Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ari Shavit

The Problem With Anti-Bibi Derangement Syndrome

Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.

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Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.

The Tel Aviv rally seemed to reflect the worst excesses of Israeli politics, which can sometimes make even the bitterest U.S. battles seem like bean ball in comparison. The loudest voice being heard against Netanyahu these days is not so much the man who wishes to replace him as prime minister, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, as it is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Dagan has spent the past few years denouncing Netanyahu from every possible platform, calling him a danger to Israel for not making peace with the Palestinians and for taking too strong a stand against the Iranian nuclear threat.

Dagan’s security credentials give him the standing to speak in a way that either Israeli or American pundits don’t possess. But the over-the-top nature of his attacks—the Times of Israel noted that he was so overcome by his passion against his former boss that he was close to tears when speaking last night—makes it hard to take him too seriously. It’s not a secret that while there are real differences between the two men, his animus stems in part from the decision by Netanyahu and former defense minister Ehud Barak not to extend Dagan’s term in office. Moreover, the notion that it is somehow Netanyahu’s fault that the Palestinians have continued to refuse to make peace or that they engage in terrorist attacks on Israel makes his arguments seem less worthy of being taken too seriously. The same applies to his efforts to put the onus on Netanyahu for America’s decision to appease Iran rather than continue its isolation.

The same factor undermines the arguments of a more measured voice. Writing in Politico today is author and journalist Ari Shavit, a favorite of the American media after the publication of his misleading book My Promised Land that has been effectively debunked by Martin Kramer.

Unlike Dagan who speaks of Netanyahu as if he were the spawn of the devil, Shavit declares the prime minister to be “a serious statesman, with an extraordinary comprehension and uncanny foresight.” He even thinks he’s right about the danger from Iran and gives him credit for forcing the U.S. and its allies for undertaking the task of trying to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Without him, the sanctions and the negotiations might never have happened.

But Shavit faults Netanyahu for having a “Churchill complex.” That’s not because he’s wrong, as Dagan seems to imply at times, about Iran being an existential threat to Israel, but because he failed to do what Churchill accomplished: rally the U.S. to join a coalition to avert the danger. Instead of being the successful Churchill of the 1940s, Shavit says, he is merely the Churchill of the 1930s, the man in the wilderness playing the prophet of doom who will be vindicated by later events.

There is some truth to this. Netanyahu’s strong arguments and even more brilliant rhetoric have not been enough to rally the U.S. government to his side. Instead of joining the fight against Iran, President Obama seeks détente with the Islamist regime and appears willing to acquiesce not only to it becoming a threshold nuclear power but one that will be capable of building a weapon once the “sunset” clauses in the deal the Americans have offered kicks in. This is very bad news indeed and, according to Shavit, it is Netanyahu’s fault. If he’s right, then Netanyahu bears a heavy responsibility for what will follow.

But, like much of what Shavit has written about the Palestinians where he likewise acknowledges their unwillingness to make peace but still blames it all on Netanyahu, this analysis is out of focus.

While Netanyahu may be held partly responsible for his bad relationship with President Obama (as in all breakups, it takes two to tango), if Israel is isolated on Iran it is not due to the prime minister’s prickly personality or his supposed hard line on the Palestinians, as Shavit argues. As we now know, Netanyahu was as willing to make compromises to achieve peace as were his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who were turned down flat by the Palestinians three times. They gave a fourth no to Netanyahu during the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry.

But nothing Netanyahu did or didn’t do influenced President Obama’s zeal for a deal with Iran. U.S. policy toward Iran during the past six years has been entirely the brainchild of the president, who is obsessed with the notion of engagement and his delusions about Iran “getting right with the world” rather than its pursuit of its nuclear dreams and regional hegemony. To deny Obama credit for this betrayal of his campaign promises and the security of American allies is to inflate Netanyahu’s importance in a way reminiscent of anti-Israel conspiracy theorists.

Shavit believes Netanyahu is right about Iran but wrong because he couldn’t persuade a president that never had any interest in anything but appeasement of the Islamist regime. That sort of analysis is rooted in a form of the same Netanyahu derangement syndrome that sends Dagan and other Israeli critics of the current government over the chasm into pointless invective.

Netanyahu has made his share of blunders and is no more infallible than his role model Churchill was. He may not be another Churchill despite the desire of both his fans and his foes to judge him solely by the standards set by that truly great man. Yet his problem here is not an inability to work Churchill’s magic but, as the great Ruth Wisse pointed out in the Weekly Standard, the fact that his U.S. partner was no Franklin Roosevelt. It is that factor that has created the current situation where Netanyahu’s warnings are more a matter of setting the record straight for history rather than an effective way to influence his American ally. That’s why history will be kinder to Netanyahu than his contemporary critics and very harsh indeed to the man who couldn’t play FDR to the Israeli’s Churchill.

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Netanyahu and Churchill: Analogy and Error

The Churchill analogies flew fast and furious around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. The prompt: until this week, only Winston Churchill had addressed a joint session three times. (Netanyahu’s tying of this record moved House Speaker John Boehner to present him with a bust of Churchill.)

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The Churchill analogies flew fast and furious around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. The prompt: until this week, only Winston Churchill had addressed a joint session three times. (Netanyahu’s tying of this record moved House Speaker John Boehner to present him with a bust of Churchill.)

The subject of the speech also lent itself to comparisons. “There is a reason that the adjective most often applied to Prime Minister Netanyahu with respect to Iran is Churchillian,” said Senator Ted Cruz the day before the speech, comparing an Iran deal to Munich and “peace for our time.” “In a way,” said columnist Charles Krauthammer in a post-speech assessment, “it was Churchillian—not in delivery; it was not up to Bibi’s norm—but in the sonorousness and the seriousness of what he said. And it was not Churchill of the ’40s. This was the desperate Churchill of the ’30s. This was a speech of, I think, extraordinary power but great desperation.”

This was followed by the inevitable “he’s-no-Churchill” rebuttals, the most noteworthy by former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Netanyahu, he opined, “is the absolute antithesis of Churchill; whereas Churchill projected power, confidence, strategy and absolute belief in Britain’s ultimate victory, Netanyahu repeatedly mentions the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, terror, anti-Semitism, isolation and despair.” Most of the other criticisms emphasized that Churchill worked with, not against, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For this reason, wrote Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to speak didn’t pass “the Churchill test.”

