Home inFocus Celebrating Israel at 60 (Spring 2008) The 60-Year War For Israel’s History

The 60-Year War For Israel’s History

Efraim Karsh Spring 2008

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, there have been two Arab-Israeli conflicts. The first one is military in nature. Played out on the battlefield, it has heroes, villains, martyrs, and victims. The second conflict, less bloody but no less incendiary, is the battle over the historical culpability for the 1948 war and the displacement of large numbers of Palestinian Arabs.

The Israeli narrative views the Palestinian tragedy as primarily self-inflicted, resulting from their vehement rejection of the 1947 United Nations resolution calling for two states in Palestine, and the violent attempt by regional Arab states to abort the Jewish state at birth. By contrast, Palestinians view the episode as one in which they fell victim to a Zionist strategy that dispossessed them from their patrimony.

The New Historians

In the late 1980s the Palestinian narrative was bolstered by the advent of a group of Israeli “new historians” who systematically rewrote the history of Zionism, warping the saga for Israel’s survival. Aggressors were characterized as hapless victims and victims became aggressors. Rarely found in these revisionist accounts was the outspoken Arab commitment to destroy the Jewish national cause since the early 1920s, or the dogged efforts of the Jews to achieve peaceful coexistence. Instead, Zionism is depicted as an aggressive and expansionist movement, or an offshoot of rapacious European imperialism. According to Avi Shlaim, a noted new historian, Israel was an “aggressive and overbearing military superpower,” while Palestinian Arabs could “only be seen as victims.”

Aware that many of their key arguments and revelations were already negated by the existing work of “Israeli writers, not to mention Palestinian, Arab, and Western writers,” as Shlaim noted, new historians staked their legitimacy on their supposed use of recently declassified documents from the archives of the British Mandate period and Israel’s early days. This pretense, however, was debunked inter alia by a startling admission by Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva.

In researching The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, the most influential work of the new historians, Morris had “no access to the materials in the IDFA [Israel Defense Force Archive] or Hagana Archive and precious little to first-hand military materials deposited elsewhere.” Nevertheless, he insisted, “the new materials I have seen over the past few years tend to confirm and reinforce the major lines of description and analysis, and the conclusions, in The Birth.”

This revelation was very damning. What made Morris and his colleagues worth reading was their claim to have studied newly available documentary evidence. It was this evidence, the new historians argued, that necessitated a reevaluation of Israeli history. Yet there was Morris, admitting that he had not “had access” to, or “was not aware of,” the voluminous archives of Israeli institutions whose actions in 1948 formed the basis of his indictment.

Morris and other new historians also failed to confirm and reinforce their conclusions with previously available sources. What they did confirm was what was already known: the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian society was largely the responsibility of Palestinian and other Arab leaders, not of the Zionists.

Morris’ Distortion

Upon close examination, it appears that Morris and other new historians engaged in systematic falsification of evidence. They seem to have invented an Arab-Israeli history that fits with the political agenda they promote. Tactics range from the “innocent” act of extrapolating incorrect conclusions from documents, to tendentious truncation of source materials in ways that distort their original meanings, and even rewriting original texts to convey things they did not intend. Two brief examples are worth noting.

In a letter to his son in 1937, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, wrote:

We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption – proven throughout all our activity – that there is enough room for ourselves and the Arabs in Palestine.

In The Birth, however, Morris claims Ben-Gurion penned the opposite: “We must expel Arabs and take their place.” Curiously, in his Hebrew-language writings, Morris rendered Ben-Gurion’s words accurately, perhaps knowing that readers could check the original source.

In a separate article, Morris distorted Ben-Gurion’s words from an Israeli cabinet meeting on June 16, 1948:

We did not start the war. They made the war, Jaffa went to war against us. So did Haifa. And I do not want those who fled to return. I do not want them again to make war.

The key sentence, “I do not want those who fled to return,” is simply not found in the text of the meeting transcript. Rather, it reads as follows:

We did not start the war. They made the war. Jaffa waged war on us, Haifa waged war on us, Beit Shean waged war on us. And I do not want them again to make war.

Again, in the Hebrew version of his article, Morris did not distort Ben-Gurion’s words.

At What Risk?

The discipline of history, the rigorous search for the truths of our past, typically eschews the blatant distortion of facts. Yet, in the highly politicized field of Middle Eastern studies, the new historians are lionized as pioneers. They are viewed by their colleagues and understudies as courageous for debunking Zionist “mythology” at a considerable professional risk.

The new historians have not faced the slightest risk to their careers, however. The humanities and social sciences faculties in most American, European, and even Israeli universities are dominated by like-minded academics. Indeed, the new historians have become celebrated figures and have cashed in on their prestige. They receive book deals and travel opportunities to share their “findings” around the world. As Tom Segev, a journalist and new historian joked, “we perform at weddings and bar mitzvas.” Even a minor figure like Haifa University student Teddy Katz, who published phony allegations of a 1948 Israeli massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the village of Tantura, was taken on a U.S. campus tour to promote his fabrications.

