One Man's History Is Another Man's Lie

Ilan Pappe lets his political opinions control facts, says Benny Morris. Pappe says Morris is captive to his own right-wing ideology. Two historians show post-Zionism is anything but dead. Third article in a series.

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Dalia Shehori

The relativist approach typified by post-Zionist research is subjected to a crushing attack in the review by Benny Morris, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University, of the new book by Ilan Pappe, "A History of Modern Palestine: One Country, Two Peoples." The review appears in the March 22, 2004 issue of The New Republic, under the title, "Politics by Other Means," and in it Morris disparages the book, mainly because of its subjugation of history to the author's political ideology.

"This truly is an appalling book," Morris writes at the end of the review. "Anyone interested in the real history of Palestine/Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would do well to run vigorously in the opposite direction."

Morris offers a catalog of the mistakes and inaccuracies he found in the book, which partly stem, he feels, from slovenliness and laziness, but mainly from the same philosophy of relativism in which there is no value to facts and historic truth.

Pappe's response was not long in coming. It appeared, flashing sparks and brusque statements, on March 30, 2004 on the Internet's "Electronic Intifada" site, after The New Republic refused to publish it (mentioned in the introduction to the response). Morris told Haaretz that The New Republic does not, as a matter of policy, publish lengthy responses to articles appearing in the magazine, and it was suggested to Pappe that he submit a brief rebuttal to the weekly.

Pappe claims he did in fact send The New Republic a short response, which will apparently be published alongside a counter-response by Morris. The skirmishing between the two and the great interest it has elicited on the Internet (numerous letters of response) indicate that although post-Zionism may be in a state of suspension, as some commentators believe, it has by all means become part of the public discourse, as others might argue.

He's no fool

Morris's review is not devoid of a personal tone. "Ilan Pappe and I walked a stretch together in uneasy companionship, but we have now parted ways," he writes. "In the case of Pappe and myself, there was always methodological discord. We both knew that official Zionist historiography was deeply flawed and needed to be reassessed and rewritten on the basis of the evidence that had become available; but we approached history, and the writing of history, from antithetical standpoints. Pappe regarded history through the prism of contemporary politics and consciously wrote history with an eye to serving political ends. My own view was that while historians, as citizens, had political views and aims, their scholarly task was to try to arrive at the truth about a historical event or process, to illuminate the past as objectively and accurately as possible. I believed, and still believe, that there is such a thing as historical truth; that it exists independently of, and can be detached from, the subjectivities of scholars ... the historian should ignore contemporary politics and struggle against his political inclinations as he tries to penetrate the murk of the past."

At this point, Morris opens his attack: From the start, Pappe allowed his politics to hold sway over his history. "Pappe is a proud postmodernist. He believes that there is no such thing as historical truth, only a collection of narratives as numerous as the participants in any given event or process; and each narrative, each perspective, is as valid and legitimate, as true, as the next.

"Pappe, too, is mortally ignorant of the basic facts of the Israeli-Arab conflict," Morris continues. "This book is awash with errors of a quantity and a quality that are not found in serious historiography.

"Pappe, like his mentor, Edward Said, believes that the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is a single bi-national state in all of Palestine;" Pappe believes that the outbreak of the second intifada "has, like a giant centrifuge, sent the New Historians spinning toward opposite corners of the political universe. It has separated the anti-Zionist goats from the Zionist sheep, and has accentuated their goatish and sheepish natures," Morris writes. The intifada pushed Pappe to take his place at the forefront of the struggle, together with pro-Palestinian academics in the West, to boycott the Israeli academic world and cut it off from research and investment funds, even though, "he has not declined to receive wages from a university subsidized by the government whose policies he finds so repulsive."

Pappe's new book, wrote Morris, "is a milestone in his evolution as an historian," as Pappe focuses in it on "victims" of "the invasions, occupations, expulsions, discrimination and racism" who are first and foremost the Arabs of Palestine, but describes the Zionist Jews as invaders, enslavers and banishers. "The Palestinians are forever victims, the Zionists are forever `brutal colonizers.'"; much of what Pappe "tries to sell his readers is complete fabrication," deriving from reasons of political correctness (for instance, his attempt to prove that there is increasing involvement of women in the Palestinian struggle, or his assertion that children influenced the evolution of the struggle). Morris notes that although there are mistakes in the book that derive from sloppiness "born of a contempt for that leaven of dullards, "the facts" (for instance, Pappe writes that Lehi [aka the Stern Gang] and the Palmah existed before the Arab Revolt of 1936, while both of these pre-statehood Zionist undergrounds were founded in 1940-41; Pappe writes that the Mufti fled Palestine in 1938, whereas in truth he left in October 1937), but the book is inundated with mistakes that stem from the ideological preferences of the writer," his interest in blackening the Zionists and whitening the Palestinians."

