Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 October 1999
Issue No. 450
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Israel's new historians

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed In an important article published in Al-Hayat newspaper on 29 August, the distinguished Arab intellectual Dr Clovis Maksoud discussed the recent emergence in Israel of a new breed of thinkers known as the 'new historians'. Iconoclasts all, they have set out to deconstruct the official version of Israel's history, unmasking inaccuracies and even deliberate distortions in Israel's generally accepted historiography.

Their efforts in that direction have earned them the praise of many quarters, including supporters of the Arab cause. The general consensus is that the new historians represent a positive development. Even if many of them do not repudiate Zionism, they are ready to criticise its practices in a constructive manner. Yet Dr Maksoud chose as a title for his article: "The role of the New Historians in refurbishing the Zionist project", thus underscoring the negative aspects of their activities, notably, their attempt to dissociate Zionism from its misdeeds, and, by so doing, rejuvenate it. While the arguments he advances in support of this theory are convincing, I believe he does not take his logic to its ultimate conclusions.

Dr Maksoud does not deny that the new historians have positive aspects. He admits that their reassessment of Israel's history contains a self-criticism "which can awaken the conscience of Israel's new ruling establishment" and that such a development is "testimony to a state of maturity" derived from the fact that Israel's present power "is in no need of fallacies to establish its authority".

At the same time, however, he warns that these positive aspects should not tempt the Arabs to seek a dialogue with the new historians or be seen as a vindication of the Copenhagen line, more generally, of those who advocate normalisation of relations with Israel under the pretext that its new historians are a prominent expression of the "culture of peace".

To crystallize an attitude towards the new historians, Dr Maksoud probed the very essence of the Arab-Zionist conflict and came forward with a question which provides much food for thought: "Is Israel really a Jewish need?"

Israelis themselves attribute their 'need' for a 'national Jewish home' (according to the Balfour Declaration) to the persecution they were subjected to when they had no haven to call their own, thus tacitly admitting that it was the environment in which they lived and not something related to their intrinsic identity that made Israel a 'need', namely, the pogroms conducted against them over centuries in eastern Europe, which culminated in the Holocaust under Hitler.

These events have nothing to do with the biblical Kingdom of Israel. For two thousand years, the Jews lived without a state of their own, and when the United Nations issued a resolution upholding their 'right' to a state, it was in terms of the partition plan consecrated by General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947, which also provided for the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. This means that Israel cannot claim to enjoy legitimacy in the absence of a Palestinian state.

Dr Maksoud highlights this point when he reproaches the New Historians for overlooking the fact that Israel's right to exist cannot be taken for granted as long as a Palestinian state does not exist, even if the Arab parties themselves are responsible, whether wholly or partially, for its non-existence. The 'need' in the eyes of Jews for Israel's existence in not enough to make its existence a 'right', especially when that need conflicts with the interests of other parties. So Israel's legitimacy is vitiated as long as an Arab Palestinian state does not exist. According to Resolution 181, the only text recognising Israel's right to exist, its existence is made conditional on the existence of an Arab Palestinian state. In other words, Israel and the Palestinian state, both deriving their legitimacy from their mutual existence irrespective of the antagonism between them, confers on their problem a very special character, where it is more a question of a 'contract', a 'deal' between the two parties than a question of 'rights' enjoyed independently by either, moreover, a contract that only a mutually accepted 'peace treaty' can sanction.

According to Dr Maksoud, the only deal now in operation is the one struck between the Zionist movement and the West, according to which the West turns a blind eye to the persecution of the Palestinians by the Israelis in exchange for the Israelis 'forgiving' the persecution of the Jews under Nazism and, more generally, the West's collusion with Hitler's anti-Semitism. This deal is obviously weighed heavily against the Palestinians and can only be redressed if the Palestinian problem is dealt with in a comprehensive manner.

A prerequisite here is that the West has to accept that its sins, as represented in its failure to take Hitler to task in time to avert the Holocaust, will not be expiated unless and until it assumes its responsibility for the persecution of the Palestinians by the Israelis. For the issue of persecution, like that of freedom, is indivisible. It is impossible to say that racism has been overcome by condemning it when it is practiced against one specific race (the Jews) while ignoring its use against other races or ethnic groups (notably, the Palestinians).

As to the responsibility of the Israelis in correcting their misdeeds towards the Palestinians, this requires -- as a minimum -- that they succeed in convincing the Arab parties, by deeds and not only by words, that Israel's existence in the region can be more beneficial to its Arab environment than detrimental, and that the Arabs can come to see its presence in their midst as more advantageous than its absence. But this means that Israel will have to place the common interests of the Middle East above its own specific interests. This would be a denial of Zionism. Is it realistic to believe that such an aim can be reached?

In addition to their demand that history curricula in Israeli schools be modified, Dr Maksoud suggests a number of issues which Israel's new historians should require their government to take action on. For example, the Israeli government should make an official apology to the Palestinians and other Arabs who have suffered from Israel's creation and its occupation of Arab land. It should also end its treatment of Arab Israelis as second-class citizens. The intervention by Israel and the United States to have the UN resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism repealed should be reexamined. Israel's violations of the fourth Geneva Convention concerning its behaviour as an occupying state (notably when it comes to East Jerusalem) should be given due attention, and thoroughly exposed and corrected.

The stand of Israel's new historians can be an inspiration for Western historians and intellectuals to engage in some soul-searching of their own, to expose the West's ambivalent and contradictory attitudes towards the Jews: either launching intolerable anti-Semitic campaigns or defending Israel indiscriminately, irrespective of its mistakes and crimes. Self-criticism touching on the very fundamental issues of the Jewish problem in Europe and the ensuing Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East should extend from Israeli intellectuals to Western intellectuals. Only then can the dialogue extend to the bulk of Arab intellectuals beyond any constraints imposed by the Arab anti-normalisation drive, because the debate will be concentrating on the very essence of Zionist aggression and the means to overcome it.

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