My Promised Land XVI Summation

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit – My Conclusion

Ari’s book has been more raved about than any book that has come out of Israel in the last quarter of a century. M. J. Rosenberg in The Huffington Post wrote: “It is an absolutely brilliant book which left me grateful for the existence of Israel, awed by its accomplishments, yet stunned by the horrors that surrounded its creation (the Nakba) and the post ’67 occupation. .It is the best book I’ve read about Israel since Amos Elon’s The Israelis: Founders and Sons in 1971.” Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic in his New York Times review called it “important and powerful” and praised Ari Shavit for bringing erudition and eloquence with an undoctrinaire mind to the promises and challenges facing Israel. Thomas Friedman, the author famous not only for his incisive New York Times columns, but for his own marvellous book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, effused over the book and recommended that both Obama and Netanyahu read it.

So even though I stood and cried and saluted and felt renewed when I finished reading the book – I actually read it twice and the feeling was even stronger the second time – why did the book leave such a bad taste in my mouth? After all, those who praised the book were correct. The book is a great read. Sometimes a lament and at other times the book acquires a soaring lyricism, it moves at a rapid pace while we meet dozens and dozens of individuals and traverse a myriad of places at a dizzying speed.

And its political message can appeal to both the right – bomb Iran – and the left – get out of occupied West Bank, and, more importantly acknowledge what the Jews did to the Palestinians. But do not apologize. They made it necessary. And don’t retreat. Stand up tall and proud for what Jews created in Palestine. Ari Shavit is praised as a man with the courage to speak truth to power, to tell it as it is. Further, he sets his analysis within a dialectical account of two contradictions vying with one another, the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland and developing there a prosperous and creative nation and doing so at the cost and excision of another nation, the Palestinian people.

Since I co-wrote a volume called No Refuge, No Return that documented in detail across many refugee movements the reality that populations displaced in ethnic and religious conflicts do not return except if they win through the use of arms, then that is the choice the Palestinians face. Either accept the reality of no return or continue the fight. There is no third alternative. Ari too has stated that, “It is my moral duty as an Israeli to recognize Lydda and help the Palestinians to overcome it by helping them establish a Palestinian state that is ready to live in peace with Israel. But, ultimately, it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to overcome the painful past, lean forward and not become addicted to victimhood.” So we agree. So why don’t I cheer on this book from the highest towers and with the loudest voice?

Because Ari does not really face Lydda. He describes it well in a more moving way than Benny Morris. But other than calling for Israelis to recognize what happened, does he call for trials for those who were criminally responsible? When he calls for accountability, how is the accountability to be addressed? Should it be through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? These are the really difficult questions that Ari avoids. Instead, he opts for posturing, for calling for responsibility but not offering an institutional way to exemplify that responsibility. Would either trials or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission be relevant? Would they work? I myself have serious doubts. But the questions must be asked. The questions must be explored. To avoid them and yet call for responsibility and accountability is to be irresponsible in what you say and to continue the trope of avoiding true accountability.

Ari Shavit is not a propagandist. He gives the impression of presenting Israel in all its complexity. However, he repeatedly simplifies the interpretation and boils it down to dichotomies, often false ones while, at the same time, denouncing the traditional dichotomies. As he makes the story complex, he oversimplifies at the same time. Most of all, he is an old style Zionist parading in a new dress at war with itself, in love with gays and respecting the drug culture but denouncing with the thunderous moralism of one hand clapping their turned-off disavowal of their collective responsibilities.

In his chapter on the rabid ideologues of the settler movement, where is the discussion of the Allon Plan that gave those settlers the moral authority and institutional backing of the state? It is not as if it is not there. But it only lurks in the shadows.

What you do not get is the rich artistic life of Israel, the depth of its science, the profundity of its scholarship the brilliance of its new-found culinary skills. Overwhelmingly, this is a political book. And many Israelis have given up on politics. But in calling everyone back to man the barricades, women are marginalized. Sephardim are given the most moving chapter, but are otherwise ignored. The Israeli-Palestinians are represented by a rabid Palestinian nationalist dressed up as an outwardly liberal human rights lawyer. The Nakba story is told through the events at Lydda and for those unfamiliar with the atrocities committed, it may be very upsetting. But most of all we get tendentious generalizations that seem to rise phoenix-like out of smoke and ashes rather than careful sifting of evidence and argument.

Look at how central Israel is to American policy as it withdraws from Afghanistan but is engaged with negotiations with Iran, Israel’s most notable existential threat, and with Syria, now Israel’s self-destroyed neighbour, and with the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s most intractable problem. The book is written as much for Americans as for Israelis at the same time as Shavit relegates diaspora Jews to the wastebasket of history. I applaud Ari when he screams, “It is not the occupation, stupid! It is the conquest!’ but then berate him for his repeated false prophecies over Iran and his drum-beat insistence that bombing Iran is the only answer otherwise judgement day is at hand – in 2006, in 2007, in 2008, in 2009, in 2010, in 2011, in 2012, in 2013. Ari Shavit is no different than a Christian preacher who repeats every year that the end of the world is now and finally immanent and then proposes a way to deal with it that would bring the immanence of terrible worldwide destruction nearer.

I find Ari’s placing the blame for the demise of Oslo on the Israelis because they failed to recognize that the central issue was the nakba and the refugees and not the occupation misplaced, thugh they did do that. I have written for years that the refugees (and Jerusalem) were the central issues and not the settlements, but I did not fault the Israelis for their failure but Arafat for his flakiness and Abbas for his stubborn grip on the refugee issue. Ari’s historical analysis was just inadequate and incorrect for me.

I applaud Ari’s insistence on a two-state solution. All other visions are chimeras or nightmares. But I do not deride Kerry and Obama for once again trying even if the odds are against them — as they both well know. Most of all I deride Shavit for his necessitarianism, his repeated claims about inevitability when my take on history, whether looking to the past or the future, is to emphasize possibilism. Contingencies have a force all their own. Of the sixteen Track II efforts in the attempt to get the Israelis and Palestinians together at the peace table, I was a participant in one track. Neither it nor any of the other tracks knew about the initiative that came out of a Prime Minister of Norway’s kitchen and from two Haifa academics previously not intimately connected with the peace process. Yet they succeeded against all odds where we were unsuccessful.

History and politics are serendipitous.

So it is not because I am put off by his style. I find it enchanting and wonderful. And I am not put off by most of his messages. I applaud them. The dogmatism of his premises drive me up a wall in a man that is otherwise a voice of tolerance and understanding. What bothers me in the end is that he is an inspiring, engaging and brilliant Israeli who is a great listener in his professional life but would probably display the arrogance and know-it-all qualities of the stereotypical Askenazi Israeli elitist male who loves an argumentative debates – though, I insist, none of my very personal friends are like that. He purports to lay the groundwork for a new renewed Zionism but it is the old Ashkenazi elitist Zionism in a new dress that does not recognize that women now wear the pants in the family, that does not come to terms with the strength and creativity of religious Zionism, that does not really come to terms with the creativity and industriousness of Palestinians who want to give up on the politics of nostalgia.

The book is very uneven, with some brilliant chapters – Lydda, the Deri chapter and the final chapter with its call to arms, but the tale of the youth sit-in in Tel Avi , Occupy Rothchild, is both confusing and unrevealing. The chapter on sex and drugs and the club culture is an exercise in self-indulgence and contradicts his final message. And that is part of the problem of the book. It has been drawn from many of his columns and, other than the case of Iran, reveals views which he clearly no longer seems to hold.

In the end, there is a problem of voice, not only the problems with Ari’s voice, the inadequacies of which I dealt with many times over my many blogs on the book, but the absence of other voices that would undermine Ari’s caricature of even Palestinians, of Mizrachi Jews, of the religious, and of the women’s movement that is so strong in Israel. For a book of so many voices, it is interesting how many groups do not seem to have a spokesperson. Most of all, the dispora Jews relegated to the ashcan of history also have and will continue to have an important contribution to make.


My Promised Land. XV. By the Sea

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit

XV By the Sea – The New Zionism

The book ends where it begins, with Ari’s own nuclear family returning to England for a vacation. Ari contrasts Israel with England, the frenzy and constant disruption of the former and the tranquility and continuity of the latter. In doing so, he repeats his love of dichotomous polar oppositions which contribute so much to the book’s hyperbolic quality. Yes, we know what you mean, Ari, but what Brit would agree today that the UK is a place of “deep calm and solid identity”? Even if there is some relative truth to the depiction, one doesn’t have to go very far back in history to find a very different portrait of that stormy isle. As the historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote, the reason King Louis XIV of France permitted William of Orange to invade the British Isles and attack his cousin and ally James II was not simply because James was not sufficiently obsequious to him, but for political goals. Britain had the reputation as the most tendentious place in Europe, ridden with internal conflicts. Louis expected William of Orange to get bogged down in eternal wars and allow he, King Louis, to conquer Europe at leisure. As it turned out, in the Great Revolution, William of Orange tamed that land of eternal turmoil, but beneath its placid surface one need scratch very little to find tumultuous conflicts beneath.

However, if you are vacationing in Dorset or in the lake District, repose is the order of the day and Britain serves well as a foil for Israel and possibly Ari’s thesis that the constant turmoil explains the vitality, energy and creativity of Israelis who live on the edge. On all counts, Israel is certainly an exciting country with more than its share of exciting and excitable people. So why did Ari’s ancestors who were prosperous and well established and who enjoyed the fruits of British economic success and its strong tradition of freedom and liberty leave to resettle in a backward place like Palestine? It took a whole book to tell us why. Whatever the challenges, the effort at resettlement was worth the sacrifice. Ari sums up the reasons.

The primary one is assimilation. If the family had stayed in Britain, by the time of his children’s generation, they would most probably no longer identify as Jewish. The Anglo-Jews of his great-grandfather’s generation are a dying breed with reduced numbers of children and most of them increasingly intermarrying and integrating into the dominant culture. “I know that if my great-grandfather had not removed me from this coast, I myself would probably have been today only half-Jewish. Tamara, Michael, and Daniel [Ari’s children] might not consider themselves Jewish at all.” (385) The collective Jewish “we” would be on its last legs. He would have been a witness to the withering away, not of the state, but of Jewish identity. The diaspora is a lost cause for Jews. “With no Holocaust and no pogroms and no overt anti-Semitism, these islands kill us softly. Enlightened Europe also kills us softly, as does democratic America. Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism.” (386)
Between the Scylla of rampant persecuting antisemitism and the Charybdis of benign enlightenment, and without the captivating hold of the Jewish religion that could sail the ark of Jewish survival through those treacherous shoals, Jews as Jews would disappear.

What if they did? My first published article was entitled, “Is Jewish Survival Necessary?” A provocative question, but one Ari does not ask let alone try to answer. He just assumes it is a fundamental value. Nor does he ask whether one’s identity as a Jew is safe in Israel. Netanyahu’s son is dating a beautiful non-Jewish Norwegian, a story that made headlines in the Israeli and diaspora press. Is the answer collecting Jews together in sufficient numbers to form a critical mass? Or is the resurrection of religious Judaism the only answer? Ari does not ask nor try to answer that question either. He presumes the project of safeguarding secular Jewish life is identical with Zionism, was accomplished and not just stretched out by Zionism, and is sufficient in itself to have justified all that effort. It is a basic premise of Zionism, not an hypothesis to be subjected to interrogation. It is a categorical and not a hypothetical imperative. Further, for Jews as Jews, as a nation of Jews and not just a religion, “Jaffa was inevitable.” (387)

Israel has 6 million Jews of all ages. According to a recent Pew survey, America has 9 million adult Jews, but only if we include all four categories – not only the 4.2 million who identify themselves as Jewish by religion, the 1.1 million overtly secular non-religious Jews (including many Israelis), but also the 2.4 million who are Jewish only because they had one Jewish parent but do not identify as Jewish and the 1.2 of the Jewish affinity category, who, though not raised as Jewish, for one reason or another identify as Jewish. Zionism, therefore, has created the second greatest concentration of Jews in the world and the concentration with the greatest strength and determination to survive as Jews. Further, they are a young population. By 2025, the majority of Jews in the world will be Israeli. And this is Zionism’s greatest triumph.

To sum up this tale of triumph, Ari takes us on a trip around Israel retracing the path of his great grandfather who abandoned Britain to participate in a dream and make it a reality. He travels first through Rishon LeZion in whose orchestra one of my sons once played the classical trumpet. That son is now certainly an example of a totally assimilated Jew. If he had stayed in Israel and married an Israeli, he and his children (he has four) would still be totally assimilated, but to a dominant Israeli secular culture. And if he lived in West Rishon, it would be like living in the suburbs of any large city in North America with its malls and its multiplex cinemas.

Ramleh is different again. Rishon LeZion preserved its original character. West Rishon had no character to be preserved. Ramleh inherited a core Arab heritage and character but demolished the indigenous culture and left nothing with vitality in its place when it was resettled by Oriental Jews. Having traveled and been in the various different places he describes, I recognize what he is describing. In particular, I remember a TV show we did on a mixed Jewish/Arab boys’ football club and my wish that the place had been as uplifting as the enthusiasm of the sports organizers.

But Ari’s visual and descriptive acuity is then followed by what can only be described as silly generalizations. “We Jews need to crowd together. We need to be with one another, even to fight with one another. It is as if we cannot live by ourselves as individuals, as if we were afraid that on our own we’ll vanish. So we do not acknowledge the private domain.” (371)

It is certainly true that I never have had the experience anywhere else but in Israel of standing in a line in a bank and the person behind asking, as I filled out a form, “How much do you have in your account?” He had obviously peeked and saw that I had a positive balance. It was a time of high inflation in Israel. No one but myself, that I knew of anyway, ran a positive balance. If I had not been so startled and so gruff in putting the inquirer off, he would probably only have advised me on the advantages of running a negative balance. But this behaviour of intrusion into privacy was a character of a certain culture. And Ari knows that it was not the character of his great-grandfather’s British generation. So why write, “We Jews….”?

Ari rants. Ari cheers. Ari thinks Israel needs a new Zionism, not a post-Zionism and certainly not an anti-Zionism, a Zionism that will be as innovative and inspiring in responding to the new challenges as the various versions of Zionism in the past responded to the old challenges. For the inherited Zionism of the last few decades has got almost everything wrong as if to balance out the greatness of the achievements of the early years. He is eager to be part of Zionism’s re-invention. And he does so by telling the stories of various people and their various places. As he writes the Israeli bible for the coming generation!

