Jonathan G. Campbell studied at Aberdeen and Oxford, and he is currently Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Judaism at the University of Bristol. His interests include the origins of the Jewish scriptural canon, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Deuteronomy and its interpretations, and the use of holy writ in anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist discourse. Among his publications are Deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Exegetical Texts, and he has recently embarked on a project concerned with the reception of Deuteronomy. Here Jonathan discusses Yaacov Lozowick's Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars.
Jonathan G. Campbell on Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars by Yaacov Lozowick
Yaacov Lozowick's challenging Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars has had a huge impact on me since I first read it in 2005. Back then, my union, the AUT, was embroiled in a debate about whether to boycott Israeli academics - and only Israeli academics - and I couldn't get out of my head a Guardian article from 2002 (which, regrettably, I can't now find) warning about a new anti-Semitism. Like many, moreover, I was still reeling over the failure of the Oslo peace process several years earlier, as well as the violence that came in its wake.
It was a great relief when I found Lozowick's book, therefore, for here was someone giving expression not only to a similar sense of disappointment but also to a concomitant need to re-evaluate past assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I could hardly put the book down until I'd finished it. However, what Lozowick says isn't easy to summarize, for it combines several interrelated strands that are difficult to disentangle. So the following is inevitably an unsatisfactory simplification of his careful, thoughtful prose.
Still, on re-reading the book, I noticed six broad themes, some recurring throughout and others concentrated within individual chapters. Each goes against the grain of mainstream opinion in the West and flatly contradicts dominant convictions among Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims.
First, in an Introduction, Lozowick presents his own personal journey. It begins with the naïve Zionism of his youth, according to which Israelis were the goodies and Arabs the baddies. It then moves on to the revised Zionism that a more honest approach required during the late 1970s/early 1980s, a Zionism that saw the need for...
... a mutual accommodation that would address the basic needs not only of the Jews, but of their neighbours, especially the Palestinians. The Egyptian case was a shining example that this could happen. (p. 3)
Accordingly, like many of his generation, Lozowick became a left-leaning, Sharon-opposing supporter of the peace process, including the Oslo accords of the 1990s, 'voting for candidates and parties who promised to leave no stone unturned in their efforts to achieve peace' (p. 13). The assumption was that, if only Israel would take risks for peace, everything else would fall into place. Yet, with the collapse of Oslo from late 2000 and the orgy of Palestinian violence that followed, Lozowick was forced to re-think his Zionism again, because...
... as the Palestinians began to murder Israeli civilians deep inside Israel while proclaiming that they were struggling against an unjust occupation that we had just tried to end, this position seemed increasingly irrational. (p. 13)
Indeed, Lozowick found himself constrained to vote for Ariel Sharon of all people in early 2001, both because 'the Palestinians were obviously reading Barak as an appeaser' (p. 16) and because 'the proper response to violence and perfidy cannot be further concessions' (p. 16). Furthermore...
... in the event of any future negotiations, our representatives must be of the hard-boiled skeptical sort, since the trusting, optimistic, peace-seeking ones had proved disastrously naïve. (p. 16)
The rest of Lozowick's book effectively unpacks key elements outlined in this personal introductory story in more detail.
Second, therefore, Lozowick provides an account of the struggle for survival of the pre-state Yishuv and Israel. This constitutes a history of Zionism, for the Jewish community in the Holy Land has now been in a more or less constant state of war for a century. As the title of his book suggests, Lozowick argues that, with the exception of the First Lebanon War after its initial stage, the Jews had just cause to take up arms in each conflict and also generally fought in a just manner. That does not mean that errors were never made, injustices never perpetrated, or war crimes not on occasion committed in the early days. The massacres of civilians at Deir Yasin in 1948, Kibiya in 1953 and Kfar Kassem in 1956, for instance, really were just that, massacres. But such events were atypical and were met with horror in the wider community, while great efforts were subsequently made to prevent their recurrence. Indeed, the IDF has shown a consistent commitment to fight its battles justly, as dramatically demonstrated by Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin in 2002. Instead of bombing from the safety of the air, Israel lost 23 soldiers in hand-to-hand combat 'so that the Palestinian terrorists would be defeated with as few [Palestinian civilian] deaths as possible' (p. 255). Consequently, when Israel's overall conduct is compared with the warfare of other democracies in the 20th century, not to mention Israel's non-democratic neighbours, it comes out relatively well. As Lozowick puts it:
Israel's enemies, and even many of her friends, damn us for being violent and castigate us for our brutality. They would do better to open any history of the twentieth century. Nailing people by the ears to fences; ramming heated metal rods into live bodies; cutting up abdomens or, preferably, wombs; throwing infants into the air and catching them on bayonets; slaughtering families; freezing to death or boiling – enough! Most of these abominations, and worse, have been done to Jews in the twentieth century, but we haven't done these things to other people. Faced with generation upon generation of warfare against an enemy who gloats in murder and dances over Jewish blood, we [in Israel] have mostly done our best not to return evil for evil. Our record is far from perfect, but it is better than anyone else's. (pp. 261-2)
Third, Lozowick says much about the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. Like most Israelis and the vast majority of Jews worldwide, he does not doubt that the Palestinians should have their own state. Neither does he doubt that some of Israel's behaviour since 1967 has hindered attaining that goal, especially intense settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza after 1977. Yet, both before and after 1967, various proposals to create two states for two peoples were consistently accepted by Israel but rejected by her enemies who, equally consistently, chose instead the path of genocidal warfare and terrorism against civilians. The root cause of the conflict, therefore, is not occupation, settlements, refugees, borders or other practicalities that could be resolved in negotiation. Rather, it is an ideological rejection of the right of any self-governing Jewish polity to exist in the Middle East. That explains the rejection of the 1947 Partition Plan, the actions of the fedayeen in the 1950s, and the founding of the PLO in 1964 (not 1967), as well as the infamous 'No, No, No' Arab summit in Khartoum in 1967, the Palestinian refusal to accept Resolution 242 until 1988, and, of course, Arafat's rejection of the proposals at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001.
