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Mrs. Peters’s Palestine

From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab–Jewish Conflict Over Palestine

by Joan Peters
Harper and Row, 601 pp., $12.95 (paper)

For centuries the future of the place called Palestine was the subject of a bitter struggle. Even the name was controversial. Where the Arabs transformed the Roman name of Palestine into the Arabian name Filastin, the Jews insisted on the traditional Hebrew name Eretz Israel, “The Land of Israel.” Zealots of both sides continue to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the name used by the other side. In the early days of the British Mandate, for instance, the Arabs successfully convinced the British that even in Hebrew the name should be Palestina and not Eretz Israel. The British added the initials “El” to Palestina only over heavy Arab opposition. On the other hand, some Israeli educators of the 1950s wanted only a transliteration of the Hebrew name to appear in the textbooks that were used in the Arabic-speaking schools. Along with armed struggle, ideological and propagandistic warfare of this sort has proliferated in the Arab–Jewish conflict over Palestine.

One feature of this battle of words and of history writing has been the two contrasting mythologies that the Arabs and the Jews have developed to explain their situations. Like most myths these generally contain some element of plausibility, some grain of historical truth, which through terminological ambiguity is then twisted into a false and grotesque shape: The unfortunate thing about Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial (1984) is that from a position of apparently great learning and research, she attempts to refute the Arab myths merely by substituting the Jewish myths for them. Although she claims to have uncovered facts that show the historical accuracy of the Jewish myths, there have appeared during the last year and a half, in addition to many favorable reviews, a number of articles that dispute her collection and interpretation of this data.1 I do not propose here to go over the ground that these criticisms have already covered. Rather, I shall discuss both sets of myths in the light of the political and social history of Palestine as it is currently understood.

The Arab side tried to prove that first of all the Jews were not a nation in the modern sense of the term and consequently did not require a state of their own. In the tradition of both Western liberal and doctrinaire socialist thinking, the Arabs argued that the Jews were only a religious community; that peoples could not return to their ancient homelands without turning the entire world upside down; and, most important, that Palestine had been settled since the seventh century AD by Arabs. Over the years many Arab ideologists even claimed that Arabs had occupied the land in pre-Biblical times because of the “Arab character” of Canaanites.

Zionism, the Arab argument continued, if it had any grain of historical justification at all, emerged only in a European setting. It came about as a reaction to Western Christian or secular and racist anti-Semitism, with which the Arabs had nothing to do; therefore, they should not be required to pay the costs of remedying it. In Arab and Islamic countries Jews suffered none of the terrible treatment that Western Jews had suffered. On the contrary, the Muslims in general and the Arabs in particular treated their religious and ethnic minorities with full equality and enabled both Christians and Jews to take part in public life, to rise to high positions of state, and, in recent times, to become full members of the modern and secular Arab nation living in its various states. The Jews living in the Arab and Muslim countries, moreover, did not take part in the Zionist movement. They even actively opposed it and did not want to emigrate to Israel. That most of them eventually did so the Arabs attribute to the machinations of Israel working with corrupt Arab rulers who were “stooges of imperialism.”

After the 1948 war Arab propaganda added an important new claim: since the Jews wanted Palestine empty of Arabs, they used the opportunity of the war to systematically expel the indigenous Arab population wherever they could do so. Some Arab writers, and others favorable to their cause, have gone so far as to claim that the war itself was set off in December 1947 by the Jews in order to create the right circumstances for the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from their homeland.

Until the mid-1960s the Arab claims were usually presented as part of the ideology of Arab nationalism. Palestine was (and ideologically speaking still is) considered part of the greater Arab homeland and the Palestinians part of the greater Arab nation. The aim of the Arab struggle was to preserve the Arab character of Palestine from the Jewish-Zionist threat. The Palestinian case was at best secondary when it was made at all. Only since the middle of the 1960s and particularly after 1967 has the distinctively Palestinian component become relatively stronger among the factors that shape the identity of the Palestinian Arabs.

Jews, and Zionists especially, developed their own myths about Palestine. First they interpreted ancient Jewish history according to the ideology of modern nationalism, equating the old Israelite and Judean kingdoms with modern nation-states. The Maccabean revolt and the period of Hasmonean rule were seen as typical manifestations of the struggle for modern national liberation. During the years when most Jews lived in exile, it was argued, they always kept a separate national identity: they never converted of their free will to another religion, and they preserved the memory of their ancestral land, to which they always hoped to return. Indeed, against all odds, some never left.

Special emphasis was put on this last group. Every bit of evidence that could be found, however trivial it may have been, was used to prove the continuity of the Jewish presence in Eretz Israel and to show that it was central to the life of Jews in exile. Very little was said of the Muslims who meanwhile had become the great majority of the population and the masters of the land. The Zionists argued that Jewish identity and the yearning to return to Palestine were strengthened by the persecutions of the Jews in all parts of the world, including the Islamic and Arab countries.

