June 15, 2004


Book seeks to end Jewish support for Israel: Epitaph by self-described 'ham on rye' American Jew full of factual errors --- but is still winning critical acclaim (Bret Stephens, 6/15/04, Jewish World Review)

Richard Ben Cramer is an American journalist who has written well-received books on baseball and politics. He also covered the Middle East extensively as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. In 2002, he returned to Israel to find out what had happened to the country in the intervening years. The result is a book called "How Israel Lost," just out from Simon and Schuster.

This ought to be a provoking, instructive, uncomfortable book. It is so only by inadvertence. Cramer describes himself as a "ham on rye" American Jew, grown up on reflexive support for Israel and disillusioned by closer acquaintance. What he has written now is an epitaph. Israelis have lost sight of their ideals, their common identity, their sense of purpose, the very "ache of humanity" that properly makes a Jew. Everything that once made Israelis attractive has been squandered so they can hold on to the territories and be "the brutal kings of all they survey." So why support Israel? Cramer's message is, don't.

This is not a new indictment. Europeans have been making it for years, as have Americans on the farther reaches of the Left and Right (the book was glowingly reviewed in The American Conservative, Patrick Buchanan's magazine). [...]

The middle part of Cramer's book consists of a screed against Orthodox Jews and what he deems their excessive and destructive role in setting the rules of Israeli life. Well, yes, it is a bit excessive for my taste, which is why I take my Saturday brunches in Ein Kerem or Abu Ghosh, along with thousands of my nonreligious correligionists. But it takes a moral imbecile—and Cramer is up to the task—to take the next step and compare Israel to an Islamic Republic.

There is more, for Cramer spreads his contempt wide. The settlers, of course—he dwells at length on the seriously unhappy experience of one secular family in Tekoa. The army—it murders Palestinians with abandon and without conscience. The Russians—not even Jewish, cynically brought in by Israel for the sole purpose of "rescuing the Jewish state's occupation." The political class—all generals, for whom "force and more force is the only calling card." Ariel Sharon—not just a bad guy himself, but the archetype for what Israel as a whole has become: thuggish, corrupt, stupid, grotesque, irredeemable.

Are there any good Israelis left? Yes, the Machsom Watch, Gush Shalom, Shalom Arshav, Meretz: the people who take notes as the country "sheds its last decencies." But they are like the five just men of Sodom. And for Cramer, who renders judgment like a stalking God, that's not enough of a remnant to save the wicked city.

Mr. Cramer's book, What it Takes, is one of the great American works of literature and his famous profile of Ted Williams is as good as magazine writing gets, What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now? (Richard Ben Cramer, June 1986, Esquire), so it would be terribly disappointing if this book really is just an exercise in self-hatred.

However, having not read the book, in the interviews I've heard--like Author Cramer on Israel and 'Four Questions' (Scott Simon, June 12, 2004, Weekend Edition)--he's made a completely unexceptional point that the occupation of Palestine and the control it requires Jews to exercise over another people has a corrosive effect on the Israelis themselves. The idea that colonialism is wrong because of what it does to the colonialist is at least as old as Orwell's Shooting an Elephant, but you don't often hear it asserted that he hated England or his own ineradicable Englishness, do you? Meanwhile, the solution to the problem is obvious to everyone and has been, so obvious that even a hard-liner like Ariel Sharon has become its driving force: Israel needs to get out of Palestine and recognize it as an independent state. Not least among the reasons for this is that if it does become necessary for the Israelis to annihilate the Palestinians all together it is less troublesome morally to do so in a war between sovereign nations than to exterminate a captive population.

Mr. Cramer may state his case differently and may engage in unfortunate characterizations of events and people in Israel--that there are factual errors is a function of the fact that no one edits books anymore--but a belief in disengagement is not automatically anti-Israeli much less anti-Jewish, quite the opposite.

-EXCERPT: Why do we care about Israel? from How Israel Lost by Richard Ben Cramer

In the Arab world, where conspiracy theory is even more popular than Islam (as religions, they offer identical comfort: nothing happens without a reason), it's fashionable to see the West's care for Israel - especially America's fixation on Israel - as evidence of a grand scheme for global domination. Israel is assumed to be some sort of U.S. foot-in-the-door, behind which glistens the world's wealth of petroleum. There are a couple of problems with this type of theory. For one thing, adults in the region have by now borne witness to interventions, proclamations and general buttinski from two generations of "American experts on the Middle East" - Special Presidential Negotiators, Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State, Regional Ambassadors, Plenipotentiary Envoys.... Hell could freeze over before these guys dominate anything - some, you wouldn't let 'em change your tire. The second problem is conclusive: no one can explain how America's support for Israel brings the U.S. any leverage over Middle East oil. Sometimes it makes it hard even to buy Middle East oil.

