Israel’s ambassador to Washington is the guest at a prestigious nationally televised interview series, but is soon set upon by his particularly pugnacious host. The strikingly prosecutorial interviewer homes in on “the charge that Israel threatens world peace with a policy of territorial expansion.”
He quotes “a major Arab spokesman” who asserts that “the area of the territories held by Israel today exceeds by about 40 percent the area of the territories given Israel by the United Nations. Most of this added area… was taken by force, and should therefore be relinquished by Israel.”
Ho hum. So what’s the big deal? Aren’t we habitually painted as insatiable gobblers of Arab land, and aren’t we just as routinely required to cede our “ill-gotten” gains?
True, this could all have been a colossal bore, were it not for the date of the above face-off. It took place on April 12, 1958, shortly before Israel’s 10th birthday. And that makes Abba Eban’s appearance on The Mike Wallace Interview program supremely important.
Almost every demonizing and delegitimizing canard to which we have by now grown so inured had already manifested itself back then. It’s almost as if nothing has changed except incidental names of protagonists and the fact that Eban’s suave wit and unflappable poise are no more. Otherwise, what was thrown at Eban by Wallace (born Myron Leon Wallechinsky to Jewish parents) sounds garden-variety familiar more than 53 years later.
But most of our opinion-molders prefer we not develop a sense of historical continuity. They have a vested interest in keeping us from recognizing our travails as a single ongoing saga. Chopping our past into small, disconnected segments helps distort the big picture and warp it to fit political agendas.
This can work because we’re a peculiar folk.
We’re a nation of inveterate kibitzers (meddlesome dispensers of unsolicited and often irrelevant advice). We’re a nation doggedly hankering after indistinct idealized times-that-were. We’re a nation of chronic bellyachers, forever bemoaning the present and bullyragging whoever we put in charge (but who, obviously, has less sense than the least among us does).
We’re experts at being argumentative and contrary, which is perhaps why we already gave our first leader – Moses – such a hard time, why we could never (thankfully) kowtow to a dictator, or even unite behind a cohesive religious authority. Any scholarly rabbinical viewpoint invariably sparks raging debate.
Given our idiosyncratic predilections, it’s no wonder our national pastime is kvetching about how much better things used to be.
For Tzipi Livni, happy days were relatively recent – just before her nemesis Binyamin Netanyahu defeated her. With verbal hocus-pocus, it’s easy to erase the bad memories of Ehud Olmert’s failed premiership, in which she played a starring role.
Further to her left, the good times ended on June 4, 1967, before we won the Six Day War. Israel’s angst-filled peaceniks yearn for that tiny, imperiled, hemmed-in Israel, which they tell us was universally loved and admired. Why? Because we were diminutive, not an ogre empire, not an interloping conquistador, not an oppressive occupier.
As such, nobody could resist our untainted, wholesome charms.
This is seductive. We all wax nostalgic, which is why we can all fall for the fable. Hence it’s imperative that we consider whether we were ever – even as a renascent pioneering people – the darlings of the civilized world.
Once we make allowances for cumulative historical processes and the propaganda-amplifying potential of new technologies (like the World Wide Web), it becomes obvious that the differences we perceive are mostly in detail rather than substance. The bare essence was uncannily the same back-in-the-day.
Just get a load of Wallace’s opening salvo: “In its 10 years as a state, Israel has been involved in repeated violence, major border incidents and two open wars.” The subtext is that there’s something unsavory and belligerent about Israel, that it’s a troublemaker.
But then Wallace pulled out bigger guns – the Arab refugees: “Such men as historian Arnold Toynbee have said this: ‘The evil deeds committed by the Zionist Jews against the Arabs are comparable to crimes committed against the Jews by the Nazis.’”
Are we shocked? What can be more perversely prevalent in our existence than Nazi epithets hurled at the country that resisted annihilation merely three years after the Holocaust?
But perhaps we should all memorize Eban’s timeless retort. He accused Toynbee of “monstrous blasphemy. Here he takes the massacre of millions of our men, women and children, and compares it to the plight of Arab refugees alive, on their kindred soil, suffering certain anguish, but of course possessed of the supreme gift of life. The refugee problem is the result of an Arab policy which created the problem by the invasion of Israel, which perpetuates it… and which refuses to solve the problem which they have the full capacity to solve.”
Just as worthy of recall is Eban’s comment about Israel’s alleged expansionism. He advised everyone “not to lose any sleep at night worrying about whether the State of Israel is too big. Really there is nothing more grotesque or eccentric in the international life of our times than the doctrine that little Israel, 8,000 square miles in area, should become even smaller in order that the vast Arab Empire should still further expand.”
Wallace escalated his provocation: “Mr. Ambassador, do you… foresee further territorial expansion by Israel?” In gentlemanly tones Eban objected: “I don’t like the word ‘further,’ Mr. Wallace… I wonder whether the issue isn’t one of Arab expansion.”
Wallace wouldn’t let go: “Israel benefited territorially from a war, from armed violence.”
Eban was unfazed: “Yes, I’m glad to say that I hope that whenever countries wage a war of aggression, as the Arab States did, they should be the losers.”
Unswayed, Wallace pressed on: “As a member of the Judaic faith, which cherishes social justice and morality, do you believe that any country should profit territorially from violence?”
The entire exchange reveals the pervasiveness of anti-Israel mainstream-media bias long before the Six Day War. Although the Arabs controlled all the territories which Palestinians currently claim for their state, Israel was portrayed, already then, as an occupier – because it successfully fended off a concerted attack by seven Arab armies on the day of its birth.
Eban, it needs stressing, was an out-and-out dove. Yet it was he who on November 5, 1969, told Der Spiegel: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger.
“I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.
“We shudder when we think of what would have awaited us in the circumstances of June 1967, if we had been defeated… This is a situation which will never be repeated in history.”
What was true then remains true still.