Raphael Israeli examines one of the most difficult political problems of our time: The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  He approaches the subject by presenting and analyzing research on the conflict by earlier Israeli historians (the so-called Old Historians), by more recent Israeli historians (the so-called New Historians who coined the label Old Historians), and by Muslim scholars.

The author establishes the theoretical frame of his research by comparing four approaches to historiography, the research and writing of history: Western, Chinese, Jewish, and Islamic.  These pages display an impressive range of knowledge on the part of Raphael Israeli, for many years a professor of Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He points out that it was the ancient Greeks—most notably, Thucydides—who generated the Western idea that history is not a mere narration of events, but also their objective analysis.  Over time, however, many Western historians have deviated from this approach by projecting upon the past their own political and social preferences and, more recently, by projecting “utopia into the future.”

For the pre-Marxist Chinese, history was a “repository of ancient wisdom and morality to draw from both positive and negative lessons.”  And for Jewish historiography, a recurring theme is an “assumption of responsibility for past faults.”  Thus,

the major tragedies in Jewish millennial memory were all due to “our sins,” hence the Jews’ continued sense of guilt and constant digging into the microscopic details of their deeds, real or imaginary, in order to assume responsibility, repent on their doings, let the world know about them and join their condemnation.

As exemplars of this method of writing history, the author cites not only the New Historians but the Jewish prophets.

Islamic historians, with the exception of the Tunisian Ibn Khaldun, have been influenced by the Arabic tribal oral tradition of “praising one’s own kin” while diminishing one’s enemies.  Thus, Islamic conquests are not conquests but beneficent “openings” (fat’h) of other countries to the enlightening rule of Islam, in the same way that Islam delivered pre-Islamic Arabia from its state of ignorance (Jahiliya).  In contrast, conquests by other nations are always seen negatively—as conquests proper (ihtilal).  Therefore, the conquest of the Middle East by Islam was not a conquest but another “opening” to Islam (hence the name adopted by Yasser Arafat’s faction of the PLO: al-Fatah), whereas the creation of the state of Israel is the conquest and occupation (ihtilal) of an Islamic land.

Raphael Israeli’s analysis clarifies for this reader why Turkey celebrates spectacularly every year on May 29 the bloody conquest of Constantinople and the final destruction of the civilization of the Christian Greek Roman Empire (“Byzantine”), which for Turks was an “opening” of ignorant Christian Greeks to Islamic enlightenment.  The same approach to history has been adopted by many Western academics, who praise Muslim conquests for enlightening the conquered, especially the ignorant people of the medieval West.

Muslim historians “always accuse ‘the others’ of ‘occupying’ their lands.”  Hence their conviction that, for example, today’s Spain “occupies” former “al-Andalus”—despite the fact that, as Israeli writes, “it was Muslim intruders from North Africa who had conquered that land from the Christian Visigoths.”  This historiography has consequences: According to Israeli, Muslims never apologize for conquering anything, including the Middle East; for the Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim world, “it was the Zionists who ‘conquered’ the Muslim land of Palestine.”  This terminological legerdemain reminds me of the immensely successful rhetorical trick of medieval Islamic law: labeling Christians and Jews, whom medieval Islam placed in a subaltern condition, as “protected people” (dhimmis).

The author’s method is to present the evidence in full and then interpret it, leaving the reader to agree or disagree with his interpretation.  An example is the expulsion of Arabs from villages during the 1948 War of Independence, as most Israelis call it, or the Catastrophe (Naqba), as Palestinians call it.  The evidence indicates that the expulsions occurred.  But it also seems to indicate that they were carried out for strategic reasons, not as part of a grand Jewish plan to expel the Palestinians.

Were there such a plan, it was rather poorly executed, since a good part of the Palestinian population remained: Palestinians in Israel now number more than 1.4 million, compared with 5.9 million Jews.  Given the efficiency of the Israeli army, a truly “grand” plan of expulsion would likely have resulted in the presence of far fewer Palestinians left within Israel.

In addition, war records indicate that the villages suffering expulsions were critical for military operations.  The Israeli forces were outnumbered on many fronts, fighting against several attacking Muslim nations (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and—in Jerusalem—Jordan).  From those Palestinian villages came resistance and sniper fire, a guerrilla threat against the Israelis’ lines of communication and their rear guard.  Israeli forces were too small to safeguard hostile villages while simultaneously conducting operations against the Muslim armies.

The author implicitly makes the case that the end of Israel as a political force in the Middle East would be disastrous both for the Christian holy sites and for what little remains of the Christian population in Israel.  (Raphael Israeli also addresses this subject in his earlier book, Green Crescent Over Nazareth: The Displacement of Christianity by Muslims in the Holy Land.)  It is an important argument to consider, especially when placed alongside evidence that contradicts the widely held view of the happy condition of Christians in the Middle East under Islamic rule.

The author’s examination of the labyrinthine and contentious historiography of Israel shows the extent to which many Israeli academics have contributed to the anti-Israeli narrative of Israel’s enemies.  Their influence is particularly evident in regard to the expulsions of the Palestinians.  I find this historiographic phenomenon analogous to the way so many Western academics have shaped the anti-Western narrative of the West’s enemies.  By contrast, Raphael Israeli observes, no research conducted by academics from among the Muslim enemies of Israel favors the Israeli interpretation of events.  Similarly, no comparable research by Third World scholars favors either the West’s cultural achievements or its relations with that region.

The author notes that the government of Israel has opened its archives to researchers who find material unfavorable to the nationalistic account of Israel’s origins.  By contrast, surrounding Muslim countries have yet to make their archives available to researchers who possess a point of view that differs from their own.  Israel’s freedom of thought stands in sharp contrast to the situation that is normal in Islamic countries.


[Old Historians, New Historians, No Historians: The Derailed Debates on the Genesis of Israel,by Raphael Israeli (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock) 225 pp., $29.00]