The State of Israel vs the Jews, by Sylvain Cypel, Other Press, 352pp, £23.99, ISBN: 978-1635420975
It should be recognised as a general principle of politics that a colony cannot become a nation state without the radical suppression – usually involving massacre on a large scale – of the indigenous population. This was what was done in North America, Australia and New Zealand. It was not done in Algeria or South Africa. Nor in Ireland, where the existing ruling caste was sent into exile and the remaining population reduced to a sort of helotry. But they survived as a distinct people and were eventually able to assert themselves and take power.
Once the suppression has been successfully achieved the colony can become a ‘normal’ country with ‘normal’ cultural and moral values. It can even eventually congratulate itself on its high moral sensitivity when it apologises to what is left of the indigenous population, sometimes even going so far as to offer some sort of ‘compensation’.
All this is relevant to the argument of Sylvain Cypel’s book The State of Israel vs the Jews.
Sylvain Cypel in the 1990s was an editor of the Courrier International. I was living in France in the 1990s and the Courrier International – a selection of articles taken from newspapers and political commentary throughout the world – was my delight. He subsequently became North America correspondent for Le Monde. His own background was Zionist. His father, he tells us
had been the main leader of Labour Zionism in France for a quarter century and ran the Yiddish language daily Unzer Wort, a socialist-Zionist paper, for twenty years until it closed in 1996.
He himself served in the Israeli army and later attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was there that the first cracks in his support for Israel began to appear:
The colonial attitudes I found there astonished me. This was only seven years after Algeria’s successful war of independence and the Israeli students talked about Palestinians exactly the same way French settlers there used to talk about the Arabs.
The State of Israel vs the Jews is a rigorous account of the cruelties exercised against the indigenous population ever since the state was founded. His overall thesis, which partly explains the title, is summed up in one his chapter headings: ‘Pissing in the pool from the diving board.’ In the early days, under successive Labour governments and in the context of what is still sometimes called ‘Israel proper’ – Israel in its pre-1967 borders – the suppression of the Palestinians was covered over. In 1948 some 7-800,000 Palestinians fled the country. They weren’t allowed to return, their villages were destroyed, covered over with beautiful forestry, their lands and useable houses were confiscated.
In an earlier book, Walled, Cypel quotes Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli paper, Haaretz, describing the version of history he learned as a child:
When I went to college, all I knew was that the United Nations “voted for the creation of the state of Israel”; that the Arabs opposed this and made war on us; that, alone against six states with superior weapons, a tiny and heroic Israel won out after nearly disappearing. And that was that. The Palestinians? They didn’t exist, all we heard about was “Arabs” in general. Afterwards they left at the behest of “Arab leaders” who, we were told, promised them they could return to their homes once the Jews were thrown into the sea. Nothing was ever said about the Arab reality of Palestine.’ The Palestinians ‘only appeared in the form of “Arab bands”, hostile to the Jews, against whom our parents had to fight. They left “voluntarily”. Fine, good riddance, but we had no part in it and it wasn’t our affair.
Cypel likens this discreet approach to the suppression of the Palestinian population to a swimmer pissing, discreetly, in the water. With the seizure of the Palestinian populated West Bank, however, the coming to power of the Israeli ‘right wing’ when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977, and the emergence of the Israeli ‘new historians’ in the 1980s, giving a more accurate view of what happened in 1948, a much more assertive and, if you like, honest approach developed – hence Cypel’s reference to ‘pissing in the pool from the diving board.’
Cypel argues that, given the outright arrogance of the present Israeli government – most obvious in the unconstrained expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank combined with the endless confiscations and destruction of Palestinian property – the need to defend Israel is having a morally corrosive effect on Jewish communities throughout the world. The book carries an epigram from the political historian, Tony Judt:
The depressing truth is that Israel’s current behaviour is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel is bad for the Jews.
He has two chapters on the diaspora – one on ‘the crisis in American Judaism’, the other on ‘the blindness of French Jews.’ He says that America, with around 6.5 million Jews, and France, with around 600,000 are ‘the two largest diaspora groups’. In the US, Cypel tells us, there is a widening schism among Jews over support for Israel, though this may have had a boost that will prove to be temporary through Benjamin Netanyahu’s closeness to Donald Trump. In France, however, he says there is very little dissent. He gives several reasons but most interestingly he refers to the influence of Sephardic Jews who fled North Africa in large numbers when the French departed and then pretty definitively after 1967, bringing with them a strong feeling of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim resentment. According to the Jewish Databank report on the World Jewish Population, 2017 entry on France:
Jews of Sephardi ancestry, mostly first, second, or third generation immigrants from North Africa, clearly predominate numerically over those of Ashkenazi origin who, until World War II, constituted the main component of the Jewish population.
A reviewer of Cypel’s book, Randy Rosenthal, in the Washington Post, complained that it was one-sided and lacked context. He doesn’t dispute Cypel’s facts but claims that
Cypel frequently questions the country’s “legitimacy”. I find this logic bizarre; if a state is no longer “legitimate” because of its abhorrent behaviour we would have to question the legitimacy of perhaps half the countries in the world – the United States under Donald Trump included.
