Ari Shavit’s Resuscitation of Liberal Zionism is Doomed

by Tim Holmes

Norman Finkelstein's acerbic demolition job, 'Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit's Promised Land', reviewed.

First published: 29 May, 2014 | Category: Book Review, International, Zionism

Norman Finkelstein, Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land (OR Books, 2014).

To judge solely by the encomiums directed his way, Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, must be one of the most learned and insightful writers alive. Last November, the New York Times's Thomas Friedman called Shavit 'one of a handful of experts whom I’ve relied upon to understand Israel ever since I reported there in the 1980s', applauding his 'must-read book' for its 'deep insight, compassion and originality'. Understanding 'the real Israel' as Shavit does—like inhabiting Orwell’s Airstrip One—‘requires keeping several truths in tension in your head at the same time'.  Its great achievement is allowing us to 'respect', 'love', 'appreciate' and feel 'affectionate' towards Israel—attributes that, while lacking any obvious intrinsic merit, are no doubt of service to a New York Times Middle East reporter.

Granted, Friedman’s feeling for 'deep insight, compassion and originality' manifests itself in calls for the violent humiliation of the Middle East, but he is far from alone in singing Shavit’s praises. The Economist deems My Promised Land one of the best books of last year. Financial Times contributing editor Simon Schama calls it 'by some light years, the best thing to have been written on the subject'; 'enthralling' and 'morally dignified', bursting with 'empathy', 'personal anguish and humane compassion for both suffering peoples':

at no point does he ever look away from the magnitude of the Palestinian catastrophe. In fact, he seems all the more of an Israeli for being able to think and feel like a Palestinian.

Esteemed liberal publications the New Republic, Atlantic, and New Yorker doled out equally glowing reviews. In 2013, My Promised Land scooped the first Natan book award.

What makes this especially surprising is that one of Shavit’s principal tasks is to defend ethnic cleansing. So observes Israel-Palestine scholar and serial debunker of fraudulent history Norman Finkelstein in Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land, a slim volume that takes Shavit’s book apart. Inevitably failing to stake out any serious ethical justification for the Palestinian Nakba ('It is impossible to disprove [his] logic in terms of logic', Finkelstein concludes), Shavit instead relies on rhetorical puffery, resurrecting some of the crudest tropes of colonial-era racism.

Enlightened Jewish settlers, he explains, transmitted the benefits of civilization and progress to the benighted natives—‘Jewish capital, Jewish technology, and Jewish medicine’—only to see their beneficiaries 'inexplicably and irrationally explode in murderous rage' (Finkelstein). It was at this point that 'transfer', or ethnic cleansing, turned from unthinkable horror into necessary expedient. Yet Shavit also concedes that 'transfer' infused Zionist thought '[f]rom the very beginning’—in effect admitting his contorted, 'tragic' narrative of self-defence conceals a darker history of colonial aggression.

Thankfully, further Orientalist tropes are on hand to legitimise the project. Shavit’s natives are sickly, filthy, 'downtrodden', starved and 'scrawny', aged, vain and treacherous; the land is a 'grey, arid wasteland'; antique, idle, muck-ridden, noisy, 'hustling'; a 'desolate', 'cursed', poisonous 'backwater', suffused by 'the misery of the Orient'. The colonists, by contrast, are masculine, potent, virile; 'fine', 'modern' and cultured, with 'fine food'; steeped in Western music, literature, art and architecture. Industrious, knowledgeable, resourceful, they bring curative European technology to 'clear the valley for progress' and (of course) 'make its deserts bloom'. 'Creating something from nothing' justly, like God Himself—in, if not ‘a land without a people’, then the next best thing.

As Finkelstein notes, this recalls nothing so much as cultural supremacists’ defence of the native American genocide—in a more enlightened age bound, thankfully, to fall on deaf ears.

Besides its magnanimous civilizing mission, Shavit argues, external forces propelled and legitimated the Zionist project: assimilation, which threatened to erase Judaism culturally, and anti-Semitism, which threatened to erase Jews physically. Israel, he suggests, represented a safe haven for both. Yet early Zionism neither predicted nor relied on the Holocaust. Absent Israel, Shavit believes he would today be an Oxford don—not exactly physical erasure—while he portrays the Israeli frontier not as safe but dangerous, even thrillingly so. As for culture, Jews’ voluntary choices to assimilate hardly justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestine; and while Orthodox Judaism survives elsewhere, Israel in Shavit’s telling has become 'just another narcissistic Western consumer society’ (Finkelstein):

a shopping mall … Consumption is its beating heart. … Nothing remains of the initial promise of the unique beginning. … The Hebrew culture … is gone. (Shavit)

'The only thing Jewish about Shavit’s Israel is its demography', Finkelstein sharply concludes: '[h]is is an apotheosis of biological superiority'. This alone suffices to excuse the commanders overseeing the 1948 ethnic cleansing, while some judicious moral hair-splitting lets Shavit simultaneously condemn its perpetrators.

