In the late 1990s, I took issue with a group of Israeli academics and journalists who called themselves the "new historians," and who claimed to be offering a revisionist history of the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the 1948 war in particular.
To start with, I showed that there was nothing revisionist about their work. Far from unearthing new facts or offering fresh interpretations that would transform the general understanding of events, the new historians were effectively reiterating the standard Arab narrative of the conflict, in an attempt to give it academic respectability. Moreover, while this group insists on tracing its origins, indeed its raison d'être, to the opening of Israeli state archives in the late 1980s, an examination of their works easily reveals a highly eclectic and superficial use of these archives. Thus, for example, while claiming to have overturned the "myth of the few [Jews] against the many [Arabs]" during the 1948 war, Avi Shlaim, at Oxford University, had not even attempted to tap the archives of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its pre-state precursor, the Hagana, both of which contain millions of declassified documents relating to the issue. Similarly, in his book on The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Benny Morris, at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, presents the Hagana and the IDF as the main instigators of the Palestinian exodus, again without reference to archival material held by these two military organizations.
Apparently in response to my repeated criticisms, Morris recently conceded that "when writing The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 in the mid-1980s, I had no access to the materials in the IDFA [Israel Defense Forces Archive] or Hagana archive and precious little to first-hand military materials deposited elsewhere." "None the less," he hastened to reassure his readers, "the new materials I have seen over the past few years tend to confirm and reinforce the major lines of description and analysis, and the conclusions, in The Birth."1 In other words, the foremost new historian admits both to having written the single most influential revisionist work without the use of the most important archives and to having a preconceived view of what his archival findings would be.
Any self-respecting academic discipline would not tolerate such an inversion of the research process. However, such is the politicization of modern Middle Eastern studies, especially in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, that partisan rewriting of history in line with contemporary political agendas has not only become the norm, its practitioners are even applauded as courageous revisionists, who present their discoveries at a considerable professional, if not personal, risk to themselves. "The historian who reveals undesirable truths, who challenges or explodes myths," complained Ze'ev Sternhell of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem "is perceived [in Israel] as a troublemaker, an enemy of the people."2 And Ilan Pappé of Haifa University has gone a step further by calling for "some kind of international protection" for Israel-based researchers of the nakba ("catastrophe," as Palestinians call the 1948 war).3
Nothing can be further from the truth. Not only have the new historians not faced the slightest risk to their careers - the humanities and social sciences faculties in most Israeli (and Western) universities are dominated by like-minded academics - but their writings have brought them instantaneous celebrity status that would have otherwise been unattainable. For what could possibly provide better "proof" of the validity of the Arab narrative than "inside" evidence by Israeli scholars on the basis of (allegedly) declassified Israeli documents? Indeed, Palestinian and Arab establishments have quickly embraced the new historians. Prominent Palestinian politicians, such as Hanan Ashrawi and Abu Mazin, refer regularly to their findings in support of Palestinian territorial and political claims from Israel. The partisan Journal of Palestine Studies (JPS) has not only thrown its doors open to this group but has turned them into its favorite contributors. Since the late 1980s, it has featured at least seven articles by both Shlaim and Morris, in addition to a string of review essays - far more than any Palestinian or Arab scholar, with the sole exception of Edward Said.
The JPS has also used the new historians as its foremost demolition team, particularly against works by Israeli historians deemed most damaging to the Palestinian narrative. In 1994, for example, Morris wrote a lengthy and venomous review of The Road Not Taken, an account of early Arab-Israeli peace talks by Itamar Rabinovich of Tel Aviv University. Yet this review pales in comparison to his fifteen-page assault on the first edition of my book, Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians" - the longest review essay ever published by the Journal of Palestine Studies.4
Last but not least, the JPS has turned the new historians into regular commentators on contemporary Israeli-Palestinian affairs, where their adherence to the truth has been no stricter than in their historical studies. Thus, for example, having traced the origins of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination to a mixture of "national-religious tradition of ideological and actual lawlessness" and "the older tradition of ‘Revisionist' terrorism," Morris argues that "during the late 1960s and the 1970s, Gush Emunim continuously broke the law in its campaign to set up Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Labor-led governments of the day, under prime ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, continually bent to their will."5 But Gush Emunim was established in March 1974, in the twilight of the Yom Kippur war, and as such could not have "continuously broke[n] the law" during the late 1960s. Nor could prime ministers Meir and Eshkol have "continually bent to their will," if only because the former had resigned her post before the start of the Gush's activities while the latter had died five years before the establishment of Gush Emunim. But why be bothered by facts?
