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New Age Zionism and the Discourse War: The Lessons of Joan Peters' From Time Immemorial
Chris Shortsleeve   

With the recent emergence of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” there has been much talk in U.S. and Israeli government and media circles of what is called “the demographic problem.” While the meaning of this term is often mystified by its development and humanitarian connotations, it essentially functions as Zionist code for the following question: “What are we going to do about the increasing number of brown people who are not pleased to live in our ‘democratic’ white, white Israel?”

That is to say, what are “we,” meaning Zionists far and wide – from devout Israeli Jewish Zionists to secular U.S. State Department Zionists to anti-Semitic Christian Right Zionists – going to do to protect the ethnic and cultural purity of the Israeli polity? What needs to be done in order to preserve that polity as a specifically white, Ashkenazi-dominant and normative space? Or in other words, “how can we maximize our use and colonization of Palestinian lands, without the uncomfortable prospect of having to deal with actual Palestinian people?”

This is not a new question.

The Israeli state apparatus and ruling class has been debating “the demographic question” since 1948. In 1948 the demographic question was solved through ethnic cleansing; 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from the region. In 1967 it was solved through bantustanization; Palestinians in the West Bank were corralled into militarily controlled ghettoes, issued identity cards, and declared to be official wards of the Israeli military. As opposed to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, 1967 ushered in the era of ethnic policing, of hardwiring the Palestinian population to the Israeli state through a system of internal surveillance and control. Neither solution, however, has made “the demographic problem” go away. Since 1967, the Israeli state has continued to employ complex variations of both of these tactics (ethnic cleansing and ethnic policing) on the Lebanese frontier and Palestinian ghettoes respectively. But the Palestinian movement along with international solidarity is still vibrant, inhibiting the Israeli state and ruling class from fully solving their demographic problem.

One of the solutions to this crisis of Israel’s legitimacy has been to wage a war on the epistemic level, on the level of knowledge production. A new age of Zionist historians, activists, scholars, and politicians (conservative and liberal alike), realizing that they cannot defeat the Palestinian resistance to their colonization on a purely military level, have begun since the 1980s to attack the very discourses and historiographic legitimacy of the Palestinians themselves. Enter Joan Peters and her trail-blazing exercise in Zionist doublethink (fittingly published in 1984), From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. In this mammoth work of historical and demographic “scholarship,” Peters dedicates herself to one central task: "proving" that the Palestinians are not in fact native to Palestine, that the very term “Palestinians” is an historical myth perpetrated by the contemporary Palestinian movement to justify a false claim to the land. As Edward Said bitterly remarked with the publication of Peters’ book, “our very existence, the very existence of the Palestinians, has become propaganda.”

Peters’ central thesis is that a significant portion of the 700,000 Arabs residing in the part of Palestine that became Israel in 1948 immigrated to the Jewish settled areas of Palestine between 1920 and 1948. Essentially, according to Peters, the Palestinians are a fabrication, like the tooth fairy, for no such people really exist. She implies that during Jewish colonization, Palestine really was a virgin wasteland, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” The Arabs that live there now, says Peters, moved to the area during colonial times, attracted to the region by the prosperity brought by the industrious Ashkenazi settlers from across the sea. Or in other words, the Palestinians are a demographic fabrication who have no historic claim or right to the land.

Peters attempts to prove this thesis by documenting a massive wave of illegal Arab migration to Palestine during the colonial period, and more specifically during the 1920s and 30s. However, as a number of more sober-minded scholars have pointed out (Said being the first who comes to mind), the amazing thing about From Time Immemorial is that its own demographic research contradicts this central thesis. The entire legitimacy of the book revolves around the magic number 2.7, for Peters maintains that between 1893 and 1947, in both the Jewish and Arab areas of Palestine, “natural” (i.e. non-immigrant) population growth was 2.7 percent per year. The funny thing is Peters puts the indigenous Palestinian Arab population at 466,600 in 1893. Unfortunately for her, and for her second grade math teacher, 466,600 times 2.7 percent over the 54-year time span turns out to be 1,146,902. And unfortunately again, Peters confirms that the total Arab Palestinian population in 1947 was 1,303,800. This means that according to Peters’ own research, 1,146,902 of the total 1,303,800 Palestinians living in Palestine during 1947 (88%) were not immigrants, were not the descendants of immigrants, but were purely and simply the result of Peters’ magic natural growth rate of 2.7 percent. In other words, only 156,898 (12%) of the Arabs living in Palestine were immigrants, thus rendering Peters’ book, as even Ha’aretz was forced to concede, “one of the more lamentable propaganda efforts in recent years.”

