"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Richard Ben Cramer is an enormously able storyteller who displays great moral sensitivity and personal bravery. He was, no doubt, very much aware of the fact that his new book would not make him very popular among the Jewish readership of Los Angeles, and even less so in New York, which constitute the major markets for this book. The book is a passionate love letter to Israel, albeit one written by a disillusioned, distant and bitter lover. “How Israel Lost” is a very important book because, beyond the emotions and the rich mosaic of small anecdotes, Cramer detects and diagnoses, with high precision, the potentially lethal maladies afflicting Israeli society.
In 1979, while a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Cramer won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Middle East, including the peace deal with Egypt and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He is also author of the bestseller “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” a classic work on Washingtonian inside politics. His well-researched biographies of Ted Williams, Bob Dole and Joe DiMaggio were enthusiastically received and won him a reputation as a serious journalist and writer.
Raised as a “zionist” (he now avoids writing the word with a capital letter) on the slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land,” Cramer was shocked to learn, during his first visit to the “Holy Land,” just how false that slogan was. He was not too deeply concerned by this realization at the time, though. This was, after all, the period when Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, when the newly elected ultra-nationalist Menachem Begin made a deal that returned every inch of Sinai’s land to Egypt and even guaranteed “full autonomy” to the Palestinians within five years. It took Cramer years to realize that Begin had made that deal in the hope of being rewarded with full and eternal control over Greater Israel — including the West Bank and Gaza.
The lessons that Cramer learned regarding the cynical interest-based politics behind Israeli peace negotiations inform “How Israel Lost.” This book is divided into four chapters, each of which poses a different question — an obvious reference to the “four questions” asked at Passover: Why do we (Americans) care about Israel? Why don’t the Palestinians have a state? What is a Jewish state? Why is there no peace?
The first question — Why do we care about Israel? — would have been sharpened if Cramer had acknowledged that the Bush administration’s unconditional political, economic and military support for Israel is, in fact, a new phenomenon, and one that could disappear just as quickly as it has emerged. Cramer does not acknowledge this fact, and his answer seems extremely superficial. He suggests that American support for Israel derives from the fact that the Americans have traditionally felt that they were like the Israelis, and warns: “Somewhere along the line, we got the feeling, ‘they aren’t like us.’ Or maybe we don’t want to be like them. And this is just one of the ways — one big one — how Israel lost.” In the light of the invasion of Iraq and the Abu Ghraib scandal, perhaps both statements are correct. Nonetheless, they cannot really be thought of as having a deterministic explanatory power. The truth is that no one yet has come up with a truly satisfactory answer to this question, which calls out for deeper research. This is the weakest part of Cramer’s thesis and it is not supported by any provided evidence based on the American scene.
The three additional questions Cramer poses can be thought of as one single big question. They are mostly focused around Cramer’s correct assertion that 37 years of occupation and subjugation of millions of Palestinians and the colonization of their land have fundamentally corrupted, militarized and brutalized Israeli society, as well as the occupied people. The conflict, argues Cramer, is the only reason that, regardless of which party or coalition is in power in Israel, a military junta controls the political, economic and most of the cultural spheres within a supposedly democratic country. The reserve generals and colonels of this junta (whether they consider themselves “rightists” or “leftists”) fill almost every important position in Israel. The perpetuation of the conflict, which is good for every kind of business directly or indirectly connected with the permanent condition of warfare, is thus in their vested interests. Cramer provides ample evidence to prove and illustrate this thesis.
Cramer’s other main point is that the occupation is responsible for what he denounces as the splintering of the Israeli polity into a series of self-interested groups. The idealism, friendliness and humanism that characterized the Israel he once knew have been replaced by coarseness, increasing violence and an I’ve-got-mine-Jack attitude. Cramer is correct that the occupation is responsible for many of the pathologies that affect Israeli society, but I would take issue with him on what those pathologies are.
