Benny Morris, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University, and Avi Shlaim, a professor of history at Oxford, have come to be thought of as mainstays among Israel's New Historians, a term reminiscent of America's Revisionist school, which came into its own during the late 1960s. Back then, William Appleman Williams particularly captured the imagination of Vietnam-era peace intellectuals and historians. His book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy challenged the official view of the Southeast Asian war as a noble next step in containing communism.
Rather, Williams witnessed American power tending to rescue landlords in the developing world, and took this to be evidence for the entrapment of American leaders in residual ideological and institutional forces after World War II, including a triumphal secular religion deriving from the prestige (and interests) of American business. What justified free enterprise at home presumably justified it everywhere; the appeal for complexity, Williams feared, had come to seem a failure of nerve. Williams published his book in 1959 (and republished it in 1963), well before Lyndon B. Johnson's and Richard Nixon's escalations. His work was not prophecy; it was applied political theory. At bottom, Williams had been keen to explore what was becoming of American democracy in the age of American multinationals, nuclear strategy, and the Cold War. The heightened risk of foreign imbroglios was only a symptom. He wanted Americans to cultivate a sense of tragedy. He thought radical democratic ideals to be a kind of homage to human foibles, which required tolerance and an impulse to nonviolence. He wanted, in a word, limits.
The New Historians of Israel do not quite say so, but they organize their materials to expose how Israeli leaders have themselves been in the grip of prestigious claims and institutional forces that have contributed to a certain narrowness and implacability--with respect not only to the Palestinians, but to the whole Arab world. Israeli leaders' inconsistent pursuit of the peace process since 1967 has suggested an indifference to democratic norms: Indeed, what is democracy if not a peace process that never ends? In Israel, however, the gestalt that weighs tragically on diplomacy results not from any Israeli business interest, but from residual collectivist notions of Zionist settlement and self-defense. It is not clear how much they intended this, but Morris and Shlaim have become rallying points for Israeli "post-Zionist" writers and peace activists, including Ilan Pappe, Baruch Kimmerling, and others, who see the work of New Historians as detailing how an unexamined legacy of Zionism has reciprocated Arab intransigence. Abba Eban once said that the Palestinians "never miss a chance to lose an opportunity." If the word "new" has any meaning here, it is to counter such old diplomatic smugness, evident even in doves like Eban. One reads Morris and Shlaim, presumably, to find reasons to encourage Israeli leaders to approach peacemaking with pragmatic humility and even an openness to atonement.
There is another parallel. The American Revisionists wrote almost exclusively about American actions, illuminated by American documents. The questionable goals and actions of, say, Asian communist leaders seemed beside the point. The New Historians, too, report almost exclusively on Israeli documentary sources, not Arab ones (though Shlaim has interviewed a good number of Arab officials). They argue that Israel, the democracy, is where records have been kept; they also seem fascinated by Israel as the stronger, transforming (hence, more responsible) power. Morris concedes that most critical documents were "written by Zionists, in a Zionist context, and from a Zionist perspective." He strives, nevertheless, for "reason and fairness." And to an unprecedented degree, educated Israelis would say he has succeeded.
Like Williams by the end of 1960s, the New Historians have entered the mainstream. The leading daily Ha'aertz recently devoted pretty much the whole of its Friday book review section to these two books and to a book by another Israeli historian critical of the New Historians as a group. Not long ago, I attended a conference in Jerusalem whose theme was generational respect for high culture; the audience quickly broke into a lively argument about the legitimacy of post-Zionist historiography. But here their resemblance to Williams ends. For if Morris and Shlaim have an overriding interest in exploring how Israel's democratic values are faring in the context of its wars, one will have to look for this between the lines. And when you get past their many stories of battles fought and diplomatic opportunities fumbled, these New Historians, in these books, do not really offer very much that is new: no new theories about what constitutes historical knowledge, no new explanations about how Zionist anachronisms may have constricted Israel's new chances, no new heroes or anti-heroes, no material that will seem fresh to those who have studied the memoirs of British mandate officials, are familiar with the post-1948 fiction of S. Yizhar, or have simply read The New York Times for the past 25 years.
