philip Bernstein, who favorably likened European Jewish settlers to “the frontiersmen who cleared the wilderness and built the first settlements on the North American continent” (“The Jews of Europe: The case for Zionism,” 6 February 1943).
Preemptively excusing the ethnic cleansing to come, Bernstein added, “even if some displacement of the Arabs were necessary, this would ultimately be justified in the face of the desperate Jewish need. For there is no Arab problem in the sense that there is a Jewish problem. Fifteen million Arabs inhabit a region nearly half the size of Europe.”
Painting Arabs as Nazis
As early as 1939, Kirchwey was one of 27 writers to sign a letter condemning the British White Paper that year. Recognizing Jewish settler-colonialism in Palestine as a source of unrest, the White Paper called for limiting Jewish immigration and abandoning ethnoreligious partition in favor of a binational democratic state that secured the rights of both Jews and Arabs.
The appeal to which Kirchwey signed her name accused the British government of rewarding “Arab terrorism and gangsterism … bought and paid for by Italian fascism and German Nazism” and urged the US government to reject the paper.
Kirchwey would go on to link Arabs to Nazis and fascists at every opportunity thereafter, most notably in reports produced by the Nation Associates, a nonprofit group formed by Kirchwey to fund and publish the magazine.
Headed by Lillie Shultz, a former chief administrative officer at the pro-Zionist American Jewish Congress, the Nation Associates produced twelve widely circulated reports from 1947 to 1954 that campaigned for Zionist positions at the United Nations and the Truman administration. (Shultz went on to found a public relations firm whose primary client was Israel.)
Authored primarily by Kirchwey, the reports echoed Zionist propaganda and sought to cast Arabs as responsible for the Nazi Holocaust. The purpose of such baseless claims, according to Judis, was “to discredit Arab testimony at the United Nations.”
In the lead up to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the Nation Associates submitted a 133-page report to the UN with an entire section devoted to painting Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and a leading figure in the Palestinian national movement, as an all-powerful agent of European Nazis and fascists. The authors went so far as to allege that the mufti was a “full partner” in the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews and was the primary inspiration for Adolf Hitler’s extermination campaign (“The Palestine problem and proposals for its solution,” April 1947).
The report also accused the Muslims of Europe and the Middle East of orchestrating mufti-directed sabotage campaigns against the Allied powers. This, of course, has no basis in reality, as the vast majority of Muslims who participated in the Second World War fought on behalf of the allied powers, including 8,000 Palestinians.
The report went on to caution against the “democratic appeal” of a binational state with equal rights for all, arguing “the Jewish population, progressive and industrialized, would be at the mercy of a backward and antagonistic Arab majority.” (Today’s liberal Zionists issue similarly racist warnings about the “demographic threat” posed by Palestinians absent a two-state solution.)
In May 1948, as mostly defenseless Palestinian towns and villages were being systematically wiped off the map by Zionist massacres and expulsions, The Nationcirculated another report to the UN, this time alleging a British conspiracy to assist surrounding Arab armies in attacking Jewish settlers. So consumed were “excitable” Arab men by their “bitter hatred of the Jews,” “the killing of Jews” had become their “sole raison d’être,” warned The Nation.
Weeks later, Kirchwey credited The Nation with pressuring the Truman administration into recognizing the state of Israel.
Ethnic cleansing as “fitting and just”
The Nation’s contribution to the Zionist project did not end with Israel’s foundation.
Soon after Palestine was emptied of its non-Jewish natives, Kirchwey embarked on a reporting trip to the region, where she published a series of dispatches that celebrated the new state of Israel and rejoiced in the removal of the land’s indigenous inhabitants.
Kirchwey was enamored with all facets of the new settler state, including the country’s first Israeli army spokesperson, Moshe Pearlman, who quit his job as a journalist for The New Statesman to run the Israeli press office. Kirchwey credited her old friend with “the creation … of a freely functioning, intelligent information service run by people who respect the virtue of facts” (“Israel at first glance,” 27 November 1948).
Reporting from Jaffa just months after Zionist militias expelled nearly all of the coastal city’s Palestinians, driving many into the sea where they crowded onto fishing boats for Gaza — Kirchwey acted as a propaganda mouthpiece for the conquerors (“Why did the Arabs run?”, 4 December 1948).
Escorted by an unnamed “man from the Israel press office,” she toured the ethnically cleansed city, heaping praise on Zionist pillagers for their supposed restraint and parroting lies about Nazis fighting alongside Palestinians:
He waved his arm at the damaged shop fronts. “What can you expect,” I asked, “especially after what went before? This was a clash between people that hated each other. Suppose the Arabs had swept into Tel Aviv? You think only a few streets of deserted small shops would have been smashed and looted?” He didn’t answer the last question. He said, “I expect Jewish soldiers to act like civilized human beings. They had captured the town; they should have protected it. They’ve done so in most places — protected both property and life.” I was more impressed by his severity than I was shocked by the damage done by the soldiers. I was later told, not by him but by someone else, that a good part of the looting in Jaffa was the work of assorted Europeans fighting in the Arab ranks — Nazis, Chetniks from Yugoslavia, and Balkan Moslem soldiers — who lingered after the defeat long enough to do some profitable marauding.
