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.

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