Beit Shemesh where my daughter and her family lived for almost eight years. Yad Vashem where we made one of our best TV shows focusing, incidentally, mostly on the righteous gentiles. The Western Wall where we all ran on the last day of my family’s first visit to Jerusalem in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War to dance and play in 12″ of snow, the only competition Yom Kippur ever had for bringing the city to a standstill. I recall visiting the military cemetery on Mount Herzl and making a TV show beside Rabin’s grave and recognizing the egalitarianism Ari describes. Though I have been to many Palestinian towns and refugee camps, I have never visited what is left of Deir Yassin, though I too envision Israel’s future as a democratic state side by side a self-governing Palestinian state and not an apartheid state, a bi-national state, or, worst of all, a conquering and ethnic cleansing militarist state.

Ari raises the two themes I heard him raise in a PBS television interview. “In the twenty-first century there is no other nation that is occupying another people as we do, and there is no other nation that is as intimidated as we are.” (399) There are seven circles of intimidation: the outer circle of threatening Islam, the next circle of antitheticial Arabs going through the turmoil of the Arab Spring with the outcome uncertain, the next circle of a virulently angry and radicalizing Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza, and an even closer circle of Arab Israelis, members of a democratic polis but without equal rights. Then comes the fifth circle that wraps around Jewish Israelis and squeezes the breath out of their lungs as Israelis ask the unanswerable question: Do with have the strength, the fortitude, the discipline, the courage, the mental strength and resolve to stand up to Israel’s enemies. “Within the Islamic-threat circle and Arab-threat circle and the Palestinian challenge circle and the internal-threat circle, lies the fifth threat of the mental challenge. (403)

But there are two other threats even closer to the Israeli soul – the moral threat to Israel as a democratic state that is being eroded by the occupation, and even more central still, the identity-threat, the erosion of that revolutionary Hebrew identity that displaced the Jewish galut identity, that like a Nietzschean Dionysian force transvalued the mores of the Jewish people and created a renewed Hebrew tribe with its own language and culture and vibrant way of living to the full.

That identity has been dulled and eroded, is crumbling and disintegrating before our very eyes by a rampant pluralism that increasingly forgets what it takes to make a unified people. The Jews of the diaspora are in decline. Only the Israeli people can save the Jews and they must do so in a New Middle East in turmoil and regressing to tribalism. They must do so through a New Politics that was the dramatic outcome of the Israeli 2013 elections brought about by a renewed galvanized secular Zionist majority that rejects the old left-right divide, but also ignores the Palestinian issue, that wears blinkers when confronting Iran and, instead of facing the external threats boldly, becomes obsessed with costs to consumers, and the difficulty in finding reasonably priced housing, the rejection of special-interest groups and privileged minorities. Ari celebrates the rise of a pragmatic, practical, middle class Israeli identity with all its strengths and shortcomings.

What makes Israel great is its people. and the can-do creative enterprise they bring to whatever they take on. Israel is not just a start-up nation. The start-up nation is because Israel consists of a variety of start-up individuals, yet individuals who insist that they share both a common identity and a common fate. “We Israelis face a Herculean mission. To live here we will have to redefine a nation and divide a land and come up with a new Jewish Israeli narrative. We will have to restore a rundown state and unify a shredded society and groom a trustworthy civilian leadership. After ending occupation, we’ll have to establish a new, firm, and legitimate iron wall on our post-occupation borders. Facing the regional tide of radical Islam, Israel will have to be an island of enlightenment. Facing seven circles of threat, Israel will have to be moral, progressive, cohesive, creative, and strong.” (417)

For a Jew with a trace of a Jewish soul remaining, there is no resistance to such an appeal. My critical intellect gets bracketed as my tears well up and I stand to salute the renewed Jewish nation that shall once again be a light unto the world.

My Promised Land: An Existential Challenge, Iran 2013

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


XIV Existential Challenge, 2013

Iran is clearly the key security threat to Israel at the moment. Ari has been writing about Iran for over a decade so he presumably knows the issue. On the one hand, he is at a disadvantage since the breakthrough on the Iran negotiations came through after the book went to press. On the other hand, it is helpful to compare what he said in 2013 before the negotiations happened with what is happening now and what he has said or written since. What we find is that he has been saying mostly the same thing – with some reversals – for the past decade. Further, he continues to say the same thing as if no negotiations were underway, or, more correctly, in spite of the negotiations underway. He has been prophesying gloom and doom for years, In the rare case when he refers to detailed expert written analysis, he gets it right. 

Let’s first deal with what he says in the book, then what he said subsequently, and then what he previously said. He has mostly been wrong. He has also mostly been hysterical.

Ari says the case must be studied within three contexts, the global, the American and the Israeli. “Since 1945, the international community has managed to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in an impressive way.” (366) If, ignoring Israel for the moment, allowing Pakistan, India and North Korean is considered part of that impressive accomplishment, this is a very questionable assertion. If one looks at who have been excluded and the reality that only four states have been added to the nuclear club since China, Ari’s praise may be justified.

The second context is the American one. According to Ari, America is a declining power and America’s influence in the Arab world is waning. The third context is Israel which possesses nuclear weapons but has never used them even to pose a threat and has never threatened to wipe out its enemies. Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. That is why Iran with its technical know how and the advances made by Iranian scientists brought Iran to the brink of having a nuclear weapon.

There is a fourth meta-context, that of the prophets and seers who saw and forewarned about what was happening versus those in America and Israel who refused to see, who wore cognitive blinkers. What would have been easy and not required force in the early stages has become increasingly more difficult to resolve except by the use of force. Further, the challenge, even to respond by the use of force, has not been technical but conceptual, presumably not only for America but for Israel. But was it not also political? While bombing the Iranian nuclear complexes are now very difficult, in the early stages of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, the international and regional political difficulties would have been enormous. But Ari shunts such considerations aside.

Israel took out the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981. Much more recently, Israeli jets destroyed the Syrian reactor. Ari grants that the destruction of the Iranian reactors will be much more difficult, not only technically but politically, not because of the international response but given the sophistication and cunning of the Iranians. For their goal was not just to build a bomb, but to build one safely. (372)

However, when Netanyahu came to office in 2009, he threw off those blinkers and not only saw Iran for what it had become and was becoming, but in refusing to be silent about what he saw. First, he said Iran must not possess a bomb. Second, bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities was politically and ethically justified. Third, and most important, Israel could do it, alone if necessary. Finally, when Israel had deemed that the rest of the world had run out of time to get the deed done, Israel would carry out the deed, again, alone if necessary. Further, Netanyahu’s red line speech in the UN in September 2012, by explicitly and unequivocally making this known on the international stage, is said by Ari to be singularly responsible for the election of President Hassan Rouhani. Further, along with previous threats, that threat brought about the increased world pressures and strong sanctions that forced Iran to at least hesitate. But Israel’s moment of decision was near. Amos Yadlin, former head of military intelligence and currently head of the Institute for National Security Studies, insisted that moment for choosing the bomb or bombing was in late 2013 or the first quarter of 2014. Yadlin has since said that Iran has succeeded in becoming a nuclear threshold state.

If, for both Barak and Netanyahu, 2012 was the decisive year, the year when Iran left the zone of immunity, why did Israel not react with force then? Because Netanyahu was not Churchill who could communicate, share his vision and get his fellow Israelis committed to what he saw and what needed to be done. He allowed Israel to be perceived as the threat to peace. Since Ari has believed for years that Iran posed an existential threat to Israel, Ari is distressed that the confrontation with Iran kept being postponed and remains unresolved.  In the 2013 elections, the Iranian threat was virtually ignored. And so Ari ended the chapter with a question: “Will Obama’s United States have the resolve… (to) stop Iran or let Israel stop Iran?” (381)

If this is the false dichotomy of anti-Iranian hawks, it is faced with the anti-Israeli false dichotomy of the doves. For example, Barry Lando in The Huffington Post on 22 November 2012 wrote that the elephant in the room was the Israeli lobby. “The major force driving U.S. policy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is not cool, rational logic, but the pro-Israel lobby.” If Lando is correct, why isn’t Israel bombing the smithereens out of Iran. If the hawkish Israeli school is correct, the exact same question can be asked: why isn’t Israel bombing the smithereens out of Iran, For on this, if either opposite analysis is correct, the same result will follow. That alone should suggest that neither extreme is correct.

I have written extensively on Iran in the past. My position has been:

a) Not only would Iran’s possessing a nuclear capability pose a threat to Israel, but Iran becoming a threshold nuclear power would as well.

b) The time became immanent in 2013.

c) The danger was not so much Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon but getting to the edge of a strategic breakout capacity that would enable Iran to acquire nuclear weapons within six weeks of making such a decision.

d) Iran now is at that point, and that is one reason why, in spite of the heavy impact of the economic sanctions, Iran is in the best position to negotiate to, as much as possible, secure that strategic breakout capacity.

e) Nevertheless, I welcomed negotiations as the better option to bombing and supported Obama’s initiatives on the diplomatic front.

e) The goal of the Obama-led talks will be to get a deal that both pushes Iran much further back from the brink of a breakout capacity, but also ensures that, through monitoring and an insistence on full transparency, Iran can be prevented from coming near that edge ever again.

What has Ari said since the negotiations have opened?

1. Ari believes that negotiations are a strategic mistake. He published an OpEd in the New York Times on 20 November 2013 where he began: “If such an agreement were signed, it would represent an Iranian victory – and an American defeat.” Why? Because the economic sanctions would be lifted, providing renewed strength to the Ayatollah regime, and Iran would be able to enrich more uranium and maintain its nuclear program. Iran’s progress might be slowed, but Iran would still be able to cross the finish line. Not only that, but an accord would guarantee that it [Iran] would guarantee that outcome.

2. How does Ari justify this conclusion? Because the Geneva accord is a replica of the mindset of Munich providing the illusion of peace-in-our-time while, in fact, bringing us closer to war. Ari, of course, was not the only one to adopt this posture. Jonathan Tobin of The Economist, for one, agrees with Ari. “Iran is certain to get a nuclear weapon sometime before the midterm elections next year. At that point, apologies to Netanyahu from his detractors in both the U.S. and Israel will be both too late and of no use to a Jewish state confronted by a nuclear Iran that wants to wipe it off the map.” (27 June 2013)

3. What was the alternative? Make Iran give up its nuclear ambitions.

Ari then recapitulates the historical argument that he provided in the book. “In short, Ari has remained a prophet crying in the wilderness. You cannot trust the Iranians. Iran must either give up its nuclear program entirely or force must be used to stop Iran. and it is Obama’s fault that massive force must be used now. For by the time Obama, as leader of a world-weary and declining power, decided to impose heavy sanctions in 2010 and 2011, it was too little and too late.”

What is wrong with Ari’s analysis? First, it posits an absolute – either an Iran on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons or Iran with absolutely no capacity to produce nuclear weapons at all. Either/Or. The focus is not on moving Iran as far back as possible and as necessary so that Iran is no longer a threshold nuclear state. Second, Ari considers either full retreat or full scale bombing to be both effective and achievable strategies. Third, Ari uses an analogical argument and through such an analogy and labelling of Iran, presumes he has made his case rather than examining the historical record to assess the degree to which Iran, in its actions, has established itself as a reckless polity bent on at least regional hegemony. Further, the accord is simply trashed but not analyzed for its weaknesses and strengths. For Ari, allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear power was prima facie a repetition of Munich. 

The fact that the best and most acute observers of Iran’s growing capacity to produce nuclear weapons, observers who have been warning the world community over the last decade, but in a far less shrill voice and an accumulation of empirical evidence, have had a different interpretation doesn’t seem to phase Ari. In fact, he generally pays it no mind with two exceptions I found. Though he writes in the afterword that he has “read hundreds of books and thousands of documents,” one cannot tell from reading or listening to Shavit whether he has ever read David Albright and Paulina Izewicz, the two most acute observers and reporters on Iran’s progress towards a nuclear capacity. Neither are cited in the index. Instead, Ari repeats his mantra and prophecies like a broken record. (Other than sentences in italics to provide for context and transition, everything else is a direct quote; for a much fuller coverage of all of Ari’s past articles and prophecies, see the False Prophet blog.)

1. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 11 May 2006 – 8 years ago

If you concentrate and make an effort, it is still possible to hear the hum of the centrifuges. They are turning on their axes – once cascade after the other, one and then another percentage point worth of enrichment – the clock quietly ticking toward a global crisis…We are at the threshold of a genuinely historic moment…There are two choices:. The West cannot accept Iran’s nuclear project. Therefore, the confrontation is inevitable. In the best case scenario, it will end the way the Cuban missile crisis did; in the worst case scenario, it will turn ugly and irradiate the Middle East. The timetable is also more or less known. At the diplomatic level, the crisis may peak as early as this summer. From a military standpoint, the crisis may reach its zenith in the winter, after the U.S. congressional elections. Either way, 2007 will be a critical year. It poses a challenge to the West of a kind that it has not faced since the Cold War. For Israel, it is a date with destiny. The world was faced with four alternatives: acquiescence, diplomatic action, American military action, or a situation in which Israeli is forced to act.

America and Israel both chose acquiescence. I think, as Ari did, that both were wrong. However, the sky did not fall.

2. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 17 May 2007 – one year later

Whatever the number of centrifuges – 1,300 or 3,000 [Iran now has 19,000, many much more powerful and sophisticated than anything in 2007] – Ari was certain that the critical time had arrived even as moderate economic pressures were being applied and a small coalition of western states was applying more substantive sanctions.

There is no doubt about the main issue: This year is a critical one… When it comes to Iran, this year is a year of decision. If Iran is not stopped this year, then in the summer of 2008 it will be on its way to nuclear hegemony, which means a different Middle East. It also means a different State of Israel. It means a different era…  this year Israel will have to make the most important decision in its history: to prepare for the fact that Iran will strike at it in response to any strike at its nuclear project, or to prepare to face a nuclear Iran.

Was Netanyahu the alternate champion to Olmert?

 For Ari at the time, only Barak was capable of leading Israel when it confronts the most important decision in its history. The decision of its life.

3. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 13 March 2008 – ten months later

Israel’s effort to stymie President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear program in an elegant manner hit the skids. The likelihood of diplomatic and economic pressure stopping the Shi’ite centrifuges is pretty slim. The likelihood of the United States attacking Iran is low. If John McCain does not make it to the White House, Israel is likely to be faced with a cruel decision at the end of the decade: to attack a nuclearizing Iran or accept a nuclear-capable Iran. Either option will pose a test to Israel unlike any it has faced since 1948.

Needless to say, John McCain did not make it to the White House.

4. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 5 June 2008 – three months later – Ari’s wishful & wild thinking

Contemplate, if you will, this wild scenario: In November, after Senator Barack Obama becomes president-elect of the United States, outgoing president George W. Bush inflicts a severe blow on Iran. That could take the form of a naval siege, the flexing of American military muscle, or even an all-out air strike targeting Iran’s nuclear program…A  military move, even a semi-military one, carried out by an outgoing president would be unprecedented and illegitimate; it would be perceived as the final insane trumpet call of a thoroughly off-the-wall administration with a committed religious outlook. But these are not ordinary times, and the protagonists involved are not ordinary people. The logic that guides Bush and Dick Cheney is not always readily understood by public opinion in the West or even by the molders of that public opinion. This logic could lead the U.S. president and vice president to conclude that, if they do not act, neither will Obama. If Obama does not act, Iran will go nuclear, and, if that happens, evil will triumph. 

5. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 30 April 2009 – ten months later – an imagined 2012 retrospective

Washington was astounded when, in the summer of 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he was expelling international inspectors and galloping full-tilt toward the production of nuclear weapons. The shock turned to horror on the eve of Christmas 2010, when Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, stated that his country had its first three nuclear warheads – aimed at Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv.

The rest of the retrospective prophecy grew even more absurd, with Obama deciding not to run for a second term given the international chaos, especially in the Middle East.

6. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 22 April 2010 – one year later

If next year U.S. President Barack Obama acts toward Iran the way George W. Bush acted toward North Korea, Iran will go nuclear. If Obama prevents Israel from acting against Iran and does not act itself, Iran will become a leading power in the Middle East. The outcome will be a loss of respect in the Sunni world for the United States and a loss of inhibitions in the Shi’ite and radical world vis-a-vis Israel. A serious conflict could then break out between Israel and Hamas, Israel and Hezbollah and perhaps even Israel and Syria. A violent deterioration could also occur between Israel and other neighbors. A loss of U.S. strategic hegemony would mean that opponents of the West will shake up the Middle East. A loss of Israel’s strategic monopoly would result in attacks on it by old and new enemies. The age of relative quiet that has typified Israeli-Arab relations for the past 35 years will be over forever.

The 180 degree Reversal

7. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 9 June 2011 – thirteen and a half months later

There is no real proof that a nuclear attack by Iran is imminent. 

8. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 16 June 2011 – one week later, Ari finally gets his facts straight

First fact: Neither the West nor Israel can accept a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran would make the Middle East nuclear, threaten Western sources of energy, paralyze Israel with fear, cause Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to go nuclear and the world order to collapse. A nuclear Iran would make our lives hell.

Second fact: Neither the West nor Israel has to act militarily at present against Iranian nuclearization. A military attack against Iran would incite a disastrous regional war, which would cost the lives of thousands of Israelis. A military attack against Iran would turn it into a great vengeful power that would sanctify eternal war against the Jewish State. A military attack against Iran would cause a world financial crisis and isolate Israel from the family of nations.

Third fact: Out of a profound understanding of these two basic facts, the West and Israel have developed a joint strategy that can best be described as the third way. The third way has two dimensions: (covert ) activities and economic sanctions. Surprising even to those who have formulated this strategy, the third way is achieving results. It is not eliminating the Iranian threat, but it is postponing and weakening it. Britain, France and Israel, working in close alliance, are spearheading the effort. The United States is also doing its part. Germany and Italy are trailing behind. But the bottom line is that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under pressure. The still waters of the West and Israel run deep.

Fourth fact: A key element of the third way is the threat of a military attack against Iran. This threat is crucial for scaring the Iranians and for goading on the Americans and the Europeans. It is also crucial for spurring on the Chinese and the Russians. Israel must not behave like an insane country. Rather, it must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran.

9. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 10 November 2011 – six months later, wrong again

The prime minister and defense minister claimed that with regard to Iran, there was no time to spare. The former Mossad chief claimed that we had time. Now comes the International Atomic Energy Agency and proves that indeed, there is no time to spare… So the decisive year…will be 2012. Israel is getting closer to having to decide between bombing or allowing a bomb.

But also right, except on the immediacy!

The report published this week in Vienna shatters that illusion. It proves that Iran has not only uranium enrichment and missile programs, but that it has a plan to manufacture nuclear weapons. It proves that Iran has covert facilities and secret delivery routes, and that it is working stealthily to develop a nuclear bomb. With a stock of five tons of uranium enriched to a low level and 70 kilograms of it enriched to a moderate level, Iran is on the brink. With Iran developing nuclear detonators and nuclear warheads, Iran is a real and immediate threat.

10. Ari Shavit Haaretz, February and March 2012 – three months later

Is there any limit to the number of times one can cry wolf?

February 23 – Press the Panic Button;- a time at which urging bombing exhausts itself

Iranian scientists were assassinated and Iranian centrifuges exploded, but at any given moment Iran had more fissionable material than the previous moment. One red line was crossed, and then another, and another. Thus, our prime minister’s primary preoccupation over the past few years has been sharpening the Israeli sword. He has made the whole world truly worried that the sword might be unsheathed… As of now, the military option is proving to be a diplomatic success. It managed to shake the international community out of its apathy and made a definitive contribution to the tightening of the diplomatic and economic siege on Iran. But the time for playing diplomatic games with the military option is drawing to a close. There’s a limit to how many times one can cry wolf. There’s a point at which a “hold-me-back” policy exhausts itself. And that’s a very dangerous point, because suddenly the military option turns into a real option. The Netanyahu-Obama meeting in two weeks will be definitive. If the U.S. president wants to prevent a disaster, he must give Netanyahu iron-clad guarantees that the United States will stop Iran in any way necessary and at any price, after the 2012 elections. If Obama doesn’t do this, he will obligate Netanyahu to act before the 2012 elections.

March 15: To attack or not to attack?

Israel’s policy of prevention has gained some time, but has failed. The international policy of appeasement created an illusion and collapsed. The sanctions imposed were too little, too late, and won’t likely stop Iran in time…  in March 2012 the feeling in Jerusalem is that Israel is utterly alone. And we are getting closer to the moment of truth.

March 22:  Now or Never

By 2013, Iran will be deep inside the zone of immunity. Iran’s ongoing fortification and dispersal of its strategic facilities means that by then, even if Israel does strike, Tehran’s nuclear program will survive. Once that happens, all those in Israel who oppose a strike will go from arguing “not yet” to throwing up their hands and saying “it’s too late.” That’s why it’s totally clear that for Israel, 2012 is a critical year. It’s either now or never…  right now, the knife is at its throat, the official said: As far as Israel is concerned, 2012 is the year of decision.

Now never came.


My Promised Land: XIII Israeli Arabs, Hezbollah and the Jewish Youth Occupy Movement

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


XIII     Israeli Arabs, Hezbollah and the Jewish Youth Occupy Movement

Chapter fourteen entitled, “Reality Shock, 2006,” suggests a rude awakening. Ari argues that Israel experienced seven different revolts within thirty years, presumably between 1976 and 2006: the settler’s revolt, the peace revolt, the liberal-judicial revolt, the Oriental revolt, the ultra-Orthodox revolt, the hedonistic-individualistic revolt, and the Palestinian-Israeli revolt.” (327) I had trouble aligning this list with his chapters. To call the settler movement of the seventies a revolt is a little puzzling. To call the peace movement – Peace Now – a revolt also seems an exaggeration. What was the liberal-judicial revolt? Was Ari referring to the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that 16 miles of the separation fence had to be re-routed because its path caused undue and unnecessary hardship to Palestinians when an alternate route providing for security was available while, at the same time, determining that the green line was not a political border? As I read on, it was clear he was really referring to the liberal-economic rather than liberal-judicial revolt against the nanny state rather than against the military state. But there is no specific chapter to provide guidance; his confused language does not help. And wasn’t the Oriental and the ultra-Orthodox revolt the same as he told the story of Deri? And why call the explosion of the club scene by hedonist-individualists (and ordinary young Israelis) a revolt?

In any case, at least the last revolt, the uprising in the Galilee in 2003 when 12 Arab-Israeli citizens were killed, is clear for Ari deals with that in Chapter thirteen as he features Mohammed Dahla, an Arab-Israeli lawyer, who insists that Jewish Israelis fail to recognize that they need Arab-Israelis as their partners in the turmoil of the Middle East and set aside their distrust which can be rooted in the effort to define Israel as a Jewish state instead of a state for all Israelis. Mohammed hates the imported architecture imposed on the landscape. The only natural architecture suited to the terrain is traditional and Arabic. Mohammed objects to the absence of Arabic on most highway signs. But most of all, he objects to the exclusion of the Arabic history and identity from Israeli history. This is a charge hard to refute since the state was created in dealing with the insistence that this competing national identity and history be the ruling one. Further, the Israeli-Arabs cannot get over the fact that the guests who were a minority have become the masters. So Mohammed resurrects the vision whereby the Arabs will realize their “natural” role by surrendering the two-state solution in favour of one state, the very reason Jewish Israelis will never agree and remain suspicious of their own citizens of Arab background.

The exclusion and discrimination of Arab-Israelis is appalling. But the Israeli Arabs tell the same stories as the enemies of Israel – the Jews have no rights to the TempleMount and the story of the Jewish temple is a fiction. Further, if a single state is not forthcoming, Arab-Israelis want an autonomous Galilee in an echo of ethnic conflicts everywhere. And Mohammed envisions and hopes for the return of the Palestinian refugees by the hundreds of thousands.  “We will be masters and you will be our servants.” (323) That Mohammed Dahla would openly say this to Ari is a credit to Ari’s interviewing skills. As long as Azmi Bishara remains a hero of the Israeli-Palestinians, Jewish Israelis will continue to distrust Arab-Israeli citizens.  Of course, there are far more moderates as the Palestinian directed Israeli film, The Attack, made clear. But the dilemma remains – how to be a democratic state respecting the equality and rights of every single citizen regardless of ethnic origin or religion while also being a Jewish state that has a minority that dreams of once again being a majority and, therefore, still not accepting the UN partition resolution to divide the land between an Arab and a Jewish state. How do you defend the equal rights of Mohammed Dahla who is one of the foremost defenders among Israeli-Arabs of human rights when Dahla himself at a deeper level believes in overturning the system and establishing Arab culture as the dominant and superior one?

In any case, Ari claims that these seven revolts all contributed to “the disintegration of the Israeli republic.” (328) Until I read this I had no idea Israel had become a failed state. But that is not what Ari means. He says that instead of a mature and stable state, Israel had become a bazaar. Has Ari not paid any attention to what has happened to other states around the world and the difficulties of governance in our time in history?

“The settlers rose against political discipline and restraint. The peaceniks rose against historical and geostrategic reality. The liberals rose against the all-too-powerful state. The Orientals rose against the Occidental domination. The ultra-orthodox rose against secularism. The hedonists rose against the suffocating conformism of Zionist collectivism. The Palestinian-Israelis rose against Jewish nationalism.” (328) The previous seven revolts resulted in a “lack of leadership and lack of direction and lack of governability.” (328) The key turning point had been the Yom Kippur War which “promulgated a deep distrust of the state, its government, and its leadership.” (329) Moral authority and hierarchy broke down. The 2006 crisis was the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that lasted only 33 days. According to Ari, it delivered a shock from which Israel has not yet recovered. The one institution in which all Israelis still had faith, had failed them. The IDF was not able to defeat a militia with only 8,000 militants.

Do I hear echoes of William Yeats’ The Second Coming?


                        Turning and turning in the widening gyre

                        The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

                        Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

                        Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

                        The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

                        The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

                        The best lack all conviction, while the worst

                        Are full of passionate intensity.

So we have been presented chapter after chapter with the image of a falcon flying in wider and wider circles so that the centripetal and the centrifugal forces lose all sense of balance and everything spins out of control and the falcon loses its bearings which provide its basis for safety and security. But unlike Yeats who ascribes the passionate intensity to the worst, Ari celebrates the passionate intensity expressed by the rebels of different stripes. But the dominant image is the same – a society headed towards self-destruction and chaos. Like Yeats, Ari undertakes this book as an effort to kick start radical change, but since Ari is a Jew and not a Christian, he cannot exactly call it a “second coming”, but he can help us recall Yeats’ image of the lion with the head of a man. This is Ari’s image – a cool and deliberate head attached to a fearsome body which radiates predatory power as well as royal strength and authority. So the human face on the lion has a blank glaze as pitiless as the sun. But the common core of values had disintegrated. The melting pot itself melted. “They were not willing to take orders from anyone. They trusted no one. They became unknowing anarchists.”

So much for a prose version of a poet’s lament posing as a political analysis with not one whit of evidence to back it up and the economic, technological, pharmaceutical, gastronomical transformations yet to be described all belying the depiction. But none of these yet belong to Ari’s promised land. Instead, anarchic Israel keeps crashing into reality checks — in 2006, the Lebanon War in which Israel for the first time “was not able to defeat an enemy.” (331)

But this is what all wars are like that pit standing armies against revolts embedded in civil society rather than the state. That is why Israel can put down the intifada and win a series of battles but cannot win the war. Just as America was helpless and humiliated in the face of the Sunni revolt in Iraq, just as America was virtually helpless and humiliated by the Taliban revolt in Afghanistan, and just as America hesitated to repeat such a lesson in Syria, Israel cannot and should not be expected to win a war against Hezbollah.  The goal is only to beat it into a recognition of a superior enemy and create an unwillingness to wrestle with the mighty anytime soon.

Only two chapters ago Ari was celebrating the freedom and joy of casual sex and drugs. Now he is distressed that these hedonists do not recognize the need to maintain Israel’s might. Zionism, the nation, the army all had to be celebrated not denigrated. The hedonistic individualists regarded Jewish nationalism with contempt. As Netanyahu has said repeatedly, and Ari here echoes, Israel lives in a very tough neighbourhood.  “Israel is a Jewish state in an Arab world” (332) and an Arab world that is in turmoil. In the face of the contradiction of being “a democracy surrounded by tyrannies, a Jewish state in an Arab world and a Western state in an Islamic world. Israel must re-invent itself as a unique, positive anomaly.” (332) Because this contradiction is not just the current condition; it is “perpetual”. This, of course, ignores, the zig-zag moves of Arab states towards democratic regimes that have only been more or less reasonably successful in Tunisia.  

Everyone is to blame but Ari. “The constant attacks on nationalism, the military, and the Zionist narrative consumed Israel’s existence from within. Business inculcated ad absurdam the illusion of normalcy by initiating sweeping privatization and establishing an aggressive capitalist regime that didn’t suit the needs of a nation in conflict. (my italics) Academia inculcated ad absurdum a rigid political correctness by turning the constructive means of self-criticism into an obsessive deconstructive end of its own. The media promoted a false consciousness that combined wild consumerism with hypocritical righteousness. Instead of purpose and promise, the Israeli elite embraced self-doubt and cynicism.” (333) But if the privatization was an essential step for creating Israel as a start-up nation, how can one support clinging to the patriarchal nanny state in the name of a solid sense of the collective?

In any case, one might write that as well about Canada and the USA, but the difference was that Israel lived in a world in which it was always in existential danger. Israel could not afford such self-indulgent luxuries. Israel needed inspiring tales and solid norms. Israel needed equality and solidarity. Otherwise why would youth be willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation?  For Ari, the immediate challenge is not the occupation but “the challenge of regaining national potency”. But perhaps the challenge is really facing the fact, that other than the temporary aberration of Iran (tomorrow), in reality Israel is no longer under an existential threat for the time being.

However, for Ari, this is the perpetually perilous world Israel lives in: “Iran on the rise, Hezbollah building up in the south. Peace has failed. Occupation has failed. Unilateralism has failed….Faced with renewed existential danger, Israel has no relevant national strategy. It is confused and paralyzed.” (334) And Israel is schizophrenically divided between the soldiers who fight in the north and the clubbers in Tel Aviv indifferent to the war and in pursuit of sex, drugs and self-satisfaction.

In the next chapter, fifteen entitled “Occupy Rothschild, 2011” Ari tells the story of the immigration of the Strauss family from Nazi Germany in the thirties and the growth, largely due to the matriarch and her son, Michael, of a cheese and dairy multinational. The chapter is a paean to the industriousness, creativity, boldness and initiatives of the Israeli people themselves. The next example is Kobi Richter, an air pilot in the Six Day War who attacked the Egyptian airfields and aircraft at El-Arish and by 1989 controlled 60% of the worldwide AOI market with annual revenues of over $400 million and then went on to found Medinol which made the most flexible but rigid stents used in medical surgery.

Ari echoes many of the results of research that point out the cluster of factors that turned Israel into the greatest start-up nation in the modern world. Military investment and the infrastructure and close camaraderie and trust developed in the army along with the radical individualism and self-reliance encouraged and developed in Israeli society, the Russian immigration, the cross fertilization of various fields of expertise. are among the many factors that made Israeli society unique.

Stanley Fischer, the immediate past brilliant Governor of the Bank of Israel credits four other factors for its success and four dangers. One reason for success was the reduction of government spending from 51% of GDP to 42%, the huge reduction in the national debt from 100% to 7% of GDP, maintaining a conservative and responsible financial system and fostering the conditions that will encourage high-tech to flourish. The four worrisome problems are a deteriorating educational system, the low employment  rate among the ultra-Orthodox (45%), the low employment rate in the Arab-Israeli sector because most Arab women do not work and the concentration of ownership in a few firms thus reducing competition.  The perils the country faces all boil down to economics!!! Ari just takes it all in and regurgitates it back. What about the discovery of natural resources, the gas finds off the coast, as a serendipitous cause of success? What about the peril of religious fanaticism?

Dan Ben David, an economics professor at Hebrew U has his own perils – the fivefold growth in welfare payments over thirty years because money is being transferred to the ultra-Orthodox and Arab minorities instead of being invested in infrastructure, the slower rate of annual growth while social cohesion and social justice have been eroded, the inadequate investment in human capital, the demographic revolution whereby the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab population, the least productive sectors, are growing at an astounding rate thereby dooming Israel to becoming a backward nation, The few work harder and harder to support the many who proliferate more and more.

Itzik Shmuli, a Jewish kid from a Kurdish Jewish family from northern Iraq  who went on to become a leader of the protest movement against high rents that eventually led 450,000 Israelis, 6% of Israel’s population, to take to the streets, is Ari’s next narrator.  For Ari, the 2011 revolt is the most impressive. Why? Because it was moderate and nonviolent and won 80% of Israeli support. Or was it really because it seemed to die leaving hardly a trace and seemed to have no influence in producing more rental units or more affordable ones thereby echoing parallel protests in New York and Toronto? The absence of any comparative perspective, the inflation of Israeli problems as if they are exclusive to Israel, begins to pall.

It stands to reason that if you cut public expenditures to boost the private sector, investment in education will suffer. Since this was happening around the world in no relationship to the Yom Kippur War, why is the War the source of the change? As the health, education and infrastructure are starved for funds, they all deteriorate. As the rich grow richer and the spread between the super-rich and the poor expand greatly, and greater in Israel than almost anywhere else because Israel was more egalitarian than anywhere except Tanzania and is now more inegalitarian than anywhere but the USA, it is far more noticeable there.

Ari is a great story teller but a terrible analyst covered up in good part by giving many of those analysts their own platform. Look at this account as he boils all the stories he has heard down to lessons learned. “The secret of Israeli high tech is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom, and flouting the rules of the game. The weakness of the Israeli state is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom, and flouting the rules of the game.” (361) Clever, but they are all just one reason -an innovative spirit. Ari has boiled everything down to a tautology. The reason for innovation is innovation and it results in both success and failure. Other than ending up with an empty conclusion, Ari totally fails to distil what he heard. Further, how did the supposed suffocating conformism of Zionism yield such innovative individuality 

What happened in the streets of Tel Aviv is for Ari a wake up call. “out of disintegration and despair we must rise to the challenge of the most ambitious project of all: nation building. The resurrection of the Israeli republic.” (362)

Am I blind? Am I stupid? Why all the enthusiasm for this false prospector of doom and false prophet of the need for resurrection?

My Promised Land.XII.Deri and Drugs

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


XII      Deri and Drugs: Religious and Secular

In chapters 11 and 12, Ari gets away from the world of serial begats and begins to explore offshoots of his promised land that have blossomed in the twenty-first century. Chapter eleven entitled “J’Accuse 1999” offers a fascinating portrait of Aryeh Machluf Deri who was almost solely responsible for the eruption and growth of the Shas political party on the Israeli political scene. The book is worth buying for this chapter alone. After providing some historical background to the fall from grace of a well-established and successful Moroccan Jewish family in its transition to Israel following the 1967 war, the vignette traces Deri’s transition through a series of Yeshivas as a young chosen genius that paralleled his own family’s decline from plenitude and honour to dependency and shame. Against this background, Deri succeeds in persuading Sephardic rabbi Yosef and Ashkenazi super-rabbi Elazar Shach to co-sponsor a new Sephardic religious party.

Ari traces the rise and fall of that party alongside the perceptions fostered of Deri as someone who skirts rules and takes bribes while showing how effective Deri was in building an educational and welfare system for the Sephardic poor to replace the disintegrating welfare systems of the Israeli state. In the face of all this criticism and opposition, in joining the coalition government as Minister of the Interior, he is portrayed as being the architect also of a relatively highly successful Russian immigrant integration program. Further, by enlisting the help of a mystical rabbi, he was able to stave off all the criticisms and attacks and secure 10 seats for Shas in the 1996 election in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

After the elections, a new wave of attacks came at Deri as the Attorney General’s office in 1997 decided to indict Deri on suspicion of persuading Prime Minister Netanyahu to appoint a pliant attorney general presumably so that attorney general would end the corruption charges against Deri. Finally, in 1999, Deri was charged with taking $155,000 in bribes. In the June 1999 elections, Shas went from ten to seventeen seats in the Knesset. His appeal is rejected by the Supreme Court in 2000 and Deri goes to prison for four years.

However, Deri rises from the ashes like a Phoenix and Ari paints a rather sympathetic portrait of a man who arose from nowhere as a “root out of dry ground” to become a prophet in his own time because he understood in great depth the personal mortification and humiliation process of the resettlement in Israel for those who lost their status and their material possessions in moving to Israel. Further, unmoored from their traditions, they came to a country which was largely spiritually bankrupt.  In the portrait offered and in the absence of the evidence against him, one is almost convinced that Dere was politically lynched. And the purpose is evident. Ari too in this book and this chapter uses it to indict the state for its callousness and the Sabra elites for denying the Holocaust, denying the Nakba, denying the Diaspora and, in this chapter, denying the Orient, The Sephardim were culturally castrated. The tale of the rise and fall of Deri is told as a story of the rise and fall of the Oriental Jew in Israel.

Chapter Twelve is entitled “Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition, 2000.” I am familiar with the night life and the club scene of Israel because in my twelve years hosting and producing the television show Israel Today, we made one show on the wild nightclub scene of Israel. It is the only show we made that we never broadcast. It was unsuitable for the evangelical Christian station on which Israel Today was aired. I recall that making that show almost deafened me.

Ari features Itzik Nini, a dancer at Club Allenby in Tel Aviv and his ascription of radical change in Israel to drugs. “They make everyone happy. They liberate you. They open things up, especially Ecstasy…It doesn’t remove you from reality, but makes you feel better within reality.” I have never taken drugs of any kind. I witnessed what the drug culture did to RochdaleCollege in the sixties. I have no sympathy with the drug culture or its claims even when my children, and now grandchildren, accuse me of being close-minded and cut off from an important dimension of existence. I just see it associated with decadence and not the music of the Beatles, though it is certainly an offshoot of the sixties revolution. This part passed me by entirely..

In the contemporary club scene in Israel, Deri is not god. God is the DJ as Ari contends. It is a scene in which gays are the leaders and may be the reason that Putin is so anti-gay. In my world, I do not associate the liberation of gays with drugs. My gay friends were not into drugs in any significant way. Ari may be correct that drugs are associated with the liberation of club culture and, hence, gay culture, as its leading edge for “the gays have totality”. “Gays are the very total people, that’s what makes the parties so over the top. If it’s costumes, then it’s costumes all the way. And if it’s drugs, then it’s drugs all the way. And if it’s sex, then it’s sex all the way.” (201).

Michal Nadel is another spokesperson for this Israeli tribe, for in its beats, in its all-night dancing, in its throbbing music that prevents the mind from thinking at all, in its forging hundreds of sweating and dancing bodies into a single organism, this is truly a tribal culture. Ori Starck and Ravid Zilberman are two others. Ravid says, “”You enter something that is not quite real, a dream that makes your head spin. And all your barriers fall away. All your inhibitions. You are transformed..” (304) All because of sex and drugs.

Have these young Israelis never read about the cult of Dionysus! This is nothing new. This decadent escapism may be portrayed in its excess in The Wolf of Wall Street, but all it is is excess. All it is is decadence. All it is is escapism, self-indulgence and excess. To present the eternal need for stimuli and pleasure and excitement, to present the dervish worship of the golden cow as a sacred calling where there is no inhibitions, where there are “No more poses, no more pretenses” (307) is the biggest pretence of all. Aas Ari records the apologists, “The sound system is so loud you can’t even talk.” (307) And you can’t even think let alone think critically. For there is also “no embrace, no affection, no tenderness.” (307) Merely copulation dressed up as sex. In the wild pursuit of pleasure and fun one can recognize what Moses had to deal with

Why is Ari so overwhelmingly judgmental about everything else in israeli life but in this chapter brackets any sense of judgment. “They are very good looking, these youngsters. Here is an Israeli success story few write about.” The combination of sex and sun and markedly different gene pools has created a unique sensual beauty here.” (308) Ari is saying, ‘I am a real liberal. I do not sit in judgment of these young people who are only having fun. You repressed uptight liberals are the problem because you do not own up to your own violent history. I do. You don’t.’

The reality is that the historical and intellectual world Ari has created is as much an escape from reality as that of these drugged out youngsters, only Ari is drugged out on his own shrill judgments while in this chapter boasting that he does not stand in judgment at all. It is hypocrisy of the worst order. When he writes that, “Without uttering a word, they make a statement through their liberation, through their sexual openness and their rhythmic ritual. They make it in trying to create a space of their own that is ritualistic, lustful and fun.” (308) Jews who came to the land of Palestine and worked hard to create a space of their own that was not ritualistic, that was not egoistically lustful but with a lust for creating a new life, are guilty of disposssessing the Palestinians. But those engaged in egostic self-indulgent hedonistic lust who surrender all effort to think and have the least time and concern for Palestinians in refugee camps, these worshippers of Baal, are viewed as the truly liberated. Baccanalia is NOT freedom. If the Torah taught us anything, it taught us that.

Let us live. Let us live for the moment. Let us seize the day. To present the worship of Baal as the worship of freedom, liberation as the breaking of every taboo, and to celebrate it, is to put one’s critical faculties into a deep freeze. Ari presents this tribe as the only authentic one that rises up against Israel’s fate and Israel’s condition when the fate he has portrayed is the one he himself constructed in his own intellectual deterministic universe,

What hogwash!!!! 

My Promised Land Peace 1993

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


XI        Peace 1993

For Ari, the desire for peace has always been one stream of Zionism. But it has always been on the fringes. The more basic instincts have been militant.. Further, since the Arab uprising of 1936-1939, the militancy has grown. Sometimes he seems to attribute this to external factors – the responses of local Arabs. However, it is clear here that the main factor is that Zionists, “paid lip service to peace, but [Zionism] was not willing to pay a real price for it.” (240) Immigration. Settlement. Nation-building. These were all supreme values. Peace was not.

For Ari, the real peace movement started in 1967. The movement for Greater Israel started in earnest at the same time. Yossi Sarid, a Holocaust survivor who rose to become Israel’s Minister of Education, is his first hero of many in this chapter. Like many Israeli characters, like Shulamit Aloni who died two days ago, Yossi was arrogant and brilliant, conceited  and rebellious. and unable to serve any authority higher than himself. Yossi had accomplished more as a literary figure than Shulamit. Yossi and Shulamit were hard to tolerate as people but enchanting nevertheless. Yossi’s brilliance was such that he was destined to lead the Labour Party. The crux of the first part of this chapter is both why he failed to fulfill his destiny.

