The War Crimes Industry

In an earlier post, I flagged my Mosaic Magazine essay on the film Censored Voices, an Israeli documentary that purports to expose Israeli war crimes during the Six-Day War. The filmmakers claim that the testimony of soldiers, published in 1968, had been subjected to “brutal” censorship by Israel’s military censor, who cut 70 percent of the original material. Censored Voices, we are told, restores those “silenced” voices. In my essay, I questioned whether there had been any censorship of this magnitude, and asked whether the cases highlighted in the film were true, representative, or added to our understanding of the war.

There have been three responses to the essay:

  • Military historian and analyst Max Boot provides some fascinating insights into why certain conflicts invite charges of war crimes and others don’t—regardless of the facts.
  • Journalist and author Matti Friedman analyzes what’s wrong with the flourishing Israeli genre of what he calls “moral striptease.” Among many nuggets: “The fact that the director of Censored Voices has earned complimentary coverage in Israel’s biggest women’s weekly and in El Al’s inflight magazine hardly suggests a society ‘crushing dissent.’ In fact, it suggests a society where dissent is celebrated even in the heart of the mainstream.”
  • Asa Kasher, philosopher and author of the Code of Ethics of the Israel Defense Forces, argues that you can’t judge the justice of a war by how soldiers wage it, and if you make vague charges of war crimes against Israel, you’re making it impossible for the IDF to investigate and ameliorate. That’s immoral.

My own summation is coming up next week. In the meantime, take in these interesting responses.

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Who Censored the 1967 War?

Censored Voices posterIn January, the New York Times ran an article by its Jerusalem correspondent, Judi Rudoren, about a new documentary film entitled Censored Voices. The film is based on the original recordings of Israeli soldiers’ testimony from the 1967 Six-Day War—conversations that provided the basis for a 1968 bestseller entitled Siah Lohamim (Soldiers’ Talk). The film includes material that wasn’t in the book, consisting of allegations of Israeli brutality and actions tantamount to war crimes. Censored Voices premiered at the Sundance film festival in Utah, but it’s been shown since then mostly at European festivals, and it’s been running for over a month in Israeli theaters. It’s slated for American theatrical release in the fall.

The message of the film is plainly political: since the “occupation” of the West Bank is a sin, it must have arisen from an original sin, and that original sin was the very conduct of the Six-Day War. “I think that Censored Voices tells a different story,” director Mor Loushy has said, “that it’s also tragic to win a war.” This is what passes for a sense of proportion on the Israeli left, which is why it has been in a long-term retreat.

One aspect of the film’s backstory especially intrigued me: the claim that the original tapes had been massively censored in 1967 by the Israeli military censor, so that most of the soldiers’ voices had been excluded from Soldiers’ Talk. In various interviews and in the film’s promotional material, Loushy even put a figure on the extent of the official censorship: 70 percent of the original material had been axed. Not only had Israel committed crimes; it had silenced voices that dared to speak them. Censored Voices now gives us those voices.

Something about this tidy narrative seemed to me utterly contrived. Of course Israel had (and has) censorship. But the “silencing” trope has become so fashionable on the Israeli left that I wondered whether the 70-percent story might be an exaggeration or fiction, deliberately quantified so as to lodge itself in the minds of audiences. So I looked deeper into the editorial history of Soldiers’ Voices.

Read the results of my investigation over at Mosaic Magazine. It turns out that there was massive censorship of Soldiers’ Voices back in 1967. But the official censor didn’t do it. The man who did do it is in fact the hero of Censored Voices, and he’s busily facilitated and promoted the film. It’s one of the stranger stories out of Israel you’ll read this year. In the course of it, I also ask whether the stories chosen for Censored Voices, especially those alleging expulsions of Palestinians and killings of prisoners, are either reliable or meaningful to our understanding of the Six-Day War.

