Post-Zionist Historians Attack Israel’s Cherished Beliefs Ethnic New swatch
During the past decade a group of “post-Zionist” historians have challenged as myths what Israelis generally regard to be historic accounts. The controversy has spilled out of university halls into popular publications, lectures, and symposia. Israel’s behavior during the 1948 War of Independence, the ideals of the Zionist pioneers and the army, and even Israel’s desire for peace have been scrutinized and found flawed by a small but nevertheless influential group of new historians.
Post-Zionism assumes that Israel’s basic task of securing viable state has on the whole been accomplished — that nation building is no longer necessary. A corollary of this view is that Israel is now strong enough to confront its myths about the state’s founding and to voice reservations regarding events of the past, particularly in relation to the Arabs.
For a small group of radical post-Zionist historians, the goal has been not only to present new historical interpretations but also, ultimately, to challenge the Jewish character and purpose of the state. They reinforce the view that Israel should be a state of its citizens, rather than a Jewish state.
Prominent among the widely accepted beliefs that post-Zionist historians question is that Palestinians who abandoned their homes in 1948 did so either voluntarily or because their leaders urged them to leave, with the promise that they would return victorious.
Historian Benny Morris, a one-time journalist and now professor of Zionist history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, opened a Pandora’ s box in the early ’80s. Working on his doctorate at the Hebrew University a short while after national archive documents from the 1948 War of Independence became available for study, he discovered that in a number of cases Jews expelled Arabs from their homes and villages during the war. His doctoral thesis was later published as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Morris was born in Ein Hahoresh, a left-wing Mapam kibbutz, in 1948, the year the State of Israel was established. “Its not a coincidence that my generation is highly critical of the behavior of the Zionist leaders who established the State of Israel,” he says. “I grew up taking the existence of the state for granted. The older generation of historians lived through the war of 1948 as adults. It was the [most] glorious moment of their lives. They couldn’t be objective about it. The Zionist historians of this period had themselves been mobilized in the cause of nation building, and they were dedicated to the political agenda, mainly of Mapai [the Labor party]. It’s a generational thing. They grew up then, and I grew up on the wars of ’67, ’73and ’82.”
The Six-Day War and Israel’s subsequent rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza raised moral dilemmas that forced many Israelis to confront their nation’s behavior toward Palestinians in 1948. ” We realized,” explains novelist Michal Guvrin, “that basic issues about the conquest of the land and our right to Israel had been swept under the table.”
Morris claims that he began his historical research with no ideological baggage. He was not out to prove anything about the Arab refugees. “I set out to write a history of the Palmach, the pre-State defense force that was later integrated into the Israel Defense Forces,” says Morris. “But after I had worked on it a little, the people in charge of the Palmach archives closed them to me. Apparently they became wary of me, preferring that an ex-Palmachnik, someone with loyalty to them, write it.
“In the meantime I came upon material pertaining to the Palestinian refugees. I saw orders expelling the Arabs of Lodand Ramleh, signed by then-Lieutenant Colonel Yitzhak Rabin,” Morris says, irate at the deception by earlier historians who termed the Arab exodus from Lod and Ramleh a voluntary one. “Throughout the war,” Morris explains, “the two towns, which sat astride the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, interdicted Jewish traffic. Consequently the leaders of the Yeshiva, Palestine’s Jewish community, regarded Lod and Ramleh as a perpetual threat to Tel Aviv itself, a springboard from which the Arabs could attack the Jewish capital.”
The Israeli action may well have been justified, Morris says, but one cannot claim, as historians of the ’50s attempted to do, that expulsion orders were never given. Nevertheless, he denies the claim by Arab historians that there was a premeditated Zionist plan to systematically expel Arabs. He contends that in certain places Arab communities were intimidated, and even expelled, but that on the whole it was war itself that caused Palestinians toffee, particularly since they felt vulnerable and lacking in military leaders. Morris lays the fault at the door of the wealthy Palestinian political and economic leadership who abandoned the country by April 1948 — a month before the State of Israel was declared and the Arab attack began — and left the Palestinians helpless.
Another popular belief challenged by post-Zionist historians is that Israel in 1948 was a weak David fighting an all-powerful Goliath. The new historians, including Morris, claim that in fact the Israeli army was more professional and better trained than the Arabs, and that it even had more men and arms in the field. According to Morris, in mid-May 1948 the Haganah (now the IDF) fielded some 35,000 armed troops, as compared to 25,000 to 30,000invading Arab troops. By the July offensive, the Haganah had 65,000soldiers, and by December, 90,000 — significantly outnumbering the Arab armies.
Undermining the David-Goliath image has provoked strong reactions from those who lived through the War of Independence and experienced the deaths of friends (6,000 of Israel’s 600,000 inhabitants were killed) and the fear of annihilation — particularly on the heels of the Holocaust. They argue that, whatever the facts about the forces in the field, the atmosphere of fear and confusion during the war and the realization of the Arab states’ potential, with their millions of people, justifies the vulnerability Israelis felt in 1948.
