Maybe the most interesting is a group of Israeli writers, sometimes referred to as “New Historians.” Emerging in the last twenty years these writers have taken a second look at the beginning of Israel, including the origins of the Arab Israeli conflict, They examined issues never admitted to in Israeli history and have made a significant impact not only in the field of history but within the conflict of how Israelis view themselves. Although this group is revisionist in its ideological approach they cannot really be considered anti-Zionist. It would be more appropriate to consider them post Zionist. They do not write traditional Zionist history but rather change it so it reveals a different, if albeit darker side of Zionist history.

The Post-Zionist ideology of the New Historians did not develop out of some sense of national introspection as some analaysts of the movement have theorized. ws both in pre-state Palestine and the Diaspora. Anti-Zionism among Jews was a larger, stronger movement before 1948. Jews in America, Western Europe and Palestine, although sympathetic to the realities of Eastern European anti-Semitism, felt that establishing a national homeland in Palestine was not the answer. Palestine was a largely undeveloped, hostile frontier with already indigenous population inhabiting the land. The answer really existed in forcing the Russians and Poles to ease their persecution of Jews. It has been argued that most Jews, at least in England and America feared that the establishment of a Jewish State would raise anti-Semetic feeling in their home countries, and ascribed accusations of dual loyalty. It was from this rich and vocal intellectual movement that the “New Historians” drive their agenda.

Elmer Berger and Martin Buber were two of the  most outspoken Jewish critics of Zionism in Pre-State Palestine. Both fostered movements that advocated solutions not related to statehood or any kind of sovereign Jewish entity in Palestine. Although these two men represent different philosophies, one originating from the United States and one from inside Palestine, both men can be considered anti-Zionist.

Buber, as a Palestinian Jew had the opportunity to observe the reality of Zionism and the problems that Jewish settlement created with indigenous Arabs. He followed more the philosophy of Ahad Ha’am  who warned that anything more than a cultural Zionist approach in Palestine would cause a confrontation. However, Buber took Ahad Haam’s philosophy to the next logical level. There was already a Jewish political presence in Palestine and therefore there needed to be a political solution. He advocated a binational state in which both Jews and Arabs would rule over Palestine together. Of course, in a democratic format this would relagate Jews to a minority status and thus was rejected by Zionist philosophy. At any rate Buber was never able to get Arab nationalist groups to sign on to his idea. Consequently,  his movement which had wide support previously died out once Israel became a reality in 1948.

These two men and others like them were commentators not historians. But the residual idea of anti-Zionist philosophy in the Jewish world continued albeit dwarfed by Jewish nationalism. A strong argument could be made that the “New Historians” burst onto the Israeli scene in the 1980s because of the simultaneous vision of men like Berger and Buber.  Through a rather traditional oppositionist history of Jewish thought, the “New Historians” were able to flourish. This political side is unique to the Zionist perspective, neither of the other two anti-Zionist approaches have this sort of  thorough study of the issue.

The principle difference between the “New historians” and traditional Zionist historians is that they have a tendency to draw historical equivalencies between the Arabs and the Jews and traditional historians tend to give the Zionist the historical moral high ground in their arguments. These studies have opened new discussions among Israelis on their relationship with the Arabs, past, present and future. At the same time these studies have also given new ammunition for Israel’s detractors. In the Arab world the “New Historians” have justified many of the Arab arguments, arguably strengthening the world wide anti-Zionist movement.

Unfortunately, No such dynamic exists among Arabs who stand the most to gain from conciliation with their Jewish counterparts. It is difficult to assess why the pro Zionist side developed monumentally different than the anti-Zionist side. Both sides are relatively evenly dispersed with most of their advocates coming from the indigenous populations inhabiting the principle land in question. They both have advocates in other western countries where the debate seems to rage at least as ferociously as it does in the Middle East. The one principle difference that could explain the difference is that the pro-Zionist side has from its inception been open to interpretation about its cause.

