Last month, David Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA, published an interesting essay in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal about Ari Shavit’s much-discussed book, My Promised Land. While some reviewers have argued that Shavit’s book makes historically unfounded and sweeping moral condemnations of Israel and Zionism, reinforcing a skewed Palestinian narrative and its anti-Zionist rejectionism, Myers argues the opposite, criticizing Shavit for towing the Zionist line and not being open enough to the Palestinian experience.
Shavit’s defenders and detractors alike have placed special focus on his book’s depiction of the expulsion of the Arab population of Lydda in 1948, an event that Shavit calls “the black box of Zionism,” a “dark secret” that undermines the moral justifications for Zionism and the State of Israel.
Some readers maintain that the book as a whole balances out this chapter with other, positive depictions of Israel. Others find that Shavit has loaded such disproportionate moral weight onto Lydda, while eliding key historical facts and failing to provide the wider context of what was a war for Jewish survival, that the book becomes fodder for the Palestinian narrative that sees the existence of the Jewish state as inherently criminal. Sol Stern, for instance, in the Daily Beast, writes that
Shavit’s Lydda chapter is based on such a gross historical distortion that it overwhelms his testimonial to the positive, miraculous side of Zionism and, in effect, lends support to the Palestinian movement’s own historical narrative – called the Nakba – of an innocent, indigenous nation dispossessed and ethnically cleansed by perfidious European Jewish settlers.
Ruth Wisse, writing in Mosaic, is struck by the extent to which Shavit’s book is concerned with the moral failings of Israelis, without treating the Arabs as moral agents. “This combination of solipsism and unintended racism reduces Arabs to bit players in a drama of Jewish guilt,” she writes, claiming that Shavit “will not apply to Arabs and Muslims the standards of decency he expects of the Jews, so he must decline to hold them responsible at all for their decisions, their politics, their behavior.”
In contrast to Stern and Wisse, Myers criticizes Shavit for not going far enough in his embrace of the Palestinian narrative. “Shavit remains within his own self-contained and self-congratulatory world,” writes Myers. “He remains opaque to the experience of the Other.”
While Shavit does acknowledge the crime of Lydda, writes Myers, he, like the historian Benny Morris, places this too easily within the overall context of the Arab-Israeli war. Shavit, writes Myers, holds that the newly born Jewish state “was in a war of survival and, unfortunately, bad things happen in war.”
Does Myers agree? It isn’t clear. He writes that “1948 was a war of survival for the Zionist movement.” But then he says that this is a justification only from “the Israeli Jewish perspective,” and that this “perspective will carry little weight with expelled Palestinians, for whom 1948 was a war of survival that they lost.” It is not clear whether Myers thinks that 1948 actually was “a war of survival” for the Palestinians—I would argue that it was not–or if he only thinks that it was from the Palestinian “perspective,” just as the war in 1948 was a necessary war of survival only from “the Israeli Jewish perspective.” There does not seem to be the possibility of a shared moral valuation here, just a clash of competing and irreconcilable perspectives.
In any case, Myers argues that the important thing is that Israel validate the Palestinian perspective by issuing “an apology for the physical dispossession of Arabs in 1948” and offering “financial compensation” in accordance with United Nations Resolution 194. By doing so, Israel will
acknowledge that the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement, is a deep and searing wound in the Palestinian psyche. Unless and until Israel recognizes it (and then, together with other responsible parties, puts real effort and money into a refugee settlement plan), there is little chance of healing the wound and thereby lending to the Palestinians a measure of dignity that would allow them to overcome their own profound inhibitions and insecurities. To be sure, there is no guarantee that an expression of contrition will prompt Palestinians to turn around and accept Israel’s existence, or, even less, its desire to be defined as a Jewish state (as Shavit insists on). But it is the right thing to do. And without such contrition, the wound of Palestinian dispossession will continue to fester, preventing serious movement toward reconciliation and increasing the chances of ongoing conflict. Someone has to take the first step toward understanding the Other. Why not Israel, the far more powerful and stable party to the conflict?
