The High Stakes in the History Wars in Israel

tags: Israel, Wars in Israel

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College. The author of more than ten books, Gordis is a regular columnist for both the Jerusalem Post and for Bloomberg View. His latest book is Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (2016).

That UNESCO voted, twice in recent weeks, to issue statements essentially denying any longstanding historical connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem’s Old City might seem like a tempest in a teapot. After all, even those with only a basic familiarity with the history of the region know that the biblical King Solomon constructed his Temple there, that several hundred years later, the Israelites rebuilt the destroyed Temple and that Herod ultimately expanded it. It is common knowledge that Jerusalem’s Temple Mount was the destination of thousands of Jews performing the biblically mandated pilgrimage, and that even after the Romans exiled the Jews from Jerusalem once again in 70 CE, Jerusalem played a central mythic role in Jewish liturgy and in Jewish dreams for an eventual return to their homeland. What difference, then, do two UNESCO votes really make?

The UNESCO statements, however, while historically absurd, must be seen as part of a larger, deadly serious battle over Israel’s legitimacy, and thus, over Israel’s future. Michael Oren, the noted historian and once Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, noted that “great wars in history eventually become great wars about history,” and Israel is perhaps the classic case in point. Having failed to destroy Israel through military means and having discovered that even boycotts and financial assaults cannot effectively weaken the Jewish state, Israel’s enemies have sought victory in the arena of world opinion. They assert that because there is no historical link between the Jewish people and Jerusalem or the Temple Mount, the Zionist claim that in founding Israel the Jews have returned home is false and that Israel is thus a colonialist project.

In ways that one could not have anticipated just decades ago, Israel’s future may well depend – more than anything else – on history.

It is thus not surprising that UNESCO is hardly the only arena in which Israel’s opponents are waging their assault on the narrative at the heart of the Jewish return to Zion. When the United Nations passed the infamous resolution that “Zionism is Racism” in November 1975, the US Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, thundered “a great evil has been loosed upon the world.” He understood that the UN resolution was more than bad history; it was bad history in the service of an undisguised ideological goal.

While the UN’s assault on Israel’s narrative is well known, what is perhaps less familiar is the fact that a similar battle over Israel’s story has been unfolding among Israeli historians themselves. In the 1980’s, a left-leaning group of Israeli scholars began to question central facets of the story that the Jewish state told and taught about itself, most particularly with regard to the 1948 War of Independence and the Arab exodus from Palestine/Israel. Israel had long claimed, both in its curricula and in international discourse, that the 700,000 Arabs who fled the region did so either of their own accord or even because Arab leaders had urged them to leave, promising them that they would return home when the Arabs won the war and the newly established Jewish state was destroyed.

These “new historians,” a term coined by Benny Morris, himself a leading scholar and a member of the group, argued that the reality had been significantly more complex. Some of the Arabs fled as soon as their own local leadership left for Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. However, Israel’s founder and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, some of these historians asserted, was concerned that too large an Arab population in the fledgling Jewish state would preclude the state’s being both Jewish and democratic. He commanded his forces, some new historians insist, to pressure the populations of some of the villages to leave.

That claim was highly controversial within Israel; for some time, Israel’s classic historians treated the new historians almost as traitors. Vitriol surrounding their claims often drowned out scholarly debate over their data and findings.

With time, though, the argument has shifted in several distinct ways.

First, a consensus that the “new historians” were correct in many ways slowly emerged. As had been the case across Europe in World War II just a few years earlier, the movements of armies were often accompanied by the relocation of populations, sometimes unintentionally, but at other times, quite purposefully. It was an uncomfortable dimension of the war for some Israelis, but also an undeniable one.

Second, the new historians gradually split. As some of the new historians, more radical and typically anti-Israel, began to claim, for example, that Israel had committed genocide in the War of Independence, other new historians insisted that there was little basis to such claims. Benny Morris, for example, often seen as the most scholarly of the group, denied the genocide claim. While he acknowledges that both sides committed atrocities, he also notes that on the Israeli side these acts were the exception, while on the Arab side, brutality was the rule.

