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New Historians

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The New Historians[a] are a loosely defined group of Israeli historians who have challenged traditional versions of Israeli history, including Israel's role in the 1948 Palestinian expulsion and flight and Arab willingness to discuss peace. The term was coined in 1988 by Benny Morris, one of the leading New Historians. According to Ethan Bronner of The New York Times, the New Historians have sought to advance the peace process in the region.[1]

Much of the primary source material used by the group comes from Israeli government papers that were newly available as a result of being declassified thirty years after the founding of Israel.[2] The perception of a new historiographical current emerged with the publications of four scholars in the 1980s: Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim and Simha Flapan. Subsequently, many other historians and historical sociologists, among them Tom Segev, Hillel Cohen, Baruch Kimmerling, Joel Migdal, Idith Zertal and Shlomo Sand have been identified with the movement.[3][4]

Initially dismissed by the public, the New Historians gained legitimacy in Israel in the 1990s.[1] Some of their conclusions have been incorporated into the political ideology of post-Zionists. While influential in Western academia, the 'new history' narrative and post-Zionism have remained marginalized in Israel.[5]


Benny Morris coined the phrase "new historians" in a 1988 paper to describe Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim, Simha Flapan, and himself.[6] According to Pappé, the phrase "new historians" refers to "a group of professional Israeli historians who worked on the Nakba."[7] Morris states the primary reason for their emergence was the opening of classified Israeli state documents.[6] Shlaim and Pappé additionally cite the shift in the political climate of Israel after the 1982 Lebanon War as a second factor for their emergence.[8][7] Pappé cites Israel's unsuccessful 1982 assault on Lebanon, Israel's "brutal" response to the First Intifada, and the start of negotiations with the PLO, as factors that challenged the assurance of some in the state's official version.[7]

Aside from these reasons, Adam Comon writes that there were other influences for the emergence. He cites sociologists such as Baruch Kimmerling, Uri Ram, and Gershon Shafir as being "heavily influenced" by the 1970s–80s international academic climate which was a "high tide of postmodern theories and multi-narrative histories." These sociologists introduced new concepts into the discourse surrounding Israeli history, including Zionism as colonialism.[6]

Main arguments

Avi Shlaim described the New Historians' differences from what he termed the "official history" in the following terms:[9]

  • The official version said that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state; the New Historians claimed that it tried to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state
  • The official version said that the Palestinians fled their homes of their own free will; the New Historians said that the refugees were expelled or fled
  • The official version said that the balance of power was in favour of the Arabs; the New Historians said that Israel had the advantage both in manpower and in arms
  • The official version said that the Arabs had a coordinated plan to destroy Israel; the New Historians said that the Arabs were divided
  • The official version said that Arab intransigence prevented peace; the New Historians said that Israel is primarily to blame for the "dead end".[10]

Pappé suggests that the Zionist leaders intended to displace most Palestinian Arabs; Morris believes the displacement happened in the heat of war. According to the New Historians, Israel and Arab countries each have their share of responsibility for the Arab–Israeli conflict and the Palestinian plight.[10]


The writings of the New Historians have come under repeated criticism, both from traditional Israeli historians who accuse them of fabricating Zionist misdeeds, and from Arab or pro-Arab writers who accuse them of whitewashing the truth about Zionist misbehaviour.[citation needed] Efraim Karsh has accused them of ignoring questions which he says are critical: namely, who started the war, what their intentions were, who was forced to mount a defence and what Israel's casualties were.[11]

Early in 2002, the most famous of the new historians, Benny Morris, publicly reversed some of his personal political positions,[12] though he did not withdraw any of his historical writings. Morris says he did not use much of the newly available archival material when he wrote his book: "When writing The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947–1949 in the mid-1980s, I had no access to the materials in the IDFA [IDF Archive] or the Haganah Archive and precious little to first-hand military materials deposited elsewhere."[13]

Anita Shapira stated that both Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris "make only meager use of original Arab sources" with most such references being in "English translation", and that Shlaim's claim that he "has no need of Arab documents", and Morris' claim that "he is able to extrapolate the Arab positions from the Israeli documentation" results in "obvious distortions".[14]

Israeli historian Yoav Gelber criticized New Historians in an interview, saying that aside from Benny Morris, they did not contribute to the research of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War in any way. He did however note that they contributed to the public discourse about the war.[15]

1990s: Influence on traditional Israeli historical narrative and Western academia

Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch argues that, prior to the advent of the New Historians, "Israelis held to a one-sided historical narrative of the circumstances leading to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and that any other counter-narratives were taboo." According to Ben-Josef Hirsch, the conclusions of the New Historians, and the wide-ranging debate that they provoked, ended that taboo and changed the way in which the Palestinian refugee problem and its causes were viewed in Israel. Ben-Josef Hirsch says that the traditional Israeli narrative, that Arabs were responsible for the exodus of the Palestinians, held from 1948 to the late 1990s. She says that the arguments of the New Historians significantly challenged that narrative, leading to a broad debate both in academia and in the wider public discourse, including journalists and columnists, politicians, public figures, and the general public.

