This is a tribute to recently departed Israeli Jewish writer Yoram Kaniuk (1930–2013).
Kaniuk was of the old Israeli Left, the people who led the renewing Jewish presence in the Land of Israel from the 1930s until their electoral defeat by Menachem Begin in 1977. He served in Israel’s War of Independence (1947–9) and was wounded in the course of it; in 2010, three years before his death, he wrote the book Tashakh, which may be translated as 1948, about his experiences. In his later years he gained notoriety for two things: Lashing against the Jewish inhabitation of the post-1967 territories, and his militant anti-religious stance. This article is about the former aspect.
From the point of view of many onlookers, whether Israeli Jewish right-wingers or Arab imperialist anti-Zionists, the prevalence of people like Kaniuk criticizing the Jewish population centers in the post-1967 territories seems puzzling: This was the generation that witnessed Arab hostility to Zionism during the British Mandate and fought a war that ended with those very pioneers building their homes on evacuated Arab villages and towns. How, the disparate onlookers ask, can people like Kaniuk so tenaciously hold to the belief in a marked difference between pre-1967 and post-1967?
Writers like Kaniuk and Amos Oz, whose fire and brimstone they throw at the post-1967 population centers contrasts so sharply with the glowing terms and absolute confidence in the justice of what Zionism had done before 1967, are easy targets for condemnations of hypocrisy, but there is more to it than appears. A frustrated Israeli Jewish right-winger could ask them, “How can you believe that abandoning the post-1967 territories could end the Arabs’ hostility toward us? You, who have seen with your own eyes how the Jewish towns near Gaza were as much terrorized by the Fedayun in the 1950s as they are now by the Kassam rockets of Hamas!” The reply, which seems to be a total non sequitur, is always on these lines: “Back before 1967 the whole world was agreed on our right to defend what was ours; today, we are weighted down by occupying ill-gotten gains.” The instinctive reaction of the right-winger would be to wring his hands in disbelief, but it pays to reflect on the line of thinking, the narrative, behind those words.
For someone like Kaniuk, the narrative regarding Zionism’s rightfulness and where it went astray goes as follows:
- In the earlier years, from 1882 until about the end of World War One, the land was largely empty, so the early Zionist returners stole it from no one (terra nullius).
- During all the time from 1882 to 1947, wherever the Zionists wanted a piece of land belonging to Arabs, they bought it at full price, therefore no theft of land was involved.
- In 1947–9 the Arabs started a war of their own accord, in contravention of the U.N. Partition Plan as well as earlier international agreements such as the San Remo Convention, so the land gained by the Jewish state in 1949 was the result of their having lost a war of aggression. Therefore, again not stolen.
- But the injection of a Jewish population into the land gained in the war of 1967 is different—this is contrary to international law (what makes the war of 1967 different from that of 1947–9 is rarely stated, but whatever) and constitutes a stealing of land from the “Palestinians” (a new nation that has popped up all of a sudden where Arabs were beforehand).
The narrative of Zionist Leftist pioneers like Kaniuk, S. Yizhar and Amos Oz holds that the factor to be taken into consideration is not Arab hostility—which they admit was there before 1967—but world opinion regarding what rightfully belongs to Israel and what, in contrast, is land theft. Their view, unchanged from the 1970s, is that Israel would be free to do anything it wanted as long as it were in its pre-1967 size; that, except for the Arabs and some inconsequential political fringes (Communists, Far Right, Neturei Karta), everyone agrees that Israel has gained its pre-1967 territories through the years fair and square.
This is the narrative, and it seems unshakable. However, I have reason to believe Kaniuk faltered in holding it during the last years of his life. What I will now offer is based on my interpretation, which I fully admit may be wrong; even so, in the spirit of thinking well of a man who has recently died, and someone whose divergences with my opinions were not out of malice, I will push through with this interpretation.
About a year ago I was looking for a certain book on computer science in a college bookstore. On the way to the CS section of the store, passing through the popular interest section, I stumbled upon Kaniuk’s 1948. I was not going to buy the book, but I was intrigued as to what it might be about. An Israeli Leftist writer touching the subject of 1948? Was he going to plow New Historian territory and rehash Ilan Pappé’s tripe, or was he, instead, going to defend the story of Israel’s birth from the likes of the latter? Morbid curiosity prompted me to read the quotes on the back cover, the most important of which I bring here in translation:
“Though we were the boys with the wind in their hair [This is an unsatisfactory translation of an expression referring to the generation of 1948 in exalted tones. —ziontruth], wise we were not. Wise people do not go to die of their free will when they are seventeen or eighteen or even twenty years of age. Wise people prefer existing states to fighting states. Wise men do not attempt to set up new states in the desert winds, in a land full of Arabs and surrounded by Arab states that see them as foreigners and people of evil intent.”
At the time, right after reading it, I was downhearted. “Has Kaniuk finally gone off the rails and decided to attack pre-1967 Israel as well as post-1967?”, I thought. With the passage of time, however, I have come to interpret the quote differently. Although I still cannot say for sure which is the correct one, I think that, in view of Kaniuk’s somber and withdrawn demeanor of his last years, there is good reason to believe this quote reflects cracks, if not something bigger, in the Zionist Leftist pioneer’s view.
If Kaniuk was a smart person—and most people believed he was, regardless of their disagreements with him—then it is not difficult to imagine that he perceived the changes in the political world since the 1970s. He may have continued to believe in the sharp distinction between pre-1967 and post-1967 to his last day, but his belief that world opinion shared that view was beginning to come under doubt. In disputing the wisdom of setting up the Jewish state in Palestine, my alternative interpretation is that he no longer considered being right in our own eyes to be enough—he came to realize the truth, that the negation of pre-1967 Israel’s right to exist had grown beyond the Arab world and a few insignificant fringe groups. In other words, the unthinkable truth of the mainstreaming of total anti-Zionism may well have crossed his mind.
