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Responding to Gershom Gorenberg’s ‘Atticus Finch principle of Israeli history’

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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.

Joel Doerfler
About Joel Doerfler

Joel Doerfler is a long-time independent school teacher of history. He lives in New York.

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9 Responses

  1. mikeo
    mikeo on July 23, 2015, 11:27 am

    Shorter Gorenberg:

    “If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle…”

  2. smithgp
    smithgp on July 23, 2015, 12:53 pm

    Excellent analysis! In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel had an opportunity to choose the path of peace and reconciliation. The green line border was suddenly opened, and for a brief time many Palestinian Arabs expelled in 1947-1949 were able to visit (though not return permanently to) their homeland. If the Israeli state had chosen to build on this opening, even partially, they would have been REPUDIATING (at least partially) the core of political Zionism: the Nakba that had been an unavoidable condition of a Jewish majority in the new state. To claim, as Gorenberg in effect does, that the path of peace would have been a continuation of a valorous pre-1967 Zionism is a fundamentally dishonest distortion of reality. Of course, all this is counterfactual speculation. In fact, Israel didn’t choose the path of peace. They chose instead to double down on the Nakba, colonizing the remainder of Palestine along with the Golan and Sinai.

    • Hostage
      Hostage on July 24, 2015, 1:14 pm

      In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel had an opportunity to choose the path of peace and reconciliation.

      That was never in the cards. From the outset, the debate between the members of the General Staff and the members of the National Unity Government was about the timing of a war of choice to preserve Israel’s deterrence. There was no disagreement that it would be exploited for territorial gain. The Israeli government was simply being dishonest when it later said that it “had changed its mind” and would be keeping the territory. Even Zionist historians, like Michael Oren, admit that the Cabinet and Generals discussed the need to consolidate territorial gains before the war. It was one of the Prime Minister’s explicitly stated goals. He admitted that Israel would need to enlist US support to hold on to the territories:

      Still, on the chance that Washington might yet authorize the convoy or at least give Israel its “ green light,” Eshkol would argue for time. “We will still need Johnson’s help and support,” he lectured the generals. “I hope we won’t need it during the fighting, but we shall certainly need it if we are victorious, in order to protect our gains.

      – Michael Oren, Six Days of War, link to

      We also know from the FRUS, the Meron Memo, and Accidental Empire that the Cabinet had already met to discuss “work camps” in the occupied territories on 27 August and approved working the land and taking over existing orchards from Arab cultivators at that same time. Ministers Dayan, Allon, and Gvati met with General Rabin on 1 September in order to put their plans into action and officially authorized the first “settlement outpost”. So the resolution adopted by the Arabs during the Khartoum Conference was a moot question.

  3. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on July 23, 2015, 2:55 pm

    RE: 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.” ~ Joel Doerfler

    JABOTINSKY IN 1923: “Zionism is a colonising adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. There is no other ethic.” — Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky: The Iron Wall, 1923.

  4. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on July 23, 2015, 3:09 pm

    RE: “[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.” ~ Avi Raz

    MY COMMENT: I have a vivid recollection of Abba Eban prattling on, and on, and on, disingenuously about Israel’s need for “security settlements” in the West Bank/Occupied Territories.

    ALSO SEE: “A Boy Called Bibi ~ Netanyahu on the Couch”, by Uri Avnery,, May 1-3, 2015

    [EXCERPTS] . . . On the eve of the last election, just now, Netanyahu announced that there would not be a Palestinian state as long as he was in power. When the Americans remonstrated, he repudiated himself. Why not? As his Likud predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, famously said, “It is permitted to lie for the Fatherland.”

    Netanyahu will lie, cheat, repudiate himself, raise false flags – all for the purpose of achieving his one and only real goal, the Rock of our Existence (as he loves to say), the heritage of his father – the Jewish State from the sea to the river. . .


  5. Citizen
    Citizen on July 23, 2015, 7:57 pm

    It appears To Kill A Mockingbird is a book that was originally a collection of (edited) flashbacks taken from the new book, which is the original book. A child’s eye view versus the adult view.

  6. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on July 23, 2015, 8:22 pm

    RE: “Responding to Gershom Gorenberg’s ‘Atticus Finch principle of Israeli history’”

    MY COMMENT: Rest in peace Theodore Bickel! ! !

    ■ Theodore Bikel Remembered: Fiddler on the Roof Actor and Activist Speaks Out on Israel and Palestine | Democracy Now! | July 23, 2015

  7. MHughes976
    MHughes976 on July 24, 2015, 7:27 am

    It’s quite true, as Gorenberg would have it, that Israel was regarded as a wonderful progressive experiment in social democracy, leading the world to a better future. The popular Western reaction to 68 proves that – only later did doubts emerge. At the same time right-wingers could value Israel as a bulwark against Stalinism. Zionism has always had a remarkable ability to appeal right across the political spectrum and across the religious spectrum, from evangelical to atheist.
    Even more remarkable since the basic principle of Zionism, exclusive rights for people who are Jewish in Palestine, has not even the slightest foundation in commonly accepted moral ideas.

  8. Boo
    Boo on July 24, 2015, 1:35 pm

    Gorenberg’s seductive revisionism does offer liberal Zionism an easy way out of their present dilemma. It reinforces the Leon Uris “Exodus” narrative that most US Jews absorbed with their mother’s milk. It lets them down easy while still giving them an excuse to dissent today. It’s dishonest about pre-1967 history but offers people an escape route out of knee-jerk Zionism. Perhaps, then, it isn’t an entirely bad thing except for those of us who insist on rigorous historical honesty.

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