April 30, 2007
From Liberty Street

Righteous Victims

John Turner

Benny Morris's long, detailed account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, titled Righteous Victims, begins with an epigraph from W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939:"

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

You might say that quatrain tells the whole story. Certainly, it encompasses Morris's thesis. His is a miserable tale with few heroes and no clear moral direction. Nor, at the end, are we given a course that will set everything right.

To read it through is a laborious process, not only because it's seven hundred pages long and packed with details that won't make it into general history, but because, as one trudges along, the emotional weight becomes ever greater. You find yourself asking, "How can this be?" And, yet, the truth of it is obvious and, taken step by step, understandable.

In one sense, it's even simple. Two different people want the same land, and over the course of trying to get it they do such horrible things to one another that they find themselves sinking in a miasma of hatred.

One of my basic historical theses is that over the term of a long agonizing struggle, though two sides may start off quite distinct from one another in character and behavior, as the conflict proceeds they grow ever more like each other, and if it goes on for a very long time they become almost identical in terms of their actions towards one another. The Japanese may have been dastardly towards the United States in their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, but a few years later, during the battle of Okinawa, American soldiers cut off thousands of Japanese heads, boiled them in cauldrons, and sent the stripped skulls back to their girlfriends in the homeland, where many of these gifts of patriotic affection still reside in mid-American attics. Sad as it is to face this truth, humans are humans before they are anything else.

One of the main difficulties in the Middle East right now is that people don't have a firm grasp of their common humanity. In the minds of many they are Muslims before anything else, or Jews before anything else, or Palestinians before anything else, or Israelis before anything else. And their problems lately have been complicated by men who certainly see themselves as Americans before anything else.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr devoted many of his books to the proposition that history is principally an ironic development, and the assertion seems to be borne out by the history of the state of Israel. Its greatest military triumph has led to its most intractable problems and to perplexities none of its politicians have come close to solving. In 1967, the Israeli forces smashed the armies of the surrounding Arab states in a victory that seemed so complete many thought Israel's security problems were solved. The Israelis also conquered and occupied great stretches of land that seemed at the time to provide effective barriers against their enemies. But it turned out, over the next forty years, that dealing with those lands and the people who live in them was Israel's most daunting challenge.

Right from the end of the war, Israelis were divided between those who wanted to retain the lands in perpetuity and those who wanted to exchange them for guarantees of security. And that split continues to this day. And dealing with the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza has divided Israelis even more bitterly than the final disposition of the land has. No matter how much skillful propaganda is employed to imply that conquered people are better off under their new masters, military occupation of a hostile people is not a pretty business. Morris goes so far as to imply that keeping the Palestinians in check has caused Israel to lose its soul. Regardless of how true that may be, many of the actions of the Israeli General Security Service, or Shin Bet, in the occupied territories have been such that no government which employed them would want them to see the light of day.

The principal difficulty with "security," as modern states define it, is that it requires hate-inducing behavior. And the hatred it creates does not simply go away even if the behavior is modified. It sits, and cankers, and often grows ever more explosive. The security experts, knowing this, tighten up on their behavior -- as they say -- and this in turn creates more hatred. And thus we get a self-perpetuating cycle that leads nowhere good.

It takes unusually courageous politicians to challenge that cycle. They are always called soft and less than patriotic -- patriotism being in many men's minds a willingness to do even more horrible things than one has done before. In Morris's history, the two most admirable Israeli prime ministers who tried to break the cycle were Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. One was tossed out of office in favor of an extreme militarist and the other was simply murdered.

Their fate demonstrates the major issue facing the modern world -- not just in Israel but almost everywhere. Extreme people who see themselves as divine servants of some sort of abstraction are able to define the political conditions for the far greater number of people who want to live as humans rather than as symbols or sacrifices.

Benny Morris's history shows us how terribly hard it is for people to liberate themselves from past practice in order to achieve a happier future. And even if it doesn't offer any formulas, it lets us know what we're up against. That, in itself, is more than ample reason to work one's way through its dense pages.


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