The return itself was mainly perceived as a matter of Jewish resolve to establish a homeland, which required struggle against Palestine’s foreign rulers—the Ottoman Empire first, and then the British Mandate. The Arab population was not presented as a major obstacle since, it was said, it was so small. Palestine during the late Ottoman and early British periods was portrayed as a barren land, hardly inhabited, whose tiny Arab population consisted mostly of wandering Bedouin tribes whose presence was only temporary.

According to the Zionist myth, only modern Jewish colonization brought about the economic development of Palestine and improved the hard conditions there. These developments, it was said, attracted poor Arabs from the stagnant neighboring countries. Their numbers grew faster than the Jewish immigrants because the malicious British authorities always encouraged them to come and did much to help to absorb them, both economically and legally.

The 1948 war, the Jewish argument continues, erupted because the Arabs rejected the UN partition plan although it offered them much more land than they deserved. And since most of the Palestinian Arabs were in fact aliens, they quickly left the country to return to their permanent homelands. Only the persistent refusal of the rulers of the Arab countries prevented them from being absorbed there. The Jewish refugees from the Arab countries were, on the other hand, cared for and rehabilitated. The result was an “exchange of populations” which should have been confirmed in a political agreement; only Arab intransigence has kept this from taking place.

Both the Arab and the Jewish myths I have described have circulated widely for years. Nothing in either of them is new or revolutionary. The more extreme you were in your Zionist beliefs the more thoroughly you propagated the Jewish mythology. What is surprising is that Joan Peters still writes as if the Zionist myths were wholly true and relevant, notwithstanding all the historical work that modifies or discredits them. The surprise is even greater when one considers her claim to have done original research in the historical archives and even to have discovered “overlooked ‘secret’ (British) correspondence files” in the Public Record Office in London, among other sources of “neglected” information. Indeed, by looking for the “right” evidence and by reading documents selectively one can “prove” virtually anything. But substituting Jewish-Zionist myths for Arab ones will not do. Neither historiography nor the Zionist cause itself gains anything from mythologizing history.

I will deal here only with the main historical questions raised in Mrs. Peters’s book. No doubt, as she claims, the Jews in Muslim countries were neither regarded nor treated as fellow countrymen and equal citizens. Islam protected their lives and most of their religious rights but also kept them in a distinctively inferior position. Legally, their status was defined by the famous “Covenant of Umar,” which listed the various restrictions and special taxes imposed on the “people of the book.”

But the true historical situation cannot be described simply by referring to that covenant, as Mrs. Peters does, or by citing the occasions and places where its provisions were most severely carried out. There was better and worse treatment, and local considerations usually influenced the policy pursued by various rulers. It is typical of Mrs. Peters’s methods that she largely overlooks the position of the Jews under the Ottoman Empire—one of the most important phases of all Islamic history. The reason would seem a simple one: the attitude of the Ottoman authorities toward the Jews was generally fair and decent, and in some parts of the empire many Jews held prominent positions.2 This could not be squared with her description of the oppression of Jews under Islam. (The few references Mrs. Peters makes to the Ottoman rulers emphasize their “anti-Jewish” activities and give a distorted impression of conditions under the Ottomans.)

Part of Mrs. Peters’s confusion derives from her misunderstanding of Zionist history. Zionism was basically a modern secular ideology and movement, a response to the situation of European Jews after their emancipation early in the nineteenth century. Although they had been promised equality as fellow citizens many of them found themselves rejected. That they were ready to adopt their countries’ languages and cultures and sometimes even religions did not help them. Instead of—or in addition to—being rejected on religious and cultural grounds, as they had been since the end of the eleventh century, they were now rejected racially. Zionism offered an alternative. Its ideologists stressed that although in the post-emancipation period most Jews had stopped practicing their religion, they still remained a corporate unit, a distinct people. In order to safeguard their national identity and defend themselves from anti-Semitism the Jews had to return to their ancestral land, restore their national independence, and revive their language and culture.

  1. 1

    To mention only a few of the reviews, Walter Reich in The Atlantic (July 1984), Ronald Sanders in The New Republic (April 23, 1984), Bernard Gwertzman in The New York Times (May 12, 1984), and Daniel Pipes in Commentary (July 1984) were among the more favorable. Alexander Cockburn and Edward Said in The Nation (October 13, 1984 and October 19, 1985), Norman G. Finkelstein in In These Times (September 5–11, 1984), Bill Farrell in the Journal of Palestine Studies (Fall 1984), and Ian and David Gilmour in The London Review of Books (February 7, 1985) have been critical of Peters’s book.

  2. 2

    See, for example, Bernard Lewis’s The Jews of Islam (Princeton University Press); reviewed by Norman Stillman in The New York Review (October 25, 1984).

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