AN INTERVIEW OF ILAN PAPPE
Brussels, 29 November 1999
Pappe in not an ordinary Israeli citizen. "I am the most hated Israeli
in Israel", he says of himself without any pride. Pappe, with several
others, leads the "new historians' school" which took off in the eighties
as a result of the new availability of state archives concerning the
"Independence War". The new historians have done a lot to dismantle the
Israeli myths of the foundation of the country. Now they are working on
other issues: no Israeli sacred cows will have the opportunity to
Unlike other new historians, Pappe makes no secret of his political, or
ideological agenda. "We are all political", he argues. "There is no
historian in the world who is objective. I am not as interested in what
happened as in how people see what's happened".
Pappe's most known book is "The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
1947-1951" I.B. Tauris, London & New York, published in 1992.
Q: With people like Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, Simha Flappan
and others, you are a prominent (and the most controversial) member of the school of "new historians" in Israel. Could you
summerize the major trends of the contribution of the new Israeli
historians to the Israeli narrative?
A: It is an intellectual movement that started ten years ago, not
only of historians, but also of people who deal with culture,
academicians, journalists, artists, novelists, etc, who looked critically
at Israel's past. I would say they adopted major chapters in the
Palestinian interpretation, narrivative, of the past. The particular
aspect of the historians' work is that they did it with the help of
archives and with their professional expertise, and that added a certain
validity in the eyes of the public to these interpretations. Because, in
the past, you could have heard the same arguments made by Palestinians or
by very extreme Israeli leftists, but this time the very same things were
substantiated by historic research works.
There are several topics that those new academics, intellectuals,
researchers dealt with. The major chapter in 1948. It's what they are
known for. They undermined some of the major foundation's myths of Israel.
First, they didnt' accept that there was a war between a Jewish David and
an Arab Goliath. "The few against the many". They claimed there was a
parity on the battlefields and even, as the war progressed, there was an
advantage to the Jewish and then Israeli forces. Additionally, they found
out that the most efficient Arab army -- the Jordanian Army -- had a
secret agreement with the Jews/Israelis prior to the war. "Collusion
across the Jordan", as Avi Shlaim put it (the title of his famous book).
That understanding -- a division of Palestine between the Jordanians and
the Jews, instead of between the Jews and the Palestinians -- to a large
extent determined the fate of the war.
Then they undermined the myth of the Arabs volunterally flight. They
claimed with various degrees of conviction that the Arabs were expelled,
that mass expulsions took place in 1948, and then Israel did eveything to
prevent the return of the refugees.
And, lastly, they undermined the myth of "Israel the peaceseeker". They
said that there was a chance to peace after 1948 but that was missed
because of Israel's intrensigence and inflexibility, rather than because
of the Arab inflexibility. (That was my major contribution.)
history, now in Israel, doesn't only deal with 48. It analyses zionism
as a colonialist phenomenon from the late 19th century. It goes on to
revisit the fifties: they are very critical on both domestic and foreign
security policy of Israel in those years. The myth till 1967 was that
Israel was a small isolated country surrounded by hostile ennemies. It was
also undermined: they claimed that Israel was quiet aggressive, capable of
leading powerfull policies. And, domestically, Israel discriminated its
Arab citizens as it did, on similar ground, discriminate against the Jews
it absorbed from Arab countries. So far, the last topic is the attitude
of the Jewish community in Palestine during the mandatory years toward the
Holocaust. It's a very touchy subject. The zionist leadership came out as
very pragmatic and it put the interest of the Jewish community in
Palestine above that of the Jewish community in Europe even in the time of
absolute danger as happened during WWII.
Q: How do you see the answer given to the new historians by the "old"
historians like Shabtai Tevet, Anita Shapira, Efraim Karsh or Itamar
A: The first reaction was rather derogatory, claiming that this
work is not professional, shoudn't be taken notice of. Then the second
wave of reactions said that the work is indeed important but it rejected
its findings. I can understand these historians, not so much Ephraim Karsh
who was the most vicious of all in his attacks. In my case, for exemple,
they dispute everything! They seem to accept Benny Morris more easily than
me. I am not surprised: Benny Morris' conclusion is more relieving. For
exemple, when he says about the fate of Palestinians in 48 "à la guerre
comme à la guerre", I claim that it was more like an ethnic cleansing.
