Posts Tagged Israel
This post first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on April 14, as a response to an essay by Elliott Abrams.
Elliott Abrams put his finger on the main cause of American Jewish “distancing” from Israel, and the answer is discouraging. He picks up on this passage from one of the two books he surveys, Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel:
Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples…. Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel.
Abrams rightly calls this the “crux of the matter,” and the evidence he musters from surveys is unequivocal. With a 50-to-60 percent rate of intermarriage, Jewish communal solidarity in America is steadily eroding, with regard both to religious practice and to engagement with Israel. The children of intermarriage are less in touch with everything Jewish; their “sheer indifference” to Israel, in Abrams’ phrase, has nothing to do with the “occupation.”
But let me introduce two additional demographic explanations for the “distancing,” even among American Jews who do remain affiliated and committed. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, there were six million American Jews and 700,000 Israelis: a proportion of nine to one. Israelis were those feisty little cousins, and while American Jews admired their grit, they didn’t let Israelis forget who had the numbers (and the money). When American Jewish leaders talked, Israeli leaders listened—and when the two parties disagreed, the burden of proof fell on the Israelis.
What a difference 70 years have made! Over that time, the number of American Jews has hardly budged, due to low fertility and intermarriage. In Israel, by contrast, the number of Jews has increased almost tenfold through immigration and high fertility. The result is that today, the ratio of American to Israeli Jews is one-to-one—about six million in each country. In another twenty years, there will be well over eight million Jews in Israel, and probably fewer than six million in America. And these Israelis are economically prosperous and militarily powerful in ways no one could have foretold in 1948.
American Jews are rightly proud of the important role they played in Israel’s transformation, and Israelis are grateful for it. But as Abrams admits, American Jewry “is in significant ways growing weaker.” Demographic stagnation and geographic dispersion aren’t just taking their toll within the community; they are eroding Jewish political clout more broadly.
So it is hardly surprising that, from the prime minister down, Israelis entrusted with the exercise of sovereign power are less attentive to what American Jews think Israel should do. Israeli Jews have worked out a successful survival strategy, and while it’s not perfect, the numbers don’t lie. The American Jewish survival strategy is struggling. As Abrams concludes, the day won’t be long in coming when the Jewish state will have to assume the direct burden of sustaining Jewish communal identity in America, “for Israel’s sake and for ours.”
Old patterns in relationships die hard. It’s not easy for many American Jews to recognize the stupendous shift in the balance, and when they don’t, this is often expressed in disappointment, disillusionment, and even dissociation from Israel. These are the discontents of gradual decline. Israelis should empathize with the deeper dilemma of American Jewry, but it should surprise no one that they discount some of its symptoms, and certainly don’t intend to change their own national priorities in a futile attempt to alleviate them.
There is another demographic reason for “distancing.” In 1948, American and Israeli Jews were landslayt. They or their parents had come out of the same cities, towns, and shtetls of Europe. American Jews looked at Israeli Jews like family, and often they were: almost everyone in Israel had some (allegedly rich) uncle or cousin in America. True, other Jews began to arrive in the 1950s, as refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. But they were mostly out of sight in immigrant refugee camps and development towns. As for the political leaders, most were born in Russia or Poland—from David Ben-Gurion through Golda Meir, Menachem Begin through Yitzḥak Shamir. Levi Eshkol could hardly refrain from slipping into Yiddish in cabinet meetings. They all hailed from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers.”
All that has changed. Today, over half of all Israeli Jews identify themselves as being of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent; less than half, of European or American descent. (Were it not for the immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Ashkenazi share would be closer to a third.) Israelis today just don’t look as much like family to American Jews, 90 percent of whom are of Ashkenazi descent.
Because Israeli Jews are drawn from a wider spectrum of cultures, everything else about them is more diverse. Jewish religious practice, despite the formal monopoly of Orthodox, is more varied in Israel than in the United States. Nor are the historical legacies that inform politics limited to the Holocaust, so central to American Jewish identity. The forced Jewish flight from Arab and Muslim lands is just as relevant, and explains much of the present skew of Israeli politics with regard to the Palestinian Arabs.
On top of this, about 70 percent of Israeli Jews are Israeli-born. Israel is no longer primarily a nation of immigrants. The hybrid Hebrew-language culture nourished by native-born Jewish Israelis isn’t easy to pin down in a sentence, but it’s a lot edgier than the dominant culture of the blue-state suburbs where most of American Jewry resides.
