Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: I suppose this is a somewhat intemperate letter, but I am getting fed up. Malise Ruthven’s essay on ‘the Beirut massacre’ (LRB, 4 November 1982) is only the latest piece of mendacious anti-Israel propaganda to appear recently in your pages. There have been a whole series of such attacks over the last few years, and they have a curiously similar ring. Since the authors are unwilling to admit to their hatred of Israel and their contempt for Israel’s interest, but wish to pose as reasonable friends of peace and of humane values, they all fall back on a characteristic blend of hypocrisy, distortion and intellectual gymnastics. In particular, they are obliged to ignore or conceal the central reality of Arab-Israeli conflict, which is the refusal of the Arab states with the sole exception of Egypt, to accept Israel’s right to exist. If the Arabs were willing to make serious peace with Israel, the plight of the Palestinians would be soluble, and historical experience makes it plausible that most Israelis would be willing to make sacrifices and take risks to solve it. Given the present situation, the Palestinians simply play the role of the Sudeten Germans in the propaganda of the Arab states – who have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not give a damn about the Palestinians’ welfare – and of their Western sycophants, such Mr Ruthven. This is an important part of the context in which Begin’s demagogy and militarism can command the level of support that they do.
Mr Ruthven’s essay ignores or dismisses all of this, but focuses minutely on the alleged paranoia, deceitfulness and reactionary immorality of Zionist policies. Like most pieces of skilful propaganda, this account is not entirely devoid of facts, but it is curious that the Jews seem to be the only ones in the Middle East who are oppressive, militaristic or xenophobic. Furthermore, it always turns out that any tendencies in the Islamic world of which Mr Ruthven or the other authors might disapprove – such as the narrowness and instability of the regimes, the shakiness of the concept of the secular territorial state, or the pull toward religious or national loyalties rather than purely political ones – are all the fault of (guess who?) Israel. The sheer preposterousness of this notion makes it difficult to know how to respond. Next Mr Ruthven will want us to believe that Theodore Herzl founded Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that the Ayatollah Khomeini got the concept of jihad from Moshe Dayan, and that Mossad was behind the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasser and the Ba’ath party. (The Palestinian National Covenant, by the way, states very clearly that Palestine will be a ‘secular, democratic’ Arab state.) When the wildly one-sided bias of these authors is pointed out to them, they deflect the question by attacking a straw man, and deny that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-semitic. Fine. I think it is true that such arguments often proceed merely from an obsessive antagonism to Israel and an irresponsible indifference to the Israelis’ very rational concern about their national existence and security, so that they are anti-semitic in effect but not in intention. But his sort of anti-Zionism is morally despicable enough to deserve condemnation on its own terms, even if some of the authors’ best friends are Jews – or even if they are Jews themselves.
At the end of the article there comes the characteristic never-never-land touch. The solution, Mr Ruthven asserts, is ‘a settlement for the region which guarantees the existing national states behind secure and recognised frontiers … ’ I agree, and this is precisely what the Israelis have been saying for some thirty years. Why doesn’t he mention this excellent idea to the Arabs? ‘The Arab governments have already indicated they will recognise Israel’s existence on these terms …’ This is, of course, an outright lie. Why do you publish such pernicious rubbish?
The London Review of Books has run for three years and has published few pieces of any length on this subject: so Jeff Weintraub’s alleged long-running torrent of mendacity is a mirage. He is one of those who take themselves to be contributing to the defence of Israel – a cause with which this journal fully sympathises – when they search their vocabularies for words of abuse to direct at writers with whom they disagree. He is against both Begin and the ‘anti-Zionists’. But he appears to have something in common with publicists and polemicists who suggest that Begin’s policies are necessary for the survival of Israel and that it is ‘objectively’ anti-semitic to deny it, and who are unable to understand, or admit, that it may precisely be a concern for Israel which dictates a rejection of Begin. There can now be defences of Israel which defend – very often, by omitting to mention the matter – the organised killing of women and children. Malise Ruthven will reply to this letter in the next issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983
SIR: Jeff Weintraub’s attack on me (Letters, 10 January) is so blunderingly abusive that I have had as much difficulty in finding a coherent line of criticism to answer as he claims to have had in responding to my article. In the first place, he misrepresents the essential point in my argument about the instability of Middle East regimes. I did not blame Israel exclusively, having made it clear that it was a consequence of the area’s Islamic-Ottoman background. I did argue – and repeat – that Begin and Sharon’s policies add to this inherent instability by encouraging sectarian conflict. Secondly, Mr Weintraub misrepresents my view of the consequences of such deliberate destabilisation. I am not asking him to believe that the religious militancy affecting the whole area is of Israel’s making, merely that Begin’s policies are contributing to this fanatical upsurge. Jewish messianic fundamentalism has its mirror-image in Islamic fundamentalism. Both movements are inimical to the ideals of the secular national state.
