The death last week of author Joan Peters recalls one of the most intense and bitter literary controversies in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Her 1984 book From Time Immemorial set off a memorable scuffle between both Israeli and Arab writers. But like many such controversies the ultimate impact of the discussion did more to obscure the truth about the origins of the conflict over historic Palestine that she had set out to illuminate than shedding light on it. The moral of the story is that while Peters’s book was flawed, it might have prompted an important debate about one of the key assumptions of Israel’s critics. Instead, the angry pushback her volume received from liberals and Arab apologists served only to demonstrate that anyone who seeks to challenge the Palestinian narrative of dispossession by the Jews does so at their own peril.
Peters’s intention was to write a book sympathetic to the Palestinian refugees. But in the course of her research, she stumbled across an important fact that had hitherto received no notice from Westerners who opined about the Arab-Israeli conflict: though the Arabs claim to have possessed Palestine for many centuries, a significant percentage of their population in 1948 could trace their origins to immigrants who crossed into what is now Israel during the last years of Ottoman rule and during the era of the British Mandate for Palestine.
The idea that Arabs rather than just Jews arrived in the country during the period when Jews were working to build it up contradicts the basic conceit of all attacks on Zionism. Instead of the Palestinians losing a country that had been theirs “from time immemorial,” this revelation placed both sides in the conflict on a somewhat equal footing. If a great many of those Arab refugees who fled the country during Israel’s War of Independence were, at best, second-generation immigrants to Palestine then surely it would not have been so difficult to reintegrate them into other Arab countries just as Jewish refugees from Arab countries were resettled in Israel. But to admit that not all Palestinian refugees had roots going back for many centuries to what had become the State of Israel undermined the basic critique of Zionism. To those who wish to cast the struggle of these two peoples over the land as one of Palestinian victims and Jewish aggressors, the narrative of dispossession has taken on the aspect of a catechism that may not be questioned. Thus, by calling into question one of the basic Palestinian myths, Peters had committed an unpardonable sin for which she must be punished. And so she was.
The abuse that rained down on From Time Immemorial and its author in the aftermath of its publication provided a cautionary tale that has ensured that no one followed in Peters’s footsteps. But unfortunately the argument about the book wasn’t as simple as that. That’s because Peters made a number of serious errors in the course of her research that allowed critics to claim that the entire work was fraudulent. It wasn’t, but once any doubt was cast on the authenticity of any of the statistics she used, Peters’s detractors were able to simply shut down the entire discussion, essentially marginalizing what was otherwise a valuable intellectual exercise.
Scholar Rael Jean Isaac provided the best analysis of this controversy in a July 1986 article in COMMENTARY. Isaac unpacked both the motives of Peters’s foes as well as the mistakes she had made. As she noted:
Despite all the faults of Miss Peters’s critics, her book does indeed deserve some of the criticism it has received. Her handling of materials, particularly in the central section dealing with demographic issues, is flawed.
Peters misinterpreted a key passage in a British report and then repeated the mistake in what Isaac termed “a lethal systematic error.” As Isaac notes, the errors in the book called into question Peters’s “ability to evaluate evidence” and highlighted her “carelessness.” She also showed a capacity to ignore evidence that did not back up specific points she was trying to make.
The frustrating aspect of all this is that, as Isaac wrote:
There was no need for Miss Peters to overstate the precision or importance of her projections because there is overwhelming evidence, some of which (for example, in the studies of Fred Gottheil) she uses in her book, of extensive in-migration from the predominantly Arab to the Jewish-settled areas.
Indeed, even the most adamant of her Israeli leftist critics—Yehoshua Porath of the Hebrew University, who penned a highly influential takedown of From Time Immemorial in the New York Review of Books that essentially sealed its reputation as an unreliable polemic that was quoted in the New York Times obituary of Peters—did not dispute this basic fact. If there is a scholarly consensus that, “during the Mandate the country absorbed 100,000 legal and illegal Arab immigrants and their offspring—a figure that is not very different from Miss Peters’s estimates,” then as Isaac correctly noted, in spite of some errors, Peters’s thesis was “generally sound.”
But the basic truth at the heart of the book was lost as critics piled on and wrongly accused Peters of constructing a myth that sought to delegitimize and ignore the complaints of Palestinians. That many Palestinians came from other Arab countries in order to take advantage of the enormous economic buildup in the country as the Jews began the process of transforming the place into the modern nation it is today is no myth. But that fact has to be suppressed in order to sustain the false notion that the Palestinians were the ancient and indigenous people who were thrown out to make way for foreign Jewish interlopers. Indeed, the lesson dished out to Joan Peters and those who tried to defend her was that any doubt about the Palestinian narrative of grievance would be ruthlessly trashed.
Yet, as Isaac rightly noted in 1986, the emphasis on demographic issues missed the main point about the conflict. It doesn’t really matter how many of the descendants of the 1948 refugees can trace their ties to the country to prior to the early 20th century. Whatever their origin, the Palestinians now constitute a separate national group. Palestinian national identity has always been inextricably tied to a denial of the legitimacy of Zionism and opposition to Jewish sovereignty over any part of the country. But Peters chipped away at the myth that their claim was that of a people living on their own soil fighting against alien colonizers. For that she had to be attacked whether she made some mistakes in her book or not. If the facts muddied the waters and made the Palestinian narrative less compelling, then the facts must be ignored or argued out of existence.
More than 30 years after the publication of this book, the Palestinians and their increasingly virulent supporters are still locked into a narrative in which there is little room for compromise. They are no more willing to examine the truth about their origin myths today than they were then and that is the reason why they have continued to turn down offers for peace and statehood in order to persist in their futile struggle for Israel’s destruction. While Joan Peters’s book was far from perfect, it attempted to point the world and the Palestinians in a direction where they might realize that their futile anti-Zionist ideology was built on a foundation of sand that should be replaced with one more compatible with a policy of coexistence. She deserves to be remembered with respect and honor for that effort rather than the smears that were hurled at her.