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From lies immemorial (cont.) (criticism of thesis that Jews did not displace Arabs in Palestine) (column)

It is the central proposition of Joan Peters's From Time Immemorial that Jews did not displace Arabs in Palestine but that Arabs immigrated to areas of Jewish settlement to thrive in the reflected glow of Jewish endeavor. Most of the Arab refugees of 1948 were not, therefore, evicted from an ancient inheritance, as the Palestinians claim. They have about as much right to their supposedly native soil as would Ameican Indians if they had settled in the United States after the Mayflower's arrival--and only because of the lure of superior Puritan civilization. Such is the Peters thesis.

Peters's work is historical exterminism on a grand scale. It is misrepresentation on the grand scale too. In my last column I summarized an article by Norman Finkelstein in In These Times which showed how Peters had mangled historical data. Consider now the findings of Bill Farrell, a Columbia University law student who reviewed the book in the Fall issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

Peters derives many of her central conclusions from census data compiled by the Ottoman Empire. Citing as her guide Prof. Kemal Karpat of the University of Wisconsin and purportedly drawing on his analysis of the 1893 Ottoman census, she concludes that there were almost 60,000 Jews and 92,300 non-Jews in the area of Western Palestine that became Israel. Since about 38,000 of the non-Jews were Christian, she argues, "Jews were perhaps actually a marginal majority." Aside from graver sins, this ignores a substantial Arab Christian community and confuses majority with plurality.

Karpat, who had not read Peters's book when he spoke to Farrell in June, told him that there were "many more Palestinians" than she reports and that the Ottoman and British mandate subdistricts, which Peters claims "closely" correspond, were not even broadly similar. Karpat's study of the 1893 census shows that setting aside Christian Palestinians, there were 371,969 Moslems and 9,817 Jews in all Palestine. Even in Tabarya, in the Western Palestinian administrative division of Akka (Acre), the census subdistrict with the highest ratio of Jews, Jews made up a little less than 13 percent of the total. In the Hayfa (Haifa) subdistrict they made up slightly less than 3.1 percent. Thus Karpat's findings entirely contradict Peters's figures and conclusions.

She also ignores a paper by Prof. Justin McCarthy of the University of Louisville, presented at a conference sponsored by the University of Haifa and published in 1981, that shows that the Palestinian population was severely undercounted in the census of 1893. When the corrections called for in McCarthy's paper are made, the number of Moslems totals 419,311 as against 10,746 Jews. Nor can Peters use Ottoman census data to argue that Jewish immigration after 1893 radically altered the population in a manner favorable to her thesis. The 1911-12 Ottoman census as corrected by McCarthy (also ignored by Peters) sets the population of Palestine at 750,393, of which no more than 40,733 could have been Jews. The total Jewish population of the Akka and Nablus administrative districts could not have exceeded 17,877. And the population of Kadus, a special district, inculded 22,856 Jews. Peters's Frankenstein

To show supposed Moslem immigration to areas of Jewish settlement pre-1893, Peters calls on the accounts of European travelers and demographers, many of whom displayed a racist bias in arguing that the Arab population had declined until Jewish settlement attracted immigration. (It is as if one were to rely on General Custer for census data on the American West.) But on whom exactly Peters is relying is not always clear.

On pages 158 and 159 of her book, after citing the reminiscences of the eighteenth-century French scholar Count Constantin Francois Volney, Peters writes:

Another writer, describing "Syria" (and Palestine) some sixty years later in 1843, stated that, in Volney's day, "the land had not fully reached its last prophetic degree of desolation and depopulation."

From place to place the reporters varied, but not the reports: J.S. Buckingham described his visit of 1816 to Jaffa, which "has all the appearances of a poor village, and every part of it that we saw was of corresponding meanness." Buckingham described Ramle, "where, as throughout the greater part of Palestine, the ruined portion seemed more extensive than that which was inhabited."

After a visit in 1817-1818, travelers reported that there was not "a single boat of any description on the lake [Tiberias]." In a German encyclopedia published in 1827, Palestine was depicted as "desolate and roamed through by Arab bands of robbers."

