Bearing False Witness

The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon.
by Jacobo Timerman.
Knopf. 167 pp. $11.95.

The Longest War is Jacobo Timerman’s response, in the form of a journal, to the Israeli incursion into Lebanon between June and August of 1982. A highly impressionistic document, Timerman’s journal, which loosely follows the chronology of the war, includes some account of his own activities during the summer, sporadic quotations from Israel’s English-language press, selective anecdotes and references to events in the country, all held together by a series of attacks on the current government of Israel that mount in intensity as the book proceeds.

Timerman is, of course, the former editor and publisher of the liberal Argentinian newspaper, La Opinión, who became the focus of international attention when he was arrested by the Argentine military authorities in the spring of 1977. Thirty months later, following his release, expulsion from the country, and passage to Israel, he became a symbol of resistance to right-wing dictatorship. Timerman’s account of his incarceration, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, most of which originally appeared in the New Yorker, gave a chilling description of his captivity. To Americans for whom Argentina meant arbitrary rule through fear, the suppression of civil liberties, and mass arrests and disappearances, Timerman’s account was confirmation of their worst imaginings.

The artful selectivity of Timerman’s reportage in that earlier book did, it is true, raise serious questions. Some who had followed Timerman’s case in Argentina asked why, in his book, he made no mention of his business partnership with the notorious investment banker David Graiver, which was the ostensible reason for his arrest. Troubling too was Timerman’s use of anti-Semitism as the organizing principle of his story. Somehow, after a lifetime of engaged and canny journalism which had made him one of the most powerful and renowned newspapermen in Argentina, Timerman was now presenting himself first and foremost as a persecuted Jew (one gullible reviewer even called his book “a Zionist classic”). Particularly nettling in this regard was the way in which, through the literary technique of cross-cutting, Timerman deliberately collapsed any distinctions between Argentina and Hitler’s Germany, suggesting without substantiation that Argentina’s Jews faced not just anti-Semitism but a threat of genocide.

The same selectivity is at work in the present book as well, but it is turned now on Israel. Timerman contends that Israel deliberately exaggerated the danger that the PLO posed in Lebanon in order to justify its otherwise unprovoked war. According to this analysis, the PLO had been on the verge of recognizing Israel last summer—and in any case the organization was no threat, being just a poorly equipped faction of stragglers that was exploited by the Russians, betrayed by Western Europeans and “all those who approached it,” and misled by the academics of Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia into believing the myth of its own “machismo.” Timerman is impatient with the PLO, but only for its stupidity.

Israel, on the other hand, he finds guilty of crimes so great as to have destroyed the moral integrity of the Jewish people, whom it has turned into “efficient criminals.” Since, according to Timerman, Israelis do not fear for their security—they know they are unbeatable in the Middle East—the attack upon the PLO and the innocent civilians of Lebanon can only be attributed to the Napoleonic ambition of General Ariel Sharon and the messianic geopolitics of Menachem Begin. These two men are the heads of an anti-democratic, incipiently totalitarian government which Timerman repeatedly compares with the “fascist” government of Argentina. He charges Israel with having visited wanton destruction upon Lebanon in a military adventure that has only succeeded in spreading a reign of terror. Far from being encircled by enemies, Israel is itself now encircling and colonizing its neighbors—as (in another of the book’s recurrent analogies) the whites have done in South Africa.

Timerman has an alternative to Israeli expansionism, namely, the establishment of a Palestinian state. This would be not only a boon to Israelis but a necessary corrective; the existence of two complementary democracies would restore to Israel the democratic spirit it has forfeited by its recent actions. But in the meantime, what he recommends to Israelis who, like him, are conscience-stricken, is civil disobedience. He advises his own son to defy “the extremists who now control the Israeli army” by refusing to obey military orders. As for other action that might be taken, in the last pages of the book Timerman appeals to the Jews of the Diaspora: it is, he writes, up to them to act as judge and jury of Israel’s criminal behavior:

Only the world’s Jewish people, I believe, can now do something for us. The Diaspora Jews who have maintained the values of our moral and cultural traditions—those values now trampled on here by intolerance and Israeli nationalism—should establish a Jewish tribunal to pass judgment on Begin, Sharon, Eitan, and the entire general staff of the Israeli armed forces.

