Terra Incognita: When only the critics are heard

That there is so much focus on the Holy Land is a fact of life. The trouble is that the narrative of Israel is being communicated by those who dislike it.

Among the themes that top the list of the coming year’s publications dealing with the Middle East are Iranian history, Lebanon’s vibrancy, Saudi Arabia and stories of American combat soldiers. But there is one that, unsurprisingly, towers above all the rest: Israel and the Palestinians. Of the 700 books that will be published in English on the Middle East in the next year, 107 (15 percent) of them will be devoted to the conflict or aspects of it. This is based on a careful examination of forthcoming publications at Amazon.com, although there are probably other obscure publications lurking out there.
That there is so much focus on the Holy Land is a fact of life. But the trouble with the forthcoming publications is that the narrative of Israel and its history is being communicated to the English-speaking world almost entirely by those who dislike it. Lone defenders like Alan Dershowitz and reasoned supporters like Martin van Creveld and Martin Gilbert are among the authors of next year’s harvest (Dershowitz is the author of a novel about Israel, Trials of Zion, not a nonfiction account).
Holland-born Van Creveld is a military historian who wrote a well received history of the IDF and now argues in The Land of Blood and Honey that Israel is the “greatest success story in the entire 20th century.” London-born Gilbert, a biographer of Winston Churchill, is publishing a book on Jews in Muslim lands which is described as a “moving account of mutual tolerance between Muslims and Jews... a template for the future.” Italian journalist Giulio Meotti also writes on the Untold Stories of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism.
For the Israel bashers that dominate publications on the region, Gaza is a favorite topic.
Nine books are in the pipeline for that small sliver of land. James Patras, a retired professor from Binghamton University and author of numerous books on the Israel “lobby,” has just published War Crimes in Gaza and the Zionist Fifth Column in America. In Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, an International Solidarity Movement volunteer and another radical left colleague write about Gazans facing “oppression not only with courage but with humor.”
Haaretz fixture Gideon Levy is publishing The Punishment of Gaza which examines “the brutality at the heart of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.” Norwegian Aid Committee members Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse bring us Eyes in Gaza with a cover festooned with the beaming eyes of a baby and the claim that the two were “the only Western eyewitnesses in Gaza” for 14 days during the winter 2008- 2009 war. Vittorio Arrigoni, an ISM volunteer in Gaza, writes Gaza: Stay Human with his fellow travelers Daniela Filippin and Haifa-born Ilan Pappe. The title “stay human” was taken from peace protests in Italy; it is not clear if it also implies that Israelis or Palestinian risk not being human. Joe Sacco, a veteran Israel hater, is publishing a comic book about Gaza called Footnotes in Gaza, and Noam Chomsky, Frank Barat and the prolific Pappe edited Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians.
Four books being published will be adorned with the unoriginal “separation fence” on the cover. To be fair one is merely the paperback version of Columbia University Prof. Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Pappe is publishing two books using the fence as a motif. The first, Peoples Apart: Israel, South Africa and the Apartheid Question, claims that “for the first time one of Israel’s most celebrated academics, Ilan Pappe, has gathered together perspectives” on whether Israel is an apartheid state. The conclusion won’t be surprising, Pappe already claimed Israel committed ethnic cleansing in 1948. One wonders what original allegation will come next? Pappe and Jamil Hilal, a sociologist at Bir Zeit University, are also publishing Across the Wall: Narratives of Israeli-Palestinian History.
Jeff Halper, an American-born activist in the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, uses a photo of the wall on the cover of the second edition of his An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel. The mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini, and the Nazis get some attention. Klaus Gensicke, a German scholar, covers the topic in his The Mufti of Jerusalem and the Nazis, and three authors collaborate on a volume examining Nazi Palestine: The Plans for the Extermination of the Jews of Palestine. Pappe (again) examines the Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Dynasty: The Husaynis. He follows in the footsteps of his fellow Israeli historian living in the UK, Avi Shlaim, author of Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein, in casting Arab politicians as remarkable figures.
The two-state solution gets short shrift in the coming year with Hasan Afif el-Hasan’s Is the Two-State Solution Already Dead? and Virginia Tilley’s paperback edition of The One State Solution: A Breakthrough.
THE PALESTINIANS get doting coverage by academics and authors who genuinely appreciate them. Hillel Cohen, an excellent Israeli writer, publishes on The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem. Amal Jamal examines Arab Minority Nationalism in Israel, and Rochelle Davis, assistant professor of anthropology at Georgetown University, researches Palestinian Village Histories.
Azzam Tamimi, a London-based scholar, offers a “sympathetic analysis” in Hamas: A History from Within. Basam Ra’ad attempts to reconstruct an indigenous history of Palestine in his Hidden Histories. Nicolas Rowe, an Australian expert on dance who lives in Ramallah, gives us a Cultural History of Dance among the Palestinians.
Books on the Jews in Israel hardly compare in their sympathy. In his “personal search for the soul of a nation,” NBC Tel Aviv bureau chief Martin Fletcher has written Walking Israel, but he incongruously uses a photo of an Arab village, probably Taiba, and minaret on the cover. One wonders if he would have put a church on the cover of a book about Egypt? Tudor Parfitt and Emanuela Trevis Semi edit The Jews of Ethiopia: The Birth of an Elite, which includes essays calling the mass deaths of Ethiopian Jews in Sudan a “myth” and claims Europeans may have created an Ethiopian Jewish identity. Thus the Palestinians get a genuine narrative from academics, but even the Ethiopian Jews cannot mourn their dead without being denigrated.
The history of Israel has been left almost entirely to those who hate it, while the Palestinians have conquered both the academy and the intellectual world with stories of their suffering, narratives and history. Even Hamas and Haj Amin, both of whom borrowed from Nazi rhetoric, are considered sympathetic.
Anyone visiting Israel’s leading bookstore, Steimatzky, will find the Israel section crowded with Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People and Yitzhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism. They will be hard pressed to find anything positive about the country.
It is a commentary not only on the publishing world, both academic and popular, but also on Israel’s cultural elites, who show little interest in writing positive things about their country. It is a remarkable testament to the moral bankruptcy of the West, which finds so little positive in Israel but can be open to the most conservative chauvinisms of Palestine. Unless we struggle to change the narrative, our history will soon be left to our critics.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.