Another attack on one of Israel’s articles of faith is historian Edith Serta’s recent book Zahavam Shel Yehudim (The Gold of Jews), about illegal immigration between 1945 and 1948. Zertal charges that Zionist leaders exploited the illegal European immigrants by bringing them to Palestine even when they knew the refugees would be arrested by the British and sent to Cyprus. The Zionists did this, Zertal claims, in order to dramatize for the world the need for a Jewish state. Although there has been some outcry at this interpretation by other historians, Zertal seems intentionally to be seeking a controversial approach to a heroic epoch. Israelis in general have become accustomed to such accusations and don’t find them threatening anymore. Israelis also recognize that conceding Zionist failings doesn’t diminish the importance of the Zionist venture.
While Zertal and Morris seem to be searching for a disinterested understanding of Israeli history, other, more radical historians echo the views of Matzpen, the New Left movement of the ’60s.Using a Marxist conceptual framework, they see Israel as colonialist, an extension of Western imperialism.
Avi Shlaim, one of the first new historians to attract attention, proposed the thesis that Transjordan and Israel, both creations of British imperialism, were in collusion with colonial powers to steal land from the native Palestinians. Shlaim claims in Collusion Across the Jordan (Oxford University Press, 1988) that the clandestine meeting between Golda Meir and Abdullah at Naharayim on the Jordan River on Nov. 17, 1947 was the consummation of negotiations from1946 to 1948 to thwart the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state and to partition the area between Israel and Transjordan. He claims that Transjordan stuck to its nonaggressive stand to take only what was agreed upon — i.e., eastern Palestine — leaving the Yishuv alone to set up the State of Israel.
In two places Transjordan broke the November agreement. They gave in to Palestinian pressure to destroy the Etzion bloc, which they saw as a foreign enclave in an Arab area, and to conquer the Old City of Jerusalem.
Journalist-historian Shabtai Tevet counters the charge of collusion, claiming that the Palestinians could have declared themselves a state and Israel could have done nothing to stop them. In fact, he says, the Palestinians were not psychologically prepared for it, nor strong enough to maintain themselves against the various Arab powers. In any event, it wasn’t Israel’s task to fight foray Palestinian state. Moreover, the Arab Legion (aka Transjordan Ian Army) worked hand in hand with the British, who were entrenched all over the region and did not need Israel’s acceptance.
Although the Marxist scaffolding is no longer compelling to most post- Zionists, the anti-Zionist corollaries of this view continue to echo among radical post-Zionist historians and sociologists. Anita Shapiro, professor of Zionist history at Tel Aviv University, identifies their main goal as changing the nature of the State of Israel — relinquishing its ideological Zionist component to become a secular, democratic state without any predominant national character.
Annulment of the Law of Return, she says, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews coming to Israel and underscores the difference between their status in the country and that of Arabs, would manifest that change.
The most controversial of the radical post-Zionist historians is Haifa University professor Ilan Pappe. He claims that Israel” intentionally uprooted the Palestinian population and justified it on the basis of Jewish uniqueness as a consequence of the Holocaust.”
Pappe grew up in Haifa with Arab friends and feels he was exposed to a more open approach to Arabs at an early age. But it was only after he had studied history at the Hebrew University and went to Oxford for his doctorate in 1980 that he could, he said, “look at Zionist history from the outside. As I delved more and more into the documents, I was shocked to realize that not only the1948 generation of historians but also my teachers — the supposedly objective historians of the second generation, like Anita Shapira– were captives of the Zionist narrative. At the same time,”he says, “I began to be influenced by an approach to history that is more subjective and relativist.”
According to this view, historical interpretations are merely “constructs of the mind,” and historians must choose what fits their moral ideology from among many narratives.
“We’re all political,” says Pappe. “There’s no historian in the world who is objective. I’m not as interested in what happened as in how people see what’s happened. The historical narrative is a very important part of collective identity. Only in Israel do historians — even Benny Morris — still believe they can be neutral.” The question Pappe asks is “which politics to embrace — a national political approach or an internationalist one.”
“Personally,” Pappe says, “I think there are two legitimate narratives: the Palestinian one and the Israeli one. And I believe that we must learn to live with both narratives. Hopefully, a third narrative that is common to both peoples will develop. Narratives change in relation to the needs of a people at a given time.”
In the meantime, Pappe promotes the Palestinian narrative, believing it necessary after all the years during which “national-Zionist ideological hegemony suppressed every other voice. The historical narrative of the Palestinians shows Zionism to be like any other national movement, resorting to violence and power when it was deemed useful and necessary.”
Pappe also takes pains to argue that Zionism is an extension of Western imperialism. He says that during the ’20s and ’30s,Britain extended a “power umbrella” that allowed the growth of the Jewish population in Palestine until it would no longer be a minority and could replace the British government after the Mandate.
When the British saw that the Arabs were rebelling, and that not enough Jews were settling in the country to change its demographics, they attempted by their White Paper to limit Jewish immigration.
