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.

Morris’s research into the archives of the Israeli Defence Forces demonstrated what Palestinian Arab refugees and historians had been saying for years: that the Arabs of Galilee did not leave their homes on the instructions of invading Arab armies, but because the Israeli Army expelled them, demolished their villages and gave their land to Jewish immigrants. The debate on the origin of the Palestinians’ refugee status has practical implications. Israeli diplomats and politicians had long argued that, because the Palestinian Arabs left of their own free will, they were not entitled to return. Morris demonstrated both that the argument was specious and that Israeli officials knew it. Three years later, Morris’s debunking of earlier historians, whom he describes as ‘chroniclers’, resumed with the publication of 1948 and After. That work made nonsense of the notion, fostered by Israel’s dynamic first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his acolytes, that ‘Israel’s leaders sought desperately to make peace with one or all of the Arab states but the Arabs, hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, turned down these overtures and repaid this goodwill with continued belligerence.’ This is the theme Avi Shlaim takes up, with the help of recently declassified documents, in The Iron Wall.

The other prominent new historians include Simha Flapan, the author of The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (1987), Ilan Pappé, Yossi Amitai, Uri Bar-Joseph, Michael Cohen and Uri Milstein. In 1948 and After Morris wrote of his generation of Israeli historians: ‘Most of them, born around 1948, have matured in a more open, doubting and self-critical Israel than the pre-1967, pre-1973 and pre-Lebanon War Israel of the old historians.’ The old historians, in contrast, had been ‘highly committed adult participants in the epic, glorious rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth’. It was Simha Flapan, Morris wrote, who began to see the central fallacies of the old history: first, that the Jewish settler community in Palestine, the Yishuv,

joyously embraced partition and the truncated Jewish state prescribed by the UN General Assembly, and that the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states unanimously rejected the partition and attacked the Yishuv with the aim of throwing the Jews into the sea; (2) that the war was waged between a relatively defenceless and weak (Jewish) David and a relatively strong (Arab) Goliath; (3) that the Palestinians fled their homes and villages either ‘voluntarily’ – meaning for no good reason – or at the behest/orders of the Arab leaders; and (4) that, at the war’s end, Israel was interested in making peace, but the recalcitrant Arabs preferred a perpetual war to the finish.

Flapan, who was head of the Arab Department of Israel’s left-wing Mapai Party, died in 1987, his task of demolition incomplete. Morris, Shlaim and their post-Zionist colleagues have continued working in the same vein, using government records released under Israel’s 30-year rule, documents (especially in Shlaim’s new book) captured from the Jordanian and Egyptian Armies in 1967, interviews, diaries and letters. The implications of the term ‘post-Zionist’ as they understand it – and as their opponents realise – is that Zionism has become what Wittgenstein said philosophy was: a ladder that, once used to reach the destination, may be safely discarded. Having established a state and gathered most of the Jewish diaspora within it, Zionist ideology, in their eyes, has no further purpose and should be jettisoned, along with the unwelcome burdens it entails: further colonisation of occupied territory and the perpetuation of stories about Israel’s past that they know to be false. The post-Zionists contend that Israeli history as propagated in Israeli schools and the Western world is, for the most part, a Great Lie.

The lie begins in Vienna in 1896 with Theodor Herzl’s reference to Palestine as ‘a land without people for people without a land’ – an echo of Lord Shaftesbury’s romantic formulation forty years before. Europe’s Jews, Hezl urged, should fill that providential void. To the surprise of the first Zionist emissaries, Palestine was already inhabited. Herzl’s attempt to solve what he and Europe’s gentile anti-semites called ‘the Jewish problem’ meant creating ‘the Palestinian problem’. That phrases like the ‘Jewish problem’ and the ‘Palestinian problem’ have been used at all is an indication that such terms of reference are set by the powerful. Were Jews in Europe or Arabs in Palestine a ‘problem’ to anyone apart from those who sought to expel and oppress them?