Q: It is precisely because of that very conclusion that you appear to
be so controversial in your country, isn't it? Because you say "There was
a unwritten Zionist plan to expel the Arabs of Palestine in
A: Absolutely. They were cautious enough not to write it although
there was this "plan D" (Dalet), that reveals enough of the systematic
expulsion. The idea was prepared by the Jewish military forces in March
1948. In that plan, they defined very a important principle: any Arab
village or neighbourhood that would not surrender to the Jewish forces,
that would not raise the white flag, would be uprooted, destroyed and the
people expelled. I think they knew well that there was very little chances
for more than five or six villages to surrender. Why should they
surrender, especially after (the massacre of) Deir Yassin in April and the
big fright in the Arab community? In fact, only four villages rose the
white flag. All the rest were potentially an object of expulsion. I must
add that a few other neighbourhoods rose the white flag but it didn't help
them... All this is very clear. We have to remember that the UN partition
plan of November 1947 would have left an equal number of Jews and Arabs in
the Jewish state. This contradicted the idea of a Jewish state. So they
had to make sure that as few Arabs as possible were still there. And
that's what happened.
Back to the old historians, I would say they are more suspicious of my
ideological trappings than that of Benny Morris, also because I am more
relativist. I admit that my ideology influences my historical writings,
but so what? I mean it is the case for everybody.
Q: Both Morris and you worked on the same issues, established the same
facts and yet you failed to draw the same conclusions (Morris keeps on
claiming that even though there was expulsion of thousands Arabs, one
cannot say that there was ever a masterplan of mass
A: Morris is more positivist: if it is only implicit, not written,
he doesn't want to raise it in his books. I think historians should go
further than that. The nature of the discussion is that: Morris says that
even if someone says he wants to expulse you from your house and you run
away because you know that it is what he wants to do, this is not called
expulsion. I regard it as expulsion. I regard the transfer of people from
one neighbourhood in Haifa to another as transfer, not as dislocation: it
is an experience of refugeehood which is more difficult sometimes than
leaving your town altogether for you see daily the people who took you
So these are the kinds of disagreement. I claim that they also stem from
ideological positions, not just from facts. I am more anti-Zionist if you
want, and Morris still regards himself as zionist, may be this is where
the difference lies.
Q: You said somewhere that you were "non-Zionist"...
A: No, I meant "post-Zionist". Because, to be really anti-Zionist
would mean leaving Israel altogether: if you want to serve the
Palestinians, you have to leave. If you help them from inside Israel, then
you do allow Jews to fulfill their dream on a homeland. This is an
important message to the Palestinians as well: there are five millions
Jews there, you cannot return the clock backwards, you must take them into
account. Whether they came there as a result of an act of injustice or
not, they are part of the reality.
Q: Most of the Palestinians seem now ready to accept the two state
A: Yes. But it is more difficult for Israel because 20 % of the
Israelis are Palestinian, so it's a binational state. On the other hand
one will have another binational state, Palestine, because I don't see any
Israeli governement ever evicting the settlers, a large and very hostile
Jewish population. In the long run, it will affect the two state solution,
and we will have to have only one state.
Q: But this is still very unpopular in Israel...
A: Of course! They have a vision of a peace plan that doesn't
include a genuine sovereign Palestinian state, but bantustans while no
single settlement would be dismantled, the whole of Jerusalem for
themselve, no dealing of the refugees problem: in that case, why should
they oppose the idea of partition? But tell them that the partition means
full sovereign Palestinian state with an army and so on, eviction of the
settlements, partitioning Jerusalem, some right of return for the
refugees, and you will see what they think of the partition!