Finally, Mr Weintraub claims that Arab refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist is the ‘central reality’ of the conflict. What of Israel’s repeated refusal to recognise the rights of the Palestinians, its illegal annexation of parts of the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights) and its policy (which long pre-dates the coming to power of Begin’s ‘demagogic and militarist’ government) of expropriating Arab water and land and planting Jewish settlements? Are these simple consequences of Arab non-recognition (or punishments for it, perhaps, like the blowing-up of villages), or has Arab non-recognition been a consequence of Israel’s refusal to implement UN resolutions concerning Palestinian rights and territory in 1948, 1967 and 1973 and so on?
Rightly or wrongly, the Arab states except Egypt have not seen why they should recognise any a priori right of Israel to exist until the dispute over territory has been settled: no state in the world exists by right, independently of the territory it occupies. The indication that recognition would be forthcoming in the event of an Israeli withdrawal is implicit in UN Resolutions 242 and 338, accepted by Egypt, Jordan and later by Syria, and more recently in the declaration by the Arab League governments at Fez.
Vol. 5 No. 3 · 17 February 1983
SIR: Mr Ruthven (LRB, 4 November 1982) appears to be remarkably prone to oversimplification. Take the term ‘Zionism’, for instance. Mr Ruthven, it seems, has never heard of the historic and unceasing conflict between Labour Zionism and Revisionism, let alone other trends. For him the blanket pejorative ‘Zionism’ will do. One is reminded of that devoted student of Henry James who, when the master paused in the course of a conversation in search of an exact epithet, said encouragingly: ‘Never mind, Mr James. Any old word will do.’ It is certainly true, alas, that Mr Begin’s policies are giving Zionism a bad name, but whether this should excuse stereotypical thinking of quite so gross a character is another matter.
The ‘extreme Zionists’, Mr Ruthven says, ‘project upon the Palestinians their own repressed sense of guilt and aggressiveness’. Within a paragraph, however, he has dispensed altogether with adjectival constraints and proceeds happily with his presentation of Zionism plain and unadorned. The repressed guilt and aggressiveness of Zionism has been nurtured, Mr Ruthven tells us, by two added factors: ‘the sense of insecurity felt by survivors of the Holocaust (the memory of which is enshrined in many public rituals and instilled into every Israeli schoolchild) … and the empty threatenings of Arab and Palestinian leaders who have tended to compensate for their impotence towards Israel by violent words and sometimes spectacular terrorist outrages … The Arab preference for talk over action is liable to be misunderstood by people with experience of the Nazis. The Nazis meant what they said.’ This is a set of quite startling contentions. First of all, in a population of which at least one-third are Holocaust survivors or the children of Holocaust survivors, it would hardly seem to be necessary ‘to instil’ the memory of the Holocaust. In point of fact, the Holocaust as a subject for systematic historical study has only recently been introduced into the school syllabus for the final high-school year. And yes, there is an annual Remembrance Day for the six million in the Israeli calendar. I think Mr Ruthven will probably find that most people with a lot of dead to remember like to remember them.
‘Empty threatenings’ seems to be an odd way of describing the invasion by seven Arab nations of the State of Israel newly created in 1948 on the basis of the United Nations partition of British Mandated Palestine; the closing of the Straits of Tiran and the removal of the UN peacekeeping force in Sinai by Nasser in 1967; and the initially extremely successful Egyptian and Syrian surprise attacks of 1973. Arabs, unlike Nazis, Mr Ruthven implies, do not mean what they say. No? Not even when what they say is a vow of revenge, and hard evidence that they mean what they say is open and palpable to all eyes in Tel el Za’ater, Damur, Shatila, Tripoli? Or a promise to root out political opposition which leaves ten thousand (a conservative estimate) dead in the streets of Hama? A massacre which oddly enough does not appear to exercise Mr Ruthven’s righteous wrath overmuch. What does Mr Ruthven suggest? That Israel offer itself as a guinea pig for the testing of his theory of the Arab preference for talk over action? Would he? There have indeed been some ‘spectacular terrorist outrages’. There have also been some unspectacular ones – just a bomb in a bus. A great many, indeed most, fortunately, have failed. Action, at all events, rather than words, has been pretty constant over the last 35 years.
