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A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples

by Ilan Pappé
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 333 pp. $60 ($28, paper).

Reviewed by Efraim Karsh
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2006

Pure Pappé

Pappé is the odd man out among the so-called New Historians. Unlike his colleagues, who pretend to base their anti-Israel writings on recently declassified documents from the British Mandate period and the first years of Israeli independence, Pappé is an unabashed "relativist" for whom historical research is a backward-looking projection of political attitudes and agendas regardless of actual facts. Aside from his doctoral dissertation, subsequently published as Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51,[1] Pappé's books are not based on archival documentation, preferring secondary (and deeply prejudiced) sources that aim at vindicating the Palestinian "narrative" of the conflict. He himself explains this in the introduction to A History of Modern Palestine:

My bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the "truth" when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous. This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied not the occupiers.

This unabashed acknowledgment of personal bias and open political partisanship comes from a diehard ideologue who views Zionist and Israeli history as "more than a century of colonization, occupation, and dispossession of Palestinians." The equation of Zionism with colonialism, the cornerstone of Pappé's historical narrative, has been a staple of Arab propaganda since the early 1920s. Almost as predictable is the portrayal of Arabs and Palestinians as the hapless victims of this alleged foreign invasion.

Publication of A History of Modern Palestine by a prestigious academic press is a sad testament to the pervasive politicization of Middle Eastern studies where the dividing line between academic scholarship and unadulterated propaganda has been blurred, if not erased.

Even by the skewed standards of this field of studies, Pappé's latest book ranks in a class of its own. Not only does it add no new facts or ideas to the anti-Israel literature, but the sloppiness of its research astounds. It contains countless factual errors and inaccuracies. Yasir Arafat's birthplace is Cairo and not Jerusalem. The U.N. Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) presented its report on August 31, 1947, not on November 29. Deir Yasin is a village near Jerusalem, and not in Haifa. Lawrence of Arabia had nothing to do with the Anglo-Hashemite correspondence that led to the "Great Arab Revolt" of World War I. Further, this correspondence was initiated by the Hashemites not by the British. Pappé even misspells the official English transliteration of President Weizmann's first name (Chaim, not Haim).

More serious is the book's consistent resort to factual misrepresentation, distortion, and outright falsehood. Readers are told of events that never happened, such as the nonexistent May 1948 Tantura "massacre" or the expulsion of Arabs within twelve days of the partition resolution. They learn of political decisions that were never made, such as the Anglo-French 1912 plan for the occupation of Palestine or the contriving of "a master plan to rid the future Jewish state of as many Palestinians as possible." And they are misinformed about military and political developments, such as the rationale for the Balfour declaration:

Without Russia, there was very little hope of successfully surrounding Germany with a ring of enemy states, a strategy it was hoped would cause Germany to surrender. The British government expected that Russian Jews would become the agents of pro-British propaganda that would persuade the tsarist government to come out clearly in support of the Allies' effort to subjugate Germany.

But Russia was a member of the Triple Entente coalition with Britain and France from the time of the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 and so needed no encouragement to join the war three years later, least of all by its despised and persecuted Jewish minority. In fact, it was hoped that the Zionist movement, by virtue of its perceived connections to the Bolshevik movement, would help keep communist Russia in the war.

Pappé claims that Theodor Herzl "attempted to enlist British help in installing a temporary Jewish state (i.e., one that would eventually be moved to Palestine) in British Uganda, an offer which was seriously considered by some in Whitehall," only to have his plan foiled by Weizmann. In fact, it was British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, not Herzl, who conceived of the East Africa idea. Nor was the "Uganda plan" foiled by Herzl's opponents, least of all Weizmann. Herzl narrowly got the plan passed by his last Zionist Congress in 1903, overriding the opposition of such Zionist leaders as Menahem Ussishkin and Yehiel Chlenov; it was only after Herzl's death in July 1904 that the idea was unceremoniously buried.

A final example of Pappé's distortion concerns the tidal wave of Arab violence that immediately followed the U.N. partition vote in November 1947. On the day after the vote, a spate of Arab attacks left seven Jews dead and scores more wounded. Shooting, stoning, and rioting continued apace in the following days. The consulates of Poland and Sweden, both of whose governments had voted for partition, were attacked. Bombs were thrown into cafes, Molotov cocktails were hurled at shops, a synagogue was set on fire. On December 3, at the instigation of the Palestinian leadership, a large mob ransacked the new Jewish commercial center in Jerusalem, looting and burning shops and stabbing and stoning whomever they happened upon. The next day, some 120-150 armed Arabs attacked Kibbutz Efal, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, in the first large-scale attempt to storm a Jewish village.

Ignoring this heavily documented historical record, Pappé whitewashes this violence as intra-communal clashes "activated by hotheaded youth on both sides." He even makes the mind-boggling claim that this violence had been triggered by the Haganah. Like so much else in A History of Modern Palestine, this is a falsehood.

Does Pappé count on the ignorance of the general reader to accept it? Does he expect his peers to give him a pass? That Cambridge University Press purveys this disgraceful work suggests that they just might. It also symbolizes the crisis in Middle East studies.

Efraim Karsh is director of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London, and editor of the quarterly journal Israel Affairs. He is the author of Arafat's War: the Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest (Grove Press, 2003).

[1] New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988.

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