Can Israel be saved?

Richard Ben Cramer talks about "How Israel Lost," his exploration of how the occupation of Palestinian land has corrupted the soul of the Jewish state he loves.


Gary Kamiya
July 20, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

Richard Ben Cramer is not afraid of sacred cows. He bulldozed one of America's icons, Joe DiMaggio, in a bestselling biography, and peeped into the stinky hopper in which the sausage of democracy is ground in his classic study of the 1988 presidential campaign, "What It Takes." With "How Israel Lost: The Four Questions," Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Middle East reporting in 1979, has taken on perhaps the most explosive, emotion-laden subject in America: Israel.

"How Israel Lost" is a mournful, passionate, hilarious lament for the endangered soul of a nation he loves. In a style that slips from the wisecracking cadences of a Miami Beach hondler to the dispassionate observations of a veteran journalist to the moral outrage of a world-weary humanist, Cramer argues that in the 20-plus years since he originally lived there, the Jewish state has suffered a cataclysmic sea-change, a blow to its spirit all the more tragic for being self-inflicted.

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The cause of Israel's malaise, Cramer writes, is very simple: Its 37-year occupation of Palestinian land. The occupation, Cramer argues, is a gross and continuing injustice that has coarsened Israel's moral fiber, corrupted her politics and economy, and split Israeli Jews into bitterly opposed, self-interested tribes who have lost all sense of allegiance to anything beyond their own needs. The occupation has also had a deadly effect on Palestinians, stomping out the last embers of hope and creating a generation of sad, hardened children who know Israelis only as soldiers with guns.

"[T]here are no lives in Israel or Palestine that have not been heated or hardened," Cramer writes. "On the Palestinian side, there are so many lives and dreams on hold ('We are under occupation -- what can we do?') that the conflict has more or less replaced life -- or cooked it to a standstill. The only consolation is that everything can be (and is) blamed on Israel. Among the Jews, the effects are harder to pinpoint -- and, to me, more insidious -- because the whole point of Israel was to create a place where Jews could live the best life -- and liveliest -- according to their values."

Cramer acknowledges that many Israelis deny that the occupation is responsible for the woes that have befallen Israeli society, including domestic abuse, suspicion and school violence. But he says: "To me, it's an open-and-shut case: You can't ask two generations of your boys to act in the territories as the brutal kings of all they survey ('Break their bones,' was the order to his troops from the sainted Yitzhak Rabin, during the first Intifada -- six years before he became Israel's martyr to peace) -- and then expect those boys to come home, and live in lamblike gentleness as citizens, husbands, dads."

After the 1967 war, Cramer argues, Israelis were intoxicated by their success and by the epic transformation they had performed, turning the once-victimized Jew into "a fighter, a stoic, a Spartan ... Occupation -- they would make a new kind of occupation, too, the best the world had ever seen -- the Arabs would be grateful! ... And it never occurred to them that they -- their country, them, inside -- could be affected by being the occupiers. No, not these men of steel ..."

To support his thesis, Cramer tells endless stories -- poignant and powerful ones, narrated with verve and passion and controlled outrage. One is about an Israeli journalist of integrity, an editor for a big news show, forced to work around propagandistic demands from his superiors that he not interview Palestinian leaders and that all shows saying anything about Arabs take proper account of "their murderous nature." (He was fired.)

Another is about a Palestinian named Yusuf Abu Awad who "caught some bad luck at a checkpoint outside his village in the hills near Hebron." Awad was stopped by Israeli troops on the road, not even at a checkpoint, as Israeli troops have the right to do at any time. One of the soldiers, for no reason, started throwing rocks at his car. Yusuf complained. The soldier cursed him. The argument got intense.

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Yusuf was ordered back into his car. But he couldn't let it drop. "There is no curfew. There's no demonstration. You're the only one throwing stones."

"Shut up, motherfucker, or I'll shoot you right now."

"You want to shoot, go ahead! You are the sonofabitch who's causing the trouble."

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Cramer writes, "The soldier shot from a distance of about four feet. His gun had bullets that enter the target, then explode. Later, in the morgue, Yusuf's face was perfectly all right, but the top of his forehead, crown of his skull and his hair were simply gone. He was 31 years old. He left a wife, aged 25, a daughter of 6 and a son of 5."

An officer arrived, screaming, "What are you, crazy? Why'd you have to shoot him down? What could he do to you?" After the family filed a complaint (with the help of the Israeli human rights group B'tselem) the army investigated -- but "it emerged that Yusuf was accused of trying to take the soldier's weapon ... so, of course, the shooting was self-defense." Cramer does not reveal what happened to the soldier, but as B'tselem has revealed, the vast majority of such cases end with the soldiers receiving no more than a slap on the wrist, if that.

