Conflicting narratives

To begin these blogs, I address what is perhaps the central issue in the disputes over Israel/Palestine, namely, the radically alternative pictures or “narratives” that polarise “defenders” and “critics” of Israel. The intensely passionate reactions evident in the debates are symptoms of underlying differences concerning the facts, so it is important to address these factual, historical matters – and how one goes about adjudicating them.

The predicament of critics of Israeli government policies is that, rightly or wrongly, they have come to hold a view of the history and current state of Israel/Palestine conflict that is radically divergent from the most popular, conventional accounts to be seen in the media and even scholarship. Inevitably, such critics who seem to deny the most widely held “facts” appear absurd and even morally blameworthy, quite apart from the charges of ‘self-hating’ and disloyal, encouraging anti-semitism etc. These latter charges are very widespread in personal conflicts within the Jewish community and have a growing literature, and so they also deserve to be addressed separately in a subsequent blog.

Here I focus on the troubling problem of radically alternative narratives according to which the history of Jewish settlement and the founding of the State of Israel is told in seemingly incompatible ways. The differing, incompatible stories make a difference not only to the issue of historical truth but to urgent current moral and political matters – crudely, the question of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In approaching these issues here I will repeat an edited version of emails I have been having with Jewish friends in which we debate these fundamental questions, in the best spirit of vigorous disagreement over matters we regard as important.

The essential issue about alternative narratives arises since the conventional wisdom of the history of Israel has been undermined by the foremost Israeli and other Jewish historians and commentators including Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky and Tanya Reinhardt. The story they tell is inevitably shocking for most people and the central difficulty posed by these ‘revisionist’ or ‘new’ historians is set out in an Opinion article in The Melbourne Age.

Without further prefatorial explanations, I include here my lightly edited email in which I try to explain my approach. The context of the discussion was the issue of whether peace between Israel and Palestinians might be expected if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders as required by UN resolutions. The specific details of the 1967 June Six-Day War are relevant here because my friend suggested that those borders did not prevent Israel’s implacable enemies bent on her destruction then, and would not do so now. In reply, I had suggested that returning to the 1967 borders today is not the same as returning to 1967. The intervening years must be taken into account and, especially, the fraudulent “peace process” which might have resulted in a just solution had it not been undermined by Israel and US efforts – as documented in Said, Chomsky, Finkelstein, Reinhardt and others. Nevertheless, revisiting the 1967 June war is instructive and important as part of the overall story – especially for Jews who must face the uncomfortable facts.

Dear friend,

You say that I selectively choose to rely on historians that confirm my particular prejudices and so you don’t want to take these seriously. This is a mistake on your part for several reasons.

First, at worst, even if you are correct, this just makes the situation symmetrical between us. You choose your historians and I choose mine. So, even if you are right, this doesn’t prove that your historians are more reliable and you can’t claim to have established the superiority of your own preferred narrative.

Second however, even if you are right about their biased approach, it seems to me that you miss the significance of the alternative, admittedly radical and implausible, biased, ‘revisionist’ histories that I cite. You don’t seem to accept the serious intellectual obligation of confronting them precisely in order to show the superiority of your own story. Now, admittedly, some radically alternative accounts are not worth responding to seriously in this way. Holocaust deniers are so far beyond the pale that one needn’t feel the same intellectual obligation to enter serious debate with them. You could,
conceivably adopt the same stance here, but that would amount to refusing to discuss the issues seriously.

In the present case, unlike the case of Holocaust denials, there are not the same grounds for simply ignoring them. This is mainly because the alternative to your own favoured story is not at all the ravings of a lunatic fringe but standard and more or less uncontroversial. Of course, this needs to be qualified in the sense that, of course, there is controversy in the public sphere of political lobbying and propaganda spin. However, among professional historians, the basic story is not the one repeatedly recounted for the consumption of the lay public and especially Jewish community supporters of Israel. This should not surprise you and you would accept the general point immediately in the case of other hot topics such as East Timor. There was lots of public political disputation among the commentariat about East Timor for 24 years. It had little resemblance to what were all along known to be the uncontroversial truths. Ditto for Latin America. One could find out the truth from official US government sources, but it took some effort and didn’t appear in the New York Times.

The relevance of this to our current discussion is clear. This is analogous to the “debate” about the environment and greenhouse: Al Gore makes the important point that the perception of debate is utterly misleading and entirely and artefact of the fossil fuel industry lobby. The relevant scientific professionals don’t at all reflect this so-called “debate” insofar as there is an enormous, unprecedented consensus on the basic issues (though, of course, never complete unanimity). You can get a sense of the way that the standard story of 1967 needs to be heavily qualified and filled out by looking at the Wikipedia entry which is fairly reliable – not least because it gives direct citations to crucial historical documents, letters memoirs etc. These are the historians’ primary sources that are, of course, not available to the journalists who wrote the contemporaneous press stories.

So, you can dismiss alternative accounts I rely on by saying that I choose those historians whose bias I prefer, but this is to miss the importance of these accounts for your own case – even if you are right. As J.S. Mill famously put it, you don’t know your own case properly unless you confront it with mine. You don’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of your position unless you actually show how it can withstand the strongest case against it. That should be obvious.

