Efraim Karsh

Efraim Karsh
אפרים קארש
Born Efraim Karsh
1953 (age 6263)
Nationality Israeli, British
Known for Professor

Efraim Karsh (Hebrew: אפרים קארש; born 1953) is an Israeli–British historian, the founding director and emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies[1] at King's College London. Since 2013, he serves as professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University (where he also directs[2] the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies).[3] He is also a principal research fellow (and former director) of the Middle East Forum,[4] a Philadelphia-based think tank. He is regarded as a vocal critic of the New Historians, a group of Israeli scholars who have questioned the conventional history of the Arab–Israeli conflict.


Born and raised in Israel to Jewish immigrants to Palestine under the British Mandate, Karsh graduated in Arabic and Modern Middle East History from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and obtained an MA and PhD in International Relations from Tel Aviv University. After acquiring his first academic degree in modern Middle Eastern history, he was a research analyst for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), where he attained the rank of major.

Academic and media career

Karsh has held various academic posts at Harvard and Columbia universities, the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics, Helsinki University, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington D.C., and the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. In 1989 he joined King's College London, where he established the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Program, directing it for 16 years. He has published extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, Soviet foreign policy, and European neutrality, and is a founding editor of the scholarly journal Israel Affairs, and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He is a regular media commentator, has appeared on all the main radio and television networks in the United Kingdom and the United States, and has contributed articles to leading newspapers, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Times (London) and The Daily Telegraph.[5]


In his 2010 book Palestine Betrayed, followed by a 2011 editorial in Haaretz, Karsh articulated his belief that "the tragedy befalling the Palestinian Arabs in 1948 was exclusively of their own making". Karsh argued that many Palestinians fled their homes as the result of pressure from local Arab leaders "and/or the Arab Liberation Army that had entered Palestine prior to the end of the Mandate, whether out of military considerations or in order to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state." He stated that there is an "overwhelming and incontrovertible body of evidence" to support his position including "intelligence briefs, captured Arab documents, press reports, personal testimonies and memoirs..."[6] Karsh claims that "the deliberate depopulation of Arab villages and their transformation into military strongholds" began in December 1947.[6]

Selected book summaries

Empires of the Sand

Karsh's Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789–1922 was published in 1999, co-written by his wife Inari Rautsi-Karsh. Daniel Pipes called it a "tour de force that offers a profoundly new understanding of a key issue in modern Middle Eastern history:"[7]

"Efraim and Inari Karsh review the relations between Europe and the Ottoman empire in the final century-and-a-half of the latter's existence, and in the process nearly reverse the standard historical interpretation. According to that interpretation, from about the time of the French Revolution until World War I, a dynamic, arrogant, imperial Europe imposed its will on a static, humiliated, supine East. This framework is common to nearly every leading historian, almost regardless of era or political disposition.... Here is where the Karshes, a husband-and-wife team, step in. In 'Empires of the Sand,' they characterize the standard account as 'fundamentally misconceived.' Middle Easterners, they assert, 'were not hapless victims of predatory imperial powers but active participants in the restructuring of their region.' Put more directly: 'Twentieth-century Middle Eastern history is essentially the culmination of long-standing indigenous trends, passions, and patterns of behavior rather than an externally imposed dictate. Great-power influences, however potent, have played a secondary role, constituting neither the primary force behind the region's political development nor the main cause of its notorious volatility.' Drawing on a wide range of original sources, and writing in a clearly organized fashion and in fast-paced prose, the Karshes make a very compelling case for their revisionist position, establishing it point by point and in elegant detail."

Richard Bernstein characterized it as "a readable, scholarly re-examination of a long and complicated Middle Eastern history.... The main purpose of this very detailed and broad-shouldered history is to revise many of the standard interpretations that have been given to Middle Eastern history over the last two centuries. Most generally the Karshes dispute the idea that the main events and developments in the region stem from the machinations of the great powers, especially Britain and France. The ‘main impetus behind regional developments,’ they write, was ‘the local actors’ [...] The authors write clearly and authoritatively and with great geographical sweep. Those who do not know much of these events will learn a great deal from this book, while specialists with views differing from the Karshes’ will face a robust challenge to their interpretations.[8]

Anthony B. Toth published a review of Karsh's Empires of the Sand in the Journal of Palestine Studies, in which he wrote:

