Begin x 100 + Ben-Gurion x 40 = Proud Israelis and Jews

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-12

Education Minister Gideon Saar has announced curricular plans across Israel to celebrate the centennial next year of Menachem Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing. This is a commendable move in a country that is so indebted to these two leaders and is so in need of Zionist inspiration. Yet the announcement triggered a sourpuss Ha’aretz headline: “Arab educators in uproar over plan to study Begin and Ben-Gurion.” Not only should the Arab schools welcome this educational initiative, the celebrations should reach into the Ultra-Orthodox schools—and be embraced by Jewish educators worldwide.

By deepening our collective historical memory we can build Jewish identity, Zionist identity and Israeli identity, using these world-class statesmen as inspirations. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were among the twentieth-century’s great leaders, who believed, as Ben-Gurion put it, that leadership entailed giving people what they needed, not what they necessarily thought they wanted.  Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, dominated Zionist and Israeli politics in the 1940s and 1950s, shaping modern Israel. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, fought hard to establish Israel, then revolutionized it, making Israeli politics more traditional, more capitalist, more Sephardic in the 1980s.

These were noble, self-sacrificing, passionate, charismatic, occasionally prickly, scholar-politicians, as bold as they were literate, as eloquent as they were visionary, each of whom led modest lives and both of whom hated each other.  To visit Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker, to see the living room furniture on display at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, is to encounter useful role models today in the fight against materialism To read their speeches is to learn about the Biblical echoes that infused the origins of the Zionist movement, to tap into Zionist idealism, and to learn compelling Jewish, Zionist and universal ethics of work, community, state-building, dignity, and self-defense.

Both these heroes remain controversial. Learning about Ben-Gurion includes learning about his ugly decision to attack the Altalena, the supply ship chartered by his rival Begin’s Irgun laden with weapons the fledgling Israeli army desperately needed. The Altalena’s sinking alienated many Beginites, but unified Israel militarily.  Similarly, learning about Begin includes learning about his violent turn toward attacking British soldiers and Arab irregulars in the 1940s, with attendant loss of innocent life.

Educationally, the Begin and Ben-Gurion life-stories invite students into many illuminating conversations. By celebrating these two lives together, we can start building a Zionist and Israeli consensus. Israelis need to be reminded of the grit, the values, the motivations, the moves, and the occasional mistakes and excesses, that helped spawn their state. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab educators should not opt out. They benefit from the State and need to learn about it – and its heroes. Citizenship, especially in a democracy, entails being rooted in your country’s story, engaging its history, affirmatively and critically.  It is a form of educational starvation to raise Israeli children without teaching them about foundational figures like Begin and Ben Gurion – just as there are foundational documents and foundational ideas every citizen should know.

Most outrageous was the Arab educators’ counter-proposal to study the lives of Abdelrahim Mahmud and Edward Said instead. Mahmud was a fiery Palestinian nationalist poet who died in the 1948 war fighting Zionists.  Said was the Palestinian professor who claimed that Westerners were Orientalists oozing condescending contempt for Arabs.  In exploiting the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency” to view the Israeli-Palestinian local conflict as part of a global struggle, Said helped cast Israel and all Westerners as inherently racist, colonialist, oppressive. Using those two as educational role models would alienate young citizens-in-training from their state, rather than fostering a constructive civic Israeli-Arab identity.

Arabs and Haredim should understand this initiative as a mark of respect.  Countries with diverse population should grant communities autonomy tempered with responsibility. Israeli Arabs and Haredim operate within the social contract that makes a country work. Tax-supported Arab and Haredi schools should teach about their particular cultures, worldviews and heroes – with Arab schools handling the difficult stories of 1948 and 1967 delicately, with nuance. But for citizens of Israel to become good citizens they also need a common vocabulary, common ideas, shared experiences. Learning key civic ideas, and meeting certain founding heroes educationally, is part of the essential educational journey.

Similarly, the Begin-Ben Gurion commemorations in 2013 provide a great opportunity to improve Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested heavily in Heritage Sites – and should make sure the Begin Center and the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute are frequently visited and well-funded.  “A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity,” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan. “A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, takes their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality.” This plan does not seem to have given much thought to bringing Diaspora Jews into the conversation. Without adding much money, simply by thinking more ambitiously, setting our sights not just on sites but on heroes, values, and a renewed narrative, with annual celebrations of different anniversaries, we could leverage the work already being done and create a Zionist Heritage platform for the entire Jewish people.

