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Book Reviews

Solutions and non-solutions

Deborah Maccoby  |  Autumn 2004  -  Number 195


Daniel Gavron, The Other Side of Despair: Jews and Arabs in the Promised Land (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004, £17.95)

Out of the horribly predictable and depressing bloodbath of Israel/Palestine comes a book full of surprises and optimism.

It is typical of Daniel Gavron that throughout his book he describes Israel’s Separation Wall with horror:

an obscenely ugly construction of high walls - in some places 25 feet high - steel bars, ditches, earth ramps, concrete tubes, razor wire and electronic devices that violates this tiny land. 

His is a nature which seeks to overcome barriers and dogmas. His book, consisting chiefly of interviews, is a series of voices, expressing doubts, confusions and contradictions . . . Each interviewee is chosen to illustrate a different facet of the situation (and there is a careful balance between Jews and Palestinians), but each is also an individual who transcends all the stereotypes.

A senior commander of Fatah insists that he recognizes Israel and supports a two-state solution. A Palestinian argues that non-violent resistance is suitable to the Arab outlook, which he claims is essentially non-militaristic; the Arabs only have the rhetoric of war, he says, not the reality - while in contrast, he points out, the Israelis are strong on the rhetoric of peace but have created one of the most militaristic societies in the world. Gavron interviews two Israeli soldiers. One is left-wing but has decided to continue to serve in the Territories, because he believes he can thus make the situation more humane; the other refuses to serve there, but says: ‘I am closer to the soldier who continues to serve with doubts than I am to the soldier who refuses to serve in the IDF altogether.’

The author himself is one of the most surprising and contradictory voices in his book. He demolishes many of the myths put about by the Israeli right and even by the ‘disappointed left’ (ie left-wingers who moved rightwards after the intifada broke out, believing that Arafat had betrayed them) and yet seems at times to belong to the ‘disappointed left’ himself. For instance, he supports the story of ‘Barak’s Generous Offer’, despite the evidence put forward by many analysts that Barak’s offer at Camp David was not so generous. He strives to be balanced, blaming both sides for the current disaster, but in doing so often reveals a pro-Israel bias. For example, he blames Arafat for not smashing Hamas and compares this with Ben Gurion’s crushing of the Irgun in 1948:

It is worth recalling that, faced with a similar situation just after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion smashed the main dissident organization, the Irgun Zvai Leumi.

This seems to me to be a false analogy, precisely because it is not a similar situation: Ben-Gurion was only able to smash Irgun ‘just after the establishment of Israel in 1948’, ie after he became head of a sovereign state. If Arafat were ever to become the head of an independent state, he would have the power and authority to crush Hamas and the other extremist groups; until then his relationship to them will inevitably be similar to the relationship between the Haganah and the Irgun under British domination (and Gavron also ignores the extent to which Arafat has deliberately been weakened by Sharon).

But, though his own bias is very much apparent, Gavron is essentially fair, tolerant and democratic, and he allows many voices in the book to argue against him - and not only Palestinian voices. For example, Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli bereaved parent and peace activist, blames Israel for the failure of Camp David, claiming that the talks broke down because of Barak’s intransigence about giving sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians. Yet Frankenthal too, for all his left-wing views, is unpredictable; he shows affection for the settlers and is opposed to the stand of the refuseniks. He is also an Orthodox Jew, showing that the divide between secular/left and Orthodox/right is not as clear-cut as is often supposed.

