In the spring of 1984, Harper & Row published, to almost universal critical acclaim, a 600-page book by the journalist Joan Peters called From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. The book received almost two hundred reviews around the country, with many if not most reviewers echoing the sentiments of Martin Peretz, the editor of the New Republic, who wrote that this was a book that could “change the mind of our generation” regarding the Arab-Israel conflict.1 Miss Peters received a National Jewish Book Award for 1984 and the book went through eight hardcover printings before going into paperback. It was also published in England, receiving wide attention although more mixed reviews.

A substantial part of Miss Peters's book is devoted to an analysis of the historical experience of Jews in Arab lands, and to an account of the betrayal by Britain of its responsibilities under the Mandate when during World War II it effectively barred Palestine to Jewish refugees and thereby entered into complicity in Hitler's “Final Solution.” But it was not these sections that struck most reviewers as the book's major contribution. Rather, it was Miss Peters's demographic analysis, which occupies roughly a third of From Time Immemorial. Here, she separates out from the rest of Western Palestine the areas of Jewish settlement, and maintains that as early as 1893, there were in these “Jewish-settled areas” more Jews than either Muslims or Christians. Using projections from 1893 data and a variety of contemporary sources, including a series of British Mandatory reports, she proceeds to argue that contrary to Arab assertions and the by-now conventional wisdom, Jewish settlers in Palestine did not displace native Arabs but rather attracted large numbers of Arabs—both “in-migrants,” i.e., Arabs from the hill country of Judea and Samaria, and immigrants from neighboring Arab countries. The latter, Peters contends, for the most part entered the country illegally, but this was by and large ignored by the same British authorities who were zealously circumscribing Jewish immigration into the Jewish National Home.

During and immediately after Israel's War of Independence (1948-49) an “exchange of populations” took place: Jews expelled from Arab countries made their way to Israel, while an almost equal number of Arabs left the areas of Jewish settlement in Palestine. (Except for the Negev, these areas formed the greater part of the territory that became Israel.) According to Miss Peters, the Arab exodus was in fact largely made up not of long-settled Palestinian Arabs but of recent arrivals, many of whom presumably simply returned to the areas from which they or their fathers had come, whether to the hill country of Western Palestine (now called the West Bank) or to their countries of origin. Since these Arabs had not developed a sense of national feeling for Palestine (Miss Peters continues), it would have been a fairly easy task to reintegrate them into neighboring Arab lands. The refusal of all but Jordan to permit such integration of the refugees—because of a determination to use them as pawns in the struggle against Israel—is what converted their plight into a catastrophe for them and their children.

Thus, in brief, the argument of From Time Immemorial. The book's success in undercutting Arab territorial and national claims, coupled with the attention it received, made inevitable a response from those who feel an affinity with the Palestinian Arab cause. That cause generates enthusiasm in a variety of non-Arab breasts: the anti-Zionist secular Left, the Christian Left (especially as lodged in the bureaucracies of the mainline churches), the anti-Semitic Right, those with oil and trade interests in the Arab world, State Department and British Foreign Office Arabists, and those connected with educational, health, or missionary efforts in the Arab world.

The assault began only a few months after the book's publication when one Norman Finkelstein (subsequently identified as a doctoral candidate at Princeton University) sent some highly critical comments to the publisher. Noam Chomsky, whose career as a political activist has brought him more public attention, if considerably less credit, than his career in linguistics, followed up with a phone call to Miss Peters's editor at Harper & Row, demanding to know what was being done in response to Finkelstein's critique.

Finkelstein's attack, published as an article (“Immemorial Hoax”) in In These Times, is in the Left's best conspiratorial style. Finkelstein does not simply criticize Miss Peters for mistakes of interpretation or of fact. Rather, he decries the book as a deliberate hoax, “among the most spectacular frauds ever published on the Arab-Israeli conflict.” A measure of the scholarly objectivity of this “graduate student” is his attribution of “fraud” not merely to Joan Peters but to much of the writing on Jewish rights in Palestine, “a field littered with crass propaganda, forgeries, and fakes. . . .”

Even the terms “fraud” and “vulgar hoax” do not satisfy Finkelstein. In a letter to the London Jewish Chronicle he has denounced the book as the “most successful disinformation effort ever mounted by Israel's self-styled ‘friends’ abroad.” “Disinformation,” of course, derives from “dezinformatsiya,” the craft practiced by a department of the KGB which specializes in faking documents and spreading “cooked” materials to a targeted population. For Finkelstein, Zionism by definition seems to be a malevolent plot to extinguish Palestinian nationalism and steal its homeland.

There was a predictable lineup following Finkelstein's article, with reviews of From Time Immemorial in the Nation (by Edward Said, a member of the Palestine National Council, as well as by Alexander Cockburn, whose credentials as an anti-Israel spokesman are scarcely less impressive than Said's), the leftist Village Voice, and the Link (published by a pro-Arab group called Americans for Middle East Understanding), all of them citing Finkelstein while adding little to him.

