Inside Story

The land of living dangerously

Would bending be the bravest option for Israel, asks Sara Dowse

Sara Dowse 13 February 2014 2923 words

English soldiers expelling Arab residents from Jerusalem during the revolts of 1936–39. Nationaal Archief

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
By Ari Shavit | Scribe | $45

ARIEL SHARON has been buried. Like Margaret Thatcher’s, his death evoked markedly contrasting responses. A majority of Israelis and a host of Western dignitaries have honoured the quintessential tough guy that he was – the canny, macho general who fought in Israel’s wars, from the 1948 War of Independence to the war in Lebanon in the 1980s, and who as prime minister crushed the Intifada and erected the security wall around his country. To Palestinians and their sympathisers, Jew and Arab alike, he was “The Bulldozer” who flattened Palestinian homes with impunity, “The Butcher” responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the man who triggered the Second Intifada by his provocative walk to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, the man whose policies from the beginning were designed to secure Israel’s foothold on Palestinian territory; for them, the tragedy of his death after eight years in a coma is that he was never brought to justice, never made accountable for his crimes.

By now, one thing is obvious: there is no single story of Israel–Palestine. In the broad sense, what we have are two competing narratives: Israeli and Palestinian. There is the War of Independence and there is the Nakba – the Catastrophe – and there is all that unfolds from each of these radically different perspectives. The conflict at the core of the creation of a Jewish state in what was Palestine elicits powerful, personal, often heartbreaking responses among Jews as well as Palestinians, whether they live in the region or not.

In 2006, Antony Loewenstein published My Israel Question, his open repudiation of Israel as an Australian Jew. As an American-born Jew with family links to the pioneering Zionists whose history I was researching, I had come to agree with Loewenstein’s position, and penned a long review of his book during Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in that same year. For non-Jews, especially those who have struggled to overcome their prejudices in the light of the Holocaust, these stories can seem impenetrable. What is at issue? Israel is a modern miracle, the Middle East’s only democracy, Western civilisation’s bulwark against Islamic extremism. What’s to argue? they will ask.

Inside Israel, the spectrum of opinion has been wider, the controversies more nuanced. There are human rights groups like B’Tselem, Machsom Watch and Breaking the Silence; and there are the West Bank settlers, supported by the government and, brutally, by its army, yet blatantly contravening international law (the Abbott government’s position notwithstanding). But as Israel’s existential predicament becomes ever more apparent, as its internal contradictions become sharper, Israelis have retreated into what its critics have dubbed “the bubble,” a technocratic, hedonistic, consumerist sanctuary where Palestinians are unseen and attitudes have hardened.

Ari Shavit is such a critic, if not an unsympathetic one. A leading public intellectual, he has been a civil rights activist and is a regular contributor to Haaretz, Israel’s left-of-centre newspaper. My Promised Land is a remarkable book, one of the best to come out of Israel, up there with Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete, Susan Nathan’s The Other Side of Israel, and the trenchant works of Jeff Halper or Ilan Pappé. Unflinching in its revelations, highly readable, it has been warmly received in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, barometers of shifting American liberal opinion. Like Loewenstein’s book, it is a memoir that breaches the parameters of the genre with a patient, detailed exposition of Israel’s history. It remains idiosyncratic, of course, and Shavit has omitted whole swathes of opposing interpretation, which I will come back to later.

Shavit begins by identifying intimidation and occupation as the two key factors that inform Israeli policy and determine the kind of state Israel has become. In May 1948, by the very act of unilaterally declaring itself a state, it became a colonial power, the Catastrophe for the displaced Palestinians and an affront to the surrounding Arab nations. Its enemies vowed to “push into the sea” this mere sliver of land on the shore of the Mediterranean. Tempered by spells of truncated negotiation, Israel managed to maintain a fragile peace in what might otherwise be characterised as an ongoing state of war. Victorious in the Six-Day War of 1967, when Shavit was a boy of nine, Israel occupied yet more Arab land. Retaining the occupied territories was initially justified as a way of securing peace but, as Shavit concedes, it has only intensified the sense of intimidation: “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear.” It might have been exacerbated by years of Israeli intransigence, but the Israeli feeling of being intimidated cannot be denied. It is buried deep in the Israeli psyche and that of many Jews in the Diaspora.

