The preservation and security of Israel is the unifying issue for American Jews. They may disagree on taxes, social security, or capital punishment, but the first question many ask in a political race is “Which candidate is best for Israel?” When Israel is threatened—and when isn’t it?—the often fractious Jewish community seems to come together, lobbying Congress, writing the President, even flying to Israel to pitch in at hospitals or kibbutzim so Israeli soldiers can carry on the fight.
Despite a 2,000-year diaspora in which Jews survived inquisitions, pogroms, and the Holocaust without a homeland, most American Jews now see the long-term survival of the Jewish people in terms of Israel. American Jews have been intensely loyal to Israel, but the question today is how loyal Israeli leaders are to the principles that provided the foundation for Zionism. While Israel has conquered its enemies on the battlefield, has it become the kind of Jewish state our parents and grandparents envisioned and for which they sacrificed so much?
For Jewish author Richard Ben Cramer, the answer is no. How Israel Lost won’t be well received by a Jewish community that feels it’s okay to criticize Israel within the family but that taking hard questions about it to the general public isn’t.
The book’s subtitle is an allusion to the question asked by the youngest son at Passover seder: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Cramer’s four questions are more pointed: Why do we care about Israel? Why don’t the Palestinians have a state? What is a Jewish state? Why is there no peace? In terms of the Passover analogy, it comes down to one central question: Is Israel really different or better than all other states?
Cramer, who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, tackles issues large and small, going to the foundation of Zionism: Do the Jews really need a state? And if that state comes to violate Jewish principles of justice, is it worthy of continued, unquestioning support?
Cramer quotes an anti-Zionist Israeli as pointing out that Jews received the Torah in Sinai “without a centimeter of land . . . . Being Jewish you don’t need a state.” This Israeli goes on: “I can be a Jew anywhere. We had a contract with G-d years ago that this land belongs to Jews. Then we started to break the rules. That’s why the Palestinians are taking over now.”
Before Israel supporters blame the author for dredging up such issues, consider the recent actions of the Likud government, headed by Ariel Sharon. It’s the Likud—not Cramer or the pro-peace Tikkun movement—that has raised many questions Jews might not want to reconsider. A country that early Zionists hoped would be a “light unto the nations” of the world now countenances the torture of prisoners, collective punishment, assassination as official policy, killing the innocent along with the guilty, and the seizure of historically Arab lands for new Jewish settlements.
Such tactics and policies—supported by American Jews—call into question Israel’s reason to exist as a Jewish state. Darker aspects of Israeli society, Cramer points out, include indications of a sick social weal, including a high rate of spousal abuse. The control of many levers of social policy by extreme Orthodox rabbis—no more rational or attuned to the modern world than the worst Muslim clerics—makes living in the country unpalatable for many modern Jews.
Even so, Cramer attempts to explain why so many Jews care about Israel—“an eyelash of land” that in some places isn’t even ten miles wide. It doesn’t take long to realize that his observations aren’t going to play well at Grandma’s house. By page two he’s questioning one of the central myths of the Jewish state: that thousands of Arab residents left their homes because they were called to do so by Arab leaders. The idea was that after the Jews were pushed into the sea, they would be able to return to their homes in an Arab Palestine.
For 50 years, this belief has provided Jews with an excuse for seizing Arab properties. The only problem is that the story is largely untrue—as many Arab residents of what was then Palestine left under intimidation and force as by free will.
Cramer’s account is buttressed by new Israeli histories—principally those of controversial writer Benny Morris—showing fairly conclusively that most Arabs didn’t leave their homes willingly. In one of Cramer’s most compelling vignettes, he writes of elder family members who still live in refugee camps but cling to the keys of their houses back in Jaffa, and pass them on to their children. Israel’s government has steadfastly fought their “right of return” to their old homes and refuses to offer compensation for land seizures.
Zionist organizations were successful in distilling their story to one phrase that every Jewish schoolchild memorized: A land without a people, for a people without a land. Millions of American Jews believed it and still believe it today.
If American Jews seem wedded to the idea of a blameless Zionist state, what are we to make of the almost equally fervid admiration for Israel among Protestant fundamentalists in America, who aren’t always so admiring of Jews and in fact frequently complain of Jewish domination of the media?
Cramer points out a remarkable contradiction: The Christian right has come to its political support for Israel out of a belief—which it says is supported by scripture—that “the second coming of Christ will require that the Jews be ingathered again in Zion, which will bring on the Armageddon, which will cause Jesus to return.”
This is one of the stunning aspects of modern Jewish-Christian relations—that Jews have welcomed the support of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, knowing that his ultimate desire is to convert Israel to Christianity as part of the second coming.
