History and myth in Palestine

January 8, 2014

Ilan Pappé, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and other books about Israel's colonial occupation of Palestine, has helped educate a new generation of activists and scholars about the historical falsification at the heart of some of the most ardently defended myths of Zionism. He talked to Frank Barat, a long-standing activist and co-coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, in an interview for Le Mur a Des Oreilles radio show (listen to the full audio here). Here, we reprint an edited transcript of their discussion.

AS PART of Israel's group of "New Historians" who have pioneered a historical narrative that contradicts many Zionist myths about the creation of Israel, you've taken some radical positions against the state of Israel. Why and when did you decide to stand on the Palestinians' side? And what were the consequences for you as an Israeli?

CHANGING ONE'S opinion on such a crucial issue is a long journey. It doesn't happen in one day, and it doesn't happen because of one event. I tried to describe this journey from Zionism to a critical position against Zionism in my book Out of the Frame.

If I had to choose a formative event that really changed my point of view in dramatic fashion, it would be Israel's attack on Lebanon in 1982. For those of us who grew up in Israel, it was the first war without consensus, the first war that obviously was a war of choice: Israel was not attacked, Israel attacked.

Then the first Intifada happened. These events were eye-openers in many ways for people like myself who already had some doubts about historical version of Zionism we learned in school. It is a long journey, and once you take it, you are facing your own society, you are even facing your own family, and it is not a nice position to be in. People who know Israel know that it is an intimate and vibrant society, so if you are against it, you feel it in every aspect of your life.

Palestinians caged in at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank
Palestinians caged in at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank

I think this is one of the reasons why it takes a bit longer for people like me to come to this point of no return: because you have to subscribe to these views whatever the repercussions are.

MOST NATION states are very good propagandists, but Israel has taken this to another level. Nurit Peled-Elhanan has written a book about how Arabs are portrayed in Israeli schoolbooks to document the amount of brainwashing and propaganda that Israel rears its youth in from a very early age. Can you tell us more about your experience with this?

IT IS a highly indoctrinated society, probably more than most Western societies and more than non-Western societies, because it's a kind of self-indoctrination. It is not because of coercion that people are indoctrinated; it is a powerful indoctrination from the moment you are born to the moment you die. They don't expect you to ever get out of it, because it seems that everyone is swimming in this fluid.

But I think there is a difference between my generation and the present generation of Nurit's sons and my own sons: they know more than we did because of the Internet and what goes on. I think it is more difficult for the Israelis now to rely just on indoctrination, although they are doing a good job. There are very few among the young people of Israel who challenge Zionism.

But I think, or at least I hope, that the world has now become too open. What happened in the Arab world in recent years shows this. People thought that these were closed societies that would not know what is going on, so I hope this is going to change. But for us, we were in a bubble--we didn't know that there was a different existence, and it was very difficult to get out of it.

I THINK it's difficult for the older generation to accept that the ideas they held for 30 or 40 years are so misguided. Because this is such a personal and emotional journey, it is very hard to come to the realization that they led their lives under the sway of Zionist myths.

YES. I think we should also point out that like in any colonialist situation where you have an anti-colonialist struggle, there is a lot of violence in the air. When you are brought up in a certain way, and the policies and actions of your own government push the other side to take some violent actions as well, then you think that objectively your point of view is correct because you see that there are suicide bombers, violence, missiles sent from Gaza.

We also have to understand that this has been debated and examined within the context of permanent violence. It is very difficult for Israelis to separate the experience of violence from the reasons for that violence. One of the most difficult things is to explain to the Israelis what is the cause and what is the effect--in other words, not to regard this violence as just coming out of the blue.

THIS ALSO comes from the fact that the mainstream media and the education system, especially in Israel, is not doing its job. People say, "What do you want Israel to do? Hamas has been sending 150 rockets a day to Sderot. They must respond." But because our world has so little sense of history--a memory that barely extends one week, let alone six months--the circle of violence is difficult to break because the education part is not done.