Cramer buys the idea that the demise of “Israelization,” the failure of the American-style “melting pot,” is the biggest crisis facing Israel. I see that failure as in fact a sign of blessed progress toward a multicultural and individualistic society, and away from the quasi-fascist collectivism (what is good for the state is good for the individual), exacerbated by the Jewish-Arab conflict, that has characterized Israel for most of its history. Moreover, the corruption of the occupation is only partially responsible for this trend.
One of the most important things that Cramer does is debunk, yet again, the apparently indestructible myth of the so-called “generous offer” made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David, which has been cited ad nauseam ever since as evidence that the Palestinians have no interest in peace. As Cramer notes, what Barak offered Arafat was a minuscule country divided into three enclaves lacking territorial contiguity by offering an exchange of the lands of three major settlement blocs characterized by sandy and unusable land. This, after the Palestinians had already given up their claim to more than 78 percent of the land of historical Palestine.
The situation on the Palestinian end of the story is, according to Cramer’s analysis and description, both similar and different. After he learned, following the first intifada, that it is impossible to oppress a people, Yitzhak Rabin initiated a deal with Fatah leader Yasser Arafat that was based on a terribly wrong assumption. The assumption was that imported Palestinian militias from Tunisia could serve as subcontractors to ensure Israel’s internal security (“without High Court and human rights organizations’ interventions,” as Rabin explained). The Israelis, like many colonial powers, preferred to rule indirectly.
The Palestinians, for their part, instead of having a prosperous sovereign state (they are probably the most educated and skilled Arab society per capita in the world), found themselves to be doubly oppressed. On the one hand, they found themselves still ruled by the Israelis, who continued to build settlements and wield ultimate power over Palestinian jobs, freedom of movement, water and land; on the other hand they encountered an even crueler oppression by the despotic tyranny of the “Tunisians” headed by Arafat and his Mafia-like security services. As Cramer vividly shows, Arafat and his lieutenants maintain the loyalty of the people by personally granting bribes and benefits (many have made a good fortune in this way) and using brutal force and torture.
Cramer correctly notes that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not essentially a religious conflict but a political one. He accurately notes that the Palestinians are not a particularly religious group (they include Sunni Muslims, various Christian denominations and other smaller groups). However, the religious dimension of the conflict has begun to loom larger, as impossible and inhumane living conditions have pushed many Palestinians into embracing Islamist movements, turning the occupied territories into a huge factory for suicide bombers (or “martyrs,” in their terminology). The Islamic movements, through their image of purity, their devoted work for community welfare and their charity activities, have easily captured the support and loyalty of the Palestinian constituency, especially after Israeli military actions wrecked the Palestinian Authority’s power, prestige and legitimacy. Now, rule over the Palestinians is conveniently (for Israel) divided between Fatah, Hamas and Israel.
Cramer characterizes the second intifada as a “phony war.” Indeed, thousands of innocent civilians and non-civilians from both sides have been murdered or have sacrificed themselves (sometimes Cramer touchingly provides names, faces, ages and short life-stories for the victims). Nonetheless, as he points out, the corrupt present political and economic establishments have profited greatly from the situation. In fact, their only raison d’être is the continuation of the killings. Sharon could decide to kill or expel Arafat. He does not do so because Arafat is his insurance policy: The folly of the Palestinian leader ensures his own political survival. Sharon serves the same role for Arafat: Palestinians overlook their leader’s gross incompetence every time the Israelis lash out. Sharon’s investment in the status quo is revealed by the fact that every time Hamas has proposed a truce in suicide attacks, the Israeli military has promptly responded with a “targeted killing” of one of their leaders or activists, thus once again inflaming the cycle of violence and mutual slaughter.
