By Charles Sarvan –
“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place” (Isaiah 5:8)
The Israel – Palestine conflict is many decades old and seems intractable. It’s a constant haemorrhage with one side losing far more “blood” (both literally and figuratively) than the other. Periodically, violence peaks and it’s headline news, such as during the recent ‘incursion’ into Gaza when hundreds of Palestinian civilians, children and women included, were killed. The landscape of destroyed houses and buildings in Gaza was like that of several other cities we have seen destroyed thanks to ‘progress’ and modern warfare’s horrific capacity to destroy and ravage. Rabbi Michael Lerner lamented (4 August 2014), Israel has broken my heart: I’m a rabbi in mourning for a Judaism being murdered by Israel. My heart is broken as I witness the suffering of the Palestinian people and the indifference of Israelis ( see )
(For Sri Lankans to appreciate the force of this statement, they must imagine: “Sri Lanka has broken my heart. I’m a Buddhist monk in mourning for a Buddhism being murdered by Sri Lanka”.) It’s in this context that I draw attention to the above work, a best seller described as one of the most important books about Zionism. The author, born in 1957, once a member of an elite Israeli parachute unit; one who did guard-duty over Palestinian prisoners, is a peace-activist and a leading Israeli journalist.
The Second World War ended in 1945, and the State of Israel was founded in 1948 – the same year in which Sri Lanka was granted independence. No doubt, the ‘Shoah’ (the Holocaust) had much to do with the latter event but Shavit reminds us that ‘Aliyah’ (return) had started more than a century earlier because of frequent and vicious pogroms in East Europe against the Jews. (George Eliot’s novel of 1876, ‘Daniel Deronda’, comes to mind.) By 1936, there were 350,000 Jews in Palestine (p. 74). Modern-day economic-refugees flee to a West that is developed, but these early Jewish settlers found themselves in a poor underdeveloped land, facing a perilous present and an uncertain future. However, if circumstances were extraordinary, they brought with them extraordinary intelligence and resolve. I quote an example of settlers handling “cursed swamps” (p. 39): “They hammer pegs and tie ropes along which the major canals and the minor canals will be dug. The heat is unbearable but the mosquitoes are worse. The stench of the swamp is overpowering. The tall reeds are infested with snakes. Yet the canals must be dug.” (The use of the present tense; the detailed and imaginative re-creation of setting, atmosphere, character, thought, mood and action are characteristic of Shavit’s style.) Elsewhere we read of families who struggled to take root but were “defeated by the harsh conditions, the shortage of water, and the high infant mortality rate” (p.101). But aided by the Jewish diaspora, many of whom came over with their knowledge and skills, the Jews persevered and, on many counts, the State of Israel is undoubtedly a “triumph”, a triumph such that, in the words from the narrative poem ‘Horatius’ by Lord Macaulay (1800-1859), “even the ranks of Tuscany / Could scarce forbear to cheer”. Secular Zionism at one stage was humane, moderate and balanced (p. 66), and to some Jews Zionism was a humanist dream attracting idealists and romantics.
By way of a brief digression on idealism, one thinks of the Russian Revolution and of those who dreamt of a world without exploitation, one where everyone would be equal, and equally free. (Emma Goldman quickly perceived the reality beneath the self-proclaiming rhetoric: see her memoir, ‘My Disillusionment in Russia’, 1923.) So it was also with the Tamil Tiger movement in its incipient, heady, stage. Such revolutions betray aims and ideals, and devour the best of their own: one thinks, for example, of Dr Rajini Thiranagama, (nee Rajasingham) 1954 – 1989.
Contrary to what some religions claim, suffering does not ennoble. History repeatedly shows it’s quite the contrary. Auden: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.” For centuries, Christians persecuted the Jews as the “killers of Christ”, driving them to seek a home in Palestine (early Zionism was a movement of an “orphaned” folk), in turn driving the Palestinians into exile and refugee camps, and oppressing those who remained. Chapter 5 on the Lydda Valley massacre of Palestinians is a powerful and disturbing indictment. We say matter-of-fact, with resigned acceptance, “Well, horrible things happen in war”. C’est la guerre. It’s as if war itself is guilty – not the human beings who wage war and make “horrible things” happen. War means death and destruction, and those who engage in it, soldiers and civilians alike, become calloused. Some derive almost a sexual pleasure in bullying, torturing and killing (p. 113). But it is the treatment of enemy women, “young and old”, that shows how “disgraced” one has become (p. 129). The jute sacks of the soldiers fill up with looted necklaces and earrings (ibid). Rather than treat the injured of the ‘other’, a medical doctor cheerfully wishes they were all, all dead (p. 232). Torture is an inevitable concomitant of war: “Now the screams grow weaker. They change to sobbing, wailing” (p. 232). In lines describing such conduct, all humanity stands indicted. Jewish Shavit does not hesitate to use, provocative and challenging, the phrase “Jewish terrorists”. (Again, it’s as if a Sinhalese were to speak of “Sinhalese terrorists”.)
