An Israeli Historian Corrects The Record Of Israel’s Founding
Conversation with historian Ilan Pappé: “We Don’t Have the Luxury to Wait Any Longer.”
Ilan Pappé on the duty to ask questions
Florent Barat: Ilan, you are an historian, you’ve published numerous books, amongst them the famous and controversial for some people “Ethnic cleansing of Palestine” in 2006. In 2007 you moved to England where you are currently teaching history at Exeter University. You are part of what is called by some people “the new historians” who give a new analysis and narrative of the history of Zionism and the history of 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 being Israeli?
Ilan Pappe: Changing point of view 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’ve tried in one of my books called “Out of the Frame” to describe this journey out of Zionism to a critical position against Zionism. If I had to choose a formative event that really changed my point of view in dramatic way, it would be the attack of the Israelis on Lebanon in 1982. For us who grew up in Israel, it was the first non-consensus war, 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 Zionism, about the historical version we learned at 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. I think this is one of the reasons why it takes a bit longer for the people like me to come to the point where you say there is no return: you have to subscribe to these views whatever the repercussions are.
Frank Barat: I find what you are saying about Israel very interesting. Most nation states are very good propagandists but Israel has taken this to another level. I know someone, that you also know, Nurit Peled-Elhanan who has written a book about the way Arabs are portrayed in Israel’s school books to show the world the amount of brainwashing and propaganda in Israel that starts from a very early age. Can you tell us more about this society as you’ve experienced this yourself as well?
IP: Indeed. It is a very indoctrinated society probably more than most of Western societies and more than the non-Western societies. 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 get out of it because you seem to be swimming in this fluid. What Nurit Peled-Elhanan says in her books is that you could compare [this] life to a religious person who becomes an atheist and still believes that maybe God is there and maybe he will punish him and punish you for being sacrilegious and so on. … It was so powerful.
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 a very few among the young people of Israel who challenge Zionism. I hope that the world has become more [aware of] what happened in the Arab world as well: you thought that these were closed societies who would not know what is going on, so I hope this is going to change but for us, we were like in a bubble, we did not know that there was a different existence, it was very difficult to get out of it.
Frank: I guess the older generation, your generation, … it is so hard for you to accept that you were wrong for let’s say 30 or 40 years of your life. You see that all the time, at events when you see always the same people coming to every single Palestinian event, I always think, they know as much as I do about Palestine and they know its facts. How come they are still defending Israel so strongly? I think because this is such a personal and emotional journey, it is very hard for them to come to the realisation that they were wrong and all their life has been, in a way, a myth.
Yes and 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 need to get out has been debated and examined within the context of permanent violence. It is very difficult for Israelis to separate between the violence and the experience and 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. What brings that violence about and not to regard this violence as just coming out of the blue and therefore they have no other choice than being where they are.
Frank: That is the problem of knowledge and education. I think it also comes from the fact that mainstream media or the education system, in Israel even more, are not doing their jobs. When you hear people here saying: “What do you want Israel to do? Hamas has been sending one hundred and fifty rockets a day to Sderot, they have to react”. I think in a time when history is very short term, we are not talking about six months, we are talking about last week, the circle of violence will never stop because the job is not done, the education part is not done.
That’s true and I think one of the major challenges is to find space for Israelis and Westerner people to be able to understand how it all began. Even the first Zionist settlers when they came and realised that what they thought was an empty land or at least their own land, was full of Arab people, they regarded these people as aliens, as violent aliens who took over their land. It is this infrastructure they have built about the other side that feeds all the Israelis’ perception and visions. It is a dehumanisation of the Palestinians that begins in the late nineteen 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 Israeli-Jews…
Frank: And that is what your job has been about, going back to history, studying the fact and archives. Going back to history, some people say that this conflict started in 1948 some others say in 1967. I’d like you to talk about what historically was the first Palestinian Intifada of the late ’30s, and the revolt, mostly against UK imperialism, and also the Zionist huge immigration.
