Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Reviewing a Book About Settlements

It's very hard to write with any real accuracy about the settlement project, or at least about Israel's intentions, policies and actions, unless you've seen the archival material - which no-one has, because most of it has yet to be declassified. Gershon Gorenberg, however, has done a valiant job, in his book The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Since I no longer blog on politically charged topics, I've posted my review in the lion's mouth: on the blog of the Israel State Archives, of all places.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Links fixed

Apparently a few hundred people visit this blog daily, even tho I only post to it rarely. Most visitors seem to be looking at old stuff. Some of the things they're looking for are the long-ish essays I wrote from time to time, stored on Google Docs, and linked to from the blog. Then, sometime last year, perhaps when Google moved us from Docs to Drive, the links were all broken. For months now I've been getting e-mails with requests to see a file I thought I'd posted years ago.

So today I went back and changed the status of all those essays in Google Drive, from private (which was never my intention), to public (which is what they all used to be). I hope this will fix the problem, and if not, please write in and tell me.

Most important, of course: thank you to all the folks who are reading my back-copies! Who'd have thunk?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Have Israeli Archives been Hiding Files?

Over the weekend Shai Hazkani published a long article in Haaretz about Israeli crimes in 1948 and attempts to cover them up, first by David Ben Gurion and now, in recent years, by the archives. I'm not going to deal with the content of the article itself. However, I was perturbed by Hazkani's claim that unpleasant files which had been opened in the 1990s have recently been re-sealed, even though in the meantime historians had seen them and quoted from them. Given that I"m the State Archivist, I received a number of enquiries from various folks: "Tell us it ain't so, Yaacov!"

So I looked into the matter by contacting Haaretz and eventually talking to Hazkani so as to understand what he was describing. The answer is troubling.

First, it's not the censor. There is a censor in Israel, but she and her team don't deal with influencing historical narratives, only with stopping publications which contain an immediate danger to Israeli security, and they're watched closely by various agencies, chief of them being the Supreme Court. They have a very narrow mandate, and they stay within it.

It's not the State Archives, at least not as a policy of blocking uncomfortable or unpleasant documentation. The readers of our blog may have noticed this. However, it turns out there have been cases where declassifiers have re-sealed files, when their directives have been sharpened. Finally, there are the declassifiers at the IDF Archives: when I asked them they confirmed that indeed, some files have been re-sealed because of their content.

So Hazkani at Haaretz was right.

Now what? Since I stopped being a blogger and became a civil servant, I acquired authority and responsibility, but lost the luxury of simply speaking out on whatever topic crossed my mind. (I also mostly stopped bogging). On this matter, also: I can no longer simply say how I think things need to be without much chance of influencing them to be that way. I need to address the full complexity of the matter, and deal with all the stakeholders. I can hope to change things within my sphere of authority, but I must use the tools the system has given me, not those I used to use. It's trade-off: I may be able to change things (and I many not), but I can't simply spout opinions.

So on that note I'll have to end this report, at least until - and if - there's something else to report on.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: My Father was a Freedom Fighter

A few months ago a twitter correspondent suggested I should read Ramzy Baruod's book My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story. If memory serves, the suggestion was something of a taunt, or a dare, along the lines of "let's see if you've got the guts to read such an important book, and if you can deal with it honestly". So the next time I was at Amazon I purchased a copy, and have now finished reading it. As could have been predicted, my reading is a bit different from that of my correspondent, so here's a quick review.

Baroud's book is not particularly well written, as, say, Raja Shehadeh's is. Yet it is interesting and I'm glad I read it. I discerned three major levels in it, the personal, the historical and the political.

