Friday, November 02, 2007

A History of Modern Palestine

I have recently read most of a history of the geographical area known as Palestine in the last 150 years written by Ilan Pappe, one of a very small breed of so-called Israeli revisionist historians . He was until recently a lecturer at Haifa University in Israel and now at Exeter University in the UK. Pappe's revisionism is his challenging the classic Israeli historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I am not a historian but, unlike most Jewish Israelis, I have talked to enough Palestinians to believe that the history of the State of Israel on which I (and most Jews) was brought up on is at best biased, partial and one-sided. Winston Churchill said that "History is written by the victors". Israel was the victor and imbued with a literary and cultural superiority over the Palestinians such that their narrative and perspective has little been heard in the West.

Ilan Pappe is definitely a radical by Jewish Israeli standards and he challenges the mythological and passionately-held Israeli narrative. It is a difficult position to hold. For me, the hysteria, hate and disdain which Pappe gets in Israel for his writings are merely a confirmation that there is clearly something in what he says. Otherwise there wouldn't be this ten-ton outpouring against him. Privately Pappe seems a very learned, cultured, reasonable man.

This history is different from others I have read in several ways. Firstly it is a history of a land, not that of a national entity. Nor is it a history of the conflict although it obviously covers much of the conflict. Its starting point is the end of the Crimean War which signalled, according to Pappe, the start of the European "invasion" of Palestine. The book is clearly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but there is fair representation of the Zionist/Israeli position. Pappe does not spare the Palestinians from criticism. To his credit, Pappe does not hide his sympathies but he definitely goes against the trend of justifying the modernizing spirit of the Western world

The new insights I gained from this book were
1) Jewish colonialisation of Palestine was only one (even if, ultimately, the most significant) of the Western colonizing and 'modernizing' forces seeping into Palestine from the 1850s
2) throughout the period described the Palestinians (indeed the Arabs) were/are split, factionalised, tribalised and unable to agree and work on a common agenda. Unlike the Jews who managed to overcome their differences to work on a common agenda, the Arabs were divided, leaderless and pursuing several opposing agendas
3)The Hashemite monarchy of Jordan was a less-than-effective opposition for the Israelis because of their own political and territorial objectives in the WestBank.

It is very refreshing to read a history that presents the position of both sides and Pappe definitely has the credentials of a professional historian. I wouldn't be surprised that if his book were gone over with a tooth comb one might find some inconsistencies and inaccuracies but this is irrelevant. What is important is the main gist and that it would be a refreshing change if such histories were widely read by Israelis and Palestinians. One looks forward to the day when Palestinian historians will come up with a book this this.