A usable past for Israel and Palestine

When the great American historian Richard Hofstadter was asked, towards the end of his life, what he was most proud of having achieved in his career, he answered that his most important contribution was helping to introduce a measure of “complexity” to the study of the past.[1] A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, Hofstadter is often labelled, perhaps somewhat unfairly, as a ‘consensus historian’ – a member of a cohort of American academics who, in the two decades after 1945, projected the lack of serious ideological debate in their own era back onto the nation’s past.

On the one hand, Hofstadter does not fit the ‘consensus historian’ mould. He retained a critical detachment from his subjects and a self-consciously radical sensibility that sets him apart from his ‘consensus’ peers, many of whom became little more than cheerleaders for the American Way during the early Cold War. In 1954, when Hofstadter’s publisher Alfred Knopf suggested sending 7,000 copies of his book The American Political Tradition to the State Department, the historian balked at the idea. He was afraid that his radicalism would get him into hot water with Senator McCarthy, then at the height of his powers. This episode tells us rather a lot about Hofstadter: he may not have been the most courageous of public intellectuals but he was certainly no establishment stooge.


On the other hand, in a more limited sense, Hofstadter was a ‘consensus historian’, in that he did a great deal to undermine the credibility of the pseudo-Marxist, structural determinism that had predominated amongst a previous generation of American historians. Where the doyen of Progressive historians, Charles Beard, had seen the inevitable conflict of different ‘interests’ – farmers versus industrialists, rich versus poor – as the driving force behind change, Hofstadter shunned such over-simplifications, preferring instead to focus on the messy, often incoherent way individuals and groups forged their own path. To the extent that he had grand theories about why history happened the way it did, he located the root causes of change not in the clash of economic classes, but in the anxieties, frailties and paranoia of the human mind.

Reading Israeli historian Menachem Klein’s latest book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, I was struck by the similarities between him and Hofstadter. Both write history out of a strong sense of ‘engagement with the present’[2], though, ironically perhaps, in both cases this leads them to attempt to rescue the past from the unwarranted presentism of others.

When it comes to assessing the contribution that Lives in Common has made to the historiography of modern Israel and Palestine, complexity and consensus are both relevant labels. Just as Hofstadter sought to carve an intellectual middle way between the brutal extremes of McCarthyism and Soviet-style Communism, so too Klein writes as a radical who finds himself, uncharacteristically, in the centre, as a result of the excessive polarisation of his context. His book is an attempt to demolish the simplistic, conflict-driven interpretations that have been put forward by extremists on both sides.

As Klein writes, ‘Israelis tend to see Jewish history as teleological, leading inevitably to the establishment of a modern Jewish state. For the Palestinians, the teleology leads in the opposite direction, to a disaster caused by collusion between the Zionists and British imperialists…’ Meanwhile, ‘the real past [waits] to be rediscovered, to be seen as a past and not a prologue to the future.’[3] Embedded in these rival teleologies is what Klein considers to be an essentially ahistorical argument that conflict was inevitable from the moment the first European Jews emigrated to Palestine in the nineteenth century.

To counter this, Klein focuses on reconstructing the day-to-day experiences of Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron from the late nineteenth century to the present. This bottom-up approach produces an indisputably complex story – of coexistence and conflict, integration and disintegration – that is bound to infuriate ideologues on all sides, who would prefer a simpler narrative of right and wrong, oppressor and oppressed. Like Hofstadter, Klein does not seek to minimise the importance of conflict in the past per se. His goal is simply to demonstrate that when conflict breaks out, it is not due to some universal law of nature, but rather the result of a specific set of contingencies.


It’s notable that Lives in Common doesn’t abide by the academic norm of arguing against other scholars (Hofstadter also tended not to litter his books with superfluous historiographical references). Scarcely a single other historian of Israel and Palestine is mentioned. Instead, Klein focuses his intellectual fire on institutions that curate the past for public consumption – museums, school textbooks, political NGOs. In the process he highlights some shockingly selective ‘histories’ that give a rather chilling contemporary relevance to George Orwell’s famous dictum: ‘who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’[4]

One example is the museum that stands on the site of David’s Citadel in Jerusalem. Here, centuries of Arab rule are glossed over and dismissed as irrelevant. As Klein reports, ‘the Zionist struggle against the British is presented dramatically’, while ‘the Palestinian national movement is not mentioned at all. Israel’s War of Independence is depicted as a war against British imperialism and the Arab legion, Jordan’s army. The Palestinians are presented as a disorganised mass that rioted and opposed the UN partition resolution blindly and illogically.’[5] In the face of such brazen distortion of the truth, Klein’s book is a noble attempt to wrest control of the past away from the present – or at least from the present’s most extreme partisans who seek to enlist history to serve their own ideological ends.

