The impact of the New Historians who revised and interpreted anew the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be exaggerated. Their revision of what they termed the “official” Zionist version of history mixed with post-modernist assumptions (i.e. there is no one version of history) was not confined to intellectual debates within the ivory towers of some institutions.
Dismissed at the beginning as a fringe phenomenon, this revision of history has become, within less than a decade, the mainstream reading and learning in universities around the world, claiming that Israel was born in a sin of conspiracies, ethnic cleansing and massacres. Benny Morris, who is considered as the dean of the New Historians and coined the term, has provided since 1988 (in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem) the intellectual infrastructure for this revisionist history. The group also denied what they called the Israeli myth of the heroic 1948 war of “the few against the many,” and for some these post-Zionist views were replaced by a self-declared anti-Zionism (e.g. Ilan Pappe).
The implications for Zionist and Israeli historiography were disastrous. Even the more objective professors found it necessary to show the conflict along two opposing and competing narratives: Israeli and Palestinian. According to the dictionary, a narrative is “a story or account of events, experiences or the like, whether true or fictitious.”
In Israel the new narrative was reflected in the state-run TV miniseries Tekuma (Revival) broadcast in 1998, marking the 50th anniversary of the state, which adopted many of the New Historians’ findings.
A year later these post-modern theories were given legitimacy by the Ministry of Education in its revised high school textbooks (A World of Changes: History for Ninth Grade) as part of a new curriculum aimed at teaching history from an expressly “universal” (as opposed to “nationalist”) perspective. This trend even entered the IDF, which through its history division co-sponsored a book which cast serious doubts on previous images of the heroic War of Independence in 1948.
MOREOVER, THE new narrative had a major impact on the peace process: The debate was no longer on the “territories for peace” formula but rather on Israel’s responsibility for the atrocities of the Nakba, making the issue of the Palestinian right of return the major stumbling block in the negotiations. While both prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert agreed, together with successive American administrations, to divide Jerusalem, they couldn’t accept the Palestinian demand for allowing the refugees to return to all parts of the State of Israel. This was a “red line’’ almost for everyone, including former justice minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo accords, or the former head of the leftist Meretz party Yossi Sarid who told the Palestinians that their position means “the suicide of the State of Israel.”
The revisionist and guilt-filled narrative loomed over the Israeli negotiators at Camp David in 2000 and, a few months later, at the Taba talks. Gilad Sher and Yossi Beilin together with Palestinian negotiators were quoting Morris’s book on the refugees, and Daniel Levy, Beilin’s assistant, has described how important it was for the Israeli team to change the historical narrative to reach an agreement with the Palestinians on their “right of return.”
Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, himself an historian, admitted that the New Historians have “definitely helped in consolidating the Palestinians’ conviction as to the validity of their own narrative” and that the “Israeli peacemakers also came to the negotiating table with perspectives that were shaped by recent research... powerful arguments on the 1948 war... [which] became part of the intellectual baggage of many of us, whether we admitted it or not.”
BUT MORRIS didn’t celebrate his “vindication.” In a dramatic shift, starting a decade ago, he has begun to refute the essence of his arguments, sending shock waves through the revisionist community. His two most recent books, 1948 and One State, Two States, which were released over the last two years, presented a sharp contradiction of his previous revolutionary thesis. Suddenly, Morris tells his readers that his previous books missed the historic context of the war in 1948, which was a jihadi onslaught by the Muslim world against the Jewish community in Palestine.
By “discovering” numerous quotes and references by Arab leaders to their religious campaign, Morris goes even further than the canonical Zionist narrative and blames Arab rejectionist and eliminationalist attitude toward the Jews as the major impediment to peace in the Middle East. The new Morris accuses many of his professional colleagues of ignoring “the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied” what was perceived by the Arabs as “a holy war... divinely ordained necessity.”
A comparison between Morris “A” and Morris “B” shows how the historic context can become blurred and even distorted by using selective facts which are inflated at the expense of the larger and more critical forces of history. It may be right that at the end of the war the newborn IDF emerged as better organized, trained and motivated but during the war, as Morris shows recently, there was a totally different assessment. The majority in the interim Jewish government prior to the establishment of the state as well as the Arabs, the British and the Americans, all thought that the Arabs would defeat the Jewish army in Palestine.
The new Morris blames the Arabs for their misfortunes, denies the
existence of a Jewish strategy of expulsion or transfer and, in effect,
defends the right of David Ben-Gurion to expel even more, given the
threats of jihad. Suddenly, in the concluding chapters in both books,
Morris brings the case of the Jews who were expelled from Arab lands,
showing that there was an exchange of refugees as a result of the war.
The Arabs who declared the war, says Morris, are also responsible for
perpetuating the tragedy of the Palestinians in refugee camps, unlike
those Jewish refugees who were absorbed in Israel.
Morris’s journey and his radical retreat from his early publications
could provide an unusual testimony for the thin line separating history
from propaganda or even falsehood. When the record of events is
motivated by a determination to create a post-modern political
narrative, it may end up with a false escape from history.
The writer teaches at the MA program on diplomacy at Tel Aviv
University after completing two years as a visiting professor at
Georgetown University. He is the former secretary-general of the World