Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Futility of the Historian

Benny Morris has written a very detailed, almost brutal take-down of Ilan Pappe, at The New Republic. Remember, back in the 1980s Morris and Pappe were close colleagues in launching the "New [Israeli] Historians. Now there's a chasm between them, and it's depressing to see.

The first reason it's depressing is that it's so necessary. Pappe, as Morris writes, is a quack. He doesn't know history, he's overtly dishonest, he's a low-life propagandist garnering attention and importance by pretending to be a scholar, and he's also a hypocrite. Yet he's listened to by many people, he has an influential voice, his teachings of hate are lapped up by people who have the inclination to listen, but who need him to ground their animosities in a cloak of respectability and historical fact.

The second reason it's depressing is that it's so nit-picking. Morris spends page after page disputing minutiae that Pappe has published. Here's he's got a date wrong. There he's spelled a name wrong. Over here he confused two men with similar names. Over there he has dropped two crucial words from a sentence, and also maliciously slightly mistranslated a Hebrew term. Who would know all these things except Morris and a small handful of specialists? No normal reader of Pappe's books would ever see any of this.

The third reason it's so depressing is that it's so rarefied. If he got the dates wrong, the chronology of the story can't be true. If he spelled the name wrong, it proves he never saw the document, only read about it in a known tendentious rendering of it. By mistranslating, even ever so slightly, he creates an intention which never existed. If he cites oral evidence for a case that probably didn't happen, while overlooking the documentary evidence that supports the skepticism, he maligns a group of soldiers and through them the entire IDF without indicating there isn't much of a case against them. My point being that the art and profession of historical research aren't mere mumbo jumbo and copious citing of arcane footnotes. Historical research is the professional attempt to peer backwards in time, to collate as much information as possible from as many varied sources as possible, and to evaluate the findings in a plausible way. Pappe doesn't do that, on the contrary, by pretending he does he acquires the gravitas without having the substance; but the only way to refute him is to do the job correctly, and that takes time, and discipline, professionalism. And lots of patience, first from the researcher, then from the reader. It would be so easy, and acceptable in our age of tweets, to brush aside the objections as tiresome pedantry.

Defending the truth from intentional liars is hard work; even then, it will succeed only when people are willing to take the time to listen to the defense.


Barry Meislin said...


The French have solemnly declared, while one failed Arab state after another is self-destructing before the eyes of the world (not that anyone is really noticing, mind you), that another failed Arab state, called "Palestine" (or maybe that should be "Palestine A" and "Palestine B" (like Degania?), or "Palestine East" and "Palestine West"?---must absolutely be created this year, absolutely this year, Absolument, Sans Doute, Immediament et Maintenant!!


The French have also solemnly declared that they are very, very concerned about the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, this while they are bombing the crap out of Libya!!


(No, you really can't make this stuff up.)

Of course, they are deadly serious. So much so that one can expect that they, with Obama's blessing, will threaten Israel with similar "inducements" should Bibi not agree to their humanitarian and progressive plans.

"Enough is enough", they will declaim (as only the French can) with impressive exasperation.

Assez!! Basta!! (Whatever.)

(They must be having more trouble than they bargained for in Libya....)

File under: "When all else fails, use the Jews."

Anonymous said...

But Barry, it worked out so well for the Tsars...

Speaking of which I see Bibi gave back Sergei's courtyard to the Russians. I hope he got something more than vague promises for it.
Yes, I know...


Anonymous said...


And it is not just historians. It is regular Joe's who spout off about the middle east, too. They provide partial quotes or outright lies. And you have to respond. It is terrible.


Anonymous said...

That is why there are libel laws. Pappe is based in the UK where they have the strongest libel laws in the West. A court is where this stuff belongs.


shmuel said...

Your post reminds me of
Richard Evans' very interesting book "Telling lies about Hitler" about the hard work of exposing David Irving's lies.
It also shows how the "little" errors are actually lies, that can be quite significant.

