Permission to narrate
Edward Said writes about the story of the Palestinians
- Israel in Lebanon: The Report of the International Commission by Sean MacBride
Ithaca, 282 pp, £4.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 903729 96 2
- Sabra et Chatila: Enquête sur un Massacre by Amnon Kapeliouk
Seuil, 117 pp
- Final Conflict: The War in the Lebanon by John Bulloch
Century, 238 pp, £9.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7126 0171 6
- Lebanon: The Fractured Country by David Gilmour
Robertson, 209 pp, £9.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 85520 679 9
- The Tragedy of Lebanon: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventures and American Bunglers by Jonathan Randal
Chatto, 320 pp, £9.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2755 4
- God cried by Tony Clifton and Catherine Leroy
Quartet, 141 pp, £15.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 7043 2375 3
- Beirut: Frontline Story by Salim Nassib, Caroline Tisdall and Chris Steele-Perkins
Pluto, 160 pp, £3.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 86104 397 9
- The Fateful Triangle: Israel, the United States and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky
Pluto, 481 pp, £6.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 86104 741 9
As a direct consequence of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon an international commission of six jurists headed by Sean MacBride undertook a mission to investigate reported Israeli violations of international law during the invasion. The commission’s conclusions were published in Israel in Lebanon by a British publisher: it is reasonably clear that no publisher could or ever will be found for the book in the US. Anyone inclined to doubt the Israeli claim that ‘purity of arms’ dictated the military campaign will find support for that doubt in the report, even to the extent of finding Israel also guilty of attempted ‘ethnocide’ and ‘genocide’ of the Palestinian people (two members of the commission demurred at that particular conclusion, but accepted all the others). The findings are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred. The commission says that Israel was indeed guilty of acts of aggression contrary to international law; it made use of forbidden weapons and methods; it deliberately, indiscriminately and recklessly bombed civilian targets – ‘for example, schools, hospitals and other non-military targets’; it systematically bombed towns, cities, villages and refugee camps; it deported, dispersed and ill-treated civilian populations; it had no really valid reasons ‘under international law for its invasion of Lebanon, for the manner in which it conducted hostilities, or for its actions as an occupying force’; it was directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
As a record of the invasion, the MacBride Commission report is therefore a document of importance. But it has had no appreciable effect on the one outside force – America – whose indulgent support for Israel has made possible continued turbulence in Lebanon. The political question of moment is why, rather than fundamentally altering the Western view of Israel, the events of the summer of 1982 have been accommodated in all but a few places in the public realm to the view that prevailed before those events: that since Israel is in effect a civilised, democratic country constitutively incapable of barbaric practices against Palestinians and other non-Jews, its invasion of Lebanon was ipso facto justified.
Naturally, I refer here to official or policy-effective views and not the inchoate, unfocused feelings of the citizenry, which, to judge from several polls, is unhappy about Israeli actions. US aid levels to Israel since the siege of Beirut have gone up to a point where Israel receives roughly half of the entire American foreign aid budget, most of it in outright gifts and in subsidies to Israeli industries directly competitive with American counterparts. Presidential candidates, with the exception of George McGovern and Jesse Jackson, outbid each other in paeans of praise for Israel. The Administration has refurbished the strategic ‘understanding’ it made with Israel during Alexander Haig’s time as Secretary of State, as if the invasion had never happened, the theory being that, given unlimited aid, Israel will be assured of its security and prove a little more flexible. This has not happened. And, of course, Israel now sits on even greater amounts of Arab land, with occupation policies that are more brutally and blatantly repressive than those of most other 20th-century occupation regimes.
Gideon Spiro, an Israeli, testified to the MacBride Commission:
We don’t pay the price of anything that we are doing, not in the occupied territories, because Israel is in this a unique miracle. There is no country in the world which has over 100 per cent inflation, which is occupying the West Bank, occupying another people, and building all those settlements with billions of dollars, and spending 30 per cent of the GNP on defence – and still we can live here. I mean, somebody is paying for everything, so if everybody can live well and go abroad and buy cars, why not be for the occupation? So they are all luxury wars and people are very proud of the way we are fighting, the quick victories, the self-image of the brave Israeli – very flattering!
