Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Simon Schama's Whitewash

As most readers will know, the British historian Simon Schama is one of the most acclaimed, visible, and popular contemporary historians. Before coming to the United States, he taught at Cambridge and Oxford, and since has held chaired professorships at Harvard and Columbia. He has written sixteen books, specializing on the French Revolution, Dutch history, British history, American history—and also on baseball and art; for awhile he was even the art critic for the New Yorker.

As well, Schama has written and starred in eleven popular TV documentaries on these subjects, on the BBC and PBS. This astonishing record leaves no doubt that Schama is a prolific and brilliant political and cultural historian, and a man of great personal charm and articulateness. He is also a man of vigorously stated strong emotions and strong opinions—that’s part of his charm, but the downside of it is that he can be something of a popularizer and an oversimplifier of complex and controversial issues.

And on contemporary Israel, Schama is something of a whitewasher.  I refer to the Story of the Jews, his current five part PBS documentary and soon to be a two volume book, in which his emotionalism, his strong but not necessarily persuasive beliefs and  opinions, and his tendency to oversimplify or, worse, ignore inconvenient facts, has created a serious problem--at least in the last program, where he takes on Zionism, the establishment of Israel, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.* (I don’t know enough about the history of the Jews from the pre-Christian era until the 20th century to know whether his ideological and political preferences distort his historical story telling, although I have the strong impression that modern Biblical scholars and archaeologists will challenge some of his conventional history.)

The fifth and last program begins with a discussion of the origins of Zionism, and makes the case that the history of the persecution of the Jews justified the creation of the state of Israel, an argument I agree with--but not with Schama's failure to even mention the problem created by creating that state in a land already the homeland of another people.

After that, the omissions and distortions steadily worsen, and while somewhat balanced by criticism of Israel, the total effect of the program is to perpetuate most of the myths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that serious historians have long discarded.

1948: After noting the UN partition resolution of 1947 that created a Jewish state in Palestine, the program shows a long except from David Ben-Gurion’s speech of May 14, in which he announced that “the Jews have come home from their exile.” Ben-Gurion, of course, does not mention that for the last two thousand years Palestine had been the homeland of the indigenous Arabs—and neither does Schama.

Schama then continues: “the Arabs rejected the UN plan, as they had rejected every previous partition plan, and sent armies in.” There is no explanation of why the Palestinians might have considered it to be unfair and unacceptable that powerful outside forces had dictated that their two-thousand year old homeland was to be divided up with the Jews.

Nor does Schama the historian mention the established fact that Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leaders “accepted” partition only as a tactical first step, to be jettisoned as soon as they were strong enough to go well beyond the boundaries of the partition plan--by whatever means necessary.

Concluding this discussion, Schama says that after the 1948 war “an armistice agreement allowed Israel to expand its boundaries” (emphasis added), language that seems designed to obscure the fact that the “agreement” simply reflected force majeure, or the fact of the Israeli conquest.

The Nakba. Schama does mention the Nakba, which he describes as “the displacement, sometimes violently, of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from towns and villages,” some of whom “fled in fear,” some of whom went into exile because they were told to do so by Arab leaders, and some who “were driven out by force and terror.”

Even this apparently fair and forthright statement can be challenged as insufficient and partly misleading, but the real problem is what comes next, which is a substantially longer section on the departure of some 700,000 Jews from Muslim countries in the ensuing years.

Since this section is obviously intended to provide a moral balance to the Nakba, you know that it will begin with a “But.” And so it does: “But there are other memories and other catastrophes," as the Jews who “had lived for centuries” in the Muslim countries of the Middle East “discovered suddenly that their home was no longer their home.”

Note that there is no claim that the 1950s “exodus”—his word—of Middle Eastern Jews was primarily driven by violence or government expulsion. Nor is any note taken of the fact that Arab outrage at the Nakba might have had something to do with precipitating whatever anti-Semitism and violence did occur.

In any case, while it is undoubtedly true that many Jews left Arab countries because of outbreaks of anti-Semitism and violence, many others went to Israel because they preferred to live in a Jewish state. Indeed, many of these Jews--particularly from Iraq—left because Zionist and Israeli organizations worked hard to induce them to come to Israel.

