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Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].

From: Integral Thoughts on the Middle East Conflict


Dispelling the Myths

A Second Reply to Ray Harris
on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Jeff Meyerhoff

Ray Harris responded with impressive speed to my essay about his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, although the quickness of his response is due, in no small part, to the complete lack of documentation he offers. While there are some areas of agreement which I note, I, for the most part, am reduced to the laborious task of marshalling the scholarly evidence which, in most cases, directly contradicts his confidently undocumented assertions or lends balance to the fewer true, but partial, statements he makes.

The Old Myths are the Best Myths

In order to avoid the conduct of Israel and the US towards the Palestinians, Harris emphasizes what he sees as an inevitable tendency towards repressiveness in Islam. But in his reply to me, to counter my claim of US-Israeli rejectionism, he describes an alternative account of the history of Arab-Israeli relations in the twentieth-century. What's striking about his list of positive Israeli actions and negative Palestinian and Arab actions is that it sounds like it's been taken from a time capsule buried in 1982. His examples are framed in the outdated, triumphalist rhetoric that used to pass for history in Israel, but which has now been superseded by the integration of Israel's "new historians'" revisionist historiography. One doesn't have to simply side with the new historians, but the spectrum of debate has changed and one is left naively spouting Zionist propaganda if the full spectrum of research is not taken into account. Here are the main myths:

The Myth of the Greedy, Indistinguishable Arab Horde

The whiff of prejudice that emanates from Harris's work comes, in part, from his sometimes agitated, sometimes cavalier, references to "the Arabs," as if they are all the same people. Are these "Arabs" the Persians of Iran or the more multicultural Arabs of Lebanon? Are they the supporters of bin Laden or the haters of bin Laden? Are they the secular moderates or the Islamic fundamentalists? The ruling elites or the ruled masses?

In the US, it's now a clichéd, First World stereotype to say that all those - Blacks, Chinese, Indians, Asians - look alike, yet Harris keeps tossing around the idea that "the Arabs" can be referred to as one, giant, anti-Jewish entity and that all their land can be totaled up and shown to be far in excess of Israel's lands. "In which case I say to Meyerhoff that if it is about land it's about the stunning miserliness of the Arabs. With all that land and all that gas and oil they can afford to be generous. They have plenty of land and the Jews only want a little." Is this a projection onto the other of the bigoted stereotype of the miserly Jew?

Appealing to the small size of Israel as compared to the combined Arab states to justify Israeli rights to more land is naïve and a dangerous precedent to set. (It also contradicts his assertion that Israel should withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.) Should we say that little Japan deserves Manchuria and that their abuses of the Chinese there were justified? When I was a kid in school they showed me a map of the Middle East with little Israel in blue and all the Arab states in red. "Poor little Israel." As a child, I didn't understand that it was a propaganda tool and I didn't know that there might be differences between that indistinguishable, Arab horde. Surprisingly, Arab's, much like other human beings, have distinct feelings about, and attachments to, their lands.

Harris writes that "Meyerhoff unfortunately falls into the myth that the problems in the Middle East are all due to outside imperialist interference. The reality is that the Middle East has been difficult to control." I'll discuss the issue of imperialist influence below. Here I'd like to bring attention to Harris's locution "difficult to control;" as if it is incumbent upon us rational, enlightened Westerners to "control" those hot-headed, backwards Middle Easterners. Perhaps he didn't mean it that way, but it's odd to think of a large region of the world as if it needs to be controlled by some outside force.

And in an odd, cognitively dissonant rant, Harris both acknowledges the Western powers imperialist ambitions in the Middle East - presumably a bad thing - and then declaims that the Arabs would be in worse shape without them. "In fact let me ask Meyerhoff this question - what would have happened in the Middle East if the Western powers had not been involved in any way, if they had kept their imperialist ambitions to themselves and taken an isolationist approach?... Hands up all those who think the Middle East would have descended into a civil war until one or more caliph/dictators arose (who would then have still needed Western technology just as the Ottomans did - primarily military)?"

I guess we'll never know, but perhaps they would have proceeded unimpeded on the morally progressive, evolutionary trajectory that Wilber describes for all social groupings. The question is not whether Western states should engage or intervene in the Middle East, the question is what they do and who their actions hurt and help.

The Myth of Arab-only Aggression

Harris describes "the '48 war, in which neighbouring Arab states attacked the new state of Israel on the eve of its declaration." "The Israeli borders have expanded every time Arabs have attacked Israel. The key word here is 'attack'. If the Arabs had not fought against the UN declaration that created Israel, Israel would be smaller than it is now."

This myth is a good example of why it is difficult to respond to Harris. He repeatedly makes these over-broad generalizations without citation. Debunking them properly requires a lot of work. The statements above actually include four of the seven myths of The Birth of Israel that Simha Flapan debunks using archival material. For example, regarding the Palestinian Arabs rejection of partition, Flapan writes that

This was not the whole story. While the mufti was, indeed, fanatical in his opposition to partition, the majority of Palestinian Arabs, although also opposed, did not respond to his call for a holy war against Israel. On the contrary, prior to Israel's Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, many Palestinian leaders and groups made efforts to reach a modus vivendi. It was only Ben-Gurion's profound opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state that undermined the Palestinian resistance to the mufti's call.

In each of the wars that Arab states and Israel fought, there was an intricate chain of events that led to either the Israeli attack or the Arab attack. Giving the impression that it is the Arabs who do the attacking is just partisan myth-making.

The Myth of Israeli Military Inferiority: The Israeli David Confronts the Arab Goliath

Harris contends without attribution that: "The war also revealed the weakness of the Arabs (despite their military superiority at the time)" In contrast, we learn from Rashid Khalidi that "as the Israeli new historians have been showing, many elements of the standard Palestinian narrative have in fact been borne out by archival research. These include...the absolute superiority of the Zionist and later the Israeli armed forces against those of their adversaries in the field throughout most stages of the 1947-49 conflict."[1]

Likewise, Ilan Pappe, referring to the 1948 war, writes "That the Arab states succeeded in fielding any soldiers at all is remarkable." "The lack of ammunition, long supply lines and an absence of military experience left the Arab side unable to withstand the Jewish forces, which although consisting of a similar number of troops, were more experienced and better equipped"[2]

The Myth of the Extremists

Harris contends that it was the Zionist extremists who caused the problems in the pre-state period on the Jewish side: "I don't deny the existence of Zionist plans to create an Israeli state and the plan to remove Arabs. This is a matter of history and it's generally accepted in Israel that such a plan existed (the argument centres on how serious and certain the plan was). However, not all Jewish immigrants were hardcore Zionists, in fact there are many Jewish critics of Zionism."

By acknowledging the plan to expel the Palestinian Arabs, Harris acknowledges the results of the work of the Israeli new historians and, as he correctly states, there were Jewish critics of Zionism, but the crucial question is: who were the hardcore Zionists? Most would agree that the Zionist Revisionists were hardcore in their absolute rejection of the Palestinian Arabs, but Flapan informs us that "Ben-Gurion [the leader of the Zionist cause and the new state's first prime minister] publicly excoriated Revisionist actions and opposed their participation in the government and national bodies. But at the same time, where the Arabs were concerned, he [Ben-Gurion] espoused the basic principles of Revisionism: the expansion of the borders, the conquest of Arab areas, and the evacuation of the Arab population."[3]

The Myth of Palestinian Flight

Surprisingly, Harris still perpetuates the old canard about the reasons for Palestinian flight during the 1948 war. He writes that "it is also true to say that hardcore Arabs played on the fear of Zionism to basically scare the bejesus out of non-aligned Arabs (and Christians). Arab villagers were told the Jews were going to rape their women and kill their children. During the '48 war tens of thousands of Arabs fled their villages in 'fear' of such an attack, not because they were 'actually' attacked. These form the bulk of the refugees." Yet Harris already acknowledged the Zionist plan to "remove Arabs." There is now ample documentation of its implementation, including Benny Morris's book-length study.

In the opening pages of "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem", Benny Morris offers the outlines of an overall answer [to the question of the degree of Palestinian expulsion by the Jews]: using a map that shows the 369 Arab towns and villages in Israel (within its 1949 borders), he lists, area by area, the reasons for the departure of the local population.... In 45 cases he admits that he does not know. The inhabitants of the other 228 localities left under attack by Jewish troops, and in 41 cases they were expelled by military force. In 90 other localities, the Palestinians were in a state of panic following the fall of a neighbouring town or village, or for fear of an enemy attack, or because of rumours circulated by the Jewish army - particularly after the 9 April 1948 massacre of 250 inhabitants of Deir Yassin, where the news of the killings swept the country like wildfire. By contrast, he found only six cases of departures at the instigation of local Arab authorities.[4]

The Myth of Arab Immigration to Palestine

Harris makes a passing allusion to a loaded issue in the Arab-Israeli debate, but I think it bears some rebuttal. He writes that "The exact nature of the increase in the Arab population [prior to 1948] is in dispute. The Arabs say that it was due to a rapid increase in the birth rate and some Israelis say it was due to significant Arab immigration." Of course there is no citation, but the idea that the bulk of the Arab population immigrated to Palestine at the same time that the Jews were immigrating there was propounded in a book that got a lot of press and rave reviews from the US, mainstream media. This was Joan Peters' book From Time Immemorial from 1984. The claim was that the Palestinian Arabs were not the native population of Palestine because they, like the Jews, immigrated there during the first half of the twentieth century. That book was long ago debunked as a piece of deceptive, even fraudulent, scholarship.[5]


Harris reasserts an outdated, triumphalist view of history in which the Arabs are the sole aggressors to validate his claim that Islam is an inherently aggressive religion. Yet by now, even that old, triumphalist view has had to accommodate the research of Israel's own "new historians." Harris needs to avoid having his progressive heroes - the modern secular democrats - acting too badly or it ruins his belief in an integral advance.

