In June 1948 a British official, blaming the United States for the creation of Israel, described the new nation as a “gangster state.” Over sixty years later the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim writes: “I used to think that this judgment was too harsh, but Israel’s vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush Administration’s complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.”
Shlaim wrote these words several months before a UN fact-finding mission headed by former South African judge Richard Goldstone concluded that some of Israel’s actions in Gaza during its attack on the Hamas-controlled territory in December 2008 and January 2009 amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. The Goldstone report is over five hundred pages long, and outlines a number of carefully researched cases that seem to justify its horrific conclusions. The report also describes war crimes committed by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, hardly mentioned by Shlaim: he is not only less well informed than the UN investigator, as was to be expected; his judgment is less balanced.
Born in 1945 in Baghdad, Shlaim grew up in Israel and in the mid-1960s “served loyally in the Israeli army,” as he writes. For most of his life though he has been living in England where he is a fellow of St. Antony’s College, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of numerous books on the Middle East, among them the best comprehensive history of the Arab–Israeli conflict—The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
His new book, however, containing mostly book reviews and essays published during the past fifteen years, is disappointing. Much of it consists of moralizing prose rather than scholarly research, with platitudes such as “it would make sense to update the biblical image of David and Goliath: a Palestinian David facing an Israeli Goliath.” A long-standing critic of Israel, Shlaim likes to use provocative epigrams such as “American Jews admire Israel for her body, while Israelis are attracted to American Jews for their money.” Shlaim’s collected essays recall the wrath of scholars who twenty-five years ago made up the group of angry young men—I was one of them—called Israel’s “New Historians.” Rereading these essays today shows how conventional Israel’s “New History” has become.
Writing a different version of Israel’s history was an exuberant and challenging experience. The new work appeared at the beginning of the 1980s when the Israeli government began declassifying official documents that made it possible, for the first time, to free the study of Israel’s early days from the constraints of Zionist ideology, mythology, and fiction. The emerging picture was naturally less heroic and less noble than the official textbooks had it, with many gray areas that justified doubt and generated numerous heated debates.
Thus for instance it emerged that in 1949 the Syrian president, Husni Zaim, had asked to negotiate …
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