According to Ari, Yossi became a committed peacenik in the early 1970s when he was convinced then that occupation and settlements were a disaster. Was it the settlements that served as the turning point? Ari says the turning point came in the early 1970s not mid-1970s when Ofra was established. Was it the Yom Kippur War? He does not mention that and only focuses on peace with the Palestinians not Israel’s neighbouring Arab states. Even if others, such as Jacob Talmon, arrived at that position in 1967, Ari never tells us why Yossi arrived at his position at the time he did, only that the timing was premature for the Labout party and he was out of synch with its hawkish leaders. So Yossi Sarid, the prince-in-waiting of the Labour Party, became an outcast, a leader of protests rather than of a major political party or faction within it.

In 1982, in opposing the Lebanon War, Yossi came into his own as undisputed leader of the peace movement. But his breach from the Labour Party meant he was confined to the life of a maverick, frustrating for him because, unlike others, he saw himself as destined for prime leadership.  So he ends up disheartened, discontented and disillusioned. The dilemma is posed. How does one say “No” to warmongering but remain within the folds of potential leadership without consigning oneself to being a permanent outsider? For Ari, protest alone is inherently vacuous, barren and sterile; it does not offer you a position to really inspire and lead.

As someone who has always preferred the role of the outsider and critic, I find the argument totally unconvincing. There is a role in society for action and leadership from the sidelines as well as the mainstream. Some who want both power and reform manage to straddle both. But most or many of us do not. What is clear is that if you want power and are unable to learn the art of pragmatic compromise while upholding your own ideals, then you are doomed either to sell out or to be relegated to the margins in frustration.

The core issue is the settlements for Ari. That is not, of course, how Netanyahu sees it. As quoted by John Ivison approvingly in yesterday’s National Post., he says settlements “are not the core of the conflict, since there were no settlements for nearly half a century while conflict raged between Jews and Arabs. Settlements were uprooted in Gaza, and Israel reverted to the pre-1967 line, ‘But we didn’t get peace. We got 16,000 rockets.’ He says the settlement issue will be resolved in a final peace deal. It will be hard but it is resolvable. Simply pulling the IDF from Hebron would be one solution, as long as any Jews that want to remain are guaranteed safe haven by the Palestinian Authority. It would be painful for any Israeli prime minister but politically possible. However, the real Gordian knot is not the Arab mission to liberate the West Bank – it’s the one to liberate pre-1948 Palestine.” (A6)

Ari agrees with Netanyahu that the central issue is not the occupation and not the settlements. But he reverses the focus from the Palestinians to the Zionists who settled the land and had to clear out Palestinians by force.

Sarid has a different view. “The occupation is the father of all sins. Occupation is the mother of atrocity. When we occupied the West Bank and Gaza, we opened a door, and evil winds swept through it. All the depravity you see in Israel is because of the occupation. The brutality. The deceit. The decay. Even the army is now rotting because it was forced to be an occupying army.” (244)

I personally believe that settlements are one obstacle to peace. But I agree with Netanyahu and Ari. They are not THE obstacle. To single out settlements and to blame settlements are all of Israeli ills is not simply hyperbole of the worst order, but does not jibe with what I have heard from Palestinian activists. Ari answered Sarid, “You (to Sarid) discovered the world but you ignored our own history. You forgot 1948 and the refugee problem that it created. You were blind to the chilling consequences of Zionism and the partial dispossession of another people that is the core of the Zionist enterprise.” Setting aside whether dispossession was the core of Zionism, the refugee problem is the key (along with Jerusalem) and not the settlements. For Israel will not allow a return and is simply following the normal pattern of every other group involved in an ethnic or religious conflict. Those who fled or are forced out never return with few exceptions, except if they are the victors.

Another hero of the chapter is Yossi Berlin, more sober than Sarid, a man of peace but not of protest. Also industrious, eager and ambitious though perhaps not as brilliant as Sarid, he too became preoccupied with the quest for peace but not obsessed with the occupation or the settlements. And it was the Yom Kippur War not the Six Day War that was the major turning point in moving him from being religiously observant to becoming a professional politician obsessed with peace and playing the role of peace entrepreneur with two professors from Haifa with whom he helped initiate the Oslo process when he was deputy minister to Shimon Peres in 1992. Ari succinctly sums up the back door diplomacy that led to Oslo and the Oslo process which initially only envisioned a local autonomy agreement.

I am not sure Ari knows the full story of the transition from the Palestinians as part of the Jordanian delegation to recognition of the Palestinians as a separate delegation to recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, but he does tell the end of the story. The start was made, in fact, in the multilateral talks gavelled by Canada over the refugee issue..

Ari accuses Yossi Beilin of becoming mesmerized by the appearance of peace and getting rid of the occupation. “An Arafat peace agreement should have been based on a Palestinian about face recognizing the Jewish people, recognizing the Jewish national movement and its national rights, relinquishing the Palestinian right of return.” (251)  That is what a true peace requires. Ari who has always been devoted to peace found that his fellow-peaceniks failed to come face to face with the central tragedy of two peoples fighting over the same land. So Beilin from a very different perspective suffers from the same pre-occupation with the occupation and fails to confront the central tragedy. This explains the withering away of the peace movement after the failure of Oslo. The advocates of Oslo never understood the source of that failure.

“So it transpired that peace stopped being peace. It was no longer bound by a realistic analysis of power, interests, opportunity, threat, and alliance — by sound judgment. It ignored Arab aspirations and political culture. It overlooked the existence of millions of Palestinian refugees whose main concern was not the occupation but a wish to return to their lost Palestine. It was not based on a factual state of affairs, but on a sentimental state of mind. It was a wish, a belief, a faith..” (255) So in conflict with this non-rational mythos of return, a naive belief in rational self-interested politics in pursuit of peace was useless. One needed a counter myth that recognized rather than repressed the brutality required to possess the land and accepted living within a tragic frame.

Menachem Brinker echoes Ari’s thesis. Avishai Margolit, the author of the unilateral Gaza withdrawal, denies that he advocated that position blind to the larger obstacles, but insisted they were necessary in spite of and to confront the real core issues. Avishai blamed the peace movement to which he was one of the intellectual leaders with a naiveté about the political process needed in obtaining political allies sufficiently to stop settlements, not with ignoring the issue of refugees and return. Avishai has become pessimistic even though the peace movement was successful in getting most of the right to accept the reality, inevitability and desirability of a two state solution and surrender the vision of a Greater Israel. “But on the ground, we lost badly. We didn’t stop colonization. We never managed to forge a coalition wide enough and strong enough to stop the settlers. Now it’s too late. It’s almost irreversible. I don’t see a power within Israel fierce enough to stop the state founded by my parents from becoming an apartheid state.” (256)

Ari’s answer to why the peaceniks failed is different but simple. “We were right to try peace. We were right to send Beilin’s team to meet with the Palestinians and offer them a grand deal: a demilitarized Palestine living side by side with a Jewish democratic Israel along the 1967 border. But we should never have promised ourselves peace or assumed that peace was around the corner. We should have been sober enough that occupation must end and even if the end of occupation did not end the conflict…We failed to say to the world and to our people that occupation must cease even if peace cannot be reached.” (256-257)  Ari faults Avishai and Menachem, not for being peacniks, but for failing to take up the responsibility of political leadership. It is a false charge. That was not their job. It was not my job. We were all teachers, not politicians.

Further, the fault was not naiveté. We all knew the risks. We all understood the internal resistance. But we hoped – and we came very close – that the Palestinians would grasp the offer. And until the last minute, there were plenty of reasons to believe we would succeed in spite of the forces undercutting a leap forward. But Arafat turned out to be a flake. He agreed then he backed down and changed his mind. The timing was right. But the opening and opportunity was not grasped. To retrospectively suggest that we should have recognized that such a failure was inevitable is to resign to necessitarianism. Peace is pursued on the basis of possibilism. and not surrendering to the necessity of being trapped in a tragedy.

I actually cannot recall whether Menachem and Avishai were blinded to the larger conflicts in the Middle East,, as Ari charges. But I think not. Uri Avneri, Matti Peled and Michel Warschawski who formed the Peace Bloc, criticized Peace Now for selling out to Labour and tolerating Rabin’s procrastination and provocations. Avishai and Menachem opposed “escalating” the Lebanese conflict but did not oppose responding to the artillery attack  There appeared to be a temporary reprieve. When the Declaration of Principles were signed with the Palestinians in August 1993, momentum seemed to support cautious optimism instead of the constancy of pessimism which Ari sees as a necessary requirement of the pursuit of peace. The miracle of peace with Egypt fifteen years earlier could be followed by another miracle. The deal clearly recognized that other issues were as critical if not more critical than the occupation. Even Shulamit Aloni, then a Minstter in the Coalition government, welcomed the agreement and declared, “No more parents will go weeping after the coffins of their sons,” and Amos Oz echoed, “And death shall rule no more.” (Mordechai Bar’on (1996) In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli P{eace Movement, Washington: USIP, 310)

The problem was not myopia but, to prove his point, Ari offers Amos Oz. For Amos, the captured lands of 1967 were only to be used as bargaining chips and NOT for settlement. The results of the Yom Kippur War eventually brought both sides around to the need to recognize that peace required that the land be divided between the two peoples. The issue now became how to make that division and in that both sides failed. But both sides also succeeded. For this new recognition is not reversible.

However, in Ari’s tragic vision and the necessity of adopting a tragic posture, Hulda of 1948 is the problem. The destroyed villages of 1947 are the problem. “Hulda is what the conflict is really about. Hulda is the crux of the matter. Hulda is what the conflict is really about. And Hulda has no solution. Hulda is our fate.” (265) “What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life. Arab Hulda and Jewish Hulda cannot really see each other  and recognize each other and make peace. Yosi Sarid, Yossi Beilin, Ze’ev Sternhell, Menachem Brinker, Avishai Margolit, and Amos Oz put up a courageous fight against the folly of the occupation and did all they could to bring about peace. But at the end of the day, they could not look Jabal Munheir in the eye. They could not see Hulda as it is. For the most benign reasons, their promise of peace was false.” (268)

But it was not a promise. It was a push and effort. Everyone of those people could look Jamel Munheir in the eye just as well as Ari Shavit. Only they, as well as I, would say that in every other case of such conflict and such separation of ethnic groups, peace is made when each side accepts the current reality and neither tries to get back what was lost or to advance further beyond what was done. Israelis and Palestinians have to do the same thing. The sooner the better. But there is no other realistic game in town. Viewing the situation as the need to correct historic wrongs that cannot be corrected or changed and viewing this as a tragic trap is what passes for reality when it is simply a recipe for living under a doomsday cloud. And peace always requires not surrendering to the temptations of despair.

If for Ari, “Hulda has no solution. Hulda says peace shall not be,” (267), I answer, Why not? There have been a myriad of such conflicts. Sooner or later they end either in peace or in the total victory of one party over the other. I can only hope it will be the former and not the latter and sooner rather than later. I have maintained that hope since 1967 and see no reason to surrender it to Ari’s recipe of a tragic vision of deep doom.

My Promised Land.X.GazaBeach

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit

X         Gaza Beach 1991


In this chapter Ari focuses on Gaza in 1991, before the intifada broke out just a few years after I and my oldest son crossed from Egypt into Gaza en route to Israel with a first stop a visit to Jeremy’s old girlfriend when he lived on a kibbutz for a year. They had remained friends and she had married and had a child by this time. She now lived on a kibbutz on the border of Gaza. To our surprise – which perhaps showed our naiveté – not one person we met on that kibbutz had ever visited Gaza.

Our introduction to Gaza was very shocking. When we entered from Egypt we were shunted off to one line for foreigners while Palestinians went into another line. We were treated with what then passed for Israeli civility while we watched Palestinians not simply being questioned but questioned in the most demeaning and humiliating way. I could not tell whether this was because the officer was originally from South Africa but I could not keep my mouth shut and reprimanded the officer for his incivility, which helped the Palestinians not one whit. It is to the credit of the Israelis that I was simply told to mind my own business.

Ari describes the successful systematic and determined use of oppression to put down the intifada, but it is possible that the same oppression could have been a factor in the break out of the intifada. Ari was sent there as part of his miluim service (reserve duty) and decided to report on what he saw rather than refuse to participate. He served as a prison guard for the detainees who were mostly “not terrorists but demonstrators and rock throwers”. many of them teenagers. For Ari, the officers were generally decent men trying to do their job. Our observations had been different. There were many different kinds of officers, some very considerate, kind and fair and others just bullies. Ari actually saw the same – some indifferent, some wishing all Arabs were dead and others considerate and humane.

What made my spine tingle was his listening to the beatings of prisoners in the interrogation room. It reminded me of the screams I used to hear from the Police Station at the corner of Markham   St. one block north of Bloor at London St.. We lived one block away on Palmerston   Ave and we could hear the screams in the late forties when the cops beat up prisoners, a practice which seemed to be standard at the time and comes back every time I watch a film noire movie. Ari is correct. “A person who has heard the screams of another is a transformed person. Whether he does something about it or not, he is transformed.” And all the screams of the past re-echo whether watching just a replica or hearing the real thing when visiting philosopher friends in a Tito jail in former Yugoslavia in Slovenia in the late sixties or listening to Tamils being “questioned” in a military base in Elephant Pass in Sri Lanka in 1982 when I myself was under arrest there by the Sri Lankan army.  

As Ari writes, “The interrogation ward becomes part of routine service, as if this is the way of the world.” (my italics) (233) Ari asks, “Are we the soldiers of evil? Are we agents of cruelty? Are we the heartless gatekeepers of oppression?” (234) Ari seems to answer yes but adds that these soldiers doing their duty are victims too. So he asks how all these non-evil people manage together to produce a result that is evil? For, in Ari’s eyes, Israelis were evil in Gaza. Israelis were evil in denying Palestinians human rights and civil rights and national rights. In doing so, the process corroded the souls of the Israelis forced into that situation. .

The question is, forced by the Israeli government or forced by circumstances? Or by both? Ari gets to the heart of the matter when he writes that, “Only our willingness to use force is what keeps us alive here.” (335) This is the real way of the world. The Palestinians have forced Israelis to be evil by rising up against the Israeli oppression. And Ari ends with a variation of his tragic fix. “we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat.” (236) “The tragedy never ends.” (238)

It does. It always has. And it always will.

