Israel: Cousin Aviel the Terrorist
By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Sunday 25 April 2004
Long before George W. Bush gave Ariel Sharon the thumbs up on expanding Israel's borders, many people had already lost faith in any humane solution to the conflict there. "Peace process" sounded like a sick taunt, "land for peace" a vain hope. Between targeted killings and suicide bombings, non-stop settlement-building and vintage anti-Semitism, arrogant swagger and shrill impotence, several friends in Europe and the United States regularly threw up their hands in disgust, even spitting out the words "a pox on both their houses."
I understood the feeling, but could never share it. Like many American Jews - like many Muslims and Christians as well - I was born into a bias, which I have spent over half-a-century trying to sort out.
Back in the 1920s, my great-grandfather left the United States to settle in Palestine. A refugee from Czarist pogroms, he was already into his seventies when he became a Zionist pioneer, one of the first settlers in the new town of Ramat Gan, which is now part of greater Tel Aviv. The new life must have suited him: he lived to be 113, at least as our family told it.
When he first got to the land of milk and honey, he found a provincial backwater, not a patch on the thriving Jewish life in neighboring Baghdad. The British had just taken Palestine from the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, and were running it under the colonial fig leaf of a mandate from the League of Nations. His Majesty's Government had committed itself in the Balfour Declaration to facilitate "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," and great-grandfather was taking the Brits - and the League of Nations - at their word.
He should have read the fine print. In his declaration to Lord Rothschild and the Zionist Federation, Balfour also pledged to do nothing "which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine."
Looking back, the question seems obvious: How could Palestine become a national homeland for the Jewish people without prejudicing the rights of the Arab people who already lived there in greater numbers?
Britain never squared the circle, never koshered the horse. Instead, it backed away from its promise. First, it separated what is now Jordan from historic Palestine, barring Jewish settlement there. Then it limited the right of Jews to buy Arab property in what was left, and radically reduced the number of Jewish immigrants it would legally permit, even if the Jews were fleeing from Hitler's Holocaust. In the White Paper of 1939, the British formally promised an Arab state, in which Jews would have minority rights.
By this time, my great-grandfather had a new family. One of his daughters had gone to Palestine with him, married, and given birth to two girls, with whom our family in Florida exchanged occasional letters. That was how I first learned of Cousin Aviel, the terrorist.
Married to one of our Israeli cousins, Aviel was active in the Jewish Underground, a member of the Irgun Tsvai Leumi, the group founded by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and later headed by Menachem Begin. According to family lore, Aviel led several attacks on British soldiers in the 1940s, using piano wire to cut short their stay in the Holy Land. I suspect he also joined his comrades in terrorizing Arab civilians, as the Irgun did at the village of Deir Yassin. The family never said, and I did not know enough to ask.
My own Zionism was much more American, and only second-hand. In 1946, when I was six, I became something of a poster child for the cause, donating my piggy bank to the United Jewish Appeal. In the 1950s, I was active in Jewish youth groups and a spirited defender of Israel in its 1956 war against the combined Arab armies.
At the time, I knew a bit about Palestinian refugees and heard the arguments about whether their leaders had encouraged them to leave, or the Israelis had driven them out, or they had simply fled in fear. I felt uncomfortable with the pat answers I kept hearing from all sides, but remained a sceptical Zionist through college and into my first year of graduate school in 1962.
That summer I made my first trip to Israel, where I finally met Aviel. He impressed me enormously, and in ways he could never know. He had great charisma, was widely recognized as a hero of Israeli independence, and displayed a sweeping confidence in his country's destiny, which he saw as economic mastery of the Middle East. Not religious, as far as I could tell, he had a modern, secular understanding of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis that the Land of Israel would extend from the Nile to the Euphrates.
How, he asked me, could I as Jew want to live anywhere else?
Sadly, Aviel died the following year, leaving me with a lifetime of unasked questions. He also left his mark, however unintended, convincing me that his country could never be mine. As much as I admired him then, and still do, he led me to see why I could not remain a Zionist.
Educated and open-minded, Aviel could see the world from the other's point of view, and clearly empathized with the plight of Palestinian Arabs. But, just as clearly, he took sides against them - not because he thought he was necessarily right and they were wrong, but because he and they came from where they did.
That was where Aviel and I had to disagree. He was a nationalist; I was not. He thought from his blood, which - given our history - I could understand, but chose not to do. More in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, I looked to the universal demands of social justice, which - I felt - had to transcend the call of clan, tribe, sect, or nation.
Openly and freely discussing the most sensitive political differences, Aviel and I were continuing an ancient debate, one that - even in the face of terror bombing - remains far stronger today in Israel than in the United States.
Encouraged by our president - are you with us or against us? - Americans too readily take sides and ignore the search for justice, especially in the Middle East. Here, for example, is a rant from the neo-conservative flagship, The Weekly Standard. The author is the humorist Larry Miller.
"The Palestinians want their own country," he wrote. "There's just one thing about that: There are no Palestinians.... Before the Israelis won the land in war, Gaza was owned by Egypt, and there were no 'Palestinians' then, and the West Bank was owned by Jordan, and there were no 'Palestinians' then. As soon as the Jews took over and started growing oranges as big as basketballs, what do you know, say hello to the 'Palestinians,' weeping for their deep bond with their lost 'land' and 'nation.'"
Golda Meir, then the Israeli Prime Minister, used to make the same argument, denying the reality of Palestinian national feelings that had grown up largely in response to the increasing Jewish presence in Palestine over the preceding century.
Arab leaders played the same game, refusing to recognize Israel's existence, calling it "the Zionist entity," denying that modern Jews had any valid historical ties to the land, and dismissing Zionist settlers as nothing more than European colonialists.
Now, at least, much of the world accepts that the two peoples - Israelis and Palestinians - have stories worth respecting, and that each must have its own state, which - of necessity - will be less than all of historic Palestine. Some on each side will forever demand the whole, rewriting one-sided histories, quoting Biblical verses, citing Koranic law. They will lose, either in endless bloodletting or in some mutually assured Apocalypse.
My sense is that no one will win until both sides sit down together and work out an imperfect compromise, one that gives both Israelis and Palestinians sufficient hope for the future that they can forgive - if not forget - the past. Think less land for peace than hope for hope.
This is what some very brave Israelis and Palestinians tried to create in the recent Geneva Accord. Realists, they showed how the two sides could fairly redraw the 1967 borders and work out a compromise on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. But they did it with a sense of overriding justice that showed concern for strong feelings on each side.
President Bush, by contrast, overtly took sides, which might help him politically, but will only diminish any chance for peace. To the Israelis, he provided the false sense that they can step all over the Palestinians without serious consequences To the Palestinians, he offered separated enclaves - call them reservations or Bantustans - that will never make a viable state. And to the rest of the world, he gave the back of his hand at the very moment he wants international help with Iraq.
How can Mr. Bush and his advisers be so clueless?
I have no idea. But I do know how the rest of us can help rebuild the shared hope that Israelis and Palestinians so desperately need. If you're interested in joining the effort, here's more on the Geneva Accord and how you can help make it real.