As for Pappe's support for a single bi-national state in Palestine, Morris writes: "And he is no fool. He must know what such a state will look like." Morris doubts that Pappe's two sons, Ido and Yonatan (to whom Pappe has dedicated his book, with the words "May they live not only in a modern Palestine, but also in a peaceful one") would enjoy life in such a state.

A racist and charlatan

"Morris' `review' consisted of a series of ad hominem attacks and outright factual distortions," reads the preface to Pappe's rebuttal. He initially attacks Morris for having alleged that the two "walked a stretch of road together as `revisionist historians.'" "This is a falsification of history as I could not be a partner to a person who had already in 1988 held views I found morally unacceptable," Pappe explains. He asserts that by their first meeting in the late 1980s, Morris let him know ("as he seemed to trust me") of his "abominable racist views about the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular."

Which is why Pappe is so incensed at Morris' assertion that "we are both men of the left" - although differentiated by methods and politics. Morris, he says, is an opportunist. He has now issued a revised edition of his book on the Palestinian problem, not because of any new material that motivated him to do so, as Morris writes in the preface to the book, but because "our charlatan" found out, upon the outbreak of the second intifada, "that the bon ton in Israel has shifted to the right." His original book about the refugee problem, claims Pappe, "was written at a time when it was bon ton to be a `peacenik' and his version of history was that the ethnic cleansing in Palestine was not the result of a master plan."

But after Netanyahu's victory in the 1996 elections, argues Pappe, "it was difficult to get a professorship in an Israeli university. This is when the shift began. And it was even easier to get tenure and professorship he gladly found out if he would air the set of views, he believed in anyway." In the new version of the book, writes Pappe, "the ethnic cleansing becomes a master plan that is criticized by Morris for not being efficient enough..." Morris also relies on the IDF Archives, even though "Israeli officers lied in the past and lie in the present." Moreover, "his picture of the 1948 war will never be complete. There are plenty of Arab and Palestinian documents, but Morris, who cannot read Arabic, will not be able to use them."

In Pappe's attack, one can spot traces of what Benny Morris said in a Haaretz Magazine profile in January 2004, that he had always been Zionist and that people were mistaken when they tagged him a post-Zionist, and that David Ben-Gurion was a transferist and was correct in his policy of deportation, but made a serious historical mistake in 1948, by not deporting all of the Palestinians from Palestine. In the same article, Morris also admitted that the turnaround in his views began after the Camp David summit and the Palestinian rejection of Ehud Barak's proposals.

Pappe argues that Morris is not a proper historian, but only a "chronologist," and that he himself replaces facts with "his right-wing ideologies," except that he does not admit it. "An Israeli historian who justifies ethnic cleansing, writes about it in "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" (and even recently republished an updated version of this book) can not claim to be a `neutral' historian."

Pappe justifies the subjective approach in history: "When we write histories, we built arches over a long period of time and we construct out of the material in front of us a narrative. We believe and hope that this narrative is a loyal reconstruction of what happened - although as was discovered by historiographers Morris had never bothered to read - we can not ride a train back in time to check it."

If Morris pointed out inaccuracies and mistakes in Pappe's book, then Pappe counterclaims that Morris erred in the spelling of nearly all of the names of Arabs and Palestinians mentioned in his first book, but nevertheless this does not "disable us from understanding the points he makes or miss the zeal with which he drives them home." He admits that his book contains errors in dates, names and numbers, but argues that the same holds true for Morris' books. "We should all try and minimize them to note, I agree ... They should not however be pointed out as part of an ideology or a basis for ad hominem attack. Worse, a reviewer is not allowed to lie openly about them as Morris does." Finally, Pappe protests about Morris involving Pappe's two sons in "his narrative." Morris: "But he put them in the dedication. Otherwise I wouldn't have touched it."

In general, Morris preferred not to relate to Pappe's rebuttal. He only said that he did not intend to launch a personal attack, but to draw attention to the historical method employed in his book. "He gives his political opinions absolute freedom to control facts. There is no such thing as `facts.' There is no `truth.' It is okay to write anything that can be written."

Ready proof that the argument over post-Zionism is hardly over; it is being waged at full fury.