All’s fair in love, war, and analogies, and self-serving or rival-deprecating historical analogies are part and parcel of politics. But it irks me when analogies are constructed on error. I’m not talking about spin; I’m talking about grievous error. My topic here is a particularly egregious example, from a journalist interviewing a journalist: NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewing Israeli celebrity journalist and best-selling author Ari Shavit (now an anti-Netanyahu partisan).

Shavit: Let’s go with Netanyahu’s own Churchillian logic. Winston Churchill—the great thing Winston Churchill did was not to give great speeches—although he was a great speaker—but he understood that to stop Nazi Germany he needs American support. He came in the middle of the war to this town, to Washington, and he worked with President Roosevelt, really seducing him, courting him, doing everything possible to have him on his side, and in the process guaranteeing the dismantling of the British Empire, something that was very difficult to Winston Churchill. Netanyahu, who saw the threat—the Iranian threat—in an accurate way in my mind, never did that. He didn’t go the extra mile to reach out, whether to President Obama and to other liberal leaders around the world—in Europe. He never did what he had to do, which is to stop settlement activities so the Palestinian issue will not produce bad blood. And so people will really be able to listen to his accurate arguments regarding Iran. Israel…

Siegel: This would be his equivalent of Churchill saying India will be independent and Africa will be free after the war.

Shavit: It’s—Churchill had that. And Netanyahu, who wants to be Churchill, never had the greatness and the generosity and the flexibility to pay.

What’s the problem here? I’ll leave aside the implied (and absurd) comparison between the Jewish presence from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and British imperial rule from Suez to Singapore. There’s a larger problem obvious to anyone who knows the history: contra Shavit, Churchill didn’t guarantee to Roosevelt that the British Empire would be dismantled, and pace Siegel, he never said that India would be granted independence after the war. In fact, Churchill fought tooth and nail to assure that the Empire would emerge intact from the war, and that India, in particular, would remain the heart of it. He showed no trace of either generosity or flexibility.

It’s true that the Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt and Churchill signed in Newfoundland in August 1941, promised (clause three) “to respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcefully deprived of them.” The Americans thought this should apply to the subject peoples of the British Empire. But Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on his return home, insisted the clause only applied to “the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke.”

To mollify Roosevelt (and the Labour party at home), Churchill did dispatch a (Labourite) negotiator in the spring of 1942 to present an “offer” to Indian nationalists (the Cripps Mission). He also did everything to assure that the take-it-or-leave-it “offer” would be unacceptable to them. When the mission failed, Britain’s Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office launched a well-orchestrated propaganda effort in the United States, to persuade American opinion that the Indian Congress Party couldn’t be relied upon to negotiate in good faith. They worked to portray Gandhi and Congress, which had declared their wartime neutrality, as potential fifth columnists for Japan and intransigents incapable of reaching any workable agreement.

As the war continued, Churchill never flagged. “Let me make this clear, in case there should be any mistake about it in any quarter,” he told told an audience in November 1942 (the “End of the Beginning” speech after El Alamein). “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found, and under a democracy I suppose the nation would have to be consulted.”

Roosevelt and his advisers understood that mention of India, in particular, could bring forth Churchill’s wrath. Robert Sherwood, a wartime speechwriter for Roosevelt, described India as

one subject on which the normally broad-minded, good-humored, give-and-take attitude which prevailed between the two statesmen was stopped cold. It may be said that Churchill would see the Empire in ruins and himself buried under them before he would concede the right of any American, however great and illustrious a friend, to make any suggestion as to what he should do about India.

In the interest of amity, the President sometimes tried to raise the matter indirectly, with predictable results. In 1943, Roosevelt gave a lunch for Churchill at the White House, and invited the publisher Helen Reid, an outspoken opponent of British rule in India. As the host expected, she turned on Churchill to ask what would become of “those wretched Indians.” Churchill’s reply (according to an aide): “Before we proceed any further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians of India, who have multiplied alarmingly under benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America, who, I understand, are almost extinct?” Mrs. Reid shrank, Roosevelt laughed heartily, and yet another witty barb entered the Churchill corpus.

Churchill remained unyielding right through the war’s end. In December 1944, when the State Department tried to revive the idea of international trusteeship as an alternative to British imperial rule, Churchill shot off this missive to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “There must be no question of our being hustled or seduced into declarations affecting British sovereignty in any of the Dominions or Colonies. Pray remember my declaration against liquidating the British Empire… ‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.”

Eden told Churchill he had no cause to worry. Perhaps that’s because Roosevelt, taking the larger view of the war, had given up, leaving the question of India and the British Empire for post-war resolution. Had Churchill had his way, the Empire would have lasted indefinitely, according to Lawrence James (author of the recent Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist): “Restoring the authority of the Raj was essential to the Churchillian vision of the post-war global order in which the Empire would remain intact and, as ever, substantiate Britain’s claim to global power.” It took Churchill’s fall from power and a Labour government to extricate Britain from both India and the Empire.

In sum, the notion that Churchill showed Roosevelt “generosity” and “flexibility” regarding British sway over the Empire, “guaranteeing the dismantling” of it, is utterly without foundation. In the end, it was Roosevelt who showed flexibility, in the interest of the alliance. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for President Obama. But then, he’s no Roosevelt, is he?

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Génocidaires of the Palmah

Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, continues to fuel the claim that Israeli forces committed horrific war crimes when they conquered the city in July 1948. As I have shown in much detail, it’s only possible to reach this conclusion by excluding most of the evidence and making up the rest.

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Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, continues to fuel the claim that Israeli forces committed horrific war crimes when they conquered the city in July 1948. As I have shown in much detail, it’s only possible to reach this conclusion by excluding most of the evidence and making up the rest.

The latest case in point is an article by Michael Kinsley at Slate (of which he is the founding editor). It’s entitled “Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” Those “victims” are the Jews, and his basic claim is that Israel long deceived the world (including little Mike Kinsley in his Detroit Jewish school in the 1960s), by peddling the storyline that the Arab refugees fled of their own accord in 1948. Israelis do acknowledge one “dreadful massacre,” at Deir Yassin, but “under the dubious logic of the exception that proves the rule, Deir Yassin has become in a way evidence of Israeli good behavior.” “Trouble is,” announces Kinsley,

all this is not even close to being true. Terror and the decisions by Arab families to flee were not regrettable side effects of the war, but the result of purposeful strategy by the Israelis. This strategy and its execution were endorsed by the Israeli leadership and not just rogue behavior by more ruthless Jewish militias (another common excuse).

