A Totalitarian Concept of History

Avi Shlaim

Middle East Quarterly, 3:3, September 1996, 52-55

Efraim Karsh makes a vigorous contribution to the debate about Israel's early history in his article. This debate began a decade ago, following the publication of books by Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and myself, and it clearly is still going strong. Although it has generated a great deal of heat, especially at the beginning, the debate itself is a wholly positive development and a reflection of the maturity of Israeli society. Karsh's contribution is significant because it is based on extensive reading and because it touches on issues that are fundamental to the "new" or revisionist school of writing about Israel's history.

"Not Guilty"

Karsh makes many sweeping generalizations about the work of the new historians. I cannot really complain about this as I myself have similarly written in a shorthand fashion about the work of the "old," or Zionist, or traditionalist historians. But it should be stressed at the outset that there is no club, society, or trade union, let alone a political party with card-carrying members, of new historians. Nor is there collective responsibility for the new history; each new historian is responsible solely and exclusively for what he himself has written. I am not my brothers' keeper nor are they mine.

For my part, I wish to enter a plea of "not guilty" to nearly all the charges Karsh levels collectively against the new historians: I am not a "self-styled" new historian nor a self-styled guardian of truth and morality; I do not attempt to prove that the Jewish state was born in sin nor do I seek to champion the cause of the Palestinians; and I most emphatically do not fashion my research to suit contemporary political agendas. Karsh also charges the new historians of making much of their relatively young age; I have never referred to my age in print before, but, at the ripe age of fifty, I find it flattering to be described as young.

Karsh's critique of the new historians is two-fold: he denies our claim to have provided factual revelations and he challenges our interpretations. He quotes me as writing in 1995 that "the new historiography is written with access to the official Israeli and Western documents, whereas the earlier writers had no access, or only partial access, to the official documents." This still strikes me as an eminently fair and accurate summary of the situation. Karsh goes on to point out that recent "old historians," such as Itamar Rabinovich and Avraham Sela, went over much of the same documents and came up with very different conclusions. Why does he expect all readers of official documents to come up with the same conclusions?

Karsh's totalitarian conception of history rears its head all the more clearly when he moves from new facts to new interpretations. "As for new interpretations," he writes, "some are indeed new, but only because they are flat wrong." This reminds me of the French chef who refuses to provide salt and pepper in his restaurant on the grounds that anyone who thinks that his dishes need more salt and pepper is simply wrong. Karsh is kind enough to say that my interpretations ring truer than those of my colleagues -- "but only because they are old and familiar." He is referring here to the claim of Jordanian-Israeli collusion which forms the central theme of my 1988 book, Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine. In fact, says Karsh, this conspiracy theory has been quite pervasive both in the Arab world and in Israel.

Evidently, Karsh wants to have it both ways. On the one hand he says that my interpretation is old, familiar, and unoriginal, and that I have hardly broken new ground. On the other hand, he takes me to task for this interpretation. But surely what matters is not whether the interpretation I advance is old or new, original or unoriginal, pervasive or peripheral, but whether it is sound or not. I shall therefore devote the rest of this reply to a rebuttal of Karsh's main arguments against the two collusion theses.

Collusion across the Jordan

Karsh and I clearly differ in our interpretation of what transpired at the secret meeting between Golda Meir and King `Abdallah of Transjordan on November 17, 1947. Extensive quotations from the reports of all three Jewish participants support my account of this meeting. But Karsh gives a highly selective and tendentious account designed to exonerate the Jewish side of any responsibility for frustrating the U.N. partition plan. It is true (as my book explains) that `Abdallah did most of the talking at this meeting and that no binding decisions were taken, due to the fact that the United Nations was about to vote on partition. That said, the two sides went a long way to coordinate their positions. `Abdallah began by outlining his plan for pre-empting the mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, and explored the Jewish response to his capturing the Arab part of Palestine and attaching it to his kingdom. Meir replied that the Jewish Agency would view such an attempt in a favorable light, especially if `Abdallah did not interfere with the establishment of a Jewish state, avoided a military confrontation, and declared that his sole purpose was to maintain law and order until the United Nations could establish a government in that area.

Six months later, Mrs. Meir reported: "For our part we told him then that we could not promise to help his incursion into the country." This is correct. The understanding was not that the Jews would actively help `Abdallah capture the Arab part of Palestine (in defiance of the United Nations) but that (1) he would take it himself, (2) the Zionists would set up their own state, and (3) after the dust had settled, the two parties would make peace. `Abdallah was even prepared to sign a written agreement setting out the terms of collaboration and asked the Jews to prepare a draft. He also asked the Jews considerably to raise the level of their financial aid to him. Karsh makes no mention of the money paid by the Jewish Agency to `Abdallah; but if the Jews had really accepted the U.N. plan for an independent Palestinian state, surely they would have cut off their financial subsidy to `Abdallah after he had made clear his determination to make himself master of Arab Palestine.