ZIONISM began as a reaction to nineteenth-century European anti-Semitism and the parlous condition of the Jews in tsarist Russia. It had significant support among English evangelical Christians, men like Lloyd George who saw Hebrew irredentism in Palestine as both a just resolution of Jewish statelessness and a means of establishing a British foothold in the Levant (a similar, though in many ways strikingly different, championship to that of today’s American Christian Zionists). In April 1897, four months before the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Ari Shavit’s great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, participated in a fact-finding tour of Palestine charged with reporting to the Congress. A prominent London solicitor and pillar of the Anglo-Jewish community, the fervently Zionist Bentwich was blind to the pastoral runs, the tenant farms, the mills, the fields, the olive groves and villages dotted through the land. Instead, he saw backwardness and emptiness. When he emigrated to Palestine years later, he joined in what had already become a dedicated colonial project.

By 1920 that project was in full swing. With the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Palestine was now ruled by Britain, mandated to provide the Jewish people with “a national home,” though not to the “detriment” of the existing inhabitants. American Zionists bought a large swathe of land in the lower Galilee known as the Je’ezreel Valley, and there the Gdud HaAvoda, or Labour Brigade, a roving collective of Jewish pioneers, began replacing local farmers. The Gdud drained the swamplands, built the roads connecting the Galilee with the coast, and set up their kibbutz, Ein Harod, at the base of Mount Gilboa. Ein Harod represented the socialist Zionism of the Third Aliyah – in Shavit’s reckoning, the true “genesis of the Zionist adventure.” But British complicity in wholesale Jewish immigration and the consequent removal of Arab tenant farmers from their holdings provoked riots in 1920, 1921 and 1929. As a result of the last incident, the British introduced quotas for Jewish immigrants, at the very moment when the threat to European Jews was deepening and countries like Britain, Australia and Canada were closing their doors.

Patiently, courageously, Shavit tells his story. It is not a pleasant one. Even in the 1930s, when the British Mandate economy was finding its feet, with the citrus groves of Rehovot and Petah Tikvah carving out an English market for their “Jaffa” oranges, tensions between the colonists and the Palestinians sharpened. A reprise of the 1920s riots, but far bloodier and more widespread, segued into an outright revolt that lasted three years, from 1936 to 1939, on the brink of the second world war. The Arab Mufti aligned himself with Hitler, and as Rommel achieved his early successes in North Africa it looked for one truly frightening moment as if Palestinian Jews would share the fate of Jews in Europe.

It was that fate, the industrialised murder of six million Jews, that clinched it for the Zionists. On the one hand was a determination that such a calamity would never be repeated, that the Jews would have a refuge; on the other was the guilt of the entire Western world. It is no little irony that the Holocaust made the state of Israel possible. After the British washed their hands of Palestine (and its seemingly irreconcilable internecine conflict, largely of their own making) the member states of the new United Nations proposed a partition. The Zionists were content with almost half the loaf, but the Arabs were appalled that with three-quarters of Palestine’s population they were being asked to forfeit so much of it. A civil war erupted. In the following year the Zionists unilaterally declared the independent state of Israel and the United Nations voted its support. The surrounding Arab states came to the aid of the Palestinians but failed in their mission in the face of Israeli resolve. The driving belief among the Zionists was that, while Palestinians could find a home in neighbouring Arab countries, the Holocaust was undeniable proof that, when push came to shove, Jews had nowhere else to go.

NINETEEN FORTY-EIGHT: Israel’s War of Independence; Palestine’s Nakba. These are the opening chapters of the two narratives that have shaped the region’s history. Shavit negotiates between them fearlessly and fairly. For a long time Western understanding held that Israel lost its innocence with the occupation, but historians with access to the archives have knocked that notion on the head. There was no innocence in 1948. Though we don’t like the term applied to a country like Israel, ethnic cleansing was there at its inception. Shavit doesn’t deny this. To illustrate what happened, he focuses on the destruction of the Palestinian city of Lydda, a modernised city of 19,000 that enjoyed the boom of the 1930s, and the forced dispersal of its inhabitants. But he doesn’t claim that Lydda was unique, a single unfortunate incident. The Jewish National Fund, which I contributed to as a teenager, helped plant the pine forests that cover what remains of hundreds of obliterated Palestinian villages. As it is in so many settler societies, the landscape of modern Israel is a palimpsest, with its barely suppressed layers of pain and bitterness.

But having acknowledged this, what does Shavit make of it? Or of the occupation, approaching its forty-seventh year? The reason his book has been so well received in quarters where you’d expect these unpleasant facts to be denied, and excoriated in those you’d expect to applaud his acknowledgement of them, is that Shavit believes they were necessary. It was necessary for Jewry to settle in Palestine because of Russia’s Jewish Pale and its pogroms, and because of the strident anti-Semitism gathering force in Europe. It was necessary to remove Arab peasants from their holdings to make way for the kibbutzim. It was necessary to discriminate against Arabs when the very existence of Jews was at stake. It was necessary to refuse to negotiate with “terrorists.” It was necessary to bomb Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors, as it’s been necessary to nip Iran’s nuclear capacity in the bud, if not by outright bombing then by assassinating its nuclear scientists. Only the illegal West Bank settlements may have been a mistake, but now that they exist they are just another fait accompli, another “fact on the ground” that cannot be undone. Threaded throughout Shavit’s narrative is his own blind acceptance that all along the way Zionist intransigence was necessary. There was no choice and, however sadly, it must ever be so:

The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation. What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge. The adrenaline rush of living dangerously, living to the extreme.

