The legacy of Joan Peters and ‘From Time Immemorial’

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Joan Peters has died.  She wrote, or at least inspired, a very significant chapter in the history of Israeli hasbara.  Thirty years ago, Peters, a formerly little known “journalist,” published her magnum opus, From Time Immemorial:  The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict over Palestine.  The book launched a wide-ranging controversy that involved Norman Finkelstein, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow, Daniel Pipes, and many others.  Even now, thirty years later, Peters is mourned by some and reviled by others.

Peters’s thesis, simply stated, is that prior to massive immigration of European Jews to Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the land was mostly barren and under-populated.  The newly arrived Jews brought great prosperity which attracted a large number of Arabs from neighboring lands who then moved to Palestine to share in the fruit of Jewish ingenuity and wealth.  As a result, many of the people who call themselves Palestinians today are descendants of these relatively recent economic immigrants, and their displacement at the time of Israel’s creation is much fairer, or at least much less unfair, than Palestinians and their supporters claim.

The book proved to be a godsend, particularly for those Zionists who were slightly troubled by the possibility that the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine might have been disadvantaged by the Zionist project of creating a Jewish State on their land.  Whatever minimal discomfort their consciences gave them could now be put to rest entirely, and their ideological adversaries who complained of forcible displacement and exile would be battered by the intellectual clarity of a 600-page heavily-footnoted scholarly tome.  “Palestinians,” who could now appear in quotation marks, were not victims of Zionism, but only nomads who recently had been squatting on Jewish land and seeking to mooch off the success of a superior culture.

Consequently, the book received rapturous attention and praise upon its publication in 1984.  World renowned historian Barbara Tuchman raved:  “This book is a historical event in itself, a discovery that has lain in the dark all along until its revelation by Joan Peters’s unrelenting research.  It could well change the course of events in the Middle East.”  Nobel Prize winning novelist Saul Bellow and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg also gushed their enthusiasm over this ground-breaking book, as did Elie Wiesel.  There was little serious criticism of FTI in the U.S. until Norman Finkelstein, then a graduate student at Princeton, started methodically picking it apart, with the cautious encouragement of Noam Chomsky, who presciently advised him that such heretical activities might derail his budding academic career.  Finkelstein’s preliminary findings were published in In These Times, and he subsequently expanded them in his book a decade later, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

When Peters’s book was published in the UK in 1985, it received a much more hostile response.  For example, in the London Review of Books, Ian Gilmour, a Conservative who served in the Heath and Thatcher governments, along with his son David, savaged the book in great detail.  The New York Review of Books then gave space to Israeli history Professor Yehoshua Porath’s extremely critical review.  Soon, even some of Peters’s American supporters were distancing themselves.  For instance, Daniel Pipes, who had given the book a positive review in Commentary, now felt compelled to admit that the book had serious flaws –“From Time Immemorial quotes carelessly, uses statistics sloppily, and ignores inconvenient facts. . .  The author’s linguistic and scholarly abilities are open to question. . .  In short, From Time Immemorial stands out as an appallingly crafted book.”  (He should have added:  “Sorry I forgot to mention that in my original review.”)

Defenders of the book love to point out that Peters began her project out of sympathy for the Palestinians, referencing her self-serving claims to that effect at the beginning of chapter 1.  Actually, Peters professes that she set out to blame neighboring Arab states for failing to cooperate with the Zionist project by absorbing the refugees and removing any reason for them to return to their beloved homes and communities.  Peters pretended to be enlightened when her research revealed that the Palestinians’ misfortune was all their fault to begin with.  So she approached this project with the pre-conceived notion that Arab countries, and not Israel, were responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees, and changed her position to find that Arab countries and the Palestinians themselves were at fault, with Israel even more blameless than she thought.  Quelle surprise!

Noam Chomsky has publicly declared his skepticism that Joan Peters even wrote the book, speculating that it might have been authored by some intelligence agency.  That may be true, but I would have guessed that any “intelligence” agency would have written a better book.  Still, if you have the stomach, watch this video interview of Peters by Zola Levitt.  It is difficult to tell who is more clueless, and in my opinion, anyone who watches Peters’s performance could reasonably question her ability to write a book of this scope, even a lousy one.  In any event, Chomsky is surely right that the reaction to the book is far more important than the mostly irrelevant and unanswerable question of its authorship.

Enter the Dersh.  In 2002, Alan Dershowitz published The Case for Israel.  I have read through much of this book and found it a field manual for rank dishonesty.  On virtually every single page, Dershowitz engages in wide variety of deceit – from outright lies to even more misleading half-truths.  Indeed, I probably learned more about this subject by carefully checking Dersh’s claims and supposedly supporting footnotes than from any other source.  In any event, Norman Finkelstein, who had labored so long and hard to expose the gargantuan flaws in Peters’s book about 17 years earlier, must have been shocked to see Dershowitz repeat her discredited thesis, sometimes with attribution to FTI and sometimes without.  In a now famous joint appearance on Democracy Now, Dershowitz must have felt blindsided by the well-prepared and merciless Finkelstein.

