BOOK REVIEW:  1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Changed the Middle East (Tom Segev)

BOOK REVIEW:  1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Changed the Middle East (Tom Segev)

Review Essay: The Psychology of Hysteria

by David Shasha

Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Changed the Middle East, Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, Metropolitan Books, 2007

In the 1980s a great explosion of books and studies on Zionist and Israeli history burst into the marketplace.  Begun by an angry and incendiary book by former MAPAM functionary Simha Flapan with his The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities and cresting with the seminal studies of Benny Morris (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem) and Avi Shlaim (Collusion Across the Jordan) there was a Pandora’s Box that was opened and our understanding of what had happened in this contentious region was forever changed.

Almost immediately there was an angry hue and cry from the Hasbara industry in Israel, though it took many years for any real responses to be provided to the new histories.  What was attempted by orthodox Zionist forces, especially in America, was to label these new scholars “revisionists”; a term of opprobrium that brought with it a scandalous taint that smelled of Holocaust revisionism.  There had been a standard pro-Zionist way of establishing our understanding of this history that kept Arab voices and perspectives silent, but now we had someone like Benny Morris, formerly a Likud supporter, unearthing the facts of Tochnit Dalet – Plan D – that purported to show us a more nefarious set of facts than we had hitherto known about Zionist intentions.  Plan D was a written directive that instructed Israeli forces to expel Palestinian Arabs from their homes.

One of the primary elements that united these scholars was the fact that they were Ashkenazi; with the exception of Avi Shlaim whose roots were in Iraq, but who left the Middle East for good and has very rarely addressed his Middle Eastern identity whose significance was completely elided in his scholarly investigations of Israeli and Palestinian history.  From Flapan to Morris to Shlaim to Ilan Pappe, there was a wealth of new material – new at least to Jewish and Western eyes – that completely transformed the ways in which we would now approach the realities of the conflict and which emerged out of the old Labor establishment. 

With the emergence in the 1990s of a new peace movement, we saw the absorption of these new histories and the acceptance in many Left Wing circles of the need to re-assess the Israeli role in the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs.  Sadly, as I have hinted, the role of Arab Jews was MIA in these studies.  Even when Shlaim and Morris wrote their comprehensive histories of Israel, The Iron Wall and Righteous Victims respectively, the basic template was Ashkenazi-centric. 

The implicit racism of the Zionist establishment began to crack when it came to the Palestinian Arabs, but the internal Jewish racism was left unexamined.  And Sephardim in Israel and elsewhere continued to mark these Ashkenazi writers as demonizing and eliding them.  The distrust of the Sephardim for the Ashkenazi Left is well-known and stems from the fact that so much of this knowledge is based on Eurocentric models and ways of thinking.

Two recently-published memoirs, one by the Palestinian activist and academic Sari Nusseibeh and the other by ex-bureaucrat and current academic and opinion-maker Meron Benvenisti – the latter technically one-half Sephardi on his father’s side, further complicate the matter. 

In the Nusseibeh book, Once Upon a Country, there is a brilliant and passionate presentation and defense of the Levantine Humanism of his parents’ generation that eventually evaporates once we hit the mid-point of the book. 

As an uncanny example of “The Levantine Option,” we read the following regarding Nusseibeh’s mother’s view of Islam:

… the Islam she inculcated in us was a religion with minimal miracles – Muhammad’s nocturnal ride on his magical steed is one of the few I can think of – and a cornucopia of rock-solid humanistic values.  For her, Islam taught dignity, honesty, self-worth, simplicity, kindness, and, of course, love.  Endless love.  It was also flexible enough to change with the times.  With the conclusion of the Ramadan holiday, on the first day of the Eid, she allowed my father and uncles to break out the beer and the whiskey.  In her Islam, there was also no competition among faiths.  My mother, a pious Muslim, had no problem telling us that the Via Dolorosa was the path of Christ’s Passion, or celebrating Christmas with a Santa Claus and a brightly ornamented tree. (p. 65)

Voila, “The Levantine Option”!  This should come as little surprise to those of us with roots in the region.

