Historian likens Israel to Aboriginal dispossesion

If the creation of the state of Israel was akin to the ethnic cleansing of the resident Palestinians, does the establishment of colonial Australia amount to the same thing for the indigenous population?

This is the hypothesis put to Professor Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian who is no stranger to controversy and unpopular arguments, on his latest tour of Australia.

“I think it's a very very fair comparison,” he says. “Both societies are settler colonial societies, dispossessing the indigenous people.”

Professor Pappe has earned disfavour in Israel, where his credibility is questioned for his view that the Palestinians were forced from their land and did not give it up willingly in 1948 when the state of Israel was created as a homeland for Jews.

He and other "new historians" cite evidence from Israeli and British documents declassified in the '80s as showing detailed planning to expel or repel 700,000 Palestinians, who have remained refugees from their homeland. The premise of Terra Nullius, in which European settlers viewed Australia as an unoccupied space, is similar to the idea that the Palestinians willingly gave up their land.

Understanding and accepting this premise is one of the keys to reconciliation and forging a peaceful future, Professor Pappe says.

“Building reconciliation on the basis of these acknowledgments, understanding what kind of privilege you're going to lose if you accept you are the dispossessor, and so many other issues that are really comparable. If you are an average Australian who accepts the basic narrative of what happened in Australia, the comparison is very clear.

“It is a problem of not accepting indigeneity, and claiming that it was either settled or disappeared or can be handled, instead of accepting it. Settlers and native people always have a complex relationship but the first step is acknowledging that this is the basic paradigm, the basic reality."

Another historical comparison is that of apartheid South Africa, Professor Pappe says. Invoking the word "apartheid" is highly provocative; the term has legal implications as well as emotive ones, but he is resolute that the name is justified.

The ideology of apartheid – of separation, of segregation – is not dissimilar in the two countries, he says, arguing that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also drawn the comparison between the two situations. “I don't think it's too strong a term. As a scholar I would like to go deeply into the comparison and see the similarities as well as the dissimilarities. But from the general perspective of what kind of attitude Jews have towards non-Jews in the state of Israel, I don't know of a better term in a legal realm in that respect.”

South Africa did manage eventually to overcome the bitter policy of apartheid, and so too can Israel, Professor Pappe believes, but it must involve what he describes as "the three As": acknowledgement, acceptance and accountability. Israeli, Jewish and Western acknowledgement that ethnic cleansing has occurred and that refugees want to return to their homeland; Israeli accountability for what has happened in the past; and an acceptance in the Arab world and among Palestinians that the Jewish nation is part of the Middle East.

It is not a completely hopeless prospect, he says, but accepts that it is very difficult for those with established standpoints to move beyond those and make a fundamental shift about how they view the problem before a solution can be found. And a solution is fundamental for the two nations, the region and the rest of the world.

“The future of Palestine is not just the future of Jews and Palestinians who live there, it's the future of the relationship of the Arab and Muslim worlds with the west," he said in an earlier lecture.

Accused of being a self-hating Jew (he was born in Haifa to German Jews) and an apologist for terrorist behaviour, Professor Pappe maintains that he is an objective historian whose role is to uncover the truth that has been obscured by a politically expedient orthodoxy and present it in a historical context.

There is not much of a home for his arguments in Israel. While he has not been expelled from the country, he had to relinquish his position at the University of Haifa in 2007 following the publication of his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, and now lives in Britain and teaches at the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter. He actively supports a binational state for Palestinians and Israelis.

Far from preaching to the converted, he says there are many people who come to his lectures who do not agree with his ideas, but who are willing to listen openly. The audience of potential dissenters was somewhat limited earlier this week when his address at the University of NSW and appearance on Q&A fell on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana.

Professor Pappe is speaking today at the National Press Club in Canberra, on Friday at the Edward Said memorial Lecture in Adelaide and on Sunday at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House.

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