Since the 1980s, professional Israeli scholars have been challenging the official Israeli version of the origins of Zionism and the birth of Israel. The “new historians” view of the past is much closer to the Palestinian historical narrative than to the Zionist one. Their criticisms also correspond to demands and historical grievances by marginalized groups within Israel itself. These scholars have legitimized and validated the national protest of Palestinian citizens and the social outcry of Mizrahis against the oppression inflicted on them first by the Zionist movement and later by the state of Israel. These scholars seek to incorporate their critique and historical accounts of these marginalized groups into Israel’s education, media and cultural systems. Their aim is to end a long period in which these groups’ history has been obfuscated if not totally erased from the Israeli national ethos as reflected in official state ceremonies, canonical literature and poetry, and in government media.

The new historiography has become the focus of heated public debate that addresses contemporary Israeli problems by looking at the past. As Israel celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, the link between critical historiography and an analysis of the present has become clearer and far more intriguing. That this critical, non-Zionist discourse on the past is produced by Israel’s “professional historians” is particularly disturbing for the political and cultural elites of the country.

These revisionist historians — referred to either as the “new historians” or the “post-Zionist” scholars — focus on three key issues: early Zionism, including its ideology and practice in the late nineteenth century; the history of the 1948 war; and analysis of the state’s policies toward the Palestinian minority and Jewish immigrants from Arab countries.

Early Zionism Revisited

Before the “new historians” began to examine the history of Zionism, the Jewish right to Palestine was taken for granted by mainstream historians. Their role was to provide the evidence for that right, not to question it. In using neutral methodology and comparative theoretical approach, the new historians in Israel, mainly historical sociologists, concurred with their Palestinian counterparts that Zionism was essentially a colonialist movement. From their perspective, Zionism can no longer be described as a movement to redeem a lost land after 2,000 years of exile. Zionist historians, by contrast, see the purchase of land, the eviction of local Palestinian peasants, the takeover of the local labor market and the major economic concessions of the land as part of a justified development in enlightened human history.

In the new historiography, Zionism began as a national awakening in Europe but turned into a colonialist movement when it chose Palestine as its target territory. It is bewildering that such a view has not emerged earlier in the Israeli academy. What else could one call an immigration movement from Europe into the heart of the Arab world at the end of the nineteenth century? Zionism was not different from the movement of whites to South and West Africa in the name of ideas no less altruistic than nationalism, nor from French settlers in Algeria who claimed an atavistic link to the Algerian soil with a conviction as firm the Zionist “redemption” of the ancient Jewish homeland.

The motives of these and other colonialist movements, including the Zionist one, were always presented as a genuine wish to save oneself from persecution and or promote progress elsewhere. Their methods were also similar. The most important components of the settlement project were the kibbutz, the moshav and the moshava, all three forms of collective settlements. Although they were originally viewed by Israeli historiography as the fulfillment of socialist egalitarian ideas, they were analyzed by Gershon Shafir as the most utilitarian and economical way of building a bridgehead in an hostile and harsh environment. [1]

Rewriting the 1948 War

The debate on the 1948 war — which has relied heavily on declassified Israeli documents — began with Simha Flapan’s 1987 book, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. This debate is now integrated into the disputes on how to celebrate Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, as seen prominently in Tkuma, the popular 22-part television documentary prepared for the fiftieth celebrations. The three segments related to 1948 relied more on the “new historians” than on other interpretations.

While the official Zionist narrative asserted that the yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine before 1984) faced annihilation on the eve of the 1948 war, the “new historians” show that there was no such danger. The Jewish community easily won the diplomatic battle in the United Nations and was favored by the balance of military power on the ground. The yishuv’s military advantage was significantly enhanced by an unwritten agreement signed by the Jewish Agency and the strongest Arab force, Jordan’s Arab Legion, prior to the war. The agreement confined the Arab Legion to the struggle over Jerusalem and its vicinity and prevented it from taking a larger part in the battle which could have linked it with the Syrian troops entering Palestine in the north and the Egyptian ones entering it in the south. New evidence was found in Egypt of how Egyptian and Syrian generals were misled to believe that their forces would eventually meet with the Legionaries entering Palestine from the east. In return, the Israelis accepted Jordan’s de facto annexation of parts of Palestine (later to be known as the West Bank).

