Choice books on Israel, 2019

Mosaic Magazine asked its regular contributors for year-end book recommendations. I selected these four worthwhile books published in 2019. Other contributors (the list is illustrious) made interesting choices too, and you can read them in two parts: here and here. Now, my choices.

Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.

David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.

Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.

But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.

We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95)tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.

Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.

In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.

Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israels Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99)It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)

It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.

Finally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.

Story so good, he told it twice

I originally thought that New York Times news columnist Max Fisher had taken his tall tale of Ben-Gurion’s July 1967 “prophecy” from Arthur Hertzberg. Actually, Fisher took it most directly from… Fisher. It turns out he used almost exactly the same lede in an article he wrote for Vox in 2015 (under the headline “Israel’s Dark Future”). Compare the two below: on the left, the Times lede, on the right, the Vox lede.

Fisher in NYT and Vox

I’ll make it still easier to compare:

  • Times: “Amid a moment of national euphoria, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction.”
  • Vox: “Three weeks later, amid Israel’s national euphoria, the country’s founding prime minister emerged from retirement to warn Israelis that they had sown the seeds of national self-destruction.”
  • Times: “Israel had just won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.”
  • Vox: “In June 1987, Israel won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis and the global Jewish community with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.”
  • Times: “But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state…”
  • Vox: “David Ben-Gurion, 81 years old, insisted that Israel, which had conquered the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank in the war, must immediately give them up. If they did not, he said, this act of forcible occupation would corrupt the Jewish state…”

The order of the sentences has changed a bit, but it’s the same phrases, and the lede serves the same purpose in both pieces: to claim that the founding father of Israel warned against the “occupation” and urged that all the territories be returned lest Israel be forever corrupted. In the Vox piece, there’s no mention of Hertzberg and no link to his 1987 article, although it’s obviously Fisher’s (only) evidence that Ben-Gurion said any of this.

It again shows just how irresistible this story is. Not only was it told earlier in the Times (by Anthony Lewis, back in 1987). Fisher’s now told it twice, before and since joining the Times. I leave aside the question of whether it’s permissible at the Times to run with a lede you’ve already published elsewhere (and to put it on the front page, no less). The Times strictly prohibits outside op-ed writers from recycling prose passages (see under: Slavoj Zizek, and scroll down). But maybe the Gray Lady is more forgiving of her own.

• •

I’ll take the opportunity of this small discovery to introduce one last nuance regarding Ben-Gurion and 1967. In my last post, I noted that Ben-Gurion “favored autonomy over annexation of the West Bank,” but I didn’t explain why. His reasoning suggests why some in Israel’s “peace camp” are so keen to claim him as a founding father, not just of Israel, but of their cause.

In his diary entry of June 8, as the war wound down, Ben-Gurion formulated his initial position on the West Bank:

On Jerusalem we must not budge. We have to quickly establish a large Jewish settlement there. The same with Hebron. The West Bank must not be returned to Hussein, but its annexation to Israel would mean the addition of one million Arabs, and this would present a terrible danger.

So here was the conundrum: the West Bank couldn’t be annexed, because of those million Arabs. In a letter dated July 17, Ben-Gurion elaborated on the problem:

As for the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem and its environs), it must be remembered that it is home to about a million Arabs, and nothing more imperils our future than adding them to Israel, because soon they would constitute a majority and take over the state. And I don’t imagine to myself that we would annex the West Bank, while denying to its habitants the rights of citizens, or expelling them from this territory.

But the West Bank couldn’t be returned either. Why? Even Ben-Gurion realized the flaw in the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan: it had permitted an Arab army west of the Jordan river. That also imperiled Israel, and returning the territory would only leave Israel vulnerable again.

So Ben-Gurion developed the idea of the West Bank as an autonomous “province” or “protectorate” (he used both words), dependent economically on Israel, and surrounded on the east by Israeli forces along the Jordan river. In this autonomous entity, from which Jerusalem would be excluded, Palestinian Arabs would conduct their own affairs, but Israel would assume responsibility for defense and foreign relations.

In that same letter of July 17, Ben-Gurion explained his idea. As I showed, he’d done it already in his press release of June 19, but notice the last sentence:

Therefore, I propose autonomy for the West Bank, without sovereignty, but with economic ties to Israel, and in my opinion, we shall have to keep the Israel Defense Forces on the western side of the Jordan river. If Jews want to settle on the West Bank, they should be able to do so.

