The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and the Question of Historical Evidence

“I Would Have Smiled: Photographing the Palestinian Refugee Experience” by Issam Nassar and Rasha Salti

“… In this conflict, especially, the writing of history absorbs and represents ideological disputes and political developments as much as any other cultural medium. The difference is that other media or discourses do not pretend to be objective or neutral.”

Ilan Pappe in The Vicissitudes of the 1948 Historiography of Israel[1] argues that the biased nature of Israeli historiography of the ‘1948 war’ is a clear example of the importance of the national narrative to the Israeli and Palestinian people. Furthermore, the emergence of ‘New Historians’ and ‘neo-Zionism’ demonstrates that 1) ideology infuses historical evidence and its interpretation particularly in ‘agitated’ societies, such as Israel and Palestine, 2) through the bias, the historian may gauge the ‘intellectual and cultural orientation’ of society, and 3) memory remains a primary and critical factor in validating a national narrative, as well as it’s possibility of reconciliation.[2]

Ethical qualifications of historiography and objective attempts to depict historical events must be practiced simultaneously in the rigorous vetting of sources. However, it is in equal part critical that the reader practices their privilege to determine their perspective on the evidence presented. As a writer, it seems particularly difficult not to adopt existing perspectives, possibly as a way to avoid criticism (and potentially, legitimize an assertion in the absence of specific historical evidence). The risk in reiterating stale, unhelpful and uninformed arguments stalls progress. This is the choice, and risk, as a researcher and writer– critical opprobrium due to rigorous vetting or intellectual refuge in established arguments? Maybe not mutually exclusive, one must decide the degree in which they choose to risk the former over the latter.

As I have followed the September 11, 2012 U.S. embassy attacks, in Egypt, Libya and subsequently in the rest of the Muslim world, it is clear that the on-the-ground perspective renders authority, and less so their official capacity or un-bias analysis of the region. Why is there such a stark difference between the legitimacy of evidence between historiography in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and recent history? Both are critical for the national narrative, both are subject to extensive propaganda and both lack official documentation from local governments.

For instance, The New Yorker article titled Cairo: Between the Protestor and the Embassy by Peter Hessler, or the recent analysis on the Melissa Harris-Perry segment on MSNBC with Egyptian-born journalist Mona El-Tahawy, are both examples of subject matter experts being qualified by their proximity and involvement in the conflict, primarily by their personal accounts of what seemed to happen. It is the word on the street that seems most prized in mainstream media – in this case. What are the different thresholds, if any, of legitimate evidence and analysis in recent history and historiography? Do different qualifications of legitimate evidence apply to different types of historiography, dependent on whether the event was recent or 64 years ago? Why?

Benny Morris, in his revised edition of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited[3], argues that the question of the 1948 war, the right of return and the lack of historiographical common ground, was exasperated by a ‘fundamental propaganda issue’ that aimed to legitimize either the Palestinian or Israeli national narratives, exclusively. In his attempts to integrate ‘new facts’ of the 1948 war in his body of work, he “refrained almost completely” from using the source that Arab’s have accounted as legitimate for centuries – interviews and so-called “undesirability of relying on human memories”. It is due to the human memory that Palestinians and Israelis have sustained the longest deadlock in modern history. Oral testimony, in particular, of a nation that has no centralized government or body to furnish anything comparable to the so-called official documentation of the Israeli Defense Forces, cannot be cast off as a factor that hinders the “cause of salvaging historical truth.”

Qualifying historical evidence as official, versus unofficial; classified, versus unclassified; sensitive, versus public, is easily confused with the concept of “historical truth” (if it exists), or simply a distraction to the dire need to find common ground in such discourse. Walid Khalidi, in response to Benny Morris’ harsh criticism of his book Before Their Diaspora, states “… One has little option but to conclude that the reviewers revisionist work on selected aspects of 1948 (laudable as far as it went) would seem… to be aimed at deflecting attention from what occurred before the Palestinian diaspora. This in term would seem poignantly to illustrate how passion and objectivity can indeed collide, even in as dispassionate and balanced a person as the reviewer himself.”[4] In this context, it is the extent to which the researcher is willing to consider the passion and objectivity of their source and author, less so the official nature and classification of a particular claim or document, that they select as evidence most pertinent to their research. Such is the consideration the researcher must make carefully, and consistently, that lends itself to the legitimacy of their argument, reliability of their claims, and ultimately, their career.

[1] Pappe, Ilan, The Vicissitudes of the 1948 Historiography of Israel. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Autumn 2009), pp 6-23.

[2] Pappe, Ilan, The Vicissitudes of the 1948 Historiography of Israel. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Autumn 2009), pp 6-23.

[3] Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2004.

[4] Khalidi, Walid, Benny Morris and Before Their Diaspora. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 22, no. 3 (Spring 1993), pp. 106-119.