What is missing here is a strong focus on Israeli politics, the democratic life itself. And, for once, this is an academic matter: The question is whether these books are complete histories--whether the exposure of Zionist narrowness in a succession of external wars and diplomatic initiatives amounts to a tragic story Israelis can hope to work their way out of. This is an intriguingly circular question. It is not, as the critics of the New Historians imply, whether any history is complete if it fails to depict Arab victimization of Jews. Neither is it, as Morris and Shlaim imply, whether Zionist and Israeli leadership has been complicit in the 100 years of war. The central questions are: What has changed in Israel that makes more and more citizens ready to hear that they have been complicit? And is there any connection between this growing openmindedness and the election of Ehud Barak, who is, after all, pursuing the peace process in pretty much the way that books suggest Israeli leaders should? And if something has changed, and if there is a connection, what have the books missed such that they could not anticipate their own respectful reception?
Morris and Shlaim are both good storytellers (though Morris, it must be said, writes with more thoroughness and less apparent stridency), and their books have the vividness of sustained essays in good political magazines. And there are, to be sure, subspecialties. Morris became notorious in the late 1980s for disputing vintage Israeli government arguments that the vast majority of Palestinians became refugees dur-ing the 1948-49 war because they fled (in consequence of fear or the incitement of invading Arab armies). Reviewing declassified Israeli documents, Morris showed that at least half of these Palestinians were actually driven out of their homes in Lod, Ramle, and other places, both by the Haganah (the left-Zionist militia) and the nascent Israel Defense Forces--a point Christopher Sykes, studying British sources, had made in his Crossroads to Israel in 1965, but which Israelis mainly ignored.
In his current book, Morris redevelops this material and then revisits Israeli actions during subsequent wars, which, in a way, were never free of the shadow of the Palestinian crisis. He writes that "while there was no blanket policy of expulsion ... [c]ommanders were authorized to clear the populace out of villages and certain urban districts, and to raze the villages if they felt a military need. Many commanders identified with the aim of ending up with a Jewish state with as small an Arab minority as possible. Some generals such as [Yigal] Allon acted as if driven by such a goal."
For his part, Shlaim's earlier writing tended to focus on Israel's somewhat tortured diplomatic relations with the Jordanians; his point of departure here is the missed (or undermined) opportunities with Jordan after 1967 that might have relieved the plight of the Palestinians. Writing with particular disappointment about Yitzhak Rabin's first premiership between the critical years of 1974 and 1977, Shlaim sums things up:
Overall, Rabin did not display much statesmanship or foresight in relation to Jordan. He subordinated the country's international needs to domestic convenience [appeasement of the National Religious Party]... . His tactic was to play for time, to postpone difficult decisions until the regional constellations had changed in Israel's favor, to survive politically. For him, the problem of Jordan and the Palestinians was neither central nor urgent.
Both writers might have pushed this evidence a bit, for the record shows how Labor leaders (Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Allon, and Rabin)--not "right-wing" parties and "ultra-Orthodox"--personified the way inherited Zionist impulses, or the fear of being seen to stray from them, confounded Israeli governments at crucial points. But the New Historians do not really push here; that would have required tracing the political economic landscape that first made room for Zionist orthodoxies and is now making room for, among other things, their foils. Twenty-five years ago, two-thirds of people under 25 years of age voted for the parties advocating West Bank annexation. Today, more than two-thirds voted for Barak's coalition. What exactly is this Zionist paradigm that is now getting shifted? Can any new history of Israel be helpful if it misses this change more or less completely? The issue is not prescience but accuracy. If Zionism has been a secular religion that has gotten in the way of peace with the Palestinians, why are Israelis now making peace? What has changed in Israel, and why are we not looking at that, instead of yet another review of the Camp David negotiations?
Clearly, if all we mean by Zionism is that Jews ought to have a national home or a defensible Jewish state--if, that is, Zionism is another word for Hebrew patriotism--then nothing has changed. But Zionism means more than this. Zionism was a series of operational principles, official agencies, and public policies--songs and heroes, names, battle cries, and costumes. It made the lives of Jewish immigrants to Palestine meaningful. Classical Zionism saw a Jewish state as supersession of the vulnerability of Jews in Christian and bourgeois Europe: The experience of Jewish state power would be a kind of therapy for the cultural and psychological deficiencies of the diaspora Jew.
