Why Ari Shavit Missed the Point With Meron Benvenisti's New Book

Far from being divorced from reality, Benvenisti's new publication on the Israel-Palestinian conundrum is very much in touch with it.

Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman
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Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman

To mark the publication of Meron Benvenisti’s new book, “Dream of the White Sabra: An Autobiography of Disillusionment,” Ari Shavit interviews him in the following style (“Native Son,” Haaretz Magazine, October 12): “What is it you are saying, Meron? That we are South Africa?” and “You’re dreaming, Meron. You are more divorced from reality than any Tel Aviv leftie” and “When did all this happen to you?... When did you suddenly cut yourself off from the umbilical cord of the Zionist establishment and become an anomalous figure who promotes weird ideas that infuriate both the right and the left?”

It’s all done fondly, because Shavit actually loves him, his interviewee, as he reveals to the readers. This is what he says: “I love his authenticity and his unbearability ... I love the intensity of his tragic romanticism ... Being irresponsible, immature and unrestrained, he does not feel a commitment to any solution ... [He is] all chutzpah and provocation and quarrelsomeness ... But it’s precisely that lone-wolf intellectual wildness that makes him so fascinating. Serious and not serious, logical and illogical.”

And if there is anything left to neutralize in the 78-year-old Benvenisti, we should know that he is by now “less healthy ... thinner, softer and a bit more conciliatory.” So soft and conciliatory, apparently, that one can look at him with total empathy and assert with satisfaction that “when all is said and done, what’s important for this subversive Zionist to say is that he is from here. From within. From this land. From the guts of the story against which he rails.” In short, he’s one of us. Accordingly this is the subtext don’t take the harsh things you are about to read too much to heart, because you know the happy ending from the outset.

The interview completely misses the man and his truly subversive personal stocktaking with regard to himself, his people and the State of Israel. There is nothing weird or wild about the stocktaking he does in the book, nor anything irresponsible. And above all, far from being divorced from reality, it is the exact opposite: The book is in touch with reality, in terms of all the meaningful connections relevant for its methodical, comprehensive and detailed discussion about the history of the conflict between the two nations who inhabit this land. The book brims with the historical and geographical knowledge of one who is both a theoretical and practical researcher; with a thorough knowledge both of the country itself and of the political, literary and polemical documentation that has accompanied the blood-drenched quarrel on its soil; and with the personal experience of a private and public individual who grew up here and was educated here and was active in deed and thought here, for good and for ill.

With this background, so deeply does the book probe to the roots of things that there is something infuriating about the interviewer’s desire to bring the discussion back, time and again, to well-known and well-worn political paths. Or to divert it to all kinds of personal loves and hates that dwarf the conclusions reached by the author, conclusions that undermine all the defense mechanisms of the Israeli center and left but not those of the right, which utterly vanquished the rival camp.

I felt this in my flesh as I read the book: how I myself, one of the most radical critics of Israeli policy to the point where I am ready to break the laws of the state (Benvenisti has something to say about this, too) experienced the pain of looking into the shattered mirror of the wonderful experiences of my childhood and adolescence in Israel when it was “small and enlightened”; and the torment of confronting anew the lies on which I was educated in kindergarten, in school and in the youth movement.

The hardened ideologues among us will say: What is new here? We have already read all this and heard all this. To them I say that I’m certain I am not the only member of this camp who will have the world of illusions and fictions in which they grew up, totally ignorant of the truth, turned upside down by the extraordinarily vivid factual and theoretical survey of our history here by Benvenisti, to whose generation I almost belong. I knew nothing about the erasure of Arab civilization and history from the landscapes of the country that I explored from sea to sea and from crater to crater in youth movement outings; about their eradication even from the archaeology whose sites we were taken to visit; about the destruction of hundreds of villages and the camouflaging of others as parks and “the bosom of nature.” And it goes without saying that I did not know the names of those villages, which sprang from the sounds and words of a language I did not know, either.

I grew up thrilled and amazed by a myth that became sanctified, exactly as Benvenisti encapsulates it in his book: “The Jews fought, few in the face of many, against the invasion of the Arab world, were victorious, extended a hand in peace and were rebuffed time after time.” Somewhere in the soul it is hard to shed this sort of perfect childhood narrative for which all the required backdrops and props were provided, no matter what your political opinions.

To this day, I cannot look at an Arab in a kaffiyeh without feeling, willy-nilly, stabs of panic in my heart. All the knowledge uncovered since then for me and for everyone who wants to know and all the political insights I inferred from that knowledge and from events in Israel in the past few decades were not enough to immunize me against a churning inner turmoil generated by the sense of disillusionment that pervades Benvenisti’s documented, sincere and honest personal story. For, despite all the differences between us, he comes from almost exactly the same place I came from.

There is nothing conciliatory in the book, because these are not things one can reconcile with: not with those who did all this and not with ourselves for letting it be done, whether by passivity or by deed. We destroyed our lives here, not only the lives of others: I think today this can be said without beating around the bush. But contrary to the impression created by the introduction to the interview, Benvenisti does not flinch from the commitment to think about a solution he definitely outlines a direction for thought that merits discussion. The thing is that there can be no genuine discussion here about the present and the future without a discussion about the past.

“Dream of the White Sabra” proves this and offers the necessary data for that discussion fiercely, but also with sensitivity and a theoretical, narrative sweep I have not previously found in books on this subject.

Meron Benvenisti. Does not flinch from the commitment to think about a solution.Credit: Nir Kafri