If some humans make the laws and agree to be governed by the laws they make and through lawful activity express themselves and their thought, there are others ruled by law not of their making. Those are not subject to the rule of law but the rule of force. Life is organized so that the lives of those who live through and under the law can be preserved. Thereby those individuals have freedom and independence. Those governed by the law who cannot live through it completely lack freedom and independence. But the spirit of a people is preserved and enhanced by its pursuit of the freedom and independence of each of its members. It is only when that spirit can be preserved for both peoples in contention and the independence and freedom of the individuals in each can be enhanced can that spirit be a universal and not just a particular spirit.

Until the movement of forces in contention can become universally acknowledged through a peace between the two peoples, only then will every individual in both societies have freedom. Only then will force not simply be externalized but will be recognized for the coercion that it is by both peoples.. Freedom and living under and through the law will become owned and embraced by the contending peoples and forces. Then the tragedy will become a comedy.

Until then we will experience and observe the way of the world.

My Promised Lan IX. Settlement 1975

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit

IX        Settlement 1975


This is the most important chapter of the book.


Ein Harod begat Orange Groves which begat Masada which begat Lydda and the destruction of 400 Arab villages and the city of Lydda in the 1948 war, which in turn begat the influx and settlement of 750,000 Jewish refugees mostly from Arab lands which begat the creation of the nuclear weapons at Dimona. By now we are familiar with the trope. Except we have only one paragraph on the Six Day War which did give rise to the Yom Kippur War and, according to Ari, it was the latter following the former that gave rise to the settlement movement. 

“The settlements were a direct response to these two wars. The swift turn of events in 1967 — from fear of annihilation to resounding triumph — sideswiped the rigorous self-discipline that had held Zionism together for seventy years. The Israeli nation was drunk with victory, filled with euphoria, hubris and messianic delusions of grandeur. Six years later, the almost instantaneous shift from an imperial state of mind to cowering despondency was followed by a deep crisis of leadership, values, and identity. The nation was filled with despair, self-doubt and existential fear. Let down by Israel, many sought comfort in Judaism. The two diametrically opposed war experiences, which occurred within six years of each other, threw the Israeli psyche out of balance. The incredible contrast between them gave birth to the settlement.” (202)

Ari was a 23 year old Peace Now activist student at the time. He was the right age. Now he was interviewing Yoel Bin Nun, just a few years older and one of the dozen young leaders of the Gush Emunim settler movement whose combination of fervour and pragmatism, idealism and shyness made settlement in the West Bank possible and created the ethos and image of the New Zionism. However, the two leaders Ari zeroes in on are Pinchas Wallerstein and Yehuda Etzion, two other founders of Ofra, the settlement that Ari takes as his central point of reference. For Ari, Ofra was the direct descendent of Ein Harod even though it was created by a sovereign state and not a desperate Diaspora, even though it was not necessary to provide shelter for Jews but was necessary if Jews wanted a kingdom. But it was founded against tremendous odds, was an expression of enormous willpower and did, like its predecessor, try to impose its own Zionist Utopia on reality.

Pinchas Wallerstein, though small and dyslexic, is a matter-of-fact man of action rather than deep thought, a social dynamo who became a leader of the religious settler movement even though he was expelled from his high school yeshiva. However, he managed to finish school after he spent two years recuperating from his injuries suffered in the Six Day War and even married. In 1975, he was the one who devised the idea of how these radical religious Zionists could settle in Samaria. In dealing with a hostile government, follow the pattern of the kibbutzim in dealing with Arabs by creating facts on the ground and lulling the “enemy” into acceptance.

Yehuda Etzion was as tall as Pinchas Wallerstein was short, was imposing rather than modest, was a deep thinker instead of an operator, was by heritage an admirer of the Stern Gang that, among its other atrocities, had assassinated the UN envoy, the Swede Count Folk Bernadotte, an act that in history gave birth to what is called the “right of return” resolution even though that resolution never refers to the proposal as a right. Etzion is the exemplification of the ecstasy felt after the Six Day War and the despair over what he perceived as Israel’s cynicism, nihilism and defeatism after the Yom Kippur War and a sharp critic of what Yehuda termed complacent Zionism that had displaced messianic secular Zionism and that had, in turn, to be displaced by messianic religious Zionism, the only cure. Messianism had to go back and be re-grafted onto its true religious source. If Wallerstein was the tactician, Etzion was the strategist. If secular Zionism conquered the plains, religious Zionism would have to recapture the hilltops of Judea and Samaria, the heart of the holy land where Abraham made his sacrifice on Elon Moreh and God gave his covenant to Joshua in Jericho.

Ygal Allon planned to take strategic control of the highlands of the West Bank and the rift valley of the Dead Sea; Yehuda Etzion sought to bring the people of Israel back to the source of their spiritual strength. But it was Pinchas Wallerstein who conceived the idea of marrying the two strategies by using the radar station at the top of Ba’al Hazor Mountain, literally “lord of trumpeting,” but lord in the sense of total demonic possession, as the first step in the messianic dream. The demons would be used to implement the Allon Plan by sending a fence repair crew to the mountain top who needed to stay overnight to save the time of journeying back and forth. The religious mission would be instigated through small practical methods in the tradition of the kibbutz, but on the site where God showed Abraham the promised land. They proceded by taking over the deserted Jordanian military base nearby. Diplomacy with a soft not totally unsympathetic Shimon Peres was used to protect their backside from any army initiative to oust them. Peres instructs the army not to assist them but not to oust them either. In winning the first battle so easily, the messianic settlers had won the war of settlements. They had their toehold.

External circumstances help. A Palestinian terror attack on a Tel Aviv bus, the failure of Henry Kissinger’s peace initiative with Egypt, the fall of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to the communists, the rift between Israel and the USA as Israel fears abandonment by its current superpower protector – all these factors weaken the opposition to their efforts and provide secret supporters among otherwise non-messianic leading Israelis. Further, while strategically blind leaders like Pinchas could lull themselves into the belief that the surrounding Arab villages would accept their presence, Yehuda knew that eventually their settlements would eventually entail total war between the two communities and “at the end of the war the villages would vanish”. (213) But if Yehuda understood that, why does Ari present them both as such innocents and assert that, “They established Ofra without comprehending its repercussions” just after Ari declared that Etzion well understood the repercussions?

However powerful the book is in style, description, conception and execution, logic is definitely not one of its merits. Pinchas, in all his strategic naiveté, manages to grow the initial settlement and plant other settlements. Yehuda has greater plans. If Begin betrays Zionism by giving back the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, if the new hedonistic Hellenism is making Israel “un-Jewish, weak, hollow, and rotten”, these are merely signs that God is still unhappy. “As long as the Al-Aqsa mosque  and the Omar mosque stand on the TempleMount, there can be no salvation for Israel.” (215) The plot to blow up the mosques is set in motion if the State of Israel is to be re-attached with the Kingdom of Israel and the greatest humiliation to Judaism destroyed. Etzion with his three co-conspirators had declared holy war.

By 1984, the Shin Bet had uncovered the plot and the roots of the other terrorist activities of these zealots and arrested them. (See the discussion in the Israeli film, The Gatekeepers.) Pragmatic messianic settlements win out over extremist zealotry. But, according to Ari, the logic of settlement in the West bank can only conclude with zealotry and the ethnic cleansing of both the Palestinian and the Muslim presence in the West Bank.

“There will be war, no doubt about it. Because of 1948 and 1967, and because of Ofra, there will be war. But war will not save Ofra or Israel. The reality created by Wallerstein and Etzion and their friends has entangled Israel in a predicament that cannot be untangled. The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality. But now Ofra’s illegitimacy taints Israel itself. Like a cancer it spreads from one organ to another, endangering the entire body. Ofra’s colonialism makes the world perceive Israel as a colonialist entity. But because in the twenty-first century there is no room for a colonialist entity, the West is gradually turning its back on Israel. That’s why enlightened Jews in America and Europe are ashamed of Israel. That’s why Israel is at odds with itself.” (220-221)

I am totally opposed to the settlement movement. But I am not at all ashamed of Israel. Though I regard the settlements as obstacles to peace, they have not been the most serious obstacles – Jerusalem and the right of return of the Arab refugees have been. We all know that a peace deal can be made by trading the heavily settled blocks for other land as long as Palestine gets the same percentage – 28% of mandated Palestine that was in Palestine hands at the beginning of 1967. It is as much Ari’s extremist illogic and false dichotomies, not his extremist beliefs which are clearly moderate, that helps make the settlements an either/or question. And making them an either/or question will ensure war not peace, a civil war within Israel and/or a war with the Palestinians. Such a war is not a logical necessity arising from the settlements and its alleged DNA heritage. Peace will come by focusing on possibilities not on false assertions of necessariatism.

Ari asserts that, “No fair-minded observer will deny the assertion that in a sense Ofra is Ein Harod’s grandchild.” (221) I claim to be a fair-minded person. I absolutely deny that Ein Harod begat Ofra. Ari’s false logic, false dichotomies and necessitarianism creates the connection – not a natural historical law. The issue is not simply that only the historic and conceptual contexts between Ein Harod and Ofra are different. The existence of the State of Israel and its non-existence is not just a matter of historic context. It is the essence of political Zionism. The possession of sufficient territory for the Jewish people in its historic homeland is sufficient for fulfilling the dream of self-determination. The ideology of the first phase does not at all entail the ideology of the second. And it is as much mushy thinking as Shimon Peres’ softness for the settlers that has allowed the settler movement to grow as it did,

Ofra is not only not a continuation but is not even an aberration, a grotesque reincarnation of Ein Harod. There is no reincarnation in Judaism. Ofra is a mutation and not an aberration. Nevertheless, practical political Zionism recognizes that even mutations have to be dealt with realistically and pragmatically. And the peace talks have proceeded precisely on that basis. That is precisely why the settlements are NOT the obstacle in the end to making peace.  

Ari preaches: “Wallerstein doesn’t get it, so I try to explain. I tell him that from the beginning Zionism skated on thin ice. On the one hand it was  national liberation movement. It intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another.(my itallics)” Nonsense! Absolute and unfettered nonsense! In Ari’s own account, though the possibility of population displacement was mooted, it only became a real possibility and not just a logical one as a result of the 1936-39 Arab uprising. And it would not have taken place if the Arabs had accepted the partition plan. Accepting that Jews were responsible for forcefully displacing a significant portion of the Arab population of Palestine does not entail accepting that that was a necessary and inevitable outcome. Further, total ethnic cleansing never became part of the ideological plan or operational execution. If there had been a peace agreement following the 1967 war, the process of settlement would not have taken place.

In Ari’s interpretation, the disassociation of Zionism from colonialism was simply a rhetorical exercise in diplomacy. Zionists were colonialists. Further, the effort in avoiding unnecessary hardship arose as much from tactical necessity as humanitarianism. The projection of a democratic, progressive and enlightened movement as well as collaboration with the west was not just a strategic imperative but for many of us lies at the heart of Zionism, a national liberation of the Jewish people in a democratic and enlightened polity. The problem that emerged after 1973 was not just Labour’s weakness and Likud’s recklessness, but an inability to hear the strongest and best voices in Zionism, in part because they were often drowned out by implacable voices from the other side.

So though Ari and I are on the same side in our liberal enlightenment in opposition to settlements, I think Ari is totally wrong in equating messianic Zionism with liberal political Zionism. They are not linked by DNA. The zealots were not just mistaken in believing that “a sovereign state could do in occupied territories what a revolutionary movement could do in an undefined land” (222), but in thinking that creating kibbutzim in land purchased was the same as creating settlements in land captured by a state in war. It is a matter of international law and ethics and not just context and circumstances. Israel cannot be an enlightened democratic political product of national self-determination if it deprives another people of its right to self-determination.

Because two movements, the original settlement movement of the twenties and thirties, bear a family resemblance, as Wittgenstein noted, with the settlement movement on the West Bank (and, presumably, Gaza), that does not mean the two very different movements are genetically yoked together. In making such a gross error, Ari then engages in the same extremist reasoning as the settlers do and accuses them of “committing an act of historic suicide”. (222) If they had managed to blow up the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome on the Rock, unfortunately that might have been the result. But as the leader of Fatach youth told me at Al Qds University, there is no reason in logic or politics that a Palestine independent state could not have a Jewish minority anymore than Israel cannot have a significant Palestinian minority.

So although I agree with Ari in his opposition to the settlers and though I reject my daughter’s ex-inlaws who were extremist fascists demanding all Arabs be cleansed from both Israel and the West Bank and claimed all Arabs wanted to do the same to them although my daughters ex-inlaws never ever had a long and serious talk with a Palestinian since they made aliyah from the USA many years ago, and while I fully agree in condemning such messianic extremism, I also found that in my interviews with settlers that they were surprisingly very varied in their views.  Gaza shows that settlements can be dismantled. If the dismantling is done in a limited and reasonable way, and possibly by offering a choice to the settlers to stay under Palestinian rule as citizens of Palestine, then a land swap is a reasonable solution to both the external and internal political realities and most of the settlers can be allowed to stay.  If Ari believes that his logic demands the dismantling of all the settlements to make peace, then he rather than the settlers is the more serious obstacle to peace.  

My Promised Land VIII The Project 1967

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


VIII     The Project 1967


1967 is not about the Six Day War. It is about the Dimona nuclear reactor. It is not even about the role Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons played in that war. (Cf. Avner Cohen (2007) “Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons,” Arms Control Today, 37:5, June 12-17.) .Ari’s father was a young chemist at the Weizmann Institute and, therefore, was privy to the private discussions, rumours and gossip about Dimona. In addition to overhearing conversations, Ari also had the books on his father’s shelves that clearly suggested what the project was about. As he writes, “At the age of ten I already knew that the bespectacled engineers and diffident physicists around me were in their own way part of a mythic (my italics) undertaking.” (176)

I will return to the examination of the project as a mythic undertaking. For those who have not read Avner Cohen’s groundbreaking 1998 excellent book, Israel and the Bomb, Ari’s chapter should be read for the summaries borrowed from Avner of the political debates leading up to the decision to build a bomb, how Israelis did so with French help and what takes place there now. I thought at first that Avner would be the hero and central figure of this chapter. After all, Avner blew the cover entirely on Dimona, yet, in spite of virtually everything of key relevance being known about this deep and dark secret, Ari writes, “Officially, however, the nuclear reactor at Dimona is still shrouded in ambiguity. Israel state policy does not allow Israelis to discuss Dimona publicly. I respect this policy and I obey it, and I cleared this chapter with the Israeli censor.”

