USC Students for Justice in Palestine

history, analysis, news, and event updates on the struggle for justice in palestine

Power and History in the Middle East: A Conversation with Ilan Pappe (Winter 2004)

Posted by uscsjp on September 23, 2006

Q: What is your background and how do you see your own development as a historian?


Pappe: I was born in 1954 to a German Jewish family in Haifa where I lived in blissful ignorance about the world beyond the comfortable and safe mount Carmel until I reached the age of 18. At that age I began my military service which introduced me to other groups and to the host of social problems facing Israeli society.  But it was only in the 1970s, at Hebrew University, that I was exposed to the plight of the Palestinians in Israel as an undergraduate in the department of Middle Eastern History.  It was then and there that I found my love for history and developed my belief that the present cannot be understood and the future changed without first trying to decipher its historical dimensions.


It was clear that this could not be done freely inside Israel-especially if its own history was to be my subject matter. This is how I found myself at Oxford in 1984 as a D. Phil student under the supervision of two great supervisors, the late Albert Hourani and Roger Owen.  The thesis was on the 1948 war in Palestine, a subject that has engaged me ever since my career as a professional historian began. This is still a subject that haunts me and I regard the events of that year as the key to understanding the present conflict in Palestine as well as the gate through which peace has to pass on the way to a comprehensive and lasting settlement in Palestine and Israel. Intimate and strong friendships with Palestinians and the newly declassified material in the archives produced my new look at the 1948 war. I challenged many of the foundational Israeli myths associated with the war and I described what happened in Palestine in that year essentially as a Jewish ethnic cleansing operation against the indigenous population. This conviction informed not only my work as a historian but also affected significantly my political views and activity.


I also ventured, in between my forays in the1948 story, into the exciting-but always productive for me-world of historiosophy and hermeneutics. I do think, in retrospect, that much of what I had read and discussed influenced my attitude to historiography in general. I treat history from a much more relativist point of view than many of my colleagues and I was also highly impressed by the need-which informs my work in the last few years-to write more a history of the people and less a history of the politicians, and more a history of the society and less of its ideology and elite politics. (continued . . . )

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