Most surprising is Karsh's claim that my thesis is predicated on a single diplomatic encounter's profoundly affecting the course of history. My account, he says, "reflects a complete lack of understanding about the nature of foreign policymaking in general and of the Zionist decision-making process in particular." This remark betrays a misunderstanding of my collusion thesis, which is based not on a single diplomatic encounter but on `Abdallah's relations with the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel over a period of thirty years, from the creation of Transjordan in 1921 to the king's murder in 1951. A common hostility to Hajj Amin al-Husayni and a common desire to contain Palestinian nationalism sustained their relationship, I argue, almost without interruption for all those years. The November 17, 1947, meeting should be seen in this context, a meeting held behind a thick veil of secrecy, involving much underhand scheming and plotting, directed against a third party, and resulting in an agreement to partition Palestine at the expense of the Palestinians. If this is not collusion, I don't know what is.

Collusion with Great Britain

I advance a subsidiary thesis in my book (p. 1) that

By secretly endorsing Abdullah's plan to enlarge his kingdom, Britain became an accomplice in the Hashemite-Zionist collusion to frustrate the United Nations partition resolution of 29 November 1947 and to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state.
Karsh considers this thesis to be "fundamentally flawed." In fact, his version of my account of the February 1948 meeting between Ernest Bevin and Tawfiq Abul Huda is hopelessly inaccurate and misleading. I maintain that Bevin approved the Transjordanian plan to invade the Arab parts of Palestine but warned Abul Huda off invading the Jewish areas; Karsh denies both claims.

There are two records of this meeting: the 1957 memoirs of Sir John Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, and a minute dated February 9, 1948, by Bernard Burrows, head of the Middle East Department at the Foreign Office. According to Karsh: "Shlaim's choosing an old and partisan account [meaning Glubb] over a newly released official document [Burrows] suggests a desperate attempt to prove the existence of such a warning." In fact, my account proceeds in stages:

(1) I report that Bevin was briefed before the meeting about `Abdallah's plan to occupy parts of Arab Palestine and then, after a suitable lapse of time, to reach a de facto agreement with the Jews.

(2) I note that Bevin's advisers urged him to warn Abul Huda not to get involved in hostilities against the Jewish state.

(3) I reproduce in full Glubb's account of the meeting.

(4) I compare Glubb's account with the official British record of the meeting by Burrows released thirty years later. I note that what Glubb represents as an explicit warning appears as a question, to which Abul Huda replied that the Arab Legion would not enter Jewish areas unless the Jews invaded Arab areas. Abul Huda did not ask for an explicit endorsement of his plan and no explicit endorsement was given; but he was left in no doubt that Britain preferred the partition of Palestine between Transjordan and the Jewish state to the U.N. partition plan. Again, if this is not collusion, I don't know what is.

After the meeting, Burrows did write that "it is tempting to think that Transjordan might transgress the boundaries of the United Nations Jewish State to the extent of establishing a corridor across the Southern Negeb." Karsh does not say that Burrows himself described this as one of several considerations not suitable for circulation outside the Foreign Office. Karsh evidently attaches much greater significance to the ruminations of a middle-level career civil servant than I do.

The real bogey of Zionist historiography is, of course, Ernest Bevin, British foreign secretary in 1945-1951. My mother used to say to me when I was three years old, "If you don't eat your porridge, Mr. Bevin will come and take you away." (This threat always worked.) Following in the footsteps of many Zionist leaders and historians (and my mother), Karsh accuses Bevin of hatching dark plots against the Jewish state during the twilight of British rule in Palestine. But no convincing evidence has ever been produced for this anti-Jewish conspiracy. All the documents I have seen suggest that by February 1948, Bevin was resigned to the inevitable emergence of a Jewish state but intent on frustrating the birth of a Palestinian state. Opposition to a Palestinian state -- in British eyes, synonymous with a mufti-run state -- was a constant thread in British policy during this period. The mufti was Britain's enemy whereas `Abdallah was her client, affectionately known in the Foreign Office as "Mr Bevin's little king." Thus, if there is a case to be made against Bevin, it is not that he encouraged his little king to interfere with the establishment of a Jewish state but that he was a secret accomplice in the king's plan to abort the U.N. partition plan and to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

Karsh accuses me, as a new historian, of fashioning my research to suit contemporary political agendas. This is a serious charge that he makes without producing a single shred of evidence. He holds that the new historians' "sustained assault on the received version of Israel's early history" has direct political importance in that it affects the course of Israeli-Palestinian efforts to make peace. I beg to differ: the debate about Israel's early history is a debate about history, not about contemporary politics.

Karsh also accuses me, again as a new historian, of systematically distorting archival evidence to invent an Israeli history in an image of my own making. This, too, is a very serious charge and equally without any basis in fact. If failure to draw from the archival evidence the same conclusions as he does amounts to systematic distortion, then so be it. But if Karsh wants to be taken seriously as a historian, he should desist from distorting and misrepresenting the work of his opponents; and he must produce much more convincing evidence than he has in "Rewriting Israel's History."