In response to:
Israel: A Partial Indictment from the June 28, 1984 issue
To the Editors:
We are told that Avishai Margalit [NYR, June 28] is a Professor of Philosophy, and yet his notion of appropriate analogy is—to say the least—defective. In reviewing Chomsky’s book I had raised the question as to whether an alien immigrant population of European Jews, claiming communal or national rights in Palestine, on the basis of what God said and what an imperial power had promised them, could ever have avoided a clash with an indigenous Arab population already resident there, and unanimously against a Jewish homeland being set up on what they considered to be their land. This, says Margalit, is a nasty racist question, rather like Enoch Powell denying “colored people” the right to enter Britain. To the best of my knowledge, the blacks who were formerly British colonial subjects (and milked by Britain for centuries) make no claim to set up a black commonwealth in Britain nor, so far as I know, have they acted to drive out 65 percent of the resident population, as a prelude to occupying and ruling the whole of the British Isles, nor, to the extent that I have read and heard, is there any black leadership asserting that 2000 years ago London was promised to black residents of Uganda or Jamaica. Nor finally, has any black movement taken over Britain and legislated a Right of Return for all blacks everywhere while at the same time denying any such rights to the dispossessed and excluded inhabitants.
Any analogy between Arab Palestinians and British racists could therefore only be the result of an ideological deformation so strong as to distort even a philosopher’s thinking. Put this down also to what is often referred to as the Zionist dream, although why anyone should now dream in so dishonest and tediously pious a manner as Margalit’s is puzzling. The dream doubtless explains Margalit’s unattractively self-congratulatory mode, especially the way he goes on about Israeli democracy. It’s symptomatic of course that he makes no mention of the 650,000 Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who are second-class “non-Jews.” The merest honesty would have compelled some acknowledgement of the basic problem: that the imposition of a rigid distinction between Jew and non-Jew has led to the numerous crises which Margalit has done an ineffective job of glossing over.
New York, New York
To the Editors:
I have always admired Avishai Margalit’s courageous and principled stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as indicated by several references in my book The Fateful Triangle, which he reviewed in the June 28 issue of The New York Review of Books, including one that only he would have been able to identify (p. 146). I was therefore disturbed by his severe misrepresentation of what I wrote, and more important, by a perspective on the central issues that I would not have expected on his part.
Margalit begins by stating that “we Israelis should, I believe, plead guilty to many of Chomsky’s charges. Not to the charges as he states them, but to something not altogether unlike them.” To demonstrate my alleged failure to state the charges correctly he cites the events at Khan Yunis in 1956, where, he writes, “Israel was involved, according to the UN chief inspector, General E.L.M. Burns, in the massacre of at least 275 people.” Margalit has two objections to my reference to this massacre (there was another, at the Rafah refugee camp in the same area, with 111 reported killed, which he does not mention). First, he says that “knowledgeable Israeli sources” believe that the 275 figure “is too high.” Second, “What is missing from this account, however, is the fact that each of the persons who were shot was identified as a fedayeen (or terrorist, in Israel’s current jargon)….”
Here is what I wrote: “The Israeli occupying army carried out bloody atrocities in the Gaza Strip, killing ‘at least 275 Palestinians immediately after capturing the Strip during a brutal house-to-house search for weapons and fedayeen in Khan Yunis’…” (the quote is from Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez). The Israeli claim is not “missing from this account.” Margalit agrees that these “executions” were “evil.” One may imagine the reaction had Israelis been slaughtered in this manner by an Arab army after an attack on Israel. In this case, the facts were suppressed for many years and are now barely known.
The figures derive from Henry Labouisse, the American director of UNRWA, who received names of 275 people killed “from sources he considers trustworthy,” including “UNRWA employees, both refugees and others.” The source for information on the 111 victims at Rafan 9 days later is the same. General Burns, commander of the UN Truce Supervision forces, commented that this furnished “very sad proof of the fact that the spirit that inspired the notorious Deir Yassin massacre of 1948 is not dead among some of the Israeli armed forces.” I also cited corroboratory reports by the head of the Gaza observer force, Lt.-Col. R.F. Bayard of the US army, and by the editor of Al Hamishmar, Mark Gefen, who was an eyewitness to atrocities including wanton killing, for example, the murder of a doctor at Gaza hospital by an Israeli soldier. At Khan Yunis, Gefen was “shocked” to see “bloody bodies on the ground, smashed heads…no one bothered to remove them…I was still unaccustomed to the sight of a ‘human’ slaughter house….” He reports that atrocities continued until “Ben-Gurion himself gave orders to stop the looting, murder and robbery.”
