Commentary Magazine


Arab and Jew, by David K. Shipler

Off Balance

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land.
by David K. Shipler.
Times Books. 596 pp. $22.50.

On March 28, 1982, the New York Times carried a story headed “West Bank Occupation Now Resembles Annexation,” which included the following sentences about three Arab mayors dismissed by Ariel Sharon: “All were the targets of car bombings in 1980. Mr. Shaka lost both legs, Mr. Khalef lost a foot, and Mr. Tawil escaped injury; the bomb meant for him blinded an Israeli soldier. Their assailants were never arrested.”

Not mentioned in this story was the fact that the Israeli soldier had been blinded while trying to defuse the bomb, not while trying to set it. Also not mentioned was that the reason the assailants had not been arrested (as they eventually were) was that they had not been discovered. Heavily implied was that the assailants had been identified but not arrested.

Since he wrote that story, the right hand of David Shipler, who was then Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, has not lost its cunning. He picks up the thread of this particular tale in Arab and Jew, a lengthy study of “the attitudes, images, and stereotypes that Arabs and Jews have of one another, the roots of their aversions, and the complex interactions between them.” In all three sections of the book, which are entitled “Aversion,” “Images,” and “Interaction,” Shipler relies heavily on his personal experiences in Israel, on interviews with selected Jews and Arabs (whose identification by name is one of the book’s strengths), and on Arab and Jewish literature and textbooks. The book purports to eschew the political dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to concentrate on “the human dimension.”

Politics, however, is also a form of human activity; and so from Shipler’s style of examining “attitudes” and “impressions,” political implications inevitably arise. When, for example, he returns in Arab and Jew to the story about the mayors, it is partly for the purpose of insinuating that the increased vote for Yuval Ne’eman’s Tehiya party in the 1984 elections resulted from the impression, which Shipler reluctantly admits to be erroneous, given by some Israeli journalists that Ne’eman had endorsed the attack on the mayors. Apparently only David Shipler in all of Israel was sufficiently astute a listener to know what Ne’eman had actually said rather than what Tehiya voters (allegedly) supposed him to have said. Since Shipler infers the predatory instincts of many Israeli voters from their support of a man who condemned these attacks, we can readily guess what he would say about them if they had voted for a man who condoned the attacks.

One watches with guilty admiration as this master of artifice, who is a prominent character in his own book, lures his Jewish marionettes into the traps he has laid for them. At the outset of the book, Shipler and his wife visit a veteran of the War of Independence who pleases them mightily by deploring the falling-off in the “purity of arms” that has taken place in Israeli military behavior between 1948 and the war in Lebanon. He proudly shows these apparently reverent Americans his photo album of those good old days, and Mrs. Shipler “observed that no Israeli who had fought in Lebanon was ever going to have the experience, years from now, of pulling out photograph albums of that war and recalling that fight with . . . pride.” But Mr. Shipler is not so easily imposed upon by Jewish nostalgia as is his wife; and so, with notable lack of chivalry, he leaves her gawking at the album while he proceeds (or so he fancies) to strip the Israelis bare of their illusions about 1948 as well.

What is noteworthy about Shipler’s recitation of old and new slanders about “deliberate and forceful” expulsion of a segment of the Arab population in 1948 is not that much of it is uncritically based on a report (ascribing “2 percent of the exodus to orders . . . by the Haganah”) recently found in the private papers of an Israeli imprisoned for giving information to foreign agents; or that it fails to mention the well-documented instances of Jewish leaders pleading with Arabs not to flee; or that it ignores the absolute contradiction between what all Arabs said in 1948—that their leaders told them to leave—and what Arab propagandists now claim; or that it imputes voluntary Arab flight to stories about Deir Yassin rather than to Arab bad conscience about past atrocities against Jews. No—what is noteworthy is that in a book which prides itself on its balance and symmetry, this lengthy account, bristling with moral outrage, of Haganah expulsion of a small percentage of the Arab population is not balanced by any similarly agitated speculation about the reasons why not one single Jew stayed behind in territory captured by the Arabs in 1948.

