How fascinating the interaction on Radio National's Breakfast program yesterday between Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, a bloke who knows what he's talking about because he's done his homework and more, and veteran ABC journalist Geraldine Doogue, who, despite having worked for the ABC for more decades than I can remember, seems utterly clueless when it comes to the basics of one of the planet's great unresolved colonial conflicts.
So clueless, in fact, that Ilan Pappe's account of what really happened when Israel sprang into being in 1948, seems actually to have shocked her. Nor was it just 1948. Pappe even had to explain at one point that the vast majority of Israelis are actually Zionists!
How to explain the bizarre phenomenon of someone at the very top of the journalism tree experiencing the kind of discombobulation suffered by young Virginia when doubt was first cast on the existence of her beloved Santa Claus?
Is this the legacy of years of Zionist pressure on the ABC over the issue of Palestine, and the culture of self-censorship that has developed there and elsewhere in the ms media in response to it? How else is one to account for this 60-something journalist and broadcaster being so comprehensively shielded from the awful truth of what really happened back in 1948, the year of Israel's birth?
Here's the transcript, with the odd annotation by yours truly:
Doogue: Well one of Israel's most controversial historians is visiting Australia. Ilan Pappe is speaking at a number of events, including the Festival of Dangerous Ideas next Sunday where he'll address the not uncontroversial topic, Is Israel an Apartheid State? Ilan is an Israeli born-and-bred author and academic but he's now based at the University of Exeter in the UK. As one of Israel's 'new' historians - it's a new category - he has challenged the accepted history of Israel's formation over the years, courting controversy with provocative books and articles that have enraged many within his homeland, including titles such as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and The Bureaucracy of Evil: The Hidden History of the Israeli Occupation, and he's with us in our Sydney studios now. Ilan, welcome to Radio National Breakfast.
Ilan Pappe: Thankyou. It's a great pleasure to be here.
Doogue: Why did your whole life as an historian and an Israeli seem to pivot really on seeing original documents from the start of Israel in 1948?
Ilan Pappe: Well, I think I come from a comfort zone, from a privileged side of Israeli society and I thought that part of that privilege was the ability to look at my society up-close and see what's wrong, what kind of injustices occur in it. And, as part of my professional career, I'm an historian, and these two impulses, the impulse not to abuse your position of privilege on the one hand, and my professional curiosity on the other, fused together in research on the foundational mythology of the state of Israel, and there I ran into the trouble that still haunts me today.
Doogue: Where did this material come from that so changed you?
Ilan Pappe: The material itself comes from two sources. One is archival material that has been declassified after 30 years in the Israeli state archives and the other was just opening my ears and listening to the Palestinians about what happened to them in 1948, which most Israelis do not do. So hearing the other side substantiating what is said in the archival material was for me a very powerful fusion that really changed my life both as a professional and as an activist.
Doogue: And how much did it fundamentally alter the story you'd been told and learned like every Israeli child about your national history?
Ilan Pappe: The two were diametrically opposed. Almost every bit of it came out the other way. Every villain in a way became a hero and every hero became a villain. But the most important thing was the fact that we were told that the Palestinians left Palestine voluntarily in 1948. That's why the country was emptied. But the documents showed really clearly that the Israelis had forcibly and systematically expelled the Palestinians so as to make way for the creation of the Jewish state. This was the greatest revelation for me compared to what I was taught in school and learned in university before starting my research.
Doogue: So essentially you're saying that this material revealed that the original Zionist Jews who first came to what is now Israel back in the late 19th century [sic] and continuing through the activism of the 30s and World War 2 planned for the expulsion of the Palestinians who lived on this land in what you now describe as the planned ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Jee, I can't think of anything more inflammatory to be suggesting.
Ilan Pappe: In a way yes, but there's so much more living proof to this crime, and it is a crime to uproot an indigenous population from its homeland. There's no justification for doing that. And the proof is there. Every Jewish settlement is built on the ruins of a Palestinian village. There are 5.5 million Palestinian refugees who are testimony to the fact that they were expelled. So actually, there's the true story even without going to the archives. But when you go to the archives you can see a very systematic planning, a realisation that is very sad for me, a realisation I don't agree with, but that was how Zionist leaders saw it.
Doogue (in disbelief): But... but... but... I mean, which Zionist leaders and what did they actually say?
Ilan Pappe: Mainstream Zionist leadership from the very beginning understood that from their perspective they could not have a Jewish state as long as the Palestinians remained in Palestine. In order to fulfil their main slogan - We are a people without a land looking for a land without a people.
Doogue (highly agitated, her bubble of ignorance quite burst): But... but not all Israelis even then were Zionists. I mean this is the point of the trouble... I'm trying to seek... What do mainstream Israelis who don't consider themselves Zionists at any point, what do they say in relation to this matter?
Ilan Pappe: I think most Israeli Jews would consider themselves to be Zionists and would either be...
Doogue (interrupting):... really?
Ilan Pappe: Oh yes, indeed. Israeli Jews, about 95% of them, would tell you we are Zionists. Zionism for Israelis is a synonym for being an Israeli Jew. People like me who regard themselves as non-Zionists are a very, very small minority in the state of Israel. So the vast majority of the Israeli Jews were brought up on this narrative that the Palestinians left voluntarily and that's why actually there are very few of them in the land of Palestine, whereas the truth is that their country was built through what I call an operation of ethnic cleansing which has major implications for the moral validity of the state and for the future solution of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Doogue (clutching at straws): So what do official sources say and did say about this material when it came out? I'm seeking to ventilate the debate. I mean you're presenting a very blunt... err... sort of clear-cut view. Is it the view in Israel?
Ilan Pappe: Well, it's very interesting. We had a left-centre political elite ruling in Israel until 2000. They were in a state of denial and the struggle was to convince them that they were hiding the truth. Unfortunately, since then we've had a right-wing [inaudible]...
Doogue: With the second intifada...
Ilan Pappe: Exactly... and they don't deny it. They actually accept it as part of what should have been done and maybe what would be done again for the sake of Israel's survival. IOW, for them the idea that power was used in order to establish the state is not a problem, whereas for people on the centre-left this was a problem but they were denying it. So we're either in a state of denial, which is bad, or we have a position that endorses such actions, which is also not very positive. Unfortunately, the Israeli political scene today lies between those two positions.
Doogue: Have you been accused of being a self-hating Jew of the sort I thought was done very humorously in Howard Jacobson, a UK Jew, his [novel] The Finkler Question which won the Booker Prize, arguing against people in a way such as yourself who seem to be almost fortified by the notion that there's something inherently wrong with Jewish people being successful? [The only book Geraldine's ever read that touches on the Palestine/Israel problem, not counting Leon Uris' Exodus?]
Ilan Pappe (trying to get his head around such a ridiculous question): Yes... no... I always say that to be a self-hating person you need to hate yourself and I'm [actually] quite pleased with myself. I mean I have some criticisms but it's never hate. No, this term was produced by Jews who feel uncomfortable about what Israel is doing as a Jewish state, and who haven't come to terms with it and hate themselves in a way for being part of it. I don't think that people who expose an injustice that is done in their name and struggle against it are in an uncomfortable position. In fact, I felt very liberated after exposing what I did and feel much more at peace with myself. I think Jews who have a problem here are those who endorse policies in Israel that in any other part of the world they'd condemn.
Doogue (thoroughly discombobulated): But... I don't know where it leaves you because in a sense you're undermining the whole moral authority of this state are you not? [So Pappe, not the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine, is undermining some imagined Israeli 'moral authority'?]
Ilan Pappe: Well, I think I'm undermining the moral authority of a regime. There's a difference between a state and a regime. In South Africa you had an apartheid regime. You didn't undermine the validity of South Africa as a state by questioning the moral validity of its apartheid regime. So I am undermining and challenging the ideological regime that Israel subscribes to but not the state itself. I mean I do think that if quite simple, elementary democratic principles were applied to every citizen who lives in Israel it would be a more just and peaceful place.
Doogue: What is the state of citizenship of the Palestinian Arabs?
Ilan Pappe: Well, it's not their state.
Doogue: Pardon me, Palestinian Israelis?
