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.