Middle East Quarterly
SEPTEMBER 1996 • VOLUME III: NUMBER 3
My article, "Rewriting Israel's History," argued that the self-styled "new historians" are neither new nor true historians but partisans seeking to provide academic respectability to long-standing misconceptions and prejudices about the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are scarcely "new" since most of their "factual discoveries" (and some of their interpretations) effectively reinvent the wheel; and they are anything but true historians because, taking in vain the name of the archives, they violate all tenets of bona fide research in their endeavor to rewrite Israeli history in an image of their own devising. The replies by Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and Avi Shlaim to my article fully vindicate this thesis.
For years, Benny Morris has had it easy. By inundating his readers with primary sources, he created the impression, one that even his critics accepted, that his work is solidly grounded in facts. But this is a false picture, for he has been misusing those facts. My article shows that on one of the most bitter bones of contention in the historiography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue of "transfer," Morris has been prepared systematically to falsify evidence in an attempt to create history in an image of his own devising. There is scarcely a single do'cument he has not twisted either by creative rewriting, taking things out of context, truncating texts, or giving a false description of the contents of docu'ments.
That Morris dismisses my article as undeserving of "serious attention or reply" is not difficult to understand: facts speak for themselves and he has nothing to say to mitigate the damning evidence.
Pappé resembles an old music box, which, no matters when one turns it on, invariably plays back the same tune. He faults me for confusing reality and ideology; but is that not precisely what he does when he accuses me of subscribing to the "Zionist historiographical perspective," a bogey the new historians created to discredit their critics and divert the debate from the real issue: good vs. bad scholarship?
Pappé fails to address a single factual assertion made in my article, let alone refute it; rather, he takes issue with a string of assertions of his own devising, not addressing those I brought up in the article. For example, he holds that my facts "are mostly claims made by mainstream historians." Wrong: not one of my facts comes from other historians, mainstream or otherwise. Rather, I introduced the article by mentioning what others have written on the new historians to acquaint the reader with the state of the debate, a common scholarly practice. Moreover, had Pappé troubled himself to read my article, he would have noted that it does what no one else has done before -- namely, examine the archival source-material used by the new historians and thus prove their foul play.
Similarly, Pappé announces that the new historians proved "that there was parity on the battlefield in the 1948 war" and lauds this as part of a "de-Zionized view" of history. If this is the case, then most Israeli writings on the war, including David Ben-Gurion's war diaries and autobiographical account, are "de-Zionized." For, as my article showed, the existence of approximate numerical parity on the battlefield had been known in Israel for decades before the new historians appeared.
Shlaim offers a far more sophisticated, though equally misconceived, reply. Unlike Morris or Pappé, he attempts to rebut my facts; like Pappé, his rebuttal contains distortions about his and my writings.
Broadly speaking, Shlaim recalls the man of the joke who, having killed his parents, pleads for clemency on grounds of orphanhood. Having made his reputation as a leading new historian, and stating at the outset of his reply that there is a "'new' or revisionist school of writing about Israel's history" to which he belongs, Shlaim then denies membership in this self-styled group and seeks to disguise its ideological luggage and virulently anti-Israel agenda. "[I]t should be stressed at the outset that there is no club, society, or trade union, let alone a political party with card-carrying members, of new historians," he writes, as if the new historians had ever been conceived in such absurd terms. Shlaim should have the integrity to stand up and be counted.
Shlaim also attempts to disown the two primary factors on which the new historians, including himself, have consistently based their claim to newness: relatively young age and access to newly declassified docum'ents. He accuses me of charging the new historians of making much of their age as if it is me, and not the new historians themselves, who made this meaningless allegation in the first place. Shlaim then accuses me of a "totalitarian conception of history" by writing that I expect "all readers of official do'cuments to come up with the same conclusions." But I did not say this and do not believe it. I actually wrote that mere access to newly released docu'ments is not in itself reason to claim newness, for docu'ments are open to alternative interpretations -- precisely the opposite of what Shlaim misattributed to me.
