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Chapter 1: Why do we care about Israel?
Why do we care about Israel? An eyelash of land around the eastern Mediterranean shore, in some spots the nation isn't ten miles wide. North to south, you can drive it in half a day -- if you don't get stuck behind some Polish geriatric squinting through the steering wheel of his first automobile, putting to a new test (at thirty-two miles per hour) his life's talent, which is survival. In fact, our care must be more for that turtle-ish Jewish survivor than for the land he drives. Even if the world called the question tomorrow and awarded to the Jews, or to the Arabs, every dunam of land in Palestine -- every hill, vineyard, olive grove and old stone house, every grain of difficult soil that's been fought over for a hundred years -- the whole ball of wax wouldn't match in mass, in fecundity or natural wealth, a quarter of a province of the Congo.
No, it isn't a great rich place, nor gloriously old as a nation-state -- fifty-years-and-change it has stood. Its apologists and ideologues tend to start their histories in the mist of Bible-time, to enforce an air of eternity, inevitability, permanence. But there's another story in what the Zionists called "the facts on the ground." There are still thousands of houses whose land records go back exactly for those fifty-years-and-change, and then their histories stop, blank and glaring, like the screen when a film snaps in the projector. These are the properties of "absentees" -- Arabs who ran away or were chased away in Israel's birth-war of 1948. Still, there are thousands of old men in refugee camps who will show you the keys to those houses -- keys they will pass on to their sons as prize and burden. And still there are the old Jewish fighters, whose preternatural vigor shows why the Arabs ran. On a research visit in 2003, I was privileged to tour the old Negev battlefields with Itzhak Pundak, a brigade commander from the '48 War. He marched me from a wrecked railroad bridge, around the Jewish sniper posts, onward to Egyptian artillery bunkers, from time to time regarding me narrowly from under handsome silvery brows. "Is this too much?" asked the eighty-nine-year-old. "Do you need a rest?"
We have never cared about Israel for her political influence -- she never held sway in what Bush the Elder called The New World Order. In the U.N., for example, you wouldn't go out of your way to win Israeli approval -- unless for some strange tactical reason you need an implacable majority of third-world nations against your proposal. Whatever Israel is for, most of the world opposes. This is one of the few truths embraced with satisfaction by both Arab and Jew. The Palestinians see Israel's unpopularity as confirmation of their cause. (They wuz robbed! They are victims! Their rights must be restored!) The Jews see it as confirmation of a tenet even more deeply held: the whole world is against them -- no matter what they do.
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.
The Israelis, no dummies, did what they could to foster this impression -- from appointing a government spokesman who talked like he grew up in Detroit (he did), to allocating scarce shekels for the world (i.e., Western World) tour of the Israel Philharmonic. From '48 on, the most important resource of the young nation was the harrowing and latterly triumphal story of the Jewish people -- which had elicited the sympathy of the world, and spurred the U.N. vote that made the Jewish state. And so, the first growth industry of Israel (even before tart Jaffa oranges found their market in Europe) was what the locals called hasbarah -- which literally translates as "explaining," but we might call it propaganda, or spin.
From the moment a U.N. cease-fire ended the first war in the spring of '49, Israelis led the world in guided tours. Their new immigrants were living in squalid tent camps, the air force was maybe two banged-up bombers, but the government still bought fistfuls of boat and airline tickets, and hotel rooms and state-of-the-art buses, to put together freebie trips for eager Swiss or Swedish students, South African "opinion makers," Jewish "pioneer campers" from North America, young politicians and journalists from all over the world and, of course, rich Americans (who might fund the guided tours of the future with a generous gift someday). They had to get their story out -- and the hasbarah industry attracted the best and the brightest. It wasn't just the friendly tour guides, who could explain -- in their perfect Dutch or Danish, Walloon or Serbo-Croatian (language skills were the other great resource) -- how the Arab armies shot deadly artillery from that hill, right there! (And those poor kibbutzniks who just gave us that wonderful lunch live under that threat every day, even now....) There were also the spokesmen, guides and greeters for every government department, every municipality, the big Histadrut national labor union, the Israel Lands Authority, the Jewish Agency -- they were all making friends, "explaining." And these guys were good!...
Long ago, I witnessed one tour of up-and-coming American poobahs -- or poobahs-to-be -- the Young Presidents Organization. And some wiseacre asked a sticky little question: Are Israelis going to have to pay compensation to the Arabs who ran away?... Now, the fact was, and is, that Israel won't pay a nickel -- but the first "explanation" was palliative: Yes, it's a complicated question...now, a commission is studying the fairest method...but you have to understand, land records under the Turks.... And then, as the tour moved on, the hasbarah man was walking next to that fellow, and issued this pained, confidential aside: "You know, it was a terrible shame -- we begged them to stay!"...which was a bold, but uncheckable lie. And that night at dinner (a slap-up dinner, on the cuff of course), having found out that his new friend hailed from Connecticut, the hasbarah professional inquired -- just by the bye: Say, how's it going with those pesky lawsuits from American Indians -- aren't they claiming that half the state is theirs?
Whatever the topic, the subtext was always the same: We are doing our best under impossible pressures. Imagine how you would feel -- for we are like you. But the hasbarah succeeded better than even Israelis dreamed. 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! So, the message grew bolder. By the end of the Sixties, after the triumph of the Six Day ('67) War, the prime minister, Golda Meir, was asked a similarly sticky question about the rights of Palestinians. "What are you talking about?" she snapped. "There are no Palestinians."
Still, the big shift happened in the Seventies -- and not from hubris but need -- after the ('73) Yom Kippur War. The surprise, and surprisingly effective, attack by their Arab neighbors reminded Israelis they could be wiped off the map. The Israel Defense Forces, which to that point had seemed invulnerable, now suddenly looked hapless and needy. Israel dropped all her prior reserve and cast herself shamelessly as America's little buddy in the Middle East. She burrowed into every U.S. plan for the region -- so deep that without her there wasn't any plan. She had to become indispensable -- and the story line she put out to the Western public had to change, as well.
It had to be more than "they are like us." Now they wanted us to know that they were us -- or standing in for us -- surrounded, outnumbered (that much of the hasbarah stayed constant)...hungry for peace, but determined to fight -- as the Superman serial used to say -- for truth, justice and the American way. Our view of the place had to change: it wasn't just an interesting little desert land (where more U.S. Jews would live, if they weren't so damn comfortable). Now, all Americans had to be stakeholders in the Holy Land, partisans in its conflict. And we were! (Those were American planes -- TWA -- that the PLO blew up...and that poor Mr. Klinghoffer, who got shoved off the cruise ship in his wheelchair...as usual, the Palestinians undermined their own cause with thorough efficiency.)
Withal, it was more than a Middle East friendship -- our enemy was theirs. For there was, underneath, a real affiliation between the American public (between citizens and subjects all over the Western World) and this place -- which had more or less launched their sense of self. Israel began strumming this chord under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a right-wing true believer who took power in 1977. For almost thirty years, under left-wing Labour party governments, Israel had cast herself as a modern, socialist, secular state. In the shock and dismay after the Yom Kippur War, the Labour party fell apart, and Begin marched in, bearing the Torah. In his first speech as premier, he announced with characteristic drama: "We shall not ask any other nation to recognize our right to exist. We got our recognition from the God of Our Fathers at the dawn of civilization."
Begin would put the holy back in Holy Land. And in the West -- which was also swinging to the right under the whip of Margaret Thatcher, and Ronnie Reagan's homey little chuckles -- the Jews of Israel were depicted as heroes. Beset by despicable acts of terror, cruelties, massacres of women and children...still, they hadn't budged an inch, but had managed (against all odds -- against evil!) to stand in, and even to rebuild and reconsecrate their special place, which was our special place, too (whether we're religious or not)...because there -- here -- we became who we are... as Western souls, endowed by God with a right to bestride His planet. (Bestriding was Thatcher/Reaganism writ in one word.)...Here the promise happened -- here.
We all belonged to this place (and Jews all had at least a sneaking suspicion that they belonged in this place). Here man invented God, or knew the God who invented man -- and that gave us all a place to stand. This sparked a loyalty that needed no reason. It was pre-rational -- from some deeper part of the brain than words could get to -- or call it a piece of our collective unconscious. Whatever the name, it's not the sort of thing that mere thoughts, or daily facts, can easily grind away....Which makes it the more remarkable what has happened, lately -- or was it lately? This is one of those big stories that doesn't break, but just seeps into being. At some point in these latter years, Israel ground away, or gave away, her birthright of loyalty from the West.
You could see it happening in a hundred ways, little and large -- when you look back, and the pattern shows. The Israeli Minister of Defense has to pack his bags and scuttle out of Europe, because he got wind somehow that he might be arrested and charged with war crimes...a small dispatch from London notes the departure "for Palestine" of a group of Britannic do-goods who are going to the West Bank to protect Palestinian olive-pickers against the depradations of Jewish "terrorist settlers"...the Canadian government cancels the tax break for some Israeli affiliated charities, because contributions (for instance, the gift of an ambulance) might be used in the occupied territories....
