Monday, May 19, 2008


Le Monde diplomatique
May 2008


Israel faces up to its past

With access to 60 years of official archives, Israel's new
historians have shed light on old myths. As a result, a new
generation of writers, academics and artists is able to look
afresh at the country's past.

by Eric Rouleau

In the 1980s in Israel a new generation of men and woman who
had not lived through the Holocaust or the creation of their
country came of age intellectually and embarked on a
remarkable period of change. This change is indicative of how
Israel's intelligentsia has gradually matured to a point
where it is now able to judge the country's past without
hang-ups, and free itself from the myths and taboos
propagated by the country's leaders.

The anti-conformism of this generation of intellectuals -
which includes historians, sociologists, philosophers,
novelists, journalists, filmmakers and artists - first made
itself felt after the Six Day war in 1967. Events since then
have only fuelled their dissent: the occupation, Palestinian
resistance, the coming to power of the religious, nationalist
right in 1977, the growing influence of settlers and
expansionist rabbis, and the worsening tensions between
clerics and secular society have all played their part.
'Religious people often talk about Tel Aviv as if it were
Sodom and Gomorrah,' says Michel Warshawski, a leader of the
radical wing of the peace movement, 'whereas for secular
Israelis, Jerusalem is the Tehran of the ayatollahs.'

Peace with Egypt in 1979 raised hopes of a final peace
settlement, but these hopes were dashed in 1982 with the
invasion of Lebanon. This invasion, widely seen as Israel's
first offensive war, was launched on what turned out to be a
false prospectus. Contrary to the Israeli government's
claims, the Palestine Liberation Organisation - which Menahem
Begin and Ariel Sharon set out to destroy - had not behaved
provocatively. Indeed, it had shown signs of readiness to
compromise, and in any case did not pose a serious threat to
Israel's existence. At the time, many Israelis were shocked
by their army's extreme brutality and the high death toll
among the Palestinian and Lebanese population. The worst
atrocity, the terrible Sabra and Shatila massacres, was
committed with the full knowledge of the Israeli Defence
Forces (IDF).

These events provoked an unprecedented response: around
400,000 protestors took to the streets of Tel Aviv;
500 officers and soldiers deserted; and the refusnik movement
was born as young people refused to serve in the army, first
in Lebanon and then in the occupied territories. The 'purity
of arms' which Israel had boasted of since its birth was
seriously undermined.

Unintentionally, young historians further contributed to the
discrediting of Israel's self-image. From official archives
which were declassified in 1978 under Israel's 30-year rule,
they discovered that the conduct of the Israeli forces before
and during the war of 1948 departed significantly from the
idealised propaganda version. Simha Flapan, a fervent Zionist
right up to his death, was the first to make use of official
documents in a book that exposed the seven main myths which
have been used to dupe the public for decades (1).

Dominique Vidal's book, written with Sébastien Boussois, is
the first to set out and analyse the conclusions of the
so-called new historians (2). They are the first researchers
since the foundation of the state of Israel to base their
work not on secondary sources, as their predecessors did, but
on documents from unimpeachable sources such as the archives
of the cabinet, the army, the Palmach (shock troops), Zionist
organisations, and the diaries of David Ben Gurion, who held
the posts of defence and prime minister.

The book describes the circumstances which led to war with
the Arabs, pays special attention to the role of Ben Gurion,
which is ambiguous to say the least, and devotes a chapter to
Benny Morris, the most prominent of the new historians and
author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Question
(Cambridge University Press, 2003). Vidal and Boussois refer
to Morris as schizophrenic because of the gulf between his
quest for historical truth and his political position on the
far right. The book also examines Ilan Pappé's most recent
book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld
Publications, 2006) which provoked a furore in Israel that
forced its author - like so many others - to resign from the
University of Haifa and go into exile at a British

Pappé is not the first dissident intellectual (nor is he
likely to be the last) to leave his country to escape the
suffocating atmosphere reserved for 'lepers' such as him. But
unlike his predecessors, it is much harder to dispute his
versions of events, because they are so much more detailed.
Pappé has had access to documents from 60 years of Israeli
archives (unlike most of his colleagues who only had access
to 40 years' worth).

Pappé has also made use of the work of Palestinian historians
in his writing, often for eyewitness accounts. He has
collected the testimony of survivors of ethnic cleansing, a
source thus far studiously avoided by his fellow historians,
either through an instinctive rejection of such material or
through mistrust, or more prosaically because of their
ignorance of the Arabic language. Such eyewitness accounts
are all the more valuable as, so far, no Arab country has
opened its archives to researchers.

Ultimately, the points of difference between Ilan Pappé and
Benny Morris are not substantial. Both maintain that the 1948
war was not a David and Goliath struggle as is claimed, since
the Israeli forces were clearly superior to their adversaries
in both manpower and weaponry. Even at the height of the 1948
Arab-Israeli war, there were only a few thousand poorly
equipped Palestinian fighters, supported by some Arab
volunteers from the Fawzi al-Qawuqji liberation army.
Even when the Arab states intervened on 15 May 1948, their
forces were still far inferior to those of the Haganah, the
Jewish paramilitary organisation which later formed the core
of the IDF, which was able to keep drawing on reinforcements.
Morris and Pappé agree that the Arab forces invaded Palestine
reluctantly as a last resort, not in order to destroy the
fledgling Jewish state, which they knew they were incapable
of doing, but to prevent Israel and Transjordan - 'in
collusion' according to historian Avi Shlaim - from carving
up the territory granted to the Palestinians under the United
Nations plan of 29 November 1947.

'I have no doubt we are capable of occupying all of
Palestine,' Ben Gurion, the father of the Jewish state, had
written to Moshe Sharett (Israel's second prime minister, who
served between Ben Gurion's two terms) in February 1948,
three months before the Arab-Israeli war began and a few
weeks before the delivery of massive consignments of arms
sent via Prague by the USSR. This boast did not stop him
claiming publicly that Israel was threatened by a second

In the first week of the war in May 1948, carried away by
news of Israeli victories according to Ilan Pappé, Ben Gurion
wrote in his diary: 'We shall establish a Christian state in
Lebanon... we shall break Transjordan, bomb its capital,
destroy its army... we shall bring Syria to its knees... our
air force will attack Port Said, Alexandria, and Cairo, and
this will avenge our ancestors who were oppressed by the
Egyptians and the Assyrians in Biblical times.'

In similar fashion Morris and Pappé demolish the Israeli
leadership's carefully maintained myth that the Palestinians
left their homes voluntarily in response to calls from the
Arab authorities and radio stations (these broadcasts are
entirely the inventions of Israeli propaganda, as complete
recordings made at the time by the BBC reveal). In fact, the
two historians confirm what has been known since the end of
the 1950s: it was the Israeli authorities who forced the
Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats,
brutality and terror.

They diverge, however, over the meaning of these expulsions:
for Benny Morris, they are simply 'collateral damage'. 'All's
fair in love and war', he explained, adding more recently (3)
and somewhat cynically, that Ben Gurion ought to have kept
going until the very last Palestinian was gone. Where Morris
sees an exodus resulting from war and 'not the intention of
either Jew or Arab', Pappé shows that the ethnic cleansing
was planned and executed in order to extend Israel's
territory - in effect to judaise it.

And with reason. For although the Zionist leadership had
publicly approved the UN plan, in reality they thought it
intolerable: their consent was just a tactic, as several
documents in the archives and Ben Gurion's own diary show.

True, they had been granted more than half of Palestine. The
rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs, who were
twice as numerous as the Jews. However, they viewed the
territory earmarked for Israel as too small for the millions
of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract. Moreover,
405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside
558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the
population of the future Jewish state. Thus Zionism risked
losing its very raison d'être: 'making Palestine as Jewish as
America is American and England is English', in the words of
Haim Weizmann, who went on to become Israel's first

That is why thoughts of the transfer (in plain terms,
expulsion) of the indigenous Arabs haunted the Zionist
leaders, who debated the question endlessly, usually behind
closed doors. At the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl
had suggested that the Ottoman sultan should deport the
Palestinians to clear the way for Jewish colonisation. In
1930 Weizmann tried to persuade the British, who held the
Mandate for Palestine, to do the same.

In 1938, following the proposal of a tiny Jewish state
accompanied by a transfer of some Arabs envisaged by a
British commission under Lord Peel, Ben Gurion declared
before the executive committee of the Jewish Agency: 'I am in
favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no
means immoral.' The war of 1948 was to offer him his chance
to put his plan into action by launching an offensive
designed to uproot the indigenous population six months
before the Arab armies intervened. To facilitate this
process, Pappé has revealed, Ben Gurion had a file created by
the Jewish Agency in 1939 on all the Arab villages, which was
regularly updated throughout the 1940s. It recorded
demographic and economic facts as well as political and
military information.