THAT'S TRUE, and I think one of the major challenges is to find space for Israelis and Westerners to be able to understand how it all began. When the first Zionist settlers arrived and realized that what they thought was empty land or at least their own land was actually inhabited by Arab people, they regarded these people as aliens, as violent aliens who had taken over their land.

It is this infrastructure of assumptions the Zionists have built about the other side that feeds all Israelis' perception and visions. It is a dehumanization of the Palestinians that began in the late 19th century. How to explain to people that they are actually a product of this alienation? It is one of the biggest tasks for anyone who engages in alternative education or trying to convey a different message to the Israeli society.

INDEED, YOU have dedicated your work as a historian to this project. Some people say that this conflict started in 1948 while others point to 1967. But historically, the first Palestinian Intifada took place in the late 1930s, and it was a revolt mostly against British imperialism as well as the huge Zionist immigration.

I THINK it is important to go back even earlier than 1936 to make sense of this. You have to go back to the late 19th century when Zionism appeared as a movement. It had two noble objectives: one was to find a safe place for Jews who felt threatened by the rising tide of anti-Semitism, and the other was that some Jews wanted to redefine themselves as a national group and not just as a religion.

The problem started when they chose Palestine as a territory in which to implement these two impulses. It was clear that because the land was inhabited, this would have to be accomplished by force, and thus it was unavoidable to contemplate the depopulation of Palestine's indigenous people.

It took time for the Palestinian community to realize that this was the plan. Even the 1917 Balfour declaration did not awaken the people; it did not bring the Palestinians to revolt against the British policy or the Zionist strategy. But by 1936, you could already see the beginning of the real result of this strategy. Palestinians were evicted from land purchased by the Zionist movement, and Palestinians lost their jobs because of the Zionist strategy of taking over the labor market.

It was very clear that the European Jewish problem was going to be "solved" in Palestine. All three of these factors pushed Palestinians for the first time to say, "We are going to do something about this," and they tried to revolt. You needed all the might of the British Empire to crush that revolt. It took them three years. They used a horrific repertoire of tactics as bad as those used later by the Israelis to quell the Palestinian Intifada of 1987 and 2000.

THE PALESTINIAN revolt of 1936 was a very popular revolt. The "falah," the peasantry, took up arms. As I learned by reading your books, the violent repression of this revolt helped the Zionist militia Haganah in 1947-48 because the Palestinian leadership had been killed or forced into exile after 1936, leaving the Palestinian side several weakened.

ABSOLUTELY. THE Palestinian political elite lived in the cities of Palestine, but the main victims of Zionism up to the 1930s were in the countryside. That's why the revolt started there, but there were sections of the urban elite that joined them. Like you said, I pointed out in one of my books that the British killed or imprisoned most of those who belonged to the Palestinian political elite, in particular the military (or potential military) elite.

They created a Palestinian society that was quite defenseless in 1947 when the first Zionist actions commenced with the knowledge that the British mandate had come to an end. I think it had an impact on the inability of the Palestinians to resist a year later during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

YOUR WORK as an historian has demolished many of Israel's founding myths. One of the myths is that Israel was created because the Bible gave it to the Jewish people. Could you to tell us about Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism, who himself was not religious at all and did not speak even speak Yiddish?

ONE GOAL of Zionism usually forgotten by historians was a wish to secularize Jewish life. But if you secularize the Jewish religion, you cannot later use the Bible as a justification for occupying Palestine. It was a bizarre mixture--a movement made by people who do not believe in God, but nevertheless believe that God promised them Palestine. I think this is something that is at the heart of the internal problems of Israeli society today.

It is also important to understand that even before Herzl, there were people who thought about themselves as Zionists but were aware of the existence of Palestinians in Palestine. They considered a different kind of connection to Palestine to resolve the threats to Jewish life in Europe. For example, Ahad Ha'Am (real name: Asher Ginzburg) said that maybe Palestine would just be a spiritual center and that Jews, if they feel insecure in Europe, should settle elsewhere outside Europe or settle in more stable European societies.

One important group of people that did not allow them to do this were Christian Zionists, who already existed even at that time, because they believed that the return of the Jews to Palestine was part of a divine scheme. They wanted the Jews to return to Palestine because they thought that this would precipitate the second coming of the Messiah. They were also anti-Semitic, so they saw in this a double benefit: they could get rid of the Jews in Europe at the same time.

I think it is an important period to go back to in order to understand how the interplay of British imperialism, Christian Zionism and of course Jewish nationalism became a formidable force that left very few options for the Palestinians.

HISTORY IS crucial. Can you talk more about how history and knowledge, if properly taught, can enlighten and perhaps create more struggle?

IF YOU don't have an historical perspective, if you don't know the facts, you accept the negative depictions that the world and the Israelis have of Palestinians. I'll give you one example. From the Israeli perspective, "Palestinian terrorism" seems to come out of the blue. We don't know why these people are violent--maybe it is because they are Muslims, maybe it is their political culture.

It is only when you have an historical understanding that you can say, "Wait a minute, I understand where this violence comes from because I understand the source of the violence. Actually settling in my house by force is an act of violence. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I was right to try to resist by violence, but it begins with the invasion of the very place where I live. This invasion is accompanied by a wish to get rid of me...what else can I do?"

I think the historical dimension is firstly important for a better understanding of why the conflict continues. Second, we will never succeed in changing political views about the Palestinian issue if we don't explain to people how knowledge was manipulated. It is very important because you need to understand how certain words like "peace process" are being used and how certain ideas are broadcast, such as "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East" and the idea of Palestinian primitivism.

You need to understand how such language is a means of manipulating knowledge to support a certain point of view and to prevent another point of view from cohering. I think history serves a double function--to understand the history of a place but also to understand the power of narratives, how they are being constructed, how they are being manipulated and how they can be challenged.

The main narrative that the Israelis are still successful in portraying is this idea of a land without people for a people without a land--and even if the land was not empty, it was full of people who had no real connections to the place, and so they lack legitimacy. They lose legitimacy first because they are not there, then they lose legitimacy because they are made up of Bedouins and nomads, so they don't really care about place like "we" do, and finally then they lose legitimacy by being violent or being Muslims after 9/11.

There's a constant barrage of words and ideas to try to persuade people that whatever the Israelis are doing, even if you disapprove, it doesn't matter because there is no one on the other side that has anything legitimate to offer. Thus, all progress hinges on Israel's "kindness."

If you carefully examine the language about "peace" since Oslo, it is all about Israeli "concessions": Israelis will make concessions to Palestinians, and then there is a chance for peace. But if this is the departure point, there will never be any reconciliation. If I invaded your house, but I am "generous" enough to let you come back and take the sofa with you to the new place, this is dialogue that seriously aims at settling a conflict. It is almost more humiliating than the act of invasion itself.

IS HISTORY subjective? For example, how can you and historian Benny Morris agree on the facts of what happened in 1947-48, but come to such different conclusions? How do you deal with that?

FIRST OF all, I think there is a factual infrastructure. In this respect, at least Benny Morris joined the fray to say that the idea that Palestinians left voluntarily in 1948 is nonsense. This was a factual debate: did they leave voluntarily, or were they expelled?

But as this debate continues, it's now clear that this is not the most important issue because before the New Historians appeared in Israel, we knew that Palestinians were being expelled, but we just didn't believe them. There were 5 million Palestinian refugees who kept telling us, "We were expelled," and we said, "No, you are Palestinians, so when you say it, we don't believe you."

It was only when the Israeli historians said, "You know what, they are right," and that there were documents to confirm what the Palestinians were saying that suddenly they were "telling the truth." But this was only a first step--the more important thing was not what happened but what to learn from what happened.

