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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.

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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.”

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Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. He can be followed on Twitter, @jonathans_tobin.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Arabs expelled the million Jews from all their countries.
    The Jewish exodus from Arab lands refers to the 20th century expulsion or mass departure of Jews, primarily of Sephardic and Mizrahi background, from Arab and Islamic countries. The migration started in the late 19th century, but accelerated after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. According to official Arab statistics, over 989,000 Jews were forced out of their homes in Arab countries from 1948 until the early 1970's. Some 650,000 resettled in Israel, forced to leave behind assets, businesses, homes and land valued in the trillions of dollars. Jewish-owned real-estate left behind in Arab lands has been estimated at 120,000 square kilometers (5-6 times the size of the State of Israel).
    Let the Arab-Palestinians move to those properties that the Arab countries confiscated from the million Jewish people and pay them money from the funds they confiscated from the million Jewish people to relocate and build an economy and or resettle them in Jordan which was allocated to the Jewish people under the San Remo Treaty of 1920.
    YJ Draiman

  2. Very nicely stated. In addition to Peters' documentation of the inauthenticity of the Arab claim to Jewish Palestine, one must read Samuel Katz' 'Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine' which documents the continuous Jewish presence in Palestine (to the extent politically an physically possible) throughout history as well as the unstable and discontinuous Arab residence there.

    And there were no Arabs at all for 2000 years of Jewish sovereignty and national residnce since Joshua. It is worth noting that Arabs base their claim on having entered the Jewish homeland and inheritance from their native Arabia in an illegal invasion, occupation and colonial land grab, subjugating the indigenous Jews and expropriating their lands and labor.

    For more modern context, one must read William Bernard Ziff's 'Rape of Palestine' by which he means Jewish Palestine. It documents the British betrayal of their Mandate, and their collusion with the worst Arab war criminals to delay and destroy the modern Jewish state before it could ever be established. Aside from the usual Jew hatred, they wanted to control Iraq and an oil pipeline to Haifa, without independent and uncontrollable Jews in the way.

  3. While we are grateful to Tobin for putting the criticism of Peters into perspective, he misses a crucial point, here. Arab anti-Zionism is based not so much on the myth that the Arabs were always there but on the fact that their religion, Islam, explicitly prohibits Jewish sovereignty anywhere, and especially over Moslems. The conflict over Israel is not a territorial one. It is a religious one; and this is made explicitly clear in the Hamas Charter. The entire Moslem world, 56 countries, of which only 22 are Arab, refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. The Islamic Republic of Iran is Israel's deadliest enemy, and the Iranians are not Arabs. Why is this so? Because the Moslem god, Allah, in the Koran, and the Moslem prophet, Muhammad, command Moslems to make war on the Jews and either subjugate them to Islamic rule or to kill them. This is the real reason for the conflict over Israel, not the supposed displacement of the "native" Arab population.

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