The Toronto Star on Palestine: A Racism of Laziness or Dishonesty?

By Dan Freeman-Maloy

The better part of a decade ago, I described the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter as “a canary in the mineshaft of liberal Canadian racism.” A piece on 1948 Palestine published in this Saturday’s edition of the Star shows the canary very close to dead.

Since Potter insists he was within his rights to describe Palestinian fighters in Gaza as “lemming-like,” he’ll surely forgive the metaphor. I’m not all that enthusiastic about it. But at least it allows some sympathy with him, this thinking of his latest article as a dying twitch.

The article celebrates the heritage of Ben Dunkelman, the most prominent Canadian to fight as part of the Zionist armed forces in 1948 Palestine. In more than 2500 words spread under a variety of headings — from “The Toronto man who saved Nazareth” to “Five ways Dunkelman came to Israel’s rescue” — Potter and his editors transform the occupation of Palestinian communities by forces under this Canadian’s command into fodder for patriotism. “What he did was bring his hard-earned Canadian military professionalism to help organize a chaotic fighting force and help set down the rules of engagement,”the Star quotes one of a number of friendly sources as explaining. “And that included saying, ‘No, we will not expel civilians.’”

The record of this “gentle giant of a man,” as Potter introduces Dunkelman, is well documented. The son of the founder of Ontario retail giant Tip Top Tailors and a veteran of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, Dunkelman was not an obscure figure. In Canada, he was in and of the country’s community of patriotic respectables. In Palestine, he was a participant in the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Galilee, as the main studies on the topic have long established.

Dunkelman’s record of Canadian patriotism and Zionist colonization has long made for a popular sell. His basic character should be apparent to anyone who picks up his autobiography. Potter’s latest article pines over lost pages of this book without conveying to readers its utterly thuggish tone. The first five pages, to give you a sense, move from a description of a fight Dunkelman picked with a Palestinian (“Kneeling astride him, I began hitting him again and again, until his body went limp”) to boyhood reminences that feature a young Dunkelman in Toronto, soon to enroll in Upper Canada College, “waving a little Union Jack.”[1] What a lovely patriotic tale!

In Palestine, Dunkelman did not stop at beating Palestinians with his fists. In the summer and autumn of 1948, he served as commander of the Seventh (Armoured) Brigade of the newly established Israel Defence Forces (IDF). This is a representative sample of how Potter presents this history to the Star’s readership:

“Named to lead Israel’s 7th Brigade in the final phase of the 1948 war, Dunkelman pushed methodically — and almost bloodlessly — through the Galilee with a series of nighttime flanking movements, eventually ending at the Litani River in Lebanon. He quite literally shaped borders, delivering territory Israel might not otherwise hold today.”

In the interests of suppressing rage at Potter, I’ll return to the comforting metaphor above: perhaps it’s not entirely his fault; perhaps he’s just choking in an atmosphere of anti-Palestinian racism in Canada that has become too toxic. But “bloodlessly.” Bloodlessly!

Consider the record. One of the Seventh Brigade’s “nighttime flanking movements,” on the night of October 29-30 1948, brought the Palestinian village of Safsaf under Dunkelman’s command. A Palestinian woman who experienced the occupation of Safsaf, Umm Shahadah al-Salih, explains what followed. She describes how villagers were ordered to assemble in file around two houses to the north of the village.

“As we lined up, a few Jewish soldiers ordered four girls to accompany them to carry water for the soldiers. Instead, they took them to our empty houses and raped them. About 70 of our men were blindfolded and shot to death, one after the other, in front of us. The soldiers took their bodies and threw them on the cement covering of the village’s spring and dumped sand on them.”[2]

If Potter’s editors can cough up subway fare to Yonge and Bloor, Potter can read this and other accounts for free at the local library, in Nafez Nazzal’s The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948. The Seventh Brigade’s trail of death, destruction, and mass displacement of Palestinians from the Galilee into Lebanon is detailed authoritatively by Nazzal.

But right, this is a Canadian discussion of Palestine. Surely, Palestinians can’t be trusted! How about we turn to some other racists, then?

Let’s go with Israeli historian Benny Morris. In 2004, Morris famously likened Palestinians to “a wild animal” and endorsed Israeli strategies to perpetually imprison them: “Something like a cage needs to be built for them,” Morris joined the Israeli mainstream in arguing.[3] The same year, he published a new version of his book analyzing declassified Israeli archives concerning the 1948 war. These largely corroborate the Palestinian testimonies that Nazzal made available to English-language readers as early as 1978.

Returning to Safsaf: About a week and a half after the atrocities described by Umm Shahadah al-Salih, the occupation of her village was discussed in a meeting of the Israeli political party Mapam. In notes of this discussion, one official “speaks of ‘52 adult males’ tied together and dropped into a well and of three cases of rape, including of a 14-year-old girl.” In his discussion of the occupation of Safsaf, the director of the Jewish National Fund (JNF)’s office in the eastern Galilee, Yosef Nahmani, “also mentions several cases of rape and ‘a number of dead women’.”[4] Official Israeli sources corroborate other Palestinian testimonies compiled by Nazzal, including about Seventh Brigade massacres in the villages of Jish and Sa`sa`. The IDF intelligence officer for the northern front writes of “150-200” Palestinians killed in the Brigade’s capture of Jish, “including a number of civilians”.[5] Israel Galili, a former head of national staff for the IDF’s precursor, the Haganah, holds the forces under Dunkelman’s command responsible for nothing less than “mass murder” at Sa`sa`.[6]

