A month or so back, Bob Kerrey loped in late from a meeting of
the 9/11 commission to the New School stage to have a discussion with the
author Richard Ben Cramer about his new book, How Israel Lost: The Four Questions . The throaty author offered his
keystone for negotiations in the Middle East-”Give back the land”-but the
university president shrugged off the
suggestion. No one in the Arab world has ever really cared about the
Palestinians, he said, and there are no opportunities for young people in the
Arab world anyway, that’s the problem. The two men talked past one another.
The commission of which Mr. Kerrey is a member has now published
its report, and what was supposed to be an act of soul-searching has been
ruined by the same blind spot the former Senator showed onstage. The report
skirts America’s one-sided support for Israel over the Palestinians. It says
that the Arabs don’t like us because of their own failed societies and the lack
of opportunity for young people.
Once again, the Middle East
shows itself to be the third rail of American politics. With the exception of
retired leaders like Jimmy Carter and George McGovern and brave writers like
Richard Ben Cramer, no one dares to open his mouth about what is obviously the
main irritant in our relationship with fundamentalist Islam: We are
contemptuous of the Palestinians’ rights to self-determination.
“Americans can’t understand why Arabs don’t think of them as
honest and decent purveyors of democracy,” Mr. Cramer said. “Well, this is
The 9/11 commission report
contains just a few quiet mentions of the Palestinian issue, as an aside. Yes,
American policy in the Middle East is one of the “staples of popular commentary
across the Arab and Muslim world,” but the commission insists on describing
that policy as a “choice” we have made, like the choice to invade Iraq.
“Those choices must be integrated,” it says, “with America’s
message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world.”
That’s crazy. That’s like corporate investors in South Africa
back in the 1980′s saying that the policy of tolerating apartheid should be
“integrated” with a message of opportunity for young blacks in America. You
can’t integrate such things; they are inherently contradictory. And meanwhile,
the destruction of hope in the occupied territories is central to the Arab
understanding of how our society behaves.
Ignoring this grievance is dangerous to ourselves. As Mr.
Cramer’s book shows through the telling of powerful, simple stories, 37 years
of occupation have damaged the soul of Israeli democracy. The most painful
story in the book is of Yossi, a brave and kind settler in the occupied
territories who tries to reach out to his Palestinian neighbors with a vision
of a new society in which Israeli and Palestinian children will grow up side by
side. Yossi is burned out by other members of his settler community.
As a boy, Mr. Cramer had celebrated Israel as a place of glorious
dreams. Now he sees two societies embittered and toughened by nationalist
violence. Both sides in the Middle East thrive on the occupation. It has become
wrapped up in their identities and their politics. And the mission of Israel
changed, he writes, “from the rescue of the Jewish people to the rescue of the
Jewish state’s occupation.”
The Israeli rationalization for occupation is the same
rationalization now offered for our occupation: The Arabs are dangerous, and
besides, there are no democracies in the Arab world. Which gives us a right to
go in and install a democracy. Very democratic. No wonder that one of the
critical factions supporting our invasion and occupation of Iraq has been
right-wing supporters of Israel, on the grounds that “everyone has to do
it-it’s the only way to handle the Muslim world.”
The obvious truth that occupation is itself dangerous and
terrorism-producing is now understood by most Americans, post-Iraq, but it is
still not acceptable talk among our leaders.
The 9/11 commission report demonstrates this fact. It ascribes
the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to such vague sociocultural factors as stagnant
economies and “the decline from Islam’s golden age.” The kids there are jealous
of our wealth and freedom. The “indifference, cynicism and despair” of
autocratic Arab societies are all to blame. Our policy in Israel has nothing to
do with it.
This is like arguing that Timothy McVeigh and his friends wanted
to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City because they were unemployed
and lacked all hope. There will always be unemployed and desperate people. The
issue is what triggers a drifting maniac like McVeigh, or drifting maniacs in
fundamentalist Islam, to such radical acts. And the answer in both cases is
real grievance. McVeigh was angered by government actions against extremists in
northern Idaho and Waco, Texas, in 1992 and 1993. As painful as it is to say,
one positive effect of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was that it helped
prompt a long-overdue investigation by the government of the Waco case (a
flawed investigation, but an investigation nonetheless).
This time around, people should stop psychologizing Arab youth
and actually listen to what they say about what angers them. The answer is that
our country is dreadfully one-sided in the Middle East. This powder keg will
never be defused till we distance ourselves from Israel’s repressive
policies-as well as continue to condemn suicide bombing and corruption in
Our leaders are failing us. Just as our leaders didn’t want to
hear the arguments that Iraq was already contained and that the evidence of
W.M.D.’s was flimsy two years ago, they continue to turn a deaf ear to reports
of Israeli repression. Leading editors say that the issue is just too
complicated to sort out, and lift their hands helplessly. When Senator Fritz
Hollings argued that the Israeli lobby played a role in our Iraq policy, he was
attacked as an anti-Semite. Mr. Cramer’s book has been attacked not once but
twice in reviews in The New York Times .
“If newspapers take the risk of considering it,” Mr. Cramer says,
“then they have to defend themselves by giving it to someone who will tear it
The danger here is that thanks to the silence of people who know
better, or ought to, our democracy is giving up ground to nationalists and
extremists. The extremism of the Israeli right and Palestinian suicide bombers
is being mirrored by the Bush administration’s militarists and the suicide
bombers in Iraq.
This is not the American dream. As Mr. Cramer points out,
occupation and brutalization go hand in hand. “Within months of becoming an
occupying power, we saw the horrors of what American boys and girls will
perform when they have unchecked power,” he says, referring to the prison-abuse
scandal. “And the larger American public, I think, is reconsidering the
fundamental assumption that Israelis have for so many years offered us-that
they are like us.”
The Middle East is now a critical American issue not only because
it threatens more terrorist attacks on our soil, but because we are damaging
our own hard-won values, of free speech, individual freedom and
multiculturalism, in order to rationalize repression by a leading ally. The
9/11 report is a further step in that ugly process, and a giant wasted
Everyone wants to say that the
people who died on Sept. 11 died for something meaningful. The commission’s
answer is reform of the intelligence bureaucracy-something that will never be
reformed. The way to make sure the victims of 9/11 died for something
meaningful would be to reform our policy in the Middle East.
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