A revisionist Israeli historian revisits his country’s origins.
By David Remnick / The New Yorker
May 5, 2008
[Ed. note: In anticipation of Ilan Pappé’s visit to Seattle next month, we are touching on some of the Israeli “new historians.” This 2008 piece from the New Yorker reviews Benny Morris’s book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, which provides an in-depth analysis of the origins of Israel. Morris’s early work, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, was the seminal work among the “new historians,” and is arguably one of the best histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.]
In “1948,” the assembled compendium of aspiration, folly, aggression, hypocrisy, deception, bigotry, violence, suffering, and achievement is so comprehensive and multilayered that no reader can emerge without a feeling of unease — which is to say, a sense of the moral and historical intricacy of the conflict.
For thirteen centuries, between 1200 B.C. and the second century A.D., the Jews lived in, and often ruled, the land of Israel. The population was clustered mainly in Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee. The Jews’ dominion was long but not eternal. The Romans invaded and, after suppressing revolts in A.D. 66-73 and 132-135, killed or expelled much of the Jewish population and renamed the land Palaestina, for the Philistines who had lived along the southern seacoast. After the conquest, some Jews stayed behind, and the faith of the Hebrews remained a religio licita, a tolerated religion, throughout the Roman Empire.
By the nineteenth century, Palestine had been ruled by Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Christian Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks. When Mark Twain visited in 1867, his imagination soaked with the Biblical imagery of milk and honey, he discovered to his surprise “a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land . . . desolate and unlovely.” Jericho was “accursed,” Jerusalem “a pauper village.” Twain’s passages on Palestine in “The Innocents Abroad” have, over the decades, been exploited by propagandists to echo Lord Shaftesbury’s notion that, before the return of the Jews to Zion, Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land. Twain and Shaftesbury, as it turned out, were hardly alone in failing to recognize a substantial Arab population in the Judaean hills and beyond.
And yet nineteenth-century Palestine certainly was desolate and impoverished. The population in 1881 consisted of four hundred and fifty thousand Palestinian Arabs and twenty-five thousand Jews, nearly all of them ultra-Orthodox non-nationalists living in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. Palestine, despite its importance to the three monotheistic religions, was a political backwater. The Ottomans divided the land into sanjaks, or districts, which were ruled from Constantinople, Damascus, and Beirut. It was at this time, however, that European Jews — poor, mainly secular, and feeling the onset of an intensified anti-Semitism in their countries of origin — began to emigrate to Palestine. This was the First Aliyah, or ascent. Most European Jewish emigrants headed to North America and Great Britain, but some, in small numbers at first, sailed to Palestine. The local Ottoman bureaucrats were strapped for cash, and the new arrivals had little problem obtaining entry rights, agricultural plots, and building permits. This was colonialism not by conquering armies but by persistent real-estate transactions — and, when necessary, baksheesh.
The plans of the early Jewish settlers were unambiguous, even if they seemed, at the time, wholly incredible. As one early Zionist, Ze’ev Dubnow, wrote to his brother Simon, “The ultimate goal . . . is, in time, to take over the Land of Israel and to restore to the Jews the political independence they have been deprived of for these two thousand years . . . . The Jews will yet arise and, arms in hand (if need be), declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland.”