The publishers describe this book as a cri de coeur, but cri de guerre would be more accurate. Under a mask of moral concern, Timerman has unleased an assault against his political opponents that compensates in rhetorical violence for what it lacks in evidence or analysis. Without ever identifying his own political point of view, Timerman speaks as if he were the sole proprietor of Jewish moral and cultural values, and as if the objects of his attack had no claim to those values, let alone to political legitimacy.

Even within the jungle of Israeli politics, where moralizing attacks on one’s opponents have become distressingly more frequent, Timerman’s aggression is in a class by itself. First there is his disregard for the facts, noted by even some friendly reviewers of the book. Conor Cruise O’Brien, who admires The Longest War as literature (presumably a species of fiction), points out nevertheless that Israel’s grounds for intervention in Lebanon were not frivolous, and that contrary to Timerman’s claim, the eviction of the PLO from Lebanon has created a new opportunity in the region. On the basis of his own first-hand observation of the war and that of all other foreign correspondents with whom he compared notes, O’Brien refutes in particular Timerman’s view of the victimized Lebanese. Far from resenting their Israeli occupiers, as Timerman would have it, most Lebanese welcomed the Israelis as their liberators from the PLO, and “everybody was glad the Israelis had gotten rid of them.”

The Jerusalem Post, Timerman’s chief source of information during the war (since he knows no Hebrew), and a paper highly critical of Begin and Sharon, published its own review of his book under the heading, “A Few Little Lies.” The reviewer calls Timerman a shvitzer (empty boaster) who is “simply out to capitalize on his new Israeli identity.” Perhaps the most damaging criticism has come from the mother of an Israeli major who was killed at Beaufort Castle. Timerman dedicates his book to this fallen soldier with characteristic insensitivity to fact:

I know that he was a pacifist.

I know that he could not live and die for his own ideas because he had to kill and die for the obsessions of inept rulers and vain military men who are running a nation created by moralists and dreamers.

Major Harnik’s mother protested to the newspapers over this act of false appropriation; she was especially indignant at the allegation that her son was a pacifist, which she called absurd.

But these and similar challenges to Timerman’s credibility should not faze him in the least; he answers to a higher vision. Here is how he summarizes the historical significance of the events of the past summer:

For the first time Israel had attacked a neighboring country without being attacked; for the first time it had mounted a screen of provocation to justify a war. For the first time Israel brought destruction to entire cities: Tyre, Sidon, Damur, Beirut. For the first time miliary spokesmen had lied. For the first time the Israeli press joined them in the successful mission of lying to the public. For the first time officers and men did not know the objective or the goals of the campaign. For the first time the actual damage inflicted on the invading country was hidden along with the number of deaths. For the first time reservists on leave from the front demonstrated on the streets of Jerusalem because they consider themselves betrayed. For the first time jokes circulate openly.

One could say that anyone capable of writing this last sentence in a country with humor collections going back to the War of Independence is himself a joke who circulates openly. The single circumstance that might explain this paragraph is that “for the first time” Timerman was in Israel during a war. For the rest, he turns unsubstantiated charges into statements of fact, and so smears the historical record that even the genuine firsts and flaws of this war become obscured.

Indeed, most of Timerman’s assertions about this war could be made as readily about previous wars, and are as readily refuted. Thus this was not, in fact, the first time Israel had “attacked a neighboring country without being attacked.” If to attack means to strike first, then Israel had already satisfied Timerman’s criterion of sin in 1956. And, on the other side, if by “being attacked” we mean border incursions and a palpable threat to security, then the PLO ministate across the border in a dismembered Lebanon constituted no less genuine a threat to Israeli citizens than any the country faced since its birth.

