Richard Ben Cramer grew up believing in Israel as a “land without people for a people with no land.” A self-described “ham on rye” American Jew, his understanding of Israel remained largely superficial until he went there as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1977. He spent the next seven years reporting on the Middle East, winning a Pulitzer Prize. Along the way, he found that his identification with Israel and its people could coexist with his deepening sympathy for Palestinians and their cause.
In 2002, he went back to Israel, only to find a country much different from the one he’d lived in. His new book, How Israel Lost, collects his wry observations and lamentations about a place he no longer recognizes. “I thought I knew the country—but it turned out, I didn’t,” he writes. “At least I couldn’t understand how the country I knew was doing the things that I read about now.” As Israeli tanks bulldozed Palestinian homes as collective punishment for suicide bombings and Israeli jets bombed residential neighborhoods to kill terrorist leaders, Cramer sensed that Israel was shooting itself in the foot. Israelis saw themselves as fighting for survival, but he wondered if they hadn’t already lost what was most worth fighting for—their soul, the “ache of humanity” that had drawn him to them two decades earlier.
Cramer is adamant, however, that the Israelis’ loss is not the Palestinians’ gain, that neither side benefits from the current stalemate. “It’s gotten to the point where any idiot on either side can stop the peace process cold,” he says. “One settler can slap on two bandoliers of ammunition and go shoot up a mosque and kill 30 people and stop any momentum. One kid can stuff his shirt full of dynamite and go ride on an Israeli bus and stop any momentum for peace. It’s veto by the morons.” He assails the leadership on both sides of the Green Line for profiting politically and financially from the conflict. He doesn’t let Americans off the hook, either. “An American president will have to concede, along with his people, that Palestinians are also human beings who need a place on the planet.”
Cramer’s blunt insistence that nearly 40 years as an occupying power have corrupted Israel has raised the hackles of some pro-Israel readers. The Jerusalem Post denounced Cramer for trying to “mainstream” the idea that Israel no longer deserves American support, calling him “an angry polemicist for whom condescension comes easily and understanding comes hardly at all.” But labeling How Israel Lost as an anti-Israel screed overlooks Cramer’s obvious sympathy for the country as well as his belief that only the US can shepherd both sides towards a mutually acceptable settlement. Not that Cramer’s common-sense suggestions can’t be overshadowed by his cockiness: he insists that a viable peace plan is “a piece of babka” that could be drawn up in “about ten minutes.”
Cramer is also the author of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life and What It Takes: The Way to The White House, a portrait of the 1988 presidential race. He recently stopped by the Mother Jones office to talk about his latest book.
MotherJones.com: To start on a lighter note, I notice you collect a lot of jokes. Could you give an example of a joke you collected in this book and what it illustrates?
Richard Ben Cramer: I do collect jokes and I love jokes. In the book I retell a series of jokes. Palestinian society is like how Eastern European society used to be: you only get the real news from the jokes. They’re like an EKG monitor on the Palestinian heart. It started with the first intifada, which broke out in 1987. The jokes had a kind of jaunty confidence. The one that I remember—this lady is about to give birth but her town is surrounded by the Israeli army and she can’t get out to a hospital. So she’s stopped at a roadblock and finally the Israelis relent and take her to their own military hospital. There she gives birth to twins. The first of the twin boys emerges and he sees soldiers everywhere. He calls back to his brother in the womb, “Ahmed, we are surrounded—bring some stones!”
The last in the series that I included shows how the tactics of the Palestinians have brought them to near ruin. It’s a story about a kid who asks his father for two shekels to get a cab back and forth to the checkpoint to go throw stones at the Jews. His father digs in his pocket and says, “Here’s one shekel. Any way, you’ll come back by ambulance.”
MJ: Those jokes illustrate the changing mood of the Palestinians. But you’ve also seen a profound change among Israelis over the past 25 years. Can you talk about what it was like when you went there in 1977 for the first time, and what you saw in 2002?
RC: It’s been a total shift in mood. That moment in ’77 was electric because Sadat had just been to Jerusalem. It wasn’t just hopeful — it was euphoric. When I first got to know the country in the 70s and 80s, there were up times and there were down times. But there was always the earnest belief by every side that they had a solution to this. And they were prepared to go to the wall for the rightness of their cause. When I went back this time, the saddest part was that nobody had any idea how to fix this. Everybody seemed bankrupt of ideas.
If I had to sum up what I knew about this place 20 years ago, I would have called it a nice little socialist country with one problem. Its problem, of course, being its relations with the Arabs inside the country and in the neighboring states. But now that one problem has eaten up the rest of the society. The conflict has become the reason for being for Israel. And it’s not such a little place anymore, with the policies of annexation and settlement. It’s not a socialist country at all anymore. When Israel cast itself as America’s little buddy during the Reagan years, it changed over to a very hard-edged capitalistic economy. And it’s not such a nice little country anymore. I’m not just talking about the not-nice effect of a suicide bomb on a bus or the equally not-nice effect of a missile fired from a gunship into a Palestinian neighborhood. I’m talking about the society at large. You can’t ask two generations of your men to go into the territories and act as the brutal kings of everything they survey and then expect them to come home and live in lamb-like gentleness. In every sphere of society there are things that started in the territories. Now they’ve drifted back into the society: the repression of other opinions, the tendency to brutality, the resort to force. All of these have come back to harm Israeli society. And there’s the hopelessness, which may be the worst effect still.
MJ: Besides hope, what else has Israel lost?
RC: There is the loss of maybe the greatest resource of the state, which is the narrative of its own history. Israelis controlled and used the story of the Jewish people and the triumph of the Jewish people in Israel to elicit the sympathy of the world. It’s the reason the U.N. voted to create Israel. It’s the reason the West supported Israel. It’s the reason the world looked the other way when Israel kicked a lot of Arabs out of the land and kept them out after the war of ’48. But as the daily dose of video of Israeli tanks blasting though Palestinian houses and women weeping in the West Bank and Gaza gets splashed around the world, Israel has worn away her birthright of loyalty.
MJ: Is this as much about Israel losing the ability to tell its story as it is about the Palestinians picking up the tools of P.R., or propaganda, and selling themselves to the world?
RC: The Palestinians have never learned to use their national narrative to show the justice of their own cause. A great injustice was done to the Palestinians in 1948, largely to assuage Europe’s guilt. What was never said at the time was that Israel was created on land that was occupied by a people, the Palestinian people. That’s the story the Palestinians have never been able to make clear to the Western world, and certainly not in America. Until they tell their national narrative as a nation, they may never win their dream, which is a land of their own.
MJ: A big component of Israel’s campaign of telling its story was telling that story to Americans and building their sense of connection to Israel. Has that fallen apart recently?
RC: Well, it is unraveling. When I was in Sunday school, there wasn’t any question that Israel was innocent and excellent. There wasn’t any question that a contribution to Israel or going to Israel or helping Israel in some way was an act of decency. Now there’s a lot of question about whether we should be sending money to Israel: Are they using it for settlements? Are they using it for arms? The US government is still sending a floodtide of aid. But if the Israelis lose the American people, the government will soon follow.
MJ: Yet, as you observe, now more than ever, we are becoming like the Israelis. We have our own war on terror and we are now occupiers of an Arab country.
RC: We saw within months of becoming occupiers, American boys and girls doing things that we never thought Americans would do. This is what happens in an occupation; this is the story of Israel’s 37-year occupation.
MJ: The comparison hit me during the passage in which you excerpt an interview with Dan Halutz, the Israeli Air Force commander who ordered using a one-ton bomb on the home of a Hamas leader, killing him and 15 civilians. Reading his justifications for that reminded me of some of the things we’ve heard from the Bush administration recently — that the righteousness of what we’re doing justifies any mistakes or abuses.
RC: I think we have to be very careful what we learn from Israel.
MJ: In How Israel Lost you put much of the blame on Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, and you clearly have a good deal of disgust for both. You say that neither of them would have a career without the conflict.
RC: The conflict is their careers. Without Arafat, there’s no way Sharon gets near the prime minister’s chair. Sharon’s campaign is all about fear. If the Palestinians had a state and if the agenda of the Palestinian leadership were to build that state and to help the people of that state, then the candidate would be anybody but Arafat. Arafat is a fully an emblem of the conflict. So both of them really depend on the conflict to keep their chairs. But it’s much more than just the two leaders. It’s the entire leadership class.
MJ: Yet you cite a poll that says two-thirds of ordinary Israelis want peace.
RC: And on the Palestinian side, a similar majority wants peace. On the Palestinian side, they’re ready to recognize that Israel exists, that it’s not going away. They’re even prepared to give up the right of return. On the Israeli side, they’re prepared to give up land for peace. They’re prepared to take apart the settlements that are on that land. But the leadership classes of those two societies are in no way ready to make peace. Amos Oz, one of Israel’s great writers, said it best: “The patient is more or less ready for the operation, but the surgeons are cowards.”
MJ: You insist that the conflict is not as hard to solve as it looks. In fact, you write: “Any Jew who’s not an Israeli and not on psychotropic drugs, could solve this Peace-for-Israel thing in about 10 minutes of open thought.” Are you serious?
RC: Everybody knows how this conflict will end. There are two nations. There are two peoples. There will be two countries. It’s a question of how many people have to die, how many buses get blown up, how many missiles slam into apartment houses before that happens. Everybody knows what the terms of settlement are, but it’s the political forces that impede us from getting to settlement. There is so much momentum in the conflict itself, so much inertia in the occupation, there are so many lives on hold, so many lives that have been hardened to standstill by this thing, that it’s very hard to imagine how you move these two bodies politic to an accord that everybody knows the terms of.
MJ: You argue that if you care about Israel, or support Israel, you must also be critical of it.
RC: I would say it even stronger. At the moment, Israel is not capable of acting in its own interest. The body politic is so fractionated and tribalized, nobody can form consensus among the new tribes of Israel now. In the same way, the Palestinians can’t afford to seem to climb down from the conflict without something dramatic happening on the outside. That’s why I say it’s so important for America to get in there and make something happen, which is something only America has the strength to do.
MJ: You obviously think Israel needs the US, but does Israel need any other allies?
RC: Yes, they need international allies. They used to have wide Western acceptance that has gradually been eaten away and has crumbled altogether in Europe. The experts of Israel’s “explaining” department always dismiss this as European anti-Semitism. But it seems to me that the Europeans were never not anti-Semitic. There were times when Europe could support Israel, and in fact, they helped Israel. What’s changed is not anti-Semitism. What’s changed is Israeli policy and how the world regards it. It’s possible for Israel to have friends; certainly it had friends in the past. I do not subscribe to the central tenet of an Israeli’s belief system, which is, “The whole world is against us, so it doesn’t matter what we do.” It matters very much what they do.
MJ: You seem to relish taking on sacred cows. I’m sure you knew you were stepping into a minefield when you wrote this book.
RC: I knew I was going to get hammered, yes.
MJ: I’m curious what kind of reaction you’ve been getting.
RC: I’ve been pleased and surprised by the reaction of regular readers. But even those who have heard negative things about it but are ready to come to an event and hear me talk, I think they’re ready to listen. Most American Jews were brought up as I was, not only with this fond view of Israel but also with this proscriptive caveat that we were not supposed to comment on Israel. We were just supposed to shut up and send money. The Israelis would say, “You don’t live here; you’re not under the gun every day. Don’t tell us what to do.” But it’s very upsetting for American Jews to see what’s going on over there. It’s just as upsetting for American Christians and the wider American electorate. So I think people are looking for someone to make some sense out of this. That’s really what I hope the book can do.
Attitudes toward Israel are not from the front of the brain. They’re from somewhere much deeper. It’s important that the discussion start anew. That doesn’t mean I think I’m going to convince everybody. Some people are just going to hate me. They’re going to think I’m evil, that I’m a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite, or an Arab apologist. And the Arabs, for God’s sake, don’t like what I wrote, either. But, you know, I’m not running a popularity contest here. What I want is for people to think about this again. And I think I’ve got a shot at that.