April 18, 2014
Review of Old Wine, Broken Bottle
Old Wine, Broken Bottle is a critique of a book by Israeli reporter Ari Shavit entitled My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel that has been widely praised by supporters of Israel in America. Shavit’s book acknowledges uncomfortable truths about Israel, whilst also heaping lavish praise upon it for it’s accomplishments, and appealing to the reader to understand the unique plight of Israel as justification for its actions. In so far as Ari Shavit’s message represents Zionism’s latest defence, which Finkelstein believes it does, his efforts to debunk it serve the broader goal of trying to separate fact from fiction and to offer an account of Israel, its history, and its possibilities for the future that is entirely possible and far more desirable.
The book makes for entertaining reading as Finkelstein makes light work of exposing the non sequiturs that Shavit offers in his account. These include numerous efforts to portray an idealised an heavily romanticised picture of Israel’s history whilst simultaneously disparaging the indigenous population. In one hilarious passage Finkelstein quotes Shavit as beginning a chapter with “Oranges had been Palestine’s trademark for centuries”, only to reflect later on in the chapter on the “wonders about the mysterious bond between Jews and oranges. Both arrived in Palestine around the same time”! Shavit’s mind-set, Finkelstein notes, is a throw back to another epoch in which Western colonialists had no qualms about justifying their dispossession of indigenous populations on the grounds of ‘progress’. Conversely, Shavit makes no effort to justify Israel on the basis of Jewish values and beliefs, and repeatedly expresses his distain for Orthodox Jews as a drain on the Israeli economy. Rather, the crowning achievements of Israel, according to the Shavit account, are its night life and consumerist culture. So what purpose exactly does Israel serve for Shavit, since consumerism and liberal attitudes towards sexuality are a commonplace in most Western countries? Seemingly, Finkelstein observes, merely to confirm that Jews stand out on the front rank of Western culture and civilisation.
The book includes a very adept analysis of the core Zionist justification for Israel – that it was born of the need to provide a safe haven for Jewish people and has succeeded in doing so. The legitimacy afforded to the idea (in theory) of the creation of a state that could act as a refuge for Jewish people by the centuries of anti-semitic persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, is contrasted with the reality of what has actually happened subsequently. The tremendous fear and paranoia of Israelis about the surrounding Arab and Muslim world, which Shavit both expresses and reflects, is also contrasted and compared with the life of relative ease and security that has been enjoyed by Jews and people of Jewish descent outside of Israel subsequent to the Second World War. Shavit’s paranoia reaches its apex in his depiction of the horrors of a nuclear Iran which he describes as a threat to humanity. But, unlike Iran, Israel already possesses a massive nuclear arsenal, for which Shavit expresses unrestrained enthusiasm, devoting a whole chapter to the glories of Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona. And, unlike Iran, Israel has already launched numerous unprovoked wars against its neighbours, and repeatedly threatened to initiate armed conflict with Iran in violation Article 2 of the UN charter. Outside of the myopic moral universe of Shavit the balance sheet of right and wrong, and threat and counter-threat, looks rather different. But rather than opening his mind to alternative perspectives Shavit reports on his discussions with fellow fanatic former intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, and, along with his fellow Israelis, ignores the scholarly analysis of Israel’s defence strategy by Professor Zeev Maoz. As Finkelstein notes: “Although Predictable, it still speaks volumes that Israel’s cheerleaders consign Maoz to oblivion but go ga ga over Shavit.”
There is no doubt that Shavit’s effusive praise and adoration for Israel pleases some of its devotees, but using emotional hyperbole to defend one’s nation can never be just okay when it is being used to help maintain a status quo that perpetuates an attitude of fear and fanaticism among Israelis and the on-going oppression of the Palestinian people. And beyond the jostling fun of exposing the exaggerations, inconsistencies, and absurdities of Ari Shavit’s various points lies a serious message – a resolution of the situation that respects the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians is possible, but progress towards it can only be made when the shallow, self-serving and self-deluding pro-Israeli propaganda of Ari Shavit and others like him is recognised for what it is and replaced with an attitude and perspective based upon honesty, pragmatism, and basic human decency.
Adam Waterhouse, Southampton, England