Posts Tagged Israel
This article appeared at Mosaic Magazine on May 18. It is based on remarks delivered at a conference on “U.S.-Israel Relations” held on May 6 at the Center for International Security Studies, Princeton University.
On Israel’s Independence Day, it is customary for the Central Bureau of Statistics to summarize some of the basic facts about the transformation of Israeli demography and living standards since the state’s founding in 1948. This is always an encouraging read. Israel’s Jewish population, for instance, has grown nearly tenfold in the intervening years, from 700,000 to almost 6.4 million. When independence was declared in 1948, Israel’s Jews constituted a mere 6 percent of the world Jewish population; today they are at 43 percent. Moreover, 75 percent of Israel’s Jewish population is native-born, more than twice the percentage in 1948. Back then, there were only 34,000 vehicles on the roads; today there are three million. And so forth.
Israel has indeed grown dramatically—in population, wealth, and military prowess. These are all grounds for celebration. But has Israel seen a comparable growth in its independence? That is, has there been a comparable expansion of its ability to take the independent action it must take if it is to protect its interests and survive as a Jewish state? Or is it possible that in these respects Israel was actually more independent in its early years and that it has grown less so over time, especially with the deepening of its relationship with its principal ally the United States?
Let me explore this latter possibility with a quick trip through history. Israel’s security and sovereignty as a Jewish state rest on three events to which precise dates may be assigned: 1948, 1958, and 1967.
- In 1948, Israel declared independence. Just as important, the way it waged war, and the way the Arabs waged war, resulted in the flight of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs and determined that the new state would have a decisive Jewish majority. 1948 gave birth not only to a legally but also to a demographically Jewish state.
- In 1958, still subject to Arab threats to eliminate it, Israel commenced construction of a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev. Subsequent progress secured Israel’s existence against any conceivable threat of destruction by Arab states.
- Finally, in 1967 Israel broke through the narrow borders in which the Jewish state had found itself after the 1948 war, giving it exclusive military control of the land mass from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley—a control Israel is determined to preserve in any peace scenario. Israel’s victory also finally persuaded many Arabs that they would never defeat it outright, thus creating the incentive for later peace treaties.
These three actions laid the foundation of Israel’s secure existence as a sovereign Jewish state—demographically, militarily, geographically, and politically. But here is an often-overlooked fact: the United States vigorously warned Israel against all three of these actions, and threatened that taking them would leave Israel on its own and “alone.”
Let’s begin again with 1948. Britain had turned over its mandate for Palestine to the United Nations, which in November 1947 voted to partition the territory into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Initially the Truman administration supported partition, but then began to backtrack in favor of a UN trusteeship over the whole. As Palestinian Jews contemplated whether to declare independence, Secretary of State George Marshall issued the first U.S. “alone” warning to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), the foreign-minister-in-waiting. “I told Mr. Shertok,” Marshall reported to President Harry Truman,
that they were taking a gamble. If the tide [of Arab hostility] did turn adversely and they came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice now that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk which they were running.
This admonition so shook Sharett’s confidence that David Ben-Gurion practically had to quarantine him on his return.
It was, then, in defiance of an American warning that Ben-Gurion declared independence on May 14, 1948. Of course, it is true that Truman immediately recognized Israel, much to Marshall’s chagrin. But the United States also imposed an arms embargo on both Israel and the Arabs. Since Arab states had access to British arms, this effectively left Israel to scramble for weaponry, ultimately provided by the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia.
Had the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community, been dependent on the United States in 1948, its leaders might have decided against pressing for independence. Alternatively, had the new state been dependent on the United States, the 1948 war might have ended in an early ceasefire, leaving Israel a “Jewish state” governed by a bare and dwindling Jewish majority—something like the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.
Next, 1958. With French assistance, Israel began construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor. The CIA immediately suspected the reactor’s purpose, but would underestimate Israel’s rate of progress. In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy wrote to Ben-Gurion, demanding that American inspectors be given access to the site: “We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear-weapons capability by Israel.” Possession of such a weapon, Kennedy continued, would spur the Arabs to seek a similar capability from the Soviets, and others would follow suit.
Then came a presidential threat: the U.S. commitment to Israel, Kennedy wrote,
would be seriously jeopardized in the public opinion in this country and in the West as a whole if it should be thought that this government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s efforts in the nuclear field.
