Book review: An Israeli academic’s struggle against McCarthyism

17 November 2010

The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s new memoir Out of the Frame (Pluto Press, London and New York, 2010) is subtitled “The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel.” This manages to link Pappé’s personal struggle against Israeli McCarthyism with a broader struggle for human and political rights of which “academic freedom” is merely one aspect.

In his formative years, Pappé viewed Israeli life “through a leftist Zionist prism, which allowed a liberal pluralist critique of the ideology of the state of Israel, but inevitably vindicated its major precepts” (14). In 1979 he went to Oxford University where he researched the 1948 war (Israel’s “War of Independence,” the Palestinians’ Nakba or catastrophe) (15). His 1984 doctoral dissertation claimed “that Britain played a major role in allowing the Zionist movement to found a state in Palestine through the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous people” (17). Simultaneously, Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim published books challenging the accepted version of 1948. Together with Simha Flapan, this group became collectively known as the “new historians” (23).

In Israel, at Haifa University, Pappé’s stubborn attempts to “connect … Zionist ideology and past policies with present atrocities” (177) and to combat “Nakba denial” (22 etc.) led to accusations of treason and the first “anonymous … and poisonous” telephone calls (22-4). In compensation, he won “the confidence of, and access to, Palestinian political and cultural scenes,” meeting the late Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in Tunis in 1993, and becoming friendly with the leading Palestinian intellectual, the late Edward Said (26).

Feeling more secure after receiving tenure in the early 1990s, he joined the communist-socialist party Hadash (30) as a “non-affiliated” member (68).

In 1995 the assassination of Yithzak Rabin (the Israeli premier who had signed the Oslo peace agreement with Arafat) and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as his successor darkened the political climate and saw a steady increase in the militarization of academia and the media. The outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada or uprising in 2000 intensified this process (44). Many Israeli dissidents, such as Benny Morris, were tamed and transformed into “intellectual eunuchs” (57). Pappé found himself in the position of a pariah (63), his contention that a focus on the Nakba was imperative to a meaningful peace process becoming quite simply unthinkable as the “transfer option” — the mass expulsion of Palestinians — acquired new legitimacy (67).

It was at this juncture that the Katz Affair erupted. Teddy Katz was a liberal Zionist postgraduate student whose masters thesis on the 1948 war, under Pappé’s supervision, originally received a 97 percent rating. Katz had implicated the Israeli army’s Alexandroni Brigade in an alleged massacre of some 250 Palestinians at the village of Tantura. Veterans of the brigade sued. At the trial in December 2000, Katz, under intolerable pressure and having suffered a heart attack, retracted his allegation. The judge rejected his subsequent attempt to retract this retraction. Haifa University conducted a commission of inquiry at which Pappé unsuccessfully defended Katz, and the thesis was disqualified (71-85). A subsequent disciplinary procedure against Pappé for “relentless defamation of the University” (95) was suspended — but not annulled — after a massive national and international campaign in his favor (97).

At this point Pappé interrupts his narrative with a short story, “The Best Runner in the Class,” originally published by The Electronic Intifada in May 2007. The tale arrestingly dramatizes many of the issues surrounding the Katz affair, and would make a harrowing film. It features an inquisitive Israeli student, Yaacov, with whom Pappé explicitly identifies himself (109). More interesting is a further identification to which Pappé doesn’t allude — with the student’s supervisor Musalem, “the only practicing Palestinian historian in Israel” who “unconsciously us[es] his student as an extension of his own mind.”

No fiction could invent the weird campaign of intimidation to which Pappé was subjected in the wake of the Katz affair and his signature in April 2002 of an international petition calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions (93). A lecture-hall where he was to have held a conference was locked and guarded by armed security men. Redefined as a symposium, the conference eventually took place in a cafeteria (127-8). His colleagues were warned against socializing with him, and his students were “deemed guilty by association” with him. Finally, during 2005-06, he was barred from the public space “so that an intellectual or historiographical dialogue with my own society became impossible” (132).

Pappé moved to Kiryat Tivon on the edge of the Jezreel valley (Marj ibn Amr) and founded his “home university,” lecturing weekly on the 1948 ethnic cleansing to up to 70 interested but skeptical listeners (134). This relatively receptive mood evaporated with the 2006 war against Lebanon. Israel’s increasingly genocidal policies against Gaza and a renewed campaign of death threats against Pappé forced him to leave Israel. In 2007 he took up a chair in the history department of the University of Exeter in “decent” but “introverted” England (163). Here he has continued his campaign for a single democratic state, advocating a sustained international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and “a very tough dialogue with a state and society that wish to be part of the ‘civilized’ world, while remaining racist and supremacist” (199).

The title Out of the Frame refers to Pappe’s inability to continue functioning within an Israeli Jewish framework, but also recalls Out of Place, Edward Said’s great 1999 memoir. Pappé’s introductory chapter momentarily leads us to expect a similar process of childhood-based introspection into themes of identity and exile, particularly when he evokes his German/Jewish/Israeli background in which “we mistook the pathetic group of pine trees that defined our yard for the Black Forest” and his father “singled out one particular wadi [valley] … in Mount Carmel … as a Little Switzerland” (2). However, neither introspection nor stylish elegance à la Said is Pappé’s forte, not even in the interpolated short story. Matters aren’t helped by Pluto Press’s shoestring approach to copy editing, which allows for many distracting misprints and occasional incoherencies (English isn’t Pappé’s native tongue).

Nonetheless, this book makes riveting reading. Pappé refers to his “modest sense of achievement in that many of my Palestinian friends mourned my departure [from Israel], and kindly bestowed on me gifts — that I will bring back when I return — and honors that I do not deserve” (166). Readers of Out of the Frame will be convinced that he fully deserves such honors, and that if he does one day return to Israel, he will have contributed much towards making it a place worth returning to.

Raymond Deane is an Irish composer and political activist.

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