The Anatomy of Life and Death

By Armin Rosen
Thursday, February 16, 2012

In 2010 the New York Review of Books published a now-famous essay by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, who argued that liberal Zionism was on the decline in Israel and that the "American Jewish establishment," led by tribalist organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, was partly to blame.  Since then, his thesis—that Israel is caught in a self-destructive spiral, and only American diplomatic pressure and enlightened American Jewish activism can break it—has hardened into conventional wisdom.

The "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization J Street, acting on this wisdom, has raised funds for Israel's critics in the U.S. Congress and set up meetings on Capitol Hill for Richard Goldstone, author of a controversial UN report that accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza.  J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami chastises the Jewish state and mainstream Jewish leadership for being insufficiently concerned about Israel's moral and political corruption.  "The level of thuggish violence originating on the West Bank continues to grow," he wrote in a typical statement last year, "in an atmosphere in which parliamentary actions and rabbinic statements are clouding the country's and our people's commitment to Jewish and democratic values.  Where," he wondered, "is the voice of our communal leadership here in the United States to set this right?"

But J Street is not alone.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opined that the applause for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress last year was "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."  Adam Kirsch recently wrote for Tablet that John J. Mearshimer and Steven M. Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, though it was widely denounced at the time of its publication, has scored a victory by making the phrase "Israel lobby" part of our language.  Public discourse has undergone a poisonous shift that belittles Israeli democracy and mischaracterizes the work of pro-Israel groups in the United States.

It is a relief, therefore, to read veteran Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman's new book, The Anatomy of Israel's Survival.  Goodman is no apologist for Israel, but his book makes what has become a novel argument: Why not recognize that Israel is a complex, dynamic, and democratic country and, well, sort of leave it alone?

Goodman leans left in his diagnosis of Israel's problems.  He thinks Israel bears responsibility for perpetuating a century-old conflict with the Arab world.  Large, influential Israeli political constituencies tend toward illiberalism and support policies that threaten to undermine the country's international standing and leave it "living in a self-imposed ghetto of security fences, watchtowers, and armed patrols."  He says West Bank settlements "waste resources, they complicate any prospect of peace, they compromise Israel as a democracy, and they give ammunition to Israel's enemies." 

Even more urgently, he sees Israel buckling under the weight of "morally debilitating and destructive" internal contradictions.  "If I were to draw a gun and shoot a Palestinian throwing a stone on my street in Jerusalem," Goodman explains, "I would be locked up for a long time.  If I did so in Kiryat Arba or Jewish Hebron, I would be a hero."

Yet Goodman believes Israel's talented citizenry and nearly-unbreakable sense of national purpose are capable of facing down these challenges.  Its military is strong enough to meet threats from Hamas, Hezbollah, and even Iran; its scientists have built things like "a nano-drone the size of a butterfly powered by solar energy" and pioneered technology that provides "a young major in an intelligence base near Tel Aviv with more information about what is going on in [Iran] at any given time than is known to the Iranian president himself."  Those in the next generation of Israeli leadership "have fought their wars, and they know what the country needs for its future."

Moreover, Goodman says, Israel's civic spirit is inclusive and pervasive enough to incorporate both Haredim and the country's Arab citizens.  "No one is asking Haredim to stop being Haredi, Israeli Arabs from being Arabs, or the Bedouin from being Bedouin," he writes.  "The goal," instead, is a society "that is proud to be heterogeneous and tolerant, Jewish and universal."

For this reason, Goodman inveighs against the obsession of Israeli government and pro-Israel groups with the country's so-called "de-legitimization."  Israelis know that their country's existence is real, legal and permanent, and the fact that Israel's legitimacy is even an acceptable topic of discussion is deeply insulting to Goodman.  To join in the de-legitimization debate is to lower Israel to the level of its most racist critics while distracting from its more urgent public diplomacy imperatives. "Instead of apologizing for the past," he says, those who speak for Israel "should be conditioning the world for the future"; they should be "making sure the world understands now that if there is another war in Gaza or Lebanon, or both, the consequences will be ugly."

Goodman trusts that the nationalism of problem-solving, civic obligation, and national self-confidence will defeat the nationalism of settlement, occupation, and endless public relations trench warfare. But can it?  His solution to the problem of integrating Israel's Arab citizens is required national service; given the deep social and historical rifts between Israel's Arab and Jewish communities, this idea is wishful thinking.  Concerning peace, Goodman detects a "consensus towards conciliation" on both sides of the Green Line; but even if this is true, it is difficult to see how such a consensus can become policy while Hamas rules Gaza, the Palestinian Authority pushes for unilateral statehood, and the Israeli government takes no meaningful steps towards curtailing settlement activity.

Still, given the alternatives, Goodman doesn't need to be entirely convincing.  After all, if Israel can't solve its problems, who else is going to solve them?  The United States?  An often-hostile international community? Jeremy Ben-Ami?  Even if Goodman's "anatomy" sometimes seems delusional in its optimism, it is convincing in its argument that there is no alternative to an Israel capable of growing and progressing, of setting itself right.  Despite his country's numerous missteps, flaws, and contradictions, Goodman is fully convinced that an Israel capable of such self-correction is the Israel he lives in.  Given the nature of the country's would-be American saviors, he had better be right.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared on the Atlantic and the New Republic's websites, and in Tablet magazine. 

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