The fall theatrical run of Censored Voices will be designed to qualify it for a possible Oscar nomination in the documentary feature category. That means it will have to play in Manhattan and Los Angeles theaters, and be reviewed in the prestige press. Hopefully my piece will lead viewers and reviewers to ask some hard questions that the makers of Censored Voices so far have managed to avoid. It’s the article of the month at Mosaic Magazine, which means that the editors will solicit responses, and I’ll have the last word at the end of July.

“Who Censored the Six-Day War?” by Martin Kramer, here.

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Remembering Jewish socialism

Over at Mosaic Magazine, there has been a prolonged and fascinating discussion of Jewish conservatism, prompted by an essay by Eric Cohen. This week, 37 new responses are being published. Mine appears here and below.

HashomerJewish conservatism? It’s a sign of our times. Jews have more power than at any time in their history. They enjoy sovereign power in Israel, and they have prospered in America perhaps more than any other minority. These are the best of times for Jews, and no one is better served by the ascendance of (mild) nationalism and (humane) capitalism as universal values. Jewish conservatism champions both; Jewish liberalism would undermine them. Eric Cohen rightly identifies this corrosive liberalism as the preeminent threat to Jewry today.

But in our enthusiasm for the status quo, let us not forget that a century ago, Jews were in a very different state, and that they extricated themselves from powerlessness only through revolution. The Zionist revolution cast aside the millennial traditions of passive pietism; in its most fevered (and productive) phases, it elevated the collective above all else, even above the family. In the pursuit of power, especially over land, it enlisted socialist zeal—and a good thing that it did, for a capitalist mode of settlement would have produced not an Israel, but an Algeria. Cohen may be right that “the ideology of modern socialism surely fails the test of Jewish values.” But without a variety of it, Jewish settlement in Palestine might have had too small a territorial footprint to make for a viable state, and Israel might not have enjoyed the Soviet-bloc support it needed at its birth. Socialism failed everyone—except, at a crucial moment, the Jews.

The point is not to question the contemporary primacy of economic freedom and the family. It is to acknowledge that values ultimately must be judged not by whether they conform to some fixed notion of a Jewish “essence,” but whether they assure that Jews will never again find themselves naked in the world, without the power to defend themselves. For the moment, Jewish conservatism as persuasively articulated by Cohen is the perfect vehicle for the preservation of Jewish power as it is. Jewish left-liberalism, as it is purveyed in America and Israel, would put Jewry in peril. But we cannot know what challenges the future may pose, and whether they will require that Jews become revolutionaries yet again.

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Netanyahu and Churchill: analogy and error

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on March 7, and again in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on March 8.

Churchill's bust presented to NetanyahuThe Churchill analogies flew fast and furious around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. The prompt: until this week, Winston Churchill had been the only foreign leader to address a joint session three times. (Netanyahu’s tying of this record moved House Speaker John Boehner to present him with a bust of Churchill.)

The subject of the speech also lent itself to comparisons. “There is a reason that the adjective most often applied to Prime Minister Netanyahu with respect to Iran is Churchillian,” said Senator Ted Cruz the day before the speech, comparing an Iran deal to Munich and “peace in our time.” “In a way,” said columnist Charles Krauthammer in a post-speech assessment, “it was Churchillian—not in delivery; it was not up to Bibi’s norm—but in the sonorousness and the seriousness of what he said. And it was not Churchill of the ’40s. This was the desperate Churchill of the ’30s. This was a speech of, I think, extraordinary power but great desperation.”

This was followed by the inevitable “he’s-no-Churchill” rebuttals, the most noteworthy by former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Netanyahu, he opined, “is the absolute antithesis of Churchill; whereas Churchill projected power, confidence, strategy and absolute belief in Britain’s ultimate victory, Netanyahu repeatedly mentions the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, terror, anti-Semitism, isolation and despair.” Most of the other criticisms emphasized that Churchill worked with, not against, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For this reason, wrote Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to speak didn’t pass “the Churchill test.”

