Love and anger about Israel: a conflict in books

May 18, 2014
Sarah Benton


Jews for Justice for Palestinians presents

Norman Finkelstein


Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land

Saturday 31 May 2014 * 6.30 for 7pm start Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL

Norman Finkelstein is a strong speaker celebrated for his brilliant demolitions of Zionist propaganda and full-tilt attacks on the American Israel Lobby.

His new book is a take-down of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”, which he finds is an attempt to repackage Zionist propaganda and win back Diaspora Jews. “Old Wine, Broken Bottle” is a devastating and very entertaining critique that concludes that Shavit will not succeed, and that a broad-based mass movement is now growing that can pressure the Israeli government to withdraw to the 1967 borders.

But Finkelstein is nothing if not controversial: having defied the Zionist establishment, he now stands apart from the mainstream of Palestine solidarity by denouncing the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement as a marginal “cult”. His vehement insistence on the Two State Solution has also been widely challenged.

Professor Finkelstein will open with a conversation with JfJfP signatory Stephen Marks. Then fans and critics alike can put their own questions to him. All are welcome.

Expect a bumpy ride!

Free event, but please help towards costs: £3 donation suggested Apologies for Saturday timing; this was the only slot available

The Idea of Israel and My Promised Land

The moral consequences of the triumph of Zionism: Ilan Pappé and Ari Shavit view Israel from different vantage points, but they agree the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians can’t be sustained

By Avi Shlaim, Guardian
May 2014

Zionism achieved its greatest triumph with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The Zionist idea and its principal political progeny are the subject of deeply divergent interpretations, not least inside the Jewish state itself. No other aspect of Zionism, however, is more controversial than its attitude towards the indigenous population of the land of its dreams. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the state of Israel, famously said that it is by its treatment of the Palestinians that his country will be judged. Yet, when judged by this criterion, Zionism is not just an unqualified failure but a tragedy of historic proportions. Zionism did achieve its central goal but at a terrible price: the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians – what the Arabs call the Nakba, the catastrophe.

The authors of these two books are both Israelis, but they approach their subject from radically different ideological vantage points. Ilan Pappé is a scholar and a pro-Palestinian political activist. He is one of the most prominent Israeli political dissidents living in exile, having moved from the University of Haifa to the University of Exeter. He is also one of the few Israeli students of the conflict who write about the Palestinian side with real knowledge and empathy.

Pappé places Zionism under an uncompromising lens. In his reading it was not a national liberation movement but a settler colonial project imposed on the Palestinians by force with the support of the west. From this premise it follows that the state of Israel is not legitimate even in its original borders, much less so within its post-1967 borders. To correct the injustice, Pappé advocates a peaceful, humanist and socialist alternative to the Zionist idea in the form of a binational state with equal rights for all its citizens.

Ari Shavit is a member of the editorial board of the liberal Zionist paper Ha’aretz, and one of Israel’s most influential columnists. He is an eloquent exponent of liberal Zionism, but he also exemplifies its ambiguities, inner contradictions and moral myopia.

Pappé has published a large number of books on the history of Arab-Israeli conflict of which the most widely read and most controversial is The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. The Idea of Israel is not a history book but a close study of the role of Zionist ideology in the making of modern Israel and of the continuing relevance of this ideology today in politics, the education system, the media, the cinema and Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations. The book thus offers a broad survey of the main critical schools of thought on Israel. Two chapters deal directly with the Palestine question: the historiography of the first Arab-Israeli war, and the uses and misuses of the Holocaust.

History is usually written by the victors, and the Middle East is no exception. Pappé himself is a leading member of the group of “new” or revisionist Israeli historians that emerged in the late 1980s and included Simha Flapan, Benny Morris and myself. In our different ways we all challenged the dominant narrative, the narrative of the victors. Using recently released documents we debunked many of the myths that had come to surround the birth of the state of Israel and the 1948 war. Intentionally or otherwise, our work thus lent credibility to the Palestinian historical narrative about the war for Palestine.