One reason is that those suburbs are more peaceful and stable than any environment in the history of humankind since Adam. Israel, in contrast, sits on the crust of the world’s most active geopolitical fault line. It isn’t that American Jews are from Venus and Israeli Jews are from Mars. It’s that they reside on opposite ends of planet Earth, one nearing perpetual peace, the other leaning toward perpetual war.
So an American Jew, disembarked at Ben-Gurion airport for the first time, might have to stretch his or her imagination quite a bit to see Israelis as “my people” and Israel as “my homeland.” For some significant number of American Jews, indeed, this is precisely what makes contemporary Israel so exhilarating. If there is any meaning to ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, it is solidarity not with Jews who look and think like you, but precisely with those who don’t.
But other American Jews, seeing shifts in Israel that suggest to them the neighborhood may be changing, begin, as it were, to move out. Israel has become too this or too that, things seem more black than white, the people there sound too uncouth. The next thing you know, “progressive” American Jews are moving their Jewish identity elsewhere—to some place where they never have to rub elbows with people whose “Jewish values” differ from their own.
It’s not tragic: Israel will make good the loss elsewhere, through its own spectacular growth and the forging of new friendships. But it’s sad that there are Jews in America, however few or many, who do not stand in pure wonder that they live in a time when there exists a Jewish sovereign state. They would like a different one.
They must have millennia to spare.
Photo credit: Golani reconnaissance unit graduation, 2014, IDF Spokesman.
The November 2015 issue of Commentary magazine is comprised of a symposium entitled The Jewish Future, in which “70 Jewish Leaders, Thinkers, and Clergy Respond to the Question: What Will be the Condition of the Jewish Community 50 Years from Now?” Below is my contribution. Download the entire symposium (pdf) here.
The phrase “Jewish history” is misleading. There is only history, of which the Jews are a part, sometimes as movers, other times as objects, too often as victims. The Jews of Europe were destroyed because a force arose that nearly destroyed all of Europe in a total war. The Jews of America have prospered because America has prospered, thanks to its mastery of democracy and capitalism. The Jews of Russia were freed because all of Russia freed itself from Soviet Communism. World-historical forces have made “Jewish history” as much as the Jews have made it, if not more.
Those forces made it in 1948 as well. The 600,000 Jews who created the State of Israel showed incredible grit. But they never would have succeeded had the Arabs not been debilitated and divided. Israel arose at an opportune moment, when the Arabs were still reeling from colonialism. That weakness has persisted to our very day and has manifested itself in our time in an Arab civil war. But by 2065, the Arabs will be a full century into postcolonial independence. Is it possible that they might finally be poised to destroy Israel, perhaps with the help of other Muslims, such as Iran?
“Israel is indestructible,” former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has said time and again. “I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.” This is true—for now. But as Halevy has repeated again and again (in the debate on the Iran nuclear deal), “10 years is an eternity in the Middle East.” Israel has enjoyed a widening advantage over its adversaries since its establishment, especially since 1967. It is the inherent advantage of the West over the East. But might 50 years—Halevy’s eternity multiplied by five—be enough to erode or overturn it?
This is certainly the Palestinian-Arab view of Israel. According to a recent poll, more than half of Gazans and almost 40 percent of West Bankers think Israel will no longer exist at all in 30 to 40 years. They are about evenly split between those who think that Israel “will collapse from internal contradictions” and those who expect that “Arab or Muslim resistance will destroy it.” Ask them if Israel will exist as a Jewish state in a century, and the percentage of those who answer yes falls almost to single digits. This is the persistent idea of Israel as a Crusader outpost, fated to dissipate as a reunited Islam recovers and recoups its losses.
Over the next 50 years, Israel by its actions must show, decade after decade, that it is the Arabs, including the Palestinians, who have the most to fear from the future, unless and until they recognize Israel’s durable permanence. They are only halfway there. Two states bordering Israel have made a grudging peace, but Islamists, Sunni and Shiite, still think they can whittle down Israeli sovereignty by a thousand cuts. These are the people whom Israel must defeat and demoralize over the next 50 years. Forty years ago, in January 1976, Bernard Lewis accurately predicted “The Return of Islam” in these pages. The retreat of Islam as a radical political force is something that Israel must work to effect, by causing it to fail as thoroughly as Arab nationalism failed in 1967.
Because the Jews are now fully sovereign, they can act on history in ways once unimaginable, and Israel has the potential and the imperative to make history for others. It must plan to bend the arc of the Middle East yet again, in its favor. If Israel is to be secure, let alone flourish, it will have no choice.
This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on July 30.