"This is a polemical book whose authors have extended the intemperate and unbalanced rhetoric customarily employed by dogmatic partisans of the Arab Israeli conflict to the normally sedate and measured arena of nineteenth - and early twentieth-century Ottoman history. The book relies mainly on Western published sources and official British documents. But their use of even these sources is limited, since they actually ignore most of nineteenth-century history. Instead, the authors emphasize those episodes they feel support their interpretations.[9]

Richard Bulliet, professor of history at the Middle East Institute of Columbia University wrote that Empires of the Sand is "a tendentious and unreliable piece of scholarship that should have been vetted more thoroughly by the publisher" and asserts that the authors failed to "contribute a dimension of sense and scholarship that raises the debate[s in question] to a higher level."[10] Karsh in response wondered "what credential did Bulliet possess, that a leading journal in the field should ask him to review our book? He is a medievalist who has done no research or writing on the subject. But in his spare time, he propagates the view of the Middle East and its nations as hapless victims of Western imperialism".

Response from Karsh

Karsh states that his book "has incurred the ire of the Arabist establishment" and that "scathing indictments have been made, on the basis of hearsay, without writers taking the trouble to read the book. A leading academic has even urged fellow academics to place negative reviews on the website of a major Internet bookstore, so as to warn potential readers of our book."[11]

Karsh argues that "[the]conventional view – absolving Middle Easterners and blaming the West – is academically unsound and morally reprehensible. It is academically unsound because the facts tell an altogether different story of modern Middle Eastern history, one that has consistently been suppressed because of its incongruity with the politically correct dogmas of the Arabist establishment. And it is morally reprehensible because denying the responsibility of individuals and societies for their actions is patronizing and in the worst tradition of the 'white man's burden' approach, which has dismissed regional players as half-witted creatures, too dim to be accountable for their own fate... Little wonder therefore that Empires of the Sand was more favorably received by Middle Eastern intellectuals, fed up with being talked down to and open to real revisionism of their region's history after suffering decades of condescension from their paternalistic champions in the West."[11]

Islamic Imperialism

In 2006 Karsh published Islamic Imperialism: A History, stating that Islam started out as a Great Jihad that lasted over a thousand years, and persisted in the Ottoman Empire right up through World War I, and is still alive today with the jihad against Israel, the 9/11 Attack, al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.

In his review of Islamic Imperialism', Amir Taheri praised Karsh:

"Anyone interested in the debate about the place of Islam in the modern world should read this book... Karsh offers a new approach. He rejects the condescending approach of the apologists and the hateful passion of the Islamophobes. Instead he presents Islam as a rival for Western civilisation in what is, after all, a contest for shaping of mankind. Karsh does not hide whose side he is on in this contest. Muslim readers would respect him because, while he designates Islam as an adversary, he respects them."

But Taheri does criticize Karsh's take on Islamic philosophy: "[Karsh] speaks of 'Islam's wholesale incorporation of Hellenistic culture and science', something that did not happen, and sees it as the genesis of Islamic politics and jurisprudence. He also states that Islam was attractive to people it conquered because in it 'ethnic and tribal origins counted for nothing'. But three of the Prophet's immediate successors were his fathers-in-law while the fourth was his son-in-law."[12]

Robert Fulford said of Islamic Imperialism:

"Only a shrewd and talented revisionist, a professor with curiosity and nerve, could take on the clichés of Middle East scholarship and insist that they be reconsidered. That describes Efraim Karsh, a much-published and much-admired professor at the University of London. His new book deserves serious consideration by anyone who cares about this debate."[13]

Fulford also notes Karsh's criticism of Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? (2002) in the book: "Bernard Lewis...misses the point, Karsh implies. The warlike stance of Islamists is not a riposte to Western imperialism. It's indigenous, deeply rooted in Muslim culture, and the most significant product of the Islamic belief that politics and religion are one. Karsh finds, in Islamic writing and practice, a profound impulse to expand Muslim power and eventually rule all countries."[13]

Robert Spencer said of Islamic Imperialism:[14]

"The evidence he presents in this book of the continuity of the motives and goals of Islamic imperialists from Muhammad's day to our own should be sufficient to put paid to the simplistic and misleading notion that Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority of violent extremists — and should lead, in the hands of policymakers of sufficient imagination and courage, to more realistic ways of dealing with this newly resurgent challenge."

