Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars
by Yaacov Lozowick
Doubleday. 304 pp. $26.00
In April 2002, Yaacov Lozowick, the director of archives at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, was to appear at a public ceremony where an aged Israeli woman would make a gift of the letters she had received as a teenager from her mother, who had been trapped in Europe and died at Auschwitz. The woman did not show up. Her grandson, a soldier, had been killed that morning in the West Bank city of Jenin during an Israeli counterattack on the terrorist cells that had lately murdered 29 people at a Passover seder in Netanya.
As the battle in Jenin ended, synagogues were being firebombed in France, European intellectuals were accusing the Israel Defense Forces of “genocidal” counterterrorist tactics, and the United Nations was setting up an inquiry into war crimes committed by—Israel. When Lozowick visited the mourning grandmother a few days later, he recalls, “She asked me if she was losing her grip on reality or was it the world? I assured her it was the world.”
Lozowick wrote Right to Exist partly to rally compatriots like this grandmother. But mainly he wants to give an accounting to “the world”—to the demonstrators and the headline writers who incessantly question Israel’s morality no matter how ferocious or frequent the attacks against it and no matter how measured its response. Many Israelis might well look on Lozowick’s project—to prove that “Zionism has mostly tried to be moral”—as defensive, foolish, even pathetic. But Lozowick, who was himself active for decades in Israel’s peace movement, has a passion for rational argument, and a faith that it can (at certain rare moments) change the minds of even the most hardened adversaries.
Lozowick’s own mind has changed. The collapse of the Oslo peace process, which he had backed from its inception in 1993, made him despair of Palestinian good will. Western indifference toward (or, worse, sympathy for) the terror campaign mounted against Israel since September 2000 led him to a public reassessment of his earlier views, starting in this magazine (“A Jerusalem Diary,” May 2001). Even today he remains unstintingly critical of certain Israeli military excesses over the decades—in Kibiya in 1953 (“clearly a war crime”), Kfar Kassem in 1956 (“murders”), and Lebanon, where he served, in 1982 (a “moral catastrophe”). But after years of viewing Ariel Sharon as the living symbol of Israeli military hubris, of the “transformation of weak but moral Jews into immoral power users,” he now wishes to explain to non-Israeli readers why he ended up voting for him.
Lozowick treats Israel’s clashes with its Arab neighbors in straightforward chronological order, starting with proto-Zionist settlements of the 19th century and culminating with the suicide-bombing campaigns of the last three years. His goal is not to rehearse an old story but to highlight paradoxes and poorly remembered incidents that clarify Israel’s current predicament.
He dwells, for example, on the 1929 massacre at Hebron, in which local Arabs killed a tenth of the centuries-old Jewish community. The victims were not Zionist newcomers, and Israel was not yet a state. Therefore, Lozowick concludes, there must have been some significant tradition of anti-Semitic violence in Palestine that existed independently of the Jewish state, and it is reasonable to assume a relation between it and the anti-Semitism that led to the expulsion of virtually all Jews from Arab lands after 1948. In light of this history, Lozowick proceeds to address what he sees as a false argument advanced against Israel’s right to exist in our own day: that, in being forced to tolerate a Jewish state on Arab land, Palestinians have been unfairly asked to pay for European misdeeds.
Similarly, in describing terrorist incidents carried out by Jews in the 1930’s and 40’s, Lozowick shows no indulgence for the perpetrators but insists on noting the Jewish response to such violence. When the Irgun bombed Arab marketplaces in 1938, it was condemned by a Jewish community that felt itself dishonored. When the Stern gang assassinated Lord Moyne, the British minister of state, in Cairo, the perpetrators were hunted down by the Hagana (then an underground Jewish militia) and were delivered to the British. Weeks after irregulars murdered villagers at Deir Yassin in 1948, David Ben-Gurion ordered an attack on the freighter Altalena as it arrived in Tel Aviv with arms for the Irgun. And so forth, down to the murder of Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein in 1994. Palestinian acts of terror, by contrast, as we have seen over and over again in the last years, win overwhelming support in polls of Palestinian opinion whenever Arab-Israeli tension rises.
A last example of Lozowick’s method is his treatment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank territories won in the Six-Day war of 1967. The proximate cause of Israeli domestic anguish over these settlements is to be found, he thinks, in the way the next great conflict in the region, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, polarized opinion in the country. Some Israelis responded to that traumatic event, in which their unprepared and overly confident nation came to the brink of destruction, with a hardening of their Zionist determination; the most hardened gravitated to Gush Emunim, founded in 1974, which sought to settle religious-minded Jews in biblical Judea and Samaria. Others (like Lozowick himself), convinced that the Arabs were as chastened by war as the Israelis, joined various peace movements, particularly Peace Now!, founded in 1978. Both sides, in their way, were right, and it was the genius of Menachem Begin to appeal to them both: to Gush Emunim with settlements, to Peace Now! with an Egyptian peace accord. But in so doing, Begin institutionalized this division—and Lozowick is an interesting person to read on the matter, because the division runs right through the center of his own thinking.