Q: Let's go back to 1948. Mr David Bar-Ilan recently wrote, as many
conservatives think, that the responsability of what happened must be put
on the Palestinian shoulders because they refused the UN partition
A: This is an amazing accusation. Because, in 1947, the UN proposed
a solution which was accepted only by one side, the Jewish one. And, in
the history of the United Nations, usually, if you don't have an agreement
of both sides, you don't implement that solution. There, the story began
to turn bad. The fact is that you force the solution on a majority of the
people living in Palestine who oppose that solution, then you shouldn't be
surprised that they opposed even by force. This has nothing to do with the
expulsion of the Palestinians, which was not the result of the rejection
of the partition plan but the result of the Jewish leadership exploiting
that situation to implement an ideology of transfer. It was clear to the
Zionist leadership that without the uprooting of the local population it
would be impossible to implement the dream of a Jewish nation state. The
policy toward the partition plan has very little to do with policy of the
expulsion: one did not lead to the other. What happened is that the Jewish
community waited for the right moment and exploited the right moment to
Q: The Israeli argument goes on by saying that the Palestinian
leadership missed a historic opportunity when it rejected the partition
A: May be they did. But even if it is a viable argument -- and I
don't think so -- you don't expel an entire population because it has a
stupid leadership. But we don't even have the right to say they were wrong
to refuse the partition. They viewed Zionism as a colonialist movement.
And there are very little reasons not to understand that point of view.
Just imagine the Algerian national movement agreeing in the fifties to
divide Algeria into two states, between them and the white settlers ("les
pieds-noirs")! Who would have said to the Algerian leadership "Don't miss
the historic chance!"? Of course, the Palestinians had other problems,
they had patriarcal, feudal structures, familial loyalties above national
ones. But it has very little to do with Israel which deliberately expelled
the local population. And, if you want a solution today, Israel has to
take into account that act, in terms of compensation and in terms of
return. Without that, there will be no just solution for the Palestine
problem. This is a very simple truism which Israelis refuse to accept.
Q: Israelis in general or mostly the leadership?
A: Israelis in general because of the leadership. But I think it
will change. The other day, a prominent member of the Labor party, Moshe
Katz, leading the Palestinian committee of the Labor party, raised the
idea of the return of 100 000 Palestinians. Was it a trial balloon of
(Prime minister) Barak? I hope it was, but I doubt it (Katz initiative was
rapidly and strongly rebuked by his party, B.L.). Barak says it is only a
humanitarian problem to which Israel has nothing to contribute. Katz'
proposal has something to do with the new kind of post-zionist taking
which takes place also in the Labor party. It's a good sign.
Q: Three new textbooks were recently introduced in the Israeli schools.
Some people are very angry, saying that those books would "undermine the
feeling of justice of the Zionist project, going to the point that they
question the Jewish right to the Land of Israel" (novelist Aharon Megged
said this is "a moral suicide leaving our children without all what made
us proud of Israel")...
A: I read the books. They indicate a willingness among educators in
the ministry of Education in Israel to rewrite the past. It is also a good
sign, that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. It still remains to
be seen how the teachers will use the books in classrooms, we don't know
yet. The move is part of the dissemination of the views of the new
historians and other sections of the society. Another exemple is the
"T'kuma" TV documentary program (1998). Of course I would have written it
differently but still you can see the impact of our work. And the new
textbooks are very different from the textbooks that I grew on! It also
arose quiet a row in the Israeli public opinion.
Q: You recently wrote in "Haaretz" that without an Israeli recognition
of acts of past injustice, there will be no permanent solution with the
Palestinians. Do you think Israel is going in that direction?
A: Not yet because the political system has not absorbed this
solution. And unfortunately I think what we are going into now is a period
in which everybody would talk about peace but on the ground this peace
would be a substitution of one form of occupation by another. And it will
take several years -- I don't know how many -- for people in the
Palestinian side to realize that they were taken for a ride, and God knows
how they will react.