Translation: you will be alone. Israel didn’t ignore JFK’s warning, but it also wasn’t alone, since it still had the cooperation of the French. In the following years it proceeded to stonewall and conceal its actions until, by 1968, the CIA concluded that, in defiance of the United States, Israel had indeed acquired a nuclear weapon.
Had Jerusalem been dependent on Washington at the time, and had the U.S. already been a major supplier of its conventional weaponry, Israel probably would never have developed a nuclear program.
Finally, 1967. In the spring, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea, blockading Israel’s southern port of Eilat. It also evicted UN troops that had been in the Sinai since 1957. Israel then asked the Lyndon Johnson administration to uphold an Eisenhower-era American commitment to keep the straits open.
President Johnson not only balked; he warned Israel not to act. The U.S. position, as he formulated it verbally to Israel’s ambassador Abba Eban and in a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, was this:
I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.
Once again in defiance of the United States, Israel did make this decision. In a preemptive act of self-defense, it flew French fighter aircraft on its way to ultimate victory, thus utterly transforming its overall strategic situation. When Jordan and Syria joined the fray, Israel swept through the West Bank and Golan Heights. Had Israel already then been dependent on the United States for its hardware, the events of that June might have unfolded very differently, leaving Israel in its narrow borders opposite emboldened foes still bent on its destruction.
It’s important to stress that none of the three decisions taken by Israel in the face of U.S. opposition was arrived at lightly or insouciantly. If anything, the warning that, if Israel did act, it would find itself “alone” sounded even weightier at the time than it might today. Only recently, after all, the United States had left the Jews very much alone. It had done so in the 1930s when it closed its gates to the Jews of Europe desperate to escape Hitler’s vise, going so far in 1939 as to turn away a refugee ship that had managed to reach American shores. During the Holocaust itself, Europe’s Jews were once again left alone as the United States conspicuously refrained from initiating any rescue program.
Marshall, Kennedy, and Johnson had lived through these events. They could well have thought that warning the Israelis they would be alone would touch deep apprehensions and effectively deter them from acting.
But it didn’t work, and for an obvious reason: in 1948, 1958, and 1967, Israel was not very reliant on the United States. Washington still believed in an “even-handed” approach as between Israel and the Arabs, and, though it huffed and puffed at Jerusalem, it also kept its distance. It lacked the leverage to make its “you’ll-be-alone” warnings decisive.
Things changed after 1967, as successive administrations finally concluded that leverage could be achieved only by drawing Israel into the American orbit. The first step was to sell it Phantom fighter jets, and the rest followed. Over time, in the race to maintain its “military edge,” Israel has been given access to the world’s best military hardware and (for the most part) enjoyed the political backing of the world’s greatest power. The tradeoff, however, is that in becoming ever more reliant on the United States it has sacrificed some measure of its freedom of action and thereby eroded its independence.
The erosion was evident as early as October 1973, when, deferring to U.S. pressure, Israel desisted from preempting an imminent Arab attack. To this day it remains a matter of dispute whether preemption was even possible by the point at which it was considered. Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state at the time, has argued that it was not, but Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister, later testified to the contrary. “My heart was drawn to a preemptive strike,” she told the Agranat commission that investigated the war, “but I was scared…. 1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive assistance when we have the need for it.”
In other words, the fear was that, by preempting, Israel would be alone—and that that would be disastrous. In the event, the enemy struck first, the fighting was desperate, and only a massive, last-minute resupply of American weaponry enabled Israel to emerge the winner in a war that cost it thousands of dead.
This has been the general pattern ever since: Israel is expected to show “restraint,” if not to make concessions, in return for hardware and diplomatic backing. The earlier approach of ineffectual “you-will-be-alone” warnings was superseded by a “carrot-and-stick” approach, the carrot being the large military-assistance package.
The method’s effectiveness was on display in 1979, a fourth crucial date, when the United States helped add yet another pillar to Israel’s security as a sovereign state by mediating the peace with Egypt. This would render conventional Arab wars against Israel obsolete—no small benefit, although it is still an open question whether the peace concluded in 1979 was as fundamental to Israel’s security as the achievements Israel made on its own in 1948, 1958, and 1967. Indeed, the peace with Egypt (as well as later with Jordan) rests no less firmly, and maybe more firmly, on those earlier achievements.
