From Time Immemorial – Peters’ Book From Time Immemorial Lacks Objectivity (Part 6 of 6)

by | Apr 20, 2002

The central contentions of Peters’ book have been shown to be undermined by her lack of objectivity. Time does not permit checking the rest of her work with equal rigor; however, several examples will serve to show that Peters’ characteristic misuse of evidence extends throughout the book: In her treatment of Jews in Arab lands, […]

The central contentions of Peters’ book have been shown to be undermined by her lack of objectivity. Time does not permit checking the rest of her work with equal rigor; however, several examples will serve to show that Peters’ characteristic misuse of evidence extends throughout the book:

  1. In her treatment of Jews in Arab lands, Peters writes, “At the beginning of 1955 the Nasser regime hanged two Egyptian Jews as ‘Zionist spies,’ an action the Egyptian Embassy in Washington justified by distributing a pamphlet called ‘The Story of the Zionist Espionage in Egypt,’ claiming that ‘Zionism and Communism’ both sought ‘world domination [p. 49].'” Yet in this particular case the individuals were, in fact, Israeli saboteurs, as even Israeli government sources attest. Peters here is betraying her ignorance of Israeli history:

    In 1955 Pinhas Lavon, Israel’s defense minister, was forced to resign his office as a consequence of a series of disastrous sabotage operations carried out in Egypt the previous summer by Israeli undercover agents, for whose acts he was ultimately responsible. For five years he plotted a campaign to rehabilitate himself…. Lavon’s charge triggered the virtual earthquake now known as the “Lavon Affair,” which rocked Israel and set in action a chain of events that in 1963 brought down Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding father. For nearly twelve years the Lavon Affair was a hotly debated issue, the details of whose inception, development, and conclusion became public property; there was not a child who did not know of the failed sabotage operations in Egypt (commonly referred to as the “Sad Mishap”) and of Lavon’s accusations and his demand for rehabilitation.1

    It is as if Peters had written, “In 1972, ‘Republican Party operatives’ were arrested on trumped-up charges of burglary at the Watergate Hotel…” Evidently, Peters’ research involved searching through old pro-Zionist publications for supporting evidence, without always grasping its historical context.

  2. That Peters conducted her research in this manner is also shown by the way she cribs material from pro-Zionist sources; certain passages in her book are little more than a pastiche of material lifted out of Ernst Frankenstein’s Justice for My People or Joseph Schechtmann’s The Refugee in the World.2 Peters lists many of her supporting references as “cited by” or “cited in” some other work, but she sometimes “borrows” references without doing so. The fact that she passes on errors in these references indicates that she did not always check or verify the original sources.3
  3. When Peters deals with the Arab refugees from Palestine in 1948, she argues that most Arabs fled on the instructions of their leaders. Yet Americans would know, from a prominent and relatively recent New York Times report, that Yitzhak Rabin had written in his own memoirs of giving the order to expel some 50,000 Arabs at Lydda and Ramleh.4 Peters thus needs to show that most of the refugees were not expelled in this fashion; as evidence she cites a study: “According to a research report by the Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, however, ‘the majority’ of the Arab refugees in 1948 were not expelled, and ‘68%’ left without seeing an Israeli soldier [p. 13, note 21].”

    Leave aside the fact that the study’s conclusions were based on a sample size of 37 refugees. The study itself concerns the refugees of the 1967 war, as is obvious from its title, and inspection of the relevant passage shows that it does indeed refer to the 1967 Arab refugees, not those of 1948.5

These examples are not intended to be exhaustive. My goal has been to check the claims of Peters’ detractors, yet even then I discovered distortions they did not mention. There is no reason to assume, then, that the absence of criticism vindicates the parts of Peters’ book that have not been mentioned. Given her untrustworthiness, one should credit none of her claims without verifying them independently.6


From Time Immemorial is work of propaganda, with all the bad connotations that term carries. Peters’ 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’ 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 is true that the British created the Transjordan in violation of the Mandate. Peters’ 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’ fundamental premise, then, is ethnic nationalism. Why else waste ink trying to show, in essence, that the Palestinians are not the descendants of the Canaanites, who inhabited the land before the Israelites arrived? Such arguments are utterly pointless. Ethnicity entitles no one to a state–not Arabs, and not Jews either. The right of sovereignty does not reside in numerical superiority or “peoplehood” or a “continuous presence in the land” or “ethnic self-determination”; it rests on a government’s respect for individual rights. Once such a government exists, no ethnic separatist has any valid claim against it.

Peters’ 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.


1 Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion’s Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal that Shaped Modern Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) p. vii.

2 Click here for a comparison of Peters’ text on pp. 158-159 with Ernst Frankenstein’s pro- Zionist tract Justice for My People, pp. 122-124, and here for a comparison of Peters’ text on pp. 17-19 with Joseph Schechtman’s The Refugee in the World, pp. 200-207, 248-249. See Norman G. Finkelstein, “Disinformation and the Palestine Question: The Not-So-Strange Case of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial” in Edward W. Said and Christopher Hitchens, eds., Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (London: Verso, 2001), pp. 58-59; Ernst Frankenstein, Justice for My People (New York: Dial Press, 1944); Joseph Schechtman, The Refugee in the World (New York, A.S. Barnes and Co., 1963).

