indicates related category

Review of Jerome Slater’s ‘Mythologies Without End’

By Bernard Bohbot

Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab–Israeli Conflict, 1917–2020 by Jerome Slater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Jerome Slater is a retired professor of political science at SUNY-Buffalo.  Although his longstanding antipathy toward Israel is evident throughout this book, he strays from a number of far-left talking points. 

Still, Slater does not seem to understand the essence of the Zionist claim to the Land of Israel.  It was never primarily a Biblical claim, nor a claimed immutable historical right to any patch of land that belonged to the Jews in the past. Israel’s founders argued that as a homeless people, Jews are entitled to return to their ancient homeland.  While early Zionists of the First Aliyah identified with European colonialism, later Zionists aspired to engage in a colonization movement without colonialism.  Neither Borochov nor Katznelson (major theoreticians of the Second and Third Aliyahs) identified with European colonialism.

Nevertheless, his analysis of the relationship between Zionism and colonialism is more sophisticated than much of what is being published nowadays.  While he acknowledges many similarities between Israel and European settler colonies, he stresses that unlike other colonial endeavors, Zionism was driven by the necessity to save a persecuted people.  And he rejects the claim that Jews who found refuge in Palestine treated the Palestinians as badly as Puritans and other American settlers treated Native Americans.

Interestingly, Slater rebukes anti-Zionists for arguing that there was no need to establish a Jewish homeland in the late 1940s, and that they should have tried to settle in the US instead.  Slater reminds them that the US was still largely antisemitic.  He points out that even if Jews had managed to lobby the US government to finally open its doors to Jewish refugees, many Jews would have remained stateless and vulnerable in a world that kept rejecting them.  He even faults cultural Zionists for not responding to the need to provide all persecuted Jews with a haven, and debunks the claim that Zionism is intrinsically racist.

Slater also disagrees with Professors Walt and Mearsheimer’s claim that the “Israel Lobby” alone explains US support for Israel, and that this support was constant.  He provided examples of administrations that acted counter to some Israeli policies.

Yet Slater reminds us that he’s not really pro-Zionist, arguing that a Jewish homeland should have been established in Germany instead of Palestine.  And Slater makes a preposterous claim that the Zionists never intended to respect the UN Partition Plan, even had the Palestinians accepted it; he contends that Israel would have staged a provocation, as Hitler did against Poland, to justify aggression. 

While most of the Zionist movement was always drawn to the idea of “transfer,” this was deemed unrealistic, as neither the British nor the Arabs would have accepted its implementation.  It was only after the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, that it became clear that the Palestinians would go to war against an eventual Jewish state, that the Yishuv’s leadership feared a sizeable hostile minority in its midst.  But even then, Ben-Gurion officially asked the UN Security Council to send soldiers on the ground to “give teeth” to the UN Partition Plan. 

Slater seems to believe that the 1947-48 War was a walk in the park for the Yishuv, that Israel was never seriously threatened.  Yet in the areas of Palestine that fell under Arab control, every single Jew was either expelled or killed; eight percent of Jewish males 19 to 21 years of age, and one percent of the entire Jewish population of the Yishuv died during this war).  He fails to understand that the Haganah, the CIA and British military intelligence thought that even if Jews were to have the upper hand initially, the Yishuv did not have the manpower to sustain a prolonged war.

After a long moral assessment of Zionism, Slater finally addresses the crux of the book: he wishes to debunk the claim that Israel always sought peace — that the Palestinians and Arab states “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” (to quote Abba Eban).  This part too is very polemical.  While it may be true that some Arab states were willing to negotiate peace with Israel if it returned to the UN Partition lines, Israelis had good reason to fear ceding land to states that had just attacked it.  Similarly, Slater faults Israel for not having responded positively to Arab hints at peace if Israel were to cede territory to create a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan.  But again, he discounts the risk of ceding land in exchange for what could turn out to be a mere piece of paper.  He also seems to believe that a mere non-belligerence status is just as good as a peace agreement.

