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http://www.umassd.edu/specialprograms/mideastaffairs/revisionists.htm

 

After half-century, historians debate Israel's birth

By Dan Perry*

 

For the Jewish refugees and pioneers who built Israel on the ashes of the Holocaust, theirs was a straightforward tale of justice, heroism and redemption.

But a half-century later, a maturing nation is reassessing its violent birth, with historians angrily debating a long-suppressed question with broad implications: Was Israel born in sin?

For Ilan Pappe, among the most outspoken of Israel's "new historians," the answer is a resounding yes.

"Jews came and took, by means of uprooting and expulsion, a land that was Arab," the Haifa University scholar said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We wanted to be a colonialist occupier, and yet to come across as moral at the same time!"

The "new historians" claim that in many cases their predecessors dishonestly perpetuated national myths, especially surrounding the 1948-49 war that established Israel and created the Palestinian refugee problem.

Among the claims made by the revisionists:

--The Jews' victory over several invading Arab armies in the 1948-49 war was not the miracle they like to believe. The stronger side won.

--The Arabs who fled Israel (estimates range up to 700,000) were not just responding to Arab leaders' calls to clear out of the way so Arab armies could massacre the Jews. Many, if not most, were driven out.

--After the war, the Arabs were not the rejectionist side. Israel's leaders hid from their people a series of peace overtures because they were unwilling to compromise.

In Israel, history and the present day mix constantly. Some fear the revisionists' dismantling of Israel's heroic self-image could weaken its resolve as it prepares to negotiate final borders with the Palestinians -- and it has sparked an angry backlash.

For instance, Ephraim Karsh, who teaches war studies at London's Kings College, denounced the revisionism as distortion peddled by cynics.

"The motives of Israel's founders were pure," he insisted. "They wanted a Jewish state for the Jewish people."

The expulsions issue was long muddled by confusion surrounding the war, a vague assumption that Arab versions of events were false -- as, indeed, they often were over the years -- and regulations sealing documents relating to state security for 30 years.

The first salvo from the "new historians" came in the late 1980s, when Benny Morris, now a professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, detailed the expulsions of the Arabs in a series of articles and a book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem."

"They (the Arabs) left for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which was Israeli attacks and fear of Israeli attacks -- imminent, not imagined attacks,"

Morris said in an interview. Morris could not say exactly how many were directly driven out. In Lod and Ramle, about 60,000 were actually forced out by Israeli troops, while in Haifa, Jaffa and Safed, Arabs fled on or near the dates of Jewish attacks, he said.

And while Zionist leaders may not have planned the expulsions, Morris said, they toyed with the idea while struggling with a basic quandary: "They had to establish a Jewish state in a country where there was a majority of Arabs. Any way you divided the country there would be a large ... potential fifth column."

After a British commission recommended a partition of Palestine and population exchanges in 1937, David Ben-Gurion and others who led Israel before statehood made numerous statements in support of transferring the Arab population out of Israel, Morris said. "There is never one quote that they oppose transfer."

Pappe has tried to prove that Israel's War of Independence was not what it seemed for Israelis reared on the idea that a small, ragtag army of Jewish refugees miraculously prevailed over powerful Arab invaders.

The Arab armies -- primarily from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Transjordan, now Jordan -- totaled just over 20,000 men, he said. The core of the Arab nations' fighting forces remained behind, in part to ensure the internal stability of their own fledgling regimes.

The nascent Israel Defense Force -- mostly based on the pre-state Hagana militia -- soon outnumbered the Arabs and the Jewish soldiers were far more motivated. The Arabs also were crippled by dependence on British military supplies, which were withheld, Pappe said.

Crucially, Israel had a quiet agreement with Transjordan that its Arab Legion, the strongest of the invading armies, would take over only the West Bank, which the U.N. partition plan had intended as the center of a Palestinian Arab state, Pappe said.

Even so, the Arab Legion handily won a few battles, including the capture of East Jerusalem and the Etzion bloc of Jewish settlements near Bethlehem.

There are also new claims that in the months after the war, Arab leaders sent peace feelers that Ben-Gurion rejected and kept from the Israeli public because he would not part with his gains in the war compared to the skimpier U.N. partition plan. The Arabs never publicized the offers, fearing their own public opinion, Pappe said.

Morris said these events were glossed over by Zionist historians, who "propagated a wholly rosy view of Israeli thinking and actions and a wholly negative view of Arab thinking and actions."

The conclusion is that "Israelis are normal," Morris said. "They look after their own interests, they're not very generous and like most people they distort the truth and after revolutions tend to write official histories."

While some of the facts are in dispute, the essence of the historians' debate appears to be mostly about emphasis and interpretation.

"Old historian" Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University, for example, said it was unfair to focus solely on the number of soldiers in the field and ignore the Arab armies' "potential to overwhelm Israel numerically."

Asked about expulsions of Arabs, she said, "There was no plan to expel, because it seemed cruel, and they really felt that they couldn't do it for moral reasons."

"But no one was sorry when the flight began," she conceded.

The debate has degenerated into name-calling in recent months in a feud between Morris and Karsh, who wrote a book called "Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians."

Karsh told the AP that Morris "would be in jail" if he applied his academic standards to his tax returns.

"Karsh is a liar," snapped Morris.

The anger that accompanies the debate appears to be fueled by an evident political split.

Karsh, Shapira and most other "old historians" are Zionists. Pappe and many of his colleagues declare themselves "post-Zionists" who believe Israel should drop the "Jewish state" mantle.

The post-Zionists would cancel the Law of Return, which allows anyone with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate and receive automatic citizenship. They also want to change "Hatikva," the anthem that speaks of Jews' longing for their land and ignores the Arab minority that accounts for almost a fifth of the population.

At the heart of the debate is a challenge to the fundamental idea justifying the Jews' return to Israel over the past 100 years -- that they deserve a state because they are a "people."

"Jews are nothing more than a religion. To have a 'Jewish state' is like having 'a Catholic state' in France," said Pappe.

 

 

* DAN PERRY, The Associated Press Middle East Research and Information Project.


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