Efraim Karsh on Islamic Imperialism, arabism and Palestine

These books certainly fit my prejudices, but also tally with my 4o years of following the news in a middlebrow sort of way. If they’re wrong in any particular, or their general conclusions, it’d be fascinating to see the evidence.RDN reviews two important books of scholarship and opinion whose titles are pretty accurate… 

Palestine Betrayed
By Efraim Karsh
Yale, 2010

Islamic  Imperialism: A history
By Efraim Karsh
Yale , paperback, 2007 (Updated edition)

Fitting my prejudices
These books deliciously confirm my prejudices about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the middle east in general. Here are some of them. You don’t have to like the Zionists to admire them; you can’t help liking the Arab world, but it’s hard to admire it. The Zionists do sometimes fail our very high expectations of them, but the Arabs very often fail our much lower expectations of them.

It happens that I have never been to Israel or Arab Palestine, but I spent just enough time in Egypt in the mid-1980s to know that even if it has a wicked state, its citizens seem extraordinarily kind. I know: the Egyptians aren’t strictly Arab, but they’ll do for now and in any case this argument is sustained, if a little equivocally, by the weeks I spent in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait just after the first Gulf War in 1991. And in case what you are about to read seems to condemn Arabs as amiable fools, I should stress that I have a fair bit of evidence of the intelligence and professionalism of plenty of Palestinian Arabs.

All in all, it is easier to romanticise the Arabs than the Jews. That may be a surprise to some Jews, who reasonably enough see themselves as having a racial, a religious, a geographic and a historical claim to be victims. The Englishman is conditioned to respond to the underdog, and for some reason in this case that’s not the Jews. By the handy tropes of the Baby-boomer generation liberal, and their reading of Edward Said, Israel is plainly bad by being the heir to The Enlightenment, the tool of America and the standard bearer of the West. The Palestinians, on the contrary, are the heirs and prime examples of the tradition of liberation wars and rhetoric, and in a lineage which runs from Byron to Arafat via Bob Dylan and Gerry Adams. 

So you will perhaps see that when I first set my face against the tyranny of liberalism, in the 1960s, it was in Israel, Vietnam and Northern Ireland where I (metaphorically) found my greatest motivation and met my biggest tests. I’m afraid I didn’t do much historical reading, so the underpinning of my generalised affection for American and British official policy was scanty.

The Karsh enterprise
Efraim Karsh is almost obsessively in love with archive work, but he isn’t afraid of controversy. He has certainly laid into the “New History” by which some Jewish and other historians have aligned themselves with conventional anti-Zionist, pro-Arab narratives. But the most important message of Karsh’s work is not stated as such by him. His enormous quantities of evidence paint (very satisfactorily to my eyes) a picture in which the Palestinian Arabs, and the wider Arab world, threw away chance after chance to thrive alongside their Jewish neighbours. Maybe they didn’t spot that Jews make the best of friends and the worst of enemies.

The story of Arab failure
The Arab failure should not be seen as a case of a small but disastrous unawareness that they should cut their losses or make the best of a bad thing or live with a fait accompli. It was much worse
than that. Karsh cites convincing data that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the luckiest Arab – the Arab with the best deal to be had in the Middle East – was to be found living and trading alongside Jews in Palestine.  This good fortune was not, by the way, the comparative good fortune of the black African living in apartheid South Africa. The black South Africans of the mid-20th century were amongst the most – were perhaps the most – prosperous and educated Africans in the entire continent, but they suffered political indignities. By contrast, the Palestinian Arab had an absolutely solid promise and expectation of western-style, modern civil rights. The Zionists had proved themselves very benign economic neighbours, and were determined to offer Arabs a full share of the rule of law and democracy they wanted for themselves in their National Home. Even in the late 1940s, when war had hardened their hearts, the Jews maintained a large measure of this desire, and it is powerfully vestigal even now.

So who’s to blame for the failure of the Palestinian Arabs to throw their lot in with the Jews and thrive alongside them? Roughly speaking, one could say that Karsh’s two books prove that nearly any Arab with a voice has firmly grabbed the wrong end of the stick. Karsh’s Palestine Betrayed  tells us, for instance, that:

“Musa Alami, one of the foremost Palestinian Arab moderates during the mandate era, told David Ben-Gurion, ‘He would prefer the land to remain poor and desolate even for another hundred years’, if the alternative was its rapid development in collaboration with the Zionists.” 

Palestine Betrayed shows that most Arab simply could not imagine that the Zionists were so unlike (so much better than) their own power elites (such as the Arabs could be said to have had any). Arab power-brokers assumed, or pretended to assume, that the Jews would run a state which would exploit and ruin non-Jews. It is remarkable that even the “best” of the leaders of neighbouring states – those most prepared to negotiate with the proto-state of Israel – were either thoroughly anti-Semitic in their hearts, or deployed anti-Semitism whenever it suited them.  (I am using anti-Semitism to denote anti-Jewishness, though of course the Arabs are semites too.)

The only area in which I wonder if Karsh’s account is entirely secure is in his argument that Arab and Jewish communities mostly got along pretty well before 1948 and that therefore it was (he implies) almost always bad leadership which led the locals astray. There does seem to have been a deal of alacrity in the way local Arabs swung into hate mode against Jews. Perhaps there is middle ground to be had: Arab heads were always primed with anti-semitism, ready for the fuse to be lit. 

The big story of Islamic and Arab imperialism
It helps to see the context as Karsh lays it out. His Arab Imperialism shows that Muslim leaders have very often invoked the idea of a millenarian Islamic right to regional and global power, and not often done so because they were devout. In parallel to this line of thought, Arab national leaders (or Arab leaders who aspire to national power) very often invoke a pan-Arab dream, with varying degrees of Islamism, sometimes to mask their designs, and sometimes to elevate them. Certainly that was what went on in the final mid-century tragedy of the failure of Palestine.

