Professor of History, University of Exeter
Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies, University of Exeter
“Nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive’” (Derrida).The declassification of Israeli archival material about the 1948 war, according to a thirty years rule of secrecy, is often mentioned as the main and most important discovery in the historiography of modern Israel and Palestine. And yet, the narrative spun with the help of this new reap did not alter in any significant way the Palestinian narrative of that year and the Nakba in general. Moreover, with the gradual recognition to the importance of oral history the new historiography owes as much to Palestinian willingness to recollect as to the hidden Israeli documents. Far more important, this paper argues, is the presence of most of the relevant material in sources that were always available and not archived for “emplotting”—to use Hayden White’s term—the present day hegemonic narrative about the Nakba.
These available sources are demographic surveys of the mandatory period, newspapers, brigade books and memoires of Israeli generals, fictions and plays and film footage, with the help of which the basic and essential narrative could be established without one shred of a hidden document. The mandatory dispossession of Palestinians, the transfer ideology of Zionism, the actual expulsions in 1948 and the overall effort of the ethnic cleansing and its impact were there in the open.The Israeli archives have only released about two percent of the 1948 material and are now closing to the public eye part of even this modest collection. And yet professional historians were are able to provide a very comprehensive and convincing narrative of the 1948 events in a way that shifted the knowledge balance and may still prove to be essential both for a prospective peace process and the possible political outfits it may create.
This paper will survey what in general could be found without the archives about the period in question, and on 1948 in particular, and weigh it against the contribution of the declassified archive. In the second part, the paper will explore some of the conceptual and methodological questions that may rise from such a comparison on the one hand, and realisation of a possible future blocks on the way to documentation. This is a necessary conversation for two reasons. First, it may reconnect us to some of the theoretical discussions about the archive in the last century (mainly generated by Foucault’s works but also engaged many other philosophers and practitioners alike) as these abstractions are relevant in this epoch more than even before (in this age of “Fake News”) and more practically, if we are to continue to work as activist scholars on the modern history of Palestine (during what can be called the Zionist phase of it), we will be faced with more limited access to archives on the one hand, while we still insist on substantiating our narrative with scholarly rigor and proper academic work, on the other.
Ilan Pappé is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the modern Middle East and in particular the history of Israel and Palestine. He has also written on multiculturalism, critical discourse analysis, and on power and knowledge in general. He is the author of, among other publications, The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine (2015), The Idea of Israel (2014), The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinian Minority in Israel (2011), The Husaynis: The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian Aristocracy (2010), and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006).