Doctrine and Impact of the New History
By Julian Schvindlerman, Hagshama
The new Israeli historiography, which consists in overturning the basic principles of Zionism, is harshly attacked in this article. The old truths, the author claims, have been replaced by new lies, and the implications for Israeli society are indeed ominous: it is in the field of education that the destiny of the country will be decided-we will either collapse under the weight of our own guilty consciences….or perhaps, we just might gather enough strength to survive.
Did you know that Zionism was a colonialist settler movement? That Israel tortured and oppressed its Arab population, and that the Jewish state is irrevocably stained by this sin? Did you know that the Zionist movement consistently robbed, destroyed, and tricked its Arab counterparts? Were you aware that that the Jewish settlement in the pre-State period was under no imminent attack from its Arab neighbors, who were far too busy bickering amongst themselves? Did you know that all those phrases of burning rhetoric about pushing the Jews into the sea, or massacring them in the greatest bloodbath since the Mongols ravaged Asia, were mere semantic word-games? That Zionist leaders, such as the demonic David Ben Gurion, (who, among other things, systematically manipulated the Holocaust for his own political ends), consciously impeded any contact with a moderate Palestinian leadership which desired peace and was rebuffed by the militant stance of the Jews?
Well, if you were caught off-guard, at least you are now well informed. And now you understand that despite boycotts, wars of extermination and countless bloody terrorist incidents directed against the Jewish state, the Arabs were, according to the theories of these legendary "new" historians, the victims of the Arab-Israel conflict.The reader may be forgiven for assuming that these arguments are the fruit of the Department of Propaganda of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, since they constitute the de-legitimization of the Jewish state as such. The primary "new historian" Ilan Pappe has himself admitted this: "Finally major segments of Palestinian historiography are being digested-and accepted, by many outstanding Israeli historians. We are finally seeing the vision of the other side." (Kivvunim, October, 1997.)
In his book "Historiography and Nationalism", Israel Bartal, leading professor of Hebrew University and a major mover and shaker in the Israeli educational system, has admitted that the new historians have a frankly anti-Zionist agenda. And Benny Morris, the actual founder of the movement, and illustrious member of the staff of that same university, actually confessed in his book "1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians" that the political leanings of these self-styled new historians impelled them to research the these of the new history-of the Palestinian cause, that is.
Given the current state of criticism of the new historians, Professor Adi Ophir of Tel Aviv University was himself forced to issue a disclaimer, asserting that this new batch of historical research does not strive to replace old truths with new ones. But if we see how the new position has been disseminated in Israeli academic circles, as well as the claims made by those who have had access to archives in Israel, Britain and the United States, we see that many major Israeli literary and artistic productions, including the 1998 television series Tkuma, and Tom Segev’s best-seller "The Day of the Flowers", are faithful reflections of the Palestinian view.
The purpose of this article is not to debate Israeli justice or injustice-that is best left to the historians themselves, and I heartily recommend my readers to follow the academics in their fascinating-if at times infuriating, debate on the subject. But since, in 1999, the Department of History of the Israel Defence Forces co-sponsored the publication of a book which supposedly, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, exploded many of our most cherished myths, garnering the attention of important foreign journals such as The Wall Street Journal, it is high time to analyze the phenomenon of the "new historiography" and its implications for the Jewish State.
WHERE IS THE NEW HISTORY GOING TO?
In order to understand the impact of the new school on the overall Israeli educational framework, let us pay some attention to the opinions of its chief practitioners. Moshe Zimmerman, Hebrew University Professor and overseer of the committee which is initiating the rewriting of history in Israeli schools, has affirmed that all of Jewish history must be given a radical overhaul, and hopefully replaced with a universal history more in keeping with the global world. And Israel Bartal and Moshe Heyd have insisted that the Zionist narrative is itself obsolete, its mythology overdone, and of no concrete use-or truth, to the Israeli student.
In The New Republic, Yoram Hhazony published a scathing analysis of this directional shift in the Israeli school texts written since 1991. The War of Independence is reduced from its previous 20 pages to a mere two paragraphs, and while Chaim Weizman and David Ben Gurion receive nary a photo, The Beatles, Freud, Nasser, and Dali receive ample visual coverage. In all this welter of universalism, the Zionist narrative simply disappears. We see no mention of the Arab riots nor of the British decision to stanch Jewish emigration to Palestine in 1939….but when the peace process takes center stage, then photos of Israeli leaders with arms outstretched to their Arab counterparts, are quite the order of the day. Universalism, Hazny sarcastically observes, can accept Israel, provided that it emulates the law which the apostles of universalism have established.
