Some of the best dissidents are born into archetypal families within the societies of which they will become such prominent critics. George Orwell, old Etonian and colonial ofﬁcial, would become the scourge of the privileged and a ﬁerce opponent of colonialism, and yet he remained not only profoundly English, but also profoundly attached to many of the cultural trappings of Englishness. The Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, the son of Zionist immigrants to the British Mandate of Palestine before the War, was born in Haifa in 1954 just six years after the creation of the state of Israel. His family life was German, Jewish and part of the nascent Hebrew-Israeli culture that during his life would produce a new or at least renewed language and a national identity.
He grew up unaware that his birthplace had been a vibrant Arab city. His transformation into historian of the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing it brought about, campaigner for a just and peaceful solution based on a single state, and tireless critic of Israel’s war crimes was not the result of some damascene conversion, but a process of painful discovery.
Zionism, Pappé writes, was born of noble aims, but deviated from its original spirit, when it decided to protect European Jews through the colonisation of Palestine and the expulsion of its indigenous population. Perhaps the divided mind of Zionism was there from the very start: Bernard Lazare – Anarchist, Dreyfusard, polemicist, historian and another remarkable dissident – was feted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 and was briefly a friend of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, but could not agree to the other’s colonial plans. Lazare proposed some kind of transnational Jewish entity to defend Jews from anti-Semitism, but, to my knowledge, that entity remained ill-defined, possibly because he died young in 1903. Like all good dissidents, he managed to alienate most of his comrades: the Zionists first, and then even the Dreyfusards, in spite of their having relied on him for the first denunciation of Dreyfus’s arrest. Lazare was not for toning down his outrage (although he did do that at the request of the Dreyfus family) and he was not for presenting simple explanations of complex phenomena. In Job’s Dungheap (Le fumier de Job, never translated into English), he makes an important observation on the nature of xenophobia: the anti-Semites, when behaving as anti-Semites, behave in an almost identical manner, while the victims of anti-Semitism react in a wide variety of manners: disdain, submission, anger, violence, ridicule, depression. The book sadly is no more than a series of notes to prepare a larger work, possibly of the size and scholarship of his Anti-Semitism: Its History and Causes, but the relevant passage suggests that xenophobia owes its strength to its uniformity and simplicity – Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. Of course, Lazare could not fail to realise that anti-Semitism was not an isolated case; he travelled in Eastern Europe and denounced the treatment of Jews in the Russian territories and the treatment of Armenians in the Turkish ones, thus identifying the two great genocidal crimes of twentieth-century Europe.
Pappé’s supposedly autobiographical work, Out of the Frame, is not so much an autobiography as a compendium of the author’s historical work and its political and moral conclusions. It is therefore an excellent introduction to his thought, and it does not assume that the reader has any previous knowledge of the history of Israel and Palestine. However, it does suggest that dissidents are not born but made. His career started along conventional lines, and his introduction to Arabic was through a course to prepare students for army intelligence. During his military service, he became associated with Left-Wing Zionism and worked for Mapam, the party that represents that section of the Israeli political spectrum. Crucial in his intellectual development was his departure in 1980 for Oxford where he studied under Roger Owen and Albert Hourani. In the late eighties and nineties, there was a thaw in Israeli historiography and it became possible to discuss subjects hitherto taboo, in particular the origins of the Israeli state and the Palestinian experience of those events. Avi Shlaim, Ben Morris and Ilan Pappé became the ‘new historians’, and Morris, whose key role in this Pappé readily acknowledges, was the first historian to concede that a mass expulsion of Palestinians took place in 1948. It may seem strange that this historical event could be challenged – especially by historians – and it says much about Israeli society that the question could be controversial. It says even more that Morris has rejoined the Zionist camp and justifies the crimes he helped to verify.
The test of a dissident is not the thaw but the freeze that often follows it. When the Second Intifada started in 2000, Morris went one way and Pappé the other. Inevitably Pappé’s choice brought him ostracism, faeces in the post and an endless stream of death threats, some concerning his family. He is a modest man, and resents any exaggeration of his role, while reminding others that Pal-estinians have to suffer so much more. You sense that the principal sadness is that there has been no widespread revulsion amongst Israelis against the crimes perpetrated by their state in their name. As an Israeli, this hurts, but he is not short of explanations why this is happening. The main cause is the militarisation of Israeli society, which itself was a product of the original Zionist agenda. There are many other dissidents, but, like Pappé, they are isolated, and his few forays into the mass media have not been happy ones.