Ilan Pappe: Palestinian Israelis are not part of the common good in republican terms because there is an identification between Israel and the nation. The nation of Israel are the Jews, not the Palestinians. Israel does not admit being a binational state although it is of course to all intents and purposes. So if you are not Jewish in Israel you are already a second class citizen by definition. In fact, a Jewish baby born tomorrow in Sydney has more rights [in Israel] than a Palestinian in Haifa whose family has been living there for 600 years.
Doogue: But this is not new. We've known this for a while. [Who is she kidding here?] You say things are getting worse.
Ilan Pappe: It's getting much worse because the legislation against the Palestinians in Israel has become more xenophobic and ruthless. The whole political system in Israel has moved to the right. It is far more committed to ruthless and callous policies towards any Palestinian under Israeli control, whether inside Israel, in the West Bank, or in the Gaza Strip. So I think Israel is no longer playing the democratic game which it played until recently, which left some space for improvement and some scope for hope. I think this current Israeli political elite is very dangerous, not just for Jews and Arabs but for the Middle East as a whole.
Doogue (trotting out a favourite Israeli propaganda line): So has Israel, even this current regime as you put it, got anything to be proud of because quite a few Palestinians argue that even if they don't like it, they prefer to live in Israel than in other parts of the Middle East. [Well of course, Geraldine, it is their homeland!]
Ilan Pappe: Well, I don't know of many Palestinians who like being in Israel now. That may have been right about 10 or 15 years ago [but] it is becoming more and more unbearable to be a Palestinian or a non-Jew in Israel [today]. Of course there are many achievements for Israel as a state project, culturally, socially, economically. But I think they are dwarfed when you juxtapose them with its human rights record. You can have a thriving, prosperous society but if it's built on injustice all this prosperity will eventually be doomed because you cannot hold on to these achievements if the basic moral infrastructure of the state is questionable and contrary to basic human and civil rights.
Doogue: So Ilan, I know you feel you've been effectively driven out and are now living and working in the UK. How are you received when you do go back, because you're still an Israeli with an Israeli passport?
Ilan Pappe: I think that most Israeli Jews cannot yet subscribe to my views but more and more will eventually. There is always a difference between the way the state treats you and those who know you intimately treat you. So in my very close society people have far more respect for these views, but unfortunately the state and society as a whole still regard Jews like myself as too dangerous or challenging and would rather continue with the siege mentality that has characterised this society since it was created. But I'm very hopeful. There's a new generation and new realities developing around us in the Middle East. So I think in due course that the idea of a more just and democratic society won't be utopian any more and will maybe turn into the new Israel and Palestine we are all dreaming of.
Doogue: Have you felt threatened in Israel?
Ilan Pappe: Yes, I was threatened. My family was threatened. But I think I'm a very minor victim of such intimidation compared to the real victims of brutality, the Palestinians in prison without a trial, the mothers who sit next to their demolished homes. So it has to be put in context. Jewish dissidents in Israel are still treated in a tolerable way. This may change but it's mainly Palestinians who dare to resist that really receive the harsher treatment and they should be the ones who get our solidarity and empathy.
Doogue: Finally, where does this all go in the next 10 years, Ilan? I mean is there any chance Israel will be accepted as a genuine neighbour and will Israel accept the region as a decent neighbourhood? [That's right, Geraldine, it's all about Israel, isn't it?]
Ilan Pappe: Well, for that to happen Israel as a state and society would have to come to terms with the fact that they are part of the Middle East, part of its problems and part of its solutions. This is not yet the perceived position in Israel, so as long as the Israelis continue to regard themselves as alien actors in the Middle East, they will continue to be alienated by the Middle East or by the neighbouring societies around them and the conflict will continue. Israel is a very strong military power and that's why it has not been defeated. But military power is not enough to maintain a society as a vital place and Israelis are risking more and more losing the sympathy of the world, the support of the Americans, and the tolerance of the region around them, and they may soon become a pariah state which would lead a lot of good Israeli Jews to think twice whether they want to stay there or seek their future elsewhere.
My God, is the ABC a sheltered workshop or what?