My recent trip to Israel prompted two reading self-assignments: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, and Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Fear and Loathing in Greater Israel. Both books, in truth, had been on my to-read list for many months. I had already talked about the Shavit book in my post of 11/17/13, and then heard Shavit speak in Brooklyn. An excerpt from Blumenthal’s book had appeared in The Nation of 11/4/13, alongside a scathing review by The Nation’s Eric Alterman. Blumenthal replied and Nation readers and others on the Internet joined in the polemical fray, so my curiosity was piqued.
I have quarrels with both books, but both are, on balance, good and important works. They are very different, but to some degree they complement each other; each fills in some blanks left by the other.
As the title suggests, My Promised Land is an unabashed celebration of Israel, though Shavit brings some tough love to the festivities. A correspondent for Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal daily, Shavit explains that his book is not an academic work of history: “Rather, it is a personal journey through contemporary and historic Israel, recounting the larger Israeli saga by telling several dozen specific Israeli stories that are significant and poignant.”
Shavit writes beautifully; his book is a pleasure to read. The stories he tells—developed from documentary research as well as from interviews—provide vivid accounts of the experiences of a wide range of Israelis, starting with his great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a prosperous, high-minded British Jew who was appalled at the repression heaped on his less fortunate co-religionists in Eastern Europe. Bentwich first traveled to Jaffa in 1897 as leader of an exploratory mission of 21 Zionists investigating the possibility of a refuge and homeland for Jews in Eretz Israel (also known as Palestine). I found Shavit’s portraits of Bentwich and other Jews of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish population in Palestine) especially compelling. Only the most hardened anti-Zionist could fail to admire the people whom Shavit portrays, powered by idealism, selflessness, courage and endless resourcefulness–and sometimes driven as well by fear and desperation—to found a new nation against formidable odds. And yes, the old cliché is true, literally and figuratively: the Jews did make the desert bloom.
But, Shavit reminds us repeatedly, there was a tragic flaw in the Zionist mission. The land the Jews sought for their own was already occupied by another people. As Shavit sees it, the Zionists couldn’t help but discomfit and displace the indigenous Arab population. In the beginning, most Jews dealt with this harsh reality by ignoring it as best they could:
My great-grandfather does not see [the Arabs] because he is motivated by the need not to see. He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back. But my great-grandfather cannot turn back. So that he can carry on, my great grandfather chooses not to see.
The Arabs did see the Jews, however, and increasingly resented the prospect of marginalization in their own centuries-old homeland. Horrific anti-Jewish violence erupted sporadically during the 1920s. In the late 1930s a major renewal of Arab terrorism evoked large-scale Jewish reprisal terrorism for the first (but not the last) time. Now, Zionist leaders like David Ben Gurion talked about the possibility of a transfer of Arab population out of Palestine in order to secure the goal of a national home for the Jews.
The opportunity for transfer came after the November 1947 United Nations vote to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab zones. The partition resolution led to a Jewish-Arab civil war in Palestine, followed by a war between the newly proclaimed (May 1948) state of Israel and its neighboring Arab countries. The narrative of that war best known to most Israelis and Americans features a valiant Israel overcoming a multi-pronged invasion by existing Arab countries. There is another narrative, however, that Palestinian Arabs know best and that Shavit tells very well. That narrative is of Israeli military and paramilitary forces using the cover of war to drive much of the Arab population out of Palestine.
Shavit tells the story in his chapter on Lydda, an Arab town of some 19,000 people occupied by Israeli forces in April 1948. Shavit recounts how Moshe Dayan’s Regiment 89 freely sprayed cannon and machine gun fire as it entered the town: “In forty-seven minutes of blitz, more than a hundred Arab civilians are shot dead—women, children, old people.” Another couple of hundred civilians are slaughtered the next day. The Arabs get the idea. The town leaders, meeting with the invading Israelis, agree to evacuate. Soon the entire population is forming a long column marching out of town, “disappearing into the East.”
Lydda was not an aberration but a process that was replicated with variations in dozens of places both before and after the proclamation of Israeli statehood. Shavit describes how a group of 120 youthful kibbutzniks-in-training morphed in short order into a hardened paramilitary strike force:
In mid-January, eight of the boys carry out their first roadside ambush: they open fire with a machine gun on an Arab taxi, killing all of its innocent passengers. In mid-February some of them participate in their first commando-style raid: they blow up sixteen stone houses in a remote Galilee village, killing sixty….And on the eve of May Day, they descend the mountain of Kna’an to conquer a village for the very first time. They drive away the eight hundred inhabitants, loot the village and blow it up.
