Israeli New Historicism

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Israeli New Historicism

by Dr. Saleh Abel Jawad
March 1996

Israeli Historiography before the New Historians was a biased, adulterated and all-together misleading narrative, which was used by Israeli propagandists as an integral facet in the battle of falsifying history for political needs and purposes. Traditional Historians succeeded in creating and perpetuating a wide array of myths that served as the basis of information for numerous researchers, policy-makers and the general public. In fact, many of the Israeli historians and other Israelis who provided crucial information on the subject were often previous military and political leaders. These fallacious and mythical accounts of history quickly permeated the international arena and were immediately accepted as authoritative and legitimate reference sources. Their success was due to the overwhelming abundance of information provided by the Israelis, easy access to a well rooted mass media infrastructure, and finally because of the simple lack of any substantial Palestinian Historiography.

Although there are a large number of critically important myths that can be examined I will, for the purpose of brevity, contain my references to several that best illustrate the underlying nature of these myths. These myths refer to the period before or immediately following the 1948 war, a time in which the majority of Israeli Historians, new as well as traditional, did most their work.

One of the most illustrious and widely believed myths was that of the weak and vulnerable Israel floating amidst an ocean of hostile and despotic enemies (David and Goliath). Yet another legendary myth perpetuated by Israeli Historians was the depiction of Palestinians as an inherently violent, backwards and indolent people who had no capacity nor will to live in peace. This myth goes on to postulate that the Palestinians left their homes out of cowardice and in compliance with the appeal of Arab armies and Palestinian leaders who requested them to do so. These myths make no mention of the over 400 villages completely destroyed immediately following the 1948 war, a period in which the world was eagerly affirming the creation of a Jewish state. Thus the systematic annihilation of over 85% of all existing Palestinian villages inside the newly established boundaries of Israel was a fact that Israeli Historians deliberately omitted and a reality that the world community remained oblivious to.

The infamous massacre of Deir Yassin was presented by Israeli historians as an isolated incident carried out by right wing extremists rather than a part of well-organized and systematic attacks designed to instill terror and induce mass exodus amongst the Palestinians.

The New Historians have opposed many of these mythical accounts and have succeeded in destroying or weakening many of these myths. The fact that they are Israelis, mostly Zionists and have open access to obscure Zionist archives, allows them to enjoy more credibility when compared to their Palestinian or foreign counterparts.

Benny Morris, the most distinguished and leading New Historian within Israel, succeeded in completely exposing the myth of David & Goliath by indicating that throughout the 1948 war the Israelis outnumbered not only the few thousand organized peasant Palestinian fighters but also all of the Arab armies.

Morris points out that the Palestinian exodus was in great part the direct response of a military campaign accompanied by fear and massacres conducted and led by the Haganah, and not simply right wing extremists. Tom Segev, another leading New Historian has also succeeded in revealing the mythical nature of previous Israeli history. In his book, The First Israelis, he presents a sobering and realistic account of the blatant destruction of Palestinian property throughout 1948 and 1949, and gives crucial insight into the series of legal measures intended to permeantly dislocate those who fled.

Unfortunately the overall impact of the New Historians within Israel has been confined to a small number of researchers and to those few individuals who seek the unadulterated and true historical facts of the region. These results have yet to affect the general consciousness of the Israeli public which is still by and large entrenched within traditional and more right wing historical accounts. Other problematic issues with Israeli New Historicism is that, while it tries to be objective, it still resonates with Zionist overtones. Secondly, Israeli New Historians have never utilized Arab oral history as a source--a critical component of coming to a comprehensive understanding of history. Furthermore, these Historians--as all citizens in Israel--continue to live and work in a society whose very foundation depends upon this history.

An example of some of the limits of Israeli New Historianism can be seen in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem where the author, Benny Morris, argues that no concrete evidence suggesting the presence of a master-plan of Palestinian expulsion exists. This conclusion is in spite of the numerous examples, provided in his own text, of Palestinian exodus relating directly to expulsion. Morris arrives at this conclusion by claiming that no written evidence confirming the presence of a master-plan exists. Yet here he ignores two important facts that he is certainly aware of. First, most of these files are highly classified and still inaccessible, even to Israeli Historians. Second, Ben Gurion and other Israeli leaders deliberately withheld this information precisely because they knew that future historians would attempt to utilizes these materials.

Despite, these obvious weaknesses and inherent limitations in Israeli New Historicism I don't agree with some Palestinian Historians who dismiss their work all together. I feel that the new evidence in the field of Historical research, however limiting it might be, is a step further towards reaching a "real history."

A collective Palestinian-Israeli effort to engage in a sincere attempt to come to a common historiography or even engage in a frank debate, even though desperately needed, has yet to materialize. Nevertheless, there have been various individual attempts to engage in unilateral collaboration to begin some movement towards this direction. Yet, ultimately in regards to my experience I feel that such a debate and cooperation can only be conducted within the atmosphere of real and comprehensive peace, something that unfortunately remains extremely elusive. The Oslo Accords have been exploited by the Israeli government and settlers to perpetuate illegal occupation and continue the conflict, which is highly antithetical to the atmosphere of intellectual exchange. Furthermore, the continual closure of Jerusalem makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to enter the city, so that joint collaboration between Israeli and Palestinians Historians is seriously hindered by even the logistics of Occupation. In addition to these obstacles the Palestinians are also constrained by a lack of adequate resources and facilities to establish proper centers and institutions that would facilitate this type of exchange, or support comprehensive research.

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Material compiled by Rami Nashashibi, June 1996. Page design by Birzeit Web Team, March 1997.
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