Edward, I was wrong about Sharon
May 22, 2004
Edward Said's eloquent, passionate essay of April 7, 2002, “Thinking ahead: After survival, what happens?”,1 began, as it might well do now, two years later, “Anyone with any connection at all to Palestine is today in a state of stunned outrage and shock. While almost a repeat of what happened in 1982, Israel's current all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people (with George Bush's astoundingly ignorant and grotesque support) is indeed worse than Sharon's two previous mass forays in 19712 and 19823 against the Palestinian people.”
Soon after reading Said’s essay, I began a ‘corrective’ essay, “Out of the Prison”,4 where I said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not acting out of “homicidal instincts” (as Said stated). I wrote, “Said is not framing the tragedy in its true context.” Rather, Sharon, I then mistakenly thought, was a “willing puppet of the U.S. rulers ... doing precisely what he must do to try to cover his actions with a facade of legitimacy, taking his cue from, and imitating, Bush.”
has been a U.S. puppet
Well, two years of horror have gone by since then. Many, many thousands of people have been butchered by the so-called leaders of the most powerful nation-states. I stand by most of what I wrote in “Out of the Prison”, but I was dead wrong in characterizing Sharon as a willing puppet of the U.S. rulers. Neither Sharon nor any of the previous Israeli prime ministers acted as a puppet of the U.S. Each of them pursued the Zionist project to the extent possible during their tenure, as fully as the realpolitik of that historical moment permitted. What was the Zionist project? Total hegemony by the Jewish nation-state of Israel over the territory of “Greater Israel” as described in 1918 by David Ben-Gurion: “to the north, the Litani river [in southern Lebanon], to the northeast, the Wadi 'Owja, twenty miles south of Damascus; the southern border will be mobile and pushed into Sinai at least up to Wadi al-'Arish; and to the east, the Syrian Desert, including the furthest edge of Transjordan.”5 , 6
At this very moment (May 17, 2004) the Sharon government is committing massive war crimes, demolishing the homes of Palestinians in Gaza and bombarding its imprisoned population (with American provided and paid-for weaponry) in violation of the supposed international rules for treatment of civilians, in actions so barbaric that they are universally condemned. Even Colin Powell and Condeleezza Rice, mouthpieces for the Bush cabal that dictates U.S. policy, were directed to wiggle their fingers in mock U.S. disapproval.7
Without the consistent support, the billions of dollars poured into Israel yearly by the U.S., and the protection from international sanctions through U.S. veto power in the UN Security Council and U.S. “diplomatic” coercion throughout the world, the Israeli program for carrying out the Zionist project envisioned by Ben-Gurion would have been stopped dead in its tracks in 1948. But the fact that for 56 years the U.S. had (and has) the power to prevent Israel from proceeding does not mean that Israeli actions have been at the direction of the White House. On the contrary, their genesis is entirely Israeli. I was wrong in thinking that Sharon is a U.S. puppet.
A much-popularized way of describing historical events is by focusing on one of the individuals involved most prominently, and attributing responsibility to him or her. For example, Doron Rosenblum, in an article inspired by the turmoil in Rafah, the refugee camp in Gaza currently under attack by the Israeli military,8 sees Sharon as the essential cause: “Never have we had a leader who has missed, year after year, every opportunity that has come our way for change, for dialogue to put an end to terror, for political initiative, for some way out of the cycle of bloodshed.” Rosenblum speaks of “...Prime Minister Sharon in his new role as loser...after being admired in his previous role as a mow-them-down winner”, and concludes in the final paragraph, “Blood is flowing like water...What we need is an alternative leadership - and not just on the Palestinian side.”
Rosenblum, though not mentioning Arafat by name (as though his name is not even to be allowed in the discourse), singles him out as the basic cause of the trouble by assuring his readers, “True, the root of all evil is the bloodthirsty and impotent leadership of the Palestinians.” I think Rosenblum actually believes this to be true, and is not just repeating it as a required Jewish mantra for commentators in Israeli “mainstream” media. It is an example of Davidson’s thesis that “Increasingly, many Israelis live in a ‘closed information environment’ wherein an insidious Orwellian ‘newspeak’ shapes thinking and perception relative to the Palestinians”(see footnote 5).
Of course I do not mean to say that individuals such as Sharon, Arafat, Bush, and -- I’ll toss in Adolph Hitler as well -- are insignificant. But it is totally inadequate, for an understanding of history, to focus on so-called “leaders” while paying little attention to the dominant structures of society and to the true “rulers” (those with enormous wealth and long-term influence) and the ideology with which they seek to control us. It is easy to blame individuals and to speak, as Said did - perhaps even correctly, I don’t know - of “Sharon’s homicidal instincts” (see footnote 1), but I think it is much more useful to explore the direction towards which Ghada Karmi points in her challenging essay,9 namely the extent to which the dominant ideology in Israel (and among supporters of the Jewish state outside Israel) -- the ideology of Zionism -- is the “root” cause of the ongoing tragedy.
