New Historians, new understandings of the past, and recent critiques of Zionist discourse

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New Historians

Understandably, therefore, when a group of scholars call into question or challenge the narratives of a nation's past that had previously been taken as true, it is perceived as an attack on the values and ideals that were linked to these narratives and legitimated by them. Similarly, when the dominant representations of a nation's culture and society are called into question, this questioning is also taken to be a challenge to the nation's self-definition--along with its collective values and forms of social interaction.

In Israel, this is precisely what happened beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, a small but vocal group of Israeli scholars, historians, and social scientists began to publish a series of books and articles that called into question long-embraced narratives of Israeli's historical past and widely accepted representations of Israeli society. These scholars, who have come to be known as "new historians" and "critical sociologists," were, for the most part, members of a generation born after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. They had grown to maturity during a period in which Israel ruled over a resisting population now numbering more than one million Arabs.

While the perspective of the older generation had been shaped by the realities of the Holocaust, the ideology of Labor Zionism, and,. the trauma of the 1948 War [of Independence], the new generation of scholars had known a very different set of realities, shaped by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the Palestinian Intifada that erupted in 1987. Strongly affected by the strength of the emerging Palestinian nationalism, and confronted with the increasingly resistant Palestinian population ruled by Israel since 1967, many Israeli intellectuals and academicians had reached the conclusion that notwithstanding the way in which history had been taught to them, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stood at the center of Israeli history and the formation of Israeli society.

Reading the writings of this younger generation of scholars, one is struck by the sense of shock and also disillusionment that they felt. In the process of working their way through documents that until the early 1980s had been classified as secret, these scholars quickly recognized that the versions of Israeli history and the descriptions of Israeli society currently in vogue among the majority of scholars were contradicted by new evidence.

One historian, Benny Morris, undertook to examine, village by village, the factors that had contributed to the flight, of 3-4 million Palestinian Arabs in 1948. Most Israeli accounts placed the responsibility for the exodus squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians and particularly their leaders. Such a view had become conventional wisdom among Israelis and was taught to generation after generation of students. In The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris set forth a detailed, nuanced, multi-causal account of the exodus in which the factors responsible for the exodus varied according to the place and the conditions. What so outraged many of Morris's readers was his conclusion that deliberate expulsions by Israeli military forces and outrageous acts of mass violence by unofficial Israeli military units had contributed to the Arab exodus in a significant way.

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Laurence J. Silberstein

Laurence J. Silberstein is the Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he directs the Berman Center for Jewish Studies.