Tragedy or Political Correctness? Ari Shavit and the Confusion of the Zionist Liberal Left
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My Promised Land : The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
author: Ari Shavit
publisher: Spiegel & Grau
pub date: 11.19.2013
pp: 464
tags: Politics & Economics

Omri Boehm on My Promised Land : The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Tragedy or Political Correctness? Ari Shavit and the Confusion of the Zionist Liberal Left

March 27th, 2014 reset - +

THE ATTENTION LAVISHED on Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel has been, from the first moment, phenomenal; by now, it almost makes more sense to comment on the book’s reception than on the book itself. The New Yorker printed an excerpt from My Promised Land shortly before it came out in November, and The New York Times ran three glowing reviews — within one week — immediately upon the book’s appearance. Thomas Friedman found here “a real contribution to changing the conversation about Israel” and suggested that, before their next phone call, “both Barack and Bibi should read it.” According to David Remnick, this was “the most extraordinary book” to be written about Israel since the “sixties.” Shavit has constantly been on best-seller lists in North America, and he recently received the National Jewish Book Award for history.

It is safe to say that one reason behind this enthusiasm was the feeling among liberal intellectuals that Shavit articulates the much-desired alternative to Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Bennett’s right-wing populist government. (“Netanyahu is not the sin,” Shavit told Susie Linfield, “Netanyahu is the punishment.”) The book lays out the history of, and the argument for, sane Zionism: the one supporting both the Jews’ and the Palestinians’ right to their own states; the one that still loves everything that’s beautiful about Israel but hates the occupation. At last, a prominent Israeli voice reminds us that Zionism can be different from AIPAC’s and Sheldon Adelson’s. At last, someone ventures a return to the good old values of the liberal Zionist center-left.

Yet here exactly lies the problem with the book, and with its excited reception. For upon closer examination — just a little more sensitive to inside Israeli reality, just slightly more careful with the meaning of the term “tragedy” — Shavit’s center-left Zionism becomes hard to distinguish from the Zionism of the right. Far from being a conversation changer, this book may be the clearest sign of the fact that the conversation about Israel isn’t changing; that even the Israeli center left doesn’t find a language of its own.

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The first signs that left Zionism wouldn’t manage to distinguish itself from the right appeared as early as 1944 when, soon after the annual convention of the Zionist organization of America came to a close in Atlantic City, Hannah Arendt announced what she thought was a “turning point in Zionist history.” The convention had unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for the establishment of a “democratic Jewish commonwealth” in “the whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished.” For Arendt, this was confirmation that the “bitterly repudiated” Revisionist Zionist program — promoting a nationalist right-wing alternative to Ben-Gurion’s mainstream left-liberal Zionism — had finally proved “victorious.” Indeed, unanimous demand of the whole of Palestine seemed to imply that, after “fifty years of Zionist politics,” no genuine difference was left standing between “general,” that is, left-liberal Zionists, and Revisionists, whom Arendt and other Jewish intellectuals feared were fascists.[i]

The Atlantic City resolution was especially offensive because it went further than the earlier Biltmore Program (1942), to which Arendt had already objected. In Biltmore, she wrote, “the Jewish minority” at least granted “minority rights to the Arab majority.” In Atlantic City, by contrast, “the Arabs were simply not mentioned.” This silence was alarming, Arendt thought, a sign that both liberal Zionists and Revisionists were now preparing Palestinians “the choice between voluntary emigration or second-class citizenship” [my emphasis].

Seventy years after Atlantic City, we can say that Arendt was dead wrong about some of the details but dead right about the left’s convergence into the right. Admittedly, right-wing Zionism ended up yielding to the left on the question of Israel’s partition: despite the occupation, even die-hard Revisionists and those true to their legacy — Tzipi Livni is a case in point — are now proponents of territorial compromise. Yet on the deeper, so-called Demographic Problem, what Arendt called the Palestinians’ “voluntary emigration,” Zionist left-liberalism did in fact cede to the revisionist right. This becomes unequivocally clear in My Promised Land, and even clearer from the way it’s been embraced by liberal intellectuals.

The book’s main thesis is that the occupation — deplorable and pernicious as it may be, and Shavit believes it is both — isn’t Israel’s only or even main problem. Two other issues emerge as the country’s deeper existential threats. First, the Demographic Problem — to wit, the fear that even within 1948 borders Arabs are 20 percent of the population of Israel, multiplying too fast for the country to remain both Jewish and democratic. And second, there is the problem of being “blinded by political correctness.” The Tel Avivian elite, Shavit complains, particularly academia, “instilled ad absurdum a rigid political correctness by turning the constructive means of self-criticism into an obsessive deconstructive end of its own.” Through excessive self-criticism, the argument goes, we have lost our national unity and our sense of justification. And, having lost these, we’ve jeopardized our ability to win wars as effectively as we did in the past. (Like many Israelis, Shavit experienced the IDF’s questionable performance in 2006’s second Lebanon War as an existential trauma.) Europeans can perhaps afford the luxury of being politically correct about things, Shavit contends, but Israelis cannot: if Jews wish to survive in the Middle East, they will forever live by their sword and will have to continuously achieve unequivocal military victories.