The new historians' partisanship has also served as an entry ticket to the influential Arabist club (comprising scholars of the Middle East and veterans of institutions dealing with the region, such as foreign ministries, oil companies, economic and financial organizations, etc.) and its attendant access to academic journals, respected publishing houses, and the mass media. Shlaim, for instance, was the primary academic consultant to a six-part British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television series about the Arab-Israeli conflict produced on the occasion of Israel's fiftieth anniversary, which cast the Jewish state in the role of the regional villain. Morris was the moving spirit behind a televised documentary on the Palestinians by an Israeli expatriate. "We perform at weddings and bar mitzvas," a leading new historian, Tom Segev, joked about this group's popularity.6 Indeed, admiring reports on the new historians feature regularly in the Western press.
This state of affairs is not difficult to understand. Half a century after Israel's creation and its victory over the concerted Arab attempt to strangle it at birth, these heroic events seem to have been all but forgotten. Not only is there widespread ignorance in the West regarding the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the reasons for its persistence, but Middle Eastern studies have increasingly fallen under the sway of the Arabists and/or scholars of Arab descent, as a glance at the membership rolls of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and its European counterparts will easily reveal. Moreover, for quite some time the Arab oil-producing countries have been penetrating the foremost Western universities and academic publishing houses by subsidizing publications and extending generous grants for the establishment of endowed chairs and research centers, over which they exercise a lasting control. Finally, since democracy is an extremely rare commodity in the Middle East, and since students of the region's contemporary affairs are anxious to maintain free access to its countries, they exercise a strict self-censorship, avoiding anything that smacks of criticism of local societies and regimes, however brutal and repressive they might be.
Consider, for example, a doctoral student who wanted to research contemporary Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. It did not take him long to realize that the topic would make him persona non grata in Syria (and Lebanon) and would isolate him among fellow Arabists, and he changed his research focus and its time frame. Or consider an international conference on Iraq, held at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (or Chatham House as it is commonly known after the building in which it resides), shortly before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. All participants, British, Europeans, and Americans, went out of their way to heap praise on Saddam Husayn's regime and to rub shoulders with the senior Iraqi officials in attendance (notably Nizar Hamdun, then Iraq's deputy foreign minister). A respected American Arabist even applauded as decent hamlets the desert concentration camps in which the Iraqi authorities had herded tens of thousands of Kurds exiled from their homes during and after the Iran-Iraq war. When the handful of Iraqi expatriates, who had somehow managed to obtain invitations to the conference, tried to voice criticism of the repressive nature of the Iraqi regime, they were peremptorily silenced by the moderators, with some of them being unceremoniously ushered out of the discussion hall.
This trend has not been confined to academia. In today's global village, where events in one part of the world are instantaneously transmitted around the globe, reaching the public and policymakers at the same moment, Arabists have gradually become key shapers of public opinion in their field of specialty. It is they who interpret the Middle East to the general public whenever there is a fresh conflagration in this volatile area; and it is they who regularly give the benefit of their opinion to government and Congress. The Arabist presence has been particularly conspicuous on television, where the proliferation of around-the-clock news channels has generated a cozy symbiosis between broadcasters and pundits: the former constantly hunger for commentary while the latter are eager to ply their merchandise, come what may. A good case in point is the recent whitewashing by Western broadcasters and pundits of the extent of Palestinian rejoicing over the World Trade Center atrocity, and their acquiescence in the Palestinian Authority's violent suppression of the freedom of information by preventing the distribution of photos and videos of these celebrations.
In this disturbing atmosphere, where propaganda is often substituted for scholarship, Israel has increasingly been cast in the role of the regional villain and implicated in every Middle Eastern crisis over several decades, regardless of any actual connection. And whoever dares to challenge this comfortable consensus is subjected to massive retaliation, or rather a defamation campaign, aimed at shooting the messenger before he or she has been given the opportunity to speak.
