By Norman Finkelstein
Jeffrey Goldberg is the recipient of numerous journalism awards and currently writes on the Middle East for The New Yorker magazine. On its surface his book Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across The Middle East Divide interweaves the memoir of an American Jew’s enchantment and subsequent disappointment with Israel, on the one hand, and the reportage of a knowing journalist covering the Israel-Palestine beat, on the other. Its main interest, however, is as a sophisticated work of ideology, one meriting more than passing attention. On a political level it registers the limits of what is currently permissible to acknowledge in enlightened liberal sectors of American Jewry, while on a personal level it registers the limits of what an enlightened believer in the faith can admit to himself. More broadly it signals the eclipse of liberal American Jewry’s love affair with the Jewish state, itself integral of the beginnings of a larger American estrangement from Israel.
Eschewing Thomas Friedman’s formula in From Beirut to Jerusalem (a book to which Prisoners bears obvious comparison), Goldberg does not quote a Fouad Ajami here and a Rabbi Hartmann there to lend credence to his prepackaged opinions but rather seems to speak from the authority of intimate knowledge. And indeed, Goldberg made aliyah in the 1980s and lived on a leftwing kibbutz, served as a military policeman in the Palestinian detention center Ketziot (Ansar Three) during the first intifada, and reported from the Occupied Territories during the Oslo years and the second intifada. He attached himself to one Palestinian from Gaza in particular named Rafiq Hijazi, the odyssey of this personal friendship mirroring and humanizing in Prisoners the larger drama unfolding in the Holy Land. On a side note, Goldberg depicts as an extraordinary act his forging of a personal bond with a Palestinian, and commentators have reacted in tones of hushed awe. Yet, although such a relationship between Jew and Arab might have raised eyebrows a few decades ago, in the real world it is by now a commonplace. In the hermetically sealed ghetto of American Jewry, however, it is still cause for bewilderment.
And yet it’s precisely because Goldberg seems to know his subject, and knows how to convey its truth to the reader, that, depending on one’s take, the cynicism of his bad faith and faux innocence or the thick-headedness of his refusal to see what’s right before his eyes (probably both) not only rankles but enrages. For it must be said that this is a quite wretched book which, for all its willingness to acknowledge ugly realities about Israel’s occupation, albeit realities which can no longer be concealed, nonetheless reiterates and, because of the seeming openness, revivifies the old pernicious myths and threadbare clichés sustaining the occupation, presenting them in a form less detached from reality yet processed to make them assimilable by his liberal American Jewish audience.
The heart of Goldberg’s book is his stint during the first intifada (1987-1993) as a military policeman in Ketziot (Ansar Three), an Israeli prison for Palestinian detainees located in the Negev desert. It is in Ketziot that Goldberg meets his Palestinian alter ego Rafiq, and Ketziot also serves as the metaphor for his larger claim captured in the book’s title that Israelis and Palestinians are both prisoners of the occupation. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, he reports, were arrested during the first intifada for both violent and nonviolent offenses. In an aside Goldberg observes that "habeas corpusis not a cherished value of Arab security services", yet it appears not to be much of an Israeli value either. He himself notes that "many of the prisoners" in Ketziot were "so-called administrative detainees. They had been put in jail without charge and without trial, by military order, for six-month terms, renewable at the discretion of a military judge, who did what the Shabak [Israel’s internal security police] told him to do.The administrative detainees included many of the intellectuals and lawyers of the Palestinian national movement". Human rights organizations reported that the number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons during each of the first years of the intifada hovered around 25,000 of whom 4-5,000 were administrative detainees.
"Ketziot was a kind of appalling joke," Goldberg writes, a miniature of the equally "absurd occupation". Palestinians were "allowed to organize their lives, even their political lives, more or less as they chose," he says, and "sometimes, it seemed as if we weren’t running a prison, but a vast arts-and-crafts workshop". In its annual reports, however, Amnesty described conditions at Ketziot as "harsh" throughout the intifada although reporting some improvement in 1990, when Goldberg joined the prison staff. Goldberg does acknowledge that it wasn’t all fun-and-games, noting the "systemic cruelty" of Israel’s ban on family visits–"Some of these men, many with children, did not see their families for two and three years"–and that "the harsh climate was in itself a form of cruelty".
Goldberg also alludes to Israeli prisons which had a meaner reputation than Ketziot such as Dahariya and Gaza Beach camp (Ansar Two). It is instructive to juxtapose Goldberg’s description of Gaza Beach camp (Rafiq had been held there before Ketziot) with that of an Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, who served there:
Goldberg: Here is where young Palestinians were assimilated into the apparatus of occupation, where the Shabak extracted from the Arabs what they could and then trucked them to the desert. The policy of Ansar Two was consistent: Prisoners being prepped for interrogation were made to stand on the basketball court under the sun for four, or five, or six hours. They were forced to raise their arms, and they were not allowed to sit, or drink. When Rafiq’s arms dropped from exhaustion, he was struck.Rafiq was smacked around a bit [during interrogation]. (pp. 210-12)
Shavit: Most [Palestinians] are awaiting trial; most were arrested because they were throwing stones or were said to be members of illegal organizations. Many are in their teens. Among them, here and there, are some boys who are small and appear to be very young.The prison has twelve guard towers. Some Israeli soldiers are struck–and deeply shaken–by the similarity between these and certain other towers, about which they have learned at school.[T]he unjust analogy with those other camps of fifty years ago won’t ago away.And I, too, who have always abhorred this analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hints at it, I can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong.Like a believer whose faith is cracking, I go over and over again in my mind the long list of arguments, the list of differences.But then I realize […] that the problem is not in the similarity–for no one can seriously think that there is a real similarity–but that there isn’t enough lack of similarity. The problem is that the lack of similarity isn’t strong enough to silence once and for all the evil echoes, the accusing images. Maybe the Shin Bet [Shabak] is to blame for this–for the arrests it makes and what it does to those arrested. For almost every night, after it has managed, in its interrogations, to "break" a certain number of young men, the Shin Bet delivers to the [soldiers] a list with the names of the friends of the young men.[Then] the soldiersgo out almost every night to the city andcome back with children of fifteen or sixteen years of age. The children grit their teeth. Their eyes bulge from their sockets. In not a few cases they have already been beaten.And soldiers crowd together in the "reception room" to look at them when they undress. To look at them in their underwear, to look at them as they tremble with fear. And sometimes they kick them–one kick more, before they put on their new prison clothes….Or maybe the doctor is to blame.
