Zionism achieved its greatest triumph with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The Zionist idea and its principal political progeny are the subject of deeply divergent interpretations, not least inside the Jewish state itself. No other aspect of Zionism, however, is more controversial than its attitude towards the indigenous population of the land of its dreams. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the state of Israel, famously said that it is by its treatment of the Palestinians that his country will be judged. Yet, when judged by this criterion, Zionism is not just an unqualified failure but a tragedy of historic proportions. Zionism did achieve its central goal but at a terrible price: the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians – what the Arabs call the Nakba, the catastrophe.
The authors of these two books are both Israelis, but they approach their subject from radically different ideological vantage points. Ilan Pappé is a scholar and a pro-Palestinian political activist. He is one of the most prominent Israeli political dissidents living in exile, having moved from the University of Haifa to the University of Exeter. He is also one of the few Israeli students of the conflict who write about the Palestinian side with real knowledge and empathy.
Pappé places Zionism under an uncompromising lens. In his reading it was not a national liberation movement but a settler colonial project imposed on the Palestinians by force with the support of the west. From this premise it follows that the state of Israel is not legitimate even in its original borders, much less so within its post-1967 borders. To correct the injustice, Pappé advocates a peaceful, humanist and socialist alternative to the Zionist idea in the form of a binational state with equal rights for all its citizens.
Ari Shavit is a member of the editorial board of the liberal Zionist paper Ha’aretz, and one of Israel’s most influential columnists. He is an eloquent exponent of liberal Zionism, but he also exemplifies its ambiguities, inner contradictions and moral myopia.
Pappé has published a large number of books on the history of Arab-Israeli conflict of which the most widely read and most controversial is The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. The Idea of Israel is not a history book but a close study of the role of Zionist ideology in the making of modern Israel and of the continuing relevance of this ideology today in politics, the education system, the media, the cinema and Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations. The book thus offers a broad survey of the main critical schools of thought on Israel. Two chapters deal directly with the Palestine question: the historiography of the first Arab-Israeli war, and the uses and misuses of the Holocaust.
History is usually written by the victors, and the Middle East is no exception. Pappé himself is a leading member of the group of “new” or revisionist Israeli historians that emerged in the late 1980s and included Simha Flapan, Benny Morris and myself. In our different ways we all challenged the dominant narrative, the narrative of the victors. Using recently released documents we debunked many of the myths that had come to surround the birth of the state of Israel and the 1948 war. Intentionally or otherwise, our work thus lent credibility to the Palestinian historical narrative about the war for Palestine.
In his new book, Pappé deals with recent developments in the historiographical sphere, especially on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. The big question has always been: did they leave of their own accord or were they forced out? Israeli governments have always denied that they drove the Palestinians out. In his ground-breaking 1989 book on the subject – The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 – Morris presented incontrovertible evidence of Israeli involvement in creating the refugee problem. Evidence subsequently gathered by Morris points to an even higher degree of Israeli responsibility. But following the outbreak of the second intifada, Morris veered to the right and radically changed his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He concluded it was a mistake not to expel all the Palestinians from the Jewish state in 1948. Pappé argues that the new documents prove that the expulsion of 730,000 Palestinians was more premeditated, systematic and extensive than Morris had ever acknowledged. In short, he claims that when war provided an opportunity, the Zionist idea was translated into the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
The role of the Holocaust in empowering the struggle for Jewish statehood is another sensitive issue in the debate about the past. Pappé denounces any political manipulation of the Holocaust as a means of moral blackmail designed to silence legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. His sharpest comments are reserved for Israeli officials who have perfected such manipulation as a diplomatic tool in their struggle against the Palestinians. His deeper concern, however, is to understand the impact and significance of the Holocaust memory in constructing and marketing the idea of Israel. Israelis have harboured an exaggerated sense of themselves as victims, and this self-image, he argues, has prevented them from seeing the Palestinians in a more realistic light, and impeded a reasonable political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The argument that what happened to the Palestinians was just a small injustice to rectify a greater injustice (the destruction of European Jewry) is rejected with some vehemence. The only hope Pappé sees of making peace with the Arabs is for Israelis to free themselves of their Shoah mentality.
Ari Shavit is one of Israel’s most influential columnists. Photograph: Sharon Bareket/Courtesy of Spiegel
Shavit’s position is more conflicted and therefore more opaque. He is a passionate but not uncritical Zionist. His book is also not a history of Israel but a series of stories of individuals and significant events that shed a great deal of new light on the making of the Jewish state. Among the cast of characters on whom Shavit draws to construct his picture of Israel are Holocaust survivors; a youth leader who helped to turn Masada into a symbol and shrine of post-Holocaust Zionism; an enigmatic engineer who was instrumental in building the atomic bomb in Dimona to defend the Jews against the threat of a second genocide; the zealous religious Zionists who spearheaded the settler movement; leftwing academics in Jerusalem; and pedlars of sex and drugs in Tel Aviv nightclubs. But, above all, this is a personal story. As the author explains in the introduction: “This book is the personal odyssey of one Israeli who is bewildered by the historic drama engulfing his homeland. It is the journey in space and time of an Israeli-born individual exploring the wider narrative of his nation.”
The most vivid illustration of Shavit’s attitude to this wider narrative is his account of the expulsion by the nascent Israeli army of 50,000-70,000 of the Arab residents of Lydda and the massacre of 70 civilians in a small mosque in July 1948. The grisly story has been told many times before, but Shavit’s reconstruction is riveting. His original contribution consists of interviews with the Jewish brigade commander and the military governor in which they speak frankly about their strategic and moral dilemmas. Shavit refers to this episode as “our black box” in which lies “the dark secret of Zionism”. But he goes on to say that the conquest of Lydda and the expulsion of its inhabitants “were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state”. “Lydda,” he asserts, “is an integral and essential part of our story.” Like Morris, Shavit evidently thinks that the end justifies the means; I don’t. The massacre of innocent civilians can never be justified under any circumstances. It is a heinous war crime and it must be denounced as such even if the perpetrators are Jews and, yes, even if they are Holocaust survivors.
Both authors engage with the essence of Zionism as well as with its more problematic parts. While Pappé represents the cutting edge of radical anti-Zionism, Shavit exposes the dissonance, the double standards and intellectual incoherence of liberal Zionism. Shavit, by his own acronym, is a Wasp – a White Ashkenazi Supporter of Peace. His liberal credentials were burnished by serving as chair of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in the early 1990s. In addition, he enjoys the great advantage of writing like an angel. The smoothness and beauty of his prose is all the more remarkable given that English is his second language. But the brilliance of Shavit’s style tends to conceal the ethnocentric character of his commentary and his inability to confront the moral consequences of the triumph of Zionism.
On one thing the two authors agree: the current status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is unsustainable. Both of them see the writing on the wall. The occupation, the relentless expansion of illegal settlements, the construction of the monstrous “security barrier” on the West Bank, the demolition of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, the flagrant violations of international law, the systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights and the rampant racism – all are slowly but surely turning Israel into an international pariah. No sane Israeli relishes the prospect of living in a pariah state that maintains an apartheid regime. But few Israelis are ready for a truly honest historical reckoning with the people they have wronged and oppressed and whose land they continue to colonise. To blame the victims for their own misfortunes, as the people in power habitually do, is both disingenuous and despicable. This is no way for any nation to behave, especially one with such an acute historical memory of the bitter taste of victimhood.
Avi Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations is published by Verso.
Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, published by Scribe, is available from the Guardian bookshop.