Indeed, fourth, Lozowick's analysis of the Oslo peace process between 1993 and 2001, and the intensification of Palestinian violence that followed its collapse, removes any remaining doubt for him that such rejectionism is what drives the conflict and prevents peace. Although he shows no hesitation in criticizing Israel for allowing settlements to continue to grow and for its 'slow and stingy' (p. 228) withdrawal from Palestinian territory during Oslo, these were secondary problems. Much more serious was the Palestinian Authority's development 'into a typical third-world kleptocracy run by and for the benefit of Arafat's corrupt inner circle' (p. 229) and its routine incitement against Israelis and Jews in general. Moreover, even while Israel was 'purposefully weakening its defenses and actively enhancing the military capabilities of a sworn enemy, in the hope that the enemy would become a peaceful neighbour' (p. 222), overall Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians actually increased during the peace process. Most significantly of all, Arafat rejected the Camp David and Taba offers of a contiguous Palestinian state, failed to table any counter-proposals, and instead embarked on a terror war of unparallelled ferocity against Israel's civilians. Such behaviour simply cannot be explained as a response to ongoing occupation or the settlements, for Israel had just offered to leave East Jerusalem, Gaza and most of the West Bank for good. And in any case, over 95 per cent of Palestinians were already no longer experiencing direct Israeli occupation since they were under Palestinian Authority rule. Lozowick's explanation, therefore, is stark:
What was discussed at Camp David and Taba, unlike what preceded it, was an end to the conflict and therefore a permanent acquiescence in the Jews' sovereign presence. (p. 249)
Such acquiescence remained as unthinkable as ever.
Fifth, Lozowick tackles the old canards that Israel is an imperialist, colonialist or racist state. Of course, Israel, like other democracies, has real problems with racism and inequality, and its record in the Palestinian territories can certainly be criticized. But if Zionism were the racist ideology so many believe it to be, it would not have granted full equality to Israel's Arab minority or allowed over 100,000 black Ethiopian Jews into the country. As for accusations of colonialism, as Lozowick puts it:
The only... resemblance between European colonialism and Zionism is that some of the Zionists - perhaps half - came from Europe; even these were mostly destitute refugees... and almost none from the colonizing nations of Western Europe. Their goal was to set up a state in which they would be a majority, not the ruling caste, and to create a society that reflected the culture and value of the Jews. (p. 184)
Neither does the charge of imperialism stick, for a truly imperialist Zionism would have taken all of British Palestine in the War of Independence, as it easily could have once the military tide had turned in its favour. An imperialist Israel, furthermore, would not have accepted the land-for-peace formula of the Oslo years that ended up killing hundreds of its citizens.
Sixth, Lozowick discusses the disingenuousness of the Western commentariat which, during Oslo and after, made it clear that a Jewish state exercising power to defend itself against murderous extremists was simply unacceptable. Such anti-Israel bias, and the effective complicity in the murder of Jews that it entails, can in part be explained by the dim view taken by many commentators of any developed country that takes military action. It also results from the sloppiness of modern journalistic methods which 'tend to obfuscate reality and dissipate clear judgments in a haze of moral relativism' (p. 282). Yet, so pervasive and persistent is the hostility that it requires a deeper explanation:
Given the longevity, potency, and centrality of anti-Semitism in Western culture, it would be an act of supreme gullibility to pretend that nothing about the blatant anti-Zionist strands in the international sphere has anything to do with the preceding centuries of hatred. (pp. 286-7)
In other words, the Western inclination to believe the worst about the Jews, even when the evidence points in the opposite direction, is alive and well, especially in Europe. Otherwise, how can we explain The Economist's assertion on 5 October 2000 that '[Israel] has to abate its greed for other people's land' (p. 279) when, in reality, Israel had just offered to leave the Palestinian territories? How else could The Independent proclaim on 16 April 2002 that a 'monstrous war crime' (p. 280) had been uncovered in Jenin when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth?
On re-reading Lozowick's book now, I realize that these six aspects of his factual and ethical analysis, as well as others that haven't been mentioned for lack of space, have had a lasting impact on my own understanding of the Middle East conflict and its portrayal in Western media. Indeed, most of his observations remain as perceptive in 2009 as they were in 2003 and, until similar conclusions are drawn more widely, I can't see that peace is coming to Israelis or Palestinians any time soon.
Of course, much has happened in the Middle East since Lozowick's study first appeared - including Arafat's death in 2004, the Gaza withdrawal of 2005, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Abbas's rejection of Olmert's offer of a state in 2008, and the Gaza conflict nearly a year ago. A second edition giving these events the Lozowick treatment would be very welcome, therefore, especially if it included more references to primary sources for academic users. Meanwhile, there's always Lozowick's excellent blog, Yaacov Lozowick's Ruminations.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]