A Rising Tide Lifts Some Boats, Sinks Others

Harris has made an important change. Instead of saying, as in his original piece, that "in its essence [the Arab-Israeli conflict] is, I believe, a conflict between competing narratives of identity" and not about land as I contended, he is now conceding that the conflict "is about land, but land AND identity." That's a significant shift. But in a painful contortion, he sidesteps the issue of the enormous loss of land of the local Palestinian population - "an estimated 75 percent of the holdings of Palestinian Arabs prior to 1948"[6] - and instead now wants to argue that it's fine to take economic conditions (such as land) into account, but when we do we'll find that "Jewish immigration helped create an economic boom in Palestine and improved the conditions of Arabs in general." So the Arabs actually benefited from the increasing, pre-independence Jewish presence. Since the Arabs benefited economically, that can't be a factor in Arab hostility towards Israel and the Jews, except if they are jealous of Israeli economic success. But is this the case? We don't know what validates these assertions because he cites no one. My research suggests a much more complicated and mixed view of Palestine during the British Mandate period from 1922-1948 than Harris's account of increasing Arab prosperity due to Israel's economic success. Simha Flapan was referring to views such as Harris's when he described "Two equally distorted versions of socio-economic development in this period....In the Zionist version, Jewish immigration to Palestine brought the benefits of development to all the inhabitants of the country".[7]

Was it a situation of "increasing prosperity in the 20's and 30's" for the Palestinian Arabs as Harris asserts without citation? Rashid Khalidi, a leading Palestinian historian, notes "an annual growth rate in real income per capita over these twenty-five years...of 3.6 percent for the Arabs and 4.8 percent for the Jews."[8] While Simha Flapan states that "The Arab population benefited from better conditions in sanitation, health, education, transport and other public services."[9] While no source attributed the improvements that did occur to the Jewish presence, these are indicators of "increasing prosperity."

So Harris is partially right, there was some overall economic development in both of the increasingly separated Jewish and Palestinian Arab economies. But capitalist development created problems for the predominantly rural Palestinian Arab population. From 1929-1936, Ilan Pappe describes "a disastrous mix of agricultural commercialization, of Zionist drive for land purchase, and of the [Arab] notables greed, which left rural Palestine, where 60 per cent of the population lived, in ruins."[10] And Flapan concludes that "The socio-economic transformation of Palestine was faster than that of any other Middle Eastern country, but it brought in its wake problems that were not fundamentally different from those of other developing countries - landlessness among the peasants and under-employment among the fast-growing urban masses."[11] What emerged was "the competition between two separate national economies, each growing rapidly, accompanied by a crisis of modernization in the Arab sector."[12]

Add to these socio-economic dislocations the continual thwarting of the Palestinians' desire for self-determination and the increasing Jewish immigration and dispossession of Palestinian lands and we can't simply say that "the conditions of Arabs in general improved."

The Israeli Arabs and the Limits of Tolerance

What of the Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel after the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 and their descendants who are citizens of Israel? Surely they have benefited from the advanced, industrialized, Israeli economy. Three book-length studies examining the economic situation of Israeli Arabs paint the same broad picture.[13]

The very first page in Lewin-Epstein and Semyonov's The Arab Minority in Israel's Economy states that "Israel, however, is an ethnically divided society, in which the Arab population is a subordinate minority. Lagging behind in educational achievement, standard of living, and public services"[14] This situation started as soon as the Arab minority in Israel became part of the new Israeli state in 1948. "[T]he Arab population was both geographically and socially segregated from the majority Jewish population. Indeed, the Arab economy that emerged following the establishment of the State of Israel was clearly shaped by the extreme spatial segregation of the Arab population, and its subordinate position in Israeli society."[15]

The cause of this inequality and subordination are a series of government policies designed to hinder Israeli Arab economic advancement. "The laws and policies which have most debilitated the Arab economy in Israel are those affecting ownership and control of land. Some 34 different laws have legitimated the expropriation of private Arab lands in Israel, belonging both to residents and refugees, with the process continuing until today [1988]...These confiscations have alienated an estimated 75 percent of the holdings of Palestinian Arabs prior to 1948...All confiscated land has been redistributed to Jewish farms and localities."[16]

Aziz Haidar summarizes the situation:

The Arab population constitutes an ethnic-national minority, powerless and discriminated against by the political regime which is controlled by the Jewish majority. The policy of discrimination derives primarily from the nature of Israel as a colonizing society and from its definition as a Jewish-Zionist state the purpose of which is to ensure exclusive rights to the Jewish majority and to serve as the state of the Jewish people. By the terms of that definition, the Arab minority cannot be an equal partner in Israeli society, for the resources controlled by the state have been harnessed to the development and welfare of the majority, leading to ever widening gaps between the two populations.[17]

Islamic Tolerance and Intolerance

In his reply to me, Harris makes a strenuous effort to show that pre-modern, Islamic regimes were not tolerant of minorities, implicitly countering what he seems to think is my claim that pre-modern Islamic states and empires were, in his words, "beacons of tolerance" and compare favorably with modern secular democracies like Israel and the US. He emphasizes that pre-modern, Middle Eastern, Muslim rule over religious minorities was generally intolerant, while also acknowledging that "At various times some were [tolerant and]...At various times some Jews prospered." The thrust of Harris's efforts implies that he thinks we're debating whether, when Islam was in power before the twentieth century, it was more or less tolerant of ethnic and religious minorities than modern secular democracies. But that's not the point at issue. I stated clearly that "I cite this history [of relative Muslim tolerance] not to advocate a return to theocratic rule - democratic secular societies are certainly superior for protecting minority rights - but to demonstrate that there is a more varied Muslim history than Harris allows and that economic and territorial conditions play a large role in determining the behavior of those Harris depicts as driven to repression by religious dogma and zealotry."