Along with this utopianism came a serious desire to escape what we would now call "the West"--a call to Jews to "re-enter history" by retreating from real intercourse with Europe. This also meant, ironically, a willingness to live apart from the Arab world, which had Western colonial sponsors, and even from the Jews who lived in this world. Early and formative Zionist institutions like the kibbutzim were an expression of a commitment to Hebrew culture and stringent economic self-sufficiency. Indeed, "national" ownership of the means of production would--so it was thought--enable a Hebrew political economy independent of Western capitalism, much like the anticolonial movements in Africa and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, which the newly founded state of Israel sought to befriend. And Zionism saw the land of Israel itself as an instrument of cultural and spiritual revival. Though Zionist settlers purported to be "secular" (read: nonobservant) Jews, they saw settlement of the land as recovery of what the Hebrew University scholar Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi calls sacred space. "It had the heroic purpose of redeeming both biblical promise and the ruined shrines of pre-exile Judaism," she explains. And it had the practical purpose of establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine, which (by a somewhat stressed logic) would justify Jewish annexation.
For Zionists, in short, settlement was the quintessential act of positive revolution. It had a quasireligious implication as well as a practical and psychological one. Even after the foundation of the state, Zionism's greatest leader, David Ben-Gurion, insisted on seeing the land as a national patrimony to be settled. National land--secured and paid for by institutions like the Jewish National Fund--could not be alienated to non-Jews. Perhaps the best way to explore how Zionist trappings persisted into Israel beyond their time is to think about the people who became the poster children for settlement during the post-1967 Occupation. I mean the settlers' movements that ultimately united under the rubric of Gush Emunim, the people who captured the national imagination and defined the national debate especially after the 1973 war. These recalcitrant Zionist settlers, affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox parties, but speaking a Zionist language incubated by the Labor movement, helped to create the environment that brought Menachem Begin's Likud to power in 1977. Morris shows, when writing of the Kissinger shuttles, that "[i]ts leaders would set the tone and content of right-wing activism with regard to the terri-tories and push the Labor movement, that historical agent of Zionist pioneering and expansionism, onto the perennial defensive." Soon enough, Begin's government presided over annexation policies that brought well over 120,000 settlers into occupied territory. The rest, as they say, is history.
The point is, Israel has changed. If in 1975 most kids dreamed of settlements in Judea and Samaria, today (in the words of Tecnomatix CEO Harel Beit-On) "most kids dream of high tech"--knowledge work and international travel, IPOs on the Nasdaq. One reads Morris and Shlaim feeling vaguely left out of the real action. Barak won for many reasons, it is true, but let's not get so extravagant in our talk about his Ameri-can consultants, or his political compromises with the Oriental Orthodox Shas Party in forming his government, or Binyamin Netanyahu's faults, that we lose sight of his base and the three fundamental planks in his platform. His supporters are disproportionately residents of Tel Aviv and Haifa, well-off, well-educated, and secularist. He argued that the failure to pursue peace will ruin Israel's economic future. He argued for an end to the special privileges of the Orthodox. And he argued for a pragmatic, humanized compromise with the Palestinians.
Taken together, Barak's program supersedes in all essential respects the late-Zionist program of Begin and the settlers' movement. And perhaps the best way to understand this program is to talk to his poster children, the new economy managers who, among others, include the sons of Rabin, Shimon Peres, and former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. "Seventy years ago," Check Point CEO Gil Shwed told me a year before the last election
the people who created the socialist-Zionist economy, the kibbutzim, the planned cities--they built the State of Israel. I hope that high tech today can do similar things; it is important for this country that businesses like these emerge. In the short run, nobody is going to cancel a distribution agreement with Check Point because of a terrorist attack; our customers and stockholders assume a peace process is evolving. But in the long run, if the peace momentum will go away, we will lose our edge in attracting customers and top-flight management to Israel--in the next two years, the economy will go downhill, and the impact will be measurable.
It was said in the 1970s that Gush Emunim created facts. It may take a little more time, but Israeli entrepreneurs are creating facts, too, the wealth and social atmospherics on which any stable peace will depend. [See my "Why Israel's High-Tech Boom Is In Danger," Fortune, International Edition, May 11, 1998.]