Pals of the Palestinians

Not surprisingly, the Palestinian propaganda machine has embraced the new historians with alacrity. Who could possibly provide better “proof” of the validity of the Palestinian narrative than Israeli scholars who claim access to declassified Israeli documents?

Prominent politicians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PLO mouthpiece Hanan Ashrawi, and Palestinian academics, including the late Edward Said and Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, have regularly cited the new historians in support of Palestinian territorial and political claims. The partisan Journal of Palestine Studies has made new historians their favorite contributors. Palestinian propaganda websites contain countless “facts” drawn from their writings. Palestinian negotiators in the failed Camp David (July 2000) and Taba (January 2001) peace summits reportedly invoked the work of new historians, notably Morris’ Birth, in attempts to establish Israel’s culpability for the 1948 naqba (catastrophe).

Impacting Israel

The new historians also had a profound impact on mainstream Israeli opinion during the Oslo years. Fatigued by decades of terrorism, yearning for normalcy, and desperate for reconciliation with the Arabs, many educated Israelis warmed to the factually incorrect notion that much of the fault for the conflict lay with their own country. If reconciliation with the Arabs could not be achieved through military deterrence, they reasoned, might not a new start be made by accommodating Arab demands, acknowledging Israeli culpability for Arab suffering, and agreeing to political and territorial concessions stemming from the “original sin” of the Jewish state?

This mindset helps explain, in part, the headlong embrace by so many educated Israelis of the Oslo process, and their insistence that it would solve the problem of Arab intransigence. For them, Palestinian violence and vitriol made it more necessary than ever to embrace the idea of Jewish culpability. Convinced that Arab grievances were rooted in Israeli aggression, many Israelis believed that violence could only be overcome by appeasement and concessions.

Throughout the 1990s, the new historians’ interpretation of the conflict became increasingly embedded in Israeli thinking, the mainstream Israeli media, and even Israeli educational curriculum. “Only 10 years ago, much of this was taboo,” the Israeli author of a new ninth-grade textbook boasted to the New York Times. “Now we can deal with this the way Americans deal with the Indians and black enslavement.”

Embracing ‘New History’ Under Fire

Even the Palestinian war of terror in September 2000 (also known as the al-Aqsa intifada) failed to awaken many Israelis to the dangers of the new historians. Indeed, Israel continued to negotiate for peace, even as Yasir Arafat made it clear that he had launched a war to “liberate” Jerusalem.

One Israeli negotiator, Shlomo Ben-Ami, lauded the contribution of new historians to the political process. “The negotiations,” he said, “were a struggle of narratives, and the new historians definitely helped in consolidating the Palestinians’ conviction as to the validity of their own narrative… the Israeli peacemakers came to the negotiating table with perspectives that were shaped by recent research.” So impressed was Ben-Ami with this “recent research” that he vested Avi Shlaim, the new historian from Oxford University, with the task of reading the manuscript of his 2006 book on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Song Remains the Same

Years after the demise of the Oslo peace process, the deleterious effects of new history can still be observed. The intensely anti-Israel and anti-Jewish atmosphere that emerged in the years after the launch of the intifada has not waned. The despicable equation of Zionism and Nazism has become commonplace, alongside outlandish conspiracy theories regarding Jewish and Israeli domination of world affairs. There has even been a surge in attacks on Jewish targets throughout Europe at a level not seen since the 1930s.

Here, too, the new historians have played a role. Take, for example, the working-paper-turned-book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer on the supposed hijacking of U.S. foreign policy by a ruthless Jewish cabal beholden to Israel. Walt and Mearsheimer cite the new history in an attempt to prove Israel’s alleged mistreatment of the Palestinians. Indeed, the two international relations theorists cited so much from the new historians that their book drew an angry riposte from Morris for allegedly misquoting him and taking his writings out of context.

Did Morris have a minor pricking of conscience over the untold damage he had wrought on Israel and the discipline of history? In addition to lambasting Walt and Mearsheimer, he was critical of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority’s campaign of terrorism after the failure of the Taba talks. But even as he strove to redress some of the damage he had wrought, Morris brought out a new version of The Birth, which rehashed some of his worst anti-Israel canards and re-writings of history.

Other new historians, including Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe, have seemingly had no misgivings. Pappe falsely claimed to have been persecuted by his university, providing the pretext for the 2005 boycott of Haifa University by Britain’s 48,000-strong Association of University Teachers (AUT). In countless tours and media appearances in Europe and North America, Pappe derides the Jewish state as a racist, artificial, colonialist implant in the Middle East, and as worthy of extirpation as the former apartheid regime of South Africa. He is joined by Shlaim, who, in recent years, has become a proponent of the “one state solution” – a euphemism for replacing Israel with an Arab-Muslim state and reducing Jews to a permanent minority.

Despite his overt advocacy of politicide, along with malevolent falsifications of Israeli history, Shlaim was recently invited to lecture at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. This invitation affords a stark illustration of the intellectual malaise afflicting Israeli academia, and the Israeli public more generally, to which the new historians have made a significant and corrosive contribution.

Efraim Karsh is professor and head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London and an author, most recently, of Islamic Imperialism: A History.