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The Liberal Zionists

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Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times/Redux
Israeli soldiers on a hill overlooking an Israeli settlement in Ofra, the West Bank, 2001

1.

In the toxic environment that characterizes much, if not most, debate on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a special poison is reserved for the liberal Zionist. Such a person, who stands by Israel even as he yearns for it to change, is fated to be hated by both camps: hawkish Zionists despise the liberal for going too far in his criticisms, accusing him of a hand-wringing betrayal of the cause that can only comfort the enemy, while anti-Zionists denounce the liberal for not going far enough, for failing to follow the logic of his position through to its conclusion and for thereby defending the indefensible. The liberal Zionist is branded either a hypocrite or an apologist or both.

The treatment meted out to My Promised Land, a personal history of Israel by Ari Shavit, a columnist for Israel’s left-leaning daily Haaretz, is a case in point. The laptop warriors on both sides donned their familiar armor and set about attacking the book from right and left. “Far from self-criticism, this is simply self-debasement,” wrote the former World Jewish Congress official Isi Leibler in The Jerusalem Post, suggesting that among Shavit’s motives was an ingratiating desire to win “endorsement from the liberal glitterati for whom debasement of the Jewish state has become a key component of their liberal DNA.” Meanwhile, the leftist academic Norman G. Finkelstein has devoted an entire, if short, book to taking down My Promised Land. In Old Wine, Broken Bottle he insists that Shavit’s insights “comprise a hardcore of hypocrisy and stupidity overlaid by a tinsel patina of arrogance and pomposity. He’s a know-nothing know-it-all who, if ever there were a contest for world’s biggest schmuck, would come in second.”

Which is not to say that My Promised Land has not won prominent admirers. It has, receiving praise from Thomas Friedman, Leon Wieseltier, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Remnick, and others. That fact is unlikely to trouble the critics. On the contrary, they will see praise for Shavit from that quarter as a simple act of group solidarity, the lions of liberal Zionism huddling together in a pride.

The squeezed nature of the liberal Zionist’s position is hardly new, but in recent years the predicament has become more pronounced. The decline of the peace movement in Israel, along with the serial failures of the Israeli Labor Party, has suggested a cause in retreat. In the United States, the liberal lions have also come to resemble an endangered species, for reasons that reflect those long-term shifts in Israel. As Peter Beinart explained in a much-discussed essay in these pages in 2010, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” the leadership of US Jewry has adopted ever more hard-line, Likud-friendly positions on Israel, which leave cold the emerging generation of young American Jews, whose views, on domestic issues at least, tend toward the ultra-liberal. With a Netanyahu-ist AIPAC leadership to their right and a new generation increasingly disengaged from Israel to their left, the liberal Zionists can seem beached on a strip of land that is forever shrinking.

At least one aspect of this used to be very different. In Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, John B. Judis notes that the founding fathers of American liberal Zionism—chief among them the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis—seized on the nascent cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine partly because it helped reconcile two aspects of their identity: their Jewishness and their liberal values. By supporting Zionism, they were not only supporting a beleaguered, oppressed people fleeing Europe, they were also backing an experiment in collectivist living. Brandeis was particularly impressed, as many would be for decades to come, by the then-embryonic kibbutz movement. As Judis writes of Brandeis in the second decade of the twentieth century, “Jews in Palestine were building the cooperative democracy that he wanted to create in the United States.” There is a sour irony to the notion that the cause of Zion once served as a bridge between Jews and the liberal left. These days it drives them apart.

2.

If the luminaries of liberal Zionism have greeted My Promised Land with enthusiasm, it is hardly a surprise. It articulates their creed perfectly. For what characterizes the liberal Zionist, and what so infuriates opponents on left and right, is the insistence that two things, usually held to be in opposition, can both be true. So while, say, the left denounces settlements and the right highlights Israelis’ fears for their own security, the liberal Zionist wants to do both, often at the same time.

That this is Shavit’s intention is established early. His introduction warns the reader that “duality” will be his watchword, that he will be in the business of both/and rather than either/or:

On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition.