Karmi’s essay begins, “The Sharon government is widely regarded, even by Israel's friends, as a negative force in the current politics of the Middle East. ... Seldom before has Israel provoked such criticism from friend and foe alike, and there is a feeling that a different Israeli leadership ... could be expected to re-start the peace process ... and ... lead to peace and stability.” That is precisely the hope implied in Doron Rosenblum’s Ha’aretz article a few days ago (Footnote 8). Karmi takes a less sanguine (and in my opinion more realistic) view of what a change of “leadership” would mean. She says, “This widely held view ignores the real problem. As a Zionist, Ariel Sharon is as faithful and committed a servant as the Jewish state could ever have hoped for. He has merely followed the tenets of Zionism to their logical conclusion.”
By focussing on the controlling ideology among Zionists (inside and outside of Israel), Karmi’s dismal conclusion is that the inevitable result will be seen by either Palestinian Arabs or most Israeli Jews as tragic: either the bulk of Palestinian Arabs will be driven out of “Greater Israel” in order to maintain the Jewish character of the state, or that defining religious character of the state will be given up. For evidence to support her thesis Karmi draws quite substantially on the recent interview of historian Benny Morris by Ari Shavit. Shavit introduces Morris: “The son of immigrants from England, he was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh ... [H]e was a reporter for the Jerusalem Post ... is now a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva.”
Morris became best known for his meticulous investigations of Israeli crimes committed against Palestinians, published in 1987 as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem by Cambridge University Press. As an eminent -- perhaps the pre-eminent -- revisionist Israeli historian, his thorough documentation revealed the false picture constructed for propaganda purposes by Israeli politicians and others, thereby undercutting the myth of the humane, exemplary Israeli military (fatuously called the Israel Defense Force (IDF), just as the U.S. War Department is fatuously called the Department of Defense (DoD)).11
In the opening paragraph of the Ha’aretz interview, Morris, in speaking of his Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, says, “It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces Archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-state defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.” And later in this section of the interview, which is titled “Rape, massacre, transfer”, Morris states:
“...There are cases such as the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved.
“The worst cases were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds) and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was an unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.
“That can't be chance. It's a pattern. Apparently, various officers who took part in the operation understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads. The fact is that no one was punished for these acts of murder. Ben-Gurion silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres.”
What made this interview dynamite however, was not Morris’ further revelations of war crimes planned and executed by the Jewish military (whose behavior was already known to many - those who wished to know), but his shockingly truthful affirmation that he believes the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs was necessary for the success of the Zionist project. It is his candor in stating this in-my-opinion terrible truth that makes the interview so important. Here is part of it, after my subheading (the interviewer’s comments are in italics):
“There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide - the annihilation of your people - I prefer ethnic cleansing.”
And that was the situation in 1948?
“That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.”
The term ‘to cleanse’ is terrible.
“I know it doesn't sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.”
What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hard-hearted.
“I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish state [emphasis added - G.S.] here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war.
“Remember another thing: the Arab people gained a large slice of the planet. Not thanks to its skills or its great virtues, but because it conquered and murdered and forced those it conquered to convert during many generations. But in the end the Arabs have 22 states. The Jewish people did not have even one state. There was no reason in the world why it should not have one state. Therefore, from my point of view, the need to establish this state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them.”
And morally speaking, you have no problem with that deed?
“That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”
This might seem to be the most racist, least moral position possible. Indeed, it was seen that way in a response by Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Adi Ophir in a Ha’aretz supplement the next day: “Morris seems to know what the general and final good is: the good of the Americans, of course. He knows that ... under specific conditions, specific circumstances ... it is possible to justify genocide. In the case of the Indians, it is the existence of the American nation. In the case of the Palestinians, it is the existence of the Jewish state. For Morris, genocide is a matter of circumstances, that can be justified under certain conditions ...”
“The circumstantial justifications for transfer and for genocide are exactly the same: in some circumstances there’s no choice. It is just a question of the circumstances. Sometimes you have to expel. Sometimes expulsion is not enough, and you must kill, exterminate, destroy ... He suggests that we see ourselves ... ready at any moment to take the harshest measures, when required. At the present stage we have to imprison the Palestinians. Under graver conditions we will need to expel them. If circumstances require, and if the ‘general, final good’ justifies it, extermination will be the final solution. Behind the threat of prison and expulsion lies the threat of extermination. You don’t need to read between the lines. He stated it clearly in the interview. Ha’aretz printed it.” More from the interview:
Morris says, “I understand the reasons for the hatred [that Palestinians feel] very well. The Palestinians are retaliating ... [but] there is something else here, something deeper, that has to do with Islam and Arab culture."
Are you trying to argue that Palestinian terrorism derives from some sort of deep cultural problem?
"There is a deep problem in Islam. It's a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn't have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien. A world that makes those who are not part of the camp of Islam fair game. Revenge is also important here. Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them [the suicide bombers - G.S.] have no moral inhibitions.”
"I think there is a clash between civilizations here ... I think the West today resembles the Roman Empire of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries: The barbarians are attacking it and they may also destroy it."
