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The History of Israel Reconsidered: A Talk by Ilan Pappe
March 18, 2007
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 (unsuccessfully).
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 ideology.
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 Palestine.
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. This article was originally posted here.
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