November 28, 1985
Dispute Flares Over Book on Claims to Palestine
By COLIN CAMPBELL
A dispute has broken out over a year-old book that argues against all Palestinian Arab claims to the land that is now Israel.
The book is ''From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine,'' published last year by Harper & Row. The author is Joan Peters, a Chicago writer, and her title is ironic: The thrust of the book's 601 pages is that the Palestinians did not, despite Arab claims, have deep historical roots in the territory that became Israel after 1948.
Many early reviewers described the book as extraordinarily important. Barbara Tuchman in a comment for the dustjacket called it ''a historical event in itself.'' The book, which has recently appeared in paperback, has sold a total of 35,000 copies.
Gradually the book drew critics. Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn and other writers on the Left have called the book slanted and heavily dependent on misquotations. Some relatively nonpolitical scholars of Middle Eastern history later made the same charges.
Miss Peters chose a provocative thesis. At one point in her research, she writes, she glimpsed the possibility that large numbers of Arabs may have entered Palestine only after the Zionists arrived.
At the end of the 19th century, she says - interpreting Ottoman census figures and other sources in unconventional ways - there were about 90,000 Arabs and 60,000 Jews in the areas of Jewish settlement in Palestine. But after Zionist settlers revitalized the economy, Arabs poured in from Syria and Egypt.
The whole ''Palestinian'' issue, Miss Peters claims, is a ''big lie'' that has caused ''bewildering, squeamish reactions'' of ''doubt and guilt'' among Israel's supporters.
Yehoshua Porath, an Israeli historian of the Palestinian Arabs who teaches at Hebrew University, was asked in a telephone interview from Jerusalem about the book. ''I think it's a sheer forgery,'' he replied.
''In Israel, at least, the book was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon,'' the historian said. Mr. Porath described his politics as centrist. He has written an essay on the book for The New York Review of Books that will be published soon.
Others who praised the book include Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel, Lucy Dawidowicz, Arthur J. Goldberg, Theodore H. White, Paul Cowan and Angier Biddle Duke. Philip M. Hauser, a University of Chicago demographer and former director of the United States Census, recommended the book's methods.
Reviewers for Commentary, The National Review, The Atlantic and other journals described the book's themes as revelations. Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, wrote: ''This book, if read, will change the mind of our generation. If understood, it could also affect the history of the future.''
Writers who have attacked the book, besides Mr. Chomsky and Mr. Cockburn, include: Edward W. Said, professor of English at Columbia and a member of the Palestine National Council, a political body associated with the P.L.O., who wrote in The Nation that Miss Peters was trying to deny the reality of four million Palestinians; Norman G. Finkelstein, a Princeton graduate student who has described dozens of apparent misquotations and misleading statistics from British and other documents; Sir Ian Gilmour, a Conservative Member of Parliament in Britain; Albert Hourani, a historian of the Middle East at Oxford University, and most other British reviewers. Miss Peters condemns Britain for many anti-Jewish actions during the Palestine Mandate.
Mrs. Tuchman, in an angry letter to Sir Ian that was printed last month in The Nation, traced part of the hostility against the book to Britain's ''growing anti-Semitism.'' Mrs. Tuchman said later that she regarded some of the book's American critics as ''committed P.L.O. supporters'' who were guilty of ''the worst kind'' of anti-Semitism.
Miss Peters has given several interviews about her book, and her editor, Aaron Asher, says she has many lectures scheduled. But Miss Peters refused, through Mr. Asher, to be interviewed by The New York Times. She gave no reason for her refusal. Miss Peters described herself in the book as having begun her research seven years earlier sympathizing with the Palestinian refugees. Her supporters cite this as a mark of fairness. Some opponents have replied that Miss Peters was distinctly anti-Arab a decade ago: In May 1975, in Commentary, she attacked the idea that there were ''moderate Egyptians'' who wanted peace with Israel, and in 1976 in Commentary she argued that Jewish refugees from Arab countries amounted to an ''exchange'' for the Palestinian refugees.
Most demographers say Palestine had a sizable Arab population before Jewish settlers began arriving. On the eve of World War I, Mr. Porath said, citing Ottoman statistics, there were about 600,000 Arabs and 85,000 Jews.
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, professor of religion at Dartmouth College and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said in an interview: ''I think that she's cooked the statistics. I think the right-wingers in Israel have an interest in cooking the statistics. The scholarship is phony and tendentious. I do not believe that she has read the Arabic sources that she quotes.'' Mr. Hertzberg and other detractors say the book's themes have been argued by right-wing Zionists since the 1930's.
Mr. Peretz of The New Republic charged that the ''political far left'' had attacked Miss Peters to recoup such losses as ''the utter disintegration'' of the alliance between Palestinian nationalists and the Arab states.
Mrs. Tuchman said she had not kept up with recent scholarship but she retained a vivid sense from research she did 30 years ago that Jewish labor had reclaimed a desolate Palestine, just as Miss Peters argued. The notion of ''the Palestinians'' was ''a fairy tale,'' Mrs. Tuchman said.
Mr. Hauser, the Chicago demographer, recalled that Miss Peters, a family friend, had asked him to check some calculations and he had done so. He said he had ''no competence'' in Middle Eastern history.
Saul Bellow declined to comment. Mr. Wiesel, Mr. Duke, Mr. White and several others said they had not followed the controversy.