There’s a quote of Golda Meir’s doing the rounds in many discussions of the Israeli government’s war on Gaza. It is regularly misquoted as:
we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their children.
Bob Schieffer used this in a ridiculous closing segment on Face the Nation, after allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to make a number of un-challenged statements about fact and motive. It’s being used all around the internet as a justification for the many children killed in the bombing of Gaza and to validate the Israeli government’s assertion that it’s all actually Hamas’ fault (or even that of the Palestinians). It is of course, the Israeli Defense Forces who are dropping the bombs and shells on Gaza.
The actual quote goes like this:
When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.
– Golda Meir at a Press conference in London (1969)
Which of course clarifies what she was talking about. This was said two years after Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel in what’s known as the Six-Day war. The Six-Day war was itself 10 years after a coordinated attack by Israel, Britian and France to take the Suez canal from Egypt (known as the Suez crisis). The Suez Crisis itself happened 10 years after the Nakba, when Israeli forces drove perhaps a couple of hundred thousand Palestinians from their homes, often at gunpoint and razed their homes to limit their ability to return. Which itself happened shortly after the Second World War in which 6 million Jews and possibly 10 million other civilians were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen in addition to many millions more being dispossessed of their homes and property. So that’s some of the context.
To come back to Golda Meir though. She was not talking about bombing the homes of Palestinians who oppose Israeli occupation from F-16s flying high above them. She was not talking about killing whole families with young children. She was not talking about children. She was talking about sons recruited for Arab armies. Armies meeting in a battlefield. She was lamenting a dreadful waste of young men sent by older men to die for their own glory and tribute.
In any case, Golda Meir said a lot of different things, some of them contradictory. She was a human being, one who was changed and changed herself in response to events and experience, many of them tragic. So, for instance, when it comes to quotes from Golda Meir, I think this one is unjustly ignored:
It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]‘.
– Gloda Meir on 6 May, 1948 after a visit to Arab Haifa.
This is the statement of a human being who saw something terrible and acknowledged it. One who is attuned to the suffering of a people, even if they are not her own.
Which is an important point. An easy way to figure out whether or not a statement about this conflict is true is to switch Israel for Palestine, Holocaust for Nakba and then see whether it elicits the same response from the same people. If it doesn’t, they’ve just been responding to tribal instinct. The words Shoah and Nakba have the same meaning.
There’s a secondary motive for quoting Meir here. It gives me a little bit of cover for what I’m about to say.
One of the most infuriating things in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that each side has people who will deny history, deny the suffering of the other side to bolster their arguments.
So for instance, there are many Palestinians, and non-Palestinians who will deny the Holocaust, and there’s actually an entire little cottage industry that comes up with conspiracy theories that are ridiculous. Insane theories like:
- The holocaust is a myth
- The Holocaust was concocted to gain sympathy and take over Palestine
But it must also be said, and acknowledged, that there are many Israelis and non-Israelis who will deny the Nakba, or their state’s role in it. They come up with ridiculous conspiracy theories as well. You hear things like:
- There are no Palestinian refugees, they are undesirables from Egypt, Syria, Jordan whom those countries did not want
- No Palestinians fled because of Israeli actions, any who left did because Arab armies told them to (difficult to reconcile with the multiple civilian massacres Israeli forces perpetrated in 1948).
To be clear, the holocaust is an unimaginable thing. I am not equating the Holocaust and the Nakba. From an objective perspective, the Holocaust is of a different magnitude entirely. Still, recognizing the Holocaust does not require denying the Nakba and it’s profound impact on the lives of millions of Palestinians.
Yet, on both sides we have people who deny and diminish the suffering of their political opponents. Many Palestinians deny possibly the worst genocidal attempt in humankind’s history. Many Israelis deny their state’s role in creating the largest refugee population in the modern world.
It must also be said that there are many more on each side who acknowledge and empathize with the other’s suffering.
Part of resolving any conflict is that each side publicly acknowledge and recognize the other’s position. In this case, their suffering. To say “You are a fellow human being, for my part in your suffering I ask forgiveness. For that which is not my part I weep with you.” It is important because it brings the two parties closer together. And it costs nothing. It is a gift of empathy that helps each party grow.
To get back to Golda Meir, who had this to say about Palestinian refugees later in life.
Any one who speaks in favor of bringing the Arab refugees back must also say how he expects to take the responsibility for it, if he is interested in the state of Israel. It is better that things are stated clearly and plainly: We shall not let this happen.
– Golda Meir in October 1961
The woman didn’t mince words. That’s the statement of a Foreign Minister making plain her country’s policies. One who knows her country has fought a wars of aggression (1948 and then the Suez crisis in 1957), and wars of defense (the six-day war in 1967).
There’s another quote doing the rounds on the internet, it’s claimed Golda Meir said something like:
Now, when everyone knows what they did to us, we can do anything we want, and no one has the right to criticize us and tell us what to do.
and it’s sometimes rendered as:
After the holocaust, we Jews can do anything
I don’t know whether she ever said anything like that. Most people read both statements as a justification. But there is another way to read it. Perhaps she was saying that after surviving the Holocaust, her people were capable of doing anything. Even achieving a just peace with the Palestinians.
And I’ll leave the last word for Abraham Lincoln who had that rare ability. To, in the midst of a terrible and bloody struggle, see how the world, in the fullness of time, would regard it.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” ….
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.