I think it is important to go back to even earlier than 1936 in order to understand it. You have to go back to the late nineteenth century when Zionism appeared as a movement. It had two noble objectives, one was to find a safe place for Jews who felt insecure in a growing atmosphere of anti-Semitism, and the other was that some Jews wanted to redefine themselves as a national group 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 because the land was inhabited that [they] would have to do it by force and [they] had to contemplate the depopulation of the [country of its] indigenous people.
Solving Europe’s ‘Jewish problem’ in Palestine
It took time for the Palestinian community to realise that this was the plan. Even the Balfour declaration did not awaken the people when it was adopted in November 1917, it did not bring the Palestinians to revolt against the British policy or the Zionist strategy. 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; Palestinians lost their jobs because of the Zionist strategy to take over the labour market. It was very clear that the European Jewish problem was going to be solved in Palestine.
All these three factors pushed Palestinians for the first time to say: “We are going to do something about it” and they tried to revolt. You needed the [full] might of the British Empire to crush that revolt as it did happen. It took them three years; they used the repertoire of actions against the Palestinians that were as bad as those that would be used later on by the Israelis to quell the Palestinian Intifada of 1987 and 2000.
Frank: This revolt of ’36 was a very popular revolt, it was the “Falahin”, the peasants that took arms. Also, by reading your books, I’ve realised that this revolt, being so violently squashed, did help the Haganah in 47/48. The Palestinians were really weak at that time because all the leaders, all the potential fighting elements, had been killed or had to go into exile in 1936.
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 and military or potentially military elite. They created a Palestinian society that was quite defenceless in 1947 when the first Zionist actions, with the knowledge that the British mandate was coming to an end, commenced. I think it had an impact on the inability of the Palestinians to resist a year later in 1948, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Frank: Your work as an historian has permitted [the destruction of] most of the myths about Israel. One of the myths is that Israel was created because the Bible gave it to the Jewish people. Could you to tell us a bit about Theodor Herzl who is known as one of the founder of Zionism who was not religious at all, who did not even speak Yiddish.
That’s right. Zionism had one element that is usually forgotten by historians. This was a wish to secularise Jewish life. If you secularise the Jewish religion, you cannot use later the Bible as a justification for occupying Palestine. It was a bizarre mixture, which I like to call a movement made by people who do not believe in God but God nonetheless promised them Palestine. I think this is something that is at the heart of the internal problems of Israeli-Jewish 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 were thinking of different kind of connections to Palestine and solutions for the insecurity of Jews in Europe like Ahad Ha’Am (real name Asher Ginzburg) who said that maybe Palestine would just be a spiritual centre and Jews, if they feel insecure in Europe, should settle elsewhere outside Europe or settle in more secure European societies. One important group of people that did not allow them to do this were Christian Zionists. They already existed in those days [and] 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 could precipitate the second coming of the Messiah. They were also anti-Semitic, it was like a double bill – they could also get rid of the Jews in Europe at the same time. I think it is an important period to go back to understand how British Imperialism, Christian Zionism and of course Jewish nationalism played together as a formidable force that left very few chances for the Palestinians when it erupted eventually … in the late nineteenth century.
Frank: Like you said, you have to add anti-Semitism as well. When you hear Lord Balfour and the politicians at the time [later, in the first world war], they wanted the Jews to live in Palestine because they did not want the Jews in [Britain] or anywhere else in Europe. History is crucial. We talked a few hours ago about knowledge and the way it is transmitted. Can you tell us about how history and knowledge, if it is properly taught, can enlighten people and can maybe better the struggle?
Members of the Palestinian security forces arrange Palestinian flags on the coffins of 91 Palestinians killed by the IDF while they were carrying out attacks on Israeli targets said Israeli spokesman. Photo by AP
I think we’ve already pointed at it. If you don’t have an historical perspective, understanding and if you don’t know the facts, you accept the kind of negative depictions that the world and the Israelis have on Palestinians. I’ll give you one example — what is called Palestinian terrorism that in the Israeli perspective and in some Western perspective comes 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, I understand the source of the violence. Actually settling 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 by the very invasion of my space, the place where I live. This invasion is accompanied by a wish to get rid of me…what else can I do?”