Once expelled, only one thing could deter Palestine’s angry and resentful refugees: an atomic bomb. Praising the 'opacity' of the authoritarian, anti-democratic process that produced them, Shavit lauds Israel’s nuclear weapons in ecstatic terms as a peace-securing, Jabotinskyan 'iron wall' against the Arab 'predators that lay in wait'. In fact, Finkelstein argues, the best evidence demonstrates Israel’s nukes are unnecessary, unsuccessful and even counterproductive: unlike the country’s conventional arsenal, they have not deterred attacks, instead precipitating a dangerous regional arms race. When Shavit puts this objection to an Israeli nuclear engineer, he learns the appropriate response is 'a preemptive strike … with everything we’ve got.' Shavit, Finkelstein stresses, does not disagree—unsurprisingly perhaps, since Shavit also asserts that if Iran gained nuclear weapons 'the world order would collapse' amid a 'nuclear Auschwitz'. The West must face up to this decision as early as 2013-14, he warns, lengthening a roster of doomsday predictions dating back to at least the mid-1990s.

Shavit suffers the same amnesia when addressing Israel’s settlements. He falsely portrays the settlement project as a right-wing aberration incomparable to 1948’s ethnic cleansing, even while acknowledging their 'remarkably similar … spirit and modus operandi'. Israel began colonising the occupied territories out of 'fear that what happened in Saigon will happen in Tel Aviv', Shavit argues, 'and that Israel’s fate will be similar to that of South Vietnam’—an original hypothesis, if deranged. With sanctimonious chest-beating about the failed hope of peace, Shavit lets Israel off the hook entirely in negotiations, portraying his prior support for Oslo as youthful, idealistic optimism for a process Israel entered with noble intentions, but ended ensnared in a trap. That it was Palestinians who found themselves literally trapped and impoverished in Bantustans under delegated Israeli supervision, all hope of a viable state far off as ever, apparently falls beyond Shavit’s purview.

So too does the scale and nature of Israeli conflicts since 1948—exclusively bloody 'wars of choice or wars of folly', in the conclusion of leading Israeli strategic analyst Zeev Maoz, quoted by Finkelstein. Somehow, Shavit even avoids mention of Operation Cast Lead, the horrific massacre visited on Gaza in 2008-9 (visible in statistics as a shocking, unprecedented spike in Palestinian deaths), despite never missing an opportunity to cheerlead for the assault and loudly condemn dissenters at the time. Why the omission? Perhaps because, as Israeli journalist Gideon Levy correctly perceived back then,

Anyone who now encourages the politicians and the army to continue will also have to bear the mark of Cain that will be branded on his forehead after the war.

Shavit is nevertheless sanguine about the wanton devastation Israel inflicted on Lebanon in 2006—‘not a major war', he concludes, since it 'never really endangered Israel’s existence' (in reality true of every Israeli war since 1948). Suffering twenty times Israel’s civilian deaths, watching the IDF butcher innocents and saturate southern Lebanon with several million cluster sub-munitions just before a ceasefire took effect, the Lebanese may be less philosophical. More concerning for Shavit was Israel’s 'alarming impotence': '[o]ld-fashioned Israeli masculinity was castrated'.

Finkelstein demolishes Shavit’s book without difficulty. Where pundits perceive insight and depth, Old Wine, Broken Bottle points out a naked emperor spouting torrents of high-flown, perfectly meaningless rhetoric. At times its critique can appear ungenerous: Shavit notes in passing Israel’s oft-suppressed missed opportunity for peace in 1971, for instance, and rightly deems the 1982 Lebanon campaign 'deceitful and outrageous'; but Finkelstein is unmoved by either cursory admission, and even offers a wry dig at the aged 'Disco Ari’’s' nights out in Tel Aviv.

The result is nevertheless a highly effective shredding of scholarly pretension and a well-merited character assassination. ‘Old Wine, Broken Bottle’ proves an apt metaphor for Shavit’s work—at once a crude, thuggish weapon capable of inflicting severe damage and a defunct, irreparable vessel for old ideas. Shavit comes across as ignorant, opportunistic, belligerent and delusional, a latter-day colonial propagandist and quasi-religious millenarian fanatic. Finkelstein is almost too polite to mention another apt comparison: Shavit fetishises virility, youth, masculinity; is enraptured by martial 'potency'; prefers authoritarian militarism to democratic accountability; at times appears to favour a mobilised nation; admires hollow, mystical rhetoric alleging a divine, ancient connection with the land; and, as Finkelstein acknowledges, upholds an implicit doctrine of biological superiority. These are strains of fascist ideology. (Even Shavit’s apparently enlightened attitude to homosexuality—which Finkelstein mocks as hilariously incongruous with his obsessive, unreconstructed masculinism—has entered far-right ideology in Europe, incorporated into the Islamophobia of the English Defence League and others as a mark of civilisational superiority.)

This is not to label Shavit fascist; but it casts in an alarming light the rightward shift in Israel his work mimics and exemplifies. It may be this culture, Finkelstein argues, that finally breaks the bond between liberal American Jews and the 'lunatic state' that claims to represent them. Too much is now known too widely, Israel’s true face recognised too clearly and too often to command loyal devotion. Even the charitable review of Shavit in Britain’s Telegraph—a paper that used to suppress almost any criticism of Israel—is damning. If so, perhaps the 'mark of Cain' adorning the heads of Shavit and others is already driving his country into the political wilderness.

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