So the West Bank would be shorn of Jerusalem, separated from Jordan by Israeli forces on the river, dependent on Israel for its outlets to the sea—and open to Jewish settlement should any Jews want to settle there. It just wouldn’t be annexed: that would be a “terrible danger.”

Now if you agree with those two words, you might quote them and gloss over the crux of Ben-Gurion’s proposal. But there’s no doubt: Ben-Gurion, far from warning against “occupation,” was already trying to devise a reasonable alternative that wouldn’t require Israel to return or cede anything. And fifty years later, Ben-Gurion’s vision is very much a reality. “I am more and more persuaded,” wrote Hertzberg in 1987, “that the old man I heard that night twenty years ago was more prophet than angry octogenarian.” If so (and I think not), it wasn’t because he warned against the “occupation,” but because he prepared the rationale for a derivative of it, which has evolved into today’s status quo on the West Bank.

Which is not to say that Ben-Gurion’s proposal in 1967 is a guide for the future. Quoting statesmen of the past is no substitute for independently thinking through problems. The political discourse in Israel is awash in arguments that if only Jabotinsky or Ben-Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin were alive, he would say this or do that. To clinch these arguments, polemicists twist history out of all recognition. But it’s a deception, because the dead don’t know what we know. The question is what we should do, based on the experience and wisdom we’ve acquired since all of these “greats” turned to dust. If the best that critics of Israel’s policies can do is copy and paste (mis)quotes from buried Israeli statesmen, then the road before them is long indeed.

The New York Times stands by its error

Tweet by Max FisherMax Fisher of the New York Times has taken to Twitter to defend his claim that David Ben-Gurion “emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction.” According to Fisher (in an article that ran on the front page of the Times on July 23),

Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

Fisher sourced this story (via a link in the online edition of the Times) to a recollection by the late Arthur Hertzberg, a noted Conservative rabbi. Hertzberg, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1987, claimed to have heard the grim prophecy during an encounter between Ben-Gurion and American Conservative rabbis at Beit Berl (near Kfar Saba) in July 1967.

As it happened, a few months ago I’d grown suspicious of this story, and so I tracked down the transcript of Ben-Gurion’s remarks in his archives. I found no evidence of his having said anything of the sort. I published my findings back in April, so imagine my surprise when Fisher ran with a lede repeating a fable I’d just debunked. My blog doesn’t have quite the circulation of the New York Times, but it’s where I pointed to the problem, and that brought it to the attention of Fisher and his newspaper.

Fisher now tweets to me that “we’ve looked into this very carefully and, after speaking with the Ben-Gurion Archives and reviewing the historical record, stand by the story.” I’m pleased that Fisher took my challenge seriously, and didn’t just blow it off. But I’m afraid he’s fallen well short of meeting it.

• •

Fisher’s first line of defense is that perhaps I’m not working from the correct transcript. He reports that he’s reached out to the Ben-Gurion Archives, “and the archivist said that the transcript you refer to could be from a different speech. It does not match the reported location, Beit Berl, and is only partial. They may simply not have the correct transcript on file.”

Sorry, Max, it’s not from a different speech. I’ve uploaded the transcript here. It’s dated July 12, 1967, the date of the meeting, and while it doesn’t specify any location, it records Ben-Gurion saying the following (at the start of the second paragraph): “I don’t have much to add to the remarks of Dr. Hertzberg.” Ben-Gurion even told an apt story: he’d once asked an Orthodox rabbi to explain how Conservative Jews differed from Orthodox ones. The Orthodox rabbi, “an honest man, answered that a Conservative Jew rides to the synagogue on the Sabbath because he doesn’t know it’s forbidden, while an Orthodox Jew also rides, [even though] he knows it’s forbidden.” So there’s no doubt whatsoever: I have the correct transcript. This is Ben-Gurion in the room with Hertzberg, bantering with the Conservative rabbis from America. Fact-check fail at the Times.

