Fabricating Israeli History: the New Historians

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Efraim Karsh

For the last 15 years or so, Post-Zionism has tried to delegitimize Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. The politics of Post-Zionism is closely allied with Labor’s left-wing and Peace Now. Prior to the current Intifada, they believed that the New Middle East was imminent, and that the Palestinians constitute no strategic threat to Israel’s security. Even now, largely marginalized and politically sidelined, the post-Zionists continue to refine their ideology.

The academic wing of post-Zionism has been the so-called “new historians.” Led by Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, they seek to undermine Israel’s moral standing vis-à-vis the Palestinians. They see Israel as tainted by the original sin of Zionism and the 1947-49 war. Israel deliberately created refugees to dispossess the Arabs; they colluded with Jordan to thwart the national ambitions of the Palestinians; and it was all unnecessary, since they enjoyed the nurturing hand of Ernest Bevin, and the British Foreign Office. Their historical narrative has Israel as the villain.

If all this were true, it would certainly alter the nature of the dispute. Even if it were a legitimate interpretation of extant documents, it might fuel an honest debate about the nature of Israel and its role in the region. Mr. Karsh conclusively shows, however, that these conclusions rest on fabricated documentation. The New Historians repeatedly misread documents, sometimes literally changing “don’t” to “do” in their English translations. They omit key passages, sometimes turning the speaker’s meaning on its head, other times depriving the reader of key context. They fail to look at entire archives. This naked intellectual dishonesty poisons the well of civilized and informed debate, and is the real target of Mr. Karsh’s wrath.

Morris quotes Ben-Gurion as proposing the forcible removal of Arabs to solidify the Jewish majority. In fact, the passage quoted opposes use of force, talks of treating the Arabs inside the Israeli borders as equals, and proposes increasing the Jewish majority through immigration. Morris claims that in a single, secret meeting, Golda Meir committed Israel to an agreement with King Abdullah of Transjordan, whereby Israel agreed to let Abdullah invade the proposed Arab Palestinian state in order to forestall the creation of that state. Neither Meir’s report nor those of her aides bear this out, but specifically repudiate it. And Morris’s assertion betrays a deep misunderstanding of how international agreements are reached.

As for the British, they could not have blessed such a deal, since it didn’t exist. And Mr. Bevin was just about the furthest thing from a guardian angel the Israelis could have had. He limited immigration, and supported its limitation even after Israel’s independence. He supported an arms embargo which disproportionately hurt Israel. He proposed that the Israelis make Haifa an open port, with Arab access through a Galilean corridor He fully anticipated and encouraged the Egyptians and the Jordanians to divvy up the Negev. He supported the cease-fire one month into the war, to “save the Arabs from themselves.” With friends like these…

Karsh’s criticism is academic, not political. He himself supports the creation of some sort of Palestinian state. His attacks are strictly professional, based on his opponents’ writings, and never sink to the level of personal invective. His contempt for the New Historians is based on their academic sloppiness and dishonesty, and their need to demonize Israel in order to achieve their political ends. Unlike his opposition, his footnotes are reliable, and his sources not retouched.

As Americans, we are blessed by a short history and short memories. But Israel is a place with long memories. To be valuable, memory must be informed by accurate history. Two people may interpret the same historical documents very differently. But two people looking at different documents have no hope of agreeing. Mr. Karsh is doing yeoman work, trying to move the historical discussion back to common ground.


Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor of The New Republic, has written an intensely personal, intensely intellectual, and very readable memoir of his year saying kaddish for his father. Wieseltier was raised in an Orthodox home, but left the active practice of Judaism in his twenties.  When he returned to shul to say kaddish, he found himself virtually ignorant about the ritual. So he spent the year studying the original rabbinic sources, from Talmudic to modern. Far from wallowing in sorrow, he used his father’s death as a catalyst to study the history and meaning of the kaddish in particular, and much more.

He began by asking when the kaddish became associated with mourning, and when the form known as the “Mourner’s Kaddish” developed.

Just what is the kaddish, anyway? A prayer for the dead? Popular opinion to this effect crytallized by the eleventh century, despite some rabbinic opposition.

There is a famous story of Rabbi Akiva teaching a boy to say kaddish in order to save the condemned soul of his deceased father. But the prayer doesn’t mention the dead at all, and, in fact, kaddish originated as means of marking off the significant sections of the prayer service or study. It appears to have become associated with mourning sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries.

The whole question of its meaning revolves around a Talmudic dictum that “sons acquit fathers; fathers do not acquit sons.” This statement gave rise to the idea that by saying kaddish, a son might affect the judgment of the Heavenly court on his father’s soul. Wieseltier, however, does not believe in an afterlife. So he takes the eschatalogical texts seriously but not literally, scouring them for applications to this world.

Most of the book is his effort to find a satisfactory interpretation of this sentence. The experience of mourning changes his perspective as the year goes on, and he rejects and embraces the same ideas at different points during his journey. His exploration is not linear. The texts lead him and us from one idea to another, then back to our main line of inquiry, So he discusses such side issues as revelation vs. tradition, the history of women saying kaddish vs. the tradition not to, and pluralism as embodied in varying traditions.

Wieseltier’s style is more literary than scholarly. We are often treated to long discussion of a given text, followed by successively shorter restatements that both clarify and extend the ideas involved. Sometimes these trail off into musings, but more often they form a satisfactory conclusion. One wonders if this was done with an eye towards being quoted, but a gift for metaphoe graces these summations. For example: “Nihilism is materialism in a bad mood” or “Ritual is the conversion of essences into acts.”

In the end, Kaddish is a surprisingly hopeful book. It is also a book of depth and insight. While the individual insights are not necessarily earth-shattering, they are skillfully and artfully combined to be most illuminating.