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The Lost Art

Washington Diarist

By the standards of contemporary atrocity, Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner’s striking Andreas Ias in the face with the butt of his M-16 was a trifle. Eisner was the deputy commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade of the Israeli army, and Ias was a Dane on a bicycle who supported the Palestinians. The video of the incident depicts Eisner screaming in Hebrew to a group that does not understand Hebrew to go home, and holding his rifle horizontally, like an instrument of crowd control. Suddenly there is a pause in the confusion and he finds himself face to face with Ias, and without any provocation, and without a word of warning, he slaps the man with the weapon. The white kippah on his head did not make his outburst of violence any prettier. Neither did the assurance by a rabbinical friend of the colonel’s that his action was (as The New York Times reported) “instinctive, not intentional.” The instinct is precisely the problem. Eisner was dismissed from his post. Prime Minister Netanyahu was said to be shocked. I wonder why. For many years he has been schooling his compatriots in contempt for the world, and treating pro-Palestinian sentiment as an anti-Semitic hallucination with no basis in any of Israel’s actions. I do not mean to say that pro-Palestinian activists are all sterling peace-loving souls who dream only of two states living idyllically between the river and the sea. In Europe especially, the criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians has spilled over into a poisonous denial of the Jewish state’s legitimacy. (And not only among Europeans in Europe, as proven by William Pfaff’s revolting comment on the blog of The New York Review of Books in the wake of the murder of Jewish children in Toulouse by an anti-Zionist maniac that Jews “invite international terrorist attention so long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved.”) But Israel calls itself a democracy—most recently in a sardonic letter to the pro-Palestinian activists who made it to Israel despite the Israeli government’s idiotic attempt to bar them from the country, in which the prime minister rightly observed that “you could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people [or] the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent. Instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy.” A democracy does not fear, or close its borders to, dissent, or paint dissenters as “provocateurs,” or require visitors to sign an “Obligation Form” that reads: “I undertake that I can’t be a member of any pro-Palestinian Organizations and not be in contact with any other Members of any pro-Palestinian organizations, as well I will not participate in any pro-Palestinian activities.” The intention is as coarse as the diction. Banning Günter Grass from Israel over his contemptible and widely excoriated “poem” reflected a similar misunderstanding of the liberal dispensation. A ban is not an argument. An open society should be an open society. There is a Putinist strain to Netanyahu’s rule. It is unworthy of his country.

BUT I DO NOT COME, like some others, to speak prophetically to my people. My own bitterness at certain trends in Israeli politics, and at the Israeli government’s refusal to press relentlessly and imaginatively for an answer to the most difficult question—Netanyahu’s supporters exult in his success at driving the Palestinian question from the agenda: an achievement!—my own bitterness is not all that I need to know. More precisely, it is not occasioned only by Israel’s part in the thwarting of peace. Intellectual honesty always requires that one be unhappy for many reasons. Mahmoud Abbas, too, is leading his own people nowhere, and using Benjamin Netanyahu as his excuse. His immobility, and his search for every remedy but a negotiated one, will perpetuate Palestinian statelessness and hasten an explosion. I hear that there is a new conversation taking place within Hamas, but it is somewhat vitiated by the rain of rockets from Gaza. The historical agency of Palestinians is as consequential for the future of Israel and Palestine as the historical agency of Israelis. The threats to Israel from others are as real as the threats to Israel from itself. I dislike the contextless castigation of Israel, because it is not serious about a solution. Introspection is a solemn duty, but it has limits as a political analysis, because it avails only against one’s own culpabilities, and others are also culpable. “When violence answers violence in a growing frenzy that makes the simple language of reason impossible, the role of intellectuals cannot be ... to excuse from a distance one of the violences and condemn the other.” Don Draper wrote those sage words in 1958. (Readers of The New Yorker will know that I mean Albert Camus, whom Adam Gopnik recently hailed as “the Don Draper of existentialism,” imperishably explaining that “looks matter to the mind”; but I digress.) In the same essay Camus unfashionably observed that “it is good for a nation to be strong enough in tradition and honor to have the courage to point out its own mistakes. But it must not forget whatever reasons it still has for self-esteem.”

SO ISRAEL MUST be defended and Israel must be criticized. Almost nobody any longer practices the lost art of doing both at the same time, with similar emphasis, out of equally intense convictions, in a single breath. Instead there is the party of security and the party of justice, as if the country, any country, can endure without both. The debate is a stale contest in cursing between gangs, a tiresome exchange of to-be-sure sentences, uttered by people with anxieties about credibility, or worse, with no such anxieties at all. To be sure, the settlements are a terrible blunder, but centrifuges are spinning in Iran. To be sure, centrifuges are spinning in Iran, but the settlements are a terrible blunder. When I studied the history of Zionism as a young man, I was impressed by Ben-Gurion’s remark, about Britain’s restrictions upon Jewish immigration to Palestine even as Hitler was conquering Europe, that he would fight the White Paper as if there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper. It seemed almost impossible and altogether correct. There is never only a lone danger or a lone ideal. We should fight the centrifuges in Iran as if there are no settlements and the settlements as if there are no centrifuges in Iran. Welcome to the gang of no gang.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.