Benny Morris: Ilan Pappe's New Book Is Appalling





Benny Morris, reviewing A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples by Ilan Pappe; in the New Republic (subscribers only) (March 22, 2004):

lan Pappe and I walked a stretch together in uneasy companionship, but we have now parted ways. In the late 1980s and early 1990s we belonged to a group dubbed the "New Historians" of Israel, which also included Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev. This group, contrary to the conspiratorial image projected by our critics, was never a close-knit or monolithic school of intellectuals who plotted together around the table at Friday-night meals. Some of us barely knew one another. Each, in different institutions and different cities and different countries (indeed, only Pappe was on the faculty of an Israeli university), had plied his craft alone and reached his conclusions on his own. But we had all written histories focusing on Israel and Palestine in the 1940s, and they had all appeared, mostly in English, in the late 1980s, and taken together they had shaken the Zionist historiographic establishment and permanently undermined the traditional Zionist narrative of the Israeli-Arab conflict.....

From the first Pappe allowed his politics to hold sway over his history. Initially he was rather restrained. His first book, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51, published in 1988, was bland and flat in tone. Perhaps this was due to its origins as a doctoral dissertation; perhaps there were other reasons. In any event, the book avoided blunt iconoclasm, and its innovations are extremely hesitant (unlike Avi Shlaim in his Collusion Across the Jordan, published the same year, where it was trenchantly argued that the Yishuv--the Jewish community in Palestine--and the Hashemite rulers of Jordan had colluded to limit their war in 1948 and to nip in the bud the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, as endorsed by the U.N. partition resolution of November 1947). In his second book, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, which appeared in 1992, Pappe allowed his politics more leeway, and they are apparent in his descriptions and in his interpretations; but here, too, there is an effort toward objectivity and accuracy.

In both books Pappe in effect tells his readers: "This is what happened." This is strange, because it directly conflicts with a second major element in his historiographical outlook. Pappe is a proud postmodernist. He believes that there is no such thing as historical truth, only a collection of narratives as numerous as the participants in any given event or process; and each narrative, each perspective, is as valid and legitimate, as true, as the next. ....

Since so much of the debate about the New Historians is political, I should add that Pappe and I differ not only in our methods but also in our politics. We are both men of the left; but whereas since the late 1960s I have consistently voted Labor or Meretz (a Zionist party to the left of Labor), Pappe, so far as I know, has always voted the Israel Communist Party ticket (under its different names) and has figured repeatedly in the party's list of Knesset candidates. During the past few years Pappe has veered even further leftward. Although his party still advocates a two-state solution, Pappe, like his mentor Edward Said, believes that the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a single bi-national state in all of Palestine. (I shall return to this theme.)...

As for Pappe, the outbreak of the Palestinian revolt has thrust him into academic and political prominence as one of the most outspoken Israeli advocates of a Western boycott of Israel's universities. During the past three years, many pro-Palestinian academics in the West have campaigned (not very successfully) to persuade their universities to cut off contact with their Israeli counterparts and to block research and investment funds from reaching Israel's universities; academic journals have refused to consider or to publish papers by Israelis; a handful of academics have refused to supervise Israeli postgraduate students; and scholars, such as Eugene Rogan, head of the Middle East Centre at Oxford's St. Antony's College, have refused to give lectures in a country governed by Ariel Sharon (presumably they would give lectures in countries run by the likes of Bashar al-Assad and the Ayatollah Khamenei). Pappe has been at the forefront of this effort....

This has been Pappe's political evolution. A History of Modern Palestine is a milestone in his evolution as an historian. He sets out to tell the story of Palestine, which he far less frequently also refers to as the Land of Israel, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, starting with Napoleon's invasion in 1799. It is mainly the story of two peoples--Arabs and Jews--and the interaction between them. Needless to say, a great many pages are devoted to the development of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; but Pappe is at pains, as he tells us in his foreword, not to confine himself to the usual tale of high politics and military history--to the thoughts, the words, and the actions of leaders and generals. In keeping with the politically correct norms of the profession in the contemporary West, he focuses, rather, on "the victims" of "the invasions, occupations, expulsions, discrimination and racism" to which Palestine has been subject. His "heroes," he says, are the "women, children, peasants, workers, ordinary city dwellers, peaceniks, human rights activists"--and his "'villains' ... the arrogant generals, the greedy politicians, the cynical statesmen and the misogynist men."

It goes almost without saying that Pappe's "victims" are primarily Palestine's Arabs; and all, or almost all, of the "greedy" and the "cynical" are Israelis. In fairness I should add that he does dish up some "misogynist" Palestinians, which is not surprising, given the fact that in Arab and Islamic societies women are by tradition, and often by law, third-class members, who often lack basic rights (in some countries they have no vote, in others they cannot drive cars, and so on). In this respect, Palestinian society is similar to Syrian or Jordanian or Egyptian society, but Pappe papers this over by repeatedly pointing to the continuously "improving" nature of Palestinian women's status at certain points in time--for example, during the two Palestinian intifadas or rebellions against Israel.