The one that stood me on my ear (and fetched me onto this story) was in my home, America, and in my home-business, in the news columns of The New York Times -- no less! -- and not just for one day, but day after day. On the front page, two stories would be "tombstoned" (i.e., matched, side-by-side). One story would tell about the latest terrorist suicide bomb in Israel; and the other would report on what sort of killing the Israeli army did in response, in some West Bank town or Gaza. The stories were equal -- no judgment and no moral distinction was drawn between them. And this from the former house organ of American zionism!
Clearly, the ground had shifted -- something big was up. This book project was born to answer the question: What happened?
Maybe it was the daily dose of video, flashed around the world -- Israeli tanks blasting holes in buildings, and Palestinians weeping in the West Bank or Gaza...maybe the deaths of some nice, well-meaning Westerners, Americans or Brits, who were trying to stop Israeli bulldozers from destroying the houses of Arabs...or maybe the simple realization that the Israelis sang us a song of David, when they'd long since become Goliath. One way or another, Israel lost control of the narrative that is her lifeline.
Support began eroding first -- twenty years ago? -- in Europe. (Israeli hasbarah pros dismissed this as traditional European anti-Semitism.) Americans, less burdened by knowledge of the world abroad (and perhaps less cynical in all their faiths), lingered in their loyalty until...these days, they don't know what to think. This, too, I see now in a thousand little ways: the fund-raiser for the United Jewish Appeal who tells me he's getting pitched out of nice Jewish homes -- or he never even gets in the door...the dear old Hadassah ladies in the "assisted living" complex, who tell me they've stopped picking up the paper ("It's so terrible what you read in there about Israel, I don't even look.")...or the friend from my little American town, whom I tell that I'm doing a book about Israel: "No offense," she says (for she knows I'm Jewish), "but that president over there -- or, it's not president, prime minister -- I just don't like him, he's not a nice man!"...Sure, the freshet of U.S. aid still flows -- but that's the government. If the American people fall off the bus, the government will follow someday soon. One thing's for sure: Thirty-five years of occupation doesn't make it smell like home -- to us....Or put it another way: 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.
Where I grew up, in a suburb of Rochester, New York, there was a temple called B'rith Kodesh -- which (I now know) means Holy Covenant, though I never thought about it at the time. It was just B'rith Kodesh, as normal and established a landmark in my life as the public library, which was more or less across the street. The temple had a Sunday school to which I had to go. Why did I have to go? There wasn't any why about it. I had to go to Sunday school like I had to be bar mitzvahed, like I had to get through high school and go to college -- those were my jobs. And I thought even less, at that time, about what they taught us in Sunday school. It was just Jewish stuff I had to learn, like my Catholic neighbors had to learn about saints, and Latin. At least we didn't have to go to confession.
It was Bible stories, mostly -- Noah and the ark, Moses getting fished out of the Nile....That, and a lot of Jewish history, which mostly consisted of non-Jewish tyrants with lumpy names (like peanut brittle in your mouth) -- Nebuchadnezzar, Ahashueras -- who at different times in different places tried to do in the Jews. But then God showed up and smote them a Mighty Smite, and things were better till next Sunday, when the Jews were in trouble again. (It's like my friend Ilan Kutz says about Jewish holidays -- they all pretty much add up to the same thing: "They tried to kill us. They didn't succeed. So, let's eat.")...All the stories were taught in a seamless succession, and no one made much fuss -- certainly, I did not -- about which ones came from the Bible, and which from later books, or from no books at all (like that impoverished little Hanukah story, which we all pretty much recognized as a plot to keep us from succumbing to Christmas).
And the last strand in this skein of woes was Hitler and the holocaust. Maybe this was taught with a little more heat because it had happened in the time of our teachers' lives. But there wasn't any more detail than we got about the Babylonians or Assyrians. Nevertheless, this Hitler business was my favorite Sunday school story. For one thing, I knew from independent sources (a series of wartime boys' books called The Yankee Flier -- I'd inherited the set from my uncle, and read them all at least three times) that, in this case, God's Mighty Smite had arrived in the form of glorious U.S. Air Force squadrons, and George Patton's smashing Third Army -- which, I felt, put me on the side of the angels....And the other good thing was the end of this story -- the creation of Israel -- which I thought had potential to keep the Jews out of hot water for several Sundays in a row.
We didn't learn much about what Israel was. The teachers seemed to exult in it mostly because it was a place to speak Hebrew -- which was another excuse for us to have to learn Hebrew. We did learn that Israel was a desert till the Jews showed up and made it bloom. We had to make it bloom, too, by slotting dimes into little cut-outs on a piece of cardboard with Hebrew writing on it -- each dime would buy a pine tree to make Israel green. (It seemed to me, God ought to smite up some pine trees, while I used my dime for a big Three Musketeers bar.)...We were taught that the Arabs tried to kill off Israel at birth, by attacking all at once -- which fact was presented as a modern confirmation of all the other stories. ("See? They're still trying to murder us.")...And we knew that Israel was definitely innocent and excellent: Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, Yigal Allon and Abba Eban were added to the roster of good-guys -- on the same page, as it were, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Queen Esther, sage Solomon, King David and a bunch of prophets. In fact, it was all one mudpie to us, straight from the Bible to Ben-Gurion -- monotheism and zionism were both good isms the Jews thought up.
What I liked about Israel, apart from the fact that it was the end -- last stop on the Sunday school train -- was the slogan we heard every time the subject came up: "Israel was a land without people for a people with no land."... This was the tersest, most powerful storytelling -- as good as all the other jingles that filled my head at the time: See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet...Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should. (They were probably also the work of Jews.) But this was so neat a turn of phrase, and a turn of history, that it seemed to confirm for me the biggest of all Sunday school stories: the sense and economy, the goodness of God's creation. It all locked together in the end, neater than Legos -- a land without people for a people with no land. That was what I knew.
It was a testament to my misspent school years that it was still just about all I knew fifteen years later. By that time, I was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, happily at work in that newspaper's New York Bureau. In fact, I was the New York Bureau, which was our only bureau -- we weren't a rich paper at the time. My editor called me on the phone one day, in December 1977, and asked: "How fast can you be in Egypt?" I thought it was some stupid knock-knock joke. I said: "I give up. How fast can you be in Egypt?" But it turned out he was serious. The Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, had just traveled to Jerusalem to propose peace -- huge news. And now, it was announced, Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, would return the visit, at Ismailiya, Egypt, on Christmas Day. The paper had to do something to cover -- but what could my bosses do? They couldn't uncover something important, like City Hall, or the Phillies! But the New York Bureau was already gravy -- and in it was a Jew, who would work on Christmas. "I'll be there tomorrow," I said.
For the next seven years, I was a Middle East reporter, in and out of Israel a hundred times, and all over the Arab world. By the end, I thought I knew what I was doing. But what I had to learn first was the depth of my ignorance. On that first flight to Egypt, I could tot up my certainties on two fingers: The Jews were the good guys; the good guys always won. I never knew that much for sure again.
And when I got to Israel, a few weeks into my new career, my confusion was complete. Sure enough, there were the pine trees. (I was glad of that, and they'd done splendidly. Which ones were mine?)...For the rest, I was reminded of a line old Harry Truman spoke about his opponent: "It's not what he doesn't know that bothers me. It's what he knows for sure that's just plain wrong."
Those assholes honking at my rent-a-car, as I puzzled out some Hebrew road sign -- were these the heroes of the Six Day War?
My first guide to Jerusalem, who cheated me out of a hundred bucks, and favored me with this axiom: "The good Arab it's the dead one." Was he the heritor of thirty centuries of humane Jewish wisdom?
And then I met the Arabs -- live ones -- and they were good: hospitable, dignified, rational, articulate and oppressed. But that wasn't the most surprising and disturbing fact that I had to work in. The true astonishment was, simply, they were here. They were here, their fathers were here, their grandfathers...for centuries!
What about the land with no people for the...well, you know the rest. In '48, the Jews, in fact, had no land. Okay....But there was a people here!
I began to write their stories, too. Not the big picture -- I didn't know the big picture. But I wrote what happened in front of my eyes, to people I had met and talked to. My newspaper was beset by protest -- committees of Jews who came to complain, and try to lose me my job. "What kind of Arab apologist did you send there?"..."Is it really Ibn Cramer -- is he an Arab?"..."Oh, we know his kind -- the self-hating Jew!"
To their enduring credit, my bosses never told me about all the trouble -- for years -- which was a wonderful freedom...and a kindness to me, because I would have been hurt: by that time, I utterly loved the place.
To be precise, it wasn't the place, it was the people, and their stories. For a reporter, this may be the greatest place on earth. Every day's a smorgasbord. You leave your hotel or house in the morning and plunge into a sea of talk -- news, explanations, wooing, slogans, argument, imprecations, jokes...it's a wonder they had time to build a country, when they're talking eighteen hours a day. And what a brilliant brand of talk! Everybody you meet has a story, is a story -- a big multinational, complicated light-and-shade saga. They're all articulate. (Practice makes perfect.) Anywhere you go, there's somebody who'll speak English -- or any other known language. It doesn't matter where something happened -- you can get anyplace in a couple of hours....And it's always life-and-death.
