Jacobo Timerman, The Longest War (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982).

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982 divided the Israeli public — and Jewish communities abroad — as have few other events in recent years. Many Israelis were shocked by the destruction wrought on Lebanon and the suffering of the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples at the hands of the Israeli military machine. It was evident from the start that the invasion had not been prompted by any imminent threat to Israel’s security. As the war dragged on, as besieged Beirut was ruthlessly and systematically devastated, it became increasingly difficult for Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, to remain silent. Opposition to the war took the form of massive demonstrations, vigils, petitions and anti-war advertisements, and dissidence surfaced even within the Israeli army. The national consensus which had hitherto characterized Israeli politics concerning security issues evaporated. In its place emerged a highly polarized, tense and potentially explosive political situation.

Many of those opposed to the course of Begin and Sharon reject it not only as aggressive, inhumane and ultimately disastrous for Israel: they see it as a betrayal of Zionism itself. Disgusted, shocked and frightened by the brutal excesses, lies, overt racism and chauvinism of the ruling coalition, many dissident Israelis seek refuge in the comforting embrace of “real” Zionism, as they see it, the Zionism of the early halutzim (pioneers), of the kibbutzim and the labor movement, of Ben-Gurion and his generation. Beginism, they argue, contradicts the basic principles on which Israel was founded. It perverts the goals and hopes of the Zionist movement as conceived by its early leaders. It is fundamentally at odds with the humane, progressive and internationalist ethos of that original Zionism. To counter Begin’s “bad Zionism,” his Zionism gone berserk, they turn to the past in search of a “good Zionism” worthy of their faith.

Such a reaction to an unbearable present is not surprising. The struggle over the meaning of Zionism is an important aspect of contemporary political and ideological divisions in Israel. By portraying themselves as the defenders of the “real Zionism,” and using the past as a weapon against the present regime, liberal and left-wing Zionists enhance their legitimacy and can strike chords in Israeli social consciousness that still have considerable resonance. They challenge Begin’s misuses of history and his claim to the mantle of Zionism’s founders, and thus at least partially protect themselves from accusations of defeatism and treason in time of war.

At the same time, however, their evocation of a “different” Zionism characterized by high moral standards, self-restraint and a genuine yearning for peace and justice for both Jews and Palestinians requires the elaboration of their own historical mythology. They can remain within the framework of Zionism and criticize Begin as a revisionist, a perverter of the original dream, only by refusing to see that the dream was, in practice, often a lie, a facade for some rather sordid doings. Beginism is in large measure “good Zionism” carried to its horrific but not illogical extreme.

One of the most anguished and eloquent voices to come out of Israel since the war began is that of Jacobo Timerman. A Jew who had lived in Argentina since childhood, Timerman became a public figure in the United States with the publication in 1981 of his book, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number. In 1977, Timerman, then editor of a major Buenos Aires newspaper, had been arrested and imprisoned by the Argentinian military junta. His book told the story of his incarceration and torture in graphic detail, undermining the Reagan administration’s differentiation between “authoritarian regimes” (US allies) and “totalitarian regimes” (Soviet allies). Timerman was subjected to a vicious smear campaign by Jewish neo-conservatives in the US, but his testimony nonetheless helped scuttle the nomination of Ernest Lefever as assistant secretary of state for human rights.

In 1979, Timerman went to live in Israel. His reception there was ambivalent. He was initially welcomed as a victim of anti-Semitic persecution and as a Zionist. At the same time, his vociferous criticism of the leadership of the Argentinian Jewish community (and implicitly of the Israeli government as well) for keeping quiet about official anti-Semitism in that country made him controversial and somewhat suspect. Furthermore, many Israelis were unhappy about his articles published in the Hebrew press: He had been an outspoken “honest liberal” in Argentina, and continued to speak out in Israel about such sensitive topics as the need to recognize Palestinian rights. As a result, Timerman has remained a strangely marginal figure in Israel. He enjoys far greater respect and honor abroad than in his new home, which would have preferred that he become a symbol of Israel’s continuing role as a haven for persecuted Jews and keep his mouth shut.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 was clearly a severe test of Timerman’s feelings about his new country. The Longest War was written in the summer of 1982 as events unfolded, and was published a few months later, with a brief postscript added after the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. It is a highly emotional and personal book, and also very uneven: At some points it is eloquent and right on the mark, while other passages are confused or drenched in sentimentality. Yet on the whole The Longest War is moving and powerful, a groan of despair and a cry of outrage.

