The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948

By Harris, Brice | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948


Harris, Brice, The Middle East Journal


The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, ed. by Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim. With an afterword by Edward W. Said. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xv + 219 pages. Sel. bibl. to p. 227. Index to p. 234. Chron. Abbrevs. Maps. $54.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Brice Harris

If it is true that history is written by the apparent victors, the editors of The War for Palestine suggest that it might be "more accurate to say that the critical revision of a nation's history is a victor's privilege" (p. 7). The recent opening of access to Israeli government and Zionist organization records and archives, due to the 30-year rule in Israel, and intensive research into these previously classified historical materials by a new generation of scholars, has severely challenged once firmly held Israeli and Zionist beliefs about the 1947-1949 war for Palestine. Who was David, and who was Goliath?

The nine authors of this valuable collection of essays reinterpreting the first Arab-Israeli conflict include well-known American, British, and Israeli as well as Jewish and Arab scholars. All are linked by the purpose of reevaluating the events of 1948 as Great Britain prepared to yield to the fledgling United Nations its contentious mandate over Palestine, as the Jewish Agency declared the independence of Israel, and as the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states sought to cope with this threatening situation in terms of their own perceived political and strategic interests.

The Israelis among the so-called "new historians" have been strongly criticized for hanging the dirty linen in public and therefore for undermining Israeli self-perceptions of a supposedly just and heroic struggle for freedom and independence at a critical time in national unity. "That the debate," Avi Shlaim points out, "between the traditionalist, pro-Zionist and the `new historians' should be so heated is hardly surprising. For the debate about the 1948 War cuts to the very core of Israel's image of itself" (p. 101).

Nevertheless, Israel should be commended for releasing a portion of this controversial and significant historical material, and the Arab states should be urged to do likewise, regardless of how the chips may fall. Bureaucratic rules, as well as a genuine fear of what may be revealed, have prevented this. Nevertheless, The War for Palestine is a very important collection of essays and revisionist history in the best sense, however awkward and embarrassing to hallowed tradition it may be.

The contributors in nine separate essays present the "new history" with reference not only to the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews for possession of the territory both claim rightfully as their own, but also with five chapters on the roles of the Druze and of the neighboring Arab states of Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. …

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