Ilan Pappe is an Israeli academic who has made his name by hating Israel and everything it stands for. In his view, expressed with obsession and a degree of paranoia, Jewish nationalism, that is to say Zionism, has been from its outset a deliberate tool for dispossessing the Palestinians; and therefore it is to be condemned root and branch. He reserves the Palestinian term of Nakba, meaning catastrophe, for describing what to Israelis is their war of independence of 1948. To him, Israeli politicians and soldiers, one and all, are so many murderers. Forests have been planted only to cover up the past. Houses are ‘monstrous villas and palaces for rich American Jews’. Everything Israeli is ugly, everything Palestinian is beautiful. One day, he supposes, the Israelis may well consummate their original crime with something even worse. The only possible alternative lies in the immediate return of every Palestinian to his original home, and that will mean the end of the state whose existence so offends Pappe. This, of course, is exactly the inflexible position taken by Hamas and the PLO.
The reader’s initial reaction must be one of pity. Poor man! What a strain it must be to belong to a nation whose members are so overwhelmingly unbearable that he longs for them to be overpowered by others. Yet there is more to it than that. Sad and creepy though it is, Pappe’s anger is open to rational analysis.
The doctrinal element pushing Pappe into anti-Zionism is his prominent involvement in the Israeli Communist Party, known as Hadash. An outcrop of pure Stalinism and always a marginal movement, Communism in Israel rejected Zionism in favour of internationalism, according to which Jews and Arabs were to form a state together. Events, indeed the whole thrust of history, have proven this to be a complete illusion, but Pappe remains one of a minute handful still in its grip.
The further emotional element pushing Pappe towards his hatred of Zionism is best elucidated by J L Talmon in his profound book, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution. Among the ‘horribly charged and tormenting questions’ Talmon asks is why so many Jews have adopted identities that seemingly allow them to deny their Jewishness. Uncountable numbers of Jews have followed the example of the Karl Marxes, Trotskys and Rosa Luxemburgs who sought identities as Communists and revolutionaries in the hope that this would allow them to merge with those who otherwise would be their persecutors. Some Communists – like Lazar Kaganovich, and many in the KGB as well as leaders in the Soviet satellites – set about the deliberate destruction of the Jewish religion and culture. Talmon speaks openly of the neurosis and ‘morbid masochism’ motivating such unhappy people.
In Nazi Germany a few Jews tried to camouflage themselves in a similar manner. Felix Jacoby opened his Kiel University lectures in 1933 by comparing Hitler to the Emperor Augustus. Dr Hans-Joachim Schoeps and Max Naumann even formed a movement of Jews for Hitler. With gallows humour, other Jews replied that this movement’s slogan was Raus mit Uns, or Out with Us. In Israel today, Neturei Karta, a sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews, believes that the Messiah alone should bring about a Jewish state, and that Israel is therefore an impiety fit for destruction. In New York they have a branch called Jews Against Zionism, and recently they welcomed President Ahmedinejad in person there, supporting his call for genocide in Israel. Pappe is the secular and political version of these sectarians. As often happens, extremists have come from opposing poles only to reach the same conclusion.
Zionism, in Pappe’s conventional Marxist view, had nothing to do with the need for Jews to survive persecution by Europeans or Arabs, but was only a settler and colonialist movement cynically directed by British imperialists and their greedy Jewish collaborators. He characterises David Ben-Gurion, the driving personality in the latter stages of the foundation of the state of Israel, as someone who always intended to expel Palestinians from the land. To bring this about, he assembled a body which Pappe refers to as the Consultancy, but the details of who these people were, and what they really did, he fails to give us, instead preferring to conjure an aura of sinister conspiracy. The Israelis were always the stronger party and knew that they would win out at the end of the British Mandate in 1948, Pappe says. In contrast, the Palestinians were defenceless and hardly violent at all, designated victims whose villages were mercilessly overrun and many of the inhabitants butchered.
A huge literature exists in British, Arab and Israeli archives to reveal the multiple reasons for the flight of the Palestinians at the time, ranging from a belief that invading Arab armies were about to rescue them, and they should move out of harm’s way, to a cultural reflex that they could not accept Jews in positions of authority, an escapism on the part of some leaders and delusions of power on the part of others, and of course fear. Savage things were certainly perpetrated by both sides – à la guerre comme à la guerre – but Pappe will have none of that, completely ignoring the context in all its complexity and local variation. His technique is to list towns and villages as though their capture involved always and only simple brutality and expulsion. No mention of the Jewish need to survive in an existential struggle in the aftermath of the Holocaust; no mention of the 6,000 Jews killed, which was 1 per cent of the population; no mention of Azzam Pasha of the Arab League promising a massacre of Jews on the scale of the Mongols; no mention of Arab radio propaganda and disinformation; no proper account of Arab military successes, brushing over Arab atrocities and the destruction of Jewish settlements; no mention of the countervailing expulsion and expropriation of a million Jews in Arab countries.
As history, the book is worthless. In interviews Pappe regularly explains: ‘We do [historiography] because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth seekers.’ For him, as a Marxist and anti-nationalist, ‘there is no such thing as truth, only a collection of narratives’. To substantiate his particular ideological narrative, Pappe puts the worst possible interpretation on any Jewish deed or word, while validating anything said or done by Palestinians. For evidence of Israeli monstrosity, he relies on quotations from his own previous works or from Palestinian polemicists, and above all on the oral testimonies of Palestinian refugees. Over half a century of military and ideological conflict has passed since their exodus, but Pappe declares his faith that whatever they now say is true. This might all seem too pathological to matter much, but Arab and Muslim extremists are making huge efforts to contest the legitimacy of Israel, and many of their allies on the international Left will lean on Pappe for purposes of ‘pilgering’ and ‘fisking’.
The final element contributing to Pappe’s mindset lies in the sphere of psychology and fashion. Contemporary intellectuals have long been accustomed to glorying in an adversarial stance towards their own society, preening themselves as men of nobler spirits than the dull indifferent masses around them, and isolated not because they are foolish but because they are brave. It is a form of snobbery – moral snobbery – which is why intellectuals of this kind are so widely resented.
There is a fatal contradiction at the heart of Pappe’s advocacy of the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees as the necessary condition of peace. If Israelis are really as vicious as Pappe presents them, then Palestinians could not possibly want to live among them. Are Palestinians to return only to wipe out Israelis or to be wiped out themselves? Poor Palestinians, poor Israelis, to be mobilised for such fates. And should Hamas, the PLO or President Ahmadinejad make good on threats to eliminate Israel, there will not be time to rescue Pappe from the consequences of his moral snobbery and his Marxism, or to discover whether he really applauds his own Raus mit Uns demise.