From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict 
by Joan Peters.
Joseph, 601 pp., £15, February 1985, 0 7181 2528 2
Show More
Show More

The most appealing Zionist slogan has always been ‘the land without a people, waiting for the people without a land’. What, in that case, could be more natural than for Palestine to become the land of the Jews? The trouble was that the epigram was not true: Palestine already had a people. On belatedly discovering this, Max Nordau, Herzl’s friend and follower, exclaimed to his leader: ‘we are committing an injustice.’ Much later Arthur Ruppin, who directed Zionist colonisation in the 1920s, warned ‘that Herzl’s concept of a Jewish state was only possible because he ignored the presence of the Arabs.’ Undeterred, Zionists continued to implement what in other circumstances might have been the wholly creditable objective of ruling Palestine and colonising it with Jews. Yet in the circumstances which actually existed – a country already populated with Palestinian Arabs – the building of a Jewish state involved not just brave pioneering or even ordinary imperialism but the displacement of most of the indigenous population and the subordination of the rest. The basic falsity of the slogan has remained to plague political Zionism.

Or so it has generally been believed. But now Joan Peters comes along with findings which alter, she tells us, ‘the very basis of our understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict and destroy the foundation upon which the “Palestinian” claims have rested’. She is, she says, ‘clarifying a picture jumbled for so long that it has become perhaps the most pervasively misconceived image of any political situation in the world’. Apparently, ‘the magnitude of the general ignorance’ before Ms Peters wrote her book ‘allowed history to be turned upside down.’ Her publishers concur that the book ‘will forever change the terms of the debate’. More important, these large claims have been enthusiastically endorsed by Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow, Lucy Dawidowicz, Arthur Goldberg and many others, and by sundry American newspapers and periodicals, including the Washington Post, Commentary and the New Republic. On the other hand, Norman Finkelstein has described the book as one ‘of the most spectacular frauds ever published on the Arab-Israeli conflict’, and in the Nation Alexander Cockburn has called it ‘From Lies Immemorial’.

Joan Peters puts forward the following case: the Jews have been in Palestine continuously, while the Palestinian Arabs have not; before the Zionist settlers arrived, Palestine was empty and arid; the British allowed illegal Arab immigrants into Palestine, which swelled the numbers of the indigenous population; the British also unlawfully removed Transjordan from the Palestinian Mandate, thereby greatly diminishing the area of ‘the Jewish National Home’; many Arabs in Palestine crowded into the Jewish settled areas, and therefore when they left they were not genuine refugees; the Jews did not displace the Arabs, it was the other way round; anyway, the Palestinian refugees were not driven out in 1948, they left of their own accord; moreover, there was an exchange of populations since Arab Jews were driven out by the Arab countries; finally, the violence in Palestine over the years was entirely the fault of the Arabs.

Peters states that it is a ‘bald fact that the Jews are indigenous people on that land who never left, but who have continuously stayed on their “Holy Land”... They never abandoned [Palestine] physically, nor did they renounce their claim to their nation – the only continuous claim that exists.’ By contrast, according to her ‘original demographic study’, Palestine had no stable Arab population. She describes the land variously as ‘virtually emptied’, ‘laid waste’, and ‘sackcloth and ashes’. ‘For centuries the non-Jewish, particularly the Muslim, peoples who did inhabit the land had been largely composed of a revolving immigrant population of diverse ethnic origins who could not possibly have constituted a substantial indigenous “Palestinian” population.’ In support of these statements, Ms Peters tells us, for example, that Sephardic Jews were ‘numerous’, that Hebrew ‘was popularly used’, and that ‘by the late 1850s Jews formed at least half of the population of Jerusalem.’ But she does not tell us how many Sephardic Jews there were, how many people used Hebrew, or how she made her calculation about Jerusalem. For evidence of the continuity of Jewish life in Palestine, Benjamin of Tudela is quoted to show that ‘whole [Jewish] “village communities of Galilee survived” the Crusaders, but his discovery that there were only 1,440 Jews in all of Palestine is not mentioned. The Reverend James Parkes is cited many times, but his evidence that the Jewish population of Jerusalem was less than a thousand in 1827, or that it formed only a third of its inhabitants by mid-century, is left out.

For all her ‘bald facts’, Peters only manages to prove what we know already: Jews have indeed been living continuously in the Holy Land, but between AD 70 and the end of the 19th century in very small numbers. Even as late as 1872, after underestimating the size of the Arab population (while multiplying the Jewish numbers by about four), she accepts that the Jews probably formed less than 10 percent of the population of the land. There has always been a Sephardic community in Palestine, but until recently it was numerically insignificant – in 1257 Nahman Gerondi found only two Jewish families in Jerusalem – and it is hard to see how its existence can be used to assert that ‘the only continuous claim [to Palestine] that exists’ is the Jewish. The author complements her embellishment of Zionist claims with derisive references to the ‘recent Arab propaganda claim of Palestine as an “Arab” country for “millennia” ’. Had anyone ever seriously made this claim, her sarcasm would be justified, given that Palestine did not become Arab until the seventh-century conquest. What the Arabs do claim, however, is that the land has been inhabited for ‘millennia’ by the ancestors of the Palestinian refugees. ‘If it is proper to “reconstitute” a Jewish state which has not existed for two thousand years,’ H.G. Wells once remarked, ‘why not go back another thousand years and reconstitute the Canaanite state? The Canaanites, unlike the Jews, are still there.’ The modern Palestinians are a people of various ethnic origins, descended from the conquerors of Palestine since early Biblical times. Their ancestors are the Canaanites and Philistines who, unlike the Jews, were never deported. They remained in Palestine (which took its name from the Philistines) and their descendants formed, and still form, the core of the indigenous population. In the seventh century, the Muhammadan Arabs brought with them their government, their language and their religion, and a majority of the inhabitants accepted all three. Palestine and its people became Arabised. Yet they remained the same people. There was little racial change in the population because the Arab conquerors were so few in number.

Peters’s often-repeated protestations that the Jews did not displace the Arabs, that ‘it was the Jews who were displaced by Arabs,’ is based on three claims: first, that Palestine was depopulated until the beginning of Jewish settlements in the late 19th century; secondly, that the growth of the Arab population was partly caused by illegal immigration; and thirdly, that the rest of the growth could not possibly have been the result of natural increase alone but was partly the consequence of Arab migration within Palestine. This case is the core of From Time Immemorial.

Peters claims on one page that Palestine was ‘uninhabited’, on others that it was ‘inhabited only sparsely ... by peoples who roamed the country’, that the land was empty and a ruin. This was not the impression of Sir Moses Montefiore, who went there in the 1830s and wrote enthusiastically of the olive groves, the vineyards, the pasture land and the fine fields of wheat and barley. Peters gets the date of this visit wrong, and does not quote what he said. As Mr Cockburn has pointed out, Peters cites the historian Makrizi to back one of her statements about mid-19th-century population movement, but, since Makrizi died in 1442, he is less than authoritative on what happened in 1860, though his findings on the migration of Tartar hordes in the Middle Ages are no doubt beyond reproach. More to the point – and in the right century – is the visit to Palestine in 1891 of the great ‘spiritual Zionist’, Ahad Ha’am. ‘Palestine,’ he wrote on his return, ‘is not an uninhabited country,’ and has room ‘for only a very small proportion of Jews’, since there was little untilled soil except for stony hills or sand dunes. The Arabs, he added, were not ‘wild men of the desert’, and he warned that ‘if in the course of time the Jewish holding in the country develops to such an extent as to encroach in some degree on the native population, the latter will not easily give up its position.’ Yet, according to Peters, ‘the majority of genuine “Arabs” ... were Arabian tribal nomads.’

