Conor Cruise O’Zion

David Gilmour

  • The Siege: The Saga of Zionism and Israel by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Weidenfeld, 798 pp, £20.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 297 78393 9

Conor Cruise O’Brien has enjoyed a career of variety and distinction: diplomat, politician, man of letters, an expert on Africa, Irish history and French literature. International affairs have interested him since his UN days in the late Fifties, when his ideas were close to Sartre’s. In a book on Camus published in 1970, O’Brien berated Camus for not supporting Sartre: had he done so, together they ‘would have rallied opinion more decisively and earlier against imperialist wars, not only in Algeria, but also in Indo-China-Vietnam and elsewhere’.

Dr O’Brien spent most of the Seventies as an Irish politician before becoming editor-in-chief of the Observer. His weekly column was an attractive mixture of humour, urbanity and good writing until June 1982 when he abandoned his usual style and published a series of articles justifying Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. He admitted that they contained ‘an unaccustomed element of emotion’, though to some of his readers they seemed to contain signs of fanaticism and even hysteria. The first argued that the Israelis should never return the Occupied Territories to the Arabs because such a compromise would lead to Israel’s death; the second attacked John le Carré for suggesting that Israel might have over-reacted (‘It is as if we British had lost our temper with the IRA,’ le Carré had written in the previous week’s Observer, ‘and decided to punish the entire Irish people once and for all’); and the third claimed that many of Israel’s detractors were anti-semites.

By that stage, Dr O’Brien had decided to write a book. His original intention was to produce a short one ‘of “current affairs” type’, with a brief prologue dealing with Zionism before 1948; in the end the prologue was extended to 286 pages and the whole book to a massive 798. Various motives for embarking on the project are put forward, among them personal reasons of ‘empathy’. Born into the Irish Catholic community, Dr O’Brien admits to ‘a certain atavistic understanding of what it means to belong to a stigmatised people’. The connections between Jews and Irish Catholics – the ‘experiences of oppression and stigmatisation’ – ‘have in fact been important to me, in approaching this subject, and writing this book’. As a result, the book contains a great many Irish parallels, which do not seem on the whole to be more profound or appropriate than the comparison suggested by Mr le Carré.

The aim of the book is to give ‘a somewhat better idea of how Israel came to be what and where it is, and why it cannot be other than what it is’. For the author, the most important fact about ‘what Israel is’ is that it is a state under siege. Dr O’Brien refers to this repeatedly throughout the book, from the title page to the last words: no one, he maintains, will be able to understand anything about the Arab-Israeli conflict unless he recognises this essential fact. I think Dr O’Brien is mistaken about this and would have realised his mistake if he had travelled a little in the Arab world and talked to a few more Arabs. It’s a strange sort of siege when the garrison frequently attacks the besiegers and is never attacked itself. Since 1967, Israel has attacked or invaded six Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia): during that time no Arab country has attacked Israeli territory. So in the circumstances, ‘siege’ seems a tendentious word. Settler states cannot really be besieged by their dispossessed inhabitants: one could not write a history of the Crusades with this title or a biography of General Custer called ‘The Besieged’.

In spite of its title, the book does not look or sound like a work of propaganda. The tone is much more restrained than that of the Observer articles (except in the account of the 1982 invasion, where the arguments addressed to the anti-semites and to Mr le Carré are repeated). The style is again that of a man of letters, quotations from Milton, Racine and Tacitus giving an impression of wisdom and erudition (an impression not unduly marred by misquotation from Kipling). Although the tone is eminently reasonable, however, the content is often literally unreasonable, in the sense that the author unashamedly uses arguments which he admits have no rational basis. The vindication of Zionism rests on more exotic props – religious, romantic and emotional. It has nothing to do with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians or other Arabs: it is justified by History, by the history of the Jews in Christian Europe, by the Jewish religion and longing to ‘return’, by anti-semitism and the Holocaust. O’Brien’s view is close to what Arthur Balfour wrote in 1919: ‘In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country ... Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in agelong traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land,’

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