Unfortunately, much of what Pappe tries to sell his readers is complete fabrication. In trying to demonstrate women's growing political involvement (and, incidentally, Israeli beastliness), he tells us at one point that "one third of the overall [Palestinian] casualties [in the intifada of 1987-1991] were women," and that "rural women" took "a central role, boldly confronting the army." Among urban women, the proportion of participants in the intifada was even higher, he says. All of this is pure invention. In fact, women constituted about 5 percent of the Palestinian casualties in the first intifada. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, eleven hundred Palestinians died at the hands of Israeli army and security personnel during that uprising, and of these, fifty-six were women. Even a cursory glance at film footage of the intifada's riots shows that there were generally no female participants. Women did make an appearance, in small numbers, when pleading with soldiers not to take away arrested men for questioning or when mourning male casualties lying bloodied in the streets; but the women remained remarkably absent from the front lines of the intifada--as they remained, and still remain, absent from the front lines of the current intifada and from the coffee shops of the West Bank and Gaza and other venues where serious matters in the Arab Middle East are discussed, and sometimes decided. Indeed, the recent surge in Islamic fundamentalism in Palestinian society has restricted women even more firmly to hearth and home than was the case before the 1970s. Arafat, with his good sense for public relations, inducted two women--Hanan Ashrawi and Umm Jihad--into the political elite, and Arafat's Fatah has dispatched a handful of female suicide bombers into Israel's cities, but these are token representations of a gender that is essentially disempowered in Palestinian society....

In Pappe's account, there is no faulting the Palestinians for regularly assaulting the Zionist enterprise--in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-39, 1947-48, the late 1960s and early 1970s, 1987, and 2000--as there can be no criticizing them for rejecting the various compromises offered by the British, the Americans, the Jews, and the world community in 1937, 1947, 1977- 1978, and 2000. The Palestinians are forever victims, the Zionists are forever "brutal colonizers." To his credit, Pappe wears his heart on his sleeve. There is no dissembling here. He even tells us in his acknowledgments--as if he cannot wait to inform his readers of his loyalties-- that while his "native tongue is Hebrew," "today [he] converses more and more in Arabic," and his "love of the country [Palestine]" is matched only by his "dislike of the state [Israel]." ...

The multiplicity of mistakes on each page is a product of both Pappe's historical methodology and his political proclivities. He seems to admit as much when he writes early on that

my [pro-Palestinian] bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the 'truth' when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous. This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied not the occupiers; and sides with the workers not the bosses. He feels for women in distress, and has little admiration for men in command.... Mine is a subjective approach....

For those enamored with subjectivity and in thrall to historical relativism, a fact is not a fact and accuracy is unattainable. Why grope for the truth? Narrativity is all. So no reader should be surprised to discover that, according to Pappe, the Stern Gang and the Palmach existed "before the revolt" of 1936 (they were established in 1940-1941); that the Palmach "between 1946 and 1948" fought against the British (in 1947-1948 it did not); that Ben-Gurion in 1929 was chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive (he was chairman from 1935 to 1948); that the Arab Higher Committee was established "by 1934" (it was set up in 1936); that the Arab Legion did not withdraw from Palestine, along with the British, in May, 1948 (most of its units did); that the United Nations' partition proposal of November 29, 1947 had "an equal number of supporters and detractors" (the vote was thirty-three for, thirteen against, and ten abstentions); that the "Jewish forces [were] better equipped" than the invading Arab armies in May, 1948 (they were not, by any stretch of the imagination); that the first truce was "signed" on June 10, 1948 (it was never "signed," and it began on June 11) ....

Brazen inaccuracy similarly marks Pappe's treatment of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Pappe writes that the Arab Higher Committee had tried to "negotiate a principled settlement with the Jewish Agency" (it did not); that in "October 1936" the AHC "declared a general strike" (it was declared in May, 1936 and ended in October); that "in August [1937]" Palestinians assassinated "Major Andrew," the British acting Galilee district commissioner (his name was Lewis Andrews, he was a civilian, and he was assassinated in September); and that "quite a few" of the Palestinian dead in the 1936-1939 rebellion were women (there are no accurate figures, but there can be no doubt that only a handful of the three thousand to six thousand Palestinian dead were women, who generally took no part in the rioting and the fighting).

Pappe writes that "in the 1969 election, the moderate Eshkol could not prevail against the more inflexible Golda Meir" (Eshkol simply died in office, and his party, Mapai, selected Meir as his successor, and later, in the general elections of 1969, the incumbent prime minister Meir, heading the Mapai list, ran against, and beat, a collection of right-wing, religious, and left-wing parties); that there were one million Palestinians living outside Palestine by the end of the 1948 war (the number was no more than three hundred thousand); that "the fida'iyyun [literally, self-sacrificers or guerrillas] ... activities initially consisted of attempts to retrieve lost property" (this was probably true of infiltrating Palestinian refugees, but the fida'iyyun, set up by Egypt only in 1954-1955, from the first were engaged in intelligence and terrorist activities, not in property retrieval); that "Lebanon was destroyed in [Israeli] carpet bombing from the air and shelling from the ground" in 1982 (Lebanon was not destroyed, though several neighborhoods in a number of cities were badly damaged, and there was no "carpet bombing"). Again, the list is endless....

This truly is an appalling book. Anyone interested in the real history of Palestine/Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would do well to run vigorously in the opposite direction.

 


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list