Israel's first 50 years, friends and foes would have to agree, have been extraordinary. No state of equivalent size -- indeed, few states of any size -- have as consistently commanded world attention. Israel has been involved in almost every type of U.N. activity, beginning with the 1947 U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, followed in November of that year by the General Assembly resolution calling for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. From 1948 on, actions or reactions by Israel have produced cease-fire regimes, truce supervisions, refugee administration, and mediation efforts by U.N. secretaries-general, special envoys, or multiparty conferences. Israel has even been singled out in the infamous 1975 General Assembly resolution depicting Zionism as "a form of racism," repealed only in December 1991 in the wake of the Gulf War.

Israel's first 50 years have brought six wars: the 1948-49 War of Independence, the Suez war of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the 1969-70 War of Attrition, the October (Yom Kippur or Ramadan) 1973 war, and Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. These wars set in motion some of the most important and dangerous Cold War confrontations, including a limited U.S. nuclear alert during the 1973 fighting.

In May 1948 Israel had a tiny population of some 650,000 Jews. Even with the impressive ninefold increase over the following 50 years, its present 5.4 million inhabitants (almost 20 percent of them Arabs) give Israel the modest world population ranking of 200th. Not including the occupied territories, Israel is about the size of New Jersey, ranking 152nd. Yet this small state fought a tank battle against Egypt in 1973 that was larger than all but one of the World War II battles between those two behemoths, Germany and the Soviet Union.

In 50 years Israel has become a dominant Middle Eastern power, the only regional nuclear power, and the close ally of the world's sole remaining superpower. Since the June 1967 war, Israel has been engaged in a military occupation over Palestinian Arabs. Israel seemed like it might get out of the military occupation business after the historic handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993 between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasir Arafat, but the negotiations, often stalled, continue at a snail's pace. Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank began after 1967, have continued ever since, and are relentlessly creating facts on the ground.


Anniversaries are stocktaking times. How have historians interpreted this action-packed first 50 years of Israel's relations with the Middle East and the world? No easy answers here, for Israel's crowded history has been matched by a massive historiography. Israelis and foreigners, friends and foes, participants and observers, professionals and amateurs -- all have entered the debate.

For all this Babel, the writing of Israel's diplomatic record does largely follow one common pattern in historical studies: a standard or "canonical" interpretation gains favor. Conflicting interpretations never disappear but are marginalized. Then, at some point, revisionist challenges gain enough attention to compel reconsideration.

Martin Gilbert's Israel: A History is a 748-page, updated statement of what one might call the Israeli canon, based on interpretations advanced by those who controlled Israel for roughly its first three decades. The book does contain new information. The last English-language study of equivalent bulk and scope was Howard M. Sachar's A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (1976) with a later second volume, From the Aftermath of the Yom Kippur War (1987). Gilbert provides a few new twists on earlier interpretations but offers no paradigm shift.

Gilbert, a British historian, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and author of many other works, is no stranger to Israel. He has written several books on Jerusalem, historical atlases of the Jews and of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a study of Palestine under the British Mandate centering on the 1939 White Paper, and a general history, Exile and Return: The Emergence of Jewish Statehood (1978). Israel: A History is a work of synthesis by a knowledgeable historian.

It is not totally whimsical to view this genre of history as a prose variant of the classic epic. Like the epic, the national history is the story of a quest, in this case to create a state against all odds and then maintain it. The collective hero is the Israelis. Indeed, Israel is the subject, and other individuals or nations are brought in only to the extent that they flesh out the story.

A national epic is expected to be edifying, so as to play a role in nation-building. Gilbert, like most professional historians, would surely protest that he is not writing an edifying nationalist tract but doing the historian's job of faithfully recapturing the past. No need here to lapse into postmodernist lucubrations, but readers who look for the organizing theme structuring his account will view this book differently.


To label his book a national epic is not to single out Gilbert or Israel. While the role of history-writing in producing a unifying national myth has been especially pronounced in Israel, writing history as a means of defining and defending the national myth is to be found in all states and, even more, would-be states. Think of the recent uproar attending plans in the United States to set national standards in the teaching of American history. As the shades of Macaulay and Michelet remind us, the national epic has been around for some time.