Such has been the reaction of the new historians and their sympathizers to my book Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians": a sustained campaign of personal smear and innuendo aimed at discrediting my professional credentials. Boasting he had never read the book, Morris dismissed it as "idiotic slander indicative of the man himself, who is probably seeking to promote his own personal interests" (what particular interests could be promoted by going against the grain Morris did not say),7 while Pappé derided me as a "court historian." "Perhaps in the patriotic Israeli colony in London there still exist the fighting spirit and the readiness to fight for Zionism to the last drop of ink," he wrote,8 as if there is something fundamentally wrong when expatriate Israelis rebut historical fabrications (though, of course, not when they fabricate in the first place).
Omer Bartov, an Israeli history professor at Brown University, expressed similar sentiments. In a review of Fabricating in London's Times Literary Supplement, Bartov made no attempt to rebut any of my factual assertions, which in itself is hardly surprising given that his field of research is modern German history. Instead, he made a number of wholly irrelevant comments regarding my (alleged) personal background, aimed at discrediting my academic integrity. In an attempt to portray me as part of the Israeli defense establishment - the current version of the much-maligned orientalist - Bartov claimed that I began my "specialization in Middle Eastern affairs as an officer in Israeli army intelligence." In fact, I acquired my first academic degree in modern Middle Eastern history prior to joining the army, and during my military service, dealt with superpower involvement in the Middle East rather than with Arab affairs. But then, what is the relevance of my educational background to the validity of my assertions? What counts is their factual basis. Similarly, Bartov finds a fundamental incongruity between my criticism of the revisionist writings and my longstanding support for Palestinian self-determination,9 as if one's contemporary political views should necessarily influence one's historical propriety.
Indeed, a vivid illustration of the political agenda underlying the new historiography has been afforded by Benny Morris's apparent about-face following the outbreak of Palestinian violence in the autumn of 2000. So long as the Oslo peace process appeared to be edging towards a two-state solution - Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza - Morris had no compunction about charging Israel with the original sin of dispossessing the Palestinians and perpetuating the conflict with the Arab world. Yet, when in the summer of 2000 the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, rebuffed Prime Minister Ehud Barak's generous territorial concessions and, rejecting Israel's very right to exist, unleashed a tidal wave of violence, Morris changed tack. Departing from the line he and his fellow new historians had been toeing for more than a decade, he blamed the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the Palestinians' intransigence and their rejection of all compromise solutions since the 1930s.10
But then, would a true historian discard his own archival research on a specific historical period, without the discovery of new documentary evidence, merely on account of political developments taking place some half-a-century after the original events? Hardly. For all of Yasir Arafat's shortcomings, including his failure to accept Morris's definition of a "fair" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, this does not change one iota in the historical record of the 1948 war and its aftermath.
Even when criticism of Fabricating has ostensibly moved from the personal to the professional sphere, it has never genuinely attempted to grapple with the book's central thesis, let alone refute its factual assertions. Instead, the critics have misrepresented its substance altogether. Consider, for example, the assertion by Joel Beinin of Stanford University (now president of MESA), that "by returning the debate to the arena of intellectual history, Karsh … avoids engaging [Benny] Morris's archival discoveries."11 In fact, my book has nothing to do with intellectual history, its exclusive concern being to engage the new historians' archival discoveries. Indeed, after both The Economist and The Times Literary Supplement cited a number of Morris's factual falsifications exposed by my book,12 he begrudgingly conceded the validity of my claims, while simultaneously seeking to disguise their real nature. "Karsh has a point," Morris wrote to The Times Literary Supplement. "My treatment of transfer thinking before 1948 was, indeed, superficial." He also acknowledged my refutation of his misinterpretation of an important speech made by David Ben-Gurion on December 3, 1947: "[Karsh] is probably right in rejecting the ‘transfer interpretation' I suggested in The Birth to a sentence in that speech."13 He also admitted elsewhere that "Karsh appears to be correct in charging that I ‘stretched' the evidence to make my point."14 But then, the issue is not the misinterpretation of a specific sentence in Ben-Gurion's speech, or even the stretching of evidence. It is the deliberate and complex attempt to misrepresent the contents of the speech so as to portray a false picture of the moral and political worldview of Israel's founding father.