One might dispute whether the sense of intimidation is justified, given Israel’s regional and local dominance militarily. But that is beside the point. That Israelis perceive themselves to be endangered, for obvious reasons of history and geography, is entirely clear and in this respect perceptions matter: national security does not exist if a nation feels insecure. Shavit is surely right to say that any account that fails to understand both that fact and the fact of a forty-seven-year occupation cannot hope to “get the Israel story right.”

The book delivers on that promise of duality. It provides, for example, a chapter on the danger posed by Iranian nuclear ambitions, endorsing with a full throat Netanyahu’s talk of the existential threat to Israel. It is an argument that AIPAC could happily reproduce as a campaigning document (and one that, incidentally, has long separated Shavit from many of his more skeptical Haaretz colleagues). Curiously in a book that spans more than a century, it is this section on the current scene that comes across as one of the more dated in My Promised Land. In view of US–Iranian talks on the nuclear issue and, more recently, the tacit cooperation between the two countries over the threat posed by the Sunni organization ISIS in Iraq, such hard-line rhetoric on Iran sounds as lonely and out-of-step coming from Shavit as it does from Netanyahu.

Hawkishness of that kind will duly antagonize dovish readers. But then they will come across passages such as this, prompted by a visit to the West Bank settlement of Ofra:

The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality. But now Ofra’s illegitimacy taints Israel itself. Like a cancer, it spreads from one organ to another, endangering the entire body. Ofra’s colonialism makes the world perceive Israel as a colonialist entity. But because in the twenty-first century there is no room for a colonialist entity, the West is gradually turning its back on Israel. That’s why enlightened Jews in America and Europe are ashamed of Israel. That’s why Israel is at odds with itself.

Shavit goes further, choosing to include in My Promised Land the account he wrote as a young reservist of his twelve-day stint as a jailer in a Gaza detention camp in 1991, originally published in Haaretz and later in The New York Review. Though the young Shavit writes that he has “always abhorred the analogy,” he quotes a fellow soldier who says “that the place resembles a concentration camp.” He uses the words “Aktion” and “Gestapo.” He says of the camp doctor, “He is no Mengele,” which of course invites a comparison to Mengele.

You might think this makes the Finkelstein view—that Shavit is engaged in sophisticated hasbara, propaganda for Israel—tricky to sustain. But critics of liberal Zionism have a ready reply. The Hebrew phrase of choice is yorim u’vochim, literally “shooting and crying,” used to deride the tendency of the Israeli left to lament the horror of killing Arabs or occupying Palestinians in eloquent prose, stirring poetry, and award-winning movies, while the killing and occupation continue. This way, runs the criticism, the Israeli dove gets to win the admiration of the outside world, Jew and non-Jew alike, for the beauty and sensitivity of his conscience even as the behavior of his country, and the army whose uniform he continues to wear, does not change. In this view, the liberal Zionist is more disreputable than his hard-line nationalist cousin because, unlike the latter, he insists on having his cake and eating it.

That charge can, and has been, leveled at Shavit. One could say that his chapter on Gaza meets the standard definition of “shooting and crying.” But that would be too flippant a response to the larger story My Promised Land is telling, a story in which the book itself may even come to play a part.

3.

The ultimate question leftist opponents of Zionism like to hurl at liberal Zionists, the one the former believe the latter cannot answer, is, to use Finkelstein’s formulation: “How does one excuse ethnic cleansing?” If one is a liberal, committed to human rights, how can one justify the expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 as Israel was born?

Shavit’s answer comes in the form of the two chapters that sit at the heart of the book. First comes “Lydda, 1948,” a meticulously assembled account of the three July days when soldiers of the new Israeli army emptied that city of its Palestinian inhabitants and, according to Shavit, killed more than three hundred civilians in cold blood and without discrimination. Piecing together the testimony of those who did the killing, Shavit writes: “Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre.”

It was this chapter, unflinching and forensically detailed, that so exercised Isi Leibler in his Jerusalem Post review. As we shall see, the mere fact of setting out such brutal facts is itself to take a stand, but Shavit touches on the question of justification too.

