Friday, July 09, 2010

Gilbert Achcar - another bogus scholar

The Washington Post has a very short review of a book called "The Arabs and the Holocaust - The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives," by Lebanese historian Gilbert Achcar:

Gilbert Achcar probes the differing views of Arabs and Israelis over the migration of Holocaust survivors to the Middle East after World War II. While Israeli narratives center on Jewish expulsion and genocide in Europe, Palestinians and other Arabs speak of the "grievous catastrophe" associated with the establishment of a Jewish homeland: the forced departure of Arabs from Palestinian territories and the subsequent wars.

Achcar, a professor of development studies and international relations in London, carefully examines the long history of Arab-Jewish conflict back through the 19th century, illuminating the range of opinions -- whether Zionist, ultra-nationalist, liberal or anti-Semitic. He points out that, by World War I, opposition to Zionism was central to Palestinian identity and Arab nationalistic consciousness. Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, saw Jewish settlement during that period as another form of European colonization. However, early confrontations between Arab peasants and Jewish settlers were not xenophobic or anti-Jewish, Achcar writes, but a predictable outcome of the expulsion of farmers from their lands. Achcar doesn't shy away from the contemporary debate. He argues that the Palestinians are engaged in "the last major anticolonial struggle."
The statement about the early confrontations being because of expulsion of farmers is simply not true. A Christian travelogue of Palestine written in 1874 mentions "Men in Palestine call their fellows 'Jew,' as the very lowest of all possible words of abuse." The first attack of Arabs towards Zionist Jews was in 1886 at Petah Tikva, which was built on former swampland and did not displace anyone.

One gets the impression that Achcar is not being quite as honest and objective as a historian should be.

Well, it turns out that he is even worse than that. A preview of his book is available at Google Books, and I noticed this section:

The book preview did not let me look up the endnote citation, but an Internet search showed that this quote is all over the most virulently anti-semitic sites as proof of Zionist callousness towards the victims of the Holocaust. Most of those sites mindlessly copy the citation from a book by Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, attributing it to someone named "Yvon Gelbner."

It turns out that there is no "Yvon Gelbner" but the quote actually came from a work by Yoav Gelber, a professor at the University of Haifa. I emailed him about the quote, and here is his response:
The quotation is correct and it was said by Ben Gurion at Mapai's Center on 7 December 1938 (Labour Party Archives, 23/38). The English translation is somewhat kinky.
However, when I published it, I did it in its context, which those who quote me omit.

The background is the Kristallnacht in Germany and the British restrictions on immigration to Palestine. No one thought at the time on the Holocaust, including BG. A movement spread in the Yishuv at the time, calling to let German Jewish children enter Palestine regardless of immigration quotas, to be adopted by Yishuv families who would care for them until their parents arrived in the future. The demand had appeal and to counter it and remove the pressure from Palestine, the British proposed to bring to England 25000 Jewish children from Germany. Mapai's Center held a debate on how to relate to the British proposition. BG was vehemently opoosed to it and said these words in the heat of the discussion. As far as I remember (it's more than 25 years since I wrote it), most members backed BG's position.

I hope this helps to clarify things.
This is echoed by CAMERA, which demolishes the claims made by some - including, as we see here, Achbar - that Ben Gurion was indifferent towards the fate of European Jewry:

The Ben Gurion quote is taken from comments he made to Mapai's central committee on December 7, 1938. This followed Britain's decision to deny entrance into Palestine of 10,000 German Jewish orphans in the wake of Kristallnacht, instead offering them asylum within Great Britain. It was almost a year before the Nazis launched World War II and several years before the Final Solution (to annihilate the Jews) was methodically implemented. While Ben Gurion believed that Germany's anti-Jewish policies would necessitate creating a safe haven for numerous Jewish refugees that no other country was willing to accept, he had no way of predicting the enormity of what was to follow.

The British offer to accept several thousand children appeared to be a gesture of conscience allowing Britain to close the doors of Palestine — not only to those German orphans, but to future refugees as well. Ben Gurion had recently witnessed the results of the international Evian conference, which had been convened in July 1938 to address the growing Jewish refugee problem, and knew that other countries were also unwilling to accept hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. He believed that only a Jewish homeland would be able to properly absorb these Jews. Thus Ben Gurion stated that "our concern is not only the personal interest of these children, but the historic interest of the Jewish people" (translation from the stenographic records by Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion and the Holocaust, Harcourt Brace & Co. 1996, p. 47).

According to the records of the Mapai meeting, Yitzchak Ben Zvi immediately clarified Ben Gurion's brusque remark, explaining "ten thousand children are a small part of Germany's [Jewish] children...They [the British] don't intend to save Germany's Jews, and certainly not all of them. The moment the Jewish State Plan [the Peel plan] was shelved, the possibility of complete rescue of Germany's Jews was shelved with it." (ibid. p. 48)

There is ample evidence ... that Ben Gurion viewed the rescue of Jews as paramount. As early as 1936, Ben Gurion told Palestine's high commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, that "had there been the possiblity of bringing Poland's Jews to the United States or Argentina, we would have done so regardless of our Zionist beliefs. But the world was closed to us. And had there also not been room for us in Palestine, our people would have had only one way out: to commit suicide" (Ben Gurion, Memoirs, p.3:105, cited in Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion and the Holocaust, pp xlix, 110). And in November 1941, Ben Gurion argued that "the supremely important thing now is salvage, and nation-building is incidental" (Teveth, ibid. p.xlviii).

It was only in November 1942 that the Yishuv became aware of the systematic slaughter of Jews. The Zionist leadership established a rescue committee and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the rescue mission. Ben Gurion made his priorities clear at a September 1943 fund-raising meeting of the Mobilization and Rescue Appeal in Jerusalem where he hailed the Allies' invasion of Europe for "first of all, and foremost, the saving of Jews, then the saving of the Yishuv, and finally and thirdly the saving of Zionism" (cited in Teveth, p. 143). He emphasized the importance of funding the rescue mission, saying:

We must do whatever is humanly possible...to extend material aid to those working on rescue operations in order to save [those who] can still be saved, to delay the calamity as far as it can be delayed. [And we must] do it immediately, to the best of our ability. I hesitate to say - since the matter is so serious - that we shall do our utmost; we are flesh and blood and cannot do the maximum, but we shall do what we can. (quoted in Friling, Tuvia, Arrows in the Dark, University of Wisconsin Press 2003)

It is bad enough that Achcar is twisting Ben Gurion's words and misrepresenting his thoughts, when the truth is so easily accessible to any serious historian. What is more troubling is the fact that he used that specific quote to begin with: either he found it on his own and twisted it out of context himself, or he had seen it at one of the many purely anti-semitic websites that have loads of similar quotes and misquotes from Zionist and Jewish leaders and attempted to put a scholarly sheen on it. If it is the former, then he is a sham as a historian; if it is the latter, then he spends time reading and believing anti-semitic propaganda.

How many other so-called scholars place indefensible falsehoods in their texts, turning what should be history into pure propaganda?