Courtesy Reuters

New History for a New Israel: Two Landmark Looks at a Sentimentalized Past

In This Review

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948

By Avi Shlaim
W. W. Norton, 1999
448 pp. $32.50

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999

By Benny Morris
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
751 pp. $40.00

The education minister in the dovish new Israeli government led by Ehud Barak caused a stir recently. Yossi Sarid decided that Israeli high schools should teach their students about something most Israelis would just as soon not dwell on: the massacre by Israeli soldiers of dozens of Israeli Arab civilians who broke a curfew in and near the village of Kafr Kasim some 43 years ago. The shootings were followed by a trial and an Israeli court's landmark decision to pin individual responsibility on Israeli soldiers who follow illegal orders. With Sarid's directive, dirty laundry from Israel's founding era was to be aired for its next generation.

This was something quite new under the sun. For decades, Israelis were raised on a celebratory, heroic version of their history -- a story of the return to Zion, of the resettlement of the desolate Jewish homeland, of a war of liberation in which the few stood up to the many, and of a constant struggle by the newly established state to survive in a sea of Arab hostility and brutal violence. This epic was founded on ideas and beliefs that most Israelis held as self-evident: the Jewish nation is ancient, and the Palestinian claim to nationhood is questionable at best; Israelis are innocent, and Arabs have an innate propensity to terrorism; Israel's humanistic soldiers were driven to fight by necessity, not fear or hatred; the Arabs are determined to push the Jews into the sea; the Israeli army's victories were made possible by the spirit of the Israeli fighters, not their superior numbers or weapons; the Arabs have failed to modernize and to ameliorate their economic condition; Israel is a tiny sliver of land in a region of vast Arab territories; the Palestinian refugee problem was created by Arab leaders; and many costly wars could have been prevented if not for Arab intransigence, starting with the 1947 U.N. partition plan and continuing through the many rebuffed Israeli peace initiatives.

Toward the end of the 1980

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