Richard Ben Cramer talks about "How Israel Lost," his exploration of how
the occupation of Palestinian land has corrupted the soul of the Jewish
state he loves.
Richard Ben Cramer is not afraid of sacred cows. He
bulldozed one of America's icons, Joe DiMaggio, in a bestselling biography,
and peeped into the stinky hopper in which the sausage of democracy is
ground in his classic study of the 1988 presidential campaign, "What It
Takes." With "How Israel Lost: The Four Questions," Cramer, who won a
Pulitzer Prize for Middle East reporting in 1979, has taken on perhaps the
most explosive, emotion-laden subject in America: Israel.
"How Israel Lost" is a mournful, passionate, hilarious lament for the
endangered soul of a nation he loves. In a style that slips from the
wisecracking cadences of a Miami Beach hondler to the dispassionate
observations of a veteran journalist to the moral outrage of a world-weary
humanist, Cramer argues that in the 20-plus years since he originally lived
there, the Jewish state has suffered a cataclysmic sea-change, a blow to
its spirit all the more tragic for being self-inflicted.
The cause of Israel's malaise, Cramer writes, is very simple: Its 37-year
occupation of Palestinian land. The occupation, Cramer argues, is a gross
and continuing injustice that has coarsened Israel's moral fiber, corrupted
her politics and economy, and split Israeli Jews into bitterly opposed,
self-interested tribes who have lost all sense of allegiance to anything
beyond their own needs. The occupation has also had a deadly effect on
Palestinians, stomping out the last embers of hope and creating a
generation of sad, hardened children who know Israelis only as soldiers
"[T]here are no lives in Israel or Palestine that have not been heated or
hardened," Cramer writes. "On the Palestinian side, there are so many lives
and dreams on hold ('We are under occupation -- what can we do?') that the
conflict has more or less replaced life -- or cooked it to a standstill.
The only consolation is that everything can be (and is) blamed on Israel.
Among the Jews, the effects are harder to pinpoint -- and, to me, more
insidious -- because the whole point of Israel was to create a place where
Jews could live the best life -- and liveliest -- according to their values."
Cramer acknowledges that many Israelis deny that the occupation is
responsible for the woes that have befallen Israeli society, including
domestic abuse, suspicion and school violence. But he says: "To me, it's an
open-and-shut case: You can't ask two generations of your boys to act in
the territories as the brutal kings of all they survey ('Break their
bones,' was the order to his troops from the sainted Yitzhak Rabin, during
the first Intifada -- six years before he became Israel's martyr to peace)
-- and then expect those boys to come home, and live in lamblike gentleness
as citizens, husbands, dads."
After the 1967 war, Cramer argues, Israelis were intoxicated by their
success and by the epic transformation they had performed, turning the
once-victimized Jew into "a fighter, a stoic, a Spartan ... Occupation --
they would make a new kind of occupation, too, the best the world had ever
seen -- the Arabs would be grateful! ... And it never occurred to them that
they -- their country, them, inside -- could be affected by being the
occupiers. No, not these men of steel..."
To support his thesis, Cramer tells endless stories -- poignant and
powerful ones, narrated with verve and passion and controlled outrage. One
is about an Israeli journalist of integrity, an editor for a big news show,
forced to work around propagandistic demands from his superiors that he not
interview Palestinian leaders and that all shows saying anything about
Arabs take proper account of "their murderous nature." (He was fired.)
Another is about a Palestinian named Yusuf Abu Awad who "caught some bad
luck at a checkpoint outside his village in the hills near Hebron." Awad
was stopped by Israeli troops on the road, not even at a checkpoint, as
Israeli troops have the right to do at any time. One of the soldiers, for
no reason, started throwing rocks at his car. Yusuf complained. The soldier
cursed him. The argument got intense.
Yusuf was ordered back into his car. But he couldn't let it drop. "There is
no curfew. There's no demonstration. You're the only one throwing stones..."
Cramer writes, "The soldier shot from a distance of about four feet. His
gun had bullets that enter the target, then explode. Later, in the morgue,
Yusuf's face was perfectly all right, but the top of his forehead, crown of
his skull and his hair were simply gone. He was 31 years old. He left a
wife, aged 25, a daughter of 6 and a son of 5."
An officer arrived, screaming, "What are you, crazy? Why'd you have to
shoot him down? What could he do to you?" After the family filed a
complaint (with the help of the Israeli human rights group B'tselem) the
army investigated -- but "it emerged that Yusuf was accused of trying to
take the soldier's weapon ... so, of course, the shooting was
self-defense." Cramer does not reveal what happened to the soldier, but as
B'tselem has revealed, the vast majority of such cases end with the
soldiers receiving no more than a slap on the wrist, if that