One Israeli understood the price of his country’s growing dependence on the United States. In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and bombed a PLO headquarters in Beirut, surprising and angering Washington. True to the carrot-and-stick approach, the Reagan administration proceeded to suspend delivery of fighter jets. Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, a man with an acute sense of national pride, rose in righteous indignation in a remarkable statement:
Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we youths of fourteen who, if they don’t behave properly, are slapped across the fingers? Let me tell you who this [Israeli] government is composed of. It is composed of people whose lives were spent in resistance, in fighting and in suffering. You will not frighten us with “punishments.” He who threatens us will find us deaf to his threats. We are only prepared to listen to rational arguments.
Such words from an Israeli prime minister would be unthinkable today, when Israelis have become accustomed to a degree of dependence on the United States that Begin’s generation could never have imagined. The self-sufficient Zionist and Israeli “resistance” to which Begin alluded is a thing of the distant past. Today, it is hard for most Israelis to remember life outside the Pax Americana, before the era of the “unshakable bond” between the two countries.
But this is why, as Israel celebrates its nearly seven decades of independence, it is worth recalling that things were not always like this—and that during its first two decades, when it didn’t depend on the United States, Israel’s very lack of dependence served it well. Despite Washington’s disapproval and admonitions, Israel achieved a number of crucial goals that still form the bedrock of its national security as a viable sovereign state. Had it instead become an American client earlier in its history, it would likely be a far weaker state today.
In this perspective, the Iran deal concluded by the Obama administration last year, and vigorously but futilely opposed by Jerusalem, leaves one wondering whether a scenario might yet arise, possibly sooner than the deal’s expiration, in which Israel will wish it still possessed the freedom of action it enjoyed in its earliest years. Without the tools afforded by its American alliance, Israel would have very few options against Iran. But that very alliance may well foreclose even those options.
Israel declared independence 68 years ago, but being independent is a process, not a moment. That process is still unfolding, and it is still incomplete.
Illustration: Signing Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948. On left: Ben-Gurion; on right, Sharett. Government Press Office.
This post first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on April 14, as a response to an essay by Elliott Abrams.
Elliott Abrams put his finger on the main cause of American Jewish “distancing” from Israel, and the answer is discouraging. He picks up on this passage from one of the two books he surveys, Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel:
Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples…. Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel.
Abrams rightly calls this the “crux of the matter,” and the evidence he musters from surveys is unequivocal. With a 50-to-60 percent rate of intermarriage, Jewish communal solidarity in America is steadily eroding, with regard both to religious practice and to engagement with Israel. The children of intermarriage are less in touch with everything Jewish; their “sheer indifference” to Israel, in Abrams’ phrase, has nothing to do with the “occupation.”
But let me introduce two additional demographic explanations for the “distancing,” even among American Jews who do remain affiliated and committed. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, there were six million American Jews and 700,000 Israelis: a proportion of nine to one. Israelis were those feisty little cousins, and while American Jews admired their grit, they didn’t let Israelis forget who had the numbers (and the money). When American Jewish leaders talked, Israeli leaders listened—and when the two parties disagreed, the burden of proof fell on the Israelis.
What a difference 70 years have made! Over that time, the number of American Jews has hardly budged, due to low fertility and intermarriage. In Israel, by contrast, the number of Jews has increased almost tenfold through immigration and high fertility. The result is that today, the ratio of American to Israeli Jews is one-to-one—about six million in each country. In another twenty years, there will be well over eight million Jews in Israel, and probably fewer than six million in America. And these Israelis are economically prosperous and militarily powerful in ways no one could have foretold in 1948.
American Jews are rightly proud of the important role they played in Israel’s transformation, and Israelis are grateful for it. But as Abrams admits, American Jewry “is in significant ways growing weaker.” Demographic stagnation and geographic dispersion aren’t just taking their toll within the community; they are eroding Jewish political clout more broadly.
So it is hardly surprising that, from the prime minister down, Israelis entrusted with the exercise of sovereign power are less attentive to what American Jews think Israel should do. Israeli Jews have worked out a successful survival strategy, and while it’s not perfect, the numbers don’t lie. The American Jewish survival strategy is struggling. As Abrams concludes, the day won’t be long in coming when the Jewish state will have to assume the direct burden of sustaining Jewish communal identity in America, “for Israel’s sake and for ours.”
