Arno J. Mayer, Plowshares into Swords

By Sam Ayache

Like Ilan Pappe or Shlomo Sand, Arno Joseph Mayer belongs to a recent school of historians of Jewish origin who call into question the founding myths of Zionism and the state of Israel. Arno J.Mayer is currently Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton University. He recognizes himself in Isaac Deutscher’s profile as a non-Jewish Jew. He was born (Luxembourg, 1926) into a Zionist family, his father having embraced a left-humanist Zionism while studying at the University of Heidelberg. In 1940, his family fled Luxembourg and landed in New York City in 1941. Mayer became a US citizen in 1944.

Violence as an instrument of sovereignty

In his first controversial book– published in 1999 - The Furies – Violence and terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, Mayer argues that violence is an objective historical necessity, indispensable to every founding act in history. Following the same research, Plowshares into Swords, his latest book, is a reflection on violence, terror, sovereignty, religion and resistance in the Middle East since the foundation of Zionism. The title comes from the Book of Isaiah 2.4: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares. But whereas Isaiah had a peaceful vision of the settlement of the ancient Jews in the Promised Land, Mayer shows that Joshua prevailed over Isaiah in the founding of modern Israel.

He writes: Like most other nation-builders before them, between 1945 and 1949, the Zionists used both violence and force to establish the state of Israel. Warranted by the U.N. General Assembly, its government claimed and exercised the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence following the 1948 war. But Israel did not so “within a given territory: to this day its borders – an essential criterion of the sovereign nation-state – are neither demarcated nor recognized internationall”. As a consequence, the State of Israel was established as Joshua did in his days, with fire and sword and that is why plowshares were turned into swords and not the contrary.

The Arab Question

One of the founding myths of Israel is the slogan: A land without a people for a people without a land, denying the very existence of Palestinian Arabs in the eyes of western public opinion. Contrary to this slogan, Mayer explains that the Arab Question was at the heart of the debates within the Zionist movement: By the mid 1920s, the Zionist stance vis-à-vis the Arabs became a public political issue. In the fall of 1925, David Ben-Gurion, speaking for the fast-growing labor movement, declared that, whereas Zionists had “completely ignored the Arab community and proceeded as if Palestine were uninhabited…the time for such naïveté had long since passed, never to return.

But whereas Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Revisionists – so-called because they wanted to revise the mandatory borders and include the east bank of the Jordan into Palestine - proposed to rely on the force of arms to secure Jewish dominance in Palestine, Ben-Gurion trusted in the force of economics and asserted that Zionism would realize the immigration of masses of Jews to establish a new economy… designed to absorb a large Jewish majority. And since the Arabs were economically unfit, Ben-Gurion warned: They must not be allowed to interfere with us.

Mayer is one of the first historians to understand the crucial role of the Palestinian refugees in the Middle East: The ordeal of the Palestinian refugees became the original sin of Israel’s foundation and the curse of Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy… As a matter of course, the refugees have become the prime social carriers and moving spirits of the Palestinian resistance, he writes.

A terror or rogue State

Mayer’s views are directly connected to those of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, the first chancellor of the Hebrew University (Mont Scorpus, Jerusalem), who were in favor of a single bi-national state within the territory of Mandatory Palestine. Clearly, Mayer shows that the crucial opposition between Vladimir Jabotinsky (the modern Joshua) and Martin Buber (the modern Isaiah) led to the creation of the State of Israel as a military state. The question is raised: How did Zionism give birth to a political entity that became a garrison state run by generals and imbued with a fortress mentality?

According to Mayer, the creation of this garrison state began in the 1920s, when Jabotinsky’s Revisionists started to gain ascendance within the Zionist movement. Jabotinsky and his partisans proposed to build an iron wall of overwhelming military strength to break the Arabs and conquer Greater Palestine, including the east bank of the Jordan. Mayer reports that in September 1929, in the immediate aftermath of the first Intifada, Magnes wrote a letter to Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist Congress, warning him against this imperialist, military, and political policy… based upon mass immigration…and the creation (forcibly if necessary) of a Jewish majority, no matter how much this oppresses the Arabs… or deprives them of their rights. Magnes noted that the Jewish National Home of the 1917 Balfour Declaration was built on bayonets and oppression.

Embracing Buber’s views on the establishment of a Jewish spiritual and cultural home – and not a Jewish State - in Palestine, Mayer comments Magnes’s statement: The last thing the Israelites needed, he insisted, was a “normal nation like any other in Palestine - Herzl’s notion - one that could not be born or survive except by the use of force, at inordinate human cost, for want of an agreement with the Arab peoples beyond its borders. That fall [1929] Magnes set about developing the idea of binationalism for a pluralistic civil and political society”. In Magnes and Mayer’s views, the creation of a Jewish State in May 1948 inevitably led to endless violence and war against the Arabs at inordinate human cost.