Yes, Israelis have fought well, and for the most part the Arabs haven’t: but how is it that, as has been the case for much of this century, the premises on which Western support for Israel is based are still maintained, even though the reality, the facts, cannot possibly bear these premises out?
Look at the summer of 1982 more closely. A handful of poorly armed Palestinians and Lebanese held off a very large Israeli army, air force and navy from 5 June till the middle of August. This was a major political achievement for the Palestinians. Something else was at stake in the invasion, however, to judge by its results a year and a half later – results which include Arab inaction, Syrian complicity in the unsuccessful PLO mutiny, and a virulent American hostility to Palestinian nationalism. That something was, I think, the inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people whose history, actuality and aspirations, as possessed of a coherent narrative direction pointed towards self-determination, were the object of this violence. Israel’s war was designed to reduce Palestinian existence as much as possible. Most Israeli leaders and newspapers admitted the war’s political motive. In Rafael Eytan’s words, to destroy Palestinian nationalism and institutions in Lebanon would make it easier to destroy them on the West Bank and in Gaza: Palestinians were to be turned into ‘drugged roaches in a bottle’. Meanwhile the clichés advocating Israel’s right to do what it wants grind on: Palestinians are rejectionists and terrorists, Israel wants peace and security, the Arabs won’t accept Israel and want to destroy it, Israel is a democracy, Zionism is (or can be made consonant with) humanism, socialism, liberalism, Western civilisation, the Palestinian Arabs ran away in 1948 because the other Arabs told them to, the PLO destroyed Lebanon, Israel’s campaign was a model of decorum greeted warmly by ‘the Lebanese’ and was only about the protection of the Galilee villagers.
Despite the MacBride Commission’s view that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ in the case of Zionism’s war against the Palestinians, the facts have never done so, especially in America, where Israeli propaganda seems to lead a life of its own. Whereas, in 1975, Michael Adams and Christopher Mayhew were able to write about a coherent but unstated policy of unofficial British press censorship, according to which unpleasant truths about Zionism were systematically suppressed, the situation is not nearly as obvious so far as the British media today are concerned. It still obtains in America, however, for reasons to do with a seemingly absolute refusal on the part of policy-makers, the media and the liberal intelligentsia to make connections, draw conclusions, state the simple facts, most of which contradict the premises of declared US policy. Paradoxically, never has so much been written and shown of the Palestinians, who were scarcely mentioned fifteen years ago. They are there all right, but the narrative of their present actuality – which stems directly from the story of their existence in and displacement from Palestine, later Israel – that narrative is not.
A disciplinary communications apparatus exists in the West both for overlooking most of the basic things that might present Israel in a bad light, and for punishing those why try to tell the truth. How many people know the kind of thing suggested by the following incident – namely, the maintenance in Israel of a rigid distinction between privileged Jew and underprivileged Palestinian? The example is recent, and its very triviality indicates the by now unconscious adherence to racial classification which pervades official Israeli policy and discourse. I have this instance from Professor Israel Shahak, Chairman of the Israeli League of Human Rights, who transcribed it from the Israeli journal Kol Ha’ir. The journal reports, with some effect of irony:
The society of sheep raisers in Israel [an entirely Jewish body from which Arabs are totally excluded] has agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture that a special sheepfold will be built in order to check the various immunisations on sheep. Which sheep? Jewish sheep in Israel, writes Baruch Bar Shalev, secretary of the sheep raiser’s society in a circular letter to all sheep raisers. In the letter they are asked to pay, towards the cost of the sheepfold, twenty shekels for Jewish sheep. This demand was also received by Semadar Kramer of the secretariat of ‘Never Shalom’ near Latron.
Semadar Kramer sent the society of sheep raisers only half of the sum requested for building the Jewish sheepfold because ‘Never Shalom’ is a Jewish-Arab village, and therefore its sheep are also Jewish-Arab. They also claim that they have no certain knowledge about mixed marriages among the sheep, and that lately some difficulties about the conversion to Judaism were encountered in their sheepfold.