Avner did not. There is an essential paradox. Ari relies extensively on someone who had credentials in analyzing the nuclear arms race and the moral issues associated with it, Avner Cohen. He read Avner’s book which revealed the secret to the full glare of publicity and relied on it extensively. But Avner did not have the book checked and approved by the Israeli censor. As a result, Avner told me at the time, that he had to flee Israel before the book came out when he received messages that he would be arrested. He stayed away for three years. When he eventually returned, the headlines in one Israeli newspaper read that he would be arrested on arrival. Avner had done his best to undercut that possibility by alerting a number of American papers. As it turned out, he was interrogated for 50 hours but was not placed under arrest. Since then he has travelled back and forth to Israel and was even the Forscheimer Visiting Professor at HebrewUniversity in 2005. He has since published even more extensively on the subject, including his 2010 volume, The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.

Ari does not try to summarize everything that Avner wrote about Israel’s development of the bomb even in the early stages referred to in the book.. For example, Ari does not write about Israel’s clandestine importation of yellowcake from Argentina during 1963-1964 exposed by William Burr and Avner Cohen in the National Security Archive Briefing Book No, 432 or the summary piece in last year’s February issue of Foreign Policy. But Avner, I thought, would have been a perfect example of a person Ari likes to profile in each chapter. After all, Avner won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation research and writing award not once, but twice (1990 and 2004) and was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) twice as well (1997-98 and 2007-08). He was co-director of the Project on Nuclear Arms Control in the Middle East at the Security Studies Program at MIT from 1990 to 1995 and has hopped around the USA as a visiting professor at many American universities. He is the world expert on the Israeli nuclear program and an expert in general on nuclear development.

I, of course, have no problem with Ari citing and borrowing from Avner but deciding not to feature Avner in this chapter. But why could Ari not engage and discuss why he differed from Avner in his interpretations? I had a very long talk with Avner yesterday on this subject and others. Avner was in his office at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Avner was flattered that he was quoted and cited so extensively. But he offered no explanation of why Ari totally ignored all of Avner’s criticisms of the program except that those criticisms did not fit the apologetics he was developing. For example, Ari writes, “In order to create and uphold a Jewish state in the Middle East, a protective umbrella had to be (my italics) unfurled above the fledgling endeavor, a structure that would protect the Jews from the animosity they provoked when they entered the land.” (177) Had to??? That is not a given; that is a question. It was a question at the time and remains a question. It is a question Avner wrestles with. Ari falls back on his necessitarian proposition again just as he did with the clearing of the Arab villages. If we were to succeed, the villages had to go. If Israel needed to protect itself, then the bomb had to be developed. Avner could not be the figure at the centre of the chapter because Avner undercut any such proposition.

Why was such a development necessary according to Ari? Because “the protective umbrella of the West was slowly furling.” (177) Ari’s argument is that Arab nationalism was on the rise in the mid-1950s and Arab nations were modernizing and militarizing rapidly. At the same time, “the colonial era was coming to an end, Europe was in retreat, and Israel was left on its own in a hostile desert.” (177) The colonial era was near its end. Europe was retreating from its colonies, but what had that to do with having a nuclear deterrent?

Though not explicitly stated, the suggestion is that when America faced down both Britain and France over Suez in 1956, Israel had been abandoned by both Europe and the USA. Why does Ari not just say this? Because David Ben Gurion made his decision, against considerable opposition within his own government, in 1955, before the Suez crisis. Suez was really part of a new strategy of establishing regional hegemony by Israel and the bomb was viewed as a tool to consolidate that hegemony. If there was any effort to isolate Israel or to abandon Israel, it was not the result of Israel opting to develop the bomb. It was a result of Israel’s determination to pursue military hegemony in the Middle East. Any isolation or abandonment as Ari dubs it was not the cause of that isolation but the result of the pursuit of military hegemony.

Perhaps the pursuit of hegemony was a correct course of action. Perhaps the pursuit of supposed self-reliance – another essential pillar in the Israel myth – was justified. But there is no rational justification to be found in this book. Just as the clearing of the villages was a necessary act of evil that Israel could now admit, the development of the nuclear bomb was a necessary act that Israel had to undertake if Israel was to survive. In the end, the need to survive  is the bottom line explanation for all actions, but it belongs to the arena of myth creation because the connection between the act and its reason is taken as a given rather than run through a critical examination.

Does Ari’s account, as brief as it is, have any validity? The doctrine of deterrence, or more formally with respect to nuclear weapons, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is that if you dare to use nuclear weapons against me, we will launch our weapons against you. Each side has to assure the other that they have both the capacity for a second strike, the will to use such weapons and that mutual destruction would result if either side resorted to their use. There was, of course, an underlying paradox. If the weapons had to be used, then they were useless for they were there only as a deterrent. Therefore, they were only useful if they were never used. If used, they had failed in their function.

There was no parallel between the East-West deterrent theory and Israel’s strategy. The other side did not have nuclear weapons. It just had many more states, many more soldiers and much greater overall resources. So Israel had a variation in this deterrence strategy. If you ever try to overwhelm us or eliminate us, we will unleash total destruction on that enemy state in turn. The bomb was intended to help even the odds. This is what Ari called the existential insurance policy. But the same logic applied. If Israel had to use its nuclear weapons, it was only because their deterrent function had failed. If we die, then you die as well.

Why would enemy states not suspect that Israel might resort to pre-emptive use? After all, Israel resorted to a pre-emptive attack in the 1967 war. Why wouldn’t one or more of the enemy states try to develop a bomb of their own? If the enemy states believed in the possibility of per-emption, then Israel having a nuclear capacity might stimulate an enemy state to try to develop a nuclear capacity. Given this possibility, why not ardently seek some kind of a peace deal with Arab states as actually eventually happened with Egypt and Jordan? If, however, you believed, as David Ben Gurion evidently did, “that the Arab-Israeli conflict was deep and irresolvable” then that would be a fruitless endeavour. But in hindsight of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement and the Jordan-Israeli agreement, why does Ari not question such reasoning? Why does he just seem to accept it in toto?

Instead, Ari simply records the views of Ben Gurion’s opponents at the time, namely, the Middle East was too unstable an area for nuclear deterrence to work and, therefore, Israel was the one most likely to be hit by a first strike and, therefore, Israel should not give any reason for its enemies to seek to develop nuclear weapons. The answer to that is given by the father of the Israeli bomb. “If they want a bomb, they can develop a bomb. They do not need Israel to inspire them to get one.” The Engineer who developed the bomb becomes the central hero of the chapter, not Avner.

So Ari tells the story of the father of the Israeli bomb whose heart was hardened in 1943 when his father was gunned down driving to his orange grove. The hard heart was then solidified in the 1948 war when he also learned how resourceful, capable and bold he could be. So Ben Gurion’s decision, Peres’ execution and the Engineer’s superb management brought the bomb into being in time for the 1967 war.

As a result of that war, the fear of extinction had been felt in every Israeli Jewish bone. At the same time, as a result of the one-sided quick victory, Israel had a new sense of omnipotence. Maybe it did not need the bomb, the first of which had been produced in 1966. The Engineer believed, however, that only with the bomb could Israel ensure that Jews would not be exterminated. For, according to Ari, the Engineer had flattened Arab villages and forced Arabs to flee. He knew “that they would always want to flatten our own villages.” (189) Just as the engineer had sought vengeance for the gunning down of his father, they would always seek vengeance.. An ultimate deterrent was needed that would force them to pause.

But Israel did not want to stimulate a nuclear arms race. Hence the doctrine of strategic opacity. Life had to be lived as if Dimona did not exist. Let everyone know you have a bomb. But never admit it. More importantly, always act strategically as if you did not have a bomb. “Israel would be a nuclear power but would act as if it were not.” (190) The development of nuclear weapons and Israel’s version of a deterrent strategy combined with the strategy of opacity allowed Israelis to live normal lives for a decade. Furthermore, according to Ari, it was the possession of the bomb “that gave Israel half a century of relative security.” (192)

Why does the bomb get the credit, assuming credit is due? Is there any evidence to suggest that peace was a by-product of the bomb? In the only time that consideration was given about using the bomb in the initial wave of defeats Israel suffered in the Yom Kippur War, the use of the bomb as at least a threat was considered. The threat never had to be employed. However, when the threat of an enemy state emerged to actually develop a bomb, Israeli exclusivity had to be maintained. The Osiris reactor in Iraq was bombed. So was the Syrian effort to build a reactor. Iran has built a number of reactors and imported enough centrifuges to produce the material needed for a bomb. Israel rattled the cage so loud, it pushed the West into economic sanctions which in turn pushed the Iranians into the current negotiations. The West presumably had to act lest Israel attack Iran, not with nuclear weapons but with heavy bunker bombs.

So runs one thesis. But Israel’s superiority in conventional weaponry even more that Iran developing a bomb, was the real catalyst that stimulated the strong economic sanctions and then the threats that brought Iran to the negotiating table. It was not Israel’s possession of a bomb, If Iran backs away, even on the global scale, and if there was a threat to Iran that played a significant role, conventional arms posed the effective threat not the possession of the bomb.

According to Ari, “Dimona was the inevitable outcome of the valley, the orange grove, Masada, Lydda, and the housing estate.” (197) They are all not only causally linked, each link is a necessary result of the previous one. That is the tragedy, and for Ari it is a Greek tragedy, but one that is still being played out. “We brought not only water to the Negev but heavy water. We brought not only agricultural modernity to the land but nuclear modernity. Because between the Holocaust and revival, between horror and hope, between life and death – we did the colossal deed of Dimona. And to this day it is still impossible to know if this deed is a blessing for generations to come or a malignant curse.” (197)

And we will never know unless there is a much more probing analysis than Ari provides. For he never once offers any evidence:

a) that David Ben Gurion was right and the nuclear deterrent was needed;

b) that the nuclear weapon did deter;

c) that the nuclear weapon continues to deter.

The evidence suggests that it was the air capacity of Israel that not simply deterred but prevented her enemies from developing s nuclear bomb. Whether or not the Israeli possession of a bomb stimulated the efforts of Israel’s enemies, it was only the quality of Israel’s conventional arms that prevented other states in the region from developing a nuclear capacity.

Was the bomb necessary? Was it desirable? Was it counter-productive and useless?  Did it defend against an existential threat or did it reinforce an ideology that Israel was under a constant existential threat?  Was its real function only prestige and the development of the by-products of Israeli technological prowess? Further, even if the nuclear deterrent had played a positive role, had it also played a negative role? In either case, was the doctrine of opacity totally obsolete and only a stimulant to suspicion of Israeli intentions reinforcing Israel’s sense of exceptionalism and its self-righteousness?

Like the nuclear bomb itself, however, Ari’s chapter is useless for any critical strategic analysis of Israel’s decision to develop nuclear weapons or for persisting in upholding the doctrine of opacity with respect to nuclear weapons. (See Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller (2010) “Bringing Israel’s Bomb Out of the Basement: Has Nuclear Ambiguity Outlived Its Shelf Life,” Foreign Affairs, 89:5, September/October,  30-44.) The strategic utility of Dimona affects the current crisis with Iran. Here, in spite of the doctrine of opacity, the strategic doctrine with respect to nuclear weapons is now played in a high key. It is no longer a matter of refusing to discuss the issue and then sending planes on a secret mission to bomb reactors under development, or, in the case of Iran, secretly assassinating Iranian scientists or using electronic bugs to subvert the program.

The central question that is not raised or even discussed is whether Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons hampers and undercuts efforts at non-proliferation in the Middle East or, instead, becomes a major catalyst for stimulating such an arms race. Is Israel under a potential existential threat from Iran in reality, and, if so, is the bomb necessary or even useful in countering that existential threat, or is the bomb there mostly to reinforce the sense that Israel is constantly under an existential threat? Or will Israel will always be because, in Ben Gurion’s words, the Arabs in the Middle East, and Muslims in general will never forgive Israel for the Jewish return to the Middle East and more specifically the necessary ethnic cleaning that Israel had to undertake to ensure the basic living room for a viable state in its ancient homeland?

This is the bottom line premise of the reconstructed mythology.


My Promised Land.VII.Housing Estate 1957

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit


VII:     Housing Estate 1957


This chapter should have been entitled “Resettlements” to contrast it with the chapter following the next one on the nuclear reactor at Dimona entitled “Settlements 1975” and focussed on the efforts and intentions of the West Bank settlements. Instead it is called “Housing Estate 1957” because it is centred on the nineteen blocks of the Bizaron shikun in Tel Aviv. There is no explanation of why Ari chose the Bizaron estate, instead of those in Bat Yam for example, except that is where his celebrities grew up. As the Israeli poet, Moshe Dor, depicted the shikunim in the 1960s, these were austere, concrete (at least outside of Jerusalem, for in Jerusalem they were at least mostly clad in Jerusalem stone), dense, boxy structures set in a treeless concrete landscape that could have been designed in Eastern Europe

The ugliness of the estate is not Ari’s focus but rather the extraordinary achievements of some of the children who were not just prevalent but were the crux and central motif of the estate where refugees were resettled from post-Holocaust Europe and from the religious cleansing of Jews from most Arab and many non-Arab Muslim countries. The children were everything even as they were raised “under a silent mountain of death” and in spite of the architectural sterility and ugliness. Instead of one central character, Shavit offers initially four and eventually five stories of children raised in these aesthetically displeasing structures constructed hurriedly to house the 750,000 refugees who arrived in Israel in the couple of years after the end of the War of Independence and were absorbed and settled by a an Israeli Jewish community that itself only totalled 750,000.

Professor Ze’ev Sternhell, famous for his expertise on fascism, insistence on and dissection of its ideology, provides the first story of settlement. Since I had read Giovanni Gentile, the great fascist theoretician, and Henry Harris’ 1966 book, The social philosophy of Giovanni Gentile, I have always been taken by Sternhell’s thesis and hoped Ari’s discussion of Sternhell would throw light on Ari’s own avoidance of ideology in favour of mythology. No such luck!