The twelve pages of the transcript don’t include even a hint that Ben-Gurion made the dramatic renunciation of territorial acquisition that Fisher, relying on Hertzberg, claims he made. Ben-Gurion alluded only once to a possible withdrawal: “If Nasser wants to take back the Sinai or a large part of it, let him make peace with us.” The transcript may be incomplete, a possibility I noted in my article. Still, while it is pointless to speculate on what else Ben-Gurion might have said, it would be bizarre if something as earth-shaking as a warning of Israel’s possible “self-destruction” didn’t make it into the transcript.

Or into Ben-Gurion’s diary, which I can now add as additional source. In his diary entry of July 12, Ben-Gurion summarized his own remarks. (This, after complaining that he had to sit through a long-winded speech by Hertzberg, who also introduced Ben-Gurion “with several inaccuracies about my life.”) Ben-Gurion’s own summary tracks the transcript, and includes nothing whatsoever on territorial concessions. I’ve uploaded it here.

Nor is there any corroboration in the Mapai party newspaper Davar of July 14. It summarized Ben-Gurion’s remarks to the Conservative rabbis (Ben-Gurion, it noted, “was preceded by a lecture by Prof. Hertzberg”). Here, too, as in the transcript, there is no attribution to Ben-Gurion of any territorial position, except this quote about Jerusalem: “We will not return Jerusalem—and no force in the world can take it from us.”

So we have three contemporary sources for this event, and not even one corroborates Hertzberg’s belated account of it.

Max Fisher in the New York TimesBut “we don’t have to go off Hertzberg’s account,” Fisher suddenly announces, because “in any case, multiple historical accounts have independently reported that Ben-Gurion made a statement like this immediately after the war.” These “historical accounts” turn out to be a few screen shots of secondary works comprised of unsourced or fragmentary quotes about Ben-Gurion’s territorial desiderata. None has Ben-Gurion warning against “occupation” as a threat to Israel’s “democracy and pluralism.” And none qualifies as “immediately after the war.” Remember, the point of Fisher’s lede isn’t that Ben-Gurion was willing to trade territory for peace under certain conditions. It’s that Ben-Gurion supposedly warned that Israel would destroy itself if it didn’t retreat, and that he made such a prophecy as early as July 1967. Fisher brings no new evidence for either.

In fact, we already have a precise and authoritative statement of Ben-Gurion’s position “immediately after the war”: his personal press release that appeared in almost all the Hebrew newspapers on June 19. He issued it in order to banish any misunderstanding of his views, and I’ve uploaded a reproduction of the version published in Davar with the same purpose. I’ve also made a translation of its programmatic bullet points. Here we go:

• We are now in possession of the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank of the Land of Israel, the Syrian heights east of the Jordan river, Gaza, and the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs.
• We must be prepared to discuss peace with all our neighbors who fought us: Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. However, I am not sure the other side is prepared for that.
• If Egypt agrees to conclude a peace treaty with Israel—and commits to our freedom of navigation, not just in the straits of Eilat, but also in the Suez Canal—we will be ready to evacuate the Sinai desert immediately after the signing of the treaty.
• We will not discuss the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs with anyone. It was the capital of Israel at the time of King David, and so it will remain forever. The State of Israel will safeguard the holy places of the Christians and Muslims not less than [past] Muslim rule, or the rule of the Crusaders.
• We will propose to the inhabitants of the West Bank to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations on a West Bank autonomy (excluding Jerusalem and its environs), which will be tied to Israel in an economic alliance, and which will have its outlet to the sea via Haifa or Ashdod or Gaza.
• A Jewish army will be stationed on the western bank of the Jordan river to protect the independence of the autonomous West Bank.
• The Gaza Strip will remain in Israel, and efforts will be made to resettle its refugees in the autonomous West Bank, or in other Arab territory, with the assent of the refugees and the assistance of Israel.
• If Syria agrees to sign a peace treaty, and commits to preventing attacks on Israeli settlements by Syria’s inhabitants and from within its territory, we will evacuate the Syrian [Golan] heights now in our hands.
• All the Jews who lived in Hebron and its surroundings will be allowed to return to their former homes, even after the West Bank is granted internal autonomy.
• We will propose a peace treaty to King Hussein between Israel and the East Bank of the Jordan, and will agree to give it an outlet to the Mediterranean, like that given to the West Bank.