For later years a cursory glance at Zionist and British official sources is enough to refute Peters’s claim that the Arabs were not displaced. ‘The facts of the land situation are that all the cultivable land in Palestine is now occupied; and no more land can be sold to the Jews without dispossessing Arab cultivators,’ the High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, wrote to George V in 1930. ‘Only in a very few places in our colonisation,’ Ben Gurion said at a Zionist Congress in 1937, ‘were we not forced to transfer the earlier residents.’ Clearly, Israel’s first Prime Minister did not think that the Palestinians were not there, or that they were nomads. At the same congress, Idelson, referring to a proposed Arab ‘evaluation’, asked why ‘the Arabs should want to abandon good lands’. ‘For the fellah,’ he added, ‘his land is not such a casual factor. He has struck deep roots in it; what force will compel him to leave it?’ Unfortunately Peters’s censorship of Zionist sources that do not suit her case is as effective as her censorship of Arab sources. In this, at least, she is impartial.

Ms Peters believes that there was a great deal of illegal Arab immigration into Palestine during the British Mandate which the British ignored, thereby causing great injustice to the Jews. In support of her case she rightly uses government reports. These are, for most people, inaccessible and difficult to check. Let us take the Hope Simpson Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development as an example and as a test of Ms Peters’s handling of such evidence. The author regards it as a highly important document and refers to it frequently; it is indeed central to her case. ‘The Hope Simpson Report of 1930,’ Peters writes, ‘announced its seminal conclusion that Arabs were being “displaced” by Jews, even though in its own pages the report revealed that there was an uncontrolled influx of illegal Arab immigrants from Egypt, Transjordan and Syria’ (Peters’s italics here and elsewhere). She adds an apparent quotation from the report which uses some of Hope Simpson’s words but alters their meaning by leaving out others. She changes the punctuation for the same purpose. Thus, for example, Hope Simpson’s remark that ‘Egyptian labour is being employed in certain individual cases’ is changed to read: ‘Egyptian labour is being employed.’

She also quotes Hope Simpson on ‘the case of “the pseudo-Traveller” who comes in with permission for a limited time and continues in Palestine after the term of his permission has expired’. And she adds that the report says this is ‘present practice’ and an ‘injustice’ to the Jews. With mounting excitement Ms Peters says on the next page that ‘large-scale Arab immigration was a recognised “practice”,’ that there was ‘an enormous unrecorded Arab influx’ and that ‘the land being cleared by Palestinian Jews for Jewish victims of persecution in Europe ... was being appropriated by Arabs.’ A little later, she writes that ‘the pivotal Hope Simpson Report literally admitted not only that it was the “present practice” of British officials to blink at all but the more “flagrant” of the thousands of Arabs immigrating into Western Palestine, but also acknowledged that the illegal Arab immigration was an injustice that was displacing the prospective Jewish immigrants.’

What did Hope Simpson actually say? He said ‘that in the case of illicit entry into Palestine the entrant should invariably be returned to the country whence he came’; and under the heading ‘Travellers remaining in Palestine’, he said that in the last three years nearly eight thousand people who had entered Palestine with permission to remain for a limited time had stayed on. He thought that each case in that category should be considered on its merits. Flagrant cases should certainly be expelled. But in others it was ‘probably sufficient to maintain the present practice’, which was to allow the ‘traveller’ to stay. So Hope Simpson said nothing whatever to suggest that there was, in Peters’s words, ‘large-scale Arab immigration’, let alone that that was ‘the present practice’. Moreover the claim that land cleared by the Jews was being appropriated by the Arabs is pure if malign fantasy. Zionist rules laid down that Arabs were not allowed to settle or even work on land owned by the Jewish National Fund: in 1931 Arnold Toynbee noted that ‘all the Palestinian land which is purchased by Jewish funds is becoming ... an exclusive preserve for the Jews.’ However, all this is trivial misrepresentation in comparison with the author’s basic error.

The immigrant ‘pseudo-travellers’, who were allowed to stay on by the British and who are cited by Ms Peters as a key example of Britain’s pro-Arab bias in allowing illegal immigration, were in reality Jews – not Arabs. This is unmistakably clear from a reading of the report. Hope Simpson says: ‘it is probably sufficient to maintain the present practice under which the pseudo-traveller is counted against the Labour Schedule, though this method does a certain injustice to the Jewish immigrant outside the country whose place is taken by the traveller concerned.’ Clearly Hope Simpson would not have talked casually about ‘a certain injustice’ if the place was being taken by an Arab traveller, and there would have been a justifiable outcry from the Zionists if he had. Had he been referring to Arab travellers, he would obviously have used very different words. His language was only appropriate for distinguishing between one class of Jewish immigrant and another. Peters’s assertion that the report was here speaking ‘unmistakably of “other than Jewish labour” ’ is quite simply untrue. That heading is on a different passage. Besides, the Arabs whom Ms Peters portrays as illegal immigrants were landless labourers. Is it being seriously suggested that such poverty-stricken people would present themselves at the frontier and tell the immigration officers that they wished to travel to Palestine for a few months to see the Holy Places and sample the Jerusalem hotels? Of course not: the idea only has to be formulated for it to be rejected. Any illegal Arab immigrants that there were did not come in as ‘pseudo-travellers’. They evaded the frontier controls.

So ‘the thousands of illegal immigrants’ and the British activity in their favour, on which Ms Peters lavishes much frenzied censure, were Jews, not Arabs. It is difficult to convey adequately the importance that Peters attaches to this point. She comes back to it some twenty times and denounces the ‘injustice’ to Jews at least seven times. Yet the alleged ‘injustice’ to the Jews was in fact a concession. Instead of bolstering Peters’s case, the Hope Simpson report destroys it. Ms Peters’s treatment of the report shows that her handling of such evidence cannot be trusted even when she seems to be quoting it.

The Report of the Palestine Royal Commission of 1937 comes in for similar treatment. (Part of the author’s technique is at times to give a misleading ‘quotation’ in the text and then bury the correct quotation in one of the 1,792 footnotes at the end of the book.) Here is the Peters version: ‘The “Arab immigrants”, particularly “Hauranis” from Syria, the report stated, “probably remain permanently in Palestine”.’ But although the number of Hauranis who illegally immigrated was ‘authoritatively estimated at ten to eleven thousand during a “bad” year in the Hauran, only the unrealistically, perhaps disingenuously low government estimate of 2,500 were concluded to be “in the country at the present time”.’ It is instructive to compare this with what the Royal Commission actually said. ‘In a good year the amount of illegal immigration into Palestine is negligible and confined to the younger members of large families whose presence is not required in the fields. According to an authoritative estimate as many as ten or eleven thousand Hauranis may go to Palestine temporarily in search of work in a really bad year ... the number of Hauranis illegally in the country at the present time is roughly 2,500.’ So while the Royal Commission said clearly that the amount of permanent Haurani illegal immigration was ‘negligible’ but that ten thousand might come in temporarily, the Peters version leaves out the word ‘negligible’ and implies that the ten thousand were permanent immigrants. Yet it is Ms Peters who uses the word ‘disingenuous’. All the evidence indicates, as the 1946 report (which gets the usual Peters treatment) concluded, that Arab illegal immigration was ‘insignificant’. And Ms Peters’s attempts to show the contrary discredit only her own methods, not the British administration.

Ms Peters’s case on population growth is the most novel part of her book. Unfortunately her argument is muddled and badly set out, though the confusion and inadequacy are probably helpful to her. Clarity would almost certainly have left the argument nakedly implausible. Peters believes that the only population figures that matter are the figures for what she calls ‘the Jewish settled areas’ of Palestine, and not the figures for Palestine as a whole. The figures for the whole of Palestine – in 1918 there were 56,000 Jews out of a total of 700,000, and in 1946 there were 608,000 out of 1,900,000 – are indeed favourable to the Arabs. But that is hardly sufficient reason for discounting them. They are highly relevant to the question of whether the plan for a Jewish National Home was fair to the existing population in 1917 and whether the UN Partition Plan was an injustice to the Arabs thirty years later. Peters claims that in ‘the Jewish settled areas’ in 1893 ‘Jews were perhaps actually a marginal majority of the population.’ Even on her figures, she is able to make this suggestion only by discounting the Christian Arabs – a category which seems to cause her difficulty – and by confusing a majority with a plurality.

How does she arrive at her figures? Her basic authority is Professor Kemal Karpat. She relies heavily on his analysis of the Ottoman census of 1893 to calculate the Muslim population and she quotes his opinion of ‘the validity of the census’. In his research on the matter, Karpat regards the Ottoman censuses as useful ‘because their margin of error was far less than the figures given by observers, travellers, and biased informants.’ We would therefore expect Peters to rely on Karpat’s analysis of the census for the non-Muslim population of Palestine as well. Instead, when she gives a figure for the Jewish inhabitants, she ignores the census finding (under ten thousand) and quotes a notoriously unreliable ‘observer’, Vital Cuinet, to give a much higher figure. Hidden away in a footnote in an appendix, she explains that as ‘the Ottoman Census apparently registered only known Ottoman subjects,’ many Jews were not included in it. According to Professor Karpat, this is simply untrue. He has confirmed to us that the census may have underestimated the Jewish population by about 10 per cent, but added that all other groups were similarly ‘under-counted’. The only people excluded from the census, he explained in his analysis, were those ‘in a few inaccessible areas ... particularly the nomadic tribes’. As it is not part of Peters’s thesis that the Jews were ‘nomadic’ or that Jerusalem and the Palestinian coast are ‘inaccessible’, it can be assumed that all but about 10 per cent of the Jewish population was included in the census. If we add 10 per cent to the census estimate of 9,817, we reach a figure of 10,799 for the Jewish population of Palestine. Yet Peters prefers the figure of 59,431 estimated by Cuinet (whose work she calls ‘detailed and scientific’), although modern demographic research has revealed the arbitrary nature of Cuinet’s work. According to Justin McCarthy, whose findings have been published in Israel by the University of Haifa, Cuinet considered the Turkish population estimates to be so low that he simply took ‘the Ottoman figures for male population and multiplied by four’. Peters thus uses the Ottoman census when it suits her and disregards it when it does not. Instead of using the reliable but slightly underestimated Turkish figure for the Jewish population, she chooses Cuinet’s estimate and multiplies the Jewish population by six. Therefore what Peters claims to have been a Jewish majority was in reality a very small minority: about 10 per cent of the population in ‘the Jewish settled areas’.

Peters’s object is to show that the great rise in the Arab population in ‘the Jewish settled areas’ between 1893 and 1947 was not merely the result of natural increase but, in part, the result of Arabs flooding into them – she calls the movement ‘in-migration’ as opposed to ‘immigration’ – from other parts of Palestine in order to share in the Zionist-created prosperity. Yet, even if her figures could be trusted, they would not demonstrate that Arabs had ‘displaced’ Jews. At most, they would show that there are rather fewer of what she regards as ‘genuine’ refugees than is generally supposed; and that is part of her purpose.

In any case, however, her figures cannot be accepted. For one thing, McCarthy has shown that the Ottoman census figures underestimate the Muslim population by about fifty thousand. And since Peters’s whole case is built on them, that case collapses. For another, comparisons cannot easily be made between 1893 and 1947 because the Ottoman and British sub-districts, so far from ‘closely corresponding’, as she contends, were not strictly comparable. Hence her projections – based on the 1893 figures – of what the Arab population ‘should have been’ in the various areas in 1947 have little value. Thirdly, even if comparisons could be made, her figures would not prove her case because alleged disparities could be accounted for by movements within the different areas of pre-1967 Israel. Lastly, she gets the total figures for the refugees in 1948 wrong anyway.

Of the 1948 refugees – destitute people living in overcrowded tents in United Nations camps – Ms Peters manages to write that they ‘were actually continuing their traditional pattern of shifting to where they thought “their brethren were better treated” ’. Yet many of these same people were, as Hope Simpson had said, ‘competent and capable’ peasant farmers. In 1947 Arab cultivators owned more than 55 per cent of the area planted with citrus (which was the chief Zionist crop), and in 1945 the value of Arab agricultural produce in Palestine, excluding citrus, was almost four times that of the Jewish produce – not a bad achievement for nomads! And as Dayan later said, ‘Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages ... There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.’ Zionist propaganda about Arab refugees, said the Jewish writer William Zuckerman in 1958, ‘has literally succeeded in changing black into white, lies into truth and serious social injustice into an act of justice, praised by thousands.’ Evidently, the process continues.

Apart from Arabs and Muslims, the chief villains of the book are the British. They are persistently accused of ‘perfidy’ and ‘obsequiousness’, of bowing ‘cravenly to Arab pressure’ and trying to appease the Arabs as they had tried to appease Hitler. British conduct in Palestine was ‘unfathomably disingenuous and callous’ while British policy was marked by ‘duplicity and cynicism, bias and double standards, to a degree not thought to have been practised by any but the Fascist governments in World War Two’. After all this, it is no surprise to read of the ‘British role’ in the Final Solution to the Jewish problem, to learn that British actions ‘may indeed have constituted active participation in the racial genocide of the Jews in Eastern Europe’, or to discover that Britain was responsible for ‘perhaps the most cynical and craven chapter in the tragic record of the Holocaust’. By this type of exaggeration the author spoils her argument. The British and Americans were mostly insensitive and blind to the desperate plight of European Jews during the Second World War, and had she stuck to the facts she could have made a worthwhile point.

Ms Peters rages against the British for having ‘wrenched’, ‘amputated’ and ‘gouged out roughly three-fourths of the Palestine territory mandated for the Jewish homeland into an Arab emirate’. She is obsessed by Britain’s establishment of Transjordan because, she claims, this land was in reality ‘Eastern Palestine’ and ‘dedicated to the Jews as their homeland’: ‘The whole of Western Palestine as well as Eastern Palestine was considered the “Jewish National Home”.’ The author’s problem here is her inability to understand the Balfour Declaration and her apparent ignorance of the terms of the League of Nations Mandate. The Balfour Declaration did not mention ‘the Jewish homeland’ and it said nothing about ‘dedicating’ to the Jews ‘the whole of Western Palestine’ (or of course Eastern Palestine). It contained two promises: in one, Britain pledged ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’; in the other, the Government agreed ‘to facilitate’ the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. As Winston Churchill’s White Paper of 1922 put it, ‘the terms of the Declaration ... do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine.’ As Churchill also pointed out, there is ‘a great difference in meaning’, although it has evidently escaped Ms Peters. An early draft of the Declaration submitted by the Zionists did indeed speak of ‘the reconstitution of Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish people’, but the Government changed it to the words used by Balfour. The author prefers the words that were not used to those that were.

Ms Peters’s claim that Transjordan was set up ‘in violation of the Mandate’ is likewise based on an ignorance of the words actually used. Transjordan had never been ‘Eastern Palestine’ and the fact that Britain administered the territories on both sides of the River Jordan together for three years does not make them the same land. There was no ‘violation’ because the Mandate specifically granted Britain discretionary power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate and to place it under separate administration.

