Contesting the Past

The volumes in this series select some of the most controversial episodes in history and consider their divergent, even starkly incompatible representations. The aim is not merely to demonstrate that history is ‘argument without end’, but to show that study even of contradictory conceptions can be fruitful: that the jettisoning of one thesis or presentation leaves behind something of value.


Contesting the Crusades

Norman Housley

Contesting the German Empire 1871–1918

Matthew Jefferies

Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War

Gary R. Hess

Contesting the French Revolution

Paul Hanson

The Israel–Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories

Neil Caplan

In preparation

European Renaissance

William Caferro

Witch Hunts in the Early Modern World

Alison Rowlands


C. Scott Dixon

The Rise of Nazism

Chris Szejnmann

Origins of the Second World War

Peter Jackson

The Enlightenment

Thomas Munck

The Israel–Palestine Conflict

Contested Histories

Neil Caplan

Wiley Logo

Dedicated with deep sadness to the many victims of this protracted conflict – past, present, and future

List of Maps

1.1 Palestine 1922, 1948, and Israel 1949

2.1 Palestine under British Mandate, 1923

5.1 Peel Commission Partition Plan, July 1937

6.1 United Nations Partition Plan, 1947

6.2 Israel and Her Neighbours, 1949–1967

7.1 Israel and Occupied Territories, 1967


The June 1967 war in the Middle East marked my first awakening, as a graduate student searching for an area of doctoral research, to the complexities of the Arab–Israeli conflict. My first impulse was a problem-solving one, flowing naturally from personal experience as my own country, Canada, was celebrating its centennial and engaging in lively public debates about how the English and French nations could continue living harmoniously under a single federal régime. A year of exploratory reading and study in London unexpectedly sparked a fascination with the historical origins and development of the conflict, and totally shifted my focus from the future to the past.

Since that time I have been researching, writing, and teaching almost exclusively about the history, diplomacy, and psychology of the Arab– Israeli conflict. Digging in archives for authentic primary sources and writing articles and monographs for a scholarly audience are the activities I have enjoyed best. This, I suppose, makes me a “positivist historian.” But at the same time I have also developed a deep interest in and respect for the psycho-social dimensions of this conflict.

Very little about the dispute and the attitudes of the various parties is simple and straightforward, making it especially difficult to summarize events and issues succinctly while doing justice to the complexities involved. To create this volume of the Contesting Histories series I have combined lecture notes from introductory courses taught at various universities with some critical reflections about how the conflict is portrayed in academic and other writing. This book situates itself among several overview histories already available, but attempts to go beyond the mere retelling of what happened by focusing on a series of core arguments that seem to deadlock protagonists and historians alike.

One of the daunting challenges in producing this book has been to choose an appropriate level of detail in setting out the history of the conflict for undergraduates. Interested readers will, I hope, benefit from my extensive use of footnote references, pointing to additional details, nuances, and contrary interpretations that could be profitably consulted but which, if included, would make this text too dense.

Finally, there is the very tricky business of perceptions and bias. One of the hazards of writing on this subject is the near certainty that there will always be someone who will react to a word or phrase as being an oversimplification or misrepresentation of an event or a protagonist’s motivation. I have done my best to listen to the voices in my head requiring me to revise frequently with sensitivity to subtleties of wording and tone. Readers, I hope, will appreciate the attempts made to allow for each of the contested versions of the history of this dispute to receive a fair hearing alongside its rivals.

I feel truly blessed with a number of colleagues and friends who have generously helped me by answering queries and by critiquing earlier draft proposals and chapters. They will most likely disagree with some aspects of my presentation of the history or the historians, so I will spare them the embarrassment of naming them here and will instead convey my thanks privately. Most generous of all, my wife Mara provided much-needed emotional support and sacrifices that allowed me optimal conditions for the long days of writing.

Montréal, Québec, Canada
December 2008

Note on Sources

This book appears at a time of greatly expanding use of web-based resources. I have included pertinent references to these sources, which include newspapers and journals (e.g., The Guardian, Ha-Aretz, Bitter-lemons, MERIA) offering online access to articles. A proper study of this subject, however, still requires heavy reliance on printed materials (books, journals, pamphlets, magazines) available on library shelves and files accessible in public archives.

Wherever they can be found, I give preference to citing primary sources and first-person accounts, ahead of what historians classify as “secondary” sources. The former are the original, unvarnished building blocks needed to create any historical narrative: texts of public pronouncements, official or private correspondence, memoranda of conversations, minutes of meetings, personal diaries—generally, accounts of what happened from people who were actually present when it happened. Many primary sources are conveniently available to students in documentary volumes. In the pages that follow I make extensive use of two highly recommended collections: The Israel–Arab Reader, edited by Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, and The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, edited by Yehuda Lukacs.1

Historians and other writers use primary sources to craft their own treatments of the events. In a sense, these writers are “processing” this “raw material” in order to create their own secondary works (articles, books) that reflect their particular selection and organization of the materials, and their own interpretations of the events and protagonists. (More on this in Chapter 11.)

As English-speakers we are foreigners vis-à-vis the main protagonists to this conflict; their main languages of communication and publication are Arabic and Hebrew. Despite this linguistic barrier, we are nonetheless well supplied with a good sampling of works by Arabs and Israelis in English translation. Assuming that the bulk of my readers are not able to easily access materials in Arabic or Hebrew, I have cited primarily English-language sources. But, as my colleagues in the region rightly caution, on some issues—and especially the historians’ debates (see Chapter 11)—we outsiders get to see only the tip of the iceberg via translations. We miss out on detailed discussions and the rich variety of ideas that continue to circulate in Arabic and Hebrew academic literature, memoirs, fiction, and films.

Part I