Rallying Points

Shlomo Avineri

  • Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David Shipler
    Bloomsbury, 596 pp, £17.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0017 7

Imagine the following: some time in the autumn of 1945, a journalist arrives in defeated Germany. He is neither American nor British, nor does he have German or Jewish ancestry. He is objective, sensitive and imaginative. He writes well, his ear is open to the nuances of human suffering, he can see through the manipulations of power. He is not going to write the history of World War Two, its ramifications or antecedents. Nor is his story going to be a systematic study of American (or British, or for that matter, Soviet) occupation of what was the Third Reich. He is interested in the human story, in the wounded sensibilities of occupier and occupied, of victor and vanquished. He finds a country devastated by Allied saturation bombing, its cities razed to the ground, most of its urban population homeless, hungry and cold. Millions of civilians, many of them women and children, wander aimlessly across the land, their only crime that of being German. Many have been expelled from their ancestral land in the east by Soviet, Polish and Czech authorities.

What kind of book can one expect such a fair and kind-hearted journalist to produce? Not writing the history of the war, he will tell us about people: German widows and orphans, local German officials trying to do their best to help their compatriots, not always with the understanding or sympathy of the Allied occupation forces. His book would tell us of the Western Allies’ bureaucratic muddles and pettiness, of Soviet barbarity, of the arrogance of the strong and the shame of the weak, defeated Germans. The name of Hitler may not get much prominence in the book, the Nazi Party would figure only in the stories – some of them harrowing – of the ignorance of Allied efforts to de-Nazify school-teachers and censor school books, of arbitrary arrests of apparently innocent citizens and the harassment of their next of kin. Such a book would not contain one fact that was not true. It would nonetheless be a travesty of history. That it would have been concocted honestly and without malice is beside the point. Its astigmatism would verge on blindness. David Shipler’s book on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is a book of this kind. All analogies have their limits, and the Palestinians are obviously not the occupied Germans after World War Two. Yet the basic flaw of Arab and Jew-its its a-historicity and a-contextuality – is close to that of the imaginary book about postwar Germany.

Let me say at the outset that I oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and that I am against putting up Jewish settlements there. I look forward to the day when Israelis and Palestinians negotiate an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and I hope the time is not far off when Palestinian Arabs are able to live under a government of their own choosing. I advocate this not only because of the obvious right of the Palestinian Arabs not to live under occupation, but also because occupation is bad for Israel, for the values of Zionism as a movement of national self-determination and for the social structure of Israel. Occupation has already brutalised Israel, and its prolongation will brutalise it further.

So my unease is not with the political implications of the book, with which I generally agree. My unease is with his approach, with his way of tearing human stories out of their context – with his basic ignorance of the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem from 1979 to 1984, Shipler knows what the protagonists of that conflict, Jew and Arab, have told him: his bibliography is full of contemporary journalistic material, most of it written with a political axe to grind. The broader historical context – apart from some very wide generalisations, including an occasional excursus, ridiculous in its simplicity, about Biblical history or the Medieval Arab world – is totally missing, and it is fair to say that Shipler is quite innocent of the heavy weight of history which is oppressing both Jews and Arabs in their dispute.

He is, on one level, aware of the limits of what he is trying to do. He says at the start that ‘this is not a book about the diplomatic, political and military dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.’ What we get are political and military episodes as seen through the eyes of participants: there is no overall picture. It is, consequently, a book about states of mind, emotions and political symbols – in a void. The tensions in which such an approach involves the author become immediately clear. On the one hand, Shipler says that for all their frequent involvement in warfare, the Israelis have not become Spartans, that war comes to them ‘with a quiet strain of melancholy’, while for the Arabs ‘war is integral to the conduct of human affairs.’ Some Arabs may object to the hidden racism of Shipler’s latter generalisation, but the problem is deeper: while he does generalise about the two societies, Jewish and Arab, very little in the book seems to bear out these generalisations.

A few examples should suffice. The 1948 War, the war in which Israel survived the onslaught of neighbouring Arab armies while hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians became refugees, is hardly described or analysed, but one of its symbols, the episode of Deir Yassin, is recounted in great detail through the memories of individual Arabs and Jews. This is as it should be: at Deir Yassin several hundred Arab civilians, including women and children, were massacred by the two right-wing underground organisations connected with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Deir Yassin became a symbol for the Palestinian Arabs, and it is only natural for Shipler to dwell on it: that the main Jewish underground organisation, the Hagannah, and the Jewish Agency were as much shocked as anybody else, that they strongly condemned the massacre, and that in the Israeli public consciousness it served for decades to delegitimise the leadership of people like Begin and Shamir, is less forcefully brought out. But then he is not writing the history of the war of 1948, he is writing ‘how Arab and Jew see each other’ – and Deir Yassin, rightly or wrongly, has had a tremendous impact on the way in which Arabs have perceived Israel.

Shipler’s ear is much less well attuned to Israeli sensibilities: he has difficulty understanding how Jews view Arabs – and why. What the village of Deir Yassin is to the Palestinian Arab sensibility the person of the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, is to the Jewish sensibility. Haj Amin was the charismatic leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism who, during the Arab revolt of 1936-39, instigated a campaign of terror against Jewish civilians in Palestine. At a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe, the Mufti’s terrorist campaign in Palestine had a twin object: to deter Jews from coming to the country and to put pressure on the British Government to curtail Jewish immigration. The revolt failed and the Mufti spent the Second World War in Berlin, as an ally and guest of the Nazis, set up a proNazi Muslim Committee there, helped recruit Muslim soldiers (mainly Bosnians from occupied Yugoslavia) to fight on the side of the Nazis, and was involved in advising the Nazis on the ‘Final Solution’. This is the Mufti as he figures in the Israeli consciousness: rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), he is considered the precursor of Yassir Arafat and many Israelis look at PLO terrorism through lenses reflecting his attitudes and activities.