Even stuff that doesn't matter is life-and-death. I've seen ladies jump out of their cars and engage in a screaming ten-minute argument -- that ended with them spitting on each other -- over a parking space. (On my street in Tel Aviv, during research for this book, I watched a citizen filibuster a cop and a tow-truck man for twenty minutes, until his car was finally hauled away, while he ran down the street, beating a bass-drum tattoo with his fist, first on the tow truck, and then on his own car.) It must be the hummus that gives them the energy. Or maybe it's the lamentable pressure of mere existence that spurs exertion -- demands it -- a decades-long stress test. But life is lived here at a pitch I never saw elsewhere.
To be perfectly honest, I should say one more thing: I may have had as many friends among the Arabs -- or the Palestinians as they now should be known. I had as many pleasant encounters, conversations, meals (a lot more tea). Certainly, I found as many good stories....But I lived among the Jews. And enjoyed them, and laughed with them and about them (nobody makes better Jewish jokes than Jews)...and probably I studied them -- as a grandma will study her daughter's child -- to see if and where the family resemblance would show up.
I had a couple of American friends there, Ben and Minnie Balter -- friends of my parents, really -- honorary uncle and aunt to me. They were Rochester folk who, in retirement, had moved to an apartment north of Tel Aviv. And I remember Benjie, when I first arrived, trying to explain the joy of the place. "See that mailman?" he'd say. "He's Jewish.... See that guy sweeping in front of his store? See the cop? They're Jewish, too!" That was a punchline that for him never lost its wonder, humor, comfort. I guess his generation had grown up with such an unshakable, undermining sense of being "other" -- outside the mainstream -- that for him it was enough (It was a miracle!) that everywhere he looked, there were Jews. It wasn't that way for me. But I think I love Jews precisely for that sense of being "other" -- so many of them have it within their breast. It gives them not just the sense that they are different, but the imperative: they have to be different -- because they are Jews. So, there's an earnestness about examining life (or at least living it by some rules and standards) that makes it interesting to me -- or makes it seem to matter... and since this -- how lives are lived -- is also my study and line of trade, you could say it conforms to my own prejudice.
I love the Jews for being so ably mercantile, agile and glibly hucksterish. Every business, every cause, has a splendid slogan -- or a catchy musical jingle. Tin Pan Alley is now in Tel Aviv. (During my research visits, the election jingle for Arik Sharon was so irresistible -- impossible not-to-sing-along-to -- I almost signed up to vote for the old bastard myself.)...I love the Jews for being learned. I remember sitting, one Saturday, with an Israeli Arab professor from the University of Haifa, Ramzi Suleiman. (Actually, I should identify him with the ethnic moniker that he helped to invent -- he is "a Palestinian in Israel.") And Ramzi was marveling at the Jews, too: "You know, I was watching TV," he said, "and there was a panel in Hebrew -- three scholars talking about the difficulties of translating Japanese poetry. In what other country this size could you find three people to discuss it?"...I love the Jews for being smart -- and for the shameless way they show it. An Israeli who's about to inform you precisely how, where and why you are wrong (the national sport is competitive talk) will figuratively roll up his sleeves by announcing (in Hebrew, of course): "Now, I'm going to show you where does the fish pee." The first time I heard this (being a true American), I thought it must be "where do the big fish pee" -- more or less like my friend in our poker game, who used to announce, when he started to win: "The big dog walks late." But no, it's not about the "big fish." It's about who among us knows -- where is the invisibly tiny hole on the fish where the pee comes out of... that's what he's going to show you -- knowledge!
I love the bare-knuckle brawl that is their public life. The newspapers each day are a festival of personal attack...with a level of personal knowledge that keeps institutions human-sized. General So-and-so screwed this other general out of a coveted district command -- they've hated each other since officer college. Minister So-and-so has no choice but to take what Sharon gives him -- his ambitious wife only married him because she thought he could be prime minister. In part, this personalness is owing to the size of the country: everybody knows everybody, or something about everybody -- usually just enough to convince them, that guy is an asshole. During this last election, when the list of candidates for the Likud party was announced, I sat with a trio of ladies, who went down the list one by one and told me why each was unfit to be in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament: This one is nothing but a driver for that lady minister (and God knows what else he does for her)...this one left his wife for some hussy they had gone to school with (they'd never liked her, either)...this one, as an officer in the army, used to hit on the eighteen-year-old soldier girls....Of course it wasn't a strictly fair test -- because the ladies were all Labour-Meretz style left-wingers, and were honor-bound to hate everybody on that right-wing party list. That, and the fact that the Likud list was, even by Israeli standards, unusually thuggish this time.
In the spirit of strict fairness, I should confess to one more love I developed -- if not a love, then at least a disposition to love -- a prejudice in their favor. Like the Israelis, I came to trust and believe in the army more than any other institution in the land. For one thing, I liked the soldiers, who were wry, clever, brave, cocky, whiny about soldier-life and amazingly candid. But I also liked the institution's lack of chickenshit -- covering the IDF in the field for a day here and a day there, in what must have added up to months, I don't think I ever saw anybody march or salute. A dogface soldier could call his colonel by his first name (everybody knows everybody) -- or tell him he thought he was wrong. I liked the way soldiers would wonder if they were doing wrong -- in fact, they were honor-bound to refuse an order that they thought was indecent. (This was a tradition in the IDF, going back to the underground days before statehood -- it bore a grand name: The Purity of Arms.)...And as a reporter, I loved them for showing me who they were. I remember the first time I ran into an IDF platoon during the first (1978) invasion of Lebanon...and the soldiers divined that, at some point, I would be going back to Israel (surely, before they would)...and they lined up to write on my notepad their home phone numbers and mothers' names -- so I could call, to say, "I saw your son, and he was okay." I hadn't truly understood before that the fearsome armored killing machine was really just boys -- most of them scared to death, too.
Later, I saw the IDF boys do even tougher duty, when they squared off against other Jews, settlers in the rocky Sinai, who claimed that they were the real custodians of the zionist dream. The IDF had to get them out, because peace had arrived -- at least a deal with Sadat...the Sinai peninsula was going back to Egypt. And these two groups of Jews went at each other with a zealous and personal fury. The army boys had orders, from the only general who was mule enough to get this done -- Arik Sharon. And the settlers thought they had orders from God -- the imperative to live in this desert, where He gave His law -- and they had the worst insults: "Nazis!" "Gestapo!"...and they had God's own supply of stones with which to pile up barricades, and tires to burn for acrid thick smoke, and their bodies chained to this and that...and it got to be dangerous, devilish and finally a dismal business to get them out. But, they did get out. And stayed out....Which is one reason I know it can still be done.
Or maybe it can't be done now. Maybe the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza are too many -- near a quarter million they number, now -- or too committed, dug-in, too God-struck-crazy, to be removed by any method....Or maybe Arik Sharon is too old, now, and has no more will to fight with other Jews....And maybe the army's different, too -- boys, still, but different boys?...That was one reason I had to go back -- to see. I had read in the newspaper: So-and-so, a photographer, was killed when a shell from a tank was fired into a crowd in Gaza. Wait a minute! Who fired his tank cannon into a crowd of civilians? On what orders? And what happened to him?...There were no more stories about it. Nothing happened!...Nothing?... Was there no more examination of how a life is to be lived? Then, that was an even bigger way, how Israel lost.
See, I thought I knew the country -- but it turned out, I didn't. At least I couldn't understand how the country I knew was doing the things that I read about now. Maybe the country I knew was gone -- buried under some new kind of nation, which was also Jews. But what kind of Jews were they? (What's the point of being Jews, if there's no ache of humanity left in you?)...And what happened to the guys I knew? As I remembered, they weren't the kind to give up.
If I had to sum up what I thought I knew -- twenty years ago, after seven years' contact with Israel -- I would have called it "a nice little socialist country, with one problem." The problem, of course, was the Jews' relations with the Arabs -- inside the country, in occupied lands, and in the nations nearby....Now, I'd say, the "one problem" (which Israelis refer to in shorthand as "the conflict") has eaten up the rest of the country.
For one thing, success at arms in the conflict, coupled with the policies of annexation and settlement, has made the country not-so-little. It's a land of major-league highways, now -- a lot of new ones ("bypass roads," as they're euphemized) cut and blasted right into and through the rocky hills, so the settlers won't ever have to see any Arabs. Then, too, the long national fight about the settlements is producing, for the first time, a generation where everybody doesn't know everybody. When I told my well-connected Tel Aviv friends that I was going to a party at a settlement near Nablus, they looked at me with horrified concern -- they'd never been near there, didn't know anyone "out there" (nevertheless, they knew they were assholes), and as for driving through the West Bank for a visit -- just for fun! -- they'd sooner shop for their shabbas cakes on Mars.
