Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Refuting Israel's New Historians

In a series of diaries recently (on DailyKos here, here, and here), I've been citing Israel's New Historians -- a generation of scholars that first came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s -- to argue that Israeli military forces committed ethnic cleansing during the country's 1948 Independence war. The New Historian interpretation, though solidly grounded in archival research and generally accepted by historians, directly challenges Zionist accounts of national history, and it is still controversial in Israel and especially among Zionists.

In this diary, I'm going to use two contrasting accounts of the Zionist siege of Haifa in April 1948 to illustrate how the New Historians have changed our understanding of the 1948 war. I will also show what must be done to refute the New Historian interpretation -- though I am skeptical that such a refutation is actually possible.

One criticism I've heard of the New Historians is that they "are fringe views that have never stood up to peer review." This argument, which would be valid if true, in fact ignores the actual publication history of historians like Benny Morris (Cambridge University Press), Avi Shlaim (Oxford University Press), Tom Segev (Hill and Wang), or Baruch Kimmerling (University of California Press, Harvard University Press). Clearly, these New Historians have published with some of the most prestigious academic publishers in the English language -- an indication that someone, at least, with credentials takes their work seriously.

Another criticism often leveled at some of the New Historians is that they have manipulated data. The most sensational case involves an alleged massacre in the Palestinian village of Tantura on May 22, 1948. Teddy Katz, a graduate student at the University of Haifa, used oral history techniques, interviewing Palestinian refugees from Tantura and Israeli veterans who participated in the occupation, to reconstruct a story of a brutal massacre perpetrated by the Israelis. This research then became the foundation of his Masters thesis, subsequently publicized in the Israeli press. Upon seeing their stories in the newspapers, the veterans sued Katz for libel and -- because of discrepancies between his taped interviews and the citations included in his thesis -- Katz was stripped of his degree. Eventually, he was granted what the university has called a "non-research" degree, and Katz continues to hold that a massacre took place at Tantura in May 1948.

Katz's interpretation has been defended by Ilan Pappe, a senior historian at Haifa University and a particularly radical voice within the New Historians movement. Pappe's position in the Katz affair, and his subsequent call for an economic boycott of Israel in order to pressure the university to restore Katz's degree (among other complaints), has led many people to challenge all of his research. If Katz was wrong on Tantura, and Pappe agrees with Katz, then Pappe must be wrong about other things as well.

I honestly don't enough about the specific details of what happened at Tantura to offer an opinion as to whether there was a massacre or not. In Pappe's 2006 The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine he treats the massacre as fact, devoting an entire subsection of a chapter (pp. 133-137) to it. Although Pappe mentions the lawsuit against Katz (p. 136), he gives no indication in the book of the sanctions against the historian or of the serious academic challenges to the validity of his work. (Pappe does have a 2001 article in the Journal of Palestine Studies on the Katz affair, but I haven't found a full-text version online.)

I'm spending some time on this, because it is Pappe's account of the siege of Haifa I'd like to quote at length. First though, via kossack Pumpkinlove, we have a pre-New Historians account of the siege. As noted in her comment, Pumpkinlove took her cite off Times Select and because I do not a Times Select account I'll just cite her cite of it:

I've looked for proof.. primary source proof and I think I have found evidence that Israel's intentions were NOT to ethnically cleanse Israel of Arabs in 1948.

This source requires that you be a member of Times Select.

The NY Times reports on April 22nd that the Haganah had defeated the Arab forces in Haifa and offered the following terms of surrender. Please note that of the 140,000 residents in Haifa in 1948, 80,000 were Jews.

(1) The laying down of all arms and the surrender of them to the Jews.

(2) The deportation of all foreign Arab fighters from Haifa.

(3) A 24-hour curfew during, which the Jews would carry out the disarming.

(4) All Germans and Nazis in the Arab ranks to be handed over.

(5) Freedom of movement for all and the end to sniping and of roadblocks.

(6) Safety of all individuals to be guaranteed by the Haganah.