Shattered Illusions

Like many observers in Israel and abroad, Timerman knows that Begin and Sharon had been planning this war for many months. He is also quite aware that by invading Lebanon the Israeli government hoped to smash not only the PLO but also the Palestinian community there so as to facilitate the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. As the weeks pass, as Timerman records both the human costs of the invasion and the deceit and hypocrisy of the Begin government, his anguish grows. In August he writes: “These weeks have been a dark age in the moral history of the Jewish people.” He is sickened by the ruthlessness of the Israeli attack, the systematic destruction of human life, the lies used to suppress or distort the truth. Rejecting the Holocaust-mongering which Begin so frequently indulges in to justify his every crime, Timerman refuses to hold Israel to a less stringent moral code than he would any other country. As a result, many of his illusions about Israel are shattered. In the end the war’s most painful lesson for him is that “I have discovered in Jews a capacity for cruelty that I never believed possible.” The state terror wielded by Begin and Sharon under the pretext of preventing another Holocaust turns out to be no better — and perhaps even worse — than that of the butchers of Buenos Aires.

Perhaps because he is in many ways an outsider, Timerman is as outspoken and honest as a liberal in Israel can be: the horror he and many other Israelis feel about what is going on around them comes through on every page. Yet there is something lacking here. Timerman’s resounding moral outrage seems suspended in mid-air, without context or historical perspective, restricted to this one apparently isolated act of aggression. For him, this war is an entirely new phenomenon in Israel’s history, a unique and extreme departure. This was “the first war launched by the state of Israel,” Timerman asserts; Israel’s previous wars “were in defense against aggression.” Furthermore, this was the “first war in which the objectives were political.” This claim is made again and again:

Many things are occurring for the first time. For the first time Israel has attacked a neighboring country without being attacked; for the first time it has mounted a screen of provocation to justify a war. For the first time Israel has brought destruction to entire cities: Tyre, Sidon, Damour, Beirut. For the first time military spokesmen have lied. For the first time the Israeli press has joined them in their successful mission of deceiving the public.

Timerman is new to the Middle East, but this is not the explanation for such naivete. His view of the war in Lebanon as qualitatively different from all that came before, as completely unconnected with the “logic of process” of the history of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, is widespread among critics of Begin and Sharon within Israel and abroad. Timerman quotes with approval the French philosopher, Jean-Pierre Faye: “This is the Begin government, the Begin state. The Zionist state cannot be attacked because of Begin’s policy.” Thus the invasion of Lebanon and all its accompanying horrors are only aberrations, manifestations of a recent “wrong turn” in Zionism’s course which can be corrected. The basic idea, the original dream, remains sound, untainted, unproblematic, unquestioned.

Timerman is not unaware that at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict lies the Palestinian problem. On the contrary, he insists that the Palestinian is the Other whom the Israeli must face, must make peace with on the basis of mutual respect and equal rights. He advocates a “two-state” solution, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, a position held by only a small minority of Israelis. Yet he cannot see — or does not want to see — that perhaps there is some terrible logic to the course of events over the past century that has brought us to the grim situation we now face.

The Zionist enterprise saw itself as providing “a land without a people for a people without a land,” to use its own unfortunate phrase. Palestine was not a land without a people, neither in 1897 nor in 1917 nor in 1948, To put it as starkly as possible: The Zionist movement aimed at establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, a land already inhabited by another people awakening to national identity. To this people the Zionist enterprise could only have appeared as an attempt by a culturally alien group to colonize and eventually gain control of their country.

Many of the early Zionist settlers in Palestine considered themselves socialists or even Marxists. They did dream of creating a new, egalitarian and progressive Jewish society in that land. Some of them may have honestly believed that Palestine could be transformed into an idyllic Jewish commonwealth without infringing on the rights, the land, the way of life of its indigenous inhabitants. Yet the very means required to create the foundations of a functioning Jewish society were incompatible with socialist principles.

