The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, June 19, 2002  

Discredited Author Finds a New Audience

One of the unfortunate consequences of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that public debate about the Middle East has been enlarged to such a degree that it now encompasses viewpoints previously regarded as beyond the pale and has created a place at the table for observers and commentators whose previous work on the subject has been discredited.

Such is the case with Joan Peters, author of From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict.

The perpetration of a fraud

Peters’s book, published by Harper & Row to great acclaim in 1984, put forward the preposterous claim that Palestine was virtually devoid of Arabs when Jews began aggressively settling in the area in the mid-20th century. Peters asserted, to the delight of the American intelligentsia, that Palestinian political, territorial, and historical claims to the land that is now Israel are based on a collection of myths. Any Arabs that were in the area in 1948 were drawn there, according to Peters, by the economic activity fostered by Jewish immigration.

In the face of massive evidence to the contrary, Peters argued that Palestinian Jews are the only continuous residents of Palestine. “Contrary to Arab propaganda, Arabs or Arabic-speaking migrants were wandering in search of subsistence all over the Middle East,” Peters wrote. She added, “The land of ‘Palestine’ proper had been laid waste, causing peasants to flee. Jews and ‘Zionism’ never left the Holy Land, even after the Roman conquest in A.D. 70.”

And in a wholly unoriginal conclusion, Peters believes the Arab states are using the Palestinian refugees to promote their own political agenda. She trots out the old sawhorse that the “refugee problem” [Ed.: Her scare quotes, not ours.] was created by Arabs as a public relations weapon to justify “annihilating Israel.”

Peters exposed

Among those praising the book upon its publication were Barbara Tuchman (who called the notion of the Palestinian people “a fairy tale”), Theodore H. White, and Martin Peretz, among many others. Positive reviews were published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and Commentary, among many other newspapers, magazines, and journals, and Peters received the National Jewish Book Award for her work.

However, not long after being showered with congratulations, Peters, who is not a historian and who had not previously written anything more substantive than articles for general interest magazines, watched as critics and historians meticulously documented her distortions, exaggerations, selective omissions, falsehoods, and general mendacity. Critical and highly detailed analyses of From Time Immemorial were soon published in The Nation, In These Times, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and London’s Observer. The issuance of the book in paperback in 1986 had the same effect, albeit with an interesting twist.

By 1986, the criticism was merciless and broad-based. In one of the most widely discussed “second-look” reviews, Yehoshua Porath, the Israeli historian, writing in the New York Review of Books, attacked the book with unusual ferocity. His conclusion warrants repeating at length:

I am reluctant to bore the reader and myself with further examples of Mrs. Peters's highly tendentious use -- or neglect -- of the available source material. Much more important is her misunderstanding of basic historical processes and her failure to appreciate the central importance of natural population increase as compared to migratory movements. Readers of her book should be warned not to accept its factual claims without checking their sources. Judging by the interest that the book aroused and the prestige of some who have endorsed it, I thought it would present some new interpretation of the historical facts. I found none. Everyone familiar with the writing of the extreme nationalists of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist party (the forerunner of the Herut party) would immediately recognize the tired and discredited arguments in Mrs. Peters’s book. I had mistakenly thought them long forgotten. It is a pity that they have been given new life.

Other critics on the second go-around included Anthony Lewis of the New York Times; Jesse Zel Zurie, writing in Jewish World; and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg.

If Peters expected her allies to offer a strong defense, she was sorely mistaken. Several reviewers who initially praised From Time Immemorial distanced themselves from the book after other writers did the requisite legwork exposing her fraud.

Daniel Pipes, now a ubiquitous talking head, initially gave From Time Immemorial a glowing review in Commentary. In fact, Pipes bought Peters’s arguments by way of the proverbial hook, line, and sinker. “[T]he ‘Palestinian problem’ lacks firm grounding. Many of those who now consider themselves Palestinian refugees were either immigrants themselves before 1948 or the children of immigrants,” Pipes wrote. “This historical fact reduces their claim to the land of Israel; it also reinforces the point that the real problem in the Middle East has little to do with Palestinian-Arab rights.”

