The new book by our friend and occasional Paris correspondent Michel Gurfinkiel could not be more timely. The talk is all of Arab springs and revolutions, while the United States appears by all evidence to be going through the most broad-ranging reappraisal of its Mideast position since Lyndon Johnson made support for Israel one of the cornerstones of American policy.
Readers familiar with Gurfinkiel’s earlier historical studies will recognize the deft combination of erudition and intuition, rigorous attention to the contemporary political and psychological climate, and feel for the large world-historical canvas against which the details of today’s news appear, by turns, puny and fraught with significance. At a time when the legitimacy of the Jewish state is questioned by the oddest collection of bedfellows (eg, European secular democrats and Arab theocrats), Gurfinkiel demonstrates the Jewish claim on Israel from historical, linguistic, legal, and even genetic evidence. At the same time he asks, Why is this still an issue?
The answer is that a curious evolution in the geopolitics of ideas has left Israel’s enemies in a position to set the agenda of any discussion of that old perennial, “Middle East peace.” They have done this partly by rephrasing many of the basic facts about the origins of the contemporary Middle East and even, when possible, replacing the facts altogether with fictions or memory holes. If Gurfinkiel’s earlier Roman d’Israel, The Israel Story, was written to provide a handy and highly readable narrative of the modern rebirth of Israel, the purpose of the new book is to run down the list of errors, misconceptions, and omissions that distort current debates, in policy circles no less than among the popular media, regarding Israel and the Arabs.
In a characteristic example of “counter-revisionism,” Gurfinkiel examines the term naqba or catastrophe. In current discussions, this refers to the fate of the Palestinian Arabs during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The misfortunes of this population are not a matter of controversy, though their causes and magnitude are. He delves into these issues, in some detail, in other chapters, but his purpose in discussing the “catastrophe” is to ask why it is the only one, of the many that marked the blood-drenched 20th century, that has achieved and maintained the status of an “unresolved question” that the “international community” must address.
Along with the events of 1948, there were many other catastrophes in the Middle East’s recent history. Perhaps 250,000 Palestinian Arabs (noncombatants) were displaced at that time. Leaving aside the documented facts (which he discusses elsewhere) that the civilian and military authorities of the fledging Israeli state by and large (and with some exceptions) tried to discourage the Arabs from leaving the new nation while the Arab leadership did just the opposite, Gurfinkiel observes that during the same period and in the years following, some 900,000 Jews were summarily expelled from Arab countries where they had lived for millennia, in many cases long before the advent of Islam.
The Arab world, Gurfinkiel notes, in the early decades of the 20th century, contained large Christian minorities, in some areas comprising 20 percent or more of the population. The Middle East, after all, is where Christianity emerged, not only as a faith and a tradition of thought and dogma, but as a community with characteristic institutions like the church and the episcopate. Beginning in the 1920s, millions of Christians found themselves, in successive waves of persecution, forced to choose between death, exile, and conversion to Islam or to one of the secular ideologies, such as pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, that might buy a temporary and highly probationary acceptance in the Arab “awakening.”
This catastrophe is scarcely ever mentioned, even though the Christian remnant populations of the Arab world, including recently liberated Iraq and newly transitional Egypt, continue to be drastically reduced.
Looking to other lands, including areas in the Muslim world, Gurfinkiel does not find the same obsession with a catastrophe, even when the disaster in question was at least as devastating, and often more so, than the one that befell the Arabs of mandatory Palestine. The Muslims of the Indian sub-Continent experienced a catastrophe when the British withdrew in haste, well over a million slaughtered by fanatical Hindus and millions more displaced to a new nation, Pakistan, soon to become two new nations when Bangladesh (the eastern portion) broke away.
It is, frankly, difficult to see how this relentless process of imposing a new conventional wisdom—conventional fiction, rather—can be reversed. It suits too many purposes. Whether it can be resisted is another question. So far it has been, and Gurfinkiel, familiar with the long history of relations between America and Israel, knows that ebbs like the current policy climate in Washington have been followed by flows. In the interest of resistance, it would, at any rate, be an act of considerable merit to get this book translated as quickly as possible.
Roger Kaplan is a frequent contributor.