Middle Israel: History notes for Mahmoud Abbas

Abbas the historian is a tragedy.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas looks on during a reception ceremony for Bulgarian President Rumen Radev in Ramallah, in the West Bank, March 22, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas looks on during a reception ceremony for Bulgarian President Rumen Radev in Ramallah, in the West Bank, March 22, 2018
Three years since he said he will not run for reelection, it now is clear that what Mahmoud Abbas meant was not that he is ready to retire, but that he will never hold the presidential election that already then was six years overdue.
This often-ignored aspect of his personal record must be mentioned, before we say several things about the comments he made this week about us Jews: The man is politically illegitimate.
Similarly, we must note that 13 years after his lone election, Abbas the statesman matters no more than Abbas the politician. The man who fears his own people’s verdict is a diplomatic nonstarter. Having said this, Abbas the antisemite does matter, because his distortions of history are part of a broader Palestinian war on truth.
Alas, like Abbas the politician who lost Gaza, and like Abbas the statesman who failed to deliver peace even with the lenient Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, Abbas the historian is a tragedy.
THE ORACLE of Ramallah’s statements this week, that “the Jews’ social function related to usury and banking” and that this is what caused the Holocaust, are first of all a reminder of how the historian’s profession was abused in the USSR that gave Abbas a PhD, and made him think he is a historian.
Had he turned to Arab rather than Soviet scholarship, Abbas would have learned that “history is a science,” as historian Ibn Khaldun stated in his Muqaddimah, the 1337 book widely appreciated as a groundbreaking treatise on the philosophy of history.
Abbas’s communist commissars, by contrast, saw in historiography not an academic discipline but a political weapon and a propagandist’s toy. Had he realized that history is a science, Abbas would have understood that historiography’s first prerequisites are documentation and impartiality.
That would have made him understand that one can’t say, for instance, that Hitler “wanted the Jewish country to be loyal to him,” or that “the hatred of the Jews was not due to their religion” – without sounding like an idiot.
To recall the role of religion in what happened to the Jews, Abbas need only turn to the Arab effort to repel the Vatican’s retreat in 1965 from its historic libel that the Jews killed God.
Addressing a World Muslim League emergency meeting in Mecca at the time, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia cried that “the Catholics” are letting “a circle of prelates, seduced by and in complicity with Zionism, to trifle with dogmas and shatter religious convictions that have survived for two thousand years” (Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites, 1986, p. 223).
No, historians don’t have to be neutral, but they have to be objective, they must display evidence, and they must be emotionally prepared to accept what it attests. Abbas might have done all this, had he studied history at Oxford, Princeton or the Sorbonne, rather than with Leonid Brezhnev’s lieutenants at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University.
Unearthing the past also demands curiosity for adversaries’ feelings, the way Israeli historians, from Yehoshua Porat to Benny Morris, imagined the Palestinians’ suffering when they probed their national struggle.
Had he been intellectually curious, Abbas would have realized that his native Safed is not only the town of his yearnings but also the town where a Jew named Shlomo Alkabetz wrote no less longingly: “King’s city, the city of kingdom / Arise, emerge from the rubble... Wear the garb of your glory, my nation / By the son of Jesse of Bethlehem,” lines sung for more than 500 years by now every Friday night by millions of Jews, including those Abbas diagnosed as descendants of Khazars, and those he fingered as usurers, and those he now besmirches as dirty-footed defilers of holy sites.
Yet Abbas is not intellectually curious, and he thinks that if he says that he is “tired of hearing” about the Jews “coming to this country because of their longing for Zion or whatever,” he will babble away this crucial element of his predicament.
LACKING the historian’s instincts and tools, Abbas has waged a propaganda war based on three lies: that the Jews don’t belong in their land, that the conflict was a Jewish plot, and that its violence was a Jewish choice.
That is why he wrote (“The long overdue Palestinian state,” New York Times, 16 May 2011) that, following the UN’s partition resolution, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs... and Arab armies intervened,” whereas in fact the Palestinian attack on the Jews, and the Arab armies’ invasions preceded rather than followed the war’s displacements, just as partition – unlike Abbas’s insinuation – was rejected by the Arabs and accepted by the Jews.
At 83 Abbas will doubtfully matter much again, but the war on truth will outlive him, and will not end before Palestinian opinion makers realize several historical facts Abbas has spent a lifetime denying: • The Jews are a nation, and their home is the Land of Israel, where a Jewish community lived every day since antiquity.
• The conflict was a Palestinian choice announced in 1921 by the Palestinian Arab Executive Committee’s statement: “Either us or the Zionists! There is no room for both.”
• Arab leaders rejected in 1948 the partition resolution that would have given them a state.
• Violence was an Arab choice, first in 1929, then in 1936, and then in response to the partition resolution.
• If not for the war their leaders waged, there would be not one Palestinian refugee.
We Jews may or may not be good with money, but we are certainly good in history, having been commanded by Moses: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Deut. 32:7). It is probably too late to say this to Abbas, but to his successor Middle Israelis say: You were defeated in the wars of diplomacy and in the wars of arms, and you will be defeated in the war on truth. Try peace.