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…

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