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.