Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Exposing How Post-Zionists Manipulate History Part I


by Avi Beker


1st part of 3


  • The Israeli New Historians have heavily influenced academic teaching about the Arab-Israeli conflict on campuses throughout the world.
  • The New Historians disregarded and omitted the two most critical features of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war: the religious-jihadi nature of the Arab campaign and Arab rejection of the UN partition resolution.
  • The narrative built by the New Historians changed the parameters of political negotiations: a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel is not meant to correct the 1967 "occupation" and create a framework for a territories-for-peace exchange but to atone for the alleged atrocities of the Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe) of 1948.
  • The sharp reversal of his positions by Benny Morris, regarded by many as the dean of the New Historians, must be viewed as a full exposure of the fictitious structure and distorted facts of what was an orchestrated, antihistorical, anti-Zionist endeavor.


"Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv and the constant references in the prevailing Arab discourse to that earlier bout of Islamic battle for the Holy Land, against the Crusaders. This is a mistake. The 1948 War, from the Arabs' perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory. Put another way, the territory was sacred: its violation by infidels was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity."

Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War [1]

What happens when historians ignore or dismiss central components of history? In the above statement, Benny Morris provides a very unusual glimpse at the major historians' omission of what was the central feature of the Arab war against Israel in 1947-1948: uncompromising jihad against the Jews. The Arabs never concealed that this was a religious war and they were on record in taking responsibility for it. The Arab Higher Committee representative Jamal Husseini told the UN Security Council on 16 April 1948: "The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight."[2]

Husseini was quoted in the New York Times explaining that the Arabs "would never allow a Jewish State to be established in one inch of Palestine," and he issued a clear warning that attempts "to impose any solution contrary to the Arabs' birthright will only lead to trouble and bloodshed and probably to a third World War."[3]

Behind such deadly threats that were delivered to the whole world was the ongoing use in the Arab world of religious incitement against the Jews in public broadcasts and in mosques. Prominent in this regard were the mufti of Jerusalem and main leader of the Arabs in Palestine, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the religious scholars of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the highest religious authority for Sunni Islam, which issued an official call for a "worldwide jihad" immediately after the UN resolution on the partition plan had passed in November 1947. Religion was central to the war effort as demonstrated by the rector of Al-Azhar University, Muhammad Mamun Shinawi, who told the Egyptian expeditionary force as it crossed the border in Rafah on 15 May 1948 on its way to fight the newborn state of Israel: "The hour of Jihad has struck.... This is the hour in which...Allah promised paradise."[4]

These two critical and central features of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence - the religious-jihadi nature of the campaign and Arab responsibility for launching the war in rejection of the partition resolution - are very often disregarded or deliberately ignored in the vast amount of literature on the war.  

What happened in 1948? This is the core of the debate. Basically the revisionist New Historians sought to challenge what they termed Israel's official historical canon. They rejected the collective memory of Zionism and the state of Israel, particularly the memory regarding the state's establishment. By claiming to have discovered new archival evidence - which in most cases was not new at all - and while ignoring the historical context of the war, this group of Israeli historians turned the saga of Israel's birth upside down so as to prove that Israel was born in a sin of conspiracies, ethnic cleansing, and massacres.

This essay, in focusing on the return of Benny Morris to the fold of mainstream Israeli historians, will review the impact of the New Historians on Middle East studies in academia, on the peace process, and on Israel's general image. Morris in his new incarnation provides the best ammunition in the intellectual struggle against the anti-Zionist historians disguised as revisionist historians, who claim to possess "new" documents that show the "true" history. Ethan Bronner in the New York Times explains the role historians play in political debates:

History does not get written or read in a vacuum. The new historians had an agenda - promoting the peace process then beginning. And many Israelis, eager to put an end to their century-old conflict, were willing to be told that their successful nation building had come at a high cost to the Palestinians. They were adjusting their collective narrative to make room for coexistence with onetime enemies.[5]

Did the New Historians write history or, rather, attempt to promote a political agenda? Was it motivated by a wish that admitting responsibility for supposed past wrongdoings would be reciprocated by the other side? Morris's case proves how shifting political perspectives can lead to revolutionary changes in historical analysis and conclusions.  


Academic Impact

The impact of the New Historians who revised and interpreted anew the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be exaggerated. Their amendment of what they termed the "official" Zionist version of history, mixed with postmodernist assumptions (such as that there is no one version of history), was not confined to intellectual debates in academia. Dismissed at the beginning as a fringe phenomenon, this revision of history became within less than a decade the mainstream reading and learning in universities around the world.[6] Benny Morris, who is considered the dean of the New Historians and coined the term, has provided since 1988 the intellectual infrastructure for this revamped history. Morris's selective use of documents and disregard of Arab hatred, anti-Semitism, and rejectionism toward the idea of a Jewish state have become a goldmine for anti-Zionist literature.[7]  

The group also denied what they called the Israeli myth of "the few against the many" regarding the 1948 War, and for some (such as Ilan Pappé) these post-Zionist views were replaced by a self-declared anti-Zionism.[8] In addition to Morris and Pappé, two or three others are considered part of the founding group of the New Historians. Simha Flapan, who was the first (1987) to engage in "demythologizing" the story of Israel's founding, was included in the list retrospectively after his death. Avi Shlaim emphasized what he viewed as the conspiratorial nature of Israel's collaboration with Britain and Jordan against the Palestinians.[9] Another writer, Tom Segev, who arrived to this group as a post-Zionist, postmodern journalist, wrote about the Yishuv's (prestate Israel) attitudes toward the Holocaust and about Israeli society during the 1967 Six Day War, and latter added his own interpretation of the British Mandate in Palestine.  In Segev's book it is hard to find the role of the Jews in British policy calculations in Palestine, and it is the Arabs who drove the British out.[10]