For those who have followed the discussion of my essay on the documentary film Censored Voices, I bring your attention to my “last word” on the subject at Mosaic Magazine. There I suggest that the film is fairly close on the spectrum to Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” (in his bestselling book My Promised Land and in The New Yorker), which I dissected at length a year ago, also at Mosaic Magazine. That’s a resemblance worth further elaboration, so here it is.
Shavit purports to reveal the details of a forgotten Israeli massacre of Palestinians in July 1948, which he rediscovered by interviewing Israeli veterans twenty years ago. For his account, he went back to his tapes. The director of Censored Voices, Mor Loushy, purports to reveal the censored details of Israeli war crimes committed in June 1967 against Palestinians and other Arabs—crimes she rediscovered in tapes of discussions among Israeli soldiers.
The notion of hidden war crimes preserved on privately-held tapes is almost irresistable. Is anyone bothered that no one else has access to these tapes, which (like all evidence) need to be scrutinized critically? Does anyone care if the case for war crimes rests on isolated quotes, summations, and soundbites? I’ve called on Shavit and Loushy to place all their material in a public archive where it can be examined by historians. It’s reprehensible to put these “crimes” on the public agenda, yet continue to monopolize the supposed evidence for them.
Both Shavit and Loushy use numbers—in fact, the same number—to embed their narratives in the minds of readers or viewers. Shavit claims that Israeli soldiers, in the course of a broader massacre, cut down seventy persons who had taken refuge in a mosque in Lydda—a number he repeats five times in his book. This is what I call a sticky statistic. When I told a friend that I would be looking closely at the mosque “massacre,” he replied: “Where seventy were killed, right?” I was taken aback: the statistic, through its repetition, had stuck. As I later showed, the “seventy” isn’t attested by any source except local Palestinian lore, and contemporary Israeli sources put the number at less than half of that. (They also totally contradict the “massacre” claim.)
Loushy (and her partner and producer Daniel Sivan) use the same number to describe the scale of the “brutal censorship” that kept the Six-Day War “crimes” secret for so long. They allege that seventy percent of the original testimonies of soldiers were cut by the Israeli military censor in 1967, and thus consigned to oblivion. (For example, Sivan repeats the figure twice in this one interview.) This statistic is also sticky, and it has surfaced in just about every review of the film, as well as in the Economist, where you expect statistics to have been vetted. As I show, this “seventy” is a fiction. The extent of official censorship of the original testimonies, according to a careful assessment by their foremost historian, was negligible.
The agonized soldiers, the forgotten tapes, and the memorable numbers are all vehicles to deliver this message: Israel is guilty of crimes in the two wars that gave it independence and its current borders, 1948 and 1967. It is too late for individuals to be tried for these crimes, but there must be atonement. For Shavit and Loushy, that atonement is self-evident: Israel must end the “occupation.” Only thus can it cleanse itself of sins.
The ascendence of this argument in the Israeli mainstream left isn’t accidental. The Second Intifada, the debacle of Gaza, Palestinian refusal to talk—all of these have undercut the rationale for peace as a transaction between Israelis and Palestinians. How can Israelis and Jews be persuaded that a Palestinian state is still an urgent necessity—so much so that it might even justify unilateral withdrawal? Some invoke demography, but others instill guilt. Yes, a Palestinian state is a huge risk. Yes, there is no partner. Yes, the rockets may fall. Yes, the blood may flow. But if we end the “occupation,” we will cleanse ourselves of guilt. If this is the aim of such revelations, then the desired effect is only enhanced by exaggerating the “crimes,” ripping them out of context, and claiming they were somehow covered up.
This is the present-day purpose of these historical exposés. But that isn’t necessarily their present-day effect. Israel’s critics adduce the claims of Shavit and Loushy as evidence that Israel repeatedly commits and covers up the same crimes. Israel’s history, writes one defamer (while generously quoting from Shavit), is “a history of Lyddas piling up into a mountain, remembered or almost forgotten except by the survivors.” A reviewer of Loushy’s film insists that “year after year since 1967, including in recent weeks, Palestinians, with faces and names, are still expelled, imprisoned without trial and killed.”
Incredibly, both Shavit and Loushy are oblivious to this use of their work. Shavit: “Even the most difficult parts of my book were not used by Israel’s enemies because they were afraid to quote something that is written by a really devoted Zionist.” Loushy: “I find it difficult to believe that someone would attack Israel because of the film.” Shavit and Loushy grossly underestimate the resourcefulness of Israel’s enemies, who will mine any vein for historical evidence of Israeli misdeeds and then deploy it to condemn Israel in the present. This isn’t a reason to avoid research critical of Israel’s history. It is a reason to establish facts scrupulously, from a full range of sources, and put them in broader context. Famed journalists and beginning directors don’t get a pass on that.
