The New Case for Israel

This is Martin Kramer’s review of Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. It appeared under the headline “The New Case for Israel,” in The New Leader, May 14, 1984, pp. 17-19.

From Time Immemorial

Some day, an intrepid scholar will set out to write a thorough history of Arab-Zionist polemics—of the moral arguments and claims made and discarded in the pursuit of uncommitted minds. He or she will relate how the debate began over British promises, and rested upon the fine interpretation of diplomatic correspondence; how, in the 1940s, both sides came to rely heavily upon emotional responses to the misery of homeless refugees; and how, as the dislocated built new lives, and even the most unlikely peoples gained independence, Palestinian Arab polemicists turned to speaking of “inalienable national rights.”

In that future history, From Time Immemorial may well warrant a chapter unto itself. For this massive tome, despite serious weaknesses, has shifted the case for Israel to new ground.

The old Zionist arguments, writes Joan Peters, have been eroded by “nagging doubts.” With the terror and guilt of the Holocaust receding, many of Israel’s supporters—indeed, many Israelis—“bear an oft-unnamed fear that their own championing of the Jewish State may have imposed an unfair burden upon the Palestinians.” Hands are wrung. “What once seemed clear-cut and indisputable becomes uncomfortably vague and confusing.” As a result, those who cannot abide moral ambiguity, at least in politics, are today much more responsive to the Arab appeals for redress of Palestinian political grievances.

Peters says she has now uncovered some “staggering” truths about Arab population movements that “alter the very basis of our understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and destroy the foundation upon which the ‘Palestinian’ claims have rested.” Through demographic data, she seeks to establish that the coastal and central plains of Palestine, where most Jews settled before 1948, were thinly inhabited by Arabs in the late 19th century. It was the economic opportunities created by Jewish settlement that prompted a “massive” Arab influx, consisting of in-migration from the hilly regions (including Transjordan) that were the traditional Arab population centers in Palestine, and illegal immigration from neighboring countries. Thus the bulk of the 1948 refuges were hardly inhabitants “from time immemorial” in what became Israel; they were newcomers to most of the places whence they fled during Israel’s War of Independence. Peters would have us call them “returnees,” not refugees.

In support of this argument, the author overwhelms us with a barrage of anecdotes, diplomatic reports and village studies mentioning Arab migration. Among them are accounts of Syrians swarming across Palestine’s borers searching for work and of villages in the coastal plain that were Egyptian in speech and dress. The critical issue here, however, is not the existence of Arab immigration and in-migration; both occurred often enough to warrant frequent acknowledgment in contemporary sources. We really need to know exactly how many Arabs moved in. And since neither the Ottomans nor the British attempted to count them, Peters—who charges the British with a conspiracy of negligence—is forced to rely on statistical extrapolations and projections.

That is the essence of From Time Immemorial. Peters makes a few dozen other polemical points, lest any single line of her case meet with resistance. Regrettably, these are based on little beyond the author’s rummaging through archives and far more balanced historical studies than her own for whatever evidence she can find to back up her thesis. By selectively sifting this material, she portrays Jewish life in Arab lands and in Ottoman Palestine as a long night of terror, thereby giving the lie to the Arab contention that both peoples lived in peace before the advent of political Zionism. But sometimes the empirical pickings are slim, and “one can only speculate unhappily about those acts of violence that went unreported by a predominantly intimidated Jewish society that had been long terrorized into silence.” So much for historical method.

Peters disdains even careful Jewish historians who, with nuanced interpretations, have tried to account for the full range of Jewish experience in Arab lands. In attempting to explain more than the periodic persecutions, she tells us, they have “demonstrated an inability to fathom or, perhaps, to accept the implications of the history they themselves have uncovered.” The “ambivalent historians” are chastised for writing for “one or two or a dozen experts,” capable of seeing the gray, and not for the “vast majority of readers, using the work for superficial reference or information.” So much for historians. Her treatment of the Algerian-born historian of North African Jewry, André Chouraqui, is appalling.

This arrogant style admits no understatement, and it ruins arguments that would be utterly irrefutable were they presented with a higher regard for factual precision. Example: The record of Arab collaboration with the Axis is damning enough without Peters’ astonishing assertion that the Mufti of Jerusalem “was personally responsible for the concentration camp slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews, if not more.” Why, in that event, did Israel fail to punish him, and instead allow him to circulate for another 30 years until old age claimed him—not under an assumed name in South America, but in Beirut, where he lived as a celebrity? Peters is simply wrong. The Mufti was a political collaborator and ideological ally of Nazi Germany; but he was not what she calls a “coordinator” of the Final Solution. In one stroke of exaggeration, Peters has completely obfuscated the meaning of responsibility for the Holocaust.

Oddly, too, her indictment of Britain’s Palestine policy is out of step with current Israeli scholarship, which is more inclined to regard Britain’s role in the creation of a Jewish homeland as indispensable. In short, indignation has gotten the better of her, and has left this polemic vulnerable on points of fact and interpretation.

This is especially unfortunate because on the central point of her book, the demographic argument, Peters is probably right. She compares late Ottoman population records with subsequent censuses of Palestine conducted by the British, and very convincingly maintains that the remarkable growth of Arab population in areas of Jewish settlement cannot be explained merely by natural increase. In locating the solution in Arab migration, the author has demonstrated resourceful ingenuity.

That is not to say that her case is unassailable. True, Ottoman records show that the plains of Palestine were sparsely inhabited less than a century ago. But Peters does not use statistical methods now employed by historians of Ottoman demography to compensate for the usual Ottoman undercounting of certain sub-populations, such as women, children, and nomads. Until these methods are applied, we cannot know whether the undercount in these parts of Palestine was significant or negligible. Peters also omits important explanations of how she resolved problems of comparison between Ottoman and British statistics, which were collected and organized very differently.

Peters, then, has not dispelled all “nagging doubts.” Still, From Time Immemorial raises overdue questions about the demographic history of Palestine in a way that cannot be ignored. This is the book’s true triumph. Peters has delivered a well-placed shot into the Palestinian Arab court, and has posed an exciting challenge to serious historians of population. If they fail to reply with the same vigor, applause for this book will be very much in order.