In England, a second major attack on the book was launched by Sir Ian and David Gilmour in the London Review of Books, a journal well known for publishing the views of the anti-Zionist lobby. Sir Ian is a Tory who served as Lord Privy Seal and Foreign Office spokesman in the House of Commons. More to the point here, he was first chairman of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), while his son David has served as both its information officer and assistant director. While the tone of their review is gentlemanly, at least in contrast to Finkelstein's invective, most of the specific points raised in their piece are unmistakably his.


Thus far, whether coming from the ideological Left or Right, the hostile reviews were guided by a clear anti-Zionist animus rather than by a concern for scholarly standards. In a letter to the London Review of Books, one reader noted acerbically and quite correctly that CAABU's own material was “at best tendentious and at times downright offensive,” and that “the Gilmour family's concern for historical accuracy could be profitably invested in the material produced under their own auspices.” Little credibility resides in reviewers who would not be convinced even by the most meticulous scholarship, since their basic presumption is that Israel should not exist.

But then in November 1985 a story appeared in the New York Times (by Colin Campbell) describing the book as a subject of “dispute” and quoting not only its anti-Zionist critics but Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (“I think that she's cooked the statistics”) and the Israeli historian Yehoshua Porath (“I think it's a sheer forgery”). The Times's Anthony Lewis followed with a column in January 1986 entitled “There Were No Indians.” In this attack on Miss Peters's thesis, Lewis seems to have relied entirely upon the book's critics rather than upon any independent reading of his own, since he misquotes her statistics. Even his analogy between the Palestinian Arabs and the American Indians is problematic, since one could equally well cast the Jews, with their long history of dispossession from Palestine, as the “Indians” in this scenario.

More or less simultaneously with Lewis's column there appeared a long review of the Peters book by Yehoshua Porath in the New York Review of Books. This piece had been eagerly awaited by the Left (Edward Said referred hopefully to its appearance in his own article in the Nation several months earlier). In it, Finkelstein is dispensed with summarily (“I do not propose here to go over the ground . . . already covered”), and instead Porath goes after the “discredited” Zionist “myths” which, he argues, underlie Miss Peters's work. With Porath, and with Jesse Zel Lurie, the former editor of Hadassah magazine who came forward to attack the book in Jewish World, a Long Island Jewish newspaper, the focus shifts to intra-Zionist ideological conflicts. This is explicit in the conclusion of Porath's review, where he declares that “[E]veryone familiar with the writing of the extreme nationalists of Zeev Jabotinsky's party (the forerunner of the Herut party) would immediately recognize the tired and discredited arguments in Miss Peters's book.” Similarly, Lurie calls the book variously a “Herut polemic” and a “Revisionist polemic.” Both, in other words, see Miss Peters as enhancing the claims of political strands within Zionism with which they disagree. But since her themes would resonate equally well with the Labor mainstream (and have in fact been important staples of its ideology), these comments are hard to understand except as attempts to discredit the book by association.

Interestingly, both the Zionist and the anti-Zionist critics have triumphantly pointed to an alleged disdain for the book in Israel. Porath told the Times that “in Israel, at least, the book was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon,” and Lurie declares that “no Israeli publisher will touch this book” for “Israeli book readers are too sophisticated for this kind of rubbish.” Even Edward Said, who normally does not look to the Israeli public for vindication of his judgment, notes with satisfaction that reviews of the book in Israel were “perfunctory and dismissive” and that the reviewer for the daily Davar had treated it with “unmistakable contempt.” Actually, although Davar did indeed publish what could fairly be called a dismissive review, most notices in Israel were favorable, and the book is being published by the Kibbutz Hameuchad—a Labor publishing house—which has assigned it to one of Israel's top translators.


Quite apart from who the critics of From Time Immemorial have been, however, there is the matter of what they have said. Here the problem becomes more complex.

There is no doubt that much of the criticism is not merely ill-intentioned, or downright vicious, but silly. Thus, the Link argues at length against the “myth” that mid-19th-century Palestine was a “neglected land,” citing travelers who testified to the country's scenic beauty and in particular Lawrence Oliphant, who reported in 1887 that he saw in the Valley of Esdraelon “a huge green lake of waving wheat.” But even today there are few sights more beautiful than the barren hills of Ephraim north of Jerusalem, and testimony about Palestine's natural beauty says nothing as to its state of development. Oliphant, one of the early British Christian proponents of Zionism, was worried that the massive testimony of travelers concerning the desolate character of the country would discourage Jews from coming, and thus emphasized everything he could find that was positive. But even he spoke of rich soil “waiting for development.” Overwhelmingly, the relevant documents show that Palestine at the turn of the century was, to use the title of a recent compendium of eyewitness reports from that period, a Land of Dust.

