- Caplan’s Contested Histories Considered
Neil Caplan has devoted a lifetime to understanding, teaching, and writing prolifically about the origins and development of Arab-Jewish relations, and particularly aspects of Arab-Israeli negotiations dating back to before World War I. More than half a dozen scholarly monographs later, in writing this summative analysis, he has again maintained a characteristically meticulous devotion to sources. Almost unique in our professional specialty, he enthusiastically presents an unbiased presentation of viewpoints.
This book is at one and the same time a history and a historiographic review of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It will have wide appeal for followers of the conflict, and can be used as an introductory primer for one’s first exposure to the conflict’s century-long twists and turns.
In the 1920s, Ronald Storrs, the Governor of Jerusalem, remarked, “Two hours of Arab grievances drives me into the synagogue, while after an intensive course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”1 If you are looking for Caplan to judge your views as the right ones, this is not your book. He may at one point reinforce your outlook, but he also forces you to see how the conflict unfolded from another’s viewpoint. In doing so, Caplan negotiates with the reader’s prejudices, hoping perhaps, that at least by listening, the emotional temperature is reduced.
The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories accomplishes three tasks. First, it is an in-depth history of the conflict. Caplan connects the personalities with the events that saw early friction become all-out confrontation. Findings from each of the 12 chapters are supported by reference to the best scholarly accounts of the conflict.
Second, as he weaves his way through the conflict’s evolution, Caplan unfolds the story through the eyes of the many protagonists. Carefully, he exposes terms and prejudices employed by those who have written narratives rather than histories, vividly revealing how events are retold and revisited depending upon parochial outlooks. His chapter titled Sho’ah, Azma’ut, Nakba (Holocaust, Independence, Disaster) 1939–1949 portrays each sides’ view of how Israel was established and Palestinian Arabs were made refugees. Third, Caplan provides six explanations as a “tool for summarizing and understanding the multiple ways the conflict has been presented by the protagonists, their supporters, historians, and interested students” (pp. 263–64). These include being inevitable rivals from ancient times, Jews and Zionists focused on state building and not paying much attention to the Arabs, [End Page 299] Arabs and Palestinians not paying much attention to the Jewish and Zionist connection to their ancestral land, outside powers manipulating the conflict for their own needs, Jews and Arabs failing to communicate with one another over time, and two national groupings locked in an unavoidable clash for the same territory.
Any disagreement I have about the conflict’s historiography is not with Caplan’s interpretation, but with overall historical omission of how and when the central players, and communities themselves, shaped and unfurled the conflict. All too dominant in the conflict’s historical writings are those that focus on how one side ignored or victimized the other; how one side suffered more, and therefore has the higher moral claim to justice, righteousness, and compensation. That, as Caplan points out, is an unending dispute. For as long as the conflict has been told and rehashed, it has been carried out as if neither side ever had any control over its own destiny, as if both were merely pawns of the nefarious plans of the other, or of outside forces alone.
Not so. Each side had leaders. Each side had populations to consider. Each was wracked by fragmentation. Each dealt with diaspora communities. Each took destiny into its own hands. Each side made good, mediocre, and terrible decisions. History is, of course, about what others do to you; it is also about what you do to shape history. What were the results of decisions made and not made by the...