And what is his prime example? Why, the “village” of Lydda of course, and the alleged “slaughter” carried out by the Palmah. And what is Kinsley’s source? Why, Ari Shavit of course. “Call me naive,” Kinsley writes, but he “was shocked to read” Shavit’s account of what happened there:

As Shavit describes it, with a lot of new research, the attack on Lydda was part of a purposeful strategy of Arab removal, approved at the highest levels. It had everything we have come to associate with a human rights atrocity: people who had been neighbors for generations turning on and slaughtering one another, Rwanda-style. Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire. Torturing people, allegedly to extract information, and then killing them when they’ve been squeezed dry. Going house to house and killing everyone discovered inside. And so on.

To read this, you would think that the Yiftah Brigade of the Palmah conducted itself like a gang of roving génocidaires.

Trouble is, to borrow Kinsley’s phrase, “all this is not even close to being true.” Kinsley, far from showing himself a careful sifter of history, clearly has been seduced by Shavit’s dramatic opera, mistaking it for history. And Kinsley then amplfies Shavit’s biases still further, for reasons known only to him, producing a grotesque defamation of Israel that goes even beyond Shavit’s account.

For example, take this point of supposed similarity between Lydda and Rwanda: “Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire.” This originates in Shavit’s claim that Israeli troops detained Palestinian Arabs in a small mosque, and then fired an anti-armor rocket into it as an act of revenge, killing seventy persons.

But as I’ve shown, Israeli troops didn’t crowd anyone into that mosque. Civilians (probably including fighters) took refuge there, but the Israeli soldiers didn’t know that. From that mosque, those soldiers came under grenade attack, and they returned fire on what they believed to be the source of the attack. When they stormed the mosque and saw the carnage their fire had inflicted, it shocked them. This battle scenario bears no resemblance whatsoever to the deliberate herding of civilians into a church (or synagogue), and setting it ablaze or blowing it up. To insinuate a parallel between the battle in Lydda and the most heinous crimes against humanity, committed as part of a genocide, is simply obscene.

And it suggests that Kinsley didn’t even read Shavit carefully, for Shavit concludes his account with this admission: “The small-mosque massacre could have been a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events.” But for Kinsley, there are no accidents. He attributes a murderous intent to Israeli troops not because he can be sure of it, but because it suits his forced narrative of Israeli sin.

The notion that what happened in Lydda in July 1948 was a “human rights atrocity,” “Rwanda-style,” is preposterous. Just as absurd is Kinsley’s claim that Israel’s leaders had a “purposeful strategy” to engender Arab flight through “terror,” of which Lydda was an exemplar. Not even Benny Morris, cited by Kinsley as an authority, makes that claim. “There was no Zionist ‘plan’ or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population,” Morris has written. He has discovered no “policy or master-plan of expulsion; the Yishuv and its military forces did not enter the 1948 War, which was initiated by the Arab side, with a policy or plan for expulsion,” nor did they develop such a plan during the war. In his exchange with me, Morris took the view that the forced expulsion from Lydda wasn’t typical: “In most places in 1948, Arabs simply fled in the face of actual or approaching hostilities.” Kinsley’s “purposeful strategy” is the thesis of Israel-hater Ilan Pappé, whose credibility has been shredded by—yes, Benny Morris.

“Victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” If you’ve gleaned your own knowledge of 1948 from a Detroit Hebrew school curriculum circa 1960 and a (cursory) reading of Shavit’s My Promised Land, you don’t have the right to rewrite the past either. The latter source poses almost as many problems as the former. In Shavit’s role as Israel’s Pied Piper on campuses and in synagogues, he may be doing some good. But the Lydda chapter is doing damage, and keeps popping up as the authoritative word on Israel’s original sin. This, even though Morris and Efraim Karsh have savaged his Lydda premises, and I have punched holes in his Lydda claims, many of which also failed to get past the fact checkers at the New Yorker (on which, see my critique).

When Shavit is asked about the criticism of his Lydda chapter on one of his innumerable whistle stops, he either dodges the question or dismisses discussion of it as a waste of his valuable time. Actually, that’s fine with me. All he needs to do is deposit the tapes of his witnesses in a public archive, and give Israeli readers his final version of the Lydda chapter in Hebrew. The critics will take over from there.

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Lydda 1948: The Dog That Didn’t Bark

In his July 2014 Mosaic essay, Martin Kramer dismantled Ari Shavit’s assertion that “Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre” at Lydda in 1948 – a claim Shavit has spread not only in his book, My Promised Land, but in his New Yorker article, “Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today.” Kramer recently presented his findings to an Israeli audience that included Lydda veterans and others intimately familiar with the 1948 war – who expressed surprise and anger at Shavit’s allegation. This post provides still another reason to doubt Shavit’s claim: in 1948, The New York Times covered the April “massacre” at Deir Yassin and the later operation at Lydda – but reported no “massacre” at Lydda. And for the reasons set forth below, it is virtually certain that the Times would have reported it if it had occurred at Lydda.

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In his July 2014 Mosaic essay, Martin Kramer dismantled Ari Shavit’s assertion that “Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre” at Lydda in 1948 – a claim Shavit has spread not only in his book, My Promised Land, but in his New Yorker article, “Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today.” Kramer recently presented his findings to an Israeli audience that included Lydda veterans and others intimately familiar with the 1948 war – who expressed surprise and anger at Shavit’s allegation. This post provides still another reason to doubt Shavit’s claim: in 1948, The New York Times covered the April “massacre” at Deir Yassin and the later operation at Lydda – but reported no “massacre” at Lydda. And for the reasons set forth below, it is virtually certain that the Times would have reported it if it had occurred at Lydda.

On July 12, 1948 – the day on which Shavit claims “Zionism” conducted a midday “massacre” of more than 200 civilians in Lydda (about twice the deaths at Deir Yassin) – the Times carried an extensive report about the Lydda operation. The news article was datelined the day before, and was written by one of the Times’ most distinguished foreign correspondents, Gene Currivan, who covered World War II before he covered the founding of Israel in 1948. Currivan reported that:

The strategically situated towns of Ramleh and Lydda, which were constant threats to the Tel Aviv area and control the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, were surrounded tonight by Israeli forces. They were encircled after the last remaining Arab strongholds on the periphery of the Ramleh-Lydda area had been captured this morning. …

Mopping up operations were still going on tonight, with armored cars of both sides darting back and forth and mortar fire crashing about. However, because of the seeming hopeless position of the Arabs, there appeared to be little hope of anything better for them than a disorderly retreat.” [Emphasis added].