How much of this appears in Shipler’s book? While Deir Yassin has ten entries in the Index, the Mufti has two cryptic references. One is irrelevant, and the other merely informs the reader that ‘the Mufti of Jerusalem wrote in 1943 to the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, requesting German intervention in the Balkans to prevent Jews from immigrating to Palestine.’ One might similarly refer to Deir Yassin as ‘a minor battle in the war of 1948’. Has the Mufti really not come up in any other way in Shipler’s discussions with Israelis over all these years?

Two other examples: one of the major symbols of the emergence of Israel was the fight against the British and the Hagannah campaign after World War Two to bring tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine illegally, running the gauntlet of the Royal Navy. This Aliyah Beth (the Second, i.e. illegal, Immigration) became the rallyingpoint of Zionism between 1945 and 1948, and it has a powerful presence in the Israeli public consciousness: the recent exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, which also had to be clandestine, immediately sparked off parallels in the Israeli mind. Shipler never mentions the saga of the illegal immigration, and the mythic status it now has. To say it is old hat is true: but then so is Deir Yassin.

Another instance of Shipler’s insensitivity is his attitude to Palestinian terrorism. Of course he condemns it: every honourable man should. But then, by calling his chapter on terrorism ‘The Banality of Evil’, he trivialises his subject. It may be fashionable to say that ‘thoughtless terrorism is theatre: the real targets are not the innocent victims but the spectators’ – but it is also ill-considered. Maybe, like Ronald Reagan and Ollie North, Shipler feels the pull of theatre more strongly than the pull of reality, but terrorism is not theatre, though it may have theatrical effects: it is politics, and when Shipler describes Jewish terrorism (as at Deir Yassin) he does not see it as theatre, nor does he talk about the ‘banality of evil’. There he recognises it for what it is – a brutal means of political coercion. One is left wondering about the reason for the subtle distinction.

Even when he discusses Palestinian terrorism Shipler seems to be unaware of the fact that most of its victims were not Jews – or even innocent bystanders – but Palestinian Arabs who during 1936-39 happened to disagree with the intransigent policies of the Mufti. During that period, thousands of moderate Palestinians, who were trying to find ways of reaching an accommodation with the Jewish community, were murdered by the Mufti’s gangs. Most Palestinians obviously do not like to talk to foreign journalists about this dark chapter of their history. But this intra-Palestinian terrorism very effectively stifled any hope of compromise with the Jews, and led the Palestinians to their catastrophic policies of 1947-48, when they rejected any compromise based on partition. If one really knows one’s way on the West Bank, and knows the history of Palestinian nationalism, then the real meaning of terrorism does not escape one. But then again I suspect that such names as that of the Nashashibis, the leaders of the moderate wing of Palestinian Arabs in the 1930s, are not known to Shipler, and if he doesn’t know the story, how can he draw it out of a reluctant interlocutor?

This is a powerful piece of writing, and some of the personal narratives it recounts are gripping and convincing. Yet anyone reading it without a prior knowledge of Middle Eastern history will not have got the basic facts straight even when he has reached the end of its 600 pages: he may not know that Ben Gurion belonged to the Labour Party or even how the Six-Day War started. Shipler has gathered an enormous amount of material which would not otherwise be available to a reader who does not know Hebrew or Arabic (Shipler himself does not know either language – but he had research assistants and friends sifting through a voluminous quantity of material for him). The portrayals of those Israelis and Palestinians to whom he talked are convincing, whether they are Gush Emunim settlers on the West Bank or PLO commanders like Salah Ta’amri, who became an Israeli POW during the Lebanon War. But his interest doesn’t extend to the less colourful people, so that most Israelis appearing in the book are either right-wing fanatics or Peace Now activists: the vast majority in-between, who neither lust after the Arabs’ land nor feel that Israel is usually in the wrong, is lost in the more photogenic picture of a country torn between devils and saints.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a conflict between two national movements laying claim to the same piece of land. The question is not who is right – each movement considers itself right. Nor is the question who committed more atrocities – though here the historian can pass measured judgment. The question is how are these two movements going to live together, despite their history of enmity, despite their prejudices. In 1947, the Zionist movement accepted a solution based on compromise – partition. The Palestinian Arabs rejected it. Today, it appears that many Palestinians wonder whether their ‘either/or’ philosophy has led them anywhere other than disaster, while in Israel, a country now deeply divided between the Likud, wishing to hold onto all of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and Labour, which is seeking a territorial compromise, it seems that more and more people are beginning to realise what heavy a price is being paid for the occupation. Shipler rightly points out that the tragedy of the Israeli peace movement is that there has never been a parallel peace movement among the Arabs: but with the emergence of courageous Palestinian leaders like Hana Siniora, even that may be changing, and the picture today is certainly much less bleak than it was at the nadir of the Lebanon War.

Arab and Jew is valuable as a cautionary tale, for Israeli Jews as well as for Palestinian Arabs. It presents the Israelis with a mirror – distorted though I think it is – of what will happen to their utopian dream of a just Jewish society, if the occupation continues and the right of the Palestinians not to live under alien rule isn’t recognised. As for the Palestinians, the book should draw their attention to the existence of an alternative, between terrorism and self-righteousness: the alternative suggested by people such as Hana Siniora.