The DN! debate is probably most famous for the discussion of Dershowitz’s plagiarism. There is no doubt that Dershowitz restated Peters’s thesis (in chapter 2 of a 32-chapter book) with little change.  Rather than pretend that he came up with it solely on his own, or admit that he was simply regurgitating someone else’s analysis, Dersh chose a middle course.  He gave Peters credit for some of his citations, and passed off the rest as his own.  The problem was that he did not pay sufficient attention to differentiating between these two categories, and made some conspicuous errors.  The most notorious one was to repeat a unique and somewhat bizarre excerpt from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad that appears in the Peters book. [1]  Peters uses about a half-dozen ellipses to denote excluded material, and combined, the entire quote spans nearly one hundred pages (pages 349, 366,  367, 375, 429, 441-442).  Dershowitz foolishly reprinted (almost entirely) Peters’s quote, with the very same ellipses, but his footnote only cites Twain at almost the very same pages cited by Peters – 349, 366,  367, 375, 441-442 (but not 429).  He subsequently claimed that he never even came across Peters’s rendition of the Mark Twain quote.  In other words, Dershowitz suggested that he independently fashioned his Twain excerpts on a very odd set of pages, and was not merely relying on Peters’s earlier, virtually identical version.  It didn’t help that Peters made various typographical errors in her transcription of Twain, errors that were repeated by Dershowitz. Whoops! For those interested in the full details, a lawyer named Frank Menetrez wrote the definitive account of Dershowitz’s blunder and his false insistence to have been cleared of all plagiarism charges, followed by an exchange between Dershowitz and Menetrez.

Turning back to Peters’s death, the New York Times obit is noteworthy for its absurd effort to appear impartial about the FTI controversy.  Most interesting is its depiction of Yehoshua Porath’s opinion on the book.  As a real-live Israeli, and a history professor to boot, Porath’s opinion counts for much more in the paper of record than supporters of Palestinian rights or Palestinians themselves, like Finkelstein or Said.  This is what the Times says about Porath:

[Porath] said the book was symptomatic of “the two contrasting mythologies that the Arabs and the Jews have developed to explain their situations.  Like most myths, these generally contain some element of plausibility,” he continued, “some grain of historical truth, which through terminological ambiguity is then twisted into a false and grotesque shape. The unfortunate thing” about the book, he added, “is that from a position of apparently great learning and research, she attempts to refute the Arab myths merely by substituting the Jewish myths for them.

The quote from Porath’s review is accurate but its apparent even-handedness hardly sums up Porath’s actual opinion of the book.  A more succinct and accurate rendition would include this quote: ”I think it’s a sheer forgery.  In Israel, at least, the book was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon,” the historian said.  Where can that Porath quote be found?  In the New York Times, of course.  In a 1985 article on the controversy surrounding the book, the Times reporter interviewed Porath, who offered this unsparing assessment.  Indeed, even if the Times overlooked its own article, the Porath piece in the New York Review that the obit does quote includes this far more devastating conclusion:

Readers of her book should be warned not to accept its factual claims without checking their sources. Judging by the interest that the book aroused and the prestige of some who have endorsed it, I thought it would present some new interpretation of the historical facts. I found none. Everyone familiar with the writing of the extreme nationalists of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist party (the forerunner of the Herut party) would immediately recognize the tired and discredited arguments in Mrs. Peters’s book. I had mistakenly thought them long forgotten. It is a pity that they have been given new life.

Still, the Times obit managed to cite Porath’s much more neutral statement out of context without mentioning his unequivocal condemnation of the recently deceased Peters.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about the entire Peters affair is that her attempt to rewrite history was intended to justify an immoral outcome.  Let’s assume for the purposes of argument that despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the dishonest scholarship and analysis, and even the atrocious writing and shoddy editing, Peters is right.  Palestine was virtually empty and desolate until the Jews arrived to spruce up the place and make the desert bloom, creating a magnet for poor Arabs from surrounding countries.  How would that justify a state where those of a certain ethnicity/ancestry impose second-class status upon their fellow citizens who are “ethnically challenged,” and exercise a military dictatorship over millions of non-citizens as well?  All of Peters’s historical shenanigans were intended to show that Jewish and Arab migration were essentially contemporaneous and that the Arab population does not enjoy a longer history in Palestine.  Wasn’t the 1948 creation of a “Jewish State,” and the post-1967 Occupation that Peters implicitly defended, still horribly unfair to the non-Jews who shared the land?  Wouldn’t such rule by one ethnic group over another be a distasteful anachronism in the 21st century, or even in the 1980’s when Peters wrote her book?  Peters’s thesis is not only dead wrong, it does not serve her intended purpose as a mathematical QED that justifies the status quo.

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.  From Time Immemorial is an embarrassment that taints anyone who embraced it as well as those who continue to do so.


1. Mark Twain would be rolling over in his grave if he knew that his mostly humorous travelogue was being used for the nefarious purpose of denying an indigenous people’s connection to their own land.  Twain uproariously ridiculed Western claims to Palestine in this debate between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Tom Sawyer Abroad:

[Tom:] “A crusade is a war to recover the Holy Land from the paynim.”

[Huck:] “Which Holy Land?”

“Why, the Holy Land—there ain’t but one.”

“What do we want of it?”

“Why, can’t you understand? It’s in the hands of the paynim, and it’s our duty to take it away from them.”

“How did we come to let them git hold of it?”

“We didn’t come to let them git hold of it. They always had it.”

“Why, Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?”

“Why of course it does. Who said it didn’t?”

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I seriously question whether the Dersh writes his own books. I mean between being a professor (now retired) and defending Israel, getting pedophiles off and digging up dirt on teenagers where did he find the time? That book about the terra tunnels came out awful quick.

Excellent argument re the irrelevance of the argument in the face of a 21st century anachronism…. And great Mark Twain stuff, thank you David, I never saw that before.

Good riddance to a liar and bad “settler”-supporting rubbish. May the Dersh and the likes of Daniel Pipes and his ilk follow prematurely as soon as possible.

It is interesting that even the most adamant of Peter’s 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 did not dispute this basic fact that there is overwhelming evidence of extensive, in-migration from the predominantly Arab to the Jewish-settled areas. Porath said that “during the Mandate the country absorbed 100,000 legal and illegal Arab immigrants and their offspring—a… Read more »

Thanks for the great overview. Finkelstein, NYT and Dershowitz in perspective. (In that perspective, Dersh looks very very small. Not worth trusting).