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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Are the Crusades part of the history of Israel or the history of Palestine?

Every so often, someone who edits the History of Palestine on Wikipedia notices that there is an overlap problem:  A lot of the content on the History of Palestine also exists on the History of Israel, and so that person suggests, on the History of Palestine's discussion page, that the History of Israel should really only be about Israeli history since 1948 and the rest of the content deleted.
What then happens is a chorus of agreement on the History of Palestine page, so this good natured person goes to the discussion page on the History of Israel and announces this agreement. They then invite anyone to respond - on the History of Palestine's discussion page of course - before apparently planning to enact their plans.
The first time this happened I was perturbed. I looked at the History of Palestine and discovered it was really dull. It looked like a committee had written it (it has) and secondly you would find it difficult to realize that Jews had ever lived in "Palestine" from reading it.  It was just a catalog of empires that had ruled "Palestine".  
Then I checked number of hits  and : the History of Israel gets 3 or 4 times as much traffic.
What worried me most was the thought that they might be right.  Perhaps the History of Israel was really just a propaganda page. I decided to consult an expert and sent an e-mail to Professor Benny Morris who is the Israeli historian I most admire.  I didn't really expect to get an answer, but it seemed worth a try.  To my surprise I got an answer within a few hours.  He had read the History of Israel and skimmed the History of Palestine and thought,as I did, that they totally underplayed the Jewish connection to Palestine/Israel.  He also thought that if they wanted to join the two pages they should call it The History of Eretz Israel - Palestine.  That brought a smile to my face.  I can only imagine the consternation that would cause them.  He told me there were errors in the page that would be remedied by reading his book, Righteous Victims, but agreed that the Jews didn't suddenly disappear in the first century.  He told me the introduction was a bit propagandish.   I'd publish his letter here, but it seems rude.  He didn't expect it to be published.

I told the History of Palestine people what he said and gave my opinion which is that there exist two parallel narratives related to Israel/Palestine, and that the best way to avoid conflict is for us each to tell our own version of the narrative. Otherwise we will just be at each others throat all the time.  To some extent we are.  The Israel-Palestine issue causes more conflict in Wikipedia then any other.

After that I avoided Wikipedia for about six months.  In the mean time various editors changed the History of Israel.  they completely re-wrote the introduction and entered details of what it was called at every stage. Under Moslem rule it was always a province of Syria and never called Palestine.  Some of what they did was messy but some of it was good.  At some point I noticed nobody was doing much so I went back in and  fixed things up.

Recently the good people of the History of Palestine came back again. This time I told them that I thought it was their page that should be deleted (and then I ordered Benny Morris's book). I said "Palestine" only existed under the 30 years of the British Mandate and it is now part of Israel. Countries called Israel have existed in the past (during the Jewish revolts against Rome they called the country Israel). I pointed out that Hebrew dates back to at least 1000 BC and developed in Palestine/Israel.  That Judaism is just as old and also developed locally.  I didn't say it but Islam and Arabic are the religion and language of invaders. All be it long ago.  They went away and so far haven't come back.

On Simchat Torah this year, it rained heavily for the first time in over six months. Hebrew has a special word for the first rain (Yoreh) and for the last rain (Malkosh), this was the first. Every year Jews read the five books of Moses in the Synagogues.  They finish at Simchat Torah, which is the final day of an eight day festival, hold a celebration and then start again.  In an article in Ha'Aretz, Israeli-Arab satirist Sayed Kashua quoted his father as saying that "it always rains at Sukkot".  I suddenly realized that the timing of Simchat Torah - to coincide with the first rains - is no accident.

By the way, in case you're wondering, The Crusaders called the country Outremer: overseas.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

How I became one of world's most influential writers on Israeli history.

About five years ago I worked for a company who didn't have enough work for me. To fill in time I started editing Israeli history related items on Wikipedia.  At first I was editing on the Israel page but then I realized that the History of Israel had almost nothing on it. So I started filling the page in and soon found it quite addictive, ending up buying books so that I could learn more about different periods and tracing ancient Jewish history.

I found out some surprising things, for example that a massive Jewish presence continued for centuries after the destruction of the temple; that the 2000 year long Jewish dispersal was really more of a 1500 year dispersal and that during both the Jewish revolt and the later Bar Kochba revolt, the coins issued bore the title 'Israel'. I also discovered that Judean soldiers had saved the lives of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar when they were under siege in Alexandria.

Wikipedia is an incredibly powerful vehicle of education and a first stop for undergraduates and high school students looking for information.  A major reason for this is that Google will automatically rank the Wikipedia  as the top or one of the top results for any search topic. One of the reasons I know this is that I used to work for Google checking search results.

According to the Israel page gets about 450,000 visits a month and is one of the 200 most visited pages in Wikipedia.
The History of Israel by way of contrast gets about 30,000 visits a month, not as much as Israel but still a pretty major readership.  Of course many of those probably take one look and then go somewhere else, but other Wikipedia editors also use it and material entered in one article sometimes ends up in other articles and, I suspect, in other languages.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia but it generally takes high-level subject knowledge, a knack for good writing and neutral descriptions as well as persistence to ensure that your edits are retained over time.  I have an MA in History from the University of London which focused on the Mandate of Palestine Middle Eastern history and the Holocaust.  I also have an MA in Political Science from Tel Aviv University. My BA in Politics from Sussex University generally focused on Africa.
I'm not that young either so I also have a long memory of Israeli history.

What all this means is that most of the material in the History of Israel is my work and that as one of the primary contributors to the page I am in effect one of the world's most influential writers on the History of Israel.  The downside is that I get no public recognition and that it is very time consuming.

To view a summary of my edits:

A list of my recent contributions:

My user page: