Re-Inventing Israel

The campaign to demonize Israel turns up its slippery tactic of veiled indictment.

My purpose here is not to provide a review of Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s controversial The Unspoken Alliance, a curious amalgam of facts, factoids, conjectures and leading assumptions. There will be plenty of reviews pro and con. My intention rather is to furnish a kind of overview of the mindset at work in a production of this nature, and to indicate how a certain parti pris has already been adopted before the book scarcely gets started, continuing all the way through to the Epilogue. It insinuates itself in a manner that is far more supple than, say, Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, with which it shares the A-word. Whatever virtues Polakow-Suransky’s book may possess, it is only a kind of handsel—the dollar on the wall—of what is bound to increase in the coming years, that is, studies and depositions by purported “scholars” and biased observers who claim to be disinterested, who affect only to advance the "peace process" in the Middle East and who insist that they have Israel’s ultimate well-being at heart. For simplicity’s sake, we can name this devious attitude the J Street syndrome.

That Polakow-Suransky offers thanks to Naomi Chazan, head of the now-sullied New Israel Fund which supports demonstrably anti-Israeli NGOs, speaks volumes. His expression of gratitude to Avi Shlaim, a revisionist Israeli historian whose textual corruptions and dubious scholarship were decisively exposed by Efraim Karsh in his masterful Fabricating Israeli History, does not surprise. It is obvious from the get-go that Polakow-Suransky is no friend of the Jewish state. Israel, he contends, is a “far cry from the ‘light unto the nations’ that was once revered by the African liberation heroes and American civil rights leaders,” a cheap lament that glosses over the darkness which has always threatened to foreclose upon this vulnerable little state and the means it must inevitably, and often unfortunately, undertake to secure its existence.

Polakow-Suransky relies on declassified documents and multiple interviews to tell a troubling story of Israeli complicity with apartheid South Africa, a narrative denied by Israeli president Shimon Peres and which should, in any case, be put firmly in the context of internal divisions within and between Israel’s diplomatic corps and its military establishment, often at loggerheads with one another. To his credit, Polakow-Suransky does acknowledge such in-house dissension. But there’s no doubt that his archival digging has yielded a powerful denunciation of Israel’s cold war policies, revealing many disturbing items about the clandestine relationship between South Africa and Israel when the latter was struggling to repair its damaged economy after the 1973 concerted Arab attack and to compensate for its growing estrangement among the nations. Admittedly, no country is pure and Israel is no exception to the rule.

But there are many problems with his account, not the least of which is his clearly anti-Israeli agenda. He plainly had no compunction in publishing an essentially damning book at one of the most precarious moments in Israel’s hazardous existence, in the very midst of a worldwide boycott and demonization campaign and a veritable tsunami of anti-Semitic feeling. True, he has lots of company. One thinks of Keith Whitelan’s The Invention of Ancient Israel which claims that even Israel’s ancient past is a scholarly construction devised to displace the Palestinians from the historical register; of Baylis Thomas who in The Dark Side of Zionism (a follow-up to the earlier How Israel Was Won) has also added his revisionist voice to the venal and tractarian assault on the Jewish state; and most recently of Shlomo Sand whose The Invention of the Jewish People is perhaps even more brazen and absurd. But none of this absolves Polakow-Suransky of contributing a highly inflammable fuel to the fire.

His rhetorical technique is no less insidious. For example, we have scarcely opened the book before we read of Israel’s victory “over its Arab neighbors” in the 1967 war. There is a disturbing hint of semiotic skullduggery here. Note that he doesn’t use the word “enemies,” “attackers,” “adversaries” or “assailants,” but neighbors, as if Israel had launched an invasion against innocent and unoffending regional acquaintances. “Neighbors” is a dual-use word; it can slide all too readily from the merely descriptive to the craftily illusive. This is a subtle shift of implication that may not be immediately detectable, but it beats beneath the floorboards like Poe’s tell-tale heart.

Israel’s Arab “neighbors,” after all, were not so neighborly when five Arab armies attacked the fledgling nation the day after it declared its independence on May 14, 1948. They were manifestly unneighborly from that time until 1967 (and, of course, afterward as well). The massing of armies on Israel’s borders in 1967 and Nasser’s closing of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping—an Act of War that precipitated the conflict—were somewhat less than neighborly as well.

