SINCE he came to Israel, after being imprisoned, tortured and persecuted in Argentina, Jacobo Timerman has been a haunted man. He had a message but felt he could not proclaim it. He was, to use a simplistic label, an original new leftist and his views on what Israel should do with regard to the Palestinians were very clear: Israel should withdraw to its 1967 borders and stop opposing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. In this, he was no different from a vocal and very articulate minority of Israelis. During his first years in Israel, Timerman refrained from publicly voicing any criticism of the Israeli government's policies. He felt it wouldn't be fair to the country that had given him a chance to start a new life after the devastating experiences he had gone through in Argentina. But Timerman remained worried and troubled about Israel.
The war in Lebanon was apparently too much for him. He decided that it was time to take a stand. Timerman does so here with a vengeance. Unfortunately, his book reads like an essay by a professional anti-Israeli zealot. It is a well written but unbalanced diary of what he terms "The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon."
In his manifesto, Timerman is not an objective reporter, or even an opinionated commentator; he is a mediocre political propagandist. There are a few beautifuly written chapters about the feelings of a Jew who came to Israel to find refuge from a hostile world. But as a whole the book is strong proof that Timerman does not understand Israel or the Israelis. If one wants to know Israel better, to comprehend her terrible anguish about the war in Lebanon, this is the last book one should read. His account is so one-sided and so biased that it is useless for any serious student of the issues involved. It is so much so that after reading the book I found myself defending Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. I will not forgive Timerman for this. There is so much valid criticism to voice against them that it is not necessary to resort to exaggerations, inaccuracies and generalizations.
Timerman's underlying premise is that Israel will eventually turn out to be another Argentina. In his view, the two countries share many characteristics: rampant inflation, reactionary generals and anti-democratic leaders. This premise is so false that it verges on intellectual corruption.
Timerman draws a comparison between the behavior of President Juan Per,on of Argentina and Prime Minister Begin. Both came to power by winning elections; both, he suggests, used their their power to smother democratic life and undermine democratic institutions. "In the last few years Israel has lost many of its democratic qualities" and "The offensive of the Begin government against Israeli democracy is constant."
When he later tries to prove this point, Timerman succeeds only in proving that he totally confuses political wheeling and dealing with an assault on democracy.
A recurring motif in the book is a comparison between what Israel did in Lebanon and the Germans' conduct during World War II. Timerman states that such a comparison is not valid and out of context. But he constantly harks back to the horrors of the Holocaust -- either in his thoughts or by describing his visits to two memorials to Holocaust victims. Nevertheless, what he has achieved here -- more than anyone else -- is to give credence to the claim that indeed there are many parallels between Hitler's Germany and Begin's Israel.
He writes: "Those who speak of Lebanese genocide, of the Nazi-Israeli invader, are expressing their rejection by denying any moral content to the Jewish cause. If the Jews are capable of repeating the barbarities of those who victimized them, then they are not real victims -- and the Palestinians deserve the same pity. . . . This approach makes the critics lose credibility. To be believed they must stick to analyzing and measuring the Israeli aggression against Lebanon for what it is, by itself, without borrowing from history emotional and symbolic events and using them out of context."
Timerman does not follow his own advice. (The term "Israeli Aggression" in itself is not so simple and clear-cut; the burden is on Timerman to prove its validity but he does not try). Timerman condemns Begin for making excessive use of the Holocaust for political purposes, but in fact he does the same thing. The book is replete with catch-phrases: Nazism, Fascism, McCarthyism, Vietnam and so forth. There is no attempt at serious analysis. Much of the writing is designed to produce knee-jerk associations on the part of the reader. I cannot help but suspect that this book was written specifically to please a certain readership rather than to serve the truth.
Israelis who oppose the war in Lebanon are like Americans who resisted the war in Vietnam--this is the impression Timerman tries to advance. From such a statement flow many automatic conclusions, especially for American readers. But the two wars are different and the opposition to them is not at all similar. Timerman makes too many simplistic and superficial statements, too many stereotypical descriptions. I would like to believe that in Argentina he practiced a better form of journalism.
Timerman lives in Israel, but I fear that he has not yet made this country his home. He criticizes not as a concerned lover but as a betrayed husband.
There is no one quicker to criticize Israel than the Israelis themselves. No one goes to such extremes as they do in choosing the words to formulate that self-criticism. It is true that many Israelis do not like others to criticize them. This, of course, is a childish attitude. Israelis should encourage others to criticize them. It can only help them to better their life and society. But what they should not and cannot accept is for outsiders to preach to them. If Timerman could show that he is one of us (it is not enough just to write "We Israelis"), his criticisms, even flawed, would not be rejected. But he is preaching and this is unacceptable.
An international journalist like Timerman can survive without a country, but he is hopeless without a cause. It seems to me that he tries to make the war in Lebanon his new cause but it does not work. and fathers are chased away by an Israeli soldier. Photo by United Press International (July 21, 1982); Picture 2, Jacobo Timerman Copyright (c), by Peter Tatiner