The Gilmours expand upon the PLO chestnut that the Arabs of Palestine are the true “immemorial” inhabitants of the land. They write: “Their ancestors are the Canaanites and Philistines who, unlike the Jews, were never deported. They remained in Palestine . . . and their descendants formed, and still form, the core of the indigenous population.” But not only are the Palestinian Arabs not descendants of Canaanites, it is highly doubtful that more than a very few are even descended from those who settled the country as part of the Arab invasion of the 7th century. For over a thousand years following the Arab conquest, Palestine underwent a series of devastating invasions, followed by massacres of the existing population: Seljuk Turks and Fatimid reconquerors were followed by Crusaders who were followed by waves of Mongol tribes who were followed in turn by Tartars, Mamelukes, Turks, and incessant Bedouin raiders.

In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries Palestine was essentially repopulated by foreigners, some coming from great distances. Egyptians arrived in a number of waves, with an especially large one from 1832 to 1840. Sudanese pioneered successfully in the swampy marshlands. Entire tribes of Bedouin from as far away as Libya settled on the coastal plain. Abandoned villages in the Galilee were resettled by Lebanese Christians. Coastal towns attracted Armenians, Syrians, Turks. The French expansion in North Africa resulted in waves of refugees coming to Palestine; many of the followers of the Algerian resistance leader Abd el Kader went to the Galilee, where they founded a number of villages (Samakh, Deishum). Russian expansion into the Caucasus led to the emigration of many of its Muslim peoples (Circassians and Georgians) who were welcomed by the Ottoman empire; many of these made their way to Palestine, where they founded their own villages. Similarly, the Austrian advance into the Balkans led to the emigration of Bosnian Muslims to Palestine. Turkomans from Russian Central Asia and Kurds complete this roster of “Canaanites.” Ironically, the only surviving “Canaanite” culture is that of the Jews, who everywhere still pray, and in Israel also speak, in a Canaanite language.

Much of Finkelstein's malevolent attack is similarly wrong. He incorrectly adds 40,000 Arabs to Miss Peters's projections of the number of Arabs who could have been expected, on the basis of natural increase, to live in the Galilee and Negev (what she calls “Area IV”) in 1947, and then accuses her of not accounting for them properly. He charges her with “falsifying” the Anglo-American Survey of Palestine of 1945-46 by claiming that it discloses tens of thousands of Arab illegal immigrants who had been brought into Palestine during the war when in fact (according to Finkelstein) it states only that 3,800 laborers had been brought in. Yet the Survey does list many thousands of laborers who were brought in under official arrangements or came on their own. Egyptian labor, for example, was imported by civilian contractors to the military, without the agreement of the civil administration. The Survey is admittedly confusing, at one point saying that no estimates are available of the number who entered in this way and shortly afterward giving an estimate of just under 10,000 in this category. Even those brought in “officially” numbered far more than 3,800; the Survey mentions an additional 4,000 illegal immigrants employed directly by the War Department, and 380 by the Air Force. To conclude from the Survey, as Miss Peters does, that “tens of thousands” of illegal Arab immigrants entered Palestine during the war thus appears reasonable.


Although as an Israeli scholar Porath is the most credible of the critics, his New York Review essay is only superficially more balanced than that of the other anti-Peters writers. Porath contrasts what he calls Arab and Zionist “myths,” each of which contains “some grain of historical truth” which is then “twisted into a false and grotesque shape.” His chief accusation against Joan Peters is that she treats the Jewish-Zionist myths as if they were “true and relevant.”

According to Porath the major Arab myths are: (1) The Jews are not a nation and Arabs occupied the land as far back as pre-biblical times; (2) historically, Jews in Arab countries were treated fairly and equally, were not in sympathy with Zionism, and emigrated to Israel after 1948 only as a result of the machinations of Israel's government working with corrupt Arab rulers who were “stooges of imperialism”; and (3) in the 1948 war Jews systematically expelled the Arab population, if they did not in fact start the war expressly for that purpose.

Against these Arab myths Porath poses such Zionist myths as: (1) The ancient Israelite and Judean kingdoms were equivalent to modern nation-states, and the Maccabean revolt was the equivalent of a modern struggle for national liberation; (2) Jews in exile retained a separate national identity and preserved the memory of their ancestral land to which they hoped to return and which, against all odds, some never left; (3) Palestine during the Ottoman and early British period was a barren land, “hardly inhabited,” with modern Jewish settlement bringing about economic development and attracting Arabs from neighboring lands; and (4) the 1948 war was fought because the Arabs rejected the partition plan, and although there was a subsequent defacto exchange of populations, Jewish refugees were cared for and rehabilitated while the Arab states refused to resettle Arab refugees and prevented their absorption.