Shlaim resorts to cruder means to discredit my rebuttal of his conspiracy theory of an Anglo-Transjordanian-Zionist collusion to disinherit the Palestinians. Rather than engage my archival discoveries, he dismissed my criticism as based on a single "unimportant and insignificant document," written by "a middle-level career civil servant" and deemed "not suitable for circulation outside the Foreign Office."15 This is an incredible charge indeed, given that two full chapters in Fabricating, containing hundreds of documents from official British archives, are dedicated to the rebuttal of the conspiracy charge.
But the story does not end here, for Shlaim chose to misrepresent the nature of the above document and its significance. First, this was not an obscure document by a middle-level career civil servant but rather a summary of a crucial consultation, held by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin with his key advisers immediately after his meeting with the Transjordanian prime minister, Tawfiq Abu'l-Huda. The consultation addressed the critical issue of Transjordan's possible incursion into Palestine after the termination of the British mandate, raised by Abu'l-Huda during the meeting, and its implications. Secondly, contrary to Shlaim's claim, the memorandum was circulated well beyond the bounds of the Foreign Office, as clearly evidenced by the comment on the foot of the page: "This was briefly discussed with the S. of S. [i.e. Bevin] who did not object to the substance of the above minute being confidentially discussed with the State Depat [sic]. I attach a draft tel."16
In short, Shlaim has totally misrepresented the above memorandum, turning black into white. Again, this is not a matter of academic sophistry but rather a deliberate distortion of archival evidence so as to defend an important but false aspect of his thesis. I challenged Shlaim to publish the sources of his (mis)representation of the document.17 He never did.
The only sympathizer of the new historians willing to acknowledge the nature of my criticism and its far-reaching implications has been William Quandt of the University of Virginia. "Karsh is not talking about differences of interpretation, of nuanced readings of texts," he wrote in a review of Fabricating, "he is making a different and more damaging accusation - namely, that these academics are deliberately misleading readers. That is, they know what the record says and choose to distort it." "Along with plagiarism," he continued, "fabrication is the worst accusation one academic can make against another."
Do I succeed in making my case? Here, Quandt is reluctant to break rank: "I do not come away convinced, although in some cases he does raise points that seem to warrant examination of the originals."18 But then, why not press this point to its logical conclusion and conduct an examination of the originals prior to writing the review, so as to inform the readers of your findings? Don't they deserve an analysis that gets to the bottom of things, rather than an open-ended question?
That Quandt alone, among establishment Middle East scholars, has been prepared to admit what Fabricating is all about is a sad testament to the prejudice and dogmatism plaguing this field of studies over the past few decades. There is no real freedom of expression, no revisionism in the true sense of the word: only founding myths and preconceived dogmas to which scholars must conform, such as the presentation of Israel as "the bad guy," to use Edward Said's words, and the Arabs as hapless victims of Zionist and Israeli aggression.19 "Revisionism," in this Orwellian environment, means simply the rewriting of history in line with these dogmas. If this requires the substitution of fiction for fact, so be it.
Needless to say, it has been taken for granted that the Arab narrative of the conflict needs no revisionist history. "It is important to stress that for all their flaws, the versions of history produced by the traditional Arab historiography are fundamentally different from the Israeli myths of origin," Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago has recently argued.
This is true notably because it is not a myth that a determined enemy bent on taking control of their homeland subjected the Palestinians to overwhelming force. It is not a myth, moreover, that as a result of this process the Palestinian people were victims, regardless of what they might have done differently in this situation of formidable difficulty, and of the sins of omission or commission of their leaders. In this case, as in so much else in the conflict, there can be no facile equivalence between the two sides, however much some may long for the appearance of Palestinian "new historians" to shatter the "myths" on the Arab side.20
This blind nationalist belief in one's absolute justice may have some merit at the level of political polemics. As a historical statement it has none at all. During the past decade, Israeli and Western archives have declassified millions of records, including invaluable contemporary Arab and Palestinian documents, relating to the 1948 war and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. These make it possible to establish that, contrary to Khalidi's assertion, the Palestinian tragedy was by no means a foregone conclusion. It could have been averted altogether had the Palestinians and the Arab states accepted the United Nations Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, and opted for peaceful coexistence with their Jewish neighbors rather than attempt to ethnically cleanse this community.
