Courtesy Reuters

New History for a New Israel: Two Landmark Looks at a Sentimentalized Past

In This Review

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Since 1948

By Avi Shlaim
W. W. Norton, 1999
448 pp. $32.50
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Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999

By Benny Morris
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
751 pp. $40.00
Purchase

The education minister in the dovish new Israeli government led by Ehud Barak caused a stir recently. Yossi Sarid decided that Israeli high schools should teach their students about something most Israelis would just as soon not dwell on: the massacre by Israeli soldiers of dozens of Israeli Arab civilians who broke a curfew in and near the village of Kafr Kasim some 43 years ago. The shootings were followed by a trial and an Israeli court's landmark decision to pin individual responsibility on Israeli soldiers who follow illegal orders. With Sarid's directive, dirty laundry from Israel's founding era was to be aired for its next generation.

This was something quite new under the sun. For decades, Israelis were raised on a celebratory, heroic version of their history -- a story of the return to Zion, of the resettlement of the desolate Jewish homeland, of a war of liberation in which the few stood up to the many, and of a constant struggle by the newly established state to survive in a sea of Arab hostility and brutal violence. This epic was founded on ideas and beliefs that most Israelis held as self-evident: the Jewish nation is ancient, and the Palestinian claim to nationhood is questionable at best; Israelis are innocent, and Arabs have an innate propensity to terrorism; Israel's humanistic soldiers were driven to fight by necessity, not fear or hatred; the Arabs are determined to push the Jews into the sea; the Israeli army's victories were made possible by the spirit of the Israeli fighters, not their superior numbers or weapons; the Arabs have failed to modernize and to ameliorate their economic condition; Israel is a tiny sliver of land in a region of vast Arab territories; the Palestinian refugee problem was created by Arab leaders; and many costly wars could have been prevented if not for Arab intransigence, starting with the 1947 U.N. partition plan and continuing through the many rebuffed Israeli peace initiatives.

Toward the end of the 1980s, however, these certainties began to be shaken. A small group of revisionist historians, including Avi Shlaim, an Oxford professor, and Benny Morris, who teaches at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, published more skeptical versions of the early phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict. These studies elicited some legitimate criticism from professional academics. But the Israeli public -- including much of the intelligentsia -- was unwilling to sympathetically consider a more complex version of Israel's history that implied greater Jewish responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem, criticized Israeli diplomatic blunders that prolonged the conflict, and exposed Israeli soldiers' involvement in some atrocities. The works of the "new historians" triggered an angry public debate that quickly deteriorated into a clash between apologists for both the received Israeli master narrative and its "post-Zionist" debunkers.

Shortly after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized each other in September 1993, a Palestinian friend living in exile in Paris asked me, "Now that we have recognized you, will you start remembering what you did to us?" Israelis have. For nations in conflict, the selective processes of remembering and forgetting are always shaped by the fluctuations between war and peace. The Oslo breakthrough and its aftermath demonstrated that -- despite such grave setbacks as the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the 1996 wave of Islamist bus bombings -- once they thought of the Arabs not as the enemy but as neighbors and future partners in peace, battle-hardened and skeptical Israelis could reassess the extent of their responsibility for the conflict and even recognize some of their adversaries' claims. This ability to share blame for the costly struggle has let former fighters, some of them notoriously ruthless, meet again as diplomats around the negotiating table and convert their military reputations at home into the political authority that can sanction painful compromises with erstwhile foes.

Although the peace negotiations with the Palestinians have made Israelis more ready to replace unexamined, self-glorifying notions of the past with more complex and even painful historical accounts, the new Israeli openness must also be traced to deep social and cultural transformations. Recent decades have brought a slow, steady erosion of the almost automatic national solidarity and docile public conformism on which Israeli governments once counted, especially during emergencies; a growing fragmentation of Israeli society into competing groups (Sephardim, the ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Arabs, Russian immigrants, and so on) with distinct senses of identity and profoundly divergent takes on the meaning of the Jewish state; and perhaps most significant, the rise of Israeli individualism, which brings with it a spreading distrust of authority in almost all spheres of life.

Taken together, these developments mark a dramatic shift from an epic culture and politics to a post-epic Israel. In the new, more jaundiced Israeli mood, the once-hegemonic version of Israel's past can survive only as another partisan history. What used to be the official heroic Israeli narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict is today mostly the version of the Israeli right.

In this climate, the two major new books by Morris and Shlaim are more likely to trigger debates among academics than among ideologues -- an improvement on the debate over their earlier books some ten years ago, which demonstrated that very little light is shed when the bias of apologists meets the bias of debunkers. But now there is a very different Israel to read the new historians.

WOUNDED SPIRITS

The periods covered by the two books converge only partly. Benny Morris' Righteous Victims begins with the start of major Zionist settlement in Ottoman Palestine in 1881 and ends in 1999, whereas Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall extends from Israel's creation in 1948 to the present. The bulks of these two volumes may make readers decide that one is plenty, but they are more complementary than redundant. While Morris concentrates on the details of military history, which he combines with an account of the politics of the conflict, Shlaim focuses on the diplomatic history of Arab-Israeli relations.

