Ilan Pappé’s research on the Nakbah uncovered difficult truths about the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, including evidence of war crimes committed by Israeli forces, and he was eventually hounded out of his academic post and Israel altogether. Here he questions standard accounts of the foundation of Israel and the Nakbah.

The villages from which the Palestinian population was evicted in 1948 were renamed and resettled in a matter of months. This scenario contrasted sharply not only with what I had learned at school about 1948, but also what I had been taught as a BA student at the Hebrew University, even though several of my courses had covered the history of Palestine. Needless to say, what I discovered also contradicted the messages conveyed to me as a citizen of Israel during my initiation ceremony into the army, at public events such as the annual Independence Day, and in the daily discussion in the country’s media on the history of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

When I returned home to Israel in 1984 to begin an academic career, I discovered the phenomenon of Nakbah denial. It was part of a larger phenomenon of excluding the Palestinians altogether from the local academic discourse. This was particularly evident, and bewildering, in the field of Middle Eastern Studies in which I was now a lecturer. Towards the end of the 1980s, as a result of the First Intifada (1987-93) the situation improved somewhat, with Palestinian history being introduced into Middle Eastern Studies as a legitimate subject. But even then this was done mainly through the perception of academics who had been intelligence experts on the subject in the past, and who still had close ties with the security services and the IDF. This Israeli academic perspective erased the Nakbah as a historical event, preventing local scholars and academics from challenging the overall denial and suppression of the catastrophe in the world outside the universities’ ivory towers.

As mentioned after the Tikkun article, the term ‘new history’ was introduced into the Israeli academic discourse by Benny Morris and myself as part of an attempt to arouse public awareness regarding the existence of a non-Zionist counter-narrative of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was a year or so before the newspaper Ha’aretz became interested in the subject and most of the printed and electronic media in Israel soon followed. For a while, these public forums were full of lively debates about what had occurred in 1948. But this brief era of pluralism was to last only from 1990 to 2000. As happens so often in an eventful state like Israel, the debate did not last long and soon gave way to other more pressing problems. However, its relevance to topical issues such as the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and Palestinian minority and the overall questions of legitimacy and identity of the Jewish state ensured its return, every now and then, to the public arena and consciousness.[1]

There was only a slight rebuke from my colleagues in the university, and I did not have tenure at that time. I think most of them did not read my doctorate, and when it became a book, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, it was still written in the style of a doctoral thesis, which has a way of muting even the strongest critiques. Publication in the press, on the other hand, had introduced me for the first time to hate letters and death threats by email and snail mail. Some were sent express or registered to stress the urgency of the ‘well- wishers’. Then came the telephone calls – anonymous of course, and poisonous. Delivering public lectures became a second career for me, with every encounter with the public resembling a rugby match more than an academic occasion, but verbal violence very rarely turned into anything physical. I should have been aware of things to come when a well-publicised conference on the ‘new history’ at my own institution, the University of Haifa, in 1994 turned into real abuse. In a response to my own contribution, the leading local historian at the university, Professor Yoav Gelber, announced that adopting the Palestinian narrative was tantamount to treason in the battlefield.


[1] Laurence J. Silberstein, The Post-Zionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1999): 89-126.

Out of the Frame coverSpecial offer for Counterfire readers: Get Out of the Frame for only £11.70 including free UK p&p.
Click here for special offer