New Conflicts of Historic Interest Rack the Heart of the Holy Land

<i> Daniel Williams is The Times' correspondent in Jerusalem</i>

In a place where written history has defined the nation’s soul for 5,000 years, a spirited battle swirls around accepted accounts of Israel’s modern struggle for independence.

At stake: Israel’s view of itself and also outsiders’ perceptions. A new generation of historians believes the earlier stories to be colored by myth.

The weapons in this battle are memos, orders and reports, buried in archives for years but now being made public. The moral high ground long sought by successive Israeli leaders is eroding from within.

This conflict was once confined to the halls of universities and the pages of books; now it commands public attention. Lectures by revisionist historians are jammed and their names are suddenly topping guest lists. Newspapers are filled with arguments and rebuttals, often heated, since many of the people who were prominent in Israel’s early years are still alive. “The traditional role of the historian in a national movement like Israel’s was to make myths,” Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at Hebrew University, remarked. “These myths are being exploded and uncertainty is taking their place.”


The New Historians, as they call themselves, recognize the trauma. Uri Milstain has written a series of books about the 1948 Israeli War of Independence; he commented: “If myths are so good, why do we have so many problems? It is not my job to keep myths alive.”

These scholars also recognize the potential impact of their work at a sensitive time, when Israel debates the terms of trying to make peace with the Arabs, and when its friends abroad ponder their relations with Israel.

“If Israel is as pure as the old histories say it was, then it is deserving of the grace and help it has received from outside, from Jews and from the West,” said Benny Morris, who wrote a ground-breaking history of what caused Palestinians to flee in 1948. “If not, then maybe it is no more deserving than its neighbors.”

Opponents see the arguments as an implicit threat to their reputations, accusing the New Historians of being motivated by a desire to nudge the Israeli government toward peace and of trying to apply today’s conditions to another time.


“Peace aims are important,” wrote Shabtai Teveth, a biographer of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, “but if the New Historians really want to fully serve, they will have to correct themselves before they attempt to correct history.”

Up to now, most Israeli histories have represented Israel as a country born with the intention of living at peace among Arab neighbors but forced to defend itself against successive attacks and spending the next four decades in a straightforward but frustrated search for peace. The Israeli army has been depicted as uniformly heroic but reserved in its defense of Jews against relentless Arab onslaught.

If there were Palestinian victims in the process, they were victims of stubborn and aggressive Arabs who refused to accept Israel and its good intentions.

Morris’ “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949" cites instances when the intent of Israeli military commanders was to expel Arabs from villages with or without military reason.

“Collusion Across the Jordan,” by Avi Shlaim, paints a picture of Israel and Jordan conniving to carve up Palestine. Territory, not peace, was the prime goal of each, he argues.

In “The Birth of Israel,” Simha Flapan, a leftist historian who died last year, rewrote Israeli history from a Marxist perspective in order “to undermine the propaganda structures that have so long obstructed the growth of the peace forces in my country.”

Milstain’s “History of the War of Independence” is an effort to detail not only the successes of Israel’s fighters of 1948, but also their failures. Three volumes have been published, and nine more are scheduled to follow.

Since 1980, when Israel began to open its official archives under a law that makes most such papers public after 30 years, historians have had more to work with than personal memoirs.


Armed with the newly available material, Milstain says he has fresh insight on the performance of accepted heroes who were perhaps not as effective on the battlefield as their reputations suggest.

Morris has been able to trace the expulsion of Arabs from the towns of Ramle and Lydda--now Lod. For many years the departures were depicted as voluntary flight, by Arabs grateful for the chance to leave. Morris produced an order from Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin, now minister of defense, that said “the inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly.” A similar order was issued at Ramle. About 50,000 people left the two towns.

One aspect of history being carefully dissected is the image of 1948 Israel as a David up against a collective Goliath of united Arab power. The New Historians portray something different-- an Israeli fighting force superior in training and armament, far better coordinated than the enemy.

In Milstain’s view, the conclusion to be drawn is not that Israel is invincible, but that Israel’s successes in the War of Independence and later were based on superior technology, arms and command organization; now, as this advantage narrows, the danger to Israel increases.

“It is the myth of the superior Israeli soldier and tactics that is dangerous,” he says. “This is perhaps the irony of this study. History is not necessarily prelude. What has happened in the past--victory--may not necessarily happen in the future.”

Historical debate is nothing new in Israel. It is as central to the Jewish experience as Sabbath dinner. The Bible itself is the subject of endless debate and interpretation. But several factors make the revision of Israel’s modern history notable.

First, it reflects a generational change of viewpoint. Most of the proponents of the new history were not born or were very young when Israel struggled into being. They have no personal stake in seeing the story portrayed without blemishes.

“Since (the New Historians) did not experience the events personally . . . they are free from the burden of having to be part of a historical consensus,” said Mordechai Bar-On, a scholar and retired general who lectures on the dispute.


Nor do the New Historians feel constrained by any impulse to make Israel’s history a wartime propaganda exercise, as did many early chroniclers of Israel’s wars. “Propaganda was a vital function and legitimate at its time,” Bar-On said. “But with the passing of years, the need for propaganda has decreased.” According to Morris, “Israel is strong enough to withstand a critical look at itself.”

As the New Historians see it, the reassessment of history is nourished by a gradual, deepening mistrust of official accounts of current events. They date the beginning of this decline in confidence to 1973 and the so-called Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught off-guard by invading Egyptians. The 1982-85 invasion and occupation of Lebanon, with daily casualty tolls, shifting government policies and misinformation, also contributed.

Morris, 40, who covered the war in Lebanon for the Jerusalem Post, said: “I was moved by it. I could see that not everything was happening as presented.”

Milstain, 50, said: “The Establishment likes to hide the real facts, especially about war. No army has ever fully investigated a battle.”