California Literary Review

How Israel Lost: The Four Questions

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April 22nd, 2007 at 8:34 am

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How Israel Lost: The Four Questions
by Richard Ben Cramer
Simon and Schuster, 307 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Losing The Plot

There’s an old saying among the Jews that goes something along the lines of: we don’t need others to destroy us, because we’re pretty good destroying ourselves. In other words, the red flags were already up when Richard Ben Cramer a “self-confessed proud Jew and pro-Israel supporter” came along and wrote How Israel Lost – the Four Questions. This statement is Cramer’s way of warning his reading public that he’s going to upset his fellow Jews but that he has every right to, because he IS a Jew. Now, that’s not to say that no Jew has the right to criticize his people’s policies – particularly when it comes to Israel and the Middle East conflict. Let’s face it the “give me two Jews and I’ll show you three opinions” is nowhere more prevalent than in Israel.

Still, to quote a Yiddish idiom, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah (loosely translated – arrogance), to title a book How Israel Lost. Lost what exactly? The Plot? Richard Cramer’s respect? According to Cramer it’s how Israel lost control of “the narrative that is her lifeline,” only it doesn’t mention that in the title.

The subheading is “The Four Questions” a clear reference to the four questions asked at the Jewish Passover Seder. Of course, if you’re not Jewish, you’re not going to understand this reference. And therein lies the rub. This book is clearly aimed at Jews and in particular Israeli Jews – who despite Cramer’s Middle East reporting credentials (he won the Pulitzer Prize for work in the region for The Philadelphia Inquirer between 1977 and 1984) – know a little more about the situation than he does.

Cramer was in the Middle East during the 1978 historic peace accord between Israel and Egypt when Israel handed over the Sinai desert. And despite Cramer’s quick jaunts to the region following the outbreak of the latest intifada beginning September 28, 2000, he seems to be still stuck in the late 70s mindset, making assumptions that peace with the Palestinians is as simple as peace with the Egyptians.

This is the core premise of Cramer’s book. That ultimately, the problem lies with Israel – that if the country would just end its occupation and withdraw to the 1967 borders, all would be well. Now why write such a book? It’s hardly a new argument. And it’s still a naïve one. Cramer appears to be trying to cash in on his Jewish street cred to put forward this well-worn argument. But he fails, and he fails miserably.

There’s no doubt that many will find Cramer’s conversational, irreverent writing style accessible. But the Middle East problems are not easy ones to solve. Cramer stops short of putting a black and yellow cover on the book and calling it “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for Dummies”, but by encapsulating his ideas in flippant off the cuff throwaway sentences he attempts to bury highly-charged controversial statements and make the whole problem appear “solvable.”

In one instance he talks about the Israeli government policy of “targeted killings” – the assassination of terrorists. He speaks of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) saying: “It wasn’t killing at all. The new idea was these guys weren’t actually people, but “ticking bombs” about to blow up and kill more Jews. They must be defused!”

Such flippant quips undermine the seriousness of the entire terrorist infrastructure. Cramer says there is “no public proof” that these men are terrorists. But he should know, Israel has plenty of public proof and routinely lists the names of these men who have masterminded scores of suicide bombings within Israel – right down to the date, and time of the attack, the number of people they have killed and the names of the victims.

This, too is something that is sorely lacking in Cramer’s book. He goes to great pains to list the numbers of Palestinians killed in the current conflict –but nowhere are Israeli numbers mentioned. He cites one specific incident – the killing in 2002 Salah Shehadeh, the head of the terrorist organization Hamas’s military wing. A bomb was dropped on Shehadeh’s house killing him and 15 members of his family and extended family. Cramer carefully lists the names and ages of those killed but chooses not to point out Hamas’s clear cut policy of hiding out its terrorists in family homes – risking the lives of their own loved ones and using them as shields.

But perhaps the most damning example of Cramer’s bias is in his statements about the battle at the Jenin refugee camp in March 2002. He writes: “half-a-camp was mowed under by the Israelis in retaliation for the Passover suicide bomb of 2002.” Well, that double suicide bombing was certainly a turning point in Israel’s retaliation policy (which until that point had been NOT to retaliate). But in March of 2002, nearly 100 Israelis were killed in suicide bombings around the country, and hundreds more wounded. Israel finally said: “enough”. In addition, “half a camp” was certainly not “mowed under”. While Israel could easily have dropped a bomb on the entire Jenin camp, it did not. Instead, the army sent in soldiers on a house to house search, hand to hand combat, in homes that had been booby trapped by Palestinian terrorists. As a result 23 Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian snipers, and 56 armed Palestinians were killed. Cramer’s statements merely add fuel to the myth that has been perpetuated that a “massacre” occurred in Jenin –something that even the United Nations (hardly a supporter of Israel) admits never occurred.