Israel today, like post-war America, has a strong sense of its ‘exceptionalism’. In America, it was an exceptionalism born on the mythical frontier, where, according to historians like Frederick Jackson Turner, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the essential American spirit – rugged, pioneering and fanatically committed to free enterprise – was forged. Israeli exceptionalism has more painful origins: the gas chambers of 1940s Germany and Poland, and hard-won victories against the hostile Arabs in 1948 and 1967. Whereas American exceptionalists claim, often explicitly, that it is their country’s birthright to be “the greatest nation on earth”, Israeli exceptionalists believe they are destined to be permanently embattled, the perennial underdog – a small civilised nation precariously placed in the midst of its barbaric enemies.

One memorable illustration of the Holy Land’s almost comic sense of its own extraordinariness is a proposal made in the aftermath of the 1967 war that the UN should move its headquarters to Jerusalem.[6] The proponents of this idea seem to have assumed that if they could sell it to the relevant local Arab and Jewish authorities then convincing the UN itself of the wisdom of this idea would be a doddle. It’s hard to imagine the inhabitants of any other city that was less than a year on from armed conflict taking place on its streets, and still deeply divided, being so presumptuous. Take away Jerusalem’s symbolic importance as a centre of three of the world’s major religions and it’s the equivalent of Belfast in the 1990s suggesting it host the UN, or perhaps Berlin in the late 1940s. In the face of this inflated sense of self-importance (which sweeps up Arabs in the region just as much as Jews), Klein’s book is pointedly banal – a deliberately ordinary history of a land obsessed by its own extraordinariness.

Klein and Hofstadter both belong to the school of liberalism that recognises national feeling as an inevitable, and not wholly undesirable, feature of modern life, but see it as their scholarly duty to deflate the exceptionalism of some of their more zealous compatriots. In The American Political Tradition and other works, Hofstadter depicted American history’s ‘great men’ as fallible, often egotistical, sometimes dishonest. While his most biting criticism was reserved for the McCarthyite, Goldwater-ite Right, he was almost as dismissive of the heroes of the pre-New Deal Left. In his classic monograph Age of Reform, the Populists and Progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are portrayed not so much as moral crusaders, but as ‘status anxious’ downwardly mobile members of the petit bourgeoisie.

In Klein’s case, the pin in the nationalists’ balloon is his meticulous portrayal of a pre-1948 world where Arabs and Jews grew up together, played together, ate and drank together, did business together, even slept together. Relations may have been often fraught, but there was a determination on both sides to get along. The result was the formation of now unthinkable hybrid identities – ‘Arab Jews’ – and mixed neighbourhoods in Jaffa and Jerusalem. In documenting this shared past, Klein is taking away the emotional crutch of victimhood that many Israelis rely on to justify their allegiance to a nation-state that is an occupying force.

Whereas Hofstadter critiques American nationalism by cutting its historical giants down to size, Klein’s argument works in the opposite way. By drawing attention to the common decency and basic humanity of Jews and Arabs over the last century and a half, his book begs the implicit question: where has all this humanity gone today?

Arguably though, Klein makes one serious tactical blunder if his objective is to shake his fellow countrymen out of the stultifying sense of victimhood that causes so many to accept the gross injustices perpetrated in their name. He fails to address the two key incidents that underpin Israel’s survivor complex: the holocaust and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when a coalition of Arab states launched a surprise invasion of Israel on the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar. The omission of the former is to some extent justifiable on the basis that it lies outside the purview of the book (although the failure to even reference the ‘push’ factors that lay behind the sudden increase in the scale of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land from the 1940s on seems a bit odd). The complete omission of the 1973 war, which isn’t mentioned once in the entire book, is harder to understand. No doubt Klein’s opponents on the Zionist right will latch onto this as evidence that he has been selective in his presentation of the facts because of his own political bias. This may or may not be a fair criticism – all historians are by necessity selective about the evidence they choose to present and it’s nigh on impossible for there not to be an element of sub-conscious bias in making these selections. However, there’s no reason to believe that the inclusion of a section on the 1973 war would significantly change the overall interpretation promulgated by Klein, apart perhaps from giving more context to Israel’s failure to work harder to achieve a just and lasting peace in the post-1967 era.

