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 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 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. 

My Promised Land VI Lydda 1948

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel


Ari Shavit

VI:       Lydda 1948

Lod airport is located in the Lydda valley and near what was the Arab city of Lydda. Why choose Lydda as the central symbol of the 1948 war? There are a number of possible reasons. Historically, after the second return from Babylonia, Lydda was the most westerly of the settlements of return. In the third return from exile in the twentieth century, Lydda is located between the ancient city of Jerusalem and the new city of Tel Aviv; Lydda is used because it is a geographical marker. Secondly, unlike Jerusalem, which is a city associated with religiosity, or Tel Aviv, which is a city associated with business, in the Gehaharashim, Lydda is identified as the valley of craftsmen, of practical men who can work with their hands and not as material or spiritual calculators. Third,  Lydda was a pagan town in the ancient world and an Arab city before most Palestinians fled in 1948. It was not only a geographical marker but represented both a cultural divide and a cultural link and both were severed by the 1948 war. There is a fourth and the most important reason. Lydda is the symbol of the paradox of Zionism built on a humanist ideology and forced to get its hands dirty and commit atrocities, forced not simply by outside circumstances but by the inner logic of the ideology. This essay is mainly an unpacking of that fourth reason.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the Sixth Zionist Congress purchased 2,330 dunams of land in the Valley of Lydda. Most of that land was fertile, not barren. The new story or myth will not be based on making the desert bloom. The new mythos will not be based on a people without a land for a land without people. Rather, this long fertile valley that stretched from the olive orchards of the Arab city of Lydda to the foothills of Jerusalem lies at the heart of the new Israel.

At first, as is usual in Ari’s structure of a chapter, there are a series of failures – the Arid factory to press oil and make fine soaps in 1905 was the first. Kiryat Sefer, the agricultural school founded in 1907 for the orphans who survived the Kishinev pogrom, was the second. The planting of a thousand olive trees in 1908 to honour Theodor Herzl after his death between Kiryat Sefer and the Atid facory, first with hired Arab labour and then replaced by saplings planted solely by Jewish labour, was also of no avail. The trees die, or are uprooted or damaged in the Great War; Herzl’s olive forest in the Valley of Lydda disappears.

These are symbolic as well as concrete failures. The soap factory to cleanse the past is an abject failure. The bet on future youth as a remnant of European persecution and rooting them in the land is a failure. The effort to commemorate the greatest ideologue of Zionism is also a failure. The new Israel will not be created based on cleansing the past of dirty secrets, of survivors of Europe simply transplanted as agricultural workers or from new ideological trees from which a new belief system will be created.  In fact, the fourth effort, the attempt to found a colony of craftsmen in 1910 by transplanting Yemenite artisans to replicate the ancient world is also defeated by the harsh conditions, the shortage of water and the high infant mortality rate. Even the fifth, Vilkansky’s experimental farm based on new science, though a success for sixteen years unlike the others, was transplanted to Rehovot in 1926, a story which Ari already told.

The sixth success forms the core of the story – the youth village established by Dr. Siegfried Lehmann in the abandoned Kiryat Sefer school for the Kishinev orphans twenty years earlier. Why did this succeed whereas the other efforts failed to take root? First, and unlike the kibbutzim founded on an abstract socialist ideology, the youth village was premised on the centrality of family warmth. Second, it was founded on both a humanitarian rather than a narrowly-focused ethnic Zionist mission and a broad historical context, again in juxtaposition to a ghetto centred past. Zionism was there not just to save Jews but to provide a light unto the nations, to save humanity from its physical, mental and spiritual alienation. Lehmann “wanted it to fulfil an urgent national task in a manner that would benefit all humanity. He wanted Zionism to be a settlement movement that was not tainted by colonialism, a national movement not scarred by chauvinism, a progressive movement that was not distorted by urban alienation…Zionism must plant the Jews in their ancient homeland in an organic fashion. It must respect the Orient and become a bridge between east and West.” (103) Zionism was a project of renewal to give roots to the uprooted, homes to the homeless, to restore meaning to life. Bet Shemen would offer harmony to the children and to the era that had lost all harmony.  

This vision of a Zionism integrated into the Orient, not through an alliance of business à la Bernie Avishai centred on Tel Aviv, but on an ideology and mythology of home and hearth and harmony. Founded on friendship, the surrounding Arabs were welcomed. Medical assistance was offered to the Arabs. The humanist utopia was the other side of the Janus-faced Zionism willing to resort to atrocities against Arabs to ensure Jewish survival, but the utopian side of that Janus face was crucial to preserving the soul of Zionism as military training was to preserving the body politic of Zionism. Zionism for an orphaned people based on humanitarian outreach, paradoxically, had to be twinned with military ruthlessness.

Ari in his mythological reconstruction of history, without any evidence, suggests that the visit to Ben Shemen in 1947 became the turning point in the deliberations of the UNSCOP committee. While it is clear from the accounts of the members of UNSCOP that they were distressed at visiting Arab factories that employed and exploited Arab children and were enthused by the visit to the youth villages of Zionism, there is no indication that this was a turning point but only one impression among many that reinforced the recommendation of partition to the United Nations.

