The history of the conflict in Palestine is thick with sub-plots and minor contradictions, all adding to its complexity. One of these is the history of left-Zionism and its internal contradictions. This tendency within Zionism was, after all, toying with internationalism, anti-imperialism and class struggle as if they were meaningful terms. This was of course purely in the realm of debates and publications, while on the daily level of material reality, they took part in reinforcing the domination over the Palestinians.
Nowhere did this internal conflict show more clearly than in the two main areas of control, the economic and the military. While the first aspect has already attracted some body of writing and research, the second aspect has been so neglected, that the few exceptions have become quite well-known. One such example is Siah Lohamim (Warriors’ Chat) – a collection of interviews with left-Zionists about their experiences in the 1967 war, about the sobering and anti-humanistic aspects of war.
That today this book appears as an extremely gentle reader for children, in the context of the war in Lebanon, must be evidence to the degree of dehumanization that the Israeli society has undergone in recent years. At the time the book was seen by the right and militarist wing as an attack on Zionism, as questioning some basic tenets of the faith. On the other hand, the writers and many left-Zionists did not conceive of it as a critique of Zionism, but rather as an essential part of it, of the ‘humanist’ set of values supposedly inherent within the movement and its history.
While an objective analysis may fail to detect much evidence of the ‘humanist’ principles and activities within Zionism’s history, there is no doubt that a large part of the Israeli left is projecting this self-image and, incredibly, believe in its accuracy. This is worthy of a proper study elsewhere, as it seems to be based, at least partially, on a racist interpretation of the conflict, and on a set of ideas about the Israeli perspective as part of a European, humanist-liberal tradition as opposed to the ‘Oriental’ Levantine tradition. In this ideological battle-of-shadows between stereotypes of ‘progress’ (Europe\ civilization\ liberalism\ humanism\ socialism\ science) and ‘reaction’ (Levant\ despotism\ backwardness\ oligarchy\ traditionalism\ religion) the Israeli Zionist left is clearly placing itself on the side of the angels.
Hence, taking Palestine over from the indigenous population is seen as the importation of progress into the Levant, some kind of socialist missionary work in the desert of barbarism. This type of description is used for the introduction of a modern banking system, intensive agriculture and industry, or the kibbutz and a national health system, depending on the political perspective from which it is perceived.
Subsequent occupations have also been described in this light, including the 1982 war in Lebanon. Dov Yermiya’s My War Diary (Pluto Press, London 1985) is not so much an analysis of the left-Zionist position towards the Lebanon war, but rather an accurate description of the contradictions exposed in that position during the war. Yermiya is a typical veteran activist; his biography ranges from the establishment of a kibbutz in the Gallilee, to becoming a full colonel in the Israel Defence Force and fighting in all Israel’s wars since 1948. He has been the ideological father and initiator of the Civil Guard, an urban civil defence militia, armed and supplied by the IDF.
Yermiya goes to this war with mixed feelings, as he tells us in his book. His wife seems to be much more far-sighted, urging him not to go, not to take part in this ritual murder that has become habitual. He chooses to ignore her advice; he has to join his unit; he cannot stay behind. His argument is that he will minimize the damage by being at the front line.
This initial conflict, outlined at the beginning of the book, seems to sum up the contradictory nature of his venture. His inability to stay behind and fight against the war from outside is turned into a stance of internal opposition within the army machine. Typically, he ends up in a unit specially constructed to liaise with and help the civilian population in Lebanon. (It seems that the war machine has been tuned so well that it uses even its internal opposition to attain its goals…). By definition the ‘civilian population’ does not include any Palestinian able-bodied males, who are automatically deemed to belong to another group, one beyond the pale of humanity; in his words – The Terrorists. The book is a diary of his successes and failures, a Quixotic battle against the IDF windmills in Lebanon and Israel.
That the army was not bent on assisting civilians in Lebanon should surprise no-one, at least no-one who watched the newscasts on television, which showed the effects of the brutal bombings and shelling on the cities of Sidon, Tyre and Beirut. No army of occupation is interested in assisting ‘enemy’ civilians, but least of all an army choosing the cities as its main battlefield. Fighting the PLO in Lebanon was not, as most Israelis were willingly led to believe, fighting a small heavily-armed ‘terrorist’ organisation. The battle was waged against the full machinery of the PLO state-in-exile – defence, health, housing, welfare and education systems set up and controlled by the PLO in the camps.
More surprising, then, is Yermiya’s surprise and shock at what ensued in front of his eyes. If this shock was genuine, and one is inclined to believe that it was, it serves as evidence of personal and polìtical naivety. This naivety, typical of some left-Zionists, functions as a shield against hard-to-digest facts. Some pointers here may illustrate his predicament. His chosen terms of reference, like the word ‘terrorist’; his refusal to fight against the war and outside of it; his self-perception as a ‘humane saviour’ – all this points to his acceptance of IDF normative descriptions as fact, rather than propaganda. He is bitter about the facts that some soldiers ‘are giving a good army a bad name’, to coin a phrase. The good name of the army, his army, is very crucial throughout, and may even provide the main rationale for his writing. This concern about the positive image of the IDF he probably shares with most Israelis, who use terms such as ‘purity of arms’, an incredible misnomer denoting the noble nature of the IDF soldier, as opposed to ‘other’ soldiers.
These and other numerous indications, clarify for us Yermiya’s position on the Palestine question, and he appears as the disturbed humanist of the colonial variety – his actions somewhat stilted, Hamlet-fashion (on a smaller budget). What emerges is, indeed, a disaster – not just for the Lebanese and Palestinians, but also for the self-image of the Israeli soldier and civilian. Probably Yermiya believes this is so; however, a presentation which appears to equate the Lebanon invasion with the erosion of the Israeli self-image presents an unpalatable and problematic set of values on the part of the author.
A quite disappointing facet of the book is its combination of raw writing of poor quality, understandable under the circumstances, with a postmortem editorial rewrite, rationalizing that which is not rational. One would not necessarily be seeking literary gifts in the barracks, but the book suffers from not being so much a diary, as a personal diatribe against the authorities, without a political dimension. Its personal and self-congratulatory style, the many compliments to the writer (carefully catalogued by him), make it difficult reading for the wrong reasons. His characterization of secondary figures, such as the Lebanese officials with whom he worked, however sympathetic, is never totally devoid of a ‘man friday’ touch – all dependent, forever thankful and efficiently obedient. When this pattern is broken here and there the description gains in credibility.
Many claims were made, in Israel and abroad, as to the book’s value as a ‘historical document’. Indeed, such a document it is, but its value seems to be in unveiling some of the elusive features of left-Zionism. This is a naive and depoliticized tendency, based on a ‘humanist’ racism, attuned to seeing Palestinians and other Arabs as victims. Whether this is ‘better’ than dominant, militant Zionism, is probably a question of taste, rather than a political one.
Nevertheless, the fact that this might be an impoverished example of a literary genre, of political importance in Israel at the present juncture, should be noted. Books of this nature, hopefully with a political perspective that time and commitment may provide, will one day be important in dismantling the ideological and material mechanisms of oppression.
One wonders about the memories and nightmares that might fuel such writings, the suffering that may one day reach the public through literary or other representational discourses. The redressing of the balance is likely to come from the Palestinians and Lebanese, who have survived their many local and daily holocausts. Whatever merits or drawbacks to the book, Dov Yermiya has won a place in this future, by actively assisting the survival of thousands of human beings. This, of course, is more than can be achieved by books.