The Magazine

Debunking Israel

In the guise of demythologizing, the "new historians" create their own myths

Jan 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 17 • By AMITAI ETZIONI
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The Iron Wall

Israel and the Arab World by Avi Shlaim

Norton, 670 pp., $ 32.50


Righteous Victims

A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 by Benny Morris

Knopf, 751 pp., $ 40

In preparation for Thanksgiving, Public School 87 in New York City teaches fourth graders what it felt like to be a Native American when the Pilgrims arrived: "Strange-looking people" came and "ransacked our houses, cut down our trees, killed our pets and took our tomatoes." In Arlington, Virginia, kids learn about the "brutality" of the Pilgrims. But much of the rest of the nation has been spared.

In Israel, by contrast, beginning this school year, ninth graders are being taught what it felt like to be a Palestinian Arab living in Jaffa or Jerusalem when the first Zionist settlers arrived. This lesson is part of a deliberate drive to change the national consciousness. New textbooks, in use nationwide, as well as an extensive series on Zionist and Israeli history on public television, call into question previously sacred Israeli tenets: that Jewish immigrants to Palestine settled largely on swamps they drained, hillsides they cleared, or land they bought at full price from Arabs; that the settlers sought to live in peace with the "natives"; and that they would have been content to accept various compromises dividing Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state -- a plan scuttled by the Arabs time and again. Instead, children are being exposed to an "alternate narrative," according to which Jews drove Arabs off their land and rejected numerous peace feelers from Arab leaders. Far from defending themselves heroically, the Israelis are now said merely to have exploited their military superiority in their numerous confrontations with the surrounding Arab nations.

Superficially, these new teachings mandated by the minister of education reflect the rising influence of a new group of largely leftist Israeli historians, often referred to as revisionists. They have gained much power over the Israeli education establishment as well as the media. The revisionists include more than a dozen figures, ranging from the relatively moderate Benny Morris, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, to Ilan Pappe, an immoderate Marxist. Somewhere in between is Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford. The works of these and other revisionists spilled out of academe into the public debate and deeply influenced a group of educators working in the government of Yitzhak Rabin. This group continued quietly to develop the new curriculum under the administration of Bibi Netanyahu and introduced it this year, during the administration of Ehud Barak. While neither Rabin nor Barak endorsed the new viewpoint, both tolerated the antics of the Left for narrow political reasons.

Two major works of revisionist Israeli history have just been published in English. Benny Morris's book is comparatively scholarly and relatively free of overt editorializing and spin. It covers, battle by battle, more than a hundred years of Zionist settlement in Palestine and Israel, up to 1997. Morris's thesis is that the clash between Jews and Palestinians is the clash of two rights; both sides are victims of the situation.

Avi Shlaim builds his new book around an argument made by the dissident Zionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s. Jabotinsky argued that Palestine was not a land without people, looking for a people without a land, as some of the original Zionists naively assumed. Hence, a protracted fight between the settlers and the native people was inevitable. He further maintained that the Jewish settlers must steel themselves, act resolutely, and focus on their self-interest without sentimental attention to others -- before the Arabs would be ready to work out a compromise. Shlaim claims that this paradigm, consciously or unwittingly, guided all that followed. Actually, given that the founding fathers and mothers of Israel and most of their followers were social democrats who considered Jabotinsky unacceptably right-wing and fought him and his followers bitterly, this seems implausible.

As a leading Israeli scholar, Anita Shapira, has pointed out, Shlaim, unlike Morris, takes it for granted that the Arabs were the natural occupants of the land, while the Jews were the interlopers. In the process, Shlaim disregards the Jews' historical roots in Palestine and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were driven out of Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa and had to be settled somewhere.