You wake him up in the middle of the night to treat one of those just brought in–a young man, barefoot, wounded, who looks as if he’s having an epileptic fit, who tells you that they beat him just now on the back and the stomach and over the heart. There are ugly red marks all over his body. The doctor turns to the young man and shouts at him. In a loud, raging voice he says: May you die! And then he turns to me with a laugh: May they all die! Or maybe the screams are to blame. At the end of the watch, you sometimes hear horrible screamsfrom the other side of thefence of the interrogation section,hair-raising human screams. Literally hair-raising.In Gaza our General Security Services [Shabak] therefore amount to a Secret Police, our internment facilities are cleanly run Gulags. Our soldiers are jailers, our interrogators torturers. In Gaza it’s all straightforward and clear. There’s no place to hide.
Shavit rated Gaza Beach "one of the best" Israeli prisons for Palestinians.
Goldberg treads gingerly on the subject of Israeli torture of Palestinian detainees.
In accordance with recommendations of an Israeli state commission, he reports, "some of the prisonerswere, in some sort of limited way, subject to ‘moderate physical pressure,’in pursuit of certain types of intelligence–ticking-bomb intelligence". Although recording the cruelty here and there of an aberrant Israeli soldier (almost always a Sephardic Jew ) or army unit, and occasionally quoting or paraphrasing a Palestinian detainee as alleging he was tortured, Goldberg prudently eschews use of the "t" word himself. Yet human rights organizations concluded that during the first intifada "Palestinians under interrogation were systematically tortured or ill-treated" (Amnesty International); "some eighty-five percent of persons interrogated by the [Shabak] were interrogated by methods constituting torture" (B’Tselem); and "the number of Palestinians tortured or severely ill-treated while interrogated during the intifada is in the tens of thousands–a number that becomes especially significant when it is remembered that the universe of adult and adolescent male Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is under three-quarters of one million" (Human Rights Watch). One police unit "specialized in interrogating at night with methods including severe beatings with wooden sticks and electric shocks" (Amnesty). To his credit Goldberg notes that "nearly everyone was found guilty in the Gaza military court" and that "the defense lawyers were not allowed to see the evidence collected against their clients." He neglects to mention however that in "many" instances the "primary evidence" used to convict Palestinian defendants was confessions obtained by "torture, or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (Amnesty).
It appears that Goldberg doesn’t consider the standard Israeli interrogation techniques torture. He is not at all averse, however, to deploring the identical Palestinian techniques as torture. Consider what he calls one of the "many creative methods of torture" used by Palestinian interrogators acting at the behest of the Palestinian Authority during the Oslo years: "In shabeh, a prisoner is bound in a kneeling position, his arms pulled back and tied to the ankles. The prisoner is then left hooded for hours. This torture causes hellish pain in the joints, and it stimulates an overwhelming desire to die". Can Goldberg possibly be unaware that shabeh was a routine Israeli form of torture repeatedly condemned in human rights reports? It was "no coincidence that the Palestinians tortured by the Palestinian Authority describe methods that are amazingly similar to the Shabak’s interrogation methods," Israeli journalist Gideon Levy observed. "Like several other things, we have bequeathed to them the art of torture, together with the concept of detention without trial."
On a couple of occasions Goldberg mentions that the punishment for even minor infractions at Ketziot was:
24, 48, or even 72 hours in solitary confinement, zinzana, in Arabic. The zinzana was the size of a refrigerator box, into which three, four, five or six prisoners were shoveled. The prisoners were seated on a cold and hard plastic floor, limbs draped over limbs, and they shat in a bucket that was emptied once a day. After a few days in the box, prisoners could no longer stand unaided. (p. 109; cf. p. 114, where he describes four Palestinians locked "in a space fit, at most, for two small dogs")
This Israeli method of torture was also repeatedly condemned in human rights reports. Although admitting that he personally sent prisoners to the zinzana, and although liberal in his outrage at the "cruelty" of the tortures Palestinians inflicted on each other, Golderg rejects (albeit indirectly) the insinuation that he himself might be an accessory to torture, if not a torturer himself. When the guards needed "someone to go solitary" for a minor infraction of prison rules, Goldberg recalls at one point , "twenty Arabs immediately volunteered." He processes this not as a demonstration of their solidarity and courage but rather as vindication that the "Arabs want to be our victim" and "the Geneva Conventionsaid nothing about prisoners who asked to be punished."
A supreme failing of Palestinians during the first intifada, in Goldberg’s view, is that they embraced violence and lacked appreciation of nonviolent resistance. He adverts to this theme at multiple junctures, it becoming a mantra of his book. Lamenting that he "had not yet seen" nonviolent resistance among Palestinians, Goldberg typically writes:
The idea did not seem to exist in their moral vocabulary. It was a shame and a waste that the Palestinians had blinded themselves to the ideas of Gandhi and King. If they hadn’t, they might have broken the occupation in a week. In my desire to convince Rafiq that violence was no solution, I asked him once to think about what would happen if ten thousand Palestinian men marched on an Israeli checkpoint, as Gandhi once marched on the salt sea. Imagine, I said, that these Palestinians resisted the temptation to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails, but instead simply sat in the road and blocked traffic, keeping settlers from their settlements and soldiers from their bases. It is quite possible that the Israelis would meet them with violence, just as the British met Gandhi’s followers with violence. But the Israelis would stop soon enough. I was sure of that. The Israelis, like the British soldiers of India, could not sustain such one-sided violence. Germans could slaughter the defenseless at close quarters, but not Jews–not most people, especially in front of television cameras. The Israelis would be forced to negotiate with you. (p. 140; cf. pp. 106, 160)
It is surely a curiosity that Goldberg witnessed first-hand the intifada yet "had not seen" any nonviolent resistance among the Palestinians.
