The account of the progress of Pappe’s research into the events of 1948, and the reception of the ‘New History’ in Israel in the 1990s and 2000s is placed in the context of a wider analysis of Zionist ideology, of the history of Palestine, and of the creation and development of the Israeli state.
Ilan Pappe, Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (Pluto 2010), x, 246pp.
‘When and how did you transform your perception on the Palestinian and Israeli reality?’, (viii). This is a question posed to Ilan Pappe more frequently than any other, but for him the account of his own political and academic journey out of Zionism is of interest for the wider questions it raises.
Ilan Pappe was born and raised in Haifa in the 1950s. As a child he was ‘bewitched’ by Theodor Herzl and his utopian Zionist ideals. As a teenager he served in the Israeli army and associated with a left-wing Zionist party. It was not until Pappe began his PhD studies at Oxford University that he began to question Zionist ideology, and ultimately was forced to confront the reality of the Israeli state and the moral foundations of the society in which he had been raised. He now views Zionism as an inherently racist and colonialist ideology, built on the ruins of Palestine and dependent upon the suppression of the Palestinian people.
A central tenet of Pappe’s work has been his insistence that historians of Israel should return to 1948, the creation of the Israeli state and the Nakbah (the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’, used to describe the mass removal of Palestinians from Palestine in 1948). Pappe’s work on the Nakbah, and in particular his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications 2006), insists that the Israeli state (and its supporters) must recognise the horrors of 1948. Israel, Pappe asserts, must acknowledge its responsibility and allow the right of return for all displaced Palestinians.
The phenomenon of Nakbah denial in Israel is, Pappe argues, part of a wider attempt to exclude Palestinians from the history of the region. By denying the existence of the Palestinian people and by denying the existence of Palestinian shops, mosques, villages and towns, the Zionist movement justified the establishment of the Israeli state in historic Palestine. The mainstream Israeli narrative has traditionally told of how innately heroic Israeli troops entered deserted tracts of land and planted the Israeli flag. In academic history, the reality of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine could be avoided by an insistence on strict reliance upon the Israeli documentary record, which by definition excludes Palestinian voices and memory. As a result, Pappe became a champion of oral history in relation to the foundation of Israel, an approach to historical research which would be entirely uncontroversial anywhere else.
Pappe’s efforts to promote a counter-narrative of 1948 have left him ostracised from mainstream Israeli academia. There was a brief time in the 1990s where there was some slight opening of discussion of the Nakbah, but particularly from 2000 this was shut down quite chillingly. Here Pappe’s account of how he was effectively chased out of Israeli academia, while astonishing in itself, serves also as a case study in the suppression of dissent, never mind debate, in supposedly democratic Israel. Pivotal to the book is an account of the research which uncovered a serious massacre at Tantura in 1948, which began as an MA dissertation by a student advised by Pappe. The research was clearly very well founded, (a summary of the Tantura evidence is included as an appendix), and was initially passed with distinction. Subsequently however, the student and his research were viciously attacked to the point that the whole matter went to court and Haifa University revoked the award of the MA. Pappe’s subtitle, The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel, is in no sense hyperbole.
It is evident in his writing that Pappe’s enforced separation from Israeli society has affected him personally, yet he is actually at his most compelling when he is describing the collective experience of the Palestinian people. Chapter Five, a semi-fictionalised story told through the eyes of a Palestinian woman named Fatima, is based on the events in two Palestinian villages during the Nakbah. It is both a direct challenge to the prevailing historiography of 1948 and an emotional personal perspective on the events of that year. The fictionalisation is intended as a representative example of the kinds of events that took place across Palestine in 1948. The narrative, inspired by the accounts of numerous Palestinians whom Pappe has interviewed, is in marked contrast to his customary dispassionate style. It is painfully revealing of both the horrors of 1948 and of the lengths to which those in power have gone to suppress the truth.
History has, Pappe asserts, been appropriated for ideological and political purposes. Zionist ideology has created and sustained a society in which the supremacy of one group of people has been achieved through the social, economic and political suppression of another. Within Israeli society almost all institutions are geared towards upholding the prevailing ideology and to nurture the ‘hermetic self-persuasion of righteousness’ (p.47). The militarization of public space, and most significantly of the education system and of the media, has been central to facilitating the expansionist desires of a succession of Israeli leaders. The recruitment of the media by the military has been particularly powerful. Early in Israeli history it ‘helped to create the mythology of Israeli heroism in the battlefield’ (p.43) and suppressed any discussion of the wider political context. The dehumanisation of Palestinians and of Israeli Arabs has also been crucial in garnering widespread Israeli public support for military operations, including the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2008/9.
Pappe is both courageous and uncompromising in the conclusions he draws from his studies. The attacks on the Gaza Strip, the events of 1948 and the innumerable other assaults on the Palestinian people should he says, be viewed not only in terms of military history, but within a paradigm of ethnic cleansing. Out of the Frame is Pappe’s intellectual autobiography; it is both an historical analysis of the Israeli state and a very personal account of how he has resisted massive ideological and political pressure to uphold his commitment to humanity and his support of the Palestinian people.