The books written by these revisionist historians were published by prestigious publishing houses. They immediately affected the textbooks of Middle East studies syllabuses and reoriented the direction of new research projects and policy ideas on the peace process. The leading opinion-making publications in the United States, the dailies, weeklies, and foreign policy journals, devoted extensive reviews and discussions to what were perceived as groundbreaking works. Typically, even the more objective academics who did not accept all of the New Historians' premises found it necessary to present the conflict in terms of two competing views of history, admitting that "the very concept of objectivity has in recent decades been subjected to relentless attack."[11]

The buzzword in studying the conflict was therefore "narrative," which was supposed to replace the "nonobjective" record of history. Instead of discussing the broad context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is central to the history of each of its particular wars, the popular approach started to isolate it as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new books focused on alleged myths, on distorted collective memories, explaining that both sides were sanctifying hatred and resentment by "building legitimacy through narrative."[12] Narrative - defined by the dictionary as "a story or account of events, experiences or the like, whether true or fictitious" - replaced the search for truth in historical research. Some argue that regardless of validity, a narrative is important because it is part of a collective memory, the belief-set of a group. However, as Morris would realize about two decades later, such fictitious narratives can be very dangerous when they have only one purpose: to deny responsibility for past hatred and to perpetuate it for generations to come. 

In Israel, the transformation of history into narratives was reflected in the state-run TV miniseries Tekuma (Revival). Broadcast in 1998, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the state, it adopted many of the New Historians' findings. A year later these postmodern theories were given legitimacy by the Ministry of Education itself in its revised high school textbook (A World of Changes: History for Ninth Grade), part of a new curriculum aimed at teaching history from an expressly "universal" (as opposed to "nationalist") perspective.[13] This trend even entered the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which through its history division cosponsored a book that cast serious doubt on previous images of the War of Independence.[14]


Replacing the Historical Canon

The basic arguments of the New Historians can be summarized as five challenges to the official Zionist canon of the history of 1948:[15] 

  • The official version said that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state; the New Historians claimed that it tried to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Shlaim and Pappé describe in their books a conspiracy between Britain and the Jews at the expense of the Palestinians, and Shlaim extends this to a conspiracy between Zionism and King Abdullah of Transjordan to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. In another stretch of imagination, a Palestinian professor (a former negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization) argues that the target of the Arab armies was not the Jews but rather the expulsion of the Arabs in Palestine before taking it over.[16]
  • The official version said - so claimed the revisionists - that the Palestinians fled their homes of their own free will;[17] the New Historians said that the refugees were chased out or expelled. Here Morris's contribution was central though he himself was later quoted out of context. This aspect was pivotal for the moral and political campaign to delegitimize Israel.
  • The official version said that the balance of power favored the Arabs; the New Historians said that Israel had the advantage both in manpower and in arms, and denied what they regarded as the myth of a heroic liberation war of the few against the many.
  • While denigrating and inciting against Israel, the New Historians also came to the rescue of the Arab image and revised or denied the official Israeli claim that the Arabs had a coordinated plan to destroy Israel. The New Historians said that the Arabs were divided or denied their death threats altogether.
  • All these four questions lead to the ongoing debate among historians: did the Yishuv in 1947 joyously embrace partition? Who is responsible for the lack of peace? Is it Israeli intransigence or the Arab unwillingness to accept a Jewish state? Some historians (including Flapan and Shlaim) have claimed that the Arabs wanted peace but the Zionists have been wily in maneuvering Arab leaders (such as al-Husseini, Gamal Abdel Nasser, or Yasser Arafat) into the rejectionist camp.


Impact on the Peace Process

The revisionist historians did not just end up conquering the syllabuses and the instruction in academia; they also took over the arena of Middle East diplomacy and politics. The New Historians had a major impact on the peace process and in shaping the positions taken by the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the Americans. While negotiating for the Oslo agreements in 1992-1993, the then Israeli deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin was reading Morris's book on the Palestinian refugees; later Beilin said the book was a must for Israeli negotiators.[18] Subsequently, during meetings of joint Palestinian-Israeli groups to promote the peace process, the refugee issue became the focal point in attempting to create "agreed mutual perception" of the parties' grievances and to assume responsibility for past wrongdoings.[19]

The revisionists and their guilt-filled narrative loomed over the Israeli negotiators at Camp David hosted by President Bill Clinton in July 2000 and, a few months later, at the Taba talks in the Sinai. The Palestinian negotiators at both forums referred to the work of the New Historians, especially Benny Morris, in trying "to establish Israel's share of responsibility for the plight of the 1948 refugees."[20] Israeli negotiators Beilin and Gilad Sher quoted from Morris's book, and Daniel Levy, Beilin's assistant, has described how important it was for the Israeli team to change the historical narrative so as to reach an agreement with the Palestinians on their "right of return."[21]

Another participant at Camp David was the then Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, himself a historian who admitted that the New Historians had "definitely helped in consolidating the Palestinians' conviction as to the validity of their own narrative" and that the "Israeli peacemakers also came to the negotiating table with perspectives that were shaped by recent research...powerful arguments on the 1948 war...[which] became part of the intellectual baggage of many of us, whether we admitted it or not."[22]

In sum, the narrative built by the New Historians changed the parameters of political negotiations: a peace agreement was not meant to correct the 1967 "occupation" and create a framework for a territories-for-peace exchange, but to atone for the alleged atrocities of the Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe) of 1948. It became apparent to all that the main obstacle to peace was the problem of the refugees' "right of return" to all parts of Israel.


Dr. Avi Beker teaches in the MA program on diplomacy at Tel Aviv University.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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