Much of Israel’s self-critical output makes its way to discussions at American synagogues and Sabbath tables. Even sophisticated audiences often take too much of it at face value. As Censored Voices moves into Jewish film festivals and American theaters, I’ll be watching to see who passively accepts it and who reports the evidence that its very premise is fabricated. I’m guessing most viewers won’t question what they see on the screen. How many is “most”? Oh, probably around seventy percent.
(Again, my “last word” at Mosaic Magazine, here.)
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This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on January 20.
Longtime readers of COMMENTARY might remember Shabtai Teveth, prolific author and the authorized biographer of David Ben-Gurion. Teveth passed away on November 1 at the age of eighty-nine. He had gone silent twelve years earlier, following a debilitating stroke. It was on the pages of COMMENTARY, in 1989, that he launched one of the most thorough broadsides on Israel’s “new historians.” It repays reading now (as does Hillel Halkin’s COMMENTARY review of Teveth’s Ben-Gurion and the Holocaust). It’s also a reminder of how desperately Israel still needs truth-tellers like Teveth, who knew the flaws of Israel’s founders perfectly well, but never let that overshadow the nobility of their cause.
By the time I met Teveth, in the early 1980s, he was already renowned for his journalistic achievements at Haaretz, but also for his best-selling books, most famously his up-close account of the heroic armored battles of the June 1967 Six-Day War. (It appeared in English under the title The Tanks of Tammuz.) Approaching sixty years of age, he had set aside journalism in order to devote himself to a monumental biography of David Ben-Gurion, a project he had commenced some years earlier, when the Old Man was still alive and willing to talk.
I was new in Israel, and the native-born Teveth became a friend and my guide to the intricacies of the country’s history, politics, and journalism. In return, I helped him to prepare an English edition of a spin-off of his biographical project: a book eventually entitled Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, published by Oxford in 1985. In that work, Teveth argued that Ben-Gurion perfectly understood Arab opposition to Zionism, but also recognized the danger of acknowledging its depth. So B-G conducted a carefully calibrated policy that held out the hope of a peaceful settlement, even while preparing for confrontation. The book covered the 1920s and 1930s, but Ben-Gurion would implement the same approach right up to 1948.
Work on the book became a kind of tutorial course on the history of Israel, taught to me by Teveth. In turn, I taught him some of the odder subtleties of English. For years afterwards, he would call me at some ungodly hour of the morning, to ask how he might best render this or that Hebrew phrase into polished English without sacrificing even an iota of its original meaning.
Teveth wrote like a journalist up against a deadline. He would rise very early, go for a swim, head for his office (he didn’t work at home, but kept a separate apartment filled to the brim with his research materials), and then would bang out a few thousand words on his typewriter before lunch. I don’t think he ever had a day of writer’s block. Over the years, we developed a regular routine. Perhaps once a month, we would meet for lunch in a restaurant somewhere in north Tel Aviv where he kept his office. By lunchtime, Sabi (as his family and friends called him) had finished a full day’s work, and he was primed for competitive conversation, usually smoothed by a glass of Scotch, for which he had a refined taste. I couldn’t return all of his volleys, and the only real match he had in conversation was the late Zvi Yavetz, the historian of ancient Rome and a master raconteur in his own right. When Sabi and Zvi got rolling, showering the table with sparks of erudition and wit, the spectacle inspired awe and envy.
I once asked Sabi why he had set journalism aside, since his Haaretz columns had landed on the breakfast tables of the most influential people in Israel. His many books, prior to the Ben-Gurion project, had been contemporary reportage of the highest order, attracting large numbers of readers. (These included a biography of Moshe Dayan, a book on the first years of Israel’s post-1967 policies in the West Bank, and an exploration of poverty in Israel.) Sabi answered that he didn’t want to spend an entire lifetime breathing heavily over the doings of politicians.
The older I grow, the more I appreciate that decision to move from punditry to history. Teveth came to recognize the ephemeral nature of most journalism. He believed he was fortunate to have witnessed the last chapter in the founding of Israel (as a young soldier in the Palmah and then as an army journalist), and that this was a story that would be told again and again by future generations, each time from a point still more remote from the events. If he wrote that history now, meticulously and honestly, that telling would last beyond him.