But if Cramer argues forcefully that Israel is ultimately at fault because it is the occupying power, he is at pains to show that neither side is blameless. One of his most powerful stories is about a decent, hardworking Palestinian who worked for Jewish Israelis for years, until a rival clan informed on him and the corrupt and thuggish Yasser Arafat machine decided he was a traitor and beat him, brutally, every day, for months. And Cramer makes sure to put human faces on the Israelis who have been killed in the latest bloody phase of the conflict.

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Cramer is not a conventionally religious Jew. But his deepest belief is that the occupation, being unjust, represents a falling-away from what is highest and noblest in the Jewish tradition. He sees his work as being in the spirit of the Hebrew word l'hakshot, fearless questioning. "That argument, that questioning, even of the Commandments, of all supposed wisdom, is the essence of the religion," he said. "This was the first act of the first Jew. And the text of the argument is that you cannot kill the innocent with the guilty."

Not surprisingly, Cramer's assertion that the occupation has corroded Israel's moral legitimacy has led many critics to resurrect the venerable charge that he is a self-hating Jew, and provoked enraged or dismissive reviews in the American and Israeli press. But many of the reviews have also been positive. And Cramer thinks that the American Jewish community's monolithic support for Israel -- a support, he notes, that stands in embarrassing contrast to the range of acceptable views in Israel -- is beginning to crack.

I spoke to Cramer, who comes across as a combination of a charming raconteur, tough newspaperman and cigar-chomping Jewish uncle, at his San Francisco hotel during his national book tour -- a tour that he said he wanted to use to "go to every synagogue in America."

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So what made you decide to jump into this hornet's nest? Anybody who writes about Israel knows that it's a no-win subject. And you knew you were going to get hammered.

Well, I grew up in this hornet's nest. I came of age as a reporter in this hornet's nest. So I wasn't unprepared. I thought I knew something about Israel. But I started reading news reports from Israel and from the territories that I just didn't recognize as coming from the place I knew. You know, I'd read a little squib, a one-paragraph story, "So-and-so, a photographer, was killed when an Israeli tank shot its cannon into a crowd in Gaza." And I'm thinking to myself, "Wait a minute. Who shot his cannon into a crowd of civilians in Gaza? On whose orders? And what happened to him?" And the short answer was, nothing happened to him. There were no more stories. And that didn't accord with what I remembered about Israel. So I knew something was changing. I didn't really know how much.

I also could see something was changing in the attitudes towards Israel. I'd look on the front page of the New York Times and I'd see two stories tombstoned -- you know, played equal, side by side. One would be about the latest suicide bomb and the other would be what the Israeli army did in the territories in response. And they were exactly equal. No judgment between them, no difference between them. And that never would have happened in my time as a foreign correspondent. Israel was presumed to have some moral standing. So I knew something big was moving there too. This is in the last couple of years, after the al-Aqsa Intifada.

I think when I got thoroughly disturbed by it was in spring 2001, when the Passover bombing happened, and then the Israelis went into the territories wholesale. I mean they took Jenin apart, they moved into all the territory they had ever ceded. Their tanks were rolling. I thought that this was the kind of story that no one was ever going to announce. You had to take it on yourself to go over there and find out what happened.

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Tell me about your previous experience in the region.

I went to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1976. They sent me over to Egypt in December 1977 and with a couple of interruptions I stayed until I left the paper in 1984. So I had been absent from the Middle East for almost 20 years. I had gone back, but with no agenda -- I'd gone to a book fair over there. But I always followed the news like I would a story from my hometown. But I could see that it was changing, something big had happened, and nobody had told me what it was.

So what actually happened, my editor and I were sitting in a ratty delicatessen on 47th Street in New York, and there's this old kosher deli there and we're eating a couple of kosher hot dogs. And he says in his profane and immoral way, "You know, if the Arabs were smart they'd drop a bomb on 47th Street and kill a lot of Yids." [Laughs.] Being a Yid himself of course he can get away with it. And I said, "Yeah, they're so stupid they're winning every day." He said, "What do you mean by that?" And I started sketching out to him, not in any organized way, what I had been thinking about how the attitude to Israel had been changing, how Israel was losing her birthright of loyalty from the West. How the population of Israel seemed inured now to acts by her own soldiers that wouldn't have been stood for before. And being an American publisher he said, "Can you do that in six months?" [Laughs.] And I said no. We kept batting it back and forth, and within a couple of months I was in Israel. I got an apartment in Tel Aviv. One of the wonderful things about reporting in Israel is that any story is just a couple hours away. So I put about 30,000 or 40,000 miles on a rental car.

