What Are They Reading?
THE GUN AND THE OLIVE BRANCH: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.
By David Hirst.
First edition by Faber & Faber, 1977. Reissue forthcoming by Nation Books.
JERUSALEM: The Contested City.
By Menachem Klein.
New York University Press. 363 pp. $36.
It's now generally acknowledged that Israel's "New Historians" have revolutionized the study of their country's history. In the 1980s, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappé and others began to excavate Israel's newly opened state archives, and in so doing they upset the traditional Zionist mythography about Israel's founding and development. Vilified at first, these historians have, through scrupulous research and documentation, overwhelmed their opponents and fully entered the canon of Israeli historiography.
It's all the more impressive, then, that a decade before the New Historians entered the scene--before, even, two other iconoclastic landmarks, Noam Chomsky's Fateful Triangle and Edward W. Said's The Question of Palestine--English journalist David Hirst could have written The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, still one of the best general histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No doubt some passages will strike some defenders of Israel as overly harsh; Hirst says, for example, that "the upbuilding of Greater Israel could only be accomplished through the permanent, institutional use of violence to which Zionism was irretrievably wedded." But Hirst is not one-sided in his criticism; he exposes the "inner sickness" evident in the PLO's first decade, both through its absurd exaggerations of paltry military efforts and its resort to hijackings and other terror attacks. In connection with an earlier period of Palestinian resistance, he says that "although there have been many and often fortuitous circumstances to which the Zionists owe their astonishing success, by no means the least have been the incompetence and irresponsibility of the Arab leaders, the frivolity and egoism of the privileged classes." Nor does Hirst stint in pointing out British duplicity. He quotes from a secret memorandum written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the Cabinet at the time his country was granted the Palestine Mandate by the League of Nations: "For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country." The Gun and the Olive Branch is a first-rate, beautifully written book; long out of print, Nation Books has sensibly decided to reissue it next spring, with a new introduction by the author.
If it was not already evident to most Nation readers, then surely the fateful September 28, 2000, visit by Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif plaza, accompanied by some 1,000 soldiers and police, should have made it clear that the struggle over Jerusalem is one of the most bitter and explosive in the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Menachem Klein's Jerusalem: The Contested City, does not pretend to be a general history of the city. Rather, Klein, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a board member of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, combines a careful sociological analysis of Jerusalem with a detailed and insightful discussion of the tangled diplomatic negotiations that have taken place since the late 1970s. As interesting as the conflict between the two sides is the one within the two communities; for both Palestinians and Israelis, there has often been sharp disagreement between local authority and national leadership. The book was mostly written before the Al Aqsa intifada began, although Klein was able to add some finishing touches a few months into the conflict. This did not lead him to alter his general conclusion: that Israel's "attempts to alter the city's demographic balance and reverse the Jewish population's declining proportion of the city's population have had little success," and that therefore the Palestinians and Israelis "are inextricably caught in each other's embrace" and must share sovereignty, probably through some sort of redefinition of the city's boundaries that will keep them porous and yet acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of two nations. Klein's cautiously optimistic assessment may seem particularly inauspicious in these dark days; nonetheless, his careful analysis is a worthy and illuminating contribution.