These three loosely tied distinctions of historical perspective are not perfect sets of presenting an historiographical analysis, but because of huge discrepancies in interpretation it is the only logical way of looking at the issue. The lines in which the distinctions are drawn are often blurred because of overlapping and often collide with each other to create totally different views of what amounts to exactly the same data. With such an agenda driven issue as the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is almost as if the historians are waging their own war within the conflict for supremacy of their opposing contentions.[1]

One of the more substantial debates within the field is the area of immigration of both Arabs and Jews into Palestine. Jewish figures are relatively sound. The mandate authorities kept fairly accurate records of legal Jewish immigration into Palestine.[2] Arab immigration however, is not confirmed and the data often varies in conclusions depending on which category a particular historian’s biases reside. For example, in discussing the social and economic change among the Arab community in Palestine during the 1920s,


The problem here is obvious. The figures both scholars are citing are too far apart to be accurate. One or both scholars have an agenda to fill through their interpretation. This sort of discrepancy of historical data exists in many areas of discussing this conflict. The only way to separate the historians is to place them into categories like the ones described above. Abu-Loghod is in the Arab camp and Gottheil is a pro-Zionist historian. Even if these scholars protest these labels, (and they do so vehemently) until scholarly research within the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict can come to a consensus on the meaning of data like this they will have to remain.

The time in history has a major influence on the direction the historian argues his positions. Because the Arab-Israeli conflict is so dynamic and has the ability to change not only from year to year but sometimes from month to month, the history covers a huge variety of opinions and arguments. Tessler published his work in 1994 in the aftermath of the signing of the Declaration of Principles. Tessler’s book reflected the euphoric atmosphere surrounding the conflict witnessed by the historic opportunity of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There was a genuine feeling with the announcement of the Oslo Accords that for the first time there was real chance the conflict was finally coming to an end. In his zeal to promote the promise of peace, Tessler struggled to employ the historical “equality” of both peoples. While perhaps a noble effort on his part, this is dangerous ground for an historian to travel. For every similarity one could draw on the history of both Arabs and Jews, one could also draw on differences, therefore negating his argument.[4]

Ten years later his hypothesis of a “symmetrical history” between the two peoples is outdated and does not jive with the warlike conditions that now exist between Israel and the Palestinians.

Tessler’s “balanced” approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict reflects the mood of the time. Tessler, like many others, was greatly influenced by the signing of the Oslo accords, in September 1993..

One of Tessler’s main arguments is the similarity between the history of both peoples.  He argues that in order to understand the Arab Israeli conflict you must first understand that both peoples Arabs and Jews have had similar histories. This argument is essential according to Tessler, to understand why the two peoples were destined to clash over Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Tessler describes a congruence of Jewish and Arab history, which can be divided into four distinct groups. 1) Jews and Arabs are both Semitic peoples with strong connections to religion, culture and language. 2) There exists a “symmetry” during the course of both histories and especially with the emergence of nineteenth century nationalism. 3) Both histories share a strong similarity to influences from Europe on their respective cultures in modern times. 4) Both display a strong “intellectual” concern with the modernization that turned philosophy into action and promoted nationalism. [5]

He devotes almost the first two hundred pages to explaining how Arabs and Jews are really very similar and therefore have too much in common to lose the chance at peace this time.

Although it is a bold effort to try to try to equate two warring peoples as working from what is sometimes called a “level playing field,” Tessler falls into the obvious traps trying to make his case.  There are several problems with a thesis like this. The obvious problem with a thesis like this is that it doesn’t take into account of the countless other peoples who might have also had a similar history to these two peoples but are not at war with them. There are as many dissimilarities as there are similarities so this is hardly an argument for equivalency.  That is not to say that there is not some similarities about both peoples. However, to argue that these similarities are distinctive granting a uniqueness to the relationship between Arabs and Jews is not supportable. Both similarities between other peoples and dissimilarities between the history of Arabs and Jews are available to negate his argument.

The Jews have always been a minority in the Arab world, and as such were subjected to Islamic law as a minority.  After the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth in 70 C.E., the Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. At the dawn of Islam five centuries later, Jews began to form two distinct but still connected cultures in Asia and Europe. The separation formed simultaneous histories for both  European and Arabic Jews. Only the reestablished of the Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1948 created the opportunity for the Jewish people to become one people again. This is a huge part of Jewish history, contained in the religious liturgy, through prayer and observances. There is no equivalent in Arab history for this distinction.