The main point of your book is the damage the occupation has done to many different aspects of Israeli society. You give a lot of different examples of that. Did you see this in a visceral way with Israelis that you had personally known from your first stint there?

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Yes, I saw this on both sides of the divide. I had Palestinian friends who had now given up. The saddest thing I found was people who had not only high ideals before but the energy to pursue them, who now felt beaten down by years of this grinding cycle of violence. Who felt that they had lost the Israeli public when Barak's offer was refused in 2000. Israelis who felt that there was no choice but to vote for Sharon, because after all he was the only leader of standing on the left or the right that they could vote for. And that was shocking to me. People who hated Sharon. People who knew about Sharon from Lebanon, from Qibya! From the 1950s. And yet they ended up voting for Sharon because they simply didn't see what else they could do. The phrase that I heard more than any other was "There's no one else."

And that was another big change, a big loss for Israel. You know, in the old days -- I sound like a total codger, saying "in the old days" -- when I was there 20, 25 years ago, there was a kind of roster of statesmen-in-waiting, any one of whom could have been a prime minister and perhaps a good prime minister. That's not true anymore, either on the left or on the right. And in the Palestinian society there's such a dearth of leaders coming up under Arafat who could be tolerated by the current power structure that it gives you to wonder, "What the hell is going to happen when this generation passes?"

Going back to the notion that "there's no one else" -- you are very critical of the notion that all of the blame for the collapse of the Camp David talks should be laid at the feet of Yasser Arafat. An idea that is accepted, virtually unanimously it seems, in Israeli society. You argue that that is untrue. You blame all three sides, the Americans who rushed into it, Barak not approaching Arafat with any civility in negotiations, Arafat being totally unprepared. Why was the Israeli left so ready to put all the blame on Arafat?

Well, Barak convinced Israelis that he had offered Arafat the moon. And Clinton backed him up. Clinton in fact made Arafat come to that summit at Camp David in the year 2000. Because Clinton needed a deal right now. Clinton needed a legacy that did not involve the name Monica Lewinsky. And so the deal had to be made right now. Now, Barak also had a taste for that sort of instant solution. Arafat had no taste for it and had no expectation that he was going to get anything like a solution. So only when Clinton tells him, "Go ahead and come, if it doesn't work I won't blame you," did Arafat agree to come. And then immediately when it didn't work, Clinton blamed him. So the assurances from Barak and from Clinton were enough for the Israeli left. And they hated Arafat, like every other Israeli. So it was easy for them to believe that their own solution, the left solution, had been tried and had failed. And this was driven home with the force of a bullet by the new round of Palestinian attacks that immediately followed Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount.

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Arafat came as usual with nothing in his hand. He didn't have a real lawyer, he didn't have any maps, he had nothing with which to negotiate. Nor had he had any preliminary discussions, either with neighboring states or with his own people. So he was in no position to begin to say, "Well, that doesn't work but what about this?" So he simply went home. Then Sharon went to the Temple Mount, the situation degenerated into a murderous rage on both sides and then Arafat was scrambling to get out in front of his own people and say "Brothers, I am leading you." [Laughs.]

But at that point the Israeli left could not say to the Israeli public, "Look, the proper course of action is to continue talking." The Israeli public recoiled from the entire prospect of negotiations because there's nothing to unite that country like the statement "This is war." So even former peaceniks were saying, "First we win this war, then we'll talk." At that point all the left's options were foreclosed and there was no plan B. When I got there, what I found was that nobody even had a dream of how this thing could be resolved. And that was the saddest change.

Complete disillusionment.

Disillusionment is a good word for it. We're in a situation now where any asshole on either side can either stuff his shirt with dynamite and get on an Israeli bus or strap on a couple of bandoliers of ammo and leave his settlement and go to a mosque somewhere and stop any nascent peace movement cold. It's veto by the nutcases.

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In your book you say, "Any Jew who isn't an Israeli can figure out how to make peace in 10 minutes." In a nutshell, give back the land, and no right of return.

Right. The right of return is going to be dead. Everybody knows it. The Palestinians know it. The Israelis are going to give back the land. There are going to be two nations. It's just a matter of how many have to die in the meantime. How many buses get blown up, how many missiles into Palestinian neighborhoods, how many dead kids. It's one of those situations that eludes us not because of its complexity but by the intractable political forces against it.

You talk about the vital role the United States will have to play in making peace, as the only force with the power and connections with both sides to make this happen. Why has this proved to be so difficult for the Americans to do?