Manipulation of knowledge
I think the historical dimension is important first for a better understanding of why the conflict continues. The second reason is that 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 are being used like ‘peace process’, how certain ideas are being broadcast like ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, like ‘Palestinian primitivism’ and so on. You need to understand how these [terms] are means of manipulating the knowledge that is there so as to form a certain point of view and prevent another point of view from coming into the space.
I think it is a double bill in a way. You need to understand the history of the place but you also need to understand the power of narrative, 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 that even if it was not empty, it was full of people who had no real connections to the place and they lose legitimacy. They lose legitimacy once because they are not there then they lose legitimacy again because they are a bit of Bedouins and nomads so they don’t really care then they lose legitimacy again by being violent or being Muslims after 9/11. There is all the time this laundrette of words and ideas that tried to convince you that whatever the Israelis are doing, if you are unhappy with this, it doesn’t matter because there is no one on the other side that has anything legitimate to offer so it all depends on the Israelis’ kindness. If you check very carefully the language of peace since Oslo, even before but it has been more accentuated since Oslo, it is all about Israeli concessions: the language is concession, Israelis will make concessions to Palestinians and then, there is a chance for peace. If this is the departure point, they will never be any reconciliation. I invaded your house but I am generous enough to let you come back and take the sofa with you to the new place. That is hardly a dialogue that wants to settle a conflict; it is almost more humiliating than the act of invasion itself.
Frank: Historians are subjective, right? For example, how can yourself and Benny Morris agree on the facts of 47/48 but come to very different conclusions? How do you deal with that?
First of all, I think there is a factual infrastructure. We all have to know it and in this respect it is good that Benny Morris at least headed to the fray to speak this idea that you should stop the non-sense of saying that Palestinians left voluntarily in 1948. This was a factual debate: did they leave voluntarily or were they expelled? What you feel from this debate when it continues is that this is not the most important issue because before historians appeared in Israel, we knew that Palestinians were being expelled, we just did not believe the Palestinians. They were 5 million Palestinian refugees who kept telling us “we were expelled” and we said “no, you are Palestinians, when you say it, we don’t believe you”. It is only when the Israeli historians came to say “you know what, they are right”, they had documents that confirmed what the Palestinians were saying that suddenly they were telling the truth.
This was only a first step, the more important thing was not what happened but what to learn from what happened? What are our conclusions? This is a moral and ideological debate, an ideological. The artificial attempt to say that historians can only deal with what happened and not say anything about what the implications are, false approached that can be seen in Morris’ own work. He writes in his first book that he is a bit sorry for what has been done in 1948, and in his last book, he is sorry that the Israelis did not complete the ethnic cleansing. He has not changed one fact in both books, they are the same facts but the books are being writing very differently: one book doesn’t like the idea of an ethnic cleansing, the other book endorses it, not only justifies it in the past but endorses it as a plan for the future.
Changing Israel from within
Frank: You moved to Exeter in the UK in 2007 but still go back to Israel very often. How has the situation evolved in Israel 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. On the other side there is a growing number of young people who seem to grasp reality in a different way. There are very few but I do not remember having such a young generation before in Israel. So although the short term future does not harbor any chance for a change from within, there are signs that with pressure from outside, there is a group of people there with whom one will be able in the future 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 to become more chauvinistic, ethnocentric, intransigent, 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.
Frank: Should we therefore put all our energy on applying pressure from the outside or should we still try to talk to Israelis to try to make them change their views?
The reason why we are all 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 model of pressure from the outside. As far as people from the outside are concerned, international civil society, I think the BDS movement is as good as it gets. Still, it can’t be the only model or factor. There are two additional factors to make it a successful process. One is on the Palestinian side. The question of representation needs to be sorted. You need a good solution. Secondly, you need to have a kind of educational system, inside, that takes the time to educate the Israeli Jews about a different reality and the benefit 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.
Florent: As a teacher, won’t you be more useful 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 … change their point of view. Universities are 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 on the pressure from the outside, less than education. 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 combine and find the time for the actions that you take and 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.
