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  • Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel
  • Doron Ben-Atar
Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel, by Arno J. Mayer. London and New York: Verso, 2008. 432 pp. $34.95.

When Arno Mayer retired following a solid career at Princeton, his agent suggested he write a memoir. Mayer decided instead to write Plowshares [End Page 162] into Swords: From Zionism to Israel—a highly critical history of the encounter between the Zionist "colonialist master[s]" and the Palestinian "native subaltern[s]" (p. 370).

The book opens with a long polemical prolegomenon pillorying Israel for being "blinded by hubris and self-righteousness" (p. 88). Mayer understands the "logic" of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's position on the Holocaust (p. 55) and attributes all that has gone wrong in the Middle East to America's "drive for global hegemony" (p. 80) and Israel's "transformation into a ghetto with a siege mentality" (p. 76). But the opening salvo is hardly confined to Israel. Mayer squeezed into this section his views on a wide range of controversies, from the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s and the rise of the Taliban, to the two wars against Iraq and to the debate over Iran's nuclear program. Mayer explains that "the length and digressiveness" of the prolegomenon are "due to my [his] propensity for thick contextualization" and that its shortcomings are "inconsequential" compared to other scholars' "Judeocentric reductionism" (p. xiii).

If the writing weren't so long-winded, I would recommend the book for its sheer entertainment value. Mayer is so determined to prove the satanic qualities of mainstream Zionism that he comes across as a parody of a pretentious bigoted snob. The book features disdainful comments about Eastern European Jews "who clung to a pre-emancipated, self isolating Judaism" (p. 163), primitive Middle Eastern Jews and their right wing politics, and cunning American Jews and their manipulative lobby. And he doesn't do better with the Palestinians. While he sympathizes with their sufferings, he portrays them as backward (sometimes noble) passive victims devoid of any human agency.

Some elements in Plowshares into Swords are plain silly. Jews massacre and Arabs respond. Terrorism is a "historical constant" that expresses "weakness, despair and defiance" (pp. 10–11). Mayer refers to the Israeli government as Tel Aviv even though Jerusalem has been the capital since 1950—a needlessly sophomoric provocation. Even stranger is Mayer's portrayal of Yasser Arafat. The corrupt opportunist whose murderous tactics cost the lives of thousands, both Jews and Arabs—the leader who played a major role in the bloody civil wars of Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories—is portrayed as a cross between Jesus and Gandhi, a man who repeatedly forgave his enemies, reached out for peace, and fought against the terror tactics of the radicals in his movement.

Mayer should not be faulted for those or the numerous factual errors that fill the pages of Plowshares into Swords. Polemics, after all, is a proven strategy to hide gaps in one's knowledge. Mayer acknowledges that he cannot read Arabic or Hebrew and that his book is based on no original archival work. He draws much of his information from online newspapers and magazines. The [End Page 163] bibliography at the end of the book lists many important titles, though I don't believe he could have possibly read all these works and still produce this book. And Mayer neither footnotes any of the evidence, nor acknowledges arguments articulated by other scholars.

In the 1980s graduate students' lore told of Mayer beginning his colloquia by pounding on the table and declaring that the goal of teaching history is to expose the truth about the way the world really worked starting with the recognition that the United States "is an imperialist nation" that has "the rest of the world by the balls." Plowshares into Swords originates in a similar impulse. Mayer set out to expose the crimes of Zionism and Israel; to prove that from the outset Zionism was a colonialist movement, aggressive and expansionist in its goals, racist and segregationist in its configurations, and fascist in its means and aims. Of course, Article 19 of the PLO's original charter...


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