The Ben-Gurion project, which ultimately reached four volumes (3,000 pages) in Hebrew, belongs to the genre of the big-canvas biography, of the sort exemplified by Robert Caro’s study of Lyndon Johnson or Martin Gilbert’s official biography of Winston Churchill. Indeed, it was Teveth’s finest hour in 1987 when the 967-page English version of the B-G biography (pre-1948) received a glowing review from Gilbert on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, accompanied by a photograph as well as a short profile of Teveth (written by Tom Friedman). This was before the internet, and I remember rushing over to Sabi’s home to see the review section, urgently dispatched by his New York publisher.
The Friedman profile includes an odd quote. “Israel has been going through a difficult period during these last thirteen years,” Teveth told Friedman. “But all this time I feel as though I have been working in a bunker full of light and hope. In my bunker the Jewish state is yet to be born. The Jewish people have a strong leader and the world is huge.” I personally never heard Sabi talk of his historical work as a nostalgic retreat from contemporary Israel. He regretted the diminished quality of Israel’s leaders, but this only fortified his determination to remind Israelis of a moment in living memory when they had a leader equal to world history at its most demanding.
There had been a leader who might have risen to that stature: Moshe Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s favorite, who seemed poised to succeed the Old Man as the very personification of Israeli grit. Teveth had written a biography of him—admiring but not reverential—that appeared in 1971, while Dayan still basked in the glow of the Six-Day War. Dayan’s prospects were dashed by the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when suddenly he became the clay-footed personification of Israeli hubris. Teveth nevertheless remained loyal to Dayan, and it was he who mediated between Dayan’s longtime admirers and Tel Aviv University, to bring forth the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
The monumental biography of Ben-Gurion secured for Teveth the National Jewish Book Award in 1987 and the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor, in 2005. But the project remained unfinished, in part because every few years he would suspend it to write a spin-off. He wrote a book on the 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosorov. (Its conclusions so enraged the then-prime minister Menachem Begin that he appointed an official commission of inquiry to refute it.) He wrote another book on Ben-Gurion’s response to the Holocaust, and still another on the 1954 Lavon Affair (both also appeared in English). And there was that book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs. These digressions, while important works in their own right, took time from the biography, and when Teveth suffered his stroke, he hadn’t yet gotten to the year for which Ben-Gurion’s life had been a preparation: 1948.
We are fortunate, then, that one of those digressions took the form of a direct confrontation with the so-called “new historians.” Avi Shlaim, one of Teveth’s targets, later called him “the most strident and vitriolic” critic of the self-declared iconoclasts who set about smashing the conventional Israeli narrative with reckless abandon. In the spring of 1989, Teveth fired off a barrage of full-page critiques in three consecutive weekend editions of Haaretz. (These pieces formed the nucleus of his later COMMENTARY article.) Teveth pummeled the “new historians” (Shlaim and Benny Morris), whose indictments of Israel’s conduct in 1948 he described as a “farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications.” I recall waking up early each Friday morning and rushing down to my doorstep to grab the newspaper and flip to that week’s installment.
A year later, he published a 35-page review of Benny Morris’s Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pursuing error and bias into the most remote footnotes. This was Teveth at his forensic best: he had read the same documents in the same archives, and he showed that they did not always say what Morris claimed they said. “Morris’s work was received with great expectations,” Teveth concluded. “On examination, however, these have been disappointed. This problem [of how the Palestinian Arabs became refugees], therefore, will have to wait still further for a more comprehensive and honest study, that would be worthy of the great human and national tragedy it represents.”
The “new historians” retaliated by trying to label Teveth as “old.” True, he was a generation older than them, but the “old”-naming could reach absurd proportions. For example, Shlaim once described him, repeatedly, as a “member of the Mapai old guard.” Nonsense: Teveth was famously associated with Mapai’s young guard, and indeed built his journalistic reputation as a muckraker by attacking Mapai’s veteran party stalwarts.
Teveth concluded his COMMENTARY article by dismissing the “new historians,” since “history, thank goodness, is made of sterner and more intractable stuff than even their wholesale efforts of free interpretation can dissimulate.” This proved to be overly optimistic. Demolishing Israel’s “myths” and creating new ones turned into a popular pastime for younger academics and activists. Benny Morris’s book on the Palestinian refugee problem has become the most-read and most-cited book on the 1948 war. One hardly need wonder what Teveth would say about the latest iteration of “free interpretation” (pioneered by Morris in the revised edition of his book), accusing Israel of various massacres that somehow escaped notice until just now. Nothing good, I imagine.
