Liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz calls 1937 Palestine “pre-state Israel,” in article by government employee

(This article is published in Mondoweiss.)

Israel’s leading liberal newspaper Haaretz rewrote history in an article it translated and published by an Israeli government employee that repeatedly refers to 1937 Palestine as “pre-state Israel.”

The March 5 piece, entitled “High art: Historic aerial shots of pre-state Israel revealed,” studiously avoids the word “Palestine.” Meanwhile, it uses the term “pre-state Israel” 14 times, in unusual phrases like “photographs of pre-state Israel” and “immigrated to pre-state Israel.”

Gil Weissblei, the author of the article, works in the photographs and archives department at the National Library of Israel. Weissblei had originally written the article in Hebrew, and published it at the National Library’s blog. It was syndicated at the Hebrew-language Haaretz website.

“Unfortunately, no one had ever asked for my permission to translate it into English, and of course, I had no chance to see the English translation before publication and correct it,” Weissblei told Mondoweiss via email.

He added, “The English translation is incorrect in general, and although I am not sure whether the term ‘pre-state Israel’ is illegitimate, as you claim, it was not my decision to use it.”

The managing editor of Haaretz’s English edition told Mondoweiss the newspaper had chosen the phrase “pre-state Israel” as a substitute for Weissblei’s use of the term “the land of Israel.”

The story turns the history of Palestine on its head. For centuries before Israel was formed in a 1947-1948 war in which Zionist militias violently expelled large numbers indigenous Arabs, the area had been referred to as Palestine.

The British empire, which colonized Palestine after carving up former Ottoman lands at the end of World War I, officially called it Mandatory Palestine. Weissblei’s article indirectly hints at this historical fact just once in his article, using the term “the Mandate era” — but even then this cuts Palestine out of the full name British Mandate of Palestine.

Use of the term Palestine was by no means controversial at the time. Even right-wing Zionist leaders like Ze’ev Jabotinsky recognized the area to be Palestine — not “pre-state Israel,” which is a neologism used by pro-Israel groups.

Moreover, not once does Weissblei’s piece acknowledge that more than 1 million Palestinians had lived in so-called “pre-state Israel,” hundreds of thousands of whom were violently ethnically cleansed in the 1948 Nakba.

Haaretz is one of Israel’s most prominent newspapers. It has a liberal-leaning editorial stance, and is frequently attacked by hard-line Israeli right-wingers, who claim it is much more left-wing than it actually is.

Simon Spungin, managing editor of Haaretz’s English edition, defended the use of the phrase in an email to Mondoweiss, citing five reasons: one, because the writer had used similar language, so Haaretz adopted it; two, because the term British Mandatory Palestine would be “quite a mouthful for a headline”; three, because the article “refers to a project specifically designed to document the embryonic State of Israel”; four, because “the majority of the photographs featured in the project depict Jewish communities in various stages of construction”; and five, because, “Within a decade of these photographs being taken, the State of Israel was established and they depict the process of that establishment.”

The Haaretz editor claimed it is “disingenuous” to say the article engages in historical revisionism. He did however “agree that it would not have been amiss to use the phrase British Mandatory Palestine at least once in the article.”