The writing of any history is an art and not a science. History is not stagnant because there are always new materials discovered and new means used to analyze data. There is the bias and purpose of the writer. Israeli historiography is particularly complex and controversial because the number of variables that contributed to its establishment and maintenance force rethinking and revision. When I published a history of the Arab Israeli negotiating process in the 1970s, dominated by Sadat, Begin, and Carter, I lacked access to primary source materials about what happened in those seventeen days at Camp David in 1978.  Only in 2015, did the full texts of all the Israeli-US delegation meetings become available, then only in Hebrew.  There were no full renditions of these meetings in English, only summaries of them with some of sources closed for a hundred years at the request of President Carter. 

Another case in point: the history of Israel’s origins that predate the 19th century are constantly being revised; before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946 and 1956, evidence was scant about Jewish presence in ancient times except for archeological and inscriptions discovered previously. Standing in Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book where the Scrolls are housed and reading the Hebrew adds enormous credibility to Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael from the 3rd century BCE. There is nothing illegitimate about Jewish presence in late Second Temple Jerusalem. Those materials in both cases remind one of the consistent need to clarify history and the historiography written about a place or event. 

Israel’s modern territorial nationalist evolution over the last 200 years had a dramatic impact on Jews living in and coming to the Jewish state, on Jews living in the diaspora, and upon Arabs living in the Middle East. With a vast array of documents in Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, German and other languages we learn how modern Jewish presence grew from the 1820s forward.  How the histories of those events are told and by whom continuously establishes and refines Israel’s identity and how it is viewed externally by others. We also understand since episodic immigrations to Eretz Yisrael occurred over that time period, many tell their history of Israel based upon their personal or familial story, and less about the collective that were welded together into an Israeli identity that is still in various phases of formation.  

In addition to the presence of multiple inputs, sources, diaries, personal experiences, and odysseys of survival that go into the writing of Israel’s history, there are multiple choices available for those who teach Israel’s history when  deciding where to be begin Israel’s story or the story of the Palestinians, diaspora Jewish relations with Israel, and more.

 No doubt that the writing of any history is subjective, no matter how objective the historian wishes to be. Choosing which historical renditions, one should read or articles to include in teaching about an event dramatically influences one’s attitude about its unfolding. What one omits from the reading or the telling of history, in this case Israel’s story, says volumes about the educator’s biases, or what they do not know, and perhaps refuse to learn because particular content may not comport with one’s particular current political outlook.  Historians sometimes choose to tell a story that helps to substantiate their viewpoint or according to a preferred ideology. They write histories that are broad or narrow in the period covered. 

Today when one reads a slice of modern Israeli history or finds a monograph of Israel reviewed in a journal, it is simple to detect a reviewers biases by the terms used; a 1960 written history of Israel would never have used the phrase, ‘the Zionist project,’ as if it were merely a classroom assignment designed by woodworking teacher; nor would one find at 1970s description of Israel as ‘a colonial-settler enterprise.’ On another continuum, if one writes Israel’s history connecting it to biblical times one tells a different history than if one begins with advent of 19th century Zionism, as compared to beginning the story of modern Israel because of the Holocaust. Starting before 1939 and going back to the origins of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish expulsions from Eretz Yisrael and Spain in 67AD and 1492 respectively, and includes the two centuries of Zionism’s bubbling before Herzl in the 1890s, so detailed in a 1906 entry on Zionism’s historical origins and definitional varieties,  and the period of the new Yishuv from the 1880s to 1948,  that shows unmistakably that Jews were engaged in substantial nation-building well before the rise of Nazi Germany, then one accepts an evolutionary historical process. Showing that Jewish nation-building was slow and methodical and characterized by ebbs and flows, progress and multiple short-comings and failures, predicates the Zionist-Israel story as a movement and a move to change the Jewish tomorrow. Forming a Nucleus from  for the Jewish state, from 1882-1947 was a decades long process. By choosing to tell and recount Israel’s story by only beginning after World War II and the end of the Holocaust, itself perpetuates the assumption that Israel only came into being on account of worldwide guilt after a massive tragedy engendered in Europe, as if to claim that Zionism’s attachment to renewing Jewish presence in an ancient homeland virtually did not exist. That assumption is debunked by the Dead Sea Scrolls and dozens of other archeological and writing sources. 