It always seems easier to go along with the Jewish organizations, which tend to follow whatever government is in power in Israel. You know, in all the administrations since Carter's, there hasn't been the kind of urgency that would bring change about. Actually, that isn't strictly true. George Bush the elder held up the loan guarantees to Israel, and a substantial amount of them. Jimmy Baker could not get elected dogcatcher over there. But Clinton could. He went along. Reagan could.

You attribute this to a combination of political expediency -- the power of an influential constituency -- coupled with a genuine commitment to the welfare and well-being of the state of Israel, as they perceive it.

And a disinclination to take on something they can't win. It goes back to your first question. We know that if you take this question up you get hammered. Certainly any president knows the same.

Look at John Kerry, who's moved practically to the right of Bush on Israel. And observers of the American political scene aren't surprised.

Because he's running. And somebody's always running. There's a fourth factor at work here, especially in the current administration, which is the Christian right. The Sharon administration has no stauncher support than the fundamentalist Christians of America. They believe, as the Bible tells them, that the Jews were promised this Holy Land. They believe that the Jews must be ingathered once again in Zion so Armageddon can occur and Christ can return. They believe that Israel is their partner in Judeo-Christian values in a sea of Islamic autocracies. And they will go along with anything Israel feels it has to do. And they are George Bush's base.

To return to the American Jewish community. American politicians run scared of the major Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. But that all hinges on the degree to which those organizations have the support of the rank and file of American Jews. Do you see any change there? Are ordinary American Jews still prepared to accept and support anything the Israeli government does?

I think that is changing. You can see this in a lot of small ways. My mom lives in an assisted living complex in Rochester, N.Y., which is in fact run by the Jewish Home of Rochester. It's a kosher establishment, mostly filled with Jews. And the ladies there are nice old Hadassah ladies, they've all done their part for the Jewish community and for Israel, but they say to me they can't even bear to pick up the paper anymore because it's so terrible what's going on over there. I was sitting on a plane next to a UJA [United Jewish Appeal] guy who told me that he got pitched out of nice Jewish homes, or he couldn't even get in the door. You see the Canadians take away the tax break for contributions to Zionist agencies, an ambulance for instance, because it might be used in the occupied territories. This sheer and solid wall of support has already crumbled in Europe. And now I think it's fraying here.

Have you seen evidence of that in the response to your book? Have you been hammered less than you thought you might be?

Well, you know, when you get hammered it never feels like less. [Laughs.] Among Jewish reviewers who purport to some expertise, they're often down-the-line Sharon supporters. But I find among regular, common American Jews a willingness to listen that I would not have found 10 years ago. I think they're disturbed by the situation. I think if there was some mechanism of plebiscite among American Jews for the leadership of Israel, Sharon would get nowhere near the prime minister's chair.

George Bush goes before the leadership of the major American Jewish organizations and gets a rapturous reception. This doesn't correspond to the reality that I see. Admittedly this is San Francisco, where many Jews are very liberal. But there seems to be a disconnect between the leadership and the ordinary people.

There are disconnects that you can see and disconnects that aren't seen. Let me tell you a story that didn't make the book. Every year, more or less, there's a big meeting between an umbrella group of Zionist organizations, I believe it's called the World Zionist Organization. It's a new, overarching construct that was created to get around the guarantee that organizations like the UJA had made that they would not support the settlements. Anyway, this umbrella organization, which consists of many potent nabobs, meets with the Jewish Agency, which is the foundation of Zionism in Israel, and is still the greatest source of support for Israel. They own a lot of the land, it was the mechanism for making Israel Jewish in the pre-state days. So while I was there in late 2002, there was such a meeting. The top brass of the Jewish Agency appears and tells of all the exigencies and emergencies which require an emergency contribution of so-and-so many millions. They have the PowerPoint presentation all ready and the emergencies all lined up, and they conclude as usual with a recommendation that the World Zionist Organization provide on an emergency basis a figure of several hundred million dollars.

And a leader of this umbrella group, a tough little businessman named Mendel Kaplan, slammed his fist down on the table and said, "You're not going to get a blankety-blank dime. If I could buy Israel today for what it's worth and sell it back for all the money we've put in over the last 20 years, I could give every Israeli $150,000." And that was the end of the meeting. Now that is a rift that makes a difference. The reporters had been cleared out of the room, this was never reported. But there's a profound unease within the establishment that has been Israel's lifeline.

You basically lay the blame for what has gone wrong in Israel on the occupation that began in 1967. Yet you point out that, paradoxically and ironically, 1967 also gave Israel the chance to solve 1948, when the state of Israel came into being. That is, Israel can in effect trade 1967 for 1948 -- give the Palestinians the land conquered in 1967, in exchange for which they will abandon their dream of somehow reversing 1948. But many Israelis and American Jews believe that the Palestinians aren't really concerned about 1967 -- they're really concerned about 1948, therefore, they'll never make peace. You can give them anything -- Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank -- and they're still going to want to eventually get all of Israel back.

