A Jew of the Liberal Breed

Nahum Barnea, Israel's leading columnist, wrote this past Friday in Yediot about my Atlantic cover piece on Israel's 60th anniversary. An unofficial translation appears below. Like many Israelis, he is frustrated by questions about Israel's existence. Nobody asks about Bolivia's rationale for existence, so why should we ask about Israel's? He's right of course, but he's talking into the wind.
Here's the piece:



In 1992, Clint Eastwood created a solemn, melancholic Western about a contract killer who returns to the straight and narrow, and after years of distress and hard work, goes on his final job. "Unforgiven," he called his film. "Unforgiven" is also what the respected American monthly The Atlantic called a wide-reaching article it published on Israel in April. The immediate unforgiven is Ehud Olmert. The article deals extensively with author David Grossman's refusal to meet with Olmert and shake his hand.

On another level, one that is irritating and infuriating, the unforgiven is also the State of Israel.

Olmert was interviewed for the article and, in his responses, fell into every possible trap. Grossman was also interviewed, as was the standard list of readymade quote producers, consisting of Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Avraham Burg, and Ziad Abu-Ziad, among others. A week ahead of the article's publication, the monthly presented the article to the interviewees for their perusal. Olmert and Grossman were angry, each for his own reasons, but it was too late for amendments.

Jeffrey Goldberg, the author, is renowned in American Journalism, especially in magazines such as The New Yorker. He has specialized in investigative reporting on Islamic terrorist movements and the Israeli-Arab conflict. He based his book, Prisoners (2006), on conversations he had with an ex-prisoner from Fatah. The book garnered sweeping praise in the American media and awards from Jewish organizations.

"Grossman thinks," he told Olmert, "that you haven't done enough to remove outposts and leave the West Bank."

"Olmert's face took on a dark cast," Goldberg wrote. "'Listen,' he said with evident irritation. 'This is why I am prime minister and he is a writer.'

"Olmert sighed. 'I'll tell you, I don't like to argue with David since he lost his son,' he said. 'I think there is an emotional part in the way he expresses himself about me, which has nothing to do with my views or my actions... He doesn't really separate the personal from the political.'"

Olmert's response is neither accurate nor fair. It is inaccurate because Olmert himself has admitted, in interviews he gave ahead of Passover to Yediot Aharonot and other publications, that he has failed to meet his commitments dismantle outposts. It is unfair because Grossman's opinions on the conflict and the ways of solving it have not changed following the death of his son. Instead of facing up to relevant criticism, Olmert hides it deep inside the tear duct.

On the eve of Remembrance Day, it may be useful to discuss the role of bereavement in political debates. Bereaved parents have no advantage over anyone else in understanding the reality or determining who is at fault and what the appropriate punishment for that person is. Bereavement does not shield them from criticism and does not excuse them from justifying their positions. Nonetheless, the respect given to the fallen by the Israeli society extends to them as well. People listen to them. That is also what is required from public figures, first and for most when it comes to those who sent their sons to the battlefield, never to return: listen; respond to the matter at hand and not to the person at hand; take their anger quietly and with humility, if public figures remain that are capable of showing humility. Ehud Olmert, who succeeded in surviving a failed war, does not know and may never know that one need not win every argument.

Accompanying this story is a footnote. Apparently, former politician Avraham Burg, the man who made a career out of flippancy, had rushed to Grossman to convince him to meet with Olmert. As would be expected, he wasted no time in telling the world of his effort. What motivated me, he told the reporter, was a concern over Olmert's emotional well-being. "The prime minister suffers the casualties of war," Burg said. "He doesn't sleep at night"

Grossman rejected the plea, thus saving his protest from becoming a soap opera. As for Olmert, to the best of my knowledge he sleeps at night. Sometimes, when meetings grow especially grueling, he sleeps during the day as well.

The uncle in the States

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Jew of the liberal breed, what we here call center-left. In his official biography and in his articles he highlights the fact that he lived in Israel and even served in the IDF for several months. "As a young Zionist in the late 1980s," he writes, "I was drawn to the idea that Israel represented the most sublime and encompassing expression of Jewishness."

Jews like him are an invaluable asset to the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. If I have friends in the U.S. and in Europe, these are the friends who quietly ask, when no one is listening, say, were we the ones behind the Mughniyeh assassination? The plant in Syria, was that us? And listen to my answer with a sparkle in their eyes. These are the friends for whom a barrage of Qassams on Sderot acts as an arrow to the heart and a woman accidentally killed in Gaza ruins their day.

