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JK: That is a very common line of reasoning. In fact, the legendary Golda Meir, who was born in Russia and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before emigrating to Israel, said exactly that in 1969, the year she became Prime Minister: “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” I haven’t seen the celebration of her life now on Broadway, but I tend to doubt these words are part of the script.
In the 1980s a book appeared that argued just as did Meir, essentially, that the Palestinians weren’t an actual indigenous people, but came on the scene basically to work for the Jews once the Zionists got there. It was by Joan Peters and was called From Time Immemorial. It was received with enormous enthusiasm in this country.
LT: It sounds like an Ann Coulter book.
JK: No, because Ann Coulter just rants, but Peters’ book was packaged as heavy-duty historical scholarship. And it took the country by storm, chiefly, I would say, because it relieved the bad Zionist conscience of any burden of responsibility. In the first year after the book was published, Peters was invited to speak 250 times, and the book swiftly went through seven editions. Many famous intellectuals were bowing and scraping in homage. Somehow, none of these managed to check the scholarship. When serious historians did so, they found the book to be a tissue of fabrication. It was denounced in the harshest terms possible, notably, much more widely in England where the Zionist grip is looser (and where scholars know their stuff about Palestine, since they come from the country that once controlled it). It was also demolished in Israel by a generation of historians critical of the reigning Zionist mythology. From the critical standpoint, then, the book sank like the proverbial stone—and yet it is still influential in the us. I would think that people you refer to who say there are no Palestinians might have been influenced by this book. But in any case there has been a massive effort to minimize, distort, or blatantly deny the complex reality of the Palestinian experience.
Those readers who want to read further on this can consult the work of Norman Finkelstein, a courageous American historian (and son of Holocaust survivors) who was one of the first to see through Peters’ phony scholarship: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. For the Palestinian story itself, one might start with Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal’s The Palestinian People: A History, the joint work of an Israeli and American scholar.
LT: Your thesis is clearly laid out. But it seems like a hopeless situation. The wall is being built between Israel and the Occupied Territories, this separation is underway, and people are still dying on both sides. You write, however, that it is never too late to remedy the situation.
JK: Well, anything that humans can make they can make differently. The situation is very far gone, but there is never any good in abandoning hope. And in any case, the one thing we cannot tolerate is not seeing reality for what it is. Of course, all of us have to work on this, Jew and Palestinian alike, and indeed the whole human community. Nothing I’ve said should be interpreted to mean that the Palestinians are inherently virtuous, or free from the human capacity to make mistakes. One myth we should get rid of is that being oppressed makes you virtuous. It can just as well make you ignorant, desperate and evil. But that’s not the issue. There are endless potentials within human beings, including that of redemption. There is weird, ignorant and violent thinking on both sides, as well as heroism, sacrifice and the need for reconciliation.
But irrespective of the capacities of human beings there is an elementary and objective condition of justice, the search for or flight from which brings out the various capacities for good and evil among people. A bad conscience blocks the appreciation of justice and blinds us to the just path. My quarrel with Zionism is first, that it caused the Jews to betray their precious heritage of universalism, and led them down the path of injustice to the illegal and violent expropriation of another people; and second, that it induces a bad conscience because, especially, of the peculiarities of the history of Jewish exceptionalism. And my hope, which I will never abandon, is that these errors can be overcome and a better path chosen.