The legacy of Joan Peters and ‘From Time Immemorial’

Historians in the News
tags: Joan Peters

Joan Peters has died.  She wrote, or at least inspired, a very significant chapter in the history of Israeli hasbara.  Thirty years ago, Peters, a formerly little known “journalist,” published her magnum opus, From Time Immemorial:  The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict over Palestine.  The book launched a wide-ranging controversy that involved Norman Finkelstein, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow, Daniel Pipes, and many others.  Even now, thirty years later, Peters is mourned by some and reviled by others.

Peters’s thesis, simply stated, is that prior to massive immigration of European Jews to Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the land was mostly barren and under-populated.  The newly arrived Jews brought great prosperity which attracted a large number of Arabs from neighboring lands who then moved to Palestine to share in the fruit of Jewish ingenuity and wealth.  As a result, many of the people who call themselves Palestinians today are descendants of these relatively recent economic immigrants, and their displacement at the time of Israel’s creation is much fairer, or at least much less unfair, than Palestinians and their supporters claim.

The book proved to be a godsend, particularly for those Zionists who were slightly troubled by the possibility that the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine might have been disadvantaged by the Zionist project of creating a Jewish State on their land.  Whatever minimal discomfort their consciences gave them could now be put to rest entirely, and their ideological adversaries who complained of forcible displacement and exile would be battered by the intellectual clarity of a 600-page heavily-footnoted scholarly tome.  “Palestinians,” who could now appear in quotation marks, were not victims of Zionism, but only nomads who recently had been squatting on Jewish land and seeking to mooch off the success of a superior culture.

Consequently, the book received rapturous attention and praise upon its publication in 1984.  World renowned historian Barbara Tuchman raved:  “This book is a historical event in itself, a discovery that has lain in the dark all along until its revelation by Joan Peters’s unrelenting research.  It could well change the course of events in the Middle East.”  Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg also gushed their enthusiasm over this ground-breaking book, as did Elie Wiesel.  There was little serious criticism of FTI in the U.S. until Norman Finkelstein, then a graduate student at Princeton, started methodically picking it apart, with the cautious encouragement of Noam Chomsky, who presciently advised him that such heretical activities might derail his budding academic career.  Finkelstein’s preliminary findings were published in In These Times, and he subsequently expanded them in his book a decade later, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

When Peters’s book was published in the UK in 1985, it received a much more hostile response.  For example, in the London Review of Books, Ian Gilmour, a Conservative who served in the Heath and Thatcher governments, along with his son David, savaged the book in great detail.  The New York Review of Books then gave space to Israeli history Professor Yehoshua Porath’s extremely critical review.  Soon, even some of Peters’s American supporters were distancing themselves.  For instance, Daniel Pipes, who had given the book a positive review in Commentary, now felt compelled to admit that the book had serious flaws –“From Time Immemorial quotes carelessly, uses statistics sloppily, and ignores inconvenient facts. . .  The author’s linguistic and scholarly abilities are open to question. . .  In short, From Time Immemorial stands out as an appallingly crafted book.”  (He should have added:  “Sorry I forgot to mention that in my original review.”) ...

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