Like most epics, Gilbert's narrative is chronological, even putting the year under discussion atop each page. Individual Israelis figure prominently, with copious extracts from the writings of Israeli leaders, especially David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Little-known Israelis also appear throughout, especially those involved in battles and the victims of terrorist attacks. Others, whether Palestinians, Arabs, or people from other parts of the world, are drawn less sharply, and sometimes in rather negative terms.

Gilbert is a historian, not a hagiographer. His Israelis are no plaster saints. The dark spots of Israeli history, for example the 1948 massacre in the Arab village of Deir Yasin by pre-state militias, the 1954 Lavon affair, an Israeli covert attempt to subvert relations between Egypt and the West, and Baruch Goldstein's 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron, are duly noted. Still, his is a positive story. It is a picture of an Israel that persevered and prevailed, that was determined to survive and was unwilling to trust its independence to others but sought peace whenever possible. It is also essentially the story as presented by the dominant Labor leadership from Ben-Gurion to Peres. Accordingly, the final three chapters, beginning with the seemingly great breakthrough of an Israeli-PLO accord followed by a tedious, step-by-step deflation of those high hopes for peace and security, are more somber. The assassination of Rabin, the sharp polarization of left and right, and the stalling of the peace process end the book on a more pessimistic note.

Israel: A History may well be the valedictory of the once prevailing canonical statement of Israeli diplomatic history. The era in which Labor controlled politics and dominated the discourse ended in 1977 when Menachem Begin became prime minister as head of Likud. The years since have witnessed neck-and-neck competition between Labor and Likud, but the latter, with increasing support from the religious parties and the more extreme nationalist elements, seems to be inching ahead. Put differently, the revisionist Zionist ideology of the early twentieth-century leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, Begin, and their followers, marginalized during roughly the first three decades of Israeli history, has joined the mainstream.

Buffeted from the right, the dominant discourse has in recent years also been challenged on its other flank. A small group dubbed the "new historians" is questioning the benign, eager-for-peace interpretation of Israel's history.

The two challenges are incommensurable. On the right is a cluster of organized political forces currently in power and relying on ideological legacies (hard-line, expansionist secular, and religious nationalisms) that have long been on the scene. At the other end of the spectrum are a few academic historians whose interpretations are contested by other scholars. They do not currently represent a political force, but ideas are important, and the 50 years of Israeli history -- better, the over 100 years of Zionist history -- suggest that ideas are nowhere more important than in Israel.


Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris exemplify these new historians. Both have concentrated on the period from 1947 to the early 1950s. The opening of Israeli state archives (plus those of Britain and the United States) for these years is one important reason to choose this early period. At the same time, for Israel as for many nations, the beginning years are the most important, or are at least perceived to be. (Interestingly, Gilbert devotes almost 100 pages to the 1947-49 fighting, 25 pages more than given to all the following five Arab-Israeli wars.)

Shlaim came to attention with his Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine, 1921-1951 (1988), which he revised and retitled as The Politics of Partition: King Abdullah, the Zionists, and Palestine, 1921-1951 (1990). He argued that the Zionists and Jordanian King Abdullah ibn Hussein had a common interest in dividing Palestine between them and preventing the creation of a Palestinian Arab state, which would be ruled by their common enemy, the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini. This, Shlaim maintains, was also the least bad solution in the view of Britain. Moreover, the Hashemite-Zionist connection has deep roots, reaching back to soon after the establishment of the British mandate in Palestine. These ties, Shlaim suggests, also explain the long-standing Israeli preference for using Jordan as an intermediary to deal with and better control the Palestinians.

In The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1987), Benny Morris lays to rest the old story that the flight of Palestinians from their homes was largely attributable to instructions from Arab leaders to get out of the way of the advancing Arab armies in order to return safely after Israel's defeat. With detailed documentary evidence, he offers instead a multicausal explanation, including not only the lack of effective Palestinian leadership (many of the notables left earlier) and the usual fears and confusions of wartime, but also more than a few deliberate Israeli military efforts to encourage or enforce evacuation.