I quoted those scholars who documented pre-modern, Muslim tolerance of religious minorities because I thought Harris's point was that members of monotheistic religions couldn't live in the same society because of the differences in their religious narratives which are constructed around the demonization of other monotheists. And further, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is centrally about religious intolerance.

I offered scholarly evidence of more tolerance in the Islamic past than in present-day, repressive, Islamic states to show, one, that there is a spectrum of freedom that Islam can allow (still never as much as the modern secular state); two, that Harris's presumption that Islam is inherently repressive on the model of the current Islamic states is false; and three, that there are a variety of levels of tolerance even in monotheistic states and that opposing narratives can't be the central explanation since they've had opposing narratives since their inceptions. We need to look to other determining factors of conflict.

The greater intolerance of Islamic-Arab regimes in comparison with their more tolerant historical ancestors calls for some explanation if, as Harris was saying in his first piece, that religious narrative and identity is the central determinant to examine. But if Harris's point is simply that monotheistic religious states are more intolerant and offer less freedoms than modern secular democracies then we agree. We may disagree, though, that secularism's greater tolerance of minorities inside their borders is any help to the peoples who are subject to their aggression outside their borders. Israel's domestic tolerance is superior to the intolerance of current Islamic regimes, but Israel's atrocious human rights record towards the Palestinians under their control outside their pre-1967 borders is as bad as the most repressive Islamic-Arab regime. Or examine the United States' stomach-churning behavior towards Central and Latin America in the 1980s.

So it's very easy to answer Harris's questions to me: "How does Meyerhoff explain the position of Arabs in Israel today? He says they are second-class citizens. Are they?" I have no trouble explaining the position of Arabs in Israel today. Their existence is due to the superiority of a secular democratic state and, yes, they are second-class citizens, as the scholarly studies I cited demonstrate.

But I would like to pursue the point somewhat because Harris's tendentious reading of the Islamic past runs counter to the more measured scholarship I've read.

In one his rare citations Harris purports to quote from the doyen of Islamic scholars Bernard Lewis. It appears that most of the quote is actually from a Moise Rahmani,[18] but probably reflects Lewis's views on the bad conditions the Jews lived under during an era of Muslim rule. Oddly, it contrasts sharply with the statements made by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis in their collection entitled Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire[19] which is still the preeminent reference point in this area of study. The introductory paragraph for the entire two volume collection states that:

For nearly half a millennium the Ottomans ruled an empire as diverse as any in history. Remarkably, this polyethnic and multreligious society worked. Muslims, Christians, and Jews worshipped and studied side by side, enriching their distinct cultures. The legal traditions and practices of each community, particularly in matters of personal status - that is, death, marriage, and inheritance - were respected and enforced through the empire....Opportunities for advancement and prosperity were open in varying degrees to all the empire's subjects."

But the authors warn of two prevalent myths, "One depicts Islam and the Muslims as bigoted, intolerant, oppressive; its best-known image is Gibbon's legendary figure of a fanatical warrior riding out of the desert, with the Quran in one hand and the sword in the other, offering his victims a choice between the two. The other myth is of an interfaith, interracial utopia in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews worked together in equality and harmony in a golden age of free intellectual endeavor."[20]

Another source I mentioned in my reply to Harris was Bruce Masters, "a preeminent expert in Ottoman-and-Arab history."[21] His Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World takes a stance similar to that of Braude and Lewis above. Note the difference in tone between Harris and Masters when you don't have Harris's big axe to grind.

Following Braude and Lewis, Masters acknowledges the extreme views of Islamic rule: "Western scholars and observers of Muslim societies have alternatively ascribed to Islam, as a normative social construct, religious toleration and fanaticism. Both characterizations are possible, as Muslim states historically have manifested these apposite tendencies at different times and in different places."[22]

Confirming my focus on the material motivations of social conflict, and in contrast to Harris's emphasis on a religious motivation to Islamic imperialism, Masters writes that 'Despite the Western stereotype of Muslim conquerors with sword in one hand and the Qur'an in the other, Muslims did not expect their new subjects to embrace Islam. Rather theirs was a war for political control and booty, not for the hearts and minds of the non-believers who possessed a "Book [i.e. other monotheists; they were less tolerant of polytheists]."'[23]

Harris's need to emphasize the negative aspects of Islam gives a skewed picture of the whole and gives the impression that Islam-in-power is largely intolerant due to the beliefs which constitute it. Yet the historical variations in the degree of Islamic-Arab tolerance are important to remember because of contemporary Islamic movements which are trying to forge an Islamic democracy. Ken Silverstein, in the most recent issue of Harper's Magazine, reports on his yearlong travel through the Middle East and the potential for a homegrown Islamic democracy that he found. Silverstein reports the views of "Alastair Crooke, formerly of MI6 [British Intelligence] and the head of Conflicts Forum" which is "a small group of retired Western diplomats and intelligence officials."