First, he implicitly accepts what anti-Zionists have long argued: that the eventual dispossession of Palestinians was logically entailed in the Zionist project from the outset, that it could not be any other way. The problem was, the Jewish homeland was not empty. As the two rabbis dispatched from Theodor Herzl’s first Zionist Congress in Vienna, sent to Palestine like the biblical spies who first entered Canaan, reported back: “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” Shavit seems to accept as obvious the implication that Palestine could not become the home of the Jews unless Palestinians lost their homes in Palestine: “If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.”

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Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos
Amos Oz in the Hulda kibbutz, Israel, 1983

Does that mean that Shavit believes the massacre at Lydda was justified? He avoids a direct answer. The question is “too immense to deal with”; it is “a reality I cannot contain.” But he won’t join

the bleeding heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what [the Israelis] did in Lydda but enjoy the fruits of their deed…. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born…. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.

This answer is underpinned, again implicitly, by what follows. The chapter after Lydda is “Housing Estate, 1957,” which describes a single shikun, a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Tel Aviv that became the new home of a group of Holocaust survivors. Shavit quotes, uninterrupted and at length, the harrowing childhood experiences of three eminent Israelis: novelist Aharon Appelfeld, former Chief Justice Aharon Barak, and Professor Ze’ev Sternhell (whom Shavit calls “a lauded political activist against Israeli fascism”), all of whom endured the whirlwind of the Shoah before they reached Israel.

The juxtaposition of these two chapters makes Shavit’s point for him. It reminds the reader why Jews came to believe with such urgency and fervor that a state, a haven, was a necessity. As it happens, both hawkish Zionists and anti-Zionists tend to dislike this line of reasoning. The former fear it weakens the Jewish claim to Palestine if that claim is deemed to have arisen not out of a millennia-old attachment to the Land of Israel, but simply the need for a postwar sanctuary. The latter see it as a kind of moral trump card, designed to close down all argument.

Yet Shavit is right to raise it, because the experience of the Holocaust did indeed convince Jews in Palestine and beyond that a Jewish state had become a mortal need. Judis, whose perspective differs sharply from Shavit’s, confirms as much when he quotes Truman’s envoy Mark Ethridge telling the president that the Jews believed they had had a “narrow escape…from extinction.” Judis reports that most of the Reform Jews who as late as 1942 had founded the American Council for Judaism—which led the fight against US support for a Jewish state—radically reversed their position once they knew of the Nazi horror. “After reports of the Holocaust surfaced, many of them embraced Zionism as the only alternative for Europe’s displaced Jews.” That experience—of Jews, once ambivalent about Jewish statehood, dropping all doubts in the face of the Shoah—was all but universal in the Jewish world. It seemed clear that Jews needed a country where, even if their safety would be far from guaranteed, they would, at least, be able to defend themselves.

Still, believing that a Jewish national home had become a moral necessity is not the same as believing that the dispossession of the Palestinians was logically inevitable. The two views are separable. Judis’s central argument is that things could indeed have turned out differently, had Truman followed his instinct for evenhandedness between Jews and Arabs and backed the Zionism of Ahad Ha’am and his followers, who called for a binational state in Palestine. That he didn’t, says Judis, is owing to the muscular pressure of American Zionism, as Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Stephen Wise, and others strong-armed the president into favoring the Jewish case over the Palestinian.

The echo in that argument of recent controversies over “the Israel lobby,” including the furor stirred by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book on the subject, has seen Judis similarly accused of reviving age-old tropes of overweening Jewish power. All of which has tended to obscure his attempt to recover from obscurity the binationalist strain within Zionism. The conventional view is that the vision of Ahad Ha’am and the Brit Shalom movement he inspired—which included Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Henrietta Szold, and Gershom Scholem among others—was impossibly utopian and doomed to fail, that the two peoples were always fated to clash. Judis rejects that, insisting that Truman could have used US might to impose a binational solution on Palestine.

Others, including the political scientist Jerome Slater, argue that a binational state was not the only way that expulsion and dispossession could have been avoided.* Slater describes plans in circulation at the time for voluntary resettlement by Arabs, along with substantial financial compensation, which might have made a Jewish state possible without much of the brutality that ensued.

