Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.
Yet we hear the opposite refrain: when Israel earns the world’s opprobrium, Zionism gets a black mark as well. This is what jumped out right away at me from Ari Shavit’s much-discussed chapter on Lydda in his new and widely praised book.
There has been a fascinating debate taking place at Mosaic Magazine on the chapter. It began with Martin Kramer’s essay challenging Shavit’s selective interpretation of events in the famous 1948 battle, which Shavit used to accuse Israeli forces of committing a massacre. Efraim Karsh followed that with his take on Lydda and revisionism, and now Benny Morris has responded with a pox on both the houses of Shavit and Kramer who, he says, offer partial truths in the service of agenda-driven history.
But aside from the historical question of what exactly took place in Lydda in 1948, there is the classification by Shavit of Lydda as Zionism’s “black box.” Here is Shavit:
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. In retrospect it’s all too clear.
This idea of Lydda explaining Zionism–and remember, in Shavit’s telling this means exposing the vengeful violence at the center of it–helps the reader understand, if not approve of, Shavit’s statements about Zionism and Lydda throughout the chapter. With the battle looming, Shavit says that “as Zionism closes in on the valley of Lydda from the south, east, and north, it now prepares to conquer the city of Lydda itself.” Later: “By evening, Zionism has taken the city of Lydda.” And then: “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.”
It is this portrayal of Zionism that is so risible. The documented history of Lydda is murky, and though it’s clear Shavit cherry-picked his facts, his conclusion is not impossible. But he slanders Zionism by declaring it is, at its heart, inseparable from this violence.
Morris touches on this glancingly but effectively in his response piece. Morris leans toward Shavit’s opinion of what actually happened at Lydda, but he writes:
Lydda wasn’t, however, representative of Zionist behavior. Before 1948, the Zionist enterprise expanded by buying, not conquering, Arab land, and it was the Arabs who periodically massacred Jews—as, for example, in Hebron and Safed in 1929. In the 1948 war, the first major atrocity was committed by Arabs: the slaughter of 39 Jewish co-workers in the Haifa Oil Refinery on December 30, 1947.
That is a basic fact. In an earlier parenthetical pair of sentences, Morris offers his own “black box” of Zionism:
As an aside, I would suggest here a much more telling “black box” or key to understanding both Zionism and the conflict. It is Kibbutz Yad Mordekhai, where for four to five days in May 1948 a handful of Holocaust survivors held off the invading mass of the Egyptian army, giving the Haganah/IDF time to organize against the pan-Arab assault on the newborn state of Israel.
Shavit’s treatment of Zionism is one of inevitability: the agency of those involved is removed in favor of ideological predetermination. But it’s also, in a perverse way, a form of blame shifting. And if anti-Arab massacres are the inevitable result and defining characteristic of Zionism, then anti-Zionism would be the proper atonement. This is curious, because Shavit is most certainly not an anti-Zionist. Though he is a man of the left, he doesn’t throw his lot in with those who want to see Israel erased.
It’s cognitive dissonance, then, for Shavit. But not for those who will use his book and his declarations of Zionism’s “black box” to continue faulting the very movement for Jewish self-determination for everything that goes wrong in the Holy Land. And though Israel remains a force for good in the world, we won’t see a flurry of the reverse: declarations crediting Zionism for the fact that the world would be a darker place without it.