Cramer has enormous admiration, empathy and sympathy for ordinary Jews and Arabs and their cultures, both of whom he sees as victims of their evil and corrupt leaderships and establishments. He argues that Israeli Jews, mainly the secular ones — many of them descendants of the socialist founding fathers of the Jewish state and of the early pioneers — are oppressed both by the old-boy junta generals and by zealous rabbis who have transformed secular Israel into a semi-theocratic state.
The author of this review is an atheist Israeli Jew who has fought an uncompromising struggle over the past 40 years or so for the separation of state and synagogue. Having said this, however, I find Cramer’s description of the Israeli Orthodox and national religious rabbis (today it is difficult to find any differences between them) to be highly stereotypical and repugnant. Cramer portrays Orthodox rabbis as greedy and ridiculous, as in a story about a hotel restaurant which goes to absurd degrees to get around its violation of a kosher dietary law. Even if this portrait has some roots in Israeli daily life, it is so exaggerated it resembles an anti-Semitic screed — surely not Cramer’s intention.
In fact, religion plays a more profound role in Israeli civic life and Israeli self-definition than Cramer realizes. It’s true that Israel was envisioned and created by secular socialists and liberals. At the same time, the Zionist movement was essentially a religious-messianic one. This is why it aroused the antagonism of European Jewish Orthodoxy prior to the Holocaust and World War II. It was not incidental that the founders of the state chose the Holy Land, nor is it by chance that the major symbols of the state were selectively borrowed from the Jewish religion. The Bible was always perceived by both Jews — even the atheist ones — and many non-Jews as the “Charter” of the Jewish people, justifying their claims over a land which was already populated by a native people.
The roots of Israeli submissiveness to religion and toward the “representatives of the god on the earth” — rabbis and religious clerks — should thus be seen as reflecting the quest for legitimacy of a settler-immigrant society in a region where they were not welcomed by the local population. Herein also lies a partial answer to the mystery of the extraordinary influence of the settler minority, which far exceeds their actual numbers.
As for the question of how to end the occupation, according to Cramer the solution is simple. He argues that “any Jew who isn’t an Israeli and not on psychotropic drugs, could solve this Peace-for-Israel thing in about ten minutes of focused thought. Give back the land to the Palestinians. All of it [the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem]. And since Palestinians are already living in their own country, they should have equal rights, a fact so laughably obvious — the only nation that can’t see this is Israel.”
Cramer is right about the solution, but wrong to say that Israelis don’t recognize it. In fact, opinion polls indicate that approximately 35 percent of Jewish Israelis support the so-called “Geneva Accord” issued recently and built on the same principles as suggested by Cramer. This level of support for such a “radical” peace plan was almost unthinkable several years ago. Today, even every child in Israel knows that if ever it will be possible to reach an agreement, these would be its contours.
What is the cause of this dramatic trend as well as of the surprising “disengagement” suggestion of Prime Minister Sharon, including the uprooting of all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and some isolated settlements in the northern West Bank? No doubt it is the so-called “demographic threat”: the fact that Palestinians will eventually outnumber Jews, forcing the Jewish state to choose between democracy and its Jewish identity. Some calculate that by 2020, a total of 15 million people will live on the land of historic Palestine, with Jews comprising a minority of 6.5 million. Moreover, even in Israel itself, within 20 years, the Jewish population will be reduced from its current 80 percent majority to a projected majority of barely 65 percent. Israeli fear of this has led to proposals that Israeli areas densely populated with Arabs be transferred to the Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlement blocs.
Two deep-rooted existential anxieties exist within Jewish Israeli political culture. The first is the physical annihilation of the state, an issue that is frequently used, abused and emotionally manipulated by many Israeli politicians and intellectuals. The second is the loss of the fragile Jewish demographic majority on which the supremacy and identity of the state rest. In fact, the loss of that demographic majority could be a prelude to the physical elimination of the Jewish state. Thus, the annexationist camp has found itself in an impossible situation: The patriotic imperative of holding onto the sacred land is contradicted by the patriotic imperative of ensuring a massive Jewish majority on the land.
