Michael Brull's Recommended Reading On The History Of Arab-Israeli Conflicts


Due to the wild popularity of the media suggestions I wrote last week, I thought I’d provide another reading guide. That one was directed as a suggested guide for people who mostly don’t know much about the region, for where people can turn to analysis that will be informative and accessible.

The problem with media recommendations is that it is, in a sense, superficial. To understand a conflict, one needs to understand its dynamics and history, rather than just its latest manifestations. That is why I included analysts among my recommended readings. This week, I wanted to provide a guide on readings in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflicts.

This reading list doesn’t cover all aspects of the conflict – these sources are mostly valuable for understanding the nature of the conflict, not its political developments in the last 30 years or so.

Overviews of the Arab-Israeli conflicts

1) Avi Shlaim – The Iron Wall

2) Ze’ev Maoz – Defending the Holy Land

Oxford historian Shlaim is one of the “New Historians” – Israelis who revised Israeli history, by reviewing Israeli archival records. His review of Israeli conflicts with its neighbours is a great book, well-argued and well-written. His coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is limited though. Maoz has impeccable Israeli establishment credentials. His book is a critical analysis of Israeli defence policy, peace-making policy, and a critique of its possession of nuclear weapons. It is a huge book, comprehensive in scope, so not ideal for casual readers.

Honourable mention should go to Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle. It has a foreword by Edward Said, paying tribute to the ambition of the book and the vastness of its scholarly apparatus. It reviews the US-Israeli relationship, that they were the chief rejectionists in the ‘80s of a two-state agreement, the historical background of the conflict, and an exhaustive review of the 1982 war on Lebanon and Sabra and Shatila massacres.

Avi Shlaim, Ze’ev Maoz, Saree Makdisi and Edward Said... four of there authors highly recommended by Michael Brull.

The updated versions include chapters on the First Intifada, the Oslo agreements, and the 1993 war on Lebanon. There have been many advances in scholarship since then, but his insights into key dynamics has made this one of the great books on the conflict, though others have since followed his lead on some of these issues.

On the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, I highly recommend David Hirst’s Beware of Small States.

The book that has shed the most light for me on Egypt’s side of its conflict with Israeli is Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen (I recommend the edition before the coup in Egypt, to avoid the dreadful update).

Overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict

1) Saree Makdisi – Palestine Inside Out

2) Edward Said – The Question of Palestine

These two books are complementary. Said’s book was first published in 1979, and updated in 1992, and the bibliographic note observes the proliferation of scholarship in that time. Said’s book is still perhaps the greatest book yet about Zionism from the standpoint of the Palestinians – sensitively written and intelligent.

Makdisi – the nephew of Edward – wrote what I regard as the best book on the conflict, and the first I recommend. Written with tremendous eloquence and grace – attested to by its impressive array of blurbers – it catalogues the discrimination and oppression Israel visits on the Palestinians. It lightly touches on the history of the conflict – its focus is on the oppression of the Palestinians today. Makdisi’s book is very powerful, and is the book I’d most highly recommend to readers out of all these suggestions.

Runner up: a short and quick book on the conflict, well-written which explores the history well is Baruch Kimmerling’s Politicide.

Historical guide: Formation of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, 1917-1947

1) Tom Segev – One Palestine, Complete
2) Simha Flapan – Zionism and the Palestinians

Israeli New Historian Segev’s book is focused on the side of the Zionists building their state, but it reviews the British archives and the many inquiries they held into all the Arab uprisings against Zionism.

These inquiries were mostly reasonable and intelligent, and so the book is insightful on the Mandate period of the conflict. Flapan’s work was arguably the first of the New Historians, and is a very good historical guide of the same period. For an analytical review of the same period from the Palestinian side, see Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage.

Historical Guide: The Nakba, 1948

1) Benny Morris – Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited 
2) Nur Masalha – Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948

In my view, these are the two essential works of scholarship on the expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians. Morris is one of Israel’s leading New Historians, his reputation secured by his turn in later years to anti-Arab racism and the adoption of right-wing political views. Whilst his conclusions about the Nakba – the Palestinian “disaster” of 1948 – are questionable, he generally sticks closely to the archival record, which is valuable and revealing.

Nur Masaha’s book, based on a close study of the internal record of leading Zionists in the pre-state period, shows that “Virtually every member of the Zionist pantheon of founding fathers and important leaders supported… and advocated” the expulsion of the Palestinians. It is an excellent book, and a devastating critique of the Zionist record.

Ilan Pappe, the most radical of Israel’s New Historians, wrote The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which draws stronger conclusions than Morris about the Nakba. It is a useful corrective to Morris, who acknowledges in Righteous Victims that he rarely uses Arab sources. However, Pappe’s work can be cavalier. It is unlikely that either will be the last word on the subject.

The conflict, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

1) Tom Segev – The Seventh Million
2) Gilbert Achcar – Arabs and the Holocaust

Both are very good books, which I highly recommend. Segev explores the relation of the Zionist movement, and then Israel, to the Holocaust.

Achcar – writing from a frankly anti-Zionist perspective – explores the contemporary attitudes of Arabs towards the Nazis and Holocaust, and then offers a brief guide to attitudes towards the Holocaust in the post-state years. Written with great sensitivity, understanding, and an erudition that includes an impressive grasp of scholarship on the Holocaust, it is a careful and enlightening study.

Responding to Israeli Propaganda

1) Norman Finkelstein – Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict 
2) Norman Finkelstein – Beyond Chutzpah

Those living in the West are likely to have heard the standard myths of Israel. American scholar Finkelstein is the premier debunker of the purportedly scholarly versions of these myths.

Image is a meticulous book, best known for his systematic annihilation of a book by Joan Peters, supposedly proving that there were no Palestinians in Palestine before the Zionists came and made the desert bloom.

It reviews the historical record in a framework of critically analysing books like Peters, or Michael Oren’s claims about the 1967 war.

It includes intelligent criticisms of Morris’s first book on the Nakba, which Morris heatedly rejected, though his updated version moved a bit closer to Finkelstein’s position.

Beyond Chutzpah is particularly valuable for the second section, which compares the claims in Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel about Israel’s human rights record, with the findings of the leading human rights organisations. It also has lengthy appendices responding to Dershowitz on other issues, such as the history of the conflict.

For those immersed in the orthodox Israeli version of events, Finkelstein’s books are an excellent antidote. Whilst Finkelstein now seems to be best known for his at times abrasive and dramatic declarations on Youtube, he has an impressive body of meticulous scholarship which should not escape attention.

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