These should be important questions for liberal Zionists because they challenge, at the very least, the notion that violent dispossession was unavoidable and inherent in the Zionist enterprise. In the cold language of logic, they suggest that massacres such as that at Lydda were contingent rather than necessary. Shavit does not consider these alternative possibilities, but if he had it might have shaken his certainty that had it not been for “the damned” of Lydda, the state of Israel would not have been born.

4.

While critics on the left have criticized the conclusions Shavit draws from Lydda, the fact that he tells the story of that massacre at all, coupled with the way he tells it, is significant in its own right. The effect of the chapter is to take a stand against the early Zionists and insist on seeing what they did not see. On this Shavit and Judis agree: Zionism’s founding fathers were afflicted by selective blindness, unable or unwilling to register what was in front of their eyes: the presence of another people in the Land of Israel.

Shavit retraces the journey to Palestine made by his great-grandfather, the well-to-do British gentleman and Zionist romantic Herbert Bentwich, in 1897. Arab stevedores attend to him at Jaffa; Arab staff wait on him in his hotel; Arab villagers are all around. But they leave no trace. “My great-grandfather does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see,” writes Shavit. “He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back.”

In this, Bentwich was typical. It’s well known that too many of the first Zionists had a blind spot when it came to Palestine’s indigenous population. They were eager to accept the myth of a land without a people, for a people without a land. (The binationalists were the exception, among them, incidentally, Herbert Bentwich’s son Norman, attorney general in Palestine under the British mandate.)

Less well known is that America’s lovers of Zion were similarly sightless. Judis is all but baffled that men of impeccable liberal credentials could fail to see what was obvious. Stephen Wise was a founder of the ACLU and NAACP but, like his fellow Zionist liberals, he was “oblivious to the rights of Palestine’s Arabs.” “They knew next to nothing about Arab Palestine,” writes Judis. They were men of their time, if not of the previous century. In November 1929, Brandeis wrote: “The situation reminds me of that in America, when the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to protect themselves against the Indians.”

In Israel itself, the denial has not passed. On the contrary, Shavit argues that his country is built on layer upon layer of denial. Its most obvious form is physical, Israeli villages built on the remains of places that seventy years ago were Palestinian, their names erased:

This denial is astonishing. The fact that seven hundred thousand human beings have lost their homes and their homeland is simply dismissed. Asdud becomes Ashdod, Aqir becomes Ekron, Bashit becomes Aseret, Danial becomes Daniel, Gimzu becomes Gamzu, Hadita becomes Hadid.

And of course Lydda has become Lod, home of Ben-Gurion Airport. Shavit goes on to argue that it was not just the pre-1948 Palestinians who were the victims of this Israeli tendency to forget. The Holocaust survivors he speaks to were if not silenced then barely heard, their experiences pushed down below the surface where they could not disturb the forward march of Israeli progress. He describes too the fate of the mizrachim, the Jews from Arab lands, who came to Israel only to be denuded of their customs, heritage, and pride—their traditions dismissed as backward and shamefully Middle Eastern. He explains that a country bent on forging and uniting a new nation had no time to look back.

But it is the willed forgetfulness toward the original inhabitants of the land that preoccupies Shavit. His target is not just his long-ago ancestors, but his immediate forebears: the leaders of Israel’s peace movement. He takes them to task for focusing on the legacy of 1967 and the occupied territories, for fostering the delusion that if only Israel righted that wrong and pulled out of those lands then harmonious resolution would follow.

This is not to say that Shavit in any way defends the occupation. On the contrary, he longs for it to end, regarding the West Bank settlements as an Israeli error of catastrophic proportions. He does not offer details or a map, but his support is clear for the international consensus that calls for a withdrawal to an adjusted version of the 1967 lines. The difference he has with his erstwhile comrades in the peace movement is that he no longer believes such a move will bring peace: “We should never have promised ourselves peace or assumed that peace was around the corner. We should have been sober enough to say that occupation must end even if the end of occupation did not end the conflict.”

Implicit in such a view is that Israel need not wait for agreement with the Palestinians to draw a border and, as Shavit puts it, “gradually and cautiously withdraw to that new border.” He is with David Ben-Gurion himself who, in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, suggested that Israel unilaterally return the territories it had just conquered (except for Jerusalem). On this logic, the recent failure of John Kerry’s peace process, or the flare-up in violence following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, need not delay a unilateral move. With no illusions about peace, Israel can get started on the more practical business of deoccupation all by itself.