Two years later, however, while continuing to express support for the central premise of Peters’s work, Pipes sharply criticized her methodology and scholarly abilities in an exchange published in the New York Review of Books in 1986. In that piece Pipes discovered faults and errors in From Time Immemorial that earlier escaped him entirely or that apparently appeared magically in the paperback version of the book:

From Time Immemorial quotes carelessly, uses statistics sloppily, and ignores inconvenient facts. Much of the book is irrelevant to Miss Peters’s central thesis. The author’s linguistic and scholarly abilities are open to question. Excessive use of quotation marks, eccentric footnotes, and a polemical, somewhat hysterical undertone mar the book. In short, From Time Immemorial stands out as an appallingly crafted book.

Similarly, Ronald Sanders, who gave the book a favorable assessment in the New Republic in 1984, retreated in the same NYRB exchange:

Mrs. Peters has brought this upon herself to a large extent, for, as I wrote in my review of the book in [t]he New Republic of April 23, 1984, “many of its valuable points are buried in passages of furious argumentative overkill,” and too much of its more than 600 pages is given over to very conventional polemics. Since then, some patient researchers have found numerous examples of sloppiness in her scholarship and an occasional tendency not to grasp the correct meaning of a context from which she has extracted a quotation. All in all, her book is marked -- and marred -- by an over-eagerness to score a huge and definitive polemical triumph, which has caused her too often to leave prudence and responsibility behind.

By 1986, Peters’s defenders were few and far between. True to form, Commentary, in a obvious display of damage control, published an article by polemicists Erich and Rael Jean Isaacs, “Whose Palestine?” The Isaacs did their best to shore up what remained of the book’s reputation -- and that of Peters.

The Isaacs had their work cut out for them and it shows. Yet, assigned the task of salvaging Peters and her severely flawed study, even the Isaacs aren’t willing to swallow each and every bit of her tendentiousness. They criticize Peters’s “ability to evaluate evidence,” her “grandiose claims of ‘proof,’” and her “carelessness.” And the dreaded Norman Finkelstein earns two backhanded compliments from the Isaacs, including this one: “Even some of Finkelstein’s specific criticisms, setting aside his accusations of deliberate deception, are well taken.” The Isaacs’ criticism surely stung:

[D]espite all the faults of Miss Peters’s critics, her book does indeed deserve some of the criticism it has received. Her handling of materials, particularly in the central section dealing with demographic issues, is flawed. . . .

But perhaps the most serious problem with Miss Peters’s book is not any of the errors picked up by Finkelstein but her apparent inability to use judiciously the material at her disposal. At times she goes so far as to ignore evidence that does not bear out a specific point she wants to make even when that evidence actually strengthens her case.

Paul Blair demolishes Peters

More recently, Capitalism Magazine in April published a devastating and meticulously documented six-part analysis of the book by Paul Blair. Blair minces no words in his conclusions, which warrant extensive quotation:

From Time Immemorial is work of propaganda, with all the bad connotations that term carries. Peters’[s] case rests upon distortion and fabrication. Time and again, she misconstrues sources in a tendentious manner. She cribs uncritically from partisan works. She conceals crucial calculations, and draws hard conclusions from tenuous evidence. She speculates wildly and without ground. She exaggerates figures and selects numbers to suit her thesis. She adduces evidence that in no way supports her claims, sometimes even omitting “inconvenient” portions of the citation. She invents contradictions in sources she wishes to discredit by quoting them out of context. She “forgets” undesirable numbers in her calculations. She ignores sources that cast doubt on her conclusions, even when she herself uses those sources for other purposes. She makes baseless insinuations and misleading claims.

Peters’[s] distortions apply, not simply to minor issues, but to the central pieces of evidence for the principal contentions of her book. Her claim that the majority of Arabs in pre-state Israel were recent arrivals is false, as is her related assertion about the vast majority of Palestinian refugees. Her contention that Arab immigrants were filling the places Jews had cleared for other Jews is untrue. Her view that the League of Nations Mandate was intended to make Palestine into a Jewish state has no valid basis, nor is it true that the British created the Transjordan in violation of the Mandate. Peters’[s] claim of a nineteenth-century Jewish majority is misleading at best; her thesis that the first Jewish settlements lured significant numbers of Arabs into Palestine is fiction.