Slater’s analysis becomes more sensible when he deals with the post-1967 period.  He shows that Sadat was willing to envision full peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai, only to be ignored by Golda Meir.  The same is true for King Hussein of Jordan who wanted to recover all the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, to no avail.

Unfortunately, Slater’s analysis of the three rounds of negotiations that took place between 2000 and 2014 is flawed.  According to Itamar Rabinovitch, there are three schools of thought that explain the failure of the peace process: the “orthodox” one, which places most of the blame for the failure of peace talks on the Palestinians; the “revisionist” one, which mostly blames Israel; and the “eclectic” one, which blames both parties.  The problem with revisionists (that includes a significant part of the Zionist left) is that they give undue credence to occasional magnanimous statements from some Palestinian spokespersons; the real test is what they are willing to sign onto in a written agreement. 

Slater wrongly claims that Israeli offers made in 2014 do not match those made in 2000 and 2008, alleging it gave Israel veto power over the evacuation timetable for the Jordan Valley and did not recognize Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem.  This is not accurate.  John Kerry, the US envoy, merely wanted to postpone negotiations regarding these issues to a further stage in the process; he did not accept Israel’s right to remain endlessly in the Jordan Valley, nor Israel’s permanent control over East Jerusalem.

In fact, the second draft of this peace plan clearly mentioned the partition of Jerusalem. Israeli journalist, Ben Caspit, revealed that Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yitzhak Molkho gave the US the green light to make a more generous offer that clearly mentioned the partition of Jerusalem (this was confirmed in Kerry’s memoir, “Every Day is Extra”).

As for the 2007-8 round of negotiations, Slater justifies Abbas’s refusal to respond to Olmert’s offer by invoking the latter’s pending criminal prosecution.  Yet, had an agreement-in-principle been achieved, it would have turned the 2009 election into a referendum on this peace plan — with most Israelis, according to pollsters, supporting it. 

Regarding the Clinton Parameters (Pres. Clinton’s proposals in late 2000), Slater claims that both Israel and the Palestinians accepted them “with reservations.”  Israel did accept Clinton’s framework “with reservations,” but they were merely a criticism of some elements, but without an explicit rebuttal of any specific point.  What’s more, Israel’s former Foreign Affairs minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, phoned Arafat to reassure him that Israel accepted the peace plan without any changes.  And during the Taba Summit in Jan. 2001, Israel went beyond the Clinton Parameters by offering the Palestinians 100 percent of the West Bank (Clinton had indicated 97 percent, with docking in Israeli seaports and a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza to compensate for the remaining three percent).  Ben Ami went so far as proposing, without the approval of his government, exclusive Palestinian sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, provided that the Palestinians recognize its sacred nature for Jews as well.

As for the Palestinians, they first rejected the Clinton Parameters, before backtracking and saying yes while stating reservations that totally deprived them of meaning:

  • They refused to trade more than two percent of the West Bank, which would have forced Israel to uproot close to 50 percent of the settlers, instead of a more feasible 20 percent (Clinton had suggested a 4-6 percent swap).

  • On Jerusalem, the Palestinians demanded exclusive sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, without recognizing that this site was holy for Jews as well (Clinton called for vertical sovereignty with the surface being under Palestinian control and the remnants of the Jewish Temple below under Israel’s sovereignty).

  • The Palestinians demanded exclusive Israeli responsibility for creating the Palestinian refugee problem, and Israel’s acceptance of an unrestricted right of return; the Palestinian Authority pledged to be “flexible” and “creative” when it comes to its implementation.  In 2008, the Palestinians demanded the return of 80-150,000 refugees over a ten-year period, with a possibility of renewal thereafter.

According to the “Palestine Papers” (a 2011 leak of 1600 alleged confidential documents from the Palestinian Authority), the PA expected Israel to absorb between 600,000 and two million refugees by 2058.  By contrast, the Clinton Parameters suggested that Israel recognize the moral and material damage caused to Palestinian refugees and agree to participate in their compensation.  They also specified a Palestinian right of return to “historic Palestine,” but to be implemented without restriction only within the borders of the future Palestinian state, with Israel absorbing only a symbolic number.  In exchange, the Palestinians were to get a compensation package of $30 billion ($50 billion in 2022 US dollars).