Palestine Betrayed

Karsh's 2010 book Palestine Betrayed is about the Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic), "the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands [of] Palestinians from their homes and land in 1948." (The Electronic Intifada Website). According to Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes:[15]

"With his customary in-depth archival research — in this case, relying on masses of recently declassified documents from the period of British rule and of the first Arab–Israeli war, 1917–49 — clear presentation, and meticulous historical sensibility, Karsh argues the opposite case: that Palestinians decided their own destiny and bear near-total responsibility for becoming refugees."

In Karsh's words:

"Far from being the hapless victims of a predatory Zionist assault, it was Palestinian Arab leaders who, from the early 1920s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival which culminated in the violent attempt to abort the U.N. partition resolution... There was nothing inevitable about the Palestinian–Jewish confrontation, let alone the Arab–Israeli conflict."

According to Pipes: "Yet more counterintuitively, Karsh shows that his understanding was the conventional, indeed the undisputed interpretation in the late 1940s. Only with the passage of time did 'Palestinians and their Western supporters gradually rewr[i]te their national narrative,' thereby making Israel into the unique culprit, the one excoriated in the United Nations, university classrooms, and editorials. Karsh successfully makes his case by establishing two main points: that (1) the Jewish-Zionist-Israeli side perpetually sought to find a compromise while the Palestinian-Arab-Muslim side rejected nearly all deals; and (2) Arab intransigence and violence caused the self-inflicted 'catastrophe.'"

Praise and criticism

Howard Sachar sees Karsh as the "preeminent scholar-spokesman of the Revisionist (politically-rightist) Movement in Zionism."[16]

Author David Rodman opined, "Karsh stitches together a seemingly irrefutable case for the validity of the traditionalist narrative, possibly bringing to an end once and for all the New Historian phenomenon as a sustainable historiographical project."[17]

New Historians leader Benny Morris called Karsh's Fabricating Israeli History "a mélange of distortions, half-truths, and plain lies that vividly demonstrates his profound ignorance of both the source material... and the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict," titling his article "Undeserving of a Reply".[18] Morris adds that Karsh belabors minor points while ignoring the main pieces of evidence.[19]

Political scientist Ian Lustick commented that Karsh's writing in Fabricating Israeli History was malevolent, and his analysis erratic and sloppy.[20][21]

Yezid Sayigh, professor of Middle East studies, wrote that Karsh "is simply not what he makes himself out to be, a trained historian (nor political/social scientist)."[11] Karsh accused Sayigh of a "misleading misrepresentation of my scholarly background" and retorted that Sayigh's remarks were "not a scholarly debate on facts and theses but a character assassination couched in high pseudo-academic rhetoric".[11]

Published works





  1. Professor Efraim Karsh, King's College London Research Portal
  2. Middle East Forum List of Staff
  3. Curriculum Vitae of Efraim Karsh
  4. 1 2 Reclaiming a Historical Truth, Haaretz
  5. Daniel Pipes' review of 'Empires of the Sand'
  6. New York Times, 1 December 1999, p8.
  7. Anthony B. Toth, "History as Ideology", a review of Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789–1923, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 85–86.
  8. Richard W Bulliett. The Middle East Journal. Washington: Autumn 2000. Vol. 54, Iss. 4; p. 667–8
  9. 1 2 3 4 "The Unbearable Lightness of My Critics", Karsh, Efraim. Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002.
  10. Taheri, Amir (28 May 2006). "A different civilisation". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  11. 1 2 Islam's yearning for empire
  12. www.meforum.org
  13. www.danielpipes.org
  14. Sachar, Howard. "Palestine Betrayed Reviews". Yale University Press. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
  15. Rodman, David (Summer 2010). "Review of Palestine Betrayed". The Middle East Quarterly. Retrieved 2014-08-11.
  16. Morris, 1996, "Undeserving of a Reply", The Middle East Quarterly
  17. Benny Morris, "Refabricating 1948", review of Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians." by Efraim Karsh, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2. (Winter, 1998), pp. 81–95.
  18. I. Lustick, 1997, 'Israeli History: Who is Fabricating What?', Survival, 39(3), p.156–166
  19. I. Lustick, 1997, Survival, 39(4), p.197–198
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