Efraim Karsh: Takes Israel's "New Historians" to task for alleged misuse of evidence

Historians in the News

[Efraim Karsh is professor and head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London and an author, most recently, of Islamic Imperialism: A History. He is a member of the SPME Board of Direcors.]

Since Israel's founding in 1948, there have been two Arab-Israeli conflicts. The first one is military in nature. Played out on the battlefield, it has heroes, villains, martyrs, and victims. The second conflict, less bloody but no less incendiary, is the battle over the historical culpability for the 1948 war and the displacement of large numbers of Palestinian Arabs.

The Israeli narrative views the Palestinian tragedy as primarily self-inflicted, resulting from their vehement rejection of the 1947 United Nations resolution calling for two states in Palestine, and the violent attempt by regional Arab states to abort the Jewish state at birth. By contrast, Palestinians view the episode as one in which they fell victim to a Zionist strategy that dispossessed them from their patrimony.

The New Historians

In the late 1980s the Palestinian narrative was bolstered by the advent of a group of Israeli "new historians" who systematically rewrote the history of Zionism, warping the saga for Israel's survival. Aggressors were characterized as hapless victims and victims became aggressors. Rarely found in these revisionist accounts was the outspoken Arab commitment to destroy the Jewish national cause since the early 1920s, or the dogged efforts of the Jews to achieve peaceful coexistence. Instead, Zionism is depicted as an aggressive and expansionist movement, or an offshoot of rapacious European imperialism. According to Avi Shlaim, a noted new historian, Israel was an "aggressive and overbearing military superpower," while Palestinian Arabs could "only be seen as victims."

Aware that many of their key arguments and revelations were already negated by the existing work of "Israeli writers, not to mention Palestinian, Arab, and Western writers," as Shlaim noted, new historians staked their legitimacy on their supposed use of recently declassified documents from the archives of the British Mandate period and Israel's early days. This pretense, however, was debunked inter alia by a startling admission by Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva.

In researching The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, the most influential work of the new historians, Morris had "no access to the materials in the IDFA [Israel Defense Force Archive] or Hagana Archive and precious little to first-hand military materials deposited elsewhere." Nevertheless, he insisted, "the new materials I have seen over the past few years tend to confirm and reinforce the major lines of description and analysis, and the conclusions, in The Birth."

This revelation was very damning. What made Morris and his colleagues worth reading was their claim to have studied newly available documentary evidence. It was this evidence, the new historians argued, that necessitated a reevaluation of Israeli history. Yet there was Morris, admitting that he had not "had access" to, or "was not aware of," the voluminous archives of Israeli institutions whose actions in 1948 formed the basis of his indictment.

Morris and other new historians also failed to confirm and reinforce their conclusions with previously available sources. What they did confirm was what was already known: the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian society was largely the responsibility of Palestinian and other Arab leaders, not of the Zionists.

Morris' Distortion

Upon close examination, it appears that Morris and other new historians engaged in systematic falsification of evidence. They seem to have invented an Arab-Israeli history that fits with the political agenda they promote. Tactics range from the "innocent" act of extrapolating incorrect conclusions from documents, to tendentious truncation of source materials in ways that distort their original meanings, and even rewriting original texts to convey things they did not intend. Two brief examples are worth noting.

In a letter to his son in 1937, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, wrote:

"We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption - proven throughout all our activity - that there is enough room for ourselves and the Arabs in Palestine."

In The Birth, however, Morris claims Ben-Gurion penned the opposite: "We must expel Arabs and take their place." Curiously, in his Hebrew-language writings, Morris rendered Ben-Gurion's words accurately, perhaps knowing that readers could check the original source.

In a separate article, Morris distorted Ben-Gurion's words from an Israeli cabinet meeting on June 16, 1948:

"We did not start the war. They made the war, Jaffa went to war against us. So did Haifa. And I do not want those who fled to return. I do not want them again to make war."

The key sentence, "I do not want those who fled to return," is simply not found in the text of the meeting transcript. Rather, it reads as follows:

"We did not start the war. They made the war. Jaffa waged war on us, Haifa waged war on us, Beit Shean waged war on us. And I do not want them again to make war."

Again, in the Hebrew version of his article, Morris did not distort Ben-Gurion's words.

At What Risk?

The discipline of history, the rigorous search for the truths of our past, typically eschews the blatant distortion of facts. Yet, in the highly politicized field of Middle Eastern studies, the new historians are lionized as pioneers. They are viewed by their colleagues and understudies as courageous for debunking Zionist "mythology" at a considerable professional risk....

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