A Dissenting Jewish Liberal

A Dissenting Jewish Liberal


Howard Adelman

Jonathan Freedland’s thesis in his recent review essay, “The Liberal Zionists” (NYRB 14 August, LXI:13, 20-24) is stated clearly and unequivocally in his opening paragraph: “In the toxic environment that characterizes much, if not most, debate on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a special poison is reserved for the liberal Zionist: Such a person, who stands by Israel even as he yearns for it to change, is fated to be hated by both camps: hawkish Zionists despise the liberal for going too far in his criticisms, accusing him of a hand-wringing betrayal of the cause that can only comfort the enemy, while anti-Zionists denounce the liberal for not going far enough, for failing to follow the logic of his position through to its conclusion and for thereby defending the indefensible. The liberal Zionist is branded either as a hypocrite or an apologist or both.”

However a quick but very unscientific test seems to undermine Frieedland’s argument. The responses to the hundreds (not thousands) of protesters in Tel Aviv against the bombing and ground war in Gaza and, the examples I cite of letters printed in the Toronto Daily Star supporting and critical of an OpEd by Gabor Maté, a medical doctor and renowned addiction specialist as well as infant survivor of the Holocaust, “Beautiful Dream of Israel has become a nightmare,” (Star, 26 July 2014), does not appear to support Freedland’s thesis.

The sub-lines in Maté’s piece almost says it all: “Everyone ought to be sad at what the beautiful old dream of Jewish redemption has come to. Everyone ought to grieve the death of innocents.” The problem is not the grieving and crying over the innocent who die. That is a given whether one is a right wing hawk or a left wing liberal. The problem is the implication that these innocent deaths are the consequence of the realization of the Zionist dream in the creation and establishment of Israel.

This is the crying and shrying that Freedland refers to of the Zionist liberal who cries but, unlike Maté, at the same time defends Israel. For the liberal Zionist defender of Israel, according to Freedland, is the target of “a special poison” not even spewed out against the anti-Israeli liberal. For the latter is branded as an apologist for Hamas, one who points the finger of blame not primarily but exclusively on the Israeli government for slaughtering innocents with surgical precision in the long blockade of Gaza (quoting Maté), “starving Gaza of necessities” and depriving Palestinians of their land, their water, their crops and their trees ‘in the “longest ongoing ethnic cleansing operation in the recent and present centuries, the ongoing attempt to destroy Palestinian nationhood”.

Maté’s article and the published responses to it may suggest that Freedman is right for the critics do not display any particular animus towards Maté. The proof would require examining responses to a Zionist liberal defence of Israel. However, Freedman’s point is that an animus is aimed both at the Zionist and anti-Zionist liberal but a particular form of poison is aimed at the Zionist liberal for being a hypocrite incapable of or unwilling to draw the logical conclusions of his or her own depictions and analyses.

However, if the letters published in response to Maté do not even indicate any animus. Admittedly, the survey is non-scientific for the Toronto Star may have excluded letters filled with vile. But most letters published support the anti-Zionist liberal position and it is not clear whether they harbour a particular bile against fellow liberals who are pro-Zionist indicating that Zionist liberals are despised more than anti-Zionist ones if only for the fact that they are hated by those on either side. Maté clearly has ardent supporters with identical views such as Harriet Friedman, a professor emeritus from the University of Toronto, views echoed by letter writers like Virginia Thomson, Della Golland, Karen Harvey, Pat Lycett and Peter Trainor. Friedman follows a particular libel of accusing the organized Jewish leadership of claiming to speak for all Jews and insisting that Israel can do no wrong.

More significantly, the critics of both Zionist and anti-Zionist liberals in their letters did not seem to reveal a poisonous animus to either group. George Fleischmann was saddened by Maté’s accusations, but not filled with hatred. He defended Israel “warts and all” because Israel was both a true democracy and a haven for Jews. Alan Rosenberg empathized with Maté’s lamentations but regarded his accusations as misguided in placing all or even the lion’s share of the blame on Israel. Janice Savage offered an even stronger defence of Israel but offered no animus against Maté or his position. Michael Spiegel agreed with Maté but suggested that Israel had no logical or practical alternative. Ariel Burton criticized Maté for drawing ethical conclusions based on disproportionate deaths (62,000 Britains were killed by German bombs while over 300,000 Germans were killed by allied bombs in the war against the Nazis) with the argument of intentionality, whether a side uses its resources to defend its civilians or deliberately puts its civilians in harms way while ensuring the politicos and militants are as secure as possible. Jason Shron also showed no animus but criticized Maté for drawing an equivalence between the tunnels or sewers used by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and the tunnels constructed by Hamas to launch terrorist raids against Israeli civilians.

Perhaps Freedman is not offering an empirical argument but instead either a literary or a logical device to reveal with greater clarity the posture of a Zionist liberal. However, is it possible to be a liberal and not a militant Zionist hawk without endorsing the necessity of fighting while crying at the same time over the resultant costs to the suffering of the Palestinians? Put another way, is it possible to be deeply pained by Palestinian losses without beating oneself over one’s back over endorsing military action as a necessity. Ari Shavit, and through his endorsement, Jonathan Freedland, offer one answer. I think it is unsatisfactory and suggest another.

Freedman’s beginning of the review that takes as its central liberal Zionist, Ari Shavit and his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is odd in another way, the frame he proffers in relationship to the two alternative books he chooses to put forth to support his thesis. Offering up the anti-Zionist, Norman G. Finkelstein and his book, Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land, on the one hand, to establish the thesis is perfectly in order. But why not an anti-liberal or right-wing Zionist and his/her book that criticizes Shavit as the other bracket? Instead, Freedland offers us an even more liberal Zionist, John B. Judis and his book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict as the other bracket and only puts forth review quotes of Shavit’s book by critics to the right Further, is it not possible to be a Zionsit liberal who insists on continuing to reach out the hand of peace to the Palestinians without becoming either a shrewish extremist liberal, an anti-Zioinist or a liberal realist like Shavit?

f the asymmetrical frame set up at the beginning is not confusing enough, Freedland soon offers another frame, not the anti-Zionist and the zealot Zionist of the first dichotomy, but the Zionist zealot and the disengaged liberal Jew on the left, a very different group than either the liberal anti-Zionist or the more radically committed liberal Zionist. For these disengaged liberal Jews, largely politically unsophisticated about the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, start with a basic gut sympathy for Israel but are embarrassed when Israel expresses the need to make war on Gaza when Hamas shoots hordes of rockets at civilian targets in Israel and builds a network of tunnels to plan future clandestine attacks from an area of Palestine from which Israel withdrew its occupation. These disengaged liberal Jews cannot stand to witness fellow Jews killing innocent women and children as the country seeks to defend itself from rocket attacks. They cannot offer an alternative policy for Israel given the nature of urban warfare in a densely populated enclave, but their guts are wrenched more by the stench of suffering Palestinian civilians than by their nostalgic weak identification with Israel and fellow Jews. These are not anti-Zionists. These are more emotional rather than cognitive liberals who become agnostic rather than atheist Zionists.

Freedland offers his own nostalgic longing for the post WWII period when leading liberal Jews, whether supporting a two-state solution (Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) or the small group of eminent idealist supporters of a one state two-nation solution such as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Gershom Shalom, were once so active. It is the position to which Judis harks back, but it is no longer an option on the table. Shavit’s thesis is put forth as a plausible explanation. Unlike other liberals, Shavit faces the central and, to liberals, historically distasteful conclusion that if Zionism was to succeed, Palestinians had to be displaced. Freedland endorses Shavit’s hard-headed insistence on facing facts – that Israel now and Zionism earlier located itself in a very hostile environment where it faced an existential threat for over a century and, given that threat, had to resort to a militant defensive position. However, it is one thing to settle the land in order to bring Israel into existence. It is another to found settlements in the midst of Palestinian society and then insist on occupation to protect those settlements. This is colonialism.

The irony is that the essay appeared just as the third Gaza War was underway, a Gaza from which Israel withdrew its settlers only to have Gazans elect more radical leaders (Hamas) determined to continue the war against Israel with the intention of reversing history. Thus, although Freedland, like both Shavit and Finkelstein, see the central question as ethnic cleansing, the forced removal of Palestinians to make room for Zionist settlement, found to be necessary for Shavit and morally deplorable by Finkelstein, the fault of Freedland, Shavit and Finkelstein is buying into this issue as the central question – precisely the position that Palestinian zealots, whether Abbas realists or Hamas extremists, adopt who insist on the “right of return”.

Expulsion of the Palestinian population was not a prerequisite to establishing the Jewish state. It became an imperative because of war and the intransigent rejection of Jewish resettlement in Palestine. This may be characteristic of all religious and ethnic militant struggles, which never witness a refugee return unless the side identified with the refugees emerges as the military victor – as in the Tutsi-led struggle in Rwanda where refugees did return – but exclusion or expulsion of the other group need not be inevitable. The WASP leadership in Ontario and, to some extent in the rest of Canada, for different reasons, accepted the principle of the loss of their monopoly on power and even eventual political domination and instead accepted a future of a multi-cultural Canada in which non-Caucasians would eventually become the majority. But that pattern, while a logical possibility, is neither the norm nor a significant alternative pattern in history. Further, it has been precisely the opposite pattern in the Middle East where minorities without power have been systematically extruded throughout the last century – from Christians in Iraq to the Baha’i in Iran – and the remains have been fought over by Sunnis versus Shi’ites, Kurds versus Arabs, millenialists versus realists and a variety of other divisions of humanity.

Given the geographic and political context, not the Zionist ideology, expulsion might have been inevitable. But what choices did the Jews have in the thirties and forties of the last century. Freedland uncritically accepts Judis’ thesis that Harry Truman bowed to “the muscular pressure of American Zionism “as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Stephen Wise, and others strong-armed the president into favoring the Jewish case over the Palestinian.” (p. 22) Certainly, those gentlemen did put enormous pressure on Truman, but on reading Truman’s own account, he responded negatively to those strong-armed pressures, not positively, and had only contempt for Ben Gurion. The position he took was influenced by a combination of the persuasive powers of Chaim Weizmann’s arguments, the prejudicial and clearly one-sided anti-Zionist intransigence of his own State Department and his own hero, Secretary of State George Marshall, and, most powerfully, the need to resettle 200,000 Jews still left in camps two years after the war and whom the United States until 1948, along with almost all other countries, was unwilling to accept.

The reality is that the damned of Lydda, the Palestinian refugees driven out, was not an inevitable outcome of Zionist nationalism and settlement in Palestine, but that ideology and historical commitment in a context in which the states of the world, including the United States and Canada at the time, and the leadership of the local population of Palestinian were antithetical to settling Jews. Jews had to resort to military means, and, once that path was taken, then military necessity trumped humanitarianism in dealing with civilian populations as it almost always does, even in the laws of Just War.

That is the continuity between the position in which the Zionists found themselves in 1947 and the position they are in today when dealing with Gaza. When rockets are aimed at Lod today, Israel becomes stubbornly committed to the elimination of the source of those rockets and the horrific costs on the Palestinian civilians of Gaza who elected the government that endorses sending those rockets and whose support for Hamas seems to be reinforced even more strongly by the Israeli reprisals.

My reading of Zionist history is contrary to Shavit’s. The pioneers were not blind to the existence of the Arabs living on the land but adopted blinkers, possibly necessary to pursue their goals, to the presence and potential growth of Arab and eventually Palestinian nationalism, not the population of Palestinians. The conundrum Freedland (and Shavit) construct is a product of the frames they bring to their historical analyses and not any historical necessities. Dominant propensities do not determine the results but, combined with contingencies make a certain direction most likely. One can be a liberal without accepting Shavit’s thesis that the logic of their ideology forced the Zionists to adopt inhumane policies. Circumstances and pronounced propensities were far more significant than any reference to Zionist ideology.

That remains the case with Gaza today and even with the issue of the settlements, though on this question, a particular Zionist ideology plays a far more influential part. No formal acknowledgement, as Freedland and Shavit endorse, will play any significant role in the process of reconciliation until and unless the underlying recognition of the Jewish state once and for all is accepted by Arabs and Palestinians.

Rockets and Tunnels

Rockets and Tunnels


Howard Adelman

In the current Gaza War between Hamas and other jihadists and Israel, Israel has encountered an unprecedented use of thousands of rockets and, even more importantly, an extensive labyrinth of sophisticated military tunnels. The latter in terms of consequences for strategy and tactics have been far more important.

In his 1990 novel, The Innocent, Ian McEwan, author of the subsequent 1998 Booker Prize-winning novel, Atonement, wrote, “Tunnels were stealth and safety; boys and trains crept through them lost to sight and care, and then emerged unscathed.” (p. 80) The latter is an ironic assertion since no one emerges from The Innocent psychologically unscathed. In the Israeli-Gaza War of 2014, the Israeli military has not emerged either physically or psychologically unscathed.

The IDF has suffered serious losses through the stealth and the safety that the tunnels have afforded the Palestinian militants. The air war has resulted in very few Israeli casualties, in spite of the radically increased use of rockets with greater range by Hamas, and enormous numbers of Palestinian civilian losses for Gazans. As a result, Israel, which started with a significant advantage in the propaganda war because of the initial murder of three Israeli school boys by autonomous Hamas militants in the West Bank and Hamas’ indiscriminate use of rockets, has virtually lost the propaganda war with stories of exploded ordinance in UNRWA schools where Palestinian civilians sought shelter – even though some of this ordinance may prove to have been Hamas rockets gone astray. But the real story of the war is being played out in the tunnels.

McEwan’s novel offers a fictional look at Operation Gold, the 1955 building and subsequent use of the Berlin Tunnel to attempt to spy on Russian telecommunications. After the novel reveals that George Blake, a Brit and double agent unrelated to the Cambridge British spies such as Burgess and Maclean, was all along spying for the Russians and revealed the plan for the tunnel long before the tunnel even started operations, McEwan writes that it was all a waste of effort. (p. 268) Has the Hamas tunnel labyrinth been a waste of effort by the radical Palestinians? Physically, mostly. Psychologically, no.

George Blake, a child of a Sephardic Jewish father and a Dutch Protestant mother (see his autobiography No Other Choice published in the same year as McEwan’s novel so the Blake’s biographical facts are not included) worked for Britain’s M16 and is the only character in the novel taken from the actual history of Operation Gold. William Harvey, the CIA station chief, the only other historical person mentioned in the novel, remains entirely in the background. The foreground is filled with romantics, though that is not quite the take of the John Schlesinger’s movie adaptation starring Campbell Scott as Leonard Marnham (an anagram for “harm man”), the naïve British main character, Anthony Hopkins as his American spy boss, Bob Glass, and Isabella Rosselinni as Maria, the fêmme fatale.

But why write about romance and a story about a spy tunnel when analyzing the role of military tunnels in the Israeli-Gaza war of 2014? Because romance is an important ingredient in the tunnel warfare used in Gaza. McEwan’s novel, unlike the movie effort that tries to be a spy flic, however unconventional, is a dialectical drama of fantasy and reality, of an idealistic dreamer and harsh and horrific world. A tunnel is, thus, an appropriate dominant metaphor as well as a character with its own existence and personality which takes us on a journey both through the tunnel of love and this surreptitious tunnel built to spy on an enemy. In McEwan’s telling, secrecy is the essence of both worlds. Secrecy and surprise are both crucial to understanding the psychological role of the tunnels in the Gaza-Israeli war.

The latter two purposes are most important and prevalent in urban warfare. Given the well-known Hamas’ use of tunnels for the purpose of import and export of goods, it would be very unexpected if the Israeli IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad were ignorant of the Hamas tunnels, though their elaboration and sophistication might have been a surprise. But they should not have been given the modern precedents in the 1854-1855 siege of Sevastopol by the Russians, the British use of 8,000 meters of tunnels at Messines in World War I, the tunneling by Chinese communist forces resisting first the Japanese and then the Kuomintang, the use of tunnels by the Japanese themselves as they resisted the American advance across the Pacific beginning at the island of Peleliu, the extensive tunneling networks of the North Koreans and the wide use of tunnels by the Viet Cong in the Vietnamese War to facilitate surprise attacks. Military tunnels have been an integral part of modern war, particularly, guerilla and urban wars.

More important, the labyrinth of tunnels in Gaza should not have been a surprise because Hamas has relied extensively on tunnel warfare prior to the current war. Tunnels have been used to plant explosives under Israeli military positions as well as to infiltrate terrorist teams into Israel The most infamous such use was the 2006 attack on the Israeli tank position in which three IDF officers were killed and Gilad Shalit was captured and held prisoner for five years until exchanged for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli defence forces have destroyed many tunnels over the years and there should be no surprise that the IDF have already lost over 50 soldiers in the conducting of tunnel warfare.

