"A STATE OF DENIAL" … Dr. Ilan Pappe

Here is the introductory statement of Dr. Ilan Pappe, a leading Israeli academic and “New Historian”. He was interviewed in Manchester in September 2002 before addressing a public meeting and open debate at the University of Manchester. Both events were recorded by Joseph Cooper and Kristin Karlsson.

“My name is Dr. Ilan Pappe, I am a lecturer at Haifa University. I am historian by profession and write mainly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular about the 1948-war.

After 2000 years of persecution, exil, abnormal existence as communities around the world, it was the sense that in 1948 a new epoch starts in then life of the Jewish people, begins the period of self-determination, independence fulfillment and so on.

And yet – 1948 was the year in which Jews had done the most evil thing to others like Jews had never done before in 2000 years. Within less than a year, Jews colonized, occupied, expelled, destroyed, massacred and raped another people …”

The transcript of the interview …

I think there are 3 main myths that inform mainstream Israeli Jewish

A lot of them still believe, because that’s the way they have
been educated, that Palestine had been empty when the Jewish
settlers came there in the late 19th century. There is still a feeling
there that basically the Palestinian inhabitants of Palestine are either
a nuisance or newcomers, or irrelevant. They are an obstacle, but not
people with rights or indigenous rights.

The second myth is more directly connected to 1948. Most Israeli
Jews believe that the Palestinians left voluntarily in 1948. They are
not aware, or do not want to be aware of the fact that an ethnic
cleansing took place in 1948.

And the third myth concerns the Occupation. Very few Israelis would
call it an Occupation at all. Very few relate to any of the Palestinian
demands to end the Occupation, and most Israeli Jews would regard
the war against them not as a war of liberation or a war against
Occupation, but as part of the more general scheme by Arabs or
Muslims in general to destroy the Jewish State.

Going back to 1948 for a bit, could you give a little more detail of
your own historical research.

A group of us are called the “New Historians”, those who revise and
challenge the main Israeli version of 1948.

We debunk several myths.

The first myth is that Israel was fighting the whole of the Arab world in
a kind of David and Goliath war. Although there was a lot of war
rhetoric from the Arab side, very few Arab soldiers were sent into the
battlefield, and actually for most of the war there was superiority on
the side of the Israeli army. In fact one of the most important Arab
armies, the Jordanian army, had colluded with the Israelis before the
war to divide Palestine. So the first myth we undermine is the “few
against many” – which is very important in the Israeli psyche, the
Israeli mentality.

The second and most important myth is that the Palestinians left
voluntarily. We found out that there was a systematic expulsion of
Palestinians and an ethnic cleansing operation taking place.

We also found there had been willingness on the Arab side in
general and on the Palestinian side in particular, to conclude some
sort of an agreement with the Jewish State after the war, and it was
the Israeli intransigence and inflexible position that failed the peace
efforts after the 1948 war.

The strategy was set out even well before 1948 with the Transfer

Yes. The Transfer Committee was part of the outfit in pre-1948
Palestine, that belonged to the Jewish Agency, to the Jewish
leadership. And its main position was actually to evaluate the “quality”
of the 500 – 600 Arab villages, i.e. to find out which village had fertile
land, what was the wealth of each and each village. It was preparing
for the day that Israel would take over these villages. And then, after
the ethnic cleansing took place, it was renamed and became more
like a distribution committee. It had to divide the spoils between the
various Kibbutzim movements, and the various Jewish agencies that
dealt with Settlement. And so it was an important official facet of the
leadership. But it was all conceived by the leader of the Jewish
Agency and later the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.
The committee were just the officials, they were not the decisionmakers
in this case.

After the war ended, presumably some Palestinians wanted to return.
What happened to them?

Yes, there was a clear anti-Repatriation policy. Even before the war
ended, most of the deserted and evicted Palestinian villages were
erased from the earth, and either turned into Jewish settlements or
into fertile land. So by destroying the houses, in many ways
Repatriation or Return became impossible, although the United
Nations sanctioned such a Return as something that Israel should do.
Some Palestinians, a small number, 25,000, no more, succeeded in
smuggling their way back into Israel. So there was an actual policy
that prevented Return, a few did return and were reunited with their
families, but most of them could not.

How was all of this covered up? If one of the myths was that this
never happened, how could this be sustained?

It’s an interesting question! I still try to find my answers to that. One
way was by creating an indoctrinating system of education, in which
the people who perpetrated the ethnic cleansing cooperated. From
the moment the war ended the people who fought in the war were
also the people who wrote the history books of the war. And they
already had a story they made up about what had happened, and that
story was integrated into the Israeli education system, the media, the
political discourse. And with the help of the launderette of words all
kind of new words were invented to hide what had really happened
on the ground. Because of the Holocaust it was easier for Israel to do
it than for any other nation, I think. And it succeeded.

