Joan Peters' "From Time Immemorial" is the result of seven years of meticulous research — the book includes almost 200 pages of footnotes and appendices — and was widely praised and strongly attacked along ideological lines when it was published. But on the strength of its documentation and persuasive presentation, it changed the debate about the conflicting claims on the Mideast for any serious student of history, making the case that Jews did not displace the Arabs in Palestine — rather, the reverse was true — and that the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute is not Palestinian rights but was and remains anti-Semitism, based on centuries of Islamic teaching.
Now, 17 years later, the book is having a "second coming," according to Peters, a U.S.-based writer, who says that since the outbreak of Palestinian violence last September she has been sought out by the media, and for speaking engagements, including lectures at two dozen campuses this fall. She is surprised and heartened by the attention, particularly since there has been no recent publicity or advertising campaign for her book. But she noted the renewed interest underscores that "From Time Immemorial" stands virtually alone in its thesis, refuting a conventional wisdom that has been accepted by Jews, and Israelis, as well as others.
"I would prefer to see lots of clones [of the book] with the history a given, instead of all this nonsense," she explained in a recent phone interview. "The world — and Israel and Jews — allowed this erasure of history, and what's left is a black hole, and into it have gone all the false claims and lies and mythologies of the Arabs. And like any other black hole, it will erupt — and is now — into human bombs."
Peters showed intellectual courage in her research, starting out, she said, as "left of center" in her politics. Initially she sought to investigate the plight of the Palestinian refugees, with whom she sympathized. In the course of her work, though, she began to question and later challenge many of the assumptions of the conflict, namely that millions of Arabs who had lived in the Holy Land "from time immemorial" had been displaced by the 1948 war and now sought to return to their homeland. Why, for example, were Arab refugees defined by the United Nations as any persons who had been in Palestine for only two years before Israeli statehood in 1948, when all other refugees were defined as those forced to leave permanent homes?
Peters came to believe that the "facts" regarding the Arab claims were not true, nor was the notion that Jews had been treated peacefully in the Arab world in earlier times and that the Arabs had no quarrel with Jews, only Zionists.
Her book makes a powerful case, based on historical documents and interviews, that Jews never left the Holy Land, even after the Roman conquest in 70 AD; that the few Arabic-speaking people who remained never called themselves Palestinians; that they often violently attacked the Jews; that in the 20th century most of the contested land became Jordan (even though it had been designated as the Jewish national home); that many Arabs followed Jews who were settling areas of pre-Israel Palestine; that as many Jews fled or escaped from Arab lands as did Arabs from pre-1948 Palestine; and that it was Arab leaders who opted to allow these people to languish in refugee camps, using them as human pawns in a struggle to destroy the Jewish state.
Peters castigates the British for winking at Arab immigration to Palestine between the two world wars and unfairly restricting Jewish immigration at a time when such limits were a death warrant for European Jews seeking to escape Hitler.
Some reviewers and historians disagreed with Peters' statistics, saying she underrepresented the number of Arab refugees in 1948. But her primary thesis — that the Arabs have turned history upside down in their version of the facts — is, and remains, compelling. As part of what she calls "Mideast turnspeak," an Orwellian transformation of language, Peters notes that Arab immigrants who took the places of Jews are today's displaced Palestinians and it is the constantly attacked Israelis who are the aggressors.
My first question to Peters was, in effect, why does all this matter? Regardless of what happened centuries or decades ago, the conflict remains, so what difference does it make if Arab claims are specious? Her response was that history must count for something and that it is important for the world, and especially younger Jews, to know the facts. "Young people have to know Jews did not steal Arab land," she said, "and to understand that if Israel is not strong, no Jew anywhere can be strong. There's an element of self-respect here.
"Might does not make right in this case," she added, "and turning history on its head doesn't make it real. The moment we start giving in to pragmatics, we lose — all of us."
More than five decades after the Holocaust, Peters does not believe the international community would behave any differently today. "If anything," she said, "the world is more jaundiced." She calls the intifada "a public relations term for riots," and the Mitchell Report, intended to end the hostilities, "a terribly incorrect Band-Aid" that does not address "the fundamental issues of Arab hostility, jihad and religious intolerance that have no counterpart" on the Israeli side.
Peters has no tolerance for the notion that the Arabs have a simpler message to tell in the media image battle. "Hogwash," she says. "Israel's message is as simple as it could be. The minute the Jews got their state, too late to save those killed in the Holocaust, the Arabs pledged to drive them into the sea," and that enmity has not abated.
Peters takes some measure of comfort in the positive feedback she receives from talks she gives, including those to Christian audiences. But a moment after our interview ends, she calls back to emphasize her disappointment with fellow liberals, especially Jews who together with her were civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activists. "They have left me all alone on this issue," she said, "and that bothers me a lot. They say, ‘Jewish fundamentalism is as bad as Arab fundamentalism,' and I say, ‘when was the last Jewish jihad?' "
Most disturbing, Peters said, is that 53 years after Israeli statehood, "all the lies have stuck, and the truth has literally gone down the drain." More in amazement than anger she noted many liberal Jews continue to maintain a reactionary stance against Israel, and young people grow up unaware that the so-called Zionist aggressors are the very people who dreamed of, strove for and still seek peace in the Mideast.
To purchase From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, click here.