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The following abridgement of 1 "The Vicissitudes of the 1948 Historiography 2 of Israel," by Ilan Pappé in 3 the Journal of Palestine Studies comprises about 40% of the original text. Pappé describes the two-fold transition from the original Zionist 4myths to the New Historians, only to culminate in the relatively quick re-emergence of the neo-Zionists. Pappé finds that the neo-Zionists openly view the catastrophe of the Palestinians as an essential element making possible the State of Israel.

-- Ronald Bleier, November 2010

Ilan Pappé
"The Vicissitudes of the 1948 Historiography of Israel"

History is more than a simple sequencing of events. It's a way of extracting a plot out of collected facts. Current political realities inevitably influence the agendas of historians--especially when the subject involves a disputed land and when the narrative is seen as playing a crucial, even existential, role in that land's ongoing struggle and self-image.

In view of the political demands, it should not be surprising that the case of Palestine and particularly the narrative of the 1948 war has undergone two major transitions in less than two decades. First from the classical Zionist narrative of a heroic Jewish struggle for survival that ended in the voluntary flight of the Palestinians, to the 'New History' narrative of the 1980s. This new narrative fundamentally challenged the earlier version, but around the year 2000, it gave way to what I will call the "neo-Zionist" narrative that re-embraced the spirit, if not the details, of the original Zionist version. This two-fold transition encompassed the movement from adherence to the national consensus, to a recognition by certain elites of its many contradictions and fabrications 5[the post-Zionist phase], to the current phase of a rejection of the post-Zionist questioning of the national consensus. (p. 6-7)

The time that elapsed between the challenge posed by the New Historians/post-Zionists and their disappearance was short, less than two decades. The reason for this brevity is doubtless because the 1948 war is not only a story closely linked to current politics but is also a foundational myth.

Foundational myths provide the narrative that justifies the existence of the state, and as long as they remain relevant to the existing social order, they retain their force. Since the social order had not essentially changed since 1948, society quickly reverted to its long held beliefs. And because the history of the 1948 war is linked to the future direction of the country, conclusions about it remain extremely relevant to the political scene.

Israeli historiography of 1948 absorbs and represents ideological disputes and political developments as much as any other cultural medium. The difference is that other media such as film, art or literature, etc., do not pretend to be objective or neutral. (p.7)


HISTORIOGRAPHY AND SOCIETY: POST-ZIONISM AND NEO-ZIONISM Post Zionists and new historians came from a variety of disciplines and shared a common liberation from the Zionist meta-narrative, and many of the chapters they rewrote echoed the Palestinian version of history. Their critique of Zionism was reflected in the works of artists, playwrights, filmmakers, journalists, writers, poets, and cultural producers in general. They operated with a high degree of visibility in the 1990s before they disappeared at the end of the decade.

The political background of post-Zionism is found in events that began with the 1982 Lebanon War and was reinforced by the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987. These events moved Israeli society into a more introspective phase regarding its relationship with the Palestinians. Politically, the new outlook translated into a willingness, however reluctant or tentative, to take part in the Middle East peace process, culminating in the Oslo Accord of 1993 and followed by the signing of the bilateral peace agreement with Jordan in 1994. However, with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the sanguine optimism began to wane. A creeping pessimism set in, along with a growing distrust of the Palestinians, a move to the right, and a scaling back of implementation and goals of the Oslo Accords. At the same time, the popular appeal of the New Historians, or their post-Zionist manifestation, began to wane gradually.