The socialist bit -- that's gone altogether. When Israel became America's little buddy, she also changed over -- not coincidentally, during the Reagan years -- to a hard-edged capitalistic economy. You could call the operation a success: the suburbs north of Tel Aviv are a bustling hive of high-tech; there's a lot more money in the economy, now; and it's easier to do business. (You can take as much cash as you please into or out of the country; there's no more waiting list for phones -- that used to last for years -- and a cell phone you can have the same day, so you can fit right in, talking every waking moment.) But for the first time, there are also homeless people, and families who say they can't find work, or enough to eat, who were camping out in a Protest of the Hungry in a Tel Aviv park for months.
As for the "nice" -- well, it's not-so-nice, now. I'm not talking just about the not-nice things that a suicide bomb does to people on a bus, or the equally not-nice effect of a missile fired from the air into a Palestinian neighborhood. Those are terrible events, but discrete -- the kind of thing that CNN-chat can wrap up in a day or two. And, as a consequence, that's more or less exactly what CNN-chat covers -- and never chronicles the holes left in the lives of survivors: the long fight to regrasp the sense that you are yourself and whole, after the loss of a limb; the marriages that break up after the loss of a child; the strain in a family when their house is blown up and they move in with relatives; or the effect on a boy when he looks in his father's eyes and sees, all at once, there is no hope there.
But I'm talking about even more than that -- the effect on the lives of people who were never near an explosion of any sort -- the effect on a whole society. For in this way, too, the conflict is not nice -- in the older sense of that word -- its effects cannot be nicely delimited. And after thirty-five years of occupation, after two Intifada uprisings, after a three-decade cycle of grim, dry determination (or resignation), followed by a few drops and then a wave of hope, followed by a bloom of elation...till elation is burned away again by horror, and the grimness sets in anew...there are no lives in Israel or Palestine that have not been heated and hardened. On the Palestinian side, there are so many lives and dreams on hold ("We are under occupation -- what we can 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 -- in accordance with their values.
Some of the symptoms are just horribly mundane, notable only for the deadening that they effect subtly, over time -- no one thinks twice, anymore, about being clumsily felt up with a beeping wand, while a question or two is mumbled ("Any gun today?"), whenever they stop for a cup of coffee, or a carton of milk at the market....Some of the changes are horribly sad: it used to be such a friendly place -- you could stop anybody on the street for help, all the kids wandered the country at will, and everybody picked up hitchhikers. (If it wasn't for folks giving rides, half the soldiers wouldn't have got to Israel's wars.) But now people are wary, and they don't even want their kids to go out (much less thumb a ride to Mount Hermon or Eilat)....And there are some effects that are just horrible, period. The latest 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...and the kind of grisly family crimes that I used to think of (with perverse patriotism) as strictly weird-American: fathers who murder their own kids, or they kill the wife and then themselves.
Of course, you can get a lively argument (two Jews -- three opinions) as to whether these sociological phenomena are really the result of the conflict. 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. To me, it's one of those historic turns that is so rife with rue, you don't know whether to cry or laugh: 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. Here's another way to look at it -- no less rueful, a little more human: If you had to pick one effort that was the keystone of Israel's first years (that in itself is hard -- it was a country where so much was needful at once), it would be the creation of a new kind of Jew. This one would be different from the European Jews whom the zionist founders knew and derided -- different from all the Jews, since the Middle Ages. This New Jew would be a farmer, a miner or a laboring man, and tough: no more cowering with the holy books behind the temple wall, while the Cossacks, or the Nazis, or (in this case) the Arabs rained death down on them...this Jew would be a fighter, a stoic, a Spartan. This, too, succeeded brilliantly, and the generation that the founders raised was the one that conquered all the lands of "Greater Israel." But this was also the generation that would never decide what to do with those lands. They didn't think they had to. They were stalwart, innovative, hard as nails -- they could handle whatever transpired. 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...
For what it's worth, the scientists -- sociologists, psychologists, doctors, public health savants -- tend to think the rise in violence within Israeli society does have to do with the occupation, or at least the conflict. But of course, their findings can be dismissed: What else could be expected from a bunch of left-wing dovish professors? Half of them are probably Arabs, anyway.... And this, too, is part of the point -- one of the things that happened to Israel. Because now, it is the conflict, and your attitude toward the conflict (Hawk or Dove; right wing or left), that is the number-one definition of who you are, and whether you're worth listening to. Facts are no longer facts, if they come from someone who's on the other (i.e., wrong) side...which is another loss for a country built from "facts on the ground" -- or another way of saying "the one problem" has seeped into everything.
Soon after I went back to Israel, I was introduced to a lovely man, Elisha Spiegelman, the editor of the two-hour Friday-night newscast on Israel's Channel One (the state-owned channel that was, for years, the only channel). As I remembered, the big news show on the Sabbath eve -- the only time when everyone was home -- was the single most influential arbiter of public opinion in the country. And Spiegelman had been working for the Israel Broadcasting Authority since television started here, soon after the Six Day War. He reminded me of editors I had met in the newsrooms of my youth -- the kind of guy you'd like to work for: smart and open, easy to talk to, but never easy about the truth -- and plenty tough enough to take the heat (when it's really one of his reporters who caused the problem that brought the heat down). I told him I thought he must get plenty of heat, as the editor of the big show....
"Well, I used to be editor," he said. "Then, I was fired. Then, they asked me to do the job, again."
"Why were you fired? And why brought back? What's going on there?"
"Well, we have some problems at Channel One."
"What's it about? What caused the problem?"
Spiegelman paused for a moment, maybe weighing what he had to say -- or maybe weighing who was I (where did I stand, as it were)...."I think," he said, with a self-conscious smile, "the cause is the occupation."
I almost laughed out loud. But he was serious. "That was the first time -- that was the cause -- when they told us there are people you can't interview....
"That was a Labour government, incidentally -- during the first Intifada -- and the first order was about Palestinian leaders. We were not allowed to interview them...so you know what we used to do? Man on the street. But we'd be on the street when the faction leaders came out of their office, and we'd put their words on, that way. We'd say, 'We didn't know it was a leader! We were just talking to people who walked by!'...
"You know, during the eighties, when we had film of the PLO meeting in Tunis -- where they said they were changing their aim, and going for an independent state of their own -- we got a direct order from the general manager: 'No sound allowed.' We could only run the film to show the picture -- no words!
"Then other orders started coming down. It started with the Arabs, but it spread, after that. We were not allowed to interview [the extremist anti-Arab Meir] Kahane -- while he was a member of the Knesset! The High Court overturned that order....And then, Tommy Lapid, the head of the Shinui party -- you know who he is?..."
(I did know. He was, at that moment, headed for a huge election victory, and a deal thereafter with Arik Sharon, where he would bring his members of Knesset into the government in exchange for becoming the minister of justice.)
"...When Tommy Lapid was the general manager, he was the one who said we should be a zionist television -- not objective. He now presents himself as the liberal leader of the upper middle class...." If we hadn't been in a nice cafe;, Elisha would have spat.
There was one more effect of the occupation he wanted to mention -- that was cheap labor. When the Palestinians were pouring in to work for whatever wages were offered, Israel got addicted to cheap labor in every industry. Now, that addiction had infected the news business. ("It's the same, it started with the Arabs," he said, with a short laugh. "Then it spread back to the Jews.") At his station, at the private TV stations, and now at the newspapers, too, there were few staff workers who had union wages and union protection. Most people were hired as independent contractors or on personal service contracts -- and they did what was wanted by management, or they were gone. The owners and managers were hiring their own political prote;ge;s and ordering the rest to toe the line -- or else. "They have no way to fight," Elisha said. But he was still fighting.
"We're still trying to do a fair job as journalists. We're running between the drops. We use material that was already broadcast abroad -- like a Bob Simon piece for 60 Minutes. Or we let the people in the street say what we want to say. Then, we say, 'We're only quoting!'"
Still, his problems were getting worse. Channel One was losing market share (a good excuse for management to make changes)....All the stations (his, too, reluctantly) were now in the business of all-night marathon newscasts CNN-style ("Let's go live, now, to Fred Furrowbrow, who's at the scene.") from the site of every terrorist incident -- aided by the government's new hasbarah tactic, to show the world, as lavishly as possible, the Jewish victims of terror. "Nobody wants to do it," Elisha said, 'but you look at the ratings, it's very high."...There was a good story about a refusenik -- a kid who refused to serve in the army -- who was on a hunger strike in jail. And he was the nephew of Sara Netanyahu, wife to the right-wing former (and maybe future) prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu. Elisha couldn't touch that story -- wouldn't even bring it up with his latest boss, a Likud crony by the name of Yosef Bar' el -- there weren't going to be any refuseniks on Channel One. And Elisha was in enough trouble already. The orthodox religious would no longer talk to him for his Friday-night show. He used to tape them before the Sabbath, and run a line beneath the talking head, assuring viewers that the interview had been conducted on Thursday. Now, that wasn't good enough. The fact that his show was on (that TV was on!), when God commanded rest, was a desecration -- in which they would not participate -- and he was an Enemy of God. The settlers all hated him because of his left-leaning secular lies. "If you say they built an unauthorized settlement, then they call you a liar because they say they got their authorization from God, three thousand years ago." If Elisha ran a story on Arabs -- or put anything on the air about Arabs -- that did not take proper account of "their murderous nature," then he was an apologist. And a story that chronicled with any dispassion what the army did to the Palestinians in the territories would brand him clearly as an enemy of the state. "They say to me, 'You're using our television to attack us?' "
Besides that, his cell phone was ringing. He listened for a moment, and said into the phone: "What are you, a kid -- and you think we'll have a monopoly on this story?...So, think how you'll treat it properly for this week. And we'll talk when I get back." You could see on his face, as he folded up the phone, he was going back soon.