Finally, in the aftermath of the Second Intifada (2000-2004), it became clear to many Israelis that even the Oslo Peace Accords would not satisfy many Palestinians, who seemed less committed to their own sovereignty than they were to ending Jewish independence. Some of the new historians (Benny Morris chief among them) thus stood by their scholarly conclusions but surprised many by arguing that Ben-Gurion had had no choice, and that, if anything (says Morris), Ben-Gurion did not go far enough.

Yet the genocide charge has stuck, even among writers deeply devoted to Israel and its future. Ari Shavit, for example, who referred to his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel as a “painful love story” accepted the charge of wanton Israeli atrocities. In the battle for Lydda, he writes (page 108) “Zionism carries out a massacre.”

In 2014, in response to Shavit (who largely based his account on Benny Morris), another historian looked carefully at the documentary evidence and effectively showed that no such massacre ever took place. While the new historians had done important work in uncovered the complexities of the Arab flight in 1948, those who used their work for more explicit ideological purposes had gone off the evidentiary rails.

In short, the battle over the narratives surrounding Israel’s creation continues, and makes the telling of Israel’s story a complex and delicate task.

This ongoing debate, both scholarly and ideological, presented me with an interesting challenge as I was writing my newest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. Though Israel, a tiny state in terms of both territory and population, is one of the most-discussed, studied and controversial countries in the world, forty years had elapsed since an American had written a single-volume history of the Jewish state intended for a thoughtful non-scholarly audience. Howard Sachar’s classic A History of Israel first appeared in 1976, and it weighs in at 127o pages. Other English volumes followed, but they, too, were quite lengthy, and in some cases, did not address the above-mentioned controversies, which have become central to the discourse about Israel on college campuses and far beyond. Sir Martin Gilbert’s Israel: A History, was published in 1998 (before the Second Intifada, for example), and runs 848 pages. Anita Shapira’s identically titled book appeared in 2012, but at almost 230,000 words, was still far too long for most readers.

Could one write a history of Israel that would read easily, be approximately 400 pages in length and perhaps most importantly, strike a balanced and centrist position on such a highly charged topic? That was my intent.

Given that goal, one critical question that arose was whether, and how, to address the challenge of the “new historians.” To accept the charges of those like Ilan Pappe, who has written books with titles such as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, was out of the question; Pappe’s scholarship derives from a profound antipathy for the Jewish state (of which he is a citizen) and is dismissed by both most mainstream historians as well as many of the “new historians.” Yet to ignore the new historians and their troubling assertions would be equally intellectually disingenuous, virtually guaranteeing that university audiences would – legitimately – dismiss the book out of hand.

I decided to put my faith in the work of serious historians, to stay above the ideological fray and to trust the intellectual abilities of the reader. On the matter of the Palestinian exodus of 1948, for example, it is virtually undeniable that Israel’s original narrative, in which the Jewish state bore little if any responsibility for the tragedy of refugees, is no longer sustainable. The new historians have upended that narrative, and my readers deserved to learn about the very best of the new historians’ research. So I included Morris’s conclusions as generally accepted, even while noting how contentious they once were.

At the same time, to accept the charges of genocide or wanton atrocity would have been tantamount to surrendering to ideological currents, rather than sticking to historical evidence. I therefore chose to include not only the work of new historians, but the work of others historians who challenge some of the new historians’ assertions, on subjects such as the battle for Lydda.

In short, I presented the work of the new historians as “consensus” where such a consensus has emerged, while shying away from their more contentious assertions, which are more tainted by ideology than they are by careful scholarship.

This approach will undoubtedly frustrate readers on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Those who are inclined to see Israel as innocent of any responsibility for the refugee problem will take umbrage at Morris’s work having been included at all. Those who believe that whatever role Israel had in the 1948 exodus means that the Jewish state was “born in sin” will be troubled by the work of those who challenge the new historians.

Yet that, I think, is what a thoughtful history ought to do for lay audiences no less than for scholarly readers. Good historical scholarship is generally too nuanced to satisfy ideologues, regardless of their position. I felt that in telling the story of a tiny but vitally important country, I could still count on readers who would embrace a fair, centrist narrative, even if it challenged some of their assumptions and ideological instincts. Given the ideological stridency of our era on many fronts, I hoped that in writing the book in this way might inspire readers to greater nuance and balance not only on the subject of Israel, but on the many issues which are now reshaping our world.  

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