The personal is the poignant story of the author's father, Mohammed Baroud, along with lesser strands about his grandfather and his mother, all of whom were born in the town of Beit Daras before 1948, and all of whom eventually died in the Nuseirat camp in the Gaza strip. One can - indeed, should - be careful when telling the story of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even when inevitably taking sides, but Israelis should be able to accept that the personal stories of Palestinian individuals whose lives were harshly changed by the events of 1948 are tales of woe, misfortune and yearning for an earlier time. Was there a river that flowed near Beit Daras in whose pools Muhammad swam "endlessly" as a boy? Of course not. Were the battles of 1948 which emptied the town naked Israeli aggression with the gunning down of large numbers of women and children? No, and no. Were the ensuing decades of misery in Gaza the inevitable result of intentional Israeli policies? Of course not. Yet for all the disagreements about simple facts and complex interpretations, the fundamental outlines of the personal story are true, and tragic. His grandparents and parents were uprooted from their ancestral home, and life never went back to being normal for them. Many many millions of people in Europe and Asia were likewise uprooted in the 1940s, including Jews, and some built new lives and others didn't, but the general shouldn't hide the specific; we as Israelis can afford to accept that the lives of many Palestinians were ruined by their conflict with us, especially in the 1940s.

We can also accept that life for Palestinians during the 1st Intifada was most unpleasant, and their interactions with the IDF often extremely negative. Why this was so is a different question, but that it was so, seems to me beyond argument.

The historical level of Baroud's book is, simply, silly. His depiction of Israel and Israelis lacks any factual plausibility; his repeated claim that Israel succeeds at what it does because of American interventions is odd given that he has chosen to make his own life in America (Seattle, apparently). His chronology is often manipulative; one example among many is when he tells of Netanyahu's electoral victory in 1996 first, and then only recounting the fact that Hamas was blowing up Israeli citizens by the dozens a few pages later, so the ignorant reader can't see any possible connection. He often confuses his chronology in such a way, to the extent it's hard to maintain that he's merely confused. His footnotes (as an archivist I often take note of footnotes) are abysmal as historical sources. Even his over-arching thesis - that his father was a freedom fighter - is true only in a metaphorical way, in that his father despised Israel all his life, even as his best commercial enterprises seem to have been conducted with Israelis. His treatment of the history of Palestinians as subjects of history, as actors rather than passive objects, is extremely confused at its best, and disingenuous as a general rule. Which brings us to the third level of the book, the political.

The politics of the book are probably their most valuable, and focus mostly on the period since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993 until the present (the book was published in 2010). This is the section diplomats, pundits, journalists and observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to read. The way Baroud sees it, and he presents his position as being mainstream and representative, the entire Oslo process was a conspiracy to harm the Palestinians; it was a machination by Israel, America, and a corrupt PLO leadership to screw the Palestinians, prevent their attaining their rights, and defeat their honorable struggle. True, his appraisal of Yasser Arafat is complex, but his disdain for the rest of the PA leadership is palpable. At one point, speaking  of his father, he makes it very clear that the only possible just outcome of any peaceful resolution of the conflict must of course include his return to Beit Daras. Any Palestinian political leadership which accepts anything less than that is illegitimate, and probably made up of lackeys of Israel and America.

I'm on record as having accepted the need for Palestinian independence alongside Israel since the 1970s. There's nothing in this book to suggest there's a significant group of Palestinians who agree with me, while there is much in it to suggest that Palestinian figures who negotiate with Israelis lack legitimacy among their own people. It's one book, by one man, and there may be other voices among the Palestinians, but it's no less depressing for all that.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark

I recently read Joseph Brodsky's little book Watermark. I enjoyed it thoroughly, though I can't tell you what it's about. I mean, well, of course I can: it's about Venice, and Brodsky's annual visits to the city over many years, always in the middle of winter. So it's sort of a memoir, and a bit of a travel book, and of course it's a reflection on life and beauty , but having said all that, I still can't tell you what it's about. Since it's only 135 pages long, and the typeset is large with big spaces, you could probably read the whole thing in an hour or two at the most - but that would be a shame. Better to read a few pages each time, then set it aside and come back later. That way you'll enjoy it over a few weeks, if you pace yourself well enough.