The book could have been clearer about this, but the threats of demography and of political correctness are intimately linked in Shavit’s thinking. This becomes clear in the subtext of the Lydda chapter, the most often cited, which contains Shavit’s retelling of the massacre and mass expulsion of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence. (“By evening, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs leave Lydda in a long column, marching south […] and disappearing into the East. Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda. Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. […] If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.”) On a first look, such descriptions seem to contain something new, and a very welcome achievement indeed: they incorporate the Nakba narrative into Israel’s mainstream left-liberal consciousness. So far, serious discussion of the Nakba — “catastrophe” in Arabic, referring to the mass displacement of Palestinians from the territories overtaken by Israel in 1948 — has been for the most part repressed by Israeli society, which just couldn’t deal with the tragedy. Thinking of Jewish European survivors violently expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would have confused our own sense of victimhood. Indeed, commemoration of the Nakba is still, under some circumstances, illegal in Israel: this is how Shavit’s retelling of these stories in his The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel can appear to be courageous.

But especially in this light, it is remarkable that the term itself — Nakba — is carefully avoided throughout the book. No doubt, here was an act of self-censorship on Shavit’s part: an Israeli writing nowadays about 1948 massacres and expulsions of Palestinians cannot coincidentally just forget to use the word. At times, Shavit must have censored his interlocutors, too. For example, when speaking to his Arab friend Mohammed Dahla, the latter describes what is clearly a Nakba memorial ceremony deep in a Galilee forest, and the word still isn’t mentioned. It is highly implausible that Dahla avoided the word; highly unlikely that the word didn’t come up. In this light, Shavit’s aren’t quite the “trustworthy insights” that Franklin Foer recommended when reviewing the book for The New Republic. If American and European readerships were supposed to receive from the book an insider’s glimpse into Israel, they are actually spared one of the most important and hotly debated terms in current Israeli discourse. If Leon Wieseltier genuinely thought this was “the least tendentious book about Israel” he has “ever read,” as he wrote in his front-page piece in The New York Times Book Review, he may have been successfully misled.

Worse, it is in this unwillingness to use the word Nakba that we learn what Shavit has in mind when dismissing political correctness. “If need be,” he asserts, “I’ll stand by the damned” — referring to those Israeli war criminals who are responsible for Lydda. “If it wasn’t for them,” he explains, “the State of Israel would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” Despite appearances, this isn’t a courageous confession of Israel’s existential tragedy. On the contrary: the designed effect of such statements is disarming the tragedy’s impact on Israeli and Zionist consciousness — dismissing its relevance to current Israeli experience as excessive political correctness. It turns out that the book incorporates the Nakba narrative into left Zionist consciousness in the same way it has been incorporated into the consciousness of the right, which never had repression issues with the Nakba in the first place. Indeed, this was precisely Arendt’s point when she warned, in 1944, that liberal Zionism had effectively collapsed into the revisionist right; that both revisionists and liberals were silently offering the Arab majority “voluntary emigration.”

The difference between the left’s relation to history and tragedy is relatively easy to distinguish from that of the right. Being on the left means understanding that a people must change, sometimes radically so, when coming to terms with its past — when coming to experience its history as tragic. By contrast, being on the right means endorsing your people’s history and tragedy as givens — embracing them as inevitable, necessary conditions of what you and your values currently are. Shavit’s The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel does exactly the latter, but the book is being advertised as if it had done the former.

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Perhaps the best way to grasp Shavit’s confusion about left-liberalism is to take into account something that Susie Linfield suggested when interviewing him for Guernica. Shavit is “essentially arguing,” Linfield pointed out, “that war crimes can be committed even in the course of a just war.” The war’s justness “is not erased by such crimes; conversely, the criminality — the barbarism — of the acts in question cannot be mitigated by the justness of the cause.” This seems to capture very accurately what Shavit is arguing, only we should get clearer about what he is willing to consider a just war. Shavit presents the Nakba as if it were about survival, but this is misleading — just as misleading as not mentioning the Palestinians in the 1944 Atlantic City Resolution. As Arendt knew then, at stake wasn’t bare survival but ensuring the Jewish majority necessary for a Jewish state that’s also democratic. In other words, the violent mass expulsions of Palestinians endorsed in this book did not simply happen in the course of the war — they were internal to its cause, and thus, in this light, can hardly seem just.

The book has, of course, a ready answer to this, and here lies the critical point: it dismisses such worries as excessive political correctness. Someone had to do the “dirty, filthy work,” because otherwise hundreds of thousands of Arabs would not have left. If one is willing to accept ethnic cleansing as a just cause, the war’s “justness” remains undiminished, and the war crimes committed in its midst are simply necessary dirty work. Logically, this is consistent, but this is the logic of the right — far right even — not something we should recognize as liberal center-left.

Perhaps all countries are born in sin — perhaps we Israelis shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about our past. But we’re talking about the present, and about the future. The so-called Demographic Problem is haunting Israel’s current politics, education system, and legislation. In the Galilee, for example, where I grew up, the government’s attempt to marginalize the Arab population has been as evident in the last 30 years as the remains of Palestinian villages demolished in 1948. My family moved to the Galilee in the early 1980s, as part of a heavily funded government plan officially called “Yehud ha-Galil” — literally, “Judaizing the Galilee.” Despite being typical Meretz voters — that is, belonging to the country’s most leftist margin — my parents did not feel at the time any problem with a government policy officially relegating the Arab population to second-class status on the basis of race. (Today, unlike most of their neighbors, they do.) Reviewing My Promised Land for Dissent, Jo-Ann Mort argued that instead of “approaching Arab Israelis as a security risk,” Israel’s government now spends “billions of shekels” to better integrate the Arab minority, improving their education system and standards of living. In my experience, however, Israel’s Jewish majority remains as hostile as ever to the idea of an Arab-Jewish integration. Just recently, the Knesset passed a law legitimizing Jewish villagers’ practice of rejecting some candidates who aspire to move in on the basis of their “social unsuitability.” The public controversy surrounding this legislation was, explicitly, about the question whether Arabs should be allowed to live in villages originally established to “Judaize the Galilee.” The large majority of my left-liberal neighbors were vehemently opposed to non-Jews moving in.

Shavit is very conscious of such demographic issues throughout My Promised Land. At one point, interviewing Dahla while driving in the Galilee, Dahla points out: “the idea of being a minority is alien to Islam — it suits Judaism, but it is alien to Islam. […] [T]here is a Jewish majority [in this land] that is actually a minority, and an (Arab) minority that is actually a majority.” Nevertheless, Shavit allows himself to say little if anything at all constructive about this burning issue — arguably, more burning than any other. Such silence is remarkable, especially because it’s coming from an author who has pledged to overcome political correctness by offering his Israeli franc-parler. The reason for keeping quiet seems to be this: when it comes to the present, Shavit’s principles quickly become uncomfortable, politically incorrect, really. If applied to actual politics, Shavit’s supposedly left-liberal principles seem pretty close to Lieberman’s politics of transfer.

Very illuminating here is a recent incident involving Shimon Gapso, a far right politician who is currently the mayor of Upper Nazareth, a small town in the Galilee. Gapso’s election campaign included such slogans as “Upper Nazareth will be Jewish forever,” or, “no more shutting our eyes, no more relying on the law that allows everybody to live wherever they want. This is the time to defend our home!” His main task if elected, Gapso announced, would be “stopping the demographic regress.” Haaretz denounced this as racist propaganda, but then Gapso responded with an op-ed, titled “If you think I'm a racist, then Israel is a racist state,” which Haaretz printed. “If that makes me racist, then I’m a proud offshoot of a glorious dynasty of ‘racists,’” Gapso wrote, referring to Israel’s left-liberal fathers. “The racist Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the Jewish State in the land of Israel, and […] even made sure to […] drive out hundreds of thousands of Arabs who had been living here — all to enable it to be founded with the desired racist character.” Even our “racist national anthem,” Gapso continues, “ignores the existence of the Arab minority — in other words, the people Ben-Gurion did not manage to expel in the 1948 war.” This is interesting in relation to Shavit’s book and its reception: should we embrace Shimon Gapso for incorporating the Nakba narrative into Israeli consciousness? The conclusion of Gapso’s op-ed will sound familiar: Tel Avivians should stop their “hypocrisy and bleeding-heart sanctimoniousness,” the political correctness, he says, “of flaky types disconnected from reality.” If Jews would like to survive in the Middle East as a Jewish majority, they would have to get their hands dirty.

No doubt, Shavit is much nicer than Gapso — by his own standards, he is more politically correct. But Gapso articulates the same insight that Arendt had, back in 1944: when it comes to actual politics, only silence can distinguish romantic liberal Zionism like Shavit’s from overt Liebermanism. Shavit’s My Promised Land, embraced so warmly among left intellectuals, not only accepts a politics like Gapso’s concerning the past, it is willing to stand by this politics explicitly, even at the price of speaking and thinking less clearly about the present. If there is such a thing as left-liberal Zionism, it must speak in clear normative language about Israel’s history and present. It cannot simply dismiss the attempt to respond politically to our tragedy as excessive political correctness.


[i]In 1948, Albert Einstein, who had been invited to become Israel’s first president, co-signed a letter drafted by Arendt denouncing Menachem Begin for his fascist record. The open letter, alerting American Jews to the violent methods of Begin’s Freedom Party, was published in The New York Times.

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Omri Boehm is an Israeli citizen who teaches at The New School in New York.

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