20 July 2007 - Israel: guilty until proven innocent
In my spare time, I am helping a Harvard Law School professor put together material for a class on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He’s quite anti-Israel, and we’ve argued with each other in the past. He surprised me by asking for my help in providing materials presenting the Israeli case. Somewhat hesitantly, I agreed, hoping to contribute some balance but knowing he had a rather different agenda.
The early versions of the syllabus include Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. It is not history; it is incitement. Pappé claims that Israel’s early leaders crafted a plan to expel the Palestinians, and carried it out during the course of the 1948 war. He provides no proof; rather, he chooses a few pieces of evidence, leaves out the rest of the facts, and fills in the wide gaps with nightmarish fiction.
Pappé’s repeated refrain—explicitly stated in the title of his book—is that the Palestinian refugee problem was planned and executed by Zionist leaders in “Plan Dalet” (or D) as a form of “ethnic cleansing.” Benny Morris, one of Pappé’s fellow “New Historians,” has rejected his methods and findings, writing in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Revisited that “Plan D was not a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs.” (164) But Pappé doesn’t care about the facts.
He claims, for instance, that “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began with a series of Jewish attacks . . . in retaliation for the buses and shopping centres that had been vandalised” by Palestinians (40). Here is Pappé’s technique at work. He admits that Palestinians were the first to attack—since the Jewish attacks were “in retaliation”—but he still claims that Jewish forces “began” the war.
In addition, Pappé refers to acts of “vandalism,” when these were in fact murderous terror attacks. Morris notess that the violence began “when two buses were attacked and seven Jewish passengers were shot dead.” (65) Elsewhere, Pappé refers to discredited claims—such as claims of collusion between Israel and Jordan during the 1948 war—as if they were widely accepted and unassailable truths.
Pappé also sanitises the war aims of Arab states, whom he describes as benignly waiting for the British Mandate to end before attacking Israel. He compares the relative strength of the two sides by considering only the Palestinian militias, not the array of several armies that Israel actually faced, which were slightly smaller but “better equipped and, theoretically, better trained,” Morris writes. (17)
In 1994, Morris said of Pappé and his approach: “Pappe . . . attacks historians such as [Avi] Shlaim and myself not so much from the left as from above. His basic assertion is that we are (merely) ‘critical’ or ‘positivist’ historians, not true “New Historians” at all. Pappe defines proper ‘New Historiography’ as necessarily judgmental, with the historian duty-bound to ‘pass judgment on the events [and protagonists] of the past . . . Shlaim and myself, he implies, have failed as ‘New Historians’ . . . What Israel and the Middle East conflict need, Pappe seems to be saying, is a new breed of New Historians, committed to and propounding certain political attitudes and programmes, unafraid of passing judgment, and utilizing various social science methods.” (1948 and After, 47-48)
Recently, in a 2004 review of Pappé’s A History of Modern Palestine, Morris wrote: “The multiplicity of mistakes on each page is a product of both Pappe's historical methodology and his political proclivities . . . Pappe's errors are not merely a matter of sloppiness born of a contempt for that leaven of dullards, ‘the facts.’ The book is also awash with errors resulting from the writer's ideological preferences.”
Morris concluded: “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.” Pappé admitted he had made mistakes but accused Morris of racism for rejecting a single-state solution: “Morris will probably feel unwelcome in such as (sic) society of equality between people and races.”
Anyhow, I told the professor recently that I objected to his use of Pappé. He said that he wanted to present Pappé alongside Morris to include all “points of view.” Such is the damage wrought by relativism in today’s academy: Pappé’s propaganda is to be given the same weight as serious history (and Morris, too has his critics).
He invited me to submit a “canonical” Zionist text. But there is no such thing,the very idea is a caricature of the complex historical debates among Israeli historians. I sent him an excerpt of Shmuel Katz’s Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine, a right-wing text that I would prefer not to use but which I thought might be a sort of counterweight to Pappé. The professor included it—as optional reading.
He also challenged me to show that Pappé’s account was wrong—as if it were up to the non-expert reader to disprove the conspiracy theory, rather than Pappé’s responsibility to prove it in the first place. Specifically, the professor wanted me to provide evidence that David Ben-Gurion did not, as Pappé claims, believe prior to the 1948 war that Israel’s armies would be far stronger than the Arab armies.
The evidence—which took me less than an hour to find—is that Israel did not even win most of its clashes with Arab armies during the war. And Ben-Gurion was, as his own diaries suggest, deeply worried about Israel’s ability to repel an attack. He did express confidence in Israeli forces—which leader would not, when taking a nation to war?—but only after spending two years building up their strength.
So the reality is somewhat complex. But Pappé hates complexity, and insists—along with lesser cranks like Norman Finkelstein—that the facts are clear, and any attempt to introduce complications is a Zionist ploy. And for willing believers, such as my professor, Israel is guilty until proven innocent. He offered to include texts refuting Pappé—but refused to take Pappé off the list. All “points of view,” you see.
I met recently with Benjamin Pogrund, who recommended a book he co-edited entitled Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. There is one exchange about the 1948 war where the conversation between Israeli and Palestinian historians completely breaks down. A Palestinian historian, when challenged to prove claims that Israel planned and carried out “the massacres,” protests: “You are too objective and you overlook our narrative.” Narrative, not fact, is what counts.
In another section of the book, Palestinian historian Adel Yahya, who conducted interviews with 1948 refugees, reveals that while they felt that Israel was to blame for their plight, they did not believe there had been a planned expulsion:
“Something else that Palestinian historians don’t like is the response to questions about a cohesive plan on the part of the Jewish Zionist groups to expel the Palestinians. They said ‘no.’ They didn’t believe it. They didn’t think for a minute that the Jews were out to expel the Palestinians. If there was or was not a plan, they didn’t know about it.” (235-6) So much for Pappé’s conspiracy theory.
But never mind. Pappé will be taught at Harvard Law School this fall, because he has a “point of view.” And unlike other points of view, his is not optional reading.
I’d really like to sit with a group of concerned scholars and students and explore the difficulties and deficiencies in Israeli law, and how to overcome them. I’d like to talk about the Knesset bill to prevent the Jewish National Fund from leasing to Arabs, for instance. But when Pappé is being shoved at me, I have to respond with Katz—which is an insult to Katz, actually. I have to fight instead of learning. It’s sad.