On the one hand, he worries that settlements in general created a constituency “that had an interest in not testing to see whether the Arabs were changing their minds about Israel.” On the other hand, he thinks Israelis can neither evacuate metropolitan Jerusalem nor divide it. But even that does not fully capture his ambivalence, whose core may be found in his earlier discussion of Israel’s war of independence in 1948-49. Armistice talks, he notes there, began only after Israeli forces had entered Egyptian territory—the evident lesson being that Israel’s foes tend not to negotiate for peace except as a means to stop losing ground. Although Lozowick does not draw the connection explicitly, he does assert that “the settlers, of all people, may have contributed more than anyone else” to bring Palestinians to the negotiating table after 1988.
This historical background places in context Israel’s—and Lozowick’s own—embrace of Ariel Sharon in the wake of Oslo. Lozowick now sees the project of negotiations as “brain-dead from its very birth,” and the flurry of last-minute concessions offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak as an act of “supreme hubris.” The central problem of any land-for-peace negotiations lies in the asymmetry in what is being negotiated. Land once ceded is hard to reclaim; peace can be revoked by merely changing one’s mind. And bad faith—of the sort Yasir Arafat evinced again and again, most dramatically when he walked away from negotiations at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001—can heighten the damage. “The pretense that the Palestinians merely wished to end the occupation in order to get on with their lives,” Lozowick writes, “could be maintained only until the day an Israeli leader offered them precisely that.”
It is here that Lozowick indirectly answers one of those counter-arguments about Palestinian intentions that seems wholly convincing to Israel’s critics. It goes like this: if the Palestinians were really acting in bad faith, would they not have accepted the Camp David offer, and then duplicitously used their state as a platform to win the whole of the land between the Jordan and the sea? But in fact, at the time the intifada started and negotiations broke down, the Palestinians already had much of their state: their governing authorities, their armed forces, much of the territory. They started the Jerusalem intifada, in Lozowick’s view, in order to free themselves of the need to pay for that state through an end to violence. And why, in their view, should they have paid for it, since, as Lozowick says, they “came away from the agreement with strong feelings of victimhood intact”? That is, they got the largest state they could that was consistent with their determination to continue waging war.
As for Israel, it was in a far worse position than before the negotiations began, and—most important for Lozowick’s purposes—it was worse off precisely because it had conducted the negotiations morally. It now had no peace, and no land left to trade for peace in the future. The key to Sharon’s electoral success since then has been his “determination not to allow the Palestinians any gain whatsoever from their violence.”
A theme that runs through Lozowick’s book is that Jews, not having had their own state for most of the last two millennia, have thus not had a monopoly on violence anywhere they have lived. Lozowick is far from proposing a lower standard of judgment on the grounds that Israelis, and Jews generally, are new to the game of power politics. Quite the contrary: he argues that the Jewish state is in principle reluctant to use violence as other states do. That, in stark contrast to Israel’s foes, “no Jew ever walked into a Palestinian child’s bedroom and intentionally killed her” ought to weigh heavily in our considerations of who is right and who is wrong in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So Lozowick thinks; and he is right. The ability to confine itself to a bare minimum of violence in one of the most violent parts of the world is, and should be, a shining mark in Israel’s favor. But whether the moral superiority of Israelis over their foes is also “the source of their strength,” as Lozowick puts it, is open to debate. The moral micro-management of Israeli violence is wholly admirable, but it has its drawbacks.
One drawback is that when Israel does commit violence, it does so after long premeditation and solemn discussion, and it takes moral responsibility for what it does. Is it not possible that Israel is resented precisely for this? In our world, limited violence for the sake of self-defense or keeping order is interrogated mercilessly, while wild, random, indiscriminate violence—barbarism—takes on an aspect of sprezzatura, even of glamor. The more irresponsible the violence, the more apt unprincipled people are to excuse it as a fit of justified passion. You can meet young protesters in any European plaza who believe that capital punishment for murder is a crime against humanity but that placing a bomb in a discothèque is a “cry of despair.”
Perhaps Israel’s very fastidiousness deprives it of credibility. Israel is fighting a battle for survival in a hostile corner of the world—but fastidiousness is not a mark of how its enemies fight battles. To take a specific instance, Lozowick still holds out hope that Israel can trade its occupied territories for peace, and adds that “the symbolic expression of this forward-looking choice will be Israel’s relinquishing of control over the second most holy place in the Jewish world, Hebron, where the Patriarchs are buried.” One can commend his open-heartedness, but might not a Muslim fighting over the third most holy place in the Islamic world be emboldened by such willingness to see both sides of the issue, reasoning that any people ready to give up the tombs of its Patriarchs can eventually be bullied out of the rest of its inheritance?
Pointing out that Israel has in general fought its wars with a high concern for justice, as Lozowick does, is noble and necessary work. But let us not be surprised if Israel’s very decency makes it all the less tolerable to Arab terrorists and their fellow travelers, reminding them as it most unpleasantly does of their own misdeeds and failings.