Distinguished only by his errors

“Many, perhaps most, books about Israel are full of tendentious delusions. This is one of the worst examples”

Books
Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa, July 1945. They were arrested by the British

In 1987, Benny Morris published a book on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem that came to be seen as one of the foundations of a new, “revisionist”, school of historians of the State of Israel and its antecedents. Morris was determined to break through a series of myths about who was responsible for the flight of the refugees in 1948—were they ordered to go by either the Arabs or the Israelis, were they hounded out, did they flee through fear?

The answer was more complex than either side in the conflict had been willing to admit. Over the years, Morris gravitated towards the Israeli Right, arguing that this had happened, that it enabled a largely Jewish Israel to come into existence, and that there was no point in moralising about it. In reality, mass displacements of population had been a constant feature of the previous half century, including large-scale evacuations taking place at the same time as Israel came into being—notably the transfer of millions of Germans out of what became part of Poland, the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, not to mention the blood-soaked creation of India and Pakistan. Making such comparisons does not justify such measures, but it does reflect the thinking of that period of time.

The revisionist view gathered pace in and beyond Israel. Particularly important has been the research of Avi Shlaim, from Oxford, on the relations between Israel (and earlier Zionists) and their Arab neighbours. He was able to show that Israel’s neighbours occasionally showed themselves willing to come to some sort of agreement with the new state, although Ben Gurion treated these approaches with suspicion. In fact, the Arab states’ insistence on the large-scale return of the refugees made their idea of a solution impossible for Israel to accept. In Israel, Guy Laron wrote a history of the Six-Day War which set the short but dramatic conflict within the wider power politics of the US and the USSR. And then others, led by Ilan Pappé, adopted a much more strident view, accusing Israel of deliberate ethnic cleansing, and (like Jeremy Corbyn) finding nothing positive to say about Israel’s achievements. Pappé could enjoy the company of other writers such as Nur Masalha, who addressed their scathing accounts of what happened in and around 1948 to those who wished to see the state dismantled. Meanwhile, on the other side, Martin Gilbert and others wrote books that celebrated Israel’s creation and achievements, sometimes glossing over sensitive issues such as the unequal treatment of both Israeli Arabs and Mizrahi Jews, that is, immigrants from Islamic lands.

Anyone writing about the history of Israel quite obviously has to navigate between all manner of opinions, all the more so if he is a “Distinguished Professor of History” at an American university who has not previously tried his hand at the endlessly intricate history of the modern Middle East. He has the support, we learn from the back cover, of that impassioned opponent of not just Israel but Israel’s defenders in America, John J. Mearsheimer, another Distinguished Professor:

This outstanding book provides abundant evidence of how the Israel lobby has shaped US foreign policy in ways that are not in the American national interest. Hixson is especially good at showing how a select group of pro-Israel Americans profoundly influenced President Lyndon Johnson, who was like putty in their hands.

Come on, Mearsheimer, don’t be so coy—you mean Johnson was manipulated by the Jews and their friends. But have you read the book? Even Hixson, who clearly shares your views about Israel, repeatedly shows that Johnson was guided to a large degree—as Truman had been—by his Bible-based Christian outlook. And beyond that, there was a belief that Israel’s pioneers were heroically enacting what the American pioneers had enacted as they settled the lands between the Thirteen Colonies and the Pacific.

For Hixson, that is precisely the problem: the Zionists, he insists, were the last of a long sequence of colonial settlers who had already established his nation and a good number of Commonwealth nations as well. “Israel is part of a long global history of settler colonialism,” he avers—not a nation largely composed of refugees and their progeny. It is, he insists, an anomaly in an age of self-determination. This, by International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance standards, raises problems: may not Jews have the right to self-determination, especially when they have been massacred and hounded from country to country, and have no wish to return to places where they experienced unrivalled horrors? In the 1950s and ’60s, Israel was seen throughout decolonised sub-Saharan Africa as an inspiring example of (Jewish) self-determination following the withdrawal of British imperial power. It was a new nation that was pulling itself up by its bootstraps, and it could be a model for other new nations across the globe.

Anyone reading Herzl’s often naive and impractical essay on Der Judenstaat, with its recommendation that squadrons of Jews be led to Palestine under the command of their rabbis, will see strong echoes of the language used by those who settled southern Africa and other lands. The idea that this was “a land without people for a people without land” was certainly mistaken, but Hixson is quite wrong to insist that Palestine was flourishing economically a hundred years ago. The decline of the Ottoman Empire left its outlying provinces in a poor economic condition. Indeed, some Arab leaders understood that Jewish investment in Palestine could help restore economic life. As the area recovered, Arab as well as Jewish migrants headed for Palestine. Nor does Hixson show much grasp of the demographic realities within Palestine. Far from being almost entirely Arab in 1948, as he asserts, Galilee contained several cities with significant Jewish populations: the holy cities of Tiberias (which he consistently mis-spells) and Safed, as well as Haifa, whose port was staffed by Sephardic Jews from Salonika, which they left following its incorporation into Greece and a fire that devastated the large Jewish quarter. What he should point to, of course, is the fact that Jews were in several cases the largest element in the population of the cities, while the Arab population tended to live in the countryside. That began to change as the once-admired kibbutz movement and other agricultural initiatives expanded beginning, as he admits, in the emptier and less obviously cultivable lands in Palestine.

One of the greatest fallacies is to point to the relative Jewish and Arab population of Palestine in 1948 and to argue that Israel was given much more than its fair share, a point Hixson makes early in his book, in a chapter full of too many egregious errors about the antecedents of Israel to mention here. Patently, the decision of the United Nations to divide Palestine between two states was based on the understanding that the Jewish population would grow exponentially following unrestricted immigration once a Jewish state came into being. Indeed, some of the states that voted for the creation of Israel may well have wondered whether this was a good opportunity to lose their own Jewish population. One should not assume each country that voted in favour was led by philo-Semites, particularly the USSR.

Nor does Hixson take into account the emigration to Israel of the Jews from Arab lands, roughly comparable to the numbers of Arabs who fled or were expelled from the new state. The pull factor was the attraction of the long-hoped-for Return to Zion among religious Jews in Yemen and other lands, while the push factor was the persecution Jews faced in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. Sadly, the disappearance of these communities, in some cases after thousands of years, was another stage in the breakdown of the coexistence between religions and ethnic groups that is now, with the war in Syria, reaching its tragic final stages (assuming Coptic Egypt does not go the same way).

The egregious errors and wilful omissions continue throughout the book. As well as Tiberias, Hixson consistently mis-spells the name of Rashid Khalidi, a member of an ancient and distinguished Jerusalem Arab family; nor can he spell Attlee. The horrible Grand Mufti, who spent time with Hitler and rejoiced in the extermination of the Jews, is presented as an unfortunate exile unable to lead his people to statehood. Perhaps the most shameful examples of mis-interpretation come in Hixson’s treatment of Arab propaganda. Anything about driving the Jews into the sea was purely for domestic consumption, he insists. But it was there in the policy statements of the growing Palestinian national movement, and Hamas still recycles these notions. The press cartoons being drawn in 1967 included revolting Nazi stereotypes of Jews being kicked into the Mediterranean by a gigantic Colonel Nasser. The decision of the Khartoum Summit following the Six-Day War (no peace, no recognition, no negotiations) immobilised Arab policy towards Israel for decades. Far from masking conciliatory attitudes, as Hixson avers, it was another example of the Arab countries competing with one another to show that they were dedicated to the cause. And they had just been massively defeated by a small but well-organised state: they were reeling from shock, and conciliation could not be sold to the teeming masses in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus.

What was the cause? The Palestinian diaspora was a victim of Arab as well as Israeli politics, with Arab countries cynically promising a return that became impossible and at the same time placing obstacles in the way of their integration into the wider community (as in Lebanon or Kuwait). Hixson has nothing much to say about the PLO and other terrorist groups. Indeed, in each case when Israel responded to cross-border raids with incursions into Arab territory, it is always the fault of Israel, in Hixson’s eyes. That Israel showed itself capable of responding with excessive force is certainly something that needs to be reflected upon; figures such as Ariel Sharon had plenty of innocent blood on their hands. Some Palestinian refugees were shot by border guards when all they wanted to do in Israel was revisit their old house, perhaps to recover property. There is an ugly history that needs to be told. But it needs to be told in a balanced and impartial way.

In fact, Hixson is not even clear what Israel wanted from the wars that he is sure it always started. The invasion of Sinai in 1956, it needs to be remembered, took place as part of a wider Anglo-French plot to destroy Nasser and to occupy the Canal Zone. Here, the United States showed itself viscerally opposed to all that Israel, the United Kingdom and France were doing—so much for the controlling hand of the Israel lobby! During the Six-Day War, it does seem that the first shots were fired by Israel, but the arrival of Egyptian troops in Sinai and the closing of the waterway to Eilat were interpreted as a serious threat. And Israel begged Jordan not to join the conflict. Without its decision to take part, the West Bank would have remained under Arab rule, even if its population did not, by and large, welcome the Hashemite dynasty. Yet how different the region would be had he not joined in!

Hixson’s book is based not just on a politically-biased selection of modern literature but on archives across the USA, including several presidential libraries. It is hard, though, to see how he can make sense of the relationship between Israel and the United States without looking at documentation in Israel itself. It is also hard to say anything useful about that relationship without looking at the role of the Soviet Union in the Middle East between 1948 and 1967. The book trumpets the fact that the US was the first country to recognise Israel de facto. But the USSR was the first state to recognise Israel de jure. Hixson seems to think that the Soviets very soon broke off diplomatic relations with Israel, but—despite increasing hostility to Israel and an overt show of friendship to Nasser—the formal breach only occurred in 1967. This was the context within which Johnson and other presidents made their policy. That there were some persistent and successful lobbyists for Israel, no one doubts. Hixson’s supposed evidence does not add up: they are shown being challenged again and again, and losing as well as winning. To argue along with Mearsheimer that the lobbyists controlled the foreign policy of the United States is to repeat the anti-Semitic tropes of the Soviet Union and the modern far Left, among others.

Many, perhaps most, books about Israel are full of tendentious delusions. This is one of the worst examples, and it is surprising that such a highly respected publishing house should believe it worth printing along with Mearsheimer’s outrageous puff. For the record, I am deeply opposed to the policies of Netanyahu’s government, and I strongly believe in a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem as capital of both states; I very much wish to see the occupation of the West Bank ended and the settlements disbanded. My objection to Hixson’s book is that it is a political tract masquerading as history. It is the mark of a bad historian that he or she has decided what the evidence will show before that evidence has been collected.

 

Israel’s Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict
By Walter L. Hixson
Cambridge, 324pp, £22.99