But, crucially, Nusseibeh does not formally construct the model of Religious Humanism in a precise way, and by the end of the book he has forgotten what it all means.  The inability of Nusseibeh – in the book and in his life – to bond with Jews of Middle Eastern origin leads him to see Ashkenazim like Paul Wolfowitz in a positive light.  For those of us who have been more than a little dismayed by the nihilism displayed by Ashkenazi Neo-Conservatives, Nusseibeh’s rhetoric is a bit much to swallow:

I went into Wolfowitz’s office hopeful, despite everything I had heard about the man.  Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I assumed that a student of Leo Strauss, the great commentator on al-Farabi, couldn’t be as bad as his reputation.  Indeed, the legendary hawk turned out to be an immensely pliable man eager to hear about our project.  (pp. 512-513)

Where Nusseibeh goes wrong is not simply in the fact that he allows Wolfowitz to pull the wool over his eyes, but in allowing Wolfowitz to be another in a seemingly endless line of Ashkenazi Jews who Nusseibeh gives credulity to.  In an amazingly self-serving book, Nusseibeh seemingly ignores the fact that he has failed to lead which has led to catastrophic failure.  All that is important is for him to show that – despite being a spoiled son of privilege – he has kept up appearances and tried his purported best.  From Tom Friedman to Elliot Abrams, Nusseibeh has put his faith in those who smiled at him and followed the formalities – but left him as just another impotent activist to leapfrog over.

Tying this theme together is Meron Benvenisti’s Son of the Cypresses which does not even have the advantage of Nusseibeh’s parents and their residual Levantine Humanism.  Benvenisti has more and more frequently been playing out his Oedipal issues in public.  His father, David Benvenisti, once on the path to becoming a Sephardic rabbi from Salonika, turned prominent Uber-Zionist and created the “Love of the Land” curricula in Israel which has been so central to Right Wing Zionist ideologies of all stripes. 

Benvenisti, in yet another shameless and self-serving memoir, extols what he calls his “Mayflower” bona fides.  After admitting that he too was one of a choir of malcontents – here he recalls Benny Morris who has gone from dangerous revisionist turncoat to a a reactionary who wishes that all the Arabs were expelled from Israel – Benvenisti finds that he too has had a change of heart:

I am engulfed by a sweet nostalgia for my childhood and youth; and in addition to that, I am filled with pride and joy at belonging to the “tribe” of the founders’ sons.  What’s more, I feel the need to defend myself against attack and even to launch a defiant counterattack of my own: “I am a proud ‘Mayflower’ descendent,” “the salt of the earth.”  I feel no guilt or inferiority, nor do I regard myself as a robber.  On the contrary, it is only thanks to us – the founders and their children – that our defamers and critics are here to complain.  What would their fate have been had we not been here to welcome them? (p. 54)

After taking some time to attack Edward Said for his family’s cowardice and lauding the Benvenisti family’s courage in fighting for the country, we are treated to a full-frontal assault on Sephardi identity by no less than Ben-Dror Yemini; an infamous self-hating Israeli Sephardi who pens anti-Sephardi articles for Ma’ariv. 

But the piece-de-resistance is Benvenisti’s attack on Jacqueline Kahanoff and the idea of Mediterraneanism; a secular variant of “The Levantine Option”:

The notion that Israeli identity is essentially “Mediterranean” speaks to the hearts of many Israelis and exerts a special charm for those whose forbearers never left the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, including the writer of these lines.  But these latter, in particular, must know that this cultural identity is a fiction and that the torrid climate, the sidewalk cafes, the archaeological remains, the regional music, and the exotic natives making up this huge and varied hotchpotch do not constitute “some sort of cultural entity blending several cultures.”  Hiding behind the pretext of “connecting with our local and regional roots” is an attempt to resurrect a cultural attitude that is aloof, arrogant, and cut off from the local experience and culture – in short, an effort to revert to Levantinism.  It is no coincidence that the academic director of the Forum portrays a forgotten Jewish Egyptian author, Jacqueline Kahanoff, as an exemplary figure “who was ahead of her time.”  (pp. 167-168)

In spite of his learned and eloquent plea in the book for bi-national co-existence, one wonders how Benvenisti can see a state where Jews and Arabs can live together in harmony – he only reinforces the type of crude racism that was rife at the time of the “Mayflower” settlers – his preferred mode of identification.

