New history, old ideas

Edward Said
Sunday 14 May 2023

Yes, we want peace with the Palestinians, but no, there was nothing wrong with what we had to do in 1948: this seems to be the gist of much of the writing of Israel's new historians. Edward Said, back from a Paris seminar on the topic, discusses the profound contradiction, bordering on schizophrenia, which makes the new historians reluctant to draw the inevitable conclusions from their own evidence


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 21 May 1998


The French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique together with the Revue d'etudes palestiniennes, a quarterly journal published in Paris by the Institute of Palestine Studies, held a conference last week which I attended and participated in. Although it was announced as the first time that the so-called "new" Israeli historians and their Palestinian counterparts had exchanged ideas in public, it was actually the third or fourth time; yet what made the Paris meeting so novel was that this was certainly the first time that a prolonged exchange between them was possible.


On the Palestinian side there were Elie Sambar, Nur Masalha and myself; on the Israeli side Benni Morris, Ilan Pappe, Itamar Rabinowitch (who is not really a new historian, but a former Labour Party adviser, Israeli ambassador to the United States, professor of history at Tel Aviv University, and an expert on Syria, but whose views seem to be changing), and finally, Zeev Sternhell, an Israeli historian of right-wing European mass movements, professor at the Hebrew University, author of a very important recent book on the myths of Israeli society (the main ones of which -- that it is a liberal, socialist, democratic state -- he demolished completely in an extraordinarily detailed analysis of its illiberal, quasi-fascist, and profoundly anti-socialist character as evidenced by the Labour Party generally, and the Histadrut in particular).


Because it was not well-advertised, the conference attracted rather small audiences on the whole, but because of the quality of the material presented and the fact that sessions went for several hours, it was a very valuable exercise, despite the unevenness of some of the contributions. 


One very powerful impression I had was that whereas the Israeli participants -- who were by no means of the same political persuasion -- often spoke of the need for detachment, critical distance, and reflective calm as important for historical study, the Palestinian side was much more urgent, more severe and even emotional in its insistence on the need for new history. The reason is of course that Israel, and consequently most Israelis, are the dominant party in the conflict: they hold all the territory, have all the military power, and can therefore take the time, and have the luxury to sit back and let the debate unfold calmly. 

Only Ilan Pape, an avowed socialist and anti-Zionist historian at Haifa University, was open in his espousal of the Palestinian point of view, and, in my opinion, provided the most iconoclastic and brilliant of the Israeli interventions. For the others in varying degree, Zionism was seen as a necessity for Jews. I was surprised, for instance, when Sternhell during the final session admitted that a grave injustice was committed against the Palestinians, and that the essence of Zionism was that it was a movement for conquest, then went on to say that it was a "necessary" conquest.


One of the most remarkable things about the Israelis, again except for Pappe, is the profound contradiction, bordering on schizophrenia, that informs their work. Benni Morris, for example, ten years ago wrote the most important Israeli work on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem. Using Haganah and Zionist archives he established beyond any reasonable doubt that there had been a forced exodus of Palestinians as a result of a specific policy of "transfer" which had been adopted and approved by Be-Gurion. 


Morris's meticulous work showed that in district after district commanders had been ordered to drive out Palestinians, burn villages, systematically take over their homes and property. Yet strangely enough, by the end of the book Morris seems reluctant to draw the inevitable conclusions from his own evidence. Instead of saying outright that the Palestinians were, in fact, driven out he says that they were partially driven out by Zionist forces, and partially "left" as a result of war. 


It is as if he was still enough of a Zionist to believe the ideological version --that Palestinians left on their own without Israeli eviction-- rather than completely to accept his own evidence, which is that Zionist policy dictated Palestinian exodus. Similarly, in his book Sternhell admits that the Zionists never considered the Arabs as a problem because if they did they would have openly admitted that the Zionist plan to establish a Jewish state could not have been realised without also getting rid of the Palestinians. But he still insisted during the conference in Paris that although it was morally wrong to expel Palestinians, it was necessary to do so.