This, one might think, is either insanity or some comic fantasy produced in the imagination of a Swift or Kafka. Jewish sheep? The conversion of Arab sheep to Judaism? Surely these things cannot be real. Such distinctions, however, are part of the system of possessive exclusivism which has been imposed upon reality by central forces in Israeli society. The system is rarely discussed at all in the West, certainly not with anything resembling the intensity with which Palestinian terrorism is discussed. When an attempt is made to speak critically of Israel, the result is frightening – if the attempt succeeds in getting any diffusion at all. One small index is the fact that the Anti-Defamation League in America and the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee have each published books identifying Israel’s ‘enemies’ and implying tactics for police or vigilante action. In addition, there is the deep media compliance I have referred to – so that effective, and especially narrative, renderings of the Palestine-Israel contest are either attacked with near-unanimous force or ignored. The fortunes of Le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl and Costa-Gavras’s film Hanna K illustrate these alternatives.
Having made a strong impression regionally and internationally during the years 1970 to 1982, the Palestinian narrative, as we shall see in a moment, is now barely in evidence. This is not an aesthetic judgment. Like Zionism itself, post-1948 Palestinian nationalism has had to achieve formal and ideological prominence well before any actual land has been gained. Strange nationalisms these, conducted for years in exile and alienation, for years projective, stubborn, passionately believed in. The major difference is that Zionism was a hothouse flower grown from European nationalism, anti-semitism and colonialism, while Palestinian nationalism, derived from the great wave of Arab and Islamic anti-colonial sentiment, has since 1967, though tinged with retrogressive religious sentiment, been located within the mainstream of secular post-imperialist thought. Even more important, Zionism is essentially a dispossessing movement so far as non-Jews are concerned. Palestinianism since 1967 has generally been inclusive, trying (satisfactorily or not) to deal with the problem created by the presence of more than one national community in historical Palestine. And for the years between 1974 and 1982, there was a genuine international consensus underwriting the Palestinian communal narrative and restoring it as a historical story to its place of origin and future resolution in Palestine. I speak here of the idea that Israel should return the Occupied Territories and that a Palestinian state be created alongside Israel. That this went against the grain of Zionism, despite its many internal differences, was obvious: nevertheless, there were many people in the world both willing and able to contest Golda Meir’s 1969 fiat that the Palestinians did not exist historically, had no communal identity, and no national rights. But when the whole force of the Palestinian national movement proposed a political resolution in Palestine based on the narrative shape of alienation, return and partition, in order to make room for two peoples, one Jewish and the other Arab, neither Israel nor the West accepted it. Hence the bitter Arab and Palestinian infighting, which has been caused by Arafat’s – i.e. the mainstream PLO’s – failure to get any real response to the notion of partition from those Western nations most associated with the fate of Palestine. Bruno Kreisky puts the case forcefully in ‘L’échec d’Arafat, c’est notre faute’ (Les Nouvelles, December 1983). The symbolism of Palestinians fighting each other in the forlorn outskirts of Tripoli in North Lebanon is too stark to be misinterpreted. The course taking Palestinians, in Rosemary Sayigh’s phrase, from peasants and refugees to the revolutionaries of a nation in exile has for the time being come to an abrupt stop, curling about itself violently. What was once a radical alternative to Zionism’s master code of Jewish exclusivism seems reduced to mere points on the map miles away from Palestine. Lebanon, the Soviet build-up, Syria, Druze and Shia militancy, the new American-Israeli quasi-treaty – these dominate the landscape, absorb political energies.
 Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1980.
 A persuasive study by Mark Heller, an Israeli political scientist at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel (Harvard University Press, 1983), represents an exception. Heller argues that a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza is in Israel’s best interests, and is more desirable than either annexation or returning the territories to Jordan.
 The background of collaboration between Zionist groups and individuals and various European fascists is studied in Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators: A Reappraisal (Croom Helm, 1983).
 There is one exception to be noted: Lina Mikdadi, Surviving the Siege of Beirut (Onyx Press, 1983). This delivers a Lebanese-Palestinian’s account of life in Beirut during the siege.
 Kamal Salibi, The Modern History of Lebanon (New York, 1965), and Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958-1976 (Delmar, NY, 1976).
 Elie Salem, Modernisation without Revolution: Lebanon’s Experiences (Bloomington and London, 1972).
