First published in 2004, Richard Ben Cramer’s How Israel Lost: The Four Questions is a book worth reconsidering despite, but also because of, its defectiveness in almost every feature and quality we associate with the genre in which it sits, that of travel/political commentary. There is little in the way of objectivity, nothing of self-doubt or self-interrogation, and no basis in a prior, systematic study of the larger historical context which frames the subject under the loupe.
Cramer is the author of such bestsellers as Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life and What It Takes: The Way to the White House. His familiarity with Israel, however, dates mainly from his days as a Middle East correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Using his training as a journalist to the end of easy readability, he writes briskly and convincingly. But his initial efforts at “even-handedness” are soon marred by what seems like a deep-rooted bias, which we often find obviating the reports of Jewish commentators on Middle East affairs who pride themselves on their enlightenment and for whom the land of Ishmael begins to take precedence over the land of Isaac.
Cramer adopts the paradigm of the four questions traditionally asked at the Passover seder—why do we eat only unleaved bread on Pesach? why do we eat bitter herbs at the seder? why do we dip our food twice tonight? why do we lean on a pillow tonight?—as a template on which to organize the four chapters of his book. Except he inflects the questions to read: why do we care about Israel? why don’t the Palestinians have a state? what is a Jewish state? why is there no peace? The taxonomic irony is obviously intentional since the answers to the ceremonial questions turn on the slavery/freedom dialectic as Jews have experienced it scripturally and historically, but the responses to Cramer’s reformulations are meant to turn the tables.
For Cramer, it is now the Palestinians who are struggling to emerge from captivity, fleeing not the Egyptian Pharaoh but the Israeli occupier. Israeli leaders would then become the local reincarnations of Amenhotep II. But although Cramer declares that he loves Jews and does have one or two nice things to say about them, we are early introduced to his tone-setting encounters with “those assholes honking at my rent-a-car” and the guide “who cheated me out of a hundred bucks.” It seems the capsicum temperament of Israelis is too much for a wussy personality to handle. A moment later we are treated to the signature revelation. “And then I met the Arabs…and they were good: hospitable, dignified, rational, articulate and oppressed.” No contest.
Cramer is no doubt right about Israelis being loud and obstreperous—a recent study has pegged the number of hearing-impaired at 10% of the population—but it is surely moot whether the Palestinians may be regarded as the distillate of discreet civility. New York Times columnist David Brooks in a recent article, “A loud and promised land” (April 16, 2009), also considers Israel as an argumentative and raucous place, and suggests that “other countries in the region are more gracious.” But in these countries, he continues, there is often “a communal unwillingness to accept responsibility for national problems. The Israelis, on the other hand, blame themselves for everything.” Brooks understands what a too-fastidious Cramer does not: that Israel “is a tough, scrappy country, perpetually fighting for survival.”
Cramer just doesn’t get it. By his lights, a suicide bomb is a “not-nice” thing, but a retaliatory Israeli missile strike has “an equally not-nice effect”—apart from the lippy, inappropriate phrasing, it is the “equally” that makes one bridle. There is also at times a surreal fairy-tale atmosphere to his manner of narrating events. “No! No! No! the Herutniks were chanting” is how he describes a parliamentary session. Or, “Sharon was commander of the south, and one day he sent bulldozers to this camp and began to knock down houses,” a vignette that provides no context, no provocation, no nexus of cause and effect, but ascribes one incident in a web of complex circumstances to the whim of some folkloric ogre who “one day” merely chose to lay waste the land. You know how it goes. Once upon a time an evil king decided to invade the city and knock down all the houses.
This is not to imply that there is nothing to be gleaned from this book—Cramer’s knowledge of the sectarian bickering between the various religious groups and their collective domination of Israeli social and political life is accurate—but it’s a lot like learning your history from the Simpsons or reading it off Comedy Hour flash cards. The vulgarity, the thoughtlessness and the tacky, put-on facetiousness of his style, trivializing the pitiful and the tragic, induce a sense of vicarious shame in the reader (or at any rate, this reader).
For all his faults, Cramer is a good raconteur who renders the Palestinians a conspicuous service in describing their condition with considerable empathy and verve while lamenting the presumed weakening of the moral fibre of Israeli society. It’s true he deplores the actions of many Palestinians, in particular the feral behaviour of their leadership, and at times his approach to the “situation” may be characterized by the David Grossman aphorism from The Yellow Wind: “when two apples touch one another at a single point of decay, the mold spreads over both of them.” Only, with Cramer as with Grossman, the Palestinian apple remains somehow fresher and crisper; the Israeli apple is reduced to inedible mush.
As one of Cramer’s handpicked Jewish correspondents says about her own people, “We were all corrupted. I’m not talking about a few rotten apples.” Indeed, Cramer’s agenda is not much different from Grossman’s and their writings make excellent propagandammo in the hands of Israel’s enemies. For Israel, it would appear, is an intransigent belligerent. And yet a substantial majority of Israelis favours a two-track political process leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state whereas the majority of Palestinians, according to recent polls, favours the total annihilation of Israel. Anyone who does not take all this into account is guilty of either galloping sentimentality, profound ignorance or sheer bad faith. I cannot say which epithet would apply in Cramer’s case. Perhaps all three.
In trying to sort out the Devil’s Polymer of two peoples occupying the same land, with a tightly involuted history, reflecting one another's demands and convictions, embayed within one another’s projected images of terror and conquest, and bonded by more or less identical turbulences, Cramer falls back on the staple political equations, rudimentary and extraneous, which always seem to leave out something essential and factor only on paper. Israel must return to its pre-1967 borders, dismantle the security fence, and accept Palestinian bona fides—as did Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak to their ongoing cost. Cramer quotes Left historian Tom Segev’s tawdry canard that Barak was “not…willing to make major concessions” as gospel. The implication is that Israelis must stop being Israelis and then everything will work out.
His appeal is to those who already nurse a palpable mistrust of Israel or, what is worse, an overt dislike or an ingrained prejudice. Cramer’s evidence of Israeli turpitude is often not evidence at all but pre-interpreted bits of ideological bias—a terrorist killed on the way to carrying out his assignment, without arrest, arraignment, trial and so on, is proof of the decline in Israeli standards of morality. When it comes to the checkpoints and security fence from which his newfound protégés are made to suffer, he obstinately refuses to see that it is not Israel but the Palestinian terror industry that has made every Palestinian at the crossings a suspected terrorist. As with all chauvinists, the obviousness of things is the first casualty of an unreflected motive.
What Cramer will not admit, like the majority of his media colleagues and a substantial proportion of his readership, is that the world at large, which did nothing to prevent the Holocaust, must at the very least acknowledge Israel’s existence in its own ancestral homeland—it is a matter of conscience. Israel is Israel and, despite the vicissitudes of history, it has always been Israel.
Europe in particular is in default of its political and ethical commitment to repair the detritus of its twentieth century and to clear its books as a moral debtor, an obligation it continues to shirk. Many Americans as well, especially those associated with the Left—East coast intellectuals, West coast thespians, the University brigades, the putatively non-aligned mainstream Churches, the Democratic leadership and the current President—have reinterpreted moral bankruptcy and political short-sightedness as advanced social thinking and liberal high-mindedness.
We must remember, as Alain Finkielkraut writes in The Imaginary Jew, that “Israel, since its foundation, has known but one state: the state of emergency.” Israel has no choice but to assert itself forcefully to counter the edicts of a punitive history and to establish itself once and for all as a national fact the world will have to accept on equal terms.
An encyclopedia of misconceptions, a wrong diagnosis of the current ill and a frivolous, misguided prescription for the future, How Israel Lost: The Four Questions, rarely transcends the facile and tendentious limitations of the popular parti pris. It is nevertheless a paradoxically important book insofar as it serves as an example of all that is awry with the popular perspective on Israel. As such, it is both an object lesson and a learning experience.