This is all a bit much to take, but it leads me to open my discussion of the work of the great Tom Segev whose many books have not been marred by such an ignorance or disdain for the Sephardi question.

With the publication of his new book 1967, whose original Hebrew sub-title, Ve-Ha’aretz Shinta ‘Et Paneha, literally, when the land changed its face, is infinitely more instructive and provocative than the bland English substitute, Segev has shown himself to be the most important writer we currently have on Israel’s history.  The depth of his work is truly startling and each of the subjects that he takes on have been permanently transformed by the impressive research he has done.

In his previous books he has taken on the first years of the state (1949: The First Israelis), the relationship of the Holocaust to the state (The Seventh Million) and an epic history of the pre-State period (One Palestine, Complete).  In these books Segev did not just provide the dry facts of history, no matter how important and transformative they might be, but anchored his historical narrative within a much more dynamic social setting providing the reader with a vivid portrait of the times and the people as they lived through and experienced this history.

In his first book on Israeli history 1949: The First Israelis, Segev devoted an entire chapter to the Sephardi saga which featured a stinging and angry recounting of the episode of the stolen Yemenite babies.  In One Palestine, Complete he audaciously structured his narrative around Khalil Sakakini, a Palestinian educator and intellectual whose story becomes emblematic of a larger defeat; a defeat of the Liberal Arab values that people like him and others like Anwar Nusseibeh fought to defend in the face of the Zionist hammer. In The Seventh Million he showed the often cynical manipulation of the Holocaust by Israeli authorities and the mistreatment of the survivors in a social setting.

By setting his books in a very human context, Segev has affirmed his vocation as a journalist, but, more importantly, has ensured that he formulates and utilizes the correct conceptual models in which to understand the history he is discussing.

We might contrast Segev’s work in 1967 to that of the Right Wing counter-revisionist Michael Oren who in his book Six Days of War creates his own ideologically-charged models that allow him to “fit” the “facts” into constructs that are more amenable to his politics. 

In Oren’s case, there is a patent concern with restoring the old Zionist myths in the face of the overwhelming evidence presented by Benny Morris and the rest.  To give Oren some credit, he does not fully reject the New Historians, but adopts just enough of their perspective to ensure that his work is not pilloried for factual problems.  This strategy allows him to more easily contextualize his work using the old Zionist models ensuring that Israeli figures and their actions not be seen in a hostile light.  Six Days of War limits itself, as its title indicates, to the War and tends to highlight the role of the Soviet Union and the Arabs in the promulgation of the War; reinforcing the idea that the War was purely a product of Arab hostility and not Israeli aggression.

Segev on the other hand barely deals with specific facts of the War.  He piles on the kind of socio-political detail that over the course of the book overwhelms the reader by creating perhaps the most vivid picture of Israeli society that we have ever seen in any study of its kind.  Crucially, Segev begins the book with a lengthy excursus on the situation in Israel preceding the War. 

I would like to point out the fact that here, as in his other books, Segev relates the Sephardi saga in quite central terms:

Tensions between Ashkenazis and Mizrahim (or Sephardim, or, as they were also then called, “members of eastern communities”) had plagued the Jewish settlement in Palestine since its inception and worsened upon the establishment of the state, as the balance of numbers changed.  Israel’s basic goal was to achieve a “merging of diasporas,” in the spirit of the American attempt to create a “melting pot” society.  But when the Zionist leaders spoke of a “merging of diasporas,” they meant that the Mizrahim would assimilate into European society…  (p. 56)

This passage is no small thing: in the context of Israeli historical writing Segev’s consistent focus on Sephardim shows that he has a strong grip on the Israeli realities and is not writing some self-serving tract beholden to Ashkenazi-centered interests.

In fact, in 1967 Segev seeks to write a number of different books, all of which feed into the concerns of the present: the role of the Occupied Territories in the Israel-Palestine conflict.  He focuses on the state of the country prior to the War; deals with the decision-making process that led to the War including the complex relationship between Israel, American Jewish leaders and the American government; looks intently at the many complexities that were created in the wake of the victory; and begins to lay out the ways in which messianic fury took over Israel and the rest of the Jewish world as the acquisition of new territories served to transform the situation and create a new set of realities. 