Old patterns in relationships die hard. It’s not easy for many American Jews to recognize the stupendous shift in the balance, and when they don’t, this is often expressed in disappointment, disillusionment, and even dissociation from Israel. These are the discontents of gradual decline. Israelis should empathize with the deeper dilemma of American Jewry, but it should surprise no one that they discount some of its symptoms, and certainly don’t intend to change their own national priorities in a futile attempt to alleviate them.
There is another demographic reason for “distancing.” In 1948, American and Israeli Jews were landslayt. They or their parents had come out of the same cities, towns, and shtetls of Europe. American Jews looked at Israeli Jews like family, and often they were: almost everyone in Israel had some (allegedly rich) uncle or cousin in America. True, other Jews began to arrive in the 1950s, as refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. But they were mostly out of sight in immigrant refugee camps and development towns. As for the political leaders, most were born in Russia or Poland—from David Ben-Gurion through Golda Meir, Menachem Begin through Yitzḥak Shamir. Levi Eshkol could hardly refrain from slipping into Yiddish in cabinet meetings. They all hailed from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers.”
All that has changed. Today, over half of all Israeli Jews identify themselves as being of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent; less than half, of European or American descent. (Were it not for the immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Ashkenazi share would be closer to a third.) Israelis today just don’t look as much like family to American Jews, 90 percent of whom are of Ashkenazi descent.
Because Israeli Jews are drawn from a wider spectrum of cultures, everything else about them is more diverse. Jewish religious practice, despite the formal monopoly of Orthodox, is more varied in Israel than in the United States. Nor are the historical legacies that inform politics limited to the Holocaust, so central to American Jewish identity. The forced Jewish flight from Arab and Muslim lands is just as relevant, and explains much of the present skew of Israeli politics with regard to the Palestinian Arabs.
On top of this, about 70 percent of Israeli Jews are Israeli-born. Israel is no longer primarily a nation of immigrants. The hybrid Hebrew-language culture nourished by native-born Jewish Israelis isn’t easy to pin down in a sentence, but it’s a lot edgier than the dominant culture of the blue-state suburbs where most of American Jewry resides.
One reason is that those suburbs are more peaceful and stable than any environment in the history of humankind since Adam. Israel, in contrast, sits on the crust of the world’s most active geopolitical fault line. It isn’t that American Jews are from Venus and Israeli Jews are from Mars. It’s that they reside on opposite ends of planet Earth, one nearing perpetual peace, the other leaning toward perpetual war.
So an American Jew, disembarked at Ben-Gurion airport for the first time, might have to stretch his or her imagination quite a bit to see Israelis as “my people” and Israel as “my homeland.” For some significant number of American Jews, indeed, this is precisely what makes contemporary Israel so exhilarating. If there is any meaning to ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, it is solidarity not with Jews who look and think like you, but precisely with those who don’t.
But other American Jews, seeing shifts in Israel that suggest to them the neighborhood may be changing, begin, as it were, to move out. Israel has become too this or too that, things seem more black than white, the people there sound too uncouth. The next thing you know, “progressive” American Jews are moving their Jewish identity elsewhere—to some place where they never have to rub elbows with people whose “Jewish values” differ from their own.
It’s not tragic: Israel will make good the loss elsewhere, through its own spectacular growth and the forging of new friendships. But it’s sad that there are Jews in America, however few or many, who do not stand in pure wonder that they live in a time when there exists a Jewish sovereign state. They would like a different one.
They must have millennia to spare.
Photo credit: Golani reconnaissance unit graduation, 2014, IDF Spokesman.
The November 2015 issue of Commentary magazine is comprised of a symposium entitled The Jewish Future, in which “70 Jewish Leaders, Thinkers, and Clergy Respond to the Question: What Will be the Condition of the Jewish Community 50 Years from Now?” Below is my contribution. Download the entire symposium (pdf) here.
The phrase “Jewish history” is misleading. There is only history, of which the Jews are a part, sometimes as movers, other times as objects, too often as victims. The Jews of Europe were destroyed because a force arose that nearly destroyed all of Europe in a total war. The Jews of America have prospered because America has prospered, thanks to its mastery of democracy and capitalism. The Jews of Russia were freed because all of Russia freed itself from Soviet Communism. World-historical forces have made “Jewish history” as much as the Jews have made it, if not more.
