Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, one figure has been most ubiquitous and most determined in his assertions that Israel is actually to blame: British academic Avi Shlaim.
His op-eds or his comments have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, EL PAÍS (Spain), Al-Quds, the Wire, the Irish Times, the Islam Channel, the Africa News Network, Prospect, the Times Higher Education Magazine, NPR, and the Daily Mail. They have appeared in Apple podcasts. They have been featured in TikTok videos. Vogue is recommending his books. The message presented is always the same. Shlaim patiently explains to his many followers that Hamas is “not a terrorist organization.” In order to understand this, though, people need to understand the “hidden” history of Israel, one that Shlaim—perhaps alone—can supply.
All this prompts one to wonder: How does an academic come to be a fixture on chat shows and a frequent columnist in the world’s leading newspapers and magazines? To realize such celebrity, a college professor must first persuade others of vaunted expertise on some important matter. Yet presentation is more important than credibility. And more critical than either is what Gypsy Rose Lee offered audiences: a gimmick. The striptease must then be performed in a novel—or seemingly original—manner designed to titillate the appropriate crowd.
This is the context in which we should regard Shlaim, professor of international relations at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, and a member of the British Academy. A leading “New Historian” or “post-Zionist historian,” Shlaim writes regularly for such publications as the Guardian, the Nation and the Independent, and his speaking engagements attract large crowds. Purportedly he is one of the leading living masters of the subject of Israel’s founding. This reputation is based on a series of books he has written on the matter, starting with his supposed magnum opus, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine.
Running to 686 pages, this hefty tome is regarded by its many anti-Zionist admirers as a definitive analysis—proof—of a conspiracy theory that, if true, would lay upon Israel much of the responsibility for the present absence of a Palestinian state.
But there is a curious thing about this book. Now past the 35th anniversary of its publication, it has never been reprinted. Instead, its author arranged for it to be somewhat abridged, re-titled, and put out in paperback with a number of its major contentions rewritten. In the new version, the word “Collusion” is taken out of the title and one of the basic arguments of the first book has been sliced away.
Shlaim, however, has never publicly acknowledged the obvious: that his first book made claims that were refuted by the release of previously unavailable documents, and that had he republished it as originally written, he would have made himself a laughingstock in his field. It is an astonishing act of chutzpah. Without ever admitting the baldness of his errors, he refashioned the book upon which his reputation was founded but stripped out some of his wilder mistakes.
But is the new version of his conspiracy theory reliable? Is the account he now provides of the subject at last credible in its basic claims and suppositions?
Unfortunately, the new version is only marginally better than the old and, in some respects, actually worse. It is no accident that Shlaim’s esteem is greatest among college students, newspaper editors, and, most of all, TV reporters: those who lack knowledge of his subjects. Yet the significance of these matters cannot be denied, and Shlaim’s supposed authority depends on them.
Let us therefore examine the relevant issues and his arguments in some detail.
In an interview with Haaretz some years ago, Shlaim said that the New Historians argue in favor of five ideas that run contrary to standard Zionist history. Two are not the subject of his book. They are that Palestinians fled during Israel’s War of Independence because of pressure from Jewish armed forces, and that Jews may have had more military power at their disposal than their Arab enemies during the country’s War of Independence.
These are subjects of ongoing debate. What many of Shlaim’s admirers may not recognize is that the other well-known New Historians of the left, such as Benny Morris and Yoav Gelber, have repeatedly attacked Shlaim’s writings, offering clear and incontrovertible refutations of the conspiracy theory on which his reputation rests. While his adoring public thinks that he is a respected authority, his fellow scholars—on right and left—consider him the author of work that is shoddy and nonsensical. He fills lecture halls, but those trained in his area of research see him as some mix of charlatan and self-serving fool.
Central to his thought is the belief that Great Britain, Jordan, and Israel secretly arranged in 1947 for a division of Palestine that was meant to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state as had been detailed in the United Nations plan for partition of the country into separate Jewish and Arab lands.
This is Shlaim’s gimmick.