Segev does not shy away from examining Israeli society in ways that are often uncomfortable and deeply critical of many of the myths propagated by the Hasbara industry.

Unlike Oren whose view of the origins of the state are filtered through the heroic gaze of the ardent Zionist who brooks no questioning of the pure and noble aims and actions of the first Zionist conquerors of the land, Segev has already begun tracing for us the picture of a country in various stages of disarray which has relied on a Holocaust rhetoric for its own raison d’etre and yet, paradoxically, sought to ignore and stigmatize the survivors of that Holocaust and demonize the supposed legacy of the effeminate, cowering “Diaspora” Jew in its culture. 

The famous “Others” that haunt the Ashkenazi-Sabra “native” – Benvenisti’s mythic, and deeply racist, “Mayflower” generation – were in fact the Palestinians, the Sephardim, the Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim, and the Survivors of the Holocaust.  When the country looked at itself in the mirror, it wished to see a “New Jew” who was nothing like these stigmatized and alien groups.

1967 begins with the story of a country deep in recession and psychologically depressed:

The cracks in Israeli optimism created by the recession rapidly deepened.  Letters from Israel became more and more pessimistic and increasingly cynical: “Nothing much is new here, everything bad is only getting worse.”  Internalizing the depression around him, Uri from Rishon Lezion began describing mainly bad news: fifty people had been killed in motor accidents; an Israeli ship the Hashlosha, sunk off the coast of France, killing eighteen crew members and a woman who had gone on a honeymoon with her sailor husband; the former minister of police, Behor-Shalom Sheetrit, had passed away.  There was no reason for the death of an elderly politician to concern the boy or his sister in New York, but it fit in with the overall mood his letters now conveyed.  “The situation is not good,” he wrote in one.  (p. 41)

Segev sets the stage not for a heroic history, but for a relentless series of second-guesses amid the forced misinformation provided to the Israeli people that led them to almost completely lose their minds.  Of course, there is little question that Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the demagogic Egyptian dictator, did what he could to feed into this new mythology of hate and war.  This heady mixture of Israeli depression and strident political machinations led to a crisis point which could only lead to war.

By completely disregarding the evidentiary record on the other side – that of the USSR and the Arabs – Segev might be accused of presenting a tendentious and selective history.  But in fact the aim of 1967, like that of his other books, is not to recount the facts in a balanced way, but to focus on the Israeli side with a laser-like accuracy to see what might be gleaned seeing the thing solely out of their eyes.  In this sense, the way in which Michael Oren presents the facts of the War distorts those facts.  By taking the focus away from the Israeli social context, Oren ignores the massive psychological conundrum that was posited by the internal Israeli dynamic; a factor that has been misunderstood because of Hasbara attempts to validate the hysteria.

Segev makes it quite clear what the thinking was in the Israeli government concerning the possibility of War:

He [Yitzhak Rabin] shared the war plans with the participants.  First, there would be a surprise strike on the Egyptian air force; the aerial advantage gained would then be exploited in a land war.  Begin asked Rabin to clarify whether he was saying that the air force would strike the Egyptian air force while it was still on the ground.  Rabin confirmed that it would.  He was convinced they could deliver a devastating blow against the Egyptians.  There would be losses, he said, that much was clear; in the north, too.  The Syrians might bomb Israeli settlements and it would take some time before the air force completed its mission in Egypt and could turn its attention to suppressing Syrian fire.  (p. 241)

In fact, as we now know in light of what happened, Rabin’s overly cautious optimism was actually pessimistic! 

But the tenor of the debate inside the country went way beyond the sober realism of the Israeli cabinet and moved into the realms of sheer hysteria.  The fact of Rabin’s mental breakdown just prior to the Israeli attack on the Egyptian air force is simply one more manifestation of the irrational and hysterical mindset that had taken over the country – no one was immune.  Even the man who knew that Israel would handily defeat the Arabs became mentally unstable because of the strange winds that blew through the country at the time.