The specious claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine is put forward not only by Peters but by many Israelis today to justify their occupation of the whole of ‘Western’ (i.e. real) Palestine. They try to deflect attention from their refusal to give up the Occupied Territories or to repatriate the refugees by pretending that the Palestinians already have a homeland in Jordan. According to Ms Peters, Jordan ‘is literally an independent Palestinian-Arab state located on the majority of the land of Palestine; it contains a majority of Palestinian Arabs in its army as well as its population.’ Jordan has indeed a Palestinian majority, but why? Because in 1948 and 1967 the Israelis drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of Palestine into the neighbouring countries. Ms Peters asserts, however, that the Palestinians left voluntarily or on the orders of their leaders. We are told that the Palestinians were ‘invited by their fellow Arabs ... to “leave” while the “invading” Arab armies would purge the land of Jews’. We are informed of alleged radio broadcasts urging the Arabs to flee and of the Palestinian flight, ‘aided and instigated by Arab leaders’. Here we are back in the realm of long-refuted Zionist propaganda, which is perhaps not surprising since Peters seems unaware of any research on the 1948 war other than that done by the catalogue of Zionist ‘historians’ whom she acknowledges in the book. Thus she gives us a blood-curdling threat allegedly made by the Secretary-General of the Arab League, although the quotation (from the New York Times in 1948) was proved many years ago to have been a mistranslation from the original Arabic.

Even when the author uses a more modern piece of evidence, it is distorted out of all recognition. ‘According to a research report by the Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut,’ she writes, ‘ “the majority” of the Arab refugees in 1948 were not expelled, and “68 per cent” left without seeing an Israeli soldier.’ It is worth looking at this piece of evidence in some detail. To begin with, the report she refers to is a study of the 1967 exodus, not of the flight of the 1948 refugees. It thus has no validity at all as evidence for the point she is making. But leaving that aside, the interesting thing here is the way she uses the word ‘majority’ and the figure ‘68 per cent’. On page 44 of the report there is a table listing the findings of a survey of 96 refugees. These are subdivided into 37 ‘old refugees’ (i.e. those who had been refugees since 1948 and were made homeless again in 1967) and 59 ‘new refugees’ (i.e. those who were being expelled for the first time). In the smaller group of ‘old refugees’, 68 per cent did indeed leave without seeing an Israeli soldier. But of the larger group of ‘new refugees’, a clear majority, 58 per cent, left after coming into contact with Israeli forces. Peters thus uses one column which suits her argument and ignores the other which contradicts it. In any case, what can one say of a historian who takes a group of 37 refugees in 1967 and translates them into ‘the majority of the Arab refugees in 1948’?

It is disappointing that after ‘seven years’ of research, the author has not discovered facts about the Middle East conflict which have been widely known for a long time. In 1958 Dr Erskine Childers went to Israel as a guest of the Government and tried to find evidence of the broadcasts the Arab leaders were alleged to have made a decade earlier. As the Israelis were unable to produce it, he decided to examine the American and British monitoring records of all Middle East broadcasts throughout 1948: ‘There was not a single order, or appeal, or suggestion about evacuation from Palestine from any Arab radio station, inside or outside Palestine, in 1948,’ he reported. ‘There is repeated monitored record of Arab appeals, even flat orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put.’ Not only is there negligible evidence to substantiate the allegation that the Arabs left as a result of orders broadcast by their leaders: there is overwhelming evidence that the major responsibility for the refugee problem lies with the Zionists. As Count Bernadotte, the mediator sent out to Palestine by the United Nations, said shortly before his assassination: ‘The exodus of Palestinian Arabs resulted from panic created by fighting in their communities, by rumours concerning real or alleged acts of terrorism, or expulsion.’

Expulsion was the commonest method employed against the populations of Haifa, Lydda, Ramle and many villages in Galilee. In Haifa, according to the semi-official Zionist paper, the Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post), ‘Haganah forces in a thirty-hour battle ... crushed all resistance, occupied many major buildings forcing thousands of Arabs to flee by the only escape route – the sea.’ Two Zionist writers, Jon and David Kimche, described what happened to the local Palestinians when Dayan and his troops ‘drove at full speed into Lydda, shooting up the town and creating confusion and a degree of terror among the population ... Its Arab population of 30,000 either fled or were herded onto the road to Ramallah. The next day Ramle also surrendered and its Arab population suffered the same fate. Both towns were sacked by the victorious Israelis.’

Peters’s account of the 1948 war uses no sources, not even Israeli ones, which contradict her version. She ignores, for example, the evidence of the Israeli soldier at Deir Yassin who witnessed how the Irgun gunmen ‘shot everyone they saw in the houses, including women and children – indeed the commanders made no attempt to check the disgraceful acts of slaughter’ (Yediot Aharonot, 4 April 1972). Further massacres took place in Galilee and near Hebron. Another Israeli soldier witnessed a horrific episode at the Sunni village of Duwayma, between Hebron and the coast (Davar, 6 September 1979):

They killed some eighty to one hundred Arabs, women and children. The children were killed by smashing their skulls with clubs ... Cultured and well-mannered commanders who are considered good fellows ... have turned into low murderers, and this happened not in the storm of the battle and blind passion, but because of a system of expulsion and annihilation. The less Arabs remain, the better.

Evidence of the ill-treatment and expulsion of Arab civilians does not come only from ordinary soldiers. Senior Israeli ministers, such as Rabin and Allon, have admitted their roles in the saga. Allon, later Foreign Minister, was commander of the Haganah in Galilee, and after the war he described how he managed ‘to cause the tens of thousands of sulky Arabs who remained in Galilee to flee’. In 1979 Rabin, a former Prime Minister and now Minister of Defence, recounted in his memoirs how Ben Gurion ordered the expulsion of the inhabitants of Lydda and Ramle:

We walked outside, Ben Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question: ‘What is to be done with the population?’ B.G. waved his hand in a gesture which said: ‘Drive them out’ ... The population of Lod [the Hebrew word for Lydda] did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the ten to fifteen miles to the point where they met up with the Legion.

The Israeli Government was so horrified by this revelation that a Cabinet censorship committee quickly had the passage removed. Had it not been for the translator of the book, who leaked the story to the New York Times, the admission might never have been made public. Peters does in fact cite the relevant issue of the New York Times but omits this passage.

In contrast to her allegation about the Arab refugees, Ms Peters states flatly that ‘the massive exodus of Jewish refugees from the Arab countries was triggered largely by the Arabs’ own Nazi-like bursts of brutality, which had become the lot of the Jewish communities.’ She is concerned to show that this Jewish exodus was the result, first, of more than a thousand years of ‘intolerable pressure’ and ‘a tradition of persecution’, and, secondly, of ‘a national liberation movement among Arab-born Jews whose gestation period had lasted roughly two thousand years’. The many pages that are devoted to the subject do not prove the author’s case, but she makes matters easier for herself by rigorously ignoring the Jewish authorities who disagree. Cecil Roth, for instance, wrote that ‘the essential tolerance of Islam, in practice more than in theory, was to remain one of the important factors in Jewish history for many centuries to come.’ Ms Peters says nothing of the Arab civilisation in Spain or of the prominent part Jews played in it. When the Jews were expelled from Spain by the Christians, most of them decided to go to Muslim countries (but not to Palestine) rather than Europe. On Ms Peters’s version of history this was a remarkable decision, but she does not attempt to explain it.

The author denounces Arab governments’ treatment of their Jewish communities after 1948, without making any allowance for the influence of the Arab-Israeli wars or of Israeli behaviour. Before rushing to judgment she should have recalled the US treatment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. As an example of Arab ill-treatment of Jews, Peters mentions Nasser’s hanging of two Egyptian Jews as Zionist spies and suggests that the trial was a frame-up. Apparently she has managed not to hear of the ‘Lavon affair’, in which the Israeli Government organised sabotage in Egypt in order to damage US-Egyptian relations. Since the evidence of the Lavon affair comes from Israeli sources, including the diary of the then Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Sharett, this mistake cannot be explained in terms of her reliance on Zionist authors.