Morris has also written Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War (1993, revised in 1997), an in-depth study of the cycle of violence maintained by Israeli actions countering Arab infiltration across armistice lines. It is a carefully nuanced history detailing the perceptions, actions, and responsibility of all parties, but certain of Morris' conclusions challenge established notions in Israel. "The traditional Israeli view," he writes, "is that, from 1949 to 1956, infiltration was all or generally state-organized and inspired, and terrorist in intent. The reality was different and far more complex . . . [T]hroughout most of the period, the Arab governments and armies opposed infiltration . . . because they feared IDF [Israel Defense Forces] reprisals." Even more jarring to the prevailing canon was the following: "From some point in 1953, the cycle of infiltration and reprisal boded war, something that certain Israeli leaders (from 1954) either actively sought or were not averse to."

Critical interpretations of Israeli policies and conduct during these early years have not been confined to Shlaim and Morris. Others include Uri Bar-Joseph's The Best of Enemies: Israel and Transjordan in the War of 1948 (1987), Ilan Pappe's Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51 (1988) and The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-51 (1992), and Tom Segev's 1949, The First Israelis (1986). Nor should the late Simha Flapan be overlooked. Not a historian but a leftist Mapam party ideologue, he put forward many similar ideas without the benefit of archival research in his hard-hitting The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (1987).


The common theme running through all this new history is that Israel from the beginning adopted a Machiavellian, realist approach to politics, did not draw back from violence when that seemed warranted, and was in no hurry to move toward peace with its neighbors but preferred to hang on to every gain achieved while keeping an eye peeled for more. Israel, the jaded observer of international politics might say, acted very much like most states.

And that, stripped to its essentials, is the new historians' message. In "The New Historiography," Morris insisted that "how one perceives 1948 bears heavily on how one perceives the whole Zionist/Israeli experience." He continued, "If Israel was born tarnished, besmirched by original sin, then it was no more deserving of that [Western] grace and assistance than were its [Arab] neighbors."

That charge of "original sin" got quite a play. Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion's biographer, dismissed all the new history as a "farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications" in an article entitled "Charging Israel with Original Sin." From the other side of the ideological spectrum, Zachary Lockman favorably reviewed books by Morris, Segev, and Flapan under the rubric "Original Sin." Later, Shlaim suggested that critics of the new historians were clinging "to the doctrine of Israel's immaculate conception." It is ironic and poignant, given the larger historical context out of which Zionism grew -- including the Christian roots of Western anti-Semitism -- that this debate on Israeli history has been waged in terms from Christian theology.

There has been no lack of rejoinders to the new historians, including Fabricating Israeli History: The 'New Historians' (1997) by Efraim Karsh and The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations (1991) by Itamar Rabinovich, and many articles such as Avraham Sela's "Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 War: Myth, Historiography and Reality." Karsh dismisses the new history as nonsense, in language that sheds more heat than light. Others dispute conclusions reached by the new historians but accept, as Rabinovich wrote, that the new historians have "revealed significant weaknesses in the traditional historiography and orthodox version of Arab-Israeli relations that were dominant in Israel." Rabinovich, however, threw a low punch in asserting that the new historians' "point of departure was political and moralistic rather than academic." One would have thought that orthodoxy and heterodoxy share politicizing and moralizing about equally.

This Israeli debate is in large measure restricted to the Israeli left and center. Those on the right, religious or secular nationalists, never fretted much about missed chances for peace and bristled at the very formula "land for peace." Indeed, a somewhat exaggerated epitome of the points raised by the new historians is that Labor in those early years expressed a belief in peace and comity but acted rather too much like those on the right would have. Ben-Gurion and the Israeli leadership gave peace with their Arab neighbors a low priority. And the retort of those opposing the new historians from the left and center is essentially to say, "No, the time was not ripe. The Arabs were not ready to accept Israel."

"Of our conceptions of the past," Thomas Hobbes wrote, "we make a future." That surely is what the furor is all about. Gilbert's Israel: A History, a national epic presenting the older canon with narrative skill, lies outside that ongoing debate.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now