Q: The peace process is supposed to end within less than a
A: It is not a peace process. It is one of the reasons I am in
Brussels: the Barak 's governement got an international recognition as a
peace-governement. On the ground, it does not perform a peace policy. If
people like me succeed in convincing that there is a problem with the
peace process, that all the issues should be reopened for negociation, may
be we could prevent the next catastrophy. If we don't, it will take time
but people will find out that declaring a permanent solution for the
Palestine question in which only 60 % of the West Bank and of the Gaza
strip are in Palestinian hands, in which all Jerusalem remains in Jewish
hands, with no eviction of one Jewish settlement, with Israeli control of
borders, water and economy in Palestine, and no solution for the refugee
problem, all this cannot be called peace. I think there is a public
illusion in the West that you have two opening positions here: the Israeli
opening position, that I just described, and the Palestinian one, full
independent and sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, but this is not
true. There is no Palestinian peace plan. The Americans, unfortunately the
key here, understand the final stage of the peace process is how to
convince the Palestinians to accept the Israeli dictate. This is what we
call now "peace". And at the same time, Jewish settlements go on, silent
transfer of Palestinians of Jerusalem goes on, the Palestinians are
offered natural reserves instead of populated areas in the interim stages,
Israel has just completed the plan today to build a ring road in East
Jerusalem to complete Greater Jerusalem which is 10 % of the West Bank.
And they would give Arafat another medal, so had the kings of bantustans
in South Africa.
Q: Arafat's kind of leadership is disputed but his reaction is to put
the critics in jail as he did on the 27th of November to nine people who
had signed a harsh petition against him...
A: Yes there is a problem. The Palestinian Authority, under
pressure, does two bad things. One is to totally neglect the
democratization and the building of a civic society, using the negociation
with Israel as an excuse. Secondly, and probably more important, because
it is frustrated by the balance of power, it plays a double game which is
not working too well. On the one hand they try, courageously in a way, to
put forwards some counterproposals to Israeli proposals, but on the other
hand they play according to the Americans' tune because they 've no one
else's to play. It gives a very ambivalent picture of their ability to
rule. They use more often power than persuasion to deal with opposition
and they may inflict a lasting damage on the Palestinian political life in
the future that will not be easy to reverse.
Q: In September, Mr Barak expressed regret in the name of the Israeli
governement for the suffering of the Palestinian people but at the same
time he denied any sense of guilt or responsability. That prompted Gideon
Levy to answer in "Haaretz": "Are we not responsible for expulsing people,
torturing people, erasing hundreds of villages, arresting ten of thousands
A: Gideon Levy was very right. But Barak didn't "regret", he only
said "sorry" for them. He dissociated the suffering from the Israeli
policy. But we are not only talking about policy in the past, we are
talking about policy in the present. Israelis continue to inflict
suffering on the Palestinians! They do it in Lebanon, in the West Bank, in
the Gaza Strip. The only place where they almost stop doing it is in
Israel itself, where the minority of Palestinian Israelis are now
experiencing much better conditions than they did before.
Q: It seems that, although they are generally well educated, Jewish
Israelis don't really realize (or don't want to realize) what they did and
still do to the Palestinian people. How do you explain that?
A: It is the fruits of a very long process of indoctrination
starting in the kindergarten, accompanying all Jewish boys and girls
throughout their life. You don't uproot easily such an attitude which was
planted there by very powefull indoctrination machine, giving a racist
perception of the other, who is described as primitive, almost
non-existing, hostile -- he is hostile, but the explanation given is that
he was born primitive, Islamic, anti-Semite, not that someone has taken
his land. Add to this the experience of the young soldiers in the West
Bank and Gaza, where they have learnt to treat, like the first Zionist
settlers, the Palestinians as part of the scenery, not as human beings.
Palestinians are like desert, mosquitos: things you have to conquer by
vision, energy, improvisation. The attitude to the Palestinians is the
other coin of the Zionist success. We were so successfull like those in
the wild West.
