Pioneers drawing new lines in the sand

<i>Righteous Victims</i> by Benny Morris (John Murray, &pound;25, 751pp) | <i>The Iron Wall</i> by Avi Shlaim (Allen Lane, &pound;25, 650pp)
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The Independent Culture

Can countries "grow up", like individuals, gradually shedding their adolescent traumas and maturing into a more relaxed, tolerant and self-aware personality? Some Israelis - including the more imaginative ministers in the present government - believe that a process of that kind is happening. Israel has passed its 50th birthday with an unprecedented degree of economic, diplomatic and military security. After the disastrous setbacks of the Netanyahu years, there is renewed, if desperately slow, progress both in peace negotiations with neighbours, and in establishing an independent Palestinian state.

Can countries "grow up", like individuals, gradually shedding their adolescent traumas and maturing into a more relaxed, tolerant and self-aware personality? Some Israelis - including the more imaginative ministers in the present government - believe that a process of that kind is happening. Israel has passed its 50th birthday with an unprecedented degree of economic, diplomatic and military security. After the disastrous setbacks of the Netanyahu years, there is renewed, if desperately slow, progress both in peace negotiations with neighbours, and in establishing an independent Palestinian state.

Israel's permanent state of emergency, and the persistent human-rights abuses which it legitimated, are being quietly, dismantled. Government moves and court decisions have chipped away at legalised inequality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. There is still a long way to go before Israel could be counted as a "normal" liberal democracy; but most current trends and portents are encouraging.

Accompanying these changes, and paving the way, is a shift in attitudes to the past. As in all national conflicts, prejudice and fear between Arab and Jew have been sustained by rival visions of history. Israelis were long fed a narrative involving a large measure of distortion and simplification, some significant silences, and a few outright fabrications.

Thus the infant Israeli state was, in relation to its Arab opponents, as David against Goliath: outnumbered, outmatched, its survival a miraculous triumph against overwhelming odds. The Palestinian refugee exodus of 1948 was the fault of the Arabs, whose leaders ordered their people to flee, not of Israeli forces. Jewish leaders sought to avert violence and consistently backed compromise, only to be faced with a solid wall of intransigence from the Arabs.

Even quite secular historians adopted a quasi-religious framework in which Israel's emergence was the preordained outcome of Jewish destiny. The fact that most Israeli academic institutions still have two quite separate departments - one for "History", one for "Jewish History" - could only reinforce this. What happened within the Jewish community was rarely related to trends either among Palestinians or in the Arab world. The proclaimed intentions of Zionist leaders were largely taken at face value. Palestinian nationalism was seen as a wholly malevolent creation, its only motive blind hatred of Israel or, indeed, of Jews.

From the late Eighties, all this came under challenge from a new generation of historians, mostly Israelis born around the time of Independence. Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim were key figures. The "new historians", sometimes described as "post-Zionist" or "revisionist" (though they disliked the label), not only brought to bear scepticism about patriotic received wisdom, but dug far deeper into the archives than their predecessors had done. Israel's old historians, they charged, were more national chroniclers than serious scholars: at best naive, at worst propagandist.

Thus Morris claimed he had no political axe to grind, but was simply doing a professional job on a history shrouded in mystification. But in reality, few could be indifferent to the political implications. The historians' challenge impacted not only on ideas about the nation and its past, but also on attitudes towards the Palestinians and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. These were not purely academic debates. Nor can they be, so long as unresolved conflicts remain in which ennobling visions of the past are psychologically important to participants.

Critics identified historical revisionism with a "postmodern" mix of secularisation, rootlessness, consumerism and, above all, anti-nationalism. To the Israeli right, the new historians were giving intellectual aid to the Palestinian enemy, advancing a programme of national self-destruction.

A decade after the initial storms, both Morris and Shlaim have produced large-scale overviews of the Israeli-Arab conflict: books that operate in close parallel, and perhaps with a touch of rivalry. In some ways they are complementary. Both are major works of synthesis, summarising a mountain of previous research as well as offering much that's new.

Both, of course, are iconoclastic: though it is Shlaim who seems to take the greater delight in defacing official portraits of the nation's founding fathers. Morris is much the stronger on the confrontation's early development; Shlaim has more detail, and more revelations, on recent events. Morris is especially strong on military history, while Shlaim concentrates more on international diplomacy.

The books have some shared limitations. Neither is particularly stylish: Morris's prose is often leaden, especially amid his mass of military detail. Shlaim is more vivid, with striking portrayals of key political figures, but he has a tendency to repetition. His title phrase is echoed throughout the book like the hook-line of some irritating pop song.

Both are archive-based, largely narrative accounts without much of a theoretical framework. Both are very much "history from above", with barely a nod to the roles of women or of "subaltern" social groups. Both lack comparative analysis. Potentially illuminating parallels with other national conflicts, other peace processes, are ignored.

Although both are clearly sympathetic to at least some Palestinian aspirations, they use few Arab sources, and the Palestinian side of the story is only sketchily told. This is not entirely their fault. No Arab state has opened its archives to researchers as Israel has done. And although an important new wave of Palestinian historians has emerged, their writing remains dominated by strongly nationalist presumptions. With a few important exceptions - Beshara Doumani, Rashid Khalidi, Yezid Sayigh - there is little equivalent so far to the intensely probing tone of the new Israeli history.

We should not be surprised at this. It is obviously easier for the winners in a national struggle to adopt a self-critical stance than the losers. Still, as the Israeli "new history" begins to make its mark on a wider public sphere - in textbooks, TV documentaries, press debates, even government policies - it becomes ever more urgent for similar, answering voices to be heard from the other side.

Stephen Howe's new book, 'Ireland and Empire', is published by Oxford University Press

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