Peters’s allegations that the Arab Jews left their countries ‘of necessity and in flight from danger’, and that there was ‘an obvious, literal exchange of Jewish and Arab refugee populations’ in 1948, omit any mention of the massive and prolonged Zionist campaign to persuade the Arab Jews to emigrate to Israel – the bombs which terrorised the Jewish community in Baghdad in 1950, and turned out to have been thrown by Zionists intent on increasing emigration to Israel, are the best-known example. There is ample evidence from Israeli sources of this campaign. The author also ignores Marion Wolfson’s Prophets in Babylon. As Miss Wolfson shows, the overwhelming majority of Jews were not expelled from Arab countries. They were the victims not of persecution but of Israeli nationalism. Many of the Arab states, Peters says, have been rendered ‘virtually judenrein (free of Jews – Hitler’s term)’. This is an unfortunate choice of words. Moshe Menuhin, in his book The Decadence of Judaism in our Time, records that when he was being educated at the Herzlia Gymnasia in Tel Aviv before the First World War, the students were indoctrinated with the need to make Palestine ‘goyim rein (clear of gentiles-Arabs)’. Both the goyim rein and the judenrein were results of the same process. There was no ‘exchange’ of populations, ‘literal’ or otherwise. Both movements were caused by the Zionists and both served Zionist ends. Israeli propaganda has achieved the same reversal of the truth in the matter of the Arab Jews as it has over the expulsion of the Palestinians.

‘Terrorist acts,’ Peters reports, ‘had been the tradition among the amalgam of peoples in Palestine for generations.’ It is not in dispute that the Arabs committed terrible acts of violence in Palestine. It should also not be in dispute that the Zionists did the same, and that the Palestinian Arabs were subjected to enormous provocations and behaved in a way that other indigenous populations in the world would have done in the same circumstances. Since nobody relishes the prospect of being reduced to a minority in his own country, the Arabs naturally reacted to Jewish immigration. Peters’s objective, however, is to show that there was no Zionist provocation and that the Palestinians acted wholly unreasonably in accordance with anti-Jewish prejudice whipped up by rich agitators. In 1920-1, for example, the Zionists purchased seven Arab villages in Galilee from which the residual Arabs were evicted. At the same time the quota of 16,500 Jewish immigrants for the coming year was announced. As Churchill said in 1921, ‘the cause of unrest in Palestine, and the only cause, arises from the Zionist movement and from our promises and pledges in regard to it.’ Yet Peters thinks anti-Jewish incitement is needed to explain the Arab reaction in that period.

For the attitudes of Zionist settlers to the local Arabs, we have the testimony again of Ahad Ha’am who, astonishingly, is not mentioned in the book. He wrote after his visit in 1891 that, although the settlers should ‘seek to win the friendship of the Palestinians by approaching them courteously and with respect’, they did ‘precisely the opposite ... They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty ... and then pride themselves on such actions, and no one attacks this despicable and dangerous tendency.’ ‘We think,’ he concluded, ‘that the Arabs are all savages who live like animals,’ which, he said, ‘is a great error’. Twenty years later Ahad Ha’am wrote ‘of the want of insight and understanding shown on our side to an extreme degree’. In short, the Zionist settlers were very like Ms Peters herself and, unfortunately, not like her estimate of them.

The author’s accusations of Arab irrationality and ami-Jewish prejudice were refuted by both Dayan and Ben Gurion. ‘It is not true,’ said Dayan, ‘that the Arabs hate the Jews for personal, religious or racial reasons. They consider us – and justly, from their point of view – as westerners, foreigners, invaders who have seized an Arab country to turn it into a Jewish state.’ Ben Gurion said, similarly, that if he were an Arab he would have rejected Zionism as completely as did the Palestinian Arabs. There are countless mentions of Arab terrorism. There is hardly a whisper of Jewish terrorism or violence, and then only to excuse or deny them. Count Bernadotte is mentioned in the text in support of Ms Peters’s case but his murder by the Stern Gang does not sully her pages – not surprisingly, perhaps, since he had no doubt that the Arab refugees should be allowed to return to their homes. Nor does the murder of Lord Moyne and his chauffeur in 1944. The blowing-up of the King David Hotel by the Irgun and the killing of 91 people is similarly ignored. Deir Yassin is mentioned but only to be excused. It becomes an attack not a massacre. It was ‘an Arab village harbouring Iraqi and other Arab troops’ and ‘British investigations found it,’ we are told, ‘to be one of the “few” Jewish reprisals ... after years of almost unbelievable self-restraint.’ In fact, there was no ‘British investigation’, and the comment about ‘self-restraint’ was made by a British politician in 1939: as the massacre occurred in 1948, it is unlikely that he had Deir Yassin in mind. The Stern Gang is lucky to be mentioned at all: it appears once in a footnote. The Irgun gets three mentions. The first is in the same footnote, the second is to say that Ben Gurion opposed it, the third is more substantive. The Irgun was ‘reacting against Arab terror and the brutality of British indifference to the Holocaust’. It would ‘later be denounced as “extremist” and “terrorist” ’. The implication is that Joan Peters thinks it was neither. Indeed when she quotes the phrase ‘Jewish terrorists’ she adds ‘sic’. Meanwhile she accuses both the Arabs and the British of ‘double standards’.

The author glories in strong words. The Arabs are ‘racist’ and are likened to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. ‘The Arab lands,’ we read, ‘zealously embraced the Nazi dogma’; the sentiments of ‘the Arabic-speaking community in Palestine ... matched Mein Kampf and its doctrines’; ‘the small Arab power clique’ was successful in its ‘racial incitement to terrorism’; ‘the Arabs in general ... had already been committed to Hitler.’ And much more in the same strain. As hysteria mounts, words seem to lose their meaning: an impression which is heightened by the author’s habit of italicising everything that she considers important – which is a lot. The hundreds of pages thus disfigured accentuate the feeling that the author’s normal mood is rage and her favourite mode of communication a scream.

In spite of its grandiose claims to have altered ‘the very basis of our understanding’ and to have brought knowledge where before ignorance reigned, this book is not history. As a guide to what has happened in Palestine in the last hundred years Ms Peters is about as trustworthy as her Medieval ‘source’ Makrizi. The prominent Zionist academics thanked in the preface for their encouragement, their ‘data and statistics’, their ‘checking and rechecking’, seem to have some explaining to do. In accepting the claims of this strident, pretentious and preposterous book, Miss Tuchman and Mr Bellow among others have shown a deplorable lack of judgment.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 7 No. 5 · 21 March 1985

SIR: I read with interest the review of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial (LRB, 7 February). I was even more interested to discover that your reviewers relied in several spots on my review of Peters’s book. My review appeared in the Autumn 1984 Journal of Palestine Studies, and it was cited in Alexander Cockburn’s column in the 13 October Nation. The statement that in viewing the 1893 population of Palestine she confuses a majority with a plurality, and her ignoring the existence of a Christian Palestinian community – these come from my work as cited by Cockburn. I am pleased and flattered that you referred to my work. I would appreciate it, however, if you would acknowledge it, since you did acknowledge the work of both Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn as it appeared in the 13 October column.

Bill Farrell
Union City, New Jersey

Ian and David Gilmour write: Mr Farrell wrote an interesting review in the Journal of Palestine Studies but he can hardly claim copyright for every argument he put forward. His points about confusing a majority with a plurality and about the Christian Palestinians would have occurred to anyone who read the book carefully and knew the subject; and indeed they had occurred to us. Mr Farrell was the first person to cite Justin McCarthy (which we acknowledged in a letter to him), but in a book review it is surely right to mention the primary source and not the secondary source. After all, one cannot cite every single person to whom one is remotely indebted.

