Apologists for 'war on terror'
Tony Greenstein reviews Yitzhak Laor's 'The myths of liberal Zionism' Verso, 2009, pp192, £14.99
Yitzhak Laor is Israel’s greatest living poet. Largely unknown in the west, he is a literary critic for Israel’s only liberal daily, Ha’aretz, and a prominent dissident in his own right. In 1972 he and a friend became the first two refuseniks, when they refused to do national service in the occupied territories. For that he was jailed. When Laor won the Prime Minister’s Prize for poetry in 1990, the then premier, Yitzhak Shamir, refused to sign the official declaration.
The myths of liberal Zionism is a breathless surge of anger, a tirade directed not only at what Zionism has created, but at the duplicity and two-facedness of the west’s favourite Israeli literary ‘peaceniks’ - Amos Oz, David Grossman and AB Yehoshua - who use their undeserved liberal reputation in order to strengthen the racist Zionist project.
This book is the only one Laor has had published in English and his only work of non-fiction. It begins with the only poem in the book, ‘A citizen of the world’:
We didn’t grow up where our fathers grew.
They didn’t grow up where their fathers grew.
We learned not to feel nostalgic
(we can feel nostalgic for any tombstone decided upon),
we don’t belong anywhere
(we shall belong with ease to anything when demanded),
we move across countries,
we sleep in fancy hotels,
we sleep in cold barns,
we love only to be loved,
we rape only to be remembered,
we enjoy only to register ownership,
destroying mainly villages,
declaring ownership then leaving,
hating peasants, mainly peasants
(if necessary, we’ll also cultivate the land).
Unlike the literary peaceniks, Laor begins from an anti-racist and implicitly anti-Zionist stance. Whereas for Oz, pre-1967 Israel, with its expulsion of the native Palestinians and theft of their land is sacrosanct, and the return of the refugees a forbidden topic, Laor accepts that the origins of the occupation lie in 1948, not 1967.
Laor knows how, for Israeli novelists such as S Yizhar, in his seminal Days of Ziklag, the self-image of Israelis is that of a victim. The Israeli soldier is portrayed as beautiful and blonde, boyish but not quite an adolescent, frightened, asexual and innocent. In the middle of the terrible bombardment of Gaza in January 2009, the mass daily Yediot Aharanot published an appeal to the world from a soldier, describing himself as a grandson of holocaust survivors, who believed he was serving in the most ‘moral army in the world’.
But these are Israeli heroes. The Jews of the diaspora, whether from the Middle East or Europe, are “ugly Jews”, “podgy and bald”. As Laor observes, it is a good thing that the new Jew looks nothing like his/her grandparents. The fact that they were holocaust survivors “did not save them from unsightly descriptions in early Zionist literature”. Integral to the founding of Zionism was a concept, the negation of the diaspora. This included contempt, if not hatred, for diaspora Jews. Reading Zionists like first justice minister Pinhas Rosenbluth, one could be mistaken for thinking one was reading a Nazi propagandist in Der Sturmer. He described Palestine as “an institute for the fumigation of Jewish vermin”.
As part of this process, the native Israeli, the sabra, became transformed into a westerner. As Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, claimed in his pamphlet Der Judenstaat, a Jewish Palestine would “form a part of a wall of defence for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.” This manifests itself even in a desire for a western physiognomic appearance that results, for example, in a preference for blondes in beauty pageants abroad. Thus during the Gaza massacre television reportage frequently featured blonde, female Israeli soldiers. Yet this cannot hide the ugly reality that infant mortality for Arab citizens of Israel, at eight per 1,000, is twice as high as that for Jews. And in the occupied territories it is over 26 per 1,000.
Where Laor falters is in his belief that the dividing line between Israelis and the ‘other’ is that between east and west, and that it “traverses the Jewish people”. Although he does not bring out the political implications, this replicates the once fashionable idea of an alliance between the oriental/Misrahi Jews and the Arabs. In fact the former have become part of the settler colonial majority, including its elite, and, although most are poor, they fulfil the function of the poor whites in the USA.
