Arabs: the last Zionists

Sacred Landscape: the buried history of the Holy Land since 1948

Meron Benvenisti <em>University o

Poets may rhapsodise over it, artists paint it, farmers till it and politicians and generals fight over it, but, until recently, the lure of the land was not apparently felt by historians. Today, however, the power of landscape in people's dreams and memories, its nostalgic hold over refugees and its sanctity for undoubting patriots, have finally spurred research into the history of our relationship with the ground beneath our feet. This most readable and timely book skilfully uncovers the "buried history" of one of the most bitterly contested landscapes in the world, and deserves the attention of anyone who wishes to understand what is at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Few parts of the world have been imbued with religious and historical associations more profoundly felt than have the mountains, deserts and groves of the Holy Land. In the 19th century, European travellers discerned the biblical past in the Ottoman Arab villages they passed through. In the 20th century, the map-makers traversed the same territories in the cause of military intelligence, archaeological preservation and contemporary nation-building. While those Victorian Christians exaggerated the timelessness of the quaintly picturesque peasant life occurring around them, they were certainly not wrong to see a landscape shaped by the slow and gradual evolution of habits, markets and political institutions. After 1948, by contrast, change was violent, sudden and dramatic. The mass flight of Palestinian Arabs began an epoch of expropriation, destruction and rebuilding, which continues to this day, and whose ugly impact on the land is powerfully evident.

Meron Benvenisti is the son of an Israeli geographer. One of the things that gives his book its passionate flavour is that it reads, in part, as an extended dialogue with, and critique of, the Zionist ethos embedded in the work of his own father, who, like many other creators of modern Israel, wished young Jews to familiarise themselves with the land in a very partial way. "Knowing the land", the discipline to which David Benvenisti himself made an im- portant contribution, presented young Jews with a Holy Land that was virgin territory, crying out for cultivation, a land with scarcely any history between the end of biblical times and the emergence of modern Zionism. To the Zionist pioneers, the hundreds of thousands of Arab villagers who then farmed the soil, producing citrus fruits, olives and many other crops, were virtually invisible. They were a part of the landscape that needed to be made fruitful, an element of backwardness and tradition that required, even if they themselves did not realise this, the promise of modernity embodied in the Zionist mission.

In this book, Benvenisti adds an important dimension to the long-running debate over whether the Arabs were "ethnically cleansed" from Israel in 1948. He argues persuasively that, while there was no Jewish master plan for ethnic cleansing before the war, the expulsions that took place from the summer of 1948 onward were often premeditated and not warranted on military grounds. But the real originality of the book lies in showing that, well before the war broke out, the Arabs had already ceased to be a part of the landscape of the Holy Land in Zionist minds. And the consequence was that the absent Arabs, far from being mourned, were doubly erased through the changes of place names, the wholesale demolition of villages and the construction of new settlements.

Although, ironically, some of the fullest information on the pre-1948 Arab villages was collected by Jewish intelligence organisations for military use, the cartographers and scholars engaged in drawing up maps for the Israeli state had little time for it. They were preoccupied with designing a "Hebrew map", and this involved finding Hebrew equivalents for some of the Arabic place names and simply excluding others altogether. At meetings of the Committee for Assigning Hebrew Names in the Negev, for instance, bizarre and spurious etymologies were discussed by the cartographers, historians, archaeologists and geographers present. The governmental naming committee followed a similar course. One may be sure that scholarship has been employed to similar ends in the Balkans, central Europe and elsewhere, too. But, as Benvenisti points out, it is not merely the politicisation of the process that one finds distasteful. Much more important is that names which sprang up over centuries, and which carried within them a wealth of relationships to the land and the people who had passed over it, are, in this way, suddenly erased and replaced by fictitious and often meaningless alternatives - or, in many cases, not replaced at all. The land, literally, loses meaning.

Sure enough, a "Palestinian map" has also emerged, and we now have a battle of maps that mirrors the struggle on the ground. The author draws on much recent Palestinian research, but dismisses the temptation to idealise its end product, much of which is no less partisan than its opposing version, and sometimes based on even less hard information. Benvenisti himself has travelled widely to visit the deserted and abandoned sites, and he puts archives, interviews and personal observation together in a way that vividly brings back these settlements as they were in times of peace and war.

He shows us the plight of those Arabs who fled their villages, some of whom remained nearby in Israel, able to see their former fields and homes, but barred from returning to them. He shows us, too, the newcomers - Jewish settlers, among them refugees from postwar Europe, and later from the Middle East. Above all, he shows us the homes, fields and monuments that once defined the land, but which have been obliterated in the explosion of consumerism and privatisation that has transfigured modern Israel. Here lies a gigantic irony. The Zionist dream, which once offered a sentimental and romantic vision of the promised land, turns out to have led to a series of sordid land-grabs in which the established Jewish settlements muscled out less fortunate newcomers. Unable even to farm all the fields that were once owned by Arabs, the lucky beneficiaries have now put their acres up for sale, and are raking it in from profitable land deals.

Those who once worked this land, and existed in the farmer's intimate but unemotional relationship with his surroundings, have come to see their entire national and sacred patrimony at stake in this struggle. The Palestinians have become, in Benvenisti's mordant phrase, "the last of the Zionists".

Mark Mazower's most recent book is The Balkans: a short history (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide