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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Debunking the "Bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man" myth

In the introduction to his influential 2001 book "The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World," Avi Shlaim writes:


The book was not only a sensation, but the entire introduction with this prologue was published in the New York Times website.

This anecdote spread like wildfire in the anti-Zionist world. It was quoted widely in scholarly journals and books and in fact became the basis for the title of a book by Ghada Karmi called "Married to Another Man" where she argues that Israel must not exist as a Jewish state.

And no wonder. Avi Shlaim is an acclaimed revisionist historian and this myth that Jews muscled into Israel and stole the land away from the Arabs is all the more compelling when it appears that they did it knowingly, in stark terms of stealing a bride away from a loving husband.

However, Shai Afsai in the latest Shofar journal proves that this story is a myth. He tracks down the truth starting with Karmi:

Where did Karmi get this story from? For some time, she did not respond to e-mails requesting information on her source, but in 2010 she furnished this reply: “The story’s origins has caused me problems. I got the citation from Avi Shlaim at Oxford, who gave me a reference for it, which turned out not to be correct. I then searched hard for the source and have come up with a blank. I fear it might be apocryphal, much as I had not wanted that. Sorry!” She later added that Shlaim told her “the story had appeared in a book by Muhammad Hassanein Heikal. But it was not there.” By then, she had already been repeating various versions of it for several years, in essays, lectures, interviews, and an entire book titled after the story. Her scholarly paradigm assumed the immorality of Zionism, and she found support for her essential position in a fabrication.
Shlaim, as Afsai notes, has lots of footnotes in his book - but none for this story:
As with Karmi and Pagden, Shlaim provides no source for the “married to another man” story he tells, despite there being twenty-one pages of notes at the back of The Iron Wall. Responding to a question about his source, Shlaim wrote in a 2009 e-mail that it was Mohamed Heikal’s Secret Channels (1996). This book is listed in Shlaim’s bibliography, along with two other works by Heikal, a prominent Egyptian journalist, author, and commentator, who was the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram for many years, as well as an adviser to (and mouthpiece of) Egypt’s President Nasser. In Secret Channels, Heikal writes:

Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress, which brought together Jewish representatives from many countries. It was held in Basel, Switzerland on 23 August 1897 and is regarded by Jews as a landmark in the creation of the state of Israel. The World Zionist Congress was created with the aim of establishing “a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” After the Basel conference the rabbis of Vienna decided to see for themselves what Herzl was talking about, and sent two representatives to Palestine. A cable sent by the two rabbis during their visit became famous: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” It was a message Zionists did not wish to hear, and the inconvenient husband was never acknowledged.

As with Karmi, Pagden, and Shlaim’s accounts, no source for the Viennese expedition and its “famous” cable is provided in Heikal’s Secret Channels. In fact, the book has no endnotes at all, nor does it contain a bibliography, which raises the question of how Shlaim could consider Secret Channels an adequate source for the veracity of the “married to another man” story. In his preface to The Iron Wall, he writes of his method:

Like the British historian E. H. Carr, I believe that the main task of the historian is not to record but to evaluate.

Carr also described the writing of history as a perpetual dialogue between the historian and his sources. A word about the sources used in the writing of this book might therefore be of some interest . . . wherever possible I have preferred to rely on primary sources, whether in English, French, Hebrew, or Arabic.”62


Somehow, the “married to another man” story Shlaim found in Heikal’s book warranted no evaluation, needed no dialogue between the historian and his source, and did not require seeking out a primary source for it in any language.
The story is, in other words, a lie.

Yet that lie persists. For example, in a recent interview with David Wilder, Egyptian/Belgian journalist Khaled Diab quotes it twice to make the point that Jews knew that the land belonged to Arabs.

This is one of those stories that the anti-Zionist world finds "too good to check." The "rabbis" aren't named, no sources are cited, and it is just regarded as truth because it is what the anti-Israel crowd desperately wants to believe, so they have elevated the story to mythic status.

Will we be seeing any corrections from the many "Middle East scholars" like Anthony Pagden, Ghada Karmi and Avi Shlaim who quote a lie without checking?

(h/t Diana Muir Applebaum and Challah Hu Akbar for research)