Vol. 6 No. 5 · 15 March 1984
SIR:Professor Edward Said is one of the Palestinians’ most eloquent spokesmen. The call in his review article (LRB, 16 February) for both Palestinians and Jews to recognise the validity of each other’s national identity is timely and welcome. However, one basic weakness runs throughout the article. This is demonstrated first by the tragi-comic story of ‘Jewish sheep’, of which he makes so much. My inquiries show that the facts are not as Professor Said would have us believe. The Israeli Sheepraisers Association does not exclude Arabs. In the early days of Jewish agriculture in Palestine it was called the Association of Jewish Sheepraisers in Israel (and why shouldn’t any group form any association it wants?). Since then the word ‘Jewish’ has been dropped and Arabs have been invited to join: to state that they are deliberately excluded is patently false. Nor was there any attempt to charge a fee on ‘Jewish sheep’. The Ministry of Agriculture spent millions of shekels to step up immunisation checks. In order to recover part of the cost they requested the Sheepraisers Association to tax their members, who, as said, are almost entirely in the ‘Jewish sector’ (their usual phrase). The immunisation service is specifically for all sheepfarmers, Jewish and Arab, but the latter are not required to pay. Now, whether Professor Said was wilfully mischievous or was simply misled is immaterial. The point is that according to his preconceived notions about Israel the story made sense; it ‘proved’ what he already ‘knew’, even if totally false. Incidentally, Professor Said accuses others of sloppiness yet himself refers (twice), in connection with the sheep, to ‘Never Shalom’, surely the most unlikely of names for a Jewish-Arab co-operative venture! The real name is Neveh Shalom, Oasis of Peace.
Any Israeli reading Professor Said’s assertion that the Western media are biased in favour of Israel and indulge in some kind of self-imposed censorship would exclaim that exactly the reverse is true. Israelis and Palestinians are equally convinced that their case is inadequately presented in the media; that their misdemeanours are disproportionately pounced upon, while the other side’s are glossed over; and that blatantly inaccurate statements are made. The difficulty with Professor Said’s article is that for all the cogency of his arguments he himself does precisely these things. It may be that he is simply attempting to provide balance, as he sees it, to pro-Israeli/anti-Palestinian sentiment in the West, but in so doing he creates an imbalance of his own. He also contradicts himself. He claims, in effect, that the Western media turn a blind eye to Israeli wrongdoing. Yet he refers to the nightly scenes we viewed on television of the carnage in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. The extent of the coverage and of the invective directed against Israel hardly suggests censorship or pro-Israel bias.
Professor Said proceeds to argue that ‘the Palestinians’ have long accepted the principle of partition of the land west of the River Jordan. Who precisely accepted this principle? Professor Said is on record as endorsing the PLO as the ‘sole, legitimate representatives’ of the Palestinian people and their Covenant. In the latter, they specifically and categorically deny that the Jews are a nation (they are a religious grouping) and that Israel has a right to exist; they say that only Jews who have lived in Palestine since before ‘the Zionist invasion’ (usually understood to mean 1917) can remain. No one from the Palestinian leadership has rejected these notions. At times they accept the idea of a Palestinian mini-state on the West Bank – but then only as a first stage to Israel’s ultimate liquidation. None of this is even discussed by Professor Said. Whatever the extremism, inflexibility and lack of sensitivity shown by some Israelis, Professor Said would have us believe that none of these exist amongst the Palestinians. Surely his task is to condemn them on both sides, rather than accusing the one side and condoning the other, even if only by omission.
Two final examples of this. He refers to Israeli violation of human rights in the West Bank. To the extent that such violations exist, any condemnation that he voices is justified. Yet, if he believes, as he appears to, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be removed from the wider Arab-Israel conflict, why no reference to human rights in the Middle East generally, where Syria in particular has one of the worst human rights records in the world? He also refers to books by Mikdadi and by Clifton and Leroy on the siege of Beirut. They are compelling books and both include references to or photographs of the massacres of Palestinians in the 1976 civil war. Surely Arab inhumanity to the Palestinians and Palestinian slaughter of Palestinians are to be condemned at least as much as anything the Israelis have done? Professor Said tells of the 20,000 who died in 1982; nothing of the 40,000 who died in 1976.