Actually, I only found one passage in which Cypel discusses Israel’s legitimacy, or at least its “right to exist”:
The question of Israel’s “right to exist” will soon no longer be rhetorical or ideological. Israel exists, a fact recognised by every nation on earth. The question will be asked from a purely practical standpoint. Israel has been instituting a system of apartheid in daily practice. Once that system is firmly entrenched as a matter of settled law, writes columnist Gideon Levy, the liberal democracies that have led the West since the end of the World War II will have to answer this question: “Which Israel do you support, exactly?” A disembodied Israel whose practices you choose to ignore, or a real Israel that is every inch an authoritarian ethnocracy? Sooner or later, that’s a question that Jews living outside of Israel will also have to ask themselves if they don’t want to be sucked into the wake of Israel’s closing in on itself, which can only end in bitterness.
It’s a question that could reasonably be posed to Randy Rosenthal himself since he establishes his own liberal credentials by saying ‘I’m not defending the actions of Israel.’ But I don’t see that it’s questioning Israel’s ‘legitimacy’. It’s simply arguing against ‘Israel’s closing in on itself.’ Nonetheless, Rosenthal’s complaint that Cypel never explains ‘the history that led to such brutal behaviour’ does need addressing. Cypel’s book offers little explanation for the brutality other than an inherent badness on the part of Israeli Jews. Similarly, defenders of Israel offer little explanation of Palestinian ‘terrorism’ other than an inherent badness on the part of the Palestinians (or of ‘Arabs’ in general). The truth is, I believe, both more interesting and more depressing than such moralising approaches would suggest.
In his earlier book, Walled, Cypel discusses at some length the case of Benny Morris. Morris, with his book The Birth of the Palestinian problem, was one of the first of the ‘New Historians’ who gave a more or less accurate account of what was done to the Palestinian population in 1948. As such he became something of a hero among the anti-Zionist left. In 2004, however, he gave an interview in Haaretz, in which he argued that the “ethnic cleansing” (he uses the term) of Palestine was necessary. It was necessary, after all that had happened to them in Europe, that the Jews should have their own state in which they would be sovereign and secure, and that would not be possible so long as a substantial Palestinian population remained in their midst. He drew the parallel with the USA: ‘Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.’ Indeed, without letting up on his account of the brutality involved (though his fellow New Historian, Ilan Pappe, has accused him of softening it) his main complaint was that it hadn’t been sufficiently thorough. Enough Palestinians were left in place to be able to hope to fight another day.
Morris here is simply laying out the conditions which have to be fulfilled if a colony is to become a nation state.
In his new book, Cypel evokes a more recent interview with Morris, also published in Haaretz (January 2019). Here he doubles down on his earlier argument, insisting that had the Arabs won the confrontation in 1948 the Jews would have been slaughtered and that only a clean separation of the two peoples, with the Palestinians expelled across the Jordan, would have guaranteed the security of Israel. He concludes that because this was not done, and could hardly be done now, the position of Israel is untenable:
“I don’t see how we get out of it,” he says in reference to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. “Already today there are more Arabs than Jews between the [Mediterranean] sea and the Jordan. The whole territory is unavoidably becoming one state with an Arab majority. Israel still calls itself a Jewish state, but a situation in which we rule an occupied people that has no rights cannot persist in the 21st century, in the modern world. And as soon as they do have rights, the state will no longer be Jewish.”
He views this prospect with deep pessimism:
The Arabs will demand the return of the refugees. The Jews will remain a small minority within a large Arab sea of Palestinians, a persecuted or slaughtered minority, as they were when they lived in Arab countries … [The Palestinians] are bound to win. In another thirty to fifty years they will overcome us, come what may.
This interview prompted a controversy which Cypel doesn’t mention between Morris and Gideon Levy. Levy is an advocate (as I am) of the policy of a single binational state – a ‘state for all its citizens’. This is in fact largely a matter of recognising, as Morris does, that the whole territory between the river Jordan and the sea is already a single binational state. There is only one government that is sovereign over the whole area and therefore has the moral responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone living in the whole area. The so-called ‘two state solution’ and the Palestinian pseudo-governments in Ramallah and Gaza (wholly dependent on Israel for all the necessities of life) are merely devices to conceal that fact.
Levy argues that Morris’s conviction that the Palestinians would always hate and wish to mistreat the Jews is a piece of old-fashioned anti-Arab racism. For Levy
there’s another, more encouraging possibility – that when the Palestinians belatedly gain equality and justice, they will no longer be the same Palestinians. That under conditions of freedom and dignity, which they have never had, it will become possible to establish a different reality and a different relationship in a single democratic state. Morris has never thought about that, and neither has Zionism. Because if the Zionists thought about it, they might have an obligation to make it happen.
We can of course hope he’s right. But as the days pass and the cruelty, mistreatment and acts of petty vindictiveness – the attempt to suppress the Palestinians without actually massacring or expelling them – accumulate, it’s surely getting less and less likely.
Peter Brooke is the author of the major study of the French Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, who taught and worked with the Irish artists Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone. Peter’s writings on art, politics and religion can be found on his website ‑ www.peterbrooke.org