Friday, January 10, 2014

since my people are better than yours, your people are expendable, deal with it!


foreignpolicy | I have been reading My Promised Land, Ari Shavit's extraordinary account of the founding and growth of Israel. It is a book one reads not simply for historical instruction but for moral guidance. Shavit is an ardent Zionist who is nevertheless imbued with a sense of Israel's tragic condition. "Tragedy," as Shavit uses it, does not refer to the suffering of the Jewish people but rather to the suffering -- the unavoidable suffering -- of the Palestinian people as a result of the Zionist project. In his narrative of the brutal conquest of the Arab city of Lydda by Israeli forces in May 1948, Shavit returns again and again to the idealistic, even utopian young men who killed Arab civilians and forced the entire population into a death march in the desert. Their anguish, shame, confusion is Shavit's own; and so is their acknowledgment that it could not have been otherwise. Both conquest and expulsion "were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state." No Lydda, no Israel. 

What would it mean for an American to apply this tragic understanding to his own circumstances? In regard to the national founding, the analogy to Israel is glaringly obvious. If the American pioneers had accepted that the indigenous people they found on the continent were not simply features of the landscape but people like themselves, and thus had agreed to occupy only those spaces not already claimed by the Indians, then today's America would be confined to a narrow band along the Eastern seaboard. No Indian wars, no America. And yet, like slavery, the wars and the forced resettlement constitute a terrible reproach to the founders' belief that America was a uniquely just and noble experiment. 

But when I say that I am reading Shavit for moral guidance, I'm thinking of the American present, not just the past. The tragic sense is largely alien to Americans, and to American policymakers. Americans have an almost unique faith in the malleability of the world, and of the intrinsic appeal of their own principles (a faith which Shavit writes that Israel's settlers shared until the Palestinians first rose up against them in 1936). In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger argued that all American presidents from the time of Woodrow Wilson (possibly excepting his own pupil, Richard Nixon) have been idealists, because the American people refuse to elect someone who speaks the tragic language of 19th century European statecraft.