This mass of documentation also proves beyond any reasonable doubt that, far from being an act of expulsion, the mass Arab flight was a direct result of the fragmentation and lack of cohesiveness of Palestinian society, which led to its collapse under the weight of the war it had initiated and whose enormity it had failed to predict. But then, why tap this indispensable mine of information if the historical narrative has already been decided?
Heads in the Sand
Another founding myth of modern Middle Eastern history views Western imperialism as the foremost source of regional instability. According to this conventional wisdom, the European powers - Britain, France, Russia, and Italy - having long coveted the declining Ottoman Empire, exploited its entry into World War I in order to carve it into artificial entities, in accordance with their imperial interests and in total disregard of the yearning of the indigenous peoples for political unity. In order to do so, they duped the naive and well-intentioned Arab nationalist movement into a revolt against its Ottoman suzerain, only to cheat it of the fruits of its efforts. The European powers broke the historical unity of this predominantly Arab area, thus sowing the seeds of the endemic malaise plaguing the Middle East to this day.
As with the Arab-Israeli conflict there has been no real revisionism of this dogma. The only historian to have attempted to do so was the eminent British historian, Elie Kedourie (1926-92), and he paid dearly for his moral and scholarly integrity. His refusal to revise his dissertation so as to bring it into line with the misconceptions of his examiner, H.A.R. Gibb (later Sir Hamilton Gibb), the Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford University and the leading Orientalist of the day, cost Kedourie his ultimate objective: his doctorate. When Kedourie later led the assault on the blame-the-West thesis,21 the dogmatic denizens of Middle Eastern studies shunned him.
A similar treatment was meted out to me and my wife upon the publication of our co-authored Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Harvard University Press, 1999) - a comprehensive reinterpretation of the origins of the modern Middle East. Denying primacy to Western imperialism and attributing equal responsibility to regional powers, it refuted the orthodox belief in a longstanding European design on the Middle East culminating in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the notion that the European powers broke the Middle East's political unity by carving artificial states out of the defunct entity. No less important, Empires of the Sand laid to rest the popular myth of "Perfidious Albion," proving that it was Britain's Arab war allies who duped the largest empire on earth into backing the "Great Arab Revolt," rather than the other way round.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the book has incurred the ire of the Arabist establishment. Scathing indictments have been made, on the basis of hearsay, without writers taking the trouble to read the book. A leading academic has even urged fellow academics to place negative reviews on the website of a major Internet bookstore, so as to warn potential readers of our book.
Following a lengthy pre-publication review of Empires in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kenneth Cuno of the University of Illinois quickly alerted fellow members of MESCHA (Middle East Social and Cultural History Association), an informal network of scholars and graduate students, of the new threat to their cherished dogmas and conceptual frameworks.22 "I have just submitted a comment to a ‘colloquy' site created by The Chronicle of Higher Education with regard to a pre-reviewed book by Efraim and Inari Karsh entitled Empires of the Sand (Harvard, due out in December)," he wrote without the benefit of reading a single sentence of our book. "Never mind the Karshes' book. What I am more concerned about is The Chronicle author's evident conviction that what is new and cutting-edge in our field is old-fashioned political history cum polemic. Consider the damage that will do. Maybe if they hear from enough of us that something else is going on, they might take notice. Maybe even in the form of another article entitled something like ‘Middle East Historians Protest out of Date Image of their Field.'"
Cuno's letter elicited a string of enthusiastic responses from his colleagues. Though none of them had read the book, and some had not even read The Chronicle review, these staunch Arabists unquestioningly rallied to the call to discredit a scholarly work, the actual substance of which they were totally ignorant. "I think Ken's idea is good, and the most efficient way to do it is to have him or someone write a letter, and e-mail it to us for signatures," wrote Nikki Keddie of the University of California, Los Angeles. "The letter should be consensual enough in its views so most of us will sign." After reading The Chronicle review, her alarm seemed to have intensified, and she suggested a more comprehensive struggle against the book: "I no longer think a group letter important," she decided. It was better to have people "who both know the documents and can make general points give specific answers; and best of all, doing so after reading the book. But others of course can contribute answers that are useful."