The Israeli army (IDF) claimed that people were killed in the course of resistance to their “screening operations,” but the UNRWA reports and Moshe Dayan’s diaries deny this claim. Note that Margalit’s “fact” that “each of the persons who were shot was identified as a fedayeen” is denied by the official Israeli account, as well as by the reports cited. In fact, it seems that the army simply went on a rampage after the conquest. My own comment was that “It is an unfortunate fact that occupying armies often behave in this fashion [footnote citing examples], but then, they usually do not bask in the admiration of American intellectuals for their unique and remarkable commitment to ‘purity of arms.”’
One might add that “knowledgeable Israeli sources” have been notoriously unreliable, as in the case of other states with regard to their own atrocities. Recall, for example, Ben-Gurion’s pretense that the 1953 Qibya massacre was not committed by the IDF, or Moshe Sharett’s outraged denial of Egyptian charges concerning Israeli terrorism in Egypt in 1954 (which he knew to be accurate), and so on until the present, e.g., Israel’s official claim that 340 civilians were killed and 40 buildings destroyed in the bombing of Beirut.
Margalit observes that this is “one of many unpublicized cases of Israeli brutality that Chomsky mentions.” I also pointed out that across a broad spectrum of American opinion, it has regularly been claimed that “moral sensitivity is a principle of political life” in Israel and that the IDF “has from the start been animated by the same righteous anger and high moral purpose that has guided Israel through its tumultuous history” (New York Times, Time); these fables are regularly contrasted with often outright racist denunciation of Arabs (Palestinians in particular) for their violence and brutality. This pattern of deceit has been exploited with great effectiveness to enhance the vast US contribution to oppression, terror and war, with a persistent threat of superpower confrontation. I also emphasized the hypocrisy of criticism of Israel on the part of Americans who, in effect, are paying Israel to carry out the crimes that are described as flaws in this unique and magnificent record, when they become too visible to suppress. The point is not a minor one.
This is the sole example that Margalit offers to show that my account is inaccurate. Note that when his misrepresentation of what I wrote is corrected, then his conclusions are essentially the same as mine (apart from his faith in “knowledgeable Israeli sources,” whatever the evidence to the contrary). This, in fact, is characteristic of his review, throughout.
Margalit’s account of my discussion of the diplomatic history is similarly flawed. He claims that “to Chomsky, the Palestinians’ readiness for recognition [of Israel] is evident. The evidence, for him, is the unanimous decision in April 1981 by the PLO National Council to adopt Brezhnev’s explicit proposal that ‘it is essential to ensure the security and sovreignty of all states of the region including those of Israel.”’ I do indeed cite this case, not however as “the evidence” that the PLO is ready to recognize Israel, nor even as “evidence” that it is (nothing is said here about recognition), but merely as one example of a long record of peace initiatives by the PLO and the Arab states of varying sorts.
Margalit then writes: “Another piece of evidence that Chomsky considers is the open pronouncement by the Palestinian leader Issam Sartawi that the PLO’s readiness for recognition of Israel was ‘crystal clear.”’
Turning to the facts, first, the pronouncement was not by Sartawi but was a joint statement by Sartawi and Mattityahu Peled, whom Margalit admires as “an honorable man,” one of the “good guys” (Margalit suggests that I suppress the fact that Peled and Meir Pail were in command positions during the 1956 massacres because they are on my “list of good guys”; the charge is false and baseless). Secondly, my comment on the Peled-Sartawi statement just cited is that it perhaps “exaggerates the clarity of these [PLO] declarations.” Thus it is Margalit’s “good guy,” Peled, who states that the PLO position is “crystal clear,” while I question the fact. One might note, incidentally, that Sartawi was a high-ranking PLO official while Peled, his Israeli counterpart in peace efforts, has no standing in Israeli politics.
I added that while the PLO position is not as “crystal clear” as Peled suggests, “there is no doubt about the general drift of policy of the PLO and the Arab states, the ‘panic’ that this has regularly inspired in Israel [citing Amos Elon], and the reaction of dismissal or simply denial of the facts in the United States.”
