In the wake of the death of Benzion Netanyahu a week ago, several excellent articles provided a welcome antidote to the ideological caricatures that have all too often passed as sensible writing about the political background of the elder Netanyahu and his son, Israel’s current prime minister.
The nonsense peddled by highly-paid pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen about the primitive racist hatred against Arabs that supposedly characterized the home in which Binyamin Netanyahu grew up was challenged already shortly before Benzion Netanyahu passed away, when Jordan Chandler Hirsch explained in a recent Tablet Magazine article that Sullivan and Cohen were getting Jabotinsky “all wrong”:
“As eager as Jabotinsky was to establish Jewish sovereignty, he was just as eager to make peace with the Arabs once they recognized the inevitability of the Jewish state.
Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from recent critics, who, by reading history backwards from the present, have demonized and simplified Jabotinsky’s legacy to attack their current political foe, Netanyahu. But if Jabotinsky really is central to Bibi’s thinking, then perhaps those critics are as wrong about the present as they are about the past.”
Among the articles that addressed this subject after Benzion Netanyahu passed away, Yossi Klein Halevi’s piece – again in Tablet – offers another clear-headed and knowledgeable assessment of “Bibi’s Political Inheritance.” Outlining the debate between Revisionists and left-wing Zionists, Klein Halevi writes:
“All Zionists agreed that the Jewish character had been distorted by exile; the question was what aspects of that personality needed to be changed. Labor advocated a total overhaul: a secular socialist Jew, freed of piety and economic marginality, a farmer and a worker. Revisionism, though, had only one demand on the new Jew: Become a soldier. Jabotinsky didn’t care whether Jews were Orthodox or atheist, workers or businessmen—so long as they knew how to defend themselves.
A key component to self-defense is the ability to perceive threat. And with the rise of Nazism, Revisionism’s insistence on Jewish power became a war against Jewish complacency and self-delusion. In speeches across Eastern Europe, Jabotinsky urged young Jews to learn to shoot and prepare to get out. Es Brent a fire, he warned, a fire is burning. Destroy the exile before the exile destroys you. Jabotinsky’s opponents mocked him as a fear-monger.
Of all the divides separating Revisionism and Labor, the failure of the mainstream Zionist movement to sense the approaching abyss and attempt to rescue Europe’s Jews remained perhaps the most bitter. Zionism, the antidote to Jewish wishful thinking, had, under Labor, been guilty of that worst Diaspora character flaw, and at the worst moment in Jewish history.”
With the establishment of Israel, the Revisionists lost their fight against accepting only a part of the historic Jewish homeland, and according to Klein Halevy, what came to characterize Revisionism, “wasn’t so much ideology but sensibility”:
“Jewish naivete, Revisionists insisted, had been the indispensable partner of the Final Solution. That is what kept the victims from listening to Jabotinsky and fleeing in time. The Nazis played on Jewish hope, reassuring their victims through a series of linguistic deceptions that ended with the showers [i.e. euphemism for gas chambers]. What remained of Revisionism was its 11th commandment: Don’t be a fool. […]
The war between the heirs of Labor and the heirs of Revisionism is no longer over ideology, but sensibility. Labor won the debate over partition: A strong majority of Israelis backs a two-state solution. Yet that same majority wants the Labor ideology of partition to be implemented by the Revisionist sensibility of wariness. And that is what Benzion’s son has committed himself to do. Not to preserve greater Israel at all cost, but to negotiate a safe partition if that becomes possible. A partition without wishful thinking.”
It is arguably first and foremost the Israeli peace camp’s wishful thinking that has caused its downfall in the wake of the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000. While Israel’s left-wing critics at home and abroad like to complain endlessly about a supposed right-wing shift of the Israeli electorate, polls have long shown that there is broad Israeli support for a peace agreement that would create a Palestinian state in accordance with the Clinton parameters.
But as acknowledged in some recent articles, the Israeli public had much reason to give up on the promises of “peace now.” Earlier this year, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit argued that “the old peace is dead” and that it had to be replaced by a new, “realistic peace.” Perhaps even more remarkable was a series of posts by Ha’aretz blogger Carlo Strenger. In an “Open Letter to Hamas,” Strenger observed in mid-March that Israelis have understandably concluded “that, in the end, there will always be a Palestinian group that will initiate violence.” In a post later in March, he turned to Peter Beinart, author of the recently published “Crisis of Zionism,” arguing that Beinart was wrong not to realize that
“the current situation […] reflects the mindset of Israel’s mainstream, including the moderate left. Most Israelis don’t like the occupation. Two thirds of Israeli citizens would leave the West Bank tomorrow if they thought they would get peace in return. But the combination between the second intifada and the shelling of southern Israel has made Israelis unwilling to take further risks for peace. They think that Palestinians cannot be trusted to maintain the safety of Israel, particularly since Hamas continues to be officially committed to Israel’s destruction.”
In early April, Strenger called on Jewish Liberals to “liberate themselves from self-righteous utopianism,” and he went so far as to argue:
“The left became a hated minority, and it is easy to explain psychologically why. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, once argued that human needs are organized in a pyramid: First we take care of food, shelter and safety; after that we want to belong to a group; then we want to achieve status in this group; and only then we care about self-actualization and strive for lofty ideals.
Israelis accuse the left of demanding of them to think of lofty ethical ideals when they feel that the most basic need of safety is not assured.
It is, therefore, no wonder that they have not listened to us. The hatred for human rights organizations stems from this mistake [of the left]: You can’t ask people to compromise on their security in the name of lofty ideals.”
Then, writing on the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day, Strenger argued that, even though Israelis had every reason to look with pride at their state’s achievements in 64 years, the political debate was too often dominated by “hysteria:”
“The right thrives on it, but the left has been guilty of its own forms of hysteria. In its desire to reach peace now, the left often wanted too much, too quickly and didn’t take into account either the complexity of Israel’s internal composition or the complex, painful reality of the Arab world’s developmental problems.”
I think these posts offer a pretty frank and accurate assessment of the reasons for the decline of Israel’s left and the associated peace camp. What should perhaps be added to Strenger’s observation that the left “became a hated minority” is that there is another side to the coin: the left came to regard mainstream “Middle Israel” with hate and despise because, for good reason, it didn’t go along with the wishful thinking about “peace now.”