Vol. 7 No. 18 · 17 October 1985

In the ‘London Review of Books’ (LRB, 7 February) Ian and David Gilmour published a long and detailed review of Joan Peters’s ’From Time Immemorial’, a work much acclaimed in America as offering a definitive history of Zionist settlement in the Middle East. These reviewers, father and son, argued against the book, alleging many errors and distortions, and Ian Gilmour sent a copy of their review to Barbara Tuchman, who had hailed ‘From Time Immemorial’ as an epoch-making event. Since the public importance of the matter in dispute is not inconsiderable, readers of this journal may wish to see the correspondence which has taken place. Barbara Tuchman signalled her willingness to make public her own letter to Ian Gilmour by sending it to the ‘TLS’, perhaps supposing that the review had appeared there.

Editors, ‘London Review’

13 February 1985

Dear Mrs Tuchman,

As my son and I criticised your advertised opinion of From Time Immemorial, I thought it right, and I hope you will not think it an impertinence, to send you our article. It seems to me that on any view of the Arab/Israeli conflict the book is inexcusably inaccurate and misleading. Perhaps I may add that I am an admirer of your work, especially The Guns of August.

Ian Gilmour

22 May 1985

Dear Mrs Tuchman,

I wrote to you three months ago enclosing a review of Joan Peters’s book From Time Immemorial which my son and I published in the London Review of Books. I was sorry not to receive a reply. It would be interesting to know whether, after reading how Ms Peters manipulated her evidence, you had decided to modify your view of her book. If I do not hear from you, I shall assume that regrettably you are unwilling to make any kind of retraction of the extravagant praise you gave it. I am sure you appreciate that you gravely misled a large number of people.

Ian Gilmour

2 August 1985

Dear Sir Ian,

I am glad you wrote to me because it gives me an opportunity to comment on the concerted campaign in England of vilification of Mrs Peters’s book. I think it is clear from your statement and from other reviews I have read that the attitude towards her work is discomfort in England at being reminded, and having the public reminded, of the English betrayal of the Balfour Declaration by the deliberate promotion of Arab settlement in what was supposed to have been, according to the British promise, ‘a national home’ for the Jews, followed by the shameful role played by Britain in Palestine from the White Paper in 1939 through the ramming of the Exodus and the encouragement of the Arabs’ attack on Israel in 1948: the whole of this sorry history representing the least admirable, not to say the most deplorable episode of British history in modern times. Mrs Peters, having unkindly exposed this story to historical light, has earned the vicious scorn and scolding of British critics.

The element that I miss in all these reviews is any specific charge with citation and reference giving us examples of how Mrs Peters ‘manipulated her evidence’, as you put it. Because you and fellow reviewers simply state that she did so without citing any examples fails to convince me and certainly fails to persuade me to ‘modify’, as you suggest, my view of her book. As a historian I have long known better than to accept empty declarations of a case without documentary evidence.

Further, I would suggest that some of the animus apparent in your and other reviews reflects the growing anti-semitism that for the past few years has been visibly developing in Britain.

You are quite right in assuming that I am ‘unwilling to make any kind of retraction’ of my praise of Mrs Peters’s book, and I do not believe I have ‘misled’ anyone who recognises the factors that have entered into this controversy.

Barbara Tuchman

18 September 1985

Dear Mrs Tuchman,

Thank you for your letter. It does something to clear up the mystery of how a distinguished historian could have lavished praise upon Joan Peters’s preposterous book From Time Immemorial. On the Arab-Israeli issue your standards are evidently much the same as hers. You repeat Mrs Peters’s ridiculous allegations about ‘English betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and the deliberate promotion of Arab settlement … ’ There was in fact no English betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and no promotion, deliberate or otherwise, of Arab settlement. Have you read the Balfour Declaration recently or merely relied upon Mrs Peters’s misreading of it?

Your suggestion that the British reception of From Time Immemorial was influenced by a desire to defend British policy in Palestine from 1917 to 1948 shows, to say the least, a curious idea of the attitude of British reviewers. Your allegation of growing anti-semitism in England is even less well founded. Leaving aside the fact that such an allegation is the stock response of Zionist propagandists who are unable to counter their opponents’ arguments, do you as a historian seriously think that opposition to the Zionist movement’s dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs is so perverse and unreasonable that it must stem from anti-semitism? That would surely be a failure of historical imagination (and humanity) on a truly heroic scale. Moreover there has always been less anti-semitism in England than in America.

In any case, it is futile to look for complicated explanations of the unfavourable reception in Britain of From Time Immemorial, when the true reason is glaringly simple. The book is stiff with errors and nonsense, and as it was mostly reviewed over here by people with knowledge of the subject they noticed them.

Your statement that none of the British reviews gave examples of how Mrs Peters ‘manipulated her evidence’ is, quite simply, false. Some of the reviews consisted of little else. And if after you have read the Balfour Declaration you read our review you will see that your remark is as untrue as most of those in Mrs Peters’s book. Like a number of other reviewers, my son and I gave detailed examples of manipulation. To repeat four of them briefly, we showed (1) how she misrepresented the Hope Simpson Report and changed its sense by leaving out words and altering punctuation, (2) how she used the Ottoman census figures when they suited her purposes and discarded them when they contradicted her thesis, (3) how she relied on a Medieval Arab historian for information on the 19th century, and (4) how she used a survey of a hundred Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war to ‘prove’ a completely different point about the entire Palestinian refugee population of 1948. These of course are far from the only examples, but they are enough to prove our charge. Mrs Peters could, I suppose, say that she had not manipulated the evidence, that she was not experienced in these matters and that it had all happened by mistake. But that is not a defence open to you, since you made high claims for the book and even talked about ‘Joan Peters’s unrelenting research’.

It is still puzzling that you, Mr Bellow – I wrote to him, too, but he, perhaps prudently, has chosen not to defend himself – and many others gave such extravagant puffs to From Time Immemorial, which, as one American professor wrote to us, is a book that should have been ‘disavowed by Zionists and non-Zionists alike’. Your claim of ‘a concerted campaign in England of vilification of Mrs Peters’s book’ is worthy of Mrs Peters in both its tone and its inaccuracy. There does seem, however, to have been a fairly successful effort to stop the truth being told about the book in the United States. But now that the truth is known, your continued refusal to admit to the American reading public how gravely you misled them would be inexcusable.

Ian Gilmour

Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986

SIR: The emergence onto your pages of Sir Ian and David Gilmour in the guise of objective analysts of ‘Zionist’ history (LRB, 7 February 1985) reveals a wicked sense of humour. Perhaps more of my fellow subscribers may wish to share the joke.

Omitted from the biographical note accompanying the Gilmours’ gleeful destruction of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial was any mention of their close connection with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), established in 1967 to lobby on behalf of various Arab governments and Middle East oil interests. Sir Ian was the first Chairman of this august body, while Gilmour fils has served as both its Information Officer and Assistant Director. CAABU’s own propaganda, whose expense is borne easily on an annual budget reported to exceed £100,000 a year, is at best tendentious and at times downright offensive. Perhaps the Gilmour family’s concern for historical accuracy could be profitably invested in the material produced under their own auspices.