Similarly with a “screen of provocation.” The presence along Israel’s borders of states that refuse to recognize its right to exist, and of armed forces dedicated by word and deed to its destruction, may be considered either a provocation or a “screen of provocation,” depending on the degree to which the actual security of the state and its citizens is being endangered. Insofar as this is a matter also of political judgment (some left-wing critics have argued that even the Six-Day War was “provoked” by Israel, since the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran would have had to be tested before it could be made an excuse for a first strike!), Israeli voters are free to speak their minds on the matter. Those who approved the action in Lebanon—the vast majority—may well have remembered that the Yom Kippur War of 1973 was indeed “the first time” that hundreds of Israelis had been killed because of military unpreparedness and a false sense of security.

“For the first time Israel brought destruction to entire cities.” Most of Tyre, Sidon, and Damur were destroyed long before Israel entered them, during the decade-long Lebanese internal war sparked by the presence of the PLO; honest reporters noticed how little further damage was done by the Israeli army. In West Beirut, Israeli forces tried to pinpoint areas in which the PLO had concentrated its men and equipment. Contrarily, if accountability for innocent suffering is to be the measure of war, then the leveling of Kuneitra in 1973 must be thrown into the balance, too, whether or not Timerman happened to find his moment of anguish in its crumbling walls. In the skills of bearing false witness, Timerman would have much to teach both Israel’s military spokesmen and its press reporters, who as it happens were commended by the International Press Council for their dedication to truthfulness.



Some reviewers have likened Timerman’s authoritarian personality and dangerous egotism to that of his nemesis, Ariel Sharon. But on the political spectrum Timerman is more readily comparable with the Jewish Defense League’s Rabbi Meir Kahane, who shares his contempt for Israeli democracy and is equally certain that he alone knows what the country needs. Although the most recent public-opinion polls show that Timerman’s political position—support for a Palestinian state on the former West Bank of Jordan—is held by all of 2.2 percent of the population, he goes on speaking anyway in the name of “we Israelis,” and, like Kahane, advocating civil disobedience to promote his convictions.

According to Timerman, the recent action in Lebanon has transformed the moral history not only of the modern state of Israel but of the Jewish people “at least of the last two thousand years,” who “for the first time” bear the collective guilt of damage inflicted on others. The incursion is not, for him, a point on a political continuum but an act of original sin that has soiled the once unspotted virtue of the nation. His “explanation” for this sudden, transforming development is, naturally, General Sharon, who “keep[s] the Israeli citizen in fear; he has accomplished it. He needs our fear; he has it. Even in our country, they [sic] make the Jews live in fear.”

In the light of such sentiments it is small wonder that among those Israelis most deeply humiliated by Timerman are many Labor intellectuals and sympathizers of the Peace Now movement, who know that the majority of Israeli voters are hardly held in thrall by fear of Ariel Sharon but are, rather, attracted by a different political option from the one represented by Peace Now. Among the few advantages currently enjoyed by Labor is an image of political temperance and responsibility; if Timerman comes to be perceived as an authentic voice of the liberal Left, which he is not, that advantage will be seriously weakened.

Then, too, many Israelis are not likely to take kindly to the idea that readers of the New Yorker, where this diatribe first appeared, should be invited to sit in moral judgment upon them, and on their “collective guilt.” As for the soldiers who have recently had to haul out the Jewish settlers of Yamit in order to make peace with Egypt, they may have a nicer appreciation than Timerman’s of the consequences of an ideology of civil disobedience in a country where more than one faction is convinced of the absolute justice of its cause.

Reading Timerman I was reminded of another passionate denunciation of Israel, this one written by a Russian émigré, Ephraim Sevela, after having spent five years in the country (to Timerman’s three). The terms of Sevela’s indictment in Farewell, Israel differ markedly from Timerman’s in The Longest War, but the two share a withering disdain for the moral fiber of the state, and also a certitude that it is doomed. One knows that Israeli democracy is much stronger than these two men claim if it has been able to weather such consequences of the Law of Return as they.

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