Published in the New York Times - Book Reviews - November 14, 1999
Israel: The Revised Edition
Two historians offer re-examinations of
the Zionist-Arab conflict.
By ETHAN BRONNER
Ethan Bronner, the education editor of The Times, was the Jerusalem correspondent for The Boston Globe from 1991 to 1997 and for Reuters from 1983 to 1985.
When Israel's ninth graders began classes in September, they were carrying in their book bags tools of a changing national consciousness. Their 20th-century history textbooks had just been revised from the standard Zionist view of the state's founding in 1948 to include elements of a competing narrative. In the new books the term Palestinian is used not only to refer to a people but to a longstanding nationalist movement. In study questions, students are asked to place themselves in the shoes of Palestinian Arabs living in Jerusalem or Jaffa as the Zionists arrived and built their settlements. The students read that the 1948 War of Independence against the Arab world was not as lopsided a contest as Israelis have been brought up to believe. According to the new books, the Jews fielded more trained fighters than the Arabs and, apart from the very first weeks of battle, benefited from a military edge.
The new books, begun five years ago under the liberal administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and worked on quietly under the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu, were brought out in August under Prime Minister Ehud Barak without advance publicity. They have engendered substantial controversy. An op-ed column in The Jerusalem Post on Sept. 5 titled ''Post-Zionist Takeover?'' lamented the new historical perspectives ''seeping dangerously into our children's classrooms'' and charged that the revised books ''undermine the moral case for Zionism.'' But there has been no move to replace the books.
The French philosopher Ernest Renan once defined a nation as ''a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.'' Some of those responsible for the new textbooks clearly believe Israel fits that description. Avi Shlaim, a professor at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and a leading revisionist historian of Israel whose work has helped inspire the new schoolbooks, does as well. That the textbooks should appear almost simultaneously with the publication of Shlaim's major new work, ''The Iron Wall'' (which will be available on Dec. 6), and an even more significant history of Zionism, ''Righteous Victims,'' by Benny Morris, marks a turning point in the nation's historiography and sense of itself.
The traditional history of the Jewish state portrays Zionism as a pure, almost nave movement of young socialists who fled European anti-Semitism beginning in the 1880's to return to the land of their forefathers. Palestine, this history relates, was a neglected arid strip with a small Jewish population and a larger but still insignificant Arab one.
The Zionists bought land at exorbitant prices and extended hands of friendship and cooperation to the local Arabs. After the Nazis exterminated one-third of world Jewry during World War II, the international community understood the Jewish plight and voted at the United Nations in 1947 to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews were overjoyed by this compromise, but the Arabs, inflamed by arrogance and hatred, declared war. Over the course of the following year, the tiny, lightly armed Jewish community in Palestine fought off and ultimately vanquished not only local Palestinian gangs but the well-trained armies of numerous Arab states. During the course of that war, the Arab governments called on the locals to leave so that the armies could do their work swiftly and efficiently. That led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. At the end of the war, Israel tried to make peace with its neighbors, but they rejected the overtures and cynically exploited the Palestinian refugee problem.
Arab scholars and some outsiders have long dismissed this narrative as false and self-serving. But until the middle 1980's, few Israelis saw much to challenge there. Then, with the opening of Israeli state archives and the maturation of a young generation of historians, many of them trained abroad (Shlaim and Morris are among the most prominent examples), Israeli scholars began to question key elements of that history. They declared that the old history was myth, and that they were writing the ''new history.'' They have thus collectively become known as Israel's ''new historians,'' and when their work built up the critical mass of a genuine scholarly movement in the early years of this decade, it created quite a storm.
The old history of Israel was a heroic one, centered, in effect, on the question, How did this miracle happen? The new history has tended to focus on the tawdry and decidedly unmiraculous. State archives contain clear evidence of double deals, schemes to transfer Arabs out of the country and rebuffed gestures of peace by the Arab states. As Shlaim describes it in his new book: ''Revisionist Israeli historians . . . believe that postwar Israel was more intransigent than the Arab states and that it therefore bears a larger share of the responsibility for the political deadlock that followed the formal ending of hostilities. . . . The files of the Israel Foreign Ministry, for example, burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with Israel from September 1948 on.''
This is a fairly typical passage from Shlaim. It reveals him to be a historian with a mission and a ready set of judgments. Shlaim is the author of ''Collusion Across the Jordan,'' a 1988 book that detailed the hitherto undocumented cooperation in the 1940's between the Zionists and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan to divide Palestine and keep down the Palestinian nationalist movement. His new book is less a work of original scholarship than an attempt to create the first post-Zionist narrative of Israel from its establishment to the end of the 20th century. Fascinating but tendentious, the book is only partly successful.
It draws its ''iron wall'' title from a 1923 article of the same name by Zeev Jabotinsky, the philosophical and political founder of right-wing Zionism. Jabotinsky had little patience for early Labor Zionists who advocated peaceful means toward resolving the developing conflict with the Arabs. He said there was no chance that the Palestinians and other Arabs would accept Zionism's aim of a Jewish majority in Palestine. The only way Zionism could succeed was if the Jews built an ''iron wall'' of military force that the Arabs were powerless to penetrate. Shlaim argues that although such thinking was at first rejected by David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues, in short order it was accepted by all Zionist leaders and became the nation's guiding principle. His point is that once the realization was made, Israel was not in a hurry to build peace agreements with its neighbors. To the contrary, its leaders understood that they were stronger than the Arabs militarily and diplomatically and that it would serve the country's long-term goals not to make a quick peace. So early peace efforts by the Syrians and Jordanians, and even by the Egyptians under Gamal Abdel Nasser, were ignored or rebuffed, Shlaim shows. In some cases Israel engaged in deception. Only after that, Shlaim argues, did the Arab leaders decide that the Israelis were untrustworthy and beyond hope for peace.
There is no question that Shlaim presents compelling evidence for a revaluation of traditional Israeli history. A great deal has been learned in the past 15 years because of researchers like him. But just as early Israeli historians showed far too much tolerance for Zionist machinations, Shlaim is guilty of the inverse -taking Nasser at his word and referring to ''Arab principle'' without skepticism (''The Arab leaders refused to sign the agreement because, as a matter of principle, they were opposed to formal recognition of Israel''). His story is a bracing corrective to the somewhat mythic one told until now. But his political views are jarringly evident, and he never really entertains the possibility that Jabotinsky was right, that only an iron wall could guarantee the security of Israel in its first decades.
By contrast, in ''Righteous Victims'' Benny Morris writes with clinical dispassion. While that makes for a less lively narrative, it also makes for a more responsible and credible one. This is a first-class work of history, bringing together the latest scholarship. It is likely to stand for some time as the most sophisticated and nuanced account of the Zionist-Arab conflict from its beginnings in the 1880's. Interestingly, Morris makes little effort to portray his story as a corrective. He is almost never judgmental and takes great pains to show complexity, coincidence and skepticism. He also makes clear -with phrases like ''the documentation so far available'' -that history writing is a work in progress.
A professor of history at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, Morris is best-known for his 1988 book, ''The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,'' one of the cornerstones not only of the ''new history'' but of all serious inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian question. His new book benefits both from a careful tone and from the decision to start the narrative with the arrival of the first Zionists in 1881. Early patterns of mutual misunderstanding are shown to be repeated decades later. In Morris's powerful retelling, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 looks surprisingly like the 1987-93 Palestinian intifada. Morris not only points to the Eurocentric misconceptions of the early Jewish settlers but to historic Muslim contempt for Jews ''as objects, unassertive and subservient.'' He exposes the hypocrisy of Zionist leaders going back to Theodor Herzl, who publicly claimed that Zionism was good for the locals while confiding to his diary, ''We must expropriate gently.'' He also offers the thoughtful interpretation that Zionism was ahead of Palestinian nationalism by some 25 years, a gap that mattered enormously in the contest between the two.
Morris presents the best moment-by-moment, battle-by-battle explanation of how the Zionists won the 1948 War of Independence, known to Palestinians as the naqba, or disaster. He gives proper credence to Jewish fears through the years and does not dismiss them as public posturing the way some new historians have. Finally, in retelling events like the 1976 Entebbe hijacking, Morris is not afraid to give the Israeli rescue the heroic tinge it deserves. The ironies of history are on full display. (The leaders of the Palestinian intifada earned their credentials and established connections while in Israeli prisons. Morris thoughtfully lays out what he calls at one point ''a crude and brutalizing perceptional symmetry.'') In short, this is new history as one would like it -not as part of a political or scholarly campaign but in the genuine pursuit of complex truth.
For anyone who has taken an interest in the Israeli-Arab conflict, both the Shlaim and Morris books are most compelling in their early sections. Recent history -the 1982 Lebanon war, the 1993 Oslo peace accord -has already been amply documented in new history fashion by Israeli journalists and politicians; there are few surprises about it in these books.
That said, the story of Israel's monumental success is still beyond simple explanation. Morris makes this clear when he writes, ''Each victory can be explained in the light of specific concrete factors, but, viewed as a whole, the success of the Zionist enterprise has been nothing short of miraculous.'' Traditional Zionist historians (and Zionists) will be pleased to learn that even in the new history there remains a sense of wonder.
THE IRON WALL: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948
By Avi Shlaim
Illustrated. 704 pp. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. $32.50
RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999
By Benny Morris
751 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $40
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