Right, they're going to slice Israel away until there is no more Israel. Here's what I'd say. Let's forget who was against the partition and who was for the partition, who did what in 1967, who did what in '37, who did what in '39. You can do that forever but it doesn't get you anywhere. Let's look at the situation today. You have a land that could be described as lying between the Jordan River and the sea. In it you have 5 million Jews and you have 5 million Palestinians. The birthrate of Palestinians is much higher than the birthrate of Jews. It may be the case now, or it may be the case in a year, or it may be the case in five years or 10 years, that the Palestinians outnumber the Jews. Nobody can pinpoint the time, but nobody can argue that it is not happening. At that point, Israel has only two choices. They can try to expel or kill some millions of Palestinians, which seems a tad Nazi-ish. Or they can impose what amounts to apartheid, denying the majority a vote. But those are the only two choices. Either you can have a democracy, or you can have a Jewish state.

So if you are a supporter, as I am, of the idea of a Jewish state which is a democracy, something has to be done. And I would suggest that everybody knows there are going to be two countries. It seems to me that it's in Israel's national interest to make or to allow to be made a Palestinian nation now, while they can still kick the PLO into Jordan before lunch any day if they had to, than to wait 20 years. Because the Arabs never get any less numerous. They don't get poorer or stupider. They don't get less opposed to Israel -- they will in fact grow more opposed to Israel. Now, and maybe now at the last minute, there's a chance to make a Palestine that would not be Israel's mortal foe. It's the only long-term survival plan for Israel.

The critics of giving up the West Bank say, with Sharon, that Israel has to hold the strategic high ground in the Judaean hills, that its waist will be too narrow, and so on.

I've heard that since before 1967. But nobody can tell me that the Jews of Israel feel more secure today than they did when that waist was so narrow. Nobody can tell me that Israelis feel now that they are safer in their own land than when it was smaller. In fact, they're now scared to walk into their own bank, their own café. They're scared to put their kid on the bus. They're scared to send their kid to school. They don't want anybody to leave home. They don't go out themselves. So which situation is better?

One of the remarkable things people who follow this issue know is that Israelis have a far greater range of honesty, depth of analysis and ability to see this from the Palestinian side than Americans do. There is no American equivalent of Akiva Eldar, Doron Rosenblum, Tom Segev, Amira Hass or David Grossman -- this endless list. When I was in Israel I could say things far more easily about the political scene and the conflict to Israelis than I could to a group of American Jews I didn't know.

Right. I don't have as many problems among the Israelis as I do among the American Jews. Because we don't have to argue about what's happened. They know what's happened -- they're living what's happened. They know that the current situation is untenable. It's the American Jews, who are largely unburdened by fact, with whom one has to start at the beginning. And there is a range of opinion that is permitted and legitimate in Israel that is far broader than American Jewish organizations will permit. People in Israel say things that would have them drummed out of the American Zionist whatever in 10 minutes. And they say them routinely and in the papers every day.

This speaks to a theme in the book -- your praise of this country of people given to cacophonous argument and disputation. You feel that some of this has changed, but there's obviously an element that has not changed.

What's changed, and this is another reason why the book is called "How Israel Lost," is that this range of opinion, which still exists, is no longer an earnest attempt to change minds. Because if you're on the other side from me, if you're a hawk and I'm a dove, or if you're a lefty and I'm a righty, then you don't listen to anything I say. Anything. If I say the sky is blue you don't listen. It's not a fact if it comes from someone on the other side. And this is a big loss for a country that's built on the facts on the ground.

Yet one could argue that it's always been like this. In Amos Oz's "In the Land of Israel" [1983], for example, the vehement hatreds and arguments between the new Sephardic followers of Menachem Begin against the Ashkenazi elite -- this is brutal stuff. It seems to be as vehement as anything going on now.

It was certainly as strident as anything that's going on now. What's different now is that the ethnic and ideological tribes have all formed their own parties and in effect have walled themselves off from their foes within the society. They are all trying to grab for them and for their people alone. Here's the change in a nutshell. The ultra-religious in Israel used to be in the business of trying to make the whole rest of the state conform. Now they have given up on that. They have bought, instead, into the state's new religion, which is the conflict. And as far as what they are taking with their effort, it is for their own people, their own communities, their own buses, their own printing plants, their own schools and day-care centers and social services. They are watching out for their own.

