The third extract from Out of the Frame describes how Palestinian and Israeli historical dialogue breaks down almost as soon as it had begun.

The need for a prolonged experience of joint writing was affirmed when a more instant and briefer attempt was made elsewhere to bring historians on both sides closer. In May 1998, under the auspices of Le Monde Diplomatique, Israeli new historians were invited to a one-day dialogue in Paris with Palestinian historians about the history of 1948. The crux of that encounter was that the empiricist pretensions of some of the Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris and Itamar Rabinovitch, led to an inevitable clash with the Palestinian historians. Although critical of some chapters in the Zionist narrative, Morris and Rabinovitch rejected – on the basis of Israeli documents – many essential Palestinian points, such as the depiction of Zionism as a colonialist movement or of the 1948 expulsion as an ethnic cleansing operation.

In the face of a positivist approach to their history, the Palestinian participants requested an explanation of why their own catastrophe was chosen as subject matter by cool-headed and objective Israeli historians? The Israeli answer was inadequate. These Israeli historians doubted the ability of the Palestinians to have the expertise or historical materials for writing their own history. Now, after their land had been taken away and their past history in it denied, they were given – or rather offered – a small portion of land back, but their history was still appropriated by archival positivists in Israel.[1]

From a positivist point of view there is no clear archival evidence for every crime committed by the Israelis in 1948, but if the historical methodology intact since the 1920s is employed, there is very little room for doubt about the validity of the Palestinian version of the 1948 war. In fact, Israeli historians, and rightly so, used the same methodology to refute attempts to deny the Holocaust. Memories of Holocaust survivors were as sacred as documents in the German archives.

But the PALISAD group was far more successful in pursuing a dialectical process of historiography, mainly because its participants were fully aware of the influence of external political developments on the academic project. The Paris meeting coincided with the end of the first chapter in the Oslo Accords. This Accord began as a five-year phase in which the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was rearranged in return for mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel. The second phase, meant to begin in 1998 but delayed until the summer of 2000, was an attempt to solve all the outstanding problems on the way to a comprehensive peace. One of these was the future of the Palestinian refugees. The solution to this question was closely associated with the question of responsibility; or more precisely, the Palestinian demand for a right of return was based on a certain interpretation of the past. This demand to associate the Palestinian narrative with the contemporary peace process was made throughout the Palestinian world: in the exiled communities, the refugee camps, the Occupied Territories, and more recently among the Palestinian minority in Israel. This latter group associated its internal struggle for citizenship with the Palestinian narrative of 1948, a process that matured in 1988, when the more than one million people of the Palestinian minority in Israel refused to continue to celebrate Israel’s annual Independence Day and opted for a Nakbah Day.

In 1999, Ehud Barak won the elections and led both Israel and Occupied Palestine into a fatal collision that erupted into widespread violence in the autumn of 2000 and has continued in one form or another to this day. Within two years, critical voices in academia, in the electronic and printed media and in other sites of cultural and knowledge production were silenced, almost disappearing in some cases. The closing of the Israeli mind and the militarisation of its public space during the Second Intifada provided the immediate background against which my personal struggle was waged; a struggle that might have taken a different turn had it occurred in the mid-1990s. My academic standing escalated, or deteriorated as the case may be, with what have seemed to be irreversible consequences.


[1] For a report on this debate see Edward Said in ‘New History, Old Ideas’, Al-Ahram Weekly, 21-27 May 1998.

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