Shmuel Rosner on Why American Jews Need to Change

King-of-Jewish-Media Shmuel Rosner has moved his show from Ha'aretz to the Jerusalem Post, and, to celebrate, I thought I would ask him a bunch of earnest questions about the future of his country, and also about hummus:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is what we're seeing in Hebron a continuation of the same sort of settler struggle, or does it represent something new in the evolution of the movement? 

Shmuel Rosner: It is not exactly new, but yet another proof that the settlement movement is crumbling and that the fear some people shared--that the state of Israel will not be able to deal with the possible need to evacuate settlements--has no basis in reality.
What happened in Hebron and is happening now in the West Bank is, of course, very troubling, but it is also somewhat encouraging.  The Israeli government had vowed to evacuate a house in Hebron and, once the order was given, it unceremoniously did it within an hour or so. The radical elements threatening to prevent such evacuation proved to be a paper tiger, and the disgusting acts of "revenge" they were perpetrating after the fact are signs of frustration, not strength.  Those radicals are not only alienated from Israel's larger society,  they are also at odds with the settlement movement itself.

Of course, this does not mean that Jewish radicals are not a cause for concern. As we've learned time and again, events in this region can be easily ignited by acts of alienated fundamentalists. So I think the real question for now--a question to which one can receive more than one answer--is about the real number of people aligning themselves with those fringe elements of the Jewish far-right. Surely, it is more than a bunch of kids.  Yet, again, the house in Hebron was not "defended" by thousands, but rather by hundreds. And contrary to what these people presumably believe, the lines they were crossing will not make the state more reluctant to "deal" with them, but rather more determined.

JG: You just moved back to Israel. What's your least favorite aspect of life there? And, what don't you miss about America?

SR: The answer to this question is very simple, but it is also complicated: the smallness of Israel is the least favorite aspect of life here, but of course, it is also one of those things that make Israel the special country that it is.  It is what gives Israel its sense of intimacy, what makes Israeli society a close-knit society.  It is this thing that makes me feel as if I really know almost every tree and every turn of every road here.  As if I know so many people that I can barely cross a street without being interrupted by someone I know from school, or the military, or work, or my kids' school.

But it is also what makes Israel intense in a way that can be suffocating; it is what makes it a country of limited opportunities and a place in which one can't escape, not even for a while, from the all-too-familiar things that one already knows.  A couple of years ago, not long after coming to Washington, I was interviewing Charles Krauthammer for the newspaper (I think this interview was published only in the Hebrew edition), and I remember him saying something that is obvious, but was also an eye opener for me, because of the way he framed it.  He said that no American can really understand the psyche of people living in a very small  country, and he was quoting Milan Kundera's definition of a small nation: "one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear and it knows it."

As for things I do not miss about America--that's easy, but might suprise you: American bureaucracy. Amazingly, I grew up believing that the US is not just the land of opportunity, but also the land of efficiency and good organization.  I'm sorry to report that my impression of America is quite different.  I found your bureaucracy so impersonal, so inflexible, so unwilling to make life easier for those in need of services, so by-the-book-no-matter-how-dumb-the-book-might-be, that its mind boggling.  In this case, maybe it is the smallness of Israel that makes its services--from the government responding to citizens' complaints to the last cashier in the smallest of supermarkets--so much better.  It is all the qualities that gave Israelis a bad name--their short-temper, their nosiness, their tendency to cut corners--that makes them better at giving a better service.  They might not be as polite--they aren't as polite--but they will actually help you fix what needs fixing.  What you get in America is the most polite ineffectiveness one can get. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, press zero and I'll transfer you to the next available agent. 

JG: Do American Jews have a role to play in bringing about a just and equitable solution to the Middle East crisis?

SR: Yes, but I'm not sure if this is the role you believe in.  I think that what American Jews can do--the best service they can give as to advance Middle East peace--is to support Israel as much as they can.  And by support I do not necessarily mean "give money".  In fact, giving money is the easiest way for people to support someone when they do not want to be bothered--but I'd like American Jews to be bothered.  I want them coming for visits, I want them caring, I want them lobbying.  And no--I do not want them to be criticizing Israel in public and trying to pressure Israel on matters of policy and trying to "save Israel from itself" and all that condescending crap.  Not because I think Israel doesn't deserve criticism, or doesn't make mistakes, but because there are more than enough people criticizing Israel already and because making policy is for people who will eventually pay the price for it--and because Israel is a "responsible adult".  And with all due respect for those thinking that they know better--I think they don't.  Not those on the right urging settlers to defy government orders to evacuate from their homes in Hebron (I know some American Jews were involved, and not in a good way, in matters related to recent clashes in the city)--and not those on the left thinking they have the key for Middle East peace (your recent interviewee, Daniel Levy, is such an example). 

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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