Ilan Pappé has analysed in detail the measures the Israeli
forces resorted to. They make chilling reading, even if they
are reminiscent of atrocities committed during ethnic
cleansings carried out by other peoples from late antiquity
on. The statistics produced by the historian are telling: in
a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions
were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed
or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; 11 ethnically
mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion's instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian
inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old
people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the
space of a few hours in mid-July 1948. Yigal Allon and the
future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a
high-ranking officer in the military, ran the operation.
Rabin wrote about it in his memoirs published in the United
States, though they were later censored in the Hebrew
edition. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as
they were driven towards the Transjordanian border. There had
been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its
Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense
artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant Zionist
organisation, and fearful of more massacres. This is what
Morris calls the 'atrocity factor'.

These horrors are all the more unjustifiable since a large
number of Arab villages, by Ben Gurion's own admission, had
declared their willingness not to fight the partition of
Palestine. Some had even reached non-aggression agreements
with their Jewish neighbours. That was the case in the
village of Deir Yassin, where the irregular forces of the
Irgun and the Lehi nevertheless massacred a large part of the
population with the tacit agreement of the Haganah, according
to Simha Flapan.

In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile
between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.
According to an official Israeli estimate, the Jewish
National Fund seized 300,000 hectares of Arab land, much of
which was given to kibbutzim. The operation could not have
been better planned: the day after the vote on 11 December
1948 on the famous resolution on the 'right to return' by the
UN General Assembly, the Israeli government adopted the
Emergency Absentees' Property law which, added to the law on
the cultivation of abandoned lands of 30 June 1948,
retrospectively legalised seizures - and forbade the victims
of seizures from claiming any compensation on returning home.

Despite the protests from some members of the Israeli
government, shocked by the brutality of the ethnic cleansing,
Ben Gurion - who had not himself given an explicit written
order - did nothing to stop it. Nor did he openly condemn it.
He limited himself to condemnation of the raping and
pillaging which the Israeli soldiers carried out, though they
benefited from complete impunity.

What is most astonishing is the silence of the international
community, which has lasted for decades although
international observers, including those from the UN, were
aware of the atrocities. This makes it easier to understand
why the Palestinians commemorate the nakba (catastrophe)
rather than celebrate the Israeli war of independence.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and
author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen
Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth:
that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with
belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. The title
of his book is taken from the doctrine of the father of the
ultranationalist right: in 1923 Zeev Jabotinsky declared that
there should be no negotiations over a peace accord until the
Jews had colonised the whole of Palestine behind a wall of
iron, since the Arabs only understood the logic of force.

By adopting this doctrine, Israel's political and military
leaders on both right and the left have managed to sabotage
successive peace plans. Reckoning that time is on their side,
and claiming, in the words of Ehud Barak (then prime
minister), that Israel has no 'partner for peace', the
leaders in Jerusalem chose to wait for their adversaries to
accept Israel's territorial expansion and the splitting-up of
a hypothetical, demilitarised Palestinian state which is
condemned to become a collection of Bantustans.

Shlaim's book was a bestseller when it was published in
English in 2000 and was translated into several languages,
but had to wait five years before appearing in Hebrew. Most
Israeli publishers deemed it to be of little interest. Yet
Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and
of Israel's 1967 borders. 'On the other hand,' he says, 'I
entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that

Almost all of the historians, sociologists, novelists,
journalists and filmmakers who belong to the new wave of the
intelligentsia are Zionists of a new sort - known as
post-Zionists. They share a desire to espouse the cause of
peace by establishing historical truth and recognising the
wrongs done to the Palestinians.

To get a sense of the scale of the change which has taken
place since the 1980s, it is worth reading the research
carried out by Sébastien Boussois in Israel among new
historians and their opponents (4). Some observers have
concluded that the advent of a stable Israel at peace with
its neighbours will depend in large part on the impact these
intellectuals have on Israeli society and especially its
political class.

This is how Yehuda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to
France and the US, put it: 'The `new historians', even a
radical such as Ilan Pappé, bring light to the dark region of
the Israeli collective consciousness and pave the way for a
stronger adherence to mutual respect for and peace with the

'Their work, far from representing a threat to Israel, does
their country honour, and more: it is a duty, a moral
obligation, a prodigious assumption of a liberating
enterprise in order that the fault lines, the healthy
interstices, necessary to the integration of the discourse of
the Other, may take their place in Israeli experience' (5).

Eric Rouleau is a journalist and former French ambassador

(1) The Birth of Israel, Myths and Realities, Pantheon Books,
New York, 1987.

(2) Comment Israël expulsa les Palestiniens (Editions de
l'Atelier, Paris, 2007) is an updated and expanded edition of
Le Péché originel d'Israël (Editions de l'Atelier, 1998).

(3) From an interview in Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 8 January 2004.

(4) In Vidal, op cit.

(5) From the preface to Vidal, op cit.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

C'est tres interresant

Rough Justice?
A new music video by a French band is causing controversy online. But will President Sarkozy get the message?
Jessica Reed

May 7, 2008 3:30 PM |

To many French viewers, French electronic duo Justice's new music video is a slap in the face. The scenario seems initially designed solely to shock and antagonise viewers, in the same vein as Aphex Twin's infamous Come to Daddy video. It shows a dozen teenagers from ethic minorities, wearing black jackets, travelling from their Parisian suburbs into the centre of the capital with one thing in mind: to break everything and terrorise the population. They smash into cars, steal wallets and destroy a cafe armed with baseball bats. The urban warfare ends with a beating given to the cameraman who follows them: "You like filming that, you son of a bitch?"

In less than seven minutes, the French hoodies are indiscriminate in their trail of violence. They assault a woman in the subway and beat up her defender, break a young hippy's guitar, steal an old lady's purse and slap a passerby. It is the lack of any discernable motive for the citywide rampage that hits home the hardest, leaving the viewer floundering as they try to comprehend the images on the screen. The banned video for the Prodigy's 1997 video, Smack my bitch up similarly documents a wave of hedonistic violence during a night of clubbing, yet the deus ex machina of the final reel reveals the protagonist is a woman. While Smack my Bitch up at least reframes the violence on the screen, Justice's effort offers no easy solace to the viewer.

While only a few days old, the video has already been banned from music channels, but has received 200,000 hits and more than a thousand comments online. The band decided not to comment and as expected viewers' opinions are divided, oscillating between horror and disdain. Only one question remains: what is the point in showing such unapologetic acts of violence?

The video undoubtedly reminded its viewers of the 2005 riots which savaged France's suburbs for weeks. By concocting a lethal cocktail of mindless violence and desperate pleas for a better life, the banlieues thought they would be listened to. Among the political panic, Jacques Chirac promised to throw millions of euros into cleaning the infected wound of unemployment in impoverished areas. Conversely, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, demonised the immigrant youth by calling them "racaille" (scum) whom we wanted to "clean with a pressure hose".

Many commentators have tried to explain the rage that fuelled such violence by exploring the themes of French republicanism and secularism, often concluding that what the French immigrant young wants is to be considered as just as French as anyone else - philosopher Emmanuelle Todd went as far as interpreting the events as a rejection of marginalisation. In other words, the racaille want to belong.

Yet, even after the huge student demonstrations of 2006, unemployment levels have remained stagnant and young people are finding it harder to find (and keep) a decent job. In June 2007, 23.1% of young people aged between 16 and 24 were unemployed (not including students) and tellingly, this number almost doubles when applied to impoverished areas, hitting young males from immigrant families the hardest.

For many, a diploma is the key to finding a job. French students have been striking against Sarkozy's minister of education Xavier Darcos, who plans to cut 11,000 school jobs nationwide, for weeks. Leading the movement are school students from deprived areas, which unsurprisingly will be the most dramatically affected by the reforms: eight to ten positions per establishment could be eradicated, bringing classes up to a previously unheard-of 35 students. Yet, the media has largely been focusing on the few troublemakers peppering the marches, rather than the real issues at stake.

It is easy to look at Justice's video and think of the character's actions as repugnant. However, aside from the actions of few angry casseurs, acts of political rebellion are vital and deeply formative. They are, like May 1968, emblematic of the French left's deep-seated conviction that it is OK to say "no" and demand more from a government that is failing its youth. Beyond its idealised mythology, May 1968 was often extremely violent, not just literally (clashes caused casualties and left many injured) but also symbolically. But never were the participants dismissed out of hand, called racaille by government officials, and trivialised solely because of their ethnic origins.

In the last two decades, media coverage of life in France's city suburbs has been noticeably absent, only to be brought back to life by dramatic events, which have also stirred tensions between journalists and young people who are increasingly distrustful. The government knows it only too well, but prefers to treat the banlieues as forgotten cities, no-man's-lands that are invisible to the rest of the country. But listen, Sarkozy: French young people deserve better and whether you like it or not, the manifestation of anger in Justice's video does a fine job in reminding us of just that.