In his [Crooke's] view, American and British analysts see a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam while missing a fundamental struggle within Islam itself, between "revivalists" who see electoral politics as a path to gain a stake in society and "revolutionaries" like Al Qaeda who reject that path. Political dialogue with the revivalists is urgent, since anti-Western sentiment, inflamed by the Iraq war, is pushing the pendulum toward Osama bin Laden, Crooke believes. [And Silverstein notes that] The Arab press commonly draws a similar distinction: It labels Crooke's revivalists as "national Islamists" and the revolutionaries as "international jihadists."[24]

Coming from a country with a strong tradition of separation between church and state, I feel leery about this amalgam of religion and democracy, but it should be remembered that the Middle East has many decades of experience with European-style parliamentary democracy.

Harris also misunderstands our point of contention in his response to my statement that Israeli-Arabs are second class citizens in Israel. He doesn't seem to like that description, but his response is to say "What country is free of racism and discrimination? How do Latinos and African-Americans fare in the US? Is there no racial, religious or ethnic discrimination in Arab society? Is Meyerhoff holding Jews to a higher standard?" This is the knee-jerk defensiveness of someone who needs to have his chosen hero - Israel - upheld as superior. I referred to the second class status of Israeli-Arabs not to say that this shows Israeli society or the Jews are worse than the Islamic Arab states - it's obviously a more tolerant society and should be commended for that - but just to acknowledge that while modern secular democracies are generally better at respecting minorities than theocratic states, there is a measure of discrimination. The research I presented above regarding the economic and legal situation of Israeli-Arabs demonstrates this.

Further, it should be remembered that "Israel, by definition, was established as the state of a collective based on ethnic and religious foundations. The state of Israel is defined as 'the state of the Jewish people', and finds its rationale in the ideology of Zionism. The Declaration of Independence defined the state as a 'Jewish state in the land of Israel', and the laws which have been introduced since it was established have reinforced its character as a Jewish state"[25]

As a matter of law, Israel is primarily the land of the Jews and secondarily the land of all Israeli citizens. This is how the Israeli Jews could expropriate Palestinian land in Israel and have it be legal. It is also why Israel is not a fully secular society.


Harris mistakenly thinks there is some kind of double standard or contradiction between left progressives' general support for immigrants and their criticism of pre-1948, Jewish immigration to Palestine, but there is no contradiction. Immigration is fine as long as it doesn't displace the local population. I'm a left progressive and I'm fine with Vietnamese or Iraqis or Haitians coming to the US - immigrants usually immigrate to the country that abuses them - but I'm not fine with those Puritans who came to the US or those who settled Australia and in the process killed and displaced the native populations. And like the American Indian, the Arabs of Palestine were willing to live with the foreigners as long as they weren't adversely affected by their presence. The question is not whether some abstraction called "immigration" is good or not, it is what the immigrants and the native populations do. In Harris's account the well-meaning Jews just wanted to live peaceably in Palestine until the bigoted Arabs attacked them because they were Jewish. His potted version goes like this: "Many of them [Jews] lived peacefully and co-operatively with their Arab neighbours. What happened? Well, what happened was the Arab rebellion of the 20's and 30's and the '48 war, in which neighbouring Arab states attacked the new state of Israel on the eve of its declaration."

My God! What gets into those beastly Arabs to make them do such things?! A statement like this reveals Harris' anti-Arab bias. The citations I have given above and below about what happened during the British Mandate period puts the lie to this kind of ridiculous historical caricature.

About Debate

A different issue raised by a few of Harris's comments has to do with the nature of debate. He makes a curious statement at the beginning of his conclusion. He writes "All Meyerhoff has done is to select some alternative views. So what? Anyone who has studied the issue knows these voices exist and also knows about the controversy surrounding Finkelstein and Chomsky."

It's not clear what the alternative to "select[ing] some alternative views" is. Isn't that just a pejorative way of describing debate itself? You give a view and then I give a view. Is Harris's view non-alternative, something larger, inclusive, integral? It doesn't appear to be if it doesn't cite any sources, include my "alternative views," nor the sources I cite. So in answer to his dismissive "So what?" I say, "You're dismissing debate, that's so what."

And regarding the Finkelstein and Chomsky controversies, Harris makes it sound like being controversial has some connection to whether what one says is true. It's the question of truth we want to answer, whether our source is controversial or non-controversial is a possible indicator of truth, but mostly incidental. Certainly Finkelstein is a controversial figure, but I don't see what this has to do with the quotes I used. In one, he uses the work of two respected Israeli historians and in the other he describes the record of US-Israeli stand-alone votes vetoing numerous UN resolutions which the rest of the world supported. We don't have to get into Finkelstein's reputation, we just need to determine whether what he's asserting is correct.[26]

Beyond this, controversialness is relative to context. The US mainstream of opinion regarding Israel is so skewed that Chomsky is less controversial in Israel than in the US. And he's even less controversial in certain European countries whose mainstream of opinion can tolerate a more fundamental critique of US foreign policy. The term "controversial" is a euphemism for "questions-our-taken-for-granted-assumptions." Whether the "controversial" person is denying the Holocaust or suggesting that the US does not always act with noble intentions, they must be responded to with valid facts and arguments.

