January 13, 1986

There Were No Indians

By Anthony Lewis

BOSTON--Has the life of the mind been so politicized in this country that intellectuals who welcome a book's political conclusion will shrug off challenges to its truth? That is the troubling question raised by the controversy over ''From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,'' by Joan Peters.

The Peters book, published in 1984, makes dramatic assertions on the basis of what it calls fresh historical evidence. It says that Palestine was essentially ''uninhabited'' by Arabs before the Zionist movement began toward the end of the 19th century. The Arabs came in large numbers after that, from nearby countries, drawn by the economic effects of Jewish settlements.

Miss Peters concludes that those who call themselves ''Palestinian Arabs'' - she puts the words in quotes - are mostly recent arrivals and hence have no real moral or historical claim to the land. She argues this in 600 pages of text, footnotes and appendixes.

The book bore strong endorsements on its jacket from such important writers and intellectuals as Saul Bellow, Barbara W. Tuchman, Elie Wiesel and Lucy Dawidowicz. It drew mostly favorable reviews in this country and has recently come out in paperback.

The praise focused on the political significance of Miss Peters's conclusion and on her industry in uncovering history. Thus Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, wrote that ''many historians and journalists, predisposed in their conclusions, have systematically ignored methodologically basic evidence. . . . This book, if read, will change the mind of our generation.''

But Miss Peters's ''evidence'' is cooked. That is what a growing number of scholarly critics have said. It is what I believe.

For example, Miss Peters asserts that in 1893 the western area of Palestine, where Jewish settlement had begun, had a population of 59,431 Jews and 92,300 non-Jews. That shows, she says, that the Zionist settlers were hardly intruding into a land full of Arabs.

But an 1893-94 census by the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled the area, showed a total of 9,817 Jews in all of Palestine and 371,969 Moslems. How did Miss Peters get her results? She used the census only in part, relying also on an estimate by a French traveler of the time, regarded by experts as worthless.

For her claim that immigration from nearby countries greatly swelled the number of Arabs in Palestine, Miss Peters cites scattered statements - often leaving out key words or misrepresenting them. Thus she cites a 1930 British report's mention of ''pseudo-travelers'' who stayed in Palestine to live as if it were referring to Arabs, when the reference was evidently to Jewish travelers.

In small ways as well as large the book is slippery. Miss Peters says a report by the Institute for Palestine Studies found that 68 percent of the Arabs who became refugees in 1948 ''left without seeing an Israeli soldier.'' The report was actually about refugees in the 1967 war, and the percentage was of just 37 refugees who were studied.

It is impossible to detail the character of ''From Time Immemorial'' in a newspaper column. It has been fully explored in criticisms by, among others, Norman Finkelstein, a Princeton graduate student; Bill Farrell, a Columbia law student; Sir Ian Gilmour, a British M.P., and his son David, and Albert Hourani, an Oxford historian who called the book ''ludicrous and worthless.''

The criticisms are unanswerable, or at least they have not been answered. That is the extraordinary thing. So far as I know, neither Miss Peters nor any of her supporters has answered a single one of the charges of distortion and fraud made against it.

Instead, it is said that the critics are from the political left, as a few are, or have been identified with the Palestinian cause, as some have. In other words, only politics matters, not facts. That from intellectuals.

The latest criticism is going to be hard to dismiss even on such grounds: a piece by Prof. Yehoshua Porath of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in the current New York Review of Books. It is devastating on Miss Peters's methods. And it is moving on the courage and loneliness of the early Zionist settlers, surrounded as they were - and as they wrote - by Arabs.

Israelis have not gushed over the book as some Americans have. Perhaps that is because they know the reality of the Palestinians' existence, as great Zionists of the past knew. Perhaps it is because most understand the danger of trying to deny a people identity. As Professor Porath says, ''Neither historiography nor the Zionist cause itself gains anything from mythologizing history.''