Palestinian witnesses recount the most horrifying details. One survivor of the occupation of Safsaf recalled the stabbing of a pregnant woman with a bayonet. The witness lived out his life in the Ayn Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon; his testimony was kept alive by his nephew and cited in Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.[7] In his memoirs, Dunkelman admits to authorizing looting by his forces,[8] but he surely doesn’t discuss atrocities of this kind. He does, however, proudly relate how one of his units set a landmark in the summer of 1948 with “the first bayonet charge ever mounted by the Israeli Army.” Facing an Arab position in the central Galilee, the company commander “ordered his men to fix bayonets; then, yelling like banshees, they rushed the Arab positions. When the astonished Arabs saw what was coming up the hill at them, they kicked off their boots and fled in terror.”[9]

As troops commanded by Potter’s “gentle giant of a man” overran Palestinian communities in the autumn of 1948, Palestinians fled to Lebanon in the tens of thousands. The massacres committed by Dunkelman’s troops played no small part in this exodus. “What happened at Safsaf and Jish no doubt reached the villagers of Ras al Ahmar, `Alma, Deishum and al Malikiya hours before the Seventh Brigade’s columns,” writes Morris. “These villages, apart from `Alma, seem to have been completely or largely empty when the IDF arrived.”[10] Tired propaganda aside, Palestine was never “a land without a people”. In 1948, Dunkelman was among the Israeli military commanders doing their best to change this.

Dunkelman — cue Potter’s praise — did not order expulsions in every Palestinian community that his forces occupied. He repeatedly expressed concern about the Israeli expulsion of Palestinian Christians.[11] And when his forces occupied one of the main Christian centres in Palestine, the city of Nazareth, he spared it the harsher treatment he accorded to predominantly Muslim villages in its vicinity. Potter is effusive with praise! He laments to the Star’s readership that Dunkelman “won no medals for refusing to molest civilians” in Nazareth, but takes the opportunity to bask in Canadian civility: “Transpose that morality to the modern era and imagine how the U.S. military interrogations at Abu Ghraib might have played out with a Dunkelman in command.” If those held at gunpoint were Muslims? Should we really follow this thread? “In many of the Palestinian oral histories that have now come to the fore, few brigade names appear,” observes Pappé. “However, Brigade Seven is mentioned again and again, together with such adjectives as ‘terrorist’ and ‘barbarous.’”[12]

Israel has not declassified enough documentation for us to know for certain whether Dunkelman ordered his troops to massacre Palestinian civilians in line with instructions from higher-level IDF officers, took the initiative himself, or left the details to lower levels of command. But there is no record of him taking any action to discipline the culprits. By all accepted standards, he is therefore among them. Only the best liberal patriots want to award war criminals prizes for each possible war crime they didn’t commit.

Respectfully engaging with the Palestinian trauma of 1948 may not always be simple. Introducing a co-edited volume entitled Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad Sa’di explore the complexities of asserting Palestinian memory “under the conditions of its silencing by the thundering story of Zionism”.[13] Their volume explores the memories of refugees fleeing the likes of Dunkelman’s bayonet-wielding “Anglo-Saxon Brigade,”[14] and the challenge of representing experiences of individual and collective trauma. Engaging with this history with a sense of basic human decency does require some critical thought.

But a tip, Potter. Denying the atrocities while celebrating the record of the culprits makes for ignorant and insulting drivel.

This is not only a historical question. As Abu-Lughod and Sa’di argue, “the Nakba is not over yet”.[15] For his part, Israels current defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has described Israels twenty-first century assaults on the Palestinians as “the second half of 1948”.[16] We are now in the midst of the seventh decade of Israel’s seemingly perpetual war on the Palestinian people. I haven’t paid much attention to Potter’s work since his distortions of Israel’s 2006 assaults on Gaza and Lebanon. But it seems that he’s decided to whitewash past and present attacks on the Palestinians in much the same spirit.

Potter once complained when a critic of his coverage of Gaza described him as “a truly disgusting racist”. A letter from Potter prompted the critic to subject himself to more of Potters reporting; and in a public response, the critic felt compelled“to add that you are lazy, a liar, and a cliché-ridden writer”. From this correspondence, it seems that Potter fancies himself quite the enlightened liberal. The problem, perhaps, is not only that he doesn’t care to look beyond patriotic clichés, but that as a Canadian liberal he isn’t expected to.

There aren’t many in the Canadian political establishment interested in changing this, least of all on Palestine. But the poorly sanitized racism that results is no more acceptable for being common. Support for twenty-first century colonialism in Palestine is a structural reality of Canadian politics: in international diplomacy, in trade policy, and in the public arena. Liberal racism against Palestinians is among its constant companions. This is a familiar truth. It is also an outrageous embarrassment. Those who reproduce it should carry its stigma.

– Dan Freeman-Maloy is an activist and writer based in Montreal. He has previously written about the record of Western recruits in 1948 Palestine. See this article for more details. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

Notes:

[1] Ben Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance: An Autobiography (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976), 1-5.
[2] Nafez Nazzal, The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948 (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1978), 95.
[3] See pages 106-108 of Jonathan Cook’s Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State (London: Pluto Press,
2006); available in full here: <http://www.jonathan-cook.net/docs/blood-and-religion-extract-2.pdf>.
[4] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 500.
[5] Morris, Birth Revisited, 474.
[6] Walid Khalidi, ed., All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), 497.
[7] Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006), 184.
[8] Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance, 296.
[9] Dunkelman, Dual Allegiance, 272.
[10] Morris, Birth Revisited, 482.
[11] See Morris, Birth Revisited, 477.
[12] Pappé, Ethnic Cleansing, 158.
[13] Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad H. Sa’di, eds., Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 6.
[14] Nazzal’s designation for the Seventh, given the predominance within it of recruits from the English-speaking West; see Nazzal, Palestinian Exodus, 22.
[15] Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, Nakba, 10
[16] Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 107.

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