For the sake of argument, however, let's set Finkelstein aside and listen to someone less "controversial," former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, a politician, historian, and author of the book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. He debated Finkelstein on the radio program "Democracy Now" hosted by Amy Goodman and his views are startling; in fact, he would be castigated as an anti-Semite in the US.[27] Here is an excerpt:

AMY GOODMAN: You have some very strong quotes in your book, of your own and quoting others, like Berl Katznelson, who is the main ideologue of the Labor movement, acknowledging that in the wake of the 1929 Arab riots, the Zionist enterprise as an enterprise of conquest. You also say, "The reality on the ground was that of an Arab community in a state of terror facing a ruthless Israeli army whose path to victory was paved not only by its exploits against the regular Arab armies, but also by the intimidation and at times atrocities and massacres it perpetrated against the civilian Arab community. A panic-stricken Arab community was uprooted under the impact of massacres that would be carved into the Arabs' monument of grief and hatred." Explain that further.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, you see, there is a whole range of new historians that have gone into the sources of - the origins of the state of Israel, among them you mentioned Avi Shlaim, but there are many, many others that have exposed this evidence of what really went on on the ground. And I must from the very beginning say that the main difference between what they say and my vision of things is not the facts. The facts, they are absolutely correct in mentioning the facts and putting the record straight....

And our role, the role of this generation - this is why I came into politics and why I try to make my very modest contribution to the peace process - is that we need to bring an end to this injustice that has been done to the Palestinians. We need to draw a line between an Israeli state, a sovereign Palestinian state, and solve the best way we can the problem, by giving the necessary compensation to the refugees, by bringing back the refugees to the Palestinian state, no way to the state of Israel, not because it is immoral, but because it is not feasible, it is not possible. We need to act in a realistic way and see what are the conditions for a final peace deal. I believe that we came very, very close to that final peace deal. Unfortunately, we didn't make it. But we came very close in the year 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to that peace deal, another thing that you have said. "Israel, as a society, also suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians, because it couldn't really come to terms with the fact that it expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them, dispossessed them. This was like admitting that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained forever by a major injustice committed against the Palestinians and that the Jewish state was born in sin." I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the author of these words is the former Foreign Minister of Israel.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yes, while, at the same time, a historian. I am trying to be as fair as possible when I read the past, but it's a very interesting point, the one that you make here, about us trying to obliterate the memory of our war against the Palestinians, and the whole Israeli 1948 mythology is based on our war against the invading Arab armies, less so against the Palestinians, who were the weaker side in that confrontation, because it didn't serve the myth of the creation of the state and of the nation. So we need to correct that. There is no way - there is no way we can fully compensate the refugees and the Palestinians, but we need to do our very, very best to find a way to minimize the harm that was done to this nation.

AMY GOODMAN: And Shlomo Ben-Ami, your response to those who continue to say that at that time, at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel and before, that it really was empty, that Jews came to a place that was not populated.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Of course, it is nonsense. I mean, it was populated. Obviously, it was populated. I mean, the notion that existed, I think it was Israel Zangwill, the first to say that we are - we came a nation without a land to a land without a people. Obviously, it was not true, but again, part of the tragedy was that the Palestinians, as such, did not have - the Palestinian peasants did not have the full control of their own destiny. Part of that land was bought by the Zionist organizations from Affendis, landowners living in Turkey or anywhere else throughout the Ottoman Empire, and these people were inevitably evicted by these kind of transactions. But as a whole, I think that not more than 6 or 7% of the entire surface of the state of Israel was bought. The rest of it was either taken over or won during the war.

This is bracing stuff, yet oddly, it is credit to the very Israeli society (and Jewish culture) that's being so roundly criticized that such a fundamental critique from so high-ranking a former official can be made. These myth-debunking understandings require strong, liberal institutions of free academic inquiry and free speech.

External and Internal Blame

Harris attributes to me the view that it was the West that was the cause of Islamic-Arab repressiveness, where he would like to attribute it to the foundations of Islam, or any monotheism, or the extremists in any religion. And I did emphasize the role of the West and cited three scholars to back that up. Above, I cite the work of Bruce Masters who is one of the foremost scholars of the Ottoman Empire. He focuses on various Western influences to explain the arising of sectarian conflict in the Middle East in the nineteenth century. And certainly colonialism and the Western drawing and re-drawing of the Middle Eastern map, with little regard for the different cultures there, played a role in their problems. But, as to the relative weight to give internal and external factors in general, it's hard to say. We have to be clear about each situation we're talking about.

A corollary to Harris's simplistic claim that the native Palestinian population benefited from the Jewish immigrants economic might, is his claim that "they [the Palestinians] bear a good part of the blame for their current plight. How did they turn away from a period of increasing prosperity in the 20's and 30's to find themselves suffering sanctions and embargos and a potential civil war today?" But do the Palestinian Arabs "bear a good part of the blame" or were there enormous forces arrayed against their persistent attempts to create a Palestinian state from the twenties on?

