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Ilan Pappe: History of Israel Reconsidered

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    History of Israel Reconsidered Prof. Ilan Pappe gyaku http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Mar07/gyaku18.htm Professor Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and senior
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2007
      History of Israel Reconsidered
      Prof. Ilan Pappe

      Professor Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and senior lecturer of
      Political Science at Haifa University. He is the author of numerous
      books, including A History of Modern Palestine, The Modern Middle
      East, The Israel/Palestine Question and, most recently, The Ethnic
      Cleansing of Palestine, published in 2006. On March 8, he spoke at a
      small colloquium in Tokyo organized by the NIHU Program Islamic Area
      Studies, University of Tokyo Unit, on the path of personal experiences
      that brought him to write his new book. The following is a transcript
      of his lecture, tentatively titled "The History of Israel
      Reconsidered" by organizers of the event.

      Ilan Pappe: Thank you for inviting me, it's a pleasure to be here. I
      hope that you will ask me, afterwards, questions of a more general
      nature because I'm not sure how much I can cover in 40, 45, 50
      minutes. I will be a bit personal, to begin with, and then move to the
      more general issues. I think it will help to understand what I am doing.

      I was born in Israel and I had a very conventional, typical Israeli
      education, and life, until I finished my B.A. studies at Hebrew
      University, which was many years ago in the mid-1970s. Like all
      Israeli Jews, I knew very little on the Palestinian side, and met very
      few Palestinians. And although I was a very keen student of history,
      already in high-school; I knew I would be a historian; I was very
      loyal to the narrative that I was taught in school. I had very little
      doubt that what my teachers taught me in school was the only truth
      about the past.

      My life was changed, in a way; definitely my professional life, but
      after that also my private and public life when I decided to leave
      Israel and do my doctoral dissertation outside the country. Because
      when you go out, you see things that you would find very difficult to
      see from within. And I chose as a subject for my doctoral thesis the
      year of 1948, because even without knowing much the past, I understood
      that this is a formative year. I knew enough to understand that this
      is a departure point for history, because for one side, the Israelis,
      1948 is a miracle, the best year in Jewish history. After two thousand
      years of exile the Jews finally establish a state, and get
      independence. And for the Palestinians it was exactly the opposite,
      the worst year in their history, as they call it the Catastrophe, the
      Nakba, almost the Holocaust, the worst kind of year that a nation can
      wish to have. And that intrigued me, the fact that the same year, the
      same events, are seen so differently, on both sides.

      Being outside the country enabled me to have more respect and
      understanding, I think, to the fact that maybe there is another way of
      looking at history than what I lived -- not only my own world, my own
      people's way, my own nation's way. But this was not enough, of course.
      This was not enough to revisit history, this attitude, this fact that
      one day you wake up and you say: wait a minute, there's someone else
      here, maybe they see history differently; and if you are a genuine
      intellectual, you should strive to have respect for someone else's
      point-of-view, not only yours.

      I was lucky that the year I decided to study the other side was the
      year when, according to the Israeli law of classification of
      documents; every 30 years the Israeli archives declassify secret
      material, 30 years for political matters, and 50 years for military
      matters. When I started in Oxford, in England, in the early 1980s,
      quite a lot of new material about 1948 was opened. And I started
      looking at the archives in Israel, in the United Kingdom, in France,
      in the United States, and also the United Nations opened its archives
      when I started working on this. They had interesting archives in
      Geneva, and in New York.

      And suddenly I began to see a picture of 1948 that I was not familiar
      with. It takes historians quite a while to take material and turn it
      into an article or a book, or a doctoral thesis, in this case. And
      after two years, I, at least, found that I had a clear picture of what
      happened in 1948, and that picture challenged, very dramatically, the
      picture I grew up with. And I was not the only one who went through
      this experience. Two or three, maybe four, historians -- partly
      historians, partly journalists, in Israel -- saw the same material and
      also arrived at similar conclusions: that the way we understood Israel
      of 1948 was not right, and that the documents showed us a different
      reality than what we knew. We were called the group of people who saw
      things differently; we were called the New Historians. And whether
      it's a good term or not we can discuss later, but it's a fact that
      they called us the New Historians, this is not to be denied.