Instead, we have a rags to intellectual richness story. If ideology does not count, why should Ari spend time on Sternhell’s ideological critique. Ari’s sole concern is that Sternhell is a world renowned scholar. Ari is concerned with his life rather than Sternhell’s intellectual biography. Ari lets Sternhell tell his own narrative of a life of middle class prosperity of an Ashkenazi Jew thrown into turmoil by the Nazis, and his experiences during WWII and the Shoah. As a boy of seven, he found himself entirely alone. and condemned to “utter solitude” and survived as a hidden Catholic who served as an altar boy under an assumed Polish name.

In 1948 when Sternhell arrived in France, he then underwent a second erasure, this time of the Catholic accretion he had assumed to survive. “France taught me liberty, equality, and human rights. I learned to embrace universalism and secularism, and the principle of separation of church and state.” (138) This position formed the ground for his lifelong dissection of fascism that preached the cult of the nation, contempt for rationalism and universalism, and hatred for democracy, liberalism and the rights of man. Sternhell was thirteen at the time of the War of Independence. He, like almost all Jews, feared that the Jews of Palestine would be beaten and exterminated.  At sixteen years of age, in 1951, he decided to make aliyah and end his life as a wandering Jew.

Ari’s second selection is Aharon Appelfeld, the famous Israeli Jewish short story writer and novelist who has won the Israeli Prize and has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Appelfeld was 8 years old when his mother was killed and he was shipped to a concentration camp with his father but became separated at the age of 10 and fled alone to assume many roles to survive. At 13 years old, he arrived in Israel and was re-united in 1946 with his father from whom he had been separated since 1941, an emotional experience so profound he has never been able to write about it. Writing in Hebrew, a language he learned as a teenager, his subject matter has almost always been the Holocaust, but in a metaphoric rather than realist mode. As Philip Roth noted, Appelfeld made displacement not only his own unique theme but the very crux of his style.

Ari’s third choice is Aharon Barak, the great Israeli jurist and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who, incidentally, has close ties to Canada and has been very influenced by Canadian constitutional scholars. Appelfeld was born in 1932. Sternhell was born in 1935. Born in 1936, Barak is the youngest of these three illustrious lights of the Israeli intellectual universe. Like the other two, he is filled with horrific memories of the holocaust. and can never forget his rescue by soldiers of the Jewish Brigade in the British Zone of Austria after the end of the war. Like the other two, he arrived in Israel as a teenager without knowing Hebrew. Unlike Sternhel,l who has remained mesmerized by the intellectual foundations of his oppressors and Appelfeld who could never escape recording the experiences of the oppressed, Barak discarded his old clothes, shed the past and reconstituted himself as an Israeli and eventually as a great Israeli jurist committed to clarifying the constitutional foundations of a state without a written constitution.

Louise Aynachi, his fourth case, is very different. She is a woman. She is not Ashkenazi but hailed from Baghdad. And she is not famous. But she has the longest trajectory of Jewish history dating back over two-an-a-half millenia to the life of exile of Jews deported to what is now Iraq after the destruction of the first temple. We are not told her age, but since she grew up in Iraq in the 1930s. one might assume that she is the oldest of the four. This meant that she could remember the increasing Nazification of Iraq after it became independent of Britain in 1932, the April 1941 pogrom, Iraq’s passage in July 1948 of an anti-Zionist law, the public hanging of a Jewish businessman in September 1948, the firing of Jewish workers in October 1948. In other words, Iraq had become a fascist anti-semitic state.. It was the end of 2600 years of the Jewish community in Baghdad. By 1951 when she left, Iraq had been virtually entirely cleansed of its Jews.

Ari succinctly describes the almost impossible task of absorbing a Jewish population of newcomers equal in size to the existing population. It was as if Canada instead of taking in 300,000 immigrants and refugees per year had to absorb, not three million but thirty-three million over three years. The task seemed inhuman and impossible but was accomplished under what Ari suggests was a centrally directed politbureau led by David Ben Gurion without concern for individual human and civil rights or due process and virtually no concern for the equality of its Palestinian citizens. In their eagerness to settle the population and remake the newcomers as Israelis while providing for their housing, health and educational needs, the past was ignored as was the differential life experiences of the various newcomers. In an egalitarian but not libertarian way, the newcomers were absorbed. They all became Israelis.

Ari tells the story of their absorption and integration briefly but with emotional power and the launch of the spectacular careers of the three men. Louise Aynachi has no such tale. Her memories are of humiliation and continuing deprivation and failure. However, her children went on to become, respectively, a doctor and investor in Los Angeles, a Professor of Hebrew literature in Boston, a dental surgeon in Israel. What is the sum total of these different but overlapping experiences of teenagers who arrive in the state just before or after the War of Independence and are raised in one common housing estate — they become great themselves or their children in turn become fantastic successes.

For Ari, however, the Jewish state is a man-made miracle but a miracle based on denial, on denial of what happened to the Palestinians to make room for the new Jewish Israelis. 400 Arab villages were bulldozed. 400 new Israeli villages took their place. “Ten-year old Israel has expunged Palestine from its memory and soul.” Did Ari ask Aynachi, or Barak, or Appeleld or Sternhell about what they remembered or thought of the Palestinian exodus. No. Not one query. Ari says they are in denial. But he not only offers no evidence, but does not even provide an opportunity for those absorbed at the time to offer evidence from their experience. What we get is Ari’s unremitting refrain. “There is no time and no place for guilt or compassion.” (160) Israel in its effort to absorb and integrate more than the number who fled or were forced to flee over a very few years had to repress any focus on either the Palestinians or its own past.

“Ten-year-old Israel has expunged Palestine from its memory and soul. When I am born, my grandparents, my parents, and their friends go about their lives as if the other people have never existed, as if they were never driven out. As if the other people aren’t languishing now in the refugee camps of Jericho, Balata, Deheisha, and Jabalia.” (160) But by 1957, how could Israelis repress any knowledge of the Palestinians in refugee camps. Ignoring the attacks on buses in 1953 and 1954, the latter killing 11, in 1955 but especially in 1956, terrorist attacks escalated with grenade attacks, home invasions, ambushes. 24 in 1956 were murdered; scores were injured. It is true that the number of attacks and the numbers killed and injured were greatly reduced in 1957 and subsequent years, but that may have been an indirect effect of the Sinai campaign. In the first decade, the consciousness of Palestinians was of terrorists.

It is certainly true that when anyone is focused on overwhelming immediate problems concern for others and for the past gets bracketed. This does not mean the issues are forgotten, only ignored, especially in the case of the refugees where there is an assumption that Israel absorbed as many refugees as the number who fled or were forcefully expelled. An exchange of populations took place as in the India/Pakistan war and in many other inter-ethnic conflicts. There is a reading back into history of abhorrence at population exchanges when, at that time, the idea of an exchange of populations was still an international working norm. Twelve million Germans were forcefully evicted from eastern Europe.

Ari makes even stronger pronouncements about forgetting the past of the Holocaust and of the Jewish experience in exile. “The survivors are expected not to tell their stories. A dozen years after the catastrophe, the nahba has no place in local media and art. The Holocaust is only the low point from which the Zionist revival rose.” (161) Is it any different in the diaspora? I entered university in 1955. I do not recall the Holocaust being discussed. When I and my young family rented a house on the fringe of the University of Toronto campus as I entered graduate school, the house was owned by a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. The basement was full of copies of a self-published book, the Black Book of the Hungarian Holocaust experience. The owner could not give away the books. To my eternal regret, I never even perused a copy or kept one for future reference. In my experience, until the trial of Eichmann in 1962, the Holocaust had not assumed its place in either memory or history both in the diaspora and Israel.

According to Ari, “The Israeli continuum rejects trauma and defeat and pain and harrowing memories.” (161) Israel doubled its population of Jews in its first ten years. In Toronto when I was a boy, there were only 50,000 Jews in the city, but we made up almost 10% of the population and were the largest minority group having grown from a small population of less than 10,000 when my mother was born before WWI. Given the Jewish role even then in business and the professions, the proportion seemed to be even higher. While the population of the city had doubled since the beginning of WWI, the population of Jews had quintupled. But after WWII, Toronto became a major destination for Holocaust survivors and the Jewish community doubled in the next dozen years. This doubling in about a decade also happened in France which absorbed 75,000 Moroccan and 80,000 Tunisian Jews.

To suggest that the bracketing of the European Holocaust experience was a result of a deliberate policy of government is, to my mind, foolish and shows a lack of any comparative perspective. In addition to asserting that Israel rejected defeat and trauma and pain and harrowing memories conjoined with a polity that lacked any room for the individual is simply to raise opinion and impression to the level of a scientific generalization without any substantive foundation. Ari asserts that this deliberate rejection of defeat and pain, that the deliberate policy of ignoring the individual because of a focus on the state, are the reasons “why the Holocaust remains abstract and separate”. This conclusion is one of the foolish low points of the book.

Ari could have asked Barak what he thought given his knowledge of Israeli law and his overwhelming concern for individual rights. Barak might have told him that, at the time, Ben Gurion was primarily concerned with the Jewish historical lack of political awareness that explained their constant belligerency, lack of civility, propensity to schismatics, infighting, focus on power with little concern for the immediate Other. This was all the more reason Ben Gurion should have been a strong supporter of a constitution. However, that, of course, would have limited his own power and that of his political party. Ben Gurion was not opposed in principle to a constitution, but, rather, an opportunistic opponent. (Cf. Shlomo Aronson (1998) “David Ben Gurion and the British Constitutional Model,” Israeli Studies 3:2, 193-214)

Ari could have asked  Sternhell given his expertise in liberal individualism in contrast to the view of the organic nation and its objection to the enlightenment values of democracy. Further, Sternhell wrote: The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. Sternhell viewed both Ben-Gurion and Katznelson as heirs to Orwell’s Big Brother. Did Ari get his views of Ben Gurion from Sternhell? He does not say. But he writes as if he did and he writes uncritically seemingly totally indifferent to the intellectual criticism that rained down on Sternhell for these grossly exaggerated comparisons. Ari seems to have accepted Sternhell’s conclusions as given truths, but does not even cite the work or suggest that he read it or ask Sternhell whether he had changed his mind. In a world that had just defeated the Nazi quest for the entire extermination of the Jewish people and world domination, even a hint that Israel might be engaged in a local version of an exercise in fascism is a horrific calumny.

Derek Penslar wrote a very critical essay on Ze’ev Sternhell’s take on the founding myths of Israel. Would that not be relevant to cite? For Ari, Ben Gurion and the Labour Party after the war, gave off a dominant message” “Don’t ask unnecessary questions. Don’t indulge in self-pity. Don’t doubt, don’t lament, don’t be soft or sentimental, don’t dredge up dangerous ghosts. It’s not time to remember, it is time to forget. We must gather all our strength and concentrate on the future.” (161) Then why did the same thing happen in Toronto and in Paris?

Even when Ari lauds Aharon Appelfeld for looking askance and in dread at this deliberate forgetting, he seems to ignore that Appelfeld traces the sources, not to the dominating norms of society, but to the conflict within the souls of the survivors, in their strategies of self-deception to handle recurring fears, in their emphasis on hope to overcome despair and the gravitational pull towards resignation. As Appelfeld’s Unto the Soul suggests, abandoning the past is a strategic option, but one adopted at great cost, even sinking into debauchery and incest. Though it paints a confused and enigmatic portrait of the demons that haunt the soul and induce forgetting, he avoids simplification and distinctly points away from political indoctrination as the cause. Appelfeld could have told Ari that the anguish of dealing with the demons of a traumatic past cannot be reduced to simplistic political generalizations. To credit Appelfeld with not forgetting but ignoring Appelfeld’s take on the gravitational pull of forgetting and denial for those who have suffered and their propensity to distancing and detachment, is to turn the compliment accorded Appelfeld into an insult.

Further, the survivors, whether in Israel, Canada, France or the USA, lived in a context articulated by Hannah Arendt that was accusatory – why did you go like sheep to the slaughter? The atmosphere did not need a directive from Ben Gurion or the Labour Party of Israel. It has taken the world sixty years to be able to deal with these memories, abetted by people like myself who were never really traumatized. The task has only just started. For Appelfeld, the answer is not to be found in simplistic political generalizations but by getting in touch with the inchoate artistic expressions of even the black humoured and heartbreaking child circus performers of survivors after the war with their absurd and grotesque laughter and crazy patchwork of fragments of inherited lyrics.

But I am not writing to comment on how the past is best remembered and encountered. I have little authority or expertise to do that. I simply wanted to point out the inconsistencies between the deep thinking of the individuals Ari interviews to extract their stories and the simplified homilies Ari offers in contrast to the depth of thinking and insight of the interviewees whom he fails to question.   

The likelihood is that the ignoring of both the Palestinian past and the nakba has virtually nothing to do with Jews and Israelis ignoring their own past and the greatest disaster that they had undergone in their whole history. The disasters are sequential and the first, the Holocaust, is incomparable to the second, the nakba, however horrific the latter has been. The exile of Rwandan Tutsis form 1962 to 1994 is incomparable to the genocide of the Tutsi that took place over ten weeks from 6 April 1994. But Ari connects them anyway and offers a functionalist explanation for both forms of forgetting. “It is highly likely that this multilevel denial was essential. Without it, it would have been impossible to function, to build, to live. An obstinate disregard was crucial for the success of Zionism in the first decades of the twentieth century, and a lack of awareness was crucial for the success of Israel in its first decade of existence. If Israel had acknowledged what had happened, it would not have survived. If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed.” (162) Just look at the amazing illogical leap. From A (forgetting) as being helpful to B (survival), to the proposition that A was a necessary condition of B.

There can be no proof of such illogic. His ignoring the expertise of those he interviews is mindboggling. To “confirm this point”, Ari turns to a fifth well and succinctly told tale of persecution, miraculous survival and the absorption of the Spiegel family into Israel to give birth to the next generation, their astounding and exceptional child, Yehudit Spiegel. Ari’s point about the generation gap between the survivors and their children for whom the world exists for almost unlimited possibilities is well taken. That is the miracle of Bizaron, whatever the cost. Against all odds, the survivors in the housing estate breed not only children, but children of hope and not despair. Bizarion serves as a hub for Israel’s future meritocratic elite. In the year in which Ari was born, 1957, Israel is well launched into a radiant future. That is the essential message of the chapter and the illustration does nothing to confirm his questionable explanatory thesis and determinism.