But he had one thing to add -- about those army stories. To tell the truth, he didn't like to run them, either -- didn't even like to read them in the papers. "Because I am ashamed of myself," he said. "The army is doing this in my name. And it's my child. My boy is a soldier there, and doing similar things. So I don't read it, now. Because I get shame."
I felt sorry for him as he hiked up his coat and walked into the rain, headed back to his office. But his troubles were soon diminished. A few weeks after I talked to him, he was fired again.
Dan Halutz kept his job. He is a major general and commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). When I went back to Israel in the autumn of 2002, General Halutz had made himself more famous than a general ought to be, with an interview that appeared in the newspaper Ha'aretz. The Jerusalem correspondent for my home-state paper, Peter Hermann of The Baltimore Sun, counseled me as soon as I got to the country: "You'd better read that interview. It's unbelievable."
The sad part was, it wasn't unbelievable -- just the reverse. I believed that General Halutz told the truth -- or tried to. He was sincere. In fact, he articulated thoroughly and well the attitude that Israel must have to do what she has done. It is the only attitude that explains the facts.
In the case that spurred the interview, the facts were pretty grim. It was an operation in Gaza to assassinate Salah Shehadeh, the leader of the military wing of Hamas, the most successful Islamic resistance group. The Shin Bet, Israel's secret police -- on any given day, they know better than anyone else what's going on in Gaza (they know, just for example, about ten times more than Yassir Arafat) -- was aware that Hamas had given Shehadeh a new hideout apartment in a neighborhood called Daraj. They knew the neighborhood was packed with civilians. (There are no neighborhoods that aren't packed -- Gaza is, by official count and bar-none, the most crowded place on earth.) They knew Shehadeh's three-story cement and block building was cheek-by-jowl with others of similar height and density. Nevertheless, on the night of July 22, 2002 -- almost midnight (good sleeping time) -- an American-made F-16 streaked over Gaza and dropped onto Shehadeh's apartment house a bomb weighing one ton.
Two thousand pounds of steel and explosives is a serious bomb. Shehadeh's building crumbled to a killing crush of rubble. He was dead in an instant. His bodyguard was with him -- he was dead. Shehadeh's wife, Leila, was with him -- she was dead. Their daughter, fourteen-year-old Iman -- also dead. In the days that followed, various hasbarah pros would try out the story that the IDF hadn't known that other family members were present. "There was no intent on harming civilians," said Israel's minister of defense, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. "According to the information we had, there were not supposed to be civilians in his vicinity, and we express sorrow at the harm to them." It was the honest man, General Halutz of the air force, who would tell the army radio channel (but not till a year later) that the military, and the government, knew Shehadeh's wife was there -- they decided to drop the bomb anyway.
But the list -- also dead -- didn't stop with Shehadeh's family. His building was filled with families. And the neighboring buildings (also severely damaged) were filled. The IDF never issued a list (or even a count) of the dead. But two days after the bombing, Gush Shalom (the Peace Bloc) listed them (and their ages) this way: -- there was Salah Shehadeh, and also:
1. Leila Shehadeh (41)
2. Her daughter, Iman (14)
3. Zaher Nassar (37)
4. Muna Fahmi Hewaiti (30)
5. Her child, Subhi (4)
6. Her child, Mohamed (3)
7. Mohamed Al-Shawa (40)
8. His son, Ahmed (?)
9. Iman Hassan Mater (27)
10. Her child, Dunya (5)
11. Her child, Mohamed (4)
12. Her child, Aiman (1)
13. Ala Mohamed Mater (11)
14. Dalia Mater (6)
15. Dunia Rami Mater (2 mo.)
+ 150 Wounded
The same day that list first transpired, the death toll was hiked to seventeen -- after the discovery of two more dead children, buried under broken concete. In all, fifteen of the dead were civilians, and eleven were kids.
By the time those names were published, the residents of Gaza had held the predictable (and predictably fierce) mass-funeral-cum-demonstration, with calls for revenge and vows to make the blood of Jews flow equally -- no, even more! -- in response to this terror. "We will chase them in their houses and in their apartments," said the Hamasnik political chief, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Rantisi, "the same way they have destroyed our houses and our apartments." From international capitals (even from slumbrous Washington) a predictable round of denunciations had been launched -- the Swedish foreign minister actually used the words "a crime against international law." Inside Israel, the who-struck-John was in full flower, with on-scene reports from Gaza, long analyses in all the papers, instant polls that showed (surprise!) that people were upset, and hasbarah on every side to surround and cauterize this ugly boil. The army bigwigs blamed the intelligence (Children? Who knew?)...while unnamed "intelligence sources" said the poop was plenty good. The government promised a full investigation...while the chief of government, Prime Minister Sharon, called the bombing "one of our most successful operations." Meanwhile, the peace agitators, Gush Shalom, were trying to popularize the slogan "How can you sleep?" -- which slogan was spray-painted at night onto the cars of some pilots.
Still, it all would have blown over -- as so many other incidents, similar in kind if not in particulars, had blown over before...replaced on the news channels and in the papers by a new outrage -- or perhaps by reprisals for this outrage -- in what those goyishe foreign ministries like to call "the tragic cycle of violence." Nobody knew this -- it would have blown over -- better than the boss who ordered this bombing, Arik Sharon. He'd decimated his first Arab village (at least the first one we know about) -- burying men, women and children under the rubble of their houses -- in 1953. That was a place called Qibya -- and the hand-wringing over that operation made this stuff look mild. Sharon more or less invented Israeli army assassinations when he was the military chief in Gaza, more than thirty years ago. People didn't like that, either -- or said they didn't. Then, as minister of defense, twenty years ago, he presided over the biggest massacre in IDF history, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut. (Of course, the IDF didn't do the killing -- their Lebanese Christian little buddies did.) And when that story came out, there was hell to pay. An official blue-ribbon national commission looked into that one, and recommended that Sharon must not serve anymore as minister of defense -- never again.... So, he didn't. He got elected prime minister instead.
Anyway, this one would have blown over, too -- and soon enough. Except, then, Gush Shalom started writing letters to Israeli generals, warning that their actions were being watched... and information on any crimes would be forwarded to the International Criminal Court at the Hague. And that little gambit was too much for Dan Halutz. Israelis -- Jews! -- ratting on the Jewish armed forces? That was, in his eyes, nothing short of sedition...and that's why, one month after the bombing, he sat down for an interview with the journalist Vered Levy-Barzilai, for Israel's premier paper, Ha'aretz:
Ha'aretz: "Are you suggesting that members of the Gush Shalom group who made those comments should be placed on trial for treason?"
Halutz: "We have to find the right clause in the law and place them on trial in Israel. Yes. You wanted to talk to me about morality, and I say that a state that does not protect itself is acting immorally. A state that does not back up its fighters will not survive. Happily, the State of Israel does back up its fighters. This vocal but negligible minority brings to mind dark times in the history of the Jewish people, when a minority among us went and informed on another part of the nation. That must not happen again. Who would have believed that pilots of the air force would find their cars spray-painted with savage graffiti because of a mission they carried out."
"Did you speak with the pilots whose cars were spray-painted?"
"Yes. An agitated pilot came to see me. He asked himself, and me, whether this was a nightmare, a horrible dream that he was about to wake up from, or reality. The truth is that I didn't know what to tell him. We both sat there, stunned and hurt. The only thing I was able to say, finally, was that he shouldn't pay attention to marginal phenomena. To me, these people aren't even marginal. They are outside the margins of the State of Israel."...
"Will anything in the procedures, the decision-making process of the IAF or its operational performance change because of what happened?"
"Definitely not. Nothing will change and there is no reason to change anything."...
"There were several direct references to you as a war criminal. How did you feel about that, and will you think twice before making a trip to Belgium?"
"I am sorry to disappoint the Belgians, but of all places in the world, I never had the particular intention of going to their country. More seriously, though, we operate according to an extremely high moral code. And since that is what guides us, I don't think that there is any court to which we have to give an accounting. There is no such court. Personally, I have a deep feeling of justice and morality. And as for how I feel -- I feel just fine, thank you. I really meant it when I told the pilots that I sleep very well."...
Halutz said pilots often need information from their command desk, or intelligence, to know what they are bombing.
"But this time, the opinion that is supposed to assist you made you fail?"
"Made us fail? By what yardstick? Who are the people who claim that and who decided the criteria? I assert that everything that happened prior to the mission passes my moral test and is rooted very deeply in the 'envelope.' After all, who and what are we talking about here: about a person who was the very archetype of the personification of evil. A dictionary that wants to define the term 'terrorist' could just enter his name. He killed more than a few, more than a few dozen, members of the Jewish nation."