This exhausts Margalit’s discussion of my treatment of the diplomatic history. He then concludes that while there were “signals” from the PLO, “they were accompanied by too much surrounding noise…. Chomsky hears only the signals….” This charge is false, as the very case he cites demonstrates when his misrepresentations are corrected. Throughout, I present the record as it is, noting ambiguities and “noise.”
In this connection, Margalit cites a statement by Farouk Kadoumi that Israel would eventually have to accept the PLO plan for a democratic secular state, nothing that “This statement does not appear in Chomsky’s book.” Similarly, many statements by leaders of Labor rejecting a political settlement with the Palestinians—now or ever—do not appear. I do, however, point out that the “dreams” of PLO leaders do not pose a barrier to negotiations and political settelement any more than Ben-Gurion’s long-term plans for a Jewish state including Transjordan and southern Syria and Lebanon ruled him out as a participant in negotiations in the 1940s—and one can cite more recent and current examples. As I noted, my account is by no means exhaustive, though it does suffice to establish the falsity of the propaganda that is accepted with little question in the US.
Furthermore, the two cases Margalit mentions are marginal to my account. The most crucial cases Margalit ignores entirely, for example, ‘Sadat’s peace proposal of February 1971, which offered nothing to the Palestinians (rejected by Israel with US backing), or the January 1976 UN Security Council resolution proposed by Syria, Jordan and Egypt, calling for a two-state settlement of just the sort that Margalit himself endorses, and vetoed by the US. The PLO openly backed the resolution and indeed “prepared” it according to President Chaim Herzog, then Israel’s UN Ambassador. Israel’s response to the calling of the UN session was to bomb Lebanon with over fifty civilians reported killed. It refused to attend the session, and the Rabin (Labor) government announced that it would have no dealings with any Palestinians on any political issue, and no dealings with the PLO whatever stand it took.
In fact, recently released evidence reveals that Israel’s evasion of Arab offers of political settlement can be dated not just to 1971 but to 1948–1949 (see, e.g., Yoram Nimrod, Monitin, February 1984).
One might usefully turn back to Margalit’s article in Ramparts, April 1975, published at my initiative, in which he noted that “the Israeli leadership wants desperately to circumvent the Palestinian issue at almost any cost” and thus rejects “the Two State Solution.” He urged dialogue with the PLO “on the basis of various hints and indications to the effect that the PLO would in fact be willing to consider something like the Two State Solution”; if this solution “were accepted by the PLO—well and good.” A few months later, this solution was accepted by the PLO at the UN. I find it strange that he should ignore this fact.
What is noteworthy about Margalit’s account is not just his falsification of the record and of my adequately qualified review of it, but also the tacit assumption throughout that the only issue is the clarity of the PLO’s offers. Margalit describes Israel as “a bully” which, however, “has a right to a room of his own in the building.” As he notes, I agree, but I would add that the sight of the bully standing with his foot on his victim’s neck wondering whether the victim has been sufficiently forthcoming, whether his signals are clear enough, whether he adequately recognizes the legitimacy of his oppressor, is not a particularly pretty one. And I am surprised to see Margalit writing as though the stance of the bully and his protector is a matter of little significance.
While the initiatives of the Arab states and the PLO vary in clarity and precision, as I wrote, there is no doubt about the unwavering rejectionism of the US and Israel, both Labor and Likud. These have been the crucial factors blocking the kind of settlement that Margalit has always advocated. As I documented, the basic facts have been suppressed or denied in the US, thus enabling the US and Israel to pursue policies that have led to oppression, conflict and the threat of nuclear war, and will continue to do so. It is constantly proclaimed in the US that Arab intransigence and PLO rejectionism block a political settlement that recognizes the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. In fact, the US and Israel have led the rejectionist camp. This story is one of the most spectacular achievements of contemporary Agitprop, on a par with the tales about Israel’s fabled moral superiority. All of this Margalit ignores, while misrepresenting the two cases he does discuss.
Margalit notes that in early May 1984, Arafat did make an “explicit” proposal in favor of mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. To complete the story, Israel at once rejected these offers made by Arafat in interviews in France and England and in statements on his visit to Bangladesh and China. A month later, UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar proposed an international peace conference; the proposal was rejected by Prime Minister Shamir and Shimon Peres, speaking for the Labor opposition. The US had rejected a similar proposal in January. The national press in the US has been silent about all of this.
