By Alexander Wallace
I spent a period of about four months, from December 2020 to March 2021, reading almost nonstop about the fate of that land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. This was in preparation for an episode of the Alternate History Show on which I was the main guest, and served to form the backbone of my article ‘The Old New Land’ and the Doomed Utopia of Israel. While I read book after book on that inglorious situation, I racked my brain trying to figure out interesting trains of speculation for the podcast.
But if the alternate historian reads Benny Morris and Rashid Khalidi and Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé and Ari Shavit and Tom Segev in a long, tempestuous conversation, they will begin to notice something that threatens to render the entire exercise pointless, striking to the core of alternate history as a genre. Alternate history ultimately is about asking ‘what if you could change the past?’ Upon hearing that question, the fraught scholarly discourse on events in that land of faith and fire will respond with a piercing question:
“What if you can’t?”
Studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a depressing experience. It will show you the cruel, excruciating truth of the phrase ‘hurt people hurt people.’ You will read of an army host to (but not solely composed of) survivors of the Nazi corpse factories, tattooed numbers still clearly visible on their arms, razing Arab villages, expelling them at some times and slaughtering them at others. You will see the comforting lie that we tell ourselves, that the victim is always kind and empathetic, to be euthanized in front of you.
You will notice another thing: that as soon as the first Zionists arrive in the southern portion of Ottoman Syria, something like we saw in our world is almost inevitable.
The Zionist movement in the nineteenth century was a response to a very real and justified fear that Jews had no place in European nation-states. There was the Dreyfus affair in France, the proud self-described antisemites in Germany, and the vicious pogroms in the Russian Empire. The conclusion that Europe had no desire for its Jews became one that seemed more and more rational as the years went on. People like Theodor Herzl and Leo Pinsker and Max Nordau and Ze’ev Jabotinsky were reacting to very real oppression. That is why they wished to return to the land of their ancestors.
What they wanted was a place where their people could be safe. They would talk among themselves about how this Jewish state would fit in among the nations of the world, and how it would affect global antisemitism. It is then when you have the horrifying realization that the massacres and the settlements and the rocket attacks and the air strikes all come from a desire to create what would be described in modern terms as a Jewish safe space. The Zionist movement was one composed of men who would do awful things for noble goals.
It would be absurd to suggest that the Arabs would ever kowtow to the Zionist movement. Their ancestors there are ancient; the Arabs of Palestine are descendants of the people who had lived their in the time of the Tanakh; some converted to Christianity, and many converted to Islam when the conquering armies of Khalid ibn al-Walid came in the seventh century. Since the Byzantines had been forced out of the area after their crushing defeat at the Yarmouk, and Emperor Heraclius bade a sorrowful farewell to the Holy Land, the majority of the people of that land had spoken Arabic, and considered themselves Arabs. They had their own holy sites in that holy land, the most famous being the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Mount Moriah, the same site as the two Jewish temples. They had been there for over a millennium; when the Zionists came buying up land from absentee landlords, and worse later on, they would fight tooth and nail for that land. They would fight, and all too often fight in a way that once more demonstrates how hurt people hurt people, if the Zionists weren’t enough evidence for that. There were massacres in 1948 and then the rocket attacks and various terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
The history of that land, especially after the British took it over, is the great tug-of-war between Zionists and Arabs. It is a tug-of-war where it is hard to find the spot where the rope can be severed, and the two sides made to talk things out (and when they talk things out, the talks end up meaningless because events on the ground have changed things). It is nigh-impossible to get all the important actors to put their guns down, and put them down - and this is important - at the same time. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were willing to put the guns down, but Yigal Amir was not.
This is the Gordian knot with which alternate historians pondering the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan are presented. To their chagrin, they do not have the sword of Alexander. For example, let us consider the First Intifada.
When we alternate historians talk about World War I, we talk of the bullet that felled Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to be the spark that lit the European powder keg. Sarajevo was but one incident, one that did not seem to be setting Europe ablaze, but in retrospect it is clear that it was a continent of kindling. Very similar applies to the West Bank any time after the Israelis wrested the territory from the Jordanians after the short and fiery war in 1967. Occupying an inhabited territory is a fraught enterprise at the best of times; when you occupy such a place for as long as the Israelis have the West Bank, the likelihood that a violent flareup occurs snowballs rapidly to the inevitable.
The First Intifada began in 1987 when an IDF truck collided with a civilian car in the Jabalia refugee camp. The collision killed four Arabs. The entire West Bank erupted in protest, mostly peaceful but with several violent incidents. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and in Israel proper joined the effort. The First Intifada marked a shift in the Palestinian struggle for a state of their own; now, the movement was being driven by events in Palestine and not among emigre leaders like Ahmad Shuqeri or George Habash. Israeli repression was swift in coming; by the end of the Intifada in 1991 (or 1993, depending on who you ask), 277 Israelis and 1,962 Palestinians had been killed, a lopsided gap that is part of a consistent pattern that goes back to the 1948 war that birthed the State of Israel and sent Arabs running for their lives (even Benny Morris, a historian who is outspokenly pro-Israel, admits this in his book 1948).
The logical allohistorical question about the First Intifada is: what if that IDF truck had not rammed the Palestinian car? The answer is, ultimately, unsatisfying: some other spark would have lit the powder keg. The West Bank in this period is still made of kindling, waiting for something to light it. By speculating in the way that we do, we only prolong the inevitable. You could say the same thing about Kafr Qasim in 1956, or Land Day in 1976, or the Second Intifada in 2000, or Sheikh Jarrah in 2021. Atop this powder keg is a small fire, waiting for a spark to slip into one of the cracks and set the whole area ablaze.
Alternate history as a genre posits two notions. One is that history is in some way changeable; few people would argue in a discussion that the world is purely deterministic, for the conceit renders the entire exercise meaningless. To ask about how history can be changed, one must believe that our speculations have some sort of possibility to them.
The other is that our speculations are in some way beholden to historical reality. We take pride in studying the past, in reading books, in assembling all our knowledge into intricate scenarios kaleidoscopic in their detail. We as a community believe in the value of truth. We may argue about how relevant that truth is relative to narrative (in stories, I favor the latter), but we care all the same.
It is situations like Israel and Palestine that send the two notions ramming into each other. We want to believe that history can be derailed, but the facts seem intent on tying us to the rail to be run over by the train. In that long and ugly conflict, after a certain point the possibilities have been collapsed to a maddening few options, all resembling one another. All end in war, in fire, in death, in pain. It is not the only such example; the one that comes to my mind is the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. After a certain point in history, the white man’s dominance is assured. It is this excruciating contradiction that makes the whole enterprise seem futile.
What, then, should we as a community do when discussing these situations? There are no clear answers. Our community is committed to two notions that seem in concordance most of the time, but are jarringly dissonant in certain situations. My best recommendation is to read more, to challenge the very assumptions that we make and find evidence to argue against them, but then historical reality may just not comply. Clio is fickle, and alternate historians are at her mercy.