Do you know the Mufti man?

During the brouhaha surrounding the “Mufti speech” of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I tweeted a photograph. It purported to show the Mufti Amin al-Husseini seated alongside David and Paula Ben-Gurion. I’d first seen the photograph during a lecture (in Hebrew) on Ben-Gurion delivered by Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s most distinguished historians, at Shalem College in February 2014—a lecture I myself chaired. When the photograph flashed on the screen above the podium, a gasp of recognition went through the audience: The Mufti with Ben-Gurion! Yes, said Shapira, that’s who it is.

Later, Shapira selected the photograph for inclusion in her (wonderful) new biography of Ben-Gurion, both in English and Hebrew. The Hebrew caption surmised that it was taken in the mid-1930s, apparently at an event under the auspices of the British High Commissioner. She credited the photo to the Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which apparently didn’t preserve any identifying information. Shapira didn’t make anything of the encounter—the caption noted that Ben-Gurion and the Mufti never had a meeting—but the image of the two of them seated side by side hinted at one of those alleged “missed opportunities” that litter the historiography of Israel.

So when the “Mufti speech” made waves, I tweeted the photo, giving Shapira credit for discovering it.

Mufti Tweet

This became the most retweeted and favorited tweet I’d ever posted. Many of the retweets added sarcastic commentary, some of it amusing, some less so. But one set of Twitter responses troubled me, from a Palestinian journalist, Ibrahim Husseini:

Ibrahim Husseini tweets

Looking closer at the photograph, I could see the problem. Setting aside the improbability that the Mufti would place himself in this position, he didn’t look quite like himself. Yes, the iconic headgear was there, but that wasn’t at all exclusive to the Mufti. Yes, the facial hair looked approximately right, but that was also standard grooming. (Actually, the Mufti did have white tufts on the chin of his beard, but this could have been lost in a photograph, depending on the lighting.) It was the eyes, or more specifically, the bags around them, and the slightly sunken cheek, that seemed anomalous. The Mufti had a smooth and full face. Here he is after testifying to the Peel Commission in January 1937.

Was this the same man as the one in Anita Shapira’s photograph? It started to look doubtful. So I wrote to Shapira, who is a friend of long standing. She replied by thanking me, and told me that after publication of her book, a retired employee of the Israel State Archives told her that this wasn’t the Mufti. “Pity,” she added.

Since I played a supporting role in disseminating this photograph, I felt more than the usual obligation of a historian to set the record straight. If not the Mufti, who was this man, who was of sufficient stature to warrant a place next to David Ben-Gurion? So I started posting queries on Twitter and the Facebook pages of Israeli and Palestinian archives and research centers. I got a lot of agreement that it wasn’t the Mufti, but didn’t get any leads. I even heard from someone who had known the Mufti. “Perhaps acceptable for a Hollywood rendition,” he wrote, but definitely not the Mufti. Yet he had no suggestions as to who it might be. An archive director in Israel sent my query to all his peers. No answer.

The person most likely to have known the answer died on November 1 of last year. He was Shabtai Teveth, author of a (never completed) multi-volume biography of B-G. He’d actually been silent for much longer, having suffered a debilitating stroke twelve years before his death. Teveth had been my good friend, and I’d published an appreciation of him earlier this year. I knew that, were he alive and well, his eyes would have twinkled at the question, and he would have provided an on-the-spot answer, because he loved detail, and no detail of Ben-Gurion’s life was too small.

I began to wonder whether there might be some clue in Teveth’s voluminous writings. His biography of B-G had nothing. I had slightly higher hopes from his 400-page book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, which appeared in Hebrew in 1985 and also in an abbreviated English translation (which I helped him prepare). Alas, nothing there, and no photographs in either the Hebrew or the English editions.