Currivan and his editors would have considered a Lydda “massacre” the following day “news fit to print” – to put it mildly. But Currivan’s next report on Lydda, datelined July 12 (published on July 13) reported the capture of Lydda and Ramleh “on this all-important front” and noted that Lydda “had offered considerable resistance at first and suffered heavy casualties as a result.” Currivan’s succeeding report, datelined July 13 (published July 14) reported “the complete capture of Lydda,” with the exception of a holdout of Arab fighters at the police station, and noted that Arab civilians had suddenly departed Lydda after its capture. In none of his reports did Currivan report anything remotely approaching a “massacre.”

This is the journalistic equivalent of the non-barking dog: (1) the Lydda operation occurred three months after Deir Yassin, which the Times had covered; (2) Lydda was a significant strategic site; (3) the Times had an experienced war correspondent covering the Lydda operation; and yet (4) the Times reported no “massacre” there. A massacre at Lydda would have been a major development and important news. But there was no bark from the Times.

Kramer’s Mosaic article drew a favorable response from Efraim Karsh, who also challenged a related Shavit claim: that “Zionism” was responsible for the expulsion of Arab civilians from Lydda – an “inevitable phase,” in Shavit’s words, “of the Zionist revolution.” Contrary to Shavit’s contention, more evidence comes from the Times archives: on November 2, 1979, the newspaper published a letter from Ephraim Lotan, a staff officer under General Yigal Allon (who directed the Lydda operation). Lotan wrote that he had “talked to quite a few of [the Arabs] while they were walking along the road” toward Latrun (the remaining Arab Legion stronghold in the area) after the Lydda operation:

As officer in charge of an engineering unit which was clearing the mines ahead of the motorized unit and the regular army unit moving toward Latrun, I was one of the first to see the masses of Arabs walking toward Latrun, most of them on foot, some on horses and donkeys, some on bicycles. They were taking with them their most important belongings – the women carrying their possessions on their heads, the men with packs on their backs. Every mile or so they left parts of their burdens on the side of the road; the packs were just too heavy. Now, 31 years later, the picture is as vivid as it was in 1948.

I stopped quite a few times to talk to the men to find out what happened and why they were leaving their houses and property. The answers were different, but no one said that he was forced out of his house. … I am certain that no order was given to any Israeli army unit (Palmach or other) to evacuate the Arabs. In the position I had at the time I would have known about such an order.

Needless to say, not one of us objected to the Arabs’ departure, but my only explanation for the exodus is that they were panic-stricken. [Emphasis added].

Was there a “massacre” at Lydda? Did “Zionism” order the expulsion of the Arabs there? Ari Shavit owes readers a response to the contrary evidence presented by Kramer and Karsh, as well as to the devastating critique by Harvard professor Ruth Wisse (who wrote that the commitment to truth is a “further casualty of this book”), to that of Alex Safian at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) (who provides even more facts that Shavit either ignored or misstated), and to other stinging critiques.

Mosaic offered Shavit the opportunity to respond six months ago, but he declined it. He has also failed to respond in any other venue. If his refusal to confront contrary evidence persists, and he continues to ignore the published critiques of highly respected scholars and researchers, there will be a conclusion that can be drawn from that silence as well.

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Lydda, 1948: They Were There

Most Israelis know nothing about Ari Shavit’s bestselling book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Readers of Ha’aretz, where he’s a columnist, may have seen it mentioned in short articles celebrating Shavit’s stateside success. But few Israelis have heard of the book, and I’m guessing that only a handful have actually read it. That’s because there is no Hebrew edition.
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Most Israelis know nothing about Ari Shavit’s bestselling book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Readers of Ha’aretz, where he’s a columnist, may have seen it mentioned in short articles celebrating Shavit’s stateside success. But few Israelis have heard of the book, and I’m guessing that only a handful have actually read it. That’s because there is no Hebrew edition.

Shavit wrote it in English for an American Jewish audience, upon the suggestion of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. Ha’aretz at first reported that a Hebrew version would appear at the end of 2013, and later that it would be published in the spring of 2014 (by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir). But while the book has also appeared in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, and Polish, there’s no sign of a Hebrew edition.

So Israelis have no clue that Shavit has added a massacre in the city of Lydda to the litany of Israel’s alleged crimes in 1948. That’s why I felt privileged to take part in a December 4 panel on the conquests of Lydda and Ramleh in 1948, sponsored by the Galili Center for Defense Studies. The chairman of the center, Uzi Arad, suggested that I explain and analyze the claims made by Shavit in his book, which I’d already done in English for the web magazine Mosaic. (The organizers also invited Shavit, but he was off collecting accolades in south Florida.)

I was the youngest participant on the panel, and nearly the youngest person in the lecture hall, which was full of veterans of Lydda and many other battles of 1948. These people aren’t historians, and they don’t necessarily know the big picture of how politics and military operations interacted. They weren’t commanders (the officers are all gone); they were young soldiers in 1948, at the bottom of the chain of command. They’ve also read a lot and shared recollections over the past sixty-plus years, so you can’t always tell whether what they say about some episode is first-hand or derives from something they read or heard. Finally, time erodes memory, as some are quite prepared to admit.

Still, there were some very sharp minds in the audience—people who know more about the history of the 1948 war than anyone but a handful of expert historians. They know the commanders, the military units, the weaponry, the battles, the geography, the chronology—and woe unto you if you make a mistake. They won’t wait for the Q&A to correct you. The war to establish the State of Israel was the great adventure of their youth, and they wear it as badge of honor.

I was the only one of the four panelists who dealt directly with Shavit’s Lydda chapter. I was preceded by two well-regarded military historians, who described the campaign from an operational vantage point, and one veteran of the conquest, Yeshayahu (Shaike) Gavish. Now 89 years old and still vital, he’s most famous to Israelis as the general who led the Southern Command in the Six-Day War, when Israeli forces overwhelmed the Egyptians and seized the Sinai. In Lydda in 1948, he was a lowly operations officer, and a wounded one at that, so he had a fairly limited view of the theater, confined as he was to a jeep.

His most interesting comments concerned the flight of Lydda’s inhabitants, whose mass departure made a deep impression on him (as it did on many other Israelis). While there’s no doubt that an expulsion order was issued (on whose authority is debated), Gavish echoed many other witnesses who’ve said that Lydda’s inhabitants were eager to get out, begged to leave, and packed up as soon as the roads to the east opened. He did say that in his opinion, the events in the Dahmash mosque (the “small mosque”) which Shavit insists on calling a “massacre” had a strong effect on the populace, reinforcing their desire to flee. But on the question of just what happened at the small mosque, he had nothing to say, as he wasn’t there.