In his new book, Pappé deals with recent developments in the historiographical sphere, especially on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. The big question has always been: did they leave of their own accord or were they forced out? Israeli governments have always denied that they drove the Palestinians out. In his ground-breaking 1989 book on the subject – The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 – Morris presented incontrovertible evidence of Israeli involvement in creating the refugee problem. Evidence subsequently gathered by Morris points to an even higher degree of Israeli responsibility. But following the outbreak of the second intifada, Morris veered to the right and radically changed his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He concluded it was a mistake not to expel all the Palestinians from the Jewish state in 1948. Pappé argues that the new documents prove that the expulsion of 730,000 Palestinians was more premeditated, systematic and extensive than Morris had ever acknowledged. In short, he claims that when war provided an opportunity, the Zionist idea was translated into the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

The role of the Holocaust in empowering the struggle for Jewish statehood is another sensitive issue in the debate about the past. Pappé denounces any political manipulation of the Holocaust as a means of moral blackmail designed to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. His sharpest comments are reserved for Israeli officials who have perfected such manipulation as a diplomatic tool in their struggle against the Palestinians. His deeper concern, however, is to understand the impact and significance of the Holocaust memory in constructing and marketing the idea of Israel. Israelis have harboured an exaggerated sense of themselves as victims, and this self-image, he argues, has prevented them from seeing the Palestinians in a more realistic light, and impeded a reasonable political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The argument that what happened to the Palestinians was just a small injustice to rectify a greater injustice (the destruction of European Jewry) is rejected with some vehemence. The only hope Pappé sees of making peace with the Arabs is for Israelis to free themselves of their Shoah mentality.

Shavit’s position is more conflicted and therefore more opaque. He is a passionate but not uncritical Zionist. His book is also not a history of Israel but a series of stories of individuals and significant events that shed a great deal of new light on the making of the Jewish state. Among the cast of characters on whom Shavit draws to construct his picture of Israel are Holocaust survivors; a youth leader who helped to turn Masada into a symbol and shrine of post-Holocaust Zionism; an enigmatic engineer who was instrumental in building the atomic bomb in Dimona to defend the Jews against the threat of a second genocide; the zealous religious Zionists who spearheaded the settler movement; leftwing academics in Jerusalem; and pedlars of sex and drugs in Tel Aviv nightclubs. But, above all, this is a personal story. As the author explains in the introduction: “This book is the personal odyssey of one Israeli who is bewildered by the historic drama engulfing his homeland. It is the journey in space and time of an Israeli-born individual exploring the wider narrative of his nation.”

The most vivid illustration of Shavit’s attitude to this wider narrative is his account of the expulsion by the nascent Israeli army of 50,000-70,000 of the Arab residents of Lydda and the massacre of 70 civilians in a small mosque in July 1948. The grisly story has been told many times before, but Shavit’s reconstruction is riveting. His original contribution consists of interviews with the Jewish brigade commander and the military governor in which they speak frankly about their strategic and moral dilemmas. Shavit refers to this episode as “our black box” in which lies “the dak secret of Zionism”. But he goes on to say that the conquest of Lydda and the expulsion of its inhabitants “were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state”. “Lydda,” he asserts, “is an integral and essential part of our story.” Like Morris, Shavit evidently thinks that the end justifies the means; I don’t. The massacre of innocent civilians can never be justified under any circumstances. It is a heinous war crime and it must be denounced as such even if the perpetrators are Jews and, yes, even if they are Holocaust survivors.

Both authors engage with the essence of Zionism as well as with its more problematic parts. While Pappé represents the cutting edge of radical anti-Zionism, Shavit exposes the dissonance, the double standards and intellectual incoherence of liberal Zionism. Shavit, by his own acronym, is a Wasp – a White Ashkenazi Supporter of Peace. His liberal credentials were burnished by serving as chair of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in the early 1990s. In addition, he enjoys the great advantage of writing like an angel. The smoothness and beauty of his prose is all the more remarkable given that English is his second language. But the brilliance of Shavit’s style tends to conceal the ethnocentric character of his commentary and his inability to confront the moral consequences of the triumph of Zionism.

On one thing the two authors agree: the current status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is unsustainable. Both of them see the writing on the wall. The occupation, the relentless expansion of illegal settlements, the construction of the monstrous “security barrier” on the West Bank, the demolition of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, the flagrant violations of international law, the systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights and the rampant racism – all are slowly but surely turning Israel into an international pariah. No sane Israeli relishes the prospect of living in a pariah state that maintains an apartheid regime. But few Israelis are ready for a truly honest historical reckoning with the people they have wronged and oppressed and whose land they continue to colonise. To blame the victims for their own misfortunes, as the people in power habitually do, is both disingenuous and despicable. This is no way for any nation to behave, especially one with such an acute historical memory of the bitter taste of victimhood.

Avi Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations is published by Verso. He is a signatory of JfJfP.

Cool Logic, Wit and Searing Anger: Another Devastating Hatchet-Job

Reviews of “Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land”, by Norman Finkelstein, published by OR books, 2014, 100pp and
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit, published by Spiegel & Grau, 2013, 464 pp.

By Deborah H. Maccoby, Amazon website
May 05, 2014

Norman Finkelstein first came to public prominence with his brilliant expose (published as a chapter in his book “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict”) of Joan Peters’s much-lauded book “From Time Immemorial”; and much of his work has consisted of similar devastating critiques of best-selling books of Zionist propaganda (notably “Beyond Chutzpah”, which eviscerates Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel”). “Old Wine, Broken Bottle” is the latest in this formidable line.

This very short book is a kind of follow-on or extra chapter to Finkelstein’s 2012 book “Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End”. Finkelstein’s argument in “Knowing Too Much” is: now that US Jews know the truth about Israel’s past and present treatment of the Palestinians – in particular, as a result of the work of the New Israeli Historians, the truth about Israel’s ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 – American Jews have been faced with a conflict between their tribal loyalty to Israel and their liberal and universalist conscience; the liberal and universalist conscience has won; and American Jews are either speaking out strongly against Israeli policies or – in the case of the majority – silently losing interest in and turning away from Israel, which has become an embarrassment.

In accounting for this victory of universalism over nationalism, Finkelstein gives as the main reasons a) the long tradition of the association of American Jews with liberalism and b) (to a much lesser extent) self-interest, in view of the excellent position of Jews in the US. He omits, however, to point to the Jewish universalist tradition that derives ultimately from the Hebrew Prophets. But he himself, underneath all his cool logic and citing of international law, seems to me to reflect – though he would probably repudiate the comparison – something of the searing anger and indignation of the Prophets in his relentless demolitions of Zionist propaganda.

Now another Zionist best-seller has come out: Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” – and “Old Wine, Broken Bottle” is Finkelstein’s latest devastating hatchet-job. Those like myself who enjoy the no-holds-barred, excoriating wit of Finkelstein’s “take-downs” (and I think most people do, apart from the targets and their supporters), will not be disappointed by this critique. It is as hard-hitting and entertaining as all his previous ones.

Finkelstein argues that “My Promised Land” is written in response to American Jews “knowing too much” and turning away from Israel; it is an attempt to re-package Zionism in the light of the new situation and win back American (and other Diaspora) Jews. The old myth of the Palestinians Arabs having fled as a result of broadcasts from Arab countries urging them to flee has had to be jettisoned – too much is now known. The new Zionist strategy is “Yes we did it, but it was a tragic necessity in order to achieve the survival, spiritual and physical, of the Jewish people”. But this means that, as Finkelstein puts it, Shavit is faced with the question: “How does one excuse ethnic cleansing? This is quite the challenge for a self-described champion of human rights….” (page 21).

With his usual brilliance, Finkelstein exposes (together with the many other contradictions, sentimentalities and hysterias in “My Promised Land”) the logical flaws in Shavit’s justifications for the creation of a Jewish majority ethnic nation-state by means of ethnic cleansing. Shavit’s claims are that a) it was the only way to preserve non-Orthodox Jews against the dangers of becoming assimilated into US and European culture, because of the lack of antisemitism after World War Two. b) conversely (and itself in a somewhat contradictory way), it was the only way to save the Jewish people physically, by preventing “a second Holocaust”.

In response to the first claim, Finkelstein points out that a) it would not justify ethnically cleansing 750,000 people just to ensure that non-Orthodox Jews could preserve their Jewish identity, and b) that, ironically, Israel in fact, as Shavit himself constantly points out, lacks Jewish content – “lost were the depths and richness of the Jewish soul”, as Shavit writes. In response to the second, he dryly points to Shavit’s own claims (inflated though they are) about the terrible danger that Israel is in, surrounded by enemies, and comments: “it cannot be a coherent argument justifying Palestine’s ethnic cleansing that Jews need a state to prevent a ‘second Holocaust’ if, of the many places on the planet where Jews currently reside, the only one where they face such a dire prospect is Israel”.