The second reason is that the Palestinians were under such a shock
and trauma, that when they started to tell the story it was a bit too
late. It was so many years after, that it was less relevant in the eyes

of many good people in the world.

Did the left play any role in perhaps not telling the story as forcefully
as it could? For example what was the attitude of the Soviet Union in

Yeah, that’s a good point. Well “left” is something obscure. In the
local context there is the Zionist Left, there is the non-Zionist Left,
there is the Soviet Union. Well first of all let’s state very clearly, the
people who perpetrated the ethnic cleansing were the Left, not the
Right-wing. The Left Zionist movement, the Socialist Zionist
movement, are the people who expelled the Palestinians. So
definitely the fact that they had done it, and they were seen as the
moderate part of the Israeli polity, made it easier to cover it.

Yes, the fact that the Soviet Union had supported the Partition
resolution helped. But I think the Soviet position is more complicated.
Because on the one hand it supplied arms to the Israelis, and this is
something which of course helped the ethnic cleansing. On the other
hand they supported the Partition resolution which did not call for an
ethnic cleansing. In fact it called for the creation of a bi-national Arab-
Jewish state. According to the Partition resolution, almost 50% of the
citizens of the future Jewish State were supposed to be Palestinians.
The fact that the Palestinians rejected the plan and so on, enabled
the Israelis later on to say that they had accepted the Resolution and
had it not been for the Palestinian refusal, the war would not have
taken place. Which is I think quite a false argument. But coming back
to the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union at least supported a solution
that at the time meant that there would be two, I would say “stateless
states”. One has to read the Partition resolution very carefully.
Unfortunately also the Palestinians did not read the Partition
resolution carefully enough at the time to understand that it had more
in it for their sake than met the eye. But then that was too late
anyway, it was done.

In writing about the myth that expulsion never happened you have
called it “Nakbah Denial”


… and that obviously echoes the phrase “Holocaust Denial”


… and there are other echoes of the Nazi era in the current situation, I
think we were all amazed with putting the numbers on the arms at
Tulkarem. How do you interpret these echoes of Nazism?

I would say first of all and it’s important to many people to make it
very clear that one doesn’t, shouldn’t and cannot equate a genocide
with ethnic cleansing. They are both terrible things but definitely a
genocide is a far worse human crime than ethnic cleansing. And one
should not equate the Holocaust with the Nakbah. I think that should
be very clear and I think that most of my Palestinian friends at least
don’t. But there is a dialectical connection between the Holocaust and
the Nakbah. On two levels.

One is the fact that there is a chain of victimisation here.
ThePalestinians are the victims of the victims of the Holocaust. And you
would have expected the victims of the Holocaust not to perpetrate
any crimes against humanity. And definitely when you start looking at
exactly what had been done to the Palestinians, what is being done
to the Palestinians nowadays you can see, not from the genocide
phase of the Holocaust, I think there is no resemblance there, but
definitely from the pre-extermination phase there are many, many
things which resemble. Because ethnic cleansing also took place in
Nazi Germany, and discrimination also took place before the horrible
phase of extermination.

So that’s on one level. The second level is no less important, that
there is what I call the “Nakbah Denial”, “Catastrophe Denial”. I think
there is a similar “Holocaust Denial” on the Palestinian side, and I am
a great believer that in order to further the chances of reconciliation,
you have to have a kind of link, an association between the ability of
the Israelis to stop denying the Nakbah, and the Palestinians
accepting that the Holocaust plays a role in the life of Jews in Israel,
and the life of Jews everywhere. I’m not inventing the wheel, this was
first mentioned by Edward Said in his book “The Dispossession of the
Palestinians”, but I think it’s a good idea. That we are all there victims
also of the Holocaust, not only of what we are doing to each other.

Does it cause ripples in Israeli society now when people see these

Oh no, unfortunately not. No the Israeli society is still numb, and very
indifferent. We have a national singer who was appalled when she
saw that, Yaffa Yarkoni, probably The National Singer, and she’s
boycotted ever since she dared to say that it reminded her of Nazi
Germany. No no, in a way it’s a non-starter in Israeli political debates,
you’re not allowed to do this. I think you should, but you’re not
allowed to. No unfortunately there is no sensitivity in the Israeli
Jewish society. On the contrary I think the major thing that Israelis are
doing now is blaming anyone who criticises them of being pro-Nazi,
at worst, or someone who doesn’t understand the Holocaust, at best.