Naturally, the reader might now ask why such a thought has to be gleaned through an uncertain interpretation of a book quote. Why did he not make those thoughts explicit? Another question might be: Why did he not follow that realization to its logical conclusion and leave Israel as Avrum Burg did?
Again, I can only guess, but I believe my guesses are plausible. Kaniuk wrote 1948 at the age of 80; to ask someone so old, and therefore so set in his ways, to announce his disbelief in a long-held narrative is to demand very much of any person his age. For him to leave Israel would be even more far-fetched; the much younger Avrum Burg could do it, but Kaniuk, having lived so much of his life in Israel and even put it on the line for the country, could by no means leave at 80 years old even if he believed the ship was sinking.
And had he believed the ship was sinking and still been young enough for a new life abroad, there would be reasons for him to stay nevertheless. Kaniuk never doubted the rightness of pre-1967 Israel, so moving to France like Burg or to Britain like Pappé would not have been consistent with his views. Also, if Kaniuk was perceptive enough to note the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism, then chances are he was not oblivious to the dangers abroad either. In the 1970s one could still talk of Israel as a state under singular, exceptional threat, but today the threat is over many nations, making the news every day. Burg and Pappé will not find Muslim-colonized Europe safer than Israel in due course; and it is the same story in India, Thailand, Nigeria and many other parts of the world. Even the United States of America is not the safe haven it used to be. If Kaniuk was cognizant of that reality, he probably reasoned that it was best to die fighting for the one and only state in the world that he could actually call his.
Beyond my musings on Kaniuk’s thoughts in his later years, we have here the story of the Israeli Jews’ rightward shift on geopolitics. Throughout the years, the left-wing stance on geopolitics, involving land concessions, had credence among the populace by virtue of seeming reality-based. It was probably the peace treaty with Egypt that did most to cement this view, thus preparing the way for the Oslo Accords, and maintaining that course even in the difficult years (such as 1994 with its frequent bus bombings). But from the year 2000 onward the world changed so much while the left-wing geopolitical thinkers stuck to the views of the 1970s. It was then that many Israeli Jews shifted to the right on geopolitics, thinking that the right-wing stance reflected reality far better than the anachronisms of the Left.
The regular cadence of calls (by the United States, the European Union etc.) for negotiations and land concessions, as well as the insistence on “compliance with international law,” seem in our day like scenes in kabuki theater, while the undercurrents, soon to be lifted onto the mainstream in plain sight, no longer play this game. We can see this in the way the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 is brushed off, and consequently the flagrant Arab violation of it, while the U.N. General Assembly recommendation regarding the Arab refugees of that war is elevated to the status of holy scripture. We can also see it in the post-colonial discourse equating the Jewish state with the French presence in Algeria—wrong no matter how empty the land had ever been, no matter that the newcomers had bought the lands at full price, and no matter that the Arabs had lost a war they had started. Terra nullius is dismissed out of hand as a forbidden justification; the buying of the land is believed to have been dishonestly carried out, as in America with the Indians; and the Arabic-speaking “indigenous Palestinians” had every right to start a war of “resistance” to repulse those “Euro-Zionist invaders.”
The terrible truth that many Israeli Jews have come to understand in the past decade and some, and that Kaniuk too may have realized in the last years of his life, is that we are in the process of mainstreaming the denial of Zionism’s rightfulness in toto—that the world is coming to accept the idea that the Jews are to be denied the right to be anything but tourists in the Land of Israel, just for being Jews, and not because of anything they have ever done, not in 1948, not in 1967, not in any other date. The first ship carrying Jews from Russia to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in 1882 (the Yemenite arrivals of the same year are studiously ignored—why ruin a racial narrative?) was the Original Sin, and the wrong committed by those Jews was that they had landed on the shores with the intent of renewing Jewish political sovereignty in Palestine in the first place.
Confronted with a new, uncharitable world that does not cut Zionism the least slack, the old Zionist Leftist pioneers with their 1970s views are clearly outdated. The shift of the Israeli Jewish populace to the right on geopolitics reflects the belief that the tenets of the Right, formerly dismissed by the majority as “messianic craziness leading Israel to ditch,” are the up-to-date, reality-based ones that Israel needs in order to counter this changed reality. It is recognized that the world gives international law and the distinction between pre- and post-1967 territories lip service but in truth is warming up to the idea of the dissolution of the entire Jewish state as an act of decolonization; against this, the old arguments of the Israeli Left seem powerless, while it is the right-wingers that bring hope. By rejecting the faux-Palestinian narrative wholesale and upholding Zionism’s rightfulness from the get-go in 1882, the right-wing stalwarts are truly able to address the monstrous assault on Zionism today, and that explains why the majority of Israeli Jews have been attracted to their geopolitical stance. Assuming Kaniuk realized this, it is all the more understandable why he could not declare that realization explicitly.
In closing, I thank Mr. Kaniuk for his lifetime of service, and despite all the differences he had with the post-1967 Jewish inhabitants, I console myself in the idea that he was too set in his ways to change course, even in a changed world that he may have acknowledged. I take off where he left, upholding the legitimacy of the Zionist renewal from 1882 onward, the return of the one and only indigenous people of this land to what has always been theirs by virtue of an unbroken cultural connection to the land that no other nation can show.