In the course of a lengthy essay in The Atlantic, writer Jeffrey Goldberg quotes an encounter he had with a Gazan imam named Ibrahim Mudeiris, who had just delivered a sermon in which he had described the Jews as “the sons of apes and pigs.”
Mudeiris summed up the current standoff between Israel and the Hamas movement which currently runs Gaza by saying, “It does not matter what the Jews do. We will not let them have peace.”
He went on to succinctly describe the futility with which generations of Israelis have sought to deal with the Palestinians: “They can be nice to us or they can kill us, it doesn’t matter. If we have a cease-fire with the Jews, it is only so that we can prepare ourselves for the final battle.”
What can Israel do when faced with such intransigence?
Goldberg’s lengthy and disquieting ruminations on this question provide no easy answers, but the question in the title of the piece, “Is Israel Finished?” provides a decidedly non-celebratory feel to a piece published to coincide with Israel’s 60th birthday.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert comes across in Goldberg’s story as a petulant, defensive figure who is clearly uncomfortable being in the crosshairs of vocal critics like novelist David Grossman, who lost a son during the prime minister’s disastrous Lebanon war. It is also hard to argue with Goldberg’s contention that “he is not Israel’s deepest thinker.”
But you have to sympathize with Olmert during the course of his interview when he expresses impatience with Goldberg’s focus on the “flaws in the execution of the Zionist program.” Speaking of Israel’s many achievements, he begs for a bit of historical perspective.
And for that, readers can do no better than go to a new authoritative source about the beginnings of the Israeli state, Benny Morris’s 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. Those who do will be left with the inescapable conclusion that there is nothing new about Olmert’s dilemma.
Morris is the most famous and certainly the best of the so-called “new historians” who rose up in the 1980’s to question the romantic view of Zionism that had heretofore prevailed in Jewish history writing.
The author’s diligent digging in the state’s archives has resulted in some work that has outraged many Israelis. But no nation’s history is that one-sided.
Some Jews speak as if Israel’s right to exist is called into question unless all Israelis were and are without blemish, though that is a notion that is nonsensical in itself. As such, there will be readers of 1948 who will howl with outrage at Morris’s acknowledgement that there were some atrocities committed by Israelis during the course of the bloody War of Independence.
Others will be uncomfortable with his presentation of the fact that, at certain points of the conflict, the Israelis outgunned the Arabs, even though the few hundred thousand Jews in the country were outnumbered by the tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims in the region who opposed them.
But the general thrust of the narrative is inescapable. War was inevitable, not because the Zionists were imperfect or wanted a larger Jewish state than the truncated province offered them in the various partition plans, but because the Arabs never once considered making peace with the Jews on any terms.
“The 1948 war, from the Arabs’ perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory,” Morris writes. “Put another way, the territory was sacred its violation by infidels [Jews] was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity…. The evidence is abundant and clear that many, if not most, in the Arab world viewed the war essentially as a holy war.”
Morris once refused service in the IDF because of his opposition to Israel’s presence in the territories, and he is still reviled by many on the Right. But in recent years he has spoken of the need for Israel to act to stop the threat of nuclear attack from Iran. He has also ruminated publicly that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, may actually have erred by not doing what the Jewish state’s opponents accused him of having done: actively seeking to push all the Arabs out of the country.