The controversy of ‘From Time Immemorial’


Joan Peters, a pro-Palestinian researcher, drastically changed her political views while writing her opus “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine” • I seek to shed light on facts that were hidden from me, she writes.

By Nadav Shragai, ISRAEL HAYOM

A pioneer. Joan Peters

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: An Obama administration official quits his job and devotes seven years of his life to writing a well-researched book that pulls the rug out from underneath his former boss regarding the Iranian issue. Then imagine that the book offers a sympathetic view of Israel that is factually based and that reveals information that was not previously known. U.S. President Barack Obama can only express anger, bewilderment, and frustration in response. This leaves the Democrats with a dilemma. Do they remain true to the facts or loyal to their president?

Astonishingly enough, this is a true story, though it took place in another era. It happened at a time when the administration in power — also Democratic — was about as friendly as the current administration. It happened during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was in power at the time, and Benjamin Netanyahu was making his initial foray into Israeli politics.

Joan Peters, a journalist, television producer, and political commentator, was a pro-Palestinian human rights activist during those years. She had even made frequent visits to the Middle East. Something unusual happened to her, though — she gradually changed her views. Peters had been working as a special adviser to the Carter administration. Her area of expertise was the Israeli-Arab conflict.

She signed a contract to write a book about the conflict in the Middle East, even getting a handsome advance for it. As she started her research, however, she discovered startling new facts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that did not sit well with her employers. At that point, Peters gave back the advance and freed herself from any contractual obligations that were originally agreed upon with the book publisher. After seven years of research, which included long hours in long-forgotten archives and interviews with hundreds of people, Peters wrote a book titled “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine.” The release of the book in 1984 ignited controversy.

Published by Harper and Row, the book became a best-seller. It also earned Peters the National Jewish Book Award. She slaughtered the sacred cow known as “the Palestinian refugee problem” by revealing just how the United Nations altered the criteria for gaining refugee status in order to exacerbate the problem well beyond its proper dimensions. Peters discovered that the U.N.’s changing requirements for being listed as a Palestinian refugee essentially turned them into something else, something far different from other refugees in distant crises.

Peters even offered proof that many of the Palestinian refugees that earned special status in the eyes of the U.N. were never even residents of prestate Israel “from time immemorial,” contradicting a long-standing Palestinian claim. Instead, these were immigrants who had only arrived quite recently.

There were many who followed in Peters’ footsteps. They backed up her facts, but she was the first to bring them to light. Peters was the first to challenge the underlying assumptions of Palestinian wretchedness and refugee status. She also didn’t hesitate to criticize “the Jewish victim,” though the criticism wasn’t what one would expect. She quoted Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister who once famously said that a lie repeated often enough for an extended period of time eventually is recognized as a truism. Peters noted that Goebbels forgot to mention that the victim of that lie (in this case, the Jews) is also liable to believe it as true.

A few weeks ago, Peters died in Chicago at the age of 77. The news garnered scant coverage in the press. During her lifetime, however, she was a woman who paid a dear price for her opus. Prominent left-wing figures, including in the Israeli Left, attacked her, claiming that there were inaccuracies in her work. On the other hand, she was bolstered by an impressive array of luminaries who offered their support, among them authors Elie Wiesel, Barbara Tuchman, and Robert St. John. St. John was the author of 23 books, most of them about the Middle East conflict. He endorsed From Time Immemorial as a book “for anyone who prefers facts over propaganda and logic over illogic.”

Tuchman, the author of The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, called the book “a historic event that uncovers facts that were until that point pushed off to the darkness.” She called the campaign to discredit Peters “scornful.”

Palestinians are immigrants

The debate that was sparked by Peters’ book has never been more relevant since it laid the foundations for later works of research on the subject of refugee status. Prior to the “birth” of the Palestinian matter, the customary definition of refugee was an individual who was forced to leave their residence from time immemorial due to war, hostile actions, or expulsion.

The U.N.’s alternate definition of refugee, which was applied solely to the Palestinians, states that a refugee is anyone who lived in the area that currently encompasses the State of Israel for a period of two years prior to the founding of the state in 1948. The Arab League, which was the driving force behind the newly reconfigured definition, managed to significantly inflate the number of refugees. Indeed, many of the refugees who fled or were expelled from the country did immigrant to prestate Israel during the British Mandate period.

Ze’ev Galili, a veteran Israeli journalist, often used his newspaper column to cite Peters’ work. He even had a hand in the reissuance of her book in the early part of the previous decade.

“Not only did Peters expose the bluff of the criteria for refugee status,” he said, “but she also exposed the big lie which tells of a ‘Zionist invasion’ of a supposedly Arab country, even though it is known that the First Aliyah consisted of Jews coming to an empty country, while a very significant percentage of the Arab population in 1948 were immigrants who came here after the advent of Zionism.”

David Bedein, who met Peters, notes that her book was the first academic work of research that detailed the manner in which the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has perpetuated the refugee status of Arabs who were uprooted or who chose to flee their homes during the War of Independence. She also shined a light on how UNRWA, a topic that Bedein has also researched thoroughly, keeps the problem in place rather than solves it by effectively preventing the refugees’ resettlement.

Peters’ book made significant waves. One publication that provided a platform for debate on the topic was Commentary, an influential monthly American journal that tackles politics, Judaism, culture, and society. Dr. Daniel Pipes, the historian and author, engaged in a literary sparring match over Peters’ book with Professor Yehoshua Porath, the Middle East scholar.

Porath was of the opinion that the numbers cited by Peters are erroneous and that her overall work was delinquent and unprofessional. Pipes noted that Peters divided the territory that came to be known as Palestine under the British Mandate into three parts. The first section had no Jewish settlement; its non-Jewish population grew by 116 percent during the period between 1893 and 1947. The second part — areas sparsely settled by Jews — saw its non-Jewish population grow by 185 percent. The third area — the part of the country with the densest Jewish population — saw its non-Jewish population grow from 92,000 in 1893 to 462,000 in 1947, an increase of 401 percent.

Peters found that the Arab population grew in proportion to the rising Jewish presence in the country. Indeed, the economic prosperity generated by the budding Zionist enterprise, particularly in the latter stages of the 19th century, spurred internal Arab migration from Transjordan and the highlands (the traditional areas of Arab settlement in Palestine). It also invited illegal Arab immigration from all over the Middle East. Arabs settled along the coastal plain and the Shfela region, both areas that were inhabited primarily by Jews.

Peters’ conclusion was clear: Most of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 who fled the coastal area were not, as the Palestinians claim, inhabitants of the land “from time immemorial,” but instead were recent newcomers. They were not refugees. Instead, they were economic migrants who eventually would return to their original homes after the founding of the state.

Archival shock

Peters’ work of research is imbued with romanticism and a tenacity of which few could boast. He spent endless days and nights at the Public Record Office in the Kew Gardens section of London. It was there that she found piles of crates and boxes filled with documents detailing Jewish immigration to Palestine.

When she asked the archivist who had worked there 30 years to help locate documents detailing Arab immigration, he looked at her as if she was from Mars. “‘There was never such a thing,’ he replied to me without equivocation,” she said. That did not deter her.

Peters showed the cocksure British archivist a number of quotes that she had catalogued from Syrian, Egyptian, and British sources which supported her argument. He was totally taken aback. Then she enlisted his help in pouring over the personal memos and secret documents written by British Mandate officials. These papers proved that not only were British officials were well aware of the scope of illegal Arab immigration to Palestine, but they also acted as accomplices. Urgent written orders from licensing authorities showed that the British permitted the entry of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians to prestate Israel without a passport or entry visa.

The appendage to one memo found by Peters shows that in May 1936, Arabs from Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia came to Palestine “with the British army” by way of Egypt. There were also immigrant arrivals from Syria and the hijaz. Many of them came with the Transjordanian “frontier force” while a few of them were pilgrims. Some traveled on camel.

The number of documents that Peters unearthed was tremendous. Her prolific research was also a source of confusion. Some disagreed with the numbers she cited in her research, but even her critics had a difficult time contradicting what was painfully obvious — hundreds of thousands of Arabs had settled in the heart of Jewish-populated areas. When they were expelled, they were given the status of refugees, even though they had not been here “from time immemorial.”

Peters on ISIS

Peters challenged the underpinnings of the Palestinian ethos which has been accepted by global audiences — and, at times, even in Israel — as fact. She hoped that the State of Israel would incorporate her findings as instructional material to be taught at schools. When this did not materialize, she was disappointed. A year prior to her death, she gave a rare interview to a journal called Ribonut, which is published by the Women in Green movement. In the interview, she recalled that in her past she was not a Zionist.

“I was always a strong activist for human rights,” she said. “I helped African Americans exercise their right to vote, and I used the little knowledge that I had at the time in order to make an analogy between the Arabs in Israel and the scandal of slavery and then the racism that set in the southern United States.”

“With time, I discovered that this comparison was ridiculous and inaccurate, and that if anything there were similarities between blacks and the Jews of Palestine,” Peters said. “It was the Jews of the land of Israel from time immemorial, and the blacks of America, two groups of people who were victims of comparable oppression.”

She bitterly attacked UNRWA, which she accuses of perpetrating a fraud not only against the Jewish people but the entire world ever since it was founded as a refugee aid organization that exclusively serves one refugee population — the Arab refugees “who fled or were uprooted during the War of Independence.”

