Friday, March 8, 2013

New book explores how Palestine "lost its history"

 In politics the past is forever under suspicion: revanchist attempts to appropriate it for one side and expropriate it for the other are rightly seen as counterproductive. Nonetheless, the “international community” has aligned itself with Israel’s claim that its dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs is the fulfillment of a promise made by God to Abraham in the Old Testament. Zionism has taken official possession of Palestine’s past — and hence of its present — on the basis of a Biblical myth.
Attempts to counter this have not always avoided a crass denial of the historic presence of Jews in Palestine. Such is not the intention of Keith Whitelam, former head of the departments of religious studies at Stirling and Sheffield Universities in Britain. His approach is based on that of the French Annales school of historians as represented, in particular, by Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), whose influence Whitelam explicitly acknowledges in the bibliography of his new book Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past.

Braudel posited three levels of time: the first geographical, the second economic and cultural, and the third that of events and individuals. It is the first, with its long-term and irresistible rhythms and cycles, that most concerns Whitelam; the second plays a subordinate but important role; while the third — the site of most historiography and propaganda alike — features merely as an occasional reference point.
Whitelam sets out from a very contemporary critique of the idea, so influential in Washington and the European capitals, “that Israel is reclaiming an ancient homeland with its capital in Jerusalem …” Uniquely, the post-colonial history of Palestine was written not by Palestinians but by the new colonizers: “a Zionist construction of the past… rapidly became its national narrative.”
Whitelam cites Newt Gingrich’s 2011 assertion during the Republican primary elections in the US that “there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab community, and they had the chance to go many places.”
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