What brought the “post-Zionist decade”—and the historiographical debate on 1948—to a definitive end was the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000. Almost immediately, a reinvigorated Zionist consensus, which had somewhat eroded at the height of the Oslo days, reasserted itself with force. Public discourse in Israel was reshaped along strictly conventional lines emphasizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state. The immediate re-embrace of the Zionist consensus was greatly facilitated by Israel’s government version that put the blame for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit on Yasir Arafat and the PLO. In the eyes of Jewish society, Israel had done all it could to achieve peace only to be met with extremism and intransigence. The Palestinians had proved themselves to be enemies, thereby justifying the brutality of the Israeli response to the intifada and the closing of the public mind. (p.8)

The new neo-Zionist historiography didn’t exactly repeat itself. What emerged instead was the old narrative, updated to fit the shifting political realities on the one hand and taking into account and absorbing the new information coming out of the Israeli archives on the other. The new historiography was Zionist but it avoided the omissions, distortions and denial of facts that had characterized the traditional Zionist version. Most important was the release in 1998 of major new documentation from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Haganah archives, allowing professional historians in Israel to see with their own eyes in government documents the magnitude of the 1948 ethnic cleansing. Even “nationalist” historians, who had scorned Arab or Palestinian sources and relied exclusively on Israeli sources, could no longer deny the massive and intentional expulsions. (p. 9)

The difference from the neo-Zionist version lay in the response or interpretation of the facts. What the New Historians saw as human and civil rights abuses or even atrocities and war crimes are treated in the new research as normal and sometimes even commendable behavior by the Israeli military. First and foremost was the categorical rejection of the New Historian view that the dispossession of the Palestinians was an Israeli crime. The neo- Zionists attacked them on moral grounds for dangerously undermining the legitimacy of the state. Succinctly articulating this approach is a quote from an article in the journal Techelet : “No nation would be able to keep its vitality if its historical narrative were to be presented in public as morally defunct.”

THE CRITIQUE OF THE NEW HISTORIANS AND THE MORAL DEBATE From 2000 onwards, questioning the national narrative and in particular the 1948 war was perceived as an ideological threat that needed to be countered. This moral battle was waged especially outside of Israel, where the message of the post-Zionists had made more lasting inroads. Neo-Zionists argued that revisionists had been waging an attack on Zionism itself. Michael Walzer, the political philosopher, led the moral battle with the greatest passion presenting Zionism as a liberation movement of exceptional morality and characterizing the debate over the 1948 war as an existential battle against the forces of evil. His method is not to confront the facts; instead he uses the discourse of “complexity” to stifle the debate. The dispossession of almost a million Palestinians, the control through occupation, and the discrimination against almost another 5 million are all described as “complex” issues. Similarly Daniel Gutwein of Haifa University sees Zionism as facing formidable enemies who pursue their own selfish, if not perverse interests. Others even accuse the New Historians of outright treason.

A leading figure exemplifying and modeling the neo-Zionist vision was Benny Morris whose 1987 book, The Birth of the Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 provided the first systemic evidence based on IDF sources of major expulsions during the 1948 war. When the new documents were released in 1998 showing the expulsions to be far more premeditated, systematic, and extensive than had been shown in the more limited documentation available a decade earlier, Morris revised and expanded his book to reflect the new evidence. By the time the new edition was published in 2004, the new intifada was well underway and the revelation of what would earlier have been seen as “damning” new information about 1948 fused conveniently with the closing of the public mind towards the Palestinians. In the new atmosphere, not only were Israel’s brutal military operations against the Palestinians during the new intifada seen as justified but so was their systematic expulsion in 1948. In an interview with Ha’aretz 9 January 2004, Morris provided the ultimate justification for the ethnic cleansing in 1948: “Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”

THE NEW FACE OF PROFESSIONAL HISTORY WRITING Morris’s description of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 as an act of self-defense, a choice “between destroying or being destroyed,” and his insistence that the 1948 war was one of those “circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing” characterizes well the underlying spirit of neo-Zionist work on 1948 within the Israeli academy and in many recent collections on the war. In some of the new works, the moral defense of the war approaches messianic proportions. The introduction to one of the major collections on the war, the two-volume Israel’s War of Independence, 1948-1949 ( in Hebrew: Israeli Ministry of Defense Publications, 2004) by its editor, Alon Kadish, is a good example. (p.12)

