This review was first published in the Palestine Chronicle on January 20, 2010. It has been republished here with permission from the author.
The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories. Neil Caplan. Wiley-Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons), Malden, MA. 2010.
There are obviously multiple stories concerning any act or incident, and any series of acts or incidents, until the overall view becomes large enough that they are distilled into a national or international narrative. These national narratives often serve as rationalizations of not so much the particular occurrence of any given event, but the reasons behind the event, with the reasons stretching from a basic cause and effect (he hit me back first) to the more irrational rationalizations of cosmic mythology.
The Israel-Palestine Conflict attempts to work history within a discussion of how the two narratives of Israel and Palestine conflict with each other. As such, it serves more as a university level text with some history, some philosophy of history, some discussion of different perspectives taken by writers, without satisfying any of these. For himself, Neil Caplan says he has worked generally from English language “accounts of what happened from people who were actually present when it happened.” He sees himself in the genre of the “sometimes criticized…ivory tower intellectuals…content to provide useful and credible raw material, leaving it to other academics and commentators to explore and exploit. They prefer to keep a low profile and not venture into public debates or take stands on controversial issues.”
For those of you who have read my work, you can see that is not the tack that I would advocate – and advocacy for me is the very essence of scholarly work, an advocacy that may change positions from time to time as new material is presented, but always advocating for basic humanitarian and common sense positions. Yes, we all have “fallible perceptions” but that should not stop us from advocating as long as we are willing and able to change when presented with new information and insights. At times it should lead us into a position of challenging, ‘going fishing’, to see what kind of results arise from a certain turn of phrase or juxtaposition of ideas in order that some kind of feedback creates further understanding. Caplan recognizes the need to “revise frequently with sensitivity to subtleties of wording and tone,” not to challenge and advocate, however, but to not affront anyone.
As Caplan recognizes, no account is neutral, no account truly allows “letting the facts speak for themselves” as the very choice of facts in itself limits perceptions of what is happening. Tangle that up with ongoing national biases and the fallibility of human memory and the task becomes very difficult. This accounting succeeds to a certain degree in its goal of following the two contrasting ideologies between the Israeli perspective and the Palestinian perspective, but it does have some difficulties.
The retelling of the early history leaves a relatively clear picture as the Zionist ideas developed in Europe and Britain acknowledged that they would come up against a natural hostility to their attempts to settle the land of Eretz Israel. Caplan spends a great deal of time providing the two alternating narratives from there on in, with the Zionist claim based on biblical prophecy and the denial of a civilized modern population, or any population living in the region; and the Palestinians frustrated at the growing population and power of newcomers seemingly under the tutelage of their British colonial masters (the League of Nations mandates could hardly be described other than a formalization of the colonial interests at the time).
I will not delve into the arguments here as for the first time reader they are clearly stated and reasonably comprehensive in presenting both sides and they are frequently repeated in many other sources. However, the work changes tone after the establishment and recognition of the state of Israel by the majority of the world’s countries. At that point, the contest is more clearly defined.
In effect, the first part of the book takes a more psychological view of the information within its narrowly defined context of the establishment of an immigrant population amid an indigenous population, and the second part of the history is more of what one would expect of a traditional history text, that perhaps while trying to appear neutral, generally stands on the side of what the contest has become – no longer one of establishing a country, but one of controlling the country, and controlling the populations within the country. Generally I perceive it as giving more support to the Palestinian arguments concerning human rights, occupation, and international law and humanitarian treatment of controlled populations rather than to the hard core existentialist-religious arguments on both sides that tend to rationalize all sorts of violence.
The final part of the book goes outside history and delves into the role of the historian/advocate as discussed more briefly in the introduction and above. The last chapter sets out a position on where to go from here, restating his “eleven core arguments” as a basis for proceeding with what may prove to be an intractable problem.
The core arguments presented in the form of questions do not appear to me to be all that intractable. Certainly they could be argued endlessly within the realm of the psychological-historical duality. One problem with presenting the arguments as a dichotomy is that there is no room for looking for commonalities within the arguments. It can also be recognized that some of the questions are unanswerable and should simply be put aside in light of current realities on the ground and the growing literature on international law and human rights.