As Margalit was writing, Labor announced its political program reiterating its famliar stand: negotiations only with Jordan and not the Palestinians, no Palestinian state, no uprooting of Jewish settlements, evacuation only of areas of dense Arab population in “Judea and Samaria”; and Shimon Peres called for expansion of Jordan Valley settlements and incorporation of the region within Israel (Ha’aretz, May 27, 4).
These latest events are consistent with US and Israeli policy for the past fifteen years. Israel has never deviated from the position expresed by Foreign Minister Abba Eban of the Labor Party that the Palestinians “have no role to play” in any peace settlement, and the US has in practice kept to the rejectionist stance inaugurated by Kissinger and maintained through the “peace process,” the 1982 Reagan Plan (immediately undermined by the US government), and since, as I discuss at length, contrary to another of Margalit’s false claims: that in discussing “the American side, Chomsky confines himself largely to Israel’s liberal ‘fellow travelers’ ” (the term is his, as he notes). I do indeed discuss the shameful role of Israel’s “ardent supporters” (Irving Howe’s self-description) and their substantial contribution to the Palestinian catastrophe, the moral degeneration and ultimate destruction of Israel, and the threat of nuclear war; but the evolution of US policy and its background is also developed in some detail.
While Margalit sees only a “one-sided polemic” against Israel, other reviewers, no less critical, have been able to perceive that in fact the book “examines the causes and the evolution of the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel and its impact on the Palestinian people” (Prof. Michael Rubner, American-Arab Affairs), while also refraining from distortions of the sort just illustrated.
Margalit makes much of my reliance on the documentary record instead of personal impressions—a common argument; in contrast, I have never heard critics of the PLO condemned for not having lived in Palestinian refugee camps. He appears to object to the characterization I give on this basis of the positions of the two major political groupings, the Labor Alignment and Likud. I say “appears,” because in fact he offers no objection and his own conclusions are consistent with those I present. It is not in question that Labor has never veered from its rejectionist position. Margalit nevertheless feels that “between the sane hypocrisies of the [Labor] Alignment and the self-righteous brutality of the Likud, I would not hesitate to prefer the Alignment,” which might “exchange territories for peace” (the standard Labor formula, concealing its explicit intent to maintain control of large parts of the occupied territories). He fails to remark that my own view is not very different: “It is difficult to conjure up a picture of Labor as constituting a meaningful opposition, though one might reasonably argue that support for Labor is nevertheless justified when one considers what Begin and his cohorts are likely to do in the future.”
Margalit’s impressions are of interest, as are those of others, e.g., Mattityahuu Peled, who describes the Labor Party as “a major champion” of the position that “Israel’s interests dictate a denial of the Palestinian’s legitimate rights” (New Outlook, February 1981). The documentary record, to this day, supports Peled’s judgment; a close reading of Margalit’s impressions fails to reveal any significant difference.
The crucial point is that neither of the major political groupings in Israel, or even Peace Now, has come as close as the mainstream of the PLO to accepting the international consensus on a two-state political settlement, the solution that both Margalit and I regard as the only viable alternative to continued oppression and war. This fact emerges clearly from the documentary record, and Margalit’s personal impressions do not contest it. All of this is, of course, radically different from the picture presented by “fellow travelers” here, or by such Israeli doves as Amos Oz, as I document.
This pattern of apparent objection and tacit agreement runs through the entire review. Thus Margalit dismisses without argument my critique of the Kahan Commission report, while recommending the “excellent analysis” by Shimon Lehrer, in Hebrew. Naturally, I agree with this recommendation, since Lehrer reaches the same conclusions that I do on essentially the same evidence, though his focus is somewhat narrower (e.g., he does not consider the disgraceful “history” or the failure to deal with crucial evidence) and he goes well beyond my criticisms, suggesting that Defense Minister Sharon and Chief of Staff Eitan should have been charged with crimes that carry penalties of up to twenty years in prison (pp. 43f.). Margalit in fact goes beyond either of us in comparing Israel’s actions at Sabra-Shatila to “appointing Dr. Mengele as chief surgeon at the Hadassah Hospital.”
In fact, there were a number of excellent criticisms of the report in Israel, while here there was only awe at Israel’s “salvation” and “sublimity,” leading to expanded aid in recognition of Israel’s achievements, in a remarkable PR excercise. To my knowledge, the only critical commentary was my own (Inquiry, June 1983), included in the book under review. Margalit appears to agree with my conclusions and analysis, while making it appear that he rejects them.
Margalit discusses the Israeli opposition to the Lebanon war and alleges that “one of the factors that contributed to the virtual ineffectiveness of this opposition” was the increase in size of the professional army. Perhaps, but more important factors were the silent assent of the Labor Party throughout and the enormous popularity of the war, which reached its peak (more than 80 percent popular approval) in late August, after the destruction of southern Lebanon and the savage bombardment of Beirut. Opposition began to develop on a serious scale, both in Israel and the US, after the Sabra-Shatila massacres and after the costs of the occupation began to mount.
Margalit observes correctly that I am “full of praise for the Israeli press,” on which I rely heavily. He adds: “But it is important to emphasize that it is not underground journalism that is in question here,” but the mainstream press. That is clear and explicit in what I wrote.
He adds further that “One can be impressed with Israel’s democracy while rejecting its colonialism.” That, however, is only a partial truth. For its Jewish citizens, Israel is a democracy on the Western model, but it is also “the sovereign State of the Jewish people” (as the courts have declared), and for the 16 percent minority that is not Jewish its practices are often disgraceful, a fact also concealed by “fellow travelers” here. To take some examples that appeared in the Israeli press as Margalit was writing these words, in the occupied territories a Palestinian worker was blinded by an IDF officer while under detention for having built a house without a permit and a wellknown Palestinian artist was sentenced to six months in prison for painting a picture that included in one corner the colors that appear in the Palestinian flag (Hadashot, May 5, 16); while within the Green Line two Arab villagers were sentenced to house arrest on charges of having raised a Palestinian flag on the Day of the Land (Ha’aretz, May 6; they allege that they were tortured), and an Arab lecturer at Haifa university was arrested at 1 AM and interrogated through the night in an apparent attempt to intimidate him and make him abandon his plans to form an Arab political party (Ha’aretz, April 29). A difference, no doubt, but not one that leads us to chant praises of Israeli democracy in the manner of the “fellow travelers.”
This is quite standard. Apart from harassment and intimidation, an intricate complex of legal and administrative arrangements place 92 percent of the land within the Green Line under the effective control of an organization committed to work “for the benefit of persons of Jewish religion, race or origin,” and much of the development budget is similarly organized (tax-free contributions in the US are used for these purposes); and there is a regular pattern of imposed segregation, denial of right of free expression, extraordinary punishments (e.g., an inhabitant of Kafr Kassem was sentenced to a year in prison “for pretending to be a Jew in order to marry a [Jewish] woman” after being refused permission to convert, the same sentence that was meted out to an IDF officer who murdered 43 Arabs in Kafr Kassem in one hour in another 1956 massacre), and much else—as we would expect in a State that is not the State of its citizens, by law. All of this too has been suppressed for many years in the US.
Margalit’s preference for personal impressions over the public record serves him poorly when he turns to my discussion of those he calls “fellow travelers,” in particular, Irving Howe, Michael Walzer, and Martin Peretz. He writes: “I do not at all like what he has to say about the first two,” and expresses his wish that they had much more influence than they do. I had little to say about them beyond quoting their words, and I am not surprised that Margalit does not like these words. I find it hard to believe that he wishes that their views had more influence: for example, Walzer’s explicit support for the Lebanon war (“I certainly welcome the political defeat of the PLO, and I believe that the limited military operation [sic] required to inflict that defeat can be defended under the theory of just war”; September 8, 1982) and his advocacy of transfer of Israeli Arab citizens (the problems of those who are “marginal to the nation” can be “smoothed” by “helping people to leave who have to leave,” in a 1972 book edited by Irving Howe and Carl Gershman; the idea that the indigenous population should be transferred has deep roots in the Zionist left, as I document). Note that Walzer goes beyond the position of right-wing extremists such as Hanan Porat, who restricts this proposal to West Bank Palestinians (“Israel can help by buying their land or giving them economic assistance to leave”).
Or to turn to the man whom the Labor press describes as such a “lover of Israel” that “when no more supporters of Israel will remain in the United States—he will still be waving the blue and white flag” (Irving Howe), does Margalit really approve of his venomous attacks, always presented without evidence or argument, against those who dared to report facts that showed that all might not be well in the Holy State, or his exploitation of the widespread sympathy for Israel after its 1967 victory to slander his political enemies, as when he claimed that Israel would have to institute a bloody fascist-style dictatorship to win the support of Sartre or the New Left from Scarsdale to Palo Alto—at a time when Sartre was being honored by the Hebrew University in recognition of his support for Israel and the New Left was overwhelmingly dovish Zionist, its journals publishing such articles as the one by Margalit cited above? I doubt it. It seems odd to criticize the bearer of these tidings, not the message conveyed.
