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Israel, Palestine and the Mahabharata

Books + Ideas — May 2011

Today's talks were by James Hegarty - "Telling the World: Exploring the Cultural and Intellectual Agenda of the Sanskrit Mahabharata " (blurb) - and Benny Morris - "Israel and Palestine - Is it too late for the Two States Solution?".

Hegarty provided a little bit of general context (good for someone like me whose knowledge of the Mahabharata comes from Southeast Asian reworkings and a hugely abridged popular translation). One of his themes was the balance between Brahminical orthodoxy and critical perspectives on that; his case study was the "truculent mongoose" who appears towards the end of the Mahabharata and attacks the merits of sacrifice.

The talk was based on a forthcoming book, Religion, Narrative and Public Imagination in South Asia: Past and Place in the Sanskrit Mahabharata (Amazon, Amazon UK) which might be tempting if it wasn't so insanely expensive.

The comments from the audience (there were only twelve of us) afterwards were also really interesting. One mentioned that Indian soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War used the Mahabharata as a guide to understanding their experiences (it was apparently significant here that King George had five sons and a daughter, and that it was possible to count 12 kings involved in the war). Another discussed possible Greek influence on the Mahabharata. And the absence of Buddhism from the epic can be interpreted in several ways.

Cycling back, Broad Street was full of expensive cars with very serious looking chauffeurs standing around. A poor traffic policemen was trying to get illegally parked cars to move along, but these looked like the kind of people for whom a £50 fine would be meaningless (if they didn't have diplomatic immunity anyway). I think this had something to do with an Indian minister giving a talk, though the Malaysian prime minister is also in town.

I had dinner with Camilla in Wagamama.

Over at Lincoln, it was much more crowded - we moved to a larger room but some people were still standing. There were a few skullcaps and a fair bit of Hebrew was being spoken. Benny Morris gave a nice history of one and two state solutions and then gave arguments that neither is possible, leaving the future bleak. This was a kind of summary of his book One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Amazon, Amazon UK).

Some of his ideas were frankly racist - or at least combined prejudice with a naive essentialist perspective on race and peoples. So we had generalising stereotypes about e.g. Arabs not respecting human life, nothing having changed for three hundred years, and so forth.

It was good to see some of the audience questions pulled him up on this, though perhaps not as as directly as I'd have liked. One commenter pointed out that Jews and Arabs seemed to be closer to one another than they were to him. Another explained that the WikiLeaks documents undermine the idea that the Palestinians were unwilling to compromise in the peace process and showed that it was actually the Israelis who were intransigent. And someone suggested the internal divisions within Israeli society (Tel-Aviv versus Jerusalem, as he put it) were a model for how a binational state might cope with religious and social diversity. Several people also pushed him on some kind of prediction for the future, at which point he fell back on being a historian.

I remain much more impressed by Ilan Pappe, though Morris is still essential reading if you want to understand "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" (as he puts it).


  1. Danny, you conclude by exhaling quote Morris
    is still essential reading if you want to under-
    stand "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee
    Problem" (AS HE PUTS IT) endquote/ EMPAHSIS
    MINE. ?How? would you frame it then?

    You are wrong about Benny Morris' ideas being
    "frankly racist," and, as befitting an individual
    (of any ethnic/ cultural origin), who's never
    had to reside in the region of which he, on the
    strength of having read some books, considers
    himself well informed, your near-admiration for
    Ilan Pappé mendacious and shoddy academic
    oeuvre speaks for itself.

    This recent review of three key Pappé's books
    by Morris, "The Liar as Hero," is no longer
    freely available online, but can be found in
    the nearest Oxford library.

    TNR March 2011 http://goo.gl/HNiZ7

    The conclusion of it reads:

    [Benny Morris] IV. Last semester I taught at
    Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.
    The seminar, attended by M.A. students and
    advanced B.A. students, focused on the 1948
    war. About half the students were German,
    the rest from elsewhere in Europe. This past
    week I received one student's end-of-semester
    paper, titled "Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine May
    1948-January 1949." One of the introductory
    paragraphs reads: "Ethnic cleansing is inhuman,
    brutal, and absolutely terrible. Often, a link
    between the Jewish Shoa [sic] and the Ethnic
    [sic] cleansing of Palestine is made. While the
    Nazis expelled and tortured the Jews during
    World War II, the Jews did nearly the same with
    the Arab [sic]. The brutality between the two
    situations is visible [sic]." But the student was
    apparently troubled by the "nearly," because
    in her "Conclusion" she added: "The ethnic
    cleansing operations from 1948 are often
    compared to the happenings during the 2nd
    world War [sic]. In this case, the Jews were
    on the same Level [sic] as the Nazis."

    The paper, while also listing other works in
    its bibliography, was based almost exclusi-
    vely on Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing
    of Palestine. It is a fine indication of the
    measure of Pappe's success, of his reach
    in polluting Middle Eastern historiography
    and in poisoning the minds of those who
    superficially dabble in it. This is unfortunate,
    even tragic.

    In Out of the Frame, Pappe complains that
    Yoav Gelber had referred to him, during the
    University of Haifa troubles, as Israel's "Lord
    Haw-Haw." That was the name given by the
    British media to William Joyce, an American-
    born Englishman of Irish extraction who
    broadcast Nazi propaganda from Berlin
    during World War II. He was tried and hanged
    by the British as a traitor in 1946. I do not
    think Pappe has any grounds for complaint.
    Lord Haw-Haw would have understood and
    sympathized with what he is doing, and
    the British are treating him rather well.
    [end Benny Morris]

    Comment by ianf — May 2011
  2. Obviously one can argue about definitions, but essentialist views of races or peoples, plus obvious prejudice, constitutes racism in my view.

    Comment by danny — May 2011
  3. To name an account of what happened inside Palestine in 1948 after its later consequences, largely outside the country, is rather odd. Here I think Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is rather more informatively titled. (Even something like "The Displacement of Palestinians in 1948" would seem more natural.)

    As for the relative merits of Morris and Pappe as historians, I read them both for the same reason I read multiple perspectives on any topic (and particularly contested ones). All historians have their biases and prejudices. As do all book reviewers, and I'm not pretending I don't find Pappe's political and moral position more attractive.

    Comment by danny — May 2011

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