All’s fair in love, war and analogies, and self-serving or rival-deprecating historical analogies are part and parcel of politics. But it irks me when analogies are constructed on error. I’m not talking about spin; I’m talking about grievous error. My topic here is a particularly egregious example, from a journalist interviewing a journalist: NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewing Israeli celebrity journalist and best-selling author Ari Shavit (now an anti-Netanyahu partisan).

Shavit: Let’s go with Netanyahu’s own Churchillian logic. Winston Churchill—the great thing Winston Churchill did was not to give great speeches—although he was a great speaker—but he understood that to stop Nazi Germany he needs American support. He came in the middle of the war to this town, to Washington, and he worked with President Roosevelt, really seducing him, courting him, doing everything possible to have him on his side, and in the process guaranteeing the dismantling of the British Empire, something that was very difficult to Winston Churchill. Netanyahu, who saw the threat—the Iranian threat—in an accurate way in my mind, never did that. He didn’t go the extra mile to reach out, whether to President Obama and to other liberal leaders around the world—in Europe. He never did what he had to do, which is to stop settlement activities so the Palestinian issue will not produce bad blood. And so people will really be able to listen to his accurate arguments regarding Iran. Israel…

Siegel: This would be his equivalent of Churchill saying India will be independent and Africa will be free after the war.

Shavit: It’s—Churchill had that. And Netanyahu, who wants to be Churchill, never had the greatness and the generosity and the flexibility to pay.

What’s the problem here? I’ll leave aside the implied (and absurd) comparison between the Jewish presence from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and British imperial rule from Suez to Singapore. There’s a larger problem obvious to anyone who knows the history: contra Shavit, Churchill didn’t guarantee to Roosevelt that the British Empire would be dismantled, and pace Siegel, he never said that India would be granted independence after the war. In fact, Churchill fought tooth and nail to assure that the Empire would emerge intact from the war, and that India, in particular, would remain the heart of it. He showed no trace of either generosity or flexibility.

It’s true that the Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt and Churchill signed in Newfoundland in August 1941, promised (clause three) “to respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcefully deprived of them.” The Americans thought this should apply to the subject peoples of the British Empire. But Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on his return home, insisted the clause only applied to “the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke.”

To mollify Roosevelt (and the Labour party at home), Churchill did dispatch a (Labourite) negotiator in the spring of 1942, to present an “offer” to Indian nationalists (the Cripps Mission). He also did everything to assure that the take-it-or-leave-it “offer” would be unacceptable to them. When the mission failed, Britain’s Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office launched a well-orchestrated propaganda effort in the United States, to persuade American opinion that the Indian Congress Party couldn’t be relied upon to negotiate in good faith. They worked to portray Gandhi and Congress, which had declared their wartime neutrality, as potential fifth columnists for Japan and intransigents incapable of reaching any workable agreement.

As the war continued, Churchill never flagged. “Let me make this clear, in case there should be any mistake about it in any quarter,” he told told an audience in November 1942 (the “End of the Beginning” speech after El Alamein). “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found, and under a democracy I suppose the nation would have to be consulted.”

Roosevelt and his advisers understood that mention of India, in particular, could bring forth Churchill’s wrath. Robert Sherwood, a wartime speechwriter for Roosevelt, described India as

one subject on which the normally broad-minded, good-humored, give-and-take attitude which prevailed between the two statesmen was stopped cold. It may be said that Churchill would see the Empire in ruins and himself buried under them before he would concede the right of any American, however great and illustrious a friend, to make any suggestion as to what he should do about India.

In the interest of amity, the President sometimes tried to raise the matter indirectly, with predictable results. In 1943, Roosevelt gave a lunch for Churchill at the White House, and invited the publisher Helen Reid, an outspoken opponent of British rule in India. As the host expected, she turned on Churchill to ask what would become of “those wretched Indians.” Churchill’s reply (according to an aide): “Before we proceed any further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians of India, who have multiplied alarmingly under benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America, who, I understand, are almost extinct?” Mrs. Reid shrank, Roosevelt laughed heartily, and yet another witty barb entered the Churchill corpus.

Churchill remained unyielding right through the war’s end. In December 1944, when the State Department tried to revive the idea of international trusteeship as an alternative to British imperial rule, Churchill shot off this missive to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “There must be no question of our being hustled or seduced into declarations affecting British sovereignty in any of the Dominions or Colonies. Pray remember my declaration against liquidating the British Empire… ‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.”

Eden told Churchill he had no cause to worry. Perhaps that’s because Roosevelt, taking the larger view of the war, had given up, leaving the question of India and the British Empire for post-war resolution. Had Churchill had his way, the Empire would have lasted indefinitely, according to Lawrence James (author of the recent Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist): “Restoring the authority of the Raj was essential to the Churchillian vision of the post-war global order in which the Empire would remain intact and, as ever, substantiate Britain’s claim to global power.” It took Churchill’s fall from power and a Labour government to extricate Britain from both India and the Empire.

In sum, the notion that Churchill showed Roosevelt “generosity” and “flexibility” regarding British sway over the Empire, “guaranteeing the dismantling” of it, is utterly without foundation. In the end, it was Roosevelt who showed flexibility, in the interest of the alliance. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for President Obama. But then, he’s no Roosevelt, is he?

Addendum: Shavit has repeated his error, this time in print, in a fiercely partisan article entitled “Netanyahu’s Churchill Complex” at Politico. Quote:

In the end, [Netanyahu] was unable to do what Churchill had done: win the heart of the American president, the person who (as in the case of FDR) will really determine whether the war is lost or won. In the end, he was unwilling to sacrifice what Churchill had sacrificed: the empire. The British prime minister gave up the jewels of the crown in order to vanquish the enemy; the Israeli prime minister was unwilling to give up anything. His emotional miserliness would lead to ruin.

And it turns out that this wasn’t the first time Shavit had made the error in print. There is this instance, from last October, in an article entitled “Bibi and Obama may still have a bit of Churchill and Roosevelt in them.”

Churchill sacrificed the British Empire to enlist America against the Nazis, while Netanyahu prefers to keep the Israeli empire at any cost, and that’s why he’s losing America.

This was far from a one-time gaffe: Shavit has now repeated it three times.

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Presidents and Prime Ministers

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Génocidaires of the Palmah

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on February 23, and again in the English-language opinion section of Israel Hayom on February 24.

“Palmah soldier at Lydda, July 1948Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, in his bestselling book My Promised Land, continues to fuel the claim that Israeli forces committed horrific war crimes when they conquered the city in July 1948. As I have shown in much detail, it’s only possible to reach this conclusion by excluding most of the evidence and making up the rest.

The latest case in point is an article by Michael Kinsley at Slate (of which he is the founding editor). It’s entitled “Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” Those “victims” are the Jews, and his basic claim is that Israel long deceived the world (including little Mike Kinsley in his Detroit Jewish school in the 1960s), by peddling the storyline that the Arab refugees fled of their own accord in 1948. Israelis do acknowledge one “dreadful massacre,” at Deir Yassin, but “under the dubious logic of the exception that proves the rule, Deir Yassin has become in a way evidence of Israeli good behavior.” “Trouble is,” announces Kinsley,

all this is not even close to being true. Terror and the decisions by Arab families to flee were not regrettable side effects of the war, but the result of purposeful strategy by the Israelis. This strategy and its execution were endorsed by the Israeli leadership and not just rogue behavior by more ruthless Jewish militias (another common excuse).

And what is his prime example? Why, the “village” of Lydda of course, and the alleged “slaughter” carried out by the Palmah. And what is Kinsley’s source? Why, Ari Shavit of course. “Call me naive,” Kinsley writes, but he “was shocked to read” Shavit’s account of what happened there.

