War and Remembrance

Reviewed by Yehoshua Porath

The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948
by Eugene L. Rogan, Avi Shlaim,
Cambridge, 234 pages

Over the past decade, Israels self-styled “new historians” and their allies around the academic world have fiercely debated more traditional scholars over the nature of Israels War of Independence. According to the revisionists, the classical historical research was little more than propaganda for the Zionist narrative, distorting the record by obscuring the “crimes” perpetrated by the Zionists against the Palestinian Arabs during fighting that lasted from late 1947 until early 1949. This war, known to Palestinians as “the Catastrophe,” resulted in both the establishment of the State of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and therefore both Israelis and Palestinians see it as the beginning of their respective national narratives.

Most of the research being done by the new historians tends to focus primarily on Jewish conduct during the war: How did the nascent State of Israel manage to defeat the Arab armies? Did the Zionists deliberately set out to expel Palestinian Arabs from their homes? Were they really weaker and outnumbered, an Israeli David to the Arab Goliath?

These questions lie at the heart of The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, edited by two OxfordUniversity scholars, Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim. The Israeli-born Shlaim is one of the best-known representatives of the revisionist school; his first book, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine (1987), helped launch the new history a decade and a half ago, while his The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2000), covering the entire period since Israels founding, has already gained canonical status among the new historians. Rogan is a relative newcomer to Zionist history, although he has written extensively on the modern Middle East. The new collection of essayswhich includes contributions by prominent scholars such as Benny Morris, Rashid Khalidi, and Edward Saidattempts to debunk many of the traditional Zionist “myths” surrounding the most fateful of Arab-Israeli wars by exposing the truth about Israels actions during the conflicta truth which, the authors claim, Israels political, academic, and educational establishments have done everything in their power to cover up.

In building their case, the contributors to The War for Palestine draw upon the wealth of archival records that have been released in Israel and other Western countries over the past fifteen years. One might hope that such a trove of new data would result in a more penetrating, nuanced understanding of the war. Most of the contributors, however, seem to have had a different aim in mind: To discredit the standard historiography and establish themselves as the sole keepers of historical truth by selectively highlighting only those new revelations that advance their own ideological agenda. As a result, they succeed only in repeating the disservice done by some of their predecessors, substituting one set of distortions for another: If some of the traditional historians militated the facts to serve the Zionist cause, this time around it is the Palestinian “truth” that is the beneficiary. This books most significant contribution, unfortunately, is that it exposes its authors shoddy research and tendentious analysis.


The War for Palestine opens with an introduction by the editors, which asks a sensible question: Why has a revisionist historiography arisen in Israel to challenge the prevailing account of the war, while no similar school has emerged on the Arab side?

Of course, this question also has a sensible answer, which may be found by looking no further than the list of institutions and archives that appears in the books opening pages. The great majority of the materials researched by all historians of the period, both traditional and revisionist, comes from archives in the Western countries involved in the affairs of Palestine during the years from 1947 to 1949, and from Israeli archives. The Israeli State Archives, the Archives of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the Zionist Archives are open to all scholars, regardless of ideology or affiliation. Researchers can scour the materials undisturbed and use whatever they find to support their claims. Anyone intending to minimize the accomplishments of the Israelis in the 1948 war, or even to make outrageously false claimsfor instance, that the Israeli victory was the result of an imperialist conspiracy or an overwhelming advantage in manpower and armswill always be able to find plenty of marginal facts in the Israeli archives on which to build his case.

By contrast, no Arab state has yet opened its archives to researchers studying these or any other important historical events after World War I; in only a few instances have specially authorized historians been granted access to official archival material. But where there is no free access to archival data, there can never emerge a revisionist historiography, which is always based on, or at least purports to be based on, new archival discoveries.

The editors are aware of this imbalance, but they dismiss it as irrelevant. Israel, they argue, can afford to be open, for like all victorious nations, it has had the luxury of dominating the historical discourse with its version of events: “The critical revision of a nations history,” they write, “is a victors privilege.”  This is not much of an answer. Israel made its decisions about archival access against the backdrop of a struggle for national independence that in many respects is still unfinished. Israel opened its archives not because it was victorious, but because it sought to follow the tradition of democratic, Western countries in allowing free access to information, even information that could be used to harm it in the long run. Shlaim and Rogan, however, give Israel no credit for its enlightened approach.

Nor do they have any apprecia­tion for the significant research that was done before the debut of the re­visionists in the late 1980s. Before then, they seem to believe, all writ­ing on Zionist history was tendentious, every historian falling into line to help create and propagate the myths underpinning Zionism. Remarkably, they see no substantive difference between historical research on the War of Independence that was conducted in Israel, and that conducted on the Arab side. Scholars on both sides, they say, have equally ignored the historical truth because on both sides, the academy has subordinated itself to the dictates of the state:

Governments in the region enjoy many direct and indirect powers over the writing of history. Elementary and secondary school texts in history are the preserve of the state. Most universities in the Middle East are state-run and their faculty members are state employees. National historical associations and government printing presses serve as filters to weed out unauthorized histories and to disseminate state-sanctioned truths. As promotion within the historical establishment is closely linked to adherence to the official line, historians have had little incentive to engage in critical history writing. Instead, most Arab and Israeli historians have written in an uncritically nationalist vein. In Israel, nationalist historians reflected the collective memory of the Israeli public in depicting the Palestine War as a desperate fight for survival and an almost miraculous victory. In the Arab world, histories of the Palestine War have been marked by apologetics, self-justification, onus-shifting, and conspiracy theories. Both the Arab and the Israeli nationalist histories are guided more by a “quest for legitimacy” than by an honest reckoning with the past.

Anyone familiar with the way things work in Israel cannot but read these words in utter astonishment. In Israel, private citizens write the school textbooks, and in most cases they do it for private publishing houses. Last year, the Ministry of Education found itself embroiled in a public scandal after releasing a history textbook which was skewed toward the Arab side of the conflict. In the end, the ministry withdrew the textbook, but only after an intensive public campaign, a thorough investigation by a panel of scholars representing a wide range of views, and a change of government. Israeli universities are not state institutions, nor are their faculty members civil servants. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Israeli academia is familiar with the wide range of political opinions existing in the countrys universitiesand with the disproportionate support that the views represented in The War for Palestine have enjoyed there for some time now. A considerable number of revisionist historians and ׂpost-Zionist׃ sociologists, whose criticism touches every aspect of Israels history and society, currently hold posts at prominent Israeli academic institutions. Many have reached positions of influence and high honor.

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