Other settler societies “solved” the problem of the indigenous population by annihilating the natives (e.g., North America, Australia, New Zealand) or intermarrying with them (South and Central America), while others completely collapsed (Algeria, Zambia and, perhaps, South Africa). Israel’s problem is so intractable because none of these or other options, including repartition of the territory or binationalism, are either acceptable to it or viable.
The final question that must be addressed is the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. There is no doubt that, as Cramer suggests, Israel should recognize its moral responsibility at least for not accepting the refugees back home after the 1948 war. The Geneva draft, supposedly accepted even by Arafat (perhaps too late), presumes that most of the refugees should return to the Palestinian state and rehabilitate there, after having been compensated for their lost properties. A very limited number would be allowed to return into Israel. This may not be as difficult for Palestinians to accept as it may appear: Khalil Shikaki, a controversial pollster, found that only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees were in fact even interested in exercising their right of return (as Cramer notes, for his trouble he had his office smashed up by thugs associated with Arafat’s corrupt political machine). Nonetheless, even if all the trends outlined above take off, the solution to this complex situation may not be quite as simple as Cramer suggests.
Since 1967, Israel has regarded the occupied territory of the whole of Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights as an open frontier for Jewish settlement and colonization. Both the rights of the indigenous inhabitants and international law were blatantly ignored. This was a gradual and incremental, two-dimensional and mutually complementary process. One dimension was the establishment of irreversible and accomplished facts on the ground, like settlements and the transfer of Jewish residents to them; at the same time, Israel prevented the development of local Palestinian institutions, infrastructures and leadership. (Those institutions and authorities that were created during the short period of the implementation of the Oslo Accords were a major deviation from the general trend, and were destroyed after Rabin’s assassination.) It must be mentioned that even the Oslo Accords were hardly welcomed by the majority of the Jewish population, and that Rabin’s government was based on a parliamentary minority.
The second dimension was the psychological-cognitive one. The fact of occupation and rule over a territory and its population was absorbed into the Israeli consciousness and became part of its identity. Today most Israelis have grown up under the present reality or immigrated into it (more than 1 million from the former Soviet lands, Ethiopia and even from the U.S.) and cannot imagine life within the narrow pre-1967 war borders. Moreover, “peace” is an abstract and incomprehensible notion, while land is a tangible asset. If Israeli casualties caused by wars and Palestinian terror, or resistance movements (depending on one’s values), were regarded in the past as a painful national calamity, they were slowly routinized and perceived as an inevitable cost of Israel’s existence. In the past, governments that failed to prevent war or protect the personal safety of their citizens were voted out. Today, casualties only empower governments — a situation that reflects a high level of national cohesion on this issue. It’s true, as pointed out above, that many Israelis say they are prepared to give back land for peace, but their words remain untested.
Cramer’s impressionistic book, with all its charming naiveté, lack of historical depth and some imprecision and exaggeration, is a very important work, both for American Jews and non-Jews. It is my hope that it will create a more open and critical debate regarding American policy and relations toward Israel (and perhaps even towards the entire Middle East), replacing the current orthodoxy of reflexive, blind defense of any wrongdoing by the Jewish state merely because it is Jewish.
Cramer is completely correct in his intuition that Israel is behaving today like a suicidal nation. Unlike Europe, the United States has not yet come to reject Israel’s behavior as unacceptable. Nonetheless, such a time will surely come, probably as a part of an increasing general awareness that the American responses to 9/11, including George W. Bush’s blank-check acquiescence in all of Sharon’s schemes, were evil, wrong and counterproductive. When the time comes that Americans realize, in the words of Cramer, that “we, the Americans, don’t want to be like them,” and Israel is forced to stand alone and choose its course, we will witness Israel’s finest or worst historical moment.
Baruch Kimmerling is George S. Wise Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians" and co-author of "The Palestinian People: A History."More Baruch Kimmerling.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)