The Spine

Historical Agents

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The Boston Globe wants its Jewish readers to do penance. A contrite Jewish woman named Alice Rothchild published an op-ed sometime this past week, in the penitential mood, heaping the sins of normality (a people and a state that defend themselves against enemies sworn to their obliteration) on all of us--my reference to the "us" here alluding to her Jewish readers. No matter, except that the writer, so eager to vest the Palestinians with their own narrative, robs it from them by laying all the blame for the present and past turbulence on Israel.

In the Sunday Globe "Ideas" section (which was truly inspired when it was edited by TNR alumnus Alex Star), someone else--a real somebody (and I don't mean this sardonically)--has been summoned to wag his finger, too, at the Israelis at the end of their ten-day period of contrition and on the very eve of their Day of Atonement. And who has been mustered? Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. Where else?

Now, the Globe is trying also to be alert to the Jewish sensibility that the paper has been battering for years. Yes, the Globe tells us in the very same "Ideas" section: You, too, have suffered. The Nazis murdered many of you, and one index of that is the empty 330-year-old (not 400, as given in the Globe) Portuguese Synagogue the killers left standing for some reason. Oh, the number they murdered? Roughly 125,000 of the 150,000 Jews in the country. Percentage-wise, Polish and Greek Jews fared much worse. But who's counting?

Back to Khalidi. His article, an excerpt from his new book, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, is titled "Unwritten History." It makes the argument, stated in a large pull-quote, that "it is important to ascribe agency to the Palestinians, to avoid seeing them as helpless victims of forces greater than themselves--or as driven solely by self-destructive tendencies." But, in this 40 inches of type, he devotes barely ten to what the Palestinians did or failed to do on their own over the century of the conflict. Raising this question is a good thing to do.

Yes, the Jordanians and the British colluded (actually against the Zionists); Jordan may also have colluded with Israel. But this doesn't deny "agency" to others. What really happened is that Palestinian notables (members of the Arab Higher Committee, the leaders of the "nationalist" Arabs of Palestine) sold great expanses of land to the Jewish National Fund and to other Zionist agencies. See the devastating records--actual records--and a scrupulous narrative in Kenneth Stein's The Land Question in Palestine. Most important, since the Arabs of Palestine (in those days, they hardly called themselves Palestinians) really did not muster a communal resistance to Zionism, they were left exporting their "solution" to neighboring Arab states: These Arab countries did their fighting for them. The Arab states represented them at international conferences. The Arab states also screwed them. No Palestinian Arab body ever even rejected the U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine, let alone negotiated its terms.

Khalidi is still making the case that there was no real war between the Zionists and the Arabs--and that this is a myth created by the victors to obfuscate and disguise their overwhelming force. Actually, 6,000 Jews were killed in the War of Independence. This was fully 1 percent of the Jewish population of Palestine at the time. Were they fighting phantoms? Or were the Jews a real functioning nation and the Palestinians (like many of their Arab cousins) still mired in more backward social formations, of which the brutal internecine warfare among the populations in Gaza and the West Bank remain devastating exemplars?

There is something pathetic in Khalidi's blaming the Jews for the absence of a reliable record of Palestinian Arab history. My God, the Jews kept records and made archives of their very extermination by the Nazis. These serious and definitive collections dot the world: Jerusalem, New York, Warsaw, Germany, and on and on. "There is no central depository of Palestinian records," whines Khalidi, and this has prevented a real national myth from having been written. Mind you, what he wants is not true history--as far as truth is determinable in complex circumstances--but what he calls official history. "The production of a standard 'official' Palestinian narrative was never really possible." Now, Khalidi himself has written such a volume--not "the" narrative but a part of the "official" narrative. It is Under Siege: PLO Decision-making in the 1982 War. Is it to be trusted? If this is Khalidi's ambition and intent, one cannot know.

If Khalidi wants a state he'd do better to try to grasp their instinct for fratricide than blame the Israelis for having "carried off" Arab archival materials to which, in any case, scholars have free and unfettered access. There is no sin here about which the Jews need atone.

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