History / Book of Lamentations

Historia, zikaron veta'amula - History, Memory and Propaganda? By Yoav Gelber. Ofakim/Am Oved (Hebrew, 642? pages, NIS 98)

Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the University of Haifa, likes to ask his students what it is that a historian most needs. Their usual answer: sources. Gelber corrects them: Curiosity is more important. I would place "skepticism" alongside "curiosity," but the former reeks of what Gelber calls "academic subversiveness," which, after all, is precisely what he rails against in this important book, which is well worth reading. It is sad, personal and ? above all ? extremely political.

In the book's first 100 pages, Gelber describes the history of modern historiography; the first such account in Hebrew. The result is clear and edifying: an examination of history and memory; private memory and collective memory; documentation and oral documentation; Marxist history and psycho-history, and other basic issues of the profession.

Gelber candidly discusses a difficulty that many historians suffer from, namely, the fact that they cannot write very well. I liked the following sentence: "The way to fight bad popular history is not to close yourself off, but to write good popular history." I would be glad to get from Gelber similar thoughts on the similarities and differences between a historian and an investigating judge, and between history and journalism.

In what follows these first, fine 100 pages, though, Gelber comes across as a historian in defeat and this saddened me. His profession, his vocation, seems to be slipping through his fingers, the victim of postmodernist charlatans who wish to pull the rug out from under history's existence as a scientific discipline and to devalue it. History, Gelber writes, is "a species in danger of extinction." On this point, at least, it might be possible to offer him some consolation.

History nourishes national identity and is at the heart of public discourse in many countries, including, of course, Israel; it also plays a central role in international relations. Naturally, this encourages historical study. Almost any serious newspaper in the world today frequently publishes news from the world of historical research.

Bookstores everywhere, including in Israel, offer more and more fine historical studies, ably written by professional historians, some of which even sell well.

The "post-ers," to use Gelber's hostile term, indeed seem like a bunch of windbags endlessly discussing their own theories. But it seems to me that Gelber exaggerates in describing their bad influence. He needs to do so, because the Israeli version of postmodernism led, he believes, to post-Zionism, and the latter, in his very narrow view, is the same as anti-Zionism.

Gelber heads the Herzl Institute for the Research and Study of Zionism, which, in my eyes, makes him equivalent to the head of the Foucault Institute for the Study of Postmodernism. He is also known for his right-wing views. Gelber will not like the last two sentences. He believes in the historiography of the good old days, when history was more important than the historian, and he attacks the postmodernists who don't share his view: "The 'post-er' has no interest in history or in the modes of its study; he is interested in the historian, in his opinions and in his willingness to flow with the postmodernist current."

But even Gelber, the conservative, the purist, exposes certain details about himself in the book. He worked as an academic assistant to the Agranat Commission [which investigated the Israeli defense establishment's failings in the 1973 Yom Kippur War]; he lived in a poverty-stricken Jerusalem neighborhood, was active in the Ohalim [social protest] movement and he suggests that he may describe all this someday in his memoirs.

One might hope that his autobiography will not forget to mention a detail left out of the book: that he was active in the [right-wing] Tzomet party, headed by Rafael Eitan. By contrast, he takes care to inform his readers that he does not read Haaretz. All this is relevant, because Gelber has written a conservative/right-wing book. A legitimate act, of course, but Gelber does not admit to it, because he sees Zionism as reflecting an absolute truth, not a political stance, whereas he considers post-Zionism to be false political propaganda.

Disappearing good taste

The villain of the book is Michel Foucault. Gelber charges at him full of rage, and with good reason: The man's influence is considerable, and it gets in the way of people striving for the historical truth. Gelber portrays Foucault as a ludicrous babbler. Good taste and common sense are products that are gradually disappearing from the market in the postmodernist age, Gelber writes, also with much justification.

His own concept of good taste finds expression in his claims about a historian named Ilana Bet-El, who wrote an article about the masculine image of the British soldier during World War I. According to Gelber, her article indicates that she has only a very vague understanding of either men or masculinity.

According to his own taste, he also uses the word kushi [rude Hebrew term for a black person].

In his passionate hatred of postmodernism, Gelber, among other things, despises gender history, a type of scholarship he is careful to ascribe to women only, as though there has never been a feminist man. "The feminist movement wanted to use history to advance its goals, and it looked to history for legitimization of its social-political demands." This is also true, of course, of the use to which the Zionist movement put Jewish history.In the transition from postmodernism to post-Zionism, Gelber finds Edward Said, but the latter somehow barely survives the discussion because Gelber is even more contemptuous of his own colleague Ilan Pappe, another Haifa University professor.

The rivalry between Gelber and Pappe brings to mind the horror show of Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein, two Jews who live in the U.S. and squabble with each other about Israel. The Israeli version, starring Gelber and Pappe, features equally heated emotions. Gelber writes that Pappe has joined the cause of Palestinian propaganda. That may not sound so bad, considering that Gelber serves the cause of Zionist propaganda. But Pappe, he argues, is also engaged in misdirection and deception: He misleads his readers and finally "debases the Holocaust" and comes very close to denying it. In one of his books, Pappe confused one "William" with another, one of them from the 1st century C.E. and the other from the 17th century. Gelber has a field day, as this is proof of Pappe's ignorance. But mistakes are something we all make.

And so, for example, Gelber writes mockingly that German student leader Rudi Dutschke "has long been part of the establishment," like Daniel Cohen Bendit and Joschka Fischer, who even became the German foreign minister.

Dutschke can only become part of the establishment in the afterlife, because he died in 1979. The following sentence by Gelber is also, in my opinion, worthy of some rewriting: "Most of the Zionists [...] observed the sanctity of Yom Kippur, even if they did not fast on it."

But Gelber has one trump card against Pappe: Teddy Katz. Katz wrote a thesis at the University of Haifa claiming that during the 1948 War of Independence, the Israel Defense Forces perpetrated a massacre in the Arab village of Tantura. It turned out that he had falsified his sources. It happens even to the best of Zionists: a perfectly Zionist historian, Yehoshua Porath, has shown how Joan Peters falsified sources to support the Zionist myth. Gelber does not mention this case. Pappe came to Katz's defense. This was not wise, but it is not enough to refute his scholarship, unless Gelber shares the postmodernist view that everything leads back to the historian, everything is subjective, there are no facts, everything is political.

And indeed, the more Gelber heaps contempt on his rivals, the more political his own arguments become; political views different from his own seem to him "odd" or "strange," full of "self-hatred, belittlement and cynicism." Gelber rejects the postmodernist debate regarding the political effect of language on historical research, but he uses words such as "yordim" [a derogatory term for Israelis who leave the country] and "Yesha" [Hebrew acronym for Judah, Samaria and Gaza, whose usage is widely identified with the supporters of Jewish settlement there], as though they were professional terms free of all politics. He wishes to dictate to Israeli historiography a strict political platform when it comes to the study of the Holocaust: It must emphasize the Zionist lessons to be learned.

And so, the more he defends Zionist ideology, the further Gelber pushes himself away from his own professional point of departure, slips into the conceptual world of the postmodernists, and provides support for one of their main theses: Every work of history is also politics. And luckily so: This is what makes the study of both so fascinating.