Despite these discordances it is impressive that when pushed hard either by Pappe or by the Palestinians, both Morris and Sternhell appeared to hesitate. I take their changing views as symptomatic of a deeper change taking place inside Israel. The point here is that a significant change in the main lines of Zionist ideology cannot really occur within the hegemony of official politics, either Labour or Likud, but must take place outside that particular context, that is, where intellectuals are more free o ponder and reflect upon the unsettling realities of present-day Israel. 


The problem with other attempts by Intellectuals on both sides to Influence Netanyahu's policies, for instance, is that as in the case of the Copenhagen group they take place too close to governments who have a much narrower, much shorter range view of things. If the years since l993 have shown anything it is that no matter how enlightened or liberal, the official Zionist view of the conflict with the Palestinians (and this is as true of Left Zionists like Meretz or centre left people like Shimon Peres) is prepared to live with the schizophrenia I referred to above. \

Yes, we want peace with the Palestinians, but no, there was nothing wrong with what we had to do in 1948. As far as real peace is concerned this basic contradiction is quite untenable, since it accepts the notion that Palestinians in their own land are secondary to Jews. Moreover, it also accepts the fundamental contradiction between Zionism and democracy (how can one have a democratic Jewish state and, as is now the case, one million non-Jews who are not equal in rights, land owning, or work to the Jews?). The great virtue of the new historians is that their work at least pushes the contradictions within Zionism to limits otherwise not apparent to most Israelis, and even many Arabs.


It is certainly true that the great political importance today of the new Israeli historians is that they have confirmed what generations of Palestinians, historians or otherwise, have been saying about what happened to us as a people at the hands of Israel. And of course they have done so as Israelis who in some measure speak for the conscience of their people and society. But here, speaking self-critically, I feel that as Arabs generally, and Palestinians in particular, we must also begin to explore or own histories, myths, and patriarchal ideas of the nation, something which, for obvious reasons we have not so far done.


During the Paris colloquium Palestinians, including myself, were speaking with a great sense of urgency about the present since, in this present, the Palestinian Nakba continues. Dispossession goes on, and the denial of our rights has taken new and more punishing forms. Nevertheless, as intellectuals and historians we have a duty to look at our history, the history of our leaderships, and of our institutions with a new critical eye. Is there something about those that can perhaps explain the difficulties as a people that we now find ourselves in? 


What about the conflict between the great families or hamulas, the fact that our leaders have traditionally not been elected democratically, and the fact, equally disastrous, that we seem to reproduce corruption and mediocrity in each new generation? These are serious, and even crucial matters, and they cannot either be left unanswered or postponed indefinitely under the guise of national defence and national unity. There is perhaps a start of critical self-awareness in Yezid Sayegh's new book on the history of Palestinian armed struggle, but we need more concretely political and critical works of that sort, works whose grasp of all the complexities and paradoxes of our history are not shied away from.


So far as I know neither the work of Morris, Pappe, or Sternhell has been translated into Arabic. This absence should be remedied forthwith. Just as important, I think, is the need for Arab intellectuals to interact directly with these historians by having them invited for discussions in Arab universities, cultural centres, and public fora. Similarly I believe it is our duty as Palestinian and yes, even Arab intellectuals to engage Israeli academic and intellectual audiences by lecturing at Israeli centres, openly, courageously, uncompromisingly. 


What have years of refusing to deal with Israel done for us? Nothing at all, except to weaken us and weaken our perception of our opponent. Politics since l948 is now at an end, buried in the failures of the Oslo process of attempted separation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. As part of the new politics I have been speaking about in these articles, a splendid opportunity presents itself in continued interaction with the new Israeli historians who, while a tiny minority nevertheless represent a phenomenon of considerable importance. 


Their work, for instance, had a great influence on the 22 part film series, Tekuma, shown on Israeli television as a history of the state produced for its 50th year celebrations. They are greatly in demand in Israeli schools as lecturers, and their work has attracted the attention of historians and others in both Europe and the United States. 


It seems anomalous, not to say retrograde, that the one place they have not been fully heard is the Arab world, but we need to rid ourselves of our racial prejudices and ostrich-like attitudes and make the effort to change the situation. The time has come.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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