Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

Joan Peters dead-we need more like her

Joan Peters died in Chicago on 6 January, at the age of 76. Joan Peters may not be a common name these days, but it was a big one in the 1980’s. This American woman, a former TV correspondent, a researcher and writer was hired by an Arab American foundation to write the “truth” about the Palestinians and the conflict with Israel. So, she did exactly that, and the product was the book From Time Immemorial; The origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict over Palestine, and NO, this was NOT the truth of the Arab American foundation which hired her, rather it was the historic truth about the conflict, a pro-Israel presentation which struck a thunder in the academic community dealing with the conflict.Here is the first praise of Mrs. Peters, her ability to say to those who hired her, ”hey guys, you are wrong…”, surely they did not pay for the final product, but it became a best-seller and high up on NYT review of books.

When the book was published, it got the praises of some luminaries, such as Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel, Theodore H. White and many others, and surely enough also a heap of hateful critiques, starting with Norman Finkelstein , Noam Chomsky and other such ”Zion Lovers”, but also from some criticism, sometimes even sharp and poignant from Israeli and pro-Israel American historians of prominence. Names like Yehoshua Porath , my brilliant former teacher at HU , Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer come to mind, among others.

The supposed main debate about the book, was the reliance of Peters on sources supporting her pro-Zionist claims , as opposed to other , credible anti-Zionist sources, her twisting of numbers in order to show a demographic picture of Eretz- Israel/Palestine prior to the end of Ottoman rule, as well as criticisms of her writing skills , stylistic errors, and the overall impression gained by readers, that she was simply TOO eager to prove her point, and rather than being an objective historian, became an enthusiastic partisan of the Jews.

Well , being ”partisan” is not of course something which you can refer to the likes of Finkelstein and Chomsky… who in their right minds can possibly blame these writers with partisanship regarding the conflict?…

So, the question is what really motivated the vicious attacks on Peters which started with Finkelstein, years back, and were reiterated even in 2011 by David Remnick in the New Yorker, 27 years after the publication
of the book? To start with , what makes a book important, relevant, in fact, a ground -breaking document, is exactly the fact, that it is attacked so many years after its initial publication, so here is a request from me to Remnick, Peter Beinart and CO., please go after the book now, that the writer is dead, why not, you will just show what a seminal book it still is.
It is a seminal book, because it dealt head on with a question that even many Zionists, particularly the Liberal Zionists, who have made a career of excusing Zionism and apologizing about it , rather than justifying
and accepting its historic justification and roots. It is precisely this point, which is the core of Peters argument, and this is that ”from time immemorial”, the Jews are the residents of the land, that this is Eretz Israel, the homeland of the Jews, and that the Arabs have been the immigrants. In other words, Peters shutters the Palestinian mythology about who are the indigenous people of the land, and who are not, never mind their claims to the contrary. For the Liberal Left, surely for Marxists, indigenous people are by definition the ones who have the right to the lands they were dispossessed from, so if the Arabs were these people, then the Jews are the colonialist intruders, and the White and Black of the conflict are becoming so clear. TO A large extent, many Liberal Zionists fall to this trap, trying to convince themselves and others, that it is the Holocaust , or the Jewish need for Tikkun Olam, the need to be OR Lagoyim , which justify the Zionist ideology, and while all the above is important, Zionism is about Zion, the Jews being a nation, the Jews therefore deserving their homeland, and this homeland is ONLY the land of Zion and Jerusalem. It is this concept , which drove the Finkelsteins and Chomskys crazy, as it is a fundamental contradiction to their historic narrative.

Porath and others who criticized Peters did it from the perspective of academic purity, the need to be precise and rely on multitude of sources , even those who tear up the thesis of the writer. They were right to do so, but they did not manage, nor did they necessarily try , to demolish Peters ‘ main point, and this is , that many Arab residents of Eretz-Israel/Palestine came there in late 19th Century and early 20th century, and that at any rate, Jews were the indigenous people of the land before being deported and exiled.

It is , of course, a big question as to the political relevance of a book like that, as the conflict continues relentlessly, not just in the battle and diplomatic fields, but also in the intellectual sphere.

Can the undisputed rights of the Jews over the land mean, that we are exempted from a need to recognize the claims of others, hence coming to an historic compromise with them?, well, I do not know what Joan Peters would have said, but I will say, that painfully as it is , tragically as it is, we Zionists need to make an historic compromise. We need however to realize, that we surrender lands which have been the birth place
of our nation.

Peters book was a great reminder for us of our rights, and so much happened since 1984, so we need more reminders now, more Joan peters!

YEHI zichra baruch!!!

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina