The New York literati have given an overwhelming thumbs-up to Ari Shavit’s new book on Israel/Palestine, My Promised Land. The New York Times, for one, has given rave reviews not only in its daily edition but also in a front-page piece in its Book Review. Other media followed. It is a love fest of extraordinary proportions.
This is an approbation from, as I say, the literati, and seems to be based overwhelmingly on the alleged literary merits of this volume. There was much talk of the “lyricism” of the book; more than one reviewer spoke of a “cri de coeur.” Professional historians have yet to weigh in. Their judgement can be expected to be more restrained, if not outright negative.
The overwrought “literary” prose is exemplified in the author’s musings on Israel’s atomic project at Dimona (p. 196):
And now when the sun rises high above the mountains of Jordan, when the desert air begins to warm and the silver dome shines in the distance, I think about its place in our lives. Because in the most basic sense, it is our real taboo. Our common secret-not-secret. It is the real thing, scientific and concrete, that embodies the root of our existence here. And the unique predicament of our existence here. That’s why we prefer to avert our gaze from Dimona. That’s why we prefer not to know much about it. That’s why we prefer to know that it is there, but not what it is. That’s why we chose to ignore the tragedy enmeshed in Israel’s great secret.
Earlier in the same chapter, Shavit suggests that Dimona is basically an immoral enterprise: “for the first time in history, the Jews could have the ability to annihilate other people.” (P. 180) In fact, much of the book consists of moral condemnation of Israel and Zionism, especially in regard to the occupation of the territories.
And yet, since Shavit is no anti-Israel propagandist in the mold of, say, Noam Chomsky, he gives many indications that he recognizes the defensive aspects of the occupation. He does not advocate a simple immediate unilateral withdrawal from the territories: “if Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if it does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security.” (P. 401). And, concerning the atomic weaponry at Dimona, he concedes that it “gave Israel half a century of relative security and gave the Middle East forty-six years of relative security.”
So what are we to make of the heavy moralism in this book, this mea culpa that he pronounces so insistently and repeatedly on behalf of the Jews ? If the occupation and the atomic weapon can be seen as a necessary evil, as he suggests, how can it be so unspeakably immoral, as he also suggests ?
The fact is that in Shavit there is a basic confusion between a posited absolute evil as a figure of speech on the one hand, and the real-life evil of individual human beings on the other.
We Jews say the confessional Ashamnuprayer on Yom Kippur, as follows:
We abuse, we betray, we are cruel,
We destroy we embitter, we falsify.
We gossip, we hate, we insult.
We jeer, we kill, we lie.
I do find the prayer moving, and of course there is truth in it. But what kind of truth is it ? Does it mean that I, and all my fellow congregants, actually go around killing people ? I do not think so, and, what is more important, nobody in his right mind thinks so. There is, if you will, a certain literary truth here, but it cannot be simply equated to the truth that we seek when we accuse actual human beings of actual crimes. In Shavit’s book, these two kinds of truth are hopelessly confused. That is the first of the two fundamental flaws in the book.
The second fundamental defect is that Shavit, with all his sentimental affirmations of a universalist human decency, is, in fact, severely biased against his fellow Jews. He is very open to any evidence or suspicion of evidence of Jewish malfeasance, and, at the same time, either understates or completely ignores the Arab role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Among the incidents of early twentieth century Arab-Jewish conflict, three stand out:
1) The Deir Yassin incident of 1948 during the War of Independence.
Some one hundred Arab civilians died in this Arab village in an action conducted by the right-wing Jewish militias of Etsel (“Irgun” in the English-language literature) and Lechi (“Stern Gang”). Shavit reports on the incident in a fulsome paragraph on page 395, of which the key sentence reads as follows: “At least one hundred Palestinians were slaughtered.” He does not report that the larger Jewish community organizations condemned this action and sent a note of apology and explanation to King Abdullah. In any case, note Shavit’s term “slaughter,” and the details concerning the victims.
2) The Hebron incident of 1929.
Some sixty Yeshiva students were killed by Arab forces in an action that was devoid of military motivation insofar as anyone could tell at the time or later. Nor were these students Zionist. It seems to have been anti-Semitism, pure and simple. Now Shavit alludes to this incident, totally offhand and somewhat cryptically, as a “massacre of 1929.” (P. 204.) Massacre yes. But no “butchery,” and no description or counting of victims. Unlike Shavit’s emphatic treatment of Deir Yassin, his treatment of Hebron consisted of no more than an obiter dictum. In general, all his references to Arab violence consist of obiter dicta, written, it would seem, as concessions to be used against accusations of bias.
3) The Kfar Etzion massacre of 1948.
Here I quote from Wikipedia:
The Kfar Etzion massacre refers to a massacre that took place after a two-day battle between Jewish settlers and soldiers of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and a combined force of the Arab Legion and Arab villagers, on May 13, 1948, the day before the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Of the 129 Haganah soldiers and Jewish combatant kibbutzniks who died during the defence of the settlement, Martin Gilbert states that fifteen were murdered on surrendering. Controversy surrounds the responsibility and role of the Arab Legion in the killing of those who surrendered. The official Israeli version maintains that the settlers and soldiers were massacred by villagers and the Arab legion as they were surrendering. The Arab Legion version states that it arrived too late to prevent the villagers’ onslaught, which was motivated by a desire to revenge the massacre of Deir Yassin, and the destruction of one of their villages several months earlier. The surrendering fighters are said to have assembled in a courtyard, only to be suddenly fired upon, and that many died on the spot, while most of those who managed to flee were hunted down and killed.
Four prisoners survived the massacre and were transferred to Transjordan. Immediately following the surrender on May 13, the kibbutz was looted and razed to the ground. The members of the three other kibbutzim of the Gush Etzion surrendered the next day and were taken as POWs to Jordan.
The bodies of the victims were left unburied until, one and a half year later, the Jordanian government allowed Shlomo Goren to collect the remains, which were then interred at Mount Herzl. The survivors of the Etzion Bloc were housed in former Arab houses in Jaffa.
There is no reference of any sort to Kfar Etzion in Shavit’s book. No lyrical writing, no cri de coeur. Not even an obiter dictum somewhere. Simply nothing.
So from the evidence of his treatment of these three incidents at least, It must be said that Shavit is biased toward an Arab point of view.
And this impression of bias is strengthened when we consider Shavit’s treatment of anti-Semitism among Palestinian Arabs. Anti-Semitism appears eleven times in his index. In ten of these instances, the reference is to anti-Semitism in Europe. One of the items refers to Iraq. Not one refers to Palestinian Arabs.
Various Israeli leaders and writers make appearances in this book. But there is no reference to Y. Harkabi, the author of the pioneering study “Arab Attitudes to Israel,” (1972). Nor will the reader find the name of Robert Wistrich, the great scholar of contemporary anti-Semitism.
Shavit does devote one chapter (Chapt. 13) to his interviews with a number of Israeli Arabs. In particular there is Mohammed Dahla, whom, he says, he “loves.” (P. 323). Dahla is a lawyer who devotes much of his time to the legal defense of accused terrorists. In this connection, we also very casually learn, again as an obiter dictum, of a shaheed, a “martyr” killed while performing terrorism.
This is the only reference to the institution of martyrdom in the Palestinian population. Shavit does not tell us about Dalal Mughrabi, the martyr-terrorist responsible for the death in 1978 of 38 Israelis, including thirteen children. t Mughrabi is today celebrated as a great martyr and hero by the Palestinian Authority. Quite a few public places have been named in her honor by the Palestinian authority.
As Shavit averts his eyes from Mughrabi, he averts them from the institution of martyrdom among Palestinian Arabs. Nor does he see the relevance of Syrian conditions to Israel-Palestine, that is to say the relevance of the culture of violence in the Arab population. He can see no connection, none that he reports in any case, between the Arab violence in the surrounding Arab countries and the Palestinian Arab preachments of violence and “martyrdom” against Jews..
In the end, Shavit’s biased moralism amounts to a blindness to the reality of real Arabs. He either does not see or does not care that, in reality, he is patronizing his beloved Arab friends when he ignores what they say and what they do in favor of a cri de coeur, positing them as noble savages forever victimized by immoral Jews.