SHU Tom Friedman, “Ariel Sharon: The Man on the Wall”

Tom Friedman the staunch Zionist does something very interesting here; a strategy that is common among many such Zionists: He separates “good” Zionism from “bad” Zionism.

 The table is set with an emphatic assertion of the “dangerous neighborhood” model that assumes all Arabs are primitive and barbaric thugs from time immemorial.  Little if any attention is paid towards the mythologies of Zionism; the way it was going to tame the wild land; settle the empty frontier; create a “New Jew” by eliminating the noxious vestiges of the Diaspora Jew; and – most importantly of all – to emphatically reject the Arab cultural spirit by asserting a militant connection to Europe.  Paradoxically this was a Europe that had done so much to persecute and hound the Jews who were eventually slaughtered like animals under the criminal hand of Adolf Hitler and Germany. 

Zionism’s Western orientation has consistently sought to deflect attention from this paradoxical dynamic of Jews embracing their former persecutors, just as it has suppressed any sense that the Eastern European Jews who formed the foundation of Israel’s new leadership were basically locked out of elite Western cultural circles and lacked the “refinement” of Western civilization. 

Friedman’s one-dimensional and reductive view of Zionist history and the role of Sharon in it becomes a clichéd expression of his own personal sense of Jewishness that does not fully appreciate the tumultuousness of the Zionist intrusion into the region and the dynamic role it has played in reshuffling the deck of Middle Eastern reality.

 With the emergence of Petro-economies in a constantly-changing Arab world, Israel was not an inert player on the political stage of the region.  It – as we saw in Sharon’s militancy and the way he created new alliances and strategic partnerships with reactionary, even fascist, elements in the Arab world – marked a new series of clashes in the post-colonial Arab-Muslim order. 

 The gradual emergence of revolutionary states such as Nasser’s Egypt, Alawite Syria, and Ba’athist Iraq saw the rise of authoritarian military powers that was not something that Israelreacted to in static isolation.  Israel was indeed a partner to these very changes (always in a contrarian, reactionary, and negative way) and its own violent proclivities and unwillingness to find some cultural entente with a very volatile Arab world helped set into place a dysfunctional model that has become the standard in the region.

 It takes two to tango.

 As I have repeatedly stated, this argument is not meant in any way to exonerate the brutal one-party rule of the Arab dictators.  What the argument does is to balance out the modalities of violent militarism and insist that include Israel in the mix rather than – as Friedman tries to do – exonerating its brutality as some aberration caused by the barbaric Arabs. 

 Rather than isolating Israel as some anomaly in the region – according to Friedman Israel was just acting responsibly in a “tough neighborhood” – we must see Sharon’s legacy as unrelated to the “tough neighborhood” and its protocols.  Israel did not wait for the Arabs to make the first move.  It consistently – from 1948 to 1956 to 1967 – acted in a pre-emptive manner to strike out at its enemies.

 Zionism harbored deeply primitive tendencies that reflected a cultural atavism embodied in a benighted view of Jewish history with a compulsive need to create a hyper-masculine macho identity that was going to portray a muscular, violent Judaism which rejected the cultural identity of the Diaspora.

 Before there was ever a Nasser or a Saddam or an Arafat, there was Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” which sought – as Sharon believed – complete isolation and disengagement from the nations of the region.  Native Palestinians – such as those that Sharon and his troops massacred in Qibya in 1953; a time prior to the emergence of the Arab dictators and the PLO – were to be treated brutally with no quarter given.

Before Sabra and Shatila, there was Qibya.  Atrocity was nothing new for Sharon.  It was a central part of his ethos.  His violence cannot be explained away by raising the specter of the Arabs.  He was fanatically committed to Jewish violence whatever the cost.

 Sharon learned his values from the “good” Zionism extolled by Friedman.  The Zionism of David Ben-Gurion and his Labor establishment fully believed in unilateralism and cultural isolation. 

 This is a critical point given the way in which Jews from Arab countries found themselves stigmatized and humiliated by the veteran Ashkenazi founders of the new state.  This largely unexamined dynamic speaks to the intense racism, embodied by Sharon and his generation of Sabras, that Israel harbored towards its Arab neighbors, and used against Arab Jewish immigrants.  This cultural disdain became a self-fulfilling prophecy that led to an endless hostility, alienation, and military conflict; a matter that has permeated the Arab-Israeli conflict for decades.

 Friedman perilously ignores history, both the history of Diaspora Judaism as well as the history of the Middle East as Zionism began its mission.  He neglects to look at the dynamic of the Ottoman collapse, the process of decolonization, the politics of Oil, the nihilistic ethos of “cruel” Zionism with its eliminationist and separatist tendencies.

 The history of Zionism is a toxic stew that does not parse out into the neat little boxes filled with the clichés and lazy analyses that Friedman provides.

 As an “expert” in Middle Eastern affairs, Friedman displays an abysmal lack of knowledge of the past and the way that the past – as exemplified by Sharon’s dogged pursuit of maximal brutality and violence as the sole means of establishing Israeli security – has determined the modalities of the present.

 The various parties continued to ratchet up their harsh rhetoric and promote a saber-rattling one-upmanship based on displays of military prowess.

 Diplomatic solutions were rejected early on by the Zionists, who saw a primal need to compensate for what they believed was a Jewish failure to adopt a militaristic ethic of violence and cruelty in their Diaspora identity.  The “New Jew” was to be brawny, cruel, and carnal; as opposed to the Diaspora Jew who was seen as weak, brainy, religious, spiritual, and a coward. 