The long arc of the moral universe

Martin Luther King Jr once famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The history of modern Israel and Palestine makes you wonder if he was right. Even the most optimistic of observers would have to admit that the last 60 years represent a pretty significant kink in this arc. Lives in Common brings this downward trajectory into sharp relief. In the first half of the book, Klein documents a pre-1948 Palestine that wasn’t quite a cosmopolitan utopia, but that was a place where Jews and Arabs had relatively equal status and got on with their interconnected lives as best they could.

The second half of the book tells the story of the gradual disintegration of this common life from the Arab Revolt of 1936-9 on. The key turning point was of course 1948 itself: for Israel, hard-won independence; for Palestine, ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe). This fundamentally changed the power dynamics between Jews and Arabs, creating a state-sanctioned hierarchy where previously none had existed. Interactions between the two communities became increasingly fraught and the past became just another arena of the ongoing political dispute.

And yet, despite this narrative of decline, Klein remains an optimist at heart. For sure, he is clear-eyed about the fact that it’s not possible to rewind and return to the pre-1948 status quo when Jews and Arabs shared a common native identity. But he writes from the perspective of someone who deeply believes that the Holy Land can rise again from the depths of fear, hatred and violence to which it has sunk. Dr King’s ‘long arc’ may have a kink in it, but it’s not broken.

This innate optimism perhaps explains why Klein’s tone is so mild-mannered. He cites the late Tony Judt as one of his intellectual lodestars, but Lives in Common lacks any of the angry polemicism that characterised Judt’s later work. The last of Judt’s books to be published in his own lifetime, Ill Fares the Land is a powerful jeremiad lamenting the death of social democracy in Europe and the United States. Its opening paragraph, which sets the tone for the rest of the book, must rank among the most searing critiques of contemporary life ever handed down by a prominent public intellectual:

‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.’[7]

Given his subject matter, Klein could be forgiven for adopting a similar tone – and indeed would probably sell more books if he did. But something holds him back – perhaps a belief that as a historian he must let the facts speak for themselves, or, perhaps, a sense that the last thing the situation needs is another angry voice. About as unequivocal as he gets in passing judgment is in a passage, buried in the middle of the book, reviewing the failure of Israel’s political leaders after 1967 to capitalise on their new-found position of strength by building bridges with the Palestinian Arabs:

‘The question is thus not what might have been but rather why Israel’s leaders did not seize the opportunity, why Eshkol [Israel’s Prime Minister from 1963-9] did not have the courage to crawl out of the hole Israel was in. Neither a lack of political foresight nor a mistaken evaluation of costs and benefits seems like a sufficient explanation. True, Israel’s leaders have, over the years, displayed much historical shortsightedness and faith in the military force they have built up and deployed so effectively. But something deeper lies behind this. This full or partial blindness and the euphoria of power have been fired by deep historical, emotional and religious sentiments toward the land, sentiments that were fired by the country’s stunning victory in 1967. Only a very small number of Israelis have developed mechanisms to regulate this euphoria. Most felt like the proprietors and lords of the land.’[8]

The most emotionally charged section of the book is a chapter devoted to the stories of encounters between Palestinians returning to the homes they lost in 1948 and the current Jewish occupants. These vignettes span the full spectrum of human responses – from awkwardness to indignation, kindness to cruelty. Inevitably perhaps, and herein lies one key to the problems of modern Israel and Palestine, it’s those that fall into the last category that make the biggest impression. Rima Hamami, like Klein an academic by trade, first returned to Jaffa in 1989, to see the house that had been her family’s home prior to 1948. She went with her aunt and after much ‘circling and turning’ as they searched for the place, ‘suddenly it struck her [Hamami’s aunt]: the grotesquely ugly two-storey pebble-brown Israeli building was actually our house.’ Hamami went into the house, which had been turned into some sort of asylum for children with special needs, and after a couple of awkward encounters with nurses, was ushered into the director’s office. Her account of the director’s behaviour is chilling:

‘“Sit, sit, come in, come in. Yes, yes, do come in,” he said in that pushy way that Israelis seem to understand as warmth. “Here, I want to show you something.” I followed him to the landing where he indicated an odd coloured frieze on the wall. He asked me to look closely and then proceeded to explain with what seemed to be glee that the frieze depicted the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the creation of the Jewish state. He ended with a kind of hymn to the success of the Zionist dream.’[9]