Shlaim charges me of trying to have it both ways by criticizing his collusion theory as familiar while taking him to task for this interpretation. I see no contradiction in simultaneously faulting Shlaim for taking up an old conspiracy theory and calling it totally misconceived. This new historian is not even new in being wrong.
Shlaim argues that "surely what matters is not whether the interpretation I advance is old or new . . . but whether it is sound or not." True, of course; but it sounds hollow coming from a new historian. If it matters not whether one's interpretation is new or old, why then the hullabaloo about a "new historiography"? My article will have achieved one of its main objectives if Shlaim drops his title of new historian and focuses instead on issues of substance.
The 'Abdallah-Meir Meeting
Concerning the important 'Abdallah-Meir meeting in November 1947, Shlaim says that "extensive quotations from the reports of all three Jewish participants support [his] account of this meeting," while my article gives "a highly selective and tendentious account designed to exonerate the Jewish side of any responsibility for frustrating the U.N. partition plan." A few responses:
First, why does Shlaim presume that I see a need to "exonerate the Jewish side" for such cooperation? He himself has praised the alleged collusion as "a reasonable and realistic strategy for both sides."1
Secondly, extensive quotations from the reports of all three Jewish participants do not support Shlaim's account. My article shows that the report of Golda Meir (the most important Israeli participant and the person who allegedly clinched the deal with 'Abdallah) is conspicuously missing from Shlaim's book, despite his awareness of its existence.
Thirdly, my account is not "selective and tendentious"; Meir did not accept 'Abdallah's intention to annex the Arab parts of Western Palestine but emphasized her intent only to speak about an agreement based on the imminent U.N. Partition Resolution; and she would only accept Transjordan's intervention in Palestine "to maintain law and order until the UN could establish a government in that area," namely, a short-lived law-enforcement operation to implement the U.N. Partition Resolution, not obstruct it. In his reply, Shlaim cites only the second point in Meir's above response (though failing to grasp its true meaning) and ignores her first. Who is tendentious here?
Further, having now to deal with Meir's report, Shlaim concedes she told 'Abdallah that "we could not promise to help his incursion into the country." But he then twists her words by claiming that
The understanding was not that the Jews would actively help 'Abdallah capture the Arab part of Palestine (in defiance of the U.N.) but that (1) he would take it himself, (2) the Zionists would set up their own state, and (3) after the dust had settled, the two parties would make peace.But there is not a hint in Meir's report of anything remotely reminiscent of this claim. Had he not (tendentiously) truncated Meir's statement as quoted in my article, the reader would easily realize that she insisted on abiding by the U.N. Resolution, not violating it.
Shlaim's emphatic claim that his collusion thesis is predicated on more than a single episode does not hold water. Yes, Shlaim's Collusion across the Jordan ostensibly deals with thirty years of contacts between 'Abdallah and the Zionist movement, but it focuses on the short period around the 1947-49 war: of the book's 623 pages, less than 30 concern pre-1947 Hashemite-Zionist relations.
Shlaim traces the "collusion" to the November 1947 Meir-'Abdallah conversation, which can scarcely qualify as the culmination of a sustained and protracted Hashemite-Zionist dialogue, let alone a negotiations process.
Limitations of space do not allow a detailed rebuttal of the collusion myth; I invite the interested reader to consult my forthcoming book Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians."2 Let me state here only that Shlaim's book ignores the Zionist decision-making mechanism and process, which explains why his reply does not address my critical points: a) Meir was not authorized to make a decision of this magnitude; b) no agreement that bound the Zionist movement could conceivably be reached without the authorization of the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE), the effective government of the Yishuv; c) the JAE showed no awareness of the existence of any such agreement; and d) the people who mattered most in the formulation of Zionist foreign policy, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, preferred an independent Palestinian state to Transjordanian expansion, and they did so well after the Abdallah-Meir meeting.
