Benny Morris: Blasts Tom Segev, Gives Ginor & Remez benefit of the doubtHistorians in the News
By Tom Segev
Translated by Jessica Cohen
(Metropolitan Books, 673 pp., $35)
Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War
By Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez
(Yale University Press, 287 pp., $26)
In all modesty, I know a thing or two about historical revisionism. The desire to innovate, to surprise, to overthrow conventional wisdom and to subvert the well-worn tale--I, too, have acted on these impulses. And I have no apologies for the disturbances that I caused. In the 1980s, the history of Zionism and Israel sorely required critical review and scholarly emendation. For decades, too much nationalist propaganda had passed without scrutiny and been imbibed by Israeli society.
The official history--from the outlandish, skimpy beginnings of Zionism in the 1880s, when a handful of poor Jewish settlers struck roots in a semi-arid patch of ground ruled by hostile Muslim governors, through the succession of victories over much larger and potentially far more powerful surrounding Arab states--was a tale of triumph and glory, veritably miraculous in concept and in experience. This history seemed, to myself and to some others, to call out for cool, objective study--and, in the process, to be pricked and deflated. In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, large themes and central episodes of the hallowed narrative were revised and retold with some persuasiveness and success, if not to universal approbation. Tom Segev had a small part in this revisionism with his 1949: The First Israelis, which appeared in English in 1986, but the book vanished without leaving much of a trace on Israeli scholarship or Israeli consciousness, because in tackling too many themes--the "Sephardi Problem," the religious-secular divide, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--he contributed significantly to none.
But not all revisionism is good. Historical revisionism should aim at presenting a clearer and more accurate picture of the past than that served up by the previous generation of historians--a more truthful picture of what happened, and why, and how; of what motivated the protagonists and what were the reasons for, and consequences of, a given action or episode. Good revisionist historiography is no different from good historiography. It should not be written with a political purpose, or with the aim of shocking for shock's sake. (That is not revisionist historiography, it is tabloid historiography.)
Now, following the opening of many of the relevant major collections of papers in Israeli and American archives, we are in the throes of a revisionist surge regarding the Six Day War, whose fortieth anniversary has just been marked with a mixture of celebration and anxiety. Both 1967, by Tom Segev, and Foxbats Over Dimona, by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, are explicitly revisionist. Ginor and Remez aim to correct our understanding of a crucial aspect of the origins of the crisis in May 1967, giving a radically new spin to the war that took place the following month, and specifically Soviet behavior during the war; while Segev subjects the war, including its origins and its aftermath, and specifically the question of Israeli behavior during the war, to the full flail of newly released documentation, turning the whole story on its head. Six Day War revisionism is not a purely local emendation of history: in Ginor and Remez's case, it has important global ramifications, and in Segev's case, it has deep moral implications regarding the conduct of the Jewish state....
... there is revisionism and there is revisionism. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez's book opens a door for further research. Its thesis deserves to be beaten like bushes by hunters outing their prey--and the prey will indeed be trapped, one way or another, at the moment the Russian archives open the relevant files. And if what the authors suggest is true, the Six Day War will end up illumined in a completely fresh light. As for Tom Segev, his book points readers and scholars in no worthwhile direction. Its argument is not merely wrong; it also makes a small contribution of its own to the contemporary delegitimation of Israel.
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