If one of the prime functions of the historian is to hold a mirror up to society and explode its foundation myths, then Ilan Pappe is one of the premier historians practising in the world today.
Born in multicultural Haifa in 1954 and educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Oxford, he is a prominent member of the `New Historians’ school, which has been revising the historiography of the creation and expansion of the State of Israel since the expiry of the 30-year rule made available British and Israeli archival material. He also employs oral history methods to give voice to the vanquished and their under-documented lives. Rightly described by distinguished Australian journalist John Pilger as “Israel’s bravest, most principled, most incisive historian”, he will be delivering the annual University of Adelaide Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the Norwood Town Hall on Saturday, September 22.
Professor Pappe` identifies as a socialist activist, having been before his ostracism to the UK a leading member of the progressive Hadash movement, which sits in the Knesset to the left of the Labor Party. A socially and politically committed progressive scholar, who supports the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Zionist state, which he sees as not ruling in the best interests of the Jewish people. His activism is first and foremost scholarly and his scholarship activist and political. Thus he lays great emphasis on the need for a cultural boycott of Israel, citing the precedent of the successful isolation of South Africa. He sees change and hope arising from such effective external constraints rather than within Israel, which he considers a colonialist and racist ethnocracy and the prime destabilising factor in the Middle East. He denies that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East or even a democracy at all in the true sense of the word, but rather a `herrenvolk’ or supremacist master race democracy like apartheid South Africa, with which indeed Israel had close military ties. The professional and personal cost of his fearless work and advocacy has been considerable, including death threats to himself and his family in Israel. Accused by Zionists of deliberate misquotation, lying, and of course `fabrication’, it is his scholarship which explains the sense of threat manifested by his detractors. His work is well, although not completely, represented in Adelaide libraries.
A History of Modern Palestine, published in 2004 during `the twilight of the Oslo Agreement’ is a seminal work, which should be read by everyone interested in the history and politics of the Middle East. It is dedicated to his sons in the hope that they may live not only in a modern Palestine, but also in a peaceful one. The reference to modernity is a critical one, for Pappe` emphasises that both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism have been modernist ideologies seeking to transcend the traditional societies in reaction to which they arose. Pappe’s perspective is refreshingly humanist without being falsely `even handed’, a stance he criticises as “the false paradigm of parity”. His is a form of historical writing, which appears to owe something to the historical materialism of labour history and the French Annales school of history from below. It is not nationalist nor does it condone the misdeeds of the victors. Indeed he seeks to deconstruct the compartmentalisation of the modern history of Palestine into two competing nationalist camps. In his own words:
‘It is a narrative of those in Palestine who were brutalised and victimised by human follies…The abusive power used by people against other people in the aim of one ideology or another is condemned…for being the source of much evil and few blessings. These human ambitions wrought invasions, occupations, expulsions, discrimination and racism on Palestine. The heroes of this book are therefore the victims of these calamities: women children, peasants, workers, ordinary city dwellers, peaceniks, human rights activists. The `villains’ to a certain extent are the arrogant generals, the greedy politicians, the cynical statesman and the misogynist men. Many of the victims were, and still are, the indigenous people of Palestine, the Palestinians; but many of them also belong to the community of the newcomers, now evolving into a second generation of natives, the Jews.’
Pappé is a modern historian who understands that history is not exclusively about the past but about the temporal and social relationship between past, present and future. Therefore he sees a constructive role for historical writing in promoting the clarity of vision necessary to positive perspectives for the future. Thus he says:
‘We are constantly warned that we should not be slaves of our history and memory. This book is written with the view that in order to perform this liberation act in Israel and Palestine, you need first to rewrite, indeed salvage, a history that was erased and forgotten. The violent symbolic and real exclusion of people from the hegemonic narrative of the past is the source of the violence of the present.’
Dr David Faber is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Economics, the University of Adelaide
Professor Ilan Pappe`
University of Adelaide Edward Said Memorial Lecture
Norwood Town Hall
Saturday, September 22.