The 1967 War. Schama’s portrayal here is pure Hasbara, long discredited. Accompanied by an ominous map with arrows depicting armies from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt converging on Israel from all directions, the Arab attack is portrayed as massive, unprovoked, and aimed at Israel’s very existence—all myths long discredited by serious historians. In fact Israel provoked the Syrian attack in a number of ways and initiated the attack on Egypt even though Nasser did not intend to start a war. Some years later Menachem Begin, no less, admitted that the 1967 War was not a necessary war forced on Israel but a “war of choice,” started by Israel even though its survival was not at stake.

The Separation Wall. Schama is disturbed by the Wall, but he initially portrays it solely as a response to Palestinian terror, rather than as an implementation of the overall Israeli strategy of incorporating within its new boundaries all the land it conquered in 1967. To be sure, Schama then does mention that the Wall extends deep into the West Bank in order to include leading Jewish settlements in the heart of the occupied territories, and he even concedes that it has “made life for the Palestinians a daily ordeal;” even so, the weight of his presentation is to portray the Wall as an anti-terrorism measure. Indeed, he concludes that because he is not an Israeli, he doesn’t have “the moral right to condemn” the Wall, because before it was built Palestinians were killing hundreds of Israelis, but since then very few.

Even more fundamentally, nowhere does Schama raise the question of whether Palestinian terrorism is a response to forty-seven years of Israeli occupation, repression, economic warfare, assassinations, daily hardships and humiliations, outright murders and, indeed, Jewish private and state terrorism directed against the Palestinians. His failure to do so is not merely revealing, it is disgraceful.

One has to assume that Schama the historian knows better--or maybe he doesn't, I don't know which is worse.  In any case, his failure to use his charm, his charisma, his erudition, his way with words, his unassailable standing, his vast popularity, and the golden opportunity to use his national television platform to educate the American public--above all, us Jews--about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unforgivable.


*Even before the Story of the Jews, it was apparent that Schama is something of an apologist for Israel. According to Wikipedia: “In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War. He characterised Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful in Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah. With regard to the bombing he said: "Of course the spectacle and suffering makes us grieve. Who wouldn't grieve? But it's not enough to do that. We've got to understand. You've even got to understand Israel's point of view."

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Debate over BDS

In the last few months there has been an increasing debate among specialists on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the BDS movement--the Palestinian group that calls for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.  One of the topics being debated is whether BDS is calling only for the end of the Israeli occupation or is going well beyond that, seeking the end of a Jewish-majority Israeli state in favor of a binational single Jewish-Palestinian state.

I've been investigating the issue, and here are my thoughts.

What is BDS’s position, especially on the right of return and the one-state vs binational state debate?

I went on the BDS website, where there are several important statements of the movement’s principles and goals. The two key documents are “Introducing the BDS Movement” and the “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS of July 2005.” Both of these documents, as well as many statements and opeds by leading members and supporters of BDS, set forth the following three principles for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall.

2 Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

In my view, the first principle is by far the most important one, and it is increasingly widely accepted by the West as a whole and by prominent and even not-so-leftist Israelis—such as an apparent majority of retired Mossad and Shin Bet directors. There can be no serious challenge to this principle by people of good will and some rudimentary understanding of the irrefutable facts on which it is based.

Principle #2: Similarly, both the factual and moral basis for this principle are unimpeachable. However, it is likely to be seen as a distraction and of a significantly lower order of importance and urgency than ending the Israeli occupation, repression, economic warfare, and the not-infrequent assassinations or outright murder of the Palestinian people.

Moreover, a great many Israelis—including many right-wingers—recognize, deplore, and promise to do something about the various forms of discrimination and second-class citizenship of the Palestinian Israelis. For this reason, if there was an overall Israeli-Palestinian state settlement, the likelihood of realizing equal rights for all citizens of Israel would be dramatically improved.

Principle #3. This is by far the weakest and perhaps even self-defeating principle, and clearly it is the major obstacle to a far wider support of serious U.S. pressures being brought to bear on Israel to end the occupation. I interpret this principle to include not merely a right of return but the creation of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state—for if millions of “refugees” were to “return” to Israel that would be the de facto result.

For BDS to continue insisting on this principle is a serious mistake, both in terms of its consequences and on the merits. In practical terms, it has no chance of being realized—it is not part of the international consensus settlement (as opposed to some minimal and largely symbolic return); the Israelis will never accept it; most non-Israeli “liberal Zionists” will balk at it as well; and no Western government will insist on it as part of an overall settlement.

