Hidden alliances 7, Cohn Werner

The Documentary Basis of Anti-Zionism

Chomsky’s most ambitious book about the Jews and Israel,
published in 1983, is entitled The Fateful Triangle: The
United States, Israel and the Palestinians. It purports to
review the history and current status of the Arab-Israel
dispute as well as the role of the United States in it.
Like other political writings of Chomsky’s, this one has
been widely praised by his supporters for its wealth of
“facts” and documentation. As we have seen, too, the book
is featured as a prized item on the book lists of organized

The violence between Arabs and Jews — who did what to whom
and when — is naturally a field of much contention among
those who write about the two peoples. Two events in the
modern history of Arab-Jewish relations have most
particularly demanded the attention of both scholarly and
propagandistic writers: the riots of 1929 in Hebron and
elsewhere, and the War of Independence in 1948. Enough
about these is known to serve as touchstones for those who
would write rationally about Arabs and Jews. I propose to
examine Chomsky’s treatment of these two events, not only to
study his point of view but also to see whether his methods
conform to a modicum of scholarly objectivity.

The 1929 Violence

Chomsky devotes two paragraphs, one of main text and one
long footnote, to the 1929 events. The text, on page 90,
reads as follows:

The [Arabs] never accepted the legitimacy of
[Balfour’s] point of view, and resisted in a
variety of ways. They repeatedly resorted to
terrorist violence against Jews. The most extreme
case was in late August 1929, when 133 Jews were
massacred. The “most ghastly incident” was in
Hebron, where 60 Jews were killed, most of them
from an old Jewish community, largely anti-
Zionist; the Arab police “stood passively by
while their fellow Moslems moved into the town and
proceeded to deeds which would have been revolting
among animals,” and a still greater slaughter was
prevented only by the bravery of one member of the
vastly undermanned British police. (4) Many were
saved by Muslim neighbors.*

I have shown the footnote references — one marked (4), the
other with an asterisk — as they appear in Chomsky’s
original. Footnote (4) is found on page 169, and says
“Ibid., pp. 109-10, 123,” a reference to Crossroads to
Israel by Christopher Sykes. The footnote marked by an
asterisk is found on the bottom of pages 90 and 91 and

* The massacre followed a demonstration organized
at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to counter “Arab
arrogance” — “a major provocation even in the
eyes of Jewish public opinion” (Flapan, Zionism
and the Palestinians, p. 96). See Sheean, in
Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, for a detailed
eyewitness account. This provocation was
organized by Betar, the youth movement of Vladimir
Jabotinsky’s Revisionist organization, which is
the precursor of Begin’s Herut, the central
element in the Likud coalition. The very name,
“Betar,” reflects the cynicism of this fascist-
style movement, which, in Flapan’s words,
described Hitler “as the saviour of Germany,
Mussolini as the political genius of the century,”
and often acted accordingly. The name is an
acronym for “Brith Yosef Trumpeldor” (“The
Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor”). Trumpeldor was
killed defending the northern settlement of Tel
Hai from Bedouin attackers; Jabotinsky “opposed
the Labour call for mobilization to help the
threatened settlements” (Flapan, p. 104).

Chomsky here acknowledges that a slaughter of the Jews of
Hebron had taken place and he borrows words from Sykes to
show that this had been “ghastly.” He writes the word
“ghastly” and his reproduction of the word — though
borrowed from Sykes and in quotation marks — may well be
used later by him and his friends as proof of his
sensitivity to Jewish suffering. As we have seen, Chomsky
is fond of such self-exculpating formulas.

But Chomsky is also quick to give us two separate sets of
justification for the Arab assassins at Hebron. The first
comes at the very beginning of the main paragraph: the
killings were part of the “resistance” of Arabs against the
Balfour plan for a Jewish national home.<73> The second is
more elaborate and takes up the whole of the asterisked
footnote: it seems that the killings were “provoked” by a
“fascist-style” Jewish youth organization, Betar.

How does Chomsky document his charge of “provocation?”

He cites three references in this footnote: a) Simha
Flapan concerning the import of BetarOs demonstration in
Jerusalem; b) Vincent Sheean, the “eye witness” to the same
demonstration; and finally c) Flapan again, this time
concerning the nature of Betar.

a) Betar’s demonstration in Jerusalem: Flapan vs. the

Simha Flapan, recently deceased, was a left-wing Israeli
editor and polemical writer and indeed says that Betar’s
1929 demonstration “… led to the bloody riots and
disturbances.” But Flapan mentions the incident only in
passing, gives no evidence for his assertion, and is in any
case no historical expert. Like Marlen, Chomsky here quotes
the unsupported opinion of an unqualified writer as if such
citation constituted evidence.

It so happens that there is now a scholarly literature
concerning the 1929 events and that all such scholarly
writing takes as one of its starting points the Report of
the Shaw Commission of Inquiry that was appointed by the
British government. Chomsky does not mention this Report
although it is probably the most detailed description of the
facts as they could be ascertained then or now.