Peters’ reliance on Frankenstein extends to her argument, discussed earlier, that roughly 82,000 Muslim Arabs moved into Western Palestine between 1882 and 1895 [p. 244]. For her population figures she cites Vital Cuinet’s statistics and Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Syria and Palestine [notes 40,41]. According to Vital Cuinet’s figures, there were 141,000 settled Muslims in 1882 and 252,000 of them in 1895.

The above figures for the Muslim population would indicate that their number almost doubled in the thirteen years between 1882 and 1895. This hardly seems possible. Even if we assume a high rate of natural increase of 1.5 percent per annum for that thirteen-year period, the population would not have increased to more than 170,000 or so [p. 244]…. The only plausible answer is that at least the remainder of roughly 82,000 of the Muslim Arabic-speaking ‘settled’ population in Palestine in 1895 had to be immigrants and in-migrants, whose arrival coincided exactly with the time Jewish development commenced [p. 245].

As Finkelstein points out [p. 60], “Ernst Frankenstein used the same sources (even the same edition of Murray’s Handbook!), did the exact same calculations, and derived identical figures.”

Even if we admit the possibility of a natural increase of 20-25 percent during these thirteen years [Frankenstein converts the 20-25 percent to the 1.5 per annum percentage used in Peters’s text in his next paragraph] …the 141,000 settled Moslems of 1882 cannot possibly, by natural increase, have exceeded the figure of 170,000 to 175,000. Here, therefore, we are confronted… with a large immigration of Arabic-speaking people which coincides with the development of the Jewish settlements. [Frankenstein, p. 128]

Peters cites Frankenstein here [p.245, note 42] only to credit him with assuming the “unlikely rate” of natural increase, even though he offers his assumption in precisely the same hypothetical way as she does. Peters mentions that his demographic breakdown is “based on statistics of Cuinet and others,” but not that it is exactly the same as her own.

3 For example, Peters duplicates one of Frankenstein’s errors without acknowledging him. On p. 197, she writes: “In 1844, ‘the American expedition under Lynch’ recorded fewer than 8,000 ‘Turks’ in Jaffa in a population of 13,000.” Her note 7 cites Lynch directly and does not mention Frankenstein. But Frankenstein cites the same passage: “In 1844 the American expedition under Lynch found fewer than eight thousand ‘Turks’ in Jaffa among a population of thirteen thousand [Frankenstein, pp. 127128].” Lynch’s own words are: “The population of Jaffa is now about 13,000, viz.: Turks, 8,000… [Lynch, p. 446].” Lynch does not say “fewer than” 8,000; evidently, Peters’ source for this error and for the words “the American expedition under Lynch” was Frankenstein–and she did not check his source. W.F. Lynch, Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849).

Critics have made too much of another one of Peters’ errors: She references Makrizi (as cited in Frankenstein) regarding waves of colonists arriving in Palestine in the nineteenth century [p.169, note 207]. As Makrizi’s dates are 1364-1442, he is useless as a source for the nineteenth century. However, Peters’ citation is just a simple error, as is shown by her citation of the same passage in the proper historical context on p. 152. (Frankenstein’s original passage had also cited Makrizi in the proper context [Frankenstein, p. 122].)

4 David K. Shipler, “Israel Bars Rabin from Relating ’48 Eviction of Arabs,” New York Times, October 23, 1979, p. A3.

5 Peter Dodd and Halim Barakat, River Without Bridges: A Study of the Exodus of the 1967 Palestinian Arab Refugees (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1968). The passage cited by Peters states: “The majority of the old refugees (68%) left without seeing the Israelis. By contrast, 42% of the new refugees did so. This fact may be seen in Table 5-1, which summarizes the refugees’ description of their experiences during the war [p. 43].” The war referred to is the 1967 war.

Peters may have believed that “old refugees” meant the refugees of 1948, but this is not the case. The passage occurs in chapter IV, “The 1967 Refugees.” According to the study, “The West Bank sector of Jordan, prior to June 1967, had nearly half of its population classified as refugees from the 1948 conflict…. Many of these 1948 refugees took part in the 1967 exodus, thus becoming refugees for the second time. In all, about 100,000 of these ‘old refugees’ moved from the West Bank to the East Bank area of Jordan. These ‘old refugees’ accounted for about one-half of the 1967 refugees [pp. 34-35].” The passage cited by Peters shows only that those 1967 refugees who had been refugees before were more disposed to flee than those who had not been refugees.

6 Peters’ book includes a lengthy discussion of the history of Jews in Arab lands, a topic about which critics have said little. The Gilmours refer to Marion Woolfson’s book Prophets in Babylon: The Jews in the Arab World, another history of Jews in Arab lands, but a cursory glance does not inspire much confidence. Inter alia, the book alleges that Zionists intent on increasing emigration to Israel were behind tbe 1950 bombings of Jewish establishments and meeting-places in Baghdad. Establishing the truth about such issues, however, is beyond the scope of this article. Cf. Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour, “Pseudo-Travellers,” London Review of Books, February 7, 1985 p.10; Marion Woolfson, Prophets in Babylon: Jews in the Arab World (London: Faber and Faber, 1980).

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Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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