January 13, 2015
In Blog News
Joan Peters, a journalist whose 1984 book, “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” drew accolades and also outrage by arguing that claims of a historical Palestinian homeland in Israel were invented, died on Jan. 5 at her home in Chicago. She was 78.
The cause was a cerebral embolism, her husband, William Caro, said.
In her first chapter, Ms. Peters wrote that she had originally intended “From Time Immemorial” to be “solely an investigation of the current plight of the ‘Arab refugees.’ ” But over seven years of research and writing, the books’ character changed completely.
Ms. Peters cited historical documents showing that Arab settlers had flocked to Palestine beginning in the late 1800s, often drawn there by economic opportunities in areas that were being developed by Jewish settlers; they had not, she wrote, inhabited the land “from time immemorial.”
The widely accepted narrative of displaced Palestinian refugees had been created to justify the destruction of Israel, she asserted, concluding that Palestinian refugees should be absorbed by Arab nations like Jordan.
The book gained widespread attention and was awarded a National Jewish Book Award from the Jewish Book Council in 1985. It received positive reviews from Commentary, The New Republic and The Atlantic; the book’s jacket included praise from Elie Wiesel, Saul Bellow and Theodore H. White.
“Ideologues on both sides of the Arab-Israeli question will doubtless haggle savagely about the book’s voluminous sources and population charts,” Timothy Foote wrote in a review in The Washington Post Book World. “But the average reader is soon likely to be convinced of Peters’s major thesis.”
Critics of the book, including Norman Finkelstein, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, contended that Ms. Peters had cherry-picked evidence that supported her conclusions, ignoring records and historians who disagreed with her. They regarded the book as polemical and her as an inexperienced historian.
Writing in The New York Review of Books, Yehoshua Porath, a professor of Middle East history at Hebrew University, said the book was symptomatic of “the two contrasting mythologies that the Arabs and the Jews have developed to explain their situations.”
“Like most myths, these generally contain some element of plausibility,” he continued, “some grain of historical truth, which through terminological ambiguity is then twisted into a false and grotesque shape. The unfortunate thing” about the book, he added, “is that from a position of apparently great learning and research, she attempts to refute the Arab myths merely by substituting the Jewish myths for them.”
Ms. Peters stayed out of the spotlight as the debate raged, and she never published another book; her husband said she had remained involved with the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups.
She was born Joan Sydney Friedman on April 29, 1936, in Chicago and graduated from Roosevelt High School there. She studied at the University of Illinois without obtaining a degree before becoming a freelance writer for publications like Harper’s Magazine and The New Leader. She became fascinated by the Middle East while covering the Yom Kippur War as a freelancer for CBS News in 1973.
Her first marriage, to Gary Peters, ended in divorce. Her second marriage, to Stanley Kaplan, lasted until his death in 1991. She married Mr. Caro in 1997 and went by the name Joan Caro. In addition to him, she is survived by a daughter, Lore Peters; a brother, Barry Friedman; two stepsons, Mark and David Caro; and two step-granddaughters.