But Ben Shemen is a turning point in the war that starts before May of 1948. In December 1947, a seven car convoy en route to Ben Shemen is attacked; 13 Jews are murdered. In February of 1948, the 400 students are evacuated. Humanitarianism, though necessary to a revived Zionism, is insufficient. The lessons of Gutman need to balance that humanitarian outreach. David Ben Gurion as the first Prime Minister of the reborn Israel orders the implementation of Operation Larlar in July 1948 to capture the Arab villages of the LyddaValley and the city of Lydda itself and expel all the Arab inhabitants.  

There will be no more effort to wash away Jewish atrocities. Instead they will be presented as necessary reprisal measures to counter Arab terror. Further, they will be twinned not only with the effort for humanitarian outreach but with the necessity for the renewal of that humanitarian outreach, but not without ensuring Jewish survival. The children of Gutman, now as warriors rather than as instruments of humanitarian outreach clear the valley of Arabs and claim the heartland of Israel for the Jewish people.. The atrocities in the City of Lydda are first explained as an accident of the fog of war as two Jordanian tanks mistakenly enter Lydda and the new Jewish defenders launch an all out attack that costs the lives of scores of Arab civilians.  200 are killed and the massacre of Lydda goes down in history. The massacre is compounded by Ben Gurion’s explicit order to expel the civilians of Lydda. Zioniasm no longer needs Benny Morris’ uncovering of the deep dark secrets of Jewish inhumanity. Rather, that inhumanity is set both in a survival context, the fog of war and deliberate strategic imperatives, but without abandoning the humanitarian core at the base of Ben Shemesh.

“Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.” (108) Ethnic cleansing was not an accidental by-product betraying the humanitarianism of Zionism, but the necessary twin to that humanitarianism.

In 1988, Benny Morris published, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 through Cambridge University Press. I met Benny Morris in the archives at KewGardens in London, UK. Benny wrote part of that book at the Centre for Refugee Studies that I directed. Ari Shavit discovers this black box of Zionist history in 1994. Without reference to Benny, Ari undertakes his own research and effectively confirms what Benny revealed, but not as historical revelation but as the murder weapon that destroyed the old mythology of Zionism and as the clue to the construction of a new mythology based on twin but opposing principles of universal humanitarianism and ruthless self-protection which ends up breaching humanitarian laws when necessary.

For Ari, it is insufficient to explain ethnic cleansing as simply demanded by the need for self-defence and immanent threat or the need to make decisions in the fog of war. Ben Gurion was under no such imperatives. Yet he ordered the expulsion. That expulsion was not an accidental betrayal of Zionism but at its central core. So the central core of Lydda is then broadened to other atrocities, to the evacuation of other cities, towns and villages of their Arab populations. Ari quotes a mentor and a friend from those atrocities:

When I think of the thefts, the looting, the robberies and recklessness, I realize that these are not merely separate incidents. Together they add up to a period of corruption. The question is earnest and deep, really of historic dimensions. We will all be held accountable for this era. We shall face judgment. And I fear that justice will not be on our side. (117)

Shamaryahu Gutman as de facto Israel’s intelligence chief and Israel Galili as chief of staff of the Haganah together recognize that “the first task in war would be to guarantee an Arab-free zone – a Jewish territorial continuum.” (119) This was an era of total war between the two communities that did not respect past friendships and past treaties. Gutman was named military governor of the Lydda Valley.

Atrocities are committed. A young Jewish sniper deliberately targets civilians, including women and even children. Another Jew, Bulldozer, shoots his Portable Infantry Anti-Tank weapon (PIAT ) at a mosque from close range where civilians have taken shelter. Seventy civilians are killed and scores of others are injured. Afterwards, since he is knocked unconscious by the recoil of the PIAT and the nearby explosion, his fellow soldiers commandeer eight other civilians to dig a mass grave. After they finish and the dead are thrown in the pit, the soldiers kill the eight so there will be no witnesses. “The damned war turned humans into beasts.” These atrocities are accompanied by thefts and looting. Though one soldier writes that, “We will all be held accountable for this era. We will face judgment,” they never are held accountable and they never face judgment. 

The Jews have captured the town. Shooting breaks out as the Military Governor, Gutman, is negotiating with the Arab notables. He not only orders his men to return fire but to shoot anyone suspected of being part of the “mutiny”. Afterwards, “The military governor orders his men to bury the dead, get rid of the incriminating evidence.” (121) Then he returns to his discussions with the dignitaries and he suggests to them that anything can happen in war and a great war is coming. The dignitaries deliver to him what he wanted all along without his having to order their expulsion. They ask to be allowed to leave as long as they can take the survivors of the mosque with them. Gutman agrees.

“Gutman feels he has achieved his goal. Occupation, massacre and mental pressure have had the desired effect. At then end of the day, after forty-eight hours of hell, he does not quite order the people of Lydda to go. Under the indirect threat of slaughter, Lydda’s leaders ask to go.” (122) Like the ancient Jews, the people of Kydda go into exile. No orders had to be given. But the general understanding of the Palmach leadership that the Arabs had to go is accomplished. So, finally, why Lydda? “Only in the city of Lydda was there a mess, because the city was large and the troops closed in on it from the east, so the Arabs could not flee during the battle itself.” (123) So Lydda was by far the worst massacre with an estimated 250 civilians killed in total compared to Deir Yassin with 100 civilian deaths, Salina and Abu Shusha with about 65 deaths each.

Gutman asks himself, “if he was right to encourage the regiment to shoot into Lydda’s houses, if there was a way to avoid all that has happened. Then he silences himself by answering that if it weren’t for what happened in Lydda, Zionism would be done for. As he watches the men and women marching, he is shocked to see the imperviousness on their faces, the loss of sovereignty, the loss of dignity.” (127) He watches a person fall into a well and other suck on the dead man’s clothes after they pull him up to get water to wet their dried throats, as he watches another trampled and a third mother giving birth to her baby in the dirt, as he sees his soldiers stealing watches and money from the columns of fleeing refugees, and stops their thieving, But he does not stop the exodus. However, distressed by the columns of suffering civilians, he is reconciled to the fact that there exodus was necessary to ensure the success of Zionism.

Ari then offers a Palestinian perspective, that of Ottman Abu Hammed of Lydda, the prosperity before, the collegiality between Jews and Arabs before the outbreak of the war, prosperity enhanced by Arabs fleeing other centres, the atrocities against Jewish civilians committed by Arabs, including the mutilated corpses of two young men and a young Jewish woman who had been raped. But all this was nothing compared to being strafed from the air, of shots fired at civilian houses, of the massacre at the mosque, of the groping of the Arab women as they searched them. Since he was friends with the Jewish commander, why did he not elect to stay behind when he was offered the opportunity as his family was in the column marching out of the city? Because if he stays he will be considered a traitor and would be executed.

There is a final reason offered on the choice of Lydda. Because Lydda remains mired in the past and the past remains present in Lydda. Palestine is still felt in Lydda. But the central point is that Lydda was an “inevitable phase of Zionism”. The choice is stark: “either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” (131) Bulldozer and the sniper could be rejected for breaking the laws of war. But not the quasi-forced exodus. “I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys. On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” (131)

This is the central thesis of the book. This is the core of the new mythology to counter the bleeding heart Israeli liberals who weep for the Palestinian refugees and condemn those who oversaw the exodus of Palestinian civilians. The myth requires acknowledging, recognizing, accepting the atrocities and the ethnic cleansing, but also accepting they were necessary for without them the Zionist enterprise would not have succeeded. Ari okays the ethnic cleansing but not the atrocities that encouraged the Arabs to “voluntarily” leave.

So the principle Ben Gurion enunciated of the purity of arms, that Jews must fight in accordance with the laws of war but fighting must be based on moral grounds, is abandoned. Ethnic cleansing of civilians is not a moral act. So if ethnic cleansing can take place with the immoral use of force by targeting civilians, then it is ok.  In the example of Deir Yassin, the fear of further atrocities was the main impetus for the “volunteer” Arab exodus elsewhere; in Lydda, the atrocities are directly and causally connected with the exodus itself.

Shavit’s argument is clear but not his logic, further reinforcing the view that he is into mythmaking. For the logic says that if the massacres were necessary to encourage the ethnic cleansing on a “volunteer” level, and the ethnic cleansing was necessary to the success of Zionism, then the massacres and the breach in the laws of war were as necessary as the ethnic cleansing. (See Saleh Abd al-Jawad (2007) Zionist Massacres: the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem in the 1948 War)

Ari not only avoids sorting through the various different accounts of what happened at Lydda and settling on one that clearly points to deliberate killing of Arab men, women and children by Jewish soldiers. He does so that the historical variations and clearing through the underbrush of just war theory and the obligations to discriminate between civilian and military targets is accepted as abridged. The only question remaining, for him, is whether the dirty work was necessary to encourage the exodus or not since he justifies the exodus itself.

If Ari’s mythology takes hold, the doctrine of purity of arms has to be abandoned. If Ari’s mythology takes hold, breaches of humanitarian law become justified. If Ari’s mythology becomes the core of the new Zionism in the cause of open truth=telling, then atrocities that serve as a catalyst to ethnic cleansing become acceptable in spite of Ari’s insistence that he will not stand my the war crimes of the Bulldozer and the sniper.


Tomorrow: The Resettlement of Jewish Refugees 1957

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: The Core of a Tragic Vision


Ari Shavit

III: The 1920s – The Valley of Harod


Upon reading the second chapter, a reader understands the organizing device of the historical first half of the book – one specific area of Israel, one critical Zionist figure, one key event and all brought together as an illustration of turning points in the history of Israel. In this chapter, the specific spot is Ein Harod in the Valley of Harod on the western foot of the rocky ridge known as MountGilboa located in the larger expanse of the JezreelValley where Ari, using the archives of the kibbutz, locates the genesis of what he calls the Zionist adventure.

Mt.Gilboa itself is a place of historical tragedy for the Jewish people where King Saul and his sons died when the Philistines defeated the army of Israel.  “And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in mountGilboa.” (Samuel I 38:8) To that valley came the kibbutz pioneers to drain the swamps after the National Jewish Fund had purchased 30,000 dunams of Anophole mosquito infested land from the Sarsouk family of Alexandria.

Ari links that purchase with the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 when the purchase of the Sarsouk holdings was first considered with 1920 when the purchase was concluded following a number of other pogroms and The Great War. “In the summer of 1920, it was clear to all concerned what was required: decisive, rapid action. Action to be carried out by a new breed of Jew.” “The choice was clear: the masses who wanted a life went to America. The few who wanted utopia made aliyah to the land of Israel.” Note a particularly novel trope of Israeli historical writing! For Ari, all the immigrants to Israel were humane socialist utopians. This is but one of a long list of false dichotomies that riddle the book.

These false bifurcations are then combined with some puzzling history. Ari begins the real history of Israel with the kibbutz in the Valley of Harod just over a decade later. In the standard textual histories of Israel, pride of place goes to Degania on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee on land bought from Bedouin Arabs. This what Ari writes: “In 1909 they [the utopians] established Degania, the first, small, intimate commune, with the aim of respecting individual needs and freedom. Degania survived, but the utopians failed. Many felt lonely in the harsh, barren land. Some sank into depression. A few committed suicide. Most gave up and left for America.” One would not know that he was describing an initial effort by ten young men and two women.

In contrast, a more standard history reads: “On October 29th, 1910 ten men and two women who arrived originally from Romany in White Russia established the mother of the collectives and the kibbutzim (אֵם הַקְּבוּצוֹת, em hakvutzot) – Degania A (דְּגַנְיָה אָלֶף). This inspiring group established the first Zionist farm on lands bought by the ‘Jewish National Fund’ (קק”ל – קֶרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, kaka”l – Keren Kayemet Leyisra’el). They crossed the Jordan River to its east bank on an assignment for the Land of Israel Office, under the direction of Dr. Arthur Ruppin. They camped at Umm Juni, south of the Sea of Galilee. We came to establish an independent settlement of Hebrew laborers, on national land, a collective settlement with neither exploiters nor exploited – a commune” – they wrote. They revived the people in the Land of Israel as a working people, returning to nature and to the tilling of the land, living from the fruits of its own labor.

The settlers named the place “Degania” after the five varieties of grains growing there (wheat, barley, oats, corn and sorghum). On 1912, during the harvest days between Pesach and the Shavuot holidays, the group moved from the woods of Umm Juni to the area where the Jordan emerges from the Sea of Galilee. The group of settlers not only established Degania, they established the principles of independent work and collective life – they established the basic principles of the kibbutz. They also trained many members of the kibbutzim that followed them. Degania, however, was different from the rest of kibbutzim as their children never slept in special quarters, (called children homes – בָּתֵּי יְלָדִים), but slept in their family units. This romantic history of Degania from idealism to disillusion is portrayed in Yitzhak Rubin’s 2008 documentary, Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights Its Last Battle (Hebrew: הקרב האחרון על דגניה)

The impression one has is that the settlement in Ein Harod is chosen because Ari had family there. But that is not the only reason. For Ari, it is “Our Source, our point of departure”. Somehow, Israeli tragic history will be marked not simply by the founding of the kibbutz rather than moshavs or Petah Tickva or the wide variety of settlements. It will not be marked by Degania. The Israeli political and cultural DNA will be marked and impressed by a particular Bolshevik, centralized very small “c” communist kibbutz.  Further, it will be accompanied by the founding of the Shomrim, the guardian movement that began in parallel to the founding of Degania. For the Shomrim were founded “to replace the armed protectors of settlements with Jews. It does not take a great deal of sensitivity to recognize the connection between the Shomrim designed to replace the Arab armed protectors of settlements to the shift to replacing the Arabs per se and not just their role.

The evidence is found in the kibbutz archives. A Mapai circular named Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’Emek is the first to demand destruction of Arab villages. Are we provided with a military or economic or social context? No. Instead, this find is immediately conjoined with the despairing observation in 1948 by Aharon Cohen, Hashomer Director, who was ashamed and afraid as he reflected on the flight of the Arabs from Haifa that, to win the peace, the new state will have to live by the sword because the new state requires ethnic cleansing. Security requires turning resident Arabs into refugees. Tragedies are built on Greek tropes of inevitably.

The displacement of Arabs is built into the DNA of Israel. The option of war is built into the DNA of Israel. Whether Arabs played a role in forcing such a choice on the new Jewish inhabitants of the land is of little consequence. For that is simply a contingent circumstance. What matters in the Lysenko-like inherited historical genetic material that forged the Israeli personality. One, therefore, need not attend to all the Arabs who stayed except insofar as they remained as future victims of this original genetic heritage. The pogroms in the Ukraine were just part of the contingent circumstances that led to this fundamental mark of Cain on the Israeli psyche and personality. In Europe, Hermann Cohen’s model of a Jewish diaspora driven by the ethical and social heritage of Judaism could be ignored for that was a route and an option that was destined to lead to a dead end. In America, the path that Carl Laemmie took in founding Universal Studios in Hollywood and set a model in which Jews played such an important role in establishing the imaginative structure and framework of their adopted land that would become the leader of the Western world could also be ignored. The genetic history of Jews was forged in Israel via a singular route and not via a continuing dialectic between the varied strands within Israel and the various strands of development in the diaspora.

In Israel, why is the Moshav tradition, either in its more collectivist version or in its cooperative variations, but always rooted in the concept of private property as fundamental, not viewed as part of this so-called genetic history. After all, the first moshavim are virtually coterminous with the kibbutzim. But that is not how Ari Shavit writes. He is an orthodox Darwinian, and not one based on weighing evidence. The DNA of Israel that survives out of necessity is forged in one kind of kibbutz and not in moshavim and not in liberal business farming pioneered by bourgeois investors like Baron de Rothschild (or the owners of the orange orchards – see next chapter) and certainly not by the urbanites who planted their feet in cities.

“Kibbutz socialism is now essential for several reasons. Without group effort, Zionist colonizers will not be able to endure the hardships involved in the colonizing process. Without the idealism of kibbutz socialism, Zionism will not have the sense of moral superiority that is essential for the colonization process to succeed. Without the communal aspect of the kibbutz, socialist Zionism will lack legitimacy and be perceived as an unjust colonialist movement. Only kibbutz socialism can give Zionism the social cohesion, the mental determination, and the moral imperative needed at this revolutionary stage. And only the Labor Brigade ethos of kibbutz socialism will enable Zionism to take the valley and to take the land.” (31)

More importantly for our purposes, by stressing all these “onlys”, the tragedy and the triumph will become predetermined. One path is essential; all other factors are contingent and accidental. Ari Shavit may not be a Marxist, but he has a clear and unequivocal Marxist mode of writing history. “Godless, parentless, and homeless, they had to survive.” Survival of the fittest gave Israel its DNA, but a DNA serviceable for a warrior state but a destructive force in forging a peace and irrelevant for a new post-Zionist prosperous Israel for a communication age. What will later prove to be counter-productive are at the pioneering stage indispensable – – no fathers, no boundaries, no restraints. “There is no compassion in this just-born kibbutz. There is no indulgence, no tolerance, no self-pity. There is no place for individual rights and individual needs and individual wants.”

It does not matter whether these generalizations contain only a smidgen of truth or a great deal of insight. In Sharit’s version they become absolute imperatives. This is how Jews returned to history and regained their masculinity and transformed themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns. The correlate of this primitive Zionism is that Jews in the diaspora remained objects, passive and lacked any sovereignty. They presumably were never practical, imaginative and innovative. It took the ruthlessness of a kibbutz like Ein Harod to make them so. The fallout is that the weak die – commit suicide.

Then Yitzhak Tabenkin is introduced, an ideologue rather than a pragmatist, a believer in Greater Israel but from the left rather than the right, a believer in socialism more than the state, an opponent of the Peel Commission, of partition, an ideological purist – in my mind, one of the many false prophets in the history of the Jewish people, a man possessing neither brilliance, analytic skills nor eloquence, but who talked the talk and loved to talk but could not plow, a man who became the secular rabbi of Ein Harod at the core of the kibbutz movement. He stood as the voice that gave socialism rather than nationalism the foundation for Zionism and that, in turn, provided Zionism with its legitimacy and image of justice.. He would have fit right into the leaders of the Cultural Revolution in China for he had no sense of human rights only of human sacrifice. Though Ari has no sympathy for his Soviet style, for his propensity to preach while incapable of practice, and while acknowledging that he lacked the political genius of Ben Gurion, or any intellectual depth, and lacking an impressive work ethic and moral rectitude, Ari claims that what redeems him is his understanding of the diaspora and the fire in his belly.

Inspired by a prophetic voice linked to their practical approach to the land without sentimentality, smugness or self-aggrandizement, these pioneers are still haunted by the shadows, not just of the serfs of Ein Harod who are now gone, but by the serfs of Shatta and the villagers of Nuris and Zarin, Tel Fir and Komasy who remain. What is more, they love music and are deeply stirred when a genius of Jascha Heifetz’s stature comes to play at their kibbutz and the two great icons of Jewry, one from the diaspora and one from Israel bow down to one another ten years before the Arabs burn the fields of Ein Harod. and twenty-two years before the Jewish centurions bred in this hard landscape will attack the Arab villages of Nuris, Zarim and Komay and drive their inhabitants out. As Ari re-imagines Haifetz playing, he thinks “of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the State of the Jews could not have been founded.” But Ari knows “that the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself.” (47)

When Ari leaves the archives of Ein Harod and has supper with his elderly relatives, he looks at the deteriorating kibbutz, a kibbutz that has lost its way because the economic base of Ein Harod collapsed and its social fabric unravelled, when the young have left leaving despairing elders behind with an empty communal dining hall, closed children’s homes as the collective spirit of the ideology escaped and collapsed the idealistic balloon.

Thus, the future of Israel has been foretold.

I think. Does any Canadian historian write of the pioneers who settled the west in Canada in 1890 and endured harsh lives of self-sacrifice in such Haifetzian tones of high drama and the weeping of violins for the world as it was? 

My Promised Land II: The End of the Nineteenth Century

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: The Core of a Tragic Vision


Ari Shavit


Part II The End of the Nineteenth Century


Ari Shavit is a sabra and heir to the Israeli aristocracy on both sides of his family. His great-grandfather was a prominent Jewish aristocrat whose father in turn had been a poor immigrant to Britain from Russia. The Rt. Honourable Herbert Bentwith first visited Israel in 1897 before the first Zionist congress in BaselSwitzerland. Drawn from his great-grandfather’s journals, Ari’s description of that visit makes up the first chapter of the book.


During that visit, Sir Herbert Bentwith was greeted by Dr. Hillel Yoffe, Ari’s other great-grandfather who pioneered in the eradication of malaria from Palestine, distinguished between blackwater fever (favism) and malaria and provided the groundbreaking study that allowed other researchers to identify the inherited characteristic of favism in Jewish males of Iraqi and Kurdish origins. (See Harry Ostrer Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, OUP.) Dr. Yoffe escorted the visiting diaspoa Jews from the West to the French agricultural school at Mikveh Israel and showed them its pioneering efforts to bring modern science and technology to agricultural production in Palestine.


Why Bentwith and not Yoffe? Dr. Yoffe does not appear in the book again. Was it only because Bentwith wrote a journal? Why the romantic rather than practical Zionist? The answer is not simply because Ari is an anglophile. Perhaps because Bentwith was linked to the Balfour declaration.


Although an anglophile, Ari is an old style Zionist through and through. He believes that the Jewish diaspora is doomed to whither away in the face of the enlightenment, assimilation and the disappearance of the ghetto which protected Jews from this menace of progress. Ari is also  through and through an Ashkenazi Jew. He says Jew lives in ghettos. Ethiopian Jews did not live in ghettos. Indian Jews did not live in ghettos. Iraqi Jews did not live in ghettos. For Ari Shavit, if the Jewish people were to survive they had to be transformed from a people of the Diaspora to a sovereign self-governing people. Herzl Zionists foresaw this law of history. He realized that Jews were “faced with a radical problem: the coming extinction of the Jews.” Enlightenment = assimilation = extinction. The alternative? Enlightenment = rise of antisemitism = Nazism = extinction. Either path yields the same result. The only alternative is political Zionism: “if they are to survive, the Jewish people need the Holy Land.”


Since a reader is unable to distinguish between the author’s and Bentwich’s views, we can only assume that  they both share a propensity to being rigid and pedantic accompanied by arrogance, determination, self-assurance and non-conformity (in Ari Shavit’s own words), but the two agree on the future of the diaspora (none) and the absolute need of Israel if the Jews are to survive. The prosperous American-Jewish community is faced with a malaise. The ratio of Jews to non-Jews is shrinking rapidly. That this may mostly be the result of new immigrants who overwhelmingly are not Jewish is not considered. Extinction faces diaspora Jewry.  After all, the Jewish population of Great Britain has dropped from 400,000 to 300,000. But how much of that drop was a result of Jewish emigration after the war to North America and Australia? When Ari describes the evisceration of a thriving Jewish community in Brighton, my friend, Verne Shaw in Toronto from Brighton could attest to that. But my friends from St. Johns, New Brunswick could testify to the same phenomenon. The Jewish population has been consolidating from small towns and moving to larger cities.


But Ari is correct that Jews as a people are faced with the problem of assimilation. That problem has many answers, most having to do with changes required in the diaspora. Only one of them entails emigration to Israel. Further, unless there is a rise in antisemitism, the mass immigration to Israel is unlikely to take place and even from France it is little more than a trickle.


However, Ari does not have to get the diaspora issue right since his book is about Israel. But even  with Israel he arrives at some very questionable interpretations. He acknowledges that Palestine was viewed as an empty land, not because there were no Arabs, but because there was plenty of room for Jews and Arabs. But most of his message is that these future Israelis failed to pay attention to these Palestinians. Further, there was then “no cogent national (Palestinian) identity” wanting to express itself at the time.


Then why does Ari accuse his grandfather of not wanting to see, of mindblindness? Perhaps he was. But Ari seems just to be making this blindness up simply because his great-grandfather did not make notes on the Palestinians in the Arab towns through which he traveled. Between the vision of Zionist settlement and the vision of enlightenment progress and the advance or technology and urbanization, the vision may not include a continuation of “Palestinian peasants who stand by their olive and fig trees”. But that dilemma of the survival of the peasant village is a worldwide problem, one not specific to Zionists. Ari writes: “They will replace one people with another” just after he wrote that at the time there was no people in Palestine with a national identity and when he is writing that only Israel Zangwill perceived this “truth” of the need to cleanse the land of the Arabs, as if the expulsion of 720,000 Palestinians as refugees was foreordained. For Ari Shavit, of the 21 travellers who accompanied Bentwich, only Israel Zangwill was not naive.


But what about the numbers of Arabs that remained? And why insist that Bentwich never saw the Palestinian Arabs living in a myriad of towns and cities – there were a million when Bentwich arrived and Palestine included the much larger territory of Jordan? He surely did not mean “literally” did not see. He meant that his great-grandfather did not see the Palestinians as a political obstacle to a Zionist settler enterprise. Perhaps his great-grandfather did not but the Zionist tracts he read surely would have informed him. They would have discussed the various debates among Zionists about how the problem of the Arab and Bedouin inhabitants would be dealt with. 


This is but another literary conceit which distorts history. The Zionist forbears who saw a land without a people as ripe for resettlement are accused of ignoring the resident Arab population when they did not. The land was described as empty, not because there was no population on it, but because the land was so sparsely populated, especially in comparison to the period two thousand years earlier when Jews were a sovereign people.


The tragedy, for Ari, begins before the Zionists even arrive in Palestine in his construction. “The British Isles are not really ours.” Jews are an alien presence in other lands. Secondly, the land of Palestine is also not ours for it belongs first and foremost to the Arabs who already live there when the Zionists arrive. Neither conjointly nor separately is either proposition a given truth. There are four choices:

1. Jews have no rights to be anywhere;

2. Jews have rights to live in ancient Israel.

3. Jews have been granted rights to live in many countries.

4. Jews have rights to live anywhere, including Palestine.


Why does Ari adopt the first option except that it dooms Jews to having a tragic history and makes his case?


My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: Introduction

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism: Introduction


Ari Shavit

Almost thirty years ago, Bernie Avishai published The Tragedy of Zionism: How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy. Every generation Jews seem to need to read a cosmological lament about the state of Israel. Avi Shavit is the author for our times. He has written a widely praised book about the history and contemporary socio-political position of the Israeli state. To have the impact it has, the book had to be written for a current audience. What is the book’s appeal? How does the author have such an impact?

Avi’s introduction begins with: “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” His fear is not for himself but for his beloved Israel. He dreaded that a dark ocean “would rise and drown us all. A mythological tsunami would strike our shores and sweep my Israel away.”  Did he mean “metaphorical” rather than “mythological”? Or was “mythological” itself a word used metaphorically to connote “gargantuan”?  For Avi is clearly not referring to a divinely-inspired disaster like Noah’s flood or an immanent natural disaster arising from the degradation of the environment and rising seas.

I, too, have had a recurring nightmare. I am fleeing from the Nazis. I am in a cobbled square with streets going off in different directions. I am not slowed down by my ambivalence over choosing which route to escape but by my dreamy wayward youngest daughter who is on her tricycle pedalling around in circles. And the Nazi trucks and storm troopers are just about to reach that square when I wake up in a panic and sweat. The fear is not a product of current circumstances. Nor even from historical experience since neither I nor my family were ever threatened by the Nazis. The question arises whether the fear was instilled in me or whether I have projected it onto the world, or, a third option, it was instilled in me and I then project back onto the world.

Or perhaps the fear is primordial. It arises because, whether Jew or gentile, we are all deeply afraid. Thomas Hobbes wrote, that this is the core of all humankind. “There is no such thing as perpetual tranquillity of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense.” I, myself, think it is a combination of external stimuli and internal psychology and the job of critical observation and reflection is to sort out when that fear is a projection with internal sources and when there is a justified external provocation. I am not and was not an Israeli. In fact, even though at the time I was an intellectual anti-Zionist, in the weeks and days leading up to the Six Day War in 1967, I, as Ari did, also feared the Arabs were going to defeat Israel and throw its Jews into the sea.

In 1973, for Ari, “For ten terrifying days it seemed that my primordial fears were justified. Israel was in peril” The walls of the third Jewish temple were shaking.”  Thus do instilled memory through historical and mythological instillation reinforce and adumbrate the experiences of the rocket attacks from Saddam Hussein and the 2002 terror campaign of the Palestinian intifada. The source of the fear was real; terrorists had blown up his neighbourhood pub and three young Israeli men were killed at the bar and a young woman lay lifeless in the corner. When I was teaching at HebrewUniversity in 1977-78, I heard a huge boom but continued teaching thinking it only the result of dynamite from construction or the sound boom from a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier. When we emerged from that Hegel class, I understood why the students had been so fidgety. A suicide bomber had accidentally set off the bomb strapped to his chest and killed himself; he had been just twenty feet from the outside of our classroom.

Ari then shifts the scene to the West Bank after the Six Day War and his observation that the “Palestinian children my age and younger had fear in their eyes.” Was this real fear or was Ari projecting his own fears onto the Palestinian children? When I was in Israel with my family and older four children in 1973, I did not detect any fear among Arabs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank but only merchants eager to sell me things. Perhaps it was because I was insensitive. Perhaps it was because I was not an Israeli but just a foreigner.  But I also did not detect, as Ari writes, that the Jewish state was then “drunk with a heady sense of power” even though when I went to see the historian, Jacob Talmon, in 1973 before the war broke out and we sat talking for 2-3 hours, he expressed precisely the same concerns as Ari.

When Ari joined the paratroopers and he was assigned to do the “dirty work” of manning checkpoints, imposing house arrests and dispersing demonstrations using violence, it was the same year I had gone with my family as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor to teach at the HebrewUniversity. Not only had a terrorist bomb gone off outside my classroom window, but my twelve year old son came home from school one day to tell me that the back of the bus in front of the one he was riding returning from school had been blow off. Amidst those bombs and terror attacks, amidst the joys of exploring Israel and the West Bank and especially the various oases along the Gulf of Eilat in what is now Egypt, I experienced the thrill of Anwar Sadat coming to Israel with an olive branch and Prime Minister Begin, in spite of his fears and his preoccupation with the Holocaust, accepting that  olive branch.

Many years later, the son of my daughter who in my dreams continually road her tricycle in circles in a Prague square as the Nazis pursued us, received his red beret from the IDF paratroopers and I was thrilled. His mother had made aliyah and he was born an Israeli. I also listened to him literally for hours as he talked about the war games or the videos like Game of Thrones where men fought with bravery and honour, but also the much shorter time when he described how, when he was on patrol with his best friend on the border of the Gaza Strip form which the Israelis had withdrawn, his friend had been killed. A week ago my grandson and my daughter attended the third anniversary yahrzeit service of his best friend’s death.

I too had also come from Egypt with my oldest son years earlier when Israel still occupied Gaza; we re-entered Israel though Gaza. I had been appalled in self-righteous fury at the indignities to which I saw the Palestinians subjected to when they were being interrogated at the border crossing. Thus, I too have ambivalences about Israel, proud of what the country has accomplished and its ability to defend itself and ashamed and angry when Israel treats non-Jews, especially Palestinians, with disrespect.

So our fears and our targets for indignant condemnation are informed by different experiences. Unlike Ari, I did not have the experiences of being in the IDF to turn me into a peace activist; I had been one since I had been an undergraduate well before I switched from being an anti-Zionist to falling in love with Israel in 1973. I remember being in Tul Karem as an invited guest at a town hall meeting in which I was to comment after the Arab mayor and a doctor from the town, who was a member of the Arab communist party, addressed the group that had gathered. When my turn came to talk after the other two, I was totally tongue-tied for the first time in my life. In embarrassment I had to explain that I had not been able to listen to the other speakers to be able to comment. I had been  preoccupied, not with an analysis of the political events of the moment, but with the fact that the mayor of Tul Karem was the image of my late father – the same nose, mouth, receding hair land the same facial structure. Only he had different eyes. My father’s glittered with joy. They were carefree, normally a good sign, but not in a father who totally abandoned his responsibilities. The mayor’s eyes were more contemplative and serious like my own.

My friend and colleague when I taught at HebrewUniversity, Avishai Margolit, had proposed an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon, who finally died after eight years in a coma, surprisingly took up the idea. It worked out badly in many respects as everyone knows, both for the settlers who were removed and for the security of Israel. So though we remained peaceniks, all of us, including Ari Shavit, we “gradually became aware  of the flaws and biases of the peace movement.”

For Ari, “As the second decade of the twenty-first century has begun to unfold, five different apprehensions cast a shadow on Israel’s voracious appetite for life: the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not end in the foreseeable future; the concern that Israel’s regional hegemony is being challenged; the fear that the very legitimacy of the Jewish state is eroding; the concern that a deeply transformed Israeli society is now divided and polarized, its liberal-democratic foundation crumbling; and the realization that the dysfunctional governments of Israel cannot deal seriously with such crucial challenges as occupation and social integration.”

Whoah! How did Ari get from his deep inner fears connected to his quick summary of his life experiences and these grand general conclusions? I shared the first recognition that peace is still unlikely between the Israelis and the Palestinians in spite of the strenuous efforts of John Kerry and his team to advance the peace process. However, though Turkey and Iran might be challenging Israel’s regional hegemony, neither is even close. The ability of Egypt to engage militarily had been in sharp decline and Syria’s capacity to wage war was now non-existent. Iran had become truly a paper tiger. In my observation, not only was Israel stronger than ever as a regional power, but there was no real challenger even on the horizon.

Though there were distractions by organizations such as the American Studies Association which had recently passed a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions, though not Israeli academics per se, these peccadilloes were more than offset by strengthened Israeli relations with India and China, with entry into more international organizations, and with the increasing practice of more and more Arab states dealing with Israel through practices rather than formal recognition.

How often over the years have I heard how deeply Israeli society is “now divided and polarized”, how its liberal-democratic structure is crumbling and what a dysfunctional government it has. Will the book be informed by these conclusions so that these generalizations shape the selection, organization and historical developments in his tale or will they be products of his historical analysis? From the very way he has constructed his introduction and jumped to these definitive conclusions about the current state of Israel, and by making them so definitive and apocalyptical, I suspected the worst, that they would shape history rather than be primarily informed by that history. However, even as a personal odyssey, the book promised to be interesting.

TOMORROW: The foundation for a Tragic Vision

How often over the years have I heard how deeply Israeli society is “now divided and polarized”, how its liberal-democratic structure is crumbling and what a dysfunctional government it has. Will the book be informed by these conclusions so that these generalizations shape the selection, organization and historical developments in his tale or will they be products of his historical analysis? From the very way he has constructed his introduction and jumped to these definitive conclusions about the current state of Israel, and by making them so definitive and apocalyptic, I suspected the worst, that they would shape history rather than be primarily informed by that history. However, even as a personal odyssey, the book promised to be interesting.

TOMORROW: The foundation for a Tragic Vision