One reliable guide to the various claims is contained in Y.
Porath, The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National
Movement, 1918-1929. Chomsky professes to respect this work
and quotes it as an authority elsewhere in his book (p.
169). Porath takes pains to give an account of provocative
actions by both Jews and Arabs in the period preceding the
1929 events. Concerning the demonstrations by Betar,
Porath’s judgment is as follows:

While it is true that the demonstration by Betar
… at the Wailing Wall on Tishea Be-Av (15th
August 1929) prompted the Muslim demonstration
there the next day … the bloody [Hebron]
outbreaks occurred a week later and not
necessarily in response to the Jewish demonstration.
(p. 269)

Porath is known for his sympathies for the Arab national
movement, and Chomsky quotes him with approval concerning
the Lebanon war on pp. 200, 260, and 334 of his book. But
when Porath writes in his most professional capacity, i.e.
as a historian of the Arab-Jewish entanglement, Chomsky
chooses to ignore him.

Chomsky’s failure to refer to Christopher Sykes is equally
reprehensible. Chomsky quotes from Sykes in his main
paragraph as an authority on the Hebron riots but he
suppresses what Sykes has to say in connection with the
alleged “provocation” by Betar. Actually Sykes gives a
general account of the background in a way similar to
Porath. A Jewish boy had been killed in Jerusalem in the
days leading to the serious riots. Both Jews and Arabs had
been embroiled in provocative acts. Referring to the days
immediately before Betar’s demonstration, Sykes writes that
“the atmosphere in Jerusalem was daily growing more tense
and the goading policy of the Supreme Moslem Council over
the Wailing Wall had the desired effect of driving Jews to
exasperation.” (p. 136).

In fact all historians agree that Arabs and Jews had been
involved in reciprocal provocation, but Chomsky, ignoring
all this testimony in favor of the obiter dictum of a
journalist, sees fault only with the Jews.

b) Vincent Sheean, eye witness

Betar’s demonstration of course had hundreds of “eye
witnesses.” One of these, the American journalist Vincent
Sheean, has claimed that his presence at the Jerusalem
demonstration qualifies him to pass judgment on what
happened a week later in Hebron, where he was not. Sheean
tells us that previous to the 1929 events he had been very
much pro-Zionist but that the Jewish demonstrations in
August of that year, which he blames for all the subsequent
bloodshed, turned him into a convinced anti-Zionist ever

The Shaw Commission (see its Report, p. 52) examined more
than twenty eye witnesses concerning the Jerusalem events,
of whom Sheean, according to his own writings, was one.
Sheean also tells us that his testimony was directly
contradicted by others at the Commission hearings, and this
is not surprising since eye witness reports are notoriously
unreliable. Nevertheless Professor Chomsky cites Sheean and
only Sheean as an eye witness, and the question arises why
this would be so.

First, a word about how Chomsky discovered Sheean.

Sheean included his reminiscences of the 1929 events, “Holy
Land,” in his collected essays Personal History (1935).59
The book was published by standard American and British
publishers and is widely available in research libraries.
But Chomsky’s reference is not to this book. He cites a
greatly abbreviated reprint of the Sheean essay in an
anthology entitled From Haven to Conquest, edited by
Professor Walid Khalidi and published by the Institute for
Palestine Studies, Beirut, in 1971.

Unlike Chomsky, Professor Khalidi does not profess
neutrality between Jew and Arab. He dedicates his volume
“To all Palestine Arabs under Israeli occupation” and
explains how he selected the various snippets for his book:
“Any anthology is selective by definition. The items in
this anthology have been selected to illustrate the central
theme in the Palestine tragedy, which is the process by
which Zionism has sought to wrest control of Palestine and
its surroundings from the Arabs.” (p. xxiv). Naturally,
materials that do not “illustrate the central theme” are not
in the Khalidi book. Chomsky relies heavily on this volume
in his own book, citing it over and over again.

One of the ways of evaluating eye witness testimony is to
consider whether the witness is credible. Sheean wants to
be believed, obviously, not only for what he has seen with
his own eyes but also for his insight and perspicacity in
relating what he has seen (Jerusalem) to what he has not
seen (Hebron). And the unabridged version of SheeanOs
reminiscences gives us valuable clues indeed about SheeanOs

On pages 409 to 411, Sheean reports “the pogrom heritage” of
Jewish people that he observed in Palestine and elsewhere,
the unbelievably irrational fear that harm might come to
them simply because they were Jews. “It was a state of mind
I had never seen before, and it required a powerful effort
of the imagination to understand it.” (p. 409). But
understand it he could not, and what he judged to be Jewish
irrational fears, both in Palestine and in general, are
cited as reasons for his remarkable sudden conversion from
pro-Zionism to anti-Zionism. He published these
observations in 1935, before the Holocaust but already
after Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany, and of course he
was not alone then in his failure to appreciate the
exceptional realism of the Zionists of 1929. But alone or
not, Sheean’s state of mind at the time does not exactly add
to his qualification as an informed observer. Perhaps for
this reason, these passages are not reproduced in Khalidi’s
version of the essay.

