New York Times columnist William Safire has never made a secret of his pro-Israeli partiality. Thus it came as no surprise when, in a November 11, 2002 op-ed, he described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as “a passionate Zionist, hearty, good-humored, a leader in battle who likes to crumble the earth on his farm between his fingers.” (For a man of language, Safire does employ an odd usage for the term “Zionist.”)
In that same column, Safire evoked images of a certain NBC News anchor when he declared Sharon to be of Israel’s “greatest generation.”
When Sharon’s colleague, Abba Eban, died a few days later, I thought perhaps a closer examination of Safire’s characterization was in order.
Loosely speaking, the generation Safire speaks of includes Golda Meir (nee Mabovitz) who once declared, “There was no such thing as Palestinians; they never existed.” Then there’s Menachem Begin, who engaged in terrorism including bombings in civilian areas. Unlike Meir, Begin readily admitted the existence of Palestinians. In fact, he paradoxically called them “beasts walking on two legs” and “cockroaches.”
The sainted Yitzhak Rabin was a member of the Palmach, the elite striking force of the underground military organization known as Haganah. He was deputy commander of the Palmach when the group engaged in ethnically cleansing Palestinians. Some 40 years later, while serving as Israeli defense minister, Rabin ordered troops to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators (which were mostly children).
Shimon Peres (nee Perski) has been called the architect of Israel’s nuclear program. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work involving the Oslo accords, but his role in Sharon’s government prompted the Nobel committee members to sign a letter regretting their decision. Peres’ role included the slaughter of roughly 800 civilians at a United Nations base in Qana, Lebanon on April 18, 1996. Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk reported: “It was a massacre. The Lebanese refugee women and children and men lay in heaps, their heads or arms or legs missing, beheaded or disemboweled. There were well over a hundred of them. A baby lay without a head. The Israeli shells had scythed through them as they lay in the United Nations shelter, believing that they were safe under the world’s protection.”
David Ben-Gurion (nee Green) was responsible for this January 1, 1948 diary entry concerning the so-called Arab problem: “What is necessary is cruel and strong reactions. We need precision in time, place, and casualties. If we know the family, we must strike mercilessly, women and children included. Otherwise, the reaction is inefficient. At the place of action, there is no need to distinguish between guilty and innocent.”
During World War II, Yitzhak Shamir (nee Yezernitsky) was a member of the Stern Gang. Led first by Avraham Stern and later by Shamir, the group called for a state that extended from the Nile to the Euphrates and proposed an alliance with Hitler to bring this about. In the fall of 1940, Stern met with one of Mussolini’s agents in Jerusalem. By January 1941, he put out feelers to the Nazis and dispatched an agent to meet with two of Hitler’s emissaries in Beirut. “Stern’s proposal,” explains Christopher Hitchens, “which was rashly put in writing, began by establishing his ideological common ground with Nazism, expressing sympathy with the Hitlerite goal of a Jew-free Europe and speaking of ‘the goodwill of the German Reich government…toward Zionist activity inside Germany and towards the Zionist emigration plans.’ ” Stern proposed the “establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis” and offered that he, Shamir, and the rest of the Stern Gang would “actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.” As a result of this proposed alliance, members of Stern’s group would react favorably-in public-to any news of Nazi victories. Even well into 1941, after Stern was killed in a shoot-out and as more and more became known of Nazi racial policies, Shamir took control of the Stern Gang-never renouncing its support for Hitler. In 1986, Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister of Israel.
The recently deceased Abba Eban explained in 1981 that his nation’s systematic bombing of civilians could be justified since “there was a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that afflicted populations would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities.”
Then we have Ariel Sharon (Arik Scheinerman).
Owing perhaps to his hearty and good-humored nature, in1953 Arik was given command of Unit 101. This unit spread terror in the name of forcing Palestinians to flee from their homes. Sharon’s unit gained notoriety for two particular instances of spreading terror:
In August 1953, Unit 101 set upon the refugee camp of El-Bureig, south of Gaza. UN commander Major-General Vagn Bennike reported, “bombs were thrown” by Sharon’s men “through the windows of huts in which the refugees were sleeping and, as they fled, they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons.” Fifty refugees were killed.
Two months later, October 14, 1953, the passionate Zionist led Unit 101 into the Jordanian village of Qibya. While Ben-Gurion initially put the blame on “enraged Israeli visitors,” documents show that Sharon’s charges massacred 69 civilians (mostly women and children). Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Moshe Sharett, called the slaughter a “stain” that “would stick to us and not be washed away for many years.” Like most stains of this nature, it has been washed away.
“Sharon’s order was to penetrate Qibya, blow up houses and inflict heavy casualties on its inhabitants,” said Israeli historian Avi Shlaim “His success in carrying out the order surpassed all expectations. The full and macabre story of what happened at Qibya was revealed only during the morning after the attack. The village had been reduced to rubble: forty-five houses had been blown up, and sixty-nine civilians, two thirds of them women and children, had been killed.”
Three decades after Qibya, Arik earned notoriety as the architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Working with the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, Sharon allowed the Phalangists into two Beirut-area refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, on September 16-17, 1982. Once inside the PLO-built camps, the Phalangists made little distinction between solider and civilian. Up to 800 people were slaughtered, including 35 women and children. The massacre led to a period of disgrace for Arik but, in comeback of Nixonian proportions, he became Prime Minister in 2001. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have characterized his more recent actions in the so-called occupied territories as war crimes.
As I’ve said about Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”: If those the best, I’d hate to see the worst. There are no heroes, only flawed human beings and no generation from any nation should ever be honored or saddled with the label of “greatest.”
Mickey Z. is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” and the upcoming book, The Murdering of My Years: Artists & Activists Making Ends Meet (both from Soft Skull Press). He can be reached at [email protected] .