It is a sad commentary on Jewish intellectual life in the diaspora that Israel’s approaching 70th anniversary of independence on May 14 should be the target of excoriation by incensed Jewish critics.
Self-exiled Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has been aptly described (by fellow historian Benny Morris) as “at best,. . . one of the world’s sloppiest historians; at worst one of the most dishonest.” Pappe’s newest book, The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories (2017) affirms Morris’s judgment.
Pappe succinctly – if absurdly – proclaims that following the Six-Day War the government of Israel “condemned those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to life imprisonment in the biggest ever mega-prison of the modern age,” administered by a “bureaucracy of evil.” Erroneously describing an Israeli “consensus . . . to keep the West Bank and the Gaza Strip forever,” he ignores reality: Israel relinquished Gaza (sadly, for its Arab inhabitants, to Hamas) and removed its Jewish residents more than a decade before his book was published. His polemic slides rapidly downhill from there.
Pappe seems never to have encountered a historical fact that he could not invert to reiterate (and discredit) his misguided thesis. So, for example, he believes (or, at least, writes) that hostile actions by the encircling trio of Arab states prepared to annihilate Israel in June 1967 were “arguably reactions to aggressive Israeli rhetoric and military activities.” Any claim of justification for Israel’s preemptive strike becomes, for Pappe, “a false historical reconstruction.”
It is, however, Pappe’s diatribe against Israel that qualifies for that label. His conviction that Israel’s military actions can be explained as “a continuous colonialist project meant to Judaize Palestine and de-Arabize it” nowhere indicates that “Palestine” comprised biblical Judea and Samaria millennia before the self-invention of “Palestinians,” less than a century ago, as a distinct people. Indeed, Jewish settlement west of the Jordan River was ratified by the League of Nations after World War I.
Pappe’s plea for the “repatriation of the Palestinian refugees” of 1948 nowhere recognizes that whatever their (contested) number may actually have been – ranging from his absurdly inflated “one million” to historian Efraim Karsh’s more convincing tally of 590,000-620,000 – only some 30,000 refugees are estimated to still be alive. They could easily be invited to return to Israel without upsetting its demographic stability. That would also effectively shut down the United Nations Relief and Works Administration, which ludicrously equates descendants of refugees with actual refugees to justify its existence – and generous funding. Pappe fails to acknowledge that in 1948 the (Jewish) mayor of Haifa (Pappe’s birthplace) urged Arab residents to remain in their homes; instead, guided by their leaders, they joined a tragic exodus.
Pappe, who departed from the University of Haifa faculty after his call for a boycott of Israeli universities for their tainted acceptance of occupation, concludes with a reference to the “monstrous mega-prison” built by Israel in 1967. But it is Pappe himself who is imprisoned by his loathing for the solitary democratic state in the Middle East.
Sadly, Pappe is not alone. Pledging to tell “The Truth” in his recently published Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom, former American academic Norman G. Finkelstein (like Pappe, the child of Holocaust survivors) prefers to lacerate the Jewish state, from which he has been banned for the past decade for his contacts with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Finkelstein’s indictment of Israel, which he labels a “lunatic” state, is a familiar rehash, in numbing detail, of its “criminal excess and heartlessness.” Focusing on “the politics of Gaza’s martyrdom,” he is oblivious to the responsibility of Hamas for the plight of Gazans ever since Israel removed its soldiers and settlers in 2005. Pappe’s “mega-prison” is, for Finkelstein, an “open-air prison” whose residents are “held in bondage” by Israel’s “criminal excess and heartlessness.”
The absurdity of Finkelstein’s tirade is illuminated by his treatment of the Goldstone Report for the UN Human Rights Council (2009). Heading a Commission of Inquiry into the war waged by Hamas against Israel, Judge Goldstone embraced the condemnation of Israel for actions to “humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” For Finkelstein it demonstrated Israel’s “criminal excess and heartlessness.”
After a thirty-page embrace of Goldstone’s findings, Finkelstein was compelled to confront the judge’s retraction two years later, which he labels “a black day for human rights.” Inverting reality, Finkelstein cites Goldstone’s recantation as “irreparable damage on the cause of truth and justice and the rule of law.” He thereby reveals his own disregard for the “truth” he claims to embrace.
Finkelstein’s rambling rampage against Israel has earned the endorsement of John J. Mearsheimer, who gained notoriety a decade ago for his condemnations of the nefarious “Israel Lobby” and Israel for its retaliatory attacks on Hamas and Hezbollah. Informing readers that “infinite patience” is required to fully absorb his indictment of Israel, Finkelstein’s tedious polemic is likely to deter even the most patient reader.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of the forthcoming Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, to be published this summer by Academic Studies Press.