Segev describes this mania in the following passage:

But the existential anxiety that gripped Israelis when the crisis erupted was real.  Someone no doubt organized citizens to send care packages to soldiers, perhaps to unite people around their army, but there is no reason to assume that anyone solicited the letter written by a woman who sent a package of goods to the soldier Arnon David Grabow.  She told him she had been in Auschwitz, where her husband and four children were murdered.  After many tribulations, she had reached Israel and managed to start a new family.  She had small children, and she trusted the IDF and prayed for its welfare every night.  There is also no reason to doubt what members of Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot told their sons in a newsletter for enlisted soldiers.  While digging defensive trenches on the kibbutz, the members recalled doing the same thing in 1939, in preparation for the Nazis’ invasion of Poland.  When the situation was explained to young Amosi, one of the “second generation” kibbutz children, he responded, “This means that if Nasser wins, we were all born in vain.”  (p. 285)

This rhetoric of Nazi-like destruction had taken hold, as both Segev and Idith Zertal have shown (recalling the work of Hannah Arendt, which was much pilloried at the time), in the wake of the Eichmann trial.  Having done its best to quarantine and suppress the realities of the Holocaust in the first years of the state, by the 1960s there was a conscious effort made by official Israel and its leaders to revive memories of the tragic events and link them to the existential realities of the young country.  One of the results of this effort was the demonization of Nasser who perforce became a modern-day variant of Hitler.

Whether Nasser understood the uses to which the Hitler comparison was used is a moot point.  The fact that his demagogic and idiotic pronouncements – meant to bolster his place in the Arab firmament – sounded vaguely Hitlerian did not make any of this easier.  As if in slow-motion, the Israelis were becoming inexorably tied to a bleak vision of the present that came from an economic recession brought on by the government and a realization that the country was living without any sense of conventional political normalcy.  At that time there was no real internal Palestinian question – the Palestinians had yet to truly emerge as a central factor in the discussion and were still an invisible presence on the landscape; a situation that would soon change with a vengeance.

Segev presents a cognitive disconnect between the political leadership that understood the disparity in conventional capabilities between Israel and the Arab world, and a populace that saw itself as if it were living in Poland in 1939.

The actual War is dispensed quite quickly by Segev who then begins to focus more attention on its aftermath and the ways in which, magically, Israel changed from a cowering and frightened nation, to a place of messianic frenzy:

The burden of public grief soon made way for the intoxication of victory, although at first there was some mingling between the two.  “Everyone alternates between tears and laughter,” wrote one woman to America, “joy and sorrow are woven together.”  Many letters reflected a confused sense of time and general disorientation.  “It’s like we’ve taken drugs,” one said.  Scores of Israelis went to see the captured territories.  “The whole country is celebrating and taking field trips; all the liberated areas are full of curious Israelis shopping,” one wrote to friends in Los Angeles.  “The Jews are on the move,” wrote Yosef Weitz a few days after the war, as he watched convoys of vehicles filled with day-trippers.  “Everything is moving, shifting, in a frenzy.”  (p. 424)

This sense of euphoria obscured once again the realities that had been generated by the facts on the ground.  Just as the War itself was an overreaction that had been fed by the hysteria of Israel turning into Auschwitz, so too did the actualities of having yet more Palestinian refugees to deal with, remain a blank for the Israeli people who would remain oblivious to what the long-term future would bring because of the new conquests.

The leadership understood the repercussions of the new realities on the ground, but they too remained impervious to what might come of it.  To his credit, Segev recounts every peace overture made by the Israelis in the aftermath of the War, but the state of mutual incomprehension between Jews and Arabs was only made more intense by the utter humiliation of the Arabs which was exacerbated by the Israeli euphoria.  The Israelis sought to strike at the Arabs to prevent them from bullying the state, but the idea that new lands and territories would be conquered took the Israeli leadership by surprise and they were not truly prepared for it and had little idea what it would do to the long-range interests of the country.  The evidence shows clearly that most Israeli leaders saw the acquisition of the Biblical lands as a positive development and were loath to predicate a solution to the conflict based on giving them back.

A country that claimed to be built on the backs of refugees was now responsible for generating some one million refugees over the course of two wars.  In 1948, Israel was responsible for displacing some 700,000 Arabs and in the 1967 engagement there was added another 250,000.  Pathetic images of Palestinians carrying their belongings and seeking shelter did not seem to affect Israelis who were oblivious to any sense of moral equivalence with Jewish history.  The Arabs were seen as less than human and deserved what they got.

