Stephen J. Dubner





Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner
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Bellicose Israeli General Causes Identity Crisis Here

By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
March 5, 2001

What kind of an addiction is Israel, anyway? It generates more coverage, per capita and per square foot, than any story in the history of the world. For an American Jew, this is gratifying but also troublesome, since nothing looks very appetizing under a microscope, much less a pitched, centuries-old battle between politicians and zealots. (Those are the only two kinds of people who live in Israel, according to the coverage.)

But we can’t leave it alone. In America, we work out our identities in comfort and moderation. Israel is the shimmering screen, conveniently placed halfway across the world, where we project our every shred of anxiety and chauvinism and guilt (and where non-Jews feel free to project anti-Semitism). So when Israel gets beat up, we feel beat up—which means that we’re feeling rather beat up these days. We glorify its agonies and downplay its attempts at normalcy. (It’s our fantasy, damn it, and we want excitement!)

The philosopher Avishai Margalit writes that Israel has come to suffer from allegory fatigue: “Nothing is what it is; everything is something else.” Every stone and bullet and vote is extrapolated upon until it is no longer the thing itself but an entire history, and this is as exhausting as it is addictive. I pledge, therefore, to dodge whatever allegories I can in the following paragraphs, while still marveling at just how scrambled the American Jewish psyche has become these last few months, a stretch of astonishing Israeli chaos bookended, also astonishingly, by Joe Lieberman and Marc Rich.

Everyone’s an Expert

I have some cousins near Tel Aviv, suburban leftists whom I love dearly. I met them in New York five years ago. Odi is a high-school principal; her husband, Dori, is a logistics manager. Their trip was a bar-mitzvah gift for the oldest of their three children, Nimrod. (Don’t laugh: Nimrod is a not uncommon Israeli name, even though the Biblical namesake was a Babylonian strongman.) Nimrod, who wants to be an actor, was the sweetest boy I had ever met: honest, earnest, curious.

A few days after their visit, I flew to Israel for the first time, and there our bond was cemented. Last week, I e-mailed to ask how they were bearing up in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s election. I also wrote that I was “ashamed that I have not visited you again” since my last trip. They replied the next day. Their English is far better than my Hebrew, but they are still shy about it and so write with a communal “we” to deflect any grammatical blame: “We are all sitting here together, it’s a Friday afternoon. In two hours Moti and Aviva will come for dinner. We’ll try to have fun, even though as you know, life here makes it very difficult to enjoy …. Nimrod had his final show in theater (got 100) and now is studying intensively to his finals. He will join to the army on the first of September …. We sometimes think how would we explain things to someone who cares about Israel but does not live here. Many times we want to tell you what we think, but it’s so complicated for us in English—so we just give up.”

This is the kindest restatement I have yet encountered of Israelis’ age-old complaint to their American cousins: Feel free to comment upon our politics once you move here; until then, keep your noses out of it. But we don’t. We are experts, all of us, and we constantly editorialize. Nor do we allow facts, or the lack thereof, to spoil a good opinion. At the Rosh Hashana services I attended this year, a well-known writer, a liberal and a feminist, rose to speak about a picture she had seen in that morning’s newspaper. It was the now-famous, much-disputed photograph of a Palestinian boy in Gaza cowering behind his father during a crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. The boy had been killed shortly after the picture was taken. The assumption was that the Israelis killed him; it would later be determined that he was likely killed by a Palestinian’s bullet—but none of that mattered now.

The writer (who, it should be said, is known for a certain lack of nuance) dipped into a deep, deep vat of collective guilt and declared, in so many words, that the State of Israel was evil and that Jews are heartless. Did I mention this occurred on Rosh Hashana? A few congregants seemed merely uncomfortable; the rest looked as if, were they not sitting there in suits and dresses in a synagogue, they would have happily beaten the snot out of her.

Had she meant to inflame, or was she simply invoking our God-given right to be sanctimonious about distant affairs? It hardly matters. In this climate, innocuous intentions can have the same result. A friend of mine sends his son to kindergarten at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School on the Upper West Side. The class recently mailed some upbeat notes and drawings to Israel to be distributed, along with homentaschen, to Israeli soldiers for Purim. The Heschel parents thought this was a pretty nice idea. The same idea was soon introduced at a small, liberal congregation at Ansche Chesed, a synagogue some 10 blocks north. There, a heated debate ensued. The opposition claimed that sending Purim gifts to Israeli soldiers was an inherently political statement that was insupportable in light of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. “It feels wrong to me—and inappropriately partisan—to give expression to only one side,” wrote one person in the e-mail debate. As of this writing, there has been no resolution. If in the coming weeks, however, we are treated to photographs of young Palestinians nibbling overseas homentaschen, I would bet they came from Ansche Chesed.

Suckers and Philo-Semites

When the Oslo accords were signed, a smart man I know said that Israel was making a terrible mistake. This man was not a rightist and wanted peace as much as anyone. But not this peace. He warned that Yasir Arafat would prove to be uninterested in arriving at such a peace, and if he did get interested he would prove incapable of delivering it, for he would be cut down by his own side. (A different smart man later swore that it was the Mossad who has kept Mr. Arafat alive these past few years.)

I shrugged this off as cynicism. I did not know what Mr. Arafat truly wanted, but I did know that Bill Clinton was too ambitious to fail and that Yitzhak Rabin was too seasoned to be fooled.