Stymied, I began to run Google searches of Teveth with improbable search terms—long shots, because I was quite sure I’d consulted everything Teveth had written on Ben-Gurion and the Arabs. During one of these desultory searches, I stumbled across the pdf of a Hebrew article by Teveth entitled “Ben-Gurion and the Arab Question,” which, to my amazement, I’d never seen. It appeared in the journal Cathedra in March 1987. I couldn’t imagine why Teveth wrote it, since he’d already published a whole book on the subject. As I scrolled down through the piece, I saw a few images—Cathedra illustrates its articles. Then suddenly, close to the end, I came upon this:

Here was the image, published for the first time not by Shapira but by Teveth, more than twenty-five years ago! And apparently, unlike Shapira, he had the “metadata” for the photograph. His caption reads: “Ben-Gurion alongside Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi, president of the Supreme Muslim Appeals Court, before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, 1946.” It was as though I’d asked Teveth my question, and he’d found a way to lead me to the answer.

Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi wasn’t comparable to Ben-Gurion in any way. He’d served as a qadi, or religious judge, from 1920, working his way up through the Islamic courts around the country before reaching Jerusalem. In 1940, he became president of the appeals court; he fled for Lebanon in 1948. As far as I can tell from the records of the Anglo-American Committee, he didn’t actually testify. (The testimony of three other “Moslem Religious Dignitaries” is recorded.) And the text of Teveth’s article said nothing about him. It turns out there isn’t much of a reason to include this photograph in any biography of Ben-Gurion. Lots of other interesting photographs could fill that prime real estate.

If this story is worth telling at such length, it’s to serve as a reminder to historians (especially me) that first instincts can mislead, and that in history, as in investing, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But above all, it’s an encouraging story of how historians never go silent, even when they’re gone. You just have to ask them.

Shabtai Teveth and the whole truth

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on January 20.

Longtime readers of COMMENTARY might remember Shabtai Teveth, prolific author and the authorized biographer of David Ben-Gurion. Teveth passed away on November 1 at the age of eighty-nine. He had gone silent twelve years earlier, following a debilitating stroke. It was on the pages of COMMENTARY, in 1989, that he launched one of the most thorough broadsides on Israel’s “new historians.” It repays reading now (as does Hillel Halkin’s COMMENTARY review of Teveth’s Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust). It’s also a reminder of how desperately Israel still needs truth-tellers like Teveth, who knew the flaws of Israel’s founders perfectly well, but never let that overshadow the nobility of their cause.

By the time I met Teveth, in the early 1980s, he was already renowned for his journalistic achievements at Haaretz, but also for his best-selling books, most famously his up-close account of the heroic armored battles of the June 1967 Six-Day War. (It appeared in English under the title The Tanks of Tammuz.) Approaching sixty years of age, he had set aside journalism in order to devote himself to a monumental biography of David Ben-Gurion, a project he had commenced some years earlier, when the Old Man was still alive and willing to talk.

I was new in Israel, and the native-born Teveth became a friend and my guide to the intricacies of the country’s history, politics, and journalism. In return, I helped him to prepare an English edition of a spin-off of his biographical project: a book eventually entitled Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, published by Oxford in 1985. In that work, Teveth argued that Ben-Gurion perfectly understood Arab opposition to Zionism, but also recognized the danger of acknowledging its depth. So B-G conducted a carefully calibrated policy that held out the hope of a peaceful settlement, even while preparing for confrontation. The book covered the 1920s and 1930s, but Ben-Gurion would implement the same approach right up to 1948.

Work on the book became a kind of tutorial course on the history of Israel, taught to me by Teveth. In turn, I taught him some of the odder subtleties of English. For years afterwards, he would call me at some ungodly hour of the morning, to ask how he might best render this or that Hebrew phrase into polished English without sacrificing even an iota of its original meaning.