The standard Zionist explanation of the failure of the Palestinians to gain a homeland as outlined in the UN plan is a simple one: The leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, repeatedly sought out parties with whom to arrange the Partition, but all the leading Palestinian leaders rejected the plan and instead sought out a war in which they aimed to overpower, subordinate, or annihilate the Jews living in the land.
This explanation has one great advantage over others: accuracy. But facts are not something that can hold back so ardent and independent a thinker as Shlaim.
Shlaim’s contention that the Yishuv and King Abdullah, the Hashemite ruler of Transjordan (present Jordan), were secretly allies is based on a meeting the king had on November 17, 1947, with Golda Meir. Meir was at this time acting political director of the Jewish Agency and therefore was reporting directly to David Ben-Gurion.
Shlaim commenced his book by making the claim that this proved “an explicit agreement in 1947 was reached between the Hashemites and the Zionists on the carving up of Palestine following the termination of the British Mandate, and that this agreement laid the foundation for mutual restraint during [the war in] 1948 and for continuing collaboration in the aftermath of the war.”
During this meeting, the king outlined his goals for Palestine. He wished to take possession of the territory, and, he explained, if the Jews assisted him, he would give them a strip of land in which they might have some degree of autonomy under his crown. He then asked Meir whether the Yishuv would support his country’s intention of occupying Palestine. Meir responded that this would be acceptable only if it did not interfere with the plans outlined by the United Nations for a proposed Palestinian state. Even Shlaim is compelled to admit this. Abdullah then answered her that he was open to signing a written agreement affirming his intentions. Since the two sides lacked agreement on their basic goals, this was, of course, a nonstarter. Finally, the king asked for money. Nothing was ever signed. In short, the two sides were not able to reach any sort of agreement, not even an oral or tacit one.
This is affirmed by Meir’s own long-classified account of the meeting. In fact, as historian Efraim Karsh has noted, the Jewish Executive Agency, the body charged with formulating policy for the nascent Jewish state, thought so little of the outcome of the meeting that they never bothered to discuss it—not even once.
What had come through, though, was that the King wanted the Israelis to know that he was open to some sort of modus vivendi, if only on his terms. For a people who were unable to gain parleys or responses of any kind from all their other neighbors, this must have been welcome. It is very far, though, from any sort of agreement or alliance.
We can get some sense of how shifting were the sands upon which the king’s offer was made. For one thing, the king would not meet Jewish leaders openly or in the presence of any member of his own government as he was terrified lest any Jordanian or Arab might learn of his two brief conversations with Meir. Tellingly, when Meir managed to get a message to him through his personal physician, asking whether his statement that he wished to live in eventual peace with the Jews was abiding, he responded by merely passing back an oral reply saying that he was hurt by her words and that she should trust him since he wasn’t a man who made false promises to women.
Nor during the conference had the two parties even reached a greater understanding of their respective positions. For Abdullah had spoken of his aim of turning Transjordan into a kingdom to include Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria—“Greater Syria” as it was known—for many years, and the desire of the Yishuv for an independent Jewish state was as far from secret as could be.
Shlaim then makes much of a second furtive conference between Meir and the king that took place on May 10, 1948. This happened during a six-day truce in the war. In this meeting, the king presented a somewhat new version of a plan by which the Jews could live peaceably but not independently within his kingdom. Yet, as Shlaim himself is compelled to acknowledge, Meir at once told the king that “his suggestion could not even serve as a basis for negotiations, not only would the responsible authorities not accept it but there would not be ten Jews who would lend their support to his autonomy plan. Her answer was immediate and categorical; it was out of the question.” Four days later, the two sides were back to shooting at each other.
These two short meetings prompt Shlaim to claim that “the importance and significance” of “the relationship between the Hashemite prince and the Zionists…cannot be overestimated.”
