Andrew Sullivan owes Yitzhak Shamir an apology


Andrew Sullivan, weighing in on the Tony Kushner-CUNY-Jeffrey Wiesenfeld controversy, makes claims today about Yitzhak Shamir, the former prime minister, that struck me as odd.

Sullivan is decrying Wiesenfeld’s dehumanization of the Palestinians (which we cover here — Wiesenfeld later tried to nuance it.)

The  Daily Beast blogger is trying to make the case that Jews can be as racist as anyone else (which of course is true), but I suppose he hopes to show how institutionalized it is, so he needs an ex-PM.

First he says this:

Until you grasp the fundamental belief of some pro-Israel extremists that Palestinians are collectively sub-human, or cockroaches, as Yitzhak Shamir once called them, you never fully understand the mindset that is pushing Israel into an existential crisis.

That set off my first alarm: The "cockroaches" remark belongs to the late Rafael Eitan, the former military chief of staff.

Plus, it just didn’t sound like Shamir — I covered his prime ministership, and his most notorious remark was to describe Jewish terrorists as "good boys" — but I don’t recall anything racist.

So then, Sullivan adds this:

Wiesenfeld is not alone in this viewpoint. Here is Yitzhak Shamir in 1988: "’The Palestinians’ would be crushed like grasshoppers … heads smashed against the boulders and walls."

He goes on to correctly quote Eitan.

The weird placing of ‘The Palestinians’ within quotes also set off alarms (by 1988, no one serious was not calling them the Palestinians) so I clicked through to this website, which had the quote.

You’d think any website billing itself as "The real history of Israel" would set off alarms for anyone, but okay. There was no link, but it attributed the quote to the New York Times.

So off I go to that newspaper’s archive (warning: paywall ahead) and what I find is a Reuters story, published by the Times.

Here’s the lede:

As Israel prepared to lift a three-day blockade of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir warned today that rioters would be crushed ”like grasshoppers.”

And how what appears to be an overeager rewrite came up with that lede:

Mr. Shamir, standing atop an ancient West Bank castle, told reporters: ”Anybody who wants to damage this fortress and other fortresses we are establishing will have his head smashed against the boulders and walls.”

Then, a graf later:

In remarks aimed at Arab rioters, the Prime Minister said: ”We say to them from the heights of this mountain and from the perspective of thousands of years of history that they are like grasshoppers compared to us.”

Now the first quote ain’t lovely, but it’s clearly aimed at attacks on the site — which I imagine to be the Herodion*, an archaeological site supervised by settlers from nearby Tekoa, and during the first intifada, a repeat target for Palestinian assailants. There might well have been such an attack in the days prior to Shamir’s appearance.

The second quote refers to Jewish claims to the land against the ambitions of the rioters — and does not refer to all Palestinians.

Shamir has been maligned.

Whoever runs the "real history" website should be ashamed (but I imagine cares less) — the quote as it appears is just made up.

And Sullivan’s Daily Beast needs to get a New York Times subscription, stat.

*It might also be Sebastia. Any readers out there with long memories?

UPDATE: Soccer Dad, aka David Gerstman, points me via Twitter to this excellent 1988 Charles Krauthammer column.

Shamir was referring to how the less resilient 10 of the 12 spies Moses sent into the Land of Israel described it as peopled by giants who made them feel like grasshoppers. Now, Shamir was saying, the equation was reversed.

So this misrepresentation is actually 23 years old. Time to kill it, methinks.

UPDATE II: Andrew Sullivan reviews and agrees the quote was truncated, but says the point stands. And that’s a very pretty picture of a grasshopper! For some reason, the only insect I could, as a child, bear to pick up without crushing… but I digress.

Shmuel Rosner writes in to point out to me that the Eitan "cockroaches" quote was leaked from a Cabinet meeting, and that he denied until his death making it.

Rosner also provides the Numbers 13:33 text on the grasshoppers:

We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!

And adds:

This doesn’t mean the choice of words was appropriate, but remember the location, and what Shamir  was trying to convey and it might look a bit different.

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