In 1984 Joan Peters’ book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine appeared to much critical acclaim. The book won the National Jewish Book Award; the New Republic said it would “change the mind of our generation.” The jacket contains praise from Barbara Tuchman, Theodore H. White and other notables. Today, the book continues to be recommended on numerous websites including that of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Soon after the book’s appearance, however, attacks appeared in the pages of left-wing journals such as In These Times and the Nation, characterizing the book as a fraud. Some of the criticisms were later repeated by scholars in the pages of such publications as the London Observer and the New York Review of Books.

The following series of articles investigates charges that Joan Peters’ book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine is dishonest propaganda. As the purpose is primarily to determine the truth of certain reviewers’ accusations, I did not originate most of the criticisms of the book. Likewise, I have not sought to check every one of Peters’ footnotes, which are voluminous; I have focused on the critics’ claims. Where relevant I have included scanned images of the original so that readers may see the evidence for themselves; hyperlinks in the text open these images in a new window so that the reader’s place is not lost.

The accusations of dishonesty originated with radical-left figures who would naturally seek to discredit a book like Peters’; still, it would be easy enough to determine the truth of their claims with limited research. Such an investigation is all the more worthwhile owing to the fact that scholars who had initially defended the book later indicated that the charges had some merit. Ronald Sanders and Daniel Pipes had both favorably reviewed Peters’ book, Sanders in the New Republic [1] and Pipes in Commentary [2] , both publications with a decidedly pro-Israel editorial policy. In responding to an unfavorable review of the book, however, both conceded its poor scholarship. [3] Sanders writes:

Mrs. Peters has brought this upon herself to a large extent, for, as I wrote in my review of the book in The 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. [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5172]

According to Pipes,

Most early reviewers, including myself, focused on the substance of Miss Peters’s central thesis; the later reviewers, in contrast, emphasized the faults–technical, historical, and literary–in Miss Peters’s book.

I would not dispute the existence of those faults. 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. [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5172]

Such embarrassing concessions by the book’s prominent defenders raise valid doubts about its integrity. On the other hand, both Sanders and Pipes still defend Peters’ central thesis. Besides verifying the critics’ claims, then, these pages will also weigh their significance relative to the book as a whole.

Whatever the findings, Israel’s right to exist does not hinge on Peters’ claims that the land was empty when the Jews arrived and that the Palestinians are recent arrivals. The right of a country to exist depends on its recognition of individual rights. By this criterion, Israel–with all its imperfections–stands head and shoulders above the Arab dictatorships of the region (including Arafat’s) as far as legitimacy is concerned.

Notes

1 New Republic, April 23, 1984.

2 Commentary, July 1984.

3 The two were responding to the review of the book by Yehoshua Porath in the New York Review of Books on January 16, 1986, online at <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5249>. The responses, with a rejoinder from Porath, appeared in the New York Review of Books on March 27, 1986 and are online at <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5172>.

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Paul Blair

Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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