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Book Reviews

How Israel Lost: The Four Questions 

by Richard Ben Cramer


Simon and Schuster; reviewed in The New York Observer

This really happened: I had been serving as arts and culture editor of the Forward, the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper, for almost two years when the famously leftist editor, author of eloquent and thoughtful editorials, came across the galley of a review he didn’t like. He summoned me to his office and treated me to a side I’d never seen before, bulging veins and all. What did I mean, he sputtered, assigning a respected literary critic to assess a collection by a dovish Palestinian poet? Well, I explained, it made for an interesting addition to the section, helping to nondemonize the enemy and allowing the reader to …. 

He smacked his palms onto his desktop three times. "They tried to shoot my sister!" he shrieked.


Phwack! Phwack! Phwack! He pounded the desk again with the flats of his hands, signaling that the discussion was over and the review was killed. "Palestinians! In Israel, a few years ago! They tried to shoot my sister!"

As if you needed proof that even normally graceful minds go psycho when it comes to the Middle Eastern morass. Anything more than the passing mention of settlements, Arafat, even Palestinian poetry acts like lighter fluid, igniting tempers and blurring the eyes of sensible people. Clearly they’ve been at it, with Talmudic intensity, too long, too hard, too close. Prescription: Take a deep breath, wipe the foam from your lips, and read something by someone who’s not an expert in the field.

Richard Ben Cramer is not an expert—not lately, anyway. Neither a card-carrying insider nor a legal tactician, he’s best known as the author of two classic books of Americana: an exhaustive, legend-busting biography of Joe DiMaggio and a masterful dissection of the 1988 Presidential campaign. With his flowing white shirt, stogie and smart-ass expression, his galley photo seems to reveal a man more familiar with Trifecta than Torah. Yes, he won a Pulitzer for Middle East reporting, but that was for The Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1979. Herein lies the lucid charm of How Israel Lost: The author hasn’t lost sight of the forest for the trees.

Instead of quibbling over his credentials, let’s get his actual failings out of the way. He can be glib—his subtitle has more than a touch of irreverence to it. He has an insolent habit of not capitalizing either "Holocaust" or "Zionist." He can be both arch—"Their last few hundred years had made the Jewish people a tad anti-authoritarian (they’d had some bad experience with the Czar-Duce-Führer types)"—and flip, referring to our 40th President as "Ronnie Reagan." Nor does his facile way with facts and figures incline us to take him seriously: Israel’s secret police "know … about ten times more than Yassir Arafat" (his italics); "if I remember right, it was the only zone of full Palestinian administration." Why doesn’t Mr. Cramer make sure he remembers right? The book at times feel slapdash, like a settlement thrown up in the night with prefab parts.

Worse, he suffers from wheezing Esquire-itis—the huffing effort to stay as hip as New Journalists were in the 60’s. (Weren’t they pot-bellied and orange-fingered, though? How cool was that?) Thus such desperately casual sentences as this, describing America’s earlier love affair with Israel: "By 1960, Paul Newman—no less—was larger than life on the world’s screens in Exodus, as a Super-Panavision Jewish underground fighter, with the shiksa-goddess Eva Marie Saint as his home-from-the-holocaust honey. Israel was boffo!" He treats us to such macho locutions as "chump change" and Tom Wolfean internal monologues, complete with hold-your-breath-here-we-go-again ellipses, his attempt to get under … the … skin of the New Jews.

Fault Mr. Cramer for these lapses, but stay on target: Please don’t slap him with the asinine charge that he’s a "self-hating Jew." Can we lay that one to rest, already? Were Harvard students who protested the Vietnam War "self-hating Americans"?

Mr. Cramer’s argument is cogent: Israelis have forgotten their birthright. "They had forgotten what the Knesset knew in 1949. They could have a larger state, or a Jewish state. Now, they were trying to have both." By continuing to hold onto the occupied territories, Israel has lost control of her own narrative: "Israelis sang us a song of David, when they’d long since become Goliath." The ironies are bitter. "It’s one of those historical turns that is so rife with rue, you don’t know whether to cry or laugh," he writes. "In 1967, Israel was forced into war by the conflict, by threat of violence from outside her borders. So, she made war—brilliantly—and conquered the territories where that violence came from. But then—here’s the ugly turn—she decided (or she didn’t decide, she just slipped into acting as if) those territories were also part of her country … and so, the violence she feared was brought inside the country, too."

By remaining an occupying power, she (to use his quaint pronoun) not only alienated a growing portion of loyal American Jewry and humiliated a people to the point of desperation, but, more to the point, she began damning her own soul. "It seems to me a bad bargain," he writes, "trading the best—the bright soul of the country—for some dry, rocky hills, which are another people’s home."

It’s hard to say who comes off worse: the ratty thug Yasir Arafat, whose murderous yahoos routinely do such things as beat up the Palestinian pollster who determined that only 10 percent of the refugees are actually interested in exercising their vaulted "right of return"; or the brutal Ariel Sharon, determined to give the Palestinians a nonexistent state or one "in pieces so small, you’ll never get the Mercedes out of first gear." Both are so poisonously invested in the struggle, he charges, that the status quo has a life of its own.

It doesn’t matter who’s worse—the solution is the same, he says, and the knot isn’t as Gordian as the pros make it out to be. "Any Jew who’s not an Israeli, and not on psychotropic drugs, could solve this Peace-for-Israel thing in about ten minutes of focused thought. Compared to, say, Cyprus, or Northern Ireland, it’s a piece of babka." In a phrase? "Give back the land."

"I don’t mean, give back the land except for the settlements," Mr. Cramer writes, "or the roads or the military bases. I mean, give back the land—the West Bank and Gaza. East Jerusalem (and the Dome of the Rock) for the Arabs, West Jerusalem (and the Western Wall) for the Jews. After that, they could work out the details—neighborhoods exchanged, water rights, maybe a fence. Would it be a mess? Plenty of mess … but worse than what they have now?"

To use the sort of thinking Middle Easterners might respect, it’s pure self-interest: If they don’t, the effects will worsen. And what are the effects so far, on Israel alone? The occupation has fomented dishonor, domestic corruption and unprecedented internal violence. "Studies show that one out of nine Israeli women lives with violence (beatings, rape or threats of death) from the male at home … for the first time, parents worry about violence among kids at school … there are, for the first time, road rage killings" as well as grisly intra-family murders. "It’s an open-and-shut case," he writes: "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 Intifadah—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."

None of which even begins to quantify the ungodly effect the occupation has had on children on both sides, world opinion or American Jews who are decathecting in droves—psychologically disengaging, the way formerly married partners must, in order to retain their mental health. As The New York Times reminded us a few weeks back, Aimé Césaire wrote in his Discourse on Colonialism (1955): "First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism."

Israel was a noble, heart-lifting enterprise, prompting many to project overly hopeful dreams onto what is, after all, a beleaguered warrior state. But we needn’t relegate her to the past tense, as Mr. Cramer does in his title. For her own blessed sake, if no one else’s, what’s to stop the U.S. from suspending our aid dollars (more than half of our total worldwide sum) until she comes back to herself and pulls out of the occupied territories? From exerting our might and saying: "Enough! Pull back!" Phwack! Phwack! Phwack! It’s enough to make your veins bulge.

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