When discussions between two closely situated powers are brief, secret, and inconclusive and they take place only twice, a reasonable person might suppose that this is evidence not of how strong the relationship between the sides is but rather how weak. Perhaps conscious of this, Shlaim attempts to buttress his contentions with a sprinkling of confused or misleading incidental information. Thus, he points his readers toward the figure of Omar Dajani. Eldest son of a leading Arab family in Jerusalem, Dajani was at various times serving in Europe and the United States as a diplomatic representative both for the Yishuv and Abdullah. Shlaim repeatedly implies, but never says outright, that Dajani’s mutual activities would seem to be evidence of Israeli-Transjordanian cooperation. It is only on page 506 of Collusion that Shlaim bothers to incidentally tuck in but not elucidate the real reason why Dajani was working for both sides: His father Daoud Dajani had been murdered by assassins sent by the leading Palestinian political figure of the day, Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. In other words, “the Orphan,” as Jewish intelligence agents referred to him, was seeking revenge by acting on behalf of the leading rivals of his father’s killer. In Shlaim’s revised version of the same book, he omits this key piece of information. Rather, he presents Dajani simply as a mercenary and unscrupulous schemer.
This is not all that is wrong with Shlaim’s peculiar and idiosyncratic hypothesis that two groups frequently making war upon each other were really joined at the hip.
There is also the matter of the war’s outcome. According to Shlaim, this reflected the working out of carefully prearranged plans. But the borders that appeared at the cessation of hostilities in 1948 did not correspond with the stated aims of Abdullah or surprisingly with those of the ultimately victorious Israelis. The Yishuv, after all, had wanted the good beaches of Gaza, which they did not get, while they had never expected to get complete control of the northern port city of Haifa. (It fell into their hands, Karsh points out, because Arab commanders who expected to soon retake it ordered its Arab inhabitants to leave, no matter that the Jewish leaders of the city begged them not to go.)
Shlaim also suggests that Abdullah’s decision in the spring of 1948 to move some of his troops entering Palestine farther south than had been first proposed by a unified Arab command indicated treachery on behalf of a Jewish-Transjordanian conspiracy against the Palestinians. He has no evidence whatever for this, though, and he fails to draw the logical corollary to his argument: As Egyptian forces also failed to go along their designated routes, this would seem to indicate that the Egyptians were likewise in cahoots with the Yishuv. This idea is apparently too wacky even for Shlaim.
Shlaim further distorts the record of what happened during the war by failing to provide readers with the most obvious and well-established explanation for Jordan’s eventual decision to take defensive positions along the West Bank and not fight for deeper penetration into Palestine. Many units of Abdullah’s army were out of bullets.
There are various other proofs, of course, of the ludicrousness of Shlaim’s theory of Jewish-Transjordanian conspiracy. For one thing, Israel was seeking a Palestinian partner to execute the Partition months after the first of the two meetings between Meir and Abdullah. This was in spite of there being no Palestinian leader of influence open to the proposal and in spite of orchestrated Palestinian attacks on unarmed Jewish civilians across the country.
In fact, one year after the end of fighting, Jewish leaders such as Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett were still arguing not only in public but in their private diaries and in secret correspondence in favor of a Palestinian state that might conceivably be formed instead of the emerging Jordanian control of the West Bank. These opinions were voiced in response to a rare Palestinian peace overture, but Shlaim falsely asserts that Ben-Gurion and Sharett rejected these approaches.
If Shlaim’s arguments for a Jewish-Transjordanian conspiracy are slippery and illogical, they are models of truth and lucidity when compared with his theories about British ties to Abdullah and the Yishuv.
Shlaim’s speculation that Britain was surreptitiously encouraging Abdullah to take over the lands that the UN sought for a Palestinian state are based on one incident reported in the memoirs of a British general named John Glubb. But, while Shlaim somehow neglects to mention it, historians have long recognized that Glubb’s memoirs are studded with falsehoods and questionable assertions.
Moreover, the British records of what took place in the meeting Glubb described differ in crucial ways from his version. Held in London on February 7, 1948, the meeting was between Transjordanian Prime Minister Tawfiq Abu Huda and British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin. Although Shlaim fails to note it, the British records do not support Shlaim’s claim in Collusion that Britain “became a party to an attempt to frustrate the UN partition plan.”