Rashid Khalidi's latest book attempts to describe the failure of the Palestinians to create a state by focusing on Palestinian actions instead of outside forces. But even with this intent he must acknowledge that during the pre-1948 period the Palestinians

Were the weakest of all the parties engaged in the prolonged struggle to determine the fate of Palestine, which culminated in 1948...These parties include the British Empire...which actively opposed Palestinian aspirations for statehood and independence, and other major states, among them the United States, the Soviet Union, and France, all of which supported Zionism and the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, but did nothing to prevent the abortion of the embryonic Arab state of Palestine in 1947-48. They include as well the Zionist movement, composed of a worldwide network of institutions capable of mobilizing extensive diplomatic, propaganda, and financial resources....Both Britain and the Zionist movement always treated the prospect of an independent Arab state in Palestine as a grave threat....Finally, there were the seven newly independent Arab states, all of them relatively weak and heavily influenced by the Western powers; these states acted in ways that frequently excluded the interest of the Palestinians, and sometimes contradicted them."[28]

In answer to Harris's question: "How did they [the Palestinians] turn away from a period of increasing prosperity in the 20's and 30's to find themselves suffering sanctions and embargos and a potential civil war today?" we have to examine the enormous amount that happened in the intervening sixty years, including the catastrophe of 1948 and the brutal Israeli occupation from 1967 to the present. But I think it's fine and useful to examine the mistakes, corruption and ineptitude of the Palestinian leadership as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Rashid Khalidi have done, but we need to put that in perspective and acknowledge who the weakest party in the conflict was.

Finally, Harris is right when he counsels that "Meyerhoff should recognise the actions of fellow Arabs in causing the current plight of the Palestinians." The Arab regimes have had decidedly mixed motivations regarding the Palestinian cause, at various times: wanting to get the land for themselves, selling them out, neglecting them or trying to aid them. In addition, landowning Palestinian Arab "notables" sold land to the immigrant Jews, thereby facilitating the dispossession of the Palestinian tenant farmers who had for years worked the land. As I've been contending, states and elites generally act in the interests of themselves and those in power and cover their self-interested actions with high-flown moral rhetoric, the Arab regimes do this as do the Israeli's and the US.

What Should Be Done?

Harris suggests that he is for Palestinian self-determination - unless a democratically elected Hamas is in power (so much for democratic choice) - and for Israel to go back to its pre-1967 borders. That sounds like the international position which the US and Israel have opposed for over thirty years. Could it be that aside from all the wrangling over what did or did not happen and what is or is not happening, we agree about what is right to do? It's hard to say because Harris doesn't say what he is proposing. He's too fixated on a complacent, Wilberian-style judging of peoples and societies: "He's green.", "It's a red-orange society.", "Am I second-tier?" As if understanding something is placing a label on it.

If we look at the record of UN votes regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict that I list in my piece the question arises: Why has the US and Israel stood alone against the entire world - including all the traditional US allies - so many times? Does Harris have some other explanation for that? Shouldn't the self-proclaimed, democracy-loving Americans and Israelis want the vast majority of world opinion to prevail? And shouldn't they tolerate Hamas as the victors of the democratic election that they supposedly desired, especially as the Palestinians were trying to create a unity government in the summer of '06 amidst Israel's killing of 300 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip? And why do the democracy-loving Americans support, and have supported for many years, the very Islamic-Arab regimes that Harris rightly finds repugnant? Perhaps, despite the freedoms enjoyed by their own citizens, those in power in the US don't really care about liberty and democracy at all. They care about political power and economic control. Or, is it the case that because of US power, the US and the Israelis don't have to do anything they don't want to do, and since the US wants control of the Middle East they'll do whatever they can get away with to get it and maintain it, even if it means supporting Israel in its destructive policies - destructive for its neighbors and, ultimately, for itself.

Conclusion: Good Society vs. Bad Foreign Policy

Harris thinks we're debating the question of which society is better, modern secular democracy or theocratic democracy or dictatorship, but what is being debated is what is causing the current conflict. I'm suggesting that the society's that perform better in respecting minority rights and protecting individual liberties - Israel and the US as compared to the Islamic-Arab states - are also the prime offenders and perpetuators of the current conflict. And this does not have to do with some conception of which social system rates more highly on some ranking of world-historical developmental advance, but because these states, right now, think they can prevail and get what their elites want - land, oil and control - at the expense of the rights of their weaker opponents.[29]

The evidence for this is the rejectionist stance that the US and Israel take and have taken for the last thirty years as evidenced by their UN votes and their defiance of international law regarding the settlements, the treatment of their victims in the occupied territories and their reckless and deadly invasions of Middle Eastern countries. Harris is oddly silent about Israel's deplorable human rights record in the occupied territories. It doesn't fit with his need to have the secular democracies, including the ambiguously secular, Jewish one, be morally superior.

So the issue is not whether Harris and I agree that modern secular democracy is the better system - we, and probably most Integral World readers, agree on that - the issue is how do we get the modern secular democracies under discussion, Israel and the US, to act rightly in their foreign policy. All the Arab states at the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut reaffirmed there longstanding commitment to the international consensus on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They referred in their official statement to the "initiative calling for full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967, in implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, reaffirmed by the Madrid Conference of 1991 and the land-for-peace principle, and Israel's acceptance of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, in return for the establishment of normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel"[30]

The question is how to promote a better outcome. I am contending that we can support a secular, liberty-loving, domestic society while opposing the immoral and illegal actions of those states when they act wrongly. We can also oppose the repressiveness of Islamic-Arab states in legitimate ways and that the current Bush administration is actually acting to promote and perpetuate repressiveness and terrorism with its actions.