Those forces made it in 1948 as well. The 600,000 Jews who created the State of Israel showed incredible grit. But they never would have succeeded had the Arabs not been debilitated and divided. Israel arose at an opportune moment, when the Arabs were still reeling from colonialism. That weakness has persisted to our very day and has manifested itself in our time in an Arab civil war. But by 2065, the Arabs will be a full century into postcolonial independence. Is it possible that they might finally be poised to destroy Israel, perhaps with the help of other Muslims, such as Iran?
“Israel is indestructible,” former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has said time and again. “I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.” This is true—for now. But as Halevy has repeated again and again (in the debate on the Iran nuclear deal), “10 years is an eternity in the Middle East.” Israel has enjoyed a widening advantage over its adversaries since its establishment, especially since 1967. It is the inherent advantage of the West over the East. But might 50 years—Halevy’s eternity multiplied by five—be enough to erode or overturn it?
This is certainly the Palestinian-Arab view of Israel. According to a recent poll, more than half of Gazans and almost 40 percent of West Bankers think Israel will no longer exist at all in 30 to 40 years. They are about evenly split between those who think that Israel “will collapse from internal contradictions” and those who expect that “Arab or Muslim resistance will destroy it.” Ask them if Israel will exist as a Jewish state in a century, and the percentage of those who answer yes falls almost to single digits. This is the persistent idea of Israel as a Crusader outpost, fated to dissipate as a reunited Islam recovers and recoups its losses.
Over the next 50 years, Israel by its actions must show, decade after decade, that it is the Arabs, including the Palestinians, who have the most to fear from the future, unless and until they recognize Israel’s durable permanence. They are only halfway there. Two states bordering Israel have made a grudging peace, but Islamists, Sunni and Shiite, still think they can whittle down Israeli sovereignty by a thousand cuts. These are the people whom Israel must defeat and demoralize over the next 50 years. Forty years ago, in January 1976, Bernard Lewis accurately predicted “The Return of Islam” in these pages. The retreat of Islam as a radical political force is something that Israel must work to effect, by causing it to fail as thoroughly as Arab nationalism failed in 1967.
Because the Jews are now fully sovereign, they can act on history in ways once unimaginable, and Israel has the potential and the imperative to make history for others. It must plan to bend the arc of the Middle East yet again, in its favor. If Israel is to be secure, let alone flourish, it will have no choice.
This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on July 30.
For those who have followed the discussion of my essay on the documentary film Censored Voices, I bring your attention to my “last word” on the subject at Mosaic Magazine. There I suggest that the film is fairly close on the spectrum to Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” (in his bestselling book My Promised Land and in The New Yorker), which I dissected at length a year ago, also at Mosaic Magazine. That’s a resemblance worth further elaboration, so here it is.
Shavit purports to reveal the details of a forgotten Israeli massacre of Palestinians in July 1948, which he rediscovered by interviewing Israeli veterans twenty years ago. For his account, he went back to his tapes. The director of Censored Voices, Mor Loushy, purports to reveal the censored details of Israeli war crimes committed in June 1967 against Palestinians and other Arabs—crimes she rediscovered in tapes of discussions among Israeli soldiers.
The notion of hidden war crimes preserved on privately-held tapes is almost irresistable. Is anyone bothered that no one else has access to these tapes, which (like all evidence) need to be scrutinized critically? Does anyone care if the case for war crimes rests on isolated quotes, summations, and soundbites? I’ve called on Shavit and Loushy to place all their material in a public archive where it can be examined by historians. It’s reprehensible to put these “crimes” on the public agenda, yet continue to monopolize the supposed evidence for them.
Both Shavit and Loushy use numbers—in fact, the same number—to embed their narratives in the minds of readers or viewers. Shavit claims that Israeli soldiers, in the course of a broader massacre, cut down seventy persons who had taken refuge in a mosque in Lydda—a number he repeats five times in his book. This is what I call a sticky statistic. When I told a friend that I would be looking closely at the mosque “massacre,” he replied: “Where seventy were killed, right?” I was taken aback: the statistic, through its repetition, had stuck. As I later showed, the “seventy” isn’t attested by any source except local Palestinian lore, and contemporary Israeli sources put the number at less than half of that. (They also totally contradict the “massacre” claim.)