In the aftermath of the War, Israeli leaders scuttled any chance of achieving peace and a real victory.  Instead, the machinations of the messianic ideas began to permeate the culture.  Segev sees the process as a clarification of the 1948 War.  The ways in which the land was now made “whole” was seen as part of a Divine mandate in which the Palestinians did not play a part.  The idea that the Palestinians might resist Israeli rule did not occur to the new occupiers.

1967 is an extraordinary book whose scope is so vast and whose detail so thorough that I could not even try to present even a small fraction of its epic nature.  It discusses the emergence of a Jewish sphere of influence in America in chilling ways that prefigure what we now see with the controversy over the Jewish lobby in Washington.  A plethora of figures from Abe Feinberg to Arthur and Mathilde Krim to Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to a series of diplomats and lay leaders showed that Jews had now found a spiritual mother-lode in Israel and would literally do anything to ensure its protection.  The book presents a clear picture of the transformation among American Jews and the ways in which Israel now took on a new and highly-fraught existential meaning for them.

All of these disparate themes are intertwined: the situation in the White House; the pain of the Sephardim; the feelings of entitlement of the Ashkenazi Sabras; the endless machinations and prevarications of the Israeli government; the idiocy of an Arab world that continued to bluster when it was patently clear that they would be whipped in any military engagement; and finally the emergence as if from a cocoon of a long-dormant Palestinian militancy that was triggered to a large extent by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  In these multiple contexts, the actual War is ultimately of little importance; what is important are the results of the conflict rather than the conflict itself. 

The facts of the War, as I said, are reeled off in great brevity while the factors that would become intractable and irresolvable are recounted from their very origins and set out in a detailed context that allows us from our current vantage-point to see why we are where we are at the current moment in our history.

I have read a number of reviews that criticize 1967 for its plethora of detail.  Many readers might come to the book without an understanding of the project that Tom Segev has set out as his life’s work: the cognitive reconstruction of Israeli society in the midst of its most difficult moments.  Segev is concerned with the ways in which events were affected and sometimes created by the mindset of Israeli society and its concerns.  In so doing, Segev has been writing the history of the state in chapters, each of his books being another installment of a much larger national story.  In this sense, each of the books contains common themes and motifs that are layered upon one another.  In the end what we are reading is a socio-political history of Israel that is as messy as it is magisterial.  It is a history composed from personal letters, diaries, reports from the front, secret government communications, café chatter – all of which are heaped on the “official” discourse of media reports and government statements.

Such a project resonates with the authentic fabric – the sights, sounds and truths – of a culture in all its complexity.  The many details of who took the first shot and who violated the law are accurately presented, but are embedded within a much more expansive tapestry whose texture is explicated based on an intensely personalized weltanschauung and whose contours will be familiar to anyone intimately familiar with Israeli society.  Segev is implicitly critiquing studies that ignore the socio-cultural factors in favor of theoretically-informed pronouncements that disregard the human component of history.

As Segev’s project continues, we are enriched and enlightened; finally able to cut through the platitudes and the propaganda that all too often cloud a rational assessment of history.  In 1967 he has written a lengthy tome that speaks to things that are not often regarded as part of the historical record as it is currently established.  He has unearthed hidden histories that speak out of the personal voices and visions of individuals.  And by stitching all of these voices together he has served to clarify the events that we see each evening on the news. 

The violent problems that Israel now faces and the suffering that is being experienced by the Palestinians are buried in the details of the past; details that are masterfully recounted by Tom Segev in a series of books that permit us to keenly understand what happened and what is truly at stake because of it.  His books are mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to understand what is going on in Israel and Palestine and what has led to the problems.  As our most intrepid and courageous chronicler of Israel’s history, he has provided context and commentary that is indispensable as a guide for the student who seeks enlightenment. 

In a marketplace of ideologues and propagandists, Segev is that rare figure who looks to recount the past out of the voices of its human protagonists.  And for his resolute firmness in working out of solid categories such as those of Mizrahim, he is to be forthrightly commended.

Originally published in The Sephardic Heritage Update Newsletter 282, October 2007