The paradoxes of Zionism have recently gripped the Israeli imagination. In a new introduction to the republished edition of his Letters to an American Jewish Friend (Gefen), Hillel Halkin writes: “Zionism is at once the greatest repudiation of the Jewish past and the greatest affirmation of it.” That insight had framed his appeal to American Jews to make aliyah to the only place where a Jewish “community of faith” might have a chance to survive. Without American aliyah, Halkin had feared, Israel might confront the demographic imperative that would cause its withering as a Jewish state.
Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers (Harper) explores the lives of seven Israeli paratroopers in the Six-Day War who, his subtitle suggests, “Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” It offers a fascinating variation on the theme of Israel at a fateful crossroads, in search of itself, following the wondrously unifying moment at the Western Wall in June 1967 when Jewish national sovereignty in Jerusalem was restored for the first time in nineteen centuries.
Halevi narrates the postwar lives of a leader of the settlement movement, an advocate of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a diehard socialist kibbutznik who became a Peace Now activist, and the leader of an anti-Zionist terrorist underground cell in Damascus, among others. Sharply divided over the fate of biblical Judea and Samaria –whether settlements represented the fulfillment or betrayal of Zionism – some became settlers while others were appalled that kibbutzniks, “the children of utopia,” had suddenly become “occupiers.”
Writ large, that wrenching conflict has divided Israel ever since 1967, as “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” Yet few Israelis, and fewer outsiders, have grasped how passionately kibbutzniks and settlers shared the Zionist dream: to settle the Land of Israel and restore national sovereignty there. In 1967, Halevi suggests, Israel had become an “occupier.” But how could Jews become occupiers of their own ancient promised homeland?
Both Halkin and Halevi were American Jews from New York whose first visits to Israel came as impressionable teenagers. Arriving as an eighteen-year-old in 1957, Halkin discovered “a community of faith.” Returning a decade later after the Six-Day War, he entered a “dreamlike” world: “To suddenly walk through the gates of the Old City…to walk in the streets of Hebron, Jericho, Bethlehem of Judea,” brought him to the crossroads of his life: “Either I would return to Israel to live, or I would never return there; either I would live as a Jew there, or I would not live as one at all.” Three years later he and his wife made aliyah.
Halevi arrived in Israel shortly after the Six-Day War as a fourteen-year-old Brooklyn boy with his father, a Holocaust survivor. “That summer everyone in Israel felt like family” as the Jewish state “celebrated its existence, life itself. We had done it…. Not merely survived but reversed annihilation into a kind of redemption, awakened from our worst nightmare into our most extravagant dream.” After that visit, “I resolved to return one day and become an Israeli…. The great Jewish adventure was happening in my lifetime; how could I keep away?” Fifteen years later, during the first Lebanon war, he made aliyah and confronted “the agonizing complexity of Israel’s dilemmas.”
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Now it is the turn of an Israeli sabra, Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit, to identify, confront, and lament those dilemmas. Born in Rechovot in 1957, he grew up with the fear of annihilation: “My beloved homeland will crumble as enormous Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses and eradicate its existence.” But a decade later, following the Six-Day War, “The Jewish state was now triumphant and proud and drunk with a heady sense of power.”
A decade further along, Shavit was a paratrooper posted in Palestinian cities. His “existential fear” for Israel’s future converged with his “moral outrage” over “occupation.” Following military service and philosophy studies at Hebrew University he launched his career in journalism by writing a pamphlet for Peace Now, describing settlements as Israel’s “folly.” A young writer for the left-wing weekly Koteret Rashit during the eighties, in the mid-nineties he moved to the left-wing daily Haaretz, where he has ranked ever since among Israel’s top journalists.
Along the way, Shavit began to ask: “Why was my Israel occupying and oppressing another people?” His mournful lament in My Promised Land (Spiegel & Grau) subtitled “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is his answer. Predictably, it has aroused considerable interest in American liberal precincts, where Israel is hardly warmly embraced. In the space of eight November days The New York Times ran Thomas Friedman’s suggestion that Shavit’s book be required reading for President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu; a laudatory review in the daily edition; an op-ed by Shavit himself blaming the recent U.S.-Iran confrontation on President George W. Bush and praising President Obama for demanding a settlement freeze in 2009.