Sir Ian, in the correspondence with Barbara Tuchman published (for no apparent reason) on 17 October, contends that there has been no ‘concerted campaign’ against Joan Peters’s book. I would like to challenge that statement. The appearance of a prominent review article under the imprint of two of Britain’s most notorious anti-Zionist propagandists a mere three days after publication can hardly be dismissed as a happy coincidence. As a history student, I am highly impressed that such busy public personalities as Sir Ian and David Gilmour found the time necessary to embark on the detailed research in primary sources upon which their argument is constructed. If, as would normally be the case with two such hard-pressed authors, use was made of the bibliographical and archival talents of research assistants, their number, their employer, and, indeed, the origin of the suggestion that the Gilmours take on the job, would inform us more completely as to the ‘concerted’ nature of the effort.

There is also some interesting double-think at work here. The Gilmours do not hesitate to condemn as ‘Zionist’ the motivation of those historians and other academics who have praised Peters. But the professional and organisational anti-Zionist interests of the Gilmours themselves are unrevealed.

In justifying the publication of the correspondence between Sir Ian and Barbara Tuchman, you suggest that ‘the public importance of the matter in dispute is not inconsiderable.’ It is unclear which ‘matter’ is being discussed. If it is the problem of propaganda posing as history, then the Gilmours and their associates are hardly in a position to cast the first stone. The large and carefully-constructed piece of masonry chucked here (the article was the longest of the last year, I believe) requires a fresh look at the notion of balance, a valuable phenomenon questionably served by inviting Edward Said to review David Gilmour’s own work. However, if the ‘matter’ is that of the land question in Palestine, then any genuine interest in that issue would seem to demand a review of the book of that name published recently by Kenneth Stein and widely considered the authoritative work on the subject.

I don’t know if Stein is a ‘Zionist’ or not (the Gilmours’ use of that term is not uncomplicated), or whether his book favours Arab or Jewish claims. These issues ought to be irrelevant and the reliance upon them of Sir Ian and David Gilmour in such a deceptive guise represents a regrettable lowering of standards.

Matthew Kalman
Jerusalem

Ian and David Gilmour write: Mr Kalman does not challenge a single fact or argument in our article; nor does he advance a single relevant fact or argument of his own. His tactic (also favoured by Barbara Tuchman) seems to be to seek to discredit writers by reference to their background, associations or careers, while ignoring what they actually write. He is short on facts. CAABU was not set up ‘to lobby on behalf of various Arab governments and Middle East oil interests’. It was set up because at the time, with a few exceptions, only the Zionist side of the Arab-Israeli conflict was heard in this country. Mr Kalman cites as evidence of a ‘concerted campaign’ against Joan Peters’s book that our review appeared in your paper three days after its publication. Evidently he is unaware that books are sent out for review well in advance of publication. It is flattering that he thinks our article could not have been produced without the aid of research assistants: but we have to admit that we did all our own work. Mr Kalman’s allegations of lack of balance, double-think, etc, are similarly baseless. Hence his interesting suggestion that there should be balance between blatant, untruthful propaganda and its ‘destruction’. We are reminded of Adlai Stevenson’s well-known remark that he would stop telling the truth about his opponents if they would stop telling lies about him. Hence, too, Mr Kalman’s remarks about Zionist historians and propaganda. We admire and appreciate Zionist historians when they produce, or are associated with, works of scholarship. As we were at pains to point out, however, From Time Immemorial is not such a book, and that is why we thought the Zionist academics mentioned in it had some explaining to do. (We still think that.) Innuendo and assertion are not argument, even when they are accurate, which Mr Kalman’s are not, and we shall await with interest his rebuttal of what we wrote. Incidentally, Mr Kalman appears not to have noticed that Mrs Peters’s book was received with a striking lack of enthusiasm in Israel. Has CAABU been active there, too?

Vol. 8 No. 8 · 8 May 1986

SIR: I was surprised that Sir Ian and David Gilmour should respond as they did to my suggestion that they, as leading representatives of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, were hardly in a position to pass moral judgment on Joan Peters’s book From Time Immemorial, and that their CAABU activities merited inclusion in the biographical note accompanying their review (LRB, 7 February 1985; Letters, 23 January).

I am grateful to the Gilmours for the invitation to comment on their article, even though that was not my original intention. It gave me the opportunity to check their statements against the documentary material which they cite as authority. Their analysis is valuable in so far as it disproved Joan Peters’s more extreme claims and reveals the many inadequacies in her work. But a bad book, however misleading and inaccurate, does not warrant an inaccurate review.

The Gilmours’ analysis is inadequate in three major respects: an apparent lack of understanding of primary material; the oversimplification of complex issues; and the distorted analysis of historical material through the apparent influence of present-day political considerations. These flaws in Peters’s own work are the object of sustained criticism by the Gilmours. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that they should mar the Gilmours’ own contribution.

Let us take one passage as an example and a test of the Gilmours’ representation of their source material. They mention Joan Peters’s ‘apparent ignorance of the terms of the League of Nations Mandate’ for Palestine, particularly relating to the status of Trans-Jordan, and dismiss ‘the specious claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine.’ We shall see that this is by no means a simple problem, but here is the Gilmours’ version. ‘Ms Peters’s claim that Transjordan was set up “in violation of the Mandate" is likewise based on an ignorance of the words actually used. Transjordan had never been “Eastern Palestine" and the fact that Britain administered the territories on both sides of the River Jordan for three years does not make them the same land. There was no “violation" because the Mandate specifically granted Britain discretionary power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate and to place it under separate administration.’

There are three problems raised here. First, whether the Balfour Declaration (and the Mandate in which the Declaration was later incorporated) considered Palestine to include Trans-Jordan or ‘Eastern Palestine’ to the east of the Jordan River; second, whether the claim that ‘Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine’ is as ‘specious’ as the Gilmours suggest; and third, whether Britain was empowered to ‘remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate’ and recognise the establishment there of an independent kingdom under King Abdullah.

The Balfour Declaration is unclear on the question of Trans-Jordan, as it was issued without any definition of the boundaries of Palestine. However, Article 25 of the Mandate refers to ‘the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine’, indicating that the River Jordan did not itself constitute such an ‘eastern boundary’. The Report of the High Commissioner for Palestine 1920-25, written after Trans-Jordan had been established, still emphasises that ‘although Trans-Jordan is under an administration separate from that of Palestine … it forms part of the same Mandatory area.’ The Mandate certainly included Trans-Jordan, though the phrasing of this Report suggests that by 1925 it was regarded as distinct from Palestine. Did this distinction exist before the Mandate was drawn up?

A central problem in trying to answer this question is the imprecise geographical implications of the term ‘Palestine’. The Mandate refers to ‘the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined’, as the area of the Mandate was still subject to doubt as late as 1922. Perhaps the most striking contemporary indication of the inadequacy of ‘Palestine’ as an exact geographical term is that the word does not appear in the crucial Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915 which was to form the basis for British obligations to the Arab peoples following the defeat of Turkey. Even though the King provides precise latitudes and vectors in order to define the area he wishes to see developed under independent Arab rule, he uses the names of vilayets and sanjaks of Ottoman administrative usage. McMahon describes the area as ‘Syria’. The term ‘Palestine’ is entirely absent.

The lack of clarity surrounding the term is reflected in the major documents of the time. The Report of the High Commissioner quoted above refers to the annex by which the Mandate was amended in September 1922, ‘making it clear that the Articles which related to the establishment of a Jewish National Home did not apply to Trans-Jordan,’ which would indicate that before September 1922 there was at least the possibility that they did. The need to clarify the situation arose from the very confusion, which the Gilmours do not admit, in connection with the term ‘Palestine’. In August 1922 the British administration west of the River Jordan was established by an Order in Council, Article 86 of which states that the Order ‘shall not apply to such parts of the territory comprised in Palestine to the east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea’.