"So that is the legitimization for the liquidation, but what about the innocent people who were killed?"
"The result consists of two parts. First, a perfect positive result because we hit the person. The second result, for which we said we were sorry, is that uninvolved civilians were hurt."
"Innocent civilians, don't you mean?"
"I deliberately say 'uninvolved civilians,' because we know for a fact that even the greatest terrorists are sometimes cloaked in a civilian guise."
"But you will agree, of course, that at least the eight [small] children and infants were innocent?"
"And they were killed because you acted on the basis of inaccurate intelligence information?"
"The intelligence was very accurate. Sometimes, though, you have no control over all kinds of things that take place in a space that is hidden from view. In retrospect, it turned out that I simply did not have part of the information; it changed in the course of the mission."
"And you do not regard this as an intelligence or other failure?"
"No. The decision-making process was right, balanced, proper and cautious. The problem lay in the information, and the information changed. I reject all the criticism in regard to this operation -- pre-, during and post. Within the parameters of my moral values, the fact that uninvolved civilians and innocent children were killed is very saddening. I am sorry for that. But it did not stem from a professional problem."
"The decision to use a one-ton bomb was criticized. Wasn't the choice of that weapon a mistake?"
"No. Professionally, and in retrospect, too, it was the most correct decision. I have no problem with all kinds of people and journalists asking these questions, but I am in favor of letting the professionals give the answers: For a half-ton bomb to achieve the effect we wanted, we would have had to drop two of them, because of the calculations of the chance that one of them would miss altogether. That was a decisive consideration. So the operation decision was correct. As for the intelligence information that changed -- anyone who waits for 100 percent certainty in every case will probably never act. The attempt to look for guilty people here is shameful. I do not see anything resembling the moral level of the soldiers of the IDF anywhere else in the world."...
"If you had known in advance that there were fifteen or seventeen people in the building, including children, would you still have ordered the bombing to go ahead?"
"I am not willing to answer a question like that, and certainly not to cite numbers. I am ready to discuss the question of principle: Is there a situation in which it is legitimate to strike at a terrorist when you know that the operation will exact a price in the form of casualties among civilians and uninvolved people?"
"And what is your reply?"
"I have no doubt about it. The reply is positive. Against a person who has perpetrated, or who is known for certain to have a plan for what is called mega-terrorism, my reply is categorical: yes. How many people? I don't know. I will be able to give that answer at the moment of truth. Let's go back to the suicide bombing in the Park Hotel in Netanya on the eve of Passover. Let's say we would have known about this terrorist in advance and would have trapped him in his house -- would it have been legitimate to strike at him even if there were other people there? My answer is yes. How many people? I don't know and I am not ready to state a number. I repeat again that I am very sorry about innocent children who are killed. But anyone who sets out to murder children in Israel has to take into account that children are liable to be killed in his surroundings...."
Halutz said he cannot subscribe anymore to the IDF tradition called "The Purity of Arms."
"In my eyes, that is a fundamentally invalid concept. Weapons are not pure. They are not intended to be pure. A pure weapon is not a weapon. Maybe it was once a weapon, but it has been turned into a pruning hook. By the same token, I am sorry to have to announce that there are no clean wars. I don't know of a person who is capable of waging a clean war."...
Halutz said a pilot who objects to a certain mission as indecent should bring up his objections in the pre-operation stage -- "in order to be persuaded."
"And if after all that he still doesn't accept the order?"
"Then he can get up and leave the squadron."
Refusal to perform a mission, he said, "is not part of the rules of my game." And neither is a lot of worry or emotion about what happens after the bombs hit.
"Is there a format within the system that makes it possible for the pilots to do emotional processing?"
"Why emotional? Anyone who needs help, of any kind and in any area, will get it. All the mechanisms exist, including psychological help. Only people who have emotional problems need to do emotional processing."...
"Still, you have also gone through a difficult month. You and the IAF came under attack, and from the media everywhere. Who strengthened you?"
"I don't need strengthening, I am a strong person. Or let's put it this way: To this day, I have not needed external strengthening. I know how to cope with things by myself. In this case, I had no doubt, and certainly there was no need for strengthening from anyone. And I very much hope that in the future, too, I will not encounter situations that will make me need such help. What is this obsessive preoccupation with feeling?"
"A pilot drops a bomb. A bomb kills people -- sometimes those he planned to kill, sometimes not. Isn't it legitimate to ask a pilot what he feels after he releases the bomb? Can we expect him to ask himself that question, and is it in fact asked in the IAF?"
"No. That is not a legitimate question and it is not asked. But if you nevertheless want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, I will tell you: I feel a light bump to the plane as a result of the bomb's release. A second later it's gone, and that's all. That is what I feel."
What happened to Israel is, standards changed. The fact that Halutz kept his job -- after he told the world that Israeli pilots don't care, or shouldn't care, or can't care, if a few Arab babies more-or-less are "also dead" -- that was one sure sign. In the old days he would have been gone so fast, his head would be spinning. He wouldn't have had time to pack a bag, before his exciting "promotion to new duties" -- say, as General Chief of Procurement -- buying aircraft parts in France....Not because he told an untruth. (Clearly, he told the truth.) And not because his attitude was incompatible with the air force job. (His attitude was compatible -- exactly -- with the air force, and with his fellow IDF generals. Nobody got to be general -- even back in those days -- by acting like Mother Teresa.)...But Halutz would have been gone because it was the stated policy of Israel to attempt to live in peace with her neighbors -- and this would not help. He would have been gone because it was the stated policy of Israel that noncombatants, even Arab noncombatants, would not be harmed -- even if Israeli soldiers were endangered to protect them -- and what Halutz said did not reflect that policy. He would have been gone because Israel held herself to a certain standard -- maybe an unfair standard, and maybe a standard often unmet -- but, like Hebrew National, she answered to a Higher Authority.
Actually, it was exactly like the hot dog company -- she advertised heavily that she had to meet a higher standard -- and maybe it was half ballyhoo. But the key fact was, that was the way her people wanted the nation to be seen. The zionists were not just ideologues, but idealists. There was an earnest and continuous national discussion about how their society ought to be, and leaders were expected to be exemplary. The public would make exceptions for fan-favorites, like Moshe Dayan -- whatever he did was all right -- and personal peccadillos were not the issue. (Any schoolchild in Afula or Ashkelon can tell you about the high-ranking Israeli diplomat who was found dead, tied down on a Paris hotel-room bed, with two girls -- or by some accounts, a girl and a boy. Those stories were simply enjoyed.) But in public behavior -- in the name of or for the state of Israel -- the standard held, and people expected not to be embarrassed. Now, they don't expect much, at all.
Nothing shows the change better than the underlying cause of the carnage in that Gaza apartment house -- the policy of assassination. How did a nice Jewish state decide to go into a business like that?...Well, as in so many other bad businesses, she didn't decide -- not openly -- she just slid in. And, like other bad businesses, it started with Arik Sharon. Thirty years ago, as head of the southern command, he considered it his mission to stop any trouble in or from the Gaza Strip -- so he decided to stop the troublemakers. He built a small secret unit called Rimon -- that was the Hebrew word for the pomegranate fruit, and soldier slang for a hand grenade. At first, Rimon would simply get troublemakers killed -- by telling some enemy faction, or enemy family, where the troublemaker could be found, at a certain time...and if they had to, of course, they would supply a gun. But sometimes, you couldn't rely on the enemy clan -- in which case, the Rimon boys (dressed as Arabs, speaking Arabic) would take care of business themselves. Then, they would leak the news, somehow, that some unidentified Arab enemies had bumped off this bad guy -- not that anyone was watching too closely.
The first time the government came out of the closet -- admitting (if only with a wink and a nod) that they'd put a hit on some Palestinians -- was in the early 1970s. One of the first operations was revealed because Golda Meir wanted her voters to know that the state had hunted down and "put to justice" the Black September commandos who had kidnapped and murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In '73, a team of Israelis, led by the top commando, Ehud Barak (in drag for the occasion, with a long dark wig and false breasts), slipped ashore in Beirut and gunned down three PLO officials in their apartments. And assassinations were more frequent after 1982, when the Israelis once again invaded Lebanon -- they would keep advisers and operatives in the country for the next twenty years.
Still, assassination was sporadic, and case-by-case -- a special remedy for special circumstances, until the year 2000 and the outbreak of the second Intifada -- with attacks inside Israel, and suicide bombings. The prime minister at that point was that old drag queen, Ehud Barak. In November 2000, he ordered a hit on a Palestinian leader named Hussein Abayat, a member of Arafat's Fatah team -- but nothing complicated this time, no commandos or costumes. The IAF simply flew in a gunship and hit Abayat's Mitsubishi with antitank missiles. Simple as pie -- he was melted onto his car seat. That started the wide-open assassination business. And it started the list of also-dead: two ladies in their fifties, who happened to be standing near Abayat's car, were also-charred-to-death...nevertheless Barak vowed to continue the policy. He never got much chance. He was voted out in favor of Arik Sharon -- and then, the policy went wholesale. The number of dead in Israeli assassination attacks -- just since the second Intifada began -- has climbed to more than two hundred and fifty. About a hundred and fifty were targets. A hundred or so were simply in the wrong place when the assassination went down.
