Renowned historian Peter Novick, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (the institution where I will soon receive my own doctorate), who died this month of lung cancer at age 77, had little compunction about challenging conventional wisdom within the historical profession or the Jewish community. In his now-canonical tract “That Noble Dream,” he subverted the standard of objectivity as a historical virtue, arguing that it was not only impossible, but perhaps even undesirable to achieve a pure reproduction of the past. Coining the phrase “nailing jelly to a wall,” Novick evocatively suggested that historical knowledge, authority, and truth itself are slippery and dynamic, subject to the whims of professional and contemporary society. In his masterful work “The Holocaust in American Life,” Novick was also outspoken on Jewish issues and the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma.
With an outpost about to be dismantled and the settler community mobilizing to fight tooth and nail for its survival, what, then, might this historian have taught us about the case of Migron?
“To be or not to be,” Yedidya Atlas mused about the fate of Migron in the pages of this newspaper earlier this week, concluding that “something is rotten in the State of Israel.” The foul odor of political bias, he charged, emanated from the Israeli Supreme Court, which responded favorably to a petition brought by the left-wing organization Peace Now, in conjunction with Palestinians who claimed ownership at the site. This decision overturned a government compromise to evacuate the 10-year-old, 300-resident-strong outpost near Psagot and move its community down the road by 2015. The ruling by Chief Justice Dorit Beinish enforces the immediate evacuation of the settlement.
A settler at Beit El and a longtime activist in a public relations campaign of a coalition of English-speaking, predominantly Jewish-American residents of the West Bank, Atlas openly acknowledges his own interests vis-à-vis Migron. However, his article is focused on the perceived partiality (and perhaps even left-wing conspiracy) amongst a network of government institutions, civil society organizations, legal practitioners, and Palestinian activists.
Time and again, he suggests that political correctness has made a mockery of justice, characterizing the Supreme Court as a branch of government operating with “open political bias.” He charges that while remaining “‘high’ above the simple citizens of the state, [the court’s] connections to ‘justice’ remain illusory.” Moreover, he labels the claims brought before the judges as “unproven accusations… require[ing] no proof,” whereas “in a fair world… the Peace Now petition against Migron would have been dismissed the minute Peace Now failed to produce the alleged private Palestinian landowners.”
(In truth, the Palestinian land claim to the plot of Migron is tendentious, although Atlas ignores the complexity of the 400-year-old legal history of land tenure in the Jerusalem district beginning with the Ottoman territorial register, and its evolution under the British Mandate and the state of Israel.)
For him, it is only amongst “those hardy souls that…went to build a critically important settlement…[that] truth matters. Imagine that.”
Of course, the Israeli settler movement — and the broader Zionist project since the pre-state period — has long had a problematic relationship with objective reality. With a raison d’être of creating facts of the ground, the settlement enterprise grew by manufacturing evidence, first in the coastal belt and later in the occupied territories. Gush Emunim understood this imperative since its founding in 1974, and it dictated the movement’s efforts to establishing wildcat settlements in the West Bank. (The ruse of the “antenna poll in a costume” is the oldest move in the Hanan Porat playbook, beginning with the fence-mending operation at the Bal-Hatzor military base that later became Ofra.)
If anything, Migron is the true son of Sebastia, which inaugurated the push-pull dynamic between successive governments and the post-’67 settlement enterprise. If history is destiny, the Israeli settler movement also recognized that truth was only as real as the nearest inhabitated hilltop.
Atlas needs a (metaphysical) compass. There is no objective truth in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — each side makes its historical and moral claims to the best of its abilities. Therefore, appealing to higher notions of objectivity is not a compelling argument for settlers; in fact, they make a stronger case when they assert their own self-interest and generate empathy for their agenda. For a group that has long fought against its own demonization, applying the same tactics to the left will surely backfire. While I imagine Peter Novick would not have considered the settler enterprise to be a noble dream, his counsel to Yedidya Atlas may also have been “there is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”