Great Britain's Role
Shlaim's other thesis, about Great Britain, is equally misconceived. In his reply, Shlaim cites the following passage from his book:
By secretly endorsing Abdullah's plan to enlarge his kingdom, Britain became an accomplice in the Hashemite-Zionist collusion to frustrate the United Nations partition resolution of 29 November 1947 and to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state.3One need go no further than Shlaim's concluding chapter to belie this fantastic claim:
Britain was careful not to get involved in active collusion with Abdullah in frustrating the United Nations partition scheme and gave only implicit agreement to Abdullah's plan. The point of the agreement was not to prevent the birth of a Palestinian state, since by that time it was clear that the Palestinian leaders were not prepared to set up a state in part of Palestine, but to prevent the Jews from occupying the whole of Palestine.4Shlaim here concedes that the Anglo-Transjordanian collaboration was aimed not against Palestinians but against Jews.
Shlaim himself having debunked the main thrust of his own conspiracy theory, I limit the remainder of my response to dispelling his claims about its specifics:
* I wrote that London did not know of a Hashemite-Zionist agreement to divide up Palestine between themselves; ipso facto it could not have blessed such an agreement. In his reply, Shlaim does not contest this extensively referenced assertion; I take his silence for agreement.
* Shlaim charges me of distorting his account of the February 1948 meeting between Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and Tawfiq Abul Huda, the Transjordan Prime Minister, in which Britain allegedly approved the Hashemite-Zionist collusion. Let's look at the record.
First, Shlaim overlooked a critical piece of primary source-material on the meeting, which makes his account partial at best. He has identified two records: the 1957 memoirs of Sir John Glubb and a minute dated February 9, 1948, by Bernard Burrows, head of the Middle East Department at the Foreign Office. He neglects another contemporary report, prepared by Bevin on February 10 and cabled to the British ambassador in Amman, Sir Alec Kirkbride, the following morning. This third report negates Shlaim's account of the meeting.
Secondly, Shlaim concedes that "what Glubb represents as an explicit warning appears [in the original report] as a question." Yet he gives Glubb's old and partisan account priority over the newly released official docume'nt. Further, he twists the original report in order to prove its concomitance with Glubb's claim. "When Glubb's account is taken in conjunction with the briefs prepared for Bevin," he writes, "it appears highly probable that the latter in fact used the opportunity to warn Abul Huda against attempting to seize any of the Jewish areas."5 There is no need for Shlaim's elaborate detective work of second-guessing Bevin through tertiary accounts because the two contemporary reports of the meeting are perfectly clear: Bevin did not tell Abul Huda that invading the Arab parts of Palestine was "the obvious thing to do," as claimed by Glubb, and he did not warn him off invading the Jewish areas. All he said was that he "would study the statements which his Excellency had made."
But even if we read the original reports in conjunction with the briefs prepared for Bevin by his advisers, Shlaim's conspiracy theory does not stand. There were two such briefs, both of which underscored the dilemma confronting British policymakers at the time: whether to limit 'Abdallah's intervention to the Arab parts of Palestine and let him be damned in Arab eyes forever, or to encourage him to invade the Jewish areas and run the risk of a harsh international response. Contrary to Shlaim's claim, Bevin's advisers could not make up their mind between these two evils and their clear preference was therefore for the foreign secretary to reserve any comment. Significantly enough, in his book Shlaim omits this recommendation, thus misrepresenting the gist of the briefs.6 But even if both briefs would have made the recommendation alleged by Shlaim, then, as is clearly borne out by Bevin's two reports, their advice was not acted upon. In actual fact, Bevin did follow the advice by refraining from commenting on Abul Huda's proposed line of action.