      Now what did we challenge about 1948? I think that's very important to
      understand, the old picture, and the new picture, and then we can move
      on. The old picture was that, in 1948, after 30 years of British rule
      in Palestine, the Jewish Nation of the Zionist Movement was ready to
      accept an international offer of peace with the local people of
      Palestine. And therefore when the United Nations offered to divide
      Palestine into two states, the Zionist movement said yes, the Arab
      world and the Palestinians said no; as a result the Arab world went to
      war in order to destroy the state of Israel, called upon the
      Palestinian people to leave, to make way for the invading Arab armies;
      the Jewish leaders asked the Palestinians not to leave, but they left;
      and as a result the Palestinian refugee problem was created. Israel
      miraculously won the war, and became a fact. And ever since then, the
      Arab world and the Palestinians have not ceased to want to destroy the
      Jewish state.

      This is more or less the version we grew up with. Another mythology
      was that a major invasion took place in '48, a very strong Arab
      contingent went into Palestine and a very small Jewish army fought
      against it. It was a kind of David and Goliath mythology, the Jews
      being the David, the Arab armies being the Goliath, and again it must
      be a miracle if David wins against the Goliath.

      So this is the picture. What we found challenged most of this
      mythology. First of all, we found out that the Zionist leadership, the
      Israeli leadership, regardless of the peace plans of the United
      Nations, contemplated long before 1948 the dispossession of the
      Palestinians, the expulsion of the Palestinians. So it was not that as
      a result of the war that the Palestinians lost their homes. It was as
      a result of a Jewish, Zionist, Israeli, call it what you want, plan
      that Palestine was ethnically cleansed in 1948 of its original
      indigenous population.

      I must say that not all those who are included in the group of new
      historians agree with this description. Some would say only half of
      the Palestinians were expelled, and half ran away. Some would say that
      it was a result of the war. I have a clear picture in my mind. Of
      course I don't oblige anyone to accept it, but I am quite confident,
      as I wrote in my latest book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, that
      actually already in the 1930s the Israeli -- then it was not Israeli,
      it was a pre-state leadership -- had contemplated and systematically
      planned the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948.

      To summarize this point, the old historical Israeli position was:
      Israel has no responsibility for the Palestinians becoming refugees,
      the Palestinians are responsible for this because they did not accept
      the peace plan, and they accepted the Arab call to leave the country.
      That was the old position. My position, and with this a lot of the New
      Historians agree, was that Israel is exclusively responsible for the
      refugee problem, because it planned the expulsion of the Palestinians
      from their homeland. Therefore it definitely bears the responsibility.

      Another point that we discovered is that we checked the military
      balance on the ground, and we found that this description of an Arab
      Goliath and a Jewish David also does not stand with the facts. The
      Arab world talked a lot, still does today, but doesn't do much when it
      comes to the Palestine question. And therefore they sent a very
      limited number of soldiers into Israel, and basically for most of the
      time, the Jewish army had the upper hand in terms of the numbers of
      soldiers, the level of equipment, and the training experience.

      Finally, one of the common Israeli mythologies about 1948, and not
      only about 1948, is that Israel all the time stretches its hand for
      peace, always offers peace to the Arab world in general, and the
      Palestinians in particular, and it is the Arab world and the
      Palestinians who are inflexible and refuse any peace proposal. I think
      we showed in our work that, at least in 1948, that there was a genuine
      offer for peace from the world, or an idea of peace, after the war
      ended, and actually the Palestinians and the Arab neighboring states
      were willing at least to give a chance for peace, and it was the
      Israeli government that rejected it. Later, one of the New Historians,
      Avi Shlaim from Oxford, would write a book that is called the Iron
      Wall. In this book, he shows that not only in 1948, but since 1948
      until today, there were quite a lot of junctures in history where
      there was a chance for peace, and it failed not because the Arab world
      refused to exploit the chance, but rather because the Israelis
      rejected the peace offer.

