Israel and the Limits of Toughness

Israel should ditch the reflexive, self-destructive bravado and make use of some old-fashioned Jewish wisdom

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis

Correction Appended: June 16, 2010

When I heard that Helen Thomas, the famed but now former White House reporter, had said that the Jews in Israel should go back to, among other places, Poland and Germany, my thoughts immediately turned to the first Gulf War. I was in Israel, lugging around a gas mask, as was everyone else in the country, anticipating the arrival of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles with poison-gas warheads. When the first attack commenced, eerily, in the middle of the night, I hustled into my hotel's designated safe room, put on my gas mask — and found myself surrounded by a most remarkable tableau: elderly Jews, Eastern European sorts, holocaust survivors undoubtedly, wearing gas masks, threatened by poison gas for the second time in their lives. It was at once heartbreaking and infuriating and infinitely moving. The Scuds, of course, bore no poison and fell relatively harmlessly. But these people — they could easily have been my grandparents — were the most powerful argument for Israel's existence; their safety from existential threat was why Israel had to remain strong and vigilant.

But Israel is never that easy. No moral imperative ever comes without complications there. As if to demonstrate that principle, Norman Podhoretz, one of the fathers of neoconservatism, and his wife Midge Decter were also in the safe room that night. I swear. When the all-clear was sounded, we got into a friendly argument. Norman and Midge insisted that this Scud attack meant that the Israelis would now retaliate; they would whomp Saddam. I argued, No, the Americans were whomping Saddam. Any Israeli response would jeopardize the global coalition that George H.W. Bush had put together. We bet $5. Midge graciously sent me a check a few weeks later, which I've never cashed.

The Podhoretz reaction, that reflexive tough-guy response, was very Jewish too — a reaction to millenniums of getting kicked around by the world. In Norman's case specifically, he had been kicked around by black kids on the playgrounds of Brooklyn: "My first nauseating experience with cowardice," he wrote in a famous 1963 essay, "My Negro Problem — and Ours," which announced his rightward hegira. Actually, there is a whole literature of American Jewish boys getting beaten up and reacting vehemently. Jeffrey Goldberg, in his excellent memoir Prisoners, tells how he got pummeled by Irish kids, then read the famous novel of Israel's liberation, Exodus, by Leon Uris, and wound up a soldier in the Israeli army, guarding a Palestinian prisoner whom he befriended. Indeed, this need to flash tough is so prevalent among Jews of a certain age (my age) that I've come to see it as a syndrome, which I've named after the macho hero of the Uris novel: Ari Ben Canaan Disorder, or ABCD.

Israel is a nation suffering from ABCD — and also surviving because of it. Charm is not a major part of the Israeli national character; a brusque, stubborn toughness, a fierce refusal to retreat against great odds, ensured that Israel would continue to exist when massed Arab armies tried to destroy it in 1948, 1967 — when Israel struck pre-emptively — and 1973. But over time, ABCD has distorted and limited Israel's view of itself and the world. As Goldberg recently wrote, reflexive toughness too often displaces seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom, among Israel's leaders. Since 1973, Israel's reactions to a very real existential threat have, as often as not, been overreactions. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the worst, leading to Israel-enabled massacres in Palestinian refugee camps and the creation of Hizballah in reaction to the Israeli occupation. The Israeli government's support for the settlements in Palestinian areas, including East Jerusalem, has probably destroyed any possibility of a two-state solution — although, in fairness, Israel's governments have always been willing to make greater concessions for peace than the Palestinians have.

The most recent display of ABCD is not so much a matter of the Israeli commando attack on the not-so-peaceful "peace flotilla," — although that operation was seriously seichel-deprived. It's more the blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza that the flotilla was trying to break. There is reason to treat Hamas as an enemy of Israel; thousands of rockets fired at Israeli civilians attest to that. Israel has every right to prevent arms shipments from reaching Gaza. But the blockade isn't really about arms. It's an ABCD attempt to make life so unpleasant for average Gazans that they turn against Hamas. Of course, the exact opposite is happening: Hamas has turned the blockade against Israel. A non-ABCD response would be to turn the blockade on its head, to allow everything but arms to pass through. That would be the sort of wise, restrained response that Israel made the night it chose not to retaliate against Saddam Hussein's Scuds and which doesn't happen so much anymore.

The original version of this article misstated that the Israeli commando attack on the Gaza-bound "peace flotilla" "inspired Helen Thomas' odious remarks." In fact, Thomas made her comment days before the attack took place.