When history is flexible

The work of the New Historians, who revised the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, has had disastrous implications.

Seperation barrier Jerusalem (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Seperation barrier Jerusalem
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The impact of the New Historians who revised the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be exaggerated. Their revision of what they termed merely the “official” Zionist version of history was not confined to intellectual debates.
Dismissed at the beginning as a fringe phenomenon, this revision of history has become the mainstream in universities around the world, claiming that Israel was born in a sin of conspiracies, ethnic cleansing and massacres. Benny Morris, considered the dean of the New Historians, has provided since 1988 (in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem) the intellectual infrastructure for this revisionist history.
The implications for Zionist and Israeli historiography were disastrous. Even the more objective professors found it necessary to depict two 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.”
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.
MOREOVER, THE new narrative had a major impact on the peace process: The debate was no longer on the “territories-for-peace” formula, but on Israel’s responsibility for the atrocities of the Nakba, making the Palestinian “right of return” the major stumbling block. 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 to allow the refugees to return to all parts of Israel. This was a “red line” for almost 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.
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.”
BUT MORRIS didn’t celebrate his “vindication.” In a dramatic shift starting a decade ago, he has begun to refute the essence of his own arguments. His two most recent books, 1948 and One State, Two States, present a sharp contradiction of his previous thesis. Suddenly, Morris tells his readers that his previous books missed the historic context of the 1948 war, which was a jihadi onslaught by the Muslim world against the Jewish community in Palestine.
By “discovering” numerous quotes and references by Arab leaders, Morris now blames Arab rejectionist and eliminationalist attitudes toward the Jews as the major impediment to peace. The new Morris accuses many of his 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 distorted by using selective facts.
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 threat of jihad. Suddenly, in the concluding chapters in both books, Morris brings the case of the Jews expelled from Arab lands, showing that there was an exchange of refugees. The Arabs who declared the war, says Morris, are also responsible for perpetuating the tragedy of the Palestinians in refugee camps.
Morris’s radical retreat from his early publications provides an unusual testimony for the thin line separating history from propaganda.

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 Jewish Congress.