But military tunnels are not spy tunnels, tunnels used either to spy on Israelis or to infiltrate Palestinian spies into Israel. That is the real secret of the tunnel war between Israel and Gaza. This is the underground reality of warfare which seems to lack any of the romance sometimes attributed to military battles. That is the value of McEwan’s novel for it unveils the romantic side of the tunnel enterprise. And it is the romance of the tunnels that is so important for Hamas.

In this fictional account, love does travel through its own private tunnel and even seems to require the safety and secrecy of the tunnel to survive and thrive. Exposure to the harsh light of day ends up destroying that love. Leonard falls in love almost at the beginning of the novel with someone he would never have been allowed to consort with in any spy world and develops tunnel vision losing all peripheral sight of anything but the love of his life and his work on telecommunications in the spy tunnel. Hamas has had the same experience in spite of inflicting significant casualties on the IDF.

Tunnels are not only about constricted fields of vision. They are often like the carpal tunnel through which the median nerve runs for that tunnel connects one’s forearm to the palm of one’s hand, thumb and next three fingers, and, thus, the ability to manipulate the world. Irritate that nerve with certain types of repetitive movements, the kind Leonard performed in his work in arming the many listening devices in the tunnel in McEwan’s novel, then the nerve becomes irritated so that one experiences pain, weakness and numbness which is what happens to Leonard as he and Maria establish their private repeated dementia of romance. As his nerve becomes traumatized, Leonard loses his sensibility and ability to make reasonable judgments and exercise control over his life. He literally loses his grip and even loses the strength to defend himself when he is attacked by Maria’s ex-husband and his assailant squeezes his balls. This is what is happening to the military and political wings of Hamas, but this is not what is most important about the tunnels. Their .romantic role in an idealist vision is at the crux of their meaning.

The strategy and tactics of Hamas in combatting the Israelis and the Israeli counter-strategy in dealing with this form of warfare are both important. The romantic vision of the tunnels is even more significant. But first a word about Hamas rockets, the flying penises that seem to miss their mark so much of the time and to be so easily intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defence so that, in spite of their extensive use, only 2-3 civilians, one a foreign guest worker, have been killed by their use. In fact, the most effective use of rockets led to the 48 hour cancellation by most foreign carriers of their flights to Ben Gurion airport. This threat, rather than the insecurity the rocket attacks sow among Israeli civilians, is the real future threat of rocket attacks. However, they are no longer a real existential threat though, with greater sophistication and the incorporation of smart guidance systems, they could reemerge as such.

The tunnels are military and spy tools of a different order, not simply because they belong in a subterranean world rather than in the open air above, and not only because they cost the lives of Israeli soldiers in significant numbers. The IDF by the end of July 2014 has already lost twice as many soldiers in combat as in the combined total of soldiers killed in Operation Cast Lead and Operation Defensive shield. This third Gaza War in the last six years cannot be allowed to end simply in a cease fire of a truce by either side. Israel must ensure that the tunnels are destroyed and cannot be rebuilt, and that future rocket warfare, which is bound to be more sophisticated, is eliminated. Gaza must ensure that it not remain as a permanently impoverished island and civilian prison for another five years.

For that to happen, the romance as well as the reality of the tunnels needs to be understood. For that to happen so that the IDF does not suffer larger losses and Palestinians suffer two thousand civilian casualties in a subsequent Gaza War, the physical tunnels must not only be blown up and demolished by the Nahal paratroopers and armored and engineering brigades of the IDF while the Golani and Givati brigades fight the jihadi militants, the romance of tunnels must be destroyed as well. The belief that the secret tunnels can offer safety and security to one side and stealth and surreptitious military surprise against the other side must be extinguished.

This is the real task of the peacemakers that removes from Israel the fear of both rockets and tunnels and offers Gaza , not a temporary truce but a real peace. That is why the war will not end soon and why Israel must not prepare to fight a fourth Gaza War as Benny Morris advises.

Peter Beinart (“Gaza myths and facts: what American Jewish leaders won’t tell you”, Haaretz 30 July 2014) may be correct in his account of the build up to the war in many respects, but it is totally insufficient to understand the misleading narrative of Jewish leaders and it is far more important to understand the physical and psychological dimensions of the threat of tunnels and their importance in the conflict. Just as the romance between Leonard and Maria had to end in McEwan’s novel The Innocent when romance crashed into reality, so the romance of both tunnels and Hamas must also come to an end as our innocence about violence is itself extinguished.