The study of both people’s nationalism is  the cornerstone of Tessler’s argument. But, even here he falls short of the mark. The Jews began their nationalism two generations before the Arabs, giving Zionism a head start in which the Arabs to this day still have not caught up. By 1930 for example, Zionism had all the infrastructure necessary to create a state in Palestine. Support of the people, schools, hospitals, roads, social structure, a working economy and a government to oversee all these projects were in place by that time. By contrast, Arab nationalism in 1930 was nowhere near the development of Zionism. It had by that time not convinced the masses of the importance of nationalistic identity, consequently, Arab nationalism remained confined to intellectuals and a few European educated Arabs. No discernable nationalist movement can be identified among Paletsinian Arabs until the 1960s with the ascension of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In terms of nationalist “congruence” as described by Tessler for both groups is just not supportable.

As mentioned earlier this was an attempt by Tessler to draw equivalencies in the histories in order to give credence to the Oslo Accords. The sentiment is understandable but the pragmatism does not work. This does not mean that Oslo was doomed to failure although it did ultimately fail but to argue the virtue of a “symmetry” between Arabs and Jews would be the key to its success is folly. Perhaps if Tessler had written his book at the end of the 1967 June war, his approach might have been something very different.

A stronger argument can be made that there is indeed a similarity between European history and Arabic history. Tessler’s  “symmetry” is more likely posited between these two histories than between Jews and the Arabs. Both European and Arabic cultures created an empire in which they ruled for long periods of time. Both developed religions that helped them to mold and shape their particular empires. As it were, both religions grew out of Jewish belief and liturgy. Both existed relatively simultaneously.  A rivalry between the two societies based on the greatness of their cultures can be traced to an earlier time when these similarities were created.

In  keeping with his euphoric approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict Tessler outlines the cooperation in the nineteenth century between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

Many Jewish settlers took the initiative in establishing relations with Palestinian Arabs, making themselves known not only to the peasants who lived near their new communities but also to local merchants and landowners. On the other hand, on the political level, Zionist and Arab leaders took cognizance of one another, pondered the matter of the relationship between their respective movements, and in some cases established a dialogue.[6]

Undoubtably there were instances of coexistence during those first years when European Zionists were struggling to settle in their new homes. Tessler points out those instances which the historian can draw on to fulfill an argument that can show Arabs and Jews coexisting with each other. [7]

“The Zionist Movement and the Arabs” by Israel Kolatt is an earnest attempt at working at viable at looking at the Zionist side of the argument of the Arab-Israeli conflict.[8] Unlike Tessler, Kolatt does not try to draw equivalencies between the two peoples in order to understand what is needed to end the conflict. Kolatt, who wrote his article in the early 1980s was not influenced by Oslo or even the first Intifada which also played a role in how historians view the conflict. Kolatt wrote his piece at a time Zionism was struggling with the Arab question from a different viewpoint. The Begin administration which held power in Israel until 1983 forced the question on Israelis, do the Jews have a right to rule over two million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Kolatt’s piece reflects a particular viewpoint according to that question.

This presents the conflict in an entirely different context than did Tessler. Even if Kolatt and Tessler fall into the same camp their take on the conflict is different because their influences during the particular time in history they wrote their works is different.

Kolatt is somewhat aware of the argument of placing historians into categories. He makes use of explaining his methodology in the beginning in an attempt not be placed into a category. Without careful scrutiny the historian will fall into one of the camps discussed at the beginning of this piece.

Discussion of this subject puts the historian to the test—the test of his or her ability to examine the facts without distorting them or apologizing for them, and the test of dealing not only with the political military, economic, and ideological facts, but with political systems and social structures as well.[9]

Most historians writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict do not begin with an agenda. Although biases are normal, often the pressure to write or assemble, as is the case with anthologies, with emotion, rather than intellectualism upsets the scholarly process. Although Zolatt comes closer to scholarly excellence than Tessler, he also succumbs to an approach that favors the Zionist side.

Kolatt’s thesis argues that the relationship with the Arabs is defined by the complexity of political thought that exists within the Zionist movement. Depending on the nature of the political expression used within the movement the attitude towards the Arabs might change.

In all histories that discuss the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, historical streams developed from one underlying theme in varying degrees of agreeing or disagreeing. Before World War I there was significant anti-Jewish nationalism coming from the Palestinian Arab community but there was not significant anti-Arab nationalism among Palestinian Jews. Jews and Arabs in Palestine quickly developed their own individual political tracts, which were destined to never meet into a working plan for co-existence. The Jews sought coexistence in every area economical, georgraphical, social and ultimately political, while the Arabs remained focused on removing any sense of Zionist presence from Palestine. The Arabs rejected out of hand any peace settlements either with the Jews before the State of Israel or with Israelis after the State of Israel became a reality. The Arab opposition saw no advantage to discussing any coexistence that demanded a recognition of a sovereign Jewish entity in Palestine no matter how small or insignificant. Counter proposals for peace coming from the Arabs eliminated any chance for Jewish rule in the area.  And, the Zionists were by nature of the ideology, unable and unwilling to let go of their chance for political freedom in a Jewish sovereign country.

The historiography supports several main themes. The Arab side is monolithic. There are no varying distinctions in the bias. The one underlying  premise in all Arab arguments posits the determination to remove the Zionist presence from historical Paletsine. However, the Zionist side throughout its history has had several competing belief systems raging from full conciliation with the Arabs including the abandonment of the Zionist enterprise to the expulsion of the Arabs from all of historic Palestine in the fulfillment of creating Jewish State completely free of an Arab presence.

The scholarly field of the Arab-Israeli conflict is highly prolific. There are literally thousands of books both in the popular and scholarly genre in this field making it difficult to give an accurate representation of the historiography.  The books chosen in this paper were representative of the major positions argued over the course of time. They are a representative sample of the competing philosophies of the major arguments of this very complex and sometimes confusing issue.


Only the passage of time will determine if later history will be more circumspect. Perspective at the beginning of the twenty-first century offers the opportunity to study the conflict with those historians from close-up, regardless of any distortion.

One of the most misunderstood conflicts of the twentieth century is that which has raged between Palestinians and Israelis over who has rightful possession of the country of Israel once called Palestine. The Arab-Israeli conflict is arguably the most contentious battle for national dominance in the history of the modern world. Therefore, a consideration  of the conflict beginning with its origins is essential for understanding why the two sides seem so intractable.



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[2] The figures do not include illegal Jewish immigration but the authorities were able to guess because Jewish illegal immigration as opposed to Arab illegal immigration was relatively small. It increased naturally during the 1930s as Jews were trying to leave Europe but the Mandate also increased its legal amounts as well to absorb the increase creating a relative look at Jewish illegal immigration.

[3] Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 211. The actual figures come from Janet L Abu-Lughod, “The Demographic Transformation of Palestine,” in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed. The Transformation of Palestine: Essays on the Origin and Development of the Arab-Israaeli Conflict. Evenston: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Fred Gotheil, “Arab immigration into Pre-State Israel: 1922-1931.” In Elie Kedurie and Sylvia G. Haim, eds., Palestine and Israel in the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: Frank Cass, 1982. These citations are found in Tessler’s notes P. 780

[4] The population study is a good example of Tessler struggling to keep his own thesis clear. These two conflict conclusions of admittedly the same data shows that there is wide difference in the interpretation of the history. A symmetry is hard to prove with these kinds of exposures.

[5] Tessler,  Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, p. 2-4.s

[6] Tessler, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, p.123.

[7] This is another example of Tessler trying to show how Arabs and Jews are really not incompatible with each other. Their cultures are similar, there histories are alike in many ways, and therefore their individual nationalism does not necessarily mean that differences cannot be worked out. The Oslo accords will prove that. Tessler engages in selective history here. Yes there were overtures between the European settlers and the indigenous Arabs. But what Tessler fails to tell you that Palestinian Jews and Arabs for the most part did not get along from right at the beginning. The differences were not political however,

[8] Israel Kolatt, “The Zionist Movment and the Arabs,” Essential Papers on Zionism, Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira, eds., New York: New York University Press, 1996. p. 617-647 Also found in the “Zionism and the Arab Question,” Schmuel Almog ed., Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1983, p. 1-34.

[9] Kolatt, “Zionist Movement and the Arabs,” p. 617

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