Even in these fraught and often painful exchanges, Klein sees a glimmer of hope: ‘the fact that the interaction between the visitors and the current owners does not take place according to some sort of rigid ideological dictate leaves room for optimism with regard to the future. Wherever human beings are considerate of each other when they meet, there is a possibility of healing even wounds like those incurred by the refugees of 1948 and 1967.’[10]

Historians as public intellectuals

Returning to the comparison between Klein and Hofstadter: as well as the many similarities noted above, there are some important differences, particularly in terms of the way the two men have engaged with and sought to influence the world around them.

The first is to do with style. Arguably Hofstadter was a better writer than he was a historian. Many of his books began as articles for mainstream, non-academic magazines. His prose is lively, readable, engaging; his analysis, penetrating; his ideas, novel. But his books are almost entirely bereft of primary research. Hofstadter simply wasn’t interested in becoming well-acquainted with primary sources: he rather disdainfully referred to those who wrote this type of history as ‘archive rats’. His role was to synthesise, analyse, hypothesise. As a result his writing still ranks amongst the most thought-provoking and insightful work ever produced by a historian, but it’s not just professional jealousy that has led many others to question the quality of his scholarship.

Klein, on the other hand, is one of those historians Hofstadter would have termed an ‘archive rat’. As is common in works of social history, his book is weighted with the often not very interesting diary entries and letters of long-since-forgotten citizens. Much of the evidence he presents is deliberately mundane – intended to demonstrate the essential ordinariness of human interactions between Jews and Arabs. His prose is leaden and clunky compared to Hofstadter’s – not helped, I suspect, by the translation into English (the book was originally written in Hebrew). His political or civic instinct is as strong, if not stronger, than Hofstadter’s: he writes out of a desire to influence the way Israel’s history is understood by a broad public, not just by other scholars. Yet the dense narrative style is likely to limit how widely read Lives in Common becomes. For historians who aspire to shift political and social (as opposed to merely academic) conceptions of the past, style is not just window-dressing, it is the very essence of what will determine whether they succeed.

It is a moot point whether a public intellectual should be judged more by his words or his deeds. If the former, then undoubtedly Hofstadter is the superior of the two; if the latter, then there is a strong case for saying Klein comes out on top. To his credit, Hofstadter was vocal on many of the most important issues of his time – McCarthyism, civil rights, Vietnam, student radicalism. In 1950, he turned down a post at Berkeley because the state of California made it mandatory for academics to take a loyalty oath. And in 1965 he joined a civil rights march in Montgomery, Alabama, alongside many other leading historians and public figures of his generation. But, ultimately, he was to find himself (for good reason, if somewhat against his natural instincts) on the side of institutional conservatism, arguing the case for academic freedom over political commitment. When students at Columbia occupied buildings and intimidated faculty in 1968, Hofstadter denounced their actions in terms so strong that many observers pointed to them as proof he had finally joined the establishment that he’d spent twenty years barracking from the sidelines.

While there is still debate over the most appropriate label for Hofstadter’s political positions at any given point – radical, Cold War liberal, neoconservative – there can be little doubt that his worldview was to a large extent shaped by his commitment to academia as a way of life. He considered his profession a vocation and he loathed anti-intellectualism and irrationality more than anything else. Despite his various forays into political activism, his most enduring characteristic was what could be described as an ivory tower mentality – a belief in intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake.

Klein on the other hand is civic-minded to his core. No doubt he would echo Hofstadter on the importance of academic freedom, but he does not see his intellectual activity as an end in itself. He’s spent time at some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world – Oxford, Florence, MIT, Leiden – and is unashamedly fond of the aesthetic milieu these places provide. He writes that ‘the great artworks of the Renaissance, in particular the sculptures of Michelangelo, inspired me during the composition of the first half of [Lives in Common].’[11] But his outlook has somehow not been coloured – at least not to the same extent as Hofstadter’s – by this lifetime spent in an ivory tower.

In the early 2000s, Klein served as an advisor to the Israeli government and the Israeli delegation for peace talks with the PLO. In 2003, he was one of the signatories of the Geneva Accord – a blueprint for a two-state solution that was drawn up by a group of Israeli and Palestinian civil society leaders and academic experts. A copy was sent to every home in Israel and it was printed prominently in Palestinian newspapers. Klein’s evident pride in being associated with this initiative is in stark contrast to Hofstadter’s fearful response when his publisher suggested sending copies of The American Political Tradition to the State Department in 1954. And there can be little doubt that the Israeli right today is just as capable of McCarthyite tactics as the American right was 60 years ago.