University circles cannot fail to be aware of the gravity of the human rights issues arising from government policy in the Occupied Territories and Lebanon, but it is difficult to speak out. Pappé refers to them as ‘parking lot professors’, because of their willingness to engage with him in the University of Haifa’s dark, subterranean car park. Those of us who live under less authoritarian regimes should not rush to judgement. When Mussolini, at Gentile’s instigation, demanded an oath of loyalty to Fascism in Italian universities, only eleven professors refused to take it and thus lost their jobs. Such sacrifices are not easy, and Gentile understood that the professors, not wanting to admit their cowardice even to themselves, would then persuade themselves that they had always been devout fascists. In part, he was right, although organised anti-fascists were instructed by their organisations to take the oath, as refusal would only have benefited the regime. Anti-fascists continued their clandestine activities, but the oath did coalesce most of the waverers around the regime.
On moving to a quieter and less populated area of Israel, Pappé was greeted by a campaign of vilification, and his immediate reaction was that he should write an equally vehement reply. His wife advised him to desist and suggested something radically different: to invite to their house anyone wanting to know what he thought and to engage in dialogue. The response was beyond their expectations. Over fifty people crowded into his home – the first cohort of what would come to be called the home university. He started by presenting two documents concerning 1948. The first was a meeting just after 75,000 Arabs had either fled or been driven out of Haifa by Israeli troops. Only a few thousand remained and their leaders had been summoned to meet Haifa’s new military commander. He informed them that all the remaining Arabs would have to move to the poorest section of the city to create an Arab ghetto, and they would have to do this in the next four days. Following their objections, he said, ‘I can see that you are sitting here and advising me, while you were invited to hear the orders of the High Command and assist it! I am not involved in politics and do not deal with it. I am obeying orders…’ When someone asked whether those who owned their houses would have to leave, he replied, ‘Everyone has to leave.’ By this stage, some of Pappé’s guests were in tears, while others wished to compare this event with similar ones in other conflicts.
The second document concerned the taking of the city of Lydda, now called Lod, and the killings and expulsions that followed. This was particularly harrowing, because it so closely resembled accounts of Nazi behaviour during the Second World War. Ordinary people, by which I suppose we mean those who do not deal with these issues on a daily basis as can do historians, political thinkers, journalists and politicians themselves, find little difficulty in judging such acts when faced with the bare facts. Most people can empathise, and most people can draw the necessary parallels between historical events. This is why dissidents are so dangerous: they reveal facts to those who are not supposed to know them. The minutes of the meeting in Haifa were not intended for public distribution; the age of Wikipedia has demonstrated how devastating it can be to hear the voices of the powerful unfiltered by the media.
One way to keep the ears of the majority closed to reason and unpalatable truths is to keep them in a continuous state of uncertainty and fear: the outbreak of the second Lebanese war in 2006 undid most of Pappé’s modest achievements. He justifies his aims very simply and clearly in Out of the Frame: ‘Challenging by non-violent means a self-righteous ideological state – aided by a largely mute world – that dispossesses and destroys the indigenous people of Palestine is a just and moral cause.’ The simplicity of this demand is what triggers the fury, and the calm persistence of its reiteration is what exacerbates that fury.
The anarchist agitator, Emma Goldman, once delivered a rousing speech to an English audience (in Hampstead or some such troubled spot), and the polite, middle-class audience clapped half-heartedly and left in an orderly fashion. Goldman was shocked, not because she regretted not passing the night in the nearest police cell or not having her audience attacked by the American forces of law and order, as had often occurred, but because she had stumbled into a place where politics did not appear to matter. Her analysis was not entirely correct, but social conformity is a more effective deterrent than repression and police violence. The strongest prisons are built within our minds and dissidents tear down those walls not by being always right but by at least challenging new mythologies that can quickly become unchallengeable.
Israel is a place where politics do matter, but history matters more, the two being utterly inseparable in that country, though the former is dependent on the latter. No surprise, then, that a leading Israeli dissident is a prolific historian, and his writing is relevant to us all because the relationship between Israel and Palestine is a magnified and brutalised archetype of the relationship between the West and the Third World. Israel is a place where history and historical myth are too important. Israel is a place in dire need of open borders and a mixing of peoples – what Pappé would call a ‘disarming of the mind’.
Pappé’s dream of a single, secular state in which Arabs and Jews are citizens with identical rights may seem impossible, but then many of us once despaired of change in South Africa. What may surprise about dissidents is that they are often co-opted by the societies they censured, as occurred with Orwell who would certainly have preferred to be remembered as a socialist and a combatant against Francoism rather than exclusively as an anti-communist. Posterity is selective, because posterity is power, but fortunately the dissidents keep coming. They don’t change the world; they stop it from hardening into immutable rock. That leaves the way open to change in the future; one can only hope that Pappé lives long enough to see at least the beginning of the change that will take generations to complete, such has been the corrosive effect of this senseless conflict on persecutor and persecuted alike.
Ilan Pappé will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 15.30 on Friday 24 August.
OUT OF THE FRAME: THE STRUGGLE FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN ISRAEL
PLUTO PRESS, 256PP, £13. ISBN: 9780745327259