For its first 20 years, Israel used its myths to execute an effective public-relations campaign, playing David to the Arabs’ Goliath. The victory of the Israeli Defense Forces on January 7, 1949, seemed a reincarnation of the Hanukkah story, a miracle of modern times.
My parents met as members of Zionist organizations. They were married with the idea that they’d go to Israel and fight in the War for Independence. Children intervened, and they changed their minds. But I still have dozens of relatives in Israel.
The creation of modern Israel is one of the great stories of modern times. The leaders of the Israel my parents helped create were visionaries like David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weitzmann, and Golda Meir. They believed that a Jewish state would be not only a refuge from oppression but also a state whose sense of justice and decency would win over critics. Together, Ben-Gurion believed, Arabs and Jews would make the deserts bloom, divide the water supplies fairly, and create economic opportunities that the poor fellahin, the Arab peasants, had never had. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber predicted decades ago that the success of Israel would be judged by its treatment of the Arabs.
In 1967, we encounter the second most prevalent myth among American Jews: that Israel was invaded by three hostile armies of Arab states and valiantly fought them off. As Michael Oren’s book Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East illustrates, Israeli forces actually fired first in the Six Day War, although you could argue that Gamal Abdel Nasser’s shutting off the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping was a casus belli. Most American Jews believe that holding onto, occupying, and settling in the tiny parcel of land that the Palestinians had left after their 1949 debacle is justified because the Arab armies attacked first.
Except they didn’t. And the Arabs didn’t attack first in 1956 either, when Israel, Britain, and France bombed Egypt after Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.
The Israeli success at creating a good and believable story would make even the most hardened public-relations man envious. Looking at it from the other side, Cramer notes, “the Palestinians never learned from the Jews how to take control of their own national narrative and employ it for their own aims.”
Palestinian PR has never gotten on track. The killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, frequent jetliner hijackings, and the slaughter of innocents on buses aren’t calculated to win friends. Yasser Arafat is a despicable character, a small-minded man with no backbone, courage, or political vision. He’s been the perfect foil for Israeli hard-liners. No wonder he’s the one Palestinian leader the Israelis have never harmed.
There’s hardly a bit of Israeli propaganda that Cramer doesn’t deflate. The premise that Israel was sneakily attacked in 1967 has been used to justify the 37-year occupation of the West Bank. In recent times, the notion that the Israelis gave the Arabs everything they wanted in the Oslo Accords—and that Arafat turned his back on it—is used to justify repression, torture, and the seizure of yet more West Bank land for new Israeli settlement. An examination of the Israeli offer, Cramer concludes, shows that “what Israel got from the Oslo deal was a codification, continuation and legalization of its occupation.” He argues: “Israel got everything she wanted. She got complete control of security, control of the borders, the water, the air, the continuation in force of Israeli military regulations, a huge new land grab . . . .”
American Jews aren’t going to like this book. Too many believe that Arafat’s refusal to bite at the Oslo apple means he deserves everything he gets from Prime Minister Sharon, whose elevation to power over Ehud Barak was directly related to Arafat’s humiliating rebuff of Barak and the Oslo agreements. That rejection has been used by Israelis and American Jews to justify torture, collective punishment, targeted assassination, and now the ghettoization of Arab West Bank residents.
How could descendants of the Holocaust countenance a government that kills the innocent along with the guilty in unguided missile attacks on loaded SUVs from Apache helicopters? Consider the irony that a people driven into ghettos throughout history would be building a wall to ghettoize the Arabs living in the West Bank. American Jews cheer when an Israeli strike knocks out a top Hamas commander, but when the target isn’t in the right place and dozens of innocents are killed, they don’t want to hear about it.
George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have demonstrated that fear of terrorism is justification for any reprisal. Sadly, the children of the Holocaust use that fear to rationalize the Likud government’s campaign of state-sponsored terrorism.
Cramer will be pilloried by American Jews for this account of how a country founded with the best intentions went wrong. Anyone who criticizes Israel, we’re taught at home, strengthens the hand of the enemy, who has always wanted to drive us into the sea. Yet for all their hatred of Palestinian Arabs, Jews seem determined to emulate them: Palestinians maim, torture, and kill—why can’t we?
Is this the Israel that Ben-Gurion and Meir fought to establish? Can the regime headed by Sharon truly be their legacy?
American Jews fear that books like this help the enemy. But suppose the enemy in fact is our own prejudice, hatred, and complicity in the brutal tactics of Sharon and his Likud Party allies—strategies that over the past three years have created more problems than have been solved. If this book helps defeat that enemy, it will be one of the great accomplishments of modern Zionist history.
Richard Ben Cramer
Simon & Schuste