Professor Said is too serious a writer to be dismissed lightly. His arguments are sophisticated and perceptive. However, as he points out regarding Chomsky, the methodology of the argument is part of the argument itself, and unless he is aware of his own contribution to the imbalance he rightly condemns, his case will be weaker than it need otherwise be.
Vol. 6 No. 6 · 5 April 1984
SIR: Mr Barry Shenker (Letters, 1 March) has the remarkable knack of first missing, then conceding, some of my points. I didn’t say that the separation between Jewish and Arab sheep was ‘tragi-comic’, but that it was ‘trivial’, indicating how detailed the separation between Jew and Arab inscribed at the very heart of Israeli society. Mr Shenker’s historical excursus on the Association of Jewish Sheepraisers leaves him curiously unable to deny the accuracy (one typo excepted) of the report I quoted from, just as his research doesn’t turn up such truths about Israeli society as the fact that Israel is the only state characterising itself officially as the state, not of its citizens (which include over six hundred thousand Arabs), but of ‘the Jewish people’, that Palestinians in Israel have the juridical status only of ‘non-Jews’, that over 90 per cent of Israeli land is held in perpetuity for ‘the Jewish people’, thus excluding Arab ownership, that only Jews are allowed the Right of Return to historic Palestine – and so on. These things put the story of Jewish sheepraisers in a more correct context than Mr Shenker’s selective historical research might allow.
As for what I said about the media, Mr Shenker once again misses the main point, which is not that the media are biased against Palestinians, but that even when endless TV pictures are shown of Israelis bombing refugee camps, the political meaning of the pictures doesn’t translate into the idea of a Palestinian homeland with a narrative of expulsion and exile behind it. Instead of discussing that observation – and Mr Shenker, otherwise a rational and humane correspondent, becomes at this point a programmed instance of what Chomsky calls ‘the supporters of Israel’ – he treats us to ritual attacks on the Palestinian Charter and the PLO, and on Palestinian intellectuals for failing to mention the slaughter of Palestinians by Palestinians. Although I criticised aspects of Palestinian and Arab behaviour and regretted as well as deplored the violence, none of this has anything to do with the facts that a. Israeli treatment of Palestinians since 1948 is a moral and political crime far exceeding anything ‘the supporters of Israel’ come close to admitting, and b. ‘the supporters of Israel’ tend in general to overlook the regular actions and pronouncements of Israeli policy-makers who usually enact what they say, e.g. Roni Milo (head of the Likud’s Knesset group) on 3 January 1984, in Ma’ariv: ‘we have not given up our right to the East Bank of the Jordan.’ It is Israel (not the Palestinian Charter) which destroyed Palestinian society, and which repressively occupies the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and South Lebanon. These are instances of human-rights violations (for which Mr Shenker’s chaste ‘to the extent that they exist’ is hardly warranted) that are worthy of attention quite on their own: but, as I said, they are facts that too often don’t really seem to matter in discussions of the problem.
Columbia University, New York
Vol. 6 No. 9 · 17 May 1984
SIR: Mr Shenker believes Professor Said is mistaken about discrimination against Palestinians in Israel’s Association of Sheepraisers (Letters, 15 March). But if he wants his opinions to be taken seriously, he will have to do better than require us to trust in his unnamed sources. In Israel? In the Government? A special adviser on Palestinian affairs? Or a member of the Association of Sheepraisers? Did Mr Shenker check what he was told with Palestinian shepherds? Perhaps he never thought of doing so; maybe he does not know any? As it happens, he does not tell us. He claims to know that ‘Arabs have been invited to join the association,’ but he does not say when, or how many; or whether they were only invited to join around the time the association was persuaded by the Israeli Government to become a vehicle for levying a form of taxation.
Incompetent reporting or propaganda? Either way inquiries this scrupulous do not inspire confidence. Sure enough, when Mr Shenker moves on to criticise Professor Said for not condemning violations of human rights by Arab governments, he ducks the symmetrical obligation that falls on him vis-à-vis Israel. All he says is: ‘To the extent that such violations exist, any condemnation that he [Professor Said] voices is justified.’ Here Mr Shenker’s allegedly excellent sources fall silent. Does he accept that violations of human rights occur in Israel or not? Mr Shenker stays mum, so we do not know whether he adds his voice in condemnation, or merely would add it if he were better-informed.
