Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel

November 13, 2008

Any history of the Middle East will have its politics. And it is good for historians to be self-conscious about their own slant, especially in such a contested area. But announcing a political position and writing history that is politically motivated does not absolve you from the basic duties of a historian. It still remains necessary for any decent historian not to repress relevant evidence, to seek to recognise the bias of sources and to evaluate contemporary commentary before accepting it as a privileged account of events.

Arno Mayer's book Plowshares into Swords reveals the danger of giving political bias its head. This book has little worth as history, not just because Mayer is writing an account dependent on complex sources where he cannot read the relevant languages - he announces blithely that he knows no Hebrew, no Arabic, none of the relevant Ottoman languages; and the book certainly bears out this ignorance - but also because he is intent on telling a story that matches his extraordinarily naive left-wing view of the world.

There will no doubt be some readers who will feel a warm glow of comfort in his attack on Israel as an intransigent imperialist power, but no one with any critical faculties or knowledge of the field could admire the account, except as a telling example of how historians in this region seems intent on exacerbating the political violence and the misrepresentations they claim to be analysing.

As ever, part of the problem is what is silenced. There is, for example, next to no comment on the Restorationists of the 19th century, whose reasons for returning Jews to Palestine had nothing to do with the Holocaust: the ideology that linked Balfour, Churchill, Ronald Storrs and others who ran the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century does not fit Mayer's politics, so it goes.

Moreover, there is no mention of Arab expulsion of Jews. More Jews were expelled from Arab lands than Arabs were expelled from Palestine. I am not making any claims about equivalence here, just noting that Mayer simply leaves out the biggest exchange of population in the region - because it doesn't fit his picture. The West is always imperialist in his eyes, but not, apparently, the Islamic world, which would have been a surprise to many in medieval Europe.

Then there are the extraordinary historical judgments. In 1948, the attack on Israel by five Arab states was "not a jihad intended to drive the Jews into the sea", but just an attempt to keep Abdullah, the King of Jordan, under control.

These are backed by extraordinary moral judgments: any Western attempt to criticise human rights, or gay and women's rights, in any Arab country can be nothing more than "self-serving ideological cover" for imperialist economic and military "penetration". This is coupled with shrill moralising: Arabs feel "righteous anger" - and "righteous" is Mayer's word - at Jews for buying property in Palestine in the 1920s (try that sentence with blacks instead of Jews if you can't hear the racism first time round: buying property, note, not violently dispossessing). It is fascinating to see how 1967 fares in his hands. Where there have been detailed new accounts of the war and its motivations, in Mayer's blunt misunderstanding the war emerges as nothing but a calculated imperialist plot. The real fears of Israeli citizens at the time are silenced, as is the extensive rhetoric of the Arab media.

One could go on. The cover sells the book as "rich and authoritative". Because of its overstatement, its naive use of sources and grotesque attitudinising, "intellectually impoverished and unreliable" would be a more accurate description.

Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel

By Arno J. Mayer
ISBN 9781844672356
Published 25 August 2008

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