Richard Vigilante Books, 2009, 296 pp., $27.95
Israel Is Real
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009, 383 pp., $27
There is a country called Israel. It is a real country, with real people, real achievements and real problems, as with any other country. There are many books claiming to be about Israel, but a fair number of them lately seem to be about something else: their authors, their assorted pet theories, or the complexes they bring to the subject. Two cases in point are George Gilder’s The Israel Test and Rich Cohen’s Israel Is Real.
Gilder’s The Israel Test, ostensibly about Israel, is actually about a variety of American conservatism for which Israel is more an ideological construct or political abstraction than a real country. The “Central Issue”, according to Gilder, is neither a global war of civilizations nor a blood feud between Arabs and Jews. These lesser tussles only obscure the real conflict, which is between “the rule of law and leveler egalitarianism, between creative excellence and covetous ‘fairness’, between admiration of achievement versus envy and resentment of it.” In the achievement of creative excellence the Jews have been in a class of their own, says Gilder. It has been their “intellectual and entrepreneurial superiority” and their “genius” that has “leavened the culture and economy of the world.”
By this light, the anti-Semites of the world, Israel’s Arab enemies and other miscellaneous detractors are all products of what one could perhaps call “genius envy.” For Gilder, a controversial fixture of conservative polemics for decades, these are people overly upset by the inequalities created by Jewish genius; instead, they should be eternally grateful for the unparalleled creativity of the Jews. Others have been overly preoccupied with the equation of democracy with ethnic self-determination, which replaced the free-market, capitalist, orderly life of achievement with “the savage division of the spoils among members of the victorious tribe” in an order dominated by “mobs and demagogues.” The undeniable fact is that Israel had become “one of the world’s leading capitalist powers” and as such it is incumbent on the world, and on the United States in particular, to focus on “enabling an economic spearhead of excellence and creativity” rather than on “dispossessing the successful to subsidize the wretched of the earth.” The “Israel test”, then, is to support this Israel because, if it is destroyed, “capitalist Europe will likely die as well, and America, as the epitome of productive capitalism spurred by Jews, will be in jeopardy.”
Gilder is masterfully knowledgeable on the history of science and technology, and of the inordinate prominence of Jews among the innovators who have made the wealth and the strategic defense of the capitalist West possible. He is similarly well versed in the structure and uniquely impressive achievements of Israel’s hi-tech industry, which do indeed attest to Israel’s phenomenal creativity. But he seems to know rather little about Zionism, the real movement that created Israel, or the actual historical context from which it arose.
Israel’s declaration of independence speaks of the aspirations of the Jews for “equality in the family of nations” and their right to dignity, freedom and statehood, while guaranteeing “full social and political equality” to all the future citizens of the state irrespective of their race, creed or sex. Israel’s founding fathers were great believers in all those egalitarian values that are anathema to Gilder. Indeed, he acknowledges the irony that Israel itself, for much of its short history, has failed the “Israel test.” But what Gilder does not seem to appreciate is that most Israelis, for most of Israel’s existence as a modern state, would not even recognize Gilder’s test, and if they did would not have the slightest intention of passing it.
More important, Gilder seems to assume that Zionism is more or less a straightforward extension of Jewish civilization. It is not so simple a matter at all. For the great majority of Jewish Israelis, the establishment of the State of Israel is the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s inalienable right to self-determination in their ancestral land, and the achievement of their collective rights as a nation after many centuries of exile, indignity and persecution. For the Jews, this was the ultimate attainment, against all the odds, of a normal, national existence and the guarantee of that nation’s future. It was an act of collective will that rejected a horrific history of intolerance, suffering and attempts at physical annihilation, but that also rejected the remarkable adaptations Jewish civilization had devised to survive throughout nearly two millennia of Diaspora existence.
Thus Zionism is in some ways an extension of Jewish civilization, but is in other ways discontinuous with it. In the main, the elements of “Jewish genius” that Gilder celebrates (sometimes to excess) are products of Diaspora adaptations and conditions; in projecting them all onto the State of Israel, he profoundly misunderstands Jewish history. Zionism is about the collective identity and self-determination of the Jewish people, and about the creation and preservation of the nation-state of the Jews; it is not about creating a haven for the exercise of individual Jewish genius. As Gilder shows, such a haven does exist—in America. He is oblivious to the distinctions between the two, however.
An integral facet of the attainment of sovereignty and independent statehood for the Jewish people has been the cultural revival of the Jews as a Hebrew-speaking nation, not only living in their own state but also creating a new national life in their own language. Of all Israel’s achievements, this Hebrew cultural revival, in the form of its world-class literature, theater, media and academic institutions, may well be its most impressive. Gilder, however, has virtually nothing to say about any of that.
Gilder doesn’t make much of an effort to understand the Arabs, either. He evinces little comprehension of the Middle East conflict and what really drives it. It is not and never has been about Arab envy of Jewish genius. It was and remains a conflict about land, religion, collective identity and competing national rights. But in Gilder’s mind, the Palestinians should have recognized the inherent benefits of the free market and, instead of fighting the Israelis, should have gone to work for them:
By merely foreswearing violence and taking advantage of their unique position contiguous with the world’s most creative people, the Palestinians could be rich and happy. Civilized people with the good fortune to live near brilliant entrepreneurs or thinkers go to work for them and attempt to learn their skills and master their fields of knowledge. Then they may start similar ventures on their own. It is the only way to succeed.
In Gilder’s analysis, moreover, Arab unwillingness to comply with the rules of the free market is “the essence of anti-Semitism”, a remark that only makes sense if Semitism is defined in terms of economic categories. When Palestinian Arab leader Musa Alami told David Ben-Gurion in 1934 that he would prefer Palestine to remain a wasteland for a hundred years rather than permit the Zionists to develop it, “he was echoing Hitler’s position”, according to Gilder. But the Zionists were not real-estate developers, and Alami was not echoing Hitler. Alami was simply stating the obvious. The Zionists intended to take over all of Palestine, or at least a significant part of it, to transform it into their state. The Arabs were destined to become a minority in part or all of what they ardently believed was their own country. The two peoples were therefore locked in an interminable conflict over their respective historical patrimonies and national identities in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. The Palestinians have real grievances; sermons on the phenomenal prosperity generated by the combination of Jewish creativity, world capitalism and free markets will do nothing to assuage them because they care less about a standard of living than they do about a way of life. It takes a market fundamentalist, perhaps, to totally miss the point.
The gulf between Arab and Israeli narratives is real. Israel’s neighbors represent a world with which Israelis must contend. The conflict requires collective resilience and a readiness to fight and to sacrifice, but also to negotiate and to compromise. Gilder criticizes the peace camp in Israel for its relentless pursuit of peace, thereby, he claims, predictably communicating to the Arabs that terror and aggression work. Land for peace, he says, has always been a canard; in reality, it has been “land for war.”
Israel, too, warns Gilder, ought not to surrender to the “treacherous chimera of racialist self-determination” to which it is being goaded by a supposed demographic threat. Even if Israel were eventually coerced into accepting a bi-national state dominated by an Arab majority, he says, such a state would be short-lived: It would quickly expel all its Jews and cripple its capitalist economy. It would amount to an “Israeli suicide pact.”
So grim is this scenario that Gilder apparently assumes that if right-thinking people explain often enough the horrific consequences for the Jews of the one-state solution, then the idea will be dropped by all sane, well-meaning people. The realities before our eyes today suggest otherwise. That the one-state notion might be suicidal for the Jews is hardly a convincing argument to deter Palestinians from promoting the idea. Moreover, the ranks of Israel’s detractors continue to swell on the campuses of the West and in some European foreign ministries too, where the one-state idea is gaining traction. They would summarily dismiss Gilder’s projections as alarmist or even racist. For many of these folk, one may safely assume that, in their heart of hearts, they couldn’t care less what it meant for the Jews.
Those who have Israel’s best interests in mind when they speak of the demographic problem would not disagree with Gilder’s bleak one-state projection. But for precisely that reason they seek every avenue to create a stable and sustainable two-state reality. It is not that many still naively believe that land given will bring peace in return. Land, in their scheme of things, is to be conceded to maintain Israel’s raison d’être, which is to be the state of the Jewish people, not an island fortress protecting hi-tech world capitalism. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was motivated by precisely this kind of thinking, not by any illusions about Hamas in Gaza. Note that Israel recently invaded Gaza to crush Hamas and, having done so, withdrew unilaterally again. The lesson to be drawn is that Israel presently seeks security through deterrence rather than occupation.
If passing the “Israel test” means reviling the principles of self-determination, equality and democracy, singing the praises of unbridled capitalism, and maintaining Israel’s occupation of the West Bank indefinitely, then many Israelis who are devoted to their country, and who have fought for Israel for most of their lives on the battlefield and in countless political, diplomatic and academic forums, would all fail George Gilder’s “Israel test.”
After Gilder’s dose of ideological conservatism, Rich Cohen’s Israel Is Real offers a lighter read. Cohen, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone magazines, has written an often insightful overview of the history of the Jews, Zionism and Israel from the destruction of the Second Temple to the present. This is not the work of a master historian; it’s more like that of an autodidact charting his own path to understanding.
Forced into the indignity of exile, herded into the ghettos of Europe, the Jews were disillusioned to discover upon their release from the ghetto, in the age of the Enlightenment and European nationalism, that they had no place in Europe. “The Jews had been promised a life free from the ghetto . . . only to find, after they lost their old world, that the new world was still closed to them.” For some it became obvious that the only way out was for the Jews “to create their own nation in which a Jew could live a normal life.” This was certainly Theodor Herzl’s conclusion after witnessing the Dreyfus affair in France of the 1890s, from which he understood not only the indignity of the Jewish existence in Europe but also the physical danger to the Jews there. The Holocaust became the ultimate justification for Israel in the eyes of the world, if not also those of most Jews, secured finally by Israel’s victory in the 1948 war of independence.
Cohen also captures with admirable precision the existential anxiety that enveloped Israeli society on the eve of the 1967 war, replaced by the euphoric exhilaration in the wake of the unimaginable victory. This was an historical watershed, however, whose consequences have been mostly unfortunate. After the seemingly miraculous deliverance,
the secular and the pragmatic began to give way to the apocalyptic and eschatological. . . . In this way some lost sight of the original mission, which had been about saving and redeeming people and instead became about holding and redeeming land.
Israel’s post-1967 “sin of hubris” led directly to the rude awakening of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which forced the Israelis to realize that the struggle with the Arabs was far from over.
The 1973 war made peace with Egypt possible, but it did not rid Israel of the Palestinian conundrum. Moreover, in Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians it was rapidly losing the moral high ground, from the war in Lebanon in 1982 to the first intifada in 1987 and the second in 2000. In the asymmetry of the war with the Palestinians, as Israel became Goliath to the Palestinians’ David, “with every action, Israel seemed to undermine its own cause.” The intifada also changed how Jews saw themselves. The Jews wielded the oppressive power of a state, losing the holiness that had come from their centuries of statelessness. “With a Jewish army crushing what looked like an Arab peasant rebellion on TV”, Cohen writes, “Jews everywhere had to reset their compasses. There is no way to exercise power without diminishing yourself. . . . It’s the price of sovereignty, the hidden cost of Zionism.”
None other than Ariel Sharon, of all people, was the one to realize the urgency of Israel’s territorial contraction to preserve itself as initially envisioned: “a sane, secular, Jewish republic.” Unfortunately, his body failed him before he completed his mission. Cohen concludes on a somber note. “Has Zionism failed?” he asks. “Well, no. It created something real and lasting. It gave Jews a safe harbor.” Will it be destroyed? He is not sure.
Cohen forthrightly goes beyond the survey of the history to formulate the moral dilemmas faced in the transition of the Jews from their historical position of statelessness to their new status as a power-wielding state in perpetual conflict. The question he raises is not new. As he points out, it was raised from the outset by some of the leading intellectuals of the early Zionist enterprise, such as Judah Magnes, Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber. But it remains an issue that Israel and the Jewish people as a whole should engage, with courage and open minds, while at the same time not ignoring the real world in which Israel has to operate.
All that said, Cohen’s lack of real mastery of the subject matter shows up in his irritatingly sloppy history and geography. Israel Is Real is such a factual mishmash that one wonders at times what “real” Israel he is talking about. This is big picture Israel, viewed from a distance: Once the reader zooms in, the detail is fraught with error. Important dates are wrong (the 1973 war began on October 6, not October 3). Cohen also refers to this wrong date as “the first day of Yom Kippur”, but Yom Kippur has no “first day”, as there is no “second” to the single Day of Atonement. And it’s not just discrete facts Cohen gets wrong. Many of the stories and vignettes pasted throughout the book are of dubious veracity or, possibly, entirely imagined.
Cohen’s geography at times is downright painful. The Hula Valley, for example, is not on the Golan Heights. The Etzion Bloc is not on the road from the Jordan Valley to Jerusalem. And the Iraqis could not possibly have attacked Israel in 1948 from the west unless they came in landing craft from the sea à la D-Day. He has no understanding of military matters, and some of his accounts of the fighting in Israel’s wars seem to be cut out of a children’s comic strip, betraying at best a Hollywood-like perception of combat. He knows woefully little about the Arabs, too. For example, he writes that Jordan’s King Abdullah was the Sharif of Mecca who ruled Arabia. In fact, Abdullah’s father, Hussein, was the Sharif; he ruled the Hijaz, which is only a western sliver of Arabia. And the Palestinians’ disaster of 1948 is not known to them as the “Nebka” but the “Nakba.” And so on and on.
Cohen’s embarrassing general knowledge deficit is a symptom of his cultural distance and psychological detachment from the real Israel and real Israelis. Both are most apparent in his lack of comprehension of the human cost of the struggle as Israelis feel it to the innermost of their collective soul. Cohen demonstrates a distant, flippant insensitivity when he refers to the 1948 war as the “First Good War in a Long, Long Time.” In this “good war”, Israel suffered horrendous losses (he mentions the losses but gets the numbers wrong by 50 percent, citing 3,000 instead of 6,000 dead), noting vacuously that Israel was “the Holocaust with a happy ending.” Relating to the gruesome aftermath of suicide bombings in Israel, he perversely refers to “that weird tribe of limb-gathering orthodox Jews who came after the explosion as certain kinds of microbes come after an oil spill.” Here Cohen manages to come across simultaneously as ignorant and offensive.
At the end of the day, Israel is a distant project for Rich Cohen, something like a hobby that should satisfy and give pleasure. It will appeal to some who, like Cohen, seem to be working out personal issues with their Jewishness at a distance from both their religious heritage and from Israel. Though Cohen speaks of Israel as “real”, his Israel is obviously not the real, intensive and long-term struggle it is for Israelis themselves and for many Jews living outside Israel.
In sum, Gilder and Cohen have written two very different, intriguing books by Americans about Israel. Gilder, who is not Jewish, praises Israel to extravagance. Cohen, who is Jewish, deprecates it with equal forcefulness. They also have another thing in common: They tell us as much, if not more, about America and Americans as they do about Israel and Israelis.