Maybe Rabin would have been. That, at least, is a convenient fantasy. An Israeli friend calls her country’s recent voting history “a collective schizophrenia”—from Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu to Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon—and says, “We still haven’t made our accounting with the murder of Rabin; we’re still in the death spasm.”

And so it was Mr. Barak who sat down with Yasir Arafat at Camp David, and who put on the table everything and then some, including Jerusalem. (The inclusion of Jerusalem was more upsetting to many American Jews, who see it as a metaphor for all Israel, than for many Israelis, who see it as a nest of zealotry.) And Mr. Arafat responded like the high-school kid who reaches up for a high-five and pulls his hand away at the last second. When I think of modern Israel as a character, I think of many roles: pioneer, warrior, pietist, pragmatist, chicken farmer, nightclubber, maybe a dozen more. But I had never thought of sucker before, and now that I did, I didn’t much care for it.

As Ariel Sharon would discover, there were plenty of people to blame. In alphabetical order: Mr. Arafat (for bad faith), Mr. Barak (for what a former staffer calls “impenetrable arrogance, almost a social autism”), Mr. Clinton (for pushing Rabin and then Mr. Barak into Mr. Arafat’s embrace with too much gusto and self-interest).

Could it be that Mr. Clinton, the great philo-Semite, will turn out to have been bad for the Jews? Put aside for a moment his awkward stewardship of the peace talks (although do understand that Israel was so Clinton-crazy that, when he attended peace meetings at the Hilton in Netanya, the hotel changed its rooftop sign to read “Clinton”). The pardon of Marc Rich took its worst turn when Mr. Clinton wrote an op-ed explanation whose thrust was that … the Israelis made him do it. (There seems to be no forthcoming explanation for commuting the sentences of the four crooked New Square rabbis, which is just as well.) The American Jewish establishment, eager to sample Mr. Rich’s celebrated largesse, responded with an uncharacteristic silence. So Mr. Clinton’s explanation hung there like an end-of-the-party helium balloon that nobody had the height to pop. If Joe Lieberman was fresh air for the American Jewish psyche—turning some folks giddy but making others hyperventilate—Mr. Clinton’s explanation smelled all too familiar and all too rank. With philo-Semites like these, who needs anti’s? But how we scurry to justify! A Jewish businessman I know, even though he is a Clinton hater, assured me that Mr. Clinton couldn’t discuss the best reason for the pardon: that Marc Rich carried out invaluable dirty-hands work for the U.S. in countries where neither our flag nor Israel’s is welcome. I perked up at this news, of course. How nice it would be to think that, in return for being scapegoated by Bill Clinton, Israel got something more than just a few million dollars for the Philharmonic.

The Great P.R. Debate

As things fall apart in Israel, the American center cannot hold. Extremists on either end become more so, and moderates are sprinting toward the edges.

“I was in a taxi today, and the driver had taped to the back of the partition that image of the Palestinian boy,” says a man I know, a documentary filmmaker. “I started talking to him. I’ve become sensitized to the other side. I was before, but now I’m really questioning the validity of the Jewish state.”

“I was a staunch supporter of the Arabs having their own state, even though it was nuanced belief,” says another friend, a female book editor. “But they lost me totally on the day they lynched those Israeli boys. Seeing the picture of their hands dripping blood—that lynching was the Rubicon for me.” Friend No. 2, when told of Friend No. 1’s conversion, voices the oft-heard protest: The Palestinians have great P.R., and the Israelis’ P.R. stinks. How else could Israel come across as the villain after having its peace offer spat on?

“The Palestinians have people who can really convince you that Israel treated them bad, and they talk to people’s emotion,” says a former Israeli journalist living in New York. “When Israeli speakers come here, they fail big-time. Their English is no good. And they’re arrogant. They always think, ‘We are smarter and better and the world is going to understand us much better.’”

Then there is the American Colony Factor. The American Colony is the graceful, romantic hotel in East Jerusalem where the world press corps stays whenever an intifada is playing, and which is also something of a salon for the Palestinian intelligentsia. Covering an intifada from the American Colony is not quite the same as covering the White House from the Lincoln Bedroom, but whatever bias it leads to is surely not in the Israelis’ favor.

So Israel needs publicists? Well, New York is full of them. America already sends Israel its Stan Greenbergs and Arthur Finkelsteins; why not also a Howard Rubenstein type?

Do not be surprised if this happens soon; indeed, a full-scale Israel branding campaign might soon break out. One P.R. guy says he would serve happily: “Neither Israel nor the American Jewish community can continue to do things as they have over the last 40 years,” he says. “It’s a new world, and one of the things that’s been lost is an entire generation of Jewish Americans. So you go to people and they’re raising money for the Clintons and AIDS awareness and Holocaust museums, but why aren’t they raising money and consciousness for Israel and for peace in the Middle East? Because, I contend, American Jews of this generation think of Israel as they think of their parents: We love them, but if they’re not doing well, we still want to believe they are.”

Meanwhile, the hotels in Israel are empty (except the American Colony). In New York, we wring hands and construct allegories. Thank God for e-mail. “We feel that we’re in a bad period,” my cousins wrote last week. “People like us from the left wing have many question marks. Also the self security has been damaged. We pray for better times. But if you could only see us, you would never believe it’s so difficult here. Life continues like always. We buy new plants for the garden. We had four lemons on our lemon tree. Two figs, and we will have a lot of shesek. You wanna know what is it? You have to come here! It’s a special fruit. Kisses to all.”