In “Knowing Too Much”, Finkelstein raises the question of whether American Jews have ended their love-affair with Israel because they “know too much” about the past or because Israel has actually changed for the worse in recent years. Was there once, as is often claimed, a “beautiful Israel” that has become corrupted by the Occupation? Finkelstein’s answer is that American Jews have changed because the image has at last caught up with reality; ie there never was the “beautiful Israel” of Zionist mythology. But he writes that he says this with important qualifications, and there has indeed been a regression and corruption in Israeli society, which has moved to the right. This deterioration is particularly apparent in the degeneration of erst-while liberal left-wingers such as the New Historian Benny Morris (to whom Finkelstein devotes a chapter in “Knowing Too Much”) and Ari Shavit (whom Finkelstein compares to Morris). Thus Finkelstein points out in “Old Wine, Broken Bottle” that

“Shavit first came to wide public notice during the first intifada, when, in 1991, his eloquent account of army service in a Gaza prison camp was published in the prestigious ‘New York Review of Books’. Reproduced as a chapter in ‘My Promised Land’, his searing record of Israeli brutality ends on a defiant, black-and-white note: ‘there are no complexities here, no mitigating circumstances’. In an updated addendum to the chapter, however, Shavit discovers and underlines the ‘complexity’ of the situation.”

Whereas in the case of American Jews, universalism has triumphed over tribalism, among Israel liberals the opposite has happened. Finkelstein writes that Shavit still thinks of himself as left-wing, but his attitudes are now those of “an unreconstructed European imperialist” (page 22) and will fail to convince American Jews (other than die-hard and aging Zionists, who are the ones who have applauded the book).

A puzzling omission from Shavit’s book is that – in what is otherwise a comprehensive history of Israel up till the present time – there is no mention at all of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s brutal onslaught on Gaza in 2008-9. Puzzling that is, until one reads Finkelstein’s reminder that during Operation Cast Lead Shavit enthusiastically and appallingly supported it in his Ha’aretz articles, so much so that he now evidently prefers to keep quiet about it. But Shavit does include in his book a chapter justifying the existence of Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona and another chapter hysterically magnifying the threat from Iran. Both chapters are subjected to a powerful critique from Finkelstein.

Finkelstein will no doubt provoke much opprobrium by his comparison at the end of the book. He cites (for the second time) a crucial passage in which Shavit makes a distinction between the admissions of callous and cruel Israeli ethnic cleansers and those of regretful and sorrowful ones (also mainly the ones who gave the orders, not the ones who carried out the atrocities) – “I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not condemn 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. I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live”. Finkelstein compares this to Himmler’s infamous Posen speech in which he “extolled the Einsatzgruppen for having stayed human despite the inhuman ordeal that Fate had put them through: ‘Most of you well know what it means to see a hundred corpses – five hundred – a thousand – lying there. To have gone through this and yet….to have remained decent….'” Finkelstein is not comparing ethnic cleansing with genocide; he is pointing out the appalling mindset of “the end justifies the means” that informs both quotations.

Finkelstein writes that, though the Nakba cannot be justified, there is nonetheless a justification for Israel’s existence: “Israel exists: THAT is its ultimate argument…..yes, it was born in ‘original sin’, which no amount of Zionist apologetics can erase. But most (if not all) states have originated in sin. It would be more prudent if Israelis put behind them, finally, Zionist mumbo-jumbo and made reparation for the colossal wrong inflicted on the people of Palestine.”(pp.43-4)

But in providing his solution for the conflict, Finkelstein’s cool logic and adherence to international law become, in my view, a detriment rather than the powerful asset they are in the rest of the book. He himself writes that “to date, no Israeli government, left, right or centre, has come close to agreeing to withdraw from the major Jewish settlement blocs (comprising 10 per cent of the West Bank) that preempt the possibility of a Palestinian state.” (page 64). As Sari Nusseibeh has pointed out (in an interview in Der Spiegel in 2012), it is still logically and mathematically possible for half a million settlers to be moved into Israel proper behind the 1967 borders, but in practice that is not how people actually behave: “Can you take away half a million people? No you cannot. Nothing is impossible, mathematically speaking. But we are talking about politics, and in politics not everything is always possible”. Yet Finkelstein still persists in clinging to the two-state solution: “A broad consensus anchored in international law has endorsed a two-state settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict on the 1967 border and a ‘just’ resolution of the Palestinian refugee question”. (Page 67) In fact, this “broad consensus” is increasingly changing into a consensus that the two-state solution is finished – destroyed by Israel; and that some form of one-state solution – probably a binational state that recognises two national identities – is the only way of resolving the conflict.

But though I disagree on this point, this is a difference of opinion and does not affect my decision to award five stars to “Old Wine, Broken Bottle”. It should of course be read in conjunction with “My Promised Land”, but the latter book is also worth reading in its unwitting expose of the hollowness and craziness of Israeli society and of the degeneration of Israel’s liberal left – an expose given brilliant and witty open articulation by Finkelstein.

Deborah Maccoby is a signatory of JfJfp.

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