There are other problems with Caplan’s presentation of his core arguments. It may not be significant but the historical account stops short of the Israeli-Lebanon war of July 2006, and then the Israeli attack on Gaza during Christmas, 2008. While the work’s publication date is 2010, there should have been ample time to consider these two events. Without knowing the author’s true bias (it does leak out occasionally – see above) perhaps these two attacks are so evidently contrary to international and humanitarian law that their inclusion did not suit the purpose of the book. While the Israelis came up with their own narrative for both attacks, the majority of the rest of the world were able to see the reality of the viciousness of the attack and its negligence towards international law and human rights (not to mention common sense – and sorry to be so repetitive, but it bears repeating).
As with a lot of material I criticize the overall context of a work within a wider world of events is often short changed or overlooked. Caplan’s writing has a very narrow focus to the Israeli-Palestine rhetorical duality and while it occasionally pays lip service to context (recognizing the U.S. – Soviet interactions briefly) there is a noticeable lack of context within the history.
There is little discussion of the religious-mythological nature of the rationalizations behind many of the incidents. Ultimately the Jewish claim is based on a religious mythology based on a belief of a god given covenant, and religious belief systems are essentially inarguable. Very few if any accounts discuss this underlying motive, as it is basically a matter of belief and opens the writer up to hostile diatribes. The real point here is not so much its interaction with the Muslim people of the Arab world, who historically have been quite accepting of their Jewish populations, but the interaction with the Christian religion as it presents itself today in the U.S. – an apocalyptic vision that requires first the settlement of the Jewish nation in Israel, and then its violent conversion in end times. The two are hardly compatible as the underlying narratives are in conflict with each other.
That allows me to segue into what is probably the biggest lack of context within Caplan’s narrative, the presence of the U.S. Certainly the U.S. is discussed when it comes to the various stages of “peace” negotiations, but other than that the blinders are on. Caplan sees “the positive role of outside powers” as “U.S. and international intervention was what brought about the limited gains” of the Egyptian and Jordanian peace agreements, and the Oslo “back-channel” agreement negotiations of 1991-1993. This is a highly arguable and unsupported statement that also needs to be looked at in the much broader context of U.S. geopolitical interests in the area.
The U.S. interests in the Middle East are not addressed at all other than the vying for influence against the Soviet Union. While the U.S. was not always favourable to Israeli actions and argued against them at times, they were always compliant with Israeli transgressions of international law and human rights. More recently, through Bush and Obama, the U.S. has given a green light to all Israeli actions within Palestine ranging from the continuation of the settlements to the aggressive attacks against Lebanon and Gaza. At home, the Israeli lobby in the U.S. has had powerful effects on the decisions and representations of the U.S. congress, where most ideas and personnel need to be vetted through AIPAC or other Jewish organizations. Finally, inarguable support is given to Israel through the annual $3 billion in aid along with technical and military information.
Combined with the overall U.S. corporate military interests in the world, to not have their influences and positions recognized in any discussion of Israel is a big miss.
Other near misses
Considering that Caplan is a writer and part of the larger media, there is a missing context with that. He does recognize, via Ilan Pappe, that “Israel not only colonized the Palestinians’ land, but has for many years also colonized the writing of history.” Yet the context goes beyond that, as the western media, in the U.S. in particular, is controlled by large corporate conglomerates that follow their own interests within the overall corporate-political-military strategy of U.S. geopolitical interests.
Staying within the confines of his narrow focus, Caplan recognizes that the new historians “research findings have largely borne out the factual accuracy of many elements of the standard Palestinian narrative.” Much of that, because of the intransigence of U.S. media, has not entered into public discourse.
The “new historians” – the Israeli revisionist historians who have added much to the accuracy of the overall narrative – are represented by Benny Morris, an interesting choice as he could best be described as a recidivist revisionist, going back to an antagonistic position that lacks much historical integrity. That does not negate his earlier research that revealed a good deal of information contrary to the official Israeli narrative, but it does indicate the powerfulness of the historical psychological narrative over the current realities on the ground.
The broader context would also be aided by a much greater development of international law, a recognition of the overwhelming strength of the Israeli military with its U.S. supported materials and its large nuclear arsenal.
As a text….
As a lower level college text, this book works and would be an introduction to many of the ideas involved within the narrow confines of the Israeli-Palestinian arguments. However whether I would want to be in a class where the lecturer strives for neutrality might be a bit boring (I do remember those days) and all too ‘safe’ of a position for the arguments that might ensue. With the missing context of the larger global influences that this dispute carries with it, the arguments might well remain intractable. The problem does have a solution, rationally and realistically, but not when dominating Israeli military power and ideological beliefs team up with U.S. ideological interests and beliefs.