For all his apparent scholarly dispassion in this balancing of opposing myths, there is something very wrong with the exercise. Most of the Arab myths Porath cites belong to the category of historical fabrications. His Zionist myths, by contrast, are for the most part reasonable summaries of what happened. Even the comparison between the ancient kingdoms and modern Israel is not as absurd as Porath seems to think. Those ancient states existed; they were not manufactured to give legitimation to a newly invented nationalism. Moreover, they were a vivid part of the religious and national life of Jews throughout the millennia.

On some points, indeed, Porath actually seems to accept the most egregious Arab myths as true. Thus, in arguing against the Zionist claim that mid-19th-century Palestine was a barren and depopulated land, Porath declares that those living in Palestine at the beginning of modern Jewish settlement were either descendants of the pre-Islamic population or Bedouins. But as we noted earlier, there is overwhelming evidence of massive settlement in Palestine by foreigners in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps Porath would depart from the Arab myth by maintaining that the pre-Islamic population was not Arab. But this is a distinction without a difference, for the myth in its Palestinian version claims a separate identity for the population reaching back to ancient Canaan, with subsequent ethnic accretions which were Arabized and became Muslim in the course of time.

Porath faults Miss Peters for overlooking variations in the treatment of Jews in Islamic countries over the centuries, and the fact that Jews occupied high positions in some parts of the Ottoman empire. One cannot, however, deduce too much concerning the status of a minority as a whole from the position of a few in elite positions. Certainly, conditions varied, just as they did in Christendom, but the dhimmi—“protected,” i.e., second-class—status, particularly as it applied to Jews, was a degraded and degrading one.

As for the exchange of populations, that is no myth; it happened. Porath concedes only a “superficial similarity” between the two kinds of refugees, Arab and Jewish. For the Arabs, Porath asserts, the experience was “an unwanted national calamity that was accompanied by unending personal tragedies,” while from the Zionist point of view the Jewish refugees represented “the in gathering of the exiles.” To this one may answer that for many Near Eastern and North African Jews, the migration involved personal tragedy and mob violence. (As early as November 1945 bloody pogroms broke out in Tripoli, Libya, and since the British army did not intervene, spread through the countryside.) The perceptions of individuals caught up in such events may differ, both among Jews and among Arabs. The decisive difference between the two groups lies precisely where Miss Peters (and the Zionist “myth”) locates it: in their reception and treatment in the country of refuge.

To Porath, the Zionist myths are deeply flawed; no matter how alive and powerful the past was in the emotional and intellectual life of Jews, the modern state of Israel has its ideological roots elsewhere. In his analysis, the state of Israel emerges not as an integral product of a specifically Jewish historical experience but rather in discontinuity with it. To Porath, Zionism is mainly a European-style nationalist ideology that appeared among secularized Jews in response to the failure of assimilation in Europe. The Jewish sense of a shared fate and a common destiny, which binds together the communities of the dispersion and today focuses on Israel as its primary concern, may perhaps reflect an emotional need, but is based on a historical illusion. Whatever else one may say about this line of reasoning, it lends intellectual respectability to the Arabs' contention that they can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Jewish.

Porath's concern for debunking Zionist “myths” is the more noteworthy since he is himself best known for his sympathetic studies of the rise of Palestinian nationalism, which, despite its recent origin, he does not dismiss as a myth. Yet it is precisely as myth that this nationalism is best viewed. In general Arab nationalism was overwhelmingly the product of non-Arab Christian intellectuals to whom the vision of secular nationhood provided a potential escape from the degraded status of being non-Muslims in the Islamic world, as well as from the oppressive hold of their own religio-communal elites. A number of Greek Orthodox were especially active in establishing the movement: George Antonius, Rafiq Rizq Sallum, Issa al Issa, Ya'aqub Faraj, Khalil Sakakini, George Hanna, Khalil Iskandar Qubrusi. By creating an Arab “nation” these ideologues hoped in effect to become Arabs. But for most, the effort failed. As Bat Ye'or points out in The Dhimmi: “Arab values, linked to Islam, justified the very discriminatory laws of the dhimma from which they were attempting to free themselves by means of Arabism.” Only Palestinian nationalism, the most recently-minted version, offers a myth—that of a “secular-democratic state”—which provides room for radicalized Christians and a quasi-secularized Muslim intelligentsia.


On the other hand, despite all the faults of Miss Peters's critics, her book does indeed deserve some of the criticism it has received. Her handling of materials, particularly in the central section dealing with demographic issues, is flawed. Even some of Finkelstein's specific criticisms, setting aside his accusations of deliberate deception, are well taken. One of these criticisms was amplified by the Gilmours, and since it involves arguably the worst error Miss Peters makes, and also illustrates general defects in her handling of material, it is worth examining in some detail.

