Why It's So Tough to Write About Israel

The challenge -- and importance -- of good writing on Israel, Palestine, and peace.

israelis march16 p.jpg

An Israeli soldier walks on top of an armored personnel carrier near Gaza / Reuters

I rarely write about Israel.  It's important politically, but intellectually for me a bit of a bore. What more can be said about the country that has not already been said, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict of which the Palestinian problem is the core? You could pile the books, papers, and articles from floor to ceiling on the topic. Israel-Iran?  It's covered. The ethnic and sectarian differences in the Holy Land? It's been done.  Israel's changing demographics?  Lots of smart folks have weighed in. The durability of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty after the Egyptian uprising?  I am sort of/halfway intrigued, but only because I once drank the water from the Nile and now I can't quit Egypt.  Every now and again though, something comes across my desk on Israel that interests me.  In the last week or so, colleagues have suggested I read two short opinion pieces-one by Avi Shlaim Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and one by the New Yorker's David Remnick. Both pieces were a revelation--who writes better than Remnick?--but not necessarily because they offered any new or interesting insights about Israeli politics or society, but rather because of the fascinating way Shlaim and Remnick treat their subject.

How analysts talk and write about Israel has always been a challenge.  There is, of course, the perennial problem of perception when it comes to a highly politically charged and emotionally freighted issue like Israel.  That's why to some The New York Times' former Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, is either an unrepentant sympathizer of Israel's right wing or an unrepentant fellow traveler of the Palestinian cause.   Yet the kind of guff Bronner took and those that follow him will take is not exactly what I am getting at.  Too often Israel is rendered in caricature, where only ideology, lust for land, and hatred for Palestinians reign. In this world, politics, agency, and nuance simply do not exist. Remnick could be given a pass because his lamentation titled "Threatened" is beautifully written and he is, after all, an essayist whose forte is a kind of literary impressionism.  Not so of Shlaim who, as a scholar at one of the world's most outstanding universities, should know better, but nevertheless lets loose with an angry missive identifying Israel's prime minister as, "a bellicose right-wing Israeli nationalist," "a reactionary who is deeply wedded to the status quo," and "a jimcrack [or gimcrack, meaning cheap] politician."

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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