By Allan Gerson
Even the righteous can be absolutists, until reality catches up with them. Take the case of Ari Shavit, the renowned columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
In his recently published book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, described in the flap jacket as “an authoritative and deeply personal history of the State of Israel,” Shavit pins hopes of peace between Israel and the Palestinians on Israel finally coming to grips with the reality of what happened in 1948 in Lydda, a Palestinian town south of Tel Aviv where 30,000 or more inhabitants were expelled during Israel’s War of Independence.
With My Promised Land, which was published in North America in November and comes out in Israel in the spring, Shavit has become a literary and political sensation. Jeffrey Goldberg, columnist for The Atlantic, praised the book in advance of publication as that of a “poet and a prophet.” And, in the grand prize of being the lead review in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books, Leon Wieseltier hailed the work as “the least tendentious book about Israel I have ever read.”
In fact, the book is highly tendentious. Nor is it judgment-free as NY Times columnist Roger Cohen portended in a column devoted entirely to the book. One need only look to the author’s introductory remarks to the excerpt, “Lydda, 1948,” published in The New Yorker last October. There, Shavit expressly warns the Obama Administration that its quest for Palestinian-Israeli peace is doomed unless it takes away this lesson: “Anyone striving for Middle-East peace must acknowledge the tragedy of Lydda and comprehend its implications.”
But what exactly is that tragedy, and what are its implications for today’s would-be peace-makers? The Lydda chapter, which appears about one third of the way into the book, is aimed at providing that answer. Until then, Shavit provides a well-paced reader-in-the-driver’s seat homage to the young pioneers who persevered against all odds to create the modern day State of Israel. But then, after the state is founded on May 14, 1948, the tone of the book changes. In one sentence, with no further attention to its moral (and legal) consequences, Shavit writes matter of factly: “The next day, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon invade and a full-scale war erupts.” This brings him to his central theme: “Lydda is our black box,” Shavit admonishes. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.”
Lydda is a big Palestinian town near Tel Aviv. The Egyptian Air Force bombed Tel Aviv early in the war, and Lydda sat adjacent to Israel’s only real airport. Taking control of Lydda became a central strategic objective for Israel. Expulsions of Palestinians had already occurred in villages throughout Israel, but nothing like what was to happen at Lydda. When Israeli forces entered Lydda after a reputed foray by Jordanian forces, grenades were thrown from a mosque. Israeli soldiers took revenge. Civilians were killed. Others were rounded up and told to stay put in another mosque for nearly 36 hours. The Israeli commander (Gutman) then hit upon the idea of making Lydda’s dignitaries the agents of its expulsion.
According to the account (or Shavit’s reconstruction of it) two young officers were asked to witness this fateful conversation:
“DIGNITARIES: What will become of the prisoner detained in the mosque?
GUTMAN: We shall do to the prisoners what you would do had you imprisoned us.
DIGNITARIES: No, no, please don’t do that.
GUTMAN: Why, what did I say? All I said is that we will do to you what you would do to us.
DIGNITARIES: Please no, master. We beg you not to do such a thing.
GUTMAN: No, we shall not do that. Ten minutes from now the prisoners will be free to leave the mosque and leave their homes and leave Lydda along with all of you and the entire population of Lydda.
DIGNITARIES: Thank you, master. God bless you.”
The procession out of the town began with the dignitaries telling all to leave within an hour and a half with whatever belongings they could carry. They marched east, as Shavit tells it, toward an Arab Legion or Jordanian brigade waiting to take them under their wing. At no point does Shavit describe the distance traveled, although he makes it appear that it could have been 20 miles or more, all the way to the Jordanian border. In his 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, historian Benny Morris estimated that the march was about 10 miles while other historians believe that it could not have been much more than 5 miles before it was to come under the protection of the Arab legion stationed at the Latrun headquarters a little more than 5 miles away.
Nor does Shavit mention guidelines issued by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to the IDF General Staff Operations, (also recounted in Morris’ book) transmitted to them at 11:30 p.m. on July 12 at around the time that the expulsion began. The guidelines state: “Do not force women, the sick, children and the old to go/walk; do not touch monasteries and churches; no searches with vandalism; no robbery.”