In short: all of Jerusalem and Gaza to Israel, autonomy for the West Bank, the Israeli army on the Jordan river, and the return of territory to Egypt and Syria, but only in exchange for peace treaties. (Soon amended: he took the Golan off the table at the end of August.) In an interview published only three days before the Beit Berl meeting, Ben-Gurion elaborated: the West Bank should be a “protectorate” of Israel, and Israel should run its foreign affairs and defense. Any objective reader must agree that nothing in this program even faintly resembles “giv[ing] up the territories” to avoid “self-destruction.”

There’s also no doubt that Ben-Gurion, “immediately after the war,” thought that Israel should sit tight if the Arab states refused to negotiate for peace on Israel’s terms. Only five days after the Beit Berl meeting, Ben-Gurion wrote this in a personal letter: “I myself doubt whether Egypt or Syria is capable of sitting with us to discuss peace. May the government of Israel have the strength and the will to hold on to the conquered territories, when our neighbors refuse to discuss peace with us.” You read it right: that’s only five days after the alleged remarks at Beit Berl.

For the next few years, he remained fairly steady. In September 1969, Eliezer Livneh, a founder of Mapai who’d joined the “Greater Israel” movement, wrote to Ben-Gurion to ask for further clarification. His reply of September 30:

I said more than once to journalists that if there were a chance for “true peace” [shlom emet] (and by true peace I mean stability and common action in economics, politics, and education), I would be for the return of territories (except for the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza). But unfortunately I don’t see any proximate chance for true peace, and thus no room to speak about return of territories. Instead, we must take care to (1) promote increased immigration (without which the territories cannot be settled), (2) increase Jewish fertility (without which the Arabs will become a majority), and (3) be an exemplary people.

This perfectly summed up Ben-Gurion’s position until about 1970. In his own defense, Fisher brings a few quotes from the 1970s (coinciding with the War of Attrition with Egypt), in which Ben-Gurion seems more eager for compromise, at least with Egypt. In this phase, while he always insisted that Israel keep Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, he stopped mentioning Gaza, and sometimes even dropped his insistence on full, cooperative peace with Egypt. But towards the very end (he died in 1973), he drifted in the other direction, into open support of the settlements in the Sinai.

And while he favored autonomy over annexation of the West Bank, Hebron may have been another matter. In January 1970, he contributed a preface to a book on the Jewish presence there. “We will make a great and awful mistake,” he wrote, “if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem, with a large Jewish settlement, constantly growing and expanding, very soon.” In 1972, he surprised many when he announced that the Jewish settlement in Hebron “should be able, in the fullness of time, to become a part of the state of Israel.”

• •

In sum, there’s no evidence that Ben-Gurion warned Israelis that their victory “had sown the seeds of self-destruction,” either in July 1967 or later.

Now I don’t expect working journalists to know all aspects of history, do original historical research, or read sources in foreign languages. History is an exacting profession, certainly no less than journalism. I do expect journalists to take notice when faced with the consensus of historians. Fisher writes that “we feel” that the lede of his article “constitutes accepted, established history and stand by the story.” To the contrary: I don’t believe a single competent Israeli historian or Ben-Gurion biographer would validate the story as it appears on page A1 of the New York Times. And although Hertzberg’s tale has been in print for over thirty years, you won’t find it repeated in any scholarly history or biography.

So the article in the Times simply recycles a myth. And it’s not the first time. Here is the late Anthony Lewis, in an opinion column in the Times, June 9, 1987: “Mr. Hertzberg heard a prophetic warning from David Ben-Gurion in July 1967, a month after the war. Ben-Gurion said it was urgent to return the captured territories at once, for holding on to them would distort and might ultimately destroy Israel.” The story seems irresistible, and the New York Times has a tradition of serving it up to readers, without ever fact-checking it.

I’m not paid to uphold the credibility of the Times, but let me offer a constructive suggestion to those who are. I knew Arthur Hertzberg, a man larger than life. It seems to me that Fisher has deprived him of his rightful place on the front page. Standing by the story really does mean standing by Hertzberg, so why not explicitly cite him as the source? (As Anthony Lewis did.) Put his name somewhere in the online version (“according to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg”), so everyone will know that this account isn’t attested by any historical source. It’s an uncorroborated story told twenty years after the fact by an activist American rabbi with an agenda.

And no more than that.