Land was bought from absentee landlords for exclusively Jewish settlements; the peasants, the actual cultivators of the land, were dispossessed and — if they resisted — suppressed by the Turkish or British overlords of the country. Campaigns were launched to boycott Arab produce so as to encourage Jewish agricultural (and later industrial) enterprise. Bitter struggles were fought to force Jewish employers to hire only Jewish workers rather than cheaper Arab labor. David Hacohen, for many years a prominent figure in the Labor Zionist movement, explained what the dream often meant in practice:

I remember being one of the first of our comrades to go to London after the First World War…. There I became a socialist…. When I joined the socialist students — English, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Indian, African — we found out that we were all under English domination or rule. And even here, in these intimate surroundings, I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism, to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut, to defend preaching to housewives that they not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there…. To pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash the Arab eggs they had bought; to praise to the skies the Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] that sent Hankin to Beirut to buy land from the absentee effendis and to throw the fellahin off the land — to buy dozens of dunams [of land] from an Arab is permitted, but to sell, God forbid, one Jewish dunam to an Arab is prohibited; to take Rothschild, the incarnation of capitalism, as a socialist and to name him “the benefactor” — to do all that was not easy. And despite the fact that we did it — maybe we had no choice — I wasn’t happy about it. [1]

Jews constituted some 10 percent of the population of Palestine in 1914, and about one third in 1947. As the Zionist enterprise progressed, as a growing percentage of the land was alienated from Arab hands, as new immigrants poured in, as a ramified network of settlements and pre-state institutions developed and Zionist leaders openly proclaimed their intention to establish a Jewish state, the Palestinian Arabs resisted in both peaceful and violent ways. Whatever the motives, intentions, hopes and dreams of the early Zionist settlers and leaders, in practice Zionism was quite understandably perceived by the Palestinian Arab people as a dire threat to their national integrity, to their homeland. It is difficult to see how things could have been otherwise. One can, in retrospect, argue that the Palestinians should have accepted the 1947 UN partition plan and been content with less than half their country, and thus perhaps they could have avoided the catastrophes that have followed. At the time the partition of their country seemed to them and to the whole Arab world as a grave injustice: they were being made to pay for Europe’s crimes against the Jews.

It is fine to talk about the early Zionists as humanitarians, romantics, dreamers, men and women who combined the ethical concerns of the ancient Jewish prophets with the socialist politics of Eastern Europe. Writing for an American audience during the invasion of Lebanon, Amos Oz, the noted Israeli novelist, gets positively rapturous about the idealism, the longing for justice and the concern for humanity of the early Zionist “pioneers.” [2] But this purity of thought was accompanied by a neary complete moral blindness to the implications and effects of their actions for the Palestinians. Indeed, their commitment to socialism, to egalitarianism, to solving the Jewish problem — all laudable in themselves — justified a whole range of reprehensible actions, from the dispossession of peasants to alliance with British imperialism to the use of violence against Arab resistance. Of the early settlers Oz writes: “Sadly enough, they couldn’t wrap the Arab peasantry in Tolstoyan loving kindness because of the language barrier and other reasons.” Other reasons? Oz’s ingenuousness is mind-boggling. Did the settlers want or try to include the peasants in their dream? Was there not an impassable barrier between these “romantic” colonizers seeking to “reclaim” the land and the indigenous peasantry which strangely enough persisted in believing that Palestine was their country?

Logic and Compulsion

Timerman sees the invasion of Lebanon as a unique act, the product of Begin’s madness. Yet it can also be seen as a logical stage of the century-long Zionist-Palestinian conflict. The leaders of the Zionist movement and of Israel who ran the show before Begin’s rise to power in 1977 were largely drawn from the ranks of the Zionist left. One can listen to what these leaders said in public and regard them as the humanitarian idealists Amos Oz delights in. Or one can look at what they actually did, at what they were compelled to do in order to realize their goal of creating and maintaining a Jewish state in Palestine in the face of Arab opposition. As shocking and extreme as Beginism is, it can be seen as a legitimate heir to rather than the bastard offspring of the Zionism that came before it.

The historical record shows that Labor Zionism, from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin, was not the paragon of unsullied idealism Oz would have us believe it was. Without the early campaigns of Labor Zionism to acquire land and develop a Jewish economy and working class, the whole enterprise could never have succeeded. The military campaigns of 1947-1949 that made possible the establishment of Israel and secured its existence were presided over by this “socialist” leadership, and it is that leadership which must take a large measure of responsibility for the deliberate expulsion and wartime flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. [3] The official leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine repeatedly condemned Menachem Begin and the terrorist organization he headed in the 1940s for its many acts of ruthless violence against both the British and Arab civilians. Nevertheless, the Haganah command approved in advance even some of the more notorious operations — the blowing-up of the King David Hotel in July 1946, the attack on the village of Dayr Yasin in April 1948. In the latter case, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues tried to disassociate themselves after the fact, when details of the massacre carried out by Begin’s followers became known. But Dayr Yasin was, as David Hirst put it, “an extreme application of a general policy.” [4]

