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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 102-122

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Humanizing the Text:
Israeli "New History" and the Trajectory of the 1948 Historiography

Ilan Pappe

In the late 1980s, Benny Morris and I, as part of an attempt to arouse public awareness of the existence of a counter-, non-Zionist, narrative of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, introduced the term new history into the Israeli academic discourse. It took a year or so before the newspaper Ha'aretz became interested in the subject, but after it did most of the print and electronic media in Israel soon followed. For a while, these public forums were full of lively debates about what had happened in 1948. As happens so often in an eventful state like Israel, the debate did not last long and soon gave way to other more pressing problems. However, the debate's relevance to topical issues such as the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the relationship between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority in Israel, and the overall questions of the legitimacy and identity of the Jewish state ensured its return, every now and then, to the public arena and consciousness. 1

And, indeed, the debate on Israel's history in general, and the 1948 war in particular, was reactivated once more, and vigorously, during the 1998 jubilee celebration of the birth of the state of Israel. The fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel and the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War evoked reappraisals of the past, manifested most strongly in Tekkuma, the documentary shown by the public television channel on Independence Day and for twenty-two successive weeks thereafter. The series tried to encapsulate the state's history and did it [End Page 102] quite convincingly. It was done under the influence of the more critical views voiced by "new historians" a decade before. 2 During those ten years, the number of scholars dealing with the past from a revisionist point of view had increased considerably. They included people who approached the very origins of Zionism in the late nineteenth century as a form of colonialism, academics who questioned the moral conduct of the Jewish leadership in Palestine during the Holocaust, researchers who revisited the treatment of Mizrachi Jews (Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Arab countries mainly in the early 1950s), women, and Palestinians in the young state in the 1950s and, finally, diplomatic historians who depicted pre-1967 Israel as a pretty aggressive neighbor in the midst of the Arab world. Much of this research was reflected in the overall presentation of Israel's history in Tekkuma, although the general tone of the series still remained very loyal to the Zionist metanarrative. 3

In 1999, Ehud Barak won the elections and led both Israel and occupied Palestine into a fatal collision, erupting in widespread violence in the autumn of 2000, which has continued to this day. Within two years, the critical voices in academia, in the electronic and print media, and in other sites of cultural and knowledge production were silenced, almost disappearing in some cases. Some of the critics, such as Benny Morris, declared openly their wish to return to embracing consensus, while others simply abandoned their past interests. 4

One thing is clear when analyzing the fortunes of Israeli new history from the time of its inception in the late 1980s until its brief/temporary disappearance in 2000: historical reconstruction is closely linked to general political developments and upheavals. In societies torn by internal and external rifts and conflicts, the work of historians is constantly pervaded by the political drama around them. In such geopolitical locations the pretense of objectivity is particularly misplaced, if not totally unfounded.

In my article, I would like to examine this link, indeed this dialectical nexus, between the outside drama and the "professional" reconstruction of the past. I will do it through a presentation of my own work on 1948, not as part of a wish to overstate the importance of my contribution but rather as an illustration of how strong, significant...