Nakba in The New Yorker, BDS in Variety

Israel/Palestine
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Ruins of Lydda in 1948

Ruins of Lydda in 1948

A couple of mainstream breakthroughs. Neither is perfect, of course, but both break important ground (almost despite themselves).

The first and most striking is Ari Shavit’s piece in The New Yorker in which he tells the horrifying story of the conquest and ethnic cleansing of Lydda in 1948. The story is slightly schizophrenic, making the massacre and expulsion seem simultaneously premeditated and almost accidental, the commander seemingly acting alone and on impulse, yet knowing exactly what he needs to do.

This schizophrenia lies at the heart of the paradox of Zionism. As Shavit puts it (with the horror of Lydda standing in for all 500 or so Palestinian population centers ethnically cleansed and/or destroyed): “Lydda is the black box of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear the Arab city of Lydda. From the very beginning, there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to exist, Lydda could not exist. If Lydda was to exist, Zionism could not exist.”

The military commander assigned to “deal with” Lydda later told Shavit, “War was inhuman, but it allowed one to do what one could not do in peace; it could solve problems that were unsolvable in peace.”

Mula Cohen, a brigade commander who participated in the destruction of Lydda, was clearly traumatized by what he had seen and done. He knew the war and expulsion were coming:

And yet you are in shock. In Lydda, the war is as cruel as it can be. The killing, the looting, the feelings of rage and revenge. Then the column [of newly created refugees] marching. And although you are strong and well trained and resilient, you experience some sort of mental collapse. You feel the humanist education you received collapsing. And you see the Jewish soldiers, and you see the marching Arabs, and you feel heavy, and deeply sad. You feel you’re facing something immense that you cannot deal with, that you cannot even grasp.

For decades Zionism has dealt with that chasm with near-absolute denial: absurd stories about how the Arabs expelled themselves. Miko Peled, in his book The General’s Son, talks of the first time that myth was punctured for him, when his mother told stories of elegant Palestinian homes offered to new immigrants with the owner’s soup still warm on the stove. Who would simply leave a home like that?

And yet, Shavit does not denounce what was done to the Palestinians, nor offer redress. He cannot. Because to do so would demolish an ideology he holds as axiomatic, beyond question or discussion:

I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the 3rd Battalion soldiers. On the contrary, if need be, I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live… There is no other home for us, and there was no other way.

The last sentence is a claim the author doesn’t seem capable of examining: His survival depends on oppression and injustice. The next assumption is: Therefore, oppression and injustice are necessary and justified.

That’s a lot of leaps without looking very closely. It reads like an alcoholic realizing he has a problem, but not yet being able to imagine that the solution might be giving up the drink. Instead, he tries to rationalize his erratic and awful behavior by any means necessary, including emotional non sequiturs. (He tries to change the subject to Syria and Egypt toward the end, and the only “solution” he offers is imposing something unilaterally on the Palestinians until they forget about return.)

But it’s (sadly) a big step forward from the usual tired Nakba denial, and I haven’t seen its like in the mainstream US press.

A Jewish friend of mine, a mainstream journalist, sent me the piece and wrote that the more he thought about it after a restless night, the more he realized it gave the lie to “all us ‘lefties’ who have tried to convince ourselves that the tragic flaw began in 67.”

I wrote back:

I have dozens of friends who have never been allowed even to see their homeland. Other friends whose eyes sparkle when they speak of the beauty and scent and intellectual hum of a Jaffa that’s long gone. Or the village where their grandfather knew every tree like a child, every hill like their own skin. They do not forget, and neither will their children.

They have a capacity for forgiveness and big-heartedness that is beyond anything I could have previously understood. But it’s tough when the spike is still in their heart, and being constantly twisted with denials of their reality and yet more settlements (and humiliation, and violence) every day.

The Shavit piece goes a long way toward at least beginning to look that in the face. A reckoning will come, one way or another. The question is whether there will be a French-Algerian or a South African outcome. Or, of course, a nuclear war. I think some degree of honesty (difficult as it is) will make the reckoning softer. I hope. That’s the importance of the piece. A step toward a terrifying mirror.

The other breakthrough came in Variety, an entertainment magazine, in a piece called “Rihanna and Other Artists Who Play Israel Feel the Pressure.” It’s not the most flattering portrait of BDS, but (to paraphrase Gandhi):

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they somewhat disdainfully publicize your movement in the mainstream entertainment press…

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