Books: Pioneers Drawing New Lines in the Sand ; after 50 Years of Patriotic Myth, Israeli Historians Are Re-Writing Their Nation's Disputed Past
Howe, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)
by Benny Morris
John Murray, pounds 25, 751pp
The Iron Wall
by Avi Shlaim
Allen Lane, pounds 25, 650pp
CAN COUNTRIES "grow up", like individuals, gradually shedding their adolescent traumas and maturing into a more relaxed, tolerant and self-aware personality? Some Israelis - including the more imaginative ministers in the present government - believe that a process of that kind is happening. Israel has passed its 50th birthday with an unprecedented degree of economic, diplomatic and military security. After the disastrous setbacks of the Netanyahu years, there is renewed, if desperately slow, progress both in peace negotiations with neighbours, and in establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Israel's permanent state of emergency, and the persistent human- rights abuses which it legitimated, are being quietly, dismantled. Government moves and court decisions have chipped away at legalised inequality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. There is still a long way to go before Israel could be counted as a "normal" liberal democracy; but most current trends and portents are encouraging.
Accompanying these changes, and paving the way, is a shift in attitudes to the past. As in all national conflicts, prejudice and fear between Arab and Jew have been sustained by rival visions of history. Israelis were long fed a narrative involving a large measure of distortion and simplification, some significant silences, and a few outright fabrications.
Thus the infant Israeli state was, in relation to its Arab opponents, as David against Goliath: outnumbered, outmatched, its survival a miraculous triumph against overwhelming odds. The Palestinian refugee exodus of 1948 was the fault of the Arabs, whose leaders ordered their people to flee, not of Israeli forces. Jewish leaders sought to avert violence and consistently backed compromise, only to be faced with a solid wall of intransigence from the Arabs.
Even quite secular historians adopted a quasi-religious framework in which Israel's emergence was the preordained outcome of Jewish destiny. The fact that most Israeli academic institutions still have two quite separate departments - one for "History", one for "Jewish History" - could only reinforce this. What happened within the Jewish community was rarely related to trends either among Palestinians or in the Arab world. The proclaimed intentions of Zionist leaders were largely taken at face value. Palestinian nationalism was seen as a wholly malevolent creation, its only motive blind hatred of Israel or, indeed, of Jews.
From the late Eighties, all this came under challenge from a new generation of historians, mostly Israelis born around the time of Independence. Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim were key figures. The "new historians", sometimes described as "post-Zionist" or "revisionist" (though they disliked the label), not only brought to bear scepticism about patriotic received wisdom, but dug far deeper into the archives than their predecessors had done. Israel's old historians, they charged, were more national chroniclers than serious scholars: at best naive, at worst propagandist.
Thus Morris claimed he had no political axe to grind, but was simply doing a professional job on a history shrouded in mystification. …