You yourself have also suffered some victimisation.

Well I suffer it in 3 levels. One is that I’ve written several books in
English, but they are not translated into Hebrew, so this is a kind of
boycott of books which goes on.
The second one is the more sort ofpersonal intimidation through the phone and letters,

and so on. And the third one is sort of the climax of this whole campaign, there was
an attempt to expel me from my University in May 2002. And it was
difficult because I have tenure, I have a permanent position at the
University. It was a legal procedure that has been suspended,
because of international pressure.

The concrete reasons for the last phase was that I protected a
student, not my student but someone I know very well, who in his MA
dissertation revealed that there was a massacre in the village of
Tantura in the 1948 war, one of the worst massacres in that war. And
although he received the highest grade possible for his excellent
thesis, because the veterans of the Unit that he accused of
perpetrating the massacre sued him in court, the University changed
its attitude. He is being disqualified and robbed of his title. And I
accused the University of certain things because of that, and because
of these public accusations I was myself brought to trial, which can
still be resumed next academic year.

Oh, so it’s just in limbo

It’s in limbo, it hasn’t been dropped, and I think unless there is a
dramatic change in the general atmosphere which unfortunately I
cannot foresee, I’m afraid that it will be resumed, probably. I’m ready
for this!

I’m sure your supporters are as well.


Well, I understand that you are calling for, at least a debate on the
question of an academic boycott.

Absolutely. I think it’s very important to distinguish it as an Israeli call
because in the end of the day it’s up to people outside of Israel to
decide whether they should boycott or not, I don’t think that I can
boycott myself, it’s a kind of a paradox. I mean I have signed a
petition which supports boycott in Israel but practically doesn’t mean
much from my point of view.

What I wrote and I’m going to write more in the future, that there are
three agendas in the conflict. One is a long term agenda, which is a
reconciliation effort, where no sanctions should be involved, no
boycott should be involved, in fact no armed struggle should be
involved. This should be a genuine effort by both sides to find a
solution without outside pressure.

Then there is the agenda of ending the Occupation, there you need
pressure on Israel to end the Occupation but again I’m not sure
exactly what are the right means of doing it.

And then there is a third agenda, to which I think the boycott and my
support of the boycott refers. And this is my conviction that the Israeli
government is about to plan another Palestinian Catastrope. It’s
going to use the war on Iraq to, what most Israelis would say, “solve
the Palestine question once and for all”. Meaning expelling as many
Palestinians as possible and destroying what is left of Palestine.

And I think this has to be stopped and there is no way that you can
stop it by negotiations or lobbying and so on, the only way to stop it is
to have sanctions and to have boycott. I think these have to be limited
boycott in time and in space, but I think that definitely a cultural and
academic boycott can drive the message to good Israelis that there is
a price to be paid for being indifferent. Not only for doing the things
themselves, but even for being silent in Israel itself. And although we
started as being 6 Israeli academics who supported it, out of 9,000,
there are more Israelis now who understand it. I’m not trying to paint
a picture of a massive movement, but I think there is more
understanding than before. People are aware that the Sharon
government will not be stopped by negotiations. And I’d rather see a
cultural boycott than a severe economic boycott where common
workers and farmers would be hurt, who are not to be blamed for
what goes on, or bombing from the air by Nato or anything. It’s a
small price to be paid, if I’m right that by that we may prevent another

What exactly do you want people to do?

I want people to boycott Israeli institutes. Wherever there is an
official and formal Israeli participation, I think Israelis should politely
be told that as long as the present situation continues, unfortunately
these institutions cannot be part of any international or regional
conference. I don’t think there’s a need to hunt Israeli academics, but
the official Israeli academic scene, or cultural scene. For example, I
was asked by two Irish film-makers who were invited to the Haifa
International Film Festival, whether they should come or not? And I
wrote back, the Haifa International Film Festival, I was once an
organiser of that Festival, is a very nice event, it’s not a political event
and so on. And yet, the only way the people in Haifa will understand
that there is strong dissatisfaction with the way the government is
behaving and what it is doing, is by the fact that they would lose
international participation in that Film Festival. So I think it was
nothing personal against the Film organisers, it was I think a very
reasonable and sensible political act.

So things like your visit here, to Manchester, that doesn’t come under
the things that you think should be boycotted?

I don’t think that someone who calls for a boycott can be boycotted,
it’s a bit of a paradox, I mean we are living in a world of paradox, but
no I don’t think. If I may be bold enough to liken myself to those
whites in South Africa who supported the ANC, maybe even were
members of the ANC, and during the period of boycotts on South
Africa I don’t think people boycotted the whites who joined the ANC
or were sympathetic to the ANC. So I don’t think my personal visit is
part of the same problem.