Israel’s historiography is not about the post June 1967 war period,  Israel’s acquisition of the territories taken in that war, and what building of settlements has taken place there that knocked heads with the desire by some to use the territories for a Palestinian entity or state:  Israel’s story is about a long past. Indeed, Arabs living in Palestine, like Ottoman Empire and British Mandate regimes that ruled there had a direct impact on how the state evolved. And if, students and all learners claim that Israel is only a result of European anti-Semitism, then there is little or no validity placed on the biblical connection of Jews to the land of Israel or to the concept that diaspora Jewish peoplehood connected itself to Eretz Yisrael centuries before modern Zionism. That kind of historiography that limits itself to the last half century is nothing more than delegitimization of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. 

Moreover, evidence or sources available in writing a history are critical in shaping the kind of history written. Namely, the way a historian collects evidence and fashions it into a nuanced story matter. Some historians might intentionally or unintentionally omit facts or explain an event because they failed to use available sources. Historians have also been known to invent or embellish sources. Supposing one is writing about the events between 1947-1949 and only has access to Hebrew and English sources, having no available Arabic sources to recount how Arab governments functioned as they did at the time? Omitting sources skews a history. Why have there been so few histories of Palestine, Zionism, and Arabs living in Palestine that have failed to use Arabic newspapers of the period that reveal so much about Palestinian Arab society and its dysfunctional situation from the early 1940s forward? Is it only because few researchers read Arabic or is perhaps due to a desire to perpetuate a myth that the ‘Europeans created Israel, not the Zionists, and certainly not with Arab collaboration? (See Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows, University of California Press, 2008).

 If one writes a history only based on the historical memory of one person, then it is a narrow recollection. Sometimes writers of history will choose to quote people who are dead. If that is the case, and sources cannot be verified as accurate, then this history is one-sided since no documentary evidence is laced into the story. Dead people cannot refute assertions or assumptions. Memoirs contribute wonderfully to our knowledge of events, but rarely are they self-critical, certainly not self-deprecating. If all we read were memoirs, our historiography of a topic or issue would be narrow, biased, and not very nuanced. Furthermore, it is critical to explore multiple sources from multiple perspectives. It is impossible to understand a complex history if only one side is represented.

Finally, it matters when a particular history is crafted. A history of Israel’s establishment written in the 1950s would certainly be different from a history of its founding – whatever date is used for its founding, 1948 or earlier –if written in the 1990s. The first version would not include sources that might be confidential or secret, housed in archives that would not be open for use by the historian until a quarter or half a century after an event took place, say in the mid-1970s or end of the century. The first hypothetical version published in the 1950s would not have had a historian influenced by subsequent events, like the 1967 and 1973 wars, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, or Israel possessing peace treaties with two neighbors, or the dramatic influence Israel’s building of settlements in the territories after the June 1967 war.  

Challenging yesterday’s interpretation, layering it with added information, taking previously used sources and reworking them with new methodologies, even integrating them with different disciplines such as sociology or political science, or artificial intelligence, permits arriving at dramatically different outcomes that remain in the realm of history writing. Too often contemporary issues are viewed through a particular narrow political prism. That in turn determines how an event of yesterday is portrayed, and then determined for inclusion in a history aimed at  comporting a desired conclusion.

Newly written histories about Israel have often dealt with contentious issues. Among others, these have included degree of responsibility about the emergence of the Palestinian refugee issue of 1947-1949, which certainly began with Arab peasant displacement through land owner greed and Arab sales to Jews that began from before World War I. Should Arab leaders be held accountable for the consequences of not having an Arab state by 1949 because they did not accept the partition of Palestine into two states in 1947 and the presence of any Jewish entity west of the Jordan River? Some histories today still question whether Jews constitute a people or nation or are they only a religion? And likewise do Palestinians constitute a distinct people deserving of a territory? Some will argue of course and it does not matter when they crystallized into a national identity?

Israel remains a relatively young country but it’s a relatively old nation. Many of Israel’s contemporary policy matters remain still to be defined: borders, relationships with neighbors, being Jewish and a democratic, if those two concepts can in fact reside side by side, the interaction of religion and state, what to do with some of the territories taken in the June 1967 War, and how and if to unfold a permanent political outcome with the Palestinians and all of Israel’s geographic neighbors? Unanswered questions in Israel’s history means Israel’s historiography remains open to new interpretations of how the state unfolded and continued for three-quarters of a century; it also means that with the use of the internet and social media, the historiography of Israel will remain similarly open to abuse, exaggeration, and myth making, which if the myths are told often enough, they will appear as truths without substantiation. With accurate clarification as new materials and methods are used, there will be terrific new histories written along with bountiful examples of derision in Israel’s historiography. 

Ken Stein, July 2023