In general, Begin’s tendency within Zionism was ruthless, unconcerned with Zionism’s public image or with the interests of allies abroad, and unashamed of its willingness to do whatever was deemed necessary to create a Jewish state. The Labor Zionists were more hesitant, more concerned to protect their growing material accomplishments and interests and more squeamish about methods of struggle. At least this was the appearance they cultivated by constant pronouncements about their willingness to compromise and their desire for peace and Jewish-Arab cooperation. They were, however, well aware that Begin’s terrorism had its uses, and they often worked in alliance with the “dissident” Zionist underground organizations. When the balance of forces shifted in their favor and Israel was established, they proved to be almost every bit as aggressive as Begin.

“Each time I gaze on the fields of a kibbutz,” Timerman writes, “I automatically think how in the past it was a desert.” The land on which many kibbutzim are situated was not “desert” but the property of Palestinian peasants who had farmed it for generations. For Timerman, history apparently began in 1982, or at the earliest in 1979, and so there are many things he cannot know. Was 1982 really the first time Israel launched a war against its neighbors without being attacked, the first time its government lied, the first time civilians were deliberately targeted, and so forth? Timerman is still in the grip of Israeli mythology, although it is no longer difficult to demonstrate the great gap between those myths and reality.

The diaries of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and also prime minister in 1954-1955, records that Ben-Gurion and his allies in the army and security apparatus (especially Moshe Dayan and the present Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres) sought in the early 1950s to heat up the situation on the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian borders as a pretext for “retaliatory” military operations and expansion. [5] These same Israeli leaders were then already talking about finding a suitable ally in Lebanon who could be used to create an Israeli-backed Maronite state. As early as 1953, Israeli leaders were contemplating an attack on Gaza and the Sinai. This plan was implemented in October 1956, in cooperation with Britain and France. The perpetrators of the attack on the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953 and the massacre at Kafr Qasim (within Israel) in 1956, as well as other actions against innocent civilians, went unpunished, or were even made into national heroes. Labor Zionists also formulated and implemented a consistent policy of expanding Jewish landholdings within the pre-1967 borders, using expropriated Arab lands to create exclusively Jewish settlements.

In short, throughout the pre-1967 period, Israel knew itself to be militarily secure but refused to allow the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, seized Arab land within Israel, carried out bloody attacks on civilian targets, provoked its neighbors deliberately and lied to its citizens and the world. And all this when Begin was far from the corridors of power and Ben-Gurion and his “socialist” successors were firmly in charge.

As for the June 1967 war, it is now public knowledge that Israel’s political and military leadership knew full well that the Arab armies were not about to take the offensive and that in any event Israel had commanding military superiority. The outcome of the war was less a “miracle” than the springing of a trap. The blustering of Arab leaders helped create hysteria in Israel and won it the support of world public opinion, but Israel’s leaders both knew the real balance of forces and had a perfect pretext for war.

Timerman should be reminded, too, that it was Labor governments which began to establish Jewish settlements in the conquered West Bank and Gaza. True, Labor’s settlements were by and large located away from major Palestinian population centers, because Labor wanted to pave the way for the partition of the West Bank with Jordan. But by adamantly refusing to recognize Palestinian rights, by succumbing to (and even encouraging) the nationalist hysteria that swept Israel after 1967 and by repeatedly surrendering to pressure from right-wing pro-settlement forces, Labor set the stage of the post-1977 policy of massive land expropriations and settlement — in a word, de facto annexation. Finally, we should not forget that Israel’s involvement in Lebanon’s affairs and attacks on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in that country began well before 1977.

During a Knesset debate during the siege of Beirut in August 1982, Prime Minister Begin answered Labor criticism of civilian casualties by reading the following excerpt from an Al-Hamishmar interview with then-Chief-of-Staff and now Labor MK Mordechai Gur, following the 1978 invasion of southern Lebanon:

However, the enemy must first be accurately identified.

A soldier does not have such a problem. The problem is whether we go to war or not.

But what happens when we meet a civilian population?