Next, Kirchwey reasoned that the removal of Palestinians was a noble endeavor because their homes were replaced with more deserving Jews.
“A good many of the undamaged houses in Jaffa and elsewhere are now being used for newly arrived Jews; so the Arab refugees unwittingly helped make a place for the Jewish refugees their leaders were so determined to keep out. This means hardship for individuals; collectively it is obviously fitting and just,” wrote Kirchwey.
As for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees forced from their ancestral lands, Kirchwey propagated the Zionist myth that their displacement was the fault of Arab leaders who advised them to flee. Palestinians had only themselves to blame, she reasoned.
Past haunts the present
Last summer, as the descendants of those refugees were obliterated by merciless Israeli bombardment, the first piece to appear at The Nation blamed Palestinians for their “suicidal” insistence on armed resistance to ghettoization and massacre.
Three years after the Nakba, the Nation Associates, along with several allied organizations, delivered a memorandum to the UN General Assembly agitating against the right of Palestinian refugees to return (“The Arab refugee problem: A plan for its solution,” 29 December 1951).
“Palestine Arabs fled from their homes at the behest of their leaders,” stated the document, which added that the Haganah — the precursor to the Israeli army that carried out the ethnic cleansing — “made every attempt to prevent the Arab exodus and pleaded with the populace to stay. These pleas were not heeded.”
The report continued, “The presence of a large Arab minority, which would be more responsive to the sentiments of the surrounding Arab states than to that of Israel, would render Israel insecure.”
In April 1954, as Palestinian refugees languished in squalid camps across the Middle East, periodically subjected to massacres by Israel and shot dead for attempting to return to their homes, the Nation Associates and allied organizations issued another report urging that development aid to the Middle East be conditioned on the acceptance by Arab states of blame for the Palestinian exodus and the forfeiture of the Palestinian right to return.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation’s current editor-in-chief, recently embraced her magazine’s “great history” of lobbying for Israel’s creation, highlighting a 2008 articleby neoconservative ideologues Ronald and Allis Radosh in World Affairs that detailed The Nation’s ultra-Zionist past while bashing the magazine’s present-day anti-occupation position.
In response to an email query from The Electronic Intifada, vanden Heuvel defended Kirchwey, writing, “Yes, former Nation editor Freda Kirchwey, like so many in the progressive community in the 1930s and ’40s, lived in the shadow of Nazism and the Holocaust. She devoted much energy to saving Europe’s most beleaguered community, the remnants of which were desperately seeking safe harbor after the worst genocidal killing in modern human history.”
Quoting from her own response to the Radoshes’ article, vanden Heuvel added, “When Kirchwey was writing, Israel was fighting for its survival; it was not engaged in a self-destructive occupation that even Israeli conservatives believe will eventually undermine its character and security.”
After some prodding, vanden Heuvel conceded that “[Kirchwey’s] views on the question of Palestine were one-sided and don’t represent what The Nation believes today, or indeed what it has believed for decades.”
“The Nation has repeatedly criticized Israeli militarism and illegal occupation and has supported the right of Palestinians to statehood. Those views have been expressed in countless unsigned editorials, as the voice of the magazine, as well as in numerous articles and essays by contributors and columnists,” replied vanden Heuvel.
It is true that The Nation has staunchly opposed Israel’s occupation for decades. And the magazine does occasionally publish anti-Zionist critiques of Israel that identify Zionism as a toxic settler-colonial ideology underpinning the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
But it also provides a platform for anti-Palestinian bigots and Nakba revisionists to absolve Zionism of responsibility for fueling Israel’s ongoing dispossession of Palestinians. In a recent print feature for The Nation, liberal Israeli Zionist Bernard Avishai, who lives in the stolen home of a Palestinian expelled in 1948, attributed the premeditated mass expulsion of 50,000 Palestinians from Lydd and Ramla during the Nakba to “the fog of war” and labeled David Ben-Gurion, an architect of Palestine’s ethnic cleansing, an “admirably pragmatic” leader.
The Nation, as far as I can tell, does not publish Holocaust revisionism. Why is Nakba revisionism any less repulsive?
While it would be unfair to hold The Nation’s current leadership responsible for the transgressions of their predecessors, the magazine at the very least owes a historical debt to the Palestinians whose permanent displacement it so enthusiastically supported. Prevented from returning home by an ideology that seeks their erasure, those refugees and their descendants today live in shipping containers in Gaza and struggle to survive Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs and ISIS beheadings in what’s left of the Yarmouk camp in Damascus.
So long as The Nation magazine dithers on BDS while tiptoeing around the root cause of Palestinian suffering, this past will continue to haunt its present, a condition Palestinian refugees, waiting to return, know all too well.