5 May, 2014Issue 25.1HistoryNon-fictionWorld Politics

Email This Article Print This Article

Historicising the Historians

Dominic Davies

Ilan Pappé
The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge
Verso Books, 2014
288 pages
ISBN 978-1844678563

In February of this year, an anticipatory crowd gathered in a lecture room in Wadham College here in Oxford. Full to seated capacity fifteen minutes before the talk was even due to start, audience members scoured the surrounding college rooms for chairs and crammed them into the few spare square metres at the back of the lecture hall. The audience had gathered to hear the keynote address of the University of Oxford’s Israeli Apartheid Week 2014 from an historian who has dedicated his life’s work to one of the most controversial and hotly contested geopolitical and historical issues of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Ilan Pappé, now Professor at the College of Social Science and International Studies at the University of Exeter, has, as an Israeli historian, been engaged in the historical re-writing of Israel’s troubling past throughout his academic career. His thorough and convincing study of the early years of Israel’s occupation, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), gained him international recognition beyond the Israeli academy—whether such recognition took the form of acclaim for the book’s academic rigour and important historical excavation, or of slander as “anti-Israeli propaganda produced by a self-hating Jew”, the publicity the work generated was equally virile and fiercely debated. Pappé has since published, with Noam Chomsky, Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians (2010) and offered a nuanced and sensitive account of those Palestinians who did not flee in 1948 or 1967—key dates in the Palestine/Israel historiography—entitled, The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel (2011).

But these are only the highlights of the long list of his published achievements, and are informed by decades not only of historical and archival research, but also by his ongoing social activism and countless appearances on television debates and in other public arenas. Pappé has been a tireless lecturer at campaigns and demonstrations, not to mention his two decades as senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa as well as his current role at Exeter. For, to be a historian of Palestine/Israel is, whether one chooses the path or not, to be a prominently public intellectual. Noam Chomsky, perhaps Pappé’s most famous co-author, admirably turned from his field of linguistics to extensive critiques of American foreign policy and back again, a pioneering exception in a politically-weary academy that now tires, it seems, of using its voice to initiate any effective social change. But the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is so immediately an issue not only of the past but also—and as Pappé himself is always keen to stress—of the present, that it introduces an extremely specific and hugely controversial political imperative into every academic work on Israel or Palestine. Though Pappé has embraced this political responsibility with vigour throughout his career, this political imperative launches almost all academics who write about and analyse the cultural, economic, geographic, and political histories of the pasts of both Israel and Palestine into a sphere of public debate.

It is this relationship between academic production and governmental or geopolitical tensions that the subtitle of Pappé’s new book, A History of Power and Knowledge, gestures towards. This terminology looks back to the groundbreaking work of French historian, Michel Foucault, who argued that knowledge was always a servant to, and a product of, power. Power produces knowledge about things—not a politically neutral knowledge, but one that serves the interests of the power which produces it. Through this invocation, Pappé taps into one of the most astonishing dimensions of the now decades-old debate around Palestine/Israel: the triangular relationship between a rigorous academic scholarship that proclaims empirical objectivity and publishes institutionally “authorised” histories; the representation of the region’s geopolitical history by a public and mainstream media discourse that organises a pro-Israeli narrative around a select representation and communication of the facts, citing that same authoritative academic scholarship; and the invocation of these histories by the Israeli government to legitimise and justify its policies of territorial expansion, land dispossession, and ethnic segregation. The fact that this discourse occasionally drags in historians such as Pappé to speak for the Palestinian cause within the mainstream sphere of this triangulation is deployed, horrifyingly often, as a method of slander and dismissal, using the academic authority of established historians selectively as knowledge becomes defined as “correct” or “true” through its serviceability to power.