 Zionist Judaism became a violent ethos, moving dramatically from the Talmudic-rabbinic origins and the world of Torah.  Myths and dreams of a neo-pagan variety – a new Spartan sensibility – became the template on which Zionism would erect this new identity.

 Ariel Sharon was no pragmatist: his life’s work reflected this toxic new vision of Jewish identity; an identity that required violence as the central part of the Jewish lifeblood.  Jews would take it to their perceived enemies in no uncertain terms with no compassion or discussion allowed.  This value is central to the haughty and roughshod Sabra ethos.

 Sharon showed his true face when he and his troops massacred civilians, women and children, in the town of Qibya.  He proved in 1953 that “cruel” Zionism was going to win out over less violent options.  And he was right in this regard.  He was firmly committed to perpetual ethno-racial hatred and backed it up with the sword.  He had a deep contempt and hatred for Arabs and was a central figure in the creation of a brutal Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel; a racist system that demanded all Jews become Russian Cossacks regardless of their cultural heritage and the moral-religious values of the Torah and its rabbinic interpreters.

 Sharon embodied the model of this “New Jew” perfectly.  His way was the way of the killer, his god was the god of death and destruction; a violent religion that saw all non-Jews as the primordial enemy.  In its own way it was a conscious attempt to paganize Jews and Judaism by turning them into Roman warriors.  He was the most sincere nihilist who refused moral compassion and who emphatically denied the ethical values of the Jewish tradition.

 — David Shasha

 I’ve always thought that the reason Ariel Sharon was such an enduring presence in Israeli political life is that he personally reflected three of the most important states of mind that the state of Israel has gone through since its founding. At key times, for better and for worse, Sharon expressed and embodied the feelings of the Israeli Everyman as much, if not more, than any Israeli leader.

 The first was the enduring struggle for survival of the Jewish people in Israel. The founding of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world would never be a natural act, welcomed by the region. There is a Jewish state today because of hard men, like Ariel Sharon, who were ready to play by the local rules, and successive Israeli prime ministers used him to do just that. Sharon — whom I first met at age 16 when I interviewed him for my high school newspaper after a lecture he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1969 — always had contempt for those in Israel or abroad who he believed did not understand the kill-or-be-killed nature of their neighborhood. He was a warrior without regrets and, at times, without restraints. Not for nothing was a Hebrew biography of him entitled, “He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights.”

Sharon could have perfectly delivered a Hebrew version of the speech Marine Col. Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, delivered in the climactic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men,” justifying the death of a weak soldier, Santiago, under his command. In Sharon’s case, it would be justifying his no-holds-barred dealing with Arabs who resisted Israel’s existence back in the 1950s and ’60s.

As Jessep told the lawyer trying him: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? … I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. … You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

Many Israelis wanted Sharon on that wall, which is why he survived so many crises. At the end of the day, they always wanted to know their chief warrior, who played by the local rules, was available.

 But, in the 1980s, Sharon also embodied a fantasy that gripped Israel — that with enough power the Israelis could rid themselves of the Palestinian threat, that they could have it all: resettling Jews in their biblical heartland in the West Bank, plus settlements in Gaza, docile Palestinians, peace with the neighbors, and good relations with the world. That fantasy drove Sharon to team up in 1982 with the Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel on a strategic overreach to both oust Yasir Arafat and the P.L.O. from Lebanon and install Gemayel as a pro-Israeli prime minister in Beirut. Ronald Reagan was in power in America; Sadat had just made peace with Israel and taken Egypt off the battlefield. The little Jewish state, Sharon thought, could rearrange the neighborhood.

 That Israeli overreach, which I covered from Beirut, ended badly for everyone. Sharon was deemed by a 1983 Israeli commission of inquiry as “indirectly responsible” for the horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The fiasco in Lebanon (which also gave birth to Hezbollah), followed by two Palestinian intifadas, seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power.

Indeed, I don’t know what, if any, epitaph the Sharon family will etch on his gravestone one day, but an adaptation of the most memorable line from Clint Eastwood’s classic “Magnum Force” would certainly be appropriate: “A country’s got to know its limitations.”

That was the conclusion that Sharon, the settlements builder, came to late in life — and so, too, did many Israelis. He acted on it by getting elected prime minister and then parting ways with his old Likud/settler allies, moving to the center and orchestrating a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He surely would have tried something similar in the West Bank if he had not had a stroke. Sharon remained skeptical that the Palestinians would ever make a true peace with Israel, but he concluded that occupying them forever was harmful to Israel’s future and, therefore, a third way had to be found.

 Once again, Sharon was expressing the sentiments of the Israeli Everyman — which is probably why President Obama got such a warm reception from Israeli youths when, on his visit to Israel last March, he justified his own peace diplomacy by quoting a wiser and older Ariel Sharon, as telling Israelis that the dream of a Greater Israel had to be abandoned: “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Sharon said.

 Few Israelis are neutral about Sharon. I think that’s because some part of him — the hardheaded survivor, the dreamer that hoped Israel could return to its biblical roots and that the Palestinians would eventually acquiesce or disappear or the sober realist trying to figure out how to share the land he loved with a people he’d never trust — touched something in all of them.

From The New York Times, January 15, 2014


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