Vol. 6 No. 11 · 21 June 1984
SIR: Professor Said refers readers to Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators for evidence that ‘Shamir’s Stern Gang treated with the Nazis’ (LRB, 16 February). It is not disputed that Jewish Zionists negotiated with the Nazis in efforts to arrange the emigration of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe. Those who suggest this was criminal collaboration with the Nazis unwittingly imply that extermination of the Jews was preferable to their emigration to Palestine. Brenner’s allegations concerning the Stern Gang were based, both in his book and in the Journal of Palestine Studies, on an anonymous (unsigned) document, the original of which is not available for inspection by historians and forensic experts. To give credibility to his allegation that the rescuing of European Jewry ‘was secondary to the Zionist leaders’, Brenner in his book deleted from the text of the ‘document’ the paragraph which stated: ‘The liberation of the Jewish people once and for all is the objective.’
Hampton Hill, Middlesex
SIR: I come from places where the English is most foul and the mutton is most fresh, so I should ask you to forgive my language. While passing through London I bought your paper – a most pleasant experience. But it seems your readers have been exposed lately to a lot of sheep dip (which is the Arabic-Jewish equivalent to hogwash) concerning sheep-Arabs-Jews. It seems one of your readers has been asking for ‘data’ and I wonder if Professor Said, Mr Shenker or Mr Parker (the one asking for ‘data’) would know an Awassi from a local English sheep and what they would do with said sheep-growing data.
First, an aside: what is called by the previous writers the ‘Israel Association of Sheepraisers’ includes goats in many cases: in Israel only Jews will in general grow only sheep. Arabs in the north will grow sheep and goats and in the south will grow goats only – a very interesting breed of highly-adapted desert goat. So much for the goats.
Now for the politics. Arab and Jewish herders are first of all herders and then, if at all, politicians. Arabs, Jews, Scots, Welsh, Bretons – people of the land – will join all kinds of association only if they can get something for it. In Israel, Arabs have joined – and play a major role in – the tobacco-growers’ association and the olive-growers’ association; they also participate in fruit and vegetable associations. There they get (as they should) their money back from the system. Arabs and, for that matter, many clever Jews refuse to join the IAS because registration means taxation. For the last four thousand years, shepherds in the Near East have been fighting the taxman: those sheep lists from Knossos in Crete are nothing but a record of how the Bronze Age taxman living in a Bronze Age palace was trying to screw the hut-living shepherd. And the fight still goes on. By law, all sheep and goats in Israel have to be slaughtered in a government-supervised place: but not even 20 per cent of the sheep and goats have the dubious honour of going to their last resting-place (the shawarma spit) through these official channels, because there they would meet the income-tax man and the VAT man and the land-tax man and, worst of all, some over-educated Jewish or Arab vet who will declare them (what an insult) unfit for human consumption. Politics have nothing to do with shepherds joining or not joining the IAS: the normal shepherd’s ancient and well-justified fear of registration is the basis of it.
These shepherds, by surviving and prevailing in the land, have done more towards achieving the common human Arab-Jewish goals than all the hypocritical outsiders. In the end, there will be peace between us Palestinian Arabs and Jews in much the same way that your England now is the product of Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans and Indians and Blacks. This will of course irritate Professor Said, the university man, and Mr Parker, who would like to see justice done, even if in the end it will mean – God forbid, if only for the sake of the sheep – the quick justice of radioactive desert. If the people jointly beat the taxman they will also beat these advisers, surely.