The Russians [i.e., recent Russian Jewish immigrants] are very much the same way. The Russians are manipulators of the system without peer. If there's one thing you learn after 90 years under Communist rule, it is how to work the system. And these guys have worked Israel like a pump. The Sephardim have formed themselves into a new political party, which is not only very powerful but is very frankly and simply out for a bigger share of the pie for the Sephardim.

So what's changed is that the contention 20 years ago was about what direction the larger society should go in. And now the contention is, how do I get more for me and my people?

It's almost as if the only unifying theme for Israel was the original socialist dream of the Zionist founders, which was extraordinarily idealistic, almost unprecedented in the history of any nation-state that ever came into being. That unifying theme carried all these other unifying notions with it -- the "purity of arms," the "conquest of labor" -- and submerged all the differences. The overarching theme being Jewish identity. That raises a point you touch on when you ask rhetorically, "What's the difference between a Jewish state and an Islamic state?" This is the most explosive question of all, whether a Jewish state is needed. In your book, you say something like "Zionism actually has no reason to exist if there isn't fear."

Right. Without threats to Jews, without fear by Jews, without the prospect of Jews being killed or harmed or driven out, then Zionism needs a whole new rationale.

Well, does Israel need to exist in order to be a haven for persecuted Jews? There is a disturbing upward slope of anti-Semitism in the world, but some people argue that the cause is precisely the existence of the state of Israel. That is, it's no longer a primordial "Jews are evil, they're other, they're an alien body, we must destroy them," but a more political phenomenon -- which of course morphs into various horrible forms of bigotry.

I don't think Israel is causing anti-Semitism. But the people who adduce anti-Semitism as the explanation for this and for that want it both ways. They want to say that there's a terrible rise in anti-Semitism and that's why Israel is criticized. At the same time, they want to say that there was always anti-Semitism and always will be anti-Semitism and that's why Israel is needed. Now which is it? Well, my own view is that there's always anti-Semitism. I go with the people who say it is simply out there, in the ether, in the water.

Because any group of people that defines itself in some way autonomously from the mainstream of society is always going to be persecuted and seen as other?

"In some way autonomously"? Try the Chosen People! [Laughs.] That's bound to raise a few feathers. But let's say for the purposes of argument that there has always been anti-Semitism and there will always be anti-Semitism. Given that, then how do we explain the growing isolation of Israel and the growing disapproval of the world toward Israel? I explain it by saying that the policy of Israel looses the forces of anti-Semitism. When support for Israel began to crumble in Europe, the Israelis told me that this was merely traditional European anti-Semitism. When the rare American criticizes the policy of Israel, they tell me this is anti-Semitism. When the New York Times is seen to criticize the actions or policies of Israel, they tell me this is anti-Semitism. After a while, I'm not listening. The argument begins to lose its force.

You support the idea of a Jewish state.

Yes. I love the place, I love Jews and I think they need a state and should have a state. They needed a place where Jews could live in safety and by their own beliefs. Not as guests of some regime that would tolerate them until the next pogrom, but as proprietors of their own destiny.

If there had been no Hitler, you would still have believed in the existence of a Jewish state.

Yes. A Hitler can come at any time. I don't think the Germans provided the only garden in which this weed could grow.

We have good examples of that right here in our own country.

We have examples all over the world. I believe that Israel must exist and will exist. The reason I wrote the book is because I believe that. I mean, what I'm proposing is because I love the place. Not because I think it should be dismantled.

But I've got to add one thing. Israel would be stronger if she were able to stand up and announce that she was made at the cost of a great injustice to the Palestinian people. It would conform not only with the facts, but with 30 centuries of Jewish humanity and wisdom. It would make her not less Jewish, but more Jewish. It would resolve a terrible conflict in her past that hamstrings her present and perhaps her future. I think that would be a good start towards making peace, a peace that would last.

This recalls a powerful passage in your book in which you talk about the importance of honor for the Palestinians, for Arab culture. In fact what you're calling for is very humanistic. It takes a common-sense view of our shared humanity. You apologize. That's the way people begin to heal a situation, by acknowledging the faults on both sides. Did this sense of the humanity of the people in the region come from your long personal knowledge of people on both sides?

I guess that's where it came from. I'm accused of being irreligious, anti-religious, anti-Jewish, but I go back to the first Jew, and the first act of the first Jew. Which was to argue with his own God about Sodom and Gomorrah. And the text of his argument was as follows, and I'm mangling the text. But he said in essence, What if there are 100 good ones? Do you wipe out the whole town? And God said, all right, all right, if there's 100 good ones. And Abraham says, so what's the difference between 100 and 10? They're still good.