Shavit is explicit about why such a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, more or less, won’t bring peace. It is because the heart of the matter is not 1967 but the birth of Israel itself in 1948.

In a pointed choice, he visits Hulda, the kibbutz that was for decades the home of Peace Now’s spiritual leader, the novelist Amos Oz. But Hulda was also the name of the neighboring Arab village. In April 1948, the village was conquered, its houses demolished, its fields pillaged, and much of its land eventually absorbed into the kibbutz of the same name.

It’s Hulda, stupid. Not Ofra [on the West Bank], but Hulda, I tell myself. Ofra was a mistake, an aberration, insanity. But in principle, Ofra may have a solution. Hulda is the crux of the matter. Hulda is what the conflict is really about.

Of course, Shavit is hardly the first to contemplate the reality of 1948. He quotes the famously frank funeral oration by Moshe Dayan in 1956 that was similarly clear-eyed: “We have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home.” Shavit is also following a lead set in the 1980s and 1990s by Israel’s “new historians,” who scoured the archives, exhuming the buried facts of Israeli expulsions of Palestinians.

But Shavit may get a hearing those scholars did not. While some new historians described themselves as anti-Zionists, others as post-Zionists, Shavit is a scion of Zionist aristocracy. His positions on Iran and other issues place him well within the Israeli mainstream. Yet in this book he not only denounces the post-1967 occupation, he engages emotionally with the events Palestinians regard as the nakba, the catastrophe, of 1948.

What’s more, Israel and especially its supporters in the Jewish diaspora might be willing to accept this from Shavit in a way they would refuse it from the likes of Norman Finkelstein. By writing as not only a liberal but a Zionist, Shavit makes clear that his critique is from within rather than without. He supplies the family history of everyone he speaks to, whether he agrees or disagrees, giving a background to their views that cannot help but humanize them. He is not standing on the outside, gloating at Israel’s misfortune, but rather sharing in it. That much is made clear in the chapters devoted to celebrating Israel’s triumphs, its astonishing feats of absorption of waves of immigrants or its burgeoning high-tech sector.

Such praise grates on anti-Zionist ears, but it makes Shavit a much more powerful advocate than they could ever be, at least if shifting Israeli public opinion is the goal—which, for those who want to effect change and end the conflict rather than simply win debating points on Twitter, it should be. Perhaps this is a weakness, but Jews tend to listen to those who argue from inside rather than outside. Witness the Haggadah’s distinction at the seder table between the wise son and the wicked. Technically, all that separates them is the grammatical difference between the first and second person. What does this mean to you, asks the wicked son; what does this mean to us, asks the wise son. But that distinction makes all the difference.

This contrast in tone might be why Judis has drawn fire from the very writers who lavished praise on Shavit, Leon Wieseltier among them. Judis’s book is rigorous, well sourced, and well argued and he has Zionist credentials of his own (he volunteered to fight for Israel in 1967 but was too late). But at times his prose strikes the wrong note, as if he is less concerned to win over Jews than to expose their moral failings. In view of his thesis that American Jews have made, and can make, the difference in the Israel–Palestine conflict, he might have done more to persuade rather than alienate them.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate role of the much-derided liberal Zionist. They are better placed than most to move Zionist, including Israeli, opinion. Finkelstein concludes his philippic against Shavit with a declaration that, despite the “original sin” of its creation, Israel’s fate is not set in stone. It can take a first step toward closure, consigning the past to the past, and perhaps even toward reconciliation, with a “formal acknowledgement of what happened in 1948.” For an Israeli patriot such as Shavit, profoundly committed to his country, to have written this powerful, complex, absorbing book and for it to have received the plaudits it has suggest progress toward that necessary goal.


This article went to press on July 11, before the outbreak of fighting in Gaza. Jonathan Freedland’s subsequent post about the crisis in Gaza appears on the NYRblog.

  1. *

    See Jerome Slater, “On John Judis’s ‘Genesis,’ and Its Critics,” Mondoweiss .net, March 9, 2014. 

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