Hijacking History, With Few Facts and Fewer Sources

By Benny Morris

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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Free Jerusalem: Heroes, Heroines and Rogues Who Created the State of Israel

By Zev Golan

Devora Publishing, 315 pages, $21.95.

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Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement

By S. Ilan Troen

Yale University Press, 341 pages, $35.

* * *

In five or 20 years’ time, I imagine, Palestinian writers will begin to churn out “histories” of the Palestinian intifadas against Israel, focusing on the deeds of the liberation fighters/terrorists who were the spear point of the struggle. They will insist that these men were brave, noble, humble, loyal, respectful and selfless; that they loved their mothers/fathers/children/brothers and sisters; and that, in other circumstances, they would never have hurt a fly or raised their voices in anger. And the Palestinian chroniclers, in the manner of nationalist hagiographers, will avoid mention of the buses and coffee shops and passengers and clients — men, women and children these “heroes” and “heroines” bloodily, regularly dispatched to the hereafter. Instead, when resorting to detail, the chroniclers will focus on attacks on soldiers, on the courage, resolve, wiliness and self-sacrifice of their heroes and heroines in taking on, and defeating, their far better-armed foes.

Zev Golan’s new book is just such a chronicle, except his “heroes” and “heroines” are the Jewish fighters/terrorists of the Irgun Zva’i Le’umi (the IZL or “Irgun”) and Lohamei Herut Yisrael (the “Lehi” or, in British parlance, “Stern Gang”). According to Golan, it was they who fought off the Arab assailants in the disturbances or pogroms of 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1936 through 1939, while the mainstream, socialist-led Haganah sat back and watched (adopting a policy of havlaga, or restraint); and it was they who drove the British out of Palestine; and they who, as in the subtitle, “created the State of Israel.” Moreover, they “helped lay the foundation for a future Jewish army.”

Most of these claims are pure nonsense. But, to be sure, they are rooted in current intellectual currents. Since the Likud assumed power in Israel in 1977, the Israeli right has been trying to hijack Israeli history by magnifying its own role in that history and, specifically, in the creation of the state. This book falls into that pattern — indeed, caricatures it. While modern historiography (by such scholars as Michael Cohen) supports the view that Irgun and Lehi operations substantially, perhaps even decisively, contributed to the British decision in 1947 to evacuate Palestine, the claims that the Irgun and Lehi beat off the Arabs in the 1920s and 1930s, created the State of Israel and helped create the Israel Defense Force are all figments of a propagandistic imagination. And to write of the Zionist establishment’s policy of “nonresistance” to the Arabs between 1936 and 1939 is simple calumny; thousands of Haganah members spent long days and nights guarding settlements, and dozens of them, in the Special Night Squads and other units, spent weeks and months chasing and killing Arab fighters.

Golan, who is described on the dust jacket as “a well known Nazi-hunter” (I didn’t know that the hunt was still on) and director of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a right-wing think tank in Jerusalem and Washington, tells us that he bases his story, or collection of stories, on books of memoirs of Irgun and Lehi fighters and on the “yellowed newspapers [and] the archives of the Jabotinsky Institute and the Bet Yair Museum in Tel Aviv.” Here, says Golan, one finds “the history of modern Israel.” Unfortunately for the Israeli right and its “historians,” the history of Zionism and Israel is to be found in the infinitely larger, richer archives of Zionism’s mainstream institutions and parties, the Central Zionist Archive, the Israel State Archive, the IDF Archive, the Haganah Archive, the Labor Party Archive, etc. And while I, too, like yellowed newspapers, their importance pales in comparison to the treasures to be found in these major archives. The same applies to the Jabotinsky and Stern collections. For example, the papers in the Haganah Archive of the Haganah Intelligence Service Internal Department, which monitored the Irgun and Lehi, are far more important to understanding the functioning and history of these two groups than the combined papers — often not much more than newspaper clippings — of the Jabotinsky and Stern collections.

Golan hagiographically reviews the careers of such men as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist stream of Zionism, and Avraham Stern, the founder of the Lehi, and focuses on the particular stories of individual fighters/terrorists, such as Eliahu Hakim and Eliahu Bet Zuri, who assassinated British Minister Resident in the Middle East Lord Moyne in November 1944, not knowing — like Golan himself — that Moyne was by this stage a supporter of a Jewish state. The murder greatly angered Moyne’s close friend, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and may thus have contributed significantly to the deferment of Jewish statehood.

