Archive for category Sandbox

Grist for Israel’s defamers

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on July 30.

Censored Voices posterFor those who have followed the discussion of my essay on the documentary film Censored Voices, I bring your attention to my “last word” on the subject at Mosaic Magazine. There I suggest that the film is fairly close on the spectrum to Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” (in his bestselling book My Promised Land and in The New Yorker), which I dissected at length a year ago, also at Mosaic Magazine. That’s a resemblance worth further elaboration, so here it is.

Shavit purports to reveal the details of a forgotten Israeli massacre of Palestinians in July 1948, which he rediscovered by interviewing Israeli veterans twenty years ago. For his account, he went back to his tapes. The director of Censored Voices, Mor Loushy, purports to reveal the censored details of Israeli war crimes committed in June 1967 against Palestinians and other Arabs—crimes she rediscovered in tapes of discussions among Israeli soldiers.

The notion of hidden war crimes preserved on privately-held tapes is almost irresistable. Is anyone bothered that no one else has access to these tapes, which (like all evidence) need to be scrutinized critically? Does anyone care if the case for war crimes rests on isolated quotes, summations, and soundbites? I’ve called on Shavit and Loushy to place all their material in a public archive where it can be examined by historians. It’s reprehensible to put these “crimes” on the public agenda, yet continue to monopolize the supposed evidence for them.

Both Shavit and Loushy use numbers—in fact, the same number—to embed their narratives in the minds of readers or viewers. Shavit claims that Israeli soldiers, in the course of a broader massacre, cut down seventy persons who had taken refuge in a mosque in Lydda—a number he repeats five times in his book. This is what I call a sticky statistic. When I told a friend that I would be looking closely at the mosque “massacre,” he replied: “Where seventy were killed, right?” I was taken aback: the statistic, through its repetition, had stuck. As I later showed, the “seventy” isn’t attested by any source except local Palestinian lore, and contemporary Israeli sources put the number at less than half of that. (They also totally contradict the “massacre” claim.)

Loushy (and her partner and producer Daniel Sivan) use the same number to describe the scale of the “brutal censorship” that kept the Six-Day War “crimes” secret for so long. They allege that seventy percent of the original testimonies of soldiers were cut by the Israeli military censor in 1967, and thus consigned to oblivion. (For example, Sivan repeats the figure twice in this one interview.) This statistic is also sticky, and it has surfaced in just about every review of the film, as well as in the Economist, where you expect statistics to have been vetted. As I show, this “seventy” is a fiction. The extent of official censorship of the original testimonies, according to a careful assessment by their foremost historian, was negligible.

The agonized soldiers, the forgotten tapes, and the memorable numbers are all vehicles to deliver this message: Israel is guilty of crimes in the two wars that gave it independence and its current borders, 1948 and 1967. It is too late for individuals to be tried for these crimes, but there must be atonement. For Shavit and Loushy, that atonement is self-evident: Israel must end the “occupation.” Only thus can it cleanse itself of sins.

The ascendence of this argument in the Israeli mainstream left isn’t accidental. The Second Intifada, the debacle of Gaza, Palestinian refusal to talk—all of these have undercut the rationale for peace as a transaction between Israelis and Palestinians. How can Israelis and Jews be persuaded that a Palestinian state is still an urgent necessity—so much so that it might even justify unilateral withdrawal? Some invoke demography, but others instill guilt. Yes, a Palestinian state is a huge risk. Yes, there is no partner. Yes, the rockets may fall. Yes, the blood may flow. But if we end the “occupation,” we will cleanse ourselves of guilt. If this is the aim of such revelations, then the desired effect is only enhanced by exaggerating the “crimes,” ripping them out of context, and claiming they were somehow covered up.

This is the present-day purpose of these historical exposés. But that isn’t necessarily their present-day effect. Israel’s critics adduce the claims of Shavit and Loushy as evidence that Israel repeatedly commits and covers up the same crimes. Israel’s history, writes one defamer (while generously quoting from Shavit), is “a history of Lyddas piling up into a mountain, remembered or almost forgotten except by the survivors.” A reviewer of Loushy’s film insists that “year after year since 1967, including in recent weeks, Palestinians, with faces and names, are still expelled, imprisoned without trial and killed.”

Incredibly, both Shavit and Loushy are oblivious to this use of their work. Shavit: “Even the most difficult parts of my book were not used by Israel’s enemies because they were afraid to quote something that is written by a really devoted Zionist.” Loushy: “I find it difficult to believe that someone would attack Israel because of the film.” Shavit and Loushy grossly underestimate the resourcefulness of Israel’s enemies, who will mine any vein for historical evidence of Israeli misdeeds and then deploy it to condemn Israel in the present. This isn’t a reason to avoid research critical of Israel’s history. It is a reason to establish facts scrupulously, from a full range of sources, and put them in broader context. Famed journalists and beginning directors don’t get a pass on that.

Much of Israel’s self-critical output makes its way to discussions at American synagogues and Sabbath tables. Even sophisticated audiences often take too much of it at face value. As Censored Voices moves into Jewish film festivals and American theaters, I’ll be watching to see who passively accepts it and who reports the evidence that its very premise is fabricated. I’m guessing most viewers won’t question what they see on the screen. How many is “most”? Oh, probably around seventy percent.

(Again, my “last word” at Mosaic Magazine, here.)

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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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