Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Benefits of Reading Memoirs

Moshe Dayan: Story of My LifeAs you might tell from my new Amazon widget, the last few days I've been engrossed in Moshe Dayan's very readable memoirs. The man was no philosopher, so far as I can tell, but his account is clear and unpretentious, at least up to the Six Day War, where I've taken a pause. Judging from Abba Eban's memoirs, the legend of Dayan, and likely the man's ego, were only to blast off in the days and months which lie ahead, and I am anxious to discover how he grappled with messiah-like fame for staving off an existential threat to the third Jewish Commonwealth.

The main pleasure of reading memoirs, as I've discovered, is not so much in grasping the "big picture" elements, or even in gaining an understanding of the widest possible context in which events took place, for human beings, even powerful human beings, usually operate within an environment of necessary limitations on information and analysis. For broad, overarching perspectives, it is better to wait for works from professional historians who have scrutinized the source materials from all sides over decades. What memoirs add to the account are the incidents and anecdote, sometimes of no particular significance to history, but often titillating with intrigue at the human level. Before I continue, then, here are a couple of minor references, hardly central to the text, and perhaps not quite titillating, consisting of mere passing mentions, but which I found sufficiently interesting to point out.

1. You may remember the story which recently made headlines around the world, of Mossad-trained sharks taste-testing unsuspecting tourists to Egypt's Sharm El Sheikh resort, in a clever Zionist bid to devastate the Egyptian economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. Like me, you were probably aghast at the diabolical nature of the Zionist plot, to harness the ocean deep's more fearsome and ruthless creature in a brutal and unprovoked attack on the most peace-loving nation of people among all of humanity - the Egyptians. After all, who had ever heard of shark attacks in these tranquil waters?
The Sharm el-Sheikh harbor, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba meet and join the Red Sea, offers one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. Its waters are deep blue - Egyptian prisoners warned us against swimming there for they are teeming with sharks - and they are framed by hills of crimson rock.
Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life, pg. 254-255. [Highlights are mine.]
We are left to conclude either that sharks have been present in the waters off the resort for at least sixty years, or that Moshe Dayan, writing in 1965 about events of the Sinai Campaign some ten years earlier, inserted an insidious line meant to absolve the nascent Mossad shark-training program of culpability in the attacks on tourists to Egypt some six decades hence.

This reminds me of a story told by my Rabbi, possibly relating a joke he heard from his father, a psychologist. A woman goes to a shrink convinced that she's really dead (or undead), a zombie, but concerned that no one believes her. At first the doctor asks her simple questions, such as, if you're dead then how are you able to talk to me? However, this woman has so developed her fantasy that she is ready with very clever replies that leave the doctor stumped. As silly as that sounds, and despite many hours of therapy, he is unable to convince her otherwise and she remains stubbornly committed to her delusions. Finally, seeing that the situation is quite desperate, the psychologist asks the woman if the walking dead bleed. She responds that they most certainly do not. In an instant, he pokes her arm with a syringe and extracts a small quantity of blood. Then what do you call this?! The woman sits back in her chair, stunned. Well, what do you know, she responds, the walking dead do bleed.

2. In March of 2010, Andrew Sullivan, our favorite inglorious bastardo on all things Israel, used the following map to misrepresent to his readership the history of Jewish land acquisition in the Levant through the course of the 20th century.

What should have been obvious to any educated human being, or someone who has been to Israel, is that much of the land shaded as under Palestinian ownership in 1946 is in fact uninhabited desert, mountain ranges and swamps owned by no one. In the West Bank, for example, the Palestinians have a name for these vast stretches of land - "the wilderness". It's barren, dangerous and uninhabited ground, replete with scorpions, snakes and beasts - including jackals, mountain lions and, once upon a time, even bears. Outside of Jericho - the odd green blob just above the Dead Sea in the right most graphic - for example, no permanent human habitation existed in the entire Jordan Valley until modern Jewish settlement, an area encompassing perhaps a fifth of the entire West Bank.

No such political entity as "Palestine" has ever existed in the region, and only a political entity can claim national ownership over non-private (i.e. public) lands. Just after Andrew reposted this map on his blog, I emailed a historian or two regarding the extent of both Jewish and Arab land ownership, and any maps to that extent made by the British Mandate Authority. The replies I received were unsatisfactory. Most historians agree that Jewish land purchases never exceeded about 8-10% of the landmass under British Mandatory administration west of the Jordan river. The extent of Arab land ownership, however, remains unclear. Enter Moshe Dayan's memoirs.

From 1959 to 1967, Dayan was elected as a representative in the Israeli Knesset, first under the Mapai party ticket, and following Ben Gurion's split with Israel's ruling party, under Rafi. For the first few of these years, Dayan served as Minister of Agriculture. In this capacity, it fell under his area of obligations to support small agricultural settlements, many of which were far removed from the country's coastal population centers, but were vital in securing Israel's borders. He also took upon himself the management of state lands, in order to "secure a healthy distribution of the population, improve public amenities, and protect our natural environment."
About 90 percent of the land in Israel belongs to the nation. Prior to the establishment of the state, most of the land owned by the Jewish community had been purchased by the Jewish National Fund, the organization created by the Zionist movement in 1901 to acquire and reclaim land in Palestine for settlement. This land remains the national possession of the Jewish people and no single individual can buy or own it. With the establishment of Israel, all public lands owned by the preceding British Mandatory power came under state control, and this amounted to 71 percent. The state also became custodian of the lands abandoned by the Arabs who had fled Israel during the War of Independence in 1948.
Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life, pg. 266. [Highlights are mine.]
It would appear that within Israel's 1967 armistice lines, but possibly including the West Bank and Gaza - it's unclear from Dayan's memoirs - Britain's Mandatory control extended over some 71% of lands which were considered public, not under private ownership. Deducting from a total of 100% the 8% in Jewish owned private lands, and 71% in public lands under British administration leaves just 21% of lands available for non-Jewish (i.e. Arab and other) private ownership. In other words, actual Arab private land ownership constituted just a small portion of the land under British Mandatory Authority, barely two and a half times that owned by Jewish residents and Zionist organizations.

It would be interesting to see if the British Imperial War Museum has retained private land ownership maps from Mandatory Palestine, in order to disprove, once and for all, the perfidious and misleading map peddled by the likes of Sullivan and Juan Cole.

On My Bookshelf