* Shlaim charges me of distorting the gist of another memorandum, written by Burrows following the meeting and envisaging the detachment of the Negev from the Jewish state-to-be. "Karsh does not say," writes Shlaim, "that Burrows himself described this as one of several considerations not suitable for circulation outside the Foreign Office." Several problems here: First, the detachment of the Negev (and other territories) from the prospective Jewish state was not just "one of several considerations" but a key element of Bevin's political-strategic vision, as evidenced by countless docu'ments in the British archives7 of which Shlaim seems to be unaware. Secondly, I challenge Shlaim to explain why he believes that the memorandum was "not suitable for circulation outside the Foreign Office," when it is minuted at its bottom that "this was briefly discussed with the S.ofS. [i.e., Secretary of State Bevin] who did not object to the substance of the above minute being confidentially discussed with the State Depat. I attach a draft tel."8 Shlaim has inverted Burrows's memorandum, turning black into white. This is not a matter of having a different interpretation from mine; it is a blatant misrepresentation of the substance of a historical do'cument. And it was to caution against precisely this form of malpractice, all too common in the new historians' writing, that I wrote my article.
* The most preposterous of Shlaim's misperceptions is his depiction of Bevin as "the guardian angel of the infant [Israeli] state."9 My heart goes out to Shlaim, whose mother persuaded him into eating his porridge on false pretences. (Fortunately, Bevin never figured in my childhood memories.) But for the rest of us, it clear that Bevin did not hold the view Shlaim ascribes to him but was an arch enemy of the Jewish struggle for national revival. He adamantly refused to help implement the U.N. Partition Resolution of November 1947; he had a long record of trying to prevent Jewish immigration to the British Palestine and then the State of Israel; he oversaw the policy of detaining tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors in camps in Cyprus; he would not recognize Israel for nine months and vehemently opposed Israel's admission to the United Nations; and, despite his awareness that "life for the Jews in such a small State would sooner or later become intolerable and it could be eliminated altogether,"10 he tirelessly worked to make the Jewish state smaller and weaker than what was envisaged by the U.N. Partition Resolution.
In conclusion, to Shlaim's accusing me of "distorting and misrepresenting the work of [my] opponents," I can only say that he who dwells in a glass house should not cast the first stone. In his reply, Shlaim misrepresented Burrows's memorandum and falsely claims to have used the reports of all three Jewish participants in the Meir-'Abdallah meeting when in fact he deliberately withheld Meir's report. Had I not pointed out this fact in my article, he would still pretend this invaluable primary source does not exist. Who is distorting and misrepresenting?
That Shlaim, Pappé, and Morris remain unmoved by the damning evidence in my article is scarcely surprising. Yet I hope that readers will see that their supposed works of history are, in E.H. Carr's words, "propaganda or historical fiction [which uses] facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history."11
1 Avi Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Aug. 1995, p. 298.
2 Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians" (London: Frank Cass, forthcoming).
3 Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 1.
4 Ibid., p. 618.
5 Ibid., pp. 137-38.
6 Ibid., p. 135.
7 See telegram from Bevin to Sir Alec Kirkbride, Nov. 11, 1947, telegram 493, FO 816/89; Harold Beeley, "Possible Forms of Arab Resistance to the Decision of the United Nations," Dec. 22, 1947, FO 371/68364/E11504; "Relations Between H.M.G. and Transjordan," comments by Bevin's advisers on Clayton's conversation with Samir Pasha on Dec. 11, 1948 (Cairo telegram 67 of Dec. 12, 1948), FO 371/62226/E11928; M.T. Walker, "Arab Legion after May 15th," Mar. 3, 1948, FO 371/38366/E1916/G; Bernard Burrows, "Palestine After May 14", May 7, 1948, FO 371/68554/E6778; and "Record of Meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Discuss the Palestine Situation", May 25, 1948, FO 800/487.
8 FO 371/68368/E2696.
9 Shlaim, Collusion, p. 618.
10 Bernard Burrows, "Conversation with Musa el-Alami", Dec. 6, 1947, FO 371/61585/E11764.
11 E.H. Carr, What Is History? (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 29.