Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal-Op-Ed September 10, 1999
HAS ISRAEL LOST ITS NERVE?
By Norman Podhoretz
Reading the other day about the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to ban certain forms of interrogating suspected terrorists (like forceful shaking), what popped into my mind, of all things, was a story about Benjamin Franklin. Leaving the hall in which the deliberations over the Constitution were being secretly conducted, Franklin was accosted by a woman who asked him: "What have you given us, Dr. Franklin?" To which he replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."
In 1948, the Jews were given a state, and the question then was also whether they could keep it. For 2,000 years the Jews as a people had been stateless; could they now learn how to run a country of their own? But an even more urgent question was whether they could defend it against military assault.
They had over the course of those 2,000 years distinguished themselves in many areas, but the military arts were not prominent among them. Hence when, from the very minute the state of Israel came into being, it was invaded by the armies of five Arab nations, many doubted that the newborn nation could survive the determination of its neighbors to destroy it.
But to everyone's surprise, the Jews of Israel prevailed over these five invading armies. Not that this victory settled the matter. It took the Arab world--depending on how one counts--five or six more unsuccessful wars before serious doubts arose about the prospects of the "military option." For the Jews, it turned out, could fight after all. Driven by a kind of Darwinian necessity, the people of Israel poured their best energies and talents not into the Book but into the military, and they wound up with one of the best armies in the world.
It also turned out that the Jews not only could govern themselves but could do so peacefully within a democratic framework. True, the economy was hobbled by the more or less socialist system that had been put into place by the dominant Labor Party. But in this Israel was no different from many other nations, to which the free market was self-evidently unjust and unviable. (Once I heard the editor of a leading Israeli newspaper exclaim incredulously upon hearing how things worked in America: "You mean anyone can start any business he likes? But that's anarchy!")
It seemed, then, that the Jews, having been given a state, could keep it. But trouble set in when, in 1977, the Labor Party for the first time lost an election and Menachem Begin became prime minister. In American terms, this was comparable to Richard Nixon's accession to the presidency. The liberals' hatred of Nixon went back to the Alger Hiss case, and the detestation of Begin by the entire Labor establishment also had its roots in past conflicts.
Even more fateful was the effect on the Labor establishment of being driven into opposition. While in power, responsibility under a condition of continual siege wonderfully concentrated Labor's mind. But once relieved of that responsibility, Labor went soft and was radicalized. Much the same thing happened to the Democrats and their liberal backers when Nixon took over the Vietnam War into which they had led the U.S.
Moreover, their flip-flop on Vietnam extended to the Cold War generally. Many of the very people who had designed and executed the policy of containing Soviet expansion turned from hawks into doves. So too in Israel, where the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had an analogous effect. Never before had there been anything like the explosion of rage that ripped through the entire Labor establishment. Not limited to Begin's government alone, it encompassed the state of Israel as such.
In the U.S., Vietnam was taken by the left to be not a mistake but a crime that tore the benevolent mask off the face of American foreign policy and showed the aggressive reality underneath. In Israel, Lebanon became the occasion for an uncannily similar "revelation." There too a new school of revisionist historians began to emerge who, like their American counterparts in relation to the Soviet Union, blamed Israel for the war the Arabs had been waging against it. There too, these ideas, so shocking when first propounded, soon spread from radicals on the far left to liberals closer to the center.
In due course--given a mighty push by the intifada, which demoralized the Israelis by forcing them to fight against Palestinian children--the new ideas even managed to affect a lifelong hawk like Yitzhak Rabin. It was at least partly under their influence that when Rabin became prime minister in 1992, he violated his campaign vows never to make a deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization. In another broken commitment, he reportedly also promised to return the entire Golan Heights to Syria. It was as though Scoop Jackson had turned into George McGovern.
Of course, the yearning for peace had always been present in Israel, but it was now intensified by the onset of war weariness. This begat hope about the possibilities of an accommodation, and hope begat illusions about the Arab world's intentions. Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, another lifelong hawk born again as a dove, now began spinning fantasies about a "new Middle East" in which the Arabs would wish to make money not war.
It did not bother Mr. Peres that serious signs of any such transformation were invisible to the naked eye. On the contrary, the evidence pointed to a change not of heart but of tactics. Having been persuaded that Israel could not yet be eliminated through direct military assault, the Arab world now adopted the so-called strategy of stages. The aim was to gain a foothold in the "occupied territories" (that is, the territories seized by the Israelis in defensive wars launched against them), and to move on, salami slice by salami slice, to the point where a jihad, a holy war, could at last successfully be launched.
As an accompaniment to this strategy, there was no more open talk for Western ears of destroying Israel and driving its Jewish inhabitants into the sea. Speaking in their own language among themselves, however, Arab leaders continued to affirm their real objective, which was still to wipe the Jewish state off the map.
This murderous intent did not grow out of a desire to establish a Palestinian state, and it could not be assuaged by the establishment of such a state. Nor were the wars launched against Israel from 1948 on motivated by any grievance over where its borders were drawn. The problem for the Arabs was the sheer existence of a sovereign Jewish state on territory that had been ordained by God as belonging to the realm of Islam.
There was also the belief that Israel represented a political injustice foisted on the Arabs by the imperialist West. Feeling guilty over the Holocaust, and not knowing what to do about the "displaced persons" who had survived, the West was shifting the burden of its own Jewish problem to the Middle East. It was therefore a political as well as a religious obligation for the Arabs to remove this abomination from the face of the earth.