Polakow-Suransky then mentions that as a result of the war Israel “tripled” its territory, which sounds duly outrageous, an enormous swath of territorial aggrandizement. (Similarly, Bernard Porter, in his influential and fawning review of The Unspoken Alliance in the London Review of Books, parrots his subject by refering to Israel’s “massive territorial expansion at the cost of its Arab neighbors”) (italics mine). What unbridled chutzpah Israel displays! But there is something tilted about the formulation. We forget that so apparently egregious an expansion occurred in what remains a rather confined portion of the globe and, by comparison with the truncated sliver of land that finally became Israel, a relatively minimal acquisition. As Louis Harovitz, a frequent contributor to the letters pages of the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, points out it in an unpublished letter to the LRB, “Israel is so tiny that maps of the Middle East use magnified insets just to make it visible” (personal communication). Imagine if Canada had gone to war and “tripled” its territory.

This slippery tactic of veiled indictment has become common currency in the pejorative assessment of Israeli policy and statecraft, an attention-shifter meant to position the reader within the frame of the author’s prejudice. The rhetorical term for this clever device is “interpellation,” whose effect is to identify the individual with a pre-existent viewpoint or conviction. (E.g.: When did you stop beating your wife?) Polakow-Suransky and his ilk appear to have drunk deep from Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy where the notion is elaborated and entrenched. Further, the efficacy of interpellation is obviously reinforced by the calculated omission of salient detail. Thus Polakow-Suransky lays no particular emphasis on the fact that Israel acted in self-defense and that the sudden and unexpected gain of comparative acreage constituted the legitimate spoils of war and was in the course of time gradually surrendered bit by bit anyway. For his real purpose is to reinvent Israel as a conquistador society whose policies render it suspect among the community of nations.

Polakow-Suransky may have conducted interviews and pored over documents but he has little knowledge of the layered and convoluted history of the Holy Land. His regarding Israel as a colonial implant like South Africa is a willful distortion of its millennial history. His citing of the Zionist enterprise as involving the dispossession of an indigenous population pays no heed to the Jewish population already in place, dismisses the legal purchase of land, forgets about the vast influx of Arabs from the surrounding Arab nations who then, mirabile dictu, became “Palestinians,” misreads the 1948 War of Independence and Ben-Gurion’s stated intention to incorporate the Arab population as citizens of the new state, and seems to think that dispossession goes only one way.

He forgets the massacre and expulsion of the Jewish inhabitants of Hebron and skims right over the fact that Jewish East Jerusalemites were ethnically cleansed by an invading Jordanian army, just as the approximately one million Jews expelled from their homes in Arab countries do not impinge upon his consciousness. His wringing of hands over the “circumscribed existence for Palestinians” extenuates Palestinian suicide-bombings and terror attacks that left thousands of Israeli civilians dead or maimed and necessitated the construction of check-points and a separation barrier. This skewing of the larger context in which the beleaguered country finds itself can only be deliberate since the relevant information is abundantly available.

In dealing with these larger issues, Polakow-Suransky appears to have derived much of his material not from reputable sources but from Baylis Thomas’ aforementioned The Dark Side of Zionism, published a year earlier in 2009. Israel, for Thomas, is obviously the Darth Vader among nations. “The state of Israel,” he writes, “was achieved by means of a Zionist colonization of Palestine…that continues today on remaining Palestinian land.” From Thomas’s perspective, Israelis simply replaced the native population—a canard that has become widespread and reveals an insuperable ignorance of the history of the region. Thomas’ insertion of the word “replacement” into this part of the text without foundation is also an instance of standard interpellation at work, as is the guiding implication of “remaining Palestinian land.” All this is old stuff indeed, the usual anti-Israeli boilerplate we have become so accustomed to, which Polakow-Suransky, Thomas and many others do not scruple to recycle.

Polakow-Suransky is certain that Israel has suffered “moral decay,” betrayed “its founding ideals” and unforgivably “abandoned socialist Zionist principles” (italics mine). This latter accusation informs us about what side of the political spectrum the author hails from—he is, incidentally, an editor at the left-leaning Foreign Affairs Magazine—and why the writ he has composed should itself be stigmatized as emitting an haut goût of “moral decay.” He is not just another leftist junkie high on socialist crack, but part of a left-wing fifth column that has given up on the West’s most imperiled outpost. It is as if every tap on the keyboard is meant to drive another nail into Israel’s coffin. Naturally, he will affect a profound and sympathetic concern over Israel’s problematic future, which is the ostensible reason he embarked upon his project. The underlying dynamic of the book suggests otherwise. Both lack of context and a surreptitious subtext impact negatively upon the actual text so that one is tempted to set the entire performance in scare quotes.

This particular stance or attitude is maintained throughout, sometimes overtly but mostly covertly, until the author reaches his concluding pages in which he condemns Israel for its “use of devastating force against seemingly powerless civilians, most recently during the Gaza offensive of January 2009.” The “seemingly” doesn’t go far enough to acquit the author of partisanship—it is only an artful hedge against the possible embarrassment of truth. What is “offensive” is not Israel’s incursion into Gaza after many years of ceaseless and indiscriminate rocket attacks against its own civilians by Hamas operatives, but Polakow-Suransky’s erasure of all explanatory context, his obliviousness of Hamas and its genocidal Charter (Hamas is not even mentioned in the book’s Index), his winking at terror, his indifference to 7000 missiles exploding on Israeli soil since the Gaza disengagement, and his implicit endorsement of anti-Israeli bigots like Naomi Klein and Richard Goldstone who deliberately misrepresent the facts and fault the Jewish state for the temerity of existing.

Ah, but if Israel would only reconsider, “heed the criticism of friends”—where have we heard this before?—and “reinvent its foreign policy,” its image would be enhanced “in the eyes of the old left that once supported it.” The trouble is, the old left, like the new left, is precisely what weakens Israel’s unity, vigor and coherence in the face of its vastly more numerous and implacable “neighbors.” “We are tired of winning,” said former prime minister Ehud Olmert, one of the author’s heroes. But the left is never tired of appeasing determined belligerents and of twisting or leaving out facts to advance its agenda.

It doesn’t stop there. Polakow-Suransky’s proclaimed fear that Israel is in mortal danger of becoming “an apartheid social order in which a Jewish minority rules over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians” is the most arrant farrago of nonsense imaginable. Note once again the sly use of interpellation smuggled in to orient the reader in a preconceived direction. “Disenfranchised” is a groundless hypothesis presented as an actual state of affairs. Israel’s Arab citizens are not “disenfranchised”; they have the vote, send members to the Knesset and the Cabinet, profit from social security and educational opportunities, and more often than not receive favorable decisions from the Israeli Supreme Court. The word “disenfranchised” sneaks right by and lodges in the reader’s mind as a given. A false assumption is suddenly transformed into an unquestioned datum and the interpellation is permitted to stand as an “unspoken alliance” between author and reader.

Moreover, Polakow-Suransky is dead wrong about the state of current diplomatic transactions. Negotiations toward a two-state solution have long been accepted by Israel under successive administrations but constantly frustrated by an intractable and rejectionist Palestinian leadership and by the rather indigestible fact that Hamas-ruled Gaza deliberately remains outside the process, guaranteeing its failure. Additionally, Israeli Arabs number around 20% of the census and Israel has no desire to absorb the millions of Arabs in the West Bank. Thus there is no likelihood of the Palestinians “nearing an absolute majority,” as Polakow-Suransky disingenuously asserts as a warning to Israel to get its act together. Another blatant factoid. Israel may have more to worry about from its hugely fecund, economically unproductive and poorly educated ultra-Orthodox Haredi community draining the public treasury and averse to military service, but this is not a prospect that lubricates the anti-Israeli propaganda mill.

And so the argument proceeds. Interpellation supplemented by elimination of context and suppression of detail is how the textual campaign against the Jewish state works best since it operates via stealth infiltration—although this does not rule out crude slander and outright lying. (See flotilla.) It also seems evident that the pretext of ensuring Israel’s future is only the prelude to its wished-for disappearance. Whatever genuine facts are adduced are sandwiched between interpellation and misrepresentation. And whatever truths may be mustered in the pursuit of an ideologically contaminated message, the bigger picture is made to conform to an antecedent prejudice: the Israel that is must be reinvented as the Israel its enemies want it to be.