The Muslims are barbarians, then?
"I think the values I mentioned earlier are values of barbarians - the attitude toward democracy, freedom, openness; the attitude toward human life. In that sense they are barbarians. The Arab world as it is today is barbarian."
Ophir counters Morris, saying “statements about Palestinian society as a sick society deny the fact that if there is sickness there, then the Israelis—soldiers, settlers, politicians, and intellectuals like Morris himself—are the virus...”
Among Israelis the high moral ground belongs to Ophir and all those who regard Palestinian Arabs not as barbarians but as fellow human beings who have been made to suffer grievously by the unremitting pursuit of the Zionist project. Morris at least acknowledges their suffering, and has documented much of it, but believes it was necessary for Israel’s survival. If in fact Morris’ racist views of Arabs and Islamic culture are held by a majority of Israeli Jews (and non-Israeli Zionists), as Lawrence Davidson’s essay strongly suggests is likely (footnote 5), then the Orwellian manipulation of language of which he speaks has been frighteningly effective in encapsulating public discourse. The result, if that is so, is a comprehension of reality as subtle as that of George Bush Jr., It’s us against them, good against evil.
However, even if the virulent racism that characterizes dominant Israeli culture is less widespread, the very concept of Israel as a Jewish nation-state contains the virus of racism. Morris maintains that “if the desire to establish a Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice [than the mass expulsion of 1948].” The desire is easy to understand, but its pursuit, by those who understood the devastating implications for the Palestinian Arabs, was not legitimate. Nor was the conquest of other peoples in other times legitimate. Unlike Ophir, whose logic is correct and whose moral stance unambiguous, Morris is immoral, justifying American annihilation of American Indians, and either justifying the conquests of Islam (which is consistent with a ‘might makes right’ view) or, if he believes those conquests did not ‘serve the greater good’, condemning them. Either way, Morris is floundering in a logical morass, because the criterion he claims to use,‘serving the greater good’ is always arguable.
Changing what happened in the past is not possible. We, meaning humanity collectively, have no choice but to live today with the consequences of past actions. But we have many options from which to choose what we do now. Today’s choices will determine the immediate future, and contribute to the long-term future. In order to act intelligently we must understand both the reality in which we are living and the historical circumstances that led to it. Lawrence Davidson’s essay (see footnote 5) is important precisely because it points to the necessity, for a humane resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for truth to replace the now-dominant myths of Zionism -- the “closed information environment” he calls it, with its “insidious Orwellian ‘newspeak’” that “shapes thinking and perception relative to the Palestinians” of many Jews and non-Israeli Zionists.
The myth of the Israeli military’s humaneness is punctured not just by Benny Morris but by numerous reports and publications.12 It is but one of many myths in the “closed information environment”, all of which need to be punctured so that we can truly understand our world and act to change it. One of the most destructive myths operative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the belief the Jews and Arabs are separated by cultures that are fundamentally different, a notion Morris clearly accepts. ‘Theirs’ is barbarian; ‘ours’ is civilized. This is a crucial part of all colonial ideologies, the essential separation of human beings into two antagonistic groups, the admirable colonizers and the abominable colonized. From this terrible (and false assumption) follow the rationales for all sorts of dehumanizing actions against the subjugated peoples.
Establishment of a theocratic nation-state implies a separation, built into and implemented by state power, between the ‘true believers’ and those who do not adhere to the ‘true faith’. Israel is not that extreme, because Jews of all ‘persuasions’, from atheists to ultra-orthodox, can be included in the governing structures, and Israeli Arabs as well. Nevertheless, the distinction between Jews and Arabs is strictly maintained, with the Jews in control. And many, probably most Israeli Jews, want to keep the Arabs, if they are to remain in Israel, as second-class citizens. It is this dynamic, the result of the dominant Zionist ideology, that must be changed for a humane resolution to be possible. That is why I think Ghada Karmi’s thesis is correct, that the problem is not Ariel Sharon but Zionism itself.
2. In August 1971 troops under Ariel Sharon's command destroyed some 2,000 homes in the Gaza Strip, uprooting 16,000 people for the second time in their lives. Hundreds of young Palestinian men were arrested and deported to Jordan and Lebanon. 104 Palestinians were killed. Private communication from Lawrence Davidson.
3. Ariel Sharon, Israeli War Minister in the Begin government during the invasion of Lebanon, which he organized and led, and oversaw the massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut, September 16-18, 1982.
5. See footnote 8 in Lawrence Davidson’s essay, “Welcome to Their Nightmare: Orwell and Kafka in Israel/Palestine”, available at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/Discus/2004-04-03.htm. Davidson attributes the quote to Nur Masalha, “Expulsion of the Palestinians” (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), p. 89. He also refers to Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs – From Peace to War (London: Oxford University Press, 1985).
6. Noam Chomsky, in Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, 1999, p.161, writes that in supporting “a British partition proposal of 1937, Labor Party leader David Ben-Gurion stated that: