Joan Peters, the author of the book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict over Palestine, died on January 5th, at 78. As David Samel wrote following her death,”The bizarre chapter of Joan Peters’s contribution to the Middle East debate does not end with her death. Her arguments, both those she adopted from others and those she formulated herself, still constitute a huge portion of the go-to hasbara repertoire.” I interviewed Norman Finkelstein and asked him to reflect on her work and legacy, as he played a central role in debunking much of her work as described in his book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
Adam Horowitz: Could you start by saying a bit about how From Time Immemorial was received?
Norman Finkelstein: First of all the important primary factor is the context. Israel in 1982 took its first major public relations hit since the 1967 war. It was a public relations disaster for Israel. One of the reasons being I think, as Robert Fisk pointed out in Pity the Nation he said unlike all other Arab states Lebanon did not control the press and so mainstream reporters were able at that time to roam freely throughout Lebanon. Mainstream reporters, I should say who had credibility, were able to roam freely through Lebanon during the Israeli attack, and what they were reporting was quiet horrifying. It’s forgotten now but even against the Israeli attacks in recent years on Lebanon, on Gaza, they all pale in comparison to what Israel did in Lebanon in 1982. The usual figures are between sixteen and twenty thousand Lebanese and Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, were killed during the Israeli attack. All the Lebanese killed in 2006 plus the three massacres in Gaza that doesn’t even come to half of the figure that happened in Lebanon.
So now you had credible reportage of what Israel was doing and it was a major public relations setback for Israel. You could say the first layer of Jewish support for Israel, the first layer, peeled away and that was the layer of what you would call the Old Left, mainly those were identified with the Soviet Union and therefore identified with Israel because the Soviets supported the creation of the state of Israel in ’48 and also because a lot of the signature institutions of Israel in that era were of a socialist leftist orientation, most famously the kibbutzim.
And so before 1982 the pro-Soviet, pro-Communist Old Left even those who were disaffected from the Soviet Union which still fell within the umbrella of the Old Left, they were still pretty much pro-Israel, there were just really a tiny handful of exceptions. The best known being of course Professor Chomsky. There was also Maxime Robinson in France, but in general the support was totally for Israel, overwhelmingly for Israel.
And so the first layer of support was peeled off, peeled away, but overall Israel took a public relations hit. There were the usual characters, and the usual liars, people like Martin Peretz who went on the Israeli army tour of Lebanon and famously said at the time that everything you have read in the newspapers and heard in the media about what happened in Lebanon just didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.
As Professor Chomsky replied in The Fateful Triangle, his account of the Lebanon war within the broader context, that’s just a very unusual claim. You don’t usually make the claim that the other side has just made everything up whole cloth. You usually said they left out context, or they were selective, but to say that it didn’t happen, as in 16 to 20 thousand people weren’t killed, that’s an unusual claim. And of course it was an absurd claim, it did happen. And so the basic purpose of From Time Immemorial was to re-establish Israel’s image in the West.
And when did it come out in relation to the war?
It came out in 1984.
Okay, two years later.
Right, where you are still feeling the repercussions of the Lebanon war. And the Lebanon war was not so quickly forgotten, as I’m sure you know. First of all it lasted three and a half months, and second of all it climaxed in Sabra and Shatilla. So it left its imprint on the public consciousness and they needed something to rally the stalwarts behind the cause again because people were shook up by Lebanon especially those who had been reared on the Exodus version of Israeli history. It all came as a kind of shock.
As I said it was the first public relations hit Israel has taken since 1967 because after ‘67, the next major interaction was, it came to be called, the Yom Kippur War where Israelis were seen as being on the defensive because they were “attacked.”
So straight through till ’82 Israel’s image was like teflon in the West. And so it was big setback and they needed something to rally the stalwarts around the cause. From Time Immemorial fit the bill because its essential message was the Palestinians have no legitimate claim whatsoever because the heart of their claim is false, they don’t even exist.
This was an old theme. For example, right now I am reading through the foreign relations of the U.S. volumes on the Carter years 1977 through ’80. They are voluminous they run to 3,000 pages. But as you know during that period that’s when the transition occurred between the Labor party which was ejected from office in 1977 and the Likud for the first time takes power. The main advisor to Menachem Begin who won the election in ’77 was a guy named Shmuel Katz, he used to come on the periodic diplomatic trips to the White House because they were trying to figure out how to end the conflict in the Carter years. He would come along as basically the court historian, or the court propagandist, and if you read the transcripts, and I can actually send you the quotes, he says to Carter you have to understand there are no Palestinians. Palestine was empty and Jews came and made the desert a home then all these Arabs came and they surreptitiously entered Palestine, exploited the economic opportunities that the Jews created and then pretended to be indigenous to the land.