Many early Zionists accepted anti-semitic portrayals of ‘the Jew’. Jabotinsky wrote that the Jews had lacked both history and culture during the nearly two millennia of their diaspora; ‘the Yid,’ he said, ‘is ugly, sickly and lacks decorum.’ Zionism sought to remake the Jew as the opposite of the Yid. The Yiddish language, the ghetto and, for many, the rabbis would all vanish in favour of enlightened Hebrews tilling the soil and engaging in other occupations traditionally denied the Jews in Europe. In Amnon Rubinstein’s words, ‘The Jew would become a “goy” in the double meaning that this word has in Hebrew, signifying both “Gentile” and “nation”.’ Herzl had originally suggested that the Jews of Europe should be assimilated through conversion to Christianity. Later, he felt they should be a nation like any other, with their own state on their own land. His proposed exodus from Europe appealed more to anti-semites than to those goyim who believed in equality and emancipation. Kaiser Wilhelm, as quoted by Rubinstein, wrote in the margin of his diplomats’ account of the first Zionist Congress at Basel in 1897: ‘I am all in favour of the kikes going to Palestine.’ At the time, most Jews did not want to go, and no one asked the Arabs if they wanted to make way for their arrival. In the many debates conducted by the early Zionists on the nature of a ‘State of the Jews’, the people already on the land were less significant than the role of religion in such a state and ‘who is a Jew’.

Thanks to the legacy of early political Zionism the Palestinians remained a blindspot in Israeli historiography, until Morris, Shlaim and the others began to use the archives more critically. Herzl’s biographer Amos Elon observes in A Blood-Dimmed Tide: ‘During the first two decades’ – 1948 to 1968 – ‘the writing of Israel’s history was handicapped by truisms derived from mainstream Zionist ideology.’ Golda Meir reiterated one of these in 1969, when she said: ‘There is no Palestinian people.’ Yet there was a Palestinian people, and their nationalism was a response to the Jewish nationalism that displaced them. They were well behind the Zionists in embracing either an Arab or a specifically Palestinian nationalist ideology. But they had abandoned Arab nationalism before any Israelis began to postulate a non-nationalist, post-Zionist Israel that would consider de-Zionising the state. One effect of such a de-Zionisation would be the repeal of the Law of Return, which guarantees all Jews everywhere, but no other people, the right to settle and become citizens. Arab nationalism died with its leading exponent, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970, and the civil wars between Arabs in Yemen and Lebanon. When nationalism dies, religious fundamentalism often fills the void, as both Arabs and Israelis are now discovering. But the post-Zionists, like the better Arab historians – among them Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Kamal Salibi and the late Albert Hourani – are defiantly secular.

Morris writes in his preface that Righteous Victims seeks ‘to bring reason and fairness to my reconstitution of the past’. His detractors, among them Efraim Karsh and Amnon Rubinstein, contend that this goal eludes him, although neither has done the amount of research that Morris has. (Rubinstein’s attack on the post-Zionists, whom he lumps with anti-Zionists, burns a straw-man of his own making rather than the actual histories written by Morris and the others.) The documents of the Israeli Defence Forces and the Jewish Agency, as well as the memoirs of the leading Zionist thinkers of the early era, support Morris’s contention that most of the Zionists saw the natives of Palestine as, in the words of Zionist avatar Avshalom Feinberg, a ‘cowardly, hypocritical and false race’. The religious Zionist Ahad Ha’am noted in 1891 that the first Zionist settlers displayed ‘a tendency to despotism as happens when a slave turns into a master’. Of course, the new slaves revolted, occasionally attacking Zionist settlements and, in Hebron in 1929, killing Jews who were neither immigrants nor Zionists. Morris writes that the Zionists misrepresented Arab violence, noting that ‘anti-Zionist outbreaks were designated “pogroms”, a term that belittled the phenomenon, demonised Arabs, and, in a peculiar way, comforted the Jews – it obviated the need to admit that what they faced was a rival national movement, rather than Arabic-speaking Cossacks and street ruffians.’