Most relevant to this discussion...

Tens of thousands of Arab men, women and children fled toward the eastern outskirts of the city in cars, trucks, carts and afoot in a desperate attempt to reach Arab territory until the Jews captured Rushmiya Bridge... the complete evacuation of Arabs from Haifa began tonight with the assistance of British Army transports.

Notice that neither the Haganah nor any Jewish group demanded the evacuation of non-combatants from Haifa. Nor was this a massacre with hundreds or thousands of Arab deaths to terrify the rest into fleeing.

Although the Arabs referred to the fight as a massacre, the British estimated that between 50 and 100 Arabs had been killed in house to house battling

So, the key points from the New York Times story (which I assume was published at the time of the events) are that:

* the Haganah offered generous surrender terms to the Palestinians
* Palestinians chose to flee, which they accomplished with assistance from the British Army
* Very few Arabs died in the events, and those who did were killed in combat

Let's move now to Pappe's very different account of the same events:

The removal of the British barrier meant Operation Scissors could be replaced by Operation 'Cleansing the Leaven' (bi'ur hametz). The Hebrew term stands for total cleansing and refers to the Jewish religious practice of eliminating all traces of bread or flour from people's homes on the eve of the Passover, since as these are forbidden during the days of the feast. Brutally appropriate, the cleansing of Haifa, in which the Palestinians were the bread and the flour, began on Passover's eve, 21 April.... The Carmeli Brigade made sure they would leave in the midst of carnage and havoc. [Note 18: Walid Khalidi, "Selected Documents on the 1948 War," Journal of Palestine Studies, 107, Vol. 27/3 (Spring, 1998), pp. 60-105, uses the British as well as the Arab committee's correspondence.]

In ... parts of the town, loudspeakers delivered a ... message from the town's Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levi, a decent person by all accounts, who beseeched the people to stay and promised no harm would befall them. But it was Mordechai Maklef, the operation officer of the Carmeli Brigade, not Levi, who called the shots. Maklef orchestrated the cleansing campaign, and the orders he issued to his troops were plain and simple: 'Kill any Arab you encounter; torch all inflammable objects and force doors open with explosives.' (He later became the Israeli army Chief of Staff.) [Note 19: Hagana Archives, 69/72, 22 April 1948.]

When these orders were executed promptly within the 1.5 square kilometres where thousands of Haifa's defenceless Palestinians were still residing, the shock and terror were such that, without packing any of their belongings or even knowing what they were doing, people began leaving en masse. In panic, they headed towards the port where they hoped to find a ship or a boat to take them away from the city. As soon as they had fled, Jewish troops broke into and looted their homes.

When Golda Meir, one of the senior Zionist leaders, visited Haifa a few days later, she at first found it hard to suppress a feeling of horror when she entered homes where cooked food still stood on the tables, children had left toys and books on the floor, and life appeared to have frozen in an instant. Meir had come to Palestine from the US, where her family had fled in the wake of pogroms in Russia, and the sights she witnessed that day reminded her of the worst stories her family had told her about the Russian brutality against Jews decades earlier. [Note 20: Central Zionist Archives, 45/2 Protocol.] But this apparently left no lasting mark on her or her associates' determination to continue with the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

In the early hours of dawn on 22 April, the people began streaming to the harbour. As the streets in that part of the city were already overcrowded with people seeking escape, the Arab community's self-appointed leadership tried to instil some order into the chaotic scene. Loudspeakers could be heard, urging people to gather in the old marketplace next to the port, and seek shelter there until an orderly evacuation by sea could be organised. 'The Jews have occupied Stanton road and are on their way,' the loudspeakers blared.