As Shavit describes it, with a lot of new research, the attack on Lydda was part of a purposeful strategy of Arab removal, approved at the highest levels. It had everything we have come to associate with a human rights atrocity: people who had been neighbors for generations turning on and slaughtering one another, Rwanda-style. Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire. Torturing people, allegedly to extract information, and then killing them when they’ve been squeezed dry. Going house to house and killing everyone discovered inside. And so on.

To read this, you would think that the Yiftah Brigade of the Palmah conducted itself like a gang of roving génocidaires.

Trouble is, to borrow Kinsley’s phrase, “all this is not even close to being true.” Kinsley, far from showing himself a careful sifter of history, clearly has been seduced by Shavit’s dramatic opera, mistaking it for history. And Kinsley then amplfies Shavit’s biases still further, for reasons known only to him, producing a grotesque defamation of Israel that goes even beyond Shavit’s account.

For example, take this point of supposed similarity between Lydda and Rwanda: “Crowding people into a church (or, in this case, a mosque) and then blowing it up or setting it on fire.” This originates in Shavit’s claim that Israeli troops detained Palestinian Arabs in a small mosque, and then fired an anti-armor rocket into it as an act of revenge, killing seventy persons.

But as I’ve shown, Israeli troops didn’t crowd anyone into that mosque. Civilians (probably including fighters) took refuge there, but the Israeli soldiers didn’t know that. From that mosque, those soldiers came under grenade attack, and they returned fire on what they believed to be the source of the attack. When they stormed the mosque and saw the carnage their fire had inflicted, it shocked them. This battle scenario bears no resemblance whatsoever to the deliberate herding of civilians into a church (or synagogue), and setting it ablaze or blowing it up. To insinuate a parallel between the battle in Lydda and the most heinous crimes against humanity, committed as part of a genocide, is simply obscene.

And it suggests that Kinsley didn’t even read Shavit carefully, for Shavit concludes his account with this admission: “The small-mosque massacre could have been a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events.” But for Kinsley, there are no accidents. He attributes a murderous intent to Israeli troops not because he can be sure of it, but because it suits his forced narrative of Israeli sin.

The notion that what happened in Lydda in July 1948 was a “human rights atrocity,” “Rwanda-style,” is preposterous. Just as absurd is Kinsley’s claim that Israel’s leaders had a “purposeful strategy” to engender Arab flight through “terror,” of which Lydda was an exemplar. Not even Benny Morris, cited by Kinsley as an authority, makes that claim. “There was no Zionist ‘plan’ or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population,” Morris has written. He has discovered no “policy or master-plan of expulsion; the Yishuv and its military forces did not enter the 1948 War, which was initiated by the Arab side, with a policy or plan for expulsion,” nor did they develop such a plan during the war. In his exchange with me, Morris took the view that the forced expulsion from Lydda wasn’t typical: “In most places in 1948, Arabs simply fled in the face of actual or approaching hostilities.” Kinsley’s “purposeful strategy” is the thesis of Israel-hater Ilan Pappé, whose credibility has been shredded by—yes, Benny Morris.

“Victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past.” If you’ve gleaned your own knowledge of 1948 from a Detroit Hebrew school curriculum circa 1960 and a (cursory) reading of Shavit’s My Promised Land, you don’t have the right to rewrite the past either. The latter source poses almost as many problems as the former. In Shavit’s role as Israel’s Pied Piper on campuses and in synagogues, he may be doing some good. But the Lydda chapter is doing damage, and keeps popping up as the authoritative word on Israel’s original sin. This, even though Morris and Efraim Karsh have savaged his Lydda premises, and I have punched holes in his Lydda claims, many of which also failed to get past the fact checkers at the New Yorker (on which, see my critique).

When Shavit is asked about the criticism of his Lydda chapter on one of his innumerable whistle stops, he either dodges the question or dismisses discussion of it as a waste of his valuable time. Actually, that’s fine with me. All he needs to do is deposit the tapes of his witnesses in a public archive, and give Israeli readers his final version of the Lydda chapter in Hebrew. The critics will take over from there.

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