What Laor is arguing is that Zionism, faced with the fact that Jews were not accepted in the west (or rather parts of it at certain times), formed a state that could be of service to the western powers as a means of becoming part of the west. It has been called the collective assimilation of Israeli Jewry.
The most interesting and controversial section of the book is where Laor deals with the holocaust. Why, he asks, the current concern with the extermination of European Jewry when there was such a lack of concern in the period following 1945? After the war Hollywood was concerned with great escapes, combat and love, not Jews and ghettos. It was not until much later (for example, Holocaust in 1979 and Schindler’s list in 1993) that Hollywood became interested. And, as he notes, it was not till 1979 that the decision was made to build the Washington Holocaust Museum, which carefully screens out any radical politics (when I visited it in the mid-1990s, Pastor Niemoller’s famous saying, “First they came for the communists ...”, had been edited to remove the reference to communists!). As Laor notes, the much criticised Polish resistance forwarded details of Auschwitz to the west three times in early 1944 (in fact it was even earlier). Western powers did nothing, and the Zionist movement even opposed the belated setting up of Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board, which is credited with rescuing at least 200,000 Jews.
Laor argues that the new-found interest in the holocaust is driven by a need to forge a new European identity. I doubt this, as Israel’s westernisation predated the holocaust religion. If anything, it was driven by the need to sanctify the war crimes of western imperialism under the cloak of ‘anti-racism’, whilst at the same time Israel is at the forefront of anti-Islamic racism (or ‘the war on terror’). All in the name of combating ‘anti-Semitism’.
Laor describes how Israel organises school trips to Auschwitz (paid for from the reparations which were supposed to go to the holocaust survivors). These trips to Poland, where the children are kept inside hotels for fear of anti-Semitic Poles (in Krakow I found a vibrant anti-racist culture which was not at all anti-Semitic), are part of the new foundational myth of an Israel formed from the ashes of the dead and devoted to preventing a repeat of the holocaust. Poland and Auschwitz, being in eastern Europe, serves to reinforce the message that Israel is now part of western European culture (although Auschwitz was actually in the Greater Reich, the Polish incorporated territories).
And as part of this process of becoming part of the west, the European far right in turn has dropped its holocaust denial, though not its anti-Semitism or racism. The holocaust now has a wider propaganda purpose and “in the new moral universe of the ‘end of history’ there was one abomination - the Jewish genocide”. Anyone who criticises Zionism and Israel is naturally anti-Semitic. But, of course, “this is not really about perpetuating the memory of the genocide, but about consolidating a new ideology of exclusion”. Except that “now it is the Jews who are the insiders. We can now participate in violating the rights of others.”
What disturbs Laor is the “new vocation of European Shoah culture”. Having just returned from a visit to Auschwitz, I was taken aback at how it has become a form of American kitsch, a rewriting of history to serve modern political ends. Far from the holocaust being used as a warning against all such acts of genocide, it has become the means of justifying Israeli and western imperialist barbarity. Why, asks Laor, is there no special day of remembrance for native Americans or those who died in the slave trade?
Laor lambasts the special pleading of Amos Oz for his characterisation of the conflict as one between justice and forgiveness. All settler colonial peoples believe that right is on their side and that they are the victims. This is “a hollow formula, behind which one can easily hide and close one’s eyes to concrete injustices” (p61). It leads to the self-serving indulgence of Oz that “there is almost no difference between them: the jailer is no freer than his prisoner”. Which must be small comfort to the Palestinian child crippled for life by a bullet or the parents of Rachel Corrie, the US peace activist killed by Israeli troops in Gaza in 2003. But then you do not understand the torment of the Israeli soldier, the flower of their youth, being forced to shoot their victims. It is a new version of the old left-Zionist ‘shooting and crying’.