The ‘specious claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine’ was embodied in the Mandate, the Order in Council and other documents of the period, reflecting the thinking of the time. The connection between Palestine and Trans-Jordan continued to be recognised even after the establishment of the kingdom. As late as 1937, the Peel Commission referred to the idea of Partition in Article 20 of their Report, recognising that ‘there are many who would have felt an instinctive dislike to cutting up the Holy Land. The severance of Trans-Jordan, they would have thought, from historic Palestine was bad enough.’ Would the Peel Commission have described as ‘historic’ a connection which only lasted for three years and referred to the ‘severance’ of two elements which were never connected?

This ‘severance’ of Trans-Jordan from Palestine began in September 1922, when the Council of the League of Nations approved an annex to Article 25 of the Mandate submitted by Britain. In April 1923 the High Commission announced British recognition of the government of King Abdullah in Trans-Jordan. But the Gilmours’ attempted reference to these events is inadequate in two major respects, particularly their attempt to paraphrase Article 25, which did indeed given Britain the right to place Trans-Jordan ‘under separate administration’. The original document reads thus: ‘In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions, provided that no action shall be taken which is inconsistent with the provisions of Articles 15, 16 and 18.’ The Gilmours’ reading of this text claims that it ‘granted Britain discretionary power to remove Trans-Jordan from the scope of the Mandate’, which is inaccurate. Britain was permitted to withhold the application of specific provisions of the Mandate subject to specific conditions. The Mandate as a whole continued to stay in force in Trans-Jordan. The League of Nations and the British Government recognised Article 25 as referring specifically, in the words of the High Commissioner, to ‘the Articles which related to the establishment of a Jewish National Home’, and it was only these provisions which were withheld from application in Trans-Jordan by the annex of September 1922. Of 28 Articles in the Mandate, six were suspended in full and three were partly suspended, as were two of the seven Recitals in the Preamble. The remaining provisions of the Mandate – the vast majority of its text – continued to be applied in Trans-Jordan. Movever, the text of Article 25 quoted above states quite clearly the conditional nature of Britain’s powers with regard to withholding these provisions in Trans-Jordan. Above all, the new administration was bound to adhere, under continued British supervision, to Articles 15, 16 and 18, which safeguarded arrangements relating to customs tariffs and guaranteed religious rights, together with the protection of all faiths and nationalities in Palestine, against discrimination.

The Gilmours misrepresent the complex nature of Britain’s mandatory obligations by failing to mention that the ‘discretionary power’ was both partial and conditional. However, more crucial still is the fact that Britain was not granted ‘power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate’ as the Gilmours claim, but was explicitly required to keep Trans-Jordan within the Mandate, albeit with the right to establish a separate administration. Indeed, the High Commissioner reported that he was only empowered to recognise the government of King Abdullah in April 1923 ‘provided that such Government … places His Britannic Majesty’s Government in a position to fulfil its international obligations in respect of the territory by means of an agreement to be concluded between the two Governments.’ The Gilmours’ misreading of British policy and obligations here is fundamental, yet it is they who accuse others of ‘ignorance of the terms of the Mandate’.

In addition to their misunderstanding of documentary material, the Gilmours’ analysis of historical events is frequently distorted by political considerations. One example is their treatment of the flight of Palestinian Arabs from Palestine/Israel in 1947-48. Their ‘Bad King John, Good Queen Bess’ approach to history reaches its pinnacle as with mounting hatred they accuse Palestinian Jews of driving out the Arabs, massacring them on the way. To be sure, they cite a few irrefutable texts to demonstrate that some atrocities did occur and that some leaders intended to drive out the Arabs. But this is not enough for them: in three pages the Gilmours return to this theme no less than 13 times, depicting a consistent and largely successful Zionist policy to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, under threat of massacre if necessary, and to subjugate those few who stayed.

There has been considerable discussion among scholars as to whether the Palestinian Arabs who left did so because they were expelled, because they were urged to leave by their own authorities, or because they fled in terror from real or feared atrocities. The Gilmours pounce on one standard claim made by Peters concerning alleged radio broadcasts made by the Arab Higher Committee urging their people to leave, and repeat the convincing charge made by Erskine Childers in the 1950s that no such broadcasts existed. The idea that all the Arabs left under instructions from their own leadership has rightly been consigned to the dustbin of Zionist propaganda by many of the genuine scholars who have reviewed, and condemned, From Time Immemorial, most recently by Hebrew University Professor Yehoshua Porath, who is perhaps the leading non-Palestinian authority on Palestinian history. However, the Gilmours expand their refutation of this item of Zionist propaganda to the full-blown thesis that no such instructions were ever issued by any Arab authority at any time; all the refugees were expelled by the Jews, while the Arab leadership instructed them to stay.

As with other theses of the Gilmours, the situation illustrated by contemporary documents was far more complex and quite different. British police reports from Haifa in April 1948, for example, show that while some Arabs were indeed driven out, others were evacuated by the Arab authorities, while ‘every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives … and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.’ Conditions differed from place to place.

Matthew Kalman
Jerusalem

The Gilmours write: Invited to refute our review of From Time Immemorial, Mr Kalman makes no attempt to defend the book or to deal with the main points we made. Instead, he concentrates on one short paragraph on Transjordan and then claims to have proved our ‘lack of understanding’, ‘distorted analysis’ and so on. Unfortunately, his argument is weak and pedantic, and its great length seems to be a way of disguising the fact that he has nothing useful to say. To our criticism of ‘the specious [Zionist] claim that Jordan is in fact a part of Palestine,’ Mr Kalman answers that our view was contradicted by ‘the Mandate, the Order in Council and other documents of the period’. What is this meant to prove? Surely he is not suggesting that the authors of the Mandate were infallible guides on the matter, particularly since the claim is easily refuted by historical evidence? Before the British Mandate, the relationship between the two banks of the Jordan was a curiously distant one, perhaps largely the result of ethnic differences: the Transjordanians were mainly descended from the tribes of the Arabian peninsula while the Palestinians are descendants of all the races which have settled in Palestine since the time of the Canaanites. Moreover, the two areas had long been administered separately. In the Ottoman period Transjordan, unlike Israel, was part of the Vilayet of Syria and even afterwards, until the beginning of 1920, it was included in the Occupied Territory Administration of Syria. Mr Kalman claims great inaccuracy for our contention that ‘the Mandate specifically granted Britain discretionary power to remove Transjordan from the scope of the Mandate and to place it under separate administration,’ but then admits that the Mandate ‘did indeed give Britain the right to place Transjordan “under separate administration" ’ – the very point we were making! His complaint merely concerns the words ‘from the scope of the Mandate’, which he appears to have deliberately misinterpreted. If the application of a Mandate’s provisions to a mandated territory is withheld, and if, furthermore, that territory is given a new and separate administration, then surely it is obvious that the territory in question is being removed from the scope of the original Mandate?

From Transjordan, Mr Kalman turns to 1948 and attacks us for allegedly putting forward a ‘thesis’ that ‘all the [Arab] refugees were expelled by the Jews.’ In fact, we did not say that. We merely refuted yet again the long-exploded Zionist myths which Mrs Peters sought to resurrect. We argued that ‘the major responsibility for the refugee problem lies with the Zionists.’ Our claim has been endorsed by an Israeli historian’s publication of extracts from a report of the Israeli Defence Forces Intelligence Branch (dated 30 June 1948). If Mr Kalman turns to it (Middle Eastern Studies, January 1986), he will discover that, according to the best-placed Israeli intelligence sources, nearly three-quarters of the Palestinian refugees were expelled by Zionist military action, by Zionist terrorist action or by Zionist expulsion orders. If Mr Kalman thinks that the Israeli intelligence sources also produced a ‘distorted analysis’ and showed a ‘lack of understanding of primary material’, he had better pursue his quarrel with them.

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences