Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Tragedy Foretold: Israel's Unheeded Prophet, Gidon D. Remba

A Tragedy Foretold: Israel’s Unheeded Prophet


Gidon D. Remba

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
June 14, 2007

Much as it took forty years of wandering in the desert before God allowed the Jewish people to enter the Promised Land, it took forty years of wandering in the desert of ignorance for today’s Jewish people to learn the truth about Israel in the Promised Land. Thanks to two intrepid Israeli historian-journalists who pored through recently declassified government archives, we now know that Israeli leaders understood in 1967 that the conquest and continuing control by Israel of the West Bank “would weaken the relative strength of Israel’s Jewish majority, encourage Palestinian nationalism and ultimately lead to violent resistance.” These conclusions, reached by top officials from the Mossad, IDF Military Intelligence and the Foreign Ministry, “were approved by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and the army’s chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin,” reported Tom Segev in the New York Times on the 40th anniversary of the war, summing up one of the most stunning revelations from his groundbreaking new book, 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East.

“Have you already thought about how we can live with so many Arabs?” asked Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of his cabinet on the third day of the Six Day War. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed to give the West Bank “autonomy,” with Israel maintaining control over security and foreign relations.

Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, Israel’s Minister of Justice who hailed from the Mapai party (the precursor of the Labor Party), responded: “In a time of decolonization in the whole world, can we consider an area in which mainly Arabs live, and we control defense and foreign policy? Who’s going to accept that?” Shapira opposed annexation of the territories “arguing that it meant turning Israel into a binational state, in which Jews would eventually become a minority.” If Israel did not return almost all of the West Bank to Jordan, “we’re done with the Zionist enterprise,” he declared.

These prophesies—now the conventional wisdom in Israel and the contemporary watchwords not only of the Labor and Meretz parties but of Prime Minister Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, consisting mainly of rightist Likudniks who got mugged by reality—we learn from Gershom Gorenberg’s pathbreaking The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.

Gorenberg further discovered that “The following month, two top foreign-ministry officials -- Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Gazit”—General Gazit was soon to become the first military governor of the West Bank—“wrote a policy memo urging a rapid diplomatic solution for Gaza and the West Bank, because ‘internationally, the impression could be created ... that Israel is maintaining a colonial regime.’”

Not long after, Yigal Allon, who succeeded Eshkol as acting prime minister and became Israel’s foreign minister, realized that a “Palestinian enclave under Israeli rule ‘would be identified as ... some kind of South African Bantustan.’” Justice Minister Shapira, along with Theodor Meron, the Foreign Ministry’s legal counsel, told Eshkol in 1967 that Israeli civilian settlements in the newly conquered territories would “contravene the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” At a 1972 Labor Party debate on the future of the occupied territories, Israel’s Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, who served under both Eshkol and Golda Meir, “railed at the ‘moral danger’ of Israel's dependence on Palestinian labor, which was creating ‘a class that does the clean work and those who do the dirty work’ -- akin ‘to negroes in the United States.’ Continuing to rule over Arabs without granting them equal rights, Sapir said, would put Israel in a class with ‘countries whose names I don't even want to say in the same breath,’” reported Gorenberg.

Gorenberg summed up this tragedy foretold in a recent essay in the American Prospect: “The occupation was colonial, and would produce rebellion. Exploitation of Palestinian labor was racist. Settlement would be illegal. Palestinian autonomy would resemble a Bantustan, a creation of grand apartheid. Israel would become an international pariah. These were not the arguments of distant campus radicals enamored of their megaphones; they were the all-too-accurate premonitions of Israeli patriots.”

But in the decade after the Six Day War, when Israeli and American Jews were intoxicated by Israel’s great victory, drunk on messianic fantasies of redemption and chauvinistic triumph, few Jews knew of these prognostications. Even fewer were prepared to heed the warnings of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who urged the government immediately after the 1967 war to return virtually all the occupied territories forthwith: not in exchange for peace, but in Israel’s own highest national interests.

Yet for those who lived in Israel during all or part of that decade—as I did in the years after the Yom Kippur War—there were more than ample opportunities to hear these truths in Jerusalem, from a man who can perhaps be considered Israel’s post-1967 prophet: the Orthodox Jewish philosopher and neurophysiologist, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, with whom I had the privilege of studying during my post-Yom Kippur War years at the Hebrew University. Leibowitz, dubbed by Isaiah Berlin as the “conscience of Israel,” derided the religious ultra-nationalist deification of the Land of Israel as idolatry, a corruption of Judaism’s core, the commandments.

Soon after the Six Day War, long before the first or second intifada, he foresaw that as a “state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners…our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war of constant escalation without prospect of ultimate resolution…The administration would have to suppress an Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations…Our security has been diminished rather than enhanced as a result of the conquests of this war.”

Leibowitz perceived more clearly than perhaps any member of his generation the ways in which rule over another people would corrupt and undermine Jewish society and democracy. Israel would devote a disproportionate share of its resources and energies to the expansion of settlements in the territories, deflecting the country from its primary mission of addressing the “problems of the Jewish people in the state and in the Diaspora.”

An ardent Zionist who rejected the canard that Zionism was an oppressive colonialism, he was among the first to recognize that Zionism in the hands of the messianic right was imposing a colonial regime on another people. A decade before the first intifada, Leibowitz warned his fellows that “a colonial regime necessarily gives birth to terrorism…The nature of colonial rule does not matter. Whether it treats the subjects with a light or heavy hand, whether it grants them material or cultural benefits or exploits them to its own advantage—such rule is not tolerated. The subjects rise up, or will rise up, against it and will employ any means they consider effective.”

Indeed, in his battle against the idolatry of Gush Emunim—the “Bloc of the Faithful”—its false and un-Jewish sanctification of land as an absolute value, he often borrowed from the biblical prophets. He reminded us that “Not every ‘return to Zion’ is a religiously significant achievement. One sort of return which may be described in the words of the prophet: ‘When you returned you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.’ (Jeremiah 2:7)”

To those who claimed that the whole Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by God’s promise to Abraham and his progeny for an inheritance, he retorted in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, with “the same Scriptures to which the national religious fools appeal for support for their lust for conquest: ‘Therefore say to them, thus says the Lord: You eat with the blood and lift up your eyes towards your idols, and shed blood; and shall you possess the land? You stand upon your sword, you carry out disgusting deeds…and shall you possess the land?’ (Ezekiel 33: 23-26)” Thundered Leibowitz: “To speak of the divine promise to Abraham and his issue as a gratuitous gift, to ignore the conditions of the promise, and to disregard the obligations it confers on the receivers is a degradation and desecration of the religious faith.”

He repeatedly chastised his fellow Israelis and their leaders, in the manner of the prophets, reminding them that “the partition of this country between the two nations is the only feasible solution, even if neither of the two sides will recognize its justice and become inwardly reconciled to it. The alternative is war to the bitter end, which would amount to a catastrophe.” Today, the Jewish right would have us believe that it was the attempt to end the occupation through the Oslo peace process which caused the terror of the second intifada. But Leibowitz warned Israelis time and again that “Israel’s rule over the Palestinian Arabs” in the occupied territories is “likely to cause renewal of hostilities;” that the “’unpartitioned Eretz-Yisrael’ is internally unstable,” transforming Israel into a polity that will no longer be a Jewish state. Its administration would instead evolve into a “system of political domination” whereby Israel would rule “over two peoples that do not cohere as a single nation…To the intense national antagonism between them will be added the passionate hatred evoked by the rule of one people by the other.”

To those on the right who denied Palestinian claims to nationality or national claims to the land, he responded with bracing realism:

“Two nations inhabit this country…The history of the Jews and of this country for the last 2,000 years and of the Arab people for the last 1,400 years has created one land for two peoples, each of which feels most deeply that this land is his…Such attachment goes well beyond any ideology, theory or faith. Recognition of it must serve as a point of departure for any feasible political program… In view of this inescapable fact, there is neither point nor sense to all the philosophical-historical and legalistic arguments assessing and weighing the respective ‘rights’ of each side… The partition of the land between the two nations is an inescapable historical necessity…In the given situation there is only one choice between the two outcomes: war or partition. There is no third way out.”

If any hope arose over time of reconciling some portion of the Arabs and Palestinians to accepting the reality of Israel’s existence in its original internationally recognized pre-1967 lines—or some facsimile thereof—this prospect would likely be undermined by the powerful gusts of animosity, of terror and “repressive countermeasures,” which Israel’s occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would inevitably provoke, promised Leibowitz. The right, of course, would insist that no such opportunities for breakthrough towards peace are possible, insuring through their suicidal policies that this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the creation of the first Gush Emunim settlements in heavily populated areas of the West Bank, positioned so as to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state, Leibowitz recognized immediately that such settlements “will add fuel to the flames and make amelioration [of the conflict] more and more difficult.”

Thus spake the unheeded Jerusalem prophet Yeshayahu—known to some as the third Isaiah. And so it was, and is. Israel’s bitter contemporary tragedy was foretold; it is we who have refused to listen.

Gidon D. Remba is National Executive Director of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel, the leading progressive Zionist organization in the U.S., and the US affiliate of the World Labor Zionist Movement. His commentary is available at and

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