It is no more convincing on the merits. For starters, citing UN 194 of 1948 as the legal and moral basis for a full right of return of all Palestinian refugees since 1948 is quite unpersuasive.  To begin, the resolution applies to “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours,” and it clearly referred to 750,000 Palestinians from the 1947-48 period, and in no way can be plausibly interpreted to include all the millions of their descendants in the past sixty-six years. And continuing indefinitely?

Secondly, the legal meaning of 194 aside, it must now be considered moot, for it has been overtaken by time and events.

The task now--and it wouldn't be all that difficult if the non-symbolic Israeli-Palestinian issues were  solved--is to reconcile the psychology and symbolism of the issue with the practical realities, which will allow no more than a limited and largely symbolic return of some tens of thousands refugees and their families. Not only is that the most likely and wise solution to the issue, but insufficient attention has been paid to the demonstrable fact that Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have made it unmistakably clear that they would accept such a compromise in the context of an overall settlement based on the international consensus principles.

Similarly, it is a mistake for BDS to continue to be associated with a binational state, again on both the practical consequences and the merits of the issue. Some Palestinian supporters of BDS have challenged the characterization of the organization as opposed to the continuing existence of Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that, in fact, almost all the leading BDS leaders support a two-state solution. Others take a different approach, arguing that BDS is a “rights-based” rather than a “political” movement, and is therefore consistent with any settlement that protects the individual and collective rights of the Palestinian people.

For several reasons, I don’t find this a convincing line of argument. To begin with, BDS’s emphasis on the right of return, as well as statements and even NY Times opeds by some of its most prominent members or supporters, ensures that BDS will continued to be associated with the concept of a binational state.

Secondly, I don’t really understand what it means to say that a movement dealing with obvious political issues is simply “rights based”—especially if by rights one means not merely individual but also collective and national rights. How else can such rights be realized except in a political framework? And the only political framework that has any chance of success—bleak as the prospects are now—is a two-state one.

As for the merits of the binational state idea, I won't repeat here what I have frequently written, including on this blog.  In brief, I have argued not only that a binational state has no chance of being established--given Israeli and to a considerable extent Palestinian attitudes-- but that it would be more likely to end disastrously if it were, especially for the Palestinians, but probably for the Jews as well. It is hard for me to understand how advocates of this idea can ignore the recent history of one binational (or bireligious, or bicultural, or bilinguistic, or bitribal) state after another ending in bloody civil or communal war.

Is BDS Succeeding?

While it is undoubtedly true that while some of the discourse on the I-P conflict in recent years has become far more serious and critical of Israel, BDS hasn’t made much headway among the key governments --Israel and US—or in the American Jewish community, whose support or at least non-diehard resistance is crucial if there is ever to be any serious US pressure on Israel to agree to end the occupation and allow the creation of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

BDS optimists point to the fact that in recent months student bodies in a handful of college campuses--as well as a single professional association--have passed resolutions supporting BDS and sanctions.  While of doubted symbolic importance, however, the significance of a handful of such resolutions should not be overstated--especially when such resolutions have been repudiated by most other colleges and professional associations.

More importantly, of course, it can hardly be argued that BDS is pushing Israel towards a fair settlement. Indeed, it might even be having the reverse consequence, hardening Israeli views and psychoses even further—“the whole world is against us anyway” and all of that.

What Should be Done?

As I have argued, BDS and its supporters should make it unmistakably clear that they are not seeking to “delegitimize” Israel—as opposed to its occupation and repression of the Palestinians--or to undermine its status as a predominantly Jewish state. To this end, it will be important for BDS to revise its founding charter—just as Arafat and the PLO found it necessary to revise its founding charter, and as Hamas will have to do if it is ever to be accepted as a legitimate partner for a negotiated settlement.

Further, BDS should expand its membership and leading spokesmen from the various Palestinian organizations that currently comprise it, so as to include non-Palestinians—especially the Israeli and American Jewish liberal Zionists who are thoroughly sick of what Israel has become, but will not support BDS as it currently stands, or is reasonably interpreted.

It is perfectly understandable and legitimate that a movement for national liberation should begin and be led by the oppressed victims of colonialism and occupation, but its eventual success would be greatly enhanced if it became and was seen as a movement requiring support by all peoples and their governments who purport to seek human rights and justice.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Not again

Another typo, sigh.  Third line in section, The Critics: "ad hominum," should of course be "ad hominem."