As in his earlier work -- most notably, on why some 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes during Israel's War of Independence -- Morris provides a very rich account of the military and political aspects of the conflict and a very thin interpretive framework. The greatest merit of this bulky "synthesis of existing research" is that the massive body of facts it builds defies sweeping generalizations about the conflict and facile attributions of moral responsibility to any one side. As such, Morris' book provides a timely account for readers who have been learning to regard parts of Israel's past with ambivalence rather than apologetics. His work can help Israelis face the contradictions and ironies of a narrative of liberation that entailed a narrative of conquest and displacement. Where Zionists repeatedly recalled the Arab threat "to throw the Jews into the sea," Morris quotes the fuller statement made during World War I by the Jaffa Muslim-Christian Association: "We will push the Zionists into the sea -- or they will send us back into the desert." Morris describes the role of rightist Jewish militias in introducing the indiscriminate bombing of civilians into the conflict by attacking the markets of Haifa and Jaffa in 1938, but he does not exonerate the Arabs for their share of the terrorism. He details the Israeli army's edge in both numbers and equipment but does not underestimate the superior motivation of Israeli soldiers or the demoralizing effects of internal Arab rivalries.

Righteous Victims illuminates the historical evolution of Jewish perceptions of Arab violence -- particularly the shifts from viewing it as merely the result of incitement by a few belligerent leaders like Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s, to regarding it as a consequence of innate Arab and Muslim aggressiveness, to the post-intifada view of Palestinian violence as an expression of national aspirations. But when Morris examines the way Israelis look at their own armed forces, his book suffers from his unwise assumption that one can separate a nation's military from its social and cultural history. Hence, he does not consider the nexus between the evolution of Jewish perspectives on force and the Zionist aspiration to make the Jew into a soldier -- to create a new Jewish identity to replace the Jewish merchant or the feeble religious scholar. Against this background, the debate between activists such as the country's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and moderates such as his foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, reflects not only competing strategies for handling the Arabs but competing notions of modern Jewish identity and the meaning of freedom and statehood for post-Holocaust Jews.

Since writing history, however empirically based, is inevitably also an exercise in interpretation, Morris should have been more explicit about how he chose his sources and weighed his evidence. The impression of a neutral, factual description may be misleading even when the historian tries to be fair.

BETWEEN GUN AND OLIVE BRANCH

Avi Shlaim takes a bolder and richer approach than Morris'. His mastery of the sources and his explicit preferences win him the reader's trust for his decisions about what to highlight, when to summarize, and which shortcuts to take in retelling the complicated history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. By advancing a reasonably coherent interpretation and constructing a flowing narrative, Shlaim risks the criticism that the "real world" is too messy, contradictory, and ambiguous to fit into neat patterns. But this is usually a worthwhile price to pay for parsimony and provocation.

The principal theme of The Iron Wall is the constant disagreement between Israeli moderates and military activists on how to handle the conflict with the Arabs. According to Shlaim, moderates like Sharett, Levi Eshkol, and Abba Eban usually read the Middle East situation correctly and relied on diplomatic rather than military means, whereas activists like Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin tended to miss important opportunities for negotiations that might well have prevented costly wars.

Shlaim's account of the competition between these two schools makes fascinating, revealing reading, although the dichotomy he draws between them is sometimes too sharp. Despite the sympathy the reader might feel toward the moderates, one doubts that the bridges they proposed building would have served Israel better during its formative years than the "iron wall" that the activists, and especially the militants, actually built around the Jewish state -- on the theory that after they had bashed their heads against it often enough, the Arabs would eventually reconcile themselves to Israel's existence. The echoes of these opposing approaches can still be heard in the two parallel conceptions of the ultimate goals of the peace talks with the Palestinians -- the Rabin school, which seeks to separate Israel from the Palestinians, and the school of his rival and successor, Shimon Peres, which seeks to link the Palestinian and Jewish states.

The biggest problem with Shlaim's study is its occasional lapses into 20-20 hindsight. A case in point is Shlaim's assessment of Peres' decision in 1996 to let the Israeli General Security Service kill Yahya Ayyash, the mastermind behind many gory suicide bombings by the Islamist militants of Hamas. Shlaim calls this decision "the greatest mistake of Peres's political career." Hamas, writes Shlaim, "declared Ayyash a martyr" and, in a series of retaliatory suicide attacks, seriously undermined Peres' leadership, making him politically vulnerable to the assaults of his foe in the 1996 elections, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Peres, to be sure, could have anticipated that Hamas might seek revenge, but he had no way of knowing how savage the terrorists' spree would be -- or that it would tip the electoral scales for Netanyahu. Shlaim is guilty here of retroactive foreshadowing, or what the literary critic Michael André Bernstein calls "backshadowing" -- judging participants in historical events as if, unconstrained by uncertainties, they should have known the future that we know as the past. Nevertheless, Shlaim's usual appreciation for complexities and contradictions and his keen sketches of the principal Israeli actors make this very readable book one of the best and most illuminating accounts of Arab-Israeli relations in years.

Read together, these two books give a historical perspective from which it is easier to understand why the peace process has proven stronger than any Middle Eastern government or leader. Looking at their past, the adversaries can see that military solutions to the conflict are becoming obsolete. There is no Soviet Union to arm and support the Arabs, and the remaining superpower is the main sponsor of the peace process. Moreover, in today's world of globalization, the media puts military operations under such a glare that, increasingly, they are simply not worth the risk.

Both Shlaim and Morris have tried to carve out a space for history between the domain of myths, which have for many years governed Israelis' perceptions of the more distant past, and the domain of journalism, which mediates their perceptions of the very recent past and the present. Writing history inherently revises the mythological past. But the special authority of the historian -- who can combine a historical perspective with painstaking research based on original documents and testimonies -- diminishes the closer his or her account comes to the present. The two volumes are, therefore, more revealing about the early phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict than about more recent ones. Toward the end, Morris' and Shlaim's accounts tend to merge with the familiar journalistic reports and become shallow. Still, in a democracy, self-reflection, skepticism, and ambivalence toward authority accelerate the movement from myth to history and encourage history to lend depth to journalism. Without ignoring the limits of these two volumes, Shlaim and Morris can only be commended for their contributions to this process. Israelis' reactions to these two landmark works will be deeply telling.

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