Prof. Slater has written a valuable book that proves unequivocally that Israel spoiled at least as many peace opportunities as the Palestinians and Arab states.  He departs from the cartoonish anti-Zionism of the far left that is now, regrettably, making inroads within the liberal left as well.  However, if he really wants to deride Israeli “mythologies without end,” he should also reevaluate some of his own! 

4 Responses to “Review of Jerome Slater’s ‘Mythologies Without End’”

  1. Eric Alterman
    July 3, 2022 at 1:51 pm #

    I read this book and found its research valuable. I don’t share the author’s politics, and I think he makes some claims that strike me as misguided but I wish–since I am about to publish my own book on the conflict–that people would review the work rather than insisting on assessing the author’s politics. They don’t matter. The footnotes matter. Are his claims backed by evidence or not?

  2. Jeff Weintraub
    July 4, 2022 at 3:22 pm #

    I appreciate Eric Alterman’s concerns, and in general terms I have some sympathy with them. But in this particular case, some of the things he says perplex me a bit.

    In my (possibly fallible) opinion …

    (a) In matters like these, the politics DO matter, especially if they shape a book’s argument, its conclusions, & its overall message.

    And more to the point:

    (b) It seems to me that most of the criticisms & caveats in Bohbot’s review DID focus on questions of historical fact & of interpreting factual evidence. Am I wrong about that?

  3. Bernard Bohbot
    July 7, 2022 at 12:29 am #

    Dear Mr. Alterman,

    Perhaps I did not dwell enough on the positive aspects of the book, although I did mention that most of what Slater wrote regarding the period between the aftermath of the First Arab-Israeli War and the Clinton Parameters (that’s quite a long period!) is correct. However, Slater fails to differentiate between serious peace offers (Sadat in 1971) and offers to merely acknowledge implicitly Israel’s existence. No country would trade land for a mere implicit recognition. I also mentioned that his analysis of the colonialist aspect of Zionism (or lack thereof), and the debate regarding the Israel lobby are much more sophisticated than most of what has been written lately.

    Slater faults Israel for not accepting to return to the territorial limits of the UN partition plan and refusing the return of all the Palestinian refugees, following the First Arab-Israeli War. I too agree that it was morally wrong, but Slater would have been more credible had he tried to understand the social, political, and psychological context of the time.

    Slater transposes on the 1940s Israel’s current might. This is more than problematic. Back then, Israelis genuinely feared that repatriating a largely hostile population and ceding all the land conquered in 1948-49 would make it easier for Arab states to attack them again. No country at the time repatriated populations deemed hostile, let alone relinquishing land conquered during a self-defense war. In one of his last articles, Uri Avnery blamed his fellow leftists for overlooking the fact that the Yishuv was attacked in 1947, and that the First Arab-Israeli War was very destructive for the nascent Jewish state (he reminded them that entire age groups were shattered just a couple of years after the Holocaust, and that the Yishuv genuinely thought that Arab armies posed an existential threat to Israel).

    One of the main criticism of the most radical and polemical “New Historians”, is their presentist worldview. Israel was not so powerful in the late 1940s/early 1950s, and Ben Gurion really thought that it was just a matter of time before Egypt becomes as powerful as Israel. This is my main problem with Slater. Apart from his tone, his methodology reminds me of pro-Israel activists who love to list all the opportunities the Palestinians missed (the Peel partition plan in 1937, the UN partition plan in 1947, the Khartoum Summit in 1967, the Clinton Parameters, and so on) without trying to understand their perspective. Would they have behaved differently in their shoes?!