Along the way, in the heavy heat of summer, there is “terrible thirst, old men and women collapse.” In Shavit’s account, no one appears to be given any water by the Israeli military, except one individual who happened to be on good terms with someone in the Israeli convoy supervising the march. Relying on one Palestinian eye-witness, Shavit writes, “So there is no water now, people suck watermelons found in the fields … anything that will give momentary relief to their animalistic thirst.… Every so often a family withdraws from the column and stops by the wayside of the road—to bury a baby that could not bear the heat; to say farewell to an old grandmother who collapsed in fatigue. After a while it gets worse. Ottoman’s (his eye-witness) cousin deserts her boy under another tree. She cannot stand to hear the week-old baby wailing with hunger.” The scene is so dire that “when someone falls into the well outside town, people suck on his wet clothes when he is pulled out.” Yet even as babies are left under trees to die for lack of water, no Israeli soldier, except in one case that Shavit mentions, intervenes.
The account defies credulity. An Israeli army convoy stationed all along the way, even if it had not received Ben-Gurion’s signed directive to the IDF General Staff Operations, would not want anything like this to happen. After all, their mission was to drive out the Palestinians without leaving traces of dead babies that UN inspectors, coming soon to set the terms of an armistice, might discover and use against Israel. Political necessity, if not moral imperative, would have impelled the Israeli soldiers to provide water to those dying of thirst. Or perhaps not. Perhaps against common sense and decency it was otherwise. But Shavit makes his case by marshaling on the recollection of one survivor recalling his experience as a young boy.
On January 22, Shavit spoke at Washington, DC’s massive Adas Israel Synagogue. There, a sell-out crowd paid $20 a ticket to hear him interviewed by Wieseltier, the long-time literary editor of The New Republic. After the talk, I asked Shavit about the book’s inference that the Lydda march might have lasted 20 miles or more. Shavit asked what difference would it make if it had been only five miles? All the difference in the world, I replied, a difference of life and death. People can survive a five-mile march, but beyond that it becomes with every mile a geometric progression of worsening conditions. Why, I asked, did he make no apparent effort to cite a figure for the distance, even though his book is replete with numbers about orange production, immigration and so on.
Shavit responded that the point is that Lydda’s inhabitants were brutally driven out. Clearly, I realized, there is something larger at stake for Shavit: contrition. Contrition does not rest on numbers, they are dispensable. In making the case that contrition and peace are inextricably linked, it is to be forgiven if the reader is left with the wrong impression of the number who have fallen or have left their infants behind to die.
Nor, Shavit suggests, is this state of mind that prevailed at Lydda confined to the Israeli soldiers of 1948. He recounts his own army reserve duty in Gaza in 1991. At the time, Israel was trying to clamp down on terrorism from the area, and suspects were detained by the IDF. Shavit describes the screams of those who have been beaten during the roundups or interrogations. He tells the story of a doctor in the camp. “He is no Mengele, of course,” writes Shavit. But the damage is done. Invidiously, a comparison is drawn to Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments at Auschwitz.
Shavit quotes the Israeli doctor in Gaza treating those who have been beaten by Israeli soldiers: “He says loudly to one of the young people brought in, ‘I wish you were dead’ … and then turning to me he laughs and says, ‘I wish they were all dead.’”
To be sure, no one can deny that such a doctor existed or said these words to Shavit. But Shavit suggests more: that this doctor is symptomatic of the new Israeli mindset, infected by the conduct of the long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, even Israeli doctors are incapable of merely being doctors, treating Palestinian terror suspects with detachment. The picture he paints goes against the common impression of Israeli doctors as above the fray, but be that as it may the reader has nothing more to go on other than this one incident.
True, Shavit can at times be both poetic and prophetic as Jeffrey Goldberg has described him. But, he is also a proselytizer. His mission is to convince the reader that peace with the Palestinians, if ever to be achieved, rests on Israel fully confessing to its sins of 1948. Only then can it rid itself of the mean spirit that has infested it. He drives his point home in unmistakable terms, pointing out that it is not Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its latter day sin, but its original sin of 1948, that is at the hub of the problem.