Loushy (and her partner and producer Daniel Sivan) use the same number to describe the scale of the “brutal censorship” that kept the Six-Day War “crimes” secret for so long. They allege that seventy percent of the original testimonies of soldiers were cut by the Israeli military censor in 1967, and thus consigned to oblivion. (For example, Sivan repeats the figure twice in this one interview.) This statistic is also sticky, and it has surfaced in just about every review of the film, as well as in the Economist, where you expect statistics to have been vetted. As I show, this “seventy” is a fiction. The extent of official censorship of the original testimonies, according to a careful assessment by their foremost historian, was negligible.
The agonized soldiers, the forgotten tapes, and the memorable numbers are all vehicles to deliver this message: Israel is guilty of crimes in the two wars that gave it independence and its current borders, 1948 and 1967. It is too late for individuals to be tried for these crimes, but there must be atonement. For Shavit and Loushy, that atonement is self-evident: Israel must end the “occupation.” Only thus can it cleanse itself of sins.
The ascendence of this argument in the Israeli mainstream left isn’t accidental. The Second Intifada, the debacle of Gaza, Palestinian refusal to talk—all of these have undercut the rationale for peace as a transaction between Israelis and Palestinians. How can Israelis and Jews be persuaded that a Palestinian state is still an urgent necessity—so much so that it might even justify unilateral withdrawal? Some invoke demography, but others instill guilt. Yes, a Palestinian state is a huge risk. Yes, there is no partner. Yes, the rockets may fall. Yes, the blood may flow. But if we end the “occupation,” we will cleanse ourselves of guilt. If this is the aim of such revelations, then the desired effect is only enhanced by exaggerating the “crimes,” ripping them out of context, and claiming they were somehow covered up.
This is the present-day purpose of these historical exposés. But that isn’t necessarily their present-day effect. Israel’s critics adduce the claims of Shavit and Loushy as evidence that Israel repeatedly commits and covers up the same crimes. Israel’s history, writes one defamer (while generously quoting from Shavit), is “a history of Lyddas piling up into a mountain, remembered or almost forgotten except by the survivors.” A reviewer of Loushy’s film insists that “year after year since 1967, including in recent weeks, Palestinians, with faces and names, are still expelled, imprisoned without trial and killed.”
Incredibly, both Shavit and Loushy are oblivious to this use of their work. Shavit: “Even the most difficult parts of my book were not used by Israel’s enemies because they were afraid to quote something that is written by a really devoted Zionist.” Loushy: “I find it difficult to believe that someone would attack Israel because of the film.” Shavit and Loushy grossly underestimate the resourcefulness of Israel’s enemies, who will mine any vein for historical evidence of Israeli misdeeds and then deploy it to condemn Israel in the present. This isn’t a reason to avoid research critical of Israel’s history. It is a reason to establish facts scrupulously, from a full range of sources, and put them in broader context. Famed journalists and beginning directors don’t get a pass on that.
Much of Israel’s self-critical output makes its way to discussions at American synagogues and Sabbath tables. Even sophisticated audiences often take too much of it at face value. As Censored Voices moves into Jewish film festivals and American theaters, I’ll be watching to see who passively accepts it and who reports the evidence that its very premise is fabricated. I’m guessing most viewers won’t question what they see on the screen. How many is “most”? Oh, probably around seventy percent.
(Again, my “last word” at Mosaic Magazine, here.)
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This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on January 20.
Longtime readers of COMMENTARY might remember Shabtai Teveth, prolific author and the authorized biographer of David Ben-Gurion. Teveth passed away on November 1 at the age of eighty-nine. He had gone silent twelve years earlier, following a debilitating stroke. It was on the pages of COMMENTARY, in 1989, that he launched one of the most thorough broadsides on Israel’s “new historians.” It repays reading now (as does Hillel Halkin’s COMMENTARY review of Teveth’s Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust). It’s also a reminder of how desperately Israel still needs truth-tellers like Teveth, who knew the flaws of Israel’s founders perfectly well, but never let that overshadow the nobility of their cause.
By the time I met Teveth, in the early 1980s, he was already renowned for his journalistic achievements at Haaretz, but also for his best-selling books, most famously his up-close account of the heroic armored battles of the June 1967 Six-Day War. (It appeared in English under the title The Tanks of Tammuz.) Approaching sixty years of age, he had set aside journalism in order to devote himself to a monumental biography of David Ben-Gurion, a project he had commenced some years earlier, when the Old Man was still alive and willing to talk.