This reminds me of a story. Many years ago, there was a Jewish shepherd boy and an Arab shepherd boy. Now the Arab boy was a much better shepherd in every way, but what impressed the Jewish boy most was that the Arab boy had succeeded in training his ewes: every time they saw the Arab boy coming they would stand in line, almost like soldiers, with their backs to him and lift their tails in the air in a most peculiar way. So the Jewish boy asked the Arab boy to show him how he could train his Jewish ewes to perform the same trick, and the Arab boy said: ‘No problem, it is a joy to teach this trick and a great joy to learn this trick.’ And so the Arab and the Jewish boy were training their sheep together and a great joy it was for all: Arab, Jew, man and beast. But then Lawrence of Arabia came and he looked on the Arab boy and liked him and he told him that he would teach him some better trick and so Lawrence of Arabia took the boy and enlisted him in the Arab Legion and the rest is modern Middle East history.
By the way, what is Professor Said teaching his Jewish colleagues in the university? Are his teachings as conducive to peace as the above? If Mr Parker is interested in sheep-growing in Palestine-Israel he can write to me at 26 Kaplonski Street. Will you, Mr Parker, or are you interested in shawarma only? I am also interested in human and sheep rights.
Vol. 6 No. 12 · 5 July 1984
SIR: Peter Parker (Letters, 17 May) questions my credibility. He asks me to support my assertion that there is no discrimination against Arab sheepfarmers in Israel and goes on from there to ask what I really know and believe about Israel. I did not quote chapter and verse in my first letter since that letter was already rather long. Now Mr Rosen (LRB, 16 February) wants to know if I can tell the difference between an Awassi and an English sheep. Well, since they insist … I was myself a sheepfarmer in Israel for eight years, had close relations with the Sheepraisers’ Association, and had frequent contact with Arabs as workers, traders and shepherds. Against this background I was alerted to the inherent absurdity of the claim that Arabs are discriminated against as regards immunisation of their sheep. It would be utterly ridiculous for the Israeli Government to immunise some sheep and not others. Even if we attribute only selfish motives to the Israelis, it would still make no sense to discriminate and thereby endanger all sheep in Israel. Incidentally, a senior member of the Sheepraisers’ Association is an Arab and he has been active in helping Arab sheep-farmers.
Two anecdotes illustrate my argument. A recent report tells of the Israeli Government, at its own expense, moving four thousand Arab-owned sheep from the Negev to the centre of the country to save them from drought. And on a personal note: we used to graze our sheep on public land near the local wadi. One day some Bedouin shepherds appeared and began grazing the same land. We were afraid of depleting our already limited grazing land still further, although the greatest fear of any livestock farmer, spread of disease, was uppermost in our minds. We politely asked them to move on. They, equally politely, refused. We asked the police if we could in law have them moved, on the grounds that we had prior grazing rights. The police replied that neither they nor we had any standing in the matter; and that was that – we made other arrangements until they left. These are hardly tales of discrimination, and they indicate the kind of problems which Israeli sheepfarmers, Jewish and Arab, have to deal with, and do deal with amicably and with good will.
However, it is clear that Mr Parker’s criticisms have a wider scope. He asks if I believe there are human rights violations in Israel. Of course there are! Nor do I need special sources to know that. All I have to do is read the Israeli daily press, which, if you are looking for criticism of Israel, will give as much as you want. What Mr Parker fails to realise is that there are also issues of proportionality and of context. Just because I commit occasional parking offences does not put me in the same criminal category as the Yorkshire Ripper. To put Israel in the same category as other countries which not only have far worse human rights records (in fact Israel’s compares favourably with that of most countries in the world) but are fundamentally totalitarian, despotic and often racist is, to put it mildly, the height of imbalance. This was my criticism of Professor Said: many people are prepared to see Israel as the incarnation of evil while ignoring or smiling indulgently at the worst kinds of brutality and discrimination in neighbouring states. Of course there are individuals, institutions and government bodies which display racism in Israel (name me one country where this doesn’t apply). There are, equally, many individuals, institutions and government bodies actively working for the welfare of all segments of the population and attempting to combat any violations of human rights. Nor is extraordinary research required to know this. Israel’s democracy, despite many flaws, allows all this to happen publicly. A determined press, parliamentary parties, voluntary organisations, an independent judiciary, a powerful and independent Histadrut – these permit vociferous expression of wide-ranging views and campaigns which allow for the negative to be publicly aired and for justice to be done. Only a fool would pretend that Israel is perfect: but only the blind cannot see that Israel is a democracy at all levels, and for all sections of the population.