“The Left was mesmerized by its own moralistic illusions and for two generations the sin of Ofra (in the West Bank) obscured the sin of Hulda (in Israel’s pre-1967 borders). But Hulda (a Palestinian village) in southern Israel whose inhabitants were dispersed is here. Hulda is here to stay, Hulda has no solution. Hulda says peace shall not be.”
And, whose fault is that? Here no reference is made to a war in 1948 thrust upon Israel. Instead he writes “After eighteen hundred years of powerless existence, Jewish soldiers employed a large, organized force to take another peoples’ land and to conquer dozens of villages—of which Hulda was one of the first. Here, by the old well of Hulda, we moved from one phase of our history to another, from one sphere of morality to another. So all that has haunted us ever since is right here. All that will go on haunting us is right here. Generation after generation. War after war.”
Shavit goes to great lengths in the remaining chapters of his book to depict the emergence of a new Israel. Yet not one capable of transcending its past. He writes that for the young in the new Tel Aviv, Ecstasy is the drug of choice, indiscriminate sex is rampant, and breaking down barriers is the new talisman. The other Israelis of this new age, less inclined to the night club and more to the computer, have helped usher in a high-tech miracle that has made Israel’s economy secure.
But it is all a bubble, a mirage, an illusion. “What happened turned the nation into a stimulating, exciting, diversified, colorful, energetic, pathetic and amusing political circus.” The dark cloud of Lydda still looms in the background, exposing the gaiety as false.
At the Adas Israel Synagogue event, Shavit’s tone was more measured, different from that of My Promised Land. He acknowledged that what happened in 1948 must be understood in the context of the times. He drew comparisons to the United States’ treatment of its native American population, not to mention Hiroshima. He alluded to Britain’s bombing of Dresden in World War II; the fact that the invading Arab armies in 1948 were not inclined to take Jewish prisoners, and that the situation was desperate, as recent history stood to repeat itself. Moreover, Shavit expanded in his talk on his book’s relatively short but insightful treatment of today’s Iran as posing an existential threat to Israel, one that makes the horror of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation pale by comparison.
And so, we are left uncertain about the crimes to which Israel must confess, and whether redemption would lie in its wake. Indeed late in his book Shavit turns self-critical in describing the lessons of the ill-fated Second Lebanon War of 2006: “The politically correct discourse that reigned supreme over the last decade was disconnected from reality. It focused on the issue of occupation but did not address the fact that Israel is caught in an existential conflict fraught with religious and cultural land mines. It paid too much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing, and too little to the historical geopolitical context within which Israel has to survive.”
Shavit’s saga ends with a heavy heart. Despite Israel’s ongoing miracle of economic revival and high-tech brilliance, despite finally addressing its socio-economic problems, the question hangs as to where this grand experiment of the Jews’ return to their ancient land will all end. Will it have been worth the pain?
“We probably had to come,” he writes towards the end of the book, referring to the early Zionists. “And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable. Our play was the most extravagant of modern plays. The drama was breathtaking. But only the end will properly put the beginning into perspective. Only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcame the tragic decree or were overcome by it.”
Perhaps, Shavit muses, the Jews are a cursed race, cursed not only by the “tragic decree” of their own God but perhaps by that of Islam as well, and abetted by their own moral and ethical failings in being callous to those with whom they are destined to share the land. We are left with this picture of modern-day Israel: It is a place where “The script writer went mad. The director ran away. The producer went bankrupt. But we are still here on this biblical set.” Yes, but as he puts it, we are still “clinging” to this shore with “the adrenaline rush of living dangerously, living lust-fully, living to the extreme.”
Was it all worth it? Shavit seems less than sure, even with contrition.
Allan Gerson is the author of Israel, the West Bank and International Law. An expert in international law and politics, he served as senior counsel to the US delegation to the United Nations during the Reagan administration.