This was so in 1948, and it is so today. Thus, a couple of years ago, Fouad Ajami, one of the few Arab scholars who has tried to tell the truth about this matter, said that there had been "no discernible change in the Arab attitudes toward Israel." What he then went on to write remains the case to this day:
"The great refusal persists . . . in that 'Arab street' of ordinary men and women, among the intellectuals and the writers, and in the professional syndicates. The force of this refusal can be seen in the press of the governments and of the oppositionists, among the secularists and the Islamists alike, in countries that have concluded diplomatic agreements with Israel and those that haven't." Significantly, Mr. Ajami added that "the great refusal" was most fierce in Egypt, which, despite its peace treaty with Israel, "remains unalterably opposed to traffic with it."
If, however, this was how Arabs felt and how they spoke among themselves in their own language, whenever their leaders addressed Western publics in Western languages, they cooed of peaceful coexistence. Not only did this new tactic gain them more diplomatic support. It even lulled a large sector of the Israeli public into acquiescing in stage one of the new strategy: the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.
But the intellectual class in Israel went further. Among academics, artists and journalists, who (hard as this may be to imagine) were even more overwhelmingly of the left than their American opposite numbers, the phenomenon known as "post-Zionism" now reigned supreme.
Some of the better-known exponents of this school of thought are historians like Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappé. They even have a journal, Theory and Criticism, incredibly subsidized in part by the Israeli government itself. To mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, this journal published a special issue with an introduction warning the reader that "the volume before you is no celebration, despite the fact that it marks Israel's jubilee. . . . It gives voice... to those who feel that . . . there is really nothing to celebrate." It then proceeded to deliver 50 articles denouncing Zionism--the founding idea of a Jewish state--and trying to demonstrate that the creation of Israel had led to nothing but persecution, not only of the Palestinians but of women and homosexuals as well.
The more narrowly political view of the revisionists is that the traditional Israeli conception of itself is a "myth." Far from being the victims of an intransigently hostile Arab world, the Jews who established the state had actually stolen the land of the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants by force. And far from leaving their homes in 1948 as a result of incitement by their fellow Arabs, the Palestinians had been driven out by the Jews.
By now these ideas are no longer confined to the intellectuals of the radical left. Again as with an analogous development in America, they are being taught to schoolchildren, who are instructed by their textbooks to call the establishment of their state by its Arabic name: the Naqba, or catastrophe. The author of one of these textbooks claims that he is substituting for the old "myth" a picture that "is not black and white." But his version is just as black and white as the one it replaces, only now it is the Israelis who are "black" and the Palestinians who are "white" instead of the other way around.
Aharon Megged, one of the tiny handful of Israeli writers who are unsympathetic to post-Zionism, asks: "Why not just translate the Palestinian books for our children and be done with it?" A good question, since the Palestinian textbooks still either never mention Israel at all, or speak of it in what even an official of the Palestinian Education Ministry admitted to the New York Times were anti-Semitic terms.
The post-Zionists say that Israel is now strong and confident enough to face what they consider the truth about it. But Mr. Megged is closer to the mark when he characterizes the new Israeli textbooks not as a sign of strength but as "an act of moral suicide."
And Benny Morris is more candid than the authors of the textbooks written under the influence of historians like himself when he says that "If Israel was born tarnished, besmirched by original sin," then it did not merit support at the beginning (not, I should note, that it got much).
Further, given the "ethnocentric" nature of Israel that undermines its legitimacy in the view of the revisionists, the clear implication is that it does not deserve to go on existing as a Jewish state.
It is in the context of these acts of "moral suicide" that we can best understand the Israeli Supreme Court's latest decision. An Israel civil-rights lawyer expressed surprise at the decision. Yet it was only a matter of time before that court, being part of the same intellectual and political culture pervading the Israeli left as a whole (some have likened it to the Warren court), would enforce its point of view on the security services. If the new textbooks can be read as a species of "moral suicide," the Supreme Court's decision can be interpreted as a form of unilateral disarmament by Israel in the face of a still intransigent enemy.
When things of this sort began happening here in the 1960s and '70s, some of us worried that they would weaken the U.S. to the point where we would no longer have the power or the will to do what might be necessary in holding back the spread of Soviet power and communist influence. But luckily for us and everyone else, America was blessed with a very wide margin for error.
The opposite is true of Israel. It is a tiny nation, about to grow even tinier, and it has a very narrow margin for error. To make matters worse, it has to contend with an intellectual class that rejects the rationale of its own country's existence and that looks upon it with the hostile eyes of its sworn enemies.
Fortunately, there are still a few Israeli intellectuals like Aharon Megged who grasp the realities of their situation. And while hosannas were being sung to the Supreme Court by his colleagues in the current Barak government, even the incorrigibly dovish deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, denounced the decision as "harmful to Israel's security."
Alas, Mr. Sneh does not apply the same logic to the deceptive "peace process" which is more likely to lead Israel into another war than into acceptance by the Arab world. Nor are many ordinary Israelis realistic about that process. For their understandable longing for peace after having to fight so many wars and lose so many sons seems to have blurred their vision and weakened their will. The question is whether the old toughness can be revived when they are finally hit by the crisis that is inexorably heading their way.
I hope and trust that the Israeli fighting spirit can and will come roaring back at that moment. But instead of being encouraged and cultivated as in the past, it will have to resurrect itself in the teeth of a culture full of the self-hatred that the early theorists of Zionism mistakenly believed would be purged by statehood from the Jewish soul. And so Ben Franklin's apprehensive statement still applies.
The Jewish people have been given a state, if they can keep it.
Norman Podhoretz is editor-at-large of Commentary. He is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and author, most recently, of "Ex-Friends" (Free Press, 1999).
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