Teveth wrote like a journalist up against a deadline. He would rise very early, go for a swim, head for his office (he didn’t work at home, but kept a separate apartment filled to the brim with his research materials), and then would bang out a few thousand words on his typewriter before lunch. I don’t think he ever had a day of writer’s block. Over the years, we developed a regular routine. Perhaps once a month, we would meet for lunch in a restaurant somewhere in north Tel Aviv where he kept his office. By lunchtime, Sabi (as his family and friends called him) had finished a full day’s work, and he was primed for competitive conversation, usually smoothed by a glass of Scotch, for which he had a refined taste. I couldn’t return all of his volleys, and the only real match he had in conversation was the late Zvi Yavetz, the historian of ancient Rome and a master raconteur in his own right. When Sabi and Zvi got rolling, showering the table with sparks of erudition and wit, the spectacle inspired awe and envy.

I once asked Sabi why he had set journalism aside, since his Haaretz columns had landed on the breakfast tables of the most influential people in Israel. His many books, prior to the Ben-Gurion project, had been contemporary reportage of the highest order, attracting large numbers of readers. (These included a biography of Moshe Dayan, a book on the first years of Israel’s post-1967 policies in the West Bank, and an exploration of poverty in Israel.) Sabi answered that he didn’t want to spend an entire lifetime breathing heavily over the doings of politicians.

The older I grow, the more I appreciate that decision to move from punditry to history. Teveth came to recognize the ephemeral nature of most journalism. He believed he was fortunate to have witnessed the last chapter in the founding of Israel (as a young soldier in the Palmah and then as an army journalist), and that this was a story that would be told again and again by future generations, each time from a point still more remote from the events. If he wrote that history now, meticulously and honestly, that telling would last beyond him.

The Ben-Gurion project, which ultimately reached four volumes (3,000 pages) in Hebrew, belongs to the genre of the big-canvas biography, of the sort exemplified by Robert Caro’s study of Lyndon Johnson or Martin Gilbert’s official biography of Winston Churchill. Indeed, it was Teveth’s finest hour in 1987 when the 967-page English version of the B-G biography (pre-1948) received a glowing review from Gilbert on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, accompanied by a photograph as well as a short profile of Teveth (written by Tom Friedman). This was before the internet, and I remember rushing over to Sabi’s home to see the review section, urgently dispatched by his New York publisher.

The Friedman profile includes an odd quote. “Israel has been going through a difficult period during these last thirteen years,” Teveth told Friedman. “But all this time I feel as though I have been working in a bunker full of light and hope. In my bunker the Jewish state is yet to be born. The Jewish people have a strong leader and the world is huge.” I personally never heard Sabi talk of his historical work as a nostalgic retreat from contemporary Israel. He regretted the diminished quality of Israel’s leaders, but this only fortified his determination to remind Israelis of a moment in living memory when they had a leader equal to world history at its most demanding.

There had been a leader who might have risen to that stature: Moshe Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s favorite, who seemed poised to succeed the Old Man as the very personification of Israeli grit. Teveth had written a biography of him—admiring but not reverential—that appeared in 1971, while Dayan still basked in the glow of the Six-Day War. Dayan’s prospects were dashed by the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when suddenly he became the clay-footed personification of Israeli hubris. Teveth nevertheless remained loyal to Dayan, and it was he who mediated between Dayan’s longtime admirers and Tel Aviv University, to bring forth the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

The monumental biography of Ben-Gurion secured for Teveth the National Jewish Book Award in 1987 and the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, in 2005. But the project remained unfinished, in part because every few years he would suspend it to write a spin-off. He wrote a book on the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosorov. (Its conclusions so enraged the then-prime minister Menachem Begin that he appointed an official commission of inquiry to refute it.) He wrote another book on Ben-Gurion’s response to the Holocaust, and still another on the 1954 Lavon Affair (both also appeared in English). And there was that book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs. These digressions, while important works in their own right, took time from the biography, and when Teveth suffered his stroke, he hadn’t yet gotten to the year for which Ben-Gurion’s life had been a preparation: 1948.

