The images pouring in from Gaza obscure the true victims of the conflict: Israel’s liberal opposition. Celebrated fictional author Amos Yehoshua-Shavit explains why war was necessary and how bad it makes him feel.
By Adam Shatz
In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland argued that liberal Zionists “are better placed than most to move Zionist, including Israeli, opinion.” In a follow up blog post published just after the latest Gaza war broke out, Freedland added that as hopes for a two-state settlement recede, these liberal Zionists “will have to decide which of their political identities matters more, whether they are first a liberal or first a Zionist.”
Eager to find out how liberal Zionists in Israel were wrestling with this question, I turned to Amos Yehoshua-Shavit, one of Israel’s best-known writers. Yehoshua-Shavit is the author of several award-winning books, including the novel In Search of Lost Space, which won the Israel Prize for literature, and a memoir, Partition and Its Discontents: A Liberal Israeli’s Journey, praised by Leon Wieseltier as “a modern-day Kaddish”; he is also a frequent contributor to the New Republic and the New York Times op-ed page. A veteran of three wars, Yehoshua-Shavit is a leader of Peace Now, and the chairman of Israelis for Darfur. Raised on a kibbutz, he divides his time between Tel Aviv and Berlin, where his son, a former fighter pilot, runs a software company. I spoke to him at his large and airy Tel Aviv flat, elegantly appointed with modernist furniture and sculptures he acquired on his travels in Goa and Dakar. He sat on his sofa beneath a photograph of himself with Yitzhak Rabin.
You published a piece entitled ‘War: A Painful Necessity’ when Israel began its most recent bombing campaign in Gaza. Why ‘painful’?
Shouldn’t you be asking me “why necessary”? But OK, I’ll answer your question. “Painful” because war hurts; people die. We lost some of our best young men, more than 60 of them. Many Palestinians also died, in no small part thanks to Hamas, our more than willing partner in this wretched conflict. Again, we are trapped in this horrifying cycle of violence. Sometimes, living in this country, which I love so much but which causes me so much pain, I think: I can’t go on. But I must – as Samuel Beckett would have said.
But wouldn’t you say there’s something of a disparity in the casualty figures?
“Something of a disparity.” You impress me. So delicately put: I would have expected nothing less from a writer at the London Review of Books, publisher of Walt and Mearsheimer. Yes, we killed a lot more people than they killed, because we are a powerful state, and they are not. But what do you expect of us? Are we not allowed to defend ourselves? Look, I am not happy that we killed 2,000 Palestinians. As I wrote in Ha’aretz when the war began: mow the lawn, don’t uproot it. But then Kerry stepped in with his stupid ceasefire initiative and really betrayed us.
No, betrayed us, the peace camp. We, the peace camp, were calling for a limited war, not a massive invasion, which the maximalists around Netanyahu were pushing for. But when Kerry bent over backwards to Qatar and Turkey, Hamas’s sponsors, he strengthened the maximalists who don’t want a two-state settlement, and they got their war. Because of that genius Kerry, the same Kerry who is so eager to make nice with President Rouhani and the Supreme Leader of Iran, we are now further from peace, and further from a resolution based on territorial compromise. If it hadn’t been for Kerry, we would have had a small war like in 2012, when we made our point and made a deal. We didn’t need a big war to “protect our edge.” But don’t misunderstand me: war was necessary.
But why exactly? Hamas denied responsibility for the killing of the three teenagers, and it has since come to light that the Israeli army had reasonable intelligence that the boys were already dead – information the Netanyahu government suppressed in order to justify a massive assault on Hamas in the West Bank and in Gaza. The rocket fire that Israel invoked as a casus belli came after seven Hamas operatives in Gaza were killed.
So well informed you are about the details, so knowledgeable about who-did-what-and-when. It must be nice to contemplate our agonies from the serenity of a Brooklyn brownstone. Please, you mistake me for a political man. I am a writer. If I didn’t live in this place, I wouldn’t write about politics. I would spend my days reading Proust and writing novels like those of my friends in London and New York and Paris, who are free to write about love and relationships and washing their kids’ diapers. Unfortunately, like all of us who live in the land of Israel, I am condemned by the situation, this endless, unbearable conflict. In case you’re not aware of it, we are really depressed here, the peace camp! It’s the Palestinians who are dying in greater numbers, but at least they’re not suffering from this sense of internal exile, as we do. In some ways, living with this sort of depression is harder than dying. But, like all Israelis, we are determined to live and to fight for what we believe is right: survival, you must remember, is what Israel is about. And it’s that dialectic of suffering and survival that gives life and literature in Israel its unique power.
But to get back to the question about why Israel had to go to war…
Have you forgotten about the tunnels? How would you feel with the Ho Chi Minh trail running beneath your beaches? Would you tolerate ceaseless rocket attacks aimed at your kindergartens? If you can’t answer that question honestly, you have no right to criticize us. I also ask you: does it really matter if it was Hamas or Jihad or al-Qaeda or ISIS who killed those yeshiva students? They’re cut from the same apocalyptic-jihadi cloth. For all their doctrinal differences, which you writers in New York and London tease out with such exquisite finesse, as if you were talking about the differences between organic goat cheeses, they all have the same objective: killing Jews, the more the merrier. Analyzing their motivations is a waste of time: The Hamas Charter says all that you need to know.
