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April 27, 2010: Setting the Historical Record Straight

August 15, 2010

Today I attended a lecture at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs given by Dr. Avi Beker.  Former  Secretary- General of the World Jewish Congress, he now lectures in the MA program on diplomacy at Tel Aviv University.
The subject of his talk: Post-Zionist historical Revisionists (the “New Historians”).  Those who have been most influential are:
Avi Shlaim — Baghdad-born, Israeli, teaching at Oxford and known for his book The Iron Wall
Ilan Pappe — Israeli-born professor of history in the UK
Tom Segev — Israeli historian and journalist (Haaretz columnist)
Benny Morris — Israeli, spent part of his youth in the US, author and professor of history at Ben Gurion University
It is likely that you know at least some of these names.  Dr. Beker focused on Morris, the dean of the Revisionists, for reasons that will become obvious.
The revisionist history claims that Israel was born in sin because we drove out the Palestinian Arabs.  What the New Historians have done is to substitute narrative for historical veracity. 
And here I would like to stop for a minute, for I, too, sometimes refer to a narrative.  We haven’t told our narrative sufficiently in recent years, I have been known to lament, but instead actually promote the Palestinian Arab narrative. And from time to time I may continue to do this.  What I am saying, of course, is that our point of view, our perspective, has been neglected.  But there are historical facts and it is perhaps better simply to say that we counter Arab narrative with just that: facts.
Of course, when I refer to narrative, I am thinking as a Zionist, while the New Historians have crafted a narrative that is anti-Zionist.  While their thinking was once fringe, it has entered the mainstream, particularly in academia.  The revisionist version of matters affected the dialogue of the “peace process” (Oslo) with the suggestion that we have an obligation to “right the wrongs” of 1948.
There are key issues that the Revisionists have focused on:
The refugees:  Were they expelled or did they flee? 
The Revisionists talk not only about our having expelled the Palestinian Arabs from the area that became Israel, but in some instances refer to our having committed massacres with an intent to genocide.
The fact is that in most instances the Palestinian Arabs fled.  In those few instances in which they were driven out it, was because they were seen as a security risk — a fifth column — behind Jewish lines during an existential war.  This was notably the case at Lod.  As to so-called “massacres,” there were pitched battles in the course of a war.  This was the case, for example, in Deir Yassin, where we have been accused of a massacre that never took place: the reality was a battle in which Jews died as well as Arabs.
Balance of forces — was it with the Israelis or the Arabs?
The Revisionists have it that what the Israelis did was not such a big deal — neither a major historic victory nor so brave.  The historical facts tell another story (and I’ll come back to this).
Arab intentions — to destroy Israel or share the land?
The Revisionists say the intentions of the Arabs were mixed.  The historical facts tell a clear story of an attempt to destroy us.  (This, too, I shall return to.)
A significant point Dr. Beker makes is that selective facts, taken out of historic context, can present a skewed picture.  And what has happened with Benny Morris in the last few years is that he is looking at the broader picture, and shifting his perspective considerably.  It is one matter, for example, to say that there is historic evidence that Arabs were driven out — notably in Lod.  This information, provided without context, presents a very specific, though erroneous, picture.  It’s another to say, yes, they were driven out on this occasion, but it was because they were a threat to the Israeli fighters and were behind Israeli lines.  Besides which, this is an exception and in most instances they fled.
This change in Morris’s perspective began in 2000, when, as he has written, he saw that the Palestinian Arabs rejected the offer of a state made by Barak, then prime minister.  He saw that they truly did not intend to share the land.  And so began what amounts to a sort of tshuva (repentance or return), which is not explicit, but which is having the effect of demolishing the structure of the Revisionists.
Morris’s recent books, 1948 and One State, Two States represent a major change from his 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.  Now he writes with historic awareness.  And while he still reflects a certain confusion, and may contradict himself sometimes, he is sounding like a spokesperson for Israel.
Dr. Beker looked at several issues that Morris has examined, and which I would like to share with you here:
Morris speaks of the Islamic hatred of Jews, going back to the Koran.  The war in 1948, he says, was fought in an atmosphere of jihad.  He says that even Ben Gurion was not aware of the depth of hatred felt by the Arabs, and blames historians who ignore the jihadi rhetoric.  The war from the Arab perspective was not nationalist but a religious war, a “holy war.”  He even faults historians who ignore the earlier Islamic battle to control the Holy Land (this against the Crusaders). 
Morris now says there were armies of at least seven countries (although not all had sent troops) involved in the war in 1948, and we were outnumbered.
The slaughter of the residents of Gush Etzion by the Jordanian Legion is also part of the broader context that must be considered.  The British provided well-trained Jordanians with arms but didn’t respond to Jewish cries for help.
[Note: there were Jewish communities in Gush Etzion prior to the founding of the state, there to provide a defense against forces seeking to march on Jerusalem from the south. Some of those who went to live in the re-established Gush Etzion communities after 1967 were the children of those who had been slaughtered in 1948.]
Now Morris speaks about the Jewish refugees from Arab lands who were absorbed by Israel.  This provides an important context, for there was an exchange of populations. 
In the histories of Pappe and Shlaim, there is no mention of the Jewish refugees, nor of the spirit of jihad nor of Arab anti-Semitism.
In a major shift of subject, I note here that things are not looking real good for Netanyahu.
Yesterday, there were more rumors afloat — and an article in Haaretz — suggesting that the prime minister had put in place a de facto, unofficial freeze on construction in at least some p
arts of eastern Jerusalem.  According to certain municipal employees, he simply gave an order to prevent new starts, with approval of go-ahead blocked at the planning committee level.  It has been difficult to pin down, precisely because it is unofficial. Some were claiming that it was bureaucracy that was holding matters up, and nothing more.
I spoke yesterday to an individual with good contacts and solid political instincts, who told me that this was still just rumor, and that many rumors floating had turned out to be not true.  He said that while there was talk about meetings not held, in fact some meetings regarding planning had been held.
And, indeed, on April 16, I had written in my post that:
For the second time, this past week, I picked up news about construction in Jerusalem being “on the agenda.”  Now, putting it on the agenda is not the same as sending out the bulldozers, but there is a suggestion that there indeed will be construction in Jerusalem, over the Green Line (i.e., there is no de facto freeze).
Building projects that were supposed to be on the agenda of Jerusalem’s Local Planning and Building Committee  included a school and a synagogue in the Gilo neighborhood, and an extension to a synagogue in Pisgat Ze’ev.
And so, I held off, determined to get a clearer handle on the situation before writing about it.  (Good luck to me.)  My comment, privately, yesterday, was that if Abbas agrees to start talks, this would move us in the direction of concluding that something has happened.
And, unfortunately, this is what we have now: 
According to Khaled Abu Toameh, writing today in the JPost, Abbas has said that he is now ready for “proximity talks” because the US has assured him that Israel would effectively freeze construction of housing in some Jerusalem neighborhoods.  This came from a PA official in Ramallah.  “Netanyahu has promised the Americans that the Ramat Shlomo housing project won’t take place, at least not in the near future.  Netanyahu has also promised to refrain from taking provocative measures in the city…”
And so, as I say, it’s not looking good at all. But I still want to know more before I issue blanket condemnation.  An official from Ramallah saying that the US promised that we would do something is not clear confirmation of facts as they exist on the ground.  
Am I uneasy?  You bet!  I would have to be nuts not to be.  Am I aware that holding out for more information may cast me as naive or idealist? Sure. But so be it.
I note, for example, that this Ramallah official said that the Ramat Shlomo project won’t take place, “at least not in the near future,” and I recall that just recently the “news” was floated that Netanyahu had agreed to freeze Ramat Shlomo building for two years.  This tells me it’s all amorphous and unconfirmed, and sometimes contradictory.
I had noted recently when these rumors began floating, that a very quiet behind-the-scenes stoppage of construction without an official announcement by Netanyahu might not satisfy Abbas because he needs to save face.  There has been a very quick turn-around on Abbas’s part with regard to his willingness to participate in indirect talks, and this has to have come with an enormous amount of US arm-twisting.  The statement from Ramallah may be that face-saving gesture.
If, indeed, Netanyahu has agreed to a de facto stoppage, it surely was intended to be done quietly.  Otherwise, why make it unofficial?  But the PA has “gone public.” 
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, essentially telling us nothing, said today:
“We have asked both sides to take steps to rebuild trust and to create momentum so that we can see advances in peace talks. We’re not going to go into details about what we’ve asked them to do, but obviously this is an important issue in the atmosphere to see the advancement of peace.”