That argument, that questioning, even of the Commandments, of all supposed wisdom, is the essence of the religion. There's a verb in Hebrew called l'hakshot, and it means this kind of probing, relentless questioning. This was the first act of the first Jew. And the text of the argument is that you cannot kill the innocent with the guilty.

That's a lesson for Israel, and now for America.

You know, it's a total accident of publishing that this book came out just as America became an occupying power. And we have seen in just the few months that we have acted as occupiers -- American boys doing things that we never thought we'd see Americans do. That's what this story is about. It's what happens to the occupiers.

With Bush playing an increasingly Sharon-like role.

Well, Bush and Sharon see eye-to-eye on this. And the Americans have been learning, literally studying at the Israelis' knees. How to pull off a proper targeted killing. How to justify an occupation. How to justify an assassination. We have to be careful what we learn from Israel.

How did the Six-Day War affect American Jews' attitude towards Israel?

Most American Jews grew up with this tremendous admiration for the Israelis. It was a source of tremendous pride that this little, bitty state of Israel defeated the entire Arab world and in six days, no less. I was a teenager at the time and it was a miracle! As I say in the book, Israel was boffo. So there's no question there's that pride in the Jewish fighter and that this was a great and epochal step for the people.

But it changed. After the '67 war a book was published of oral histories of the Israeli soldiers who fought in that war. I can't translate the exact title for you, but it was something like "We Shoot and We Cry." And it was about the mixed feelings they had pursuing this kind of inhumane, brutal prosecution of their state's aims. Not trying to diminish the need for it or their triumph in it. But reinforcing the idea that these were humane and ethical people who were forced to do these things. You would not find such a book today.

I had a talk with a guy I liked very much named Yishai Shuster. It's not in the book. Yishai grew up on a commie kibbutz -- he's a real old lefty. But a good soldier he was -- he was a paratrooper, which in Israel is this big deal. Crème de la crème. Like every other soldier in Israel, he was in the reserves until a scandalously advanced age. I forget what the age is, they just raised it again. It's in the high 40s now. Anyway, he's about 44 years old or something, and they call him up for duty again. And he's got to go to Hebron to guard these settlers who live right in the middle of the Arab city because God told them to.

The settlements established by Levinger.

Right. And he thought of not going, but he couldn't let down the guys in his unit. If his unit had to go he was going to go because those were his guys. But he had to do something. So he had a friend who was a filmmaker, and the guy gave him a video camera. And Yishai went to his reserve duty, but while he was there he made a film about how it was, called "A Soldier's Story." It was a very powerful little documentary about these army guys and what they really think of the settlers they have to guard. And how the settlers treat them. And how the Arabs look at them, and how the soldiers look at the Arabs. It was heartbreaking. It was such a powerful little film by the end that the BBC picked it up and ran it, and it ran, of course, in Israel.

Well, then the shit hit the fan. The prime minister saw the damn film -- this was [Yitzhak] Shamir, in 1991 -- and wrote a note to the chief of staff of the army saying, "Find this Shuster Yishai and deal with him to the full extent of the regulations." So the chief of staff kicks this down to the commander of Yishai's unit. This is how the army of Israel used to be. The commander of Yishai's unit immediately kicks it back upstairs and says "You may have problems with Shuster but I got no problems with Shuster. He's a good soldier and I'm not doing anything." So then the chief of staff office kicks it down to the head of the paratroopers. It's a letter from the damn prime minister, after all -- something has to be done!

So the head of the paratroops calls Shuster at his home on the commie kibbutz. And the first thing is his secretary says to Yishai, "When would it be convenient for you to come in?" [Laughs.] So Shuster, being a commie, says "Well, Friday sounds good to me -- how about you?" So they say fine. So he comes in on the appointed Friday, and it's all how do you like your coffee, how many sugars and everything like this, and he sits down across the table from the general who runs the paratroops. And the guy says, "You caused me a lot of problems. Look at this." And he throws the prime minister's letter across the desk. And Yishai reads it and says "I see." And the general says, "What the hell am I supposed to do about this?" So Yishai says, "Look, I couldn't not go, my unit was going, I just felt I had to say something." He told him the whole story. So the guy says, "OK. Don't do it again." [Laughs.] "Now let me take care of this." So he writes down "Severely reprimanded." Then he throws that form away and says, "Now listen. I want to talk to you. Why don't you sign up for another hitch? I hear you're a good soldier."