One may or may not view the Irgun and Lehi policy of attacks on British Mandate personnel from 1944 through 1948 as a legitimate means of evicting a foreign occupier. But Golan completely fails to describe the dark side of the Irgun’s (and, to a lesser degree, Lehi’s) activities vis-à-vis the Arabs — the mass indiscriminate murder of civilians in retaliation for Arab attacks on Jews during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt and the start of the 1948 war. These bombings preceded, and resemble nothing so much as, the contemporary Hamas-Islamic Jihad-Tanzim bombings of Israel’s buses and markets (which the Arabs contend are in reprisal for Israel’s oppressive occupation and specific attacks on Arabs by Israeli troops). In one obtuse, deliberately obfuscating reference to the Irgun bombings in 1937 through 1938, Golan writes of the “planned retaliatory bombings in areas used as rendezvous by the Arab gangs.” Later, he briefly mentions the repeated Irgun bombing of the Haifa market (which he claims, without offering any proof, deterred further Arab attacks on Jews in Haifa), without giving the reader any sense of the mayhem and fatalities caused, as he does when referring to Arab attacks on Jews. (Indeed, Golan devotes three whole pages to describing in great detail the British torture of one Irgun operative, Benjamin Zeroni, the man who planned the Haifa market bombings.) He doesn’t tell his readers that on July 6, 1938, an Irgun bomb, placed inside milk canisters in that market, killed 21 shoppers and wounded 52; or that three weeks later, on July 25, another bomb, in a pickled cucumber can, killed 39 shoppers and wounded at least 70 at the same site. Nor does he tell us that the exiled Jabotinsky, ostensibly in charge of the Irgun, objected to these operations. The Lehi’s robbing of banks, including Jewish-owned banks, in the early 1940s is described by Golan as “relieving” these institutions of their funds.

But, clearly, attempting to whitewash the Irgun and Lehi weighed on Golan’s mind. At one point, Golan states:

A cursory glance at the above list of almost two dozen acts of sabotage and mayhem perpetrated by the Lehi reveals not one directed at women, seniors riding buses, innocent people walking to work or children playing in schoolyards…. To specifically target women and children would have been unimaginable for any of the Hebrew forces.

Golan seems to be arguing against comparing the Irgun and Lehi with contemporary Palestinian terrorists. But his argument won’t fly. I see no difference between planting bombs in Arab markets (1937-38) designed to kill as many shoppers as possible and planting bombs on Jewish buses (2000-03) designed to kill as many passengers as possible. Killing as many civilians as possible is, in both cases, the name of the game.

Having avoided serious research, Golan has produced a book that consists almost wholly of anecdotes and yarns, of the sort the old underground survivors, now in their 80s, tell their grandchildren around the family fires. Serious historiography cannot be based on oral testimony elicited decades after the event or on self-serving, self-aggrandizing memoirs.

The book is chock-full of ultra-nationalist (not to mention racist) clichés and epithets. Golan writes of “yelping,” “slithering” and “excited” Arabs, and of their “sinister villainy.” And it is marred by passages of embarrassingly incorrect purple prose such as: “When the hour was right, the hills knew — though shepherds and sheep and soldiers did not — the glance of one man would be enough to shake the hills and bring the dreams to life.”

The book features an endless stream of factual errors: Jabotinsky did not cross the Jordan River “westward in the British conquest of the Holy Land.” Indeed, the British army, under General Allenby, conquered Palestine in two giant spurts, by driving northeast from the Sinai through the Gaza Strip and Beersheva toward Jaffa and Jerusalem and then, in 1918, into the Jezreel Valley, on the way to Damascus. Golan writes that “Tel Hai held on for two and a half months though surrounded by Arabs bent on razing it to the ground.” But there was no months-long siege; it was a one-day skirmish in which six Jews were killed, at which point the bulk of the defenders abandoned the site and withdrew. Jabotinsky did not found the Haganah — he was instrumental in founding the Jerusalem Haganah unit, one of the components of the national Haganah, founded mainly by a group of veterans of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement. The “Border Army” he writes of, presumably referring to the Transjordan Frontier Force, was not “the forerunner to the Jordanian Legion,” by which I think he means the “Arab Legion.” The legion was founded before the Transjordan Frontier Force. And so on.

While the Irgun and Lehi were out murdering Arabs and British soldiers, be it out of vengeance or to eject the foreign occupier, the organized Yishuv — the Jewish Agency, the socialist parties (Mapai and Mapam), et al. — spent much of the 1930s and 1940s setting up the infrastructure of future Jewish statehood. A crucial component of this infrastructure was the 200-odd settlements, most of them kibbutzim, which later served, in 1947 and 1948, both to define the Jewish-held part of Palestine and to secure it

against Palestinian and outside Arab aggression.