Joel Beinin concurred. "I agree with the general thrust of Ken Cuno's comments and warning about the Karshes' new book," he wrote. "I was not planning on writing anything about this book before having a chance to read it (is that too old-fashioned now?) but I have reviewed a previous opus of Ephraim Karsh on the Israeli new historians which may give those interested an idea of what kind of person/scholar he is."
Beinin's reluctance to review a book without reading it first is to be commended; far less so his readiness to warn readers away from a scholarly work he has never read, or to dismiss it out of hand merely on the basis of an author's perceived personality. But this is precisely how this group has sought to confront the presumed threat of our book: not a scholarly debate on facts and theses but a character assassination couched in high pseudo-academic rhetoric. "This is not the first time that Efraim Karsh has written a highly self-important rebuttal of revisionist history," wrote Yezid Sayigh of Cambridge University. "He is simply not what he makes himself out to be, a trained historian (nor political/social scientist)."
Leave aside the fact that both my training (undergraduate degree in modern Middle Eastern history and Arabic language and literature, and a doctorate in political science and international relations) and my research output refute Sayigh's assertion. His misleading misrepresentation of my scholarly background is wholly irrelevant. Fabricating Israeli History has nothing to do with Empires of the Sand, which is a wholly different work in terms of scope, time frame, and historical methodology. But Sayigh is not a person to be bothered by such niceties. Having told his colleagues how "Morris and Shlaim et al … ‘swept the floor' with Karsh on methodological and documentary grounds" (although, so far it is Morris, rather than myself, who has admitted mistakes and backtracked on his earlier claims), Sayigh urges the writing of "robust responses [that] make sure that any self-respecting scholar will be too embarrassed to even try to incorporate the Karsh books in his/her teaching or research because they can't pretend they didn't know how flimsy their foundations are."
Mary Ann Fay from the American University of Sharjah seems to share his view. "Why this book?" she protested. "It is appalling to think that the wider academic community believes that all we do is ‘old' history, but what is even worse is the notion that our work still has to be judged for legitimacy (or illegitimacy) on where we stand in relation to Palestine."
Had Fay taken the trouble to read the book, she would have easily discovered that it has nothing to do with the Palestine question. Only one of its twenty-one chapters (twelve pages out of 400) deals with the origins of the Balfour Declaration, and even this, from a predominantly great-power perspective. There is a discussion of Palestine in a couple of other chapters, but then again, not from the perspective of an Arab-Jewish conflict but rather as an illustration of the perennial tension between imperialism and nationalism. Empires of the Sand simply ends before this conflict began to transcend its embryonic phase, and its scope is far wider than this localized feud.
Since we have seen the nature of Shlaim's and Morris's responses to Fabricating, it takes no great imagination to guess the essence of the "robust responses" envisaged by Sayigh. Indeed, when such robust responses were published, they made no greater an effort than Sayigh to grapple with Empires' thesis or to rebut its factual assertions. Consider, for example, the criticism by Richard Bulliet of Columbia University of our claim that "the price of Ottoman imperialism was often paid for by its national minorities." Referring to our description of a large-scale massacre of Armenians in Baku in September 1918, Bulliet argues that since Baku lies "some 500 miles beyond the Ottoman frontier[,] to the degree Armenians in Baku were a national minority, surely they were a national minority in the Russian, rather than in the Ottoman, empire. But to have said so would not so well have served the Karshes' interest."23
This is wrong not just by a mile, but by 500 miles. The Armenians of Baku were not massacred by the Russians, as implied by Bulliet, but rather by Ottoman forces that had occupied the city, together with vast Russian territories. Bulliet seems blissfully unaware of the history of the war in the Middle East: Russian forces in Transcaucasia went into rapid disintegration following the revolutionary upheavals of 1917, and Ottoman forces reached Baku the following year. To the degree Armenians in Baku were a national minority in the autumn of 1918, they were a national minority in the (temporarily) expanded Ottoman, rather than Russian empire. They were slaughtered precisely because of this fact. Bulliet's error is an appalling example of ignorance in a professional historian.