That is a civilian population known to have provided active aid to the terrorists; that is an historical fact and it will not help, post facto, to call them beautiful people. I shelled them two years and six months after the massacre at Avivim; I bombed and shelled four villages without any approval. What did the inhabitants of Irbid, whom I shelled and bombed, do? But at the time this was near Beit Shean, Ma’oz Hayyim, Bet Alfa; then it appeared natural to you. The IDF was standing guard. Then it bombed. What has happened to you? Have you forgotten history? Do you not know that the entire Jordan Valley emptied during the war of attrition? My memory is not a selective one. I have been serving in the army for 30 years; do I not know what we did all those years? What did we do along the canal? Some 1.5 million refugees is what we did. Really, where are you living? Ismailiyya, Suez, Port Said, Port Fu’ad — 1.5 million refugees. What has happened all of a sudden? They sat at the border at Kiryat Shimona and Manara and for ten years it was impossible to move at night. Why has that population of southern Lebanon suddenly become such a great and just one?

Your claim is that that population should be punished?

And how. I am using Sabra language: And how. Not even for one moment did I have any doubts of this, that the civilian population deserves punishment. Are you asking me about the population of al-Naqoura, from where Katyushas were fired at Nahariyya and inside which, with all its terrorists, I saw, from an observation point, how the terrorists st in a central house with a green roof and were nourished (nezonim) by the population around them. I will continue: I decided and gave my approval to Yanush [Avigdor Ben-Gal] to enter southern Lebanon in such force; it was a political-strategic decision, a decision to use planes and artillery and tanks. I knew what I was doing. When I said to Yanush: Bring in tanks as quickly as possible and hit them from far off before the boys reach a face-to-face battle, did I not know what I was doing? I gave that order. Of course that was not the first time that I had given that order.

So there are good Zionist precedents for the wars of aggression, state terrorism, dispossession of Palestinians and other features that characterize the Begin years. Begin’s supporters argue that the Likud’s line is closer to the logic of early Zionism, if not to its rhetoric. For what was the method of the Zionist movement if not the gradual but inexorable process of “creating facts” until the Jewish presence in Palestine was established and strong enough to base a state on? At bottom, they say, if one denies the right of Jews to settle in Hebron, one undermines their right to live in Tel Aviv or the Galilee. This line of reasoning carries considerable weight in Israel: there is a logic to it that cannot be dismissed. It helps account for the rightward drift of Israeli politics since 1967. The Labor Party appeared increasingly weak, vacillating and even defeatist in the face of Begin’s claims that his forceful policies were more in tune with the essence of the Zionist enterprise under the new conditions of unquestioned Israeli military superiority and the occupation of all Palestine. He was merely carrying forward the mandate of Zionism: the Jewish people had an exclusive right to the entire land of Israel and must absorb the territories conquered in 1967 just as the “pioneers” had made other lands their own.

Amos Oz cites the return of the Sinai to Egypt as “spectacular proof of the secret vitality of the nation’s original humanitarianism and peace-loving spirit.” As usual, Oz misses the point entirely. Begin was quite happy to return the Sinai, to which he never had much attachment, in exchange for a separate peace with Israel’s most formidable opponent. By contrast he and his followers have repeatedly vowed never to give up the West Bank — the object of a deliberately inculcated religious-chauvinist cult — under any circumstances. Any attempt to leave that territory would spark armed resistance by settlers and their allies.

It is interesting to note that the Revisionist wing of the Zionist movement which spawned Begin and his party always believed that both banks of the Jordan were part of the historic Land of Israel. Irredentism toward the East Bank — today the Kingdom of Jordan — is no longer appropriate, since the official Israeli line is that Jordan is the “real” Palestinian state.

Crossing the Line

Even so, it would be a serious mistake to deny that there are important differences between Zionism a la Begin and the Zionism of the Israeli left. Beginism may be an extension of past Zionist practice, but by that extension a line has been crossed: while difficult to define precisely, it is nonetheless real to many Israelis and to others as well. The Labor Zionists in power before 1977 were to some extent constrained by their concern to retain close ties to foreign allies, their fear of alienating public opinion, their worry lest annexation dilute Israel’s Jewish character, and even their vestiges of social conscience. In practice, these constraints often meant that reprehensible actions were cloaked in a mantle of justificatory pretexts. Despicable policies were implemented behind a barrage of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet even the hypocrisy and the self-delusion imposed some limits.

With Begin, all the constraints are removed. Where the earlier Zionism claimed that it saw violence as a last resort, to be used reluctantly and judiciously, Begin and Sharon now openly glorify violence as the means by which Zionist goals can be realized. Israel is all-powerful; it has no need to compromise and exercise restraint. The most brutal and inhumane practices are now justified and accepted by many Israelis. The Arabs only understand force, and they must be made to keep their heads down, as the popular Israeli saying puts it. This “Dayr Yasin mentality” reigns supreme, invigorated by a wave of chauvinist mystical-religious hysteria which sanctifies (for some Jews) the very earth of the West Bank. At the fringes of Begin’s own party stand overtly fascist groups, ready to use any means necessary to keep the West Bank, settle it and prevent any retreat from the divine national mandate. Anti-Arab racism, expressed verbally and physically, has gained respectability to the point where the bombing of Palestinian refugee camps and the shooting of demonstrating children arouses little public outrage. Even the massacres at Sabra and Shatila do not faze the followers of Begin and Sharon.