I wish I could announce that Teveth’s legacy will be ever-enduring, but a younger generation of readers will have to discover him first, and that hasn’t happened yet. He wrote mostly in the era before the internet, so his most important writings aren’t accessible at a click. He disappeared from the scene years before he died, so the obituaries were few and perfunctory. And he wrote big books that almost no one has read cover-to-cover. Teveth not only told truths about Israel, he told whole truths, and that required a minute retrieval and examination of all the evidence. There were reviewers who complained that Teveth left his readers “drowning in a sea of detail,” and that “intimate descriptions of daily doings” caused them to lose the “overall thread.”
Teveth was familiar with the criticism, and he rejected it. At one point, he had recited the list of groceries Ben-Gurion purchased while in London in November 1938. “Trivial,” he acknowledged, “yet how well this information helps the biographer in describing the loneliness of Ben-Gurion, who ate in his hotel room and there listened to the radio speeches by Hitler and Chamberlain, speeches that decided the fate of the world and the fate of both Europe’s Jews and Zionism.” Such level of detail assures that while the general reader may not persevere, every future biographer of Ben-Gurion will keep those four volumes on his or her desk. Perhaps that was Teveth’s aim all along.
I’ve missed Sabi very much these last twelve years, and suspect I’ll miss him still more with the passage of time. This is not only because he was my friend, but because I see no one who combines his mix of passion, energy, and encyclopedic knowledge in the pursuit of every recoverable fragment of evidence needed to establish the truth. My condolences to Ora, his wife, who sustained him through all the years of his disability and saw the last volume of the Ben-Gurion biography through to publication, and to their children and grandchildren, in whom Sabi took so much pride.
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This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on January 8, 2015, under the title “Fouad Ajami Goes to Israel.”
“In a curious way, my exposure to Israel was essential to my coming to terms with Arab political life and its material.” —Fouad Ajami
The scholar and public intellectual Fouad Ajami, who was born in Lebanon and died last summer in Maine at the age of sixty-eight, specialized in explaining to Westerners the complex and traumatic encounter of the Arab peoples with modernity. He didn’t write much about Israel per se, or claim any unique insights into its complexities. And yet, at a certain point in his life, he decided he would discover Israel for himself—not only by reading and meeting Israelis abroad, but by visiting the place.
As it happens, I witnessed several of the stages of this discovery, first as his student and later as his friend. Here I want to mark those stages, and then offer some observations on the crucial insight I believe he derived from his quest.
I start with a passage written in 1991:
At night, a searchlight from the Jewish village of Metullah could be seen from the high ridge on which my [own] village lay. The searchlight was a subject of childhood fascination. The searchlight was from the land of the Jews, my grandfather said . . . . In the open, barren country, by the border, that land of the Jews could be seen and the chatter of its people heard across the barbed wire.
Fouad’s native village, Arnoun in southern Lebanon, stands less than five miles from Metullah, the northernmost point in Israel. The story of his discovery of Israel surely begins with this searchlight, beaming and beckoning across an impenetrable border. From childhood, he would later recall, “I retained within me an unrelenting sense of curiosity” about the Jewish state.
But the actual discovery began only much later, after Fouad passed through Beirut and came to America. Exactly 40 years ago, in the fall of 1974, I was a Princeton University senior in Fouad’s class, Politics 320, “Modernization in the Middle East and North Africa.” I was twenty, with two years of study in Israel under my belt; Fouad, recently arrived as an assistant professor of politics, was twenty-nine. Richard Falk, who taught international law at Princeton and would later become notorious as an anti-Israel agitator, played some role in bringing him onto the faculty; he has remembered Fouad as one who “shared a critical outlook on the follies of the American imperial role and felt a deep sympathy for the Palestinian struggles for their place in the sun.” Falk also claims that he introduced Fouad to Edward Said, with whom there was a “rapid bonding.”
Although I place little faith in Richard Falk’s word on anything, I imagine this to be true. Still, I have no personal recollection, from the fall of 1974, of Fouad as a firebrand. In that class there was an Israeli freshman, a twenty-four-year-old artillery captain who had distinguished himself in the October 1973 war and who was the first Israeli officer to go abroad on undergraduate study leave. He later rose to the rank of brigadier general. I can’t be absolutely certain, but he may have been the first Israeli whom Fouad ever encountered.
This young Israeli came right out of central casting—a confident soldier-scholar, not only a sabra but a graduate of Phillips Exeter, the elite New Hampshire boarding school. My vague recollection is that Fouad was fascinated by him, and the class often turned into a back-and-forth between the two of them. When this Israeli was profiled in Princeton’s alumni weekly, he said of Fouad that “we get along well. Relationships at Princeton are very intellectual.” That same semester, incidentally, some of my Jewish classmates decided to invite Fouad to dinner at the kosher dining facility on campus. I’m sure it was his earliest kosher culinary experience—the first (and quite possibly the worst) of many to come.