Laor castigates the wilful blindness of one of the priests of the holocaust religion, Claude Lanzmann, producer of the nine-hour-long film, Shoah. Made in 1985 and shown without interruption for adverts on Channel 4, the film was a one-sided rendition on a simple theme: how Poles - all Poles - were anti-Semitic. Lanzmann’s interview with Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter who brought news of the extermination camps to the west, was cut to remove all favourable references to Poles.
Israel’s propagandist holocaust museum, Yad Vashem - built near the ruins of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, where a horrific massacre took place in April 1948 - does not mention the Palestinian nakba (day of catastrophe). Indeed Yad Vashem recently fired a tour guide who commented on the ruins of the village. As Yad Vashem explained, “the institution objects to any political use of the holocaust ... the holocaust cannot be compared to any other event”. The key point is about the holocaust being unique - an obviously political statement in itself.
And because the holocaust cannot be compared to any other political event, then its only role is to legitimise the brutal occupation and repression of the Palestinians. If nothing Israel or any other state does can be compared with the holocaust, then the holocaust has no wider meaning or lessons to impart. Lanzmann also failed to understand that the Polish people, despite the undoubted anti-Semitism of the country’s rightwing parties and the Catholic church, also suffered the most of any occupied nation. Up to three million non-Jews were killed, and yet thousands of Poles risked their lives hiding Jews.
Laor suggests that the genocide of European Jewry is “being used as the negation of what is happening to the Palestinians”. Because when Elie Wiesel or Lanzmann are “recruited to defend Israel, everybody knows they do so on behalf of the holocaust survivors and victims, namely the state of Israel”. But the enthusiasm of the European intellectual for Israel is “entirely based upon enthusiasm regarding the new Jew, who has appropriated, among other things, the holocaust”.
Laor directs his fire against the trio of peaceniks that the west, and France in particular, love. In July 2000 Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat had a summit at Camp David with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and US president Bill Clinton. A myth grew up around this meeting that Arafat had rejected an offer over 90% of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as its capital in order that he could launch a new intifada and a ‘holy war’ against the Jews. Yet it is a fact that the second intifada was triggered by Ariel Sharon, accompanied by thousands of police, walking in the most holy Muslim areas in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount.
Oz was ever the willing propagandist and in October 2000 wrote that “the Palestinian people are suffocated and poisoned by blind hate”. As Laor notes, there is no other writer of Israeli prose who better utilises the arsenal of colonial stereotypes as much as Oz. This was part of an Israeli state propaganda campaign to portray Arafat, soon to be assassinated, as the author of Palestinian misfortune and to convey the message that there is “no Palestinian partner for peace”. In Le Monde of January 9 2001 and elsewhere Oz laid the blame for the failure of Camp David on Arafat’s insistence on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, thus challenging the very concept of a Jewish state. Yet in fact, as professor Mati Steinberg, special adviser to Israel’s Shin Bet secret service, explained in a lecture at Princeton University in March 2002, the talks foundered on the issue of the Temple Mount, not the right of return, “which was barely discussed … and was born retrospectively in Israel in order to create the internal consensus”.
Laor makes the extremely important point about western liberals that they identify with the likes of Oz and Grossman, even though they would run a mile rather than swallow the kind of state that the latter accept as natural. Israel does not have a written constitution precisely because it would have to specify the question of the equality of all of its citizens. Nor could it get away with citizenship laws that do not include an Israeli nationality (for the benefit of gullible foreigners, Israeli passports include under nationality ‘Israeli’, even though the Hebrew word izrahut translates as ‘citizenship’, not ‘nationality’ (le’um). Nor would Israeli liberals accept a state which forbids a Jew to marry a Christian or Muslim.
Laor argues that Israeli propaganda about fundamentalist Islam chimes with French racism and its attitudes to immigrants. But he is in danger of over-egging the pudding. There are also contradictions. American Jews have proved remarkably resilient in opposing these aspects of the Zionist agenda (not least because orthodox proposals to amend the Law of Return and citizenship would impact on those like them who are mainly liberal/conservative).