The Carmeli Brigade's war book, chronicling its actions in the war, shows little compunction about what followed thereafter. The brigade's officers, aware that people had been advised to gather near the port's gate, ordered their men to station three-inch mortars on the mountain slopes overlooking the market and the port -- where Rothschild Hospital stands today -- and to bombard the gathering crowds below. The plan was to make sure people would have no second thoughts, and to guarantee that the flight would be in one direction only. Once the Palestinians were gathered in the marketplace -- an architectural gem that dated back to the Ottoman period, covered with white arched canopies, but destroyed beyond recognition after the creation of the State of Israel -- they were an easy target for the Jewish marksmen. [Note 21: Zadok Eshel (ed.), The Carmeli Brigade in the War of Independence, p. 147.]

Haifa's market was less than one hundred yards from what was then the main gate to the port. When the shelling began, this was the natural destination for the panic-stricken Palestinians. The crowd now broke into the port, pushing aside the policemen who guarded the gate. Scores of people stormed the boats that were moored there, and began to flee the city. We can learn what happened next from the horrifying recollections of some of the survivors, published recently. Here is one of them:

Men stepped on their friends and women on their own children. The boats in the port were soon filled with living cargo. Many turned over and sank with all their passengers. [Note 22: Walid Khalidi, "Selected Documents on the 1948 War."]

The scenes were so horrendous that when reports reached London, they spurred the British government into action as some officials, probably for the first time, began to realise the enormity of the disaster their inaction was creating in Palestine (Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: One World Publications, 2006), pp. 94-6).

It's worth pointing out that the New York Times account and Pappe's are not mutually exclusive -- that is, both can be true at the same time. In fact, one could read Pappe simply as adding detail not included in the Times. Horrifying, damning, condemnatory detail, yet detail just the same.

But is Pappe telling the truth?

That question is in fact easy enough to answer. Pappe makes a set of specific, verifiable claims:

* the Zionist push into Haifa was codenamed "bi'ur hametz," or "cleansing the leaven"
* Zionist troops were ordered to kill Arabs indiscriminately
* Arab families left their homes in a panic, as evidenced by the prepared, uneaten food and children's toys left behind
* the Carmeli Brigade, following orders, shelled massed Palestinians at the gates to the Port of Haifa

Each one of these claims is sourced to specific documents. Some of those documents are located in specific places in named archives (the Hagana Archives, the Central Zionist Archives), where they can be consulted by any researcher with access to those archives. Other documents have been published (the history of the Carmeli Brigade, Khalidi's publication of Palestinian oral histories), and can be consulted by any researcher with inter-library loan.

If the documents cited by Pappe actually support the claims he makes of them, then we would have to say that his claim of ethnic cleansing in the specific case of Haifa on April 22, 1948 is a strong one. If they do not support the claims, then he is guilty of academic fraud.

Going back for a moment to the alleged massacre at Tantura, Katz's thesis was withdrawn and his degree revoked because his review committee was able to confirm that Katz claimed his interviewees made statements they did not in fact make. What is not clear from the reading I've done on the case -- and I've done a bit -- is whether his misquotations materially affected the evidence for a massacre. Pappe obviously believes they didn't, and two of the three members of the special committee appointed to review the thesis also agreed he deserved the degree. The final two members, however, gave him such a low grade on the thesis that his overall average dropped into the "fail" range, so he lost the degree.

It is not impossible that Pappe has fabricated evidence -- US historian Michael Bellesiles did exactly that in his infamous Arming America -- but Bellesiles was discovered fairly easily, and subsequently lost his tenured position at Emory University. Any enterprising Zionist historian who wants to make a name for themselves only has to go to the archives and prove Pappe -- or Kimmerling, or Shlaim, or Morris -- has been fabricating their data, and they will instantly become an international celebrity in the world of Israeli studies specifically and history generally.

Pappe's book was released last fall, and has not had time to be exposed to serious scrutiny by historians. Morris book, however, on the Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem -- the text that first put Israeli ethnic cleansing out in front of the public -- was released in 1989. That's nearly twenty years ago, more than enough time for every single source to be checked and double-checked.

Far from finding fabrications, the book has held up so well that Morris released a second, revised and expanded, edition in 2004.

Ad hominems don't refute historians. Historical research does.

So far, the historical research confirms the basic findings of the New Historians.

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