Taken as a whole, the Kadish collection illustrates many of the hallmarks of neo-Zionist historiography. Part of the new strategy, especially with regard to the expulsions, is to emphasize them as common if not inevitable occurrences in war and treat them from an almost technical standpoint. This is effectively demonstrated in Haifa University geography professor Arnon Golan’s article bearing the wonderfully bland title “The Reshaping of the Ex-Arab Space and the Construction of an Israeli Space (1948-1950).” (p.13)

Many (if not most) of Kadish’s authors focus either on military operations or dimensions having a decisive impact on the direction of the war, or on prominent issues in the debate over 1948. By comparison, Aharon Klein’s topic—the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) in the course of the 1948 war—was little more than a sideshow. Still, his chapter is illustrative of many of the characteristics the neo-Zionist historians. Klein had access to the IDF files released on the POWs and his findings largely confirm those of Salman Abu Sitta’s study, which was based solely on oral histories and relevant reports from the International Red Cross ((RC) archives. Abu Sitta’s study covers about five thousand Palestinian POWs who were sent to forced labor camps and systematically harassed. (pp. 15-16)

Klein, who accepts Israeli policy toward the 1948 POWs as unavoidable, notes in passing that intelligence officers had permission to decide on the spot which Palestinians captured in military operations could be executed immediately— a reference that corroborates Palestinian oral recollections of summary executions in occupied villages and neighborhoods throughout Palestine.

According to Klein, anyone over the age of ten who appeared suspicious was a legitimate POW, and the troops were ordered to seize as many POWs as possible. While not directly expressing misgivings about the tender age of the child POWs he does appear to want to fend off potential criticism. Since Zionist forces separated all male children and adolescents above the age of ten from their mothers before expulsion, Klein’s version seems to imply that the capture and imprisonment of very young children was a humanitarian act to save them from being left on their own.

With regard to the entire concept of forced labor, Klein commends the Israeli army for its efficient and purposeful use of the prisoners. Most of the prisoners were Palestinian teenagers and young men in their early twenties, not soldiers, and were employed in hard labor. Klein also commends the army for introducing order into the system and implies that the situation was beyond their control. By the end of October/early November 1948, the employment of POWs was systematized, backed by procedures, orders, forms, and reports. Nowhere in Klein’s account is there any hint about the horrors described in the following first-hand account by a Palestinian survivor.

We were loaded into waiting trucks…Under guard we were driven to Um Khalid…and from there to forced labor. We had to cut and carry stones all day. Our daily food was only one potato in the morning and half a dried fish at night. They beat anyone who disobeyed orders. After 15 days they moved 150 men to another camp. I was one of them. It was a shock for me to leave my two brothers behind. As we left the others, we were lined up and ordered to strip naked. To us this was most degrading. We refused. Shots were fired at us. Our names were read: we had to respond ‘Sir’ or else. We were moved to a new camp in Ijlil village. There we were put immediately to forced labor, which consisted of moving stones from Arab demolished houses. We remained without food for two days, then they gave us a dry piece of bread.

Klein says little about the camp conditions other than that the prisoners were well fed and paid for their work. But at least Klein does not present the camp experience as something positive for those who lived through it. This is in contrast to the volume’s editor who comments “some of them must have been happy since they sometimes worked in places where they had earlier been employed by the British.” (p. 17)

The neo-Zionist historiographical paradigm has now also been introduced into Israel’s educational system. Since 2000 the education ministry’s official curriculum now uses a book that teaches pupils that the Israeli army began expelling Palestinians and destroying their villages to prevent their return about a month and a half into the war, i.e., early July 1948. There is no historical data to support this version. All the evidence currently available in the IDF archives attests to systematic expulsions having depopulated more than three-quarters of the refugees by July.

