Correcting corrections: de-reifying the new Israeli historiography.

AuthorDa'Na, Seif

RE-WRITING HISTORY IS A UNIVERSAL act. Nations rediscover their past and rewrite their biographies. History is far from being etched in stone. This was neither accidental nor random. The world and nations change and historiography changes with them.

In the history of the state of Israel, it is possible to distinguish two regimes and ideologies that were products of local, regional, and global forces: 1. Ben Gurionism, characterized by state regulated militarized economy associated with a degree of collectivism; and 2. Market Zionism, characterized by a neo-liberal economic outlook entailing an outward expansionist deregulated economy, individualism and a highly conservative ideological outlook. Each regime is discerned in this synopsis as a complex matter of politics, economics and culture.

Each global, regional, and local structural change shaped Israel's class structure leading to political, economic, and cultural transformations. The transformation into the second Israeli regime is associated with the rise of a new Israeli elite group or ruling class, whose character and ideological conservatism, coupled with the neo-liberal economic outlook, shaped the second regime and provided the conditions for, among many things, the rise of the Israeli New Historiography.

For the purpose of explaining the new historiography, the following pages include a discussion of the major trends in Israeli economic history and the corresponding political transformations, as well as a discussion of nationalism and master narratives intended to illuminate the re-invention of Israel within the context of the new regime. At the end, an attempt will be made to consolidate these developments with the rise of new historiography and locate it within the second Israeli regime.


Starting with the late 1980s, the rise of the phenomenon known today as "Israeli New Historians," began correcting flaws that deeply saturated the official Israeli narrative, which profoundly shook the founding myths of Israel. (1) The rise of the new historiography suggests a variety of questions. In addition to the question of its political utility and implications, as an intellectual phenomenon, the study of the new historiography entails a philosophical issue as well. Both issues are necessarily related. Any view concerning the possibility of political implications is based primarily on a philosophical understanding of this phenomenon and vice versa. In addition to advancing a colorful account of history, the new historians illuminate the new historiography itself, which in turn offers a conceptualization of history.

The forceful expulsion of Palestinians, an early revelation of the new historiography, needed neither tangible verification nor decades' old archival evidence. To most Palestinians, they were the living proof of that Israeli past. However, the political utility of the new historiography was appealing: Israel was "confronting its past" (2) and the new historians were exposing Israel's original sins.

While the past cannot be undone, many thought that perhaps the new historiography could at least make Israel reconsider the future. After all, Israel's heroic image of the past, an Israeli David defeating an Arab Goliath, the purity of arms, and the founders' constant quest for peace with the Arabs, was shattered and replaced by the image of a colonizer outnumbering his victims, eager to expel, ethnically cleanse, and massacre the native Arabs, and rejecting every peace initiative to recognize his existence. If facts revealed by Israeli scholars cannot create a moral, if not a cultural shock that would at least weaken Israel's resolve and force her to make peace with the Arabs, nothing can.

The "Oedipus the King" finale-like scenarios where Oedipus takes responsibility for the knowledge he acquired (he took the shoulder-pins from his mother's dress and blinded himself) was not only optimistic but also rather unrealistic. Even the "tearful assassin" weeping over the bodies of his victims fell short a scenario. For even when Morris (3) discovered a classic tearful assassin in Yousef Nachmani, he merely admired him as a "key to understanding Zionism and its Success." (4) "The two faces of Zionism" doctrine, (5) delineating that "Zionism has always had had two faces: a constructive, moral, compromising and considerate aspect; and a destructive, selfish, militant, chauvinistic-racist one," proposed by Morris does not really explain anything. It does not explain most of the shootings that were done without weeping, nor the history of Zionism. At best, it is a simplistic view of both Zionism and history.

Naive, colorful scenarios of the political utility of the new historiography were erroneously based on misunderstandings of the new historiography and a flawed comprehension of the Arab-Israeli struggle. (6)

Such baseless optimism is true of some Palestinian and Arab views as well. Tom Segev noted that "most Israelis have yet to internalize their share of the responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian tragedy and until they do so, there's no chance for peace." (7) However, most people have yet to internalize the implications of the hundreds of years old Galilean or Darwinian views, which challenge the deep anthropocentrism and sources of racism and sexism. Most importantly, it's not really an issue of realizing the validity and soundness of certain historical facts that alter people's conducts. While most Americans recognize the brutal injustices done to the Natives and African Americans, racism is still deep-rooted in the unquestioned institutional structure and social arrangements of American society.

Israel's liability for Palestinian suffering and the immorality of its actions were not the motivation behind any revision of Israel's history or a generative force underlying the emergence of the new historiography. To assume that reduces history to morality and misplaces agency in archives and academe in lieu of real social historical forces. Palestinian misery has been a pawn in Israel's local economic, social, and political antagonisms, just as the two other subjects reconsidered by the new historiography--the Holocaust, and the politics of Labor Zionism.

Although interlacements between global, regional and local developments led to Israel's social and political antagonisms, as this paper shall demonstrate, the new historiography was an Israeli affair par excellence. It has been part of an Israeli debate on the social, political, and economic order commenced in the aftermath of the 1948 war.

To be sure, the historical and intellectual utility of the new historiography by far surpasses its assumed political utility. A better understanding of this phenomenon might reflect on methodological and philosophical positions, one of them held by the new historians themselves regarding their movement. Comprehending this movement allows for reflections on the inner workings of the Israeli society as well as the new Israeli elite and regime.

Aside from archival evidence, most facts revealed by the New Historians about Israeli history, no matter how dramatic they were made to sound, were common knowledge to most Palestinians, Arabs, and others acquainted with the Palestine question. The new historiography, a movement that attempted to rewrite Israel's political past may be a relevant indicator in assessing the impact of structural transformations in Israeli society on perceptions of the Arab-Israeli struggle. Other cultural fields (art, media, literature, etc.) that were also transforming might have been equally useful. However, the new historiography was favored due to its open criticism of Israel's immoral past by Israelis as well as access to most of its publication in many languages.


Antecedent to the rise of the new Israeli historiography was the release of classified archives. This perception is captured in Morris and is accepted by most of the new historians who stress the role of newly released archives and documents. (8) Benny Morris, coining the terms, "new historians" and "new-old historians," proposes a perception that is "rooted in the narrow Israeli historiography," (9) as if the question of new historiography was merely an Israeli question.

Another type of reification is apparent in the views of other new historians who neither share Morris' conservative ideological outlooks nor his methodology. Illan Pappe, recognizing important academic development of historiography in the world, (10) advanced a view that relates the rise of new historiography to methodological innovations. Arguing, as Pappe did, that new historiography is a product of a dialogue with Nouvelle Histoire is superficial. It is true however, as Pappe argued, that similar to trends in European historiography, new historiography writes new social categories in history (e.g., workers, peasants, and women). Nonetheless, going beyond the false and illusionary abstraction of "population" or "nation" presented as categories of undifferentiated mass, and addressing structurally situated parts, is a methodological shift that the new historiography did not actually embark upon. (11) The inclusion of these categories as agents of history should be structurally grounded, otherwise they would remain false abstractions just as nations and populations.

Archives, documents and methodological innovations are not the only references to history. Even if we entirely dismiss the Palestinian narrative in all its forms, including an impressive scholarly work and political literature that embarked on the political-philosophical development throughout the world, the new historiography's revelations was always present in Israel itself and the world at large.

Heretical trends in Israeli sociology since 1967 that accepted the "colonization paradigm" not only rejected Israel's mainstream exclusivist "national sociology's" paradigm, but also the founding myths...

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