Abstractly speaking, I should be quite a popular person in the American-Jewish community. I am a dissident. I am also, at a time when the search is on for moderate voices on the Palestine question, a moderate. And I proved my devotion to displaced persons in and out of the Middle East years ago. I have a medal to prove it, from the Haganah—the illegal Jewish army that fought what Prime Minister Begin calls the Jewish war of liberation and established the state of Israel in 1948.
Yet despite all these credentials I find myself—like many fellow American intellectuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, ostracized whenever I try to speak up on the Middle East. It demonstrates what slight changes in time and space can do to familiar categories. Dissidents, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the Soviet Union are—deservedly—heroes. They may be forced to circulate their views in samizdat, they may be dependent for circulation in their homeland on the typewriter and carbon paper. But at least they make the front pages of the American and world press, and the correspondents in Moscow hang on their words. Here at least their books are bestsellers.
But it is only rarely that we dissidents on the Middle East can enjoy a fleeting voice in the American press. Finding an American publishing house willing to publish a book which departs from the standard Israeli line is about as easy as selling a thoughtful exposition of atheism to the Osservatore Romano in Vatican City.
In this respect, our lot is worse than that of the Arabs. Even before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem made it fashionable, there were synagogues willing to invite Egyptian and even Palestinian Arabs, and occasionally an American of Arab origin to explain his viewpoint. Only a few days ago Mohammed Hakki, an able and eloquent Egyptian newspaperman who now works for his country’s embassy here in Washington, was given a Sabbath forum and heard with courtesy at Adas Israel, one of the capital’s most prestigious congregations.
But I have yet to hear of an American journalist of dissident views, Jewish or gentile, accorded similar treatment. I will not name them but there are top figures in the profession, with long records of championing Israel and the Jewish people, who complain bitterly in private that if they dare express one word of sympathy for Palestinian Arab refugees, they are flooded with Jewish hate-mail, accusing them of anti-Semitism.
As for Jewish dissidents in America, we get the standard treatment. We are labeled “self-hating Jews.” American Jewish intellectuals are lectured on what is stigmatized as their weakness for “universalism.” One distinguished academic was summoned to an Israeli consulate for a scolding and put into deepfreeze by colleagues for advocating a generous peace policy toward the Palestinian Arabs. We are asked why we cannot be narrow ethnics, suspicious of any breed but our own. Isaiah is out of fashion.
Gentile dissidents are generally treated simply as anti-Semites, no matter how often they have demonstrated friendship for Israel and the Jews in the past. A pro-Israel Republican senator, many of whose closest aides are Jewish, suddenly found himself treated as an enemy by the organized Jewish community in his state because on a trip to the Middle East he had ventured some expression of sympathy for the Arabs, too.
Even the Quakers are on the blacklist; they have demonstrated that the peacemakers may be blessed in heaven but they have a hard time on earth. At their Mideast peace conference in Washington last summer they were picketed by Jewish organizations. The State Department cooperated by denying a visa to a Palestinian moderate scheduled to speak there. (The Jewish dissidents of Breira, meeting at the same 4-H Club headquarters in Chevy Chase a week later, got worse treatment: the Jewish Defense League invaded the meeting, breaking up furniture and tearing up membership lists.)
On the Middle East, freedom of debate is not encouraged. Much ill-will has been piled up, though not publicly expressed, in Congress, the government, and the press by the steamroller tactics of the hard-liners.
My trouble originally began with my weakness for refugees. In the spring of 1946 I was the first reporter to travel with “displaced persons” (as they were then called) out of the Nazi camps from Poland to Palestine through the British blockade. After making that trip, I found myself a hero in the American Jewish community, a speaker at more than one national convention of Hadassah. I can even remember being trotted out by the Zionists to persuade the (then) Uncle Toms of the American Jewish Committee to overcome their fears of identifying with the Zionist cause. Now their publication, Commentary, has become the principal pillory for Americans who dissent from the Israeli hard line. In the past twenty-five years I have been asked to speak in a synagogue only once, and I won’t name it lest I again embarrass its rabbi, for then I made the mistake of asking sympathy for Arab refugees as well. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the horror of statelessness in the Thirties for those who fled fascist and Nazi oppression. I feel for the scattered Palestinians who would like a state and a passport too.
My first taste of being a dissident came quite early. When I got back from my illegal trip, my series “Underground to Palestine,” in the New York newspaper PM, was an instant success. It pushed circulation to a high point which, if maintained, might have saved Ralph Ingersoll’s unique experiment in publishing a newspaper without advertising. I traveled with some of the most wonderful people I have ever met, both passengers and crew—including survivors of the death camps and the handful of American-Jewish sailors who volunteered to man the ships taking them to Palestine.