“They were a small group compared to the hundreds of millions of people who were forced to escape as a result of wars worldwide,” Peters said. “And the number of Arabs who were uprooted was far less than the number of Jewish refugees born in Arab countries and who were forced to escape from them.”

Just prior to her death, Peters commented on the phenomenon sweeping the MIddle East known as Islamic State. She compared the movement to Hamas, failing to understand why the Palestinian Islamist group was receiving sympathy — even immunity — from some nations while ISIS is perceived as a global threat. Peters also believed that it was incumbent upon Israel to completely annex Judea and Samaria.

In that same interview, she said that the idea of a Palestinian declaration of independence “would be no less ridiculous” than if the German terrorist Baader-Meinhof Gang had declared a state in the area of Berlin and its suburbs.

Genuine roots?

A year ago, Israel Hayom ran a piece bearing this author’s byline titled “The fabricated Palestinian history.” The article quoted experts who attested to the fact that this country was barren and devoid of Arab residents in the 19th century, and that the Palestinian population was essentially made up of immigrants who came from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Arab peninsula.

All of a sudden, Peters’ documents and statistics were being manifested in real life. Take, for example, the case of Salma Fayumi, a resident of Kafr Qasim who demonstrated her cooking prowess on the hit show “Master Chef.” Fayumi certainly did not intend to stick her head into the tumultuous debate of where Palestinians originated, but she may have unwittingly done so by proudly showing off her Kushari dish that she prepared, “Egyptian cuisine made of rice and lentil.”

“My family came from Egypt, from Faiyum, and I am Salma Fayumi from Faiyum,” the cook from Kafr Qasim said.

Fathi Hamad, the interior minister in the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, who cried out for Egyptian assistance during the IDF’s operations in the area in March 2012, is another one who certainly had no intention of debunking Palestinian theories of Canaanite-based land claims. Yet, there can be no misinterpreting his recent statements.

“When we ask for your help, it is so that we can continue the jihad,” he said. “Praise God, we all have Arab roots and every Palestinian in Gaza and all over Palestine can prove their Arab roots, whether they be in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or anywhere else. We have blood ties.”

“Speaking personally, half of my family is Egyptian,” he said. “Where is your mercy? There are over 30 families in the Gaza Strip with the surname Al-Masri, ‘Egyptian.’ Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptian, and the other half are Saudi. Who are the Palestinians? We have many families called Al-Masri whose roots are Egyptian! They come from Alexandria, Cairo, and Aswan. We are Egyptians. We are Arabs. We are Muslims.”

The one who most urgently sought to drive a nail into the coffin of the debate over the Palestinians’ Canaanite origins is the former MK Azmi Bishara, the Israeli Arab Christian founder of the Balad party. He fled Israel after he was suspected of spying and assisting Hezbollah. In the preface to Benedict Anderson’s famous work “Imagined Communities,” Bishara writes, “Modern Arab nationalism makes it seem like the fact that it was created in the 19th century, like other national movements, subtracts from its worth or its justness.”

“It feels obligated to nationalize the history of Arab-speaking peoples and to make it into a national history that goes back to before the time of Islam all the way to contemporary times,” he wrote.

“Acting out of a need to compete with Zionism, the Palestinian national movement has anchored its origins with those of the Canaanites,” Bishara wrote. “In doing so, it achieve its own, unique start-off point in the past that precedes that of the Hebrew tribes, which Zionism claims as its natural descendants.”

More blunt statements were made by Walid Shoebat, a former Muslim and Fatah activist who converted to Christianity and became an ardent and vocal supporter and advocate for Israel and Christianity. Shoebat, who immigrated to the United States from Jordan, claims that everyone he met in Palestine “knew to trace the roots of their families to the country from which their great-grandfathers came.”

“We knew full well that our origin was not Canaanite, despite what they tried to teach us,” he said. “My grandfather would often remind us that our village, Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, was empty when his father arrived there with six other families. Today, there are over 30,000 residents in the village.”

In the preface to the Hebrew translation of her book, translated by Aharon Amir and published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 1988, Peters wrote: “I am hopeful that those who find value in this book will differentiate between the fateful and historical events described here and the fierce disagreements of domestic Israeli politics. I have no links to any party. My goal is to shed light on those same facts and relationships that were hidden from me, and to give this book to others who made the same mistakes that I did.”

February 16, 2015 | 1 Comment »

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  1. Peters challenged the underpinnings of the Palestinian ethos which has been accepted by global audiences — and, at times, even in Israel — as fact. She hoped that the State of Israel would incorporate her findings as instructional material to be taught at schools. When this did not materialize, she was disappointed.

    Is this one more case of the GOI facilitating the delegitimization, defamation of Jews in the land of Israel? If this is true, why would the GOI not educate Israelis to such facts? It is starting to appear that every bit of libel, defamation , delegitimization begins its journey in Israel.