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Book Review : Epilogue Leaves Troubling Questions Yet Unanswered


A History of Israel, Volume II: From the Aftermath of the Yom Kippur War by Howard M. Sachar (Oxford University Press: $19.95; 321 pages)

I wonder if Howard M. Sachar was as saddened by the writing of the second volume of "A History of Israel" as the friends of Israel will be by the reading of it. Sachar condemns Israel's treatment of its Arab population as well as its administration of the West Bank:

"The tragedy inflicted on an ancient race was a cruel one," he observes of the Bedouins of the Negev and, by extension, of all Arabs under Israeli rule. Above all, Sachar criticizes the bellicosity of Menachem Begin and the coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties that brought him to power and remained in power after Begin's abrupt resignation.

A Gloomy Coda

Sachar's new book is a gloomy coda to the imposing and well-regarded first volume of "History of Israel." In an epilogue to the first book, published in 1979, Sachar hailed the nearly miraculous peacemaking of Begin and Sadat, and cautiously anticipated a flowering of peace in the Middle East.

FOR THE RECORD - Los Angeles Times Thursday May 28, 1987 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 12 Column 6 View Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
In last week's review of "A History of Israel, Volume II" by Howard Sachar, quotation marks were inadvertently omitted from the following paragraph: "Begin's indiscriminate invocation of the Holocaust may have been his most flagrant transgression. By word and deed, he politicized, and thereby trivialized, the single most tragic chapter in Jewish history." The words are Sachar's, not mine.

Since then, we have all witnessed the further tribulations of Israel: the assassination of Sadat and the deadlock in Arab-Israeli relations, the invasion of Lebanon and the tragic loss of both Arab and Israeli lives, the resurgence of religious orthodoxy and terrorism in both the Arab world and Israel itself.

But the greatest danger to the Jewish state, according to Sachar, is what one Israeli historian has dubbed "the Bar Kochba syndrome"--the lionization of armed struggle and national self-assertion that harks back to the ill-fated Judean uprising under Bar Kochba in the Second Century of the Common Era.

"The circumstances . . . of de facto territorial annexation, of military adventurism, of fiery defiance of international criticism--in short, the Bar Kochba syndrome--represented a plain and simple departure from realism," Sachar writes. "Their consequences for modern Israel could well be suicidal as they were for the ancient Judea of Bar Kochba's day."

Sachar allows that Arab hostility has remained "a brooding presence in Israel's life, so integral a feature of the nation's waking and sleeping hours that it was incorporated into its very collective unconscious." But Sachar denounces Begin, not Arafat or Assad, and he decries the anti-democratic practices and policies that Begin has bestowed on Israeli politics:

"Ultimately, it was Begin's most egregious failure of perspective and judgment that his inflammatory rhetoric was applied not alone to the nation's latent chauvinism, to its more than latent ethnic tensions, but to an interpretation of Jewish experience that at times approached paranoia."

Flagrant Transgression

Begin's indiscriminate invocation of the Holocaust may have been his most flagrant transgression. By word and deed, he politicized, and thereby trivialized, the single most tragic chapter in Jewish history.

When Sachar pauses to share a colorful anecdote or an insider's story, it is as often as not at the expense of Begin and his comrades-in-arms. Thus we learn, for instance, of the taunting message that Arafat sent to Begin, the former Irgunist, on the very eve of the invasion of Lebanon:

"I have learned more from you as a resistance leader than from anyone else about how to combine politics and military tactics," went Arafat's message. "Do not try to break me in Lebanon. You will not succeed."

And Sachar recalls the outlandish and faintly comic encounter between Begin and the newly elected Lebanese premier, Bashir Gemayel--the young Gemayel responds to Begin's bullying by holding up his hands and shouting: "Put the handcuffs on!"

Sachar's book is almost a manifesto of the intellectual and political autonomy of American Jews: "Normally unwilling to live in the realm of illusion, this most experienced and sophisticated of international peoples was under no compulsion to abrogate its traditional acuity of judgment in its relationship to Israel," Sachar says of the Jews in the Diaspora.

Not in Israel's Interest

"If, by and large, the Diaspora remained a grateful--but compliant--partner in the Israeli relationship," he warns, "this forebearance ultimately may not have been in the interest either of Israel or of the Diaspora."

Israel's survival, of course, is the stated justification for much of what Sachar condemns, and the subject of survival bears more thought than Sachar gives it. Almost in passing, Sachar mentions the notion of an "integral" Israel, presumably one without dominion over the West Bank, but he neglects to define its boundaries or its geopolitical rationale.

Indeed, wherein Sachar makes a passing reference to the legitimate security interests of Israel, he encloses the phrase in quotation marks, as if to signal us that the concept is little more than a pretext for Israeli expansionism.

Instead, Sachar calls for Israel to assume "the dignity of realism" in the search for peace and security--an ill-defined concept that, I suspect, translates into a display of courageous moderation in the face of Arab extremism and intransigence.

"Israel existed," Sachar concludes, "a state, an asylum, a touchstone of security and dignity"--and the implication is that Israel will always exist. But history --and especially the history of Bar Kochba--shows otherwise.

And so the ultimate question goes unanswered in Sachar's book: What risks must Israel take in accommodating the aspirations of the Arab world generally and the Palestinian Arabs in particular? Ultimately, of course, it is a question that can be answered only by those whose very lives are at stake--the Israelis, and not their friends who watch from a safe distance.

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