Striking the right balance between black and white narratives

One of Israel’s foremost ‘New Historians’ looks at the legacy of the movement


Israel’s creation in 1948 was a moral imperative, a just denouement following millennia of oppression and persecution of Jews in the Christian and Muslim worlds, culminating in the Holocaust; so argued Zionism’s proponents and supporters.

Or it was a resounding, continuous sin, culminating in the spoliation, expulsion and subjugation of Palestine’s indigenous population; so said, and largely continue to say, the Arab peoples.

These were the two meta-narratives that consolidated in the aftermath of the 1948 War and continue, en large, to dominate the historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict that began with the start of Zionist settlement in Palestine in the years before the fin de siècle.

But in the second half of the 1980s, a third narrative emerged and grabbed the headlines, or at least those read by the educated classes in the West, Israel and, to some degree, the Arab Middle East: the “New Historiography”. It was produced by a handful of Israeli historians, most prominently Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev and myself.

Our books — my own The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949 (1988); Shlaim’s Collusion across the Jordan (1988); Pappe’s Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951 (1988); and Segev’s The Seventh Million (1991, Hebrew) — appeared almost simultaneously, though, in fact, we had each worked independently on the just-opened Israeli and Western archives for the period.

The last of these, by Segev, was something of an outlier, dealing as it did, albeit also in a critical manner, with the Zionist-Israeli responses to the Holocaust and the post-war treatment of its survivors.

But the other three books all focused on the first and geopolitically revolutionary war between Israel and the Arabs in 1948. By implication, the books also spoke to the preceding decades in which the Arab-Zionist conflict matured.

Taken together, these books produced a nuanced narrative that subverted the traditional takes of both sides. The new narrative, while critical of Israeli (and British) behaviour, also found the Arabs wanting on a number of counts.

The books by Shlaim and Pappe in effect condemned the Zionist-British-Jordanian “collusion” that helped stymie the creation of a Palestinian Arab state in the territories earmarked in the UN General Assembly Resolution (No. 181) of November 1947.

My book, meanwhile, described Israel’s part in creating the Palestine Arab refugee problem through military operations, expulsions and atrocities.

But The Birth also allocated a fair share of blame to the Palestinian Arabs themselves, who, in defiance of the will of the international community, had initiated the hostilities that led to their demise and in some places (such as Haifa) themselves precipitated the refugee exodus, and to the surrounding Arab states, who had invaded Palestine/Israel and triggered an uncompromising Israeli response.

During the following decades, Pappe and Shlaim steadily drifted into outspoken anti-Zionism. Shlaim dubbed the Balfour Declaration, in which the British Government in 1917 promised to support what amounted to Jewish statehood in Palestine, a “colossal blunder”, while Pappe effectively deemed the Zionist enterprise evil.

Both historians were “adopted” by the Arab world, where no parallel revisionist wave ever emerged and where the relevant archives still remain firmly shut to all researchers.

The initial cluster of “new” histories at first caused shock and dismay among Israelis but gradually a change in perceptions was affected.

Much of what these early books argued, in contrast to the Zionist narrative that had prevailed down to the 1980s, is now accepted and taught by many if not most Israeli and Western historians of the conflict and by many school teachers, at least in Israel’s secular school system.

The New Historiography was also, to some degree, ingested by the leftist political elite that governed Israel during the premierships of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak (respectively 1992-1995 and 1999-2001), when Israel was engaged in peace-making with the Palestinians.

But this new, middle-of-the-road narrative was never adopted by the country’s right-wing parties and their affiliated national religious and ultra-orthodox school networks, and was increasingly sidelined in the secular school system as Israel came under the grip of Netanyahu’s successive right-wing-religious coalitions, with their hardline education ministers.

Israel’s academics may have continued to teach their students “the truth” more or less in line with the New Historiography, but fresh research into the country’s past has been somewhat impeded by the continuing censorship of documentation in the country’s archives.

There has definitely been a battening down of the hatches. Indeed, over the past two decades a unit of Israel’s Defence Ministry has been busy re-classifying documentation about 1948 that had been open to researchers in the 1990s and early 2000s, in effect trying to exercise historical censorship and steer the historians’ output on the course of the conflict.

For example, documents about the Deir Yassin affair that I had seen and used in my writings in the 1990s are now closed to researchers, myself included.

The rise of Netanyahu’s new, ultra-right government following the November 2022 general elections portends a hardening of Israeli discourse on the conflict and this will certainly affect the school systems and may well affect the work of current and future historians.

For the moment, Israel’s institutions of higher education and the media remain relative oases of enlightenment and critical thinking. But Israel at 75 looks to be heading to a dark place.

For years now, the children of the strictly Orthodox, who already comprise a quarter of Israel’s elementary school population and are increasing disproportionately, have been taught by rabbis who refer to the Arabs as “Amalek”, the indigenous biblical tribe that harried the Hebrews on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land around 1200 BC and came to be seen as evil incarnate.

The New Historiography, especially The Birth, probably generated a measure of sympathy for the Palestinians which, in turn, marginally helped produce a climate of opinion that helped the Rabin and Barak governments embark on the dialogue with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat called the Oslo peace process and the Camp David talks.

But that sympathy dissipated during the following decades characterised by Palestinian violence, including two Intifadas,which Jewish Israelis viewed as terrorism and Palestinians as legitimate resistance to military occupation.

In summation, I would venture to say that the emergence of the New Historiography helped free Israeli academia from the constraints of Zionist orthodoxy and enabled future scholars to look searchingly into Israel’s past, warts and all.

The years since the 1980s have seen a steady stream of serious, well-grounded PhDs, articles and books pour out of the country’s universities and publishing houses.

The new research has moved on from 1948 and has branched out to encompass micro local histories, ethnic (Sephardi-Ashkenazi), gender and cultural studies, and specialist histories in such fields as sports and medicine.

And despite the general cutbacks in humanities studies — a global phenomenon — Israeli historiography remains relatively robust.

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