In fact, all that happened at the meeting was that Abu Huda spoke to Bevin of his government’s belief that there was no machinery in place for Palestinian self-rule, and then he asked whether Britain would support continued Transjordanian rule in the areas reserved by the UN for a Palestinian state until the UN plan could be executed. At no time did Abu Huda ask Bevin for his support for actions explicitly against the UN partition plan or for Transjordanian acquisition of Palestinian territory. Even so, Bevin’s reply to this much more modest request was equivocal. The British foreign minister merely answered that he “would study the statements his Excellency has made.”
Might Bevin have been intimating acquiescence to Abdullah’s intentions with a wink and a nod? It is not impossible, but this is hardly compelling evidence. More revealing about what really took place are the reports of Bevin’s subordinates such as Christopher Pirie-Gordon. One such document, drafted by Pirie-Gordon a few weeks earlier, specifically argues against Transjordanian invasion of Palestine, arguing that if the king’s forces entered Palestine, “he would in effect be helping the United Nations to implement their plan [including a Jewish state], against which the whole Arab world has protested.” It goes on: “This course would therefore expose him to condemnation as a quisling, and might even cost him the throne in Transjordan.”
Even less persuasive is Shlaim’s assertion that Britain was covertly working in support of the Yishuv. Bevin’s telegrams to the British ambassador in Amman, Sir Alec Kirkbride, actually imply that Britain was not averse to Transjordanian troops attacking Jewish forces. Another key British position paper argued for the legality of Transjordanian military action against Israel.
Other reports of Bevin’s key advisers reflexively associated the Jews with Soviet influence and called not for Transjordanian expansion into designated Arab territory in Palestine but into the regions that the UN intended for a Jewish homeland. One such report by the head of Britain’s Eastern Department, B.A.B. Burrows, said that if Transjordan occupied the Negev, “This would have immense strategic advantages for us, both in cutting the Jewish state, and therefore Communist influence, off from the Red Sea and by extending up to the Mediterranean the area in which our military and political influence is predominant.”
Britain’s focus was upon protecting its ally, Transjordan. If it had any interest in Israel in 1947 and 1948, that interest was hostile. This was further demonstrated in 1948 when the British Foreign Office decided on a policy of supporting an international arms embargo to the region. This was meant to starve the Yishuv of weapons. As internal documents reveal, the Foreign Office adopted this position with considerable regret because it very much wanted to arm its Arab allies. But, given the choice between helping its friends and harming its enemy, Israel, the Foreign Office preferred the latter course.
The problem with Shlaim is not only that he claims things to be true that are demonstrably false. It is also what he does not say that renders his books of so little value. Like many people of a secular upbringing, Shlaim does not comprehend the role that religion plays in Middle Eastern affairs and thought. Thus, hard as it may be to believe, Collusion does not include any index references for “Islam” or “Muslims.” By contrast, it contains dozens of listings and sub-listings under “Arab.”
Shlaim’s invariable explanation for Arab antipathy toward Israel is that nationalism must be the cause. Shlaim interprets Arab ambitions to possess Jerusalem only in terms of the prestige it would bring Abdullah and other would-be rulers of the city. That it is a place of singular religious importance seems to elude him.
Similarly, references to the religious armies that took up arms against Israel in the 1948 war are astonishingly infrequent in Collusion. A large part of the Egyptian army that invaded Palestine was run by and named after the Muslim Brotherhood. Shlaim accords it just one passing mention in his 686-page text, incidentally referring to it in terms of a conflict between Transjordanian forces and the Muslim Brothers over what flag should fly over a captured police station. Likewise, the largest Palestinian force, the Holy War Army, merits mention on just four pages, with no consideration of the significance of its name.
While Shlaim plainly grasps that Arab leaders who appeared to be sympathetic to Zionism feared that they would be assassinated by Islamic extremists—the cause of Abdullah’s own death in 1951—he has only the vaguest sense of what might be behind this. That Arab and Islamic history are founded on highly developed and elaborate concepts of jihad and supremacy and that Muslim relations with Jews were established in the bloody conflicts between Muhammad and the Jews of the Quraysh tribe appear to be facts not within his ken.