Ben-Josef Hirsch believes that a significant change has occurred in how the Palestinian refugee issue is viewed in Israeli society since the late 1990s, with a more complex narrative being more accepted; it recognizes there were instances where Israeli forces expelled Palestinians with the knowledge and authorization of the Israeli leadership. Ben-Josef Hirsch attributes that change to the work of the New Historians and the resulting debate.[16]

The New Historians gained respect and sparked debate in the 1990s.[5] A 1998 series on state television marking Israel's 50th anniversary drew much from their work, as did textbooks introduced to ninth graders in 1999.[1] However, this influence was limited to the late 1980s and early 1990s. While still influential in Western academia, the 'new history' narrative and post-Zionism have remained marginalized in Israel.[5]

Critics of the New Historians have acknowledged the shift in academia. Avi Beker, writing in the Jerusalem Post, states that the effect of the New Historian's work on the history of the Arab–Israeli conflict "cannot be exaggerated". He says the work of the New Historians is now the mainstream in academia, and that their influence was not confined to intellectual circles. To illustrate his point that New Historians were given legitimacy, he cites examples from changes to Israeli school text books to the actions of Israeli political leaders and developments in the Israeli–Palestinian peace process.[17]


Some commentators have argued that the historiography of the New Historians has both drawn inspiration from, and lent impetus to, a movement known as post-Zionism. Generally the term "post-Zionist" is self-identified by Jewish Israelis who are critical of the Zionist enterprise and are seen by Zionists as undermining the Israeli national ethos.[18] Post-Zionists differ from Zionists on many important details, such as the status of the law of return and other sensitive issues. Post-Zionists view the Palestinian dispossession as central to the creation of the state of Israel.[citation needed]

Baruch Kimmerling criticised the focus on "post-Zionism", arguing that debates around the term were "nonsense and semi-professional and mainly political". According to Kimmerling the term has been arbitrarily applied to any research on Israeli history, society or politics that was critical or perceived to be critical. Kimmerling saw this discussion as damaging to research in these areas because it took the focus away from the quality and merit of scholarship and onto whether the work should be characterized as Zionist or post-Zionist. Further, Kimmerling asserted that academics were diverted away from serious research onto polemical issues and that the environment this fostered inhibited the research of younger academics who were fearful of being labeled as belonging to one of the two camps.[19]

Major debates

On a few occasions there have been heated public debates between the New Historians and their detractors. The most notable:

  • Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim versus Shabtai Teveth
    Teveth is best known as a biographer of David Ben-Gurion. Teveth: Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 26 (1990) 214–249; Morris: 1948 and After; Teveth: Commentary; Morris and Shlaim: Tikkun.
  • Benny Morris versus Norman Finkelstein and Nur Masalha
    This took place in three articles in the Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 21, No. 1, Autumn, 1991. While acknowledging that Morris had brought to light a vast quantity of previously unknown archival material, Finkelstein and Masalha accused Morris of presenting the evidence with a pro-Zionist spin. Finkelstein wrote that "Morris has substituted a new myth, one of the "happy median" for the old", that "the evidence that Morris adduces does not support his temperate conclusions" and that "Morris's central thesis that the Arab refugee problem was "born of war, not by design" is belied by his own evidence which shows that Palestine's Arabs were expelled systematically and with premeditation."[20] Masalha accused Morris of treating the issue as "a debate amongst Zionists which has little to do with the Palestinians themselves", and of ignoring the long history that the idea of "transfer" (removal of the Palestinians) had among Zionist leaders. In his response, Morris accused Finkelstein and Masalha of "outworn preconceptions and prejudices" and reiterated his support for a multifaceted explanation for the Arab flight.
  • Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé versus Efraim Karsh
    Efraim Karsh of King's College, London, is a founding editor of Israel Affairs. Starting with an article in the magazine Middle East Quarterly,[21] Karsh alleged that the new historians "systematically distort the archival evidence to invent an Israeli history in an image of their own making". Karsh also provides a list of examples where, he claims, the new historians "truncated, twisted, and distorted" primary documents. Shlaim's reply[22] defended his analysis of the Zionist-Hashemite negotiations prior to 1948. Morris declined immediate reply,[23] accusing Karsh of a "mélange of distortions, half-truths, and plain lies", but published a lengthy rebuttal in the Winter 1998 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies.[24] Morris replied to many of Karsh's detailed accusations, but also returned Karsh's personal invective, going so far as to compare Karsh's work to that of Holocaust deniers.[25] Karsh also published a review[26] on an article of Morris,[27] charging him with "deep-rooted and pervasive distortions". Karsh systematically rejects the methodology of new historians such as Morris in his book Fabricating Israeli History: The 'New Historians' (Israeli History, Politics and Society) (2000).[28]
  • Teddy Katz versus Alexandroni Brigade
    In 1998, Teddy Katz interviewed and taped Israeli and Palestinian witnesses to events at Tantura in 1948 and wrote a master's thesis at Haifa University claiming that the Alexandroni Brigade committed a massacre in the Arab village of Tantura during the 1948 Arab–Israeli war. The veterans of the brigade sued Katz for libel. During the court hearing Katz conceded by issuing a statement retracting his own work. He then tried to retract his retraction, but the court disallowed it and ruled against him. He appealed to the Supreme Court but it declined to intervene. Meanwhile, a committee at Haifa University claimed to have found serious problems with the thesis, including "quotations" that were contradicted by Katz's taped records of interview. The university suspended his degree and asked him to resubmit his thesis. The new thesis was given a "second-class" pass. The Tantura debate remains heated, with Ilan Pappé continuing to support allegations of a massacre.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Bronner, Ethan. "The New New Historians", The New York Times, 9 November 2003.
  2. ^ Gelvin, James L. (2007) [2005]. The Israel–Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (2d ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-0-521-88835-6.
  3. ^ Erez Casif, Was the State of Israel ‘Really’ Established?, Cambridge Scholars 2013 p.15.
  4. ^ Haaretz Staff (22 May 2007). "Sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, 'new historian,' dies at age 67". Haaretz. Retrieved 9 September 2011.
  5. ^ a b c Masalha, Nur (May 2011). "New History, Post-Zionism and Neo-Colonialism: A Critique of the Israeli 'New Historians'". Holy Land Studies. 10 (1): 1–53. doi:10.3366/hls.2011.0002. ISSN 1474-9475.
  6. ^ a b c Coman, Adam (28 June 2018). "Rewriting Israeli History: New Historians and Critical Sociologists". Historická Sociologie. 2018 (1): 107–122. doi:10.14712/23363525.2018.41. ISSN 2336-3525.
  7. ^ a b c "The New Historians | Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights". muwatin.birzeit.edu. Retrieved 11 January 2024.
  8. ^ "The War of the Israeli Historians". users.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 11 January 2024.
  9. ^ Shlaim, Avi (January–February 2004). "The War of the Israeli Historians". Annales. 59 (1). Oxford University: 161–167.
  10. ^ a b Miron Rapaport (8 November 2005). "No Peaceful Solution". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 9 September 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  11. ^ Karsh, Efraim (1997). Fabricating Israel's History: The New Historians. London: Frank Cass. ISBN 0-7146-5011-0.
  12. ^ Morris, 2002
  13. ^ Morris, Benny (from ""Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,") (2001). The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. Rogan. Eugene L. and Shlaim, Avi, eds, Cambridge University Press. p. 37.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Shapira, 1999
  15. ^ Shiran, Osnat, ed. (2008). A War – Sixty Years After (in Hebrew). Ministry of Defence Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 978-965-05-1457-0.
  16. ^ ben-Josef Hirsch, Michel (June 2007). "From Taboo to the Negotiable: The Israeli New Historians and the Changing Representation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem". Perspectives on Politics. 5 (2): 241–258.
  17. ^ Beker, Avi (26 June 2010). "When history is flexible". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 20 October 2012.
  18. ^ Shlomo Sharan (Editor) (2003) Israel and the Post-Zionists: A Nation at Risk Sussex Academic Press ISBN 1-903900-52-2 p. 10 (Yoav Gelber, "Redefining the Israeli Ethos")
  19. ^ Kimmerling, Baruch (2004). "Benny Morris 's Shocking Interview" (PDF). Logos. Winter (3.1). Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 July 2004. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
  20. ^ 'Myths, Old and New, Norman Finkelstein, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 66-89 — "In this essay I will argue that Morris has substituted a new myth, one of the "happy median," for the old. My contention will be that the evidence Morris adduces does not support his temperate conclusions and that the truth lies very much closer to the Arab extreme. Specifically, I will argue that Morris's central thesis that the Arab refugee problem was "born of war, not by design" is belied by his own evidence which shows that Palestine's Arabs were expelled systematically and with premeditation."
  21. ^ Karsh, 1996
  22. ^ Shlaim, 1996
  23. ^ Morris, 1996
  24. ^ Benny Morris, Refabricating 1948 (Review of Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians." by Efraim Karsh), Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter, 1998, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Winter, 1998), pp. 81-95
  25. ^ Morris Refabricating 1948, "Karsh resembles nothing so much as those Holocaust-denying historians who ignore all evidence and common sense in order to press an ideological point."
  26. ^ Karsh, 1999
  27. ^ Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1995, pp. 44–62
  28. ^ Fabricating Israeli History: The 'New Historians' (Israeli History, Politics and Society)
  1. ^ Hebrew: ההיסטוריונים החדשים, romanizedHaHistoryonim HaChadashim


Further reading