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.