      So revisiting history, for me, starts with 1948. And I will come back
      again in the end of my talk to 1948 to talk more about my latest book.
      But I want to explain that in the path from looking back at 1948 and
      questioning the common historical version and narrative, a group of
      Israeli scholars, academics, journalists, and so on, were not only
      content with looking at 1948 but also looked at other periods. We had
      a very strange time in Israeli academia, which is over now, in the
      1990s. In the 1990s, Israeli academics went back to Israeli history,
      as I said not only to 1948, and looked at very important chapters in
      Israel's history, critically, and wrote an alternative history to the
      one that they were taught in schools, or even in universities. I say
      that it is a very interesting time because it ended in 2000 with the
      second Palestinian uprising. You won't find many traces of this
      critical energy today in Israel. Today in Israel, these academics
      either neglect Israel, or left the views and came back to the national
      narrative. Israel is a very consensual society nowadays. But in the
      1990s it was a very interesting time, I'm very happy that I was part
      of it. I don't regret it, I'm only sorry that it does not continue,
      and time will tell whether it is the beginning of something new or
      whether it was an extraordinary chapter and is not going to be repeated.

      Now what did these scholars do? They went from the beginning of the
      Zionist experience to the present time and looked at all kinds of
      stations. They began with the early Zionist years. The Zionist
      movement appeared in Europe in the late 19th century. The first Jewish
      settler in Palestine arrived in 1882. Now the common view in Israel is
      that these people came to more or less an empty land, and were only
      part of a national project, that they created a national homeland for
      the Jews, and for some unexplained reasons, the Arabs didn't like it,
      and kept attacking the small Jewish community, and this seems to be
      the fate of Israel, to live in an area of people who cannot accept
      them. They don't accept them because the attackers of Israel are
      either Muslims, or Arabs, which should explain a certain political
      culture that cannot live at peace with neighbors, or whatever the
      explanations Israelis give for why Arabs and Palestinians keep
      attacking the Jewish state.

      Now the new scholarship decided to look at the movement of Jews from
      Europe to the Arab world as a colonialist movement. It was not the
      only place in the world where Europeans, for whatever reasons -- even
      for good reasons -- moved out from Europe and settled in a
      non-European world. And they said that Zionism in this respect was not
      different. The fact that the Jews of course were persecuted in Europe
      explains why they were looking for a safe haven, this is known and
      accepted. But the fact that they decided that the only safe haven is a
      place where already someone else lived turned them into a colonialist
      project as well. So they introduced the colonialist perspective to the
      study of early Zionism.

      They also looked differently at a very touchy subject, and this is the
      relationship between the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Very brave
      scholars showed what we know now is a fact how the Jewish leadership
      in Palestine was not doing all it could to save Jews in the Holocaust
      because it was more interested in the fate of the Jews in Palestine
      itself. And how the Holocaust memory was manipulated in Israel to
      justify certain attitudes and policies toward the Palestinians. They
      also note the treatment of Jews who came from Arab countries in the
      1950s, they found this Israeli urge to be a part of Europe very
      damaging in the way they treated Jewish communities who came from Arab
      countries. And of course it would have helped Israel to integrate in
      the Middle-East, because they were Arabs as well, but they de-Arabized
      them, they told them: "You are not Arabs, you are something else." And
      they accepted it because it was the only ticket to be integrated into
      Israeli society.

      All this revisiting, if you want, of Israeli history goes from 1882 to
      at least the 1950s. Around 100 to 120 scholars were involved in this
      in the 1990s. The Israeli public, at first, of course, did not accept
      these new findings, and was very angry with these scholars, but I
      think it was the beginning of a good chance of starting to influence
      Israeli public opinion to the point of even changing some of the
      textbooks in the educational system.