The fusillade of praise was capped by a front-page review in the Times Book Review by New Republic columnist Leon Wieseltier, who joined Shavit in condemning “the utter derangement of the settlement policies in territories that Israel has an urgent and prudent interest in evacuating.”
Shavit has a political axe to grind, which is noisiest when he contrasts his moral golden age of kibbutz socialism, embodied in the founding of Ein Harod in 1921, with the “calamity” of Jewish settlements, launched in Samaria with Ofra in 1975. His sharp contrast between kibbutz morality and settlement immorality, converging in Israel’s “triumph and tragedy” after the Six-Day War, provides the central narrative theme of betrayal that pervades My Promised Land.
Shavit is smitten by Ein Harod, built between Degania (the first Zionist kibbutz, founded in 1909) and the Arab city of Jenin, on land purchased from its Egyptian absentee owner. In their “colonization process,” several dozen Jewish pioneers built a “communist colony. A kibbutz.” In Shavit’s judgment, they were “blessed and cursed with convenient blindness. They see the Arabs but they don’t.” After nearly two thousand years of exile, settlement in Palestine was “the Jewish people’s last resort.” Ein Harod was an experiment to determine “whether the Jews can establish a new secular civilization in their ancient homeland,” while realizing “the dreams of Jewish socialism in the Land of Israel.”
For Zionism to prevail, Shavit writes, there must be “a well-organized, disciplined socialist structure.” Without it, Zionism would lack “the sense of moral superiority that is essential for the colonization process to succeed. Without the communal aspect of kibbutz, socialist Zionism will lack legitimacy and will be perceived as an unjust colonialist movement.” Only kibbutz socialism could provide moral justification for Zionism “to take the valley and to take the land.” The young “comrades” settling the land “do not ask themselves how the eighty thousand Jews living in Palestine in 1921 will deal with more than six hundred thousand Arabs” who are already there. Nor, for that matter, does Shavit.
On acreage purchased from the Sarsouk family, the settlers of Ein Harod would “build and transform themselves in a valley inhabited by others.” To be sure, some lingering serfs and local villagers who remained nearby became “friendly neighbors.” But not for long. Following initial outbursts of gunfire from Arabs who did not welcome Jews to their neighborhood, and fires set in kibbutz fields, open hostility erupted with the Arab revolt in 1936. There was no alternative to Zionist military power, and kibbutzim like Ein Harod became the military vanguard in the struggle for Jewish statehood.
Shavit writes rapturously about Ein Harod. “It is imprinted on every Israeli’s psyche. In a sense it is our Source, our point of departure.” The pioneers of Ein Harod became, in the words of a visiting Zionist luminary, “the heroes of the new generation…. You are taking us back to the source.” But there was a moral cost to be exacted: “The Arabs of the Harod Valley,” writes Shavit, “stand in the way of the Jewish liberation movement that needs to remove them from this valley.” Eventually the fire of Jewish independence “will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too.”
Shavit’s euphoria over kibbutzim becomes a cry of lamentation once the struggle for independence engages the armies of five Arab nations and marauding local Arabs attempting to annihilate the nascent Zionist state and its Jewish inhabitants. The miracle of Jewish statehood, he writes, is based on “denial”: “The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.” As his chapter on the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from Lydda in 1948 (previously excerpted in The New Yorker) is intended to demonstrate, Israel’s “unhealed wound” of moral corrosion began at the very moment of its birth.
Villages were destroyed, land was confiscated, Arabs fled from their homes to become displaced refugees beyond the borders of the fledgling Jewish state. But, as Shavit writes, “There is no time and no place for guilt or compassion.” Israel, after all, would absorb more refugees from Arab states than the number of Palestinians it expelled, while “the vast Arab nation doesn’t lift a finger to help its Palestinian brothers and sisters.”
Once Shavit’s focus shifts to the new wave of Zionist settlers after 1967 his moral indignation boils over. “For upper-middle-class secular Ashkenazi Israelis like me, peace was not only a political idea…. Peace was our religion.” But Jewish settlements were “a calamity in the making.” The Left, his Left, “realized that occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster.” Precisely why the return of Jews to their biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria was a moral calamity, rather than an extension of the earlier kibbutz imperative to settle the land of Israel, he does not say.