In my presentation, I explained just how large an impact Shavit’s book has had on American Jewry, and the crucial role played by the New Yorker in running the Lydda chapter as a provocative teaser. I then reviewed the “massacre” narrative sentence by sentence, just as I had done in my initial article for Mosaic. I figured that a mostly elderly crowd of Hebrew-speakers would need the crutch of a visible text, so I projected the relevant passages from the Lydda chapter up on the screen and read them slowly and deliberately. Then I explained why I thought Shavit’s conclusions were implausible.

I could have dispensed with my own analysis. The reactions tumbled forth in immediate response to Shavit’s text. I heard gasps of disbelief and angry asides. I didn’t ask for a show of hands as to how many thought Shavit’s account had any credibility, and in retrospect I wish I had. But to judge from the audible responses, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this audience was surprised and offended.

Two passages produced especially strong reactions. Shavit made this claim about the conduct of Palmach soldiers after the counter-attack on the small mosque: in their “desire for revenge,” “because of the rage they felt,” they entered the mosque and “sprayed the surviving wounded with automatic fire.” Shavit also charged that soldiers who were ordered to bury the Arabs killed in the mosque “took eight other Arabs to do the digging of the burial site and afterward shot them, too, and buried the eight” with the rest. Simply projecting these passages on the screen provoked a few salty comments I won’t repeat.

That said, nothing I heard, either in the lecture hall or outside of it, added to the store of testimony about the “massacre” component of Shavit’s Lydda tale. The conquest of Lydda had many moving parts, and most of the veterans I met served the 89th Battalion under Moshe Dayan. That meant that they weren’t in the city when the “massacre” supposedly took place, but fought the day before, mostly on the road between Lydda and Ramleh. But I wasn’t looking for new testimony, because there are plenty of recorded recollections from people who witnessed the events, including the scene in and around the small mosque. I did want these veterans to know what much of the world (Israel excepted) has been reading about their battle for over a year now. And I wanted them to start to talk about it among themselves and with others.

I probably achieved that goal, but I’ve since wondered whether I should have left these people in peace, safe in their ignorance of Shavit’s accusation that Lydda is Israel’s “black box.” At this point, none of them is up to challenging a well-connected media celebrity of Shavit’s caliber, and the persons specifically accused by him are gone. An elderly gentleman came up after my presentation and asked if I intended to publish my article in Hebrew. We ourselves can’t set the record straight anymore, he pleaded. That’s a huge difference from fifteen years ago, when veterans (of the Alexandroni Brigade) sued a graduate student (Teddy Katz) for claiming, in his thesis, that they’d committed a massacre (at Tantura). I told him to wait patiently: if Shavit’s book ever appears in Hebrew, he might roll back some of his claims, just as the New Yorker did when it ran the Lydda chapter as a stand-alone.

During the proceedings, a camera crew bustled about, filming presentations and interviewing some of the veterans. The man running the crew was Dan Setton, an Emmy-winning Israeli documentary filmmaker who told people he’s preparing a film “inspired by [Shavit’s] book.” He says it’s a co-production of HBO and Israel’s Channel Two. I’ve no idea where Setton will go with this project, but getting it right must begin with a dissection of the chapter that made My Promised Land famous.

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From Lydda to Gaza

“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.'” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

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“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.'” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

I won’t keep you in suspense. It was Israeli historian Benny Morris, replying to my critique (at Mosaic Magazine) of Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” of July 12, 1948, in Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Shavit declined to respond to me, but Morris took up the gauntlet last week. He wishes a pox on Shavit’s house and mine, for different reasons. He accuses Shavit of turning Lydda into more than it was, and he accuses me of “effectively denying” that there was “a massacre, albeit a provoked one.” Perhaps I do, although (unlike Shavit and Morris) I don’t claim to know exactly what happened.

I hadn’t set out to contest both Shavit and Morris, but since Shavit relies on Morris, their narratives are intertwined, and it’s just as well. Mosaic Magazine today runs my reply to Morris’s response. Not only do I question the credibility of his historical account, I also make this more general observation:

On Morris’s principle, every occasion on which Israel exacts a numerically “disproportionate” cost in the lives of others—as it often must do, if it is to deter and defeat its enemies—constitutes evidence of massacre; to sustain its very existence, Israel must massacre again and again, decade after decade…. Israel thus can never be legitimate; it is a perpetual war crime, on an ever-larger scale. So saith the “disproportion.”

Unfortunately, it’s a question that’s timely, on the morrow of a day when Israel lost thirteen soldiers in battle, and Palestinians are again claiming that Israel has committed a “massacre.” Read my response to Morris here.

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Blaming Zionism: The Lydda Misdirection

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.

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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.

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Nakba Day and Plausible Peace Plans

The market for new Middle East peace plans is pretty much like that available for diets. Just as there will never be a shortage of schemes offering you a way to lose weight by various means, the supply of “new” solutions to the conflict in the Middle East is a well that never runs dry. The latest entry to what is a growing genre comes from Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit, whose book—My Promised Land—on the conflict got generally favorable reviews in the United States. Writing in the New Republic, Shavit offers what he claims is not only a new approach but a “plausible” one that seeks to learn from the mistakes made by the peace processors in the more than 20 years since the Oslo Accords.

Like that book (which was subjected to a thorough and withering takedown by the irreplaceable Ruth Wisse), whose superficial evenhandedness endeared it to both liberal Jewish friends of Israel and many who are not its friends, Shavit’s plan sounds smart and also avoids the clichés about Israelis needing to search their souls or having to be saved from themselves by wise foreigners. Indeed, there is much to recommend it. Shavit counsels that we should forget about what he calls “Old Peace” with its obsession with crafting grand agreements and promoting White House ceremonies and instead concentrate on “New Peace”—an idea that will focus on Palestinian economic development and reform as a way to transition them and their Israeli neighbors to accepting a two state solution that will be based on ending the conflict rather than merely pausing it. But the idea isn’t new. Though he gives the back of his hand to Israel’s current government as being part of the problem rather than the solution, this concept of fostering change on the ground as the foundation for genuine reconciliation is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been advocating for years even as he has accepted a two-state solution as the basis for agreements.

But as smart as this may be, the problem with Shavit’s “New Peace” is pretty much the same as the shortcomings with the old variety. And the evidence of the impractical nature of his plan is very much on display today as the Palestinians and their cheerleaders around the world celebrate “Nakba Day.” May 15 is the anniversary of Israel’s Independence in 1948, an event that Palestinians refer to as the “disaster” or nakba. The parades, speeches, and vows of eliminating the Jewish state that are echoing throughout the political culture of the Palestinians today are proof that, at least for the foreseeable future, such practical plans as that of Shavit, which require them to put aside their historic grudges and focus on building a productive future, haven’t got a chance.

