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). 
To all those I'll say: you think you have a solution?  Come and convince Israelis.  And if you happen to fail, don't go and work behind their backs to advance your cause by making America pressure Israel.
And I know that I'm going to be mocked for my primitive tribalism, and I know that unconditionally supporting Israel might sound like a mission that is hardly ambitious for those Jews in America who believe that their role is fixing the world (Tikkun Olam).  But I'm a man of small ambitions, and I think that it is better for American Jews to try and do one thing they actually can do--and not the many things they can't.  Supporting Israel is a responsibility you did not ask for--but it's yours nevertheless.  And since I also believe that a stronger Israel gives more hope for Middle East peace, this is what I'd prescribe for those eager to advance this specific cause. 

JG: Does anyone read Ha'aretz anymore now that you're not there?  And could you, as briefly as possible, explain the biggest flaws in the way Israelis practice journalism?

SR: Does anyone still read Ha'aretz?  You tell me.  I am now more interested in those who read my blog in the Jerusalem Post.  As to the second part of your question, Israel, in general, is journalistic haven.  The informality of the country makes it much easier for reporters to call high officials at their cell phones over the weekend.  It makes it easier for them to get into every event in every corner of the (small) country.  Israelis practice journalism with the same qualities and flaws they do everything else.  They are resourceful and creative, but in too many cases they are also very aggressive and nuance-averse.  That's a real problem for people interested in serious journalism. 

      JG: If Obama pressured the Israeli government to shut down outposts, would Israel do it?

SR:   Israel has made a commitment - not to Obama but rather to Bush - to evacuate illegal outposts. I hope Israel will do exactly that without a need for Obama to apply pressure. It is a shame that such a thing is a matter of discussion between the US and Israel: what's "illegal" should be removed by Israel not because of some outside intervention, but because Israel

should not be tolerating illegal acts.
As for Obama: I do not think he has any special desire to pressure Israel. This will be an invitation to the "we told you so" crowd to restart the campaign against Obama--something that Obama is so clearly trying to avoid. In fact, I'm one of the (very few) people who believe that if Binyamin Netanyahu is elected Prime Minister of Israel next year--a scenario that seems very likely today--there's no reason for him not to get along well with Obama. I think Obama is smart enough to understand that getting results in the peace process - if that's even possible - requires a cooperative Israeli government.
And by the way: I think that the need to shut illegal outposts can be an interesting test for a Netanyahu government, and that by passing this test Netanyahu will damage the settler-movement much more severely than a Livni or a Barak government. It is always better for Israel when the left is starting a war (thus, eliminating suspicions that it's a war of choice initiated by the crazy war-mongering right wingers)--and when the right is signing peace agreements and evacuating settlers (thus, eliminating the claims that it's an agreement of the weakling, softy, no-backbone-no-national-pride dovish left).
JG: What do you think the chances are that Israel will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming year?
SR: If Israel has the intention to attack Iran militarily only a very small circle of people will know about it in advance, and this will be a closely kept secret.  Yes--amazingly enough some Israelis are capable of keeping secrets when it's really needed (as proven by the attack on the Syrian nuclear installation last year).  So my first response to your question is this: beware of people who tell you they know the answer to your question.  I don't.
However, if you ask me to try and take a guess my answer will be no--I don't think Israel will do it "in the coming year". Clearly, the Obama administration is going to try "engagement" with Iran, and I don't think Israel would want to ruin this attempt, no matter how skeptical its officials might be.  There's also some chance that the new US administration will be able to be more effective as far as international sanctions go.  Obama has the momentum of an incoming administration and the enthusiasm people around the world have about him can help him persuade leaders around the world to join him in strengthening the sanctions in order to avoid confrontation.  It seems as if he'd also agree to make some trade-offs with the Russians (dropping the plan for East European missile defense installations) in order to get them on board.
All of this will take time, and Israel will probably have to wait for a while before it can take any steps. One thing can change these calculations: an assessment by Israeli intelligence that there's no time to wait. If it's a "now or live with a nuclear Iran" kind of assessment, Israeli leaders may have to make some difficult decisions.
JG: Where's the best hummus in Israel?
SR: So, as familiar as you are with the country, as frequently as you have traveled, as knowledgeable as you are about Israel, you're still, in essence, an Orientalist?  I can tell you about the best Chinese food, the best theater, the best book store, the best coffee shop (by the way, much, much better than American coffee shops), the best massage parlor, the most luxurious hotel, the best museum, the most tasty artichoke, the juiciest hamburger. But you want the hummus. Do you also want to know where to find the camel with the toothiest smile?
The best hummus I know of--and I hardly know them all--can be found in a small shop, just across the street from the new "Mishkennot Ruth Daniel" Jewish Reform Center in Jaffa. It's been there forever, and if you don't mind cigarette ashes in your food, you can order some salad too.