The Economist Magazine's obituaries:
misleading accounts of Israel's history?

Published: 31 December 2004
Briefing Number 124

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This Briefing highlights misleading accounts of aspects of Israel’s history which recently appeared in two obituaries in the weekly news magazine The Economist. The Economist is renowned for being fair-minded and rigorous. The publishing of such accounts shows the extent to which the rewriting of aspects of Israel’s history is now part of mainstream discourse.

The descriptions in question each appeared in Economist obituaries. Its obituaries are never attributed to named authors. Readers are entitled to assume that they reflect the ‘corporate’ view of the Economist as a whole.

The Economist obituary for Rafael Eitan

Israeli ex-chief of staff Rafael Eitan died on November 23 2004, aged 75. The Economist’s obituary for him was published in its 4 December edition. It opens by describing how Eitan grew up in the 1930s in the “scrubby semi-desert of the North West, in the valley of Jezreel…” in what is now modern-day Israel. The Economist then describes the wider historical context:-

“Eitan’s home for most of his life was the moshav, or communal farm, of Tel Adashim, a place of thick summer dust and deep winter mud, where he grew up in poverty at a time when the British ruled in Palestine. The only vestiges of the Jewish homeland were pockets like Tel Adashim where, in the dark cow-barn, Rafael and his father would sit on milking stools and swap dream-talk about Israel” [our emphasis]

Our comment: The Economist states that during Eitan’s childhood “the only vestiges of the Jewish homeland were pockets like Tel Adashim…”. Readers would be forgiven for concluding that the Jewish presence in Palestine comprised nothing more than scattered outposts like Tel Adashim whose inhabitants “swapped dream talk” about creating a Jewish state.

This is misleading. The Economist’s historical narrative ignores the decades of nation-building by the Jewish people in mandatory Palestine which had already occurred by the 1930s. Here are some aspects of that nation-building (extracted from Martin Gilbert’s History of Israel):-

  • By 1932, according to British figures, 192,000 Jews lived in mandatory Palestine

  • The British Government declared in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that it viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. By the 1930s, talk of a Jewish state was far from merely being what the Economist calls “dream talk” by Jewish farm-workers

  • The Jewish population of Jerusalem had been growing steadily for at least 150 years: by 1844, the majority of Jerusalem’s population was Jewish

  • By the 1930s Tel-Aviv was a city, with thousands of Jews working in commerce, industry, and increasingly in the professions.

  • The Jewish community established the Palestine Post newspaper in 1932 (later to become the Jerusalem Post).

  • Many kibbutzim and moshavim (collective farms) formed in the 1920s and 1930s, several of which pioneered innovative agricultural methods.

  • In 1925 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was established. In 1934 Chaim Weizmann founded the Weizmann Institute for scientific research in Rehovot. Both institutions went on to become renowned international centres of academic excellence.

In light of such facts, it is little short of amazing for the Economist to state that in the 1930s, when Rafael Eitan was a boy, the “only vestiges” of the Jewish homeland were “pockets like Tel Adashim”.

The Economist obituary for Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat died on November 11th 2004. The Economist’s obituary was published in its 13th November edition (and contains, it has to be said, a sequence of highly contentious observations about Arafat’s life).

Leaving those aside, The Economist opens by recalling how Yasser Arafat formed Fatah in 1953, because he was “disenchanted with the Arab world’s inability to do anything about Israel’s 1948 conquests” [our emphasis]. It then charts his leadership spanning over 40 years.

Our comment: We focus on that single, telling phrase “Israel’s 1948 conquests”. This is a curious way to describe the 1948 war of independence. Israel did not “conquer” Palestine in 1948. Israel’s creation was endorsed by the international community in the UN partition plan of 1947. Its military actions in the ensuing months were a reaction to Arab rejection of partition, and the military invasion of the new state of Israel which took place in May 1948. With its use of the phrase “Israel’s 1948 conquests”, the Economist perpetuates the myth that the Jews “conquered” Palestine, and glosses over key facts surrounding the establishment of the Jewish national home.

Conclusion: Many commentators, politicians and Palestinian advocates depict Israel as being a foreign colonial implant which was imposed by Western powers on the indigenous Palestinian population. The Economist’s obituary writers have regrettably reinforced this historical myth. The magazine’s misleading account of aspects of Israeli history, and its apparent disregard for key facts, reveal how far such methods, which were once the domain of extreme anti-Israel ideologues, have become part of mainstream discourse.

Needless to say, misleading historical narratives about Israel’s creation fuel the Palestinians’ sense of historic grievance and do not advance coexistence, reconciliation or mutual understanding among Israelis and Palestinians.