Great heroes are like good books – they tell important stories, deliver valuable ideas, embody important values, stretch us and unite us, providing common points of reference. Commemorating Begin and Ben Gurion is an opportunity for community building, among Israelis and among Jews. These two anniversaries will not solve the existential challenges of Israeli citizenship or Jewish identity. But if done right, the celebrations will contribute to the important educational mission of raising constructive Israeli citizens and proud Jews.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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One-Note History: A Response to Yousef Munayyer

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 6-19-12

One of the most moving Jewish prayers begins by saying, “MiPnai Chataeinu Gilinu MeArzenu,” we were exiled from our land, because of our sins. The prayer captures the humility of the Jews in exile, and explains a fundamental force that propelled the Zionist movement. Some Jews, overwhelmed by the sins of fraternal hatred that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, preached passivity, awaiting Messianic redemption.  Others, fearing national paralysis but nevertheless humbled, reacted and acted.

Awareness of national sins, of collective imperfections, helped make most Zionists pragmatists. They were trying to fix a problem—the problem of statelessness—and were willing to compromise to achieve their goal. Most dramatically, in 1947 David Ben-Gurion led his people to accept what the Peel Commission had acknowledged was a proverbial half loaf—a partition of the Jewish homeland into Jewish and Arab parts, with Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s geographic heart and soul, internationalized. This compromise preceded other compromises, including the 1979 Camp David treaty with Egypt, the various Oslo Accords of the 1990s, and the Gaza Disengagement of 2005—all of which involved withdrawing from territory for the hope of peace.

 

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Kemal Arekat (l), former leader of Futuwa movement, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, commander of Palestinian Arab forces in Jerusalem (c) and Kassem Rimawi (r), leader of Palestinian Arab Party 16 February 1948 during the offensive against Jews in Palestine. (AFP / Getty Images)

 

By contrast, the dominant Palestinian narrative has long been about the sins of others leading to their exile and suffering. In “Blaming the Victim” Yousef Munayyer once again offers such an account of his people as blameless, claiming that any suggestion of Palestinian responsibility is “ahistorical,” condescending, and, invoking the accusation du jour, a reflection of “racism.”  Setting up a straw man—or straw passage—he targets his enemies with his own improvised quotations, writing, “‘Those Arabs had a chance to make a deal by accepting the 1947 UN Partition,’ the narrative often goes, ‘but they chose war and thus deserve whatever befell them.'” Munayyer’s characterization drains the nuance from the discussion and turns an assessment of historical responsibility—losing wars you trigger does have consequences—into a condescending moral judgment.

Then, trying to cleanse Arabs of responsibility and blame the Jews he writes: “Given the discussion of ‘population transfer,'”—again undocumented—”Palestinian Arabs knew that the Jewish state might very well act to remove them from its territory to solidify its demographic control.”Here, using historical slight of hand with no proof, he implicitly accuses Israelis of a pre-crime, speculating that the Jews “might very well act.” Finally, reversing historical causation, he makes the Arab military attack on Israel a justified reaction rather than an aggressive invasion when he writes, again without evidence, “The influx of refugees pouring into Arab states pushed those governments into a war they were neither prepared for nor really desired.”

This account ignores the well-documented research of historians such as Efraim Karsh who in Palestine Betrayed (2010) presents a nuanced, multidimensional perspective. Karsh explains that some Palestinians had strong ties with Jews, some accepted the partition compromise, but that extremist leaders such as Hajj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, betrayed their people by being so uncompromising. (And Karsh’s portrait is far from “monolithic,” mocking another Munayyer complaint which is undermined by Munayyer’s own sweeping claim that “the native Palestinians opposed” partition—as if all acted as one).

Rejecting the Palestinian claim that Palestinians were passive pawns, Karsh quotes Radio Baghdad in May 1948 that “Fright has struck the Palestinian Arabs and they fled their country.” The Palestinian leader Musa Alami admitted in 1949 that his people “were told that the Arab armies were coming, that the matter would be settled and everything return to normal.”

Most damning, Karsh dares introduce complexity into the story by noting that after 1948, many Palestinians blamed their Arab brethren not the Jews. Sir John Troutbeck the pro-Arab head of the British Middle East office in Cairo, reported in June 1949 that the Gaza refugees “Express no bitterness against the Jews,” but “speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states.” Many told Troutbeck: “we know who our enemies are.” He concluded, the Gaza refugees “have no quarrel with the Jews.” He explained: “they have lived with the Jews all their lives and are perfectly ready to go back and live with them again.”

Johnny one-note history is anathema to a two-state solution. The dominant, monolithic woe-is-us, we-were-“ethnically-cleansed” Palestinian narrative undermines any spirit of pragmatism or compromise in a demand for absolute “justice” rather than a search for a subtle solution. Many Israelis have spent over two decades now arguing about their history, acknowledging the messiness of the past, the complexity of the conflict, the dual claims of two people in love with the same land. Parallel Palestinian discussions, acknowledging some of their sins and miscalculations too, would help lay the ideological and conceptual groundwork for the kinds of compromises they—and the Israelis—will have to accept for peace to be achieved.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.