And Netanyahu himself?  Right now he’s very busy campaigning with regard to a Thursday vote within Likud that would change the party’s constitution.  A significant matter.

Accompanied by others in Likud, including Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon (Bogie), Netanyahu was the guest of Likud Central Committee members in Ashkelon today.  When speaking there, he took the opportunity, just briefly, to lash out at Moshe Feiglin, head of the Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction of Likud, who has criticized him.  “They want to teach Bogie and me how to protect Jerusalem. They should not preach to us…”  He added that Obama and European leaders are well aware of his position on Jerusalem.

Well, the implication is there:  I have been saying no freeze in Jerusalem, and they know it.  But there is nothing specific.  No statement clearly refuting the rumors that there is a de facto freeze in part of Jerusalem.

Is he planning to have his proverbial cake and eat it too?


I go on record, unequivocally, regarding the fact that caving to Obama on this issue would be (is?) horrendous.  It would weaken our rights to our capital city, united under our sovereignty, and it would set a precedent for ever more concessions, without end. 

I have left a message with Mark Regev, spokesman for the prime minister.  I said I do not like to write on the basis of rumor:  I requested a clear statement, on the record, regarding whether there is a de facto construction freeze in Jerusalem. I am not holding my breath waiting for the answer, but, should I receive it, will speedily share it with all of you.

Surely, there will follow-ups on this.


Right now Foreign Minister Barak is in Washington and Obama has met with him — as has National Security Adviser James Jones (undoubtedly about Iran).  According to presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs, Obama told Barak that he is determined to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

And what planet is he from?




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