It has been both a relief and a distraction for the Palestine solidarity movement that many scholars have diverted time and energy from other issues in order to expose the illogic of From Time Immemorial. In most of the world outside of the U.S. (including Israel itself), Peters’ thesis that the Palestinians are an historical myth, and that the Arabs who live in Palestine today are the first generation descendants of mid-20th century immigrants, has been shown to be utterly without merit. However, many of these solidarity activists and scholars have framed their condemnation of From Time Immemorial within a more general condemnation that exclusively targets right-wing Zionists.

Conservative and right-wing Joan Peters certainly is, but to dwell on this fact is to miss the point entirely. The lesson in From Time Immemorial is not that “the religious right” or “the neo-cons” need to be opposed. For this talk of “the demographic problem” is by no means an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. Both historically and contemporarily, it is and has always been the stated intention of all Zionists, liberal and conservative, to protect the explicitly Jewish character of Israel, and more specifically, the Ashkenazi (white) character. No Zionist today, from the rabid right-wingers of the Likkud party to the tie-dyed rank and file of Tikkun (who speak of kibbutzim as if they were multi-racial socialist communes that allowed Arabs), disagrees with the fundamental principle on which the state of Israel rests: that Israel must remain a Jewish state, and any population increases on the part of the Palestinian Arab population are a threat to the existence of Israel and the ethnic and cultural purity of that polity, as defined by Zionism.

From Time Immemorial was published 21 years ago and has been for the most part satisfactorily defeated. Thus, the challenge for the Palestine solidarity movement is not to further beat Peters’ pathetic conclusions into the ground. The challenge is to recognize that Peters’ tactic of discursive and historiographic subversion is not a tactic utilized solely by “the right” or “conservative Zionists.” The challenge is to recognize From Time Immemorial as a text which is emblematic not of a specific conservative tendency on the Zionist pH scale, but of the acidity of the era in which we live, of the new mainstream strategy employed by all Zionists in their efforts to subvert the Palestinian liberation struggle’s legitimacy.

The strategy I speak of is the new age Zionists’ attempt to control the historical, geographical, and discursive terms of debate that govern this conflict. For example: one, the term “Palestine” used to mean “all of historic Palestine” (presently termed Israel). Now it means the West Bank and Gaza. Two, Israel’s ethnic cleansing of 1948 used to be an undisputed historic fact. This has been recently called into question, and now we have a new generation of holocaust deniers. These discursive victories have not been waged nor won by conservative Zionists only. It is the liberal Zionists, the new age conflict resolution types which call for phony “peace” and “dialogue,” which have been in the forefront of this struggle.

Take the mainstream Zionist terms “Arab-Israeli conflict” or “Arab-Jewish conflict” which the international community has largely accepted as appropriate labels for this issue. This is extraordinary, because there are Arabs that are Israeli residents and citizens. There are Arabs that are Jews. They’re called Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. And the terms “Arab-Israeli conflict” or “Arab-Jewish conflict” reveal a blatantly racist fact: that as far as Israel is concerned, Arabs are not really Jews, and Arabs are not really Israelis. The Arab Jews don’t count as full Jews. The Arab Israelis don’t count as full Israelis. They are actually second class citizens under those conceptions. They are on the Arab side of “the Arab-Israeli conflict.” So we see in this very terminology that Zionism frames conflict as an opposition between white Ashkenazi Jews (the real Jews) and “the Arabs” (which, no matter how religiously Jewish, will never have what it takes to be fully Jewish and Israeli: whiteness). This very terminology reveals the open white supremacist nature of the Israeli state and Zionist philosophy in general.

Yet, for the most part, much of the Palestine solidarity movement seems to be less concerned with confronting all Zionists for the white supremacists that they are, and more concerned with confronting only the conservative ones or the ones sponsoring the latest wall. If the Palestine liberation struggle is going to be victorious, then the solidarity movement must start taking back key ground in the realm of geographical, historical, and, dare I say, “demographic” discourse. We have to draw out Zionism for the white supremacy that it is, and talk about this conflict not as the “Arab-Israeli” conflict, or even as a “conflict” at all, but as the Zionist colonization of Palestine, paid for and sponsored by U.S. Empire. Israeli Apartheid is not just Joan Peters, George Bush, Ariel Sharon, or a wall; Israel Apartheid is a system of institutionalized white supremacy designed to suffocate the Palestinian people’s capacity to be self-governing. Unless we challenge and defeat the State Department line, and the murky left-wing Zionist definitions of what this conflict consists of, of what Palestine consists of, of where the borders are, of who is Jewish and who is Arab – then the Palestine solidarity movement will never win the war of public opinion.

Joan Peters. From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 601p.

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