Mayer writes: One hundred years after the founding Zionist congress in Basel, and some sixty years after the Judeocide and Independence, Israel is arguably a terror or rogue state – no longer a beacon unto the world.

The Israeli armed forces

A major part of Mayer’s study deals with the Israeli armed forces as a pivotal institution of Israeli civil and political society. He writes: The military establishment has also become closely intertwined with the universities, especially the faculties of physical, natural and computer sciences. The weapons industry in particular, is a large sector in the national economy, given its phenomenal budget; and the armed services, including the intelligence services Mossad and Shin Bet, are regular customers of nearly all other major sectors. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of the aid the military receives from the U.S. must be spent on made-in-America ordnance. Naturally this proviso invites steady collaboration between Israeli and American arms firms, with active and retired senior officers on both sides trading on their access to the military and political corridors of powers.

As Israelis come to realize the indispensability of America for the survival of the country, Israeli governments rely on Zionist lobbies in the U.S.: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of America’s most powerful lobbies… It has a multi-million-dollar yearly budget and a large staff. Although not registered as an agent of the Israeli government, AIPAC is in lockstep with it.

Mayer notes that the Israeli military establishment is barely subject to civilian control. It is a state within the state. Although Israel has free presidential and parliamentary elections, the electorate is always asked to choose between alternative military options: High-ranking officers hold key political positions, from prime minister to the ministries of war, intelligence, and foreign affairs… Active, retired, and reserve officers form a cohesive and immensely influential corps with a shared temper and a way of thinking. The military’s influence is all the greater because of the fundamental consensus of the political parties on major diplomatic and military issues.

And Mayer reports that Israel ranks first in the world in terms of per capita military spending with 10 per cent of GNP, ahead of the U.S. which ranks third. The outsized military outlays squeeze social spending. In 2005, for instance, roughly 34 per cent of Israelis, including Palestinian Israelis, earned the minimum wage or less. Moreover, the armed forces serve mainly as protector of the 450,000 settlers - nearly 10 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population – in over 140 settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, in addition to the 17,000 settlers on the Golan Heights. With compulsory military service for both men and women, and long-term reserve duty for men, hardly a family has not had a member or close friend helping to man roadblocks and border crossings, tear down houses…in the name of law and order amid a population of irate and defiant Arabs.

Religious Zionism

Very few historians deal with the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and their close links with U.S. Christian Zionists and Evangelicals, an outreach publicly encouraged by Israel Mayer says, adding: …in 2004 Benny Elon, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, presented televangelist Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network with Israel’s Ambassador Award.

Mayer reports that the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community makes up some 800,000 of a Jewish population of 5.4 million. With an average of close to seven children per family, their offspring make up some 23 per cent of Israel’s first-grade pupils, all of them in parochial schools. As for their religious leaders and chief rabbis, they exert considerable power in society, culture and policy…The public exchequer substantially subsidizes the 60 per cent of ultra-Orthodox men who do not work in order to devote themselves to full-time Torah study. As a consequence, over 50 per cent live below the poverty line, yet they receive disproportionate welfare subsidies as well as grants from the yeshivas. As for the laws exempting them from military service, Mayer notes: Between 1975 and 2007, the deferment of draft-age men for reasons of religious faith rose from 2.5 per cent to about 11 per cent, or 50,000, the equivalent of some four divisions – a striking increase given the hardline settlement and occupation policy championed during these same years by most ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists.

In the same manner, Mayer also examines the emergence of Muslim fundamentalism, Islamism and the Iranian issues. He says: The defensive Islamism is not of a piece; relatively few of its votaries are fundamentalists or terrorists… To the extent that Islamism, in whatever guise, involves resistance, it is a product of pent-up anger and mortification…Not unlike President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who, sworn to secular anti-Western nationalism, had reached for hydroelectric power and threatened to close the Suez Canal, Ahmadinejad, wrapped in the mantle of Islam, reaches for nuclear power and threatens to block the Strait of Hormuz.

Mayer concludes: The religionization of politics and the politicization of religion foster growing social dissension and political inconsistency in Israel. His last chapter titled The Wages of Hubris is the narrative of a long series of daily violence between Israelis and Palestinians which calls into question the two-State-solution. Mayer’s implicit conclusion is: why not go back to Buber’s solution of bi-nationalism in a single state?

Plowshares into SwordsVerso 2008 – London-New-York

From DIALOGUE REVIEW ( www.dialogue-review.com )