Sir John Hope Simpson, a civil servant with extensive experience in India, had been called upon by the British to assess the absorptive capacity of Palestine, particularly in relation to agricultural settlement, in the wake of the 1929 Arab riots. In his report of 1930 there occurs a paragraph of which Miss Peters makes extensive use. It reads as follows:

The case of the “pseudo-traveler” who comes in with permission for a limited time and continues in Palestine after the term of his mission has expired is more difficult. Each case requires consideration on its merits. Where the case is flagrant, recourse should certainly be had to expulsion. In cases of no special flagrancy, and where there is no objection to the individual, it is probably sufficient to maintain the present practice, under which he is counted against the Labour Schedule, though this method does a certain injustice to the Jewish immigrant outside the country whose place is taken by the traveler concerned.

Miss Peters interprets this to mean that the Arab pseudo-traveler was replacing the Jewish immigrant. In her interpretation:

The pivotal Hope Simpson Report literally admitted not only that it was “the present practice” of British officials to blink at all but the most “flagrant” of the thousands of Arabs immigrating into Western Palestine, but also acknowledged that the illegal Arab immigration was an “injustice” that was displacing the prospective Jewish immigrants. [Emphasis in original]

The trouble with this, as Finkelstein and then the Gilmours rightly point out, is that Hope Simpson was really referring to one group of Jews (those who entered on temporary visas) displacing another group of Jews (those waiting for immigration certificates under the labor schedule which the Mandatory administration annually negotiated with the Jewish Agency). Hope Simpson, in other words, was addressing the question of what to do with those who “jumped the queue,” and his solution was to continue the “present practice” of allowing them to do so despite the fact that this involved a “certain injustice” to those waiting in line.2

Unfortunately, by constantly coming back to the passage she has misinterpreted in the Hope Simpson Report, Miss Peters converts what should have been a confined mistake, easily correctible in a later edition of the book, into a lethal systemic error. (Finkelstein found 19 references on 12 different pages; actually there are more.) The reiterated use of the Hope Simpson passage is the worst example in this book of a tendency on Miss Peters's part to substitute, for the piling-on of evidence, the escalation of rhetoric based on the same piece of evidence.

But the problem goes deeper, to Miss Peters's ability to evaluate evidence. She. writes: “The [Hope Simpson] Report protected the so-called ‘existing’ indigenous Arab population, the same community that the report itself had proved was largely composed either of immigrants or Arab in-migrants. . . .” Actually, even if Hope Simpson had indeed been referring to Arab pseudo-travelers, Miss Peters would have no justification for claiming that the report “proved” the Arab population was composed “largely” of immigrants or in-migrants. It does no such thing.

Ironically, if Miss Peters had read the report more carefully, and had avoided grandiose claims of “proof,” she could legitimately have used it in support of her thesis. She could have pointed to Hope Simpson's acknowledgment (this time clearly referring to Arabs) that “illicit immigration through Syria and across the northern frontier of Palestine is material” as well as his reference to “unemployment lists being swollen by immigrants from Trans-Jordania” and his obfuscation of the issue by discussing it in a context where Jewish immigration, both legal and illegal, was being analyzed.

Let us look at another case (duly picked up by Finkelstein) in which Miss Peters is guilty of carelessness. She writes (this time, fortunately, only twice) that “although carefully categorized records were kept for age groups, occupations, amount of capital, etc. of those Jews who immigrated, there was no specific accounting of the non-Jews in the official reports. None except for one phenomenon . . . the number of non-Jews recorded as having been ‘deported for immigration offenses’ was more than twice as great as the number of Jews.” In fact, the British reports to the Mandate Commission, to which Miss Peters is referring, specify for (legal) Arab immigrants, as well as for Jews, the country of origin, sex, age, conjugal condition, and financial status.

By making an error of fact here, Miss Peters undercuts what is basically an excellent point: namely, that the deportation figures were consistently higher for non-Jews than for Jews; in 1935 (as Miss Peters notes) they reached almost as high as ten to one. We know from experience in our own country that the number of illegal immigrants caught by the authorities is in rough proportion to the number entering; that is, the largest number of illegals coming into the United States are Mexicans and more Mexicans are caught than Salvadorans or Nicaraguans, who also enter in substantial numbers. U.S. immigration authorities estimate that currently for each person caught, another slips through. Moreover, many of those deported to Mexico simply turn around and almost immediately cross the border once again. While corresponding proportions cannot simply be extrapolated to Mandatory Palestine, the cases are similar in that porous borders combine with economically better conditions to attract immigrants from neighboring countries.


But perhaps the most serious problem with Miss Peters's book is not any of the errors picked up by Finkelstein but her apparent inability to use judiciously the material at her disposal. At times she goes so far as to ignore evidence that does not bear out a specific point she wants to make even when that evidence actually strengthens her general case.

Consider the example of immigrants to Palestine from the Hauran in Syria in 1934. Miss Peters quotes an interview given by the governor of the Hauran, Tewfik Bey El-Hurani, published in La Syrie on August 12, 1934, in which he stated that “in the last few months, from 30,000 to 36,000 Hauranese [Syrians] had entered Palestine and settled there” (emphasis added by Miss Peters). This passage receives the full treatment, with frequent repetitions and escalating rhetoric in which the interview is described as one “verified by an official international document” and then as “hard evidence.” But even on its face it is very soft evidence indeed, for although Miss Peters makes much of El-Hurani's statement that the Hauranis had “settled” in Palestine (i.e., had not simply gone in search of temporary work because of bad agricultural conditions that year), there was no way El-Hurani could know three months after the exodus whether it was permanent or not.

Actually, Miss Peters has much better evidence on this point which she ignores. In the testimony given before the Palestine Royal Commission by the Jewish Agency's Eliahu Epstein and Moshe Shertok, and on the very pages from which she elsewhere quotes effectively and extensively, there is a lengthy discussion of the immigrants who came from the Hauran in 1934. Epstein complained to the Commission about this Haurani influx; his estimate was that 20,000-25,000 had entered, of whom 6,000 to 8,000 had settled in Palestine. Epstein had done genuine research on the issue, visiting 30 villages in the Hauran to determine how many migrants had been seasonal and how many had left permanently. (He published some of his findings in the Journal of the Royal Asian Society in 1935.) One can only speculate that Miss Peters felt El-Hurani's numbers—30,000 to 36,000—made her case more dramatically than Epstein's better-documented account of 6,000 to 8,000. But a serious scholar obviously does not operate in this way.

Sharp—sometimes unfair—criticism has been directed at Miss Peters's population data and statistics. One ground of the attack has been that she uses different sources in determining the Jewish and the non-Jewish (Muslim and Christian) population for 1893. Thus, for the Arab and Christian population she resorts to the Ottoman census of 1893. But she dismisses its figure of under 10,000 Jews, turning instead to the figure of 59,431 calculated in 1895 by the French geographer Vital Cuinet. This, however, is reasonable, because the Turkish figures covered Ottoman subjects and most Jews did not belong in that category. It is possible that Cuinet's figures are a little too high—the demographer Roberto Bacchi has estimated that there were 42,900 Jews five years earlier, in 1890—but they are clearly far more realistic than those of the Ottoman census. (It is a mark of Porath's polemical animus that he attempts to turn Miss Peters's use of different sources for the numbers of Jews and Arabs against her. In a subsequent exchange of letters in the New York Review, Porath asserts he never claimed the 1893 Ottoman census figure for Jews was correct. But he certainly left that impression by treating Miss Peters's use of disparate sources as suspect, and by failing to comment on the obvious inadequacy of Ottoman census figures with regard to Jews.)

On the other hand, there are problems with Miss, Peters's figure of 92,300 non-Jews in what she defines as the “Jewish-settled area” in 1895. These 1895 figures are the base from which she makes her projections to 1947, bolstering her case that the Jewish-settled areas experienced an enormous growth of population impossible to account for by natural increase. In the correspondence on his article Porath points out that Miss Peters could not have drawn directly upon Ottoman census data because only the data for “kazas”—Ottoman subdistricts which do not correspond to her “Jewish-settled areas”—have been published. Porath concludes that Miss Peters's “figures were, at best, based on guesswork and an extremely tendentious guesswork at that.”

On being asked (by Erich Isaac) how she had arrived at the figure of 92,300 Arabs in the Jewish-settled areas, Miss Peters described a method which historical geographers would find broadly acceptable. What she did was to superimpose the UN partition plan on the map of the 1893 kazas, as well as on the district map of the British Mandate government and on the ceasefire lines of 1949. This enabled her to identify the main areas of Jewish settlement; the purely Arab areas; and “intermediate” areas that may have had no Jewish settlement but became part of Israel, or had some Jewish settlement but came under Jordanian control. Some of the 1893 kazas presented no problem—they fell entirely out of or entirely within the area that became Israel. For kazas that fell only partly within her “Jewish-settled areas,” she first identified the towns that became part of Israel, adding their Arab population to her figure for Arabs in the Jewish-settled area. (For these town populations she had to rely on a variety of contemporary reports.) Second, the rural population was presumed by her to be uniformly distributed throughout the kaza and the population was then proportionately divided between Jewish and Arab areas on the basis of the relative sizes of the territories assigned to each.

Historical geographers would have problems with Miss Peters's assumption of a uniformly distributed rural population. A geographer trying to reconstruct historical population patterns and densities would first do field studies on the age of villages, the duration of occupancy, abandonment and reoccupation of settlement sites, forms of settlements and their functions, geographic names, other ethnic indicators, types of farming, etc. These would flesh out data from travelers' descriptions, raw census figures, military and tax lists, consular correspondence, and the like. Such field work would also make it easier to delimit the various population regions, helping in this case to overcome the differences between Ottoman and British districts and thus increase the confidence in population projections from Ottoman times to the period of the British Mandate.