As with all successful disinformation, the distortions are placed within a wider context of truth; not everything Peters says is a lie. Palestine was in fact sparsely populated when Jewish colonization began. Arab nationalism did not yet exist, let alone Palestinian nationalism. When the British took over they unjustly restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine while Arabs immigrated into the territory. After the Arab violence of the late 1930s, British appeasement slowed Jewish immigration to a trickle. Ultimately, Jews who sought to escape the Holocaust were turned away from the Jewish National Home, even while “emergency arrangements” were taken to bring in Arab immigrant laborers. Had Peters let the facts speak for themselves, she would have had a dramatic, compelling story to tell.

But Peters wishes to do more; she wants to destroy, definitively, the claims of Palestinian nationalism -- and she wishes to do so without rejecting Jewish nationalism. Thus her focus on demography; the essence of her case is: “The Arabs are latecomers to Palestine and so have less right to be there than the Jews.” But torture the numbers as she will, she cannot escape the fact that the Arabs in Palestine in the late nineteenth century outnumbered the Jews. Hence, she contends that those Arabs had no national “identity,” that they considered themselves Ottoman subjects or Southern Syrians, but certainly not Palestinians. And if today’s Arabs wish to live in a Palestinian state, they should move to Jordan. . . .

Peters’[s] book does not simply distort the facts, then; it is a philosophically repugnant enterprise from the start. Ethnic nationalism has produced most of the wars in the last half century; Arab opposition to Israel rests largely on the same foundation. The doctrine of ethnic self-determination has no valid intellectual basis; given the bloodshed it has caused it deserves not respect but unequivocal repudiation.

There is only one conclusion at which a reasonable observer of the Peters controversy can arrive: From Time Immemorial has been utterly and thoroughly discredited. After the critiques of 1986 Peters herself virtually disappeared from public view for more than 15 years. Yet the legend lives on.

A documentary in the works

Given the tortured history of From Time Immemorial, the remaining die-hard defenders of Peters, or at least those willing to go public, have been left with precious few arguments to bolster a book that is virtually in tatters. But that doesn’t stop them from trying, usually through sheer force of will.

We find ourselves baffled by those who continue to heap praise upon the book, a group that includes Benjamin Netanyahu, whose vanity web site normally gives From Time Immemorial a prominent place on the home page; Mona Charen, a nationally syndicated columnist, who recently published a fawning tribute to the discredited study; John Derbyshire, the virulently hostile contributing editor of National Review; Bridges for Peace, which includes the book among its “Recommended Reading”; the Israel Report, whish last year published a softball interview with Peters; and WorldNetDaily (WND), which last month published a deceitful article about the book.

Charen's April piece not only defended the book but promoted it. Concerned about the “myths” surrounding Middle East history, Charen -- with a straight face -- called From Time Immemorial “meticulously researched” and recommended it as “a one-stop shopping book [that] puts [Arab] myths to rest.” Whether Charen is completely unaware of the book’s history or is simply suppressing it, we are not certain.

Imagine our shock, then, upon learning that From Time Immemorial will be the subject of a documentary film project titled “The Myth,” produced by Isidore Rosmarin. A veteran television producer who has produced segments for “60 Minutes” and “Dateline,” Rosmarin told WND Peters’s book changed his entire view of the Middle East.

Art Moore, writing for WND on May 20, quoted Rosmarin: “I used to consider myself pretty well-versed in current events and the broad strokes of what goes on in various parts of the world. I didn’t have a clue about the truth of the situation until this book. Somebody handed it to me, and I read it, and it knocked my socks off.”

Rosmarin’s proposed documentary is “in the research stage,” and the project needs funding to move on to the anticipated six-month production schedule. The producer hopes “The Myth” will be shown on broadcast and cable television, as well as at schools, college campuses, libraries, and local civic groups.

It is clear from the WND article that no mention will be made of the controversy surrounding From Time Immemorial and the book’s inaccuracies, nor will the film make room for those whose interpretation of the source material on which Peters relied differ from hers.

WND has behaved like one of Peters’s co-conspirators, evidenced by Moore’s begrudging acknowledgement that From Time Immemorial was on the receiving end of some poor reviews. He claims, all evidence to the contrary, that the negative reactions “largely have come from left-leaning scholars,” including Finkelstein, willfully overlooking the trashing Peters received on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the harsh criticism of the book in Israel. It appears Moore would have readers believe Finkelstein is Peters’s only critic.