But more Jews – more Israelis – have died as a result of this war, which Israel launched, than in the last few years, and nearly 2,000 Palestinians have died.
Numbers schnumbers. Look, I’m disturbed by how many Palestinians were killed, OK? But I’m no less disturbed by the number of Jews Hamas was plotting to kill with those tunnels. Would you have preferred that we waited until they carried out a big massacre? Maybe you would have. The bien pensant intellectuals of New York and London seem to like us Jews only when we are weak, not when we are strong. Sometimes I think that the only chance we have of regaining the world’s sympathy is to go back to the crematorium.
And, since you mentioned the question of responsibility, what about the people of Gaza, so beloved of the Guardian and the London Review? The Gazans voted for Hamas knowing that Hamas would continue what they call their “resistance,” and Hamas continued that resistance knowing that we would be forced to respond. When we left in 2005, a disengagement that, may I remind you, was very risky, and that threatened to provoke a civil war in the State of Israel, the Gazans had a choice: develop or arm. They made their choice, and now they are paying a price, a high price, I’m sorry to say. Imagine what Gaza might look like now if, instead of building those tunnels, Hamas had created a vibrant economy?
But the Gaza Strip has been under siege for the last seven years, and in any case comprises only two percent of historical Palestine.
Only two percent, really? I thought it was more. Well, you have to start somewhere. Imagine if we’d given them 98 percent – I mean 22 percent, with territorial swaps, as I might remind you we offered them in 2000. I’m afraid that we would have seen even more tunnels. I hate to agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the root of the conflict is that the Arabs refuse to accept a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.
But aren’t you overlooking some of the shifts in the region, notably the solid support that Israel has received from General Sisi in Egypt, and from the Saudis?
I have always said that we should have responded to the Saudi peace plan, for all its imperfections, and, I admit, we are sleeping more easily now that Egyptians have kicked out the Muslim Brotherhood, even if it wasn’t exactly democratic. The leaders in Cairo and Damascus are consumed with their own internal problems – and handling them much as we do, in case you haven’t noticed. But the basic contours haven’t really changed, the fundamental hostility to our presence. Have you not heard of ISIS? And the Palestinians…they will not forget what happened to them in 1948. It’s a real problem. They can’t seem to move on. I wrote a book,Partition and Its Discontents, in which I talked, very frankly, about the expulsions, the Nakba. So did Benny Morris. I thought this was an olive branch. I said to myself, maybe now that we’ve admitted it, now that we’ve come clean, the Palestinians will agree to a Jewish state within – well, more or less within – the Green Line. Instead, they keep talking about the right of return, they keep making intifada. This, after we not only acknowledge their history, but, for god’s sake, write it!
And so I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that they have too much invested in hating us. It’s become their identity: they can’t give it up. And so they try to kill us, and when we end up killing more of them, because we are more powerful, they say we are committing genocide. Come on! Yes, 2,000 deaths is a lot. But it’s not six million. Look, I promised myself that I would not bring up the Holocaust, but I am afraid I can’t avoid it. The Shoah looms over us like a dark cloud. We are a traumatized people, and we react – we over-react – in the way that traumatized people do. That tendency to over-react, whether in war or in conversation or in our cars, is something that’s in Zionism’s DNA: it’s part of the dark, crazy energy that makes Israel such an intense and creative place. It’s what makes us a start-up nation, and, unfortunately, an occupying and sometimes aggressive nation. And believe me, though I am sometimes pained by the results – as I often tell my Palestinian friends – I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But the price…
As I’ve said, I am not happy about all the killing. I know that it will lead to more bitterness, more violence, more despair, and more hopelessness on both sides. Really, we are like prisoners, us and the Palestinians, unable to see outside our cells. But suffering isn’t all that we share: we share this love of the land, even the same food! That’s why, in spite of everything, I remain hopeful. That’s why I continue to support Seeds for Peace, even as I continue to serve in the reserves. It’s so important for young Israelis to know that Palestinians are also human. To them, at least to the Jewish majority, it’s not so obvious. And this is heartbreaking. It was much better before the First Intifada, when the Arabs came to work in Israel and we developed real friendships. It wasn’t equal, but the feeling was genuine. Most Israelis had their cars repaired by Arabs, and the hummus definitely improved. Now we’ve replaced the Palestinians with Thais and Romanians, and though I love Thai food as much as any of my friends in Brooklyn, we’ve lost a lot, lost that contact with the Arabs. Well, the Palestinian Arabs. The ones in Israel are another can of worms. Did I say worms? I didn’t mean it that way.
I admit, and this is very painful to me: I do not see peace on the horizon, not in my lifetime or even my children’s. But I will continue to fight for peace as if there is no war, and I will continue to defend my country when it is under threat. You can’t imagine how lonely it is to be a dove in Israel today. It takes a particular kind of personality – determined, stubborn, crazy, a bit of a meshuggunah – to keep fighting for peace, on the basis of two states.
So you still believe in a two-state settlement?
Yes, two states and one army. The Palestinian state must be demilitarised. The fishermen in Gaza will have to rely on us for their protection. It’s not just or fair, but it’s reality, OK? And reality is something you can’t argue with.
[*] Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn, though not in a brownstone.