Of course Miss Peters could not be expected to engage in elaborate geographic fieldwork. But this means that her figures should have been presented tentatively, as a suggestive and valuable way of looking at population changes in these areas over time. The problem is not with what she has done, but with her failure to explain her method, and with the impression she leaves that her figures derive directly from the census and are thus “scientific.” (We set aside the question of how reliable the Ottoman figures are, in itself the subject of considerable dispute.) Moreover, the reader is not informed that neither the Ottoman census nor Cuinet provides figures broken down for the Jewish-settled areas. Miss Peters writes: “The total of 92,300 ‘non-Jews’ as recorded by the Turkish census corroborates Vital Cuinet's estimate in 1895 of roughly 93,600 ‘non-Jews’—37,853 Christians and 55,823 Muslims-compared to 59,431 Jews, in the Jewish-settled areas.” Those numbers actually represent Miss Peters's estimate for both the Turkish census and Cuinet, neither of whom “records” them.3


Ironically, there was no need for Miss Peters to overstate the precision or importance of her projections because there is overwhelming evidence, some of which (for example, in the studies of Fred Gottheil) she uses in her book, of extensive in-migration from the predominantly Arab to the Jewish-settled areas. Scholars, Porath included, do not dispute this (Porath disagrees on the reason for the migration). Such dispute as there is concerns the amount of illicit Arab immigration. The projections do not address this question, but rather confirm the disproportionate growth of areas of Jewish settlement compared with mainly or purely Arab areas within Western Palestine.

Arieh Avneri, in The Claim of Dispossession, published after Miss Peters's book, provides additional data in support of her thesis, with regard both to Arab in-migration and to Arab immigration. (It is noteworthy that Porath, who so vigorously disputes Miss Peters, is one of those thanked by Avneri for “valuable comments” on a manuscript that reaches the same conclusion as hers.) Avneri finds that between 1922 and 1947, in 35 regions of Western Palestine that became Israel, the Arab population increased by 134 percent. By contrast, in 13 regions where there was no Jewish settlement, the Arab population increased by only 98 percent. Avneri points out that even the 98-percent increase is deceptive, for it includes Arab Jerusalem whose population grew over a twenty-five-year period at a rate second only to that of Haifa (150 percent as compared with Haifa's 290 percent). Cities remote from Jewish development grew much more slowly: Nablus, 56 percent; Jenin, 78 percent; Hebron, 64 percent. (Gaza was an exception to these very low rates.)

The rural Arab population also grew in response to Jewish development. The growth was highest in the hinterland of Jaffa, which was the rural area of greatest Jewish concentration, but in the Haifa and Acre district Arab rural population also increased in response to the growing urban demand for vegetables and fruit. In contrast, the rural population in the districts of Jenin, Nablus, Hebron, and Gaza, all remote from Jewish settlements, grew at rates below the national average.

The geographer Avraham Brawer, in his book Eretz Yisrael, published in 1949, compares the population of Western Palestine with that of neighboring countries. He finds that even the purely Arab areas had a population density (96 per square kilometer) equal to that of Lebanon with its more favorable climatic conditions and large, culturally more advanced Christian population component, and double that of the settled areas of Syria and Cyprus, both of which enjoyed better climatic and soil conditions. In the areas of Jewish settlement, the population density was much higher: 136 per square kilometer. Brawer attributes the high population density in all of Western Palestine to the infusion of Jewish capital and the dramatic improvements in public health, which had no equal at the time in any Mediterranean country except France.

As we have noted, Porath does not dispute the fact of Arab migration within Western Palestine to areas of Jewish settlement on the coast. As against Miss Peters, however, he attributes this not to the presence of the Jews but to improvements made by the Mandatory government. It is true that Arabs found work in the government's public-works projects, including the railroad and ports. In fact, as Miss Peters points out, the utilization of Arab labor by the British was a standing grievance of the Jewish Agency. Jobs were being created by an administration pledged to facilitate the development of a Jewish National Home (with tax money, moreover, coming chiefly from the Jewish population), and those jobs were being filled, often not even by Palestinian Arabs but by Arabs coming from abroad. Thus, in December 1936, out of 750 men employed in porterage at Haifa port, 200 were Egyptians and 500 others were described as “Hauranis,” with only 50 being Palestinian Arabs.

Nevertheless, while it is possible that Britain might have developed the port of Haifa as a naval base and oil port even had there been no Jews in Palestine, the fact remains that Haifa's growth was closely connected to the development of Jewish Palestine. It was in Haifa that in 1905 Baron Rothschild set up the “Great Mills”—the first industrial enterprise in Palestine—and during the Mandate period Haifa became the home of the only cement plant in the country (Nesher), the largest factory of edible oil and soap (Shemen), the only industrial-scale glass factory (Phoenicia) and iron foundry (Vulcan). In Eastern Palestine (Transjordan), in the absence of Jewish investment, the British presence did not generate any comparable economic growth; it was Western Palestine that continued to be a magnet to the Arabs of Transjordan.