Some wonderful friends sent me the book when they heard we were going to Venice, but by the time it arrived we'd already been there and were back. That was, oh, three years ago I think, and it was pure coincidence that I noticed it on the shelf last month. Reading it wasn't as good as being there, but as memory lanes go, it was surprisingly effective. So I'd say, if you're planning to go to Venice, read the book first. If you've already been, read it now. If you don't know why you might wish to go there, read it and you'll know. And if you're determined never to go to Venice (why would anybody do that?), read Brodsky's strange but compelling book and regret your decision.
At sunset all cities look wonderful, but some more so than others. Reliefs become suppler, columns more rotund, capitals curlier, cornices more resolute, spires starker, niches deeper, disciples more draped, angels airborne. In the streets it gets dark, but it is still daytime for the Fondamenta and that gigantic liquid mirror where motorboats, vaporetti, gondolas, dinghies, and barges "like scattered old shoes" zealously trample Baroque and Gothic facades, not sparing your own or a passing cloud's reflection either. "Depict it", whispers the winter light, stopped flat by the brick wall of a hospital, or arriving home at the paradise of San Zaccaria's frontone after its long passage through the cosmos. And you sense this light's fatigue as it rests in Zaccaria's marble shells for another hour or so, while the earth is turning its other cheek to the luminary. This is the winter light at its purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus. Its particles' only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or small, visible. It's a private light, the light of Giorgione or Bellini, not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto. And the city lingers in it, savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private. (p.80)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hannah Arendt in a false Jerusalem

The other day we went to see the new film about Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (2012). If you're into Batman films or other Christopher Nolan intelligent flics, this one isn't for you. It's slow, thoughtful, in two languages, and very well made. There is no action of the sort that Hollywood would recognize. It's about Arendt's trip to Jerusalem for Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961 and the book she wrote about it, Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics) - a book with one of the most important subtitles ever: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

Arendt was once a serious presence in my life. It turns out that shortly before she traveled to Jerusalem she spent an evening at our home in Chicago, though given my young age I was probably sent to bed before she arrived. As an undergraduate I read her magnificent The Origins of Totalitarianism (HBK) - easily one of the most intellectually exciting books I'd read. When I submitted my doctoral proposal for research into the decision-making process in the SS, using Eichmann's office as a case study, I noted that a side affect of the investigation would be to bolster Arendt's Banality thesis with solid historical documentation.

Well, that didn't work out. As I ploughed my way through tens of thousands of pages of Nazi documents and secondary sources about it, I was forced to recognize that she had got it all wrong. There was no banality there whatsoever, but there was personal brutality and viciousness, in the context of a profound and all-pervasive hatred of Jews. I eventually published my findings, in Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, which had a pretty good run as turgid history books go, and was published in four languages, but never made the tiniest dent in the popularity of Arendt's thesis. Which is OK, given her stature and my lack of one.

Von Trotta's film tells the story of the creation of the Banality of Evil book and its initial reception; the fun in watching it is that we all know the end of the story: while some folks didn't initially like it, eventually it became one of the more famous books of the 20th century, so that there was a happy ending, even if it took a while to arrive - after the end of the film.

I'm not going to argue with her anymore - I've moved on from that. It's a fine film, and I recommend it.

The point I'd like to make is about one of the most minor scenes in the film. In early 1961 Arendt arrives in Jerusalem. The film puts her in St Andrew's Scottish Church, which I think didn't happen but could have, I suppose. From the balcony there's a great view of the western wall of the Old City, and when she first arrives she meets an old friend, a fellow German-born Jew, and they briefly enjoy the view, while commenting "So this is your Jerusalem!"; the camera pans along the wall of the Old City.

Which is of course nonsense. In 1961 anyone sitting on that balcony looking at the view would have noticed that there was a harsh border running right down the middle of it, with hostile snipers occasionally shooting at each other across it. No one would have celebrated "their Jerusalem"; any sane person would have mourned the tragic tearing apart of one of the world's oldest and most famous cities. Indeed, a visitor to the city would have sought out such vantage points so as to see the extent of the travesty, and the imbecility of dividing a city.

A German film director born in 1942 and thus old enough to remember the division of Berlin and Jerusalem, of all people, could be expected not to be so silly. Or maybe not: maybe that's too much to expect.