WARNING: This column is very dark. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
It’s impossible to write about because it’s unbearable to contemplate. But it’s impossible not to write about it. At the very least, it’s impossible to write about anything else. I tried: I had begun writing a different column, but the good-natured tone of the subject matter (the column topics suggested on Edgy Alliance coupons) was unsustainable given the lynchings and the bombings and the terror attacks all playing on CNN. Still, I guess life has to go on, and I’ll eventually get to that.
But in some ways, I don’t think life will ever be the same. Summit or no summit, any hope for an eventual resolution of the situation seems gone, and we’re left with a choice between slow-motion slaughter and sudden apocalypse.
It’s not that this comes as a surprise to me. In some ways, I’ve been expecting it all my life. Four months ago, in a time of relative optimism–in the weeks during the buildup to the Middle East summit conference at Camp David, in the midst of a column (“Nukeporn Revisited,” July 3) about growing up with the conviction that nuclear holocaust was inevitable–I spoke of the way I was still convinced that we are doomed: doomed before long “to witness another Holocaust, this one perhaps combining elements of both Auschwitz and Hiroshima”; this one in the Middle East.
“Think I’m being pessimistic?” I’d asked back then. “Well … does any one really think the ‘peace process’ in the Middle East is going to work? Sure everyone involved should go on acting as if it might work, because that’s the only chance it will. … For a long time I used to hope something could be worked out. I used to believe all problems are soluble because the consequences of not solving this problem were inconceivable. But now I wonder about that. The tragedy of history is that some problems have no solution. Ever. I don’t see love triumphing over hate in history. I see just the opposite. Why should this be different?”
I went into a scenario which seemed impossibly dark back in late June, but now, a few months later, not as improbable. A scenario about a Mideast conflict erupting into nuclear warfare, “Perhaps not a planet-destroying Holocaust, but a local one, and for my people a second one.… While I’ve always loved the idea of the state of Israel, my worst fear has always been that some day, in some way, the ingathering of Jews there would serve a ‘concentration’ function similar to Hitler’s death camps … make it easier to kill the Jews again.”
The only thing recent events would cause me to change about all that is the sentence that reads “everyone involved should go on acting as if the peace process might work, because that’s the only chance it will.” Now I wonder whether, even if the Camp David summit had succeeded, any peace produced by the peace process would have meant peace. It seems clear that the terrible facts, the terrible acts of history, geography, religious fundamentalism and fundamental human nature will doom any temporary, negotiated peace to erupt sooner or later into war. Now I think that rather than “go on acting as if the peace process might work,” it’s time to start contemplating the possibility that the war process has begun, a war that will not end, or will end only in intolerable slaughter. It’s time to think about worst-case scenarios because there are no alternatives, there are nothing but worst cases to come.
I hope I’m wrong, but history doesn’t give much hope for optimism. In the meantime, though, perhaps it’s worth examining who’s really to blame for the horror to come.
Should we blame the Israelis or the Palestinians, or are they both victims of a malignant fate? Despite being in most respects a liberal, I’ve developed over the past few years a sympathy for the secular hard-liners in Israel. I emphasize secular to make clear I’m not thinking about the foolish messianic rabbis and settlement fanatics who falsely attributed the Israeli victory in the 1967 war to God rather than to the Israeli Defense Force. The ones who kept their own children out of the army and forced the children of secular Israelis to risk their lives for them, all the while making themselves an obstacle to any possible peace because they knew God wanted certain political boundaries and would make sure the rabbis got what they wanted. God would take care of the Jews. Just as he did from 1938 to 1945.
Isn’t it about time some of these rabbis began asking themselves just where God was, what exactly He was doing in Europe in the 1940’s; if He exists, just what has He done for the Jewish people lately, except look on while they suffered one Holocaust and head for another?
No, my sympathy has been for secular hard-liners who didn’t trust the peace process because they didn’t want to trust the fate of the Jewish people once again to the goodwill of the “international community.”
Here is the way I interpret the unspoken rationale for the secular hard-line position: It goes back to Hitler. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, neither the world nor the Jews (anyway not much of the world, not many of the Jews) believed Hitler meant what he said. Exterminate the Jews of Europe? Just rhetoric, hate speech. Engage him in a peace process and he’d behave like a rational statesman. He wouldn’t actually do what he said he wanted to do (extermination and all that rhetoric), and the world wouldn’t let anything like that happen. But in fact he meant it, he did it and the world let it happen.
Fifty years later, 6 million Jews are surrounded by hundreds of millions of Muslims in states whose rulers, whose preachers, whose grade-school textbooks for God’s sake, call for the destruction of the state of Israel, whose controlled news media routinely whip up frenzied hatred for evil Jews based on ancient sicko conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and up-to-the-minute Holocaust-denial slime. Six million people facing a Palestinian “peace partner” whose leaders openly speak to their own people of the peace process as the “first step” to the ultimate goal–the destruction of the Jewish state.
It was “just rhetoric,” the international community said of Hitler’s extermination threats in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s “just rhetoric,” the international community says of Palestinian textbooks that use Hitlerian language about the Jews. Go ahead, make the next withdrawal, the next compromise, the U.S. says to the Israelis; the textbook hate is irrelevant. Pretty soon they’ll be so happy with the Internet and the benefits of globalization that they’ll forget about all that evil-Jew stuff in the textbooks. But it is the textbook hate that breeds the lynchers of Ramallah.