In their private correspondence and in front of select audiences, Morris observes, Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharrett were frank about the reasons for Arab revolt against British rule and Zionist immigration from 1936 to 1939. The violence derived not from a Levantine strain of European anti-semitism, but from the fact that, in Ben-Gurion’s words, ‘we and they want the same thing; we both want Palestine.’ Sharrett added: ‘There is no Arab who is not harmed by the Jews’ entry into the country.’ Arab opposition to displacement or, in the terminology of Zionism from 1905 onwards, ‘transfer’ was neither tsarist anti-semitism nor Nazism. Yet that was the language used in the Zionist and, later, Israeli propaganda that influenced Israel’s first historians. Amos Elon writes: ‘The Israeli theology of conflict postulated the existence of an ingrained, peculiarly Arab form of anti-semitism. Behind every Arab or Palestinian they saw an SS man. Nasser was “Hitler on the Nile”. The conflict was unlikely to be resolved because of its allegedly unique existential nature and for a variety of other reasons – psychological, conceptual and religious.’

Ben-Gurion told the Political Committee of the Mapai Party in 1938: ‘As regards security and life we defend ourselves . . . But the fighting is only one aspect of the conflict, which is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.’ That did not prevent him from announcing to a wider audience that the Arabs wanted the country to be ‘in a state of perpetual pogrom’. One of his successors, Menachem Begin, may have been more sincere, though just as inaccurate, when he called Yasser Arafat ‘Hitler’ and the PLO Covenant Mein Kampf. The report into the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila drawn up by the Kahan Commission appointed by the Israeli Cabinet turned the anti-semitic imagery against Begin. Morris writes that ‘the commissioners compared Israel’s responsibility to that of the Russian or Polish authorities when pogroms were carried out against Jews in the 19th century.’ That is not how Begin, who resigned office and went into seclusion, wanted to be remembered.

In the old history, the creation of the state becomes a miracle of redemption as Palestine’s small Jewish community prevails against the armed might of five Arab states. To Morris, the victory of the Yishuv was less a miraculous than a reasonable outcome. The Palestinians had been crushed by the British during the three-year rebellion that ended in 1939, and the Arab states rushed into Palestine in order to acquire territory for themselves rather than to defend their Palestinian brothers. Morris accepts that ‘the Yishuv’s strategy cannot be understood without taking into account its very real fears of defeat and possible annihilation, which began to dissipate only after the Arab armies proved smaller and less efficient than anticipated.’ Not only were the Arabs consistently outnumbered by the Israelis in the 1948 War of Independence but the IDF was better trained and equipped, and enjoyed superiority in artillery and tanks. Unlike the Arabs, who suffered from the arms embargo imposed by the UN, the Israelis evaded it by buying Russian weapons from Czechoslovakia. A few months into the war, the Arabs ran out of spare parts. Arab lines of communication were overextended and the mutually suspicious Arab leaders had no unified command. Rather than war, the Jordanians, Egyptians and Syrians were engaged in what Morris calls ‘a multilateral landgrab’. King Abdullah of Jordan ended up with the West Bank, and King Farouk of Egypt kept the Gaza Strip. Both the West Bank and Gaza turned into dumping grounds for thousands of Palestinian refugees. The Israeli victory is no less impressive for having been well prepared, but it has taken much research by Morris and other post-Zionists to demonstrate that it was neither lucky nor unlikely.

In the years after 1948, the old history teaches, Israel searched in vain for someone with whom to discuss peace. Shlaim has combed the Israeli archives for evidence that the fledgling state extended the hand of friendship to its neighbours. Instead, he found many Arab offers, beginning with Egypt’s in September 1948 and Syria’s in the spring of 1949. Shlaim writes: ‘The files of the Israeli Foreign Ministry . . . burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with Israel from September 1948 on.’ Ben-Gurion turned them all down. ‘And the main reason for Ben-Gurion’s inflexibility,’ Shlaim asserts, ‘was his belief that time was on Israel’s side.’