Of course, there are some environments, such as the lecture room in Wadham College during Israeli Apartheid Week, when Pappé speaks to a supportive and suitably appreciative audience. An articulate and knowledgeable speaker, Pappé highlighted in his talk how essential events such as these are, especially in the light of Israel’s intensification of settler colonial and apartheid policies in the last few years—systems that Pappé also addresses and offers insight into in the closing sections of The Idea of Israel. But this most recent book offers a further analytical insight into the underpinning power politics of knowledge production around the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Rather than simply writing a history of the colonising nation, a project that Pappé has now done on numerous occasions and from different angles, The Idea of Israel offers a history of history-writing. It charts the historical development of the politics underpinning academic productions about Israel’s history: essentially, Pappé historicises the historians. The result is a compelling account of the way in which historical narrative has been exploited to serve the interests and excuse the atrocities of the world’s oldest, and still-ongoing, colonial project.

For a reader coming to the histories of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for the first time, Pappé’s text may, in certain sections, be a little dry. It is, after all, largely a history of the academic production of knowledge. Though this of course ties into key political moments and certain aspects of mainstream media debates, it is helpful for readers to have an outline of Palestinian/Israeli history before they turn to this contribution. But as both an addition to and survey of the current historiography of the region—of which Pappé’s own work is of course a crucial part—The Idea of Israel is an insightful and valuable study. It charts a convincing, if somewhat depressing, trajectory of history-writing in Israel.

For example, in what is perhaps the books most interesting section, Pappé recovers a now-largely forgotten surge in subversive knowledge-production during the 1990s that initiated a re-calibration of Israel’s past within the Israeli academy itself. Whilst coinciding historically with what was hoped would be, at the time, political progress made by the Oslo Accords, this phase in Israeli academia actually saw the beginnings of the construction of a mutual historical narrative, making the crucial historical but also political step of acknowledging rather than denying the numerous atrocities of the previous half-century. As Pappé makes clear, for a future free of conflict—whether it be for one nation state or two—there must also be some agreement on a general and over-arching historical narrative: in order to look forward, both sides have to look back. Unfortunately, and as Pappé’s thorough study also documents, with the fall-out of the 1990s peace talks and a reactionary hostility to the second Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s, this knowledge production has since shifted back to earlier, overtly pro-Israeli narratives, working to reflect and legitimise the newly expansionist and segregationist policies of twenty-first-century Israeli governments. In the last decade, it seems, knowledge remains largely at the service of power in the Israeli academy.

Despite the sombre trajectory of Pappé’s history of history-writing, though, it is still a pertinent project in many ways, and The Idea of Israel takes its readers right into the current political moment to explain why this is so. The publication of this book offers unique coverage and meta-historical insight into a weary historic-political issue that has been ongoing, with varying and uneven intensities, for nearly sixty years. But it also offers more than this. As Pappé himself stated in his address in Oxford at Wadham College in February, the publication of The Idea of Israel coincides with a contemporary resurgence in international resistance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. For example, and in a coincidental coordination that suggests the timeliness of Pappé’s latest study, in December 2013 the American Studies Association voted to join the boycott of all Israeli educational institutions, a move pre-empted by the Association of Asian American Studies in April 2013 and since followed by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in 2014. Stephen Hawking’s refusal to attend the Israeli president’s conference in response to requests from Palestinian academics last year also made international headlines.

These recent boycotts suggest that the international academy still has an important role to play in both a political and public sphere. What The Idea of Israel makes clear, however, is that this should take place not only through boycott, as important as this may be. Academics must be dedicated to the production of empirical knowledge not subject to the influence of power of nation-states or their governments, nor the mainstream narratives of accepted media representations of events. Furthermore, historians must retain an awareness of the way in which knowledge is always communicated in narratives that are larger than the facts they convey, recalling that they themselves always write history out of certain politico-ideological climates. It is this capacity for self-criticism and self-reflexivity that make Pappé’s case so convincing and inscrutable: and as has been the case before on many occasions, his most recent offering is yet another honourable and successful effort to lead by example.

Dominic Davies is reading for a D.Phil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor of the Oxonian Review.