The partisan historian

A consultant on the project, William Helmreich, professor of sociology and Judaic studies at City College and the City University of New York, emphasizes the film will not be “propaganda”:

The purpose is to present facts. That facts happen to swing one way or another does not make it a propaganda film. If we did a factual film about the Nazis, they wouldn’t end up being portrayed in a positive way. There is right and there is wrong. Not everything is relative. And the curse of relativism is one that has spread from the campuses of America to the government as well.

Moore makes clear that Helmreich has swallowed Peters’s claims writ large, and the professor certainly has a fixed view of the history of the Middle East. “I think that for too long the Bush administration -- as had been the case with previous administrations -- has pursued a policy of ‘You’re right and you’re right, you’re wrong and you’re wrong, you give a little, and you give a little,’” he told WND. “I think the purpose of the documentary is to demonstrate that if any wrong has been perpetrated it has been upon the Israelis and not upon the Palestinians.”

Helmreich, acting in a distinctly unscholarly manner, also fails to acknowledge the blistering criticism of Peters’s work. Along with grossly distorting the Palestinians’ historical claims, Helmreich speaks as if From Time Immemorial has satisfied every question regarding the history of Palestine:

I think that if the book is properly represented in this film, the issue of who really was on this land, and in what proportion, will be greatly clarified. Right now it’s as if the Israelis came to a land where millions of Palestinians were sitting, they were the interlopers, and they threw them off the land.

Peters rehabilitated

For her part, Peters hasn’t tempered her extremism during the past 18 years. The U.S., according to the writer, must abandon the notion that the support of Arab nations is required for its well being, the benefits to Israel of a disinterested American foreign policy completely escaping her.

Speaking about the Arabs, Peters says, through a haze of irrelevant hallucination:

They are a small part of the Muslim world, and by kowtowing to their impossibly monstrous demands we are leaving out all the millions of Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims and others who are not Arab. We need not be dictated to by monsters who keep their own people as human bombs instead of rehabilitating them, as they have had so many chances to do.

And Peters, who apparently hasn’t read a newspaper recently, believes U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which is based on a two-state solution, is predicated on Arab myths. In an interview with WND’s Moore, Peters asserted, “The problem is truth has taken a back seat, and all of the bogus claims of the Arabs have destroyed the context. It would be like the Germans saying the Jews had killed 6 million Germans during World War II.”

Peters seems completely unaffected by the controversy surrounding her book and disingenuously pretends no questions ever were raised about her shoddy scholarship and erroneous conclusions. She boasts that From Time Immemorial was a bestseller in Israel and takes pride in having taught Israelis a great deal about their own history. “Many (Israelis) were very shocked at this book,” she told WND. “There were a lot of things they said they didn’t know and some things they were sure of, and the documented evidence gave them proof.”

In a grotesque outcome that reflects poorly upon our culture’s collective memory -- and we are talking about memories that in this instance need go back not even 20 years -- Moore reports that Peters “has been in high demand for speaking engagements since Sept. 11 and [that] she is getting an ‘amazingly wonderful, overwhelmingly positive’ response from audiences.”

Still prone to self-aggrandizement, Peters says she hopes “The Myth” will be “a clone of me and my book.” She adds, hinting at the obloquy with which she is regarded among serious academicians, “There are a lot of colleges and other places that won’t have me, but will have a film.”

And so a spectacular fraud, which until very recently was relegated to the dust bin of the study of the history of the Middle East is to be rehabilitated. This development is frightening in its broader implications: The upcoming film, likely to be viewed by thousands of people who never would have made it past page 30 of From Time Immemorial, will find an audience of well intentioned individuals to whom the controversy described here might as well be medieval history.

The likelihood that the book’s remaining defenders -- whether they support Peters in all her erroneous details or simply in her misguided central thesis -- will be called to account for the deceit of From Time Immemorial is, sad to say, minimal. Indeed, we face the prospect of a new generation falling victim to Peters’s lies, an outcome that carries with it devastating implications for American foreign policy in the region. About this, no doubt, Peters will be well pleased.

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