This is a moral and ideological debate. The artificial attempt to say that historians only deal with what happened without saying anything about what the implications are is false, and this can be seen in Morris' own work. He writes in his first book that he is a bit sorry for what was done in 1948, while in his last book, he says that he is sorry that the Israelis did not complete the ethnic cleansing.

He has not changed one fact in either book; they are the same facts, but the books are being written very differently. One book doesn't like the idea of ethnic cleansing, but the other book endorses it, not only justifying it in the past but endorsing it as a plan for the future.

YOU MOVED to Exeter in the United Kingdom in 2007, but you still return to Israel often. How has the situation evolved there in the last few years?

THE TASK of changing Jewish society from within is formidable. This society seems to be more and more entrenched in its positions. The more I think about it, the more desperate I am about succeeding in changing it from within. There are a growing number of young people who seem to grasp reality in a different way, and though they are very few, I do not remember even a small number of previous generations asking such questions before.

So although I harbor no optimism about a change from within in the short-term future, there are signs that with pressure from outside there is a group of people in Israel with whom one will be able potentially to create a different society. If you compare Israel today with the Israel I left or the Israel I grew up in, the trend is toward a more chauvinistic, ethnocentric and intransigent society, which makes us all feel that peace and reconciliation are very far away--if we only rely on our hope that Jewish society will change from within.

SHOULD WE therefore put all our energy into applying pressure from the outside, or should we still try to persuade Israelis to change their views?

THE REASON why we are debating this is because on the ground the machine of destruction does not stop for one day. We therefore don't have the luxury to wait any longer. Time is not on our side. We know that while we wait, many terrible things are happening. We also now there is a correlation between those terrible things happening and the realization of the Israelis that there is a price tag attached to what they are doing. If they pay no price for what they are doing, they will even accelerate the strategy of ethnic cleansing.

It's therefore a mixture. We urgently need to find a system by which you stop what is being done now on the ground and to also prevent what is about to happen. You need a powerful strategy of pressure from the outside. As far as people from the outside are concerned, I think international civil society and the BDS movement are as good as it gets.

Still, it can't be the only model or factor. There are two additional factors necessary to succeed. One is on the Palestinian side. The question of representation needs to be sorted out. You need a good solution. Secondly, you need to have a kind of educational system, inside Israel, that takes the time to educate Israeli Jews about a different reality and the benefits it will bring to them. If those factors all work well together, and we have a more holistic approach to the question of reconciliation, things could change.

AS A teacher, would you be more impactful teaching in Israel than abroad? Could you be the teacher you are in the UK in Israel?

I DON'T think I want to be a teacher in a university anyway. Universities are not the best place to teach people about the reality of life or to change their point of view. The university is a site for careers now, not for knowledge and education. I am teaching in Israel as well, in my own way--through my articles, through the tiny amount of public speaking I am allowed to do. I would like to continue this.

I feel like what I am doing in Britain is working less on education and more on pressure from the outside. You cannot sustain a BDS campaign without explaining to people why it is necessary, to give them the tools and the background they need to understand it. To legitimize it. We do not cease to be educators as well as activists all the time. It's important to try to find the time for the actions that you take as well as the educational process. We can't be too impatient if people do not get it straight away. We have to be patient and explain our positions again and again until people understand them.

I AM very interested in the question of solidarity. As non-Palestinians, what does solidarity mean? Who do we stand in solidarity with? What if whoever represents the Palestinians wants a state on 11 percent of historical Palestine that is a neoliberal, capitalist state? How am I supposed to stand in solidarity with that?

FIRST OF all, solidarity is with victims of a certain policy and/or ideology, even if these victims are not "represented." You are in solidarity with their suffering, and you support their attempt to get out of this suffering.

You also raise an interesting question. I think that part of solidarity is like a good friendship. As a good friend, you can tell your friend that you understand what he is doing, but that you think he is wrong. When it comes to our debates with good friends who still support the peace process and the two-state solution, those of us in solidarity with the Palestinian people find ourselves in disagreement. Part of our role is to tell them that we think they are wrong.