It seems that he managed to miss the ubiquitous boycotts of Israeli goods, tax and commercial strikes, and strike days brutally suppressed by the Israel Defense Forces; for example, the highly publicized nonviolent tax resistance of the town of Beit Sahour, and the ensuing six-week long Israeli siege and pillage of the town. (A Security Council resolution "strongly deploringthe ransacking of the homes of inhabitants" of Beit Sahour "and the illegal and arbitrary confiscation ofproperty and valuables" was blocked by a lone United States veto.) He also managed to miss the hundreds of grassroots mass organizations ("popular committees") displacing Israeli rule nonviolently that cropped up in every sphere of Palestinian life from health and education to agriculture and the judiciary. "They were extraordinarily resilient; whenever their members were arrested, others rose to fill their place," Israeli military correspondents Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari recounted. "The fact is that by the spring of 1988, a sprawling network of popular committees was functioning in one form or another in every city, village, and camp, spreading the web of the uprising’s machinery to the farthest corners of the territories." Determined to crush these "seeds of self-government, scattered pockets of independence" on the pretext that they fomented violence, Israel "outlawed the popular committees and arrested hundreds of their members," and systematically wrecked the practical experiments in nonviolent civil disobedience; for example, "the campaign to encourage self-sufficiency by raising chickens, rabbits and vegetables fell apart when the [Israeli] Civil Administration closed the stations run by the agriculture committees."
The administrative detainees held in Ketziot included "Palestinian leaders who openly support the peace talks with Israel and dialogue to promote Palestinian-Israeli understanding" (B’Tselem), while those convicted in military courts fell victim to draconian Israeli military orders that criminalized and made punishable "by up to 10 years’ imprisonment every form of political expression in the Occupied Territories, including nonviolent forms of political activity" (Amnesty).
One reason Goldberg didn’t see any nonviolent resistance is perhaps that he suffered an optical impairment. "She had joined a group of foreigners, advocates of the Palestinian cause, who stood one day against a line of Israeli bulldozers," he writes of the death of Rachel Corrie during the second intifada. "She came too close to one and she was plowed under" (pp. 300-1). Just as the Twin Towers came too close to the airplanes and got plowed under.
Goldberg is precise on the number of "suspected collaboratorskilled by their brother Palestinians" during the first intifadayet, he is strangely silent on the balance-sheet for fatalities between Israelis and Palestinians, except that, in his telling, Israelis only used "rubber bullets" or "fired live rounds in the air".
Between December 1987 and September 1993, 1124 Palestinians were killed by Israelis as against 75 Israelis killed by Palestinians. In 1988 and again in 1989, for example, "over 260 unarmed Palestinian civilians, including children, were shot dead by Israeli forces, often in circumstances suggesting excessive use of force or deliberate killings" (Amnesty). To judge by these figures, Goldberg should perhaps have also preached to Israelis the virtue of nonviolence. During the intifada "it was illegal to fly th[e] flag," he reports, while "a Palestinian man holding a rifle would be shot and killed". In fact the official Israeli rules of engagement allowed for the killing of a Palestinian for hoisting the national flag or ignoring an order to halt while the unofficial or de facto rules of engagement were yet more lax. The few Israelis indicted in connection with Palestinian deaths were convicted on minor charges and received derisory punishments, whereas Palestinians convicted of throwing a stone were handed sentences of up to five years’ imprisonment.
Each year of the intifada thousands of Palestinians were "beaten by Israeli forces" and "many were punitively kicked or struck with clubs or rifle butts," according to human rights organizations. "The victims included people who refused to clear road-blocks or delete graffiti, or who were suspected of having thrown stones. Many suffered severe injuries, particularly fractures" (Amnesty). More than 50,000 Palestinian children required medical attention in the first years of the intifada due to "indiscriminate beating, tear-gassing and shooting" (Save the Children). In his distillation of these atrocities Goldberg simply reports that the daily routine of Israeli soldiers "consisted of chasing rock-throwing children". He recalls having sympathized with the "symbolic violence" of these diminutive stone-throwers until he himself was hit by a rock: "There was nothing symbolic about the pain, or the blood that ran down the back of my neck" –which no doubt justified "chasing" the perpetrators.
Other Israeli measures similarly escaped Goldberg’s notice. During the first intifada Israel demolished or sealed nearly nine hundred Palestinian homes. Although Israel was the only country in the world (except for Iraq under Saddam Hussein) that legally sanctioned house demolitions as a form of punishment, and although this practice was widely condemned (even a former Israeli Supreme Court justice called it "inhuman"), it merits not a single mention in Goldberg’s book. He does, however, manage to devote several dramatic pages to his "shock" at the alleged rape of a Palestinian teenager in Ketziot, which "sent me back to a persistent question: If this is what they do to their own people" (pp. 164-6). Israel’s indiscriminate killing, torture and beating of Palestinians and the demolition of their homes posed no such question in his mind, for the understandable reason that it never happened.