We are fortunate, then, that one of those digressions took the form of a direct confrontation with the so-called “new historians.” Avi Shlaim, one of Teveth’s targets, later called him “the most strident and vitriolic” critic of the self-declared iconoclasts who set about smashing the conventional Israeli narrative with reckless abandon. In the spring of 1989, Teveth fired off a barrage of full-page critiques in three consecutive weekend editions of Haaretz. (These pieces formed the nucleus of his later COMMENTARY article.) Teveth pummeled the “new historians” (Shlaim and Benny Morris), whose indictments of Israel’s conduct in 1948 he described as a “farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications.” I recall waking up early each Friday morning and rushing down to my doorstep to grab the newspaper and flip to that week’s installment.

A year later, he published a 35-page review of Benny Morris’s Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pursuing error and bias into the most remote footnotes. This was Teveth at his forensic best: he had read the same documents in the same archives, and he showed that they did not always say what Morris claimed they said. “Morris’s work was received with great expectations,” Teveth concluded. “On examination, however, these have been disappointed. This problem [of how the Palestinian Arabs became refugees], therefore, will have to wait still further for a more comprehensive and honest study, that would be worthy of the great human and national tragedy it represents.”

The “new historians” retaliated by trying to label Teveth as “old.” True, he was a generation older than them, but the “old”-naming could reach absurd proportions. For example, Shlaim once described him, repeatedly, as a “member of the Mapai old guard.” Nonsense: Teveth was famously associated with Mapai’s young guard, and indeed built his journalistic reputation as a muckraker by attacking Mapai’s veteran party stalwarts.

Teveth concluded his COMMENTARY article by dismissing the “new historians,” since “history, thank goodness, is made of sterner and more intractable stuff than even their wholesale efforts of free interpretation can dissimulate.” This proved to be overly optimistic. Demolishing Israel’s “myths” and creating new ones turned into a popular pastime for younger academics and activists. Benny Morris’s book on the Palestinian refugee problem has become the most-read and most-cited book on the 1948 war. One hardly need wonder what Teveth would say about the latest iteration of “free interpretation” (pioneered by Morris in the revised edition of his book), accusing Israel of various massacres that somehow escaped notice until just now. Nothing good, I imagine.

I wish I could announce that Teveth’s legacy will be ever-enduring, but a younger generation of readers will have to discover him first, and that hasn’t happened yet. He wrote mostly in the era before the internet, so his most important writings aren’t accessible at a click. He disappeared from the scene years before he died, so the obituaries were few and perfunctory. And he wrote big books that almost no one has read cover-to-cover. Teveth not only told truths about Israel, he told whole truths, and that required a minute retrieval and examination of all the evidence. There were reviewers who complained that Teveth left his readers “drowning in a sea of detail,” and that “intimate descriptions of daily doings” caused them to lose the “overall thread.”

Teveth was familiar with the criticism, and he rejected it. At one point, he had recited the list of groceries Ben-Gurion purchased while in London in November 1938. “Trivial,” he acknowledged, “yet how well this information helps the biographer in describing the loneliness of Ben-Gurion, who ate in his hotel room and there listened to the radio speeches by Hitler and Chamberlain, speeches that decided the fate of the world and the fate of both Europe’s Jews and Zionism.” Such level of detail assures that while the general reader may not persevere, every future biographer of Ben-Gurion will keep those four volumes on his or her desk. Perhaps that was Teveth’s aim all along.

I’ve missed Sabi very much these last twelve years, and suspect I’ll miss him still more with the passage of time. This is not only because he was my friend, but because I see no one who combines his mix of passion, energy, and encyclopedic knowledge in the pursuit of every recoverable fragment of evidence needed to establish the truth. My condolences to Ora, his wife, who sustained him through all the years of his disability and saw the last volume of the Ben-Gurion biography through to publication, and to their children and grandchildren, in whom Sabi took so much pride.

Shabtai Teveth (right) with David Ben-Gurion
Shabtai Teveth (right) with David Ben-Gurion