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The market for new Middle East peace plans is pretty much like that available for diets. Just as there will never be a shortage of schemes offering you a way to lose weight by various means, the supply of “new” solutions to the conflict in the Middle East is a well that never runs dry. The latest entry to what is a growing genre comes from Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit, whose book—My Promised Land—on the conflict got generally favorable reviews in the United States. Writing in the New Republic, Shavit offers what he claims is not only a new approach but a “plausible” one that seeks to learn from the mistakes made by the peace processors in the more than 20 years since the Oslo Accords.

Like that book (which was subjected to a thorough and withering takedown by the irreplaceable Ruth Wisse), whose superficial evenhandedness endeared it to both liberal Jewish friends of Israel and many who are not its friends, Shavit’s plan sounds smart and also avoids the clichés about Israelis needing to search their souls or having to be saved from themselves by wise foreigners. Indeed, there is much to recommend it. Shavit counsels that we should forget about what he calls “Old Peace” with its obsession with crafting grand agreements and promoting White House ceremonies and instead concentrate on “New Peace”—an idea that will focus on Palestinian economic development and reform as a way to transition them and their Israeli neighbors to accepting a two state solution that will be based on ending the conflict rather than merely pausing it. But the idea isn’t new. Though he gives the back of his hand to Israel’s current government as being part of the problem rather than the solution, this concept of fostering change on the ground as the foundation for genuine reconciliation is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been advocating for years even as he has accepted a two-state solution as the basis for agreements.

But as smart as this may be, the problem with Shavit’s “New Peace” is pretty much the same as the shortcomings with the old variety. And the evidence of the impractical nature of his plan is very much on display today as the Palestinians and their cheerleaders around the world celebrate “Nakba Day.” May 15 is the anniversary of Israel’s Independence in 1948, an event that Palestinians refer to as the “disaster” or nakba. The parades, speeches, and vows of eliminating the Jewish state that are echoing throughout the political culture of the Palestinians today are proof that, at least for the foreseeable future, such practical plans as that of Shavit, which require them to put aside their historic grudges and focus on building a productive future, haven’t got a chance.

Shavit’s plan requires Israel to enact a total freeze on building in those Jewish settlements in the West Bank that are beyond the security fence. That’s a measure that wouldn’t inconvenience Israel all that much since almost all of the new housing beyond the 1967 lines is in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs that are inside the fence and would be kept by Israel in any peace agreement. But Shavit also says that Israel should withdraw completely from large swaths of the West Bank and that each such area would become an economic opportunity zone for Palestinian entrepreneurs where a free-market economy would grow without the debilitating corruption of the current Palestinian Authority.

The zones would be aided by the Arab states and the European Union and overseen by the United States. This new spirit of growth would foster a different civil political culture that would replace the old Palestinian one in which national identity is inextricably tied to war to the death against Zionism. Only by recreating themselves in this manner will Palestinians ever be willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. As Shavit writes:

The new Palestinian moderates can grow and prosper within the protective greenhouse of a New Peace structure that will expand the Palestinian geographic, political, and economic space—year by year, quarter by quarter. If at any given point in time the Palestinians are better off than in the previous point in time, there is hope. A new generation of modernized and globalized West Bankers may find reconciliation with their Israeli neighbors essential—and feasible. Over time, a benign Palestine may be established and a two-state steady-state may come to be.

Anyone who cares about Israel or the Palestinians should hope it someday becomes a reality. But the problem with what Shavit calls “Fayyadism”—named for the reform-minded former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—was amply illustrated by his failure. Despite the praise showered on him by Americans, Europeans, and Israelis and the aid they sought to give him, Fayyad and other like-minded Palestinians have no discernible constituency among their own people. The corrupt kleptocrats of Fatah and the terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad may have nothing to offer Palestinians but more of the same blood, privation, and failure they’ve been giving them throughout the century-old conflict over the land with the Jews, but they remain the only viable factions.

Shavit’s reference to his opportunity zones as a “greenhouse” is telling. It should be remembered that when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, wealthy American Jews bought the greenhouses built by Jewish settlers in order to give them to local Arabs who could then build their economy. But the greenhouses were destroyed in a paroxysm of Palestinian rage against anything connected to the Jews hours after the Israelis left. Much as Shavit might hope that Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank will produce a different result, there is no reason to think that any land abandoned to the Palestinians will not be converted to terrorist hotbeds, much as the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza soon became.

Unlike most foreign critics of Israel, Shavit understands that Israelis have become disillusioned with the peace process not because they want to rule over the Palestinians but because every previous peace deal has resulted in a trade of land for terror, not peace. He’d like the next time to be different, but offers no safeguards for that other than vague talk about American supervision. But does he really think Americans wish to take up the job of counter-terrorism in the West Bank currently done by Israelis just when they’ve tired of fighting counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Shavit knows that Palestinians must change if they are ever to have peace or sovereignty. But the idea that this change can be imposed upon them from the outside or be the result of foreign investment projects is to engage in the same kind of magical thinking that has sunk every “Old Peace” venture in the last generation. The sea change in Palestinian political culture that will finally give up the fight to reverse the verdict of the Nakba must come from within. Until it does, Shavit’s peace plan, like every other one proposed by Americans or Israelis from the left, right, and center, is a waste of time.

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Understanding Two Views of Modern Israel

This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

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This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

Wisse, a frequent and esteemed contributor to COMMENTARY, is one of the most astute writers about Jewish life. Her takedown of Shavit’s guilt- and fear-ridden approach to the triumph of Zionism, and in particular, her answer to his focus on the story of what happened in Lydda in 1948, is particularly valuable. She writes:

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

While acknowledging that Shavit deserves credit for recognizing before many of his fellow left-wingers at Haaretz that the Oslo peace process was a disaster, she rightly notes his inability to grasp the positive Jewish vision at the heart of the Zionist project or his lack of faith in the ability of his compatriots to resist the never-ceasing efforts of their foes to destroy their state. As she states:

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves. 

Wisse is more charitable to Halevi and it’s easy to understand why. Few books have offered more insight into what has happened in Israeli society since 1967. By telling the story of the lives of several of the paratroopers who ended the division of Jerusalem in 1967, he found the perfect vehicle for explaining both the Peace Now movement on the left as well as the settlement movement on the right. Their stories are remarkable and even readers who consider themselves well-versed in the history of modern Israel will find plenty here that is both fresh and full of insight about familiar topics as well as those that are less well known. It is nothing less than one of the best and most important books about Israel I’ve ever read.