Not all Israelis go along with this criminal insanity, of course. Polls indicate that perhaps one third of the Israeli Jewish population wants an end to the war and can envision some recognition of Palestinian rights, although a far smaller proportion would today accept an independent West Bank-Gaza state. Many feel profoundly uneasy about what is happening, and fear for the future. They realize full well that Begin’s policies are leading to catastrophe; they have no desire to live in a permanent state of war under a government that knows no limits and is making Israel into the mirror image of South Africa. These are the people who, in the summer of 1982, made huge demonstrations against the war in Tel Aviv, and who gathered a week after the massacres to express their anguish and demand an independent inquiry.

The notion of a good, peace-loving and humane Zionism is in large part myth. The Zionist enterprise is based on an injustice and has regularly employed violent and inhumane methods. Still, in the face of this, we must keep in mind that nearly all of the Israeli Jews who take to the streets to protest repression in the West Bank, the soldiers who refuse to carry out orders, the Peace Now activists and sympathizers and many of the Jews abroad who detest Begin all consider themselves to be Zionists: partisans and defenders of a great redemptive dream, a national liberation movement sullied by the present Israeli government. This points to the powerful grip that Zionism as mythology and as ideology exerts on Israelis and Jews. It also shows the extent to which that ideology has lost its content and can be used for different purposes. If Zionism means to many Israelis that whatever its origins Israel is today an established fact which cannot simply be erased, and that Israel must respect the Palestinian right to self-determination in at least part of historic Palestine, then there are some grounds for hope. This level of understanding does not, of course, resolve all problems — for example: Israel’s self-definition as a state not of its citizens, Jewish and Arab, but of all Jews everywhere; or the structural discrimination and oppression institutionalized in the Law of Return and official land policies. These are important questions, and the “two-state” solution does not fully resolve them. Yet there is today a broad consensus, outside of Israel and the Reagan administration, that this solution is the best immediate goal. There is a need to support the struggle of Israelis who are part of this consensus or tending toward it, regardless of whether they define themselves as Zionists or not.

Begin’s Support

We cannot forget that a large majority of Israelis support Begin. Despite all that has happened, polls show his party stronger today than it was one year ago. Jacobo Timerman is not quite sure what to make of this. At first he holds Begin and Sharon personally responsible for the war; later he admits that Begin “is an intuitive politician who is in perfect harmony with the mood of his natural audience: the Israeli voter.” But how did Begin’s brand of “blood and fire” Zionism win out over the allegedly idealistic and humane Zionism that preceded it? Timerman does not deal with this question seriously, since historical perspectives are all but absent from his book.

Amos Oz has an answer, one that is widespread among liberal and left Zionists and is as much a symptom as an explanation of the problem. Oz, in his wartime article for the New York Times, goes on at length about the romantic, idealistic and humanitarian character of the early Zionist settlers. They were pragmatic, politically aware, supremely self-analytical and egalitarian all at once, these men and women who by day drained the swamps of Palestine (to cite a popular Zionist image) and by night argued about social, political and ethical issues. The pre-state Jewish yishuv was not entirely idyllic, to be sure; there were some conflicts between the Labor Zionist leadership and the right-wing dissidents led by Begin. Despite this, Oz asserts, in many respects Israel was by 1948 “on its way to becoming a twentieth-century version of an Aristotelian Greek polis, characterized by the highest degree of individual involvement in public affairs.”

Oz has two explanations for what went wrong in paradise. First, there was the “savage Arab attempt to destroy Israel.” Oz sees no need to discuss this at all, and certainly not the role the Israeli government played in engendering Arab hostility. The second, more important factor which “ruined” Israel for Oz and gave rise to Beginism was the post-independence “mass immigration of Holocaust survivors, Middle Eastern Jews and non-socialist and even anti-socialist Zionists who ached for ‘normalization.’” The new immigrants from Europe wanted Israel to be a “normal” European-style state, while the religious Jews wanted to recreate a ghetto.

