Israel at Fifty

by Jonathan Wallace

As the Israelis celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of their country, the Israel Broadcasting Authority is showing a 22-part documentary called "Tkuma", or "Rebirth", which for the first time on Israeli television, is presenting the Palestinian side of the story, including coverage of the "expulsion, dispossession and killing of Arabs," in 1948 and after. "Israel's History, Viewed Candidly, Starts a Storm", New York Times, April 10, 1998, p. A8.

The official Israeli version is of "heroic return and nation-building in an empty, desolate homeland." The fact that there were Palestinians living in Palestine is a fact of profound inconvenience to Israelis, much like the fact that there were native Americans living in America when it was "discovered" and "colonized." In "What is a Nation?" Ernst Renan said that a nation is made as much by the things it collectively forgets as those it remembers. His example was France's convenient amnesia about the massacres of Protestants. Israel's amnesia about the expulsion of the Palestinians and massacres such as the one at Deir Yassin is a prime example of pernicious mythmaking. The New York Times article quotes Communications Minister Limor Livnat using some very interesting language:

Instead of showing the history of Israel "with a sense of pride and confidence in the historical justice that was done to the Jewish people," Mrs. Livnat wrote, the series "depicts the Palestinian side sympathetically, systematically distorts the great Zionist deed and causes severe and probably irreparable damage to our image."

"To my understanding," Mrs. Livnat added, "the Israeli public broadcasting channel is not supposed to show the propagandistic positions of the Palestinians, while pushing aside all our myths." (Emphasis added)

Mistranslation? Slip of Mrs. Livnat's tongue? You decide. The irreducible issue is that a country born off balance can only restore itself, if at all, by facing the truth. No truth, no justice; no justice, no peace. The way to stability in the Middle East does not lie through glorification of a "great Zionist deed" but through the pursuit of understanding and forebearance and the acknowledgement of responsibility on both sides for the crimes of the past.

This past weekend was Passover, and as always I was moved by the great beauty of some of the language in the Seder service (from the New Union Haggadah):

For the sake of our redemption, we say together the ancient words which join us with our own people and with all who are in need, with the wrongly imprisoned and the beggar in the street. For our redemption is bound up with the deliverance from bondage of people everywhere....

Our rabbis taught, "The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied"....

Each drop of wine we pour is hope and prayer
That people will cast out the plagues that threaten everyone
everywhere they are found, beginning in our own hearts.
The making of war,
the teaching of hate and violence,
despoliation of the earth,
perversion of justice and of government,
fomenting of vice and crime,
neglect of human needs,
oppression of nations and peoples,
corruption of culture,
subjugation of science, learning and human discourse,
the erosion of freedoms.

Today as well, wherever slavery remains, Jews taste its bitterness....

Still we remember: "it was we who were slaves.....we who were strangers." And therefore, we recall these words as well:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger,

having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong shall love him as yourself,

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt....

I am ashamed for the many Jews, fellows of mine, who can read these words without shame and without any sense of their applicability to the present situation in the land of Israel.