This passage raises a number of questions. I leave aside the perhaps more quantifiable question over what constitutes “real effort and money” put toward assisting Palestinian refugees and their descendants (and whether Myers would involve dispossessed Jews in this tabulation). More interesting to me is, first, whether the kind of moral-psychological transaction Myers outlines here works. Can one party “lend dignity” to another party—or is dignity, by its nature, something that must be summoned from within? Is it in the capacity of Israel to heal the Palestinian psyche, and are the Palestinians really as incapable as Myers suggests of making constructive efforts to do so themselves? Would the “far more powerful and stable party” offering contrition by validating “the Other’s” perspective—not by believing it to be factually and morally correct, but by legitimating it as a “perspective”—produce the result Myers hopes for?
Second, whether or not it works, what is Myers’ moral prescription grounded in? Is the Palestinian “wound” Myers speaks of the dispossession, or the “perspective” on it? And if it is a perspective but not necessarily an accurate one, why is validating it “the right thing to do”? Not, apparently, because it will resolve the conflict, since Myers acknowledges that “there is no guarantee that an expression of contrition will prompt Palestinians to turn around and accept Israel’s existence.” Perhaps simply because it is the perspective of “the Other”? Does this make it inherently moral?
The language Myers uses depicts the Palestinians as a group so psychically traumatized that they must have their dignity lent to them by their conquerors and are incapable of either their own material or psychological advancement. He calls Shavit “opaque to the experience of the Other,” Is what he offers instead transparency?
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Since I wrote this, Myers has a new piece about Israel and the BDS movement, part of a forum on the subject in the Los Angeles Review of Books. This new piece clarifies Myers’ thinking for me, though I find I agree with it even less.
Entitled “Why I Oppose A Boycott, Mostly,” Myers begins the essay by recounting at length an incident in which anti-Israel and then anti-Palestinian vandals each defaced a mural in Los Angeles. He presents this as an illustration of “the lack of nuance that commonly clouds just about everybody’s judgment in thinking about Israel-Palestine.” The advocates for each side in the conflict, Myers argues, are wrong; “the ignorance on one side,” he writes, “is mirrored by ignorance on the other.”
Myers explains why he finds the arguments in favor of a boycott to be uninformed, unfairly selective, and hurtful precisely to the left-wing Israeli academics he sees as being the best hope for peace with the Palestinians. So he opposes a boycott. And yet, he says, not doing anything “effectively gives Israel carte blanche to continue its oppressive presence in the territories. But that is unacceptable.”
In answer to question of what to do, Myers makes two prescriptions. “First, as a general matter,” he says, “one must insist on a much higher degree of contextual nuance than either side’s supporters evince.”
I’m all for nuance. Yet nuance is often lacking in Myers’s LARB essay, which is an extended riff on one rhetorical device: set up two wrong extremes, frothing Israel right-wingers and (mysteriously ignorant but never actually antisemitic) pro-Palestinian boycotters as perfect mirror images of each other, and then declare the only moral and accurate position to be exactly in the middle where—lo and behold—Myers happens to be standing. “Both parties are wedded to their enmity for the other,” Myers writes, “two Semitic brothers, Jacob and Esau, locked in combat, neither able to finish off the other.” This is not nuance. It is easy symmetry, like a child’s paper snowflake.
Second, Myers writes that Israel, as “the stronger party” to the conflict, “must take immediate steps to bring to an end its presence in the West Bank” and if it fails to do so “then pressure must be brought to bear by the only logical actor, its close ally, the United States.” Myers appears to be getting his wish.
Furthermore, Myers writes:
If Israel resists, or if President Obama does not apply the requisite pressure by the end of this year, then a boycott of Israel’s settlements and commercial activity in the West Bank may have to be the necessary next step.
So while BDS against Israel has been, prior to the current term of the Obama administration, a poor and unnuanced tactic compromised by ignorance, this assessment has an expiration date of December 31, 2014. After that point, BDS will be justified.
Why will these arguments suddenly change on January 1, 2015? Myers does not explain. Up to now, he has been an articulate opponent, if an ambivalent and morally conflicted one, of anti-Israel boycotts. However, if Israel still exerts control over Palestinians in the West Bank at that point, Myers will presumably begin helping to promote the boycott of Israel, calling all the while for more nuance.