The strange nature of evil is that it exists without evil individuals: “Evil without evildoers” (p. 235). The majority who vote for right-wing individuals and parties are not evil; those in power do not personally torture; army officers are not guilty because they are carrying out the wishes of a legitimate, elected, government; prison staff are not guilty because they are only doing their duty. No one is guilty and yet evil exists. Evil is always worse than the sum total of its different parts (ibid). The evil do not see themselves as those who make the world less beautiful and more sad, but as patriotic and righteous.
The word “righteous” above leads to religion: ironically, religion can create and legitimise evil. For example, ethics and morality teach us not to misappropriate the land of others but religion can justify it as a sacred duty. In China thousands of years ago the Zhou saw themselves as a chosen people. In conquering and ruling the Shang, they saw themselves as carrying out the wishes of the gods: it was ‘the mandate of heaven’. Religion can be a tool and an active agent of politics: combining religion with politics inevitably “breeds insanity” (p. 219). The following by a right-wing Israeli is quoted on Page 217: European and American values must be replaced. “We must leave democracy behind and go back to the source.” We must blow up foreign sacred sites, and so “break through to the heavens. It would pave the way to sanctity […] It would be a purge that would end the old corrupt era and usher in a new pure one”. It all sounds dreadfully familiar to me; at once both alarming and depressing.
Shavit argues that state sponsored or connived at settlement of the land and houses of others is immoral and inhumane. I was born there, tells an evicted Palestinian to the author, so was my father “and his grandfather and his grandfather’s grandfather” (p. 318). Names of places are changed, “ethnicised”; official street-signs appear in Hebrew and in a foreign language (English) but not in the language spoken by many who live there (Arabic). Their existence and that of their language are denied. (In Sri Lanka, the singing of the national anthem in Tamil has been banned, not by law but by executive fiat.) It is ‘racist’, humiliating and cruel. Triumphant, drunk with power, both state and people ride roughshod over the ‘other’. Most don’t stop to see themselves. If they did, they would have to see themselves quite differently. It’s best not to see. The change in attitude, the lack of conscience and compassion is not only of the leadership (p. 75) but of the people as a whole. Resisting subordination and expropriation, internationally without real friends, the desperate Palestinians turn to violence. But Jewish injury and death hardens Jewish hearts within and outside Israel, and unleashes awful retaliatory violence. The international community is alienated, and distances itself in moral distaste. The original cause is forgotten, and there’s only impatience, anger and hate. These latter are essential because unless one has disregard, one cannot discriminate. One cannot admit the full and equal humanity of the other and still subordinate and ill-treat. Contempt, disregard and denial are the essential first-step. The abnormal (violence and oppression, injustice and inhumanity) becomes normal, is accepted and lived with.
Despite vehement rhetoric about Moslem brotherhood; despite wealth and the influence that it brings, Arab nations have not lifted a finger to help their “Palestinian brothers and sisters” (p. 160). Having been in the Gulf at the time, I recall that Saddam Hussein cynically declared he would liberate Jerusalem from the Jews – and marched into Arab Kuwait. Unlike the ‘Shoah’, the Palestinian ‘Nabka’ goes on and on, ignored by the outside world, including other Moslems. At present, there’s no end in sight.
Secular left-wing Jews are not at ease with Israel (p. xiii); indeed, “enlightened Jews” are ashamed (p. 221) of their country’s values, aims and methods. They ask: Is this the “promise” of the Promised Land? There was another road, one that would have led to an equitable sharing and to harmony: as long ago as the 1920s, there was a Jewish Peace Alliance (p. 240). The author ponders why this road was not taken. Similarly, some Sri Lankans wonder why the Left movements in the 1940s and 50s, with their degree of mass support and trade-union backing, failed. (On failure, see Sarvan, ‘Facing Failure’, Colombo Telegraph, 08 August 2014.) As Nelson Mandela observes in his autobiography, the dark forces of vertical division (‘race’, religion, language) are much more emotive and powerful than the horizontal line of class. And so we come back to the book’s sub-title, ‘Triumph and Tragedy’. The tragedy is in how the triumph was won, and in how that triumph is now being used. Military victory has been won at the cost of the defeat of the ethical, the decent and the humane. To apply in a wider political sense words from Robert Frost’s famous poem, ‘The road not taken’, two roads diverged, and the choice then made now makes “all the difference”.
‘Promised Land’ is fully aware that behind broad Historical developments there are individual human beings, and the book imaginatively narrates many a story. The work is thoroughly researched: the author has consulted original documents, and conducted interviews with several actors, not excluding Palestinians. That a Jew living in the Jewish state should publish such a work is admirable and (as in Sri Lanka) gives ground for hope. As I have written elsewhere, some of the most cogent criticisms of Israel that I have read have been by persons of Jewish origin.