The writing of any history is an art and not a science. Israeli historiography is particularly complex and controversial because there is keen emotion and broad interpretation attached to its origins, foundation, and continuation.
Israel’s establishment has had an 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. 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.
There are multiple inputs into the writing of history. First and foremost, the writing of any history is subjective, no matter how objective the historian wishes to be. Choosing which histories one should read about an event influences ones attitude about its unfolding. Historians sometimes choose to tell a story that is convenient to their viewpoint or according to a preferred ideology. They write histories that are broad or narrow in the period of time covered. For example, 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 as a result of the Holocaust. Starting before 1939 and going back to Jewish peoplehood, failed Jewish emancipation and Herzl shows that Jews were engaged in substantial nation-building well before the rise of Nazi Germany. This would show that Jewish nation-building was slow even if not methodical. However, telling Israel’s story by only beginning after World War II perpetuates the assumption that Israel only came into being due to the Holocaust. If the former history is chosen for teaching purposes, students see Israel as part of Jewish historical continuity, of Jews taking control over their own destiny. If students read a history that claims 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 of diaspora Jewish peoplehood connecting to Eretz Yisrael centuries before modern Zionism.
Second, the evidence or sources available in writing a history are critical in shaping the kind of history written. Namely, the way a historian marshals evidence and fashions it into a story matters. 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 on Soviet-Israel relations, but cannot read Russian, and only reads Hebrew and English? 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 acted as they did in the time period? Omitting sources skews a history. 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, then this history by definition is one-sided since no documentary evidence is laced into the story. Memoirs contribute wonderfully to our knowledge of events, but rarely are they self-critical. If all we read was memoirs, our historiography of a topic or issue would be narrow, probably biased, and not very nuanced.
Third, it matters when a particular history is written. A history of Israel’s establishment written in the 1950s would certainly be different from a history of its founding 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 written 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.
Challenging yesterday’s interpretation, layering it with new information, taking previously used sources and reworking them with new methodologies, perhaps even integrating them with different disciplines such as sociology or political science, and arriving at dramatically different outcomes are usual in the realm of history writing. Often contemporary issues are viewed through a particular narrow political prism, which in turn determines how an event of yesterday is portrayed, so it comports with a desired conclusion.
Newly written histories about Israel have often dealt with contentious issues. Among others, these have included, degree of responsibility and what to do contemporaneously about the emergence of the Palestinian refugee issue of 1947-1949; 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? Some may question whether Jews constitute a nation or are they only a religion? And likewise do Palestinians constitute a people deserving of a territorial nation-state? Israel remains a relatively young country and many of its policy matters remain still to be defined: borders, relationships with neighbors, being Jewish and a democracy, 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? Unanswered questions in Israel’s history means the historiography of Israel will remain similarly open to review and revision.
Ken Stein, September 2015