The contibution of “fellow travelers” to bringing Israel to the present state that Margalit deplores has been substantial. This fact is well-understood by the Israeli doves whom Margalit admires, for example, Peled and Pail, both of whom have denounced the American Jewish community (though as I note, their criticism is far too narrow) for its ideological fanaticism and its “idolatrous cult-worship of a Jewish fortress-state,” which are driving Israel to become “a complex compound of the racist state structure of South Africa and the violent, terror-ridden social fabric of Northern Ireland,” “a war-god similar to Mars” (Pail). If we attend to the documented facts, not personal impressions, we will discover that the record of apologists such as those I quoted is a dismal one over the past years.
Margalit believes that I resort to “Realpolitik” when I point out that the demand that the Palestinians not only recognize Israel but also recognize its “legitimacy” is “an unprecedented demand” that simply places “another barrier in the path of eventual negotiations and political settlement.” This is not Realpolitik, but rather objection to state worship. In particular, one can hardly expect the indigenous population of the former Palestine to recognize the “legitimacy” of the “sovereign State of the Jewish people” which has displaced them; I do not think that Margalit should recognize the “legitimacy” of such a state, or for that matter that any state should be accorded inherent “legitimacy.” People have the right of self-determination, and may choose to exercise it in a state form, with consequences that we may and often should deplore. The states so formed have whatever rights are accorded to states in the international system, nothing more. Margalit believes that my view is a counterpart to that of Israelis who deny self-determination to Palestinians, but he has missed the point. People have rights, including the right of self-determination. States have no inherent “legitimacy.” This is indeed an unprecedented demand, and simply a further barrier to peace.
In developing this point, Margalit crucially switches his position. He begins by speaking of the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel’s legitimacy, then turning to an explanation of why it is so important to insist that Palestinians “recognize Israel.” He writes: “I don’t believe myself that the demand for the Palestinian recognition of Israel is ‘irrelevant.”’ Nor do I; the difference between recognition and recognition of legitimacy is fundamental. He slips from the second to the first, in the process undermining his fallacious argument.
In this connection, Margalit writes that the objection of Palestinians to Jewish immigration “has a nasty ring,” “associated with Enoch Powell’s brand of racism.” The analogy is remarkable. Simply imagine what the reaction would have been in England if settlers had arrived with the intent of establishing a Black state in their former home, explaining to the natives that they should be transferred elsewhere (Ben-Gurion, Katznelson, Walzer, etc.), supported by external sources of wealth and power that were prodigious by the standards of the indigenous population who were under imperial rule.
Given the US role in perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict and the enormous stakes, regionally and beyond, it is most unfortunate that it remains so difficult to deal with the issues in a straightforward and accurate manner in American journals.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
To the Editors:
Since I largely agree with Avishai Margalit’s review of Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle, I am especially glad that Margalit does “not at all like” what Chomsky has to say about Irving Howe and myself. Indeed, what Chomsky has to say is not at all likable. But does Margalit “like” what Chomsky has written about Martin Peretz? His review is carefully ambiguous. Chomsky, by contrast, is recklessly forthright and all of a piece. The same graceless sarcasm, the same impersonal and self-righteous hatred, is directed against the three of us. Not without reason: the most recent essays by Howe and myself on the Middle East were published in Peretz’s New Republic; and Peretz is a member of the editorial board of Dissent, which Howe and I edit, and which has recently carried a number of articles on Israeli politics. The three of us argue among ourselves, as friends; but we don’t argue in the same way with Chomsky, whose forte, in any case, is not argument but ideological denunciation. So Chomsky is right to denounce the three of us together (and so many others too). And the right policy for a reviewer with Margalit’s intelligence and his moral and political commitment is sympathy for all the denounced—as for all the oppressed. We can argue later.
The Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey
Avishai Margalit replies:
Reply to Edward Said:
Even an Israeli professor of philosophy can see differences between the immigration of Jews to Palestine and the colored immigration to Britain. Not just because of the reasons Edward Said and Noam Chomsky laboriously mention, but also because of what they both neglect to mention, namely, that the Palestinians, unlike the British, did not have their own state at the time. But the point of my analogy was different. It had to do with Said’s specific reason for denying the Jews’ right to immigrate to Palestine. The reason he cited was the objection of the indigenous population to that immigration and the cycle of violence that was to be expected as a result of that opposition.
An expected cycle of violence is a weighty moral and political problem. But as a justification for the denial of rights—to the extent that such rights exist—it is unacceptable. That is Enoch Powell’s justification.
There is in my view nothing ridiculous in the idea that Palestinians, uprooted from their land, continue to yearn to return to it and transmit this legacy from one generation to the next—even for two thousand years, if, heaven forbid, need be. I see nothing ridiculous in the idea that their descendents will eventually claim communal rights in the land from which their ancestors were forcibly expelled. After all, even now most Palestinians who talk of “return” were born after 1948 and do not use the term “return” literally.
If and when they come to claim their rights they will, as far as I’m concerned, have to invoke neither a promise from the Lord in heaven nor, for that matter, one from Lord Balfour: Zionism too did not couch its claims in the name of these Lords.
When the Messiah comes, an old Jewish saying tells us, there will be no difference between a parable and its paraphrase. When I read Said I feel as if the Messiah were already here.
Reply to Noam Chomsky:
I had hoped that with some care—and luck—I might be spared Chomsky’s bitter “Et tu, Avishai Margalit!” It seems that I have failed. I am genuinely saddened by the fact that Chomsky is disturbed by what he takes to be my severe misrepresentation of his views.
I have not offered Chomsky a plea bargain in which I, as an Israeli, will confess to some of the charges in return for a softening of the indictment. My intention was quite the opposite. Even in cases where I think that the facts, in part, are different from those presented by Chomsky, as in the case of Khan Yunis, I believe that an evil deed has been done—no less evil than what Chomsky holds it to be. In my view bureaucratic murder according to pre-prepared lists and without trial is as evil as murder committed by rampageous soldiers hitting innocent civilians. It is no less evil: it is a different evil.
I took Chomsky to be arguing that what occurred at Khan Yunis in 1956 was similar to what occurred in 1982 at Sabra and Shatila: the murder of innocent civilians under the guise of a house-to-house search for terrorists. I in contrast believe, on the basis of my own “reliable sources,” that at Khan Yunis there was indeed a search according to prepared lists, and that the number of killings was lower than that reported by Chomsky. And yet my moral evaluation is no different from his. In fact, I am myself more alarmed by an Israel in whose name bureaucratic murders are committed by order and without trial, than by an Israel some of whose soldiers go on a murderous rampage without an order.
In general it was not my intention to claim that Chomsky has not made a real effort to arrive at a correct description of the facts. On the contrary, it is in fact impossible not to be impressed with Chomsky’s heroic effort to reach the totality of printed sources dealing with the events he describes.
If asked to pinpoint the difference between Chomsky and myself, I would venture that it has relatively little to do either with the facts or with their moral evaluation. The difference between us is sometimes—not always—in the light shed by these facts, or rather the shadow they cast, on the general context to which they belong.
A clear example of this is Chomsky’s account of Israel’s war of independence, almost half of which is devoted to the massacre at Deir Yassin. It is quite impossible to my mind to read that section of his book without viewing the 1948 war through the prism of that massacre. To me this is a disturbing distortion: it strikes me as similar to presenting the Allies in World War II through the prism of the bombing of Dresden.
My argument here is not the trivial one, that Deir Yassin is not a “representative sample” of that war. Massacres are usually not representative. My claim is that this is in no way an “ideal type” of Israel’s war of independence in the sense of its being an isolated event that happens to accentuate the characteristic features of that war.
There is, on the other hand, no difference between Chomsky and myself regarding the evaluation of the events at sabra and Shatila and their role in the general context of the Lebanon War. Where we do differ is the evaluation of the commission of inquiry set up to investigate these events. Chomsky criticizes the commission for not making a genuine effort to get down to the facts. I, however, criticize the commission for its failure, in spite of having come up with the true facts of the case, to draw the necessary conclusions.