For Oz, it was really the Oriental Jews, the immigrants from the Arab countries who poured in after 1948, who diverted Israel from its path toward utopia. They “brought with them the attitudes of a French-inspired middle class — conservative, puritan, observant, extremely hierarchical and family-oriented, and, to some extent, chauvinistic, militaristic and xenophobic.” They wanted Israel to be run by respectable gentlemen, had no use for the socialism and egalitarianism of the founding fathers, and were receptive to Begin’s chauvinist appeals and leadership style. Even many of the Labor Zionist leaders succumbed to the pressure for normalization; Ben-Gurion himself increasingly tended in this direction and shared power with the religious and conservative elements. Finally, by the early 1960s, the change was irrevocable: Israel had lost sight of the original Zionist dream of a uniquely moral and humane Jewish society and had gone down the path to perdition and Begin.

This fantastic distortion of history hopelessly romanticizes the yishuv and has little connection to the real course of events. It is significant that Oz hardly touches on the Palestinian dimension of the problem: It is as if both the idealist founders and the backward new immigrants act out their roles in a complete vacuum. Perhaps most importantly, this explanation of Zionism’s downfall is rather racist. It is no secret that many of Begin’s voters (although not settlement activists) come from the Oriental Jewish communities, which constitute over half of Israel’s Jewish population, while most of Begin’s active opponents are from the Ashkenazi or European communities. This fact Oz attributes to the retrograde attitudes the Oriental immigrants brought with them. Thus it was that an influx of hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned Jews from Arab countries, oriental in their culture and unfamiliar with the enlightened ideals of those who came before (from Eastern Europe), destroyed the wonderful dream and brought Begin to power.

This pseudosociological explanation of where Zionism went wrong may be very comforting to “white” Ashkenazi Jews like Amos Oz, writing novels and tilling the soil on his kibbutz. There is not a word in Oz’s article about the discrimination faced by the Oriental immigrants when they arrived, their settlement in slums and dangerous border towns, their exclusion from the best jobs in the Labor Zionist government, union and economic apparati, the prevailing stereotypes that denigrate Moroccan, Kurdish or Iraqi Jews, their lower incomes, level of education and standard of housing. Between European and Oriental Jews there is a gap of such proportions that it threatens the cohesion of Israeli society. Many Israelis realize that it was in large part the thirty years of neglect and humiliation experienced by the Oriental Jews at the hands of Labor Zionist governments spouting social-democratic rhetoric which made them receptive to Begin’s chauvinist and populist demogogy. Not a whisper of this can be found in Amos Oz’s message to the readers of the New York Times Magazine. Like many other Israeli critics of Begin, he would rather blame the victims for their misguided choice than take upon himself and upon his pristine Zionism some of the responsibility for making that choice seem the underclass’ only way out.

The coincidence of social, ethnic and political divisions — the identification of many working-class Oriental Jews with the right and of many middle-class Ashkenazi Jews with the Labor Party and the left — is recognized as highly dangerous by many progressive Israelis. Peace Now and other activists have tried to overcome this, by showing how the government’s massive settlement schemes drain resources needed to improve social conditions within Israel — reaching out to Oriental Jews. The struggle will be an uphill one as long as Begin can point to his “victories” against the Arabs and maintain the standard of living of his supporters. Which brings us back to Lebanon.

American Jews and Israeli Opposition

It is painful to hear Jacobo Timerman grow more pessimistic as the invasion drags on. In late July he can still believe that a Labor Party victory at the polls is “the only chance to get Israel out of the ghetto into which Begin has locked us.” After Sabra and Shatila, that hope evaporates. Only the Jews of the diaspora can now bring Israel to its senses, Timerman writes. “I fear that in our collective subconscious, we are not perhaps repelled by the possibility of a Palestinian genocide. I don’t believe we Israelis can be cured without the help of others.” On that note of despair The Longest War ends.

Will the “others” help? And what should they do? In another New York Times Magazine article, the American Jewish writer Mark Helprin tries to stake out what he calls the “middle ground” between those Jews who would totally disassociate themselves from Israel and those who defend it without question. [6] Never mind that Helprin himself accepts without question the prevailing mythology about Israel and Zionism, argues that the substance if not the style of Begin’s outbursts might be justified by what he sees as the world’s embrace of Israel’s enemies, and describes the invasion of Lebanon as “restrained” and “late in coming.” Helprin is trying to argue, after establishing his credentials and covering his flanks as an Israeli patriot, that it is both legitimate and essential for American Jews to try to influence Israel, to put pressure on it to go along with the Reagan plan. American Jews must make it clear that they reject Begin’s plan to annex the West Bank; support for Israel must be coupled with criticism of present policy.