It is an abiding conceit of Goldberg’s book that, locked in mutual fear and suffering comparable deprivation, Israelis and Palestinians were equally prisoners of Ketziot, and accordingly the occupation: "we were both trapped in the same desert," "we were level with the Arabs in so many things–our food came off the same trucks, our tents were all antediluvian, we all coughed up the same desert dust," "we slept on the same kind of beds as the prisoners," "we all ate the same fruit, guards and prisoners alike". He even manages to fish out a former prisoner who is said to have proclaimed "You were our prisoners"; emphasis in original). So convinced was he of the mutuality of victimhood that it comes as a revelation to Goldberg when he is reminded that, unlike the prisoners, the guards "can go home on leave and then come back again". It can only be imagined his consternation were Goldberg capable of hearing and seeing the "hair-raising human screams," the "severe beatings with wooden sticks and electric shocks," the piles of human corpses, the countless homes demolished.
A most peculiar juxtaposition of Goldberg’s book is his singing the praises of gun Zionism to Jews on one page while singing the praises of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Palestinians on another. Like many an American Jew, Goldberg became enamored of Israel on account of its martial prowess. Recalling his first trip to the Holy Land, Goldberg emphasizes that what resonated for him most was Jews with guns, and not just .22s* but Uzis and M-16s and bigger guns than these, grenade-spitting guns, great barking machine guns. On a bus tour across the Galilee, we drove in the wake of a tank transport, a mammoth truck carrying a dead Jewish tank. A Jewish tank! And Jewish armored personnel carriers! It was a miracle. Enough of thinking and suffering. Let’s do some shooting.
His new-found hero is Ari Ben Canaan of Leon Uris’s Exodus, a "Hebrew (not, somehow, Jewish) warrior, brave and cold-eyed, who defended Jewish honor." The "lesson of the Shoah," Goldberg comes to realize, is that "it is easy to kill a unilaterally disarmed Jew but much harder to kill one who is pointing a gun at your face," while during target practice at IDF boot camp he relishes the prospect of avenging the anti-Semites who had ravaged the Jewish people and humiliated him in his youth. None of these ruminations, however, prevents Goldberg from expressing revulsion at the teachings of Muslim fanatics, who "build self-esteem" through bloody vengeance and for whom the virtue of Islam was its being a "warrior religion" that rejected the Christian value of "passive surrender" because "Muhammad would never have allowed himself to be humiliated". It is hard to make out the difference between this warrior religion and the one Goldberg worshipped after discovering Israel. Although intermittently registering some second thoughts about his initial fascination with violence, Goldberg is far from a convert to passive resistance. When a pacifist interlocutor of his questions the utility of his rifle, Goldberg’s not-very-Gandhian repartee is, "[I]t solves problems.It protects people from violence", and while ultimately disavowing force for its own sake, he reports being "still partial to fighting Jews".
It is likewise cause for perplexity that Goldberg never preaches to Israelis (and their American "supporters") the wonders of pacifism. Surely he didn’t forego the occasion for a lack of need. The IDF has occupied a "unique position" in Israeli society, writes Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, "comparable, if at all, only to the status the armed forces held in Germany from 1871 until 1945." Israel’s founders set as their goal "creating a race of warrior-settlers"; in the state that emerged, the "greatest compliment anyone could receive was that he was a ‘fighter’" and the "highest praise one could bestow on anything was to say that it was kmo mivsta tsvai (like a military operation)," while after the June 1967 war Israel "had become one huge military laboratory." This does not sound like King’s "beloved community." In this connection it merits noticing an Israeli army "joke" apparently so hilarious that Goldberg couldn’t resist including it in his book:
Two soldiers, infantry-men in the Golani Brigade, were on patrol in Hebron, getting ready to enforce the six p.m. curfew. The streets were mostly empty already, but one of the soldiers saw an old Arab man hobbling down the lane in the distance. The soldier dropped to one knee, took aim, and fired, taking off the old man’s head. The other soldier watched this in shock. "What are you doing?" he cried. "It’s not six yet."
"I know," said the first soldier. "But I knew where that guy lived. He never would have made it home in time."
A real knee-slapper.
Consider, finally, the tenets of Israeli security doctrine. According to former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies Zeev Maoz, the anchor of this doctrine is periodic resort to disproportionate firepower. Because key policymakers believe that "Arabs understand only a language of force," he explains, Israel (in their view) "must demonstrate every so often that it is strong and able and willing to use force." On the other hand, Maoz observes, "one almost never hears in Israeli strategic circles that perhaps the reliance on military force as the principal (or even the only) instrument of policy is fundamentally misconceived." Echoing van Creveld, Maoz points to the IDF as the principal instrument of national integration and social cohesion, the "matrix of national identity." In order to preserve the army’s centrality in Israeli society, as well as to mobilize the population and divert its attention from internal conflicts, Israeli leaders have fostered a "siege mentality," promoted "militarism," and preferred war to peace. Indeed, Maoz reports that they have utilized murderous reprisal raids for combat training and nurturing esprit de corps, and the theater of war and targeted assassinations for testing high-tech weaponry. "Israel’s decision makers tended to overwhelmingly and systematically rely on the use of force," he concludes, as a favorite solution to both military and political challenges. This culture of trigger happiness characterized all of Israel’s governments, regardless of period and of the person or party in power.
But it is the undoing of Palestinians, according to Goldberg, that that they "see violence as a panacea" and have "let violence into every corner of their lives". If they would only emulate Israel.
Were Palestinians to practice nonviolence, Goldberg contends, Israel would quickly enough be forced to negotiate. This is because, like Britons but unlike Germans, Israelis "could not sustain such one-sided violence, especially in front of television cameras." The basis of Goldberg’s faith, however, is unclear. The first intifada was a "mass civil uprising," Schiff and Yaari recalled, "not a war fought with tanks, planes, and artillery or a border skirmish with armed men, but a challenge posed without weapons, a contest against bottles, stones, and firebombs." One of Israel’s early acts of retaliation was to deport the Palestinian-American pacifist Mubarak Awad of the Center for the Study for Non-violence. Fully seventeen months into this popular civil resistance "without weapons," and notwithstanding the massive sustained force Israel had already brought to bear to break it, more than half of all Israelis supported the deployment of still "stronger measures" by the IDF while "an overwhelming 72 percentsaw no contradiction between the army’s handling of the uprising and ‘the nation’s democratic values.’" It is of course possible that if Palestinians had found the inner wherewithal to stay the course yet longer in the face of the IDF’s brutality, fissures would have opened up in Israeli society, just as, after years of acquiescence in anti-Jewish measures, Germans recoiled at the raw violence unleashed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht due to an alloy of revulsion and embarrassment. Thus, Israel’s liberal, cosmopolitan milieus such as the High Court of Justice have occasionally proven to be sensitive to international opinion, the Court reversing its prior authorization of torture, for instance, after an outpouring of worldwide condemnation.
For the nonviolent civil disobedience Goldberg counsels to succeed, its practice and the violence being used to crush it must be made widely known. It is a supreme irony lost on Goldberg that it is his manner of ignoring Palestinian civil disobedience and airbrushing Israeli violence that has doomed this tactic to failure.
* * *
Goldberg’s account of the rise of Hamas and the second intifada (2000-2006) conforms to the pattern already set. He repeatedly condemns Hamas, and concomitantly Palestinian society, for being "ravaged by a cult of death". The key manifestation of this death cult has been, of course, the suicide bombers. Although Goldberg makes passing reference to Palestinians killed during the second intifada, the dramatic core of his narrative is these suicide bombings, the deranged perpetrators and the decimated victims. Goldberg surely has title to his outrage at the "bestial manifestations" of Hamas’s ideology. But shouldn’t he have mentioned somewhere that "Israel’s disproportionate response to what had started as a popular uprising with young unarmed men confronting Israeli soldiers armed with lethal weapons fuelled the intifada beyond control and turned it into an all-out war" (former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami); that the first Hamas suicide bombing during the second intifada didn’t occur until five months into Israel’s relentless bloodletting (Israeli forces fired one million rounds of ammunition just during the first few days, while the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed during the first weeks was 20:1); and that four times as many Palestinians as Israelis, overwhelmingly civilians on both sides, were killed during the second intifada (4046 as compared to 1017 persons)? In 2006 Israel restored its, as it were, cult of life ratio of killing 30 Palestinians for each Israeli killed (660 as compared to 23 persons).
Goldberg is appalled by a Hamas leader’s "calm unperturbed by the thought of bleeding" Israeli children. He might also have mentioned–but doesn’t–the widely reported counsel of Major General (subsequently Chief of Staff) Dan Halutz to the Israeli pilots who dropped a one-ton bomb on a densely populated civilian neighborhood killing nine Palestinian children: "Guys, sleep well tonight. By the way, I sleep well at night, too." Goldberg is shocked at any imputation of similarity between the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli children: "For God’s sake, we don’t try to kill children". Fully 811 Palestinian children were killed during the second intifada, which was more than the total number of Israeli civilians killed (711, of whom 109 were children); in 2006, 141 Palestinian children were killed as compared to 17 Israeli civilians of whom one was a child. For the want of trying to kill Palestinian children it would seem that Israelis were awfully good at it. In fact unarmed Palestinian demonstrators killed by Israeli soldiers were "on many occasionsdeliberately targeted" (Amnesty), while in other cases these unarmed demonstrators, a large proportion of whom were children, fell victim to reckless–i.e., "indiscriminate," "excessive," "disproportionate"–use of force. It further merits notice that these latter deaths did not fundamentally differ from intentional killings. "Indiscriminate attacks differ from direct attacks against civilians," Israel’s leading authority on international law, Yoram Dinstein, observes in that "the attacker is not actually trying to harm the civilian population": the injury to the civilians is merely a matter of "no concern to the attacker." From the standpoint of LOIAC [Law of International Armed Conflict], there is no genuine difference between a premeditated attack against civilians (or civilian objects) and a reckless disregard of the principle of distinction: they are equally forbidden.
Goldberg might also have mentioned–but doesn’t–the notorious case of the Israeli captain who in October 2004 fired two bullets at point blank range into the head of a 13-year-old Palestinian schoolgirl while she was lying on the ground already injured, and then, after starting to walk away, turned back to riddle her body with at least 20 more bullets, including seven to her head. The officer was subsequently acquitted of all charges, received hefty monetary compensation from the State and a promotion in his rank–clearly because, for God’s sake, he did not try to kill her.
After reporting the horrific Hamas suicide bombing at Netanya in March 2002, Goldberg ridicules the "credulous members of the American Colony press corps" who, during Operation Defensive Shield that followed the bombing, "accused the [Israeli] army of committing a massacre" in Jenin: "This was the opposite of the truth: The army in Jenin killed the makers of massacres". He might have mentioned–but doesn’t–that Israel did in fact commit "war crimes" (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty) during its incursion, including the flattening of large swaths of the refugee camp after the fighting was already over, leaving 4,000 Palestinians homeless. One of the "makers of massacres" killed by Israeli forces was "Kamal Zgheir, a fifty-seven-year-old wheelchair-bound man who was shot and run over by a tank on a major road outside the camp on April 10, even though he had a white flag attached to his wheelchair" (Human Rights Watch)–no doubt because he was en route to a suicide bombing.
Goldberg heaps contempt on Palestinian political leaders who, he alleges, used civilians, including their own children and grandchildren, as human shields to deter Israeli attacks during the second intifada. Thus he ingeniously manages to invert Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations, which constitute a "war crime" (Public Committee Against Torture in Israel), into instances of Palestinian pusillanimity. These Palestinian leaders were "unconstrained by Western notions of chivalric behavior," he continues, because it was "assumed, correctly, that Israel would respect" them. Unsurprisingly Goldberg doesn’t mention that "scores of men, women and children bystanders have been killed and hundreds have been injured in the course of assassinations or attempted assassinations of Palestinians by the Israeli army.Claims that efforts are made not to harm bystanders are inconsistent with the practice of carrying out attacks on busy roads and densely populated areas" (Amnesty). One third of the 500 Palestinians killed in the course of targeted assassinations during the second intifada were civilian bystanders. What’s more, Goldberg doesn’t mention Israel’s "systematically coercing Palestinian civilians" as human shields (Human Rights Watch), for example, chivalrously ordering Palestinian civilians to "walk in front of soldiers to shield them from gunfire, while the soldiers hold a gun behind their backs and sometimes fire over their shoulders" (B’Tselem).
The difference between Palestinian and Israeli violence during the second intifada, Goldberg explains, "is the difference between action and reaction." Indeed, he expresses indignation when a fellow journalist implies to him that a Hamas suicide bombing might be retaliatory. According to Maoz, however, Israel methodically used targeted assassinations during the second intifada to provoke Palestinian retaliation, thereby justifying massive resort to force against them:
On four separate occasions Israel violated an implicit cease-fire that the Palestinians imposed upon themselves by assassinations that caused escalation.In each of these cases, the Palestinian response was a wave of suicide bombings that resulted in Israeli encirclement of the major population centers, entry into the Palestinian cities and refugee camps, mass arrests, numerous house demolitions, and long curfews of the Palestinian population.
In addition to condemning the Palestinian death cult, Goldberg expresses extreme irritation at the Palestinians’ sensitivity to their personal dignity: "Ah, yes, humiliation: the Arabs, and their insufferable egos, as fragmented as old bones"; "The smart officers [in Ketziot] understood the importance of providing their prisoners, who came to humiliation so easily, with the simulacrum of dignity". Yet, the prisoners in Ketziot, although having been degraded and tortured (including by Goldberg), although their relatives had been maimed and murdered, although their homes had been demolished and their lives wrecked–nonetheless these same prisoners, according to Goldberg, received him warmly during the Oslo years when he returned to the Occupied Territories, swapping stories with him about Ketziot "like old bunkmates from summer" and saying "all the things about peace and compromise that I hoped to hear". "We don’t care what people did in the past," a Palestinian leader tells him. "We’re not going back to the past". So smug is Goldberg in his disdain of Palestinians clinging to their dignity, when presumably they should have acquiesced in their degradation, that he can’t see that perhaps he–Israelis, Jews–might have something to learn from them about forgiveness notwithstanding the multitudinous horrors and humiliations Israelis have inflicted.
* * *
To make sense of his personal narrative Goldberg situates it in a broader context. The core of his analysis is that the Israel-Palestine conflict springs from anti-Semitism: the Islamic world cannot abide a thriving Jewish state in its midst. "It was terribly hard for Muslims to accept," he explains,
that their inferiors–the Jews–now ruled Palestine. After the defeat at Khaybar, the Jews put up no resistance to the expansion of Islam. They accepted their second-class status. They were protected in some measure by their passivity….But then came Zionism, a movement that demanded for Jews equal rights as a nation. This made no sense in the worldview of many Arab Muslims, who, if secretly insecure about their primacy in the world, were at least sure that they were better than the Jews. The cognitive dissonance was too great. Here was Rafiq, one of God’s chosen people, possessor of His final truth, the foe of His betrayers, those contemptible Jews, and yet reality presented him undeniable truths: a vital, powerful Israel, Palestine in a state of abjection, and a broken-down Muslim world, afflicted by a spectrum of troubles.
In this framework the "institutional focus" of Hamas becomes "the murder of Jews," and its members would want to kill Goldberg "merely because I was Jewish". To buttress his case Goldberg has scoured the hadith (commentaries on Mohammed’s life) for anti-Semitic invective, getting so carried away in his monomania that he unwittingly recycles the same, frequently quoted, anti-Semitic hadith on different pages of book (pp. 159, 238, 245).
It is instructive to juxtapose Goldberg’s contextualization against that of serious historians of the conflict. Whereas Goldberg subtitles his book A Muslim & A Jew Across The Middle East Divide, Israeli historian Benny Morris puts the accent in the subtitle of his standard study Righteous Victims not on the religious but rather the political dimension, A History Of The Zionist-Arab Conflict. Goldberg maintains that Zionists "demanded for Jews equal rights as a nation," and this aspiration evoked violent hostility. Morris contends, however, that "the heart of Zionism andthe root of the Zionist-Arab conflict" was that "from the start, the Zionists wished to make the area of Palestine a Jewish state" but "unfortunately" Palestine contained an overwhelmingly Arab population. To resolve this dilemma the Zionist movement had to expel the indigenous population, which perforce triggered Arab opposition to it:
[T]ransfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism–because it sought to transform a land which was "Arab" into a "Jewish" state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population; and because this aim automatically produced resistance among the Arabs which, in turn, persuaded the Yishuv’s leaders that a hostile Arab majority or large minority could not remain in place if a Jewish state was to arise or safely endure.
"The fear of territorial displacement and dispossession," Morris concludes, "was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism." In his authoritative study of Palestinian nationalism, the Israeli historian Yehoshua Porath similarly concludes that the "major factor nourishing" Arab anti-Semitism "was not hatred for the Jews as such but opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine." He goes on to argue that, if Arab opposition to Zionism took on a religious coloration, it was because the Jewish community in Palestine after massive Zionist immigration became indistinguishable from Zionism, and "a large measure of sophistication was required to make the older distinction" between Jews and Zionists, and "it was unreasonable to hope that the wider Arab populationwould maintain this distinction." In this regard it might be noted that Goldberg indicts Hamas for having "transformed the dispute between Arabs and Israelis into one between Muslims and Jews," because "there was no category called ‘Israel’ in [their] bifurcated understanding of the world". But neither is there a category called "Israel" apart from Jews in Zionist ideology and practice, Israel being both legally defined and upheld by Zionist proponents as the State of the Jewish People. If Hamas conflates Jews with Israel, it might be because Israel and its supporters themselves insist on this conflation.
Although grounding the Israel-Palestine conflict in Muslim loathing (and envy) of Jews is of dubious heuristic value, and although such a framework would seem to resemble the "idiosyncratic, narcissistic history" that he accuses Palestinians of peddling, it does, for Goldberg, serve the useful purpose of reversing perpetrator and victim and thereby exonerating Israel of culpability for the ensuing bloodshed. Insofar as the only scholarly authority Goldberg invokes in his book is Bernard Lewis, it is perhaps unsurprising that Goldberg’s explanation of the conflict echoes his. Lewis has maintained that Arab anti-Semitism derives principally from its "feeling of humiliation" after having suffered successive military defeats at the hands of Israel. To provide "solace to wounded feelings," Arabs have imputed a preternatural evil to Jews. Arab animosity toward Jews, Lewis emphatically concludes, "has little or no bearing on the rights and wrongs of the Palestine conflict." This is the upshot of Goldberg’s account as well: if Palestinians resort to violence against Israel, it is not due to Israeli actions but to an irrational hatred of Jews; and if the conflict is finally to be settled, it is not Israelis who must cease the occupation but Palestinians who must cease to be anti-Semitic. Thus it is not the brutalities of the Israeli occupation, Goldberg asserts, that drives Palestinians to commit suicide bombings, but rather it is because these Palestinians are "followers of Moloch, the pagan god, who, the Bible tells us, demanded the lives of Jerusalem’s children" (and, of course, because they fantasize about "the seventy-two virgins"), just as it is solely for the "crime of living in his homeland" that an Israeli is "hunted by murderers". And it is not Israel’s refusal fully to withdraw from the Occupied Territories that is the main obstacle to peace, according to Goldberg, but Palestinians’ inability fully to accept "the presence of Jews in their midst," and to make "concessions to a Jew, much less a Jewish state, [which] were an abomination" to them.
Once having established that the root and branch of the conflict is Arab anti-Semitism, it stands to reason for Goldberg that all criticism of Israel must also spring from anti-Semitism. For those doubting such an inference he adduces this evidence from Red Cross visits to Ketziot to prove that it "never much liked the Jews": "I noticed a pattern in the selection of reading material. The ICRC supplied many of Orwell’s works, along with a biography of Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and The Flies, by Sartre". On its most sinister interpretation this "pattern" might suggest that the Red Cross was misguidedly fomenting insurrection, but how does it demonstrate Jew-hatred? Goldberg acknowledges the absurdity of Israel banning Hamlet in the prison because in his famous soliloquy the Prince of Denmark contemplates to "take arms against a sea of troubles", yet he sees no absurdity in alleging that the Red Cross is anti-Semitic because of the "implicit endorsement of violent resistance" in Sartre’s play. On Goldberg’s reckoning, his mocking of Israel’s censorship makes him an anti-Semite. To prove the hypocrisy of a former chairwoman of the American board of Amnesty International Goldberg notes that "she would often complain about Israel’s cavalier treatment of Palestinian universities on the West Bank, for instance, without noting that there were no universities on the West Bank at all before the arrival of the Israelis," while earlier he alleges that "Israelis built the first universities in Gaza and the West Bank. Leaving aside that the mandate of Amnesty bears strictly on current human rights abuses, in fact Palestinian universities in the Occupied Territories were built not by Israel but with mostly Arab monies. Although Israel has repeatedly shut them down for long stretches, it perhaps deserves plaudits for not having demolished them, yet.
It is only by confronting the real grievances of Palestinians (and Arabs) borne of their historical collision with Zionism–grievances the existence of which Goldberg seeks to deny and discredit–that one can ever hope to reduce the conflict to manageable proportions and concomitantly attenuate the religious overtones it has taken on. "For the Palestinians, the existence of Israel is bound to remain a trauma for as far as one can think ahead," the Zionist historian Walter Laqueur sensibly observes,
the loss of part of their homeland being the greatest injustice which can be put right only by violence. It is only natural that they will want this state to cease to exist. Once they have a state of their own, however, problems of daily life will loom large and much of the energy will have to be invested in making this state work. The great urge to reconquer what was lost will not disappear, but it will not be pursued as in the days when this was the only issue. The same is true in particular with regard to the other Arab and Muslim countries and the Muslim communities in Europe.Once the Palestinians have a viable stateand once Israel has taken other steps to accommodate Muslim interests–such as the internationalization of the holy places in Jerusalem–there is a reasonable chance that Arab anti-Semitism will decrease even though it will not disappear.
Although professing to deplore Arab anti-Semitism, by propounding an apologia of pristine Zionist innocence and murderous Muslim ressentiment, Goldberg in fact diminishes the "reasonable chance" of reducing the conflict’s derivative anti-Semitic component.
Goldberg’s rendering of the "peace process" is cut from the same cloth as his analysis of the conflict’s root cause. The Palestinian leadership and people bear, in his view, primary responsibility for the failure to achieve peace. If Goldberg cleaves closely to Bernard Lewis in his analysis of the conflict’s origins, his (unacknowledged) mentor in analyzing the peace process is Dennis Ross, whom he echoes on points both large and small.
The story, as Goldberg (and Ross before him) tells it, goes like this. During the first intifada the PLO finally took the decision "to accept Israel’s existence," while "Israel was educated by [Palestinians’] stones" and "six years of intifada had convinced Israelis of the futility of occupation." This process of mutual accommodation culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accord when Palestinians "adopted, for the first time in their national life, a realistic goal [of] the establishment of a state next to Israel rather than in place of Israel," and Rabin was "trying to lead his people to the Promised Land, and the Palestinians as well. He died giving birth to an independent Palestine." The disastrous second climax in the peace process came at Camp David in 2000 when "the misanthrope Yasser Arafat with a superficial largeness of spirit" and "the gallant general Ehud Barak, who put peace at the forefront of his capacious mind" met to negotiate a final settlement. Barak made Arafat the famous generous offer of "90 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza," was even "willing to sacrifice a piece of our holiest city in order to gain peace," whereas "Arafat left Camp David without even making Barak a counteroffer."
After the Camp David summit collapsed, Goldberg continues, Palestinians acting at Arafat’s behest launched the second intifada "to undo the outcome of the 1948 war, the war that returned my people home." On the Israeli side in stark contrast even Ariel Sharon had "changed knows that sacrifices have to be made…knows that compromises have to be made." Indeed, Goldberg relates the touching story of an Israeli settler whose son was murdered by Palestinians, yet "Should the day come when the Muslims seem ready for peace, he said, he would be willing to hand over Tekoa to his neighbors." Herewith, according to Goldberg, lies the crux of the problem: in the "House of Islam" nowhere were to be found "right-hearted people" such as this beautiful Israeli settler "who could see the tears of Jews as well as the tears of Muslims" while "the irreducible truth remained" that no Israeli offer would be "enough to satiate the Palestinians". In the book’s final pages a glimmer of hope is nonetheless espied that his Palestinian interlocutor Rafiq might yet scale Goldberg’s–Israel’s–peaks of mutual tolerance, respect and generosity.
It should first be noted that Goldberg is not altogether consistent in his presentation. He states that the PLO "accepted Israel’s existence" in 1988 but then avers that it "for the first time" recognized Israel in 1993. Similarly he states that "six years of intifada could have been avoided–Ketziot need never have been built–if Israel had conceded to the Palestinians in 1987 what it conceded to them in 1993" , which seems to suggest that Palestinians were ready to live in peace with Israel already before the first intifada. These inconsistencies point to bigger problems in Goldberg’s account of the peace process.
An international consensus began crystallizing in the mid 1970s to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) and subsequent U.N. resolutions affirming a Palestinian right to self-determination, the broad international consensus called for Arab recognition of Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Although Israel (backed by the U.S.) persistently opposed this two-state settlement, the PLO signaled support for it in multiple venues long before the first intifada (let alone the 1993 Oslo Accord). Indeed, it was because the PLO sought "the establishment of a state next to Israel rather than in place of Israel" already in the early 1980s that Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. "Destroying the PLO as a political force capable of claiming a Palestinian state on the West Bank," Israeli strategic analyst Avner Yaniv concludes, was "the raison d’être of the entire operation."
Although it is true that "Israel was educated by [Palestinians’] stones" during the first intifada, the lesson it learnt wasn’t the "futility of occupation" but rather the futility of maintaining the occupation on its own. The purpose of the negotiations culminating in the Oslo Accord, according to Ben-Ami, was to recruit the PLO as "Israel’s collaborator in the task of stifling the intifada and cutting short what was clearly an authentically democratic struggle for Palestinian independence." It was the belief of Israeli leaders that the PLO’s desperate straits after the 1991 Gulf War would render Arafat amenable to a settlement that sacrificed "vital Palestinian aspirations such as the right of self-determination" and, concomitantly, allowed Israel to secure "strategic portions of, and key settlement areas in, the West Bank." Whereas Goldberg solemnly proclaims that Rabin "died giving birth to an independent Palestine," Ben-Ami concludes quite the contrary that "Rabin was less of a peace architect than some commentators believed him to be, neither Rabin nor, especially, Peres wanted the autonomy to usher in a Palestinian state," and Maoz similarly reports that Rabin’s "vision of the final status settlement with the Palestinians" was "very narrow, consisting ofthe establishment of a Palestinian entity that was less than a state."
In his praise of Barak’s offer to Palestinians of a large percentage of the Occupied Territories and even a "piece" of Jerusalem, Goldberg neglects to mention that, by right and by consensus, Palestinians were entitled to the whole of the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem. The generous Israeli offer was actually a land grab which would also have fragmented the West Bank. In fact judged against the standard of international law, all the concessions at Camp David–on borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees–came from the Palestinian side. The impasse at Camp David was due not to Palestinian but Israeli recalcitrance. "If I were a Palestinian," Ben-Ami, one of Israel’s chief negotiators at Camp David, later observed, "I would have rejected Camp David as well," while Maoz concludes that the "substantial concessions" Israel demanded of Palestinians at Camp David "were not acceptable and could not be acceptable." Goldberg also neglects to mention that negotiations between Israel and the PLO resumed after the collapse of the Camp David summit but, although a final settlement was apparently within reach, the "gallant" Barak abruptly terminated them.
It is true that after taking office in 2002 Ariel Sharon came to support a Palestinian state, but Goldberg neglects to mention what sort of state Sharon had in mind. The "choice" Sharon offered Palestinians, according to The Economist, was between a "Swiss-cheese state, comprising most of the West Bank but riddled with settlements," and Israel "pulling out from up to 40% or 50% of the West Bank’s territory unilaterally while keeping most of its settlements." Goldberg postulates that the fundamental obstacle to peace has been the Palestinian people’s failure to reach the epiphany of Sharon and Israeli settlers, that mutual coexistence on the basis of the two-state settlement is preferable to interminable war. However, according to Meron Benvenisti, a leading Israeli authority on the Occupied Territories, "most Palestinians" support a two-state settlement on the June 1967 borders "as long as [the Palestinian state] enjoys all the trappings of sovereignty and is free of settlers," whereas "the majority of Israelis who ostensibly support a Palestinian state are vehemently opposed" to such a Palestinian state but instead "support an entity that will have partial control over about half the West Bank, with no control over the border crossings, immigration policies, water resources, coastal waters, and airspace."
The "irreducible truth" of the peace process would seem to be that no amount not of Israeli concessions but of Israeli crumbs will satiate Palestinians.
-Norman Finkelstein’s most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press). Citations for this essay can be found on his website: www.NormanFinkelstein.com