I was new in Israel, and the native-born Teveth became a friend and my guide to the intricacies of the country’s history, politics, and journalism. In return, I helped him to prepare an English edition of a spin-off of his biographical project: a book eventually entitled Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, published by Oxford in 1985. In that work, Teveth argued that Ben-Gurion perfectly understood Arab opposition to Zionism, but also recognized the danger of acknowledging its depth. So B-G conducted a carefully calibrated policy that held out the hope of a peaceful settlement, even while preparing for confrontation. The book covered the 1920s and 1930s, but Ben-Gurion would implement the same approach right up to 1948.
Work on the book became a kind of tutorial course on the history of Israel, taught to me by Teveth. In turn, I taught him some of the odder subtleties of English. For years afterwards, he would call me at some ungodly hour of the morning, to ask how he might best render this or that Hebrew phrase into polished English without sacrificing even an iota of its original meaning.
Teveth wrote like a journalist up against a deadline. He would rise very early, go for a swim, head for his office (he didn’t work at home, but kept a separate apartment filled to the brim with his research materials), and then would bang out a few thousand words on his typewriter before lunch. I don’t think he ever had a day of writer’s block. Over the years, we developed a regular routine. Perhaps once a month, we would meet for lunch in a restaurant somewhere in north Tel Aviv where he kept his office. By lunchtime, Sabi (as his family and friends called him) had finished a full day’s work, and he was primed for competitive conversation, usually smoothed by a glass of Scotch, for which he had a refined taste. I couldn’t return all of his volleys, and the only real match he had in conversation was the late Zvi Yavetz, the historian of ancient Rome and a master raconteur in his own right. When Sabi and Zvi got rolling, showering the table with sparks of erudition and wit, the spectacle inspired awe and envy.
I once asked Sabi why he had set journalism aside, since his Haaretz columns had landed on the breakfast tables of the most influential people in Israel. His many books, prior to the Ben-Gurion project, had been contemporary reportage of the highest order, attracting large numbers of readers. (These included a biography of Moshe Dayan, a book on the first years of Israel’s post-1967 policies in the West Bank, and an exploration of poverty in Israel.) Sabi answered that he didn’t want to spend an entire lifetime breathing heavily over the doings of politicians.
The older I grow, the more I appreciate that decision to move from punditry to history. Teveth came to recognize the ephemeral nature of most journalism. He believed he was fortunate to have witnessed the last chapter in the founding of Israel (as a young soldier in the Palmah and then as an army journalist), and that this was a story that would be told again and again by future generations, each time from a point still more remote from the events. If he wrote that history now, meticulously and honestly, that telling would last beyond him.
The Ben-Gurion project, which ultimately reached four volumes (3,000 pages) in Hebrew, belongs to the genre of the big-canvas biography, of the sort exemplified by Robert Caro’s study of Lyndon Johnson or Martin Gilbert’s official biography of Winston Churchill. Indeed, it was Teveth’s finest hour in 1987 when the 967-page English version of the B-G biography (pre-1948) received a glowing review from Gilbert on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, accompanied by a photograph as well as a short profile of Teveth (written by Tom Friedman). This was before the internet, and I remember rushing over to Sabi’s home to see the review section, urgently dispatched by his New York publisher.
The Friedman profile includes an odd quote. “Israel has been going through a difficult period during these last thirteen years,” Teveth told Friedman. “But all this time I feel as though I have been working in a bunker full of light and hope. In my bunker the Jewish state is yet to be born. The Jewish people have a strong leader and the world is huge.” I personally never heard Sabi talk of his historical work as a nostalgic retreat from contemporary Israel. He regretted the diminished quality of Israel’s leaders, but this only fortified his determination to remind Israelis of a moment in living memory when they had a leader equal to world history at its most demanding.
There had been a leader who might have risen to that stature: Moshe Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s favorite, who seemed poised to succeed the Old Man as the very personification of Israeli grit. Teveth had written a biography of him—admiring but not reverential—that appeared in 1971, while Dayan still basked in the glow of the Six-Day War. Dayan’s prospects were dashed by the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when suddenly he became the clay-footed personification of Israeli hubris. Teveth nevertheless remained loyal to Dayan, and it was he who mediated between Dayan’s longtime admirers and Tel Aviv University, to bring forth the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
The monumental biography of Ben-Gurion secured for Teveth the National Jewish Book Award in 1987 and the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, in 2005. But the project remained unfinished, in part because every few years he would suspend it to write a spin-off. He wrote a book on the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosorov. (Its conclusions so enraged the then-prime minister Menachem Begin that he appointed an official commission of inquiry to refute it.) He wrote another book on Ben-Gurion’s response to the Holocaust, and still another on the 1954 Lavon Affair (both also appeared in English). And there was that book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs. These digressions, while important works in their own right, took time from the biography, and when Teveth suffered his stroke, he hadn’t yet gotten to the year for which Ben-Gurion’s life had been a preparation: 1948.