It's also fashionable for Arabs (and for some Jews) to descry within the tapestry of American politics a controlling weft of rigid steel thread - which they call (depending on who's talking) The Zionist Lobby, AIPAC, the Jewish Money Men, the Hollywood Mafia, or most simply and mysteriously: Jewish Interests. Whatever they call it, they use it to explain why the U.S. government and U.S. public cannot seem to hear, or to remember, or take into account for two days straight, the plight of the Palestinian Arabs who lost their country when the Jews took over. In this type of "analysis," congressmen and presidents (no matter their names, their parties, or provenance) are thought to snap to attention, saluting the Israeli flag, whenever Jews show up with threats or the blandishment of their hefty checkbooks. This is also nonsense.

By what lever do these U.S. Jews lift the world? With the power of their massive vote? Maybe they're two percent of the voting public. (They used to be three but they can't even get it together to make Jewish babies.) And they are, by now, the least bloc-ish bloc. The children of reliable Democrats got richer and more Republican (just like white guys), and their children - today's young Jews - are like totally, kind of like ... way uninterested. The savants who whispered that Bush the Younger went warring in Iraq to do Israel's bidding (led by the nose - as half of them added - by that known Jew, Deputy-Pentagon-Panjandrum Paul Wolfowitz) failed to notice, or failed to point out, that the organizers of the big antiwar demonstrations were also Jews - who whipped up a fine anti-imperialist fervor with a speech by the last burning star of the radical kibbutz movement, Noam Chomsky. (They're everywhere!) ... And the notion that Bush has to dance for Jewish money ignores so many realities that they cannot all be listed. First and foremost, the present Bush - because he is present in the White House, and pro-business - can have for his reelection effort as many millions as he needs, or wants, or could dream of. The flashiest, most-talked-about "Jewish money" comes from Hollywood, where the only true religion is hating Bush. And even the quieter monied Jews of Wall Street look like homeless next to Bush's pals in the oil bidness - pals who would just as soon see Israel go away so they could more comfortably shrimp the toes of the Arabs.

If George W. Bush derives any benefit from caring about Israel, or trying to help Israel, it is not from Jews. (No matter what a president says or does about Israel, there is some group of Jews who'll denounce him as a Nazi.) The only plausible political gain comes from his fellow born-again Christians. The U.S. Christian right believes that the Jews are supposed to have the Holy Land - number one, because the Bible tells them so. The Bible says, too, that the second coming of Christ will require that the Jews be "ingathered" again in Zion, which will bring on Armageddon, which will cause Jesus to return. There's also a political meeting of the minds, going back to the days when the Christian right saw Israel as a brave anti-Soviet (more recently anti-Islamic) outpost of "Judeo-Christian values."

Curiously, it's this last fuzzy reason that comes closest to answering "Why do we care?" For in the end, there is no rational benefit in realpolitik - either internationally, or for campaigns inside America. There is no lobby or group in the U.S. that could pressure the government to make Israel the number-one recipient of American foreign aid - three billion dollars each year (plus a couple of billion in loan guarantees) - and that's before you start adding in special military credits, trade preference and other backdoor deals. The only other country that comes close is Egypt - we pay them two billion to act like they don't hate Israel. Altogether, almost half of the U.S. aid dollars for the world shower the land for a few hundred miles around Tel Aviv. (Talk about making the desert bloom!) ... And not just by dollars should our interest be measured. There is also the matter of attention we pay. We may spend more than five-billion-a-year in the currency of newspaper words and CNN chat; there are endless and more-or-less deep analyses in monthly magazines, in The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the quarterly Foreign Policy; it's no accident (and not without effect) that The New York Times covers Jerusalem better than Staten Island, or that Redbook, the ladies' mag, responds to its readers' new fear of terrorism by commissioning a personal essay from a mom in Israel (who also just happens to be the head of the Jerusalem office of AIPAC). The fact is, Israel sells. And we have sold ourselves on Israel. Why? Because in some measure we are all like those Christians who see and support shared values there. For decades, we've read and talked about Israel, we've backed and begirded Israel, we've paid for Israelis' first-world standard of living ... because we came to assume, somehow, they are like us.