Yet this book is a must for those who wish to understand the underlying dynamics of Israeli society and Zionism. On the question of the nakba and the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1947-48 he is clear: “Oz has never employed the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in relation to the conduct of the Israel Defence Forces in 1948” (p76). The only deaths that concerned him were those of the Zionist forces. Palestinian massacres were passed over.
Laor does not merely demolish the political credibility of Oz: he also destroys his literary reputation. Oz’s autobiography, A tale of love and darkness, is full of the banal wisdom one encounters at the doctor’s or on the bus, with “not an insight on the horizon”. (p85). Instead there is a surfeit of name dropping, from Ovid to Kafka: “In Oz’s family no-one admired a marginal poet … None of them loved an unimportant author.” Yet, despite citing so many famous books, nowhere is there “any description of anything from any of the books named” (p87). And this is symptomatic because the Labour Zionist tradition of Oz is one of ideological superficiality, an appeal to the most crass and banal, and the pious ‘values’ of social democracy.
Apparently Oz wanted to be a book when he grew up and had a fear of the ‘bad reader’ who, not content with raping a woman, then goes on to eat her. It would appear, Laor notes, that the book Oz wanted to be was in fact the body of a woman and the bad reader a rapist torturing that body. And all Oz’s “harsh rhetoric against leftwing intellectuals is couched in terms of the defence of a vulnerable female body” (pp94-95). Beneath his defence of colonial violence there is a deep misogyny which finds a reflection in his characterisation of the Israeli state as a defenceless maiden. As Laor notes, “the most pathetic thing about Amos Oz - if we put aside the fear of women’s sexuality … is the colonial discourse” (p108).
Another of the Israeli ‘left’ novelists that Laor scourges is AB Yehoshua. For him war may not be desired (though he has supported all of them), but it is “purifying”. Yehoshua is a believer in two states. Why? Because he cannot wait to be rid of the Palestinians: “From the moment we retreat I don’t want to know their names at all. I don’t want any personal relationships with them and I am not going to commit war crimes for their own sake” (p130).
Savour the last sentence. Israeli war crimes are in fact the fault of the Palestinians. Yehoshua proposes complete separation between coloniser and colonised. Of course the Zionist right has an easier solution. Simply transfer the Palestinians to the east bank of the Jordan. Hence his book The liberated bride is “the most racist Hebrew novel written in recent years” (p136). Historically the most racist wing of Zionism was not the revisionist/Likud but Labour Zionism and its policies of ‘Jewish labour and land’. Yehoshua believes in an Israeliness without roots. In this he mirrors his own background, as someone with Moroccan origins who rejected his past and was ashamed of his grandfather.
Israeli identity and ‘nationhood’ is riven by ethnicity. This is one more reason why the idea that there is an Israeli nation is problematic. Russian Jews vote for Yisrael Beteinu. Orthodox Sephardis and Misrahi tend to vote for Shas. Despite the attempts to unify Israelis on the basis of a common hatred for Arabs, Zionism has only been partially successful. But, lacking any class dimensions, this division manifests itself in anti-Ashkenazi curses, such as “Why didn’t they kill you all in Auschwitz?” being particularly popular (p153).
In so far as the holocaust religion has become a dominant ideology in Israel, it remains largely irrelevant to the experience of most of Israel’s Misrahi/oriental Jewry. Just as it is to Arabs. It is no accident that the one country the Nazis occupied from where they were unable to deport Jews was an Arab country, Morocco. Despite the latter assertions of Zionist propagandists, European anti-Semitism never struck a chord outside its European citadel.
- J Doron, ‘Classic Zionism and modern anti-Semitism: parallels and influences 1883-1914’ Studies in Zionism No8, autumn 1983.
- See ‘Israel’s anti-Semitic friends’: azvsas.blogspot.com/2009/11/israels-anti-semitic-friends.html
- Ha’aretz April 23 2009.
- See GS Paulsson Secret city - the hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945 New Haven 2002.
- ‘Why Arafat must take the blame’ The Guardian October 13 2000.