But wait -- that's another thing. They aren't assassinations. Once the IDF got into the business more or less every week, the professional hasbarah men started tinkering with the wording. So, then, these attacks became "targeted killings" -- which phrase caught on. It sounded surgical. But after a while, everybody knew this wasn't surgery, more like slaughter -- so, the wording changed again. It wasn't killing at all. The new idea was these guys weren't actually people, but "ticking bombs" -- about to blow up and kill more Jews. They must be defused!...So, the IDF now announces the demise of selected Palestinians as "focused preventative actions."...Anyway, no one asks anymore (notice, Halutz was never asked) about the policy of killing suspected evildoers -- on their way to doing the evil -- and without the niceties of arrest, arraignment, trial, argument, evidence...without any public proof at all.
The underlying principle (or lack thereof) is the rule of law. In the old days that was, perhaps, the one tenet on which you couldn't get an argument in Israel. When I first got to know the country, the only institution that was more august than the army was the High Court of Justice -- the Bagatz, as Israelis refer to it, by its acronym -- equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court. There were jokes about it, sure -- how the justices would tortuously examine how many angels could dance on the head of some pin -- still, everybody wanted his pin considered....But now, the Bagatz has taken a dive -- and the issue, once again, is the occupation.
On the topic of targeted killings, the court did consider a petition brought by a Communist Arab member of the Knesset, Muhammad Baraka. The lawyer for Baraka argued that since the Israelis control the territories, the security forces could make arrests, and put the suspected criminals on trial. (The Israelis have made hundreds of arrests -- it can be done.) But one of the justices, Mishael Cheshin, broke in to yell at the lawyer: "My son goes into Area A. I don't want his life to be endangered!"...The lawyer fell back to an even more basic point: "Who is to decide who is a terrorist?" The presiding justice, Eliahu Mazza, snapped: "Certainly, not the court....As far as we know, the IDF has information about those it attacks." So, that was that -- let the army decide. The court denied the petition.
One more example: In order to hold on to the West Bank and Gaza -- and to dissuade any locals from doing terrible things to fight the occupation -- the security forces punish collectively. Say, a kid from a village near Jenin sneaks across the Green Line, into Israel proper, for the purpose of blowing up some Jews -- or he tries to sneak across the Green Line, and is caught. The security forces will show up in his village and, at the very least, knock down his house. Except he's a kid, so it's not really his house, but his father's, or his grandfather's, or an uncle's house. In fact, if it's like most Palestinian families, it's the whole extended clan's house, with apartments for uncles, cousins, married sisters...it could be forty or fifty people's house. And they didn't even know that young Ahmad, their cousin -- or whatever this kid is -- had lost all hope of doing anything else, and had sneaked off with dynamite strapped to his belly. So, should they lose their house?
It's a made-to-order Bagatz issue. In fact, since the occupation is The Question in Israel, everything about it comes up in a case at the High Court -- or it could, if the justices will hear a petition. Torture by Israeli secret police (is that okay if it's meant to forestall future terror attacks?)...Arab land taken by the army for "security zones" (who decides -- and whose security?)...water rights (should the Arab farmers go dry because the new settlement on what used to be their land has decided to grow tomatoes?)...But here's the Bagatz swan dive again: in the case of collective punishment, the justices agree that collective punishment is at least arguable. (In fact it's prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, but to the High Court of Israel, the Geneva Conventions are just arguable.) So the Bagatz used to require the army to give a notice of demolition -- forty-eight hours -- so the affected family could go to (an Israeli) court and at least make a plea that they shouldn't be made homeless. Most of the time, the court would give a green light to the army, anyway -- but at least there was a chance for review, under the rule of law. The army didn't like that. If they gave notice, a crowd could gather. People could throw stones, or set booby traps. The generals insisted the security of Israel required immediate demolitions. (Jews could get hurt knocking down those Arab houses!)...And so the justices ruled that these punishments were justified for the security of Israel. And then, with the coyness of a schoolgirl, the members of the court further reasoned that they, as learned justices, were not experts on security. The experts on security are the security forces! And since it's the security forces knocking down the houses...well, you get the drift. Let the army decide if notice should be given. End of case. End of Bagatz.
The big problem is, nothing spreads faster than a few little exceptions ("just in this case"..."under the circumstances") to the rule of law. It's like the ban on interviews at Channel One -- it starts about the Arabs, it spreads back to the Jews.
So...there's a Sunday morning train from Haifa to Tel Aviv, the cars are packed with soldiers returning from a Sabbath with their families. Beautiful kids -- tall, healthy, clear eyed, well spoken -- they are the triumph of the nation...except they're having a lively technical discussion about shooting a ricochet...in case you should happen to shoot, you know, a lady, a little kid, or someone old...and they're simply not labelable, believably, as a terrorist -- and if there's an investigation...but you can show that your bullet hit the cement behind the also-dead ("No, next to them is better -- it won't bounce if it's straight in behind them")...well, then, no problem -- it was just an unlucky ricochet. The discussion ended with general agreement: It doesn't matter, these days -- there's not going to be any investigation.
So...it's election time and Ariel Sharon is running for another go-round as prime minister. He's way ahead. ("There's no one else" is the way people say it.)...Except then, he runs into a problem -- a story in the papers: it turns out, he screwed up the spending for his last campaign, and he, personally, had to pay back a lot of money, but he didn't have the money...so he took some money as a "loan" from a guy in South Africa -- an old pal of his, a guy named Kern. Unfortunately, Kern (pal or not) is still kind of a foreigner, which may make it kind of illegal for Sharon to be taking money from him...like a million-and-a-half dollars -- which is transferred all over the planet before it lands in Sharon's pocket, secretly.... Now, I'm thinking back to the first time Rabin was prime minister, and it was discovered that his wife had an illegal bank account -- in foreign currency -- twenty thousand dollars in Washington. Rabin couldn't take the heat. He had to resign. So I'm asking around -- inquiring of Israeli experts -- do they think Sharon is going to have to step down? It's a mark of their kindness, no one laughs in my face...Within two days, the stories in the papers have shifted to a new topic: who was it leaking that nasty stuff about Sharon? Sure enough, a lady is found -- deputy-assistant-prosecutor-something -- and her head is in the noose. Sharon cruises on to victory.
It was Sever Plotzker, the distinguished economics correspondent for Israel's largest paper, Yediot Ahronot, who finally answered my question -- why Rabin had to fall on his sword for twenty grand, and Arik Sharon can take a million and a half. "The standards have changed," Sever said. "These days, clean does not mean one hundred percent clean. Thirty percent dirty is still clean."
And for the next big burdensome question -- why did the standards change -- I had to ask Liora Nir. God gives the heavy burdens to those whose shoulders He made to bear them, and Liora is one of His real shtarkers. She used to work in the government press office (under that spokesman who came from Detroit) -- but she quit when the big bosses, Menachem Begin and his defense minister, Arik Sharon, decided to drop bombs on some apartment houses in Lebanon. She's done fine, ever since, as a brilliant student of Israeli society. Her sharp eye on her countrymen has made her, at present, the inventor, proprietress and CEO of a TV channel that shows telenovelas -- month-long South American romance dramas (subtitled in Hebrew, or course) -- because she figured what Israelis needed was a cheap, available and emotional escape. It's the hottest channel on cable TV.
"What changed the standards?" I asked her, and her answer was simple: "We changed. It's us....Do you know the word booshah?" she asked. "It means shame. Gradually, we lost booshah."
"Why? You mean the soldiers?"
"The soldiers -- it starts there. Everybody is a soldier, and being a soldier means the territories. 'Make sure they don't get through. Make sure the grandmothers don't hide anything under their skirt. They'll trick you. They hate you. Make sure they don't get over on you.' It's a very demoralizing and corrupting experience.
"You have to numb yourself. The only way is to harden yourself. And that cannot stop at the Green Line. And it can't stop with the Arabs. You have to make a buffer against what you see. And you carry that with you.
"But it's not just the soldiers. We all were corrupted. I'm not talking about a few rotten apples. That's always. But it's what does the system do when it finds a rotten apple? These days, it's nothing. People are not shocked anymore."
Liora said attitudes changed becauses lives changed -- or maybe it's vice versa, chicken and egg. But everything changed, since she grew up in what her old boss, Zev Chafets, that Israeli-American spokesman, used to call The Era of High Zionist Certainty.
"In those days there were two principles: number one, whatever was not allowed was forbidden." (If you wanted to do something, and it was good for the state, and you were well enough connected -- like, for instance, you had a Labour party card -- the government would give you a special permission.) "Number two, you worked for the good of the state, and the state would take care of the public." (The standard of your worth was not your big career, or you made a lot of money. If you made money you hid it -- poverty proved decency. Your worth was measured by what good you did for the zionist society.)
