The 30-year declassification rule for most US and British and some Israeli official documents stimulates predictably timed reassessments of recent historical events. During 1986 and 1987, three conferences on the Suez-Sinai crisis of 1956 — prompted by Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and culminating in the Israeli-Anglo-French attack on Egypt — were convened, resulting in two volumes of essays. Suez 1956: The Crisis and its Consequences (Clarendon, 1989), edited by Wm. Roger Louis and Roger Owen, contains papers presented at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, while The Suez-Sinai Crisis, 1956: Retrospective and Reappraisal (Columbia, 1990), edited by Selwyn Ilan Troen and Moshe Shemesh, offers the contributions to a conference organized by the Ben Gurion Research Center and Archives in Israel.
Suez 1956 is the better of the two books and includes several notable essays: Shimon Shamir’s detailed account of Project Alpha, a joint US-British plan for an Egyptian-Israeli peace in 1955-56; Diane B. Kurz’s essay on the importance of US financial power in achieving American objectives; Roger Owen’s provocative suggestion that the long-term economic consequences of the war were negative for Egypt; Rashid Khalidi’s argument that the 1956 war convinced the future leaders of Fatah that Palestinians must rely on themselves and thus motivated the revival of Palestinian nationalist politics; and Albert Hourani’s masterful synthesis.
Extensive excerpts from Ben Gurion’s voluminous diary are the highlight of The Suez-Sinai Crisis. Troen’s introduction indicates that the Israeli State Archive has not yet authorized release of some entries, so we are left to wonder what bombshells they might contain. For those who do not read Arabic, the translated excerpts from the memoirs of ’Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi and Sayyid Mar‘i are also useful, though their publication during Anwar al-Sadat’s de-Nasserization campaign leaves doubt about the extent to which they reflect the authors’ thinking 20 years earlier.
Historians’ rush to newly released government documents is understandable in light of their strong training to believe that truth is to be found in hitherto unread (or misread) pieces of paper. However, not all the relevant official documents have been declassified. In Israel official secrecy may be legally maintained for 50 years, and some US and British documents are withheld for that long as well. The French government maintains a 40-year rule but releases some items after 30 years, while no Egyptian documents are released before 50 years. Moreover, key participants in the Suez/Sinai crisis and other diplomats and political actors have career interests in fostering particular interpretations of the events. Both volumes offer such types a platform from which to promote their agendas. (See, for example, Mordechai Bar-On, Hermann Eilts and Amin Hewedy in Louis and Owen; and Julian Amery, Alfred Atherton, Bar-On, Chaim Herzog, Andre Martin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Rehavam Zeevi in Troen and Shemesh.) On the whole, their papers, some without reference to any supporting evidence, do little more than continue, more or less crudely, the political debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict or the decline of the British and French empires. Consequently, the new information in these books is limited.
In addition, The Suez-Sinai Crisis embodies the liabilities and lack of self-awareness typical of Israeli Middle East studies. The unoriginal, undocumented, self-serving paper by Shimon Peres (“one of the main architects of the ‘collusion’” according to Bar-On in Suez 1956), delivered while he served as Israel’s foreign minister, is emblematic of the hazards of the cohabitation of scholarship and politics in this book. Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s introductory essay is sublimely oblivious to the revelations of the new Israeli historians, or even the contents of Moshe Sharett’s Personal Diary (in Hebrew). Most of the first hundred pages of the text appraise the military lessons of the conflict for Britain, France, Israel and Egypt (by an Israeli officer). Their spirit is captured by the observation of Col. John A. Sellers that Britain successfully applied these lessons in the 1982 Falklands War and by the choice of Rehavam Zeevi, prominent advocate of “transferring” Palestinian Arabs out of “greater Israel,” to assess Israel’s military lessons. Moshe Shemesh’s bald assertion in his essay that “unlike in Western society, lies expressed by an Arab regime are not considered negatively” is too outrageous to require comment.
Very different events, some nearly contemporary with the Suez-Sinai crisis, are evoked by Voices in Exile: Immigrants and the First Amendment (1989), a participant-observer video produced by Joan Mandell, Laura Hayes and Fred Samia. The video documents the struggle of seven Palestinians and a Kenyan currently living in Los Angeles to resist deportation by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, originally on the grounds that they are members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and thus advocates of world communism. The INS action was based on the McCarthy-era McCarran Act, sections of which have now been ruled unconstitutional by the presiding judge.
By drawing historical connections between the recent hysterical campaigns directed against Arab Americans, the anti-communism of the McCarthy era and the post-World War I Palmer raids against immigrant radicals, Voices in Exile addresses civil liberties issues far beyond the case of the “LA Eight.” This broad political context, the professional narration by Casey Kasem, a close-up look at the Arab American community and the fine use of Arabic music make this video a good teaching tool on immigrant rights and cultural diversity.
Situating Arab American issues in this context makes it easier to present them to a general audience; and the producers hope that this will generate interest in Voices in Exile during 1991, the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. The LA Eight case continues. Two of the eight still face McCarran Act deportation proceedings for advocating the destruction of property; the defense has been permitted to take depositions from INS officials which it expects will provide the basis for a counter attack on the INS. Part of the proceeds from the sale of the video go to the LA Eight defense fund.