(March 5, 2019 / JNS) The New York Review of Books is not renowned for embracing Israel unless it is with a literary choke-hold. Proudly identifying its focus on “the great political issues of power and its abuses,” Israel became an inviting target, especially for Jewish leftist contributors. Fifteen years ago, historian Tony Judt who, as a besotted teenager had spent his high school summers working on kibbutzim, labeled the Jewish state an “anachronism” that is “bad for the Jews.” Left-wing Israeli writers—Amos Oz, David Grossman and Avishai Margalit prominent among them—were welcomed by the Review to illuminate Israel’s moral deficiencies.
The mantle of Israel-bashing has been passed to other Jewish academics who, like Judt, believe that the Jewish state is worthy of their loathing. Its March 7 issue features a review of the newest book by historian David Shulman, who immigrated to Israel from Iowa following his graduation from high school after the Six-Day War. Serving in the Israel Defense Forces during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he subsequently became an expert on the languages of India and enjoyed a distinguished academic career at the Hebrew University.
Winner of the Israel Prize in 2016, Shulman donated his award funds to Ta’ayush, the organization of his passion that supports Palestinian farmers living the South Hebron hills (between Hebron and Beersheva). There, for many years, he has spent every Shabbat protecting besieged Palestinian shepherds and farmers from the Jewish settlers whom he despises. Describing them as “sociopathetic” Israelis who enjoy “unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population,” Shulman feels “responsible for the atrocities committed in my name” by settlers and the soldiers who protect them.
In Freedom and Despair (2018) Shulman confesses to a “nagging sense of futility and despair.” Once imagining that the peace camp that engages his passion was the catalyst for “a mass movement for peace,” his dream was shattered by “the vast machinery of the Occupation,” a “systemic wickedness” that is an “insult to human dignity on a mass scale.” Realizing that he “can never be free in any meaningful way if [Palestinians] are not free,” he laments “the brutal harassment by soldiers and settlers” of innocent shepherds as the Israeli government pursues its “greater annexationist goal.”
Nowhere in his book, focused on the South Hebron hills, does Shulman mention the horrific Arab massacre in Hebron (1929), when 67 Jewish residents and yeshivah students were murdered for the crime of being Jews. Hebron became Judenrein until, after the Six-Day War, Jews began to return to their ancient holy city, burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, and King David’s first capital city. But Shulman lacerates Hebron (where several hundred Jews are surrounded by 200,000 Palestinians) and other settlements as a “corrupt regime of theft and dispossession.”
Among Shulman’s favorite targets is the besieged Palestinian mountain village of Susya. Had Shulman bothered to Google Susya, he would have learned that it is “the site of an ancient Jewish village” with archeological remains from a fourth- to fifth-century synagogue. Who, then, are the “occupiers”: Jews or the Islamic warriors who converted the site into a mosque and their Muslim disciples?
Freedom and Despair overflows with Shulman’s laments about “the Occupation” by Israel of its biblical homeland, millennia before the arrival of Muslim conquerors. It is “wicked at the root and cannot be justified by any rational means.” Jewish “sociopathic settlers,” for Shulman, possess “a fanatical and lethal vision” whose occupation “embodies wickedness of such intensity that it calls into question the legitimacy” of Israel.
A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Shulman has been rewarded with a glowing review by Raja Shehadeh, the prominent Palestinian lawyer (and another familiar contributor) who founded the human-rights group Al-Haq. Shehadeh focuses on violence (“almost weekly”) by “sociopathetic” settlers (Shulman’s label) against West Bank Palestinians. Palestinian violence against Jews is ignored, as it is by Shulman. The recent shooting of a pregnant Israel woman whose premature baby died three days later, and the rape and murder of a 19-year-old Israeli woman by a Hebron Muslim yearning to be a martyr occurred too late for inclusion (or evasion).
Shehadeh, like Shulman, believes that settler claims (to biblical Judea and Samaria) are “mythical,” even (for Shulman) “absurd.” Drawing upon Shulman’s narrative, Shehadeh concludes that “in this battle against [Israeli] fascism,” Palestinians and Israelis ”must fight together.” Shulman and Shehadeh are their self-appointed verbal warriors.
While reading Shulman’s book and Shehadeh’s review, JNS published a brief account of the destruction by Arabs of 200 cherry trees and grapevines in Kfar Etzion, at the edge of Shulman’s beloved Palestinian enclave. Perhaps Shulman (and Shehadeh) will condemn the rampage in The New York Review of Books. More likely, not.
Jerold S. Auerbach, Professor Emeritus of history at Wellesley College, is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016,” published by Academic Studies Press.