To Tell the Truth: Israel's "New Historians" Laying Foundations for New Realities

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To Tell the Truth: Israel's "New Historians" Laying Foundations for New Realities

By Leon T. Hadar

Israeli politicians and intellectuals are in the midst of a major emotional debate--and it is not about the future of the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. The heated arguments between academics, journalists and politicians are over the writings of a group of Israeli scholars known collectively as the "New Historians."

Among them are such writers and historians as Benny Morris, who has written extensively on the Palestinian refugee problem; Avi Shlaim, who has studied the secret relationship between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Ilan Pappe, who has done research on Zionist foreign policy during the British mandate period; Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal, who recently co-authored a book on the Palestinian national movement; and Israeli columnist and author Tom Segev, who has focused on the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli policies and diplomacy.

There is no common ideological or academic thread linking these and other writers usually associated with the so-called "New Historians." Some, like Morris and Kimmerling, are affiliated with major academic institutions in Israel. Segev writes for prestigious Israeli publications. Most have served as officers in the Israeli military and support the current Labor Party-led government. Clearly, they do not belong to the "lunatic fringe" of Israeli political or intellectual life. If they can be placed, it would be somewhere left of center on the Israeli ideological map. Most consider themselves Zionists or "neo-Zionists."

However, Morris, Kimmerling, Shlaim, Pappe or Segev are far from being in agreement on major scholarly or political issues. Morris, for example, belongs to the more traditional school of history, with its emphasis on collecting facts and figures and using them to support his positions, including the partial responsibility of Israel for creating the Palestinian refugee problems. (Morris also blames the Palestinian leadership of that time for encouraging the Palestinian population to flee the country.) Pappe, on the other hand, uses more controversial historical methods, such as "deconstructing" past events based on more subjective criteria, including the ideological bias of the historian.

Nor do they all necessarily agree on the interpretation of many historical developments. Morris and Segev, for example, are inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Zionist leadership on many subjects; Pappe is more critical. Interestingly enough, some of those who are identified as members of the "New Historians" clique reject that categorizing.

So why is everyone talking and arguing about the "New Historians"? Indeed, during my most recent visit to Israel, I attended a conference on the topic that was held at Tel Aviv University. The auditorium where the conference took place was packed with hundreds of students, booing and cheering participants in the discussion. I've rarely attended a scholarly debate that produced so much emotion.

Israeli society is entering the "post-Zionist" era in its development.

The reason for all this excitement, I believe, is that the emergence of the "New Historians" reflects the difficult process now taking place in Israel of the de-mystification of Zionism. As Israeli society moves toward peace with the Palestinians, and changing its relationship with world Jewry, it is entering what can be described as the "post-Zionist" era in its development. …