Finkelstein: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict
In recent years, academics in Israel and many outside it seemed to move from historical research onto a historiographical debate when dealing with Zionism or the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Israel itself, the focus of the academic debate has been on the role and importance of Zionist ideology in the local scholarly reconstruction of the past. This current debate suffers in two ways: Those who write about metahistorical questions have little experience in reconstructing the past according to new theories or methodologies, or even in a non-Zionist way; while those who do write proper historical works are totally innocent of any knowledge of metahistorical questions, which include debates about history that could benefit anyone writing about Palestine's history. The book under review tries to overcome both deficiencies by deconstructing Israeli historiographical texts on Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict and simultaneously offering the author's version on the same topics dealt with by the scholars he examines.
This is a novel and intriguing contribution. Historians are not interested or knowledgeable enough to carry such an intricate task. The best-known among the "new historians," Benny Morris, attacks this tendency to deal with the subject of metahistory or methodological questions in the revised edition of his book 1948 and After (Oxford Univ. Press, 1990). Therefore, he probably would be totally dismayed to see the allegation made by Finkelstein in a full chapter of his book, "Making of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," that Morris is as Zionist in his scholarly work as are the old guard historians of Israel. In fact, Morris is cited together with the same historians he "deconstructed": Anita Shapira and Yosef Gorny. To these three, Finkelstein adds Abba Eban, Chaim Herzog, and Joan Peters. Finkelstein confronts the main arguments of their books with an alternative analysis and description.
The book under review is very elegant and readable, notwithstanding its extensive academic apparatus. The book includes a large number of footnotes, which allow Finkelstein to transcend the chronological and thematic scopes chosen by the historians he examines. He challenges the general outline on which the Israeli historiographical picture of Zionism is based. He does that first by questioning the main themes in the Zionist historical narrative and then by examining in great detail the empirical evidence brought by Israeli historians to substantiate their claims. Thus, his refutation of Israeli historiography is both ethical and empirical.
While Gorny, Morris, and Shapira deserve to be examined thoroughly because of their professionalism, one would hesitate to include Eban, Herzog, and Peters--three conscientious ambassadors of Zionism--in the same category. They only can be challenged ideologically, not professionally.
Three examples suffice to illuminate the merits of this book. Toward Gorny's The Arab Question and Jewish Problem, Finkelstein shows great respect. He regards it as a reliable source for Israel's history, but questions the tone that accompanies Gorny's historical description. Whenever Gorny discerns moderation in early Zionism, or whenever he looks for the "dovish" side of the movement, Finkelstein adds adverted commas to these complimentary adjectives.
Whereas Finkelstein respects Gorny as a professional authority, with whom he argues on interpretation and not on facts, he regards Shapira's The Sword of the Dove as factually distorted historical analysis. Finkelstein sees Shapira, in many ways the doyen of Labor Zionist history in Israel, as a court historian committed to upholding the principal Zionist myths. The first is the myth of the "empty land" of Palestine: In the introduction to her book, Shapira describes the Jewish settlers arrival to a barren Palestine. As Finkelstein poignantly remarks, this myth is meaningless in a book that is devoted to Palestinian resistance to Zionist settlement: If the land was empty who resisted?
The second myth is that of "Jewish self-defence"--a myth epitomized in the name of the Israeli army (Israel Defense Forces). Shapira seeks historical evidence for the defensive nature of Zionist actions in Palestine. However, Finkelstein's criticism in this case seems to be moral, not factual. Although Shapira equated the morality of Zionist settlement with the Palestinian resistance to it, for Finkelstein there is an invader and the invaded, the occupier and the occupied. Shapira accepts as an objective fact the Zionist "historical right" over Palestine, but Finkelstein writes that this "right" was neither historical nor just. Finkelstein challenges the Zionist claim that it was a movement emerging out of the need to solve the problem of anti-Semitism and fulfill a national dream. The counterarguments he offers are known to those following the debates about Zionism inside and outside Israel, and are presented here with clarity indicating systematic and sharp thinking.
Finkelstein treats Morris as almost one of the "court historians" of Zionism due to the mitigating circumstance he granted the Israeli leadership when judging its responsibility for the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. Morris, however, did not acquit the government of what he saw as its main crime: Preventing the repatriation of these refugees by eradicating their homes and allowing Jews to settle in those that were not destroyed. This seems a severe verdict from a court historian; Morris also has been castigated for his book in the Israeli press. A more plausible argument is that Morris accepts the Israeli army's historical version and thus reached a less discriminating verdict than have Palestinian historians with regard to Israel's role in the making of the refugee problem.
This book is a very important contribution to the on-going debate about the writing of the conflict's history in Palestine and Israel. Putting Morris aside, the rest of the historians mentioned in the book share an ideological perspective that determined their writings much more than the archives or facts of history. The view in Israel and outside it on Palestine's history is changing constantly due to the critical eye historians such as Morris cast on the past, but mostly because historians such as Finkelstein are willing to puncture the mythical balloons that Zionist historiography.
Ilan Pappé is a professor of political science at Haifa University, Israel.