Grossly incomplete, too, is any assessment of the complex nature of Palestinian nationalism. Rather, he equates the most important and powerful of Palestinian leaders of the day, Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti, with Palestinian nationalism in the most simple-minded fashion. No reader reliant on Shlaim’s work would understand from it that at various times in the mufti’s long religious and political career, the mufti identified himself as a Jerusalemite (rather than a Palestinian), supported a Syrian monarch for the Palestinian people, and promoted himself as a future supreme caliph of the Islamic nation. As Philip Mattar, a sympathetic biographer observed, “for [al-Husseini] Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic ideas existed with Palestinian nationalism without contradiction throughout his career.” To admit all this is to see the conflict between the Yishuv and the Arab states as something multifaceted and deeply bound up with religion.
Ironically, Shlaim has boasted that among his intents is to reject “the conventional view of the Arab–Israeli conflict as a simple bipolar affair in which a monolithic and implacably hostile Arab world is pitted against the “Jews.” But, in fact, it is Shlaim himself who perceives things monochromatically.
He offers no proper acknowledgement that the territorial ambitions among the members of the Arab League were the cause of its efforts to prevent the formation of a strong, independent Palestinian leadership during the 1948 war. Thus, unmentioned in Collusion is the fact that the mufti was kept under house arrest for a period during the conflict by the Egyptian government—even as his captors presented themselves to the world as his and the Palestinian people’s greatest supporters and sponsors.
This omission is consistent with Shlaim’s want of sustained interest in anyone who stands aside from his own peculiar account of the events. Shlaim is inevitably obligated to state the obvious about Amin al-Husseini: that the mufti had led repeated “revolts” (i.e., pogroms) against the Jews of pre-war Palestine and that he spent the Second World War in Berlin working as a determined supporter of Hitler. This does not mean, however, that Shlaim is willing to speak of the grand mufti’s enthusiastic wartime visit to a Nazi death camp or his attempts to recruit Muslims into membership in the Waffen SS.
Instead, Shlaim merely presents al-Husseini and his family as a contrast to the “moderate” Nashabibi clan of Jerusalem. In this way, he intimates that there had been someone else the Yishuv could perhaps have successfully worked with. However, like so much of Shlaim’s thinking, this is a fantasy. For while it is certainly true that the Nashabibis were more moderate than the al-Husseini clan, they were neither possessed of the political authority to broker a peace with the Jews nor in favor of one. And, necessarily, no credit is given to the Yishuv for its repeated attempts to find such a partner to realize the UN proposed partition in the early months of the 1948 war.
This last elision raises the question of whether Shlaim has an ulterior motive, whether an ingrained animus toward the state of Israel or a careerist impulse to pander to anti-Israeli elements in academia.
But we need not see his impulses in such a craven light. After all, there is one other explanation for his attraction to off-the-wall conspiracy theories. It may be that it is simply something in his own nature that drives him to this view of the world.
Shlaim has said that his was among the leading Jewish families of Baghdad before the Israeli War of Independence. He says that they once had 10 servants. But, in the aftermath of the war, the clan began to fear for its safety because Jews were coming under attack in Iraq. The clinching event occurred when someone tossed a grenade into a Baghdad synagogue. This impelled Shlaim’s father to ask whether the family might leave Iraq and go to Israel. With this, the family was stripped of all its property. This was part of a larger exodus and expropriation of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, one that at least equaled what happened in the 1948 war among Palestinians.
That is not, though, what most wakens Shlaim’s interest. What especially concerns him is a rumor that a Jewish agent had planted the grenade. He admits that a friend who studied the intelligence file on the matter says this is not true. In passing, he mentions that he nonetheless believes that it was Israeli sabotage.
The real question is why anyone else should believe Shlaim’s fantasies.
Photo: AP Photo/Jim Pringle
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