Grist for Israel’s defamers

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.)

Génocidaires of the Palmah

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on February 23, and again in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on February 24.

Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, continues to fuel the claim that Israeli forces committed horrific war crimes when they conquered the city in July 1948. As I have shown in much detail, it’s only possible to reach this conclusion by excluding most of the evidence and making up the rest.

The latest case in point is an article by Michael Kinsley at Slate (of which he is the founding editor). It’s entitled “Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” Those “victims” are the Jews, and his basic claim is that Israel long deceived the world (including little Mike Kinsley in his Detroit Jewish school in the 1960s), by peddling the storyline that the Arab refugees fled of their own accord in 1948. Israelis do acknowledge one “dreadful massacre,” at Deir Yassin, but “under the dubious logic of the exception that proves the rule, Deir Yassin has become in a way evidence of Israeli good behavior.” “Trouble is,” announces Kinsley,

all this is not even close to being true. Terror and the decisions by Arab families to flee were not regrettable side effects of the war, but the result of purposeful strategy by the Israelis. This strategy and its execution were endorsed by the Israeli leadership and not just rogue behavior by more ruthless Jewish militias (another common excuse).

And what is his prime example? Why, the “village” of Lydda of course, and the alleged “slaughter” carried out by the Palmah. And what is Kinsley’s source? Why, Ari Shavit of course. “Call me naive,” Kinsley writes, but he “was shocked to read” Shavit’s account of what happened there.

As Shavit describes it, with a lot of new research, the attack on Lydda was part of a purposeful strategy of Arab removal, approved at the highest levels. It had everything we have come to associate with a human rights atrocity: people who had been neighbors for generations turning on and slaughtering one another, Rwanda-style. Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire. Torturing people, allegedly to extract information, and then killing them when they’ve been squeezed dry. Going house to house and killing everyone discovered inside. And so on.

To read this, you would think that the Yiftah Brigade of the Palmah conducted itself like a gang of roving génocidaires.

Trouble is, to borrow Kinsley’s phrase, “all this is not even close to being true.” Kinsley, far from showing himself a careful sifter of history, clearly has been seduced by Shavit’s dramatic opera, mistaking it for history. And Kinsley then amplfies Shavit’s biases still further, for reasons known only to him, producing a grotesque defamation of Israel that goes even beyond Shavit’s account.

For example, take this point of supposed similarity between Lydda and Rwanda: “Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire.” This originates in Shavit’s claim that Israeli troops detained Palestinian Arabs in a small mosque, and then fired an anti-armor rocket into it as an act of revenge, killing seventy persons.

But as I’ve shown, Israeli troops didn’t crowd anyone into that mosque. Civilians (probably including fighters) took refuge there, but the Israeli soldiers didn’t know that. From that mosque, those soldiers came under grenade attack, and they returned fire on what they believed to be the source of the attack. When they stormed the mosque and saw the carnage their fire had inflicted, it shocked them. This battle scenario bears no resemblance whatsoever to the deliberate herding of civilians into a church (or synagogue), and setting it ablaze or blowing it up. To insinuate a parallel between the battle in Lydda and the most heinous crimes against humanity, committed as part of a genocide, is simply obscene.

And it suggests that Kinsley didn’t even read Shavit carefully, for Shavit concludes his account with this admission: “The small-mosque massacre could have been a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events.” But for Kinsley, there are no accidents. He attributes a murderous intent to Israeli troops not because he can be sure of it, but because it suits his forced narrative of Israeli sin.

The notion that what happened in Lydda in July 1948 was a “human rights atrocity,” “Rwanda-style,” is preposterous. Just as absurd is Kinsley’s claim that Israel’s leaders had a “purposeful strategy” to engender Arab flight through “terror,” of which Lydda was an exemplar. Not even Benny Morris, cited by Kinsley as an authority, makes that claim. “There was no Zionist ‘plan’ or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population,” Morris has written. He has discovered no “policy or master-plan of expulsion; the Yishuv and its military forces did not enter the 1948 War, which was initiated by the Arab side, with a policy or plan for expulsion,” nor did they develop such a plan during the war. In his exchange with me, Morris took the view that the forced expulsion from Lydda wasn’t typical: “In most places in 1948, Arabs simply fled in the face of actual or approaching hostilities.” Kinsley’s “purposeful strategy” is the thesis of Israel-hater Ilan Pappé, whose credibility has been shredded by—yes, Benny Morris.

“Victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” If you’ve gleaned your own knowledge of 1948 from a Detroit Hebrew school curriculum circa 1960 and a (cursory) reading of Shavit’s My Promised Land, you don’t have the right to rewrite the past either. The latter source poses almost as many problems as the former. In Shavit’s role as Israel’s Pied Piper on campuses and in synagogues, he may be doing some good. But the Lydda chapter is doing damage, and keeps popping up as the authoritative word on Israel’s original sin. This, even though Morris and Efraim Karsh have savaged his Lydda premises, and I have punched holes in his Lydda claims, many of which also failed to get past the fact checkers at the New Yorker (on which, see my critique).

When Shavit is asked about the criticism of his Lydda chapter on one of his innumerable whistle stops, he either dodges the question or dismisses discussion of it as a waste of his valuable time. Actually, that’s fine with me. All he needs to do is deposit the tapes of his witnesses in a public archive, and give Israeli readers his final version of the Lydda chapter in Hebrew. The critics will take over from there.

Lydda, 1948: They were there

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on December 24, and again in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on December 25.

Most Israelis know nothing about Ari Shavit’s bestselling book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Readers of Ha’aretz, where he’s a columnist, may have seen it mentioned in short articles celebrating Shavit’s stateside success. But few Israelis have heard of the book, and I’m guessing that only a handful have actually read it. That’s because there is no Hebrew edition.

Shavit wrote it in English for an American Jewish audience, upon the suggestion of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. Ha’aretz at first reported that a Hebrew version would appear at the end of 2013, and later that it would be published in the spring of 2014 (by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir). But while the book has also appeared in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, and Polish, there’s no sign of a Hebrew edition.

So Israelis have no clue that Shavit has added a massacre in the city of Lydda to the litany of Israel’s alleged crimes in 1948. That’s why I felt privileged to take part in a December 4 panel on the conquests of Lydda and Ramleh in 1948, sponsored by the Galili Center for Defense Studies. The chairman of the center, Uzi Arad, suggested that I explain and analyze the claims made by Shavit in his book, which I’d already done in English for the web magazine Mosaic. (The organizers also invited Shavit, but he was off collecting accolades in south Florida.)

I was the youngest participant on the panel, and nearly the youngest person in the lecture hall, which was full of veterans of Lydda and many other battles of 1948. These people aren’t historians, and they don’t necessarily know the big picture of how politics and military operations interacted. They weren’t commanders (the officers are all gone); they were young soldiers in 1948, at the bottom of the chain of command.They’ve also read a lot and shared recollections over the past sixty-plus years, so you can’t always tell whether what they say about some episode is first-hand or derives from something they read or heard. Finally, time erodes memory, as some are quite prepared to admit.

Still, there were some very sharp minds in the audience—people who know more about the history of the 1948 war than anyone but a handful of expert historians. They know the commanders, the military units, the weaponry, the battles, the geography, the chronology—and woe unto you if you make a mistake. They won’t wait for the Q&A to correct you. The war to establish the state of Israel was the great adventure of their youth, and they wear it as badge of honor.

I was the only one of the four panelists who dealt directly with Shavit’s Lydda chapter. I was preceded by two well-regarded military historians, who described the campaign from an operational vantage point, and one veteran of the conquest, Yeshayahu (Shaike) Gavish. Now 89 years old and still vital, he’s most famous to Israelis as the general who led the Southern Command in the Six-Day War, when Israeli forces overwhelmed the Egyptians and seized the Sinai. In Lydda in 1948, he was a lowly operations officer, and a wounded one at that, so he had a fairly limited view of the theater, confined as he was to a jeep.

His most interesting comments concerned the flight of Lydda’s inhabitants, whose mass departure made a deep impression on him (as it did on many other Israelis). While there’s no doubt that an expulsion order was issued (on whose authority is debated), Gavish echoed many other witnesses who’ve said that Lydda’s inhabitants were eager to get out, begged to leave, and packed up as soon as the roads to the east opened. He did say that in his opinion, the events in the Dahmash mosque (the “small mosque”) which Shavit insists on calling a “massacre,” had a strong effect on the populace, reinforcing their desire to flee. But on the question of just what happened at the small mosque, he had nothing to say, as he wasn’t there.

In my presentation, I explained just how large an impact Shavit’s book has had on American Jewry, and the crucial role played by the New Yorker in running the Lydda chapter as a provocative teaser. I then reviewed the “massacre” narrative sentence by sentence, just as I had done in my initial article for Mosaic. I figured that a mostly elderly crowd of Hebrew-speakers would need the crutch of a visible text, so I projected the relevant passages from the Lydda chapter up on the screen and read them slowly and deliberately. Then I explained why I thought Shavit’s conclusions were implausible.

I could have dispensed with my own analysis. The reactions tumbled forth in immediate response to Shavit’s text. I heard gasps of disbelief and angry asides. I didn’t ask for a show of hands as to how many thought Shavit’s account had any credibility, and in retrospect I wish I had. But to judge from the audible responses, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this audience was surprised and offended.

Two passages produced especially strong reactions. Shavit made this claim about the conduct of Palmach soldiers after the counter-attack on the small mosque: in their “desire for revenge,” “because of the rage they felt,” they entered the mosque and “sprayed the surviving wounded with automatic fire.” Shavit also charged that soldiers who were ordered to bury the Arabs killed in the mosque “took eight other Arabs to do the digging of the burial site and afterward shot them, too, and buried the eight” with the rest. Simply projecting these passages on the screen provoked a few salty comments I won’t repeat.

That said, nothing I heard, either in the lecture hall or outside of it, added to the store of testimony about the “massacre” component of Shavit’s Lydda tale. The conquest of Lydda had many moving parts, and most of the veterans I met served in the 89th Battalion under Moshe Dayan. That meant that they weren’t in the city when the “massacre” supposedly took place, but fought the day before, mostly on the road between Lydda and Ramleh. But I wasn’t looking for new testimony, because there are plenty of recorded recollections from people who witnessed the events, including the scene in and around the small mosque. I did want these veterans to know what much of the world (Israel excepted) has been reading about their battle for over a year now. And I wanted them to start to talk about it among themselves and with others.

I probably achieved that goal, but I’ve since wondered whether I should have left these people in peace, safe in their ignorance of Shavit’s accusation that Lydda is Israel’s “black box.” At this point, none of them is up to challenging a well-connected media celebrity of Shavit’s caliber, and the persons specifically accused by him are gone. An elderly gentleman came up after my presentation and asked if I intended to publish my article in Hebrew. We ourselves can’t set the record straight anymore, he pleaded. That’s a huge difference from fifteen years ago, when veterans (of the Alexandroni Brigade) sued a graduate student (Teddy Katz) for claiming, in his thesis, that they’d committed a massacre (at Tantura). I told him to wait patiently: if Shavit’s book ever appears in Hebrew, he might roll back some of his claims, just as the New Yorker did when it ran the Lydda chapter as a stand-alone.

During the proceedings, a camera crew bustled about, filming presentations and interviewing some of the veterans. The man running the crew was Dan Setton, an Emmy-winning Israeli documentary filmmaker who told people he’s preparing a film “inspired by [Shavit’s] book.” He says it’s a co-production of HBO and Israel’s Channel Two. I’ve no idea where Setton will go with this project, but getting it right must begin with a dissection of the chapter that made My Promised Land famous.

Top: Erez training group, 1947, whose members served later in the Yiftah Bridge that conquered Lydda. Bottom: Galili Center audience for the panel on Lydda, 2014.
Top: Erez training group, 1947, whose members served later in the Yiftah Bridge that conquered Lydda. Bottom: Galili Center audience for the panel on Lydda, 2014.