Earlier this week, Gary Lineker retweeted Ben White, who had himself posted a video from B’Tselem which showed Israeli soldiers arresting Palestinian youths*. I tweeted some thoughts in response. As I result, I have had people defending Ben White on my Twitter feed, praising his work as “forensic” and referring to him as “leading academic.” Back in 2009, shortly after the publication of the first edition of White’s book, ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’, I wrote a piece for the American Jewish Committee’s now defunct ‘Z-Word’ blog. The time has come to revisit what I wrote.
My ‘Z-Word’ piece focused on two issues.
The first was some of the sources that White used. These included a number of discredited writers, including Uri Davis, Tanya Reinhart, Jeff Halper and Ilan Pappe. This is what I wrote at the time (emphasis mine throughout; I have updated some of the links):
“Uri Davis, as well as being an observer member of the PLO, helped to promote the antisemitic play ‘Perdition’ in the 1980s, which claimed that Zionist leaders collaborated with the Nazis in perpetrating the Holocaust. One of the central claims of Davis’ 1987 book Israel: An Apartheid State, namely that Arabs are banned from buying or leasing land in 92% of pre-1967 Israel, has long since been shown to be false. (White himself does not repeat the 92% claim and relies on Davis’ 2003 book Apartheid Israel, rather than on the 1987 book. Nevertheless, Davis’ track record hardly inspires confidence.)
The work of the late Tanya Reinhart is pulled apart in Paul Bogdanor’s and Edward Alexander’s book, ‘The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders’.
Alex Safian looked at Jeff Halper’s ‘ track record of material distortions‘. Werner Cohn accused Halper of trying to ‘hide and deceive’. Tom Segev was accused by Michael B Oren of ‘twisting his text to meet a revisionist agenda’.
And then of course there is Ilan Pappe. Pappe was described as a ‘charlatan‘ by Yoav Gelber. Efraim Karsh labeled one of Pappe’s books as ‘disgraceful‘. Ricki Hollander examined Pappe’s ‘record of promoting blatant misinformation’, particularly with reference to the Tantura massacre hoax. Benny Morris wrote an emphatically devastating three-part review of Pappe’s A History of Modern Palestine (here, here and here). Morris concluded: ‘This truly is an appalling book. Anyone interested in the real history of Palestine/Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would do well to run vigorously in the opposite direction.’ Reviewing Pappe’s later book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Seth Frantzman accused Pappe of ‘flunking history’: ‘As a work of scholarship, Pappé’s book falls short, and it does so in a particularly damning way. He ignores context and draws far broader conclusions than evidence allows by cherry-picking some reports and ignoring other sources entirely. He does not examine Arab intentions in the five months between the U.N. endorsement of Palestinian partition and Israel’s independence, nor does he consider the widespread public statements by Arab officials in Palestine and in neighboring states declaring their goal of eradicating the Jewish presence in Palestine. It is obvious why a polemicist such as Pappé would cleanse — so to speak — his narrative of any such references: To avoid doing so would strike at the core of the reality that he wishes to foist upon his readers, one which precisely inverts the historical record and turns a coordinated Arab attempt at ethnically cleansing Palestine of its Jews into a Jewish attempt at ethnically cleansing Arabs. Just to cap it all, there was the interview Pappe gave to the German neo-Nazi newspaper Die National Zeitung. Yet none of this stopped White from citing Pappe as an authoritative source, or from (presumably) sending Pappe a preview copy of his book for Pappe to write a commendation.
Of course, all of this begs the question: why does White treat all these sources as authoritative? After all, if you are aiming to write a ‘highly readable introduction’ for ‘beginners’, surely you owe it to them to use the most reliable sources possible; or, at the very very least, to give some sort of acknowledgement that the sources you do use have been (vigorously) contested. White does neither, for which there can surely be only two possible explanations. Either he knew that many of his sources are discredited but decided to cite them anyway – which would suggest a lack of integrity on his part. Alternatively, it’s because he didn’t know that they were discredited, which would suggest he is not quite the specialist his own website suggests. Either way, his use of these sources, without any qualifications or caveats, is a damning indictment of his work.”
The second issue I addressed was Ben White’s response to those who criticised him for using a false quote. It is quite technical, so I commence with some background on Israeli historiography.
i. In his 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, the Israeli ‘New Historian’ Benny Morris claimed that, in a 1937 letter to his son, David Ben-Gurion had written, “We must expel Arabs and take their places.”
ii. In his 2000 book, Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians (and elsewhere), Efraim Karsh argued that Morris had falsified this quote, and that Ben-Gurion had actually written the exact opposite.
iii. On page 142 of his 2001 book, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001, Morris rendered the quote as follows: “We do not want and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places.” He thereby implicitly accepted Karsh’s point.
iv. Fast forward to 2009: Ben White opened the second chapter of his book with the quote, “We must expel Arabs and take their places”, which he ascribed to Ben-Gurion. This, of course, was the earlier version of the quote, as initially rendered by Benny Morris; not the later version of the quote as rendered by Karsh and then apparently accepted by Morris as well.
v. Unsurprisingly, White was criticised for using what had been exposed as a fake quote.
vi. This is how White responded to such criticism at the time (emphasis added):
‘The quotation which I am quite prepared to reconsider is from the beginning of Part I, when I cite Ben-Gurion writing, “We must expel Arabs and take their places”. The first prominent historian to include this quotation was Benny Morris, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. This quotation was subsequently questioned by historian Efraim Karsh, who analysed the meaning of the hand-written edits in the original document. Morris accepted this point, and in Righteous Victims (2001), cited the quotation as: “We do not want and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places”.’
vii. This response, however, raised more questions than it answered, inviting closer scrutiny. Such scrutiny would leave White facing difficult questions.
viii. Was White being charitable and gracious when he said that he was ‘quite prepared to reconsider’ the quote? The internal evidence in the first edition of his book would suggest otherwise.
ix. In the first edition of Israeli Apartheid, White referenced Morris’ 2001 Righteous Victims twice, on page 82 and page 121. He also referred to that book twice in his ‘Select Bibliography’ on page 164.
x. This is important, because it shows that White was aware of Righteous Victims when he wrote the first edition of Israeli Apartheid. He therefore had no excuses for not being aware of what Morris had acknowledged as being the correct version of the Ben-Gurion quote. Yet it was only in his response to criticism of his book, rather than in the book itself, that White acknowledged this.
xi. This leads to the pressing question: why did White include what he later recognised to be a false quote? There can surely be only two possible explanations.
x. The first explanation runs like this. White referenced Righteous Victims twice, and included it in his select bibliography, but somehow managed to miss the bit where Morris included the accurate version of the Ben-Gurion quote. If this is the case, then the kindest thing that could be said of White is that his scholarship was sloppy.
xi. The second explanation goes like this. White was aware of the correct version of the quote, but (perhaps gambling on the ignorance of the ‘Beginners’ at whom his book was aimed) decided to include the fake version of the quote anyway. If that is the case, then the kindest that could be said of White is that he knowingly misled his readers.
xii. Only White himself knows which of these two explanations is correct. But the conclusions are inescapable. If White was sloppy enough in his scholarship to include Righteous Victims in his select bibliography but somehow overlook the correct version of the Ben-Gurion quote, this makes it difficult to take him seriously on anything else. Alternatively, if he knowingly misled his readers – knowing what Ben-Gurion actually wrote, but including a false version of the quote regardless – this makes it difficult to take him seriously on anything else.
xiii. There is little to suggest that Ben White’s handling of evidence and source material has improved since 2009. Those who still describe him as a serious scholar, invite searching questions about their own awareness and/or motives.
(*Some will no doubt respond to this piece by accusing me of shooting the messengers and/or deflecting from the real issues. For the avoidance of doubt:
1. The ongoing settlement project and Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is problematic.
2. The narrative presented by B’Tselem is also problematic, for the reasons outlined here .
3. Giving credibility to Ben White is problematic, even if the video he tweets portrays actual events (albeit only part of the story).
The three things are neither equally problematic, nor problematic in the same way. But all three problems nevertheless need to be taken seriously.)