Then he goes on to say exactly as Joan Peters says, the reason only 150,000 Palestinians remained in Israel after the 1948 war was because they were the true peasants, they were truly indigenous to Palestine and the rest were just recent immigrants. That’s why they fled without any incentive, let alone any military force, by the Israelis.
So the thesis itself was old, what made Joan Peters novel was two things. Number one that she pretended to prove her thesis with serious scholarship. She used to like to boast, “my book has 1837 footnotes,” so it wasn’t sort of a propaganda pamphlet or didn’t appear to be. It had a scholarly apparatus. The second thing which was of equal moment was it wasn’t churned out by a partisan political operation, it was Harper & Row which was a very big publishing house back then and it had all of these scholarly endorsements and an impressive array of people had lent their names to it. And at least among them, leaving apart the big names – the Saul Bellows, the Elie Wiesels and so forth – you had this guy Philip Hauser from the University of Chicago who headed the populations studies program. There was a letter from him incorporated as an appendix to the book saying her demographics and findings were accurate.
So, you had the combination of a high-power publishing house, high-power intellectuals and just a vast scholarly apparatus. So suddenly, as they say, this age old Zionist legend suddenly had legs and it took off. It was a huge best seller back then and it received all of these glowing reviews.
In your book you say the glowing reviews were primarily in the United States. That once it reached Europe, and even in Israel, it was seen for what it was.
We have to be a little bit careful about that because here the devil really is in the details, actually it’s usually in the details, the British reviews came out much later than the American reviews because the British edition didn’t come out until, maybe my memory could be wrong, around six months later. By that time I had my findings and Professor Chomsky had his connections and so we sent the findings to the key people who were going to review it in the UK. For example Ian and David Gilmour who reviewed it in the London Review of Books. If you read their review it basically took everything I said because they were primed.
They were actually quite hilarious reviews. I quote one, I think in Image and Reality, from the British publication Time Out which described it as the size and weight of a dried cowpat. They treated it with contempt, but partly because some of them were primed. There were others of course who knew the truth, but they didn’t know the truth, I don’t think, in the detail. What I did was I demonstrated not just that as a broad tableau the book is false, I demonstrated that the evidence was fake, which is a different thing. The numbers were faked, the reports she used, the annual British reports to the League of Nations when they had the mandate over Palestine, and these reports they were all faked and they were doctored by Peters. One example that stood out was she took one paragraph from the Hope Simpson report and she mangled it 19 times. It was a real feat what she had done.
And is that the report that Alan Dershowitz then just took whole cloth?
No what Dershowitz did is different. As I said this was an old Zionist thesis and she reproduced all the standard Zionist representations of accounts of Americans and British who visited the holy land in the 19th century. They are travel accounts and as you can imagine you are coming from London and you are going to Palestine, Palestine looks empty. That’s not surprising. You’ve been to the occupied territories and even now if you are traveling on roads to the West Bank, most of it looks empty and this is now, the population in the West bank is about two million. Back then the population in the whole of Palestine — meaning the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and Jordan, the whole of Palestine — the population was about 300,000. So of course it’s going to look empty. And so all of these accounts were then used by the Zionist movement and then by Peters who reproduced the accounts. But she wasn’t the first. As I said ironically she plagiarized another person, a guy named Ernst Frankenstein, she plagiarized him because it was just standard Zionist propaganda.
What Dershowitz then did was to proceed and copy her stuff. Frank Menetrez is a very brilliant scholar, a PhD and a LLD from UCLA, graduated first this class, editor of the law review and currently up for a federal judgeship. His definitive expose of the Dershowitz plagiarism is an Appendix to my book Beyond Chutzpah in the paperback version. I asked him if I could reproduce it. It’s about forty pages it’s very detailed and he shows that what he did was he copied Peters, who copied other Zionist tracts, it was just standard.
In Image and Reality you end your chapter on From Time Immemorial saying that, despite it all, the book still clings to life. You quote Netanyahu basically repeating her argument as a scholarly fact. Reflecting now on the book, and her life, all these years later, do you see this book living on?