Indeed, what credential did Bulliet possess, that a leading journal in the field should ask him to review our book? He is a medievalist who has done no research or writing on the subject. But in his spare time, he propagates the view of the Middle East and its nations as hapless victims of Western imperialism. In Middle Eastern studies that in itself is a sufficient credential to pronounce on anything. In his review, Bulliet rushes to absolve the Ottomans of responsibility for crimes they committed in their effort to keep their own empire intact. The evidence be damned - for it would not so well have served Bulliet's interest.
Truth and Untruth
This conventional view - absolving Middle Easterners and blaming the West - is academically unsound and morally reprehensible. It is academically unsound because the facts tell an altogether different story of modern Middle Eastern history, one that has consistently been suppressed because of its incongruity with the politically correct dogmas of the Arabist establishment. And it is morally reprehensible because denying the responsibility of individuals and societies for their actions is patronizing and in the worst tradition of the "white man's burden" approach, which has dismissed regional players as half-witted creatures, too dim to be accountable for their own fate. As Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps the most influential early exponent of this approach, described the Arabs: "They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellect lay fallow in incurious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative … They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questioning. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades."24
Little wonder therefore that Empires of the Sand was more favorably received by Middle Eastern intellectuals, fed up with being talked down to and open to real revisionism of their region's history after suffering decades of condescension from their paternalistic champions in the West.
Efraim Karsh is professor of Mediterranean studies at King's College, University of London, and editor of Israel Affairs.1
Benny Morris, "Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948," in Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 37.2
Interview with Ze'ev Sternhell, Rive - Review of Mediterranean Politics and Culture
, Dec. 1996, p. 48.3
Ilan Pappé, "The Tantura Case in Israel: The Katz Research and Trial," Journal of Palestine Studies
, Spring 2001, at http://www.ipsjps.org/jps/119/pappe.html.4
Benny Morris, "A Second Look at the ‘Missed Peace,' or Smoothing out History: A Review Essay," Journal of Palestine Studies
, Autumn 1994, pp. 78-88; idem, "Refabricating 1948: Review Essay," ibid., Winter 1998, pp. 81-96.5
Benny Morris, "After Rabin," Journal of Palestine Studies
, Winter 1996, pp. 84, 86.6
Michael Kennedy, "Rewriting History," The Inquirer Magazine
, Feb. 1, 1998.7 Ha'aretz Musaf,
May 2, 1997.8
Ilan Pappé, letter to Ha'aretz Musaf
, May 9, 1997.9
Omer Bartov, "Of Past Wrongs - and Their Redressing," The Times Literary Supplement
(London), Oct. 31, 1997.10 Yedi‘ot Aharonot Musaf Shiv‘a Yamim
, Nov. 23, 2001.11
Joel Beinin, review of Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians,"
in Middle East Journal
, Summer 1998, p. 448.12 The Economist
, July 19, 1997; The Times Literary Supplement
, Nov. 14, 1997.13 The Times Literary Supplement
, Nov. 28, 1997. The term "transfer" refers to the alleged Zionist design to remove the Palestinians from their patrimony.14
Morris, "Refabricating 1948," p. 83.15
Avi Shlaim, "A Totalitarian Concept of History," Middle East Quarterly
, Sept. 1996, p. 55; Ha'aretz Musaf
, May 2, 1997.16
Memorandum by B.A.B. Burrows, Feb. 9 1948, FO 371/68368/E2696, Public Records Office, London.17
Efraim Karsh, "Historical Fictions," Middle East Quarterly
, Sept. 1996, p. 60.18
William Quandt, review of Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians,"
in MESA Bulletin
, Summer 1998, p. 118.19 The Sunday Times
(London), June 20, 1993.20
Rashid Khalidi, "The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure," in Rogan and Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine
, pp. 16-17.21
See Elie Kedourie, England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1921
(London: Cassell Academic, 1987); idem, In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and Its Interpretations, 1914-1939
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).22
MESCHA website at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~mescha/.23
Richard Bulliet, review of Empires of the Sand,
in Middle East Journal
, Autumn 2000, pp. 667-68.24
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1935), p. 38.
Related Topics: Academia, Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Middle East studies | Efraim Karsh | Summer 2002 MEQ
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