Shavit’s demographic argument is equally fallacious: the ratio of Jewish settlers to West Bank Palestinians (now 1:4) is considerably higher than the ratio of Zionists to Palestinians during the golden era of Ein Harod in the 1920s. Politically, the Jewish state is lacerated internationally for its settlements. But one way or another, long before 1967, European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims had found ways to humiliate, persecute, and eventually exterminate Jews. The current international delegitimization of Israel for its settlements updates millennia of anti-Semitism.
As Ein Harod was Shavit’s model of Zionist morality, and Lydda became its shameful price for statehood, Ofra – the first religious Zionist community established in Samaria after the Yom Kippur War – epitomizes the “futile, anachronistic, colonialist” disaster of settlement. Shavit cannot contain his rage and rhetoric. Gush Emunim settlers “challenged secular Zionism and democratic Israel and demanded to establish in Samaria its own Ein Harod.” But “settling occupied territory was illegal and immoral and irrational,” he writes – at least when done by religious nationalists. So the return of Jews to Judea and Samaria became “the foundation of the last colonial project of the twentieth century.”
Ofra ”taints” Israel – and taunts Shavit – with its emulation of Ein Harod, the pride and joy of socialist Zionism. As in Ein Harod, Ofra founders understood, but disregarded, “the inherent contradiction” between their settlement and the surrounding Palestinian population. “We did what our forefathers did in…Ein Harod,” an Ofra founder reminds Shavit: “We followed Labor’s ethos and used Labor’s methods.” Ofra, Shavit concedes, “is Ein Harod’s grandchild” – but also “a grotesque reincarnation of it.”
Shavit is caught on the horns of the Zionist dilemma. Zionism, he asserts, was both a “national liberation movement” and a “colonialist enterprise” that “intended to save the lives of one people by the dispossession of another.” Religious Zionist settlers, he acknowledges, emulate their secular kibbutznik predecessors. But he is tortured by the recognition of this historical truth – and by the double standard it elicits: a kibbutz is a settlement worthy of praise; but a religious Zionist settlement deserves excoriation.
Confronting his Haaretz colleague and Ofra settler Israel Harel, Shavit lacerates his Zionist Other: “A zealot’s fervor blinded you; a collective national-religious fervor made you not see the Arabs all around you. Your tribal psychology and bizarre ideology led you to lead Israel to a dead end.”
Harel is unfazed. Eventually, he believes, “the people of Tel Aviv will understand how hollow their existence is, that without us they have no roots, not depth, and no life… What began in Ofra will make Israel Jewish and Zionist once again.” But Shavit remains haunted that after eighteen centuries of “powerless existence” Jews seized “another people’s land.” One might suggest, however, that Jews returned to their own land and found it occupied by another people.
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My Promised Land contains fascinating vignettes that illuminate the diversity – for better and worse – of Israeli society. The excruciating pain of Oriental Jews, wrenched from their own vibrant cultures to be demeaned and degraded in Ashkenazi Israel, ranks among them. So, too, does Shavit’s dismaying profile of pleasure-seeking young Tel Avivians, where “party now” has replaced “Peace Now” in the city of “piercings, tattoos, drugs and sex.”
Shavit also reveals the undiminished fury of his Palestinian-Israeli lawyer friend who never will accept “the Jewish character of the State of Israel.” His interviews with Israeli security officials concerning the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel’s narrowing choices as the Obama surrender unfolds, are chilling. He thoughtfully explores the conundrum of Israel as “a Jewish nation-state founded in the heart of the Arab world.”
Shavit appreciates that Israel offers “the intensity of life on the edge.” He even concedes, in the end, that although “occupation is wrong, futile, and malevolent” – indeed, it is “killing us morally and politically” – it is not “the source of all evil.”
In fact, he writes, Jews “never had it so good.” Like Halkin and Halevi, he recognizes that the paradoxes and dilemmas confronting a modern Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people, surrounded by enemies sworn to its annihilation, go with the territory.
Triumph and tragedy, like unity and division, have accompanied Jews throughout their long, unique, and improbable history. Why should the story of Jewish statehood, “the miraculous story that Israel is,” be any different?
About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.
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