      Then came the second Intifada, and a lot of people felt that Israel is
      again at war, and when you are at war, you cannot criticize your own
      side. This is where we are now, and so many of these critical scholars
      lowered down their criticism, and in fact people like myself -- I can
      only testify from my own experience -- in one night, changed from
      heroes to enemies. It is not an easy experience. In the 1990s, my
      university was very proud that I was a part of it. So the Ministry of
      Foreign Affairs sent a lot of people to show how pluralistic is this
      university, they have this guy who is a New Historian, and he can show
      you how critical he is and that Israel is an open society, the only
      democracy in the Middle East.

      After 2000, I became the enemy of the university. Not only did the
      foreign office stop sending people to see me, the university was
      looking for ways of sending me abroad, not bringing people to visit
      me, and almost succeeded in 2002. There was about to be a big trial --
      the trial didn't take place, thank God -- where I was to be accused of
      all kinds of things that you would think that a democracy doesn't
      have, accusing lecturers of treason and being not loyal to their
      country, and so on. I was saying the same things in the 1990s as I was
      in 2002; I didn't change my views, what changed was the political
      atmosphere in Israel.

      I want to go, now, in the last part of my talk, to my new book. After
      working on this new scholarship I wrote quite a lot of articles and
      edited a lot of books that summarized this new scholarship that I was
      talking about, trying to assess its impact. I was also very impressed;
      in one of my books I wrote extensively about this -- how it influenced
      Palestinian scholarship to be more open and critical. It really
      created something which I call the "Bridging Narrative," a concept
      that I developed, and I am still developing. It is a historical
      concept that in fact to create peace you need a bridging narrative.
      You need both national sides, each has their own historical narrative,
      but if they want to contribute to peace they have to build a bridge
      narrative. I founded, together with a Palestinian friend, a group in
      Ramallah, called the Bridging Narrative Historians. We started to work
      in 1997, still work now, and it's a very good project of building a
      joint narrative. We looked jointly at history because we believe the
      future is there if you agree on the past.

      After doing that, I felt still very haunted by '48, I felt that the
      story was not complete. I wrote two books on 1948, and I felt it was
      not enough. And then came the new archives. In 1998, the Israelis
      opened the military archives. As I said, they opened political
      archives after 30 years, but military archives after 1990. And then I
      felt I had even a more complete picture, not only of '48, but
      unfortunately, of how '48 lives inside Israel today. And the new
      documents, I think, show very clearly, although I knew it before, but
      the new documents show even more clearly, if you needed more evidence,
      that the Zionist movement, from the very beginning, it realized that
      in the land of Palestine someone else lives. That the only solution
      would be to get rid of these people.

      I'm not saying that they knew exactly how to do it, I'm not sure that
      they always knew how to do it, but they definitely were convinced that
      the main objective of the Zionist project, which was to find a safe
      place for the Jews on the one hand, and to redefine Judaism as a
      national movement, not just as a religion, can not be implemented as
      long as the land of Palestine was not Jewish. Now some of them thought
      that a small number of Palestinians can stay, but definitely they
      cannot be a majority, they cannot even be a very considerable
      minority. I think this is why '48 provides such a good opportunity for
      the Zionist leadership to try to change the demographic reality on the
      ground. And as I tried to show in my book, ever since 1937, under the
      leadership of the founding father of Zionism, David Ben-Gurion, the
      plan for ethnic cleansing of Palestine was carefully prepared.

      This has a lot of moral implications, not just political ones. Because
      if I am right -- and I may be wrong, but if I am right -- in applying
      the term ethnic cleansing to what Israel did in 1948, I am accusing
      the state of Israel of a crime. In fact, in the international legal
      parlance, ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity. And if you
      look at the website of the American State Department, you will see
      that the American State Department Legal Section says that any group
      in history, or in the future, that lives in a mixed ethnic group, and
      plans to get rid of one of the ethnic groups, is committing a crime
      against humanity. And it doesn't matter -- very interesting -- it
      doesn't matter whether it does it by peaceful means, or military
      means. The very idea that you can get rid of people just because they
      are ethnically different from you, today, definitely, in international
      law, is considered to be a crime.

