The recent death of Joan Peters recalls one of the most intense and bitter literary controversies in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Her 1984 book From Time Immemorial set off a memorable scuffle between both Israeli and Arab writers. But like many such controversies the ultimate impact of the discussion did more to obscure the truth about the origins of the conflict over Palestine than to shed light on it.
The moral of the story is that while Peters’s book was flawed, it might have prompted an important debate about one of the key assumptions of Israel’s critics. Instead, the angry pushback her volume received from liberals and Arab apologists served only to demonstrate that anyone who seeks to challenge the Palestinian narrative of dispossession by the Jews does so at their own peril.
Peters’s intention was to write a book sympathetic to the Palestinian refugees. But in the course of her research, she stumbled across an important fact that had hitherto received no notice from Westerners who opined about the Arab-Israeli conflict: though the Arabs claim to have possessed Palestine for many centuries, a significant percentage of their population in 1948 could trace their origins to immigrants who crossed into what is now Israel during the last years of Ottoman rule and during the era of the British Mandate for Palestine.
The idea that Arabs rather than just Jews arrived in the country during the period when Jews were working to build it up contradicts the basic conceit of all attacks on Zionism. Instead of the Palestinians losing a country that had been theirs “from time immemorial,” this revelation placed both sides in the conflict on a somewhat equal footing.
If a great many of those Arab refugees who fled the country during Israel’s War of Independence were, at best, second-generation immigrants to Palestine then surely it would not have been so difficult to reintegrate them into other Arab countries just as Jewish refugees from Arab countries were resettled in Israel.
But to admit that not all Palestinian refugees had roots going back for many centuries to what had become Israel undermined the basic critique of Zionism. To those who wish to cast the struggle over the land as one of Palestinian victims and Jewish aggressors, the narrative of dispossession has taken on the aspect of a catechism that may not be questioned. Thus, by calling into question one of the basic Palestinian myths, Peters had committed an unpardonable sin for which she had to be punished.
The abuse that rained down on From Time Immemorial and its author in the aftermath of its publication provided a cautionary tale that has ensured that no one followed in Peters’s footsteps. But unfortunately the argument about the book wasn’t as simple as that. That’s because Peters made a number of serious errors in the course of her research that allowed critics to claim that the entire work was fraudulent. It wasn’t, but once any doubt was cast on the authenticity of any of the statistics she used, Peters’s detractors were able to simply shut down the entire discussion, essentially marginalizing what was otherwise a valuable intellectual exercise.
Scholar Rael Jean Isaac provided the best analysis of this controversy in a July 1986 article in Commentary magazine. Isaac unpacked both the motives of Peters’s foes as well as the mistakes Peters had made. As Isaac noted: “Despite all the faults of Miss Peters’s critics, her book does indeed deserve some of the criticism it has received. Her handling of materials, particularly in the central section dealing with demographic issues, is flawed.”