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posted: 12/11/2013 5:00 AM

The open wound that is Israel

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In "My Promised Land," Ari Shavit's anguished book about Israel, there is plenty about the mistreatment of Palestinians -- today, yesterday and always. Some of it is just plain sickening, reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing attempted in the Balkans. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a passage pierces the gloom like the sun breaking through the fog. Shavit is walking in the Galillee with the Palestinian-Israeli attorney Mohammed Dahla when the lawyer's phone rings. The family of an accused terrorist is asking Dahla to represent him. From a hilltop, the lawyer calls the Jerusalem police to find his client and declare his interest in the case. Then he and Shavit resume their walk. Justice was served.

Does the alacrity, the efficiency, the very existence of the Israeli justice system outweigh or negate the occupation of the West Bank? No. Does it matter that in the nearby Arab states, justice is the word for the outcome the government wants? No. Does any of that compensate for what the Palestinians have suffered? No. The answer is always no.

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But the immense virtue of Shavit's book is its insistent use of the concept of "and." It is not so much said as implied, and it is actually the theme of the book. Much of Israel's history is about parallelism. Things happen and at the same time other things happen. Palestinians are oppressed and they are given legal representation. Israel conquers the Gaza Strip and then withdraws. The blogger's handy word "but" is of no use here. Nothing balances. Everything exists at the same time.

Take the ethnic cleansing of Lydda during Israel's War of Independence in 1948. "Lydda is our black box," Shavit writes. "In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionist could not bear Lydda."

And yet the truth is also that the merging state needed to control the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road. A civil war was under way and victory required atrocity. Some 50,000 to 70,000 Palestinians were evicted from the area. The innocent were murdered. Terrible things happened. Shavit provides first-person accounts, but Israeli historians, particularly Benny Morris in his book "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War," have not ignored the ethnic cleansing that produced what the Arabs call "the Nakba," the catastrophe. Israel is more than an open society. It is an open wound.

Israel today is 20 percent Arab. This is because the country was not ethnically cleansed. Israel did not follow what in 1945, '46, '47 and '48 was standard behavior -- the population transfers approved by the victors of World War II. Europe was ethnically reorganized -- no Germans in Poland, no Germans in Czechoslovakia either. And, lest we forget, the British approved the plan to swap Muslims and Hindus in the creation of Pakistan. All over the world, millions died -- at least 500,000 ethnic Germans alone.

Shavit is an Israeli aristocrat, if such a thing exists. He is fourth-generation Israeli, a columnist for the robustly left-of-center newspaper Haaretz, and so he knows many of the people who run the country. Unfortunately, it is precisely people like him who could be affected by various academic organizations that want to boycott Israel. One of them, the National Council of the American Studies Association, just passed such a resolution, but from the evidence it could sorely benefit from listening to Israeli academics. The Americans know so much, yet understand so little.

A virtue of Shavit's virtuous book is that it exhumes the dream of Zionism -- and also its success. This was a movement that saved countless lives, that was fueled by the ovens of Auschwitz, that became imbued with the appealing dreaminess of socialism and whose leaders often espoused tolerance and respect for the Palestinians. ("I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs," Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, wrote before taking office.) These Zionists never lost sight of the right thing. Sometimes, though, they just couldn't do it.

Shavit has nothing in common with the religiously zealous West Bank settlers. He wants them all -- religious, nationalist, secular, whatever -- gone. This is what I want, too. But when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, it got a daily barrage of rockets by way of thanks. What if the West Bank becomes, like Gaza, a Hamas state?

In Israel, nothing is easy, which is why the subtitle of Shavit's book is "The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel." One does not balance the other -- and both are true.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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