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History as Propaganda

by Brendan Goldman
FrontPage Magazine
February 11, 2010

“This is not an Israeli-Palestinian debate,” Stanley Cohen, the director of the Scone Foundation, said. “It is [a conference] to honor the archivist profession.”

Cohen’s statement was half true: the event was not a “debate,” but only because there were no dissenting opinions to challenge keynote speaker Rashid Khalidi’s monologue portraying the Palestinians as powerless victims of an Israeli foe intent on destroying their historical records.

Cohen was speaking to an audience of approximately 150 people, mostly members of the general public and scholars of the Middle East, at the Scone Foundation’s “Archivist of the Year” award ceremony, held January 25 at the CUNY Graduate Center’s expansive auditorium in the heart of New York City.

The event was billed as an opportunity to honor the joint recipients of the seventh Archivist of the Year award, Yehoshua Freundlich of the Israeli Archives and Khader Salameh of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library. Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and a former spokesman for the PLO, and Professor David Myers, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, were the event’s keynote speakers.

Cohen made clear from the start that he subscribed to the political biases of academia. He claimed that a previous recipient of the Archivist of the Year Award had been “shelved by the Defense Department” for opposing Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Archivists cannot oppose faith-based policies,” Cohen joked with his seemingly sympathetic audience.

Salameh’s and Freundlich’s speeches followed Cohen’s address. The two archivists were dispassionate, thoughtful, and apolitical in describing their work. Salameh demonstrated a fluent grasp of Hebrew when speaking to an Israeli during his presentation, and Freundlich talked about his determination to preserve documents related to Palestinian history.

The American academics proved decidedly less capable of keeping politics out of their speeches. Myers spoke first, stating before he began his address that, “self-critical research,” meaning criticism of the Palestinian narrative, was a “defining feature of [Khalidi’s] work”—a preposterous claim that could not withstand the evidence presented in Khalidi’s own words.

Khalidi began his speech by saying that the “statelessness” of the Palestinians is a “condition that manifests itself directly in the lack of Palestinian national archives.” This proved a half-hearted attempt to make his digression into politics relevant to the subject of the ceremony.

While Myers had discussed how Israel’s leftist “New Historians” challenged the alleged “myths” of Israelis’ “collective memory,” Khalidi sounded almost giddy when he stated, “the founders of the [Israeli] state would be turning in their graves [if they read what these historians wrote].”

Khalidi later made clear that Palestinians, unlike Israelis and Americans, are exempt from the obligation to challenge their national myths: “The collective memory of the Palestinians was perfectly clear,” Khalidi said of the precision of the Palestinian refugees’ recollection of their “expulsion” from the Jewish state.

He neglected to mention that even according to the controversial estimates of the New Historians, at most a third of the Palestinian refugees of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence were expelled; the rest left on their own accord, Palestinians’ “collective memory” to the contrary notwithstanding.

Khalidi claimed Palestinian archives were systematically destroyed by the Israelis, adding that this issue was “exacerbated by the destruction or desecration of religious and historical sites.” He later expanded on this claim: “These actions are often linked to efforts to deny the existence of Palestinians in Palestine.”

The only examples Khalidi offered of such Israeli actions were the bombing of Palestinian archives at a PLO building in Beirut during the First Lebanon War and the closing of the PLO’s Jerusalem headquarters and archives at the Orient House during the Second Intifada. The intuitive reason for such actions—the PLO’s documented support for terrorism and not a desire to “deny the existence of Palestinians”—was seemingly lost on Khalidi.

Given Khalidi’s abandonment of any pretense of discussing the work of the two archivists, Myers was clearly hesitant to challenge Khalidi’s assertions during the question and answer session. He further politicized the conference with a digression on how historians could use their trade to assist Palestinians who claimed to have lost property in Jerusalem. Myers neglected to discuss how historians could help redeem the much more significant financial losses of the approximately 900,000 Jews who fled Arab lands.

However, to his credit, Myers did argue for the “ameliorative role” of archives and their “possibility to craft a shared history [between Israelis and Palestinians].” Cohen had also claimed in a flier for the conference that, “Open archives may very well be instruments to reduce divergence, expand mutual understanding and fruitful cooperation [between Israelis and Palestinians].”

Khalidi ended the awards ceremony on a decidedly less optimistic note. He discussed how Germany and France had fought wars for a century and a half and had to wait 60 years after those conflicts ended before they could establish a joint “peace” curriculum for their schools. He then concluded, “[A Palestinian State], I fear, is unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon, if ever.”

Khalidi’s politicization of an awards ceremony intended to honor the unsung heroes of the archivist profession was predictable to anyone familiar with his public lectures, which routinely politicize rather than analyze the contemporary Middle East. More disturbing was Myers’s and the audience’s complacent acceptance of his usurpation. The professionalism of the Israeli and Palestinian archivists stood in stark contrast to the unwillingness of the American academics to check their politics at the door. The honorees deserved better.

Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East