But the assumption in your question is not realistic. Not one Palestinian will ever agree with that. Still, if that happens, yes, maybe we will have to rethink the whole idea of solidarity. Those debates are organic and stem from the situation; we are not inventing them. If you have a position regarding the one-state or two-state solution or what kind of means the Palestinians should adopt, you connect to issues the Palestinians have themselves, and you're therefore not an outsider. You will be betraying your solidarity if you stopped having a position on the current and important debates.

I know that sometimes there is a nationalistic position saying that because you're not Palestinian, you can't comment and are not entitled to have an opinion. For me, movements are made of people, and people are different from one another. Not everybody is going to play according to the same rules. I think that solidarity is also agreeing on what is right and what is wrong to do.

What are the boundaries of involvement for people from the outside? There is no dogmatic answer to this. Usually when someone says something like you cannot advocate for one state if you're not Palestinian or Israeli, it's usually to stifle a debate. We should not waste too much time on this question. By now, I think that everyone involved knows what solidarity means and what it entitles you to do.

LET'S TALK about "solutions." The two-state solution, as far as international institutions and government are concerned, still seems to be the only solution on the table. When you talk about one state with equal rights for Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians, people either call you a utopian or say that you are against "Jewish self-determination." Even the so-called Palestinian political leaders, despite what's happening on the ground, still support a two-state solution.

I THINK two things are taking place. One is the issue of Palestinian representation. The people in the West Bank who claim to represent the Palestinians have become the representatives of the whole Palestinian People. As far as the West Bank is concerned, you can see why a two-state solution is attractive. It could mean the end of military control of their life. One can understand this.

But this disregards the other Palestinians--the refugees, the people of Gaza and the Palestinians living inside Israel. That's one of the difficulties. You have certain groups of Palestinians who--in my opinion, wrongly--believe that this is the quickest way to end the occupation. I don't think it is. You're right when you say the Oslo agreement ensured the continuation of the occupation, not the end of it.

The second reason is that the two-state solution has a logical ring to it. It's a very Western idea. It's a colonialist invention that was repeatedly applied in India and Africa, the idea of partition. It became a kind of religion to the extent that it is not questioned anymore; you simply work out how best to get there. This is surprising. To my mind, it makes very intelligent people turn this into a kind of religion of logic. If you question the rationality of it, you are criticized.

This is while a lot of people in the West stick to it. Nothing on the ground could ever change their mind. So, of course, you're right: five minutes on the ground shows you that the one state is already there. It's a non-democratic regime, an apartheid regime. So you just need to think about how to change this regime. You do not need to think about a two-state solution. You need to think about how to change the relations between the communities, how to affect the power structure in place.

SO WHY are intelligent and rational people still saying that the two-state solution is the compulsory step toward something better?

IT GOES back to a rationalist, Western way to look at reality. It says that I can only advocate for what I can get, not what I want. At this moment, it seems that there's a broad coalition in favor of a two-state solution, so you take it. You do not evaluate its morality, its ethical dimension, even if it's potentially to change the reality later on. There's a Jewish joke about a person who loses a key and only looks for it where there is light, not where the key was lost. The two-state solution is the light, not the key. There is light, so let's go.

It has to do with enlightenment and the idea that this is a very "reasonable" approach. Of course, it's reasonable to a point, but it's totally insane because it has nothing to do with the conflict. It has to do with the way Israel wants the world to accept the idea that Israel needs most of the territory that it occupied in 1967, but that it is willing to allow some autonomy to the Palestinians in that territory. That's the debate in Israel. It's never about the principles.

The thing that Israel has always needed is international support. They need their policies rubberstamped by the international community. They also need a Palestinian representative or "partner." In 1993, the PLO surprised them when it agreed to accept a small autonomous area in a small part of the West Bank and to leave all the rest to Israel. That's the two-state solution that everybody wants to convince us is the only way forward. The problem is that not one Palestinian can live with this, hence the continuation of the conflict.

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