Missed Opportunities

In New Histories, Two Israeli Scholars Offer Invective Instead of Edification

By Jonathan Spyer

Published May 07, 2004, issue of May 07, 2004.
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A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples

By Ilan Pappe

Cambridge University Press, 333 pages, $22.

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Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians

By Baruch Kimmerling

Verso Books, 234 pages, $22.

* * *

There is a growing corpus of Israeli responses to the collapse of the peace process of the 1990s, and the eclipse of the expectations of imminent historic compromise between Israelis and Palestinians that it brought in its wake. “A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples” by Ilan Pappe and “Politicide: Ariel Sharon”s War against the Palestinians,” by Baruch Kimmerling are the latest additions. Written from the vantage point of passionately held positions, these books offer examples of the pitfalls awaiting scholars unable or unwilling to draw a clear dividing line between academic research and political advocacy.

The authors are high-profile scholars, each of whose name has been associated, in different ways, with attempts to “explain” the Palestinian position and identity to both Israeli and general readers. Kimmerling, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a noted sociologist whose previous works include a history of the Palestinians and a number of studies of the effects of Zionism on the growth and development of Israeli society. Pappe, a far more controversial figure, is an outspoken activist on behalf of the Palestinian cause, both in Israel and internationally. Both books deal with history, but are composed without recourse to primary sources or interviews. They are extended polemical essays, seeking to drive home very clear interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partially via the enlisting of historical evidence.

Kimmerling”s book, which differs markedly in tone from his scholarly work, is more honest about this intention. Kimmerling clearly disagrees viscerally with the policies of Ariel Sharon — a legitimate point-of-view. But this book is the work of an able scholar whose dislike for a leader has clouded his judgement. “Politicide: Ariel Sharon”s War against the Palestinians” is written as a warning. Kimmerling defines “politicide” as “a process that has, as its ultimate goal the dissolution of the Palestinian people”s existence as a legitimate social, political and economic entity,” and he asserts that this is Sharon”s intention toward the Palestinians. Interestingly, the word “politicide” has a meaningful pedigree: It has traditionally been an item in the verbal arsenal of pro-Israeli campaigners, used to describe the Arab aim of bringing about the destruction of the State of Israel. One assumes that Kimmerling is aware of this, and has deliberately chosen to reverse its usage.

The desired picture of an Israeli polity bent on destroying the Palestinians is constructed in a variety of rather dubious ways. Israel is described as becoming a “semi-fascist” regime, and possessing “fascist tendencies.” We are offered no coherent explanation, however, of what these tendencies are supposed to entail. The desire for “politicide” of the Palestinians, meanwhile, is placed in the “very nature and roots of the Zionist movement.” The author quotes, for example, a Haaretz interview with IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, in which Yaalon describes terrorism as a “cancer” against which he and his soldiers are applying “chemotherapy.” Kimmerling tries to assert that the Chief of Staff is referring to all Palestinians, or perhaps all Arabs, as a “cancer,” and he compares Yaalon’s words to the Nazi “Der Sturmer.” This is a disingenuous misinterpretation of the statement in question.

Later, we are informed that Sharon has surrounded himself with individuals who “seemingly” support the expulsion of the Palestinian population from the territories. Kimmerling names Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and once again Moshe Yaalon as examples. We are not told on what this claim is based, or what exactly it means to “seemingly” support transfer. Neither man has expressed himself on any occasion as being in favor of such a policy.

A certain incoherence thus pertains throughout this book. At one point, Kimmerling even admits that he does “not pretend to…guess Sharon’s real intentions or plans,” but this has not deterred him, apparently, from writing an entire book about Sharon’s alleged desire for the “politicide” of the Palestinians.

Pappe wears his bias even more clearly on his sleeve. Though he claims to

be taking a “new look” at modern Israel — one focused on the “different ways of life” attempted, in his view, by rank and file individuals on both sides — what follows is essentially a rehashing of the standard Palestinian nationalist version of events. Indeed, in the introduction, Pappe even admits to a bias in favor of the Palestinians, which he justifies as deriving from his natural “compassion” for the underdog.

The book has a number of minor but significant factual errors. Pappe depicts, for example, the Betar organization clashing with Arabs in Jerusalem in 1920, but Betar was founded — in Riga — in 1923. There are unattributed references, including a claim that David Ben-Gurion’s diary expresses support, under the right circumstances, for the expulsion of the “indigenous population” of Palestine.

Overall, in short, this book falls below the methodological standards one has the right to expect from an academic history. One last example should adequately prove my point: In what became a high-profile story in Israel in 2000 and 2001, a master’s stu-

dent at Haifa University named Theodore Katz, who was supervised by Pappe, presented a thesis alleging that a massacre of 200 Arabs was committed by the IDF”s Alexandroni Brigade at the village of Tantura in May of 1948. Veterans of the brigade sued Katz, claiming he had falsified oral evidence, and Katz withdrew his allegations. The interview tapes on which he based his allegations were later examined by a university committee and found to contain discrepancies. Even more suspiciously, Katz received $8,000 from the PLO during the legal proceedings.

Katz’s accusations, with none of this background explained, are used by Pappe to depict what he calls the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Pappe’s blithe recounting of these extremely contentious allegations is accompanied by a footnote, in which he refers the reader to an article he wrote on the affair in the “Journal of Palestine Studies” (a PLO-sponsored journal). But don’t readers deserve to be made aware in the narrative of the very dubious and controversial nature of the evidence on which allegations of a massacre are being made? Pappe apparently thinks not.

In the sections dealing with the Oslo process and its demise, Pappe’s adoption of Palestinian claims is yet more apparent. He attacks the Israeli government’s insistence that progress depended on the “successful and peaceful” implementation of the Interim Agreement, phrasing which meant essentially that improvements could not be made if terrorism continued. Pappe dismisses this as the “Israeli concept of security,” and depicts with empathy the refusal of the Palestinians to accept the “humiliating” Clinton proposals. We should remember that among these proposals was a Palestinian state on 98% of the territory of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount area.

Such one-sided polemicising takes place in a book whose author promised to move us beyond “national” historiography. “A History of Modern Palestine” is a deeply dubious exercise, containing nothing new, except perhaps a new monument to political propaganda masquerading as research.

Pappe has been a strong supporter of the academic boycott of Israel, and one would be naïve to be surprised at the unashamedly propagandistic nature of his work. Kimmerling’s polemic, on the other hand, offers greater cause for concern. While holding radical, anti-Zionist views, Kimmerling has previously proved able to separate these views from his research work, and on this basis to pursue a distinguished and internationally-recognized academic career. His incoherently defended allegations of “politicide” represent a cheapening of his credentials, and an attempt to mask simple invective with a false veneer of intellectual gravitas.

If this is to be the language of debate, if standards of rigor and proof are no longer considered necessary, and wild accusations fly freely, ultimately we all pay the price. One hopes that the discerning reader, faced with publications of this kind, will move on, uttering a murmured exhortation for the return of saner days.






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