Chomsky’s example for what he takes as evidence that the commission did not really attempt to get to the truth is its having neglected to investigate the allegations that Haddad’s militiamen participated in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. This is an important issue because Haddad’s forces can be considered IDF forces for most practical purposes, and hence, the responsibility of Israel, should these allegations prove true, is quite direct. There is no doubt that the Phalanges were interested in implicating Haddad’s forces, thereby exonerating themselves. The PLO too had a clear interest in incriminating Israel through Haddad. At any rate, this matter was diligently and thoroughly investigated by the commission. This, too, I know from my “reliable sources.” Chomsky may be permitted to doubt these sources. But he may not be permitted to deny that there is between us a difference that makes a difference. It is not a case, as he claims, where I tacitly agree with him while merely creating the false impression that I disagree with him.
Chomsky quite generally tends to attribute to me too many tacit things—not necessarily, in this case, tacit knowledge or generative grammer. Thus, I find myself holding the tacit assumption that “the only issue [in the Middle East conflict] is the clarity of the PLO offer,” in spite of the fact that my entire review belies this assumption. In fact, I adopt in my article the view that the Lebanon war started largely because of Begin’s concern over the potential political implications of the growing moderation of the PLO. (This view, by the way, recently received surprising support from the Vice Chief of Staff, David Ivri.)
Also, I have explicitly reported the positions of the two major parties in Israel as totally rejecting the notion of a Palestinian state, not to mention negotiations with the PLO. Moreover, I have my suspicion that were Arafat to come up with a declaration that is a precise copy of Sadat’s declaration, stating that he is ready to come to the Knesset in Jerusalem to talk peace, the response by any Israeli government, or, for that matter, by the Reagan administration, would be nothing more than malign neglect.
This opinion is not shared by my friends. Most of them believe that a Sadat-like dynamic would develop in such a case. Be that as it may, it is beyond me why Chomsky saw fit to make an implicit assumption about my views that he knows full well I explicitly reject. As for the PLO position, I do believe its general drift is toward accommodation with Israel. Unlike Chomsky, I do not say “there is no doubt about” it. Most of my doubts have to do with the period previous to the PLO evacuation from Beirut. They derive from statements like the following from the proposed political platform that was adopted by the 4th Fatah Conference in May 1980:
The Fatah movement is a national revolutionary independence movement whose goals are: the liberation of Palestine, a full and complete liberation; the annihilation of the Zionist entity in all of its economic, political, military, and cultural manifestations; and the establishment of an independent democratic Palestine which would rule the entire land of Palestine.*
The reason why I am not overimpressed with such statements, unlike Chomsky, who seems to take too seriously the declarations by the Labor-alignment leaders on the eve of elections, is that I myself have met with a sufficient number of PLO-supporting Palestinians to realize that the general drift is in another direction.
In spite of the Labor party’s recent statements I believe—though I’m not sure—that its general drift is different from what it was in the days of Meir, Galili, and Dayan. To be sure, not with respect to the PLO. But in the direction of some sort of Jordanian-Palestinian combination. After all, such a combination was not far from being realized: in 1983 Arafat had promised King Hussein of Jordan to return to him “at the weekend” with a green light from his movement, but failed to show up. Perhaps in the future he will.
I claimed that Israel is a democratic country. I did not say it was a just society, or even a particularly decent one. It is democratic in the sense that it upholds the freedom of speech and of political organization. Thus, many of the 16 percent of Israeli Arab citizens vote for the Communist party. The discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel in other respects, though real and obnoxious, seems to me irrelevant to the point at issue.
It is told of a person who took a speed-reading course that, after leafing through the pages of War and Peace, he put the book down and summarized it by saying “it’s about Russia.” A speed leafing through Chomsky’s book, as well as a slow and careful reading of it, would yield the conclusion that it is about Israel. Or, to be more precise, about Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. In this sense it is a one-sided book, given its title which promises to treat three sides. To claim otherwise is a fateful attempt to triangle the circle.
Reply to Michael Walzer:
In the Old Republic of Rome just one of the triumvirate crossed the Rubicon. In the triumvirate of the New Republic just one crossed the Awali River. It was Martin Peretz. He came up with an eyewitness report which reminds the reader of the Webbs’ report from Soviet Russia. Hence, it was not an error of omission on my part not to come to his rescue.
Raphael Israeli, ed., PLO in Lebanon: Selected Documents (St. Martin's, 1983), p. 13.↩
Raphael Israeli, ed., PLO in Lebanon: Selected Documents (St. Martin’s, 1983), p. 13.↩