Sheean’s unexpurgated essay also shows great admiration for
Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem: “But
the Grand Mufti kept his head; the better I knew him the
more I realized that he was a man of remarkable character,
extraordinary inner calm and certainty. He never got
excited, he was always open to reason, and he never rejected
an argument or a suggestion without examining it carefully.”
When Sheean published these lines in 1935 he may not have
known that two years earlier, immediately after the Nazi
seizure of power, the Mufti had conveyed his admiration and
support to the Hitler government, praising in particular the
Nazi policy of anti-Semitism. <75> But Sheean should have
known, as all informed observers have testified, that the
Mufti played an important part in inflaming Arab violence
against Jews throughout the 1920s.

Since the Second World War the Mufti has become an
embarrassment for partisans of the Arab side. The original
Sheean publication must have been among the very last in
which a reputable Western writer expressed admiration for
him. In Khalidi’s version of Sheean, the one cited by
Chomsky, all praise of the Mufti is suppressed, as well it
might. But without these passages the reader of Sheean is
deprived of one of the most important clues to Sheean’s lack
of credibility.

In brief, Chomsky ignores the scholarly literature on the
1929 riots. Had he reported the contents of this literature
to his readers, his pro-Arab and anti-Jewish charges could
not have been sustained. He cites the eye witness testimony
of only one witness when many were available, and the
witness whom he uses has been pre-selected for him by an
anthology of pro-Arab writings. Finally, he suppresses all
information that would enable the reader to test the
credibility of his witness.

Is this the scholarship that is taught at MIT?

c) the “fascist” Betar

Chomsky charges that Betar, the youth organization of the
Zionist Revisionist movement, was not only “fascist-style”
but actually praised Hitler, presumably as part of its
general political stance in 1929. (Of course in 1929 Hitler
had not yet come to power and was barely known outside of
Germany, but let that pass). Chomsky again cites the left-
wing Israeli writer Simha Flapan who had little to say about
the Hebron incident but who does devote a whole chapter to
Zionist Revisionism.

Chomsky, whose full passage I have quoted above, speaks of
Betar as “…this fascist-style movement, which, in
Flapan’s words, describes Hitler “as the saviour of Germany,
Mussolini as the political genius of the century” …. ”
Chomsky tends toward forgetfulness in such matters and does
not tell us just where he found this in Flapan. The fact is
that Flapan wrote something just a little bit different:

The violent anti-labour campaign, accompanied as
it was by venomous propaganda, brawls and physical
violence on both sides, created in the 1930s a
tension resembling a state of civil war [between
Labour Zionists and Zionist Revisionists]. The
attempt to challenge the labour hegemony failed
and boomeranged against the Revisionists
themselves. They earned for themselves a
reputation as fascists due to the viciousness of
the anti-socialist propaganda, their unbridled
hatred of kibbutzim, their “character
assassinations”, the unconcealed sympathy of some
members towards the authoritarian regimes (Hitler,
for example, was described as the saviour of
Germany, Mussolini as the political genius of the
century). — Flapan, pp. 111-2.

Chomsky has Flapan claim that Betar as such embraced Hitler
and Mussolini, but Flapan just says that “some members” had
such sympathies. The “some members,” which here makes all
the difference and completely changes the meaning, is
suppressed by Chomsky.

Is this how scholarship is taught at MIT?

But this outrageous misquotation aside, Flapan does
maintain that there was some sympathy for Hitler in Betar.
How does Flapan know this? To what extent can we trust
Flapan as an expert on Betar and the Zionist Revisionist
movement? Like Chomsky, Flapan is often cited by Arab and
other “anti-Zionist” propagandists. Like Chomsky, Flapan’s
articles have appeared in journals hostile to Israel. But
Flappan’s work has a certain inner integrity, and he likes
to tell us how he has come to know what he says he knows.
So he appends a little note at the end of his chapter on the

Shortage of time did not allow me to look for and
peruse primary sources. Rather, I had to rely
mainly on personal recollections of events I have
lived through and experienced as a member of the
Zionist-Socialist Movement, Hashomer Hatzair … I
have checked these recollections against the
official literature of the Revisionist Party.

Those with recollections of the Zionist youth movement some
forty years ago will remember, as Flapan does, that members
of Hashomer Hatzair would indeed refer to Betar as
“fascist,” and that Betar knew how to return such
compliments with epithets of its own. What Flapan
remembers about such youthful name-calling tells at least as
much about Hashomer Hatzair as it does about Betar. Flapan
does not cite any direct source, Revisionist or otherwise,
for his assertion that even as many as “some” Betar members
admired Hitler. And if he had seen any praise of Hitler in
the “official literature of the Revisionist Party” we can be
sure that he would have cited it. He doesn’t.

Flapan is loose about his charge but still stays within the
polemical style of 1930s youthful Zionism. Chomsky goes a
few steps further. He drops the crucial modifier “some;” he
projects back into the 1920’s what Flapan describes about
the 1930’s; he disregards the tenuous and hearsay nature of
this evidence. These steps, certainly beyond anything that
Marlen would have tried, now give Chomsky his proof that the
Jewish demonstrators in 1929 in Jerusalem were really like

Last-Modified: 1996/12/05

[Archived with author’s consent]

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