      It's also interesting that the State Department says that the only
      solution for victims of an ethnic cleansing crime, who are usually
      refugees because you expel them, is the return of everyone their
      homes. Of course, in the State Department list of cases of ethnic
      crime, Israel does not appear. Everyone else appears, from Biblical
      times until today, but the one case that does not appear as an ethnic
      cleansing case is the case of Palestine because this would have
      committed the State Department to believe in the Palestinian right of
      return, which they don't want.

      There is another implication. I am not a judge, and I don't want to
      bring people to justice, although in this book, for the first time in
      my life, I decided not to write a book that says "Israel ethnically
      cleansed Palestine." I name names, I give names of people. I give the
      names of the people that decided that 1.3 million Palestinians do not
      have the right to continue to live where they lived for more than one
      thousand years. I decided to give the names. I also found the place
      where the decision was taken.

      I think far more important for me is not what happened in 1948. Far
      more important for me is the fact that the world knew what happened
      and decided not to do anything, and sent a very wrong message to the
      state of Israel, that it's okay to get rid of the Palestinians. And I
      think this is why the ethnic cleansing of Palestine continues today as
      we speak. Because the message from the international community was
      that if you want to create a Jewish state by expelling so many
      Palestinians and destroying so many Palestinian villages and towns,
      that's okay. This is a right. It's a different lecture, why -- and I'm
      not going to give it -- why did the world allow Israel in 1948 to do
      something it would not have allowed anyone else to do. But, as I say,
      it's a different lecture, I don't want to go into it.

      The fact is that the world knew, and absolved Israel. As a result, the
      Israeli state, the new state of Israel that was founded in 1948,
      accepted as an ideological infrastructure the idea that to think about
      an ethnic purity of a state is a just objective. I will explain this.
      The educational system in Israel, the media in Israel, the political
      system in Israel, sends us Jews in Israel a very clear message from
      our very early days until we die. The message is very clear, and you
      can see that message in the platforms of all the political parties in
      Israel. Everybody agrees with it, whether they are on the left, or on
      the right. The message is the following. And to my mind -- I will say
      the message in a minute -- but I will say that, to my mind, this is a
      very dangerous message, a very racist message, against which I fight

      The message is that personal life -- not collective life, not even
      political life -- personal life of the Jew in Israel would have been
      much better had there not been Arabs around. Now that doesn't mean
      that everybody believes that because of that you go out and start
      shooting Arabs or even expelling them. You will see the paradox.

      Today, I gave an interview to a journalist here in Japan, and he told
      me of someone -- I won't mention the name -- but a very well-known
      Israeli politician of the left, who said to him: "My dream is to wake
      up one morning and to see that there are no Arabs in Israel." And he
      is one of the leading liberal Zionists, he is on the left, very much
      in the peace camp. This is the result of 1948, the idea that this is
      legitimate, to educate people that the solution for their problems is
      the disappearing of someone just because he is an Arab, or a Muslim,
      and of course the disappearing of someone who is an indigenous
      population, who is the native of that land, not an immigrant. I mean,
      you can understand, maybe not accept, but you can understand how a
      society treats immigrants. Sometimes they find that these immigrants
      come to take my job, you know these politics of racism that are the
      result of immigration. But we are not even talking about immigrants,
      we are talking about a country that someone else immigrated into, and
      turned the local people into immigrants, and said that they have no
      rights there.

