Seeds of the 'new Holocaust'?

July 4, 2003

In an incendiary polemic, Baruch Kimmerling attacks the violent policies of Ariel Sharon and argues that failure to see that Israeli and Palestinian fates are intertwined could reduce the Jewish state to a footnote in history. Chris Bunting reports

To his enemies, Baruch Kimmerling is a traitor: a Jew who has betrayed his Jewishness. He has been accused of supporting the massacre of his fellow Israelis. Some rabid critics have even compared the writings of this survivor of the Holocaust to Hitler's Mein Kampf. But if the Hebrew University sociologist's previous work has left a smouldering resentment among many of his countrymen, his latest book, Politicide - Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians, seems set to throw a stick of dynamite on the flames.

Published in English this month, and with translations into French, Italian, German, Spanish and Turkish (although not Hebrew) on their way, Politicide launches an extraordinary polemic against Israel's hardline prime minister and policies that Kimmerling warns could bring disaster to his country.

The book is likely to cause more than ruffled feathers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. From a lonely childhood in which Sharon carried a large bat everywhere he went to defend himself against hostile neighbours (he once seriously wounded a classmate with it) Israel's leader is described as a man who understands the world only in terms of violence.

Kimmerling says that Sharon, as commander of the Israeli army's famous Unit 101 commandos in the 1950s, led raids into Arab territory that killed dozens of civilians. Indeed, "his unrestrained retaliations and preventive strike policy helped worsen the Arab-Israeli crisis and bring about two wars". In one such attack, 45 houses in a Palestinian village were blown up with their inhabitants inside. In another, Sharon is reported to have briefed his men that all the women in a refugee camp were whores who served the Palestinian murderers. Fifteen people were killed in the attack, most of them women and children.

Later, as a minister, Sharon is accused of not only encouraging but also of pioneering the aggressive settlement movement by shifting government offices to the West Bank long before many settlers followed. In perhaps his most widely known act of aggression, Sharon is described as bearing almost sole responsibility for the war in Lebanon after 1982. Although the Israeli cabinet had approved a limited border action, ministers claimed to have been shocked by their field commander's invasion of the whole country.

Sharon was later accused of indirect responsibility for war crimes when the Israelis reached Beirut: allowing Christian phalangists to slaughter hundreds and perhaps thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Politicide is a damning indictment of an individual politician expected by much of the world to try to make peace. But Kimmerling's polemic goes far beyond Sharon. Speaking from Canada, where he is on a temporary sabbatical at the University of Toronto, he explains: "Sharon is, for me, more of an allegory of the Israeli condition. Of course, not everybody in Israel is a Sharon. I think the book makes that clear. But Sharon is a product of Israeli society and represents several generations and orientations in this society."

Kimmerling is bracing himself for an explosive response to Politicide, not because of its personal attacks but because of its wide-ranging assault on mainstream Israeli society's most fundamental beliefs. He has become accustomed to protests against his views. Ideological attacks from both the right and mainstream left have labelled him as "post-Zionist, anti-Zionist, communist, Stalinist and even traitor". He says: "They have compared me to Lord Haw-Haw and played with my last name calling me 'Quisling'. It is not a very pleasant situation, but I have learnt to ignore attacks of that kind."

Kimmerling, who has cerebral palsy, describes himself as a combination of insider and outsider in Israeli society. Born in 1939 in Romania ("Not a good year to be born in that part of the world," he says with characteristic black humour), he came to Israel as a postwar refugee, unlike Sharon and many of the nation's founders, who were from prewar settler groups.

"Most of my family from my mother's side was exterminated in Auschwitz. My mother and father managed to escape and to save us by wandering from place to place in the Carpathian mountains among Romanian peasants. They could have slaughtered us or handed us over, but they did not, unlike the Hungarians who collaborated with the Nazis. Eventually, we met the Red Army."

The family returned briefly to Romania after the war. It was then that the young Kimmerling began to develop his lifelong habit of asking difficult questions. "Because I had cerebral palsy, my parents preferred not to send me to school but to hire a private teacher. That teacher was an extraordinary person, a retired Romanian headmaster. He was a real intellectual and he taught me critical thinking from the start. He would say: 'Now you know what the book says, but let's discuss it and see if it really makes sense. What did the writer of this book want you to think? What is the subtext of this chapter?' I didn't have many friends at that age, but I read a lot of books.

"On January 10 1952, my family arrived in Israel, mainly to escape the communist regime. My mother was a convinced Zionist, unlike her parents. My father was a disillusioned communist who tried during the war to establish a pathetic anti-Nazi underground - luckily, I think they never succeeded in killing anybody; they were too scared. Thus, ideological divergences about religion, communism, socialism, capitalism and Zionism were not strange to me, even in childhood."

Kimmerling eventually entered an elite high school near Tel Aviv and slowly began to feel "hesitantly accepted" into native-born Jewish society. "I can't say it was a usual childhood," he says, "but retrospectively I thinkI I learnt to be at the same time an insider and an outsider in my society."

As a young man, he was rejected by the military because of his disability.

"So, I didn't undergo the militaristic, machoistic brainwashing most Jewish-Israeli males get from the military service. Some of my colleagues see it as a major professional disadvantage, I consider it today a major intellectual benefit."

His outsider's perspective permeates Politicide. The polemic rejects some of the basic principles on which Israel was built, attacking a political culture that he compares to South Africa's apartheid regime.

"Admittedly, the proportions are different," Kimmerling says. "The Arabs are a big minority and not a majority like the blacks of South Africa.

Israeli racism was never as overt, either. But between 1948 and 1966, Arab citizens were subject to a brutal military rule that bound most of them to their residences and excluded them from most of the rights of citizenship.

Even today, Arabs have limited rights to buy land. Arab schools cannot teach their own curriculum, while all other subcultures in Israel enjoy autonomy. A government whose existence depends on Arab voters is considered illegitimate. I can go on and on."

Perhaps what many Israelis will find most offensive is Kimmerling's claim that such discrimination is no accident but is encoded in the "genetic code" of Zionism - an "immigrant-settler movement" with an impulse, he says, "to acquire maximum territory with as few Arab inhabitants as possible". He argues that Zionism "never was prepared conceptually to deal with minorities within the Jewish state", and he characterises Israel's great contemporary dilemma as the determination of many on its right wing to hold on to "Greater Israel", including the occupied territories, while denying the right of those areas' overwhelmingly Arab populations to be accepted as Israeli citizens. To do so, Kimmerling says, would threaten Israel's exclusively Jewish character.

For Sharon, Kimmerling believes, the solution to the dilemma is "politicide", a systematic attempt to destroy the political will and organisation of the Palestinian people. "He has succeeded brilliantly in using Palestinian terror and resistance to get internal and international legitimacy for efforts to destroy most of the Palestinian public infrastructure and almost completely to erode the power, the prestige and the authority of the Palestinian National Authority," Kimmerling says.

"More important, he has dissolved the Jewish and the Palestinian public's belief in the possibility of achieving a genuine peaceful solution and any mutual trust." Despite lip service to Bush's "road map" for peace in the Middle East (a plan Kimmerling says is founded on a Utopian fantasy that Palestinian violence could stop before Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories) Kimmerling warns that Sharon's basic strategy remains the destruction of the Palestinian people as a social and political entity, just as Palestinian hardliners continue to harbour fantasies of wiping Israel from the map.

In the end, he argues, the strategy is doomed to failure. An inability to accept that Palestinian and Israeli fates are intertwined and that "no military or political strategy, or combination of the two, will ever make the opponent disappear" contains, he believes, the seeds of disaster for both groups. "A new Palestinian Nakba [catastrophe] would be accompanied in the long run by a new Jewish Holocaust destroying the moral foundations of the Jewish state," he says. "Without a reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the contemporary Jewish state will become a mere footnote in world history." Whether Israeli or Palestinian people will realise that in time, he says, history will have to record.

Politicide - Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians, is published by Verso (£15.00).

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