There were familiar faces in the audience, including the flag-waving protestor shown below accusing the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, of war crimes in Gaza (despite the fact he was not actually in the government during the Gaza conflict).
Then, kicking off the night's proceedings was a short film promoting Israel Apartheid week. The student who put the film on, and then introduced the event, was the very same student who last year screamed at Shimon Peres, breaching Oxford's code of discipline in the process - though I've no idea if the university did anything about it - and having to be taken out by security.
The talk itself, chaired by Avi Shlaim, was certainly thought-provoking. In it, Pappe argued that the 67 war was in fact a war of aggression, not defence, and essentially a war of choice. In arguing this, he explained, he took a longer historical view of events, looking beyond the immediate past of the war.
He gave a sketch suggesting that the military and political elite in Israel had always wanted to have the whole of Palestine, arguing that capturing the West Bank had been their aim for some time. This, coupled with the fact that some very military and administrative plans were organised before the war, and that Israel had been engaging in considerable low-level provocation (he said, for example, that Israeli pilots from that time told him in an interview that they were instructed to undertake flying exercizes over Syrian airspace) suggested to him that Israel wanted the 1967 war. Members of the military and political elite, he claimed, cynically conveyed th message of an existential threat - a 'second holocaust' - while in private being confident of Israel's success and strength.
But there's a problem. Since returning home I've looked into some of the evidence he provided, and it doesn't add up. Here are some examples:
(1)Misattributing the Dayan quote
He quoted Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader, as having said: Israel must see the sword as the main, if not the only, instrument with which to keep its morale high and to retain its moral tension. Toward this end it may, no — it must — invent dangers
It turns out Dayan never actually said that. The wikiquote entry on it explains:
This has been reported to be a direct quotation of Dayan in the diaries of Moshe Sharett, but is actually derived from an interpretive commentary by Livia Rokach in "Israel's Sacred Terrorism" (1980) upon statements of Dayan reported in Sharett's diaries, from accounts provided to him by Ya'acob Herzog and Gideon Raphael — in other words: a third-hand interpretation of Dayan's meaning, based on a second hand report of his arguments. Sharett's summation of Dayan's statements of 26 May 1955 read:
We do not need a security pact with the U.S.: such a pact will only constitute an obstacle for us. We face no danger at all of an Arab advantage of force for the next 8-10 years. Even if they receive massive military aid from the West, we shall maintain our military superiority thanks to our infinitely greater capacity to assimilate new armaments. The security pact will only handcuff us and deny us the freedom of action which we need in the coming years. Reprisal actions which we couldn't carry out if we were tied to a security pact are our vital lymph ... they make it possible for us to maintain a high level of tension among our population and in the army. Without these actions we would have ceased to be a combative people and without the discipline of a combative people we are lost. We have to cry out that the Negev is in danger, so that young men will go there....
Rokach's interpretive assessment of this diary entry by Sharett produces:
The conclusions from Dayan's words are clear: This State has no international obligations, no economic problems, the question of peace is nonexistent... It must calculate its steps narrow-mindedly and live on its sword. It must see the sword as the main, if not the only, instrument with which to keep its morale high and to retain its moral tension. Toward this end it may, no — it must — invent dangers, and to do this it must adopt the method of provocation-and-revenge.. . . And above all — let us hope for a new war with the Arab countries, so that we may finally get rid of our troubles and acquire our space.
(2) What was the basic zionist project?
Pappe spoke in his talk about "the basic zionist proect, which started in 1882, which was to de-Arabize and Judaize Palestine."
This really doesn't add up. Zionism was initially and primarily concerned with Jewish self-determination - the location of Israel/Palestine was one, preferred, possibility, but hardly the 'basic zionist project.'
The significance of referring to 1882, as Pappe does, is to refer to the publication of one of the first documents promoting zionism, Autoemancipation! by Leon Pinsker. You can read it here.
Note that it explicitly states that it wants a homeland wherever it can get one - Palestine is not the issue - so long as the land is fertile and habitable. It suggests as possibilities land in Turkey or a place in North America. See this passage from it below:
Therefore, the selection of a permanent, national land, meeting all requirements, must be made with every precaution and confided to one single body... This tract might form a small territory in North America, or a sovereign Pashalik in Asiatic Turkey recognized by the Porte and the other Powers as neutral. It would certainly be an important duty of the directorate to secure the assent of the Porte, and probably of the other European cabinets to this plan.
Sorry Pappe; there's nothing about 'de-arabizing' Palestine there.
Moreover, Pappe's contention about the basic nature of zionism cannot make sense of the famous Uganda plan of 1903. In 1903 the World Zionist Congress debated and voted in favour of establishing a Jewish state in East Africa, after Britain had proposed an autonomous Jewish colony be established there. Jewish self-determination was the essential aim, not de-arabizing Palestine. (Although, yes, the Uganda plan was seen as a temporary measure, with Palestine still being hoped for by many). The establishment of the Jewish territorialist Organization, associated with zionists such as Israel Zangwill, further gives the lie to Pappe's selective reading of zionist history: this was a case of zionists looking for land in America, Australia, Asia or Africa - anywhere - to establish a Jewish homeland. (They only disbanded after the Balfour declaration in 1917).
Finally, zionists such as Martin Buber who actually called for a bi-national state, clearly don't fit into Pappe's conception of zionism's basic project of 'de-arabizing' Palestine.
In short, zionism is not the hitorically monolithic anti-Arab movement Pappe paints it out to be, but is a movement with various and sometimes antagonistic strands, some of which historically had not interest in Palestine at all. .
(3) The occupy-the-West-Bank toy-game claim
Pappe claimed in his talk that there were toy games made for Israeli children before 1967 all about occupying the West Bank. "you roll the dice and move the pieces," he said. Well I'm skeptical - very skeptical. After 15 minutes googling, I've found nothing about it. If any readers know any different, please tell me. But the idea that such games would have been manufactured and yet there be no record on the internet of them having existed, strikes me as being pretty bizarre, given how much they would indicate, and how quick anti-Israel groups would be to seize on them as evidence of 'zionist expansionism'. So as I said, in the meantime, pending evidence, I'm unconvinced.
(4) The Mokked plan
One of Pappe's pieces of evidence that the Israelis wanted war so they could occupy the West Bank was the Mokked plan - a plan developed by Israel in 1965/66 to take out the airforces of the neighbouring Arab states.
How is this sufficient evidence? I'm not a military historian, but it would seem to me to be obviously common sense, when surrounded by hostile countries whom you have recently been at war with, to have military plans in place for future conflicts. The existence of this plan can certainly be used as evidence of preparation for war, but not as evidence of an Israeli desire for war.
This post is getting too long; nearly at the end.
Despite the problems listed above, much of what Pappe said challenged me. . In particular he spoke of how before 1967, academics at the Hebrew U organized a legal and administrative framework for ruling the West Bank. This seems like a strange exercize to undertake unless they had an expectation (or desire) that Israel will be occupying the West Bank in the near future. Also, he quoted from the diary of Uri Avnery, who wrote that he had meetings with the military leader El-Azar, who told him that he 'dreamed' there would be sufficient Arab armies mobilised in Egypt to justify an Israeli attack.
Well, I'll need to read more on the matter.