Writing in Haaretz last week (“The Atticus Finch principle of Israeli history,” July 15), Gershom Gorenberg reflects on Israeli history and historiography, taking as his point of departure Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman and the subject of literary sequels. Alleging that Lee’s recent rendering of Atticus Finch “transforms” the way we read and understand To Kill a Mockingbird, Gorenberg draws an analogy between readerly reinterpretations of literary texts, on the one hand, and the putative ways in which historians revise their previous understandings of the past and fashion radically different national narratives in the light of new political and social developments, on the other.
According to Gorenberg’s account, the creation of the State of Israel was initially “read as a victory of progressive politics;” a heroic struggle of Jewish national liberation (“against the will of imperialist Britain”) and the creation of a democratic socialist polity. Later, however, the “hubris that followed the Six-Day War, the permanent occupation, [and] the war of choice of Lebanon,” induced the so-called New Historians of the 1980s and after to construct a very different national narrative, a “colonialist story” characterized by ethnic cleansing (“pushing Arabs off their land . . or . . . keeping those who fled from returning”) and a panoply of discriminatory practices.
This new, revisionist understanding of the nation, according to Gorenberg, has presumed an “inevitable” connection between Israel’s post-1967 behavior and its original sins of 1947-48. But such a presumption of historical inevitability, he suggests, was and remains a trompe d’oeil, an illusion produced by the historians’ temporal positioning. There was, in his view, nothing foreordained about Israel’s post-’67 behaviors. Israeli policymakers “made choices after 1967, often by refusing to make decisions . . . “ Had they made other choices; had they, most notably, “seized [the] very real opportunities for peace after 1967;” not only would the national present actually be radically different but the “harsh events of 1948” would also look very different.
Whatever one makes of Gorenberg’s thoughts about the reading and interpretation of imaginative fiction, his historical musings are manifestly problematic. To begin with, the assertion that Israel’s creation story was initially “read” as heroic and “progressive” blithely suggests that for the first forty years after 1948 only one narrative was worth taking seriously. Who was it that “read” the birth of Israel as “heroic?” Certainly not the Palestinians, for whom the events of ’48 represented a catastrophic tale of defeat, dispersion, dispossession and delegitimization. Rather, the celebratory (“progressive”) reading was “the dominant story among Israelis, and among many people in the West,” the only ones, Gorenberg implies, whose understandings mattered (and continue to matter).
Gorenberg’s assumption, moreover, that the revisionist historiography of recent decades presumes an inevitable connection between the events of the late ‘40s and the policies pursued after 1967 is groundless. To be sure, there are many historians who subscribe (quite correctly in my judgment) to the argument offered, for example, by Yehuda Shenhav in Beyond the Two-State Solution (2012) that 1967 was “a ‘natural’ continuation of Israel pre-1967. Zionism was, from the start, a colonial project of land settlements.”
But to emphasize continuity is not the same as to claim inevitability. It is, simply, to advance an interpretation of why and how later decisions and policies reflected, recapitulated and/or echoed earlier ones.
Surely, for example, the treatment of Israeli Palestinians after 1948 as “present absentees” and “security threats” presaged or anticipated the systematic despoliation of Palestinian land, denial of Palestinian rights, and assumption of collective responsibility which later characterized Israeli policies in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. And surely, Israel’s refusal to commit itself to clear once-and-for-all national borders during the period 1949-1967 is germane to, if not determinative of, its refusal to specify its borders during the nearly half-century since the 1967 war.
Certainly, the Israeli failure to “seize the very real opportunities” for peace in 1967 reveals something important, not merely about the mindset of a handful of Israeli leaders at a particular moment but about a more fundamental Zionist logic and orientation reaching back to the creation of the state and before. In The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War (2012) historian Avi Raz concludes that,
In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel missed an opportunity for a settlement with both Jordan and the Palestinians, particularly the latter. Indeed, it was not the Arabs who never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity – as [Abba] Eban’s often-cited quip suggests – but the Israelis, who persistently and deliberately squandered every opportunity for a settlement. . . . [In fact it was Eban himself who in 1967] carried out Israel’s foreign policy of takhsisanut, or deception, designed to serve as a political cover-up for the effort to gain time while staying put in the occupied lands and creating a fait accompli.
The unwillingness of Israel seriously to contemplate surrendering the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967 was entirely consistent with its territorial ambitions prior to the June war, just as it was entirely consistent with the Israeli policies of today. If there is no iron-clad determinism linking pre- and post-1967 the continuities are nevertheless neither fortuitous nor a matter of personalities nor a question of ephemeral historical “readings.” They are deeply, perhaps inextricably, ingrained in the Zionist worldview.
For Gorenberg (as for most liberal Zionists) 1967 is the watershed moment. Had Israel put a quick end to the occupation of the territories acquired in the war of that year; and had it gone on to grant “full equality within the Green Line;” the “harsh events of 1948” would, in his opinion, be “read differently.”
In one sense, of course, this assertion is self-evidently true. (But then again, as my father used to say: “If my grandmother had been red and had wheels she’d have been a fire engine”). Essentially, however, it is obfuscatory.
According to Gorenberg, Israel was– and, more to the point, still is – wholly free to rewrite its history and show its ‘best self’ by facilitating a two-state solution and promoting the de jure equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But even assuming, against all precedent, that Israel somehow became capable of doing these things Gorenberg’s argument ignores the most enduring consequence of the “harsh events” of ’48: the creation and perpetuation of a massive refugee population. Acknowledgment of the criminal origins of these refugees’ plight, let alone recognition of their right to restitution, not only remains to this day wholly taboo in the Israeli national discourse; the legacy of the Nakba also continues to be an indigestible element in the discourse of even the most humane and enlightened liberal Zionists (among whom one should unreservedly number Gershom Gorenberg.)
Until such time, however, as a critical mass of Israelis and of liberal American Jews come fully to terms, ethically and politically, with the displacements of ’48 there is little reason to anticipate that the Israeli state will cease reproducing the Zionist history of violent occupation and ethnic cleansing. “The past,” William Faulkner famously wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” And there is no surer way of maintaining its repressive hold on the present than by denying, ignoring or belittling its significance.