After my graduation and a year in New York, I returned to Princeton as a graduate student in 1976. Fouad was still there. He had become a star lecturer, with a huge course in international politics enrolling more than 300 students. In those years, he still wore his Palestinian sympathies on his sleeve. Many will have seen a Youtube clip from 1978 of an exchange between one Ben Nitay, a twenty-nine-year-old economic consultant known today as Benjamin Netanyahu, and a thirty-three-year-old Fouad in a jet-black beard. In this encounter, which took place a scant two years after the IDF’s dramatic rescue of Jewish hostages held by Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe (an operation in which Jonathan Netanyahu lost his life), Fouad is very much the angry Arab, peppering an unflappable Bibi with aggressive questions about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
In the archives of the Daily Princetonian, I find an April 1979 report under this headline: “Politics Professor Informs Precept of PLO Invitation to Visit Lebanon.” According to a student cited in the report, Ajami “told us that Yasir Arafat had invited him and six students to come visit him.” According to another student, Ajami “said jokingly the reason he had received the invitation was because he had spoken out for the PLO in the past, and they hoped he would do so again.”
That Fouad might have thought to visit Beirut, where he himself grew to manhood, on an invitation from the PLO, speaks of another time and a different Fouad. It’s usually said that he broke with the Palestinians over the PLO’s abuse of the Shiites of his native Lebanon, especially in the lead-up to Israel’s 1982 invasion. But the shift was probably expedited by his move from Princeton to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and his engagement with the New Republic, especially its owner Martin Peretz and its literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and subsequently with Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of the Atlantic and U.S. News & World Report.
Among American Jews, Fouad found the kind of free-wheeling, serious intellectual camaraderie that the Arab-American community, then and now, simply couldn’t sustain. Israel would not have been the cause of his being drawn into this world, but there he would have been challenged to test his second-hand notions of Israel against the reality.
And so he did test them. Fouad paid his first visit in 1980, crossing from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge. “It would have been too brave, too forthright to fly into Israel,” he later wrote. “I covered up my first passage by pretending that I had come to the West Bank. . . . Venturing there (even with an American passport) still had the feel of something illicit about it.”
From then on, he began to pay fairly regular visits, and to fly directly. Because I’d been his student, and we could pick each other out in a crowd, I volunteered for the pleasant task of meeting him when he landed at Ben-Gurion airport. Although an American citizen, he had been born in an enemy country, and his Israeli friends wanted to spare him any indignity or delay at the airport. So I would greet him before he entered passport control. Then we would take a seat while border officials scrutinized his papers. Once he’d been cleared, we would claim his bags, and I’d drive him to his hotel. By the end of this ritual, we’d have caught each other up on our news, and I would know what he was hoping to do on this trip.
Here is Fouad’s 1991 description of these visits:
I knew a good many of the country’s academics and journalists. I had met them in America, and they were eager to tutor me about their country. Gradually the country opened to me. I didn’t know Hebrew; there was only so much of Israeli life that was accessible to me. But the culture of its universities, the intensity of its intellectual debates would soon strip me of the nervousness with which I had initially approached the place. The Palestinian story was not mine. I could thus see Israel on its own terms. I was free to take in the world that the Zionist project had brought forth. Above all, I think I had wanted to understand and interpret Arab society without the great alibi that Israel had become for every Arab failing under the sun. In a curious way, my exposure to Israel was essential to my coming to terms with Arab political life and its material.
The visits were personal, and Fouad usually came alone. He didn’t participate in conferences, deliver lectures, or grant interviews. He did want to meet public figures; my colleague Itamar Rabinovich arranged most of those meetings. I have a clear memory of a Sabbath lunch hosted by Itamar at his apartment so that Fouad could meet Yitzhak Rabin, then out of government; I’m sure Itamar made many more such introductions. On another occasion, in the mid-1990s, I went through a former student to set up a meeting for Fouad with Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister.
I never heard Fouad boast of these meetings, and of course we would never spread word of them. He wasn’t collecting trophies. He wanted to learn what made the country’s leaders tick. But he valued no less highly his meetings with intellectuals. He felt an especially deep affinity with the political analyst Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and vocal advocate of binationalism, whose almost tragic complexity fascinated him.
On weekends, he was sometimes free. I remember Fouad coming to my home for a Sabbath lunch, and a walk we took to a nearby moshav, a kind of collective farm. He loved the rustic houses, the idling tractors, the scent of freshly turned earth, the dogs lazing in the road—all reminded him powerfully of his native village, and he shared some stories of a distant childhood. On the way back we entered a military cemetery, and I read him some of the tombstones, explaining how each war came to have its official name. He was thoughtfully silent.
Back in America, Fouad generally steered clear of appearances before the bevy of organizations that support Israel. He had made an exception in 1992, when he allowed friends to “draft” him (his word) to speak at a New York fundraiser for the Jerusalem Foundation, alongside Dan Rather and Henry Kissinger. The Arabic press was all over him, and friends learned not to ask this sort of favor again. But two years ago, when the American Friends of Tel Aviv University put on a gala dinner in New York to honor his and my mentor Bernard Lewis, Fouad did speak, with humor and emotion. For Bernard, Fouad would do anything—another large story. But he also nodded toward Tel Aviv University, and his statement of friendship is very much worth having in these days of academic-boycott resolutions by bigoted people whose knowledge of Israel and Israeli universities is as nothing compared with his.
Fouad also welcomed publication of his books in Hebrew. Four appeared, in a curious order. First was The Vanished Imam, on the political awakening of Lebanon’s Shiites, rushed to translation in 1988 when Israel was facing a Shiite insurgency in Lebanon’s south. Then came The Dream Palace of the Arabs; only after that, its predecessor The Arab Predicament, a full two decades after its original publication; and finally, in 2012, The Syrian Rebellion.
What did Fouad take away from his forays of discovery? Much of what’s said on this subject misses the point—a failure exemplified by the absurd claim, made in an old hit piece in the Nation, that he “became an ardent Zionist” and even underwent a “Likudnik conversion.” Far from it. Fouad was one of those—and I would include among them the late, great Jewish scholar Elie Kedourie—who began as naysayers but reconciled themselves to Israel because it had become, in Kedourie’s words, a “going concern.” Or, as Fouad put it, “the state that had fought its way into the world in 1948 is there to stay.” Fouad wasn’t an “ardent Zionist”—and believe me, I know us when I see us. He was a hard-bitten realist who believed that the dreamy denial of Israel’s permanence was crippling the Arabs.
Fouad accused Arab elites, and especially Arab intellectuals, of failing in their most critical responsibility: to grasp the power of Zionism and later Israel, and so pursue an urgent accommodation with the new reality. Instead they had done the opposite, feeding Palestinian refugees and Arab publics with the cruel illusion that history could be undone.
Again and again, Fouad would return to the phrases “history’s verdict” and “harsh truths.” “It would have been the humane thing,” he wrote, “to tell the [Palestinian] refugees that huge historical verdicts are never overturned. But it was safer to offer a steady diet of evasion and escapism.” And this: “Ever since the Palestinians had taken to the road after 1948, that population had never been given the gift of political truth. Zionism had built a whole, new world west of the Jordan River, but Palestinian nationalism had insisted that all this could be undone.” And this: “Arafat refrained from telling the Palestinians the harsh truths they needed to hear about the urgency of practicality and compromise. . . . He peddled the dream that history’s verdict could be overturned, that the ‘right of return’ was theirs.” In short, Arab rejection of Israel had been predicated either on willful ignorance or a lie.
Fouad taught himself more about Israel than any Arab intellectual of his generation. He knew its flaws and faults, but he also understood its virtues and strengths. “On a barren, small piece of land,” he wrote,
the Zionists built a durable state. It was military but not militaristic. It took in waves of refugees and refashioned them into citizens. It had room for faith but remained a secular enterprise. Under conditions of a long siege, it maintained a deep and abiding democratic ethos. The Arabs could have learned from this experiment, but they drew back in horror.
“The Arabs could have learned from this experiment”— in that sentence, Fouad suggested the ultimate purpose of his quest. It wasn’t to ingratiate himself with the American Jewish establishment, as his critics charged. It was to break down the wall the Arabs thought they had erected around Israel, but in truth had erected around themselves.
By a circuitous route, Fouad traced that beam of light he first glimpsed shining across the night sky from the far northern edge of Israel back to its very source. Yes, he told truths about the Arabs to America. But perhaps his greater legacy will prove to be the truths he told about Israel to the Arabs.
A somewhat different version of this essay was delivered as an address at a memorial to Fouad Ajami at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on November 12, 2014.
Photo: Ajami (left) and Israeli academic and diplomat Itamar Rabinovich at a New York event in honor of Bernard Lewis, sponsored by the American Friends of Tel Aviv University, September 12, 2012.