By the end of summer 1948 some 700-750,000 Arabs had fled. The new state of Israel now had a solid Jewish majority.
Shavit’s book is the first popular history (to my knowledge) that explodes the myth, promoted for decades by Israeli governments, that the Arab exodus of 1948 was voluntary. (A hoary version of the myth is that the Arabs left their homes at the urging of their leaders, who told them they would be able to return after the defeat of the Jews.) The brutal truth that Shavit tells is that the great achievement of Zionism—the founding of the state of Israel—rested on the deliberate displacement and dispossession of another people, what Palestinians call their Nakba (catastrophe): “Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism….if Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.”
But while Shavit expresses horror at the terror and expulsions perpetrated by the Zionists in 1948, he avers that he cannot condemn them, because their acts were necessary to enable the birth of Israel:
“…[If] it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.
This echoes the view of Israeli historian Benny Morris. In an interview conducted a decade ago by none other than Ari Shavit, Morris asserted that the mass uprooting of Palestinian Arabs was necessary for the foundation of the state of Israel, and observed “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.”
So, the Shavit/Morris view is that the foundation of the state of Israel was a noble and necessary objective, which justified whatever ignoble means were employed. What’s done is done, and the good that came of 1948 outweighs the bad. Of course, the weighing of ends and means, of the bad and the good that might result, is often critical to assessing a course of action. The process becomes morally problematic, however, when the good and the bad accrue to different parties. This evidently doesn’t occur to Shavit, who avoids moral judgment or speculation.
Shavit fully acknowledges, however, that if you’re among the broken eggs, you are unlikely to appreciate the good in the omelet. He concedes that the Palestinian victims of 1948 and their progeny have had good reason to resent the Israel that was constructed at their expense. Shavit faults the Israeli moderate left—largely loyal to the Labor Party that dominated Israeli politics for nearly three decades—for not confronting the black box of Lydda. The moderate left has focused on Israel’s post-1967 occupation of the West Bank as the main obstacle to peace, but, according to Shavit, this reflects wishful thinking—it wishes away the enduring Palestinian enmity toward Israel generated in 1948.
Shavit is a sharp critic of the occupation, which he calls a “moral, demographic and political disaster,” but he is hardly less critical of the view that ending the occupation will bring peace. Israel, he believes, must live with an irreducible, tragic contradiction:
“[I]f Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood–inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security. The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.
So, Shavit sees little hope for genuine, lasting peace with security for Israel. He closes with a paean to the country he loves,
…a free society that is creative and passionate and frenzied. It gives the ones who live here a unique quality of life: warmth, directness, openness….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.
Shavit clearly feels that it would be hypocritical of him, a beneficiary of this wonderful society, to condemn the dirty deeds that were critical to its creation. This is dubious, both logically and morally. There is no logical necessity for the beneficiary of a series of past acts to endorse or condone them. The absurd implication of Shavit’s position is that any Israeli who condemns the perpetration of the Nakba is a hypocrite if he declines to emigrate from Israel. Shavit’s position is morally dubious because it is an abdication of responsibility, a cop-out. Shavit never entertains an obvious possible implication of his discussion of 1948—that the triumphant Israelis had and continue to have a moral obligation to somehow compensate their victims.
Max Blumenthal doesn’t share Shavit’s moral agnosticism with regard to the events of 1948. Nor does he show any appreciation for the free and creative and passionate Israeli society that Shavit celebrates. An American who spent over a year in Israel and the West Bank researching his book, Blumenthal concentrates single-mindedly on Israel’s role as an oppressor—its subjugation of Palestinians and other minorities both within Israel and in the occupied territories of the West Bank. Although focused on contemporary Israel, Goliath hops back and forth across time to put contemporary events into historic perspective. Like Shavit, Blumenthal is an excellent storyteller. Each chapter of Goliath is a more or less self-contained story—of a Blumenthal interview with this or that Israeli political figure or activist, or of a series of recent or historical events. It’s a very readable book, but not a pleasant read.
Blumenthal makes no pretense of presenting a balanced analysis; his book is a case for the prosecution, a thoroughgoing, one-sided indictment of Israeli politics and society. Eric Alterman dubbed Goliath an “I Hate Israel Handbook.” That would be a fair characterization if not for its dismissiveness. For all its one-sidedness, Goliath is a tremendously informative book, and therefore a valuable one.