In another example, right at the beginning of the book, Cramer talks about the properties of “absentee Arabs who ran away or were chased away in Israel’s birth-war of 1948.” What he fails to mention is that “birth war” was started by the Arabs who refused to accept the United Nations partition plan. Cramer also claims that Israel embarked on a program of “settlements, expropriation, assassinations,” thereby forcing the Arabs to retaliate, and that this is where Arab violence against Israel stems from. He fails to mention the massacres inflicted on Jews by the Arabs that began over 20 years before the modern State of Israel was established.

To his credit, though, Cramer attempts to write this book by interviewing men and women on the street; Palestinians and Israelis. And it’s good that he’s talking to the “little people” and not the political players. However, his choice of people is odd. Quoting members of Gush Shalom – the left-wing Israel peace organization is not quoting the voice of the Israeli people today. Once upon a time Gush Shalom had a strong following. Until the Camp David peace talks in 2000 with then left-wing Prime Minister Ehud Barak – the majority of Israelis were behind the initiative. But once Arafat rejected the 2000 peace plan, the tide quickly changed. Today, the majority of Israelis who were in favor of the Oslo Accords, are no longer supporters of Gush Shalom. In addition, the majority of Palestinians who once supported the Oslo Accords now support suicide bombings.

Cramer also pays a visit to Smadar Haran, a woman whose husband and four-year-old daughter were killed in horrific circumstances in 1979 when terrorists came from Lebanon and grabbed Smadar’s husband and shot him in front of his daughter. They then smashed her daughter Einat’s head against a rock and killed her. Smadar ended up smothering her other baby to death to keep the baby quiet so the terrorists wouldn’t find her. Almost thirty years later, Smadar tells Cramer she is not a victim and doesn’t want to be a victim.

But why seek out Smadar Haran to comment on today’s conflict? Why does he not interview Frimet and Arnold Roth (whose 15-year-old daughter was killed in 2001 by a suicide bomber in a pizza parlor). Why not interview Sherri Mandel, whose 14-year-old son, Kobi, along with his best friend Yosi-Ish-Ran were killed when their heads were smashed in a cave by Palestinian terrorists? Why not Shalhevet Pass’s parents. Shalhevet – 10 months old, was assassinated by a Palestinian sniper who blew a hole in her head from a rooftop while her mother was sitting with her in a park. Surely these are the people to talk to about the current conflict?

I could go on. There are endless examples. Cramer talks about “stone throwing” by Palestinians – presumably harmless, until you see those stones up close. They’re rocks. Big, heavy, rocks. They’re weapons. Two years ago, a seven month old baby was killed when a Palestinian threw a “stone” through a car window.

Perhaps though, Cramer’s greatest disservice is not in what he writes, but in what he leaves out. That unlike peace with Egypt, or even Jordan, there can be no peace with the Palestinians while there is no negotiating partner. Palestinians continue to be ruled by Hamas – a terror organization – that puts food in their bellies, clothes on their backs, and provides medical treatment. Why? Because their leader – Yasser Arafat – has siphoned off the money meant for his people. Hamas approaches families offering them food, shelter, clothing, in exchange for their children’s education, whom they then teach to hate and kill Jews – and to blow themselves up to achieve it. There is not a single Palestinian school textbook that shows that the State of Israel exists. Until Palestinian children are taught that the State of Israel has a right to exist alongside a Palestinian State, they will grow up indoctrinated with the belief that the aims of the Palestinian people is to wipe Israelis off the face of the earth. Or as Golda Meir (Israel’s former Prime Minister) once stated, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

As a Jew, Cramer is clearly upset. Upset with Israel for “losing face” in the eyes of the rest of the world. A petulant child who has lost faith in his own people. He wants Israel to return to its halcyon days when everyone loved the country in 1967. But what Israelis have learned that Cramer hasn’t – is that the defense of its people in the midst of a bloody war is far more important than being seen as popular or likable in the eyes of the rest of the world or a self confessed pro-Israeli Jew who lives safely in the Diaspora.

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