A World Without Enemies
In Isaac Babel’s 1931 short story "Argamak," a Jewish intellectual "thirsting for peace and happiness" joins a Red cavalry division made up of Jew-hating Cossacks. The division commander understands the Jew’s strange choice. So, he takes a prized stallion from one of the Cossacks and gives it to the Jew to ride. The Cossack is furious. The Jew, sensing the Cossack's hatred, asks the commander, “Why did you give me an enemy?" Not bothering to disguise his contempt, the commander explains, “I understand you completely. . . . Your aim is to live without making enemies. . . . Everything you do is aimed that way—so you won't have any enemies.”
More than 80 years later, Babel’s Jews still live.
During Israel's recent mini-war with Hamas, the online Slate magazine published an article by its legal writer, Dahlia Lithwick, titled, “I Didn’t Come Back to Jerusalem to Be in a War.” Lithwick lived in Israel as a child in 1977, the year of Anwar Sadat’s visit to the Israeli Knesset. She recently returned there with her children for another year, in part to enlarge their horizons beyond an American world made up of “equal parts comfort and Lego.” She did not expect the enlargement to include a war with Hamas.
The article began with a memory of peace—Sadat’s visit, in honor of which Lithwick and her little brother “stayed up half the night making an enormous Egyptian flag.” It ended with a dream of peace, asserting that, in defiance of the war being waged outside her window, “We have nothing but peace left to talk about.” Between the dreams, Lithwick tried to come to grips with her own feelings about what was obviously a psychologically painful situation for her. But she also claimed to capture the mood in Israeli society as a whole: “Trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad. . . . It’s [expletive] sad. Everyone I know is sad.”
The piece also attempted to transcend the conflict, studiously avoiding exclusive identification with Israeli suffering. It worried about not just “our friends here who are being called up” but the “innocent children on either side who are being traumatized by growing up in this way” and the “harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side” of the conflict. “I am worried,” wrote the author, “about terrified children in Gaza.”
Slate’s editor tweeted Lithwick’s piece as “brilliant.” It was praised as compelling reportage by punditsphere inhabitants like Andrew Sullivan. And it took courage for Lithwick to write her article—and to go to Israel, beyond “comfort and Lego,” in the first place. The problem is, the article’s portrayal of Israel’s national mood contradicts everything I know from my experience of having lived through three wars in Israel and the Israeli media’s coverage of this one.
I was in Israel during the 2000-2005 Al-Aqsa intifada, when buses and coffee shops were blowing up; the 2006 war in Lebanon, when missiles were falling on Israeli civilians in the north; and the 2008 war in Gaza, when missiles were falling on Israeli civilians in the south. There was deep, inexpressible grief for those who died; but the Israeli public as a whole was in a fighting spirit—defiant, resilient, and determined. Strangers bolstered each other’s morale. Every day provided examples of mutual aid. People hosted families of complete strangers for extended periods of time in their homes. We dreamed, thought, and argued—about how we might win a war that will probably last a generation.
During the most recent war and its aftermath, I was temporarily in New York City; but in all my conversations with friends and family back in Israel—blue-collar and intellectual, Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike—I have not heard any sadness.
I have also followed the conflict in the Israeli media. Israelis approved or disapproved of the Netanyahu government’s handling of the war, with criticism coming from the left and right. But a poll revealed that the military operation in Gaza enjoyed 91% support among the Jewish Israeli public. After the seventh day of combat, demonstrations were organized around the country against a cease-fire and in favor of a sustained ground assault. The Israeli ethos is not characterized by sadness. Israelis are in for the long haul, fighting a just fight.
And on the matter of the suffering on both sides, undifferentiated sympathy in this case reflects not moral strength but moral obtuseness and weakness. If you want to end the suffering, on both sides, you should unequivocally root for Hamas’s defeat. Hamas is a virulently anti-Semitic terrorist organization that attacks Israeli civilians on one side of the border as it hides behind Palestinian civilians on the other. Or, as Hamas proudly proclaims, “We love death more than you love life.”
The Slate article could have come down squarely on the Israeli side of the conflict even while acknowledging the common humanity and suffering of both sides. But it did not do that, and it is no accident—because taking sides means naming an enemy, which Lithwick was constitutionally unprepared to do. “We have nothing but peace left to talk about,” she wrote, as if victory can’t be discussed. No wonder she feels sadness, a function of the frustrated desire to live without enemies. But it is bizarre to project this sadness onto Israeli society.
The Slate article captures, in particularly concentrated form, perhaps the deepest dimension of contemporary liberal Jewish-American “disillusionment” with Israel: Israel is a troubling reminder that we do not live at the end of history. The world is the same as it ever was, divided into friends and enemies.
Need this make us sad? Of course not. Theodor Herzl understood that “the enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality;” after all, it was Jew-hatred that originally spurred him into action. As the African-American writer and critic Albert Murray has taught throughout his career, for heroes, dragons are simply opportunities to do their thing. As God or fate would have it, Zionism still demands a heroic Jewish ethos.
Do liberal American Jews possess the intellectual and spiritual resources to identify with this ethos? It remains an open question whether they have the courage to reject the soul-comforting illusion that Jews can live without making enemies. If they choose to hold on to that illusion, a sad future awaits.