Holding participatory Zionist criticism to account

Terra Incognita: Some in the Israeli Left have selective amnesia when it comes to their own past actions.

Peace Now boycott law_311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Peace Now boycott law_311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
In general it is better to struggle with ideas than with people and events. Ideas are everlasting, people and events are transitory. But some people’s views are so deplorable that the person himself must be called to account.
Such is the case of Shlomo Gazit, who recently wrote a column in Haaretz in which he claimed: “I enlisted in the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah... afterwards I fought in the War of Independence and spent another 32 years in the Israel Defense Forces as a career soldier. Today I consider the continuation of our occupation rule in Judea and Samaria an existential danger. As I see it, this situation is threatening the main achievement to which I contributed 70 years ago, the establishment of a sovereign and democratic Jewish state.”
He explains that he became a board member of Yesh Din (Volunteers for Human Rights) because “I saw it as my duty to contribute to upholding the law in the occupied under our control.” Furthermore, there is an “apartheid regime” in the West Bank.
What Mr. Gazit does not relate is that he himself was head of the committee tasked with running the Occupied Palestinian Territories between 1967 and 1974. Furthermore, in 1979, when he went to Harvard to study, he was quoted in the Harvard Crimson as saying Israel should continue its occupation: “Why can’t there be a Jewish presence in the West Bank?... The West Bank is much more the historical Israel than the major parts of Israel today.”
Gazit comes from what should be called the School of Participatory Zionist Criticism: those critics of Israel who were also active in the IDF or governing echelons in the period between the British Mandate and the 1967 War. Voices like Gazit’s are distinguishable from the Israeli Arab critics of the country, and the younger generation of Jewish Israeli critics, by the fact that they were integral to carrying out actions that they themselves oppose today. They also tend to romanticize their own biographies without any criticism of their own roles in creating the present situation, reserving their critique for modern Israeli society.
Besides Gazit, members of this group include the late general Matti Peled, former soldier Uri Avnery, and Prof. and commander Ze’ev Sternhell. They were fighters in either 1948 or 1967, and between those two momentous wars they were, through their silence at least, complicit in the military administration under which the country’s Arabs lived.
THE MESSAGE of men and women like Gazit is that they are the real Zionists who merely fought for Jewish self-determination. But their’s is a standpoint of hypocrisy. For instance, Avnery, in his book 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, includes photos of an Arab woman that were looted from an Arab house. Presumably Avnery would consider it unacceptable for the IDF to loot from Palestinian homes today, but in 1948 it was so acceptable that he included the stolen photos in his book.
In the same vein, Gazit tells us how important it is to have Yesh Din to keep track of the IDF’s conduct in the West Bank. But why, during the seven years that Gazit helped run the West Bank, did he not require that a similar organization report on his own behavior? When the IDF bulldozed the villages of Beit Nuba, Imwas and Yalu in the Latrun corridor right after the 1967 war, presumably Gazit was privy to this act of destruction, and yet he didn’t seem to mind then. Amos Kenan related in 1970 that as a soldier, he had been ordered to shoot over the heads of the villagers to get them out of the village. This is the very type of conduct that Yesh Din is at the forefront of confronting today.
Where were Yesh Din and Yesh Gvul, ICAHD, Hamoked and Machsom Watch all those years ago to probe the actions of Gazit’s generation? This is the problem of the Participatory Zionist Critics: There is no acknowledgement that they took part in acts that were less than wholesome. Mr. Gazit will not say that what he oversaw in the West Bank from 1967 to 1974 was wrong and that, having learned from his own wrongdoing, he believes Israel should change its ways. Instead he clings to the purity-of-arms view, that when he was in the IDF it was noble and that only now must its officers and grunts be held to account.
If Yesh Din had existed in 1967, there is reason to believe that Gazit and the entire command structure of the IDF would have been brought to court just for the actions that occurred around Latrun. After all, in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, soldiers were brought to trial for much lesser infractions than bulldozing entire villages. If Yesh Din’s volunteers had been around in 1948, they might have asked questions about how photos of an Arab family ended up in Avnery’s book, much as Yesh Din today uses footage from Israeli soldiers’ cellphone cameras to bring complaints against the IDF for abuse of Palestinian prisoners.
THERE IS a notion that what was acceptable “in the old days” is objectionable today, primarily because different people (i.e., the national religious, Russians, Sephardim, Ethiopians or Druse) are doing it (Gazit once said the national religious kippa reminded him of Nazi insignia). The reality should be more Manichean: Either home demolitions were acceptable in 1967 and they are today, or they were never acceptable; either some minor looting of Arab homes was always a forgivable transgression, or it never was. We cannot draw a line across history, and we should not grant a self-righteousness stage to those who do.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.