On April 26, 1948, General Sir Alan Cunningham, the British High Commissioner for Palestine, wrote to Arthur Creech-Jones, the colonial secretary, about the mass flight of Palestine’s Arabs, singling out the port city of Jaffa:
“You should know that the collapsing Arab morale in Palestine is in some measure due to the increasing tendency to those who should be leading them to leave their country. For instance in Jaffa the Mayor went on 4 days leave 12 days ago and has not returned, and half the National Committee has left. In Haifa the Arab members of the municipality left some time ago, the two leaders of the Arab Liberation Army left actually during the recent battle. Now the Chief Arab Magistrate has left. In all parts of the country the effendi class has been evacuating in large numbers over a considerable period and the tempo is increasing.”
Fast-forward 71 years. Contradicting both the High Commissioner and Jaffa Arabs who lived through the events, editors of the New York Times last weekend rewrote history, stating in a travel article: “In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, most of Jaffa’s Arab residents were forcibly removed from their homes.” (“An Unexpected Pocket of Luxury in Tel Aviv,” March 17).
The original digital version by Debra Kamin did not include this false claim. Rather, in response to criticism that the article initially ignored the city’s Arab history, editors revised the digital version, adding in this misinformation.
A note was appended to the bottom of the article and appeared in print — on March 17 as a correction, and on March 16 as an Editors’ Note: “The original version of this article, in focusing exclusively on the high-end hotels and other additions, failed to touch on important aspects of Jaffa’s makeup and its history — in particular, the history and continuing presence of its Arab population and the expulsion of many residents in 1948. Because of this lapse, the article also did not acknowledge the continuing controversy about new development and its effect on Jaffa. After readers pointed out the problem, editors added some of that background information to this version.”
Leaving aside for a moment the factual problem with the Editors’ Note, the fact that it appeared at all in print (let alone twice) is noteworthy.
The New York Times refused to publish in print an Editors’ Note after it whitewashed convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh as a “controversial Palestinian activist.” Odeh was found guilty for her role in a Jerusalem bombing that killed two Hebrew University students and was later deported from the United States for having lied about her criminal past. What considerations prompted Times editors to run the Editors’ Note on Odeh only online while the misinformation had appeared in print, but to share the Jaffa Editors’ Note in print twice although the alleged misinformation had never appeared in print?
Most of Jaffa’s Arab residents fled in 1948 — and were not forcibly removed. In City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa (W.W. Norton & Co), journalist Adam LeBor detailed the flight of Jaffa’s Arabs. LeBor, a journalist who has written for The Independent and The Times (London), and has published book reviews in the Times, reported in his book on Jaffa:
“On 8 December 1947, after several days of skirmishes between Arab fighters and the Haganah, hundreds of Arab fighters attacked the Tel Aviv quarter of Hatikvah in a major frontal assault. The attack was repulsed, with sixty Arabs and two Jews killed. The Arab exodus from Jaffa began. Much of the middle class and the a’yan, who could have provided leadership in the testing days ahead, relocated to relatives or to their summer homes in Cairo and Beirut, believing they would return once the situation calmed down. Flight, like panic, is infectious. When Jaffa’s artisans and workers saw that their bosses were leaving, they too began to desert their homes. The Haganah’s intelligence service reported that inhabitants of Manshiyyeh and Abu Kabir, to the south, were moving out of the city, pushing handcarts full of their possessions.”
The next month, after a deadly attack targeting the Arab High Committee, but which took the lives of 26 mostly civilians, LeBor said: “The exodus of the middle class further accelerated, angry accusation of abandoning Jaffa following in their wake. ‘Whoever could leave [Jaffa] has left, there is fear everywhere, and there is no safety,’ an Arab informant told Elias Sasson, head of the Jewish Agency’s Arab Affairs department, in January 1948.”
LeBor recounts the fateful day of Sunday, April 25, 1948, when fighting for Jaffa itself began. He tells of the flight of the Hammami family, whose son Fadwa remembers, “In one day, my parents decided to leave. But not for good, because we left everything in the house. They said we were going on holiday, to Lebanon” (p. 125).
Ismail Abou-Shehade also relays, “If you ask me about this time, I can tell you about it, like it happened an hour ago. I can still see the people leaving, the women and children shouting, ‘To the sea, to the sea’” (p. 127).
LeBor reports that Jaffa’s Arab mayor at the time, Yousef Heikal, abandoned the city. His detailed book contains many descriptions of the Arab flight, and no indication of forced expulsions.
Historian Dr. Petra Marquardt-Bigman has noted that Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a political-science professor who left Jaffa in May 1948 (and was also quoted by LeBor), likewise documented the flight of Jaffa’s Arabs. He wrote in an Egyptian newspaper special in 1998 that the Arab National Committee levied a tax on those who left, an exodus that began with the wealthy, and that he himself volunteered to help collect the fee.
“Our job consisted mainly of harassing people to dissuade them from leaving, and when they insisted, we would begin bargaining over what they should pay, according to how much luggage they were carrying with them and how many members of the family there were. At first we set the taxes high. Then as the situation deteriorated, we reduced the rates, especially when our friends and relatives began to be among those leaving.
“We continued collecting this tax until 23 April, when the combined force of the Haganah and the Irgun succeeded in defeating the Arab forces stationed in the Manshiya quarter adjacent to Southern Tel-Aviv.”
On what basis does the Times report that “most” of Jaffa’s Arabs were “forcibly removed”? What historical documentation substantiates this claim, contradicted by Arab eyewitnesses?
Tamar Sternthal is director of the Israel office of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).