Y. Ben-David said...

I read Morris' piece. I wouldn't describe it as "nit-picking". For a professor of history not to know that the British advanced to Damascus in World War I is pretty damning, after all, anyone who has seen the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" knows that. That fact serves as a base for much of the conflict that came later in the Middle East.
What I found especially interesting is that Morris admits that anti-Zionists have come to dominate large parts of academia in Israel.
This leads me the think Orwell was right in his book "1984"....our only hope lies in the "proles"...the common people, the solid Jews of Israel.

Anonymous said...

Ben-David, I also agree with you. It is like the claim that the people saying the interviewees didn't say what Katz said they said were simply nitpicking and they differences were very small. Well, technically the change to"I saw with my own eyes..." from "I didn't see with my eyes..." and "People were killed after the battle..." from "No one was killed after the battle..." are changes of a word here and there.

Also anti-zionists and anti-americans pretty much dominate the field of Modern Middle East history which pretty much has withered away as a field with the odd decent historian here and there but since Said they don't need to bother with the "fetishing" of facts, which is lucky because in MME it is particularly hard due to the languages involved, borders and difficulty accessing archives.

Yaacov, the reason it sounds like nit-picking is because Morris has to pick things that are simply factually untrue otherwise he'll get into a morass of well this means that and this means this.


Morey Altman said...

Not just Illan Pappe, unfortunately. The overwhelming sense I have is that Pappe and his ilk are either delusional or willful liars; I try not to take either seriously. Apparently sanity and honesty are no longer important criteria in historicity or rational discourse.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to this Morris review which I've read with interest.

One point Morris mentions in passing is that Hourani, the late Oxford historian, had earlier been a "spokeman" for al-Husseini which I didn't know.

I seem to remember from a recent post that you're actually reading Hourani's classic HISTORY OF THE ARAB PEOPLES at present.

So I'd be keen, Yaacov, to find out how you're finding it.


JG Campbell

Yaacov said...

Jonathan - that's not fair. Bloggers aren't supposed to expect readers to remember their chatter, and certainly not to be asked about things they wrote last week :~)

Actually, I also saw that in the Morris article. I've been sidetracked in my reading of Hourani by all sorts of other books, but will get back to him soon (hopefully). The first half I read, which dealt with the early centuries of Islam, had lots of good feelings about its subject matter, but didn't seem like propaganda; it looked solid to me. The tricker part still lies ahead, and I'll comment on it once I get there.

Morey Altman said...

For the record, I have read it and it wasn't bad. What I actually remember most was the flowery English that, in my opinion, distracted from clarity and conciseness. Well, what would you expect from a writer? But it didn't come across to me as propaganda, although I felt his descriptions of the modern era suffered from convenient factual omissions. Oh, maybe that was propaganda? ;) The earlier chapters were definitely stronger.

Anonymous said...

The point about "nit-picking" is that these facts are black and white. In the book Morris talk about, Pappe claims there is this mysterious troika - the Commission - that met regularly and focused expelling arabs. He is misrepresenting a few meetings Ben Gurion has with - I think this is the correct name - Wiesskof or something similar. Of course they never led to anything and Mr W complained about this. But it is not open and shut and if you give these people a tiny opening....

As a side note, even the black and white stuff they will still argue. I remember attending a talk by Jacqueline Rose were she quoted a speech by Jabotinsky about expelling arabs that he gave in 1947(sic).


Yaacov said...

Jabotinsky gave a speech in 1947? 7 years after he died? Wow. Those Zionists are AWESOME.

Anonymous said...

Ah, see you spotted the flaw in her argument.... Of course one could also argue whether he was actually talking about expelling arabs - she was actually talking about his Iron Wall speech from the 20s - and whether he was all that influential on Yishuv policy in 1947-48 but that would be a debate. The fact he coudn't have given the speech was pronounced as "desparation", not that it stopped her saying exactly the same thing in her book.


Silke said...

For me as a non-academic pieces like Morris' review are extremely useful because we need to be taught how to read those books so we can better make up our own minds.

Each such "nit-picking" piece empowers me more to trust my own mind and check what I am told for plausibility by simply relating to my own life experiences. Does it synch or doesn't it.

I wish there were lots of academics who'd make it their job to teach and lectures the likes of me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Yaacov. I look forward to it once you've had a chance to read the 2nd half of Hourani. Jonathan