And in the new texts, we do not see the maps showing the invasion routes used by five Arab states to attack Israel in 1948; instead, we see the roads taken by Palestinian exiles in flight. Gone are the images of the fall of the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem to the Jordanian forces, or of the destruction of Kibbutz Rachel. Instead, we are bombarded by images of Jews building upon the ruins of Arab villages. The Six day War comes in for its fair share of revisionist treatment: students are taught that the war began when Israel downed Syrian MIGs. We do not mention, of course, Nasser’s closure of the Straits of Tiran, or the innumerable statements in the Arab press promising to liquidate Israel. And the legendary photo of Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan marching towards the Old City is replaced by one of an Israeli military jeep in East Jerusalem, beneath an Arabic street sign. Hazony ironically observes that the age-old desire of the Jewish people to return to their ancestral capital is transformed into the desire to occupy Arab territory.
So why should we be surprised that the Warsaw ghetto uprising has also disappeared from the pages of the new texts, together with those horrific images of the Holocaust, the undeniable visual impact of that tragedy is thus reduced-we do not, in the light of the new universalism, want to bother ourselves with the inaction of the Allies-which has also been ignored by these "progressive" new texts, nor do we want to ponder whether Jews can really trust anyone but themselves. Thus we liberate ourselves from our Zionist fetters.
THE MORAL LINE HAS COME UNHINGED
What the new historians are doing is replacing old values with new ones-and the new ones are no less morally charged than the old ones. While the presentation of the Palestinian position is quite understandable in light of national reconciliation (although the presentation of the Israeli side is absent from the Palestinian curriculum), it is quite questionable to eliminate the base of Jewish and Israeli history on behalf of a fake neutrality that has as many underlying political motives as the Zionist narrative that it ostensibly attacks.
And secondly, the new curriculum appears to be concerted attempt to demoralize the Jewish student: Hazony remarks that it is only natural that parents should wish their children to understand their own particular vision of the world….and whereas Palestinian parents would never allow their children to delve into texts that question the morality of the Arab posture, the new Israeli historians do precisely that with this generation. As the Jerusalem Post noted, depriving a person of his national pride is as damaging as wrenching the individual away from his own family-a permanent scar on his self-esteem.
Hillel Halkin has observed quite eloquently in Commentary that the new texts are divested of any of the human emotion, or the philosophical transcendance, of the Declaration of the Jewish State, a fact dangerous in the extreme for Israeli adolescents whose older siblings serve in the army and who themselves may one day have to fight. Not knowing what they are fighting for is more than cruel-it is unforgivable.
Obviously, as many North American historians have noted, the choice of national heroes depends to a great extent on the values of the educators writing the texts….and regarding the new historians that is no less true. There are those who view the new breed as tireless truth seekers, undoing outdated myths; there are those such as Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan who opine that the new historians are avoiding, through their skepticism, dealing with the real and extraordinary implications of the victory of Israel against overwhelming odds. Hence they take refuge in cynicism.
The Rabbi of the Efrat community, Shlomo Riskin, has remarked that there is a world of difference between a constructive criticism based on compassion and understanding, and a mere cloaking of the political agenda, which is what, according to Professor Yehoshua Porat of Hebrew University, the new historians are doing. And Dan Polisar has perceived the ideological coloring of much of Benny Morris’ supposed revelations regarding recently declassified documents from 1948: since Morris views Zionism as a colonialist enterprise, his interpretation of the facts can hardly be accepted without a grain of salt. Those same facts, when looked at in another ideological light, could conceivably lead to very different conclusions.
Polisar suggests a different angle from which to challenge the new historians: instead of taking isolated facts and incidents out of context, it is necessary to judge the Zionist leadership in terms of the circumstances in which it developed.
Let me give the following example. If a terrorist massacres civilians in a shopping center, and one soldier kills another in combat, we can hardly say that the terrorist and the soldier are morally one and the same. The men and women of the Zionist narrative were ordinary people who confronted extraordinary circumstances, and they should be judged in that light. Of course there were actions that merit debate and analysis, and moments of Israeli brutality towards native Arabs linked to the invading Arab armies must also come under consideration…all this firmly within the context of the War of Independence which cost Israel 1% of its then-existent population.
As the writer Aharon Megged has observed, if the entire Jewish population sees itself as committing a horrible crime by its very act of being here, what moral position does that relegate us to, particularly in relation to those striving to "restore their rights" over all the land of Israel. In a society in which the victims are transformed into villains and the justice of the Zionist cause is denied as much as any of its errors ever were, we should listen to the words of the 9th century Chinese poet Meng Jing: "If we lose the past, our will collapses." It is a trenchant observation which does not appear to bother the "new historians."