It’s a totally different picture now because there is just a lot more now known about the conflict. American Jews tend to be very educated, I think 98% of American Jews have a college degree. So you go to college you take these courses and it’s a totally different picture. On the other hand, it’s not a totally different picture in Israel. I think quite the contrary. I think Israel has now gone more in the direction of Joan Peters than back in the 1980s. You know, people like Netanyahu and everything he represents.
And remember there is a large Russian immigrant population who haven’t a clue what happened before they came. So they hear people like Avigdor Lieberman saying the land was empty, and now they just want to kill us, and they believe all that stuff. But the American Jews don’t believe that stuff. They have gone to school, they read in college. They’ll read Benny Morris, or they’ll read Avi Shlaim’s standard histories, and they will also read that the Joan Peters thing was a hoax. So even though it carries in the lunatic fringes of American Jewish life, the Joan Peters stuff carries no weight.
I would say a good 80% of American Jews recognize, at this point, Palestinians have legitimate grievance. Now how legitimate, and that’s the trump Israel writes, now there is an argument but they recognize there is a legitimate grievance there. The whole point of From Time Immemorial was to prove that Palestinians had no legitimate grievance because their actual existence was a myth. So that’s…
That lives on more now in Israel.
I think it’s actually more pervasive now because of these few immigrants populations which know nothing of the past history except the propaganda.
There was this quote I found when Peters visited the settler community in Hebron in 2010 and one of the people she met was Baruch Marzel who is a leader of some the worst right-wing settlers there. He told her he was a huge fan and he studied her book cover to cover.
Yeah, I am sure the settlers believe it all. They do because they think they are like the American west, they think they are conquering the wilderness. That’s how they can see themselves and no amount of facts are going to deflate them because, it’s what you might call, to use a phrase of Professor Chomsky’s, it’s a necessary illusion.
If you actually accepted the fact that there were people living there then you would have to acknowledge what you are doing is wrong. So it’s a necessary illusion to believe the place was empty before you came with your settlers. As I said like the American west and the setters completely believe it.
Following our interview I asked Finkelstein if he cared to comment on the lawsuit accusing Alan Dershowitz of sexually abusing a minor. He responded by email:
I prefer not to comment directly on the serious allegations being leveled against Alan Dershowitz.
It appears that everyone will have their day in court, which is as it should be.
However, I would want to express an opinion on the letter signed by 38 Harvard Law School professors (including “radical” Critical Legal Studies professor Roberto Unger and liberal tribune Laurence Tribe) in defense of Dershowitz.
They describe him as “courageous” and “outspoken” in “defending the despised, and attacking the views of important people.”
The journalist Jack Newfield memorably described former New York City Mayor Edward Koch as a “toady to the powerful and a bully to the powerless.”
If you multiply this description a thousand fold, you might begin to approach the real-life Alan Dershowitz.
It is break-taking to read the Harvard statement in the context of a sexual slavery case pitting vulnerable minors against billionaires, celebrities and royalty.
Of particular relevance to your website, no single person in the U.S. was more responsible than Dershowitz for whitewashing Israel’s brutal torture of Palestinian detainees. When Israel’s torture first came under public scrutiny, Dershowitz wrote (with attorney Monroe Freedman) in the New York Times, “Allegations of systematic torture and allegations of systematic violations of human rights by Israel must be viewed with more than a little skepticism.”
Dershowitz repeated his egregious apologetics during the first intifada (beginning 1987) when, according to B’Tselem, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Israel was “systematically” torturing Palestinian detainees, deploying methods similar to those recently recounted in the Senate Report on Torture, but on a vastly greater scale. The Torture Report documents 39-44 cases of CIA use of torture, whereas HRW estimated that during the first intifada alone, Israel tortured and ill-treated “tens of thousands” of Palestinian detainees.
Indeed, Dershowitz misrepresented Israeli torture practices in testimony sworn to under oath in a U.S. extradition hearing of a Palestinian resident, Mahmoud el-Abed Ahmad, fearing torture in Israel. For example, he said that Israel’s “toughest methodology for eliciting statements” from Palestinian detainees “is to frighten the person being interrogated into believing that the situation is actually going to be worse than it would become.” Israel was at most guilty, according to Dershowitz, of “occasional pushing and shoving…physical touching.” (I go through the sordid record in detail in my book Beyond Chutzpah.)
Is this what the Harvard Law School professors had in mind when they praised Dershowitz’s “courageous” and “outspoken” defense of “the despised”?