An obstacle to Harris's self-proclaimed integral view (which supposedly is not just "some alternative views" like mine) is that many of the broad statements he makes about Israeli-Arab history are the very views that the Israeli "new historians" movement of the late eighties and nineties has countered by a close reading of the documentary evidence. At the very least, one can't just toss those simplistic views out anymore if one wants to be taken seriously.

Harris and I can agree on the dangers of the extremist fundamentalism of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim kind. What's odd about Harris's writings on Islam and the Arabs is his desire to make a large-scale judgment about it and them; that there is something about the belief and the people that make them somehow bad, or tend towards badness. And yet, at other times, he says he's only talking about the Islamic and Arab extremists. But I wonder why, at any given time, there are more extremists or more moderates of any religion?

The question between us is: in what proportion do we assign responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflict? The answer to that requires sifting through the historical record.


[1] Khalidi, Iron Cage, p. xxxiv.

[2] Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine, pp. 131 and 133.

[3] Flapan, Birth of Israel, (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p.37.

[4] Vidal, Dominique, "The Expulsion of the Palestinians Re-Examined" Le Monde Diplomatique, Dec. 1997, at

[5] Finkelstein, Norman, "A Land Without a People," Chapter 2 of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 2nd edition, (London: Verso, 2003). Of course, Finkelstein may be too "controversial," so here - pp. 45-50 - he recounts the reception of Peters' book and the many severely critical reviews it received.

[6] Khalidi, Raja, The Arab Economy in Israel, (New York: Croom Helm, 1988), p. 41.

[7] Flapan, Simha, Zionism and the Palestinians, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 194. "[The] Arab version, [was that] there was a colonial dispossession of a native people by a white settler class bent on expansion at their expense." (p. 194) Flapan notes that Jewish immigration to Palestine was not a result of European imperialism and that the Jews did not take over the land and subjugate the native population the way colonialists typically do, at least before 1948, so it wouldn't be accurately termed a "colonial dispossession."

[8] Khalidi, Rashid, The Iron Cage, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 14.

[9] Flapan, Zionism, p. 223.

[10] Pappe, Ilan, A History of Modern Palestine, 2nd edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 98.

[11] Flapan, Zionism, p. 198.

[12] Flapan, Zionism, p. 195.

[13] Khalidi, The Arab Economy; Lewin-Epstein, Noah and Semyonov, Moshe, The Arab Minority in Israel's Economy, (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993); Haidar, Aziz, On the Margins: The Arab Population in the Israeli Economy, (New York: St. Martins Press, 1995).

[14] Lewin-Epstein, The Arab Minority, p. xvi.

[15] Lewin-Epstein, The Arab Minority, p. 45.

[16] Khalidi, The Arab Economy, p. 41.

[17] Haidar, On the Margins, p. 180.

[18] Rahmani, Moise, "The Forgotten Exile," at

[19] Braude, Benjamin, and Lewis, Bernard, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Volume I: The Central Lands, (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982) p. 1.

[20] Braude and Lewis, Christians and Jews, p. 2.

[21] Stefan Winter, assistant professor of West Asian history at the University of Erfurt, at

[22] Masters, Bruce, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 18.

[23] Masters, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World, p. 20.

[24] Silverstein, Ken, "Parties of God: The Bush Doctrine and the Rise of Islamic Democracy," Harper's Magazine, March 2007, pp. 43-44.

[25] Haidar, On the Margins, p. 3.

[26] Finkelstein's exhaustively documented dissection of Alan Dershowitz can be found in his Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).

[27] "Norman Finkelstein & Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami Debate: Complete Transcript" at and at

[28] Khalidi, Rashid, The Iron Cage, p. xi.

[29] Harris criticizes my inclusion of the US's dropping of two atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as terrorism because the bombings were intended to save American and Japanese lives by avoiding a ground invasion. Whether a ground invasion was necessary or not, and how many would have died, is debatable (see below), but we did know, with much greater surety, what the effects of dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian population would be and that it was immoral to intentionally kill civilians even in wartime. The terrorist act of dropping the bombs was intended to kill civilians and did. Of course, in the US mainstream media's lexicon, "terrorism" can only be committed by our enemies; our atrocities are regrettable acts done with much anguish necessitated by the difficult circumstances our enemies have forced upon us and justified by our higher, noble calling.

Regarding the lack of military necessity of dropping the atomic bombs:

One of the most notable individuals with this opinion was then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He wrote in his memoir The White House Years:

"In 1945 Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives."

Other U.S. military officers who disagreed with the necessity of the bombings include General Douglas MacArthur (the highest-ranking officer in the Pacific Theater), Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy (the Chief of Staff to the President), General Carl Spaatz (commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific), and Brigadier General Carter Clarke (the military intelligence officer who prepared intercepted Japanese cables for U.S. officials), and Admiral Ernest King, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph A. Bard, and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet.

"The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan." Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

"The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender." Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman.

From the Wikipedia article, "Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," at

[30] A copy of the statement can be found at

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2007

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