So it’s a boycott of institutions.

Absolutely, absolutely.

You’ve mentioned the possible parallel with South Africa and
obviously a lot of people are thinking about this in terms of apartheid,
because of the legal framework in Israel and so on. Now during that
period there was in fact a widespread economic boycott by trade
unionists internationally, and indeed banks started pulling out of
South Africa. You said that you didn’t want the boycott to go that far,
but do you think there is a role that the trade union movement
internationally can be playing here?

I think there is, I mean one has to wait and see, it has to be played
very carefully and very reasonably. Like in every campaign of
sanctions you cannot be absolute at the beginning, you have to be
gradual, to see if it works, it works, if it doesn’t work you have to exert
more pressure. And probably exerting more pressure is going to the
economic sphere, to the commercial sphere. Yes, I think that,
unfortunately as I say there would be victims in Israel, I mean
economic victims, cultural victims, but if something like this would not
be done there’s going to be a lot of life lost and more importantly
maybe, Palestine would just be erased from collective memory, from
our conscience. And this would be another tragedy. If we can prevent
it, we should do all we can to prevent it.

You wrote recently about the moves to fence off Israel from the West
Bank, to construct a rigid barrier between the two. And you point out
that some people on the Israeli Left, perhaps in quotes, support this


And you point out that this completely begs the question of the
economic viability of what’s on the other side of the fence. But it also
has consequences for the 1 million Palestinians inside Israel.

Yes, I wrote this article because I became very worried by the fact
that those people who use the slogan “a 2-state solution” are using
another slogan, and these are people of the Israeli Left, these are the
people of the Israeli Peace Camp. The other slogan is “we are here,
and they are there”. They are behind the fence. It’s not a fence by the
way, the Israelis are building an electric wall, it’s much more like a
wall of a prison than a fence between two nations. And it meant that
anyone who is not an Israeli Jew probably has to be on the other side
of the fence.

And not surprisingly, Israelis from the Left, not Israelis from the Right,
Israelis from the Left, started writing cautiously but nonetheless quite
clearly about the possibility of transferring. they call it “voluntary
transfer” which I think is an oxymoron, I don’t believe in it, a
“voluntary transfer” of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the other side of
the fence. And I think that it means that anybody outside of Israel who
supports a 2-state solution, has to be very careful because those
people who are now supporting a 2-state solution in Israel include
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He also supports a 2-state solution.

Because what they mean in a 2-state solution is that 90 percent of
historical Palestine would be Israel. In the other 10 percent you’d
have two huge prison camps. One in the Gaza Strip and one in the
West Bank. And into these two camps, Sharon wants to expel as
large a number as possible, depending on the circumstances, of
Palestinians both from the rest of the West Bank which would be
annexed to Israel, and from Israel itself.

So it raises all kinds of questions about the viability of the 2-state
solution of which I myself was once a great supporter, and still many
of my Palestinian friends, especially those in the Occupied Territories
– I don’t think the Palestinian Diaspora supports it – but Palestinians in
the Occupied Territories support. I think those who genuinely want to
see a 2-state solution have to be very careful now with their fellow
travellers and we have to rethink, I think, the political solution.

Would you go as far as saying that without abandoning the Zionist
character of the Israeli State there isn’t going to be a solution?

Yes, I’ve written it very clearly. I think the de-Zionisation of Israel is a
pre-condition for peace, I have no doubt about that.

I read that you are a member of Hadash

that’s true

and I’d like to know whether the views that you are expressing in this
part of the interview are also theirs, or maybe not.

No, they are not. But they are in a period of transition so I’m trying to
have an impact on Hadash to go in that direction. The majority of
people who like myself are part of the leadership – though I don’t like
that word – do not share my views. Most of the leadership would still
go very clearly to the 2-state solution, especially as long as the
Palestinian Authority is still there, and still Yasser Arafat believes in
the 2-state solution. I think the rank and file are much more on my
side. But it’s a very open debate because my idea of a 1-state
solution is still a vision. I wish we would be already at the point where
we have to debate whether we support a 2-state solution or a 1-state
solution. I think we have so much on our plate before that, there’s still
time for us to cooperate and therefore I think there is no reason or
fear for a schism in the Party or whatever. So we are now fighting
against the expulsion of Palestinian citizens from Israel, a more brutal
kind of an Occupation. And when this is over I hope all of us will sort
of rethink what will be the best solution. But as I say there is a more
urgent agenda for us to fight for.

In case you wish to watch the video .. this is the link:


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