(This is the second of two essays on Joan Peters. The first was posted on January 11, 2015).
Jonathan Tobin has written an essay about Joan Peters, who died two weeks ago (“Joan Peters and the Perils of Challenging the Palestinian Narrative”, Commentary, January 13, 2015). I’d like to share portions of it with you.
More than 30 years ago, Joan Peters defended Israel. But her defense had errors. She made mistakes. She was pilloried for those mistakes.
But her thesis, Tobin argues, was sound.
Tobin’s essay might be the most objective view of Ms Peters’ work you will see. Here is my reading of that essay:
The death of author 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. But like many such politically-motivated scuffles, it didn’t illuminate anything. Instead, it helped Palestinian advocates to obscure the truth about the origins of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Peters had wanted to write a book sympathetic to the Palestinian refugees. But in the course of her research, she stumbled across information that had been ignored by Westerners: though the Arabs claim to have possessed Palestine for many centuries, a significant number of Arabs in British Palestine were actually immigrants who had crossed into what is now Israel during the last years of Ottoman rule--and during the era of the British Mandate for Palestine (1922-1947).
The idea that numbers of Arabs and Jews both arrived in the country at approximately the same time contradicted the most basic argument found in 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 far more equal footing. It gave Jews a greater standing in pre-state Israel than Arab apologists had credited.
Yes, there were always more Arabs in Israel than Jews during this period. But those Arabs never self-defined as a ‘Palestinian people’—and a large number of them were as new to the land as the Jews.
A second discovery she made, which Tobin doesn’t mention, is that as many Jews fled Arab countries as Arabs fled Israel. This was also a blow to the Palestinian narrative because, if a great many of those Arab refugees who fled Israel during Israel’s War of Independence had been immigrants to begin with, then, surely, it shouldn’t have been so difficult to reintegrate them back to their origin countries. After all, Jewish refugees from Arab countries had resettled in Israel; why couldn’t Arab refugees resettle?
Those who defended the ‘Palestinian narrative’ couldn’t admit that Palestinians were, in many, many instances just as new to Israel as Jews. The narrative allowed for no nuance. It required that this conflict was between two ‘peoples’ fighting over the same land, with Palestinians as indigenous victims and Jews as foreign aggressors. It was a narrative of dispossession that had become a catechism that could not in any way be questioned.
Peters questioned the catechism. She called into question one of the basic Palestinian myths (that only Arabs had been dispossessed in the Arab-Israel war). She had committed an unpardonable sin. She had to be punished. And so she was.
Her problem was, she had made errors in the course of her research. These mistakes didn’t negate her premise (that Palestinians weren’t an ancient people, indigenous to Israel). But they allowed critics to claim that the entire work was fraudulent.
It wasn’t. But once doubt was cast on the authenticity of one of the statistics she had used, detractors were able to shut down the entire discussion.
Tobin cites the scholar Rael Jean Isaac who, he says, may have provided the best analysis of this controversy in a July 1986 article in COMMENTARY. Isaac unpacked both the motives of Peters’s foes as well as the mistakes she had made. As she noted, Peters’ book does indeed deserve some of the criticism it has received. But the frustrating aspect of all this is that, as Isaac wrote, there was no need for Miss Peters to overstate her projections. There was overwhelming evidence, some of which she used in her book, of extensive Arab migration into Jewish-settled areas [and there is also evidence of a massive dispossession of Jews from Arab countries].
Scholar Isaac concluded that, despite her errors, Peters’ thesis was ‘generally sound’.
Nevertheless, the truth at the heart of the book was lost. Critics piled on and wrongly accused Peters of constructing a myth that sought to delegitimize the Palestinians. The truth she had discovered was suppressed. Her attackers protected the false notion that Palestinians were an ancient and indigenous people who had been thrown out to make way for foreign Jewish interlopers.
The lesson dished out to Joan Peters was clear. If you doubt the Palestinian narrative, you’ll be ruthlessly trashed.
Peters had dared to question. For that, she had to be attacked-- whether or not she made mistakes in her book.
Her mistakes made the attacks easier.
Today, more than 30 years after the publication of this book, ‘Palestinians’ and their increasingly virulent supporters are still committed to their false catechism. They are no more willing to examine the truth about their origin myths today than they were in 1984.
While Joan Peters’s book was far from perfect, it attempted to alert the world to the reality that the Palestinians had built their anti-Zionist ideology on a foundation of sand. Her basic facts are generally correct. She deserves, Tobin writes, to be remembered for her discoveries, rather than for the smears that were hurled at her.
You can read the whole essay in Commentary.