Ilan Pappe: The History of Israel Reconsidered

Historians in the News

I was born in Israel and I had a very conventional, typical Israeli education, and life, until I finished my B.A. studies at Hebrew University, which was many years ago in the mid-1970s. Like all Israeli Jews, I knew very little on the Palestinian side, and met very few Palestinians. And although I was a very keen student of history, already in high-school ? I knew I would be a historian ? I was very loyal to the narrative that I was taught in school. I had very little doubt that what my teachers taught me in school was the only truth about the past.

My life was changed, in a way ? definitely my professional life, but after that also my private and public life ? when I decided to leave Israel and do my doctoral dissertation outside the country. Because when you go out, you see things that you would find very difficult to see from within. And I chose as a subject for my doctoral thesis the year of 1948, because even without knowing much the past, I understood that this is a formative year. I knew enough to understand that this is a departure point for history, because for one side, the Israelis, 1948 is a miracle, the best year in Jewish history. After two thousand years of exile the Jews finally establish a state, and get independence. And for the Palestinians it was exactly the opposite, the worst year in their history, as they call it the Catastrophe, the Nakba, almost the Holocaust, the worst kind of year that a nation can wish to have. And that intrigued me, the fact that the same year, the same events, are seen so differently, on both sides.

Being outside the country enabled me to have more respect and understanding, I think, to the fact that maybe there is another way of looking at history than what I lived ? not only my own world, my own people's way, my own nation's way. But this was not enough, of course. This was not enough to revisit history, this attitude, this fact that one day you wake up and you say: wait a minute, there's someone else here, maybe they see history differently ? and if you are a genuine intellectual, you should strive to have respect for someone else's point-of-view, not only yours.

I was lucky that the year I decided to study the other side was the year when, according to the Israeli law of classification of documents ? every 30 years the Israeli archives declassify secret material, 30 years for political matters, and 50 years for military matters. When I started in Oxford, in England, in the early 1980s, quite a lot of new material about 1948 was opened. And I started looking at the archives in Israel, in the United Kingdom, in France, in the United States, and also the United Nations opened its archives when I started working on this. They had interesting archives in Geneva, and in New York.

And suddenly I began to see a picture of 1948 that I was not familiar with....

... Around 100 to 120 scholars were involved in this in the 1990s. The Israeli public, at first, of course, did not accept these new findings, and was very angry with these scholars, but I think it was the beginning of a good chance of starting to influence Israeli public opinion to the point of even changing some of the textbooks in the educational system.

Then came the second Intifada, and a lot of people felt that Israel is again at war, and when you are at war, you cannot criticize your own side. This is where we are now, and so many of these critical scholars lowered down their criticism, and in fact people like myself ? I can only testify from my own experience ? in one night, changed from heroes to enemies. It is not an easy experience. In the 1990s, my university was very proud that I was a part of it. So the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a lot of people to show how pluralistic is this university, they have this guy who is a New Historian, and he can show you how critical he is and that Israel is an open society, the only democracy in the Middle East.

After 2000, I became the enemy of the university. Not only did the foreign office stop sending people to see me, the university was looking for ways of sending me abroad, not bringing people to visit me, and almost succeeded in 2002. There was about to be a big trial ? the trial didn't take place, thank God ? where I was to be accused of all kinds of things that you would think that a democracy doesn't have, accusing lecturers of treason and being not loyal to their country, and so on. I was saying the same things in the 1990s as I was in 2002 ? I didn't change my views, what changed was the political atmosphere in Israel....
Read entire article at Speech at Tokyo University

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