As a result of his civic activism, Klein has long had a fraught relationship with his paymasters at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. He claims that he has been denied promotion on more than one occasion because of his left-wing political views and outspoken criticism of the Israeli government’s strong-arm tactics in dealing with its Palestinian neighbours. The university, unsurprisingly, denies that he has at any point been passed over for political reasons. And it has to be said that, outside of his native Israel, Klein’s leftism hasn’t done his career any harm at all, as the string of fellowships at some of Europe and America’s top institutions indicates.

Hofstadter, by highlighting the anti-intellectual strain in American populism, showed that while the term public intellectual might not quite be an oxymoron, it certainly contains some tensions between its two halves. Hofstadter, in crafting his own professional and political identity, put the emphasis on the intellectual part. Klein, arguably, has done the reverse. He is an academic by profession, but a peace activist by vocation.

Lives in Common is a profoundly important book because history is profoundly important to what’s happening today in the Middle East. The current impasse has a lot to do with the fact that too many Israelis and Palestinians allow their identities to be determined by a particular one-sided historical narrative – often a narrative that emphasises victimhood. Others, equally problematically, attempt to ignore the past altogether and establish new ‘facts on the ground’ – a rather Orwellian-sounding term used predominantly by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, but also today by some Palestinians who believe that the best way to counter the settler movement is by creating some ‘facts on the ground’ of their own.

Last spring I visited Rawabi, a new model city being built in the mountains of the West Bank, from where you can see, tantalisingly, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and the deep blue of the Mediterranean – tantalising because many Palestinians have never been there. Rawabi is the pet project of Palestinian billionaire Bashar Masri. It’s a hugely ambitious venture – as well as apartments for 40,000 people, they are building schools, hospitals, a church, a mosque, office blocks, football pitches and a vast Greek-style amphitheatre. Its motto is ‘the best is yet to come’. As yet, there are no people in Rawabi (apart from an army of construction workers). The arrival of the first residents has had to be postponed due to difficulties in obtaining the relevant permits from the Israeli authorities to secure the water supply. This problem is prevalent across the West Bank. As a result, most Palestinian homes have water collection tanks on the roof. (In the shadow of the separation wall and its IDF watch-towers, these tanks are often decorated with bullet holes.) But Rawabi’s designers have consciously eschewed this solution for aesthetic reasons, leaving them entirely dependent upon the non-existent goodwill of Israel. As I walked through what has to be one of the most surreal marketing suites on the planet – complete with a 3D video virtual tour of a Rawabi full of young, attractive, smiling and visibly affluent Palestinians – the marketing director, seemingly unaware of the term’s association with the Israeli settlers who occupy several of the surrounding hillsides, kept chirping away about the need to establish ‘facts on the ground.’


Lives in Common is a noble attempt to chart a middle way between being trapped by the weight of history and ignoring it completely. The book takes great strides towards establishing a more nuanced interpretation of how Jews and Arabs have coexisted (sometimes peacefully, sometimes not) in the Holy Land since the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. It introduces a greater degree of complexity into our understanding of this shared past – and it demonstrates convincingly that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a result of contingent factors rather than a historical inevitability. In so doing, Klein is seeking to help today’s inhabitants of Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron reconcile themselves with the messy truth of their peoples’ history – and then move forward. Eleven years ago, a publication with Klein’s name on it – the Geneva Accord – was sent to every home in Israel. Perhaps the same should be done with Lives in Common.


[1] Alan Brinkley, ‘Review: Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform: A Reconsideration’, Reviews in American History 13 (1985), p. 474.

[2] Hofstadter, quoted in ibid., p. 464.

[3] Klein, Lives in Common, p. 152.

[4] George Orwell, 1984.

[5] Klein, Lives in Common, p. 17.

[6] Ibid., p. 166.

[7] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York, 2010), pp.1-2.

[8] Klein, Lives in Common, p. 168.

[9] Ibid., pp. 203-4.

[10] Ibid., p. 290.

[11] Ibid., p. 286.

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One Response to A usable past for Israel and Palestine

  1. Pingback: My year in books – part I – non-fiction | Musings of a young Londoner

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