The story of their lives and adventures stirred sympathy for the Zionist cause among Jews and non-Jews alike. Then when publication in book form was planned, I was taken to lunch by friends in the Zionist movement, including a partner in one of the topmost advertising firms in America. They outlined a $25,000 advertising campaign to put the book across. But then came the awkward moment.
There was one sentence, I was told, just a sentence or so, that had to come out. I asked what that was. It was the sentence in which I suggested a binational solution, a state whose constitution would recognize, irrespective of shifting majorities, the presence of two peoples, two nations, Arab and Jewish, within Palestine, with two official languages, Arabic and Hebrew, which are now indeed the two official languages in the state of Israel.
That position may sound like dreadful heresy today. It was not that far-out in 1946, a year before the United Nations decided to partition the country between two states, Arab and Jewish, with economic and other links between them. At that time the Hashomer Hatzair, the Left Zionists, an important sector of the Zionist movement then as now, had long advocated a binational solution. In addition I then suggested that the binational state be established in the whole of Palestine, as it was before 1922. It was then that the British carved out a new kingdom across the Jordan for the Hashemite dynasty after the Saudi family drove them out of Mecca and established their fierce fundamentalist Wahabi state where barbarous penalties straight out of the Bible are still imposed for adultery and theft. This was the consolation prize for Britain’s friend, King Abdullah.
I refused to take this passage out. “My boss, Ralph Ingersoll,” I said, “allowed me to make the three-month trip at considerable sacrifice for the paper. He did not tell me what to write. It was printed that way in PM. He would have a low opinion of me, quite rightly, if I submitted to such censorship for the sake of an advertising campaign.” That ended the luncheon, and in a way, the book. It was in effect proscribed.
But two years later the book was translated into Hebrew with the offending passage intact, though the translator was a leading member of the Mapai, the dominant party in Zionism and as deeply opposed as my interlocutors in America to a binational solution. And as the 1948 war approached, copies of the book were given out to Sabras, i.e., native-born Palestinian Jews, in the armed forces to help them understand how Jews had suffered and some survived the Holocaust.
As so often since, dissent frowned upon in the United States was allowed in Israel, so long as it was published in Hebrew. To this day few American Jews realize how much free debate goes on in the Hebrew press and in Hebrew book publishing there. The language barrier makes possible a most useful little Iron Curtain behind which American Jews can be herded into supporting the hard official line.
Arabs who read Hebrew, and many do, have free access to this debate, but we do not. Very little of Israeli debate, either in the press or the Knesset, filters through to the American public. Few American correspondents know Hebrew, and only the official statements are easily available in English. Consequently the coverage of the last Knesset session, after Sadat’s walk-out from the peace talks, might just as well have been coverage of a rubber-stamp parliament in any Third World dictatorship. None of the dissenting voices was reported. All we got was what Begin said.
This failure to report Israeli debate is a great obstacle to wise decision making here. Many in Israel, too, feel that it is not anti-Semitic to believe that a generous attitude toward the Palestinian Arabs may be a better safeguard of Israel’s future than the niggardly something-for-nothing response of the hardliners.
Moderates in Israel look to the leaders of the American-Jewish community for leverage against the hard-liners, and the timid doves of the Jewish establishment here look to opinion in Israel for support; but communication between them is blocked off, and the result is a rigid monolithic policy totally unsuited to the great opportunities opened up by Sadat’s courageous initiative.
Many here in the United States must have felt appalled at Sadat’s reception in Jerusalem. I knew Chaim Weizmann, and he was not only a masterly diplomat but could bring something of the poet to political difficulties. Had he been still alive and the president of Israel, he would have risen to the occasion with a magnanimous gesture and a healing phrase. But all Sadat got from Begin was a warmed-over UJA speech. Begin’s response made me blush.
Quite a few people in Israel shared that same feeling of disappointment over Begin’s response to the Sadat visit, but you would hardly guess it from press coverage here. Ma’ariv, the biggest newspaper in Israel, ran a long interview covering more than one full page with the deputy prime minister, Yigal Yadin, taking issue with Begin after the Sadat meeting and calling for a more flexible policy. To have the deputy prime minister disagree publicly with the prime minister was a major political story, but so far as I know the only paper in this country that printed the deputy prime minister’s statement was the Washington Star (December 4). I didn’t see it even mentioned elsewhere. The headline in Ma’ariv indicated the divergence between Begin and his deputy prime minister: “The Moment of Truth Comes and Israel Will Have to State Its Willingness for Territorial Concessions in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) Or Else There Will Be No Peace.”
One of the many other unreported voices of dissent was that of G. Schocken, editor of Israel’s most respected paper, Ha’aretz, who expressed his disagreement with Begin in an unusual signed editorial. The Knesset debate then too was meagerly reported. When I tried to get the Israeli “Congressional Record” (Divrei Ha Knesset) from the Israeli desk of the State Department I was told after the usual bureaucratic indifference that the latest copies the State Department had were a few issues from the year 1965!
Yet it would help the administration resist the monolithic hard-liners if the American Congress and public were made more aware of dissent in Israel. The most striking recent example was the editorial in the Jerusalem Post (international edition of January 24) on Sadat’s action in breaking off the peace talks. While expressing regret over the “tougher line” taken by Sadat in his speech recalling his negotiators from Jerusalem, the Post said:
His criticism about Israel’s handling of the talks and some of the public statements made here should however also lead to some self-review in Jerusalem. For certainly Sadat seemed to have every right to wonder about Israel’s intentions when bulldozers in Sinai, replete with fanfare, suddenly materialized while he was supposedly gaining agreement about Israeli withdrawal, and when Israeli rhetoric countered a commitment to desist from polemics.
The Jerusalem Post has long been the distinguished English voice of the Israeli community. Its scarcely veiled rebuke to Begin is quite different from the unrestrained condemnation in this country of Sadat by such figures as Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. He said Sadat’s “impatience conveys the impression that you disdain the negotiating process in its entirety” (The New York Times, January 30).
I was brought up to believe that a fundamental pillar of any stable political situation is—in that historic American phrase—“the consent of the governed.” How can there be a stable, secure relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, both those on the West Bank and those stateless in the Palestinian Diaspora, without their consultation and consent?
To impose the kind of “self-rule” Begin envisages on the Palestinians is to push Israel into an endless sea of troubles. How do you make sure the people they elect to office are not secretly sympathizers with the PLO, or not “moderate” enough to suit Israel, Hussein, or Carter?
Do you cross-examine candidates in advance to make sure they’re satisfactory? Do you open their mail, bug their phones, and police their social contacts to make sure they stay that way? And how much respect will Palestinians have for this variety of “self-rulers”?
The frown of the occupying power or of foreign statesmen may defeat itself by conferring legitimacy. When Carter on the eve of his recent trip abroad “ruled out” the PLO in advance, he invited embarrassing questions. If negotiations are to be limited to “moderates,” does that rule out Begin and the Likud too? If the Palestinians are to have selfrule, what gives Carter the right to cast the first ballot?
All else becomes negotiable if the principle of self-determination is recognized. A transition period in which old fears are allayed and both sides can settle down comfortably into coexistence has much to be said for it. But not if “self-rule” is a counterfeit and “transition” invites Gush Emunim to expand its settlements and erode a future Palestinian state even before it is born.
The latest warning signal was the news that a new West Bank settlement is being established in Shiloh, despite Begin’s promise to Carter, on the novel plea that this is only an “archaeological” settlement. If archaeology can excuse new settlements, and Gush Emunim disguise itself as a mere band of eager beaver Schliemanns, no place is safe. There is no spot in the Holy Land where some antiquity cannot be dug up. But the administration is so timorous that Carter’s note of protest to Begin, instead of being given full publicity, was leaked to James Reston’s column in The New York Times, Sunday, January 29, as if the White House were afraid to raise its voice.
Washington has not even reacted to Dayan’s remark in a recent Knesset debate that under “self-rule” the Israeli army would have the right not only to protect Jewish settlements on the West Bank but to enforce further land acquisition by Jews. Such threats hardly serve the cause of security and stability for Israel and the Middle East.
History over and over again has proven magnanimity a better safeguard than myopic military thinking. Those who wish to see the case for alternative policies in the precarious Middle East negotiations should read the thoughtful analyses by two Israeli doves in recent interviews here which deserve far wider attention than they have received. One was the interview with Mattityahu Peled in the February 23 issue of The New York Review of Books and the other with Arie Eliav in the December 24 Nation and (a longer version) in the January-February issue of Worldview magazine. Both these Israelis are seasoned by experience. Peled was a major general in the Israeli armed forces and Eliav was secretary general in 1970-1972 of Israel’s then ruling Labor Party. But both, despite their past eminence, now that they are dissidents are in danger of being reduced to non-persons. They get little attention in the press and television.
How can wise solutions be reached, and the opportunity for peace rescued, when such dissident voices are hardly heard here above a whisper in what passes for debate on the Middle East? How can we talk of human rights and ignore them for the Palestinian Arabs? How can Israel talk of the Jewish right to a homeland and deny one to the Palestinians? How can there be peace without some measure of justice?
March 9, 1978