Frank: I am very interested in the question of solidarity. About it’s real meaning. As non-Palestinians what does solidarity mean? Who do we stand in solidarity with? What about if whoever represent the Palestinians decides that they want a state on 11% of historical Palestine and that they want a neo-liberal, capitalist state. How am I supposed to stand in solidarity with that?
First of all, the solidarity is with victims of a certain policy and 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.
We must say when we think Palestinians are wrong
Now, you 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. Those of us in solidarity with the Palestinian people, we find ourselves, when it comes to our debates with good friends that still support the peace process, the 2-state solution, disagreeing with them. Part of our role is to tell them that we think they are wrong. 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 between one state or two state or what kind of means the Palestinians should adopt, you connect to issues the Palestinians have themselves, 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 cannot 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 the involvement of people from the outside. There is no dogmatic answer to this. Usually when someone say something like that, you cannot advocate 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.
Frank: Let’s talk about the “solution”. Is there really a debate right now about this? The 2 state solution as far as the institutions are concerned, the governments, still seems to be the only solution on the table. When you mention one state, 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 2 state solution. The more rational and humane solution, which would be a one state, is still not debated and thought about enough in terms of the practicalities of it, the how to get there.
I think two things are taking place. One is the issue of Palestinian representativity. The people that claim to represent the Palestinians from the West Bank became the representatives of the whole Palestinian people. As far as the West Bank is concerned, you see why a 2-state solution is attractive. It could mean the end of military control is their life. One can understand this. But this disregards the other Palestinians. The refugees, the ones from Gaza and the ones that live inside Israel. That’s one of the difficulties. You have certain groups of Palestinians that, 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 are saying 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. A colonialist invention that was applied in India and Africa. This idea of partition. While the non-western world is a far more holistic world. It became a kind of religion to the extent that you do not question it anymore. You work out how best to get there. That is surprising. To my mind it makes very intelligent people take this as a 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 would ever change their mind. 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.
Frank: Right. So, as you’re saying, why are very intelligent people, very rational ones, still say that the two state solution is the compulsory step, the first unavoidable one, towards something better. I went to lectures about this but I still don’t get it. How would this work in practice?
Again, 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. In this moment of time it seems that you have such a wide coalition for a two state solution so you go for it. You do not evaluate its morality, its ethical dimension, even if it’s potentially to change the reality later on. It’s like this Jewish joke, about the person that loses his key and only looks for it where there is light. Not where he lost it. The two state solution is the light, it’s not the key. There is light, so let’s go. It has to do with enlightenment. This whole idea [is] 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 this idea, that was constructed in 1967, that it needs most of the territory that it occupied then 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 rubber stamped by the international community. They also need a Palestinian representative. In 1993 the PLO surprised them when it agreed of a small autonomous area on a small part of the West Bank and leave all the rest to Israel. That’s the two states solution that everybody wants to convince us that it’s the only way forward. The problem is that not one Palestinian can live with this. Hence the continuation of the conflict.
Frank: Edward Said died ten years ago. He was one of the last Palestinians, with Mahmoud Darwish, that the majority of the Palestinians looked up to. I know you knew him well. Can you end by giving us a few words on Edward Said and the role he played during his life.
We miss him very much. I don’t think only Palestinians looked up to him for inspiration. He was one of the greatest intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century. We all looked at him for inspiration. On questions of knowledge, morality, inspiration, activism, not only on Palestine. We are missing his holistic approach. His ability to see things from above in a more wholesome way. When you lose someone like that, you have people that are taking the fragmentation that Israel imposes on the Palestinians and act as if this is a reality itself. What we need is to overcome the intellectual, physical and the cultural fragmentation that Israel imposes on us, Palestinians and Jews and to strive to come back to something far more organic and integrated so that the third generation of Jewish settlers and indigenous native people of Palestine could have a future together.
Florent: Final question now. Ilan are you working on a book right now?
I’ve got several in fact. One of them is coming out next winter. It’s called “The idea of Israel” (Verso). It’s a history of the production of knowledge in Israel. In 2015 my book on Israel’s history of the occupation of the West Bank, called “Mega Prison of Palestine”, will come out.