Yishai says, "Look, General" -- actually they call each other by first names, it's Israel, so whatever his name is, Avi -- he says, "Look, Avi, I'm 44, next year I'm out. Not only is the film not going to happen again, nothing's going to happen again. It's not good for me, I'm old, it's not good for the unit." So the guy says, "Well, look, you could sign up for another hitch and we'll put you in the filmmaking unit. You could make films for us." So Shuster says "Look Avi, you don't have to sign me up again. If you want a film, call me up. I'll make it for you for free." So they shake hands and he goes home. And he does get out of the service next year. And the guy does call him up and he makes a film about the paratroopers that becomes the official training film for the paratroopers.

But something else happened that was very Israeli. They took his offending film and they also put that in the training course for the army. To show them the ethical problems they were going to have to face. Thatwas a good army. Then the guy from the National Religious Party got to be the head of training for the army and Yishai's film disappeared. That's what I'm talking about. That's what happened.

That story shows how much your book is written out of love for Israel.

Well, I wanted it to be like a guy in the next chair saying, "You want to know what's happening? I'll tell you what's happening."

I wonder if that perspective and the tone the book is written in explains some of the outrage that's greeted the book in some quarters. I've read a lot of books on Israel, and yours may be the first to be written in this style -- wise-guy, very informal, very much in the Jewish American vernacular. So you're speaking from within the church. But it's like that saying, what is it, "Tell it not in Gath, publicize it not in Ashkelon" -- this notion that this is stuff that we can talk about, but we're not going to put it out in front of the goyim.

Right.

And we're certainly not going to do it in a voice with ellipses, and dashes, and slang, and jokes. That must be pushing some buttons.

I think it has bothered people. You know, Israel is supposed to be talked about in such reverential terms that it's almost a catechism. And a catechism has a kind of elevated language which reserves its mystery and majesty. And I wanted to militate against that.

It certainly stays much truer to what it feels like in Israel.

In Israel, there's no such elevated language. I've got to tell you another story. It won't help you but it's just such a great goddamn story. There's a book by a guy named Zev Chafets called "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men." It's a kind of inventory of Israel at the time [1986]. He was a young American kid who went over there and he went in the Army and he became an Israeli and he believed in the dream. And he went into politics and he thought that Israeli statecraft was about the great issues of war and peace and the survival of the Jewish people. A very elevated topic indeed.

So he got into his first campaign when his party, the Reform Party, joined up with [Menachem] Begin and all of a sudden they were running in this steamroller Likud coalition. And he's going to the office early in the campaign in a cab. And they're stopped at a stoplight when who pulls up next to them but Ezer Weizman, the former chief of the Air Force, who is now the chairman of the Likud campaign.

And Weizman rolls down the window of the Mercedes and says to the cabbie, "How old are you?" And the cabbie says, "Fifty-one." And Weizman says, "Can you still get a hard-on?" [Laughs.] And the cabbie says, "Of course I can get a hard-on." And Weizman says, "Then get a hard-on Tuesday and use it to fuck the Marach [the Labor coalition]!"

That's great. Let me ask you about the American presidential campaign and policy towards Israel and the Middle East. If Bush is re-elected, do you see him continuing the same policy? Or, since it's his second term, do you think he might turn up the heat on Israel?

That never seems to happen. I think Bush listens to the guys he can listen to and he gets his information from the guys he can sit down and have a real talk with. And Sharon is one of those guys. So I think his policy towards Israel will continue.

What about Kerry?

I don't know enough about him. I don't know about his track record in the Senate. Certainly he was not one of those branded by the Zionist organizations as another Hitler. I think it's possible that under Kerry U.S. policy would shift to its former position regarding the territories as occupied land, and the road map. But I don't expect any real pressure on Israel. Certainly from their campaign rhetoric you cannot predict such.

What about the electorate? Americans have tended to see the Israeli situation -- fighting against an enemy that is increasingly religious, increasingly Islamist -- and, insofar as they subscribe to the Bush war on terror, see us as fighting the same fight. But there's been a seismic shift in the American electorate about how we're prosecuting the war on terror. If Americans continue to turn away from Bush, they might begin to question our complete, unswerving allegiance to anything Sharon might dream up.

It might happen that way. You know, it could go either way. The funny thing is, attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians don't seem to follow in lockstep with attitudes toward American politics. Democrats can be the greatest hawks on Israel, and Republicans can be extremely sympathetic to an argument like mine.

Traditionally, they were more so. Bush the elder, the Texas oil man, tilted towards the Arabs.

You could see it going the other way, too. People becoming increasingly distrustful of the Saudis and the other Gulf states. If we perceive ourselves as having no friends in the Islamic world, we could get closer to Sharon's view of the Islamic opposition.

But I think Americans should know that our actions in Israel are the single greatest emblem of anti-Arabism, anti-Islamicism. They, are for the entire Muslim world, a red flag. And then Americans sit back and say, "Why don't they seem to like us?"


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya


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