Throughout the nineteenth century the abandonment and dismal state of the terrain was lamented. In 1840 an observer, who was traveling through, wrote of his admiration for the Syrian "fine spirited race of men" whose "population is on the decline." While scorning the idea of Jewish colonization, the writer observed that the once populous area between Hebron and Bethlehem was "now abandoned and desolate" with "dilapidated towns." Jerusalem consisted of "a large number of houses . . . in a dilapidated and ruinous state," and "the masses really seem to be without any regular employment."

On pages 122 through 124 of the 1944 edition of his frankly partisan tract, Justice For My People, Ernst Frankenstein writes, after citing the reminiscences of the same Count volney:

Buckingham, who visited the country in 1816, states that Jaffa "has all the appearances of a poor village, and every part of it that we saw was of corresponding meanness." He visited Ramleh "where, as throughout the greater part of Palestine, the ruined portion seemed more extensive than that which was inhabited." . . .

Thereafter conditions deteriorated further. "In his (Volney's) day," writes Keith in 1843, "the land had not fully reached its last prophetic degree of desolation and depopulation. The population (viz., of the whole of Syria), rated by Volney at two million and a half, is now estimated at half that amount."

This statement corresponds to the observations of other travellers, for instance Olin (1840) who is a specially valuable witness, since he admires the Palestimian ("Syrian") population ("a fine-spirited race of men") and ridicules the idea of Jewish colonization. According to him "the population is on the decline." In Hebron "many houses are in a dilapidated state and uninhabited"; the once populated region between Hebron and Bethlehem is "now abandoned and desolate" and has "dilapidated towns." In Jerusalem "a large number of houses are in a dilapidated and ruinous state"; "the masses really seem to be without any regular employment." . . .

A German Encyclopedia published in 1827 calls Palestine "desolate and roamed through by Arab bands of robbers." Irby, who visited the country in 1817-18, found "not a single boat of any description on the lake (of Tiberias)."

Peters's only original contribution here is to put the estimated of Syria's population in a footnote, whereas Frankenstein has it in the body of the text. Yet Peters does not acknowledge Frankenstein's book as her source, despite the fact that the citations in her footnotes are identical to his. Norman Finkelstein, who discovered this coincidence, passed on the pertinent documentation to Aaron Asher of Harper & Row, publisher of From Time Immemorial, Asher told me that the "so-called plagiarism" was "a teapot tempest," though had he known of it he might, as her editor, have suggested that she handle "the mechanics of citation" differently. Asher also told me that he has been assured that Peters has copies of all the relevant citations in her files.

This suggests that even if she did not acknowledge her debt to Frankenstein, she had examined his (hence, her) original sources. Peters does acknowledge Frankenstein elsewhere, but not always in a manner that enhances either her credibility or that of her guide. On page 169 she writes:

Kurds, Turcomans, Naim [sic] and other colonists arrived in Palestine around the same time as the Jewish immigration waves began. Eightheen thousand "tents" of Tartars,.Sup.207 the "armies of Turks and Kurds," whole villages settled in the nineteenth century of Bosnians and Moors and "Cifcassians" and "Algerians" and Egyptians, etc.--all were continually brought in to people the land called Palestine.

Footnote 207 reads: "Makrizi, Histoire des Sultans Mamlouks, II, pp. 29-30,

cited in Frankenstein, Justice, p. 122." If we turn to R.A. Nicholson's A Literary History of the Arabs, we discover that Makrizi was born in 1364 and died in 1442. He is thus dubious authority on matters of nineteenth-century population movement, though his work on the migration of Tartar hordes in the Middle Ages is no doubt beyond reproach. In view of Peters's assestions about material she has cited, we must assume that both she and Frankenstein made entirely coincidental blunders about the date and utility of Makrizi's work.

There would be something comical about Peters's ridiculous distortions if they had not been swallowed virtually in toto by what passes for our intellectual community, and if they were not exterminist in historical and political intent.
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Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Oct 13, 1984
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