Today, there are about 175,000 Israelis whose incomes directly depend on the 70,000 employed in Israel's 50 largest software and other technologically advanced, global businesses, contributing perhaps $25 billion to Israel's GDP--significantly more than a quarter of the total. This far outstrips the settlers in numbers and economic power. Some 3,000 knowledge-based companies started up during the past eight years. In absolute terms, this is a greater number of start-ups than in any country apart from the United States. The survivors, about 1,500 software (increasingly, Internet) and biotech businesses, are thriving in Har Hahotzvim in Jerusalem, Herzliah, south Haifa, what Upside Magazine calls Silicon Wadi. Perhaps this is something of an oversimplification, but these people expect to be a part of the world. They see Tel Aviv (unlike Jerusalem) as a world-class metropolis, with an increasingly large non-Jewish minority, a city that will exert influence over the entire region.
In fits and starts, Barak and Arafat will spend months negotiating the boundary between Israel and Palestine. Six months after it is drawn, the tens of thousands of Palestinians who will be driving into Tel Aviv in the morn-ing rush hour will hardly know when they've passed it. Unlike the old Zionists who preached economic self-sufficiency, Barak supporters expect an ever greater integration in the global economy. Palestinians will look to Israel, Israelis to Europe and America. Young Israelis do not think in terms of revolutionary aims, but assume an individual's chance to make an independent fortune and contribute to the national life by expanding a global business. If Israel is still in a war, it is (like the rest of the West) a war for talent. As many as 230,000 Israelis live in California and have become accustomed to a liberal way of life. Barak supporters want an end to a self-absorbed, highly defensive view of Palestinian Arab claims. They understand that peace will be made by hundreds of thousands of people pursuing their personal welfare, that (as veteran Israeli journalist Danny Rubenstein puts it) "Palestinians from Tul-Karm will not go to the beach in Kuwait."
Some see this as a surrender to "materialism." And there certainly are new Philistines in the new Israel. But like Gil Shwed, the post-Zionist entrepreneurs of the Israeli knowledge economy see themselves contributing to civility and liberalism in an otherwise coarsened national life. There are, after all, things to learn from Silicon Valley other than the virtue of a 328i. There are lessons about how to conduct productive conversations with clients and investors; lessons about teamwork, quality, and service; lessons about investing in people. These skills and ideas reinforce democratic life in the twenty-first century. Barak supporters, moreover, expect strong fiscal discipline, which means (among other things) an end to support for a failed West Bank infrastructure. This also means a change in support for Orthodox privilege. Unlike old Zionists who exhibited a high tolerance for Orthodox Jewish control over marriage, burial, etcetera, and economic support for Orthodox yeshivot, Barak supporters want an end to the atmosphere of provocation that makes their clients and potential recruits wary of Israeli life. Reform Judaism, once a curiosity in Israel, is making enormous strides, particularly among Russian immigrants who have been absorbed into the Israeli knowledge economy. Barak's Education Minister Yossi Sarid has sought to introduce Palestinian poetry into the Israeli curriculum. The Shas Party reviles him for this--and for trying to force financial discipline on their school system.
On the whole, then, the new Israelis expect even greater liberalization along these lines. They have chosen Western banks over the West Bank, a greater Tel Aviv over greater Israel. Morris and Shlaim, in ignoring these trends, do not prove themselves post-Zionist historians so much as late Zionist skeptics. Granted, it is unfair to say to fine historians that they wrote the wrong books. And yet it is hard not to wish for something else right now. Barak's election is a portent of new trends, new schools of thought, a new generation of interests and prejudices. None of this means that post-Zionist life-styles will be inherently attractive or harmonious. The problems, however, will be different. Shas will continue to express the kind of fears of the new economy that Pat Buchanan was so good at stirring up some time ago. There are, as here, rust-belt resentments, educational disparities, lewd qualities in commercial culture.
But post-Zionist Israel is the first time Israeli Jews have begun to experience what was, paradoxically enough, an old Zionist promise. Call it Hebrew "normalcy." It is a good thing. And it still awaits its historians. ¤