Books: Take a bow, Mr Lazer

Stephen Howe assesses two contrasting views of Israel at 5

Stephen Howe
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:10

Israel: a history

by Martin Gilbert

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 25

The Founding Myths of Israel

by Zeev Sternhell

Princeton University Press, pounds 22.50

Sir Martin Gilbert is a phenomenon. A staggeringly prolific writer, he produces enormous books on equally large subjects at least once a year. How does he do it? Partly, of course, by possession of great energy, intelligence and dedication. But also, and increasingly, because he does not so much write these tomes as compile them. He has ceased to be a historian and become a mere chronicler. His 50th-anniversary history of Israel displays his usual faults across 750 pages; and it adds some new ones, mostly prompted by his reverential attitude.

The idea of writing history, ever since Herodotus, has implied not just telling what happened but trying to explain it. This Gilbert never does. Instead we get a chronology: a mainly accurate, though often lightly airbrushed, summary of events. And we get seemingly endless lists: of Israel's writers, painters and musicians, philosophers and scientists, with all the awards they received, but without a word of thoughtful commentary. There are lists of settlements, kibbutzim, schools, hospitals and museums, with their dates, founders and benefactors faithfully recorded. There are lists of Israeli achievements and disasters, battles and scandals: one damned thing after another. Why would anyone want to buy a book full of this stuff when Israeli government offices will shower the casual enquirer with it for free?

Especially astonishing is the way Gilbert can devote dozens of pages to various Zionist and Israeli ideologues without telling us anything coherent, let alone critical, about their theories. Numerous men and women of ideas are introduced, but are left with a void where the ideas themselves should be.

Gilbert can always find space for the most otiosely bland kinds of information. We are solemnly informed that Yosef Aronovitch, first chairman of the Hebrew Writers' Association, "was a strong advocate of integrity in public life and efficiency in the national Jewish institutions and wrote many articles to this end". If he'd been a keen advocate of corruption, sloth and public fornication, and had written many articles to that end, a spark of interest might be aroused.

Such banality is typical. Placido Domingo's memories of Israel are thought worth a whole page, including his strikingly perceptive remark that summers there are very hot, and a potted life of the shopkeeper he bought his sausages from. Take a bow, Mr Lazer, butcher and opera lover of the Shuk Ha'Carmel: you are now a historical personage!

Despite Gilbert's doveish sympathies, there are also many familiar evasions and half-truths, notably on Israeli-Palestinian relations. And there are too many places where Gilbert relies on Israeli official histories or politicians' memoirs, when recent research based on the original documents tells a different story.

Quite disgracefully, Gilbert has almost entirely failed to make use of that research. His list of sources omits nearly every important modern book on Israeli history, and every single work by Palestinian or other Arab historians. This can only reflect either gross ignorance, or a refusal to take a fresh look at cherished illusions.

It is a relief to turn to something more challenging. Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell provides that in his fiercely polemical - but assiduously researched - demolition job on the comfortable myths which Gilbert, like other sentimental pro-Zionists, continues to purvey. The central myth Sternhell attacks is that of the socialist, liberal and democratic values of Israel's pioneers. Certainly the key figures in the creation of the state, whose legacy still dominates its public culture, proclaimed those values. But, says Sternhell, theirs was a distinctively nationalist socialism - and the nationalist element came out on top.

Sternhell believes that Israeli Labour's socialist rhetoric was always pretty hollow. The early leaders were not seriously interested in equality. "Socialist" Israel failed to build a comprehensive welfare state or even to provide free universal education.

Moreover, their brand of nationalism was that which flourished in eastern Europe - from which most Zionist pioneers came - rather than in the West. It was what Sternhell calls "organic" and others have labelled "ethnic" nationalism, rather than the more tolerant "civic" kind; a doctrine built around ideas of blood and belonging rather than citizenship and rights. Its values still mark modern Israel, in the top-heavy political system, the vast powers wielded by the executive and security forces, and the lack of a written constitution it shares with the UK.

Sternhell none the less offers some reasons for optimism. Israel's organic nationalism never became so extreme and brutal as that of its European cousins. And as the state has developed, a strong if still minority current of genuine liberalism has grown up. The post-Oslo peace process, despite the Netanyahu government's disastrous refusal to honour it, marks a "true revolution" here, Sternhell believes. By recognising Palestinian rights, it breaks decisively from the tribal concept of nationality. Thus it becomes possible for Israel to become a normal, liberal-democratic state which honours the equal citizenship of its non-Jewish inhabitants.

Opponents of that process can delay but not prevent it - or so Sternhell thinks. But they include not only extremist West Bank settlers but many members of Israel's current government. The murder of Rabin showed how far some will go. Even if they can only delay the birth of a better society, they can exact a terrible price in blood for it.

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