Wisse notes one of its failings when she mentions that some readers are bound to find the large cast of characters confusing at times as well as the way the author bounces from one of their stories to the next and then back again. Like some classic Russian novels, this is a book that is best read with the page at the front of the volume with the “Who’s Who” permanently bookmarked. However, Wisse has a further criticism:

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

In reading Halevi’s book, I share some of her frustration on this point. But any dissatisfaction on this point needs to be balanced by a recognition that what Halevi is doing in Like Dreamers is not so much a defense of Israel or a rationalization of its dilemma (as Shavit’s unsatisfactory book might well be described) as an attempt to explain the Jews to each other. Like the paratroopers who were divided along cultural and religious lines between the majority of kibbutzniks and the minority of modern Orthodox soldiers in the renowned 55th Brigade, both Israelis and American Jews alike need to transcend our differences. If Halevi chooses not to take sides in the arguments between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, it is because he, like some of his wiser subjects, has come to the conclusion that the left-right divide that has largely characterized Jewish and Israeli politics for the last generation has come to a dead end.

The events of the 20 years since Oslo have shown that the left was dead wrong about the Palestinians being willing to make peace and the right was mistaken to think that Israel could absorb the West Bank—Judea and Samaria, which form the heart of the Jewish homeland—without cost or with impunity. The battle facing both Israelis and their friends is not about where Israel’s borders should be or whether the settlements are good or bad, but whether the Jewish state should continue to exist. Like Dreamers calls upon us not to take sides in the deep division in Jewish life that arose after the paratroopers’ 1967 heroism but to rise above it in order to do what is necessary to preserve their sacrifices. Halevi does not tell us what to think about Israeli politics either in the past or the future, but he does remind us that those who focus exclusively on the old arguments are missing the point about the state’s current challenges.

As such, Halevi’s book is, perhaps even more than a pointed critique such as the one Wisse has given us, the perfect answer to Shavit’s ambivalence about Israel’s future. Halevi may not supply us with the conclusion that both Wisse and I would have preferred. But he has given his readers an essential starting point for a journey in the right direction.

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Something’s Rotten in the State of Israel’s Legal System

Something is deeply wrong with a justice system when mainstream journalists and politicians take it for granted that a suspect’s political views will affect the legal proceedings against him.

Consider the following sentence from a column that appeared Monday in Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz: “If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor [two left-of-center parties] at its center.”

The author, Amir Oren, is no right-wing conspiracy theorist; he’s a veteran, left-of-center journalist and star columnist for a respected highbrow daily. And he considers it patently obvious that if Lieberman wants prosecutors to treat him leniently, he would be wise to swerve Left.

Nor is Oren alone in this belief. In 2007, after then prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Daniel Friedmann, a well-known critic of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism, as justice minister, Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz: “The justice system … has two alternatives for coping with this blow: hunkering down in its bunker and waiting for the government to change, or speeding up criminal proceedings against Olmert and working with greater vigor to topple him, which would also bring about Friedmann’s departure.”

Like Oren, Verter is a veteran left-of-center journalist and a star Haaretz columnist. And like Oren, he considers it self-evident that legal officials could and would use their prosecutorial powers to oust a politician whose policies they oppose.

And here’s another star Haaretz columnist and veteran left-of-center journalist, Ari Shavit, writing after the 2006 indictment of then Justice Minister Haim Ramon for sexual harassment:

Twelve hours before kissing the soldier identified as H, Haim Ramon sat at a private dinner and joked that he had to be careful, because something was liable to happen to him. Because something has happened to every justice minister who intended to shake up the judicial system the way he did, something that prevented the minister from ultimately filling the post. …

[Another] senior minister, whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice, decided at the beginning of the week to concede the coveted position because he was convinced that if he didn’t do so, he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation. The senior minister … determined that there was no chance that a person known as a critic of the rule of law would be able to serve as justice minister without the rule of law finding a way to distance him from the public arena on some criminal pretext or another.

That mainstream politicians and journalists believe the legal system biased in this fashion is worrying even if they’re wrong. That so many probably wouldn’t believe it were there not some truth to it is even worse. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lack of concern: it’s just a fact of life, to be noted casually in a column.

Something is deeply wrong with a justice system when mainstream journalists and politicians take it for granted that a suspect’s political views will affect the legal proceedings against him.

Consider the following sentence from a column that appeared Monday in Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz: “If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor [two left-of-center parties] at its center.”

The author, Amir Oren, is no right-wing conspiracy theorist; he’s a veteran, left-of-center journalist and star columnist for a respected highbrow daily. And he considers it patently obvious that if Lieberman wants prosecutors to treat him leniently, he would be wise to swerve Left.

Nor is Oren alone in this belief. In 2007, after then prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Daniel Friedmann, a well-known critic of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism, as justice minister, Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz: “The justice system … has two alternatives for coping with this blow: hunkering down in its bunker and waiting for the government to change, or speeding up criminal proceedings against Olmert and working with greater vigor to topple him, which would also bring about Friedmann’s departure.”

Like Oren, Verter is a veteran left-of-center journalist and a star Haaretz columnist. And like Oren, he considers it self-evident that legal officials could and would use their prosecutorial powers to oust a politician whose policies they oppose.

And here’s another star Haaretz columnist and veteran left-of-center journalist, Ari Shavit, writing after the 2006 indictment of then Justice Minister Haim Ramon for sexual harassment:

Twelve hours before kissing the soldier identified as H, Haim Ramon sat at a private dinner and joked that he had to be careful, because something was liable to happen to him. Because something has happened to every justice minister who intended to shake up the judicial system the way he did, something that prevented the minister from ultimately filling the post. …

[Another] senior minister, whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice, decided at the beginning of the week to concede the coveted position because he was convinced that if he didn’t do so, he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation. The senior minister … determined that there was no chance that a person known as a critic of the rule of law would be able to serve as justice minister without the rule of law finding a way to distance him from the public arena on some criminal pretext or another.

That mainstream politicians and journalists believe the legal system biased in this fashion is worrying even if they’re wrong. That so many probably wouldn’t believe it were there not some truth to it is even worse. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lack of concern: it’s just a fact of life, to be noted casually in a column.

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Another Peace Process in Our Time

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — currently in the 60th month of his 48-month term, a declared non-candidate for re-election (in the event there is ever another Palestinian election), presently governing only half of the putative Palestinian state — has told Haaretz that a peace agreement could be reached within six months if Israel will make more pre-negotiation concessions.