From the moment London referred the Palestine Mandate to the United Nations in February 1947, the Jewish leadership in Palestine mobilized its community quite effectively and prepared it for the takeover of the Mandatory government and its functions. The Palestinian leadership, with its prominent members in exile, was unable to organize its community financially or militarily. The result was that the Jewish community was superior in military and financial terms when civil war broke between the two communities in November 1947. Thus the local war, lasting between November 1947 and May 1948, in which all the mixed towns and crucial roads of Palestine fell into Jewish hands, was won because of military advantage.

The diplomatic battle was won in part because of a lack of interest among the Arab diplomats at the UN to present the Palestinian case. But, even had they shown more interest, one doubts how much they could have helped the Palestinians given the pro-Zionist position of the US as well as the Soviet Union. Thus, if anyone was working against all odds, it was the Palestinians who lacked the support of any of the superpowers and had no influence in internal US politics, in contrast to the organized support for Zionism from the US Jewish community.

Nonetheless, the myth of annihilation became central to the Israeli collective memory of 1948 and the Israeli siege mentality. It portrays Israel in 1948 as a state living in conditions reminiscent of Europe in the pre-Holocaust era. This reminder of the Holocaust allowed successive Israeli governments to claim the need to put aside internal conflicts and ignore hardship in order to stand united in another possible war of annihilation. It justified giving a disproportionate share of the budget to the army and security forces — a decision that has had far reaching socioeconomic implications for the society’s welfare as well as for freedom of speech and civil rights in Israel. It also portrayed the Arab side as Nazis. In the war against annihilation everything else becomes redundant — be it democratic and humanist values or international law.

David, however, was not fighting against Goliath. This is not just a statement of a historical truth. It is a message to Israeli society that Israel was not born miraculously. Nor is it, because of its claimed moral uniqueness, an invincible state that can live by the sword and impose its will with military force. Historical circumstances unfavorable to Israel may develop eventually. Therefore, it must seek other means in order to be accepted by its neighbors. The “new historians” hold that Israel should recognize its neighbors’ fears and accept that for the Arab states in general and the Palestinians in particular the Israel Defense Forces is an instrument of repression and dispossession used again and again to expand the territory of the Jewish state. Israel has to recognize how it is perceived by the other side: a state established on the ruins of Palestine as a result of a long process of Jewish colonization beginning in 1882. Some Israeli scholars have begun not only to recognize this as the position of the other side, but as a truthful description of past events.

The Making of the Refugee Problem

In 1948, military advantage was translated into an act of mass expulsion of more than half of the Palestinian population. Israeli forces, with rare exceptions, pushed the Palestinians from each village and town in which they resided. In some instances, this expulsion was accompanied by massacres as was the case in Lydda and Ramleh, al-Dawayima, Sa‘sa, Zaytoun and other places. Expulsion was also accompanied by rape, looting and confiscation. Expulsion was not always direct. Sometimes it was caused by a campaign of terror, inducing villagers to flee their homes. In a few cases a total surrender saved some of the population from expulsion.

Were these atrocities and conduct a consequence of the war itself or were they the result of premeditated expulsion plan? Some Israeli “new historians,” such as Benny Morris, who wrote the most important scholarly research on the question, tend to talk about this immoral chapter as emanating from the war atmosphere. Others, like this author, tend to see it as an outcome of a master plan prepared by the Jewish leadership before the war. Palestinian historians see it as a direct result of the Zionist settlement in Palestine. Ultimately, the establishment of a Jewish state could have become a reality only through an act of expulsion. 1948 was the opportunity, although the intent had been there all the time.