But even though the expulsion saga casts a black shadow over everything that is to follow, it is no more misleading about the nature of the Arab-Jewish conflict than is the “balanced” or “symmetrical” or “evenhanded” structure of Arab and Jew itself. For to be evenhanded or morally impartial between two sides in a conflict when one side happens to be contending for the destruction of the other is to become a moral nonentity. To avoid the appearance of being such a nonentity, you must either redefine the conflict in the Middle East from one between Jewish nationalism and Arab nationalism to one between Jewish nationalism and the nationalism of Palestinian Arabs exclusively; or you must dodge this unpleasant business of destructive intention altogether by stressing the cultural identity of Palestinian nationalism. Shipler does both.

At the outset he announces his intention to “allow the larger Arab world to recede into the background.” This makes much more manageable the problem of depicting Palestinian Arabs as the victims of Israeli Jews, and of making their displacement from their home villages (the Arab definition of refugee status) a burden infinitely heavier to bear than the constant burden of peril of people surrounded by enemies who have destroyed 15,000 Israelis in six wars. It is as if some journalist in 1936 were to have written a book about relations between Czechs and ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, showing preternatural sensitivity to the Sudeten Germans’ complaints of discrimination and mistreatment while “allowing the larger German world to recede into the background,” and blithely ignoring the fact that neither perfect equality for the Sudeten Germans nor expulsion of every German from Czech territory would have mitigated by one iota the Nazi campaign to destroy Czechoslovakia.

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Shipler’s chapter on “nationalisms” devotes three pages to Jewish nationalism and the rest to Palestinian Arab nationalism and Israeli blindness to or suppression of it. The chapter uses many of the locutions mandated by the rhetoric of balance: “Palestinian diaspora,” “Palestine, like Zion,” “Like Jews in the Diaspora,” and so on. But the crucial moment of the discussion is Shipler’s story of the “dramatic Israeli move against Palestinian nationalism” which consisted in the (temporary) confiscation of the archives of the “research center” of the PLO in West Beirut in September 1982. This, according to Shipler, “was as if Israel had tried to steal the Palestinians’ past and identity, as if the Israelis could not stand to see the Palestinians have a historical archive.” Lest he be suspected of bias in this matter, Shipler invokes the authority of another “archivist,” the Israeli Meron Benvenisti of the “West Bank Data Project,” who confirms that his countrymen wanted “to take from [the Palestinians] their history.”

Now the archivists at this center had indeed been diligently at work, assembling files on Israeli military officers, monitoring Israeli police, military, and civilian broadcasts, and exchanging the fruits of their abstruse researches with terrorist organizations all over the world. The center’s director, Sabri Jiryis, was an adviser to Yasir Arafat, and its “faculty” included Elias Shufani, Arafat’s military deputy. It was, in short, a main PLO intelligence center. As Cynthia Ozick wrote in the New York Times in March 1983: “To represent the military capture of a camouflaged military arm as an ‘erasure’ of culture and history is a stunning falsehood. But what would be worse yet is if it were not a falsehood.”

That it may not be a falsehood, that what Shipler and Benvenisti call the distinctive Palestinian Arab culture amounts in some significant measure to the desire to destroy a living nation, is a possibility that runs like a red thread through Arab and Jew, whose author at one point admits that “much of the Arabs’ nostalgia for their pre-1948 Palestine . . . was the product less of sweet memories than of current anti-Zionism.” If the possibility even occurs to Shipler, how must it haunt the citizens of Israel? Few of them are likely to be reassured by his sanguine claim that Arabs “who think logically” are now willing to settle for a little “West Bank” state alongside of Israel, especially if they happen to have attended to the results of a recent poll conducted under joint Arab-American-Australian auspices and supervised by the ubiquitous Benvenisti. This poll showed that (according to the New York Times) “78 percent of West Bank Palestinians said their preferred ultimate solution to the Palestine problem was the establishment of a ‘democratic Palestinian state in all of Palestine’ while only 17 percent favored a Palestinian state limited to the West Bank and Gaza strip.”

The same poll reported that 88 percent of the Arabs questioned fully support such acts of terrorism as the massacre of civilians riding on an Israeli bus traveling the coastal road in 1978. This is a fact worth keeping in mind while reading Shipler’s chapter on “Terrorism: The Banality of Evil.” Although he supplies some chilling anecdotes of Arab women gloating and giggling over the attack on the children’s house at Kibbutz Misgav Am, he bridles with anger at the Israeli use of the term “terrorist” for the PLO because it denies the “actuality” of Palestinian nationalism. Meanwhile he refers insistently, at nearly every opportunity, to Jews who live in Judea and Samaria as “settler-terrorists,” and casually identifies Yitzhak Shamir as “himself a terrorist.”