Peace could be reached not only in our time but with four full months left over to complete Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze. Abbas will hold the football himself.

Not even those on the Left in Israel believe in this process any more. Ari Shavit, writing in today’s Haaretz, notes that:

There’s one small problem: Similar things were said to us when the Beilin-Abbas agreement was formulated in 1995. Similar things were said to us on the eve of Camp David 2000. Similar things were promised us when the Geneva Initiative was signed in 2003. Similar things were promised us when Israel went to Annapolis in 2007.

Six months is in fact exactly what Abbas promised at the beginning of the Annapolis Process in 2007, only to reject still another Israeli offer of a state 12 months later.

Shavit encapsulates in a single paragraph the reason there is currently no prospect of peace, with or without additional Israeli concessions, made before or after negotiations begin:

With Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip, arming itself to the teeth and enjoying the support of about one-third of the Palestinians, it has the right to veto any diplomatic progress. With Fatah unwilling to recognize the Jewish nation-state and objecting to a demilitarized Palestinian state, there is no chance for a peace treaty.

Perhaps one day there will be another Palestinian presidential election, with a candidate campaigning on a platform calling for recognition of a Jewish state and acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian one. Perhaps one day the Palestinians will elect such a person. But today there is no such candidate, nor even another scheduled election. The Palestinian peace movement consists of recycled interviews with Haaretz.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — currently in the 60th month of his 48-month term, a declared non-candidate for re-election (in the event there is ever another Palestinian election), presently governing only half of the putative Palestinian state — has told Haaretz that a peace agreement could be reached within six months if Israel will make more pre-negotiation concessions.

Peace could be reached not only in our time but with four full months left over to complete Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze. Abbas will hold the football himself.

Not even those on the Left in Israel believe in this process any more. Ari Shavit, writing in today’s Haaretz, notes that:

There’s one small problem: Similar things were said to us when the Beilin-Abbas agreement was formulated in 1995. Similar things were said to us on the eve of Camp David 2000. Similar things were promised us when the Geneva Initiative was signed in 2003. Similar things were promised us when Israel went to Annapolis in 2007.

Six months is in fact exactly what Abbas promised at the beginning of the Annapolis Process in 2007, only to reject still another Israeli offer of a state 12 months later.

Shavit encapsulates in a single paragraph the reason there is currently no prospect of peace, with or without additional Israeli concessions, made before or after negotiations begin:

With Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip, arming itself to the teeth and enjoying the support of about one-third of the Palestinians, it has the right to veto any diplomatic progress. With Fatah unwilling to recognize the Jewish nation-state and objecting to a demilitarized Palestinian state, there is no chance for a peace treaty.

Perhaps one day there will be another Palestinian presidential election, with a candidate campaigning on a platform calling for recognition of a Jewish state and acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian one. Perhaps one day the Palestinians will elect such a person. But today there is no such candidate, nor even another scheduled election. The Palestinian peace movement consists of recycled interviews with Haaretz.

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What the Peace-Partner Palestinians Really Want

In Haaretz yesterday, Ari Shavit detailed the results of Netanyahu’s serial efforts to commence negotiations with the Palestinians:

He accepts the principle of two states, and receives no response. He suspends construction in the settlements, and is rejected. He courts Mahmoud Abbas, and is disparaged. The son of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s personal secretary wants a historic reconciliation with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians are slamming the door. He is offering the Palestinian national movement negotiations over the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state, and has found that there’s no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. Zilch. A brick wall.

Sometimes you get the impression that the Palestinian Arabs do not really want a Palestinian state. They could have had one in 1919 (the Weizmann-Feisel Agreement), 1937 (the Peel Commission), 1947 (UN Resolution 181), 2000 (the Camp David proposal), 2001 (the Clinton Parameters), or 2008 (the Annapolis Process offer). Six formal offers — each accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs.

The peace-partner Palestinians do not really have a negotiating position — only a set of demands to reverse history. They demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 lines to reverse the Six-Day War (a war the Arabs caused). They demand a “right of return” to reverse the 1948 war (a war the Arabs started). They demand all of East Jerusalem — not simply the Arab neighborhoods and Muslim religious sites — to control the historic portion of the city; they concede no Jewish connection to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall.

Evelyn argued persuasively today that the goal of Hamas in its negotiations for the release of nearly a thousand Palestinian prisoners — in exchange for one Israeli soldier — is not really the release of the prisoners. A similar insight explains the absence of a Palestinian state despite 90 years of two-state offers, increasing Israeli concessions throughout the Oslo and Annapolis “peace processes,” and Netanyahu’s unsuccessful efforts to commence negotiations once again. A second state is not really what the Palestinians want — not if the cost is recognition of a Jewish one in defensible borders. What they really want is something else.

In Haaretz yesterday, Ari Shavit detailed the results of Netanyahu’s serial efforts to commence negotiations with the Palestinians:

He accepts the principle of two states, and receives no response. He suspends construction in the settlements, and is rejected. He courts Mahmoud Abbas, and is disparaged. The son of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s personal secretary wants a historic reconciliation with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians are slamming the door. He is offering the Palestinian national movement negotiations over the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state, and has found that there’s no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. Zilch. A brick wall.

Sometimes you get the impression that the Palestinian Arabs do not really want a Palestinian state. They could have had one in 1919 (the Weizmann-Feisel Agreement), 1937 (the Peel Commission), 1947 (UN Resolution 181), 2000 (the Camp David proposal), 2001 (the Clinton Parameters), or 2008 (the Annapolis Process offer). Six formal offers — each accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs.

The peace-partner Palestinians do not really have a negotiating position — only a set of demands to reverse history. They demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 lines to reverse the Six-Day War (a war the Arabs caused). They demand a “right of return” to reverse the 1948 war (a war the Arabs started). They demand all of East Jerusalem — not simply the Arab neighborhoods and Muslim religious sites — to control the historic portion of the city; they concede no Jewish connection to the Temple Mount or the Western Wall.

Evelyn argued persuasively today that the goal of Hamas in its negotiations for the release of nearly a thousand Palestinian prisoners — in exchange for one Israeli soldier — is not really the release of the prisoners. A similar insight explains the absence of a Palestinian state despite 90 years of two-state offers, increasing Israeli concessions throughout the Oslo and Annapolis “peace processes,” and Netanyahu’s unsuccessful efforts to commence negotiations once again. A second state is not really what the Palestinians want — not if the cost is recognition of a Jewish one in defensible borders. What they really want is something else.

Read Less




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