Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Israeli New Historians

It was scarcely a decade ago that books such as Benny Morris’ Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1987) and Tom Segev’s The Seventh Million (1991) appeared, heralding the arrival of a cadre of young Israeli historians radically at odds with the way that previous scholars had recounted the story of Zionism. In particular, the new historians painted a highly unflattering picture of Israel’s founding, centered around the Zionist leadership’s mistreatment of the Arabs during and after the War of Independence (Morris) and its errors of omission and commission towards the victims and survivors of the Holocaust (Segev). At the time, the new perspective on Israel’s past was generally dismissed as a fringe phenomenon, and only a handful of names were associated with it. Since then, however, scholars openly identified with the new history—and with the similar treatment of Zionism in disciplines such as political science, sociology and philosophy—have grown appreciably in numbers and influence. Many of them have earned coveted tenure-track positions at Israeli universities, while their views have been widely disseminated by the Israeli media, especially in the daily Ha’aretz (Israel’s equivalent of The New York Times), and most spectacularly in Tekuma, Israel Television’s 1998 documentary miniseries on the Jewish state’s first fifty years.

In the past year, however, the new historians have taken a quantum leap towards acceptance by the cultural mainstream. In July 1999, the Israel Defense Forces, through its History Division, cosponsored the publication of The Struggle for Israel’s Security, a book which the daily Yedi’ot Aharonot described as “shattering a number of the most splendid myths on which we were raised” (August 4, 1999), and which was particularly harsh in assessing Israel’s security policy during the formative period of the 1950s. Two months later, the Ministry of Education introduced into ninth-grade classrooms across the country the first three textbooks about Israel that are part of a new curriculum aimed at teaching history from an expressly “universal” (as opposed to “nationalist”) perspective. The most radical of these texts is A World of Changes: History for Ninth Grade, edited by Danny Ya’akobi and published by the Ministry’s own Curriculum Division, which attributes the victory of Jewish forces over five Arab armies in the War of Independence to the Jews’ organizational and logistical edge rather than to determined leadership, brilliant military tactics or individual heroism, and suggests that Israel precipitated the Six Day War by acting aggressively against Syria in the months prior to the outbreak of fighting. The new history has captured the interest of a growing segment of the Israeli public as well: Tom Segev’s Days of the Anemones (1999), an account of the Mandate period that credits the Arabs rather than the Jews with driving the British out of Palestine, has been on the Ha’aretz national bestseller list for thirty-one weeks, and counting—a feat unparalleled by any historical work published in Israel in the last decade and a half. (See Yehoshua Porath’s article on Segev, p. 23.)

At least as impressive has been the new historians’ penetration of the American intellectual mainstream—which sets the trend for the way that Israel is viewed throughout the democratic world, and which until now has remained largely immune to the trends in Israeli academia. In September 1999, New York’s prestigious Knopf publishing house released Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, a 750- page reinterpretation of Zionist history which suggests that Zionism was “tainted by a measure of moral dubiousness” from the outset, and argues that the Israeli leadership bears substantial responsibility for all the wars fought since 1948. The following month, W.W. Norton published The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948, a 670-page tour of the last half-century authored by Avi Shlaim, an Israeli-born “new historian” who teaches at Oxford. Shlaim’s conclusions, though presented in a less scholarly manner than those of Morris, are similar in substance. Many of America’s leading opinionmaking publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Commentary, Foreign Affairs and The Weekly Standard, devoted lengthy reviews to these iconoclastic works, making them the most widely discussed books on Israel to appear in the English-speaking world in the past decade.

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