Blumenthal’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the ethnic cleansing that enabled the foundation of the state of Israel has continued, in different forms, to the present day. That Israeli society is permeated with a racism that views Arabs as less than human, undergirding systematic discrimination within Israel as well as cruel and exploitative treatment of the people of the occupied West Bank. He makes a powerful case.
Goliath can be read as an elaboration and documentation of themes that Shavit only touches on in his book. Thus, Shavit tells us that ‘The Arabs who were not driven away in 1948 have been oppressed by Zionism for decades. The Jewish state confiscated much of their land, trampled many of their rights and did not accord them real equality.” Goliath is replete with well-documented examples of the oppression of Israel’s Palestinian minority—the use of land ownership and construction restrictions and the demolition of Arab homes to push Arabs out of neighborhoods slated for Jewish occupancy; residency requirements that prevent Palestinians from working or studying abroad; and a wide range of legal forms of discrimination that privilege the Jewish majority over other nationalities.
Shavit calls the Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “wrong, futile and malevolent,” but, apart from some disturbing observations on torture in Israeli prisons, he doesn’t go into details on how the occupation impacts Palestinian lives. Goliath provides plenty of details: of the Separation Wall erected ostensibly for Israeli security but which also effectively extends Israel’s borders, destroys Palestinian communities and separates farmers from their property; of the routine and often brutal harassment of Palestinians by the Israeli security forces and settlers; of the appropriation of Palestinian lands for the settlers’ use.
Shavit warns that “…in recent years there is growing pressure on the very core of Israeli democracy. Occupation takes its moral toll….The fear of the growing Arab minority breeds xenophobia and racism….Semifascist ideas that attracted the rightwing fringe of the 1930s are now being endorsed by some leading politicians in the ruling parties.” Much of Goliath is preoccupied with Israel’s turn to the far right over the past decade, marked by curbs on basic civil liberties, an increasing respectability of openly racist and anti-democratic ideas, and often hateful intolerance of dissent. Most disturbingly, perhaps, Blumenthal repeatedly shows that the right-wing ascendancy is not some superficial phenomenon, but reflects widespread and deeply rooted attitudes of ordinary Israelis. He points, for example, to a 2006 poll in which 60% of Jewish Israelis said that they would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab, and a 2009 poll showing a slight majority favoring the forcible transfer of Arabs out of Israeli-controlled territory.
An interesting point of convergence between Blumenthal and Shavit: both criticize what they see as the myopia of the moderates of the Labor-oriented Israeli left who fail to understand that the primal source of Palestinian grievance is not the occupation of the West Bank, but the Nakba of 1948.
There is a lot missing from Goliath. Most strikingly, Blumenthal shows no empathy whatsoever with his Israeli subjects whose attitudes and behavior he rightly deplores. He provides countless examples of Israelis’ xenophobia, exaggerated sense of victimization and vulnerability, and insensitivity to the suffering of the Palestinians, but he makes no serious attempt to explain how these states of mind came about. Incredibly, there is no discussion of Arab terrorism to be found in Goliath. Maybe Blumenthal thinks that that is a subject we are all familiar with, and that his job is to tell us things we don’t know. Maybe he reasons that Arab terrorism is a secondary issue given the much greater violence that Palestinians have endured at the hands of Israel. Still, his failure to engage with the issue suggests an unwillingness to complicate his monochromatic portrait of Israeli evil.
A similar lack of balance appears in Blumenthal’s treatment of Zionism. While he doesn’t devote much to the pre-1948 period, insofar as he does he depicts a one-dimensional colonialist enterprise without any acknowledgment of the legitimate fears and genuine idealism that drove the early Zionists.
Golaith’s one-dimensionality and its generally polemical tone make it less likely to achieve the influence that it might and should achieve. I agree with Jerome Slater, who, while positively inclined toward the substance of the book, sees it as tactically flawed, because it is likely to alienate the very audience it should be aiming to influence—the American Jewish community. When you’re telling people things that they probably don’t want to hear, you should make some effort to engage with their prejudices, to show them that you’re sensitive to their concerns. Blumenthal makes none. Indicative is an interview he gave after Goliath’s publication in which he asserted that he had accurately predicted that the book would “freak out” Eric Alterman. Blumenthal could well have expected to freak out the likes of Alan Dershowitz and Abe Foxman, but Alterman is far more critical of Israel than the great majority of the American Jewish community. If Blumenthal expected to alienate even Alterman, whom did he hope to reach, outside of a tiny minority of confirmed anti-Zionists? Goliath will very probably not get the hearing that it merits, and that is partly the author’s fault.