    What’s more, I don’t think that it is fair to claim that Israel’s founders believed that Jews had the right to reconquer all patches of land that belonged to them in the past. Anita Shapira, Shabtai Teveth, Walter Laqueur, Gideon Shimoni, Arthur Hertzberg, Yossi Gorny, Georges Bensoussan, among others, have shown time and again, that the main argument Zionists invoked to justify the return of the Jews to a land inhabited by other people was the redistribution of wealth/distributive justice argument: leaving the Jews homeless would be a greater injustice than depriving the Palestinian Arabs of part of their homeland, especially in a context of pan-Arabism that sought to unify the Middle East (the balance of convenience favored the Jews).

    This claim is of course debatable. Chaim Gans argued, with good reason, that the idea of what Michael Walzer calls “universal statehood” (as opposed to a mere autonomy) is not universally accepted. Hence, Palestinian anti-Zionism is totally understandable.

    But regardless of scholastic arguments, most Jews who found refuge in Palestine had nowhere else to go, and it was impossible to know back in the late 1940s how much antisemitism would recede in the second part of the 20th Century. This specific context rendered the case for Jewish statehood very compelling to the eyes of most people on the left in the late 1940s. Nowadays, very few people (especially of my generation) are able to reconstruct the social, political, and psychological context that prevailed at the time. Jerome Slater is one of the few scholars who really grasp it. However, he spoils his great insight by making a preposterous claim: Israel would have staged an Arab attack to justify the invasion of the territory allocated to the Arab state by the UN partition plan (just like Hitler with Poland). Whatever Ben Gurion wrote in his diary, the Jewish Agency asked the UNSC to send forces on the ground to implement by force the UN partition plan. I just can’t imagine the Haganah going to war against the British, the US, the Soviet, or any other military power at the time! And of course, Slater does not fault Arafat for saying throughout the 1990s, time and again, that the peace process was a Trojan horse to destroy Israel. At the time, the Israeli left gave him the benefit of the doubt and argued, with good reason, that he was just daydreaming and/or trying to appease audiences hostile to the peace process. Why is Slater so lenient with Palestinians only?

    I stressed that Jerome Slater wrote an excellent book. I found it very pleasant to read. However, he conflated serious scholarship with polemics. Elie Podeh’s book on missed opportunities, which is no less critical of Israel, avoids this pitfall.

    I hope I addressed your concerns. I am really sorry if you think that I attacked Slater for his political views rather than the substance of the book (tarnished by his polemics).

    All the best,

    I stressed that the Palestinians reject the Clinton parameters but I did not blame them for doing so. Instead of blaming Israel alone for the stalemate and excommunicating whoever questions the Palestinians’ commitment to Clinton’s framework (something both Amos Oz and Carlo Strenger denounced), the Israeli left and its supporters in the diaspora must offer a credible alternative that addresses the needs of the Palestinians without dismantling Israel. Confederalism comes to mind of course…

  4. Bernard Bohbot
    November 22, 2022 at 2:35 am #

    Clarification: I read Jerome Slater’s book again. With hindsight, I don’t think Eric Alterman’s criticism of my review was justified. The first part of Slater’s book is devoted to a moral assessment of Zionism, it does not deal with missed opportunities. I was thus right to assess Slater’s arguments in favor or against Zionism. I was also right to point out the fact that Slater distorted the arguments invoked by Israel’s founders to justify the return of the Jews to a land that was not empty. They did not invoke a so-called Biblical or an immutable historical right to justify the return of the Jews to a land where other people already lived. They invoked two arguments: 1) distributive justice (land must be redistributed so all peoples can have a place of their own); 2) the defense of necessity (Jews needed a patch of land to protect themselves against persecution). In addition, by the second aliya, the Zionist movement distanced itself from the European colonialist ideology (which does not negate the fact that the consequences of Zionism for the Palestinians were indeed colonialist, as they suffered an invasion and were ultimately exiled).

    Hence, I was right to deal with the ideological aspect of Slater’s book, as he distorted the rationale of Israel’s founding fathers. I was not dealing with Slater’s “politics”. I addressed the substance of the book.

    To be sure, he wrote a well-documented book, that I found very pleasant to read. Some of his conclusions are also very unique. However, I was right to address the fact that he wrote a polemical rant that contains several distortions.

    Bernard Bohbot

Leave a Reply