The Great Lie

Charles Glass

  • The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World by Avi Shlaim
    Allen Lane, 670 pp, £25.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9410 X
  • Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 by Benny Morris
    Murray, 752 pp, £25.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 7195 6222 8
  • A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East by Amos Elon
    Allen Lane, 354 pp, £20.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9368 5
  • Fabricating Israeli History: The ‘New Historians’ by Efraim Karsh
    Frank Cass, 236 pp, £39.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 7146 5011 0
  • From Herzl to Rabin: The Changing Image of Zionism by Amnon Rubinstein
    Holmes & Meier, 283 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 8419 1408 7

An Israeli Jewish woman told me a story about her father’s return, many years later, to the house in Vienna that his family had abandoned in 1938. More than any of the other possessions he had lost when Austria merged with Germany, he told her, it was his library that he missed and longed to see again. Yet the old Viennese gentleman could not bring himself to enter the flat in which he had grown up. His daughter, born in Palestine, remembers him in his hat and coat, unable to speak. ‘We stood downstairs in the courtyard, and my father pointed at the apartment where they lived. A woman came down and looked at us with suspicion. My father said he had lived here once. She was not impressed, only more cold.’ The woman explained, in her Austrian German, that, when she arrived after the war, his books had already gone.

That Israeli daughter of Viennese exiles, Gaby Aldor, became an actress, dancer, writer and, for more than 25 years, one of my closest friends. The flat she has shared since 1980 with her husband, an Israeli physician, is on the upper floor of an old Arab house. They live in Jaffa, itself an old Arab town on the Mediterranean, next to Tel Aviv. The house is built around a courtyard in Ottoman style, down to the flowers in tin pots. The other apartments into which the building was divided after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War belong to Iraqi Jews and one family of Palestinian Arabs. Gaby and I had dinner earlier this year in a nearby restaurant, the gentrified upper floor of another Arab stone house. In the wake of the peace treaty with Jordan, she said, Palestinians were visiting the houses they had left in 1948. One evening, two women from Amman came to hers.

‘They send the women,’ Gaby remarked. ‘The men are too proud.’ The elder of her two visitors had grown up in the house. The younger – her daughter – was seeing it for the first time. They inspected room after room, all of them redecorated many times since their family’s departure. Gaby watched, as if she were a tenant. Suddenly, the mother asked: ‘Where are my father’s books?’

Gaby Aldor wrote a play, The Lane of White Chairs, about an Arab house in Jaffa to which Taher, a Palestinian refugee, returned from his Jordanian exile. ‘He came in with a burst of anger, as if he were continuing an argument cut off a short while ago,’ Gaby wrote. ‘But the argument was actually fifty years old.’ Taher is searching for treasure, hidden in a box that he buried underneath the house when his family fled. His quest disrupts the lives of everyone, Israeli and Arab, in what was once his property. By the end, he discovers in the treasure chest, not gold, but marbles, with which, as the curtain falls, he and the children of the house play on the floor.

The play opened in 1997 at the Theatre Festival in Acre, another Arab coastal town emptied of most of its Arab inhabitants in 1948. Its cast included Arabs and Israelis. Earlier this month, amid the violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada, it returned to Acre. Last spring, before the Occupied Territories exploded, Gaby Aldor acted in another play with a mixed cast. Its theme was torture, an aspect of Israel’s relationship with its indigenous population that is as troubling as the ownership of land and houses. Actual Arab victims of torture played themselves, but the producers found no former torturers willing to go on stage. Their parts were taken by Israeli actors, some of whom had served as soldiers in the Occupied Territories. This improvisational drama was like a miniature Truth Commission of the kind that Edward Said has urged, although it will be some time before an Israeli or PLO politician is likely to advocate anything of the sort. Both productions took place in an environment of increasing honesty about what Israelis have done to survive in the country that their forebears took from another people. While some intellectuals in Israeli civil society are confronting the most disquieting – and often vigorously denied – aspects of their past, others react by accusing them of treason.

Artists and actors are not alone in questioning orthodox portrayals of Israeli reality. The sacred myths, the propaganda, that sustained the country in its formative years are tumbling before an onslaught of Israeli journalism and historiography. Journalists like Danny Rubinstein and Amira Hass of Ha’aretz have written about the military occupation, as well as the latest uprising, in terms that contradict the official accounts and deprive the occupation of legitimacy. A new generation of historians, known variously as ‘revisionist historians’ (a term they disavow because of its misleading associations with the revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky, spiritual father of today’s Likud bloc), ‘new historians’ and ‘post-Zionist historians’, is delving into the Israeli past to contrast it with the naivety (and mendacity) of school textbooks. Their work has steadily eroded the ‘old history’, especially since the publication in 1987 of Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49.

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