These wonderful people have one weakness: They are compelled to search for justification for the State of Israel's existence. This tormented state has existed for 60 years, rocking between tremendous moments and grave disasters, yet it is still required to defend the why and how of its establishment and existence to its friends, and even more so to its enemies. They set the bar higher than they do for any other country, even their own. It is no wonder that it ultimately fails the test: it can't meet the expectations.

Jeffrey Goldberg came here to examine "the meaning of Israel's existence." These are his words. He examined our meaning with Grossman, who simply and logically said: "I wouldn't like to live in any other place. With all the difficulty and criticism I have, it is still for me, as a Jewish person, the highest spiritual challenge and endeavor to see this country become a better place."

Olmert, in his answer, listed the achievements of the Zionist idea, first and foremost the ingathering of Jews. Goldberg agreed: The achievements are impressive. Can you list the flaws, he asked. "Of course there are flaws," said Olmert. "I don't care about it. Of course, I mean, I care about the flaws, I'm the prime minister. I have to improve things, I have to amend things. But when I celebrate the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel, what I have in mind are the enormous achievements."

Why, Goldberg asked, is Israel less safe for Jews than America?

"I'll tell you something that you have to realize," Olmert replied. "This is the most important thing and this is the most significant thing. First of all, no people are safe anywhere, okay? Let me tell you, Jews are not safer in Israel than they are in other parts of the world, but there is only one place that Jews can fight for their lives as Jews, and that is here." Olmert, Goldberg writes, banged on his desk. "Jews were persecuted, Jews were attacked, Jews were suppressed, Jews were killed. But they could never defend themselves as Jews."

If so, Goldberg asked, does the success of the American Jewish community not lessen the necessity for the state of Israel to exist?

"Never," Olmert said. "Never, no way."

That's when he fell into another trap. "By the way," he said, "Jews in Germany--and I don't draw any comparison at all--Jews in other parts of the world were very successful all their lives, and that didn't provide them with safety."

The allusion to Germany sent Goldberg up the wall. "The prime minister of Israel," he writes, "should be able to muster an argument for the necessity of his country without forecasting a Holocaust in America. His was a careless and cynical statement, one that supports the notion that he is not Israel's deepest thinker."

The bedrock of our existence

Debates over the right of Israel to exist take place all the time all over the world. They take place in Washington, in London and in Paris, and they also take place in Tehran, Beirut and Cairo. Articles are published, Research papers are submitted, people make a living off it. One of the disturbing aspects of this breadth of debate is that any friendly, empathetic discussion on Israel's existence legitimizes less friendly discussion of this issue in Ahmadinejad's speeches. Both camps feel an uncontainable urge to encircle the State of Israel with a question mark.

I bear no news by saying that for better and for worse, Israel interests the world far more than is warranted by its size, its strategic importance, and the amount of bad news emerging from it. I bear no news by saying that the words "Jewish State," which to us sound natural and obvious, constitute a charged phrase for hundreds of millions of Christians and Muslims who have difficulty settling it with their faith, their ambition, and their cultural heritage.

But there's more to it: feelings of guilt among Jews who do not live here and feelings of sacrifice among Jews who do live here and emit bitterness to the outside world.

Goldberg says that his decision to serve in the IDF was unfathomable to his fellow soldiers. "One of my commanders asked me, 'Why would a person leave America to die in Israel?' Then he asked if we could switch places--he would move to New York and marry a doctor's daughter, and I would die chasing Palestinians through the casbah of Nablus. I was dreaming Leon Uris dreams, but he was having visions out of Goodbye, Columbus."

Private Goldberg did not die: He went back to America. Israel went on existing without him. States have this quality: They go on existing, with the Goldbergs or without them.

Dreams are a good thing, either if dreamt by one person or by en entire people. The element of dream is especially important to a state such as Israel, with its establishment being the realization of a dream and with its current desperate need for a dream or a vision.

But its existence is not condition on the dream. Israel is not a startup: It is an established and rooted state. A state filled with failures, inner diseases and outside problems, but still a living and breathing state. Seven million people live here, eat here, drink, love, work for a living, fight for their lives. They need not justify their existence to anyone, not even our worried brothers in the Diaspora.

Two years ago, I wrote a sharp article about a kibbutz in the Galilee, a kibbutz I knew well. Some time later, I met a longtime member of the kibbutz. "We really love you here," she said. "We have only one request: Don't write about us."

That, more or less, is what I would tell a warm, Israel-loving Jew, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, for example, asking me to explain to him, once and for all, what the justification is for Israel's existence.

Then I would hug his shoulders lightly and invite his children to come to Israel.