The bigger surprise is to hear Karsh revising the usual narrative of European exploitation of the collapsing Ottoman empire. The new middle eastern boundaries and the creation of Iraq, for instance, were:

 “the aggregate outcome of intense pushing and shoving by a multitude of regional and international bidders for the Ottoman war spoils, in which the local actors, despite their marked inferiority to the great powers, often had the upper hand.”

Karsh calls this chapter, “The tail that wags the dog”.

The historiographies of the conflict
It may be useful to pause here and consider where Karsh’s approach, his historiography, differs from the kind of thing read by most students of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The mainstream modern view seems to be, or seeks to be, determinedly non-judgemental. So, for instance, Kirsten E Schultze’s The Arab-Israeli Conflict (1999 and 2008, in the classic Seminar Studies in History series) says that the conflict is of its time; “in simplistic terms, is one of competing nationalisms”.  

It’s a nice move but surely rather odd. Yes, the idea of a Jewish nation state was quite new and fitted a contemporary fashion. Yes, the Arab world was witnessing the birth of various post-colonial states. So we seem to have a nice symmetry between the Jews’ need of a post-Holocaust state and the Arabs’ need of a set of post-Ottoman, post-French, post-British national states. A parity and a moral equivalence is suggested. Also a nice post-modern relativism: Jew and Arab both had a felt need of a nation state and there’s no need to investigate the merits of their case.

Read on, and the Schultze account is similarly sure that Jews and Arabs were about equally capable of atrocity and – if anything – the Jewish role in banishing Arabs from Palestine was the greater. Well, it’s true that some Zionists were capable of atrocities, but the Arabs perpetrated far more of them. What’s more, one has to work rather hard – fly in the face of a good deal of contrary evidence – to believe that the Jews perpetrated the horrors casually ascribed to their villainy. But the infamous tragedy of Deir Yassin, usually characterised as a massacre (including by Schultze), in which Jewish underground forces killed 250 people (100 according to Karsh), was a very rare event. It was immediately denounced by official Jewish authorities and seized on as a propaganda tool by the Arabs. As for the exodus of Palestinian Arabs before, during and after the 1948 war, it was mostly instigated, and sometimes forcibly, by Arab leaders who spread endless scare stories about the likelihood of mass killings by Jews. Karsh concedes that late in the process, the Jews became unwilling to sanction the return of Arabs. But this was a reversal of their earlier policy and could easily be defended as a realistic assessment of the trouble returning Arabs would cause them, granted what 1948 had taught both sides.

The Arabs’ crocodile tears
Karsh stresses, but all historians seem to accept, that no Arab leaders of surrounding countries seem seriously to have been thinking about the well-being of Palestinian Arabs as a cause of merit in itself. What’s more, the neighbouring states often seemed to concede at least privately that it was the Zionists who promised best for the local Arabs. Indeed, it was the Jews who throughout were actually prepared to think of their Arab neighbours as having rights of their own. Non-Palestinian Arab leaders used the Palestinian Arab cause as a chip in their own nation-building, and often in their plans to absorb one bit or another, or all of, Palestine in their burgeoning kingdoms or empires.

And why not, goes the conventional anti-Zionist view? Palestine was and is an Arab, and a Muslim, country. I find Karsh reassuring in his account of Palestine as a territory in which an extraordinary mix of nationalities and faiths have co-habited, with varying degrees of peacefulness, for centuries. Most, including the Arabs, were pretty happy to be a semi-detached part of the Ottoman empire. Even granted the mainstream modern historiography, it seemed reasonable of the British, the League of Nations and the United Nations to have sought in the 1930s and 1940s to design a matching pair of Arab and Jewish states, each according rights to minorities, with Jerusalem as an international city. The British state, in the form of Clement Attlee and Earnest Bevin (Labour politicians, I am pleased to note) ratted on its earlier and honourable view and increasingly sided with the Arabs, not least on account of oil, but also general diplomatic convenience (as it was thought).

The Zionists more than tolerated the two-state solution, but – of course, and typically – the Arabs didn’t fancy an option which took Palestine out of play. Karsh is convincing when he sketches the longevity, continuity, richness and usefulness of the ancient Jewish connection with Palestine. I am trying to get it across that it doesn’t require a specially Jewish perspective to see things from a Zionist point of view. Nor does it require a special sense of Jewish victimhood to think that the Jews have a good claim to a Jewish state in Palestine. An ordinary reading of pre-20th century middle east history might have suggested the Jews deserved a state, and  ordinary pragmatism might have suggested that the region would gain from it.

It is, by the way, at least remarkable that the Arab world and its apologists don’t seem to mind that the Palestinian Arabs’ most senior leaders not only cheered-on Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jewish Problem, but took themselves off to live under the Fuhrer’s special protection for the duration of WW2. You’d have thought the Arab world would cut the Zionist some slack on that account alone.

Karsh doesn’t talk an enormous amount about very recent Palestinian and Israeli history. It goes without saying that the world expects Israel to behave much better than its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians. As part of that, we expect the Jewish state to bend over backwards to accept any concessions by the Arab side. We expect the Jews to deliver on their promises, and the Arabs to fail to deliver on theirs. At the moment, and it’s a recent development, I’d say that the wider world, even including natural friends of Israel, is feeling that Israel is not being as noble and magnanimous as we expect. Reading Karsh has reassured me that my lifelong assumption was right: the Arabs cocked things up very badly. I have no idea whether enough of their young people will grasp that for history’s vicious circle to be broken.

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Publication date

21 July 2010