Liora said the shock of the Yom Kippur War knocked the first stones out of the wall of certainty -- for instance, the biggest boulder of belief -- that the government knew best. By the 1980s, the rock slide was an avalanche. "The world changed. The idea became: 'Take care of yourself.' You could be a good citizen by being a happy citizen -- you could make money, people started flying to America, back and forth, starting businesses -- 'privatization.' The society started to be about individuals, the cohesion started breaking apart. After the '73 War, Rabin [the old-school zionist fighter] called the people who ran to America 'nefollet memushot.' I don't know how you'd say that in English -- something like 'the fallout of muck.' A few years later, they were the Best and the Brightest -- Rabin's son is in America, now. It's the opposite of the Kennedy line -- ask what you can do for your country."
So...now the long trend of privatization, atomization, individualization has come together with the hardening -- the buffer that has to be built against the bad things Israelis have to do or see...except for the most part they don't see -- day to day, they don't have to look...because that's a collective problem -- not their doing -- they're busy with their job, taking care of Number One...and that stuff "out there" is so disappointing -- where is it written they should have to feel terrible?...And one more thing -- a new thing, the latest thing:
They tried!... This is not just the hawks now, but all the Jews -- down to the old peaceniks -- they are convinced in their hearts that they elected a prime minister, Ehud Barak, on a platform of peace...and in the year 2000, Barak went to Camp David, to sit with that wonderful Bill Clinton (Clinton the Israelis would elect today, in a heartbeat!)...and Barak offered that scumbag Arafat everything he wanted -- or everything he could legitimately want -- anyway, a country: Barak tried to give them a state!... And what did that scumbag do -- he said, NO! And then he started a war -- a second Intifada, where he sends children to blow themselves up, to kill our children. So...to hell with them. We tried. Now, whatever happens is their own fault. Let them take up their problems with Arafat.
This is also the latest and greatest reason that standards changed -- or there are no standards (under the circumstances -- just in this case)....Because it's not their fault. They can't make peace. They have no partner for peace....That's the reason Halutz keeps his job, or Sharon can take a million or two -- because the Jews think they need a Halutz now, they need a Sharon. (And they don't need a Spiegelman to give them static on their own TV.)...And if things inside their own country are getting worse -- if it's their own society that's hostage?...Well. We'll deal with that later. This is war!
Liora Nir said it this way: "What you see is the conflict. It's in impatience. It's in aggression. It's in the rejection of anything different. Look, Israelis were never soft. But their hearts -- this is a generalization, of course -- but you could always push a button somewhere, and touch their hearts. Now...I don't know."
The only winner in this deal -- in thirty-five years since the Six Day War -- is the conflict itself. It's the blob that ate Cleveland. It changes hearts and minds.
Remember that old brigade commander from the 1948 War of Independence? I went to see Brigadier Itzhak Pundak for a long talk. He knew the Palestinians well -- knew how to get along with them, and how to make it worth their while to get along with Jews. While Pundak served as the military governor of Gaza, in 1971-72, he made sure that Palestinian men had work, old people had health care, kids had schools and playgrounds. And the Gaza Strip was placid, almost progressive: some refugees actually moved out of camps and into real houses. The population actually went down!...And Pundak knew Arik Sharon, too. That was the same time Sharon was running the southern command, inventing his secret assassination units (and claiming it was he who pacified the Gaza Strip). In his memoir, published in the year 2000, Pundak recalls Sharon as a disgraceful officer -- a liar, cheater, a swindler and suck-up, a killer and a coward. Sharon's policies impeded progress in Gaza -- made a generation of enemies -- and policies like them brought on the Intifada.... So I went to ask Pundak how those policies could be reversed. How could Israel move toward peace?
"Look," said Pundak. "This is a different country because our enemy made it a different country, not because we made it a different country. Arafat could have had ninety percent of the land, just like that, in the deal Barak offered him. And he didn't, so what does he want? He went on to start a war, a very dirty war against children and women, in the streets and in the restaurants. So first we have to win the war -- and we will....My advice is, any Jew who doesn't have nerve should leave this place." Incidentally, I asked the old brigadier: Who was he voting for?... "Sharon," he said. "There's nobody else."
I went to the northern seaside town of Nahariya, for a talk with Smadar Haran. Hers was a famous name in Israel when I first knew the place, because on a Sabbath night in April 1979, four Palestinian terrorists came in a rubber boat from Lebanon, beached in Nahariya, and invaded the apartment of Smadar and her family. Smadar's husband and her four-year-old daughter, Einat, were grabbed by the terrorists right away. They were taken two blocks away, to the beach, where the father was shot to death in front of the little girl -- so that was the last thing she'd see. Then, one of the gunmen smashed Einat's head against a rock with his rifle butt until she was dead, too. Smadar was hiding with her two-year-old daughter, Yael, in a crawl space over the bedroom, while two terrorists noisily hunted through the apartment -- they knew there were more people there. Smadar kept her hand clamped over her baby's mouth -- one sound, and they would be killed. Police finally came. Two terrorists were killed in a shoot-out. Two were captured. Smadar was discovered and helped out of the crawl space. But her baby was dead, too. In the effort to hide, she had smothered her child.
Now, I went to see Smadar not for the details of the crime against her, but for what she did after. To me, she was exemplary. Soon after the attack, she was interviewed on Israeli TV, and she wasn't interested in blaming the government for its failure to stop terror. She wouldn't blame police for their delay. She wouldn't blame the Arabs!...People were so upset about that -- the IDF's chief of staff, Ezer Weizman, accused her of "undermining the morale of the nation."...What really upset the Jews was something else she said: she was asked what she felt, while she was hiding, and she said she felt like her mother must have felt, because her mother was in the holocaust. And thirty years later, Smadar, her daughter, was going through the same thing. That was taboo -- it drove people nuts... because the whole point of Israel, the tough Jewish State, was supposed to be 'never again'...and what was she telling her countrymen, now? That there was no point? Nothing had changed? Or they'd got themselves into the same fix?...I admired her for more than what she wouldn't do -- blame -- but for what she would do. She wanted to live. Her mother's response to the holocaust was to live -- to come to Israel, to live a long life and build something new. And that was Smadar's answer, too. She is Smadar Haran Kaiser now -- remarried -- and she made a new family. She still looks like that twenty-something mom who was on TV the first time -- a few wrinkles around her eyes, now, but laugh wrinkles. She still lives near the beach in Nahariya -- she would not be driven away. She doesn't want to be a famous victim. She will not be a victim of any sort.
We sat at her kitchen table, so I could ask her how the country had changed. Her husband, Yaacov, a psychologist with offices attached to the house, came in to greet us and ask what we wanted to drink.
Smadar was telling about Yitzhak Rabin inviting her to Washington, to accompany him to the White House, where he would shake hands with Arafat, and they would sit down to talk peace. At the last minute, Smadar backed out. She couldn't shake Arafat's hand. She told Rabin, "You're the politician -- you have to do it. I don't." But Rabin did say, that day at the White House: he had come to make peace in the name of Smadar Haran.
"Now, it's not the same," she added. "Barak tried to give them everything. Arafat's answer was to start killing..."
"Wait a minute," I protested. "Are you telling me now that Israel's the victim?"
The husband, Yaacov, broke in with an announcement, by way of answer: "Now I am going to make a coffee," he said. "But let me leave you with one small sharp question. Do you think it is possible that we are unconditionally hated?"
"You mean, the whole world is against us?"
He shook his head, not in denial, but to brush away my objections. His voice got hard. "Look. Let me tell you something. To Hitler we were the appetizer. First was the Jews, and then he wanted to be emperor of the world. We are still the appetizer -- now for radical Islam. And if, God forbid, if Israel will have to kneel here, in front of terrorism, there will be no place safe....Unfortunately -- unfortunately and horribly -- we are a school. We are a laboratory -- and you are watching us. And when the United States has to fight against terrorism -- fighting in the cities, targeted killings -- your methods won't be so far from ours."
Maybe he's right. Maybe they are all right...and they are like us, or we are like them -- or no better than them, certainly. Maybe we would do the same, or worse -- maybe anybody would....
I remember another interview -- this one with Ron Ben-Yishai, the veteran reporter on the Israeli army beat. And I was wailing about the killing in the territories -- asking Ron: What got into his boys?... But he seemed not to be listening. He interrupted with a little smile. "Congratulations," he said. "Your CIA just pulled off your first targeted killing."
And that was true enough. That day, a CIA predator drone had fired a missile onto a car in Yemen, and fried six Al Qaeda guys. (Anyway, we said they were Al Qaeda guys....)
Maybe it's also true, the old Bible prophecy -- "Israel will be a light unto the nations" -- in this case, a lurid mercury-vapor security light. Our CIA confers with the Israelis on how to pull off proper assassinations. Our Homeland Security toughs study at the Shin Bet's knee. Now, as the Jewish Daily Forward reports, the Bush administration is sending legal experts to consult with Israelis -- on how to justify the killings. (Israelis have done a lot of good work on that.)
We are learning in the grim lab of Zion. It's one more reason -- surely the ugliest -- why we must care about Israel.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Ben Cramer