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Columbus and Israel: Thought for Israel's Election Day

Harriet Malinowitz

In the first chapter of his now-classic A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes about some of the rhetorical stratagems historians have employed in their accounts of Christopher Columbus, resulting in that explorer's burnished legacy and interminable celebration. Zinn cites in particular Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and major biographer of Columbus, who happens to write, midway through his 1954 "grand romance" (Zinn's words) of Columbus's life, "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide."

Then, writes Zinn, Morison drops that thought and takes up where he left off, extolling the "qualities that made [Columbus] great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement"—and "the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship." (Morison's words)

Zinn goes on to comment on Morison's account: "[Morison] does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: 'genocide.' .... But he does something else—he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him..... To state the facts,...and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important—it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world." (7-8)

I thought of Zinn's observations about Columbus yesterday when I read Ethan Bronner's front-page New York Times article ("A Hard-Liner Gains Ground in Israeli Race," Monday, February 9) about the recent surge of popularity of Avigdor Lieberman, who is running in the current Israeli election as head of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) party. While Lieberman isn't likely to win (if he did, he would become Israel's next Prime Minister; however, Bronner says, he stands a good chance of occupying a prominent role as part of a potential coalition government or as head of the opposition—Israel's is a parliamentary system), his blatant anti-Arabism is dismaying many fellow Israelis, who consider him—according to Bronner—a "demagogue."

This stance might, one would think, signify a deeper sense of humanity on the part of Lieberman's compatriots. But Bronner explains otherwise: "They fear that his focus on a normally submerged paradox of political life here—how a state made up of Jews and Arabs can define itself as both Jewish and democractic—undermines a delicate coexistence."

In fact, right there in America's "newspaper of record," Bronner basically and frankly presents—and then proceeds to ignore (as, I fear, will most of his readers)—the contradiction that Zionism's critics say lies at the very center of the Israeli state: that a country that calls itself simultaneously a "Jewish state" (though approximately 20% of its citizens are not Jewish) and a "democracy" ("the only one in the Middle East" we are often told) sustains the logic of its own self-description only through the eternal exercise of Orwellian doublethink. The Jewish-Israeli writer Israel Shahak and others have referred to Israel's "open secrets." Zionism lumbers on in part because its adherents—many of whom are amongst the most highly educated, accomplished people in the world—engage in the sort of mental acrobatics that enable avoidance of the oxymorons, paradoxes, and myriad logical fallacies which are fundamental to Zionism's—and Israel's—justification.

In other words: a little close reading and critical thinking could help.

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Harriet Malinowitz is Professor of English at Long Island University, Brooklyn. She is working on a book about Jewish writers' strategic use of their "Jewishness" in critiques of Zionism and the occupation.

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