Pappe and Israel’s New Historians

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Kit Adam Wainer

Out of the Frame:
The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel
By Ilan Pappe
London: Pluto Press, 2010, distributed in the U.S. by Macmillan, 256 pages,
$22 paperback.

Gaza in Crisis:
Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians
By Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe
Chicago: Haymarket Books. 2010, 240 pages, $16 paperback.

The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty
The Husaynis, 1700-1948
By Ilan Pappe
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, 400 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

AN IRONY OF Israeli political culture is that Zionism is exceptionally rigid in comparison to the democratic philosophy that legitimizes the U.S. political system, yet the breadth of political debate that appears in Israeli mainstream media is much wider than one would find in the United States.

Within the editorial columns of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, readers will find both conservative defenders of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and leftist writers such as Gideon Levy and Amira Haas who regard it as criminal and consistently expose the racist policies of the Israeli state. Between those poles are numerous layers of critique and counter-critique.

In the spring of 2010, for example, a wide-ranging debate developed within Ha’aretz over whether Israel could be both “Jewish and democratic” — i.e. whether a state which grants legal privileges to some and denies rights to others based on religious affiliation or descent can be considered a democracy. Even some who defend the status quo concede that Israel’s “democracy” is in conflict with its Jewishness.

In short, within Israel the mainstream media will print the words of those who challenge the fundamental assumptions which justify the Zionist state. Contrast that with the level of permissible debate within the news media in the United States. For the New York Times, The Washington Post, or CNN, the mainstreams of the Democratic and Republican parties form the perimeter of acceptable discourse. To find columnists who challenge whether capitalism is the best of all possible systems, or whether the quality of a town’s roads or schools should be determined by the profitability of the businesses within that town, one would have to turn to more marginal publications.

From 2002 to 2004 it was difficult to find a mainstream critic who questioned the thesis that Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to the United States. The only debate was over how to address that threat. And which columnists categorized the Iraq War as an imperial venture justified by misinformation? Only after 2005, when opinion polls shifted against the war, and even the Bush administration began to purge the war’s neoconservative architects, did the media debate widen somewhat.

Yet the relative openness within Israel is itself deceptive. Rather than the product of a more tolerant political system, it is a dialectical reflection of the brittleness and frailty of Zionist ideology. Unlike the republican philosophy that forms the basis of political common sense in the United States, Zionism rests on a narrow set of crucial myths: the biblical story of exile, the description of Palestine as a “land without a people” before the arrival of the Jews in the late 19th century, the categorization of all forms of resistance to Israel as anti-Semitic terrorism, and the description of all Israeli actions as defensive.

Challenge any of these assumptions and you are questioning the historical legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and the foundations of the Israeli state it produced. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Israeli debates, both within the media and within academia, get so vitriolic. It is difficult to maintain politeness and find common ground when the topic of discussion is whether or not the current structures of power and privilege should continue to exist.

The “New Historians”

In the late 1980s a sector of Israeli historians began to challenge key aspects of the official narrative of Israeli history. These “new historians”(1) emerged as many Israeli intellectuals grew uncomfortable with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, especially after the first Intifada in 1987.

The dean of the new historians was Benny Morris. His 1988 study The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem established that the creation of the Israeli state from 1947 to 1948 led to the forced — not “voluntary” — exodus of 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Morris updated his groundbreaking work with a new edition in 2004. And his 2008 work 1948 repeats some of the same conclusions within the context of a military history of the wars that gave birth to the Israeli state.

In a sense Morris’ work was neither original nor radical. Palestinian writers had long challenged the contradictory mythology of Israel’s political leaders: that “Palestinians did not exist” (Golda Meir) and that they left voluntarily. Although he quotes few Palestinian sources, Morris’ work validates several Palestinian assertions.

In his first book, however, Morris stopped short of attributing expulsionist intentions to the Zionist movement. While acknowledging that David Ben-Gurion was one of several Zionist leaders who entertained the concept of “population transfer,” Morris asserts that Zionist war aims in 1947 and 1948 were about capturing and securing territory, not expelling a native population. (He subsequently modified this view somewhat — while expressing regret that the expulsions were not more thorough.)

In 1948 Morris paints a complex picture in which some Palestinians fled because of the brutality of individual Haganah(2) officers, others because of fears of massacres, others because of fears of living in a war zone, and a few others because they thought they would join the Arab Liberation Army.

While there is an undercurrent of tragedy in Morris’ dry recounting of military events, there is nowhere near the poignancy of critique one finds in the writings of Ilan Pappe. And Morris categorically rejects Pappe’s categorization of the events of 1947-8 as “ethnic cleansing.”(3)

Benny Morris was the founding voice of the new historians and also its most conservative member.  Yet over the past two decades other Israeli historians have relied on the evidence Morris uncovered, and some have drawn more radical conclusions.

Avi Shlaim, for example, has challenged the traditional picture of Israel as a persistent victim of the aggression of the Arab world. In The Iron Wall (2001), Shlaim argues that by 1948 David Ben-Gurion, although the leader of the Labor Zionists and a self-described socialist, had adopted the right-wing “Revisionist” approach toward the Arab world first spelled out by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s.

In his own pamphlet “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky had recognized that Zionist and Arab goals in Palestine were incompatible and therefore advocated a more aggressive policy to consistently push back the Arab world. Shlaim asserts that Ben Gurion constructed a mythologized narrative of Israeli Jewish victimhood to justify years of Israeli aggression toward its neighbors.

Although he is rarely mentioned as a “new historian,” Hillel Cohen has documented Zionist efforts to cultivate collaborators among the Palestinian community. Utilizing declassified Israeli military documents, Cohen shows how the Zionist movement successfully exploited divisions within Palestinian society and intentionally exacerbated those divisions. In Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (2008) Cohen shows how the Haganah was able to cultivate a network of informers who provided military intelligence.

In Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967 (2010) Cohen shows how the Israeli state utilized collaborators to try to block the development of Arab nationalism in Palestine and to maintain social control over the Palestinians at the micro level. It should be noted that the Israeli government found Cohen’s conclusions so troubling that it reclassified many of the documents he used after the publication of Good Arabs.

The Work of Ilan Pappe

A scholar and activist, Ilan Pappe is the most radical of the new historians. In Out of the Frame Pappe describes his own evolution as a writer and political activist and places his own history in the context of the emergence of the new historians.(4)

Pappe recounts how he and Morris, who had at one time been amicable, began to diverge sharply after 2000. In the aftermath of the second intifada and the breakdown of peace talks between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestine Authority President Yassir Arafat, Morris moved sharply to the right.

Morris never recanted his history of the involuntary exile of the majority of the Palestinians in 1948. However, in a vitriolic review of Pappe’s A History of Modern Palestine (2004), Morris angrily denounced the description of those events as “ethnic cleansing.”(5) As Morris has moved closer to the political center in Israel, he has engaged in numerous angry polemics against those who utilize his research to criticize Israeli policies.(6)

Pappe, on the other hand, devotes much of his intellectual energy to the Nakbah (Arabic for “catastrophe”) of 1948. A full chapter of Out of the Frame discusses the Israeli efforts at “Nakbah denial.” In another chapter he returns to the “Tantura Affair,” a scandal that erupted over whether or not Israel’s Alexandroni Brigade massacred Palestinians in the town of Tantura in 1948.

When graduate student Teddy Katz wrote an account of the Tantura killings as a Master’s thesis in 1998, Brigade members sued him for libel.(7) Under intense pressure Katz recanted his account in court, then unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw his recantation. Pappe continues to defend Katz’s original thesis, and supplements it with his own research.(8)

Pappe argues that Israel is becoming increasingly undemocratic. In 2002 he nearly lost his job as a lecturer at the University of Haifa because of his political activity. Only after receiving thousands of letters and emails from around the world did the University rector suspend the charges. (Pappe now teaches at the University of Exeter in Britain.)

Furthermore, in an effort to deal with what Israeli pundits now call the “population time bomb” — the increasing percentage of non-Jewish citizens of Israel — Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime is becoming increasingly repressive and racist. Evidence can be found in recent Knesset support for rabbinical efforts to block the renting of apartments to Palestinians in south Tel Aviv. And the government, in an effort to root out dissent, has undertaken to purge “post-Zionist” influences from the public schools.(9)

Netanyahu appears determined to change Israel’s demographic balance by incorporating Jewish settlements in the West Bank into Israel, possibly in exchange for transferring non-Jewish territories in the Galilee to a future Palestinian state. This is also the context in which Benny Morris made his outrageous statement that the problem with the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians was that the Israelis never finished the job.(10)

Like Out of the Frame, Gaza in Crisis is highly readable and popularly written. Noam Chomsky, Pappe’s co-author, demolishes the argument that Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) was a defensive exercise and documents numerous cases of Israeli massacres of Palestinian civilians.

In this collection of essays Pappe returns to a discussion of Nakbah denial. Further he develops his thesis that the Israeli government has rendered the two-state solution moot. Because this solution would ghettoize Palestinians into disconnected cantons, and would ignore the plight of 4-5 million refugees, Pappe believes the only solution to the present crisis is for Israel to become a secular state of all of its citizens.(11) Pappe sees as part of his mission to convince Jews that Zionism is disastrous, and leading them on a path of self-destruction.

The Husaynis

In The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty, Pappe returns to the more scholarly style of his earlier works. Pappe’s larger purpose is to establish the complexity of Palestinian society before the Nakbah. He does this by tracing the 250-year history of the Husayni dynasty.

From the 18th century, through the end of the Ottoman period and through the period of British Mandate, the Husaynis were the most powerful Arab family in the Jerusalem area. Yet their power defied simple categorization. As the greatest of the Palestinian “notables,” their influence emanated from a combination of land ownership, alliances with powerful insiders in Istanbul, and local control over political machines.

For two-and-one-half centuries the Husayni clan controlled the levers of local political power and served as religious authorities. The last of the Husaynis, al-Hajj Amin, was a dictatorial political boss and the political leader of the resistance to the ultimately successful Zionist onslaught.(12)

The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty is a meticulous work which documents a crucial aspect of Palestinian history. It also provides important insights into how twists and turns at the center of the Ottoman court impacted the Arab world. As a study of a ruling dynasty, however, this work understandably focuses on the worlds of the elites. Consequently, we get little sense of the lives of the peasant villages, or the extent to which peasants or urban laborers considered the Husaynis their leaders. Furthermore, had Pappe provided more of a description of Palestinian agriculture he would have presented a clearer picture of how the Husaynis accumulated their wealth.

To fill in the gaps readers would do well to read The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty alongside Pappe’s earlier work, A History of Modern Palestine.(13) In the latter work Pappe made a powerful methodological argument for “history from below.” He provided a rich description of the changes in the rural economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also demonstrated the gap between the elite notables and the rural and urban mass. That disconnect helps explain why Arab nationalism failed to bind notables and peasants in a common front against Zionism before 1948.

Unlike Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe reads Arabic and considers Palestinian sources — both written and oral — to be valid. Pappe has worked with Palestinians and Israeli Jews in Nakbah commemorations — marches to Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948. Many have since become Israeli Jewish towns, others have been returned to forest land. Their town and street names have been changed.

For Pappe, facing up to the Nakbah is a crucial step in transforming Israeli consciousness. The Israeli government evidently agrees with him and has begun to criminalize public references to the Nakbah.

One can only hope that the democratic upsurges sweeping the Arab world might somehow infect the Israeli public and stimulate a new democratic movement within Israel. If so, Pappe’s works will be inspirational.


  1. This term was invented in the 1980s by Benny Morris to describe himself and a few of his colleagues. In other countries the term “revisionist” would be used to refer to historians who challenge a mainstream interpretation. However, in Israel “revisionism” generally refers to the extreme right wing of Zionism founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the early 20th century.
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  2. The Haganah was the military wing of the Yishuv (the Jewish community) within Palestine. In 1948 the Yishuv declared itself to be the state of Israel and the Haganah was renamed the Israel Defense Forces.
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  3. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006. Pappe explores this aspect in several of his works.
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  4. For an excellent critical analysis of the new historians see Joel Beinin’s essay in the winter 2005 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies: Beinin’s argument is slightly different from, though largely compatible with, Pappe’s.
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  5. In History of Modern Palestine Pappe develops this thesis relatively briefly. In Ethnic Cleansing he documents it more thoroughly and demonstrates how Israeli actions fit the definition of “ethnic cleansing” as developed by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Bosnia massacres. For the above mentioned review by Morris see For Pappe’s angry response see
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  6. As an example see the wild video debate between Morris and Norman Finkelstein over the 2008-9 Gaza war and the founding of Israel itself.
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  7. The case only went to court after the press became aware of the thesis in January 2001.
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  8. While Benny Morris concedes that the Haganah engaged in some massacres, he insists that the Tantura massacre did not occur. Central to his argument is that oral histories are unreliable and only written documents, most of which happen to be Israeli, should be trusted. See 1948, page 164.
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  9. For a recent critique of Israeli racism see For a response to Israeli repression see
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  10. The left sociologist Baruch Kimmerling wrote a critique of Morris’ position. See
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  11. Pappe does not use the term, “democratic secular state,” an early demand of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the concept is similar.
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  12. Pappe does not shy away from al-Hajj Amin’s dark side, notably his relations with Hitler and Mussolini. See also the extensive discussion in Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust (Metropolitan Books, 2010).
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  13. Cohen’s Army of Shadows also highlights the stories of rival notable families during the Mandate years and helps explain the lack of unity even among the elites in the struggle against Zionism.
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ATC 152, May-June 2011