The old version didn’t acknowledge forced expulsions of Palestinians at all, while the new curriculum misreports the expulsions as beginning after the proclamation of the state on May 14, 1948, rather than months earlier. What is interesting, however, is that the expulsions are now unambiguously acknowledged in the school curriculum. Educationalist Daniel Bar Tal concludes that the Zionist view of the conflict predominates and that the works convey an image of Jewish victimhood and a negative stereotyping of the Arabs. (p. 18)

CONCLUSION The transformation in the Zionist discourse is well illustrated by juxtaposing two quotes from Israeli historian Anita shapira regarding the expulsion of the Palestinians. In a 1999 article in the New Republic she affirmed that the Palestinian exodus was due to Arab panic and “not because the Zionist movement had been planning such an evacuation all along” but because large-scale expulsions of the Palestinian community gained spontaneous acceptance in the context of wartime conditions.

Five years later, the Arab exodus, hitherto regarded as “barely contemplated,” could be presented concretely and without qualification. In her 2004 biography of Israeli general and politician Yigal Allon, Shapira wrote that he “was the most consistent supporter of transferring [expelling] the Palestinians and even committed massive expulsions in the war of independence.” She approvingly quotes Allon’s statement at a public lecture in 1950 that “an eternal justification (i.e., the eternal right of the Jewish people to a homeland without “aliens”) validated the massive expulsions of Palestinians. To this she added: “He did his best not only to occupy the land of Israel, but also to depopulate it.” (p. 19)

As another example of facts denied in the past and now embraced, in the 1990s, the New Historians had successfully demolished the characterization of the 1948 war as a Jewish David against the Arab Goliath, a myth that was crucial for developing both contempt for Arabs and for cultivating a sense of invincibility of almost metaphysical proportions. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the IDF released two documents revealing that the Israeli forces had a military advantage of two to one during the 1948 war, a fact now widely accepted but presented in a way that strengthens rather than weakens faith in this mythology. Leah Segal of the neo-Zionist school of thought puts the relevant question: “How did an army representing 650,000 people defeat armies that represented 35 million people?” Her answer is simple: It was “a war between quality and quantity.” Segal cleverly sidesteps the recently acknowledged two-to-one Israeli military advantage by finding a way to reframe it the old David and Goliath symbolism.

Any other interpretation, she adds, is from the school of historians such as Ilan Pappé and Avi Schlaim, who willingly became the spokespeople of Palestinian propaganda.

The reason why the professional Israeli historiography of 1948 is such a clear example of bias is due to 1948’s central role in the national narratives of both Palestinians and Israelis. That year is seen as a miraculous year by the Zionist movement and as a cataclysmic catastrophe by the Palestinians, having produced both the State of Israel and the Palestinian refugee problem. Both issues will remain open as long as the conflict continues.

A review of the reversals of fortunes of post-Zionism can serve three purposes. First, it can demonstrate how ideology can impact the production of professional historiography. Second, it can provide a barometer of the present intellectual and cultural orientation of Jewish society in Israel. Finally, it confirms that the struggle over memory will remain a crucial factor in shaping the conflictual reality of Israel and Palestine and will impact the chances of reconciliation in the future. (p. 19)

The current consensus justifying any and all actions taken by Israeli authorities during the 1948 war has far-reaching political implications.6 It reveals an Israel unwilling to reconcile with the past and with the Palestinians, an Israel overconfident that its policies of ethnic cleansing and dispossession can be morally justified and politically maintained as long as there are Western academics and politicians who are reluctant to apply the same set of values and judgments to the Jewish state that they have applied, quite brutally, to countries in the Arab and Muslim world. (p. 20)

The End

1All of the opinions are the author's (except for two of the footnotes signed below) as is almost all of the language. arrow

2Wikipedia defines historiography as the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history. arrow

3Ilan Pappé, "The Vicissitudes of the 1948 Historiography of Israel," Journal of Palestine Studies (JPS) No. 153, Vol XXXIX, Number 1, Autumn 2009. Professor Pappé is an historian and chair in the Department of History at the University of Exeter. arrow

4My own definition of Zionism is the ideology that a Jewish state should supplant the former Palestine. --RB arrow

5Page numbers reference the JPS 2009 text. arrow

6Editor's note: I venture to add that Israel's "overconfidence" is made possible by its understanding that it has the full economic, military and political support of the United States. --RB arrow


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