-REVIEW: of How Israel Lost by Richard Ben Cramer (Scott McConnell, American Conservative)
-ESSAY: A SHORT STOP TO COOPERSTOWN: A spring training injury only enhances the mythic stature of invincible Cal Ripken Jr. Now, exclusively for USA WEEKEND Magazine, the author of the definitive DiMaggio bio explores why this hero's life is more than simply the sum of his numbers. (Richard Ben Cramer, USA Weekend)
-REVIEW: of How Israel Lost by Richard Ben Cramer (Barbara Slavin, USA Today)

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2004 9:06 AM

Here's a theory you won't likely find in Ted Williams' biographer's book:

The only reason the US has continued its support for Israel is to protect Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and most of all Saudi Arabia.

Realpolitik anyone?

(Though one could understand the reasons for understating this. There'd be so much shame emanating from this part of the world, it would be visible from outer space. Hence the more prudent if unpopular decision by the US to be tarred as a supporter of Jews.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 15, 2004 9:49 AM

They (The Arabs) waged 3 wars, before the hated occupation; one actual one (73) after. They, (Arabs & Palestinians) allied themselves first
with Germans (in both WW 1 ; with the exception
of the Hashemites)and in WW 2; notably Husseini
and the Handschar SS Division, Al Kailani (the
British predecessor to Allawi, as transitional
authority) then under Husseini's nephew, took
the Soviets as a sponsor; the same rules apply:
Why is it, that Israel, for all its faults, is
still the most decent regime in the area, by a

Posted by: narciso at June 15, 2004 10:07 AM

Another reason to celebrate our alliance with Israel is that it removes the temptation to attempt any kind of rapproachment with the Hadjis. Nothing we can give up will satisfy them unless we give up Israel. Without the Israel factor the temptation to appease and to temporize, and , even worse, to fail to prepare for war, might back us into a Spain-type corner.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 15, 2004 12:51 PM

narciso: Heard of the phrase "The enemy of an enemy is my friend"? The Allies used the same logic in their team-up with that monster Stalin against the Nazis so go easy on the pejoratives.

Anyway, great review in the American Conswrvative.I'm going to be checking that out more often.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at June 15, 2004 1:12 PM

American Jews have to decide if they want to be Zionists or leftists, because you can't be both.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 15, 2004 1:14 PM

Ironicaly about the only group left that actually likes the jews are white evangelicals.
Everyone else is either hostile or indifferent.

Posted by: at June 15, 2004 2:19 PM

Indifference is not a problem.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 15, 2004 3:19 PM

If the NYTimes Can't give an anti-Zionist screed a good review:

Cramer is guilty of a patronizing attitude toward a people [the Palestinians] he has romanticized rather than understood.

As a thinker, he disappoints: where one had hoped for an informed, subtle analysis of what happens when Palestinians and Israelis consistently try, and fail, to reach agreements on many levels, Cramer delivers a self-important diatribe of simplistic opinions, as if kibitzing over a bagel brunch. . .

. . . he has written an ignorant and hence irrelevant attack on a country and its people in a state of war.

It probably really sucks.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 15, 2004 10:45 PM

American Jews have to decide if they want to be Zionists or leftists, because you can't be both.

That is a debatable proposition. Many who would consider themselves on the left would claim that they have had and continue to have Israel's best interests in mind. Many, in fact, would have views regarding Israeli withdrawal that are not too dissimilar from those vociferously expounded on this blog. Many could point out that they merely agree with the Israeli (non-fringe) left, that is, what remains of it.

Certainly, if Oslo had worked (if....), the above statement could not be supported. (Ah yes, but Oslo did not work. Could not have worked, as some saw beforehand and others see post-facto.)

The question that Cramer might have trouble answering is, why did Israel sign the Oslo Accords? And having signed them, why was the Barak government willing to conceed what it did conceed? (Assuming one remembers the latter, lost as it is in the murk of ancient history; or for many, a chimera that never actually occurred, so effectively has it been effaced---airbrushed from global consciousness.)

Unless of course one holds the increasingly popular view that Israel was not prepared to give up anything of value at Camp David 2-Taba in 2000-2001, and/or that Israel, from the outset, had no intention of fulfilling Oslo. (Increasingly popular because of the obviously sensible position that if Israel really wanted peace, there would be peace----at least, it sounds eminently sensible.)

Nonetheless, the statement does describe the dilemma that faces the even-keeled (sited?) liberal Jewish voter, and may indicate justy why that voter will tip towards voting for the GOP come November.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 16, 2004 5:58 AM

Should be "sighted"

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 16, 2004 7:41 AM

Barry -- I would Fisk your comment, but someone got there before me.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 16, 2004 1:21 PM