Friday, December 04, 2009

What lies behind Avi Shlaim's anti-Zionism?

Professor Avi Shlaim
You might have imagined that, as a Jew born in an Arab country, Avi Shlaim might be able to bring special insights into what drives the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in this scathing review of Shlaim's new book Israel and Palestine, in the New Republic entitled Derisionist history, fellow 'new' historian Benny Morris can find only hysterical anti-Zionism, based on a selective reading of the facts:

Israel and Palestine, which will probably earn Shlaim more Israel-bashing brownie points than all his previous books combined, is a collection of academic essays and reviews, along with some journalistic articles about politics. The pieces are mostly an extended exercise in anti-Zionism, nothing more. There is also one interview, originally published in The New York Review of Books in 1999, in which Shlaim asks King Hussein about his meetings with Israeli officials and leaders from the 1960s until the 1990s, and about Jordan’s participation, or non-participation, in the wars of 1967 and 1973. The monarch’s responses are vague, fluffy, and imprecise (he often answers that he cannot remember but will later look for the relevant documents, which, of course, are never referred to again) and generally uninformative, heavily larded with avowals of goodwill and the love of peace.

The scholarly essays deal with “The Balfour Declaration and its Consequences”; “The Rise and Fall of the All-Palestine Government in Gaza,” an impotent, short-lived organization established by the Egyptians in September 1948 as a means of controlling Palestinian politics, countering King Abdullah’s territorial, claims and, if one is prone to generosity, providing the Palestinians with some sort of representation; and “Husni Zaim and the Plan to Resettle Palestinian Refugees in Syria.” This last essay, which was trailblazing when published in 1986, describes a peace overture by Husni Zaim, Syria’s short-lived prime minister.

Zaim ruled Syria from March 30, 1949, to August 14, 1949, when he was deposed and executed by his colleagues. Working through American and U.N. mediators, Zaim proposed peace with Israel, and also that Syria absorb a quarter of a million Palestinian refugees* in exchange for Israeli cession of the eastern half of the Sea of Galilee (according to the U.N. partition resolution, the whole sea was to be within Israeli territory) and, by implication, the Israeli-owned strip of land to the east of the lake, which included Kibbutz Ein-Gev.(...)

Nowhere does Shlaim tell us of the persecution, oppression, and occasional mass murder of Jews by Muslim Arabs over the centuries, starting with Muhammad’s destruction of the Jewish communities in Hijaz and ending with the pogroms in Aden and Morocco in 1947–1948. And nowhere does Shlaim point out that the Palestinian Arabs had an indirect hand in causing the death of European Jewry during the Holocaust, by driving the British, through anti-British and anti-Zionist violence, to shut the gates of Palestine, which was the only possible safe haven, after the United States and the Anglo-Saxon world had shut their gates to escaping European Jews. And, more directly, Palestinian (and other Arab) leaders contributed to the Holocaust by politically supporting Hitler and, in the case of Haj Amin al Husseini, actually working in Berlin for the Third Reich, peddling Nazi propaganda to the Arab world and raising troops for the Wehrmacht. (..)

When it comes to the Arabs, Shlaim is often mealy-mouthed, hesitant, disingenuous, and laudatory. Thus he tells us at one point that “the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon and Morocco.” I am sure that the imprisoned opponents of the absolutist monarchy in Rabat would be much amused--as would various Shiites, Greek Catholics, and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. So would the Fatah prisoners tortured in Hamas jails in Gaza, and the Hamas prisoners tortured in Fatah jails in the West Bank. Does a single relatively open and successful general election transform a polity into a democracy?

One-sidedness and plain unfairness permeate almost every subject touched and every argument propounded in Israel and Palestine, perverting and distorting history.(...)

Without a doubt, history has ill-served the Palestinians. They became a separate and distinct “people” (while remaining part of the greater Arab “people”) as a result of the Zionist enterprise and the Zionist challenge, and Zionism has caused them repeated bouts of suffering. Their persistent rejection of compromise, as expressed by their successive leaders, has had a major role in the perpetuation of this suffering. And this suffering appears to fuel Shlaim’s animosity toward Israel.

But there is a mystery here. Many intellectuals, in Israel as in the West, have been moved by the Palestinians’ history and their plight, but at the same time they have remained sympathetic to Israel’s predicament, and admiring of its real and in some ways incomparable achievements over the past six decades. In Israel and Palestine, by contrast, there is no sign of any such complex sympathy. For Shlaim, Israel and its leaders can do no right. It all begins to seem very personal. What is the source of this bias and this resentment? It is always hazardous to speculate on the motives of writers and scholars. Perhaps one day Shlaim will enlighten us on this score.

Read article in full

Point of No return may be able to cast light on the mystery of Avi Shlaim. From an early age, Shlaim seems to have borne a personal grudge against Israel. A Shlaimian pathology - displaying symptoms of both 'dhimmitude' and Stockholm Syndrome - appears to blame Israel for his father's failure to recover from his expulsion from Iraq. See this comment once left on Harry's Place by an old schoolfriend.

* Having let out the genie of Palestinian nationalism of the bottle, for Arab states to make such an offer today would be unthinkable.


Anonymous said...

a review of another of Avi Shlaim's books


bataween said...

Thanks for the link. OT to this blog, but I can't help noticing that in painting his picture of one-dimensional Israeli intransigeance Shlaim leaves out such seminal events as the Three Nos of Khartoum, when the Arabs rejected Israel's offer of the West Bank and Gaza.