When it comes to the growth of the Arab population of Palestine, Porath, accepting the Mandatory government's claim that illegal immigration was a trivial factor, finds the entire explanation in a “demographic revolution.” According to Porath, that “revolution” began at the end of the Ottoman rule as epidemics receded, and continued under the Mandate with further improvements in public health.

Porath, however, exaggerates the positive impact of Ottoman rule upon population growth. Natural increase in Palestine in the last three generations of Ottoman rule was negligible. Until 1842 there was not a single physician with formal medical training in the country. Well into the first decade of the 20th century, Bedouin raids, widespread illness and epidemics, and intercommunal fighting kept the population down. In the cholera epidemic of 1865, for example, one-third of the population of Jerusalem died. Infant mortality, needless to say, was high. The military draft took large numbers of men in their prime reproductive years for the various wars in which the empire was engaged. A British consular report mentions 12,000 men having been drafted in the Jerusalem district, of whom only four came back. Emigration—a subject, incidentally, which Miss Peters completely ignores—was substantial, particularly of Christian Arabs, a better educated and more affluent group. Avneri notes the availability of reliable data from Bethlehem, for the ten-year period 1910-20, showing that a third of the population emigrated. The large Arab population in many Latin American countries—not to mention Detroit—testifies to this movement. (Shafik Handal, general secretary of El Salvador's Communist party, comes from a Palestinian Arab family.)

Although there is no doubt that health measures improved markedly under the British, and that natural increase was high, it is hard to see how the evidence for substantial Arab immigration can be dismissed. Even the British reports, including that of Hope Simpson, speak of “material” illicit Arab immigration that border posts were failing to halt. According to a study by the Israeli geographer Moshe Brawer of hundreds of Muslim villages in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in areas remote from development to which relatively few immigrants came (and from which few left), the natural growth of the population between 1922 and 1931 was no more than 21 to 22 percent—not the almost 29 percent claimed by the Mandate figures, In other words, more than a quarter of the growth in that period was by immigration from neighboring countries. A similar study of such villages from 1922 to 1945 would show, according to Brawer, that about 20 percent of the growth of the Muslim population was by immigration, not 4 percent as the Mandate data claim. As for Christian Arabs—and here the Mandate itself acknowledged a growth by immigration of 28 percent—actual immigration was considerably higher.

Avneri comes to similar conclusions, finding that during the Mandate the country absorbed 100,000 legal and illegal Arab immigrants and their offspring—a figure that is not very different from Miss Peters's estimates.


Despite its lapses, then, Joan Peters's book offers a generally sound thesis. It should be noted, however, that both Miss Peters and her critics may have placed altogether too much emphasis on the demographic issues. Important though they be, these issues do not go to the heart of the conflict. The Jews, after all, had a historic claim to all of Palestine, not merely to the Jewish-settled area; they have also, repeatedly, demonstrated their willingness to accept considerably less than the whole. The Arabs, meanwhile, both in the past and today, have vigorously contested the right of the Jews to any portion of Palestine. It is in the service of this intractable Arab position that the myth has been successfully propagated of the Palestinian Arabs as a nation living on its soil “from time immemorial.” The undeniable contribution of Joan Peters's book is to help unmask that myth.

1 COMMENTARY's generally favorable review, by Daniel

2 There are problems as well with Miss Peters's map. The Western Galilee is incorrectly shown as an area devoid of Jewish settlement (thus disposing of Hanita, Nahariya, Shavei Zion, etc.). Moreover, according to the map, Miss Peters's “Area III,” which she defines as an “Intermediate area, some Jewish settlement (excluded from Israel, 1949-67),” has no reason for being; since the area is entirely Arab, it should have been part of her “Area V: Main area of Arab settlement, no Jewish settlement (excluded from Israel, 1949-67).”

3 The chapter of the report in which this passage appears is devoted to a discussion of the procedures used by the British Palestine government in issuing immigration certificates to Jews. But illegal Arab immigration was also an awkward problem for Hope Simpson, and immediately before his discussion of (Jewish) pseudo-travelers, he inserts a paragraph on the failure of land border posts to control illegal crossings: “The immigrant who wishes to evade the control naturally leaves the road before reaching the frontier and takes to the footpaths over the Hills.” Actually, given the context, a reader might easily think he is speaking of Jews here as well; the only way one can be sure is that twelve pages on, in a passage explicitly concerning Arabs, Hope Simpson mentions their illicit immigration through Syria and across the northern frontiers and says, “This question has already been discussed.”

What presumably misled Miss Peters, then, was this paragraph on infiltration across the land border. She correctly inferred that Hope Simpson was speaking of Arabs here, but then incorrectly concluded that the following section on pseudo-travelers referred to Arabs as well.

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