How Israel Lost: The Four Questions

by Richard Ben Cramer
ISBN: 0743250281

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A Review of: How Israel Lost: The Four Questionsh
by David Solway

Richard Ben Cramer is a secular Jews who earns his living as a journalist with a pronounced interest in Middle East affairs. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter and freelance writer for various newspapers and magazines. He adopts the paradigm of the four questions traditionally asked at the Passover seder-why do we eat only unleavened bread on Pesach? why do we eat bitter herbs at the seder? why do we dip our food twice tonight? why do we lean on a pillow tonight?-as a template on which to organize the four chapters of his book. Except he inflects the questions to read: why do we care about Israel? why don't the Palestinians have a state? what is a Jewish state? why is there no peace? The taxonomic irony is obviously intentional since the answers to the ceremonial questions turn on the slavery/freedom dialectic as Jews have experienced it scripturally and historically, but the responses to Cramer's reformulations are meant to turn the tables. If I understand Cramer's implication correctly, it is now the Palestinians who are struggling to emerge from captivity, fleeing not the Egyptian Pharaoh but the Israeli occupier. Ariel Sharon would then become the local reincarnation of Amenhotep II. Although Cramer declares that he loves Jews and does indeed have a few nice things to say about them, we are early introduced to his tone-setting encounters with "those assholes honking at my rent-a-car" and the guide "who cheated me out of a hundred bucks" before being treated to the signature revelation. "And then I met the Arabsand they were good: hospitable, dignified, rational, articulate and oppressed." No contest.
The writing itself is spryly and bustlingly colloquial but is peppered with flippant coinages like "general buttinski" and "Bush's pals in the oil bidness" or frivolous allusions to appalling occurrences, as for example, mentioning the terrorist attack on the Achille Lauro in 1985, "that poor old Mr. Klinghoffer who got shoved off the cruise ship in his wheelchair." For Cramer, a suicide bomb is a "not-nice" thing, but a retaliatory Israeli missile strike has "an equally not-nice effect"-apart from the lippy, inappropriate phrasing, it is the "equally" that makes one bridle, an "equally" that Horovitz would decisively reject. As for the antagonism between the Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Spanish and North African) Jews, we are informed that "this Sephardic bunch never got along great with the Aguda rabbis." One would like to remind Cramer that he's just too old for this sort of adolescent hipsterism, this trying to impress the cool crowd.
But the real problem with Cramer's "investigation" is that it is founded on a disturbing ignorance of recent history. Cramer places the blame for the scourge of suicide bombings on the putative Israeli occupation, contending that the Palestinians "are a nation-and they're in their own country." Therefore the homicidal attacks against Israeli civilians are, if not justified, at least understandable. Even Hamas, one of the world's fiercest and bloodiest terrorist outfits, proscribed by almost every civilized nation on earth, is described as "the most successful Islamic resistance group." He has forgotten or simply does not know that the atrocities continued unabated during the peace initiatives prior to the current "occupation." He also seems indifferent to the fact that the so-called "occupied territories" never constituted a Palestinian homeland in the first place but were part of the Ottoman empire (designated as South Syria) until it was mandated to Britain after the First World War and that these territories were subsequently annexed by Jordan in 1948. Palestine was never regarded as an independent political state or entity, neither by those who lived there nor by the surrounding Arab nations. (Former Fatah terrorist Walid Shoebat, in an interview he gave to Israeli National News on January 27, 2004, made this very clear. "We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Then all of a sudden we were Palestinian.") Cramer also skims over the stubborn fact that the Arabs and Palestinians refused to accept a two-state solution on four separate occasions and on generally favourable terms: 1917 (the Balfour Declaration), 1937 (the Peel Commission), 1947 (the UN partition proposal) and 2000 (Camp David and Taba).
Cramer's own solution to the dilemma is to return Israel to its 1967 borders. Again, he pays little attention to the fact that there are no pre-existent, officially recognized 1967 borders, only armistice lines reflecting the end-of-war picture in 1949, which were never graven in treaty-stone. Clause 5(2) of the Rhodes Armistice Agreement specifies that "In no sense are the cease-fire lines to be interpreted as political or territorial borders" and that they do not affect "the final disposition of the Palestine question." These demarcations, known as the Green Line, remain contested by both Israel and the invading Arab countries. Despite Cramer's curious statement to the contrary-"with their votes [i.e., the Knesset, or Israeli parliament] they would write their borders into international law"-the Green Line has never been codified into international law as border lines (or "blue lines").
Nor does Cramer indicate that the term "occupation" in its current application is itself misleading since, between 1967 and 1994 when Arafat returned from Tunis under the auspices of the Oslo Accords, there was no legal entity in place to consult with in order to oversee and legitimize an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank-Jordan having washed its hands of the whole affair-and Arafat shortly proved himself an untrustworthy partner with a wholly different calendar of his own. Perhaps more to the point, from 1996 until well into the second intifada, almost the entire Palestinian population did not live under Israeli occupation but under the Palestinian Authority. This inconvenient truth is buried in the blank space between two paragraphs, a lacuna which escorts us straight from 1996 into the second uprising without crossing the intervening period. Cramer's book shrinks from locating the "occupation" fairly in the larger context of continuing Arab and Palestinian militant hostility-Israel would certainly have preferred to have been spared the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars and the constant threat of invasion or incursion which have provoked precisely that misfortune for which he takes Israel to task. But leave it to the glib and canny journalist. As Shakespeare has it in Henry IV, Part 2, "These villains will make the word as odious as the word occupy,' which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted."
But there is one place in the text where Cramer must be taken seriously, namely, the passage in which he queries the basic conception of the Jewish state. "If the Jewish state is about Jewish law, then how is that different-in any moral sense-from an Islamic republic?" That is the question, which goes to the core of the state-making experiment which is Israel, and which represents as great a menace to the integrity and coherence of the country as does the Palestinian insurgency. It is the very question that the secular and centrist Shinui party, which is now part of the governing coalition in the Knesset, was created to resolve, adopting as its electoral platform the declericalizing of the civil apparatus.
One must keep in mind that the Middle East is like the political embodiment of a Mandelbrot set, which behooves one to remember that not even Mandelbrot himself could be expected to domesticate one of these labyrinthine sets. In our own pragmatic inquiry into what resembles an ever-receding array of spectral configurations, we should modestly accept that the long chain of event, injury, distrust, belief and misapprehension never resolves into complete intelligibility and that the effort at disambiguation tends to reveal only another layer of recursive complexity. Still the attempt must be made and the two books we are evaluating are precisely such attempts. However, in trying to sort out the Devil's Polymer of two peoples occupying the same land, with a tightly involuted history, reflecting one another's claims and convictions, embedded within one another's projected images of terror and conquest, and bonded by more or less identical turbulences, Cramer time and again falls back on the staple political equations, rudimentary and extraneous, which always seem to leave out something essential and factor only on paper. He traffics in over-simplifications and outright falsifications, citing as evidence of Israeli malfeasance what is often not evidence at all but pre-interpreted bits of ideological conviction-a terrorist killed on the way to carrying out his assignment, without arrest, arraignment, trial and so on, is proof of the decline in Israeli standards of morality. In short,Cramer muddies the waters, for all his apparent plain-speaking.
How Israel Lost: The Four Questions, written in lively and nimble journalese, rarely transcends the facile and tendentious limitations of the popular parti pris. Although its anti-clerical stance deserves to be endorsed, it is at best a lightweight production that pushes all the politically correct buttons, at worst a perverse tract that can have an incendiary effect on the unprepared reader.

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