Critics of Pappe’s view point out that the British could certainly have tipped the demography of Palestine toward a Jewish majority by allowing Jewish refugees into Palestine during the Holocaust. In contrast to Pappe’s assertions, they say the British did not favor Jews — even those whose lives were threatened by the Nazis– as their colonial heirs.
Pappe insists that the Zionist narrative has been a “history of the victors,” one that claims that no alternatives to conflict with the Arabs existed. He argues that Jews would have had opportunities to make peace if they had been willing to cede their nationalist demands. “After the war of 1948,”he says, “the Arabs would have accepted peace under the right conditions. They reconsidered the UN Partition Plan and were willing to accept partition of the country, repatriation of Arab refugees, and the internationalization of Jerusalem. Ben Gurion rejected the offer.” Therefore, according to Pappe, it was not the Arabs but Ben Gurion’s intransigence that led to the continued state of war.
Other historians have challenged Pappe’s thesis, indicating that, in light of the Arab defeat in 1948, reconsideration of partition was simply a tactic by the Arabs to get back what they had lost by going to war. The repatriation of Arab refugees would have returned a large fifth column to undermine the security and Jewish character of the State of Israel.
Pappe does not deny Shapira’s charge that his agenda is more political than historical. A member of the leftist Israeli-Arab Hadash Party, he makes no bones about his desire that Israel be “a nation of its citizens” — a secular, democratic state affording Jews no unique status.
Envisioning Israel as an integral part of the Middle East, Pappe sees the country as increasingly disconnected from the Jews of the world. “The Jews of America are disappearing,” he contends. “We must turn to what’s going on here and create a new democratic country of Jews and Arabs living together.”
Nevertheless, Pappe rejects replacing Israel with a Palestinian state. He believes that both Israel and a Palestinian state should exist, but that Israel should embrace both Moslem and Jew.
At the core of post-Zionist ideology is opposition to the idea that Israel is a chosen people and should be accorded special privileges like the Law of Return. This resistance to particularism has led post- Zionists to deny Israel the national distinctiveness that every other national group takes for granted.
This posture may originate in the socialist vision of proletarian brotherhood, in which all national distinctions ultimately fade away. But it also harbors the assumption, often utilized in Palestinian propaganda, that the Jewish people disappeared as a nation long ago; after all, goes this argument, Jews have lived in many differentcountries, spoken different languages, and have been molded by different cultures. By this reasoning there is no core Jewish national character, no sense of solidarity — and no right to nationhood.
Post-Zionist historians of the Holocaust such as Tom Segevand Moshe Zimmerman have pointed to the Holocaust as a proof of this lack of solidarity, claiming that the Zionist leadership did not try to save the Jews in Europe except where it benefited the Zionist cause.
Why are Israelis flocking to hear a small number of historians question their cherished beliefs, sully their beloved institutions, and undermine their national character and purpose? After all, most Israelis are far from abandoning Zionism and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. In an Avi Chai Foundation-sponsored study on the beliefs and observances of Israeli Jews, 89 percent of respondents answered affirmatively to the question, “Do you consider yourself a Zionist?”
The intense involvement in post-Zionism can perhaps be attributed to old Jewish anxieties, internalized over 2,000 years in the Diaspora, that the Jewish people may not have a right to exist as a unique nation — to a lurking fear, that is, that perhaps the post-Zionists are right.
Reaction to the de-“Judaizing” of Israel undoubtedly accounts for part of the swing back to greater religious consciousness in the recent election, when an unexpectedly large number of votes were cast even by nonreligious Israelis for religious parties. Many Israelis also worry that negating Israel as a Jewish state has become a “politically correct” stance for their children in universities.
Nevertheless the free discussion of Zionist tenets is a healthy phenomenon in a society where, out of the need to build a nation, those interpretations of history may have been overemphasized. This was particularly true after David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, unified the nation around his Labor movement and suppressed Arab, Sephardic, religious, and feminist divergences. It was inevitable that in time this emphasis on the collective would be resented, and new interpretations of history expounded.
Perhaps the most important aspect of post-Zionist thinking is its challenge to Israelis to face the seeming contradictions inherent in Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. For at the heart of the post- Zionist debate is a tension between the values of democracy and Jewishness, of universalism and particularism –especially as those values apply to Palestinians.
Tova Ilan, director of the Yaakov Herzog Center of Kibbutz HaDati, which holds seminars on Zionism and other Jewish issues, points out that if one pursues the concept of democracy to its consistent end, it might indeed contradict the concepts of a Jewish state and the Law of Return. But she wisely observes too that in life we are always adjusting to accommodate different values; only the madman rigidly insists on executing one value without consideration of others. Post- Zionist history has prodded Israelis to reconsider events in light of new information and to pledge themselves to more democratic values — particularly guarding the civil rights of citizens, Arab as well as Jew. And, as Ilansays, that doesn’t mean sacrificing the Jewish constellation of values. Israelis continue to reaffirm Jewish people hood and the right to express it through a sovereign Jewish state.