      If someone who is from the Israeli peace camp, and very much on the
      left, has a dream that all the Arabs would disappear from the land of
      Israel, you can understand what happens if you are not from the left.
      You don't dream, you start working on this. And you don't have to be
      on the extreme right for that, you can be in the mainstream. We have
      to remember that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 was
      committed by the Labor Party, not by the Likud, by the mainstream

      In other words, what we have here is a society that was convinced that
      its need to have ethnic exclusivity, or at least total majority, in
      whatever part of Palestine it would consider to be the future Jewish
      state, that this value, this objective is above everything else in
      Israel. It's more important than democracy. It's more important than
      human rights. It's more important than civil rights. Because, for most
      Jews in Israel, if you don't have a demographic majority, you are
      going to lose, it's a suicide. And if this is the position, then no
      wonder people would say that if the Palestinians in Israel would be
      more than 20%, we will have suicide. You will hear people that will
      tell you that they are intellectuals, liberals, democrats, humanists,
      say this.

      And if Israel wants to annex -- and it wants to annex -- half of the
      West Bank, as you know, and half of the West Bank has a lot of
      Palestinians in it, there is not one person in Israel that thinks that
      it's wrong to move by force the people that live in one half of the
      West Bank to the second half of the West Bank. Because otherwise the
      demographic balance in Israel will change. And it's no wonder that
      Israelis feel no problem with what they did to the Gaza Strip. Take
      one million and a half people and lock them in an impossible prison
      with two gates and one key, that the Israelis have, and think that
      people can live like this without reaction. In order to delegitimize
      the right of someone to be in their own homeland, you have to
      dehumanize them. If they're human beings you won't think about them
      like this.

      I think that as long as this is the ideology of the state of Israel,
      and it is the ideology of the state of Israel, a lot of the good
      things in Israel -- and there are many many good things in Israel,
      it's an impressive project that the Zionist movement did, the way it
      saved Jews, the way it created a modern society almost out of nothing
      -- all these amazing achievements will be lost. First of all the
      Palestinians would lose, that's true. This is true. First of all the
      Palestinians are going to lose because the Israelis are not going to
      change -- it doesn't look like they're going to change their policy,
      and it doesn't look like anyone in the world is going to force them to
      change their policy. But in the long run, Israel is not alone, and it
      is a small country in the Arab world and in the Muslim world, and
      America will not always be there to save it.

      In the end of the day, if the Israelis, like South Africa -- you
      cannot be in a neighborhood and be alien to the neighbors -- and say
      "I don't like you," or "I don't want to be here," eventually they
      would react. It could take one hundred years, two hundred years, I
      don't know. But the Israelis are miscalculating, I think, history.
      Only historians understand that sixty years is nothing in history.
      Look at the Soviet Union. The fact that you are successful for sixty
      years with the wrong policy does not mean that the next sixty years
      are going to be the same. They're making a terrible mistake, as the
      Jewish communities around the world are making a terrible mistake in
      supporting this policy.

      The new book is trying to convince that the most important story about
      the ethnic cleansing is not only what happened in 1948 but the way
      that the world reacted to what happened in 1948, sending the wrong
      message to Israel, that this is fine, you can be part, not only of the
      world, but you can be part of the Western world. You can be a part of
      what is called "the group of civilized nations." So don't be
      surprised, if you go to the occupied territories and you see
      first-hand how people are being treated there, that the vast majority
      of the Israelis, firstly don't know what goes on there, secondly when
      they know what goes on there, don't seem to bother much. Because the
      same message they got from the world in 1948 is the message they get
      from the world in 2007. You can take a whole city -- imagine Tokyo --
      surround it by an electric gate, and one person would have the key for
      the only gate to the city. Any other place in the world, if you would
      hear of a city that is at the mercy of a warden, like a prison, you
      would be shocked. You would not allow it to continue for one day
      without protests. In Israel, the world accepts it. And this is despite
      the fact that there are more international journalists per square mile
      in Israel and Palestine than there are anywhere else in the world.
      That's a fact. And despite this international media presence, the
      Israelis have not changed one aspect of their policy of occupation in

      As I say, unfortunately I don't have time for this, but I think it's a
      very interesting question: why does the world allow Israel to do what
      it does? But it's really a different question; so I think I will stop
      here, and open up for questions and remarks. Thank you.

      gyaku is a media project based in Japan.



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