We are fortunate, then, that one of those digressions took the form of a direct confrontation with the so-called “new historians.” Avi Shlaim, one of Teveth’s targets, later called him “the most strident and vitriolic” critic of the self-declared iconoclasts who set about smashing the conventional Israeli narrative with reckless abandon. In the spring of 1989, Teveth fired off a barrage of full-page critiques in three consecutive weekend editions of Haaretz. (These pieces formed the nucleus of his later COMMENTARY article.) Teveth pummeled the “new historians” (Shlaim and Benny Morris), whose indictments of Israel’s conduct in 1948 he described as a “farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications.” I recall waking up early each Friday morning and rushing down to my doorstep to grab the newspaper and flip to that week’s installment.
A year later, he published a 35-page review of Benny Morris’s Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pursuing error and bias into the most remote footnotes. This was Teveth at his forensic best: he had read the same documents in the same archives, and he showed that they did not always say what Morris claimed they said. “Morris’s work was received with great expectations,” Teveth concluded. “On examination, however, these have been disappointed. This problem [of how the Palestinian Arabs became refugees], therefore, will have to wait still further for a more comprehensive and honest study, that would be worthy of the great human and national tragedy it represents.”
The “new historians” retaliated by trying to label Teveth as “old.” True, he was a generation older than them, but the “old”-naming could reach absurd proportions. For example, Shlaim once described him, repeatedly, as a “member of the Mapai old guard.” Nonsense: Teveth was famously associated with Mapai’s young guard, and indeed built his journalistic reputation as a muckraker by attacking Mapai’s veteran party stalwarts.
Teveth concluded his COMMENTARY article by dismissing the “new historians,” since “history, thank goodness, is made of sterner and more intractable stuff than even their wholesale efforts of free interpretation can dissimulate.” This proved to be overly optimistic. Demolishing Israel’s “myths” and creating new ones turned into a popular pastime for younger academics and activists. Benny Morris’s book on the Palestinian refugee problem has become the most-read and most-cited book on the 1948 war. One hardly need wonder what Teveth would say about the latest iteration of “free interpretation” (pioneered by Morris in the revised edition of his book), accusing Israel of various massacres that somehow escaped notice until just now. Nothing good, I imagine.
I wish I could announce that Teveth’s legacy will be ever-enduring, but a younger generation of readers will have to discover him first, and that hasn’t happened yet. He wrote mostly in the era before the internet, so his most important writings aren’t accessible at a click. He disappeared from the scene years before he died, so the obituaries were few and perfunctory. And he wrote big books that almost no one has read cover-to-cover. Teveth not only told truths about Israel, he told whole truths, and that required a minute retrieval and examination of all the evidence. There were reviewers who complained that Teveth left his readers “drowning in a sea of detail,” and that “intimate descriptions of daily doings” caused them to lose the “overall thread.”
Teveth was familiar with the criticism, and he rejected it. At one point, he had recited the list of groceries Ben-Gurion purchased while in London in November 1938. “Trivial,” he acknowledged, “yet how well this information helps the biographer in describing the loneliness of Ben-Gurion, who ate in his hotel room and there listened to the radio speeches by Hitler and Chamberlain, speeches that decided the fate of the world and the fate of both Europe’s Jews and Zionism.” Such level of detail assures that while the general reader may not persevere, every future biographer of Ben-Gurion will keep those four volumes on his or her desk. Perhaps that was Teveth’s aim all along.
I’ve missed Sabi very much these last twelve years, and suspect I’ll miss him still more with the passage of time. This is not only because he was my friend, but because I see no one who combines his mix of passion, energy, and encyclopedic knowledge in the pursuit of every recoverable fragment of evidence needed to establish the truth. My condolences to Ora, his wife, who sustained him through all the years of his disability and saw the last volume of the Ben-Gurion biography through to publication, and to their children and grandchildren, in whom Sabi took so much pride.
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