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But at least no one can complain of the terrorism chapter that it attends insufficiently to the Jews. This is not merely because the atrocious deeds of the Jewish terrorists of recent years are recounted in great detail, but because the words of the Jewish citizenry spoken in the aftermath of Arab terrorist acts are closely monitored for signs of “bigotry.” In considering acts committed by Arab terrorists, Shipler believes that what is important is not so much what the Arabs do as what the Jews say. After the April 1984 terrorist attack in the center of Jerusalem, while Jewish blood was running in the streets, Shipler appears to have been patrolling the adjacent streets in search of Jews cursing Arabs, wishing them banishment or even destruction. After another Arab terrorist outrage in Jerusalem, we learn, a telephone employee read one of Shipler’s Israeli leftist friends an intemperate lecture about her living in an Arab village. After six people were killed and forty-one wounded in 1983 by a bomb planted on a Jerusalem city bus, Shipler discovered an Arab friend of the brother of two little Jewish girls killed on the bus who was told, when he visited shortly after the event, “You’re an Arab! Get out of my house!”

In each instance, it is not the killer whom Shipler excoriates, but the Israelis. Or, rather, some Israelis; for there are many who react to Arab terrorism with a cool disinterestedness that Shipler himself cannot match. There is Danny Rubinstein of Davar, who tells Shipler that “There is nothing wrong in terrorism” and helpfully explains that Arabs must use terror because they don’t have Phantoms. Just why an organization whose assets are estimated at $5 billion cannot afford Phantoms, or why the Syrians and Libyans, lacking Phantoms but amply supplied with MiG’s, persist in terrorism, the usually glib Rubinstein, generally ready to give you why for wherefore, has not explained. There are also the “liberal” Jewish students whom Shipler meets at Hebrew University, who in their “moderation” and “tolerance” never, under any circumstances, demand that an Arab reject terrorism, since this would entail denouncing “the only institution that represents his nationalist aspirations as a Palestinian.”

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There it is again, that embarrassing equation of Palestinian nationalism with the urge to destroy, made this time by precisely the “rarefied, liberal-minded circles” of Israelis whose “self-doubt” and all-consuming feelings of guilt Shipler holds up as the standard to which all Israelis (or rather, all Israeli Jews) should aspire. “Drive out nature with a fork,” says Horace, “nevertheless she will continually return.” The ugly equation does indeed return in the second part of the book, in which Shipler compares the images that Arabs and Jews have developed of each other during their years of interaction in Palestine. Shipler makes no attempt to conceal the blood lust that permeates Arab literature depicting Israelis; his problem comes in persuading the reader that “Arab and Jewish stereotypes of each other attain remarkable symmetry.”

In this effort he is helped not only by his unchanging conviction that all cultures are created and forever remain equal but by assorted Israeli researchers, ranging from the young woman who copies anti-Arab graffiti scrawled in the lavatory she frequents at Hebrew University, to the Tel Aviv University expert on Israeli children’s literature whose ponderous analyses reveal that many standard books in Israeli schools depict Arabs in general as hostile and prone to violence against Jews. These books also, to be sure, often show that Israeli “fears [of Arabs] turn out to be unfounded” and that generalities about Arabs do not necessarily tell us the truth about individuals. Nevertheless, Shipler expresses his horror that such books still remain “available in libraries” and are used in schools.

But why stop with half-measures? If a literary text is objectionable because in depicting the Hebron riots of 1929 it shows Arabs threatening to kill Jewish children, though ultimately leaving them unharmed, how much more objectionable must be the historical accounts and memoirs of that event (e.g., by Pierre van Paassen or the lone British policeman on the scene), replete with actual killings, including beheadings, severed sexual organs, and other inflammatory indelicacies? Why balk at literary texts that depict Arabs attacking with the cry of “Palestine—our land; the Jews—our dogs!” and allow Jewish children to read historical texts that depict Arabs attacking with the cry of—for this was what they really shouted—“Death to the Jews!”? Why protect children from literary stereotypes of Arabs as indifferent to Jewish suffering and then let fall into their hands the recent story in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman, telling of an Israeli taxi driver whose throat was slit in Gaza and who staggered for over a hundred yards past dozens of Arabs, but “none of the Arabs would get near him”?