Whether the expulsion is analyzed as the implementation of a master plan or an unintended development in the 1948 war, the mere reference to what the Israelis did in that war stands in stark contrast to the mainstream Zionist version of the war’s history. The official version, reiterated lately by court historians in Israel in their debate with the “new historians,” is that the Palestinian leadership called upon its community to leave so that they would not stand in the way of the invading Arab armies. Nor is there any official recognition of atrocities beyond the Dayr Yasin massacre, which is attributed to right-wing terrorists and not to the main military force of the yishuv, the Hagana. The “new historians” attribute other massacres to the Hagana and some have discovered a link between the Hagana and the Dayr Yasin massacre. Such descriptions of the moral conduct of the Israeli army draws into question the strong and popular myth of the “purity of arms” of the Israel Defense Forces. This oxymoron originated with the founding fathers of Zionism, who presented themselves as engaged in a humane and liberal project that could be a model for the non-democratic Middle East.

The Early 1950s

The social cry heard in the 1970s by Jews of North African origins — a cry against social and economic deprivation — was cleverly utilized by the Likud in the 1977 general elections. The Likud’s leader, the late Menachem Begin, focused the attention of the electorate on Labor’s discrimination against Mizrahi Jews since 1948, thereby widening existing splits within the fabric of Israeli society. The protests continued well into the 1980s and, in response, several scholars — mainly sociologists from Haifa University — began looking more critically at the state’s social and cultural policies of the 1950s. Their findings were critical of the revered forefathers of the state. Although the scholars recognized the difficulties faced by the young state, they held that these difficulties did not justify the maltreatment of Arab citizens and Jewish Arab immigrants. Their view was that this discrimination grew directly out of a racist ideology of modernization, imposed on anyone with an Arab identity, rather than out of difficult times.

The critical sociology emerging in the 1970s not only portrayed a different view of Israeli society and state in the 1950s. It said clearly what some of the “new historians” of the 1948 war only hint at. It accused the Israeli academy, especially its sociology and history departments, of justifying the brutal policy of modernization and Judaization in the early 1950s, and asserted that the academy saw this modernization as a course of historical development associated with enlightenment, liberalism and faithful implementation of the principles of democracy.

These challengers have exposed the link between past and present. They have associated current problems tearing Israeli society apart with the way the Jewish state was established. Israel’s founding myths and principles prevent the country from reconciling Jewish nationalism with the principles of democracy and liberalism. The basic contradiction between the ideals of Zionism on the one hand, and the interest and aspiration of a local Palestinian national movement and society, on the other, are still present. The main victims of the clash between the ideals of Zionism and the reality in Palestine are the hundreds of thousands of refugees who lost their land and hopes for normal existence as people in their own homeland. Rewriting history is one way of acknowledging their plight and advancing the chances for peace in Palestine.

More then anything else the new scholars challenge the collective memory of most Jews in Israel, particularly the collective memory of 1948 that still feeds most of the Israel’s principal myths. The new scholars had a twofold effect on Israeli historiography: they legitimized the historical narrative of the Palestinians and somewhat “normalized” the national collective memory of Israelis.

How important is this new outlook in shaping Israel’s future conduct and nature? This difficult question relates to the more general question of how academe in general affects society as a whole. The debate on Israel’s origins has aroused a great deal of interest in Israel, although in most cases it has generated an angry reaction to perceived betrayal. Nonetheless, Israeli discourse now includes references to the past that do not ignore the existence of an alternative way of looking at what had happened in the early years. Some mainstream scholars, as well the authors of new textbooks for schools and editors of TV and radio programs, accept at least some of the points made by the new scholars.

More important, the new way of looking at the myths of Israel’s foundation goes beyond the academy. Novelists, artists, filmmakers and playwrights all have produced works with an historical approach that conveys messages similar to those of the new scholars. These other forms of cultural activity have wider audiences and are more effective in influencing the way people thing and act. Of particular interest are films which portray a different kind of Palestinian, criticize the conduct of Israeli soldiers and show empathy to the aspirations of the other side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As the academic debate continues, the industry of these new cultural products grows, which may, in the long run, strengthen the political voices already presenting these issues on the margins of the Israeli political map.


[1]The assertion about the kibbutz is made by Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

How to cite this article:

Ilan Pappe "Fifty Years Through the Eyes of “New Historians” in Israel," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

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