Not only did Ben-Gurion prefer to wait, he antagonised the Arabs further by expelling more Palestinians after the war, refusing to allow displaced Palestinians within the new state to return to their villages near the Lebanese border and shooting refugees who crossed the border to return home. Peace became less, not more, likely as a result. The wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the two Palestinian Intifadas of 1987-93 and 2000 bear this out.

Morris does not exonerate the Palestinians and other Arabs of their own crimes and mistakes. He notes that

the Arabs introduced to Palestine the ‘pogrom’ and its paraphernalia – the knife, the bludgeon and the fuel-doused rag . . . But the Zionists also proved brutally innovative. While the Haganah generally cleaved to the defensive, the dissident right-wing organisations, the IZL [Irgun] and LHI [Stern Gang], introduced into the arena (in 1937-38 and 1947-48) what is now the standard equipment of modern terrorism, the camouflaged bomb in the marketplace and bus station, the car and truck-bomb and the drive-by shooting with automatic weapons.

The Arab leaders, both Morris and Shlaim note, failed their people repeatedly. In 1948, they sent soldiers to die in a pointless war in order to appease mob fervour that they themselves had encouraged and to preserve their regimes from revolution. Their legitimacy was always in doubt, because none had been chosen, as the Israelis’ leaders were, by their people. Britain had selected Haj Amin al-Husseini to lead the Palestinian Arabs, appointed King Abdullah to rule over Jordan and maintained King Farouk in Egypt. When Colonel Husni az-Zaim became the new ruler of Syria in 1949, he was aided by the CIA.

Morris concludes, after his close and revealing examination of a century of struggle, that ‘only the successive displays of persuasive force have made both peoples sit up and contemplate a future of coexistence without violence.’ Palestinian children are once again demonstrating the truth of his observation with stones and occasional rifle shots, as are the Israeli Army and settlers who employ the greater force of helicopter gunships and tanks. This al-Aqsa or second Intifada took Israelis, and the Palestinian Authority, by surprise. The first, Amos Elon writes, had also caught Israel unawares. Before that, its intelligence chiefs and Arab experts had missed the signs that Egypt and Syria would launch a war in October 1973 to retake the territories that Israel, encouraged by the United States, refused to discuss relinquishing in exchange for peace. ‘Many overlooked the simple fact,’ Elon writes, ‘that since 1967 Israel has not been able to win a war; the Yom Kippur war ended in a draw.’ Israel lost its Lebanon war to Hizbullah, whose example now inspires the youth of Gaza and the West Bank. It failed during the first Intifada to the extent that it held its nose and invited Arafat into the territories to reassert the control that the IDF had lost. It may lose this Intifada as well, but that does not mean the Palestinians are winning.

Among young Palestinians whose lives remain regulated by Israeli security forces, and whose family lands are still disappearing beneath expanding Israeli settlements, Arafat, Israel’s chosen interlocutor, has been discredited, along with the Oslo Accords he signed in 1993. ‘Peace process’ has itself become a term of derision for Palestinians and many Israelis. Myths are dying on the ground, just as Morris, Shlaim and other new historians are laying them to rest in public debate. There was once a belief that Lebanon would not be the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, but it would surely be the second. That has proved false. So has the idea that the Arabs could lose many wars, but Israel only one. Israel, it seems, can lose both in Lebanon and in the Occupied Territories and yet remain a state. That alone should give hope to those Israelis who would like to end the history of violence by withdrawing the Israeli Army and settlers from Gaza and the West Bank and allowing the Palestinians there to govern themselves.

Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, who are now confronting the continuing occupation masked by the Oslo Accords, have a model for the democracy they would like to see established. When asked by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, an impressive majority – 68 per cent – said they admired the democracy they see in Israel. That is more than the number who favoured the forms of democracy practised in France, Britain and the United States.

Israelis are facing their own history with the help of their best historians. The task is painful, but it may give them the hope to create their own future, as the first Zionists did. They may, one day, live peacefully alongside the people the original Zionists made the mistake of ignoring, displacing and subjecting to a lengthy occupation.