The image of David Shipler fuming over evidence of Israeli “stereotypes” of violent Arabs calls to mind the reaction of Melbourne, the Prime Minister of England, after he had read a few chapters of Oliver Twist: “It is all among workhouses and pickpockets and coffinmakers. . . . I do not like those things; I wish to avoid them. I do not like them in reality and therefore do not like to see them represented.”

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I noted earlier that in order to fashion his artifice of balance and symmetry, Shipler abstracts Palestinian Arabs from the larger Arab world. This is objectionable, yet less productive of distortion than his removal of the Israeli Jews from their Jewish world and his assumption that they can be understood “essentially on their own terms, without much need for reference to the Jewish Diaspora from which many of them originated.” The rhetorical strategy of the book depends upon the skillful use of certain Jews, usually Israeli leftists, to condemn their countrymen and their country’s religious heritage in a manner so extreme that Shipler’s own criticisms appear moderate and restrained by comparison; or of Jews in whom, in Shipler’s colorful idiom, “a grinding guilt works at the bowels” so fiercely that they abase themselves before hostile Arabs in a manner so sycophantic that even Shipler is embarrassed by it.

There is Shimon Avidan, who, when he looks at the famous picture of Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto, sees Arab children. There is the journalist Benny Morris, who has made it his special object in life to prove that the Jews forcibly expelled Arabs from western Palestine in 1948. There is Rabbi David Hartman telling Shipler that in the Hebrew Bible “you don’t have welcoming of the stranger” and that Judaism “is fundamentally reactionary.” There is Elhanan Naeh, talmudic scholar of the Hebrew University, revealing to Shipler that the reason why Jews admire The Kuzari, by the 12th-century poet and philosopher Judah Halevi, is that “the best-known things in it are racist.” There is Aviezer Ravitsky of Hebrew University, arguing that Arabs who commit terrorism have more justification than Jews because they “might feel in real distress.” There are the Interns for Peace, who, on the evidence of this book, appear to spend most of their free time scorching the ears of journalists with accounts of Israeli “racism.” There is Mordechai Bar-On, Peace Now leader and Knesset member, who listens to an Arab woman declaring that there can never be peace with a nation like Israel, which wants only to dominate other nations and grab as much land as possible, and replies: “You are a very beautiful human being.” There are the several Israelis who try to persuade Shipler that he is wrong to “boil and rage” over the exploitation of the Holocaust by Palestinian Arabs presenting Ansar as Auschwitz, themselves as Jews, and Israelis as Nazis; for, they explain—and they are all prolific explainers—the use of this inversion (manufactured for Arab use, as surely as their weapons have been, by the USSR) is really “a search for a Palestinian history.” And Shipler, by no means immune to that form of liberal condescension which denies to Palestinian Arabs moral responsibility for their words and actions, is hardly unwilling to be persuaded.

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Surely, if Shipler had taken the trouble to view his Israeli subjects in relation to their Diaspora history instead of in isolation from it, he might have been less inclined to bow and nod in obeisance before every absurdity uttered to him by his guilt-ridden informants. He might, intelligent observer that he is, have recognized that a centuries-old tradition of Jews internalizing the hatreds and fantasies of anti-Semitic Gentiles and then projecting them onto other Jews did not simply cease when the Jews returned from Diaspora to Zion. Nicholas Donin and Johannes Pfefferkorn and Ludwig Börne and Karl Marx and Karl Kraus and Walter Lippmann and Bruno Kreisky, anxiety-ridden Jews eager to substantiate the most outlandish allegations brought against Jews by anti-Semites, have their continuators in Zion itself. Does Shipler suppose it a mere coincidence that ever since the UN passed its Zionism/Racism equation in 1975, many Israeli intellectuals have busied themselves in combing the land of Israel for instances of the racism of their less progressive, less Western, less enlightened fellow-citizens, and in proclaiming their discoveries to receptive ears?

At least one Israeli appears to have tried to suggest this to Shipler, but to no avail. The novelist David Shahar told him that Jews do all the PLO’s propaganda for it because the PLO people are not smart enough to do it for themselves. But Shipler took the remark as another example of Jewish racism. If he could have allowed himself to understand that his interlocutor’s irony was directed primarily against the Jews, not the Arabs, his Pecksniffian complacency might have been disturbed. But where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

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