The trouble with all this is that it’s far from the whole story. Shavit omits the Zionism that, right from the start, was eager to find a homeland in Palestine but wary of establishing a Jewish state. He ignores those who gave voice to the necessity of a binational state, and were jailed for their views. Theirs was the road not taken, but it’s salient to realise that there was such a road. The push for a specifically Jewish state came from Theodor Herzl and the political Zionism that was essentially his creation. It was opposed by a Zionist thinker we rarely hear of these days: Ahad Ha’am, or Asher Ginsberg, whose cultural Zionism had a significant following in Zionism’s early years.

Shavit’s selectivity is particularly marked in his chapter on the Gdud HaAvoda’s work in the Jez’reel Valley and its kibbutz Ein Harod. I know about this because of my research into the life of a great-aunt who was a member of the Gdud, and Ein Harod was only part of its story. The Gdud split into factions, only one of which was involved in the settlement at Ein Harod. The rest preferred to proceed as a roving collective, and after leaving the valley they took what jobs they could get, mining potash by the Dead Sea, lending a hand in building Tel Aviv. They took a stand against the exclusion of Arab workers in the Histadrut, Labour Zionism’s Jewish trade union, and were crushed for their socialist views and Arab sympathies. A group of them became communists and were jailed by the British for supporting the Arab riot of 1929. The jurist Judah Magnes spoke out strongly for a binational state, as did the philosopher Martin Buber, but they too were sidelined.

It’s important, if tragic enough, to recognise that these strands of Zionism existed. And it’s arguable that had that road been taken, the conflict Shavit claims can only be resolved by further war might have been dealt with differently. Despite that alternative, however, critics like me are invariably reminded that Israel, the Jewish state, has been in existence for nearly seven decades, and is an undeniable “fact on the ground.” But this has always been political Zionism’s way, right back to the 1890s: bit by bit, establishing these “facts on the ground.” It is the way today with the West Bank settlements, which Ariel Sharon encouraged by offering cut-rate mortgages to prospective buyers when he was demoted to housing minister after the disgrace of Sabra and Shatila. The combined effect of the settlements, with populations nudging half a million, and of Sharon’s “security wall,” which sliced off even more bits of occupied Palestinian land, is to render any future Palestinian state unviable, even as it’s finally been accepted in principle and promoted as a means to peace by Israel and the Western powers. “Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be,” Shavit writes, “but what has evolved in this land is not to be dismissed.”

The supremest irony is that it looks as though the single-state proponents have won the day after all. Israel, along with the occupied territories, or Judea and Samaria, or Greater Israel, as the right wing is disposed to call it, or Israel–Palestine as it is in more leftist parlance, does in fact comprise one state. Only it’s an apartheid one. Moreover, flanked by unstable regimes in danger of succumbing to Islamic extremism, its fate is uncertain, to say the least. Instead of contemplating giving Palestinians and Jews equal rights within a single political entity, Shavit would have Israel revert to the pioneering zeal of old – the macho militarism that put backbone in the Zionist struggle and made of its dream the nation it is today – and fight to the death for it. For what could be the result if one way or another Israel were overrun, or if Israel–Palestine were no longer essentially Jewish?

The answer is to be found in Shavit’s introduction. It is his profoundest belief, shared by many, that were it not for Israel’s existence, Jewishness as we have known it was destined to fade away. In a sense, what kept it going was the ghetto, the very ghetto we sought to escape. In reality, though, most Jews have found their freedom in English-speaking countries like Shavit’s great-grandfather’s, and of course here and in America. But Shavit seems to fear assimilation more than he does war, and only in the Jewish state has the erosion been halted. But if that is its raison d’être, the question to ask is whether the price is too high. Is assimilation really the danger, the lamentable alternative Shavit makes out?

The truth is there has never been a single Jewishness. Rather than our disappearing into a Jewishless space, think how we have made that space Jewish, with our Yiddishisms, our humour, our talents and cuisine, and how such a culture could enrich rather than deny the Palestinian one, and vice versa. Even WASPS eat bagels now, and Jews love hummus. Yes, we’ve had a tragic history; but bending may well be our most humane, our bravest option. Far, far better than defending another ghetto, and blowing up the Middle East in the bargain. •