It is welcome to hear voices of dissent, however, cautious, from the American Jewish community. But is Helprin’s proposal realistic? Setting aside the deficiencies of the Reagan plan, and assuming that the American Jewish community could be united around a common position, how far are most American Jews willing to pressure Israel? It is not hardto imagine Begin and his colleagues rejecting the “friendly advice” of both the US government and American Jewish leaders in the name of chauvinist messianism. There have always been waverers and defeatists, Begin will say, but the dream will triumph. Will most American Jews then support or acquiesce in sanctions against Israel, a cutoff of US military aid, the reduction of economic assistance, an end to tax-deductible private donations by US citizens to Israel? Some in Israel hope for such measures as the only way to move Begin or bring him down, although few will say it openly. [7] Support in the US for such a course, however, would require a much more radical shift in consciousness than is now foreseeable, and a greater willingness to rethink the past and imagine new possibilities.

People make history and recreate the world every day, but the things we make take on a life of their own, a momentum that moves inexorably forward. The anguish and the despair of good people like Jacobo Timerman is genuine, yet impotent. They are shocked by Begin’s actions and cast of mind, yet cannot see that he is a product of the same Zionism in whose name they criticize him. The Israelis who actively reject Begin deserve our respect and support, but most of them still share the same basic premises, are still imprisoned in the same world outlook. The same is true, by and large, of American Jews and so there are limits beyond which dissidents fear to go.

There are signs that this consensus, which operates at a level less political than emotional, is cracking. Witness the refusal by Israeli soldiers — including Timerman’s son Daniel — to serve in Lebanon or the occupied territories, the readiness of a few Israelis to talk with PLO leaders, and the appearance of a much more questioning attitude toward Israel among American and European Jews. If there is to be a future for both Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, this process must continue and gain strength. It must simultaneously encompass active opposition to Israeli policy and a fundamental reevaluation of Zionism. Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon must be understood not simply as madmen — although madmen they may be — but as the products of a lengthy historical development. If we understand the roots of that development in the past and can act vigorously enough in the present, there may yet be some hope for the future. But time is short, and another round of horrors looms just over the horizon.


[1] Ha’aretz, November 15, 1969, quoted in Arie Bober, ed., The Other Israel (Garden City, NY, 1972), p. 12.
[2] Amos Oz, “Has Israel Altered its Vision?” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1982.
[3] According to the Jerusalem Post International (March 20-26, 1983), testimony on this point came anew from Meir Cohen, deputy speaker of the Knesset and mentioned as a Likud-Herut presidential candidate. Following a report on West Bank disturbances to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Cohen said: “The situation today in the areas proves that stones are more effective than bullets. Our soldiers know how to deal with bullets but they stand helpless when stones are thrown at them. We had the means in 1967 to make sure that two or three hundred thousand would move to the other side, as was done in Lod, Ramie and Galilee in 1948, but we made a calamitous mistake. Things would have been simpler today: no Palestine problem, no stones, no demonstrations. We could have brought in 100,000 settlers and there would have been no trouble.” Mapam’s Victor Shemtov interrupted: “Do you mean we should have driven the West Bankers out?” Cohen: “I learned exactly how it should be done, from the Hashomer Hatzair commanders of my unit in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1948 war.” (Hashomer Hatzair is the youth movement of the left-Zionist Mapam.)
[4] David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch (London, 1977), p. 139.
[5] Excerpts from these diaries have been published in Livia Rokach, Israel’s Sacred Terrorism (Belmont, MA, 1980). Ehud Ya’ari has shown that up to the massive Israeli attack on Gaza in February 1955, Egypt was making serious efforts to control the Palestinian refugee camps, prevent infiltration into Israel and keep the borders quiet. See his Mitzrayyim ve-hafedayeen (Givat Haviva, 1975). Jordan, too, sought to prevent Palestinians from using its territory as a base from which to raid Israel. Israeli leaders knew that this was Egyptian and Jordanian policy but preferred to blame those countries rather than cooperate with them so as to have a pretext for war.
[6] Mark Helprin, “American Jews and Israel: Seizing a New Opportunity,” New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1982.
[7] One of the few who have is Matityahu Peled. See his article in the New York Times, December 30, 1982.

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman "Zionism Good and Bad," Middle East Report 114 (May 1983).

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