So, that brings us to my own approach which you say is just a matter of relying on those whose biases suit my own. Just now, I’ve been indicating that even if this is true, it doesn’t relieve you of the intellectual obligation to take them
seriously and answer them.

Now, I fully appreciate how absurd or implausible the alternative narrative sounds to you. But you can’t avoid the logic inherent in our debate unless we just agree to disagree. If the dialogue is to be at all meaningful and not just repeating our views loudly and slowly, surely it requires comparing and contrasting the conflicting narratives. For better or worse, my story is that the most widely held views (outside professional historians) of the entire Israel-Arab conflict is a kind of mythology. So, of course, predictably, if you find what I say absurd, that’s not an answer but just re-affirming what I claim. To move beyond this, you are right to ask for some indication of the alternative. I’ll give you some compelling hints of the sorts of evidence that are relevant and that fill out the picture of your own sketch of basic facts concerning 1967 that relied on contemporaneous press reports. (The problems of relying exclusively on press reports to reconstuct the history of the Six-Day War in June 1967 is a matter for another blog).  Like adding bits to the psychology textbook drawing of a young woman, the same objective facts become transformed as parts of quite a different overall picture – the old “mother-in-law” (or the famous “faces-vase” ambiguous drawing). The “facts” you cite may not be disputed, but the overall picture can be quite different from the one you draw. That’s why it’s overly simplistic to assert that you don’t need historians or their analysis because the facts (especially as available from the press) somehow speak for themselves.

Consider Chomsky’s account (in his classic ‘Fateful Triangle’) that contrasts the standard story of people like Walzer concerning the “Egyptian challenge” and the “clear case” of aggression involved – the story you tell. Chomsky notes that Israeli generals take a different view: “The former Commander of the Air Force, General Ezer Weizmann, regarded as a hawk, stated that there was “no threat of destruction” but that the attack on Egypt, Jordan and Syria was nevertheless justified so that Israel could “exist according to the scale, spirit and quality she now embodies”. Chomsky records that American intelligence held a similar view – as you can see from US State department documents whose originals are linked at the Wikipedia cite. Other Israeli generals who corroborate this view are Chief of Staff Chaim Bar-Lev and General Mattityahu Peled.

Now, you objected to my remark about a “land-grab” (though I don’t think I used these crude terms) by Israel, but these comments are not too far from such sentiments (and, as we have noted in The Age piece, the history of territorial ambitions are explicit from Theodor Herzl onwards among leaders like Ben Gurion, Dayan and others).

Chomsky (Fateful Triangle) cites another source that surely deserves to be taken seriously and who expresses doubts about the Egyptian “challenge” and “clear case” of aggression etc. Menachem Begin said: “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” (p. 100).  Finkelstein (Image & Reality) reports Peled, who was one of the architects of the June war as saying in 1972 that “the claim that Israel was under the menace of destruction was a ‘bluff’, adding that, for all the pretense that Israel is ‘in the midst of an anguished struggle for its existence and can be exterminated at any moment’ the truth is that already ‘since 1949’ no country has been able to mortally threaten it”. Finally, as just one further illustration, Abba Eban is hardly a lefty critic on my side of this dispute, so his own words must be taken into account if we are to tell the story with a bit of subtlety. Wikipedia records:

Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote in his autobiography that he found “Nasser’s assurance that he did not plan an armed attack” convincing, adding that “Nasser did not want war; he wanted victory without war”.[65][66] Writing from Egypt on 4 June 1967 New York Times journalist James Reston observed: “Cairo does not want war and it is certainly not ready for war. But it has already accepted the possibility, even the likelihood, of war, as if it had lost control of the situation.”[67]

As for the earlier events that were crucial in precipitating the 1967 events involving Syria, again the story is not quite the case of a passive Israel enduring gratuitous assaults by its implacable enemies bent on its destruction. Wikepedia gives a standard account of events on its borders that were part of the escalation leading to the Six Day War:

“Syria stated that in every instance where there was a Syrian firing, it was in return of provocative Israel fire directed against peaceful Arab farmers or Syrian posts. [24] Nine years later, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli defense minister at the time of the war, stated a version of events very similar to this one:[25]

    “After all, I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let’s talk about 80 percent. It went this way: We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was.

Well, perhaps these remarks serve to illustrate a couple of points in our dispute. First, these sources are hardly to be dismissed as irrelevant or unnecessary “analysis” that is not needed. You had said “I do not need an analyst to describe these events to me” and that Nasser’s words don’t need interpretation, but it’s obviously not that simple. I’m not saying that there is no room for dispute about these analyses, but one can’t avoid them. Second, of course, you can see how none of these crucial facts can possibly be obtained from contemporaneous press reports – even if they are fully accurate in what they say, as far as they go. Finally, and most importantly, these accounts require radically revising the usual, conventional story about the Israel-Arab conflict and can’t be reconciled with the stories propagated for obvious reaons by the ‘Israel Lobby’.



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