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The invisible Palestinian

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A book that describes how the Zionists beat their ploughshares into swords.

By Jagdish Sagar


 

In April, 1897, Herbert Bentwich, a successful, prosperous and very British solicitor (and the author’s great-grandfather) arrives in
Palestine, one of a group of well-heeled British Zionists on a luxurious exploratory visit. They are taken ashore by Arab stevedores, attended to by Arab staff, guides, horsemen, servants, travel (in great comfort) through Arab towns and villages, but the Palestinians are invisible to them. Says Shavit of his ancestor: “…I understand him perfectly…he is motivated by the need not to see. He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back.”

Shavit does see. His account of Lydda (now Lod) is impossible to forget.

This little Arab town with its two mosques and cathedral prospers in proximity to friendly Jewish settlers. Dr Lehmann, an idealistic German Jew, builds the Lydda Valley youth village as “an example of what Zionism should be: a salvation project ‘providing roots to the uprooted’ but untainted by colonialism.” He befriends the gentry of Lydda, attends to the survivors of an earthquake, opens his dispensary to Arabs, inoculates Arab children, teaches his students to respect the Arabs and their culture and invites Arab performers to his youth village’s festivals.

In 1948, Lydda suspects nothing. It does not see that Zionism has become, in Shavit’s words, “a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force”. Even as war breaks out, Lydda remains untouched.

Then it happens. Dr Lehmann disappears from the narrative, but those participating in what follows include his students. As the Jewish army takes the town, civilians are massacred. Asked what to do with the Arabs, “Ben Gurion waves his hand: Deport them.” Another future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, issues the written order: “The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regard to age.”

Jewish soldiers make eight Palestinians bury seventy bodies, then shoot them too. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, not allowed to take their motor vehicles, agree to leave, walking in a long column with what they can carry. Women are searched and humiliated, Jewish soldiers fill jute sacks with their necklaces, earrings, silver
and gold.

And now Shavit surprises us: “… the choice is stark” he says: “either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” He chooses the latter: “They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live.” (Live, that is, as Israelis.) He approves Moshe Dayan’s speech at the funeral of an assassinated Jewish officer in 1956: “Let us not cast blame today on the murderers…they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their land and villages, where they and their forefathers dwelled, into our home…We are a generation of settlement, and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house… Let us not drop our gaze…or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”

Shavit revels in a heroic side to Israel that was, before its later military successes, exemplified in the early Kibbutzes: “And as the plows begin to do their work, the Jews return to history and regain their masculinity…they transform themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns.” That is what Israel was and is all about (but note the paean to “masculinity”, odd in this day and age but with a chilling resonance from the first half of the twentieth century.) The driving force of Zionism was the desire felt by European, secular and usually atheistic Jews—people like Bentwich—for a sense of secular Jewish nationhood, to feel pride in a perceived identity. Shavit sees absorption in a secular West, what his ancestor declined, as a threat to this (purely secular) identity. Intermarriage with non-Jews he views with concern as “rampant”: had Bentwich stayed in Britain, his descendants might have been happier, but they wouldn’t have been as Jewish.

To be sure, a genuine need for refuge from persecution had a legitimate place in the Zionist project. The Palestinian “Homeland” did indeed accommodate refugees; many came escaping persecution and the holocaust that followed, and they did heroically build a new life for themselves, something impossible not to applaud. But they were a drop in the bucket and could not have been much more: as Shavit tells us, Palestine/Israel was hard-pressed to take in just 750.000 immigrants between 1945 and 1951.

Today Israel’s population includes over six million Jews and over two million others, mostly ill-treated Arabs. But over half that Jewish population is from the Middle East, Asia and Africa; those from West Asia and North Africa would not have had to flee their homes if Israel had never been created; indeed, with their Arabic culture many did not initially feel at home in Israel. Others came, and come, for reasons of identity or economic opportunity: like Indian Jews. A nation, after all, is an imagined community.

Israel has built a dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative and in some degree hedonistic society far removed from the life and ideology of the kibbutzim. “As Jews, we never had it so good.” But, says Shavit, Athens must keep something in it of Sparta. A liberal Zionist, he disapproves of the post-1967 settlements driven by religious fanatics claiming the rest of Palestine on the strength of the Bible; he believes the settlements must be vacated, yet cannot believe that doing so could help to bring about peace. Israel, for him, is surrounded by implacable enemies, and must face them down for all time to come. He vocally supports Netanyahu on Iran: but would anyone expect, in the face of Israel’s own nuclear weaponry, that others would not follow? Shavit himself does not seem to think so, only that the dreadful moment must be put off.

There is something missing here. Must everyone around Israel—even the Palestinians—really be an enemy forever, for all time to come? Does even a balance of nuclear weapons necessarily lead—contrary to all experience—to war? Or do even liberal Zionists cling, somewhere deep inside, to a paranoid glory of permanent struggle? Why is there no thought of healing wounds, any kind of magnanimity? Has Israel, in the longer perspective of history, any future without reconciliation? To me the most revealing passage in this book is the experience of an Arab-Israeli lawyer—a friend whom Shavit characterizes without embarrassment as “so Israeli”—in back-channel talks between senior Palestinians and Israeli peaceniks. The Palestinians wanted Israel to pay reparations to build the future Palestinian state “just as the reparations paid by Germany to Israel were utilized for national projects”. At which “the peaceniks went berserk” and the talks collapsed.

Shavit starts his book: “For as long as I can remember, I remember fear, existential fear.” He is reasonable enough to place the blame for that where it belongs. But not once does it occur to him to apply that Israeli shibboleth, “existential threat”, to the Palestinian condition: that remains invisible.

Promised_Land_

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

By Ari Shavit Scribe Publications, 2014

Price: $28

Shavits_Ari

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