Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pretending away the Nakba only perpetuates the conflict

When the Czechs prefer to keep silent and repress their history, it’s a problem, but it is not an imminent danger to the country. When Israelis prefer to pretend there was no ethnic cleaning here, it’s a wholly different question: the conflict won’t end unless Israel admits to the injustice it caused.

A few weeks back I watched The Gatekeepers, a movie which interviews six of the chiefs of Shin Bet, from Avraham Shalom to Yuval Diskin. The movie is shocking and well worth your time. The most surprising character was Diskin, who obviously underwent a great change upon leaving the service: at the end of the movie he adamantly agrees with Yishayahu Leibowitch’s famous dictum that the occupation will turn Israel into a ”Shin Bet state.” And over the weekend we learned Diskin went through another metamorphosis: he recommended to the Turkel Committee that the Shin Bet start video-taping its interrogations, which the service has long resisted.

Diskin is merely the latest in a series of senior security officials who, as soon as they leave office, see the light and understand just how ruinous the office they headed was, and how they represented positions that were damaging to the country. The last great show in this genre was the bunch of senior commanders of the IDF’s Northern Command, who upon retirement were astonished to find out that the Security Zone in Lebanon was a huge mistake – often, after defending it in uniform as vital to security just a few weeks prior.

In that regard, the most interesting speaker is certainly Avraham Shalom, the oldest interviewee. Shalom thinks strategic errors were made, particularly by the politicians, but he himself regrets nothing. When asked about moral problems, he laughs. “Morality?” He asks, “Morality? Look for it first among the terrorists.” One assumes former chiefs, assuming they would even bother to be interviewed, would supply similar remarks. It’s very hard to see Issar Har’el, for instance, the closest thing we’ve got to J. Edgar Hoover, providing the camera with anything aside from a mocking, world-weary grin, saying in effect “you’ll never understand, so don’t even try.”

Superficially, Shalom, born in 1928, and Diskin, born in 1956, are separated by just one generation. Actually, they come from different worlds. Diskin grew up in Givatayim, possibly Tel Aviv’s most secure suburb. Shalom was born in Vienna. It was not a safe place for Jews even then, and in 1938 came the Anschluss, the annexation by Nazi Germany, which the Viennese used as an excuse for an orgy of violence against resident Jews. Shalom was lucky: his family understood early on where things were going, and fled to Palestine in 1939. They arrived penniless – this was Adolf Eichmann’s specialty, how he made his name – but they survived.

Not everyone was that lucky. Uri Ben-Ari, who would one day create the IDF’s doctrines of tank warfare, saw as an eight-year-old child in Berlin (he was still called Heinz Benner) how a gang of SA gunmen severely beat his father, after which they urinated on him. On Kristallnacht, the father and son saw the synagogue where he had recently celebrated his bar mizvah being set on fire. Several days later, Benner was kicked out of his school in a humiliating public spectacle: “Heinz Benner! You are a member of the Jewish race which committed heinous crimes against mankind and against the German people! The school vomits you from its ranks and you are hereby expelled! Go through our gate and be gone from our sight forever. Forward march! Heil Hitler!” Ben-Ari emigrated to Palestine, alone, in March 1939. His father was left behind.

In that regard, Ben-Ari was more typical than Shalom. The Palmach generation is often described as composed of native-born, but a significant number of them were European refugees, not natives. For a generation, the symbol of the Palmach sabra was Dan Ben-Amotz. He was actually born in the Ukraine under the name Moise Tehilimzuger. Like Ben-Ari, he too came to Palestine alone; his family, too, was murdered. The number of Jews then residing in Palestine who lost their family in Europe was staggering. To the rest of their trouble – the relative poverty and primitiveness of Palestine, at least when compared to central Europe; the conflict with the Arabs; the significant suffering inflicted on teenaged refugees by teenage sabras and often even by the grown-ups, who couldn’t comprehend what was happening “over there” – must be added survivor’s guilt. The refugees who made it to Palestine prior to 1941 believed they were pioneers, and that their family and friends would join them after a while; many of them saved money diligently to aid in this immigration. At the end of 1945, most of them would realize they were either the last survivors of their family or very nearly so. The fact that they not merely survived, but lived in relative comfort, must also have been a burden.

Ben-Ari and Shalom joined the Palmach in 1946, the year the organization began preparing itself for the coming independence war, which would come within 18 months. This was the same period in which Eastern Europe convulsed in a series of terrifying national struggles which followed the border changes the Soviet Union forced on the region following its victory over Nazi Germany. These struggles – a more apt title would be “ethnic cleansing” – were bloody, and included the murder of possibly millions of people: Ukrainians, Poles, and many Germans. The Czechs murdered, in a savage outburst of hatred only occupied people who felt their chains slip away can understand, some 20,000 Germans in the days immediately following liberation. Most of the victims were women, children and the elderly. The Czech don’t talk much about it nowadays, nor are they fond of speaking of the expulsion of some 1.5 million Germans, or the pillaging of their property. During a tour in Prague two months ago, the tour guide described what happened there as ‘genocide.’ Most of his people prefer to look the other way. The Poles made it clear to Jews who thought they could return home, with the pogrom in Kielce and by hundreds and thousands of terror killings on the roads and on trains, that they, too, are an ethnic minority whose historical role is over. Without understanding these events, it’s impossible to understand some of Alterman’s most haunting, poisoned lines in “The Child Avram”: More