We see Gavron changing his own views during the course of the intifada. Thus he interviews a Palestinian businessman, Samir Huleileh, the marketing and export manager of Nassar Jerusalem Stone, who claims that this Palestinian stone-processing plant was deliberately targeted by the Israeli army and reveals the extraordinary deception of the army’s statements and behaviour (though bringing out its human side as well). In Gavron’s words:

The Nassar stone-processing plant is situated near Bethlehem’s Deheishe refugee camp, where there were frequent clashes between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops. The company built a wall around the plant, erected strong lights, and employed a team of security guards to ensure that no hostile actions were launched from the area. Despite this, they were told by a friendly IDF reserve officer that they were an economic target’. Huleileh and Nassar Nassar, the owner, went to the military governor of Bethlehem to check out the information. The governor assured them that there was no such list. Five months later, claims Huleileh, the Nassar plant was accurately shelled by an IDF tank, which deliberately knocked out all their machinery. The IDF said that the tank was responding to firing from the Deheishe refugee camp. Huleileh emphatically denies this. When they returned to the military governor, he apologized, admitted there had been no shooting from Deheishe and said that ‘in the army one has to obey orders’. He promised to try to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. In fact, it turned out to be a one-off incident.

Gavron’s comments are as follows:

When Huleileh first told me this story, less than a year into the intifada, I was convinced that he was being paranoid. I had no doubt that the Nassar plant had been shelled by mistake in the confusion of the battles between the IDF and Palestinian fighters. I rejected the concept that the army was engaged in a war of economic sabotage against the Palestinians. However, the destruction of computers, hard discs, administrative records, bank documents, educational equipment and other such items during the Israeli incursions in the spring and summer of 2002 indicated that Huleileh might have a point.

Nonetheless, Gavron does not, in my view, realize the full extent of Israel’s moral collapse and of Sharon’s politicide of the Palestinians.

One of the most extraordinary figures in the book is a maverick West Bank settler rabbi, Menachem Froman, who argues against partition and for the two peoples giving up conventional sovereignty in favour of a ‘humane state’ in which both would possess the whole land together in two separate systems.

Gavron gives hints at the beginning and during the course of the book of his own solution to the conflict, which he dramatically unveils at the end, working towards the denouement almost like a thriller writer. Though most of his interviewees support a two-state solution, two Palestinians and an Israeli Arab say that they see one state as the ideal but believe that the Israelis will never give up the Jewish State. Gavron, however, argues that, thanks to the settlements, a two-state solution has become impossible. And he argues for one unitary state, putting forward the simple solution that Israel should annex the West Bank and Gaza and give everyone the vote. The new state would

work out an innovative structure, with the maximum possible ethnic, historical, religious, cultural and educational autonomy for its various communities. Apart from the Muslim Arabs and the secular Jews, this autonomy could be granted to communities, such as the ultra-Orthodox Jews with their special requirements. It would also solve the problems of the various Christian communities in the country. These include the Arab Christians, the significant number of Christians who have arrived from the former Soviet Union in the past decade, and the large community of foreign workers who have come in the same period.

Gavron points out that Israelis themselves have created the impossibility of a two-state solution by their lack of protest against the massive settlement expansion:

given the choice between sovereignty and land, we chose land. We have manifestly preferred settlement in the whole Land of Israel to a state of Israel in part of the land. It is irrelevant that the settlers are a small minority. The rest of us have permitted them to do what they wanted. Their conviction and determination have overcome our apathy.

Gavron claims that the settlements, with their vast ‘network of roads, tunnels and fortifications that link and defend them’, have become irreversible facts on the ground; any two-state solution must involve incorporation of many settlements into Israel; and even an equitable land swap between Israeli and Palestinian territory would create impossibly tortuous borders. If these borders were to be accepted, Gavron argues, it would imply so much mutual trust between the two peoples that the question must arise: why have a border at all?

Gavron associates himself with the binationalism of ‘Judah Magnes and his friends in the 1930s’ but his multicultural vision seems to me to be closer to that of a small but fascinating Israeli group of the 1950s and 1960s known as the ‘Canaanites’. These Israelis rejected Jewish identity, insisting that they were not Jews but inhabitants of a new entity - Israel - and that they wanted to create a new, non-Jewish, ‘Israeli’ identity which would embrace all the inhabitants of the country, just like ancient Canaan, with its multiplicity of tribes. It is significant that Gavron talks approvingly about the theory put forward by many modern Israeli archaeologists that the central foundation story of the Jewish people - the biblical account of slavery in and liberation from Egypt - never happened, and that the ancient Israelites were native Canaanites (though there are archaeologists who argue against this and both schools of thought are evidently influenced by political considerations). Indeed, in the Chronology which opens Gavron’s book, the first sentence is ‘1000 BCE (approx.): An Israelite entity emerges in the hills of Canaan.’

Gavron does not advocate calling this new multicultural state ‘Israel’, because of the name’s obvious associations with Jews, and (after considering the name ‘Canaan’ but deciding most Palestinians and Israelis would reject it) suggests ‘The State of Jerusalem’: ‘Yerushalayim’ in Hebrew and ‘Ursalim el-Quds’ in Arabic. His solution to the problem of the Palestinian Right of Return and the Jewish Law of Return is simply to abolish both and have a process of naturalization similar to that of all other countries.

With great originality, Gavron regards his multicultural vision as a Zionist vision, since he argues that to see the ancient Israelites as interlopers and invaders, as in the biblical account, is to imply that they did not have a right to the land. Modern Jews are returning to the ancient reality of a multiplicity of tribes.

Gavron denies that the State of Jerusalem would obliterate Jewish identity, arguing that

the state of Jerusalem can fulfil all the aspirations of Jewish history, religion and culture. The Jews will be able to observe their national and religious festivals in their ancient homeland. The Israelis will be able to create their unique Hebrew culture, including literature, theatre and music. The ultra-Orthodox will be able to obey the mitzvot (religious commandments) in freedom.

But, by splitting the community up into these different segments, he does seem to deny - or at least downplay - the existence of an Israeli-Jewish people, linked to the worldwide Jewish people.

Attractive though this multicultural vision is, it seems to me that - just as Gavron does not recognize the full extent of Israel’s moral collapse - so he does not recognize the strength of national feeling. It is true that the world in general is moving towards multiculturalism - and it is also true that this particular land has always been multi-ethnic. But, as a reaction against multiculturalism and the fear it produces of the erosion of national identity, there is also a contrary world trend towards nationalism, which has to be addressed. In this land, in particular, the conflict is between two ethnic groups, the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, who both have a powerful sense of peoplehood. In his desire to leap over barriers - admirable though this desire is - Gavron seems to me to ignore their existence.

Moreover, is peoplehood necessarily such a bad thing? Even if the story of the Exodus is a myth with no historical basis, it is a myth which contains the message of freedom and justice - both national and universal - which has sustained the Jews as a people for thousands of years and has been an inspiration to the national liberation struggles of all enslaved and oppressed peoples - including the Palestinians.

Yet another of the book’s contradictions is that, despite his multiculturalist downplaying of national identity, Gavron envisages the State of Jerusalem as being dominated in its early years by Israeli Jews:

We will form a majority of its parliament, run its government, lead its army, head its judiciary and administer its educational systems. The Palestinians should not be too apprehensive about this.

But it is difficult to see most Palestinians not being apprehensive; and, despite Gavron’s assurance that ‘there is every chance that the Arabs will remain a minority’, it is difficult to see most Israeli Jews giving up their fears about the Arab birthrate.

Though I agree with Gavron that Israel itself has destroyed the possibility of a two-state solution, my own preferred solution would be a binational state, with some form of acknowledgement of the existence of two peoples, so that there could be national as well as individual and multicultural equality. But I highly recommend this fascinating and original book, which is full of wisdom, sanity and hope. Even when I disagreed with it, it always engaged and indeed riveted my attention.

Deborah Maccoby works at the BBC World Service as a Production Assistant and has written book reviews for the Arabic Service. Her literary biography of Isaac Rosenberg was published in 1999. She is a member of the Executive Committee of Just Peace UK, the Israeli-Palestinian peace group and the UK branch of ICAHD (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions).

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