Joan Caro, Author of Controversial 'From Time Immemorial,' Dies at 78

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Palestinian refugees
Palestinian refugees standing outside their tent in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, in 1948. Caro aka Peters sought to upend what she saw as a one-sided debate on 1948 refugees. Credit: AP

Joan Caro, author of the controversial work "From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine," died Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported. She was 78.

Caro wrote the book in 1984 under the family name from a previous marriage, Peters. In the book, she claimed that until she began writing it she had bought into the narrative that the Palestinians were the only refugees from the 1948 conflict, but that her research revealed that, on the contrary, the Jews who left Arab countries after 1948 were the true refugees while the Arab of Palestine were little more than temporary interlopers.

Peters set out, as she wrote, in her book to alter "the very basis of our understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict and destroy the foundation upon which the 'Palestinian' claims have rested." She also made the case that the Jews had continuously lived in the Land of Israel, in contrast to the Arabs, and that the land was barren until the Zionist movement arrived in the late 19th century.

Although the book earned initial praise Stateside, the London Review of Books in 1985 wrote that for all her "bald facts" Peters proved little more than what was already known, that between the end of the Second Temple era and the end of the 19th century, Jews never inhabited the Land of Israel in more than sparse numbers.

In contrast, it quoted David Ben-Gurion, leader of the Jewish Agency and later prime minister of Israel. "Only in a very few places in our colonization," Ben-Gurion reportedly said at the 1937 Zionist Congress, "were we not forced to transfer the earlier residents."

"Clearly, Israel’s first prime minister did not think that the Palestinians were not there, or that they were nomads," the reviewers wrote.

Yehoshua Porath, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1986, observed that "from a position of apparently great learning and research, she attempts to refute the Arab myths merely by substituting the Jewish myths for them."

More than 30 years later, "From Time Immemorial" continues to evoke strong emotions. Pro-Israelis laud the book as proving that the Palestinians do not constitute a true nation, while critics say the book looks scholarly but is merely propaganda.

While Israeli nationalist website Arutz Sheva declared, "Palestinian-myth smasher Joan Peters passes away," the Arab-American Arab Daily News announced, "Author of racist anti-Palestinian book dies."

What no one doubts is Caro's dedication to Israel, which her daughter Lore Peters attributed to a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, according to the Chicago Tribune. After experiencing the suspicions of Soviet officials, Caro believed more strongly in the importance of a viable Jewish homeland.

Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly called Caro's home shortly before she passed away. "He said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted my mother to know how grateful he was for all she had done for Israel," Peters said, the Tribune reported.

Caro is also survived by her brother, Barry Friedman, and her stepson Mark Caro.

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