As a young academic in Israel, Pappé discovered that the politics of free speech in the academy was more compromised than it appeared.

Luckily for me, the debate on Israel’s history in general and on the 1948 war in particular was reactivated only after I had received tenure. Attaining tenure is a painful process for most young academics in Israel; it was doubly difficult for me given my views, which were already quite well known. And yet, as I noted, my positions were not yet crystallised in such a way as constituted a threat to the system, and I passed over the hurdles successfully.

More than anything, it was a potentially humiliating process that became quite comical when taken with a grain of humour. Never in my life had so many professors, or for that matter people in general, winked or gesticulated at me, to the point that they seemed to have contracted some sort of mysterious nervous disorder or severe infection of the eyes. They did it everywhere: in the corridors or the lifts where we happened to meet. They all hinted at the same message: ‘your tenure is a secret process, but we know all about it, and you depend on us, so remember this …’ At the time, in the early 1990s, I think most of them regarded me as an asset to the university and believed that my ‘radicalism’ was a game that enhanced the university’s claim to pluralism and allowed it to boast of its openness to the world at large. Arnon Sofer, one of Israel’s leading demographers, who conceived the idea of a wall of separation between the West Bank and Israel, told me: ‘Between you and me, within four closed walls, you are one of us. But it is good that you are beautifying Israel’s image abroad.’ This particular conversation and similar remarks by other colleagues led me to join the communist-socialist party Hadash, an acronym for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. I guessed, and I seemed to be right, that such a public move would end these disturbing conversations. I was now officially out of the Zionist camp. But it was just the beginning of this road. I was soon to find out that I was even more distant from Zionism than some of the other Jewish comrades in the party.

In the mid-1990s, the discussion over the past resumed vigorously, especially in 1998 during the jubilee celebration of the birth of the state of Israel. It was triggered by the rapid infiltration into the non-academic media of the version of events in 1948 that emerged from the new history books. Three major points made by the books written by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and myself seemed to impress educators and in particular the makers of documentary films on Israel’s state television. The first was the importance of the Jordanian-Jewish understanding prior to the 1948 war that tilted the balance on the battleground in Israel’s favour; second, the claim that many refugees were expelled and did not leave voluntarily; and third, that Israeli leaders after 1948 were not eager to conclude peace treaties with their Arab foes (while the latter showed willingness to do so). The influence of these ideas went beyond a revised version of the 1948 war. The critical examination of Zionism, the attitude to the Holocaust, and questions about the ethnic and national problems of Israel found their way into the more popular cultural media.

The most visible manifestation of this impact upon cultural production was the documentary series Tekkuma (Renaissance), prepared by the public television channel for the fiftieth anniversary of the state. The screening of the series evoked reappraisals of the past and returned the ‘new historians’ to the public mind. The first programme was shown on Independence Day 1998, and then for 22 consecutive weeks. The series attempted to encapsulate the state’s history and did so quite convincingly. It was created under the influence of the more critical views expressed by the ‘new historians’ a decade before.[1] Various episodes echoed the doubts about Zionism in its early years, the questions asked by academics about the morality of Zionist policy during the Holocaust, and criticism of the treatment of Mizrachi Jews. This was a very tame critique compared to the one that appeared in academia, and despite these forays into more alternative views the general tone of the series remained very loyal to the Zionist meta-narrative.[2]

There was also a feeling – which was proved wrong – that the new ideas were finding their way into the educational system, in part through my own participation in some committees that were rethinking curricula and textbooks for history classes. Some textbooks were indeed peppered with critique and were introduced for a short while as an optional extra for history teachers, but no more than that. The optimistic sense of making a change was compounded by the constant invitations I received to talk about 1948 in front of teachers and pupils. I could hardly respond to all of them. This ended as abruptly as it began, quite probably, I was told – although I could not find the relevant document – by direct instruction from the Ministry of Education.


[1] See Ilan Pappe, ‘Israeli Television’s Fiftieth Anniversary: “Tekkuma” Series: A Post-Zionist View?’, Journal of Palestine Studies, 27.4 (Summer 1998): 99-105.

[2] Ilan Pappe, ‘Critique and Agenda: The Post-Zionist Scholars in Israel’, History and Memory, 7.1 (Spring/Summer 1995): 66-91.

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