In “Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement,” Ilan Troen, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and Brandeis University, gives us a sweeping overview of the development of Zionist settlement policies, rural and urban, between 1882 and 2000, in Palestine/Israel. He describes the farming villages established by the First Aliya of 1882 through 1903, the kibbutzim and moshavim set up in subsequent decades, Israeli urban development policy and praxis before and after 1948, the establishment of the development towns and villages in the 1950s and 1960s, the settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967 and the urban-development of Jerusalem (and, to a lesser degree, of Haifa and Tel Aviv) since then. Troen’s chapters on the staggered changes in Jerusalem are one of the book’s better parts, though there are lapses: He fails to clearly and honestly describe the June 1967 razing of the Mughrabi Quarter opposite the Wailing Wall and the expulsion of its inhabitants.

Generally, Troen is careful to mask his politics; perhaps he wishes not to give anyone offense. The book generally maintains a neutral, even keel. But occasionally Troen lapses into paeans of admiration for the efficiency and daring of the Zionist enterprise. And in the matter of the post-1967 settlements, in his conclusions he briefly allows himself cautiously worded hints of criticism.

Troen sometimes makes telling points — about the connection between the settlers’ European baggage and background and the type of settlements they built in Palestine; or on the reasoning behind the urban planning and praxis in and around Jerusalem before and after 1948 and 1967. But the book makes for a tiresome read, partly because of the author’s verbosity. There is an abundance of padding; everything must be said at least twice, it seems. We are told that, in Ottoman times, Jerusalem was “a provincial backwater of no political or material significance” and, a mere four pages later, that it was “an insignificant provincial center.”

But Troen’s prose is the minor problem in this largely disappointing book. His chief defect is that, having taken on a mission to describe a vast enterprise, spanning more than a century and innumerable sites, he spends most of his time analyzing and explaining rather than describing what actually happened; the basic facts about events and processes are often lacking. At the end of the day, the reader is left with very little actual knowledge. For example, we never actually learn how the post-1967 West Bank, Gaza, Golan and Sinai settlement enterprises took off; who decided what and when; when and where were the first settlements established; how were they constructed and with what purpose, etc. Nor do we learn about the major, revolutionary post-1948 urban projects that changed the face of Jaffa-South Tel Aviv and Tiberias, or the vast rural upheaval that changed the face of Palestine and replaced some 400 Arab villages with a similar number of Jewish settlements.

And often, when Troen stoops to detail, he is maddeningly wrong. He tells us, for example, that the British Peel Commission issued its findings in January 1937 (in fact, it was July); that the commission recommended the “partition” of Jerusalem (it recommended partitioning Palestine; Jerusalem, along with Bethlehem and a strip of land leading to the Mediterranean coast, was to remain in British hands); that the United Nations partition plan of November 1947 did not include the Negev in the Jewish state (actually, most of the Negev was earmarked for the Jews); that the inhabitants of Majdal (Ashkelon) fled in 1948 (more than 2,000 remained, leaving for Gaza only in 1950); that “by November 1948,” Israel had decided not to allow the return of the Arab refugees (this position was adopted already during June-August 1948); that the Jordanians bombarded “Tel Aviv and Jerusalem” on June 5, 1967 (they did not bombard Tel Aviv); that in 1967, “a consensus emerged [in Israel] that called for exchanging most of the newly conquered territories of the West Bank for recognition and peace” and that Israel “offered the exchange of conquered land for a peace treaty” (in fact, the secret Israeli Cabinet decision of June 19, 1967, which Troen fails to mention, offered Egypt and Syria the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in exchange for peace but failed to offer a territorial compromise in, let alone all of, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in exchange for peace), and that “both the 1929 riots and the intifada of 2000 began in Jerusalem with an attack on Jews at the Wailing wall.” (Neither began with an attack on “Jews at the wall,” though the wall figured as a reason in both outbreaks.)

One reason for the plethora of mistakes, I would conjecture, is that Troen, like his fellow “historian,” Golan, never, or almost never, actually looks at primary, archival materials; his book is based almost completely on secondary works, articles and memoirs. A trawl through his footnotes reveals only a handful of references to documents and files in archives — and more often than not, these references are mistaken or incomplete. One footnote refers to the number of a file deposited in the Central Zionist Archive without citing either the record group in which it is found or identifying the document from which the quotation is taken: Is it a letter, a memorandum, a cable? By or from whom to whom? From what date? Without these, what is the point of the footnote? Troen, who asserts — correctly — that the Haganah/IDF had major input on settlement policy, the location of settlements, etc. during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps beyond, failed completely to consult the Haganah and IDF archives. This reader emerged with a feeling that when Troen ostensibly quotes from a document, he in fact is quoting from a secondary work that is based on an archival source.

The picture that emerges is of a “historian” floundering in an uncharted sea: He knows relatively well the island on which he has found haven. But beyond, all around, is a frothing sea of general Zionist/Israeli history and the Zionist-Arab conflict, of which he knows little or nothing. Thus this story of Zionist settlement — in itself wonderful, moving, dramatic, perhaps ultimately tragic — lacks real context and meaning.






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