Mr Ruthven’s lack of objectivity shows up most conspicuously in his treatment of the Kahana Inquiry Commission. He himself, like Mr Begin, has no need for a Commission. ‘Israel’s overall moral responsibility,’ he says, ‘is not in doubt.’ And the only matters remaining to discuss are, in his view, the Israeli motivation for setting up the massacre, linked, in a grand super-conspiracy, to the Israeli murder of Bashir Gemayel (this he has, he tells us, straight from ‘most Palestinians and Lebanese’), and whether the killers were Phalangists or Major Haddad’s men. However, there is no dispute (or denial on Israel’s part) that it was the Phalangists who were sent into the camps. That some Phalangists were mistaken for Haddad’s men in the turmoil and terror of the massacre which followed is irrelevant. But it is precisely the question of moral responsibility which the Inquiry Commission was instituted to determine: who precisely knew what, and when; who planned what and when; who was warned, or worried ahead of time; who ignored or belittled the warnings; who informed whom of the disaster and when; and what was then done about it. These are the questions the Commission has probingly been asking and they are the key questions for any judicial ascription of blame. When innocent people are killed in incriminating but confused and uncertain circumstances, civilised custom demands inquiry into the facts of the matter before leaping to foregone conclusions. That civilised custom was demanded not, as Mr Ruthven claims, by ‘facts’ coming to light through foreign journalists and television crews – those facts were known when Mr Begin refused to set up a Commission – but by the demonstration of 400,000 Israeli citizens who, against their own government and in the middle of a war, took to the streets in anguish at what had been allowed to occur. That figure translates into five million Britons. Every one of those people was a Zionist, as it happens – that species of the human race which, according to Mr Ruthven, projects ‘upon an imaginary enemy the destructiveness and cruelty of their own psyches’, just as the fabricators of the infamous Protocols did.
Mr Ruthven’s ‘most devastating evidence that Zionist leaders deliberately provoked Arab hostility in order to blackmail the West into supporting Israeli expansionism’ comes, he says, from the Diaries of the late Moshe Sharett. The Diary entry he quotes, however, is quoted out of context. The context, it will be recalled, was the Suez War of 1956, in which Britain and France, in pursuance of their own imperialist policies, engaged the services of the Israeli Army against Nasser in Sinai. That the then Government of Israel allowed itself to be used in this way, even sought and engineered the collusion, hoping in this way to pre-empt the (undeniable) Egyptian threat in the south, has been the subject of corrosive criticism not only by Sharett but by considerable numbers of Labour supporters ever since. There is good reason to think that Ben Gurion, and the Labour Party since his day, learned the lesson. But these fine distinctions are not for Mr Ruthven. The Israeli political scene, no less complex than the British, is scarcely amenable to exhaustive analysis in terms of his model of paranoid projections. There are nine political parties in the Israeli Parliament, stretching from the extreme left to the extreme right. The five Coalition parties muster about 52 per cent of the electorate. The remainder are in opposition to the policies of the present government. All these parties, save the Communists, whose ideology is internationalist, and the Aguda, whose ideology is providemialist, are Zionist. They subscribe, that is to say, despite bitter dispute on almost every other topic, including their conception of the Zionist enterprise and including the objectives, justification and conduct of the Lebanese war itself, to a belief in the necessity for a territorial homeland and refuge for the scattered Jewish people in some of the area that was once British Mandated Palestine, itself situated upon some of the area, or areas, of the ancient Jewish commonwealth. Upon just which area and how much of it, Coalition and Opposition split with intense passion. The Labour Opposition advocates (and has done, consistently, through the 34 years of the State’s existence) territorial compromise – a partition of the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean between the two claimant peoples, Jew and Arab. Mr Begin’s Likud claims sovereignty over the whole of the area in question on grounds of Biblical precept and precedent, and a physical-presence concept of defence, and aims at the quasi-annexation or limited autonomy of the West Bank. ‘Creeping’ annexation by settlement proceeds apace at present, a process made possible, be it noted, by the Arab refusal, for the last 34 years (half of that period being before the occupation of the West Bank) to recognise, let alone compromise with or negotiate with, the State of Israel. This refusal (except in Egypt since the Camp David accords) is still extant, though there may be some hopeful signs of a possible change of mind.
Should Mr Begin’s Government be replaced – a consummation, in my own long-standing view, most devoutly to be wished – what does Mr Ruthven imagine will replace it? Or ‘remove’ it, as he puts it? Since he has only one category – a demonically manipulative and fiendishly expansionist ‘Zionism’, one wonders. The Middle East is riven by tensions and wars, internecine and labyrinthine. Whoever presents one side in any of its disputes as being inalienably in possession of total justice, and its opponent as totally in the wrong, does ill service to the cause of sanity, reason and moderation in the region.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Vol. 5 No. 5 · 17 March 1983
SIR: Ruth Nevo (Letters, 17 February) accuses me of ignoring the ‘historic and unceasing conflict’ between Labour Zionism and Revisionism and of using the single term ‘Zionism’ without any qualifying distinctions except at the beginning of my article. Had she read the piece more carefully, she would have noted the reference to Jabotinsky as Begin’s mentor, along with references to extremist versions of Zionism. Unfortunately, the distinction between Labour Zionism and Revisionism has not always been as clear as Ruth Nevo would have it. Far from being consistent advocates of territorial compromise and Palestinian national rights, Labour governments have cashed in their bargaining counters almost as recklessly as Likud. It was a Labour government that annexed East Jerusalem; it was a Labour government which, between 1967 and 1977, permitted or assisted in the planting of more than thirty settlements in the Occupied Territories, including several by Revisionist-inspired or other right-wing groups. Nor have Zionist bodies outside Israel made a habit (until very recently) of distinguishing between Labour Zionism and Revisionism. For them, what is good for Israel – Greater or Lesser – is good for the Jewish people who must therefore be manipulated, blackmailed or bullied into supporting all of its policies.
The use of Holocaust rhetoric by Zionist officials and Israeli politicians to this end has been the subject of an important article by Boaz Evron in the Hebrew journal Yiton 77 (May-June 1980). Evron argues that ‘Jewish monopolisation’ of the Holocaust (in which three million Poles and Gypsies also died) has tended to prevent rational discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict. By constantly warning of the danger of a ‘Second Holocaust’ Israelis and their foreign supporters have been induced to equate Arabs with Nazis, making Arab hostility seem irrational and efforts at peace-making consequently futile. An instance of this vilifying propaganda may be found in Begin’s famous letter to Reagan last summer, comparing Arafat in Beirut to Hitler in his bunker. As Evron points out, Holocaust rhetoric has continually been used to sustain the feeling of a threat to Israel’s existence, although objectively speaking any such danger ceased after ‘the first cease-fire during the War of Independence of 1948’.
The recently published report of the Kahan Commission bears out many of the points I made in my article, although, as was to be expected, it minimises Israel’s responsibility for the massacres as far as can be done without departing from the fact, known from the first, that Christian militias entered the Sabra and Chatila camps on the orders, and with the assistance, of Sharon and his military commanders. The Commission has made the best of a difficult job in trying to vindicate Israel’s international reputation. However, like the Franks Report on the Falklands War, not all of its conclusions follow from the evidence. While accusing Sharon, Eitan and other senior commanders of culpable negligence in not foreseeing that the dispatch of Phalangist militias into the camps would almost inevitably lead to massacre, it nevertheless exonerates the Israeli military and political leadership of ‘any intention to harm the noncombatant population’. This is, to put it mildly, an unjustifiably lenient conclusion to draw from the catalogue of ‘misunderstandings’, failed communications, ‘lapses of memory’ and unheeded warnings which the report details. Without any additions, the facts admitted in the report can be adduced to allow the much harsher verdict that the senior IDF commanders, acting under Sharon’s orders, deliberately engineered the slaughter in the camps, and resisted all efforts by junior officers to have it stopped.
The line between culpable negligence and active complicity (between omission and commission) is not always easy to draw. But the tendentious character of the Kahan report’s conclusions ought to be readily apparent to anyone who examines the complete text in conjunction with other, more widely-known facts. The report’s most glaring contradiction is its acceptance of the argument that Israel’s attack on West Beirut after Bashir Gemayal’s murder was necessary in order to prevent the very atrocities it engendered: at no point does the report draw the obvious conclusion that the massacres were only made possible by the prior decision of the whole Israeli Government to take over West Beirut, in flagrant violation of the Habib agreement. This fact alone places a much fuller responsibility on the Israeli Government than any admitted in the report.
Having absolved Israel of its major part in setting up the massacres, the report makes a magnanimous admission, in line, as it says, with the highest democratic and Talmudic traditions, of the Government’s ‘indirect responsibility’. However commendable, the moral sensitivity displayed in this area (which certainly contrasts very favourably with the attitudes of any Arab government) is really a red herring: the learned references to the case of the ‘beheaded heifer’ have little to do with the question, for while the motes are meticulously examined, the beam is left virtually untouched. Perhaps this is not entirely the Commission’s fault, since Begin framed its terms of reference as narrowly as possible. But it does leave the impression that the report is a clever exercise in public relations rather than an effort to attribute blame where it truly belongs.