The new issue of the New York Review of Books contains an important essay by David Shulman reviewing the late Shimon Peres’s autobiography. Shulman is an honest scholar who participates in Israeli-Palestinian nonviolent actions in the West Bank; and there is nothing coy about his treatment of Labor Zionist icons:
I once heard Leah Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s widow, insist in a public lecture that her late husband never even once changed his mind about anything, as if that were a great human virtue. Inhabiting a mythic cosmos tends to reduce reality to a manageable set of indubitable equations. It was within just such a mental world that Peres lent his weight, as minister of defense in Rabin’s government, to the creation of some of the first Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Shulman then describes Peres going out in 1975 to stop “messianic-mystical” settlers in Kedumim in the northern west bank– and letting them stay in the end.
The importance of this piece is that Shulman lays out, without sentiment, the painful spiritual-historical choice that conscious Jewish Israelis face today. On the one hand is the old “heroic myth” that the Israeli mainstream likes to tell itself: “a weak and persecuted nation (if that is what we are) rose from the ashes to achieve freedom…” On the other hand, he says, there is the “awareness of our share in the endless violence and wickedness, including the subjugation of another people, and of what needs to be done in order to achieve even a semblance of normalcy and decency in the real world.”
This is a generational opposition, Shulman writes. Older people like himself still cling to real sympathy for Peres’s “quixotic travails.” Younger people believe that the “tremendous violence inflicted on the Palestinians by the state-in-the-making was and has remained intrinsic to the entire Zionist enterprise.” These people have come to believe that the “raison d’etre” of Israel’s “whole story” is a principle of mutual responsibility of Palestinians and Jews.
In those words, Shulman captures the spirit that animates this site: the sense that the only real Jewish destiny today is one that grapples foremost with the Palestinian experience. There is no other way for Jews to participate in history– the human story we all are telling — than on those terms.
Shulman’s piece ends with a wallop. For 25 years, he says, Palestinians have dreamed of having a state of their own. Now that number is down to 43 percent. The choice is plain.
“[A]lready one can hear the beginning notes of a chorus that may eventually drown out most other voices in the territories. If there is to be no peace between the two states west of the Jordan River, then, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in his speech at the UN in September, “Neither you [the peoples of the world], nor we, will have any other choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.” Indeed, the struggle for basic rights within a single binational state has already begun. Israeli activists, having despaired of a solution based on radical separation, will certainly join in. It will look something like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa or the American civil rights movement, and sooner or later, at whatever cost, we will win.
This piece is so important because the New York Review of Books is our preeminent intellectual journal in the States, and it is putting down its marker (under its new editor Ian Buruma) on what it means to be a progressive. The struggle for basic rights has begun, we will win. We must give up the ethnocentric hero myths of the Zionist past and imagine a future that involves all peoples as equal citizens. This is the greatest challenge for American Jews in our time, to try to facilitate this incredible passage with the least bloodshed. Though let me remind you of Shulman’s penultimate phrase, “at whatever cost.” No one can have any illusion that this will be easy.