Otherwise, you would have had moral problems throughout the story! You
can't have it. You solve that moral problem by saying these are not equal
human beings who were uprooted, just savages part of the native population
which we conquered as we conquered poverty, as we conquered hostile
mosquitos. This is the main reason. The second reason is that much of the
political capital of the Jewish state is based on moral superiority which
is demanded by the name of the Holocaust. I am hated in Israel more than
everyone else because I claim that I have a universal and not a Zionist
lesson from the Holocaust. In the name of the Holocaust, I claim that
Israel should be ashamed. If you lived in Israel, you would understand
that it is really doing too much and may be I should be more cautious when
I do it because this may be a U-turn for too many people. But this is
exactly the problem. Although many things had been done to the
Palestinians before the Holocaust, the Holocaust justifies everything,
what has been done before or after it. Even someone great intellectual
like Martin Buber could have said the most stupid sentence of all: "We had
to do a small injustice in order to rectify a big injustice". How could
you say this! Why should the one be connected to the other?
Q: Did you first become communist or "new historian"?
A: I have to correct something: I like life too much to be
communist! I am socialist. True I am member of Hadash which is a front
where you find the communist party to which I don't belong. You also find
the non-Zionist Arab-Jewish group to which I belong. I think both my
political commitment and historian known position developped
simultaneously. And one supported the other. Because of my ideology I
understood documents I saw in the archives the way I understood them, and
because of the documents in the archives I became more convinced in the
ideological way I took. A complicated process! Some colleague told me I
ruined our cause by admitting my ideological platform. Why? Everbody in
Israel and Palestine has an ideological platform. Indeed the struggle is
about ideology, not about facts. Who knows what facts are? We try to
convince as many people as we can that our interpretation of the facts is
the correct one, and we do it because of ideological reasons, not because
we are truthseekers.
Q: I suppose you would agree with many Arabs who say a Jewish state
cannot be a democratic state?
A: It can't. If the identity of people is connected to religion or
ethnic group and not to citizenship, it means that any citizen who does
not belong to that nationalism, religion or ethnicity is a second rate
citizen. If you declare that the state belongs to one nation in a
binational state, you immediately create a discriminative state which
cannot be democratic. It is like in Belgium: if you declare the Belgian
state exclusively Flemish or exclusively Walloon, it would not be declared
a democratic state.
Q: Israel would answer that many Arab states declare themselve "Islamic
A: I criticize them as well...
Q: You admit that most of Jewish Israelis don't share your views. Do
you see things evolve soon?
A: In absolute term, you are right: we are a small group of people,
but in relative numbers it has grown immensely. Two exemples: when we
started our work as new historians, there were only three of us. Morris,
myself and Shlaim who was not even living in Israel. One day we were all
three in my car driving to Jerusalem and I said: if we have now a lethal
accident, this is the end of new history in Israel! Now, there is a
proliferation of academicians and so one sharing those views. It is not a
quantitive impressive fact but it is a qualitative one because people at
the heart of cultural production in Israel have been convinced by our
views. Show me someone who works on TV or in a theater or in the film
industry and even among the leading journalists (true, not everyone) who
does not accept our point of view. Second exemple: the vote for Hadash.
Again, it is ridiculous, but you have to understand that in 1992, only
2.000 Jews voted for Hadash, in 1996, 6.000 and in 1999, 15.000! Yes it's
a long way. I used to say to my colleagues that if they are looking for
quick results they are wrong. It may take twenty years, but Israel will
change like South Africa. If apartheid could have been toppled down, then
the negative aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict could be eventually
be removed. My fear is that, in case of crisis, the Israeli people in the
middle would rather choose to join the nationalist camp. Surveys prove
that it is the trend. People are asked: If you have only two choices, a
theocratic non democratic Jewish state or a democratic non Jewish state,
which one would you prefer? And a majority of the Jews -- about 60 % --
answer the non democratic Jewish state. We have to work hard on this
middle ground, people of the silent majority, people who don't have
beliefs and are more worried about the daily concerns.
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