The secular hard-liners have essentially been saying: We made that mistake last time. We trusted the reassurances of the world last time. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. If we err this time, let’s not make the same mistake twice, let’s not err–suicidally–on the side of trust and good faith. The world didn’t exert itself to stop the last Holocaust from happening. This time, we’re not going to wait for help; if we’re going to go down this time, we’ll go down fighting and take a lot of them with us.
But this doesn’t mean blame the Palestinian people–although I would say blame their leaders, and the cynical rulers of the rest of the Arab world, and the hate-filled Islamic fundamentalists who have done so much to turn the difficult process of resolving two peoples’ historical tragedies into a holy war with no solution but terror and slaughter.
To an extent, Palestinians are themselves collateral victims of Hitler. They are the ones forced to live with the consequences of the world’s failure to stop Hitler and his Holocaust, when the remnant of the refugees and survivors arrived at their doorstep.
Frankly, if there were any justice in history (there isn’t), the people and the place that should bear the consequences of the aftermath of Hitler and the Holocaust, the ones who deserve to be displaced to make room for a state for the Jews, are the French. The cowardly failure of the French to lift a finger when Hitler illegally marched into the Rhineland in 1936, when the French Army had overwhelming military superiority–when Hitler was ready to flee at the first sign of resistance and when it might have ended his political career–is an enduring shame that current French governments compound by appeasing terrorists and sucking up to Saddam and enabling his exterminationist aims. Vichy lives!
If there were any justice, the Jews shouldn’t have been given a barren desert like Palestine as their homeland. A better solution would be Paris and the Loire Valley. If there were any justice in history, rather than dispossess the Palestinians, dispossess the French, history’s signature collaborators with evil.
Still, there may be some merit to the secular hard-liners’ argument that the Palestinians did have a state of their own, called Jordan, the greater part of the original British mandate. It was a state that included the entire West Bank, as well–until tinpot-dictator Arab leaders lost it when they tried to destroy the state of Israel in 1967. And made the West Bank the source of the horror that we witness now.
The objection to the secular hard-liners’ position has always been that they never offered any credible alternative to the peace process. But maybe there just was no alternative, no solution. A year or so ago, Commentary published a critique of the peace process that proposed an alternative policy: Take back the guns from Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. It didn’t sound workable; it probably would have gotten us to the same spiraling, out-of-control level of violence that we have now. But perhaps we would have ended up here, at this current moment of horror, no matter what the route–peace process or no peace process–because there are some problems that have no solutions, only tragic endings.
Still, it’s not clear tragedy was inevitable. If Yitzhak Rabin had lived, the peace process might not have died. Perhaps there was still time to make it work, if Israeli religious fanatics like Rabin’s assassin and Islamic suicide bombers hadn’t destroyed the original momentum of hope.
If neither the Jews nor the Palestinians deserve the blame for the horror under way; one has to wonder whether religion itself does. Some years ago, I recall a memorable argument with a very wise woman about the responsibility of religion for history’s tragedies. Look at the history of bloodshed, massacre, war and Holocaust throughout history–all over religion: The world would have been so much better off, I argued, without religion, without people slaughtering each other over the arrogant conviction they knew the truth about God when, in fact, no one does.
“I’m not sure,” is what she said. “How do you know things wouldn’t have been much worse if there hadn’t been religion to restrain human nature?”
This was one of the darkest comments on the nature of human nature that one could imagine. It ranks up there with that line Max von Sydow delivered about the Holocaust in Hannah and Her Sisters : “Considering human nature, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often.”
For a long time, I was half-persuaded by her counterargument–that the primal ugliness of human nature was to blame, that murderous religious fanaticism is an expression rather than a cause of that ugliness. Now I’m not sure. She had argued that things might be much worse without religion. I’m beginning to think things can’t possibly get much worse than they are with religion, because of religion.
But if religion is the Formal Cause of this current horror, the Efficient Cause (in the Aristotelian distinction, the most proximate cause) is Adolf Hitler.
The world is still seeing, the Jews and everyone in the Middle East are still suffering, the consequences of Hitler’s evil–an evil made possible by 19 centuries of religious-sponsored anti-Semitism.
I find it fascinating every now and then when I come across some boosterish reference, in a work of popular history or some World War II greatest-generation tribute, to the idea that “we defeated Hitler.” It is one of those moments when I suddenly feel far more Jewish than American; when I want to say, along the lines of the old joke, “Whaddya mean ‘defeated,’ white man?”
Hitler wasn’t defeated, not from the perspective of my people. In many respects, Hitler won. Hitler achieved his war aims to a huge degree. A number of astute analysts of Hitler’s wartime behavior have concluded that he placed a higher priority on murdering millions of Jews than even on winning the war. Why else, the historian J.P. Stern and others have argued, would he take scarce trains and troops that he desperately needed to resist the advance of the Red Army and shift them away from the eastern front, in order to speed up the process of shipping Jews to the death camps?
Hitler got what he wanted most. I don’t have the slightest sense at all that “we defeated Hitler.” Or that he was defeated at all.
Certainly not by death. The traumatic, contested establishment of the state of Israel on land shared with Palestinians, the grudging sop thrown to the survivors and victims of Hitler by a world guilty for its failure to care, but not guilty enough to make it work; the immediate declaration of war by the surrounding Arab nations; the abandonment of the Jewish state to its own devices, and the constant state of war ever since–all this is yet another posthumous victory for Adolf Hitler. And now, with another holocaust in the offing, he must be grinning somewhere: He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.