Cinematic Gloss on History
Shalom Means Peace.
by Robert St. John.
Doubleday. 335 pp. $2.95.
Mr. St. John, a journalist who has written books about Yugoslavia, here covers a few months in the spring and summer of 1948 in Palestine, while warfare and truces alternated. Mr. St. John was very impressed with the new Jewish state and its people and institutions, and writes about them enthusiastically, thoughtlessly, and somewhat inaccurately, in the way most journalists visiting foreign parts generally do. The women are all beautiful and nurse unspeakable mysteries, the children are blond and curly-haired, the men brave and bronzed and impassive, the Mediterranean “inscrutable,” and so on: everything is in exasperatingly familiar categories, processed for “easy reading.” There is so much reconstructed dialogue and romanticization, that one is at a loss as to how far to trust Mr. St. John even when he acts as a political reporter and gives his first-hand versions (through dialogues with people involved) of the “Altalena” incident, the Haifa refinery massacre, the reopening of the Haifa refinery, and other important events which are still controversial. Presumably Mr. St. John takes less liberty with political fact than with people and human emotions, and so even though all he says about the latter is obviously cosmeticized, we might take the former at face value: but when he says that the young American captain of the “Altalena” had no idea, even after he was loading up with munitions, that he had enlisted in a “dissident” organization which had some differences with the Israeli government—what are we to believe? Where do we draw the line between the romanticized picture of an American political innocent and straight political reporting?
And then there are the simple inaccuracies: Abdullah was not “the most hated of the Arab leaders,” Jerusalem was not “less than 20 per cent Arab in normal times”; the Agudath Yisrael are described inaccurately as “religious mystics from Poland, Rumania, and Russia,” who are “pacifists by belief and nature”; the Habimah theater is described as Tel Aviv’s “great music hall,” and we are told that the Jewish “church” believes this or that.
The value of such a book is therefore questionable: those who know something will know enough to distrust—or at any rate be sceptical about—Mr. St. John’s reports of what they don’t know; those who know nothing will discover that in Palestine, as in Yugoslavia, women are beautiful, men brave, the Mediterranean (or Adriatic) is inscrutable, etc. The main point of Mr. St. John’s book, as of a good many books written by American foreign correspondents these days, seems to be to give a cinematic gloss to history.