SHORTLY AFTER KOSOVO leapt into the headlines worldwide and war crimes became the international subject of the hour, the Palestine Liberation Organization, ever quick to exploit political trends, set about likening Israel to Serbia. Spokesmen for the Palestinian cause demanded that the international community bomb Israel and ostracize and pursue its leaders, as it had Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic. They soon got help from an unexpected quarter: Far-left Israeli historians answered the call to elaborate the comparison. Before long, their effort to tarnish their nation had precipitated a major scandal in Israeli historiography known as the Tantura affair.
The stakes were clear: In the current climate of concern about war crimes to tar Israel with atrocities -- especially atrocities in its war of independence in 1948 -- would be deadly. The Serbs, after all, were in the dock for crimes committed in pursuit of empire. Once Serbia changes its behavior, it will rejoin the community of nations. But to show that Israel was born in sin, that the very act of its creation was a crime, would be to discredit the Jewish state once and for all.
The problem was, the postmodernist, "post-Zionist" historians lacked the raw facts from which to make the comparison -- until, conveniently, a master's thesis produced at Haifa University provided them with useful fodder. Written by a graduate student named Teddi Katz, this thesis addressed a delicate topic: the evacuation of Arab villages at the foot of southern Mount Carmel during the war of independence. Katz maintained that the Israel Defense Forces had killed more than 200 unarmed inhabitants of the Arab fishing village of Tantura on May 22-23, 1948, after the village had surrendered. It was an astonishing assertion. No massacre had previously been recorded in Tantura; indeed, no massacre of such magnitude had been recorded in all of Israeli history.
The story gained prominence after Katz, awarded the unusually high grade of 97 for his research, spoke to a reporter, who published an account of the Tantura massacre in the leading Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv on January 21, 2000. Astonished veterans of the Israeli Alexandroni Brigade, the unit that had taken the village, sued Katz for libel, denying his account and asserting he had fabricated evidence. Leading figures in the Israeli peace camp made Katz's defense their fund-raising cause du jour.
The trial took place in Tel Aviv in December 2000. After two days' cross-examination in court, Katz signed a statement that nullified his research. "After checking and re-checking the evidence," it read, "it is clear to me now, beyond any doubt, that there is no basis whatsoever for the allegation that the Alexandroni Brigade, or any other fighting unit of the Jewish forces, committed killing of people in Tantura after the village surrendered."
No wonder Katz admitted this. The trial had abundantly exposed the flimsiness or nonexistence of his evidence. To cite just two examples, Katz had quoted a surviving Arab villager, Abu Fahmi 'Ali Daqnash, as saying that after the surrender of the village, Israeli soldiers had "often shot, killed, and wounded people." And he had quoted another villager, Abu Riyaj Muhammad Hatzadiyah, as saying, "I know that they shot young people after the fighting and that there was a big slaughter in the village, even after everyone surrendered and stopped fighting." No such statements appeared, however, in either Katz's recordings or his notes of his interviews with the two men.
Nevertheless, twelve hours after signing his admission, Katz formally retracted it and sought to continue the trial. When the judge refused, he appealed to the district's high court, but the appeal was dismissed without a hearing.
The prosecutor proceeded to urge Haifa University to strip Katz of his degree, whereupon the university set up two committees, one to check the accuracy of Katz's research and the other to investigate whether his work had been properly supervised. The first committee found that Katz had "gravely and severely" falsified testimony at 14 different places in his thesis. The results of the second committee's work are pending.
Nevertheless, Katz's mentor and close friend, leading post-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe, continued to defend him. In an article in the Spring 2001 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies, published by the University of California, Berkeley, Pappe insisted that Katz's conclusions were correct, even if his facts may not have been. Katz's research was valuable regardless, Pappe wrote, since historical research need not be based on facts. Katz had understood the "murkiness" of the memories of participants so many years after traumatic events, but he "was not interested in fine details," Pappe wrote. Katz simply wished to see the overall picture, "leaving behind, perhaps forever, certainties about exact chronology and names and precise numbers."
The real story, Pappe contended, was that Israeli forces had indeed massacred a large number of Arab civilians in Tantura -- as was typical, Pappe further asserted, of Israeli "ethnic cleansing" in Palestine in 1948. Katz only wished to uncover the "pain and suffering" experienced by people in the midst of war. Pappe compared Katz's work to the recording of the testimony of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Just as researchers used personal narratives to document the traumas of the Holocaust, so too, argued Pappe, did Katz use testimony from Palestinians to reconstruct the horrors of the 1948 Nakba, or "disaster," as Palestinians call it, even though the individual tales might not have been true.
Pappe construes the uproar over the Tantura case as a byproduct of the failure of the peace process: Hardening attitudes in Israel have silenced the nation's conscience. Pappe maintains that "poor" Katz's problem was simply his timing. Had his work been completed in the optimistic days of the Oslo process, public and academic reactions would have been entirely different.
But far from being a mere accident of timing, the Tantura affair betrays a problem of genuine gravity. Post-Zionist historians now accept admitted falsehoods as historical evidence. Not only in political discussion but even in scholarship, truth has become relative. Everyone has his own "narrative." The line between subjective and objective, between fiction and fact, has been blurred, if not obliterated. All academic standards are bent to demonstrate the unjust and immoral nature of Zionism and of the state of Israel. Post-Zionist historians, who proudly style themselves slayers of the propagandistic "myths" of Israel's creation and witness of truth, are actually the opposite: falsifiers of facts, for which they substitute a new mythology.
The disease, moreover, is not confined to academia. Postmodernism now infects diplomacy. Former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin, who was an architect of Oslo and top Israeli negotiator, was quoted by the New York Times's Deborah Sontag in July as stating that a deal over Palestinians' Right of Return to their 1948 homes in Israel could have been struck last January had the two sides succeeded in their efforts to establish "an 'agreed narrative' that would defuse the situation." For Katz and Pappe, it seems, all means are justified in the struggle to defame Zionism and Israel. But even for Beilin, truth is negotiable, and the record of Israel's history can be traded in order to reach a deal.