2016-07-27
Richard Ben Cramer won a Pulitzer Prize for his Middle East reporting in 1979. Nearly 25 years later, he returned to the area to investigate what had changed in the time he was away. The results inform his newest book, "How Israel Lost" (Simon & Schuster, 2004), in which he takes Israel to task for its treatment of the Palestinians and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Ben Cramer, an American-born Jew who says he feels a strong connection to Israel, believes Israel's occupation of these territories is the primary barrier to peace. He spoke to Beliefnet about what it means to be a Zionist, the role of Yasser Arafat, and how Israel lost the moral high ground in world opinion.

Your book implies that the current lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is mostly Israel's fault. Has anyone accused your book of being anti-Zionist?
Has anyone not?

Anything that threatens the idea of Israel's victimhood is a threat to the industry of supporting Israel in her victimhood. When you suggest in a book that maybe Israeli policy is making the situation worse, not better, you're bound to be regarded as a threat.

Do you consider yourself a Zionist?
Yes, I guess so, in the sense that I think Israel ought to exist and needs to exist for the Jewish people.

Your views of Israeli policy seem to align with world opinion, which didn't always judge Israel as harshly as it does now. What has changed for Israel since when you originally covered the Middle East?
I'll tell one story that sticks in my head. There was this little paragraph, what they call a world brief, that said that so-and-so photographer--I think he was for Reuters--was killed when an Israeli soldier fired his tank cannon into a crowd in Gaza. So I started thinking to myself, wait a minute, who fired his tank cannon into a crowd of civilians in Gaza? And on what orders? And what happened to him? I scoured the web and I called friends, and the short answer was that nothing happened to him. There was not even news of an investigation, no follow-up at all.

It turns out that these things are so common, so much business as usual, that it didn't even deserve a mention. That's a big change from the country I knew; that would never have happened in the country I knew.

You covered Israel in the late '70s. Would this soldier not have fired his tank then? What would have been different?
That kind of thing could conceivably have happened, but there would have been an outcry. There would have been a serious national examination of what happened and what could cause such a thing and how we can prevent such a thing. There was nothing. I realized something big had changed. Israel was losing the assumption on the part of the world that what she did was moral and for her own survival.

Do you think that change has happened since the second intifada [Palestinian uprising against Israel], or was this happening before?
Well, it was certainly happening before in Europe, but what I call the hasbarah (propaganda) battalions, the professional explainers for Israel, always kind of kiss that off as traditional European anti-Semitism: they've always hated us. When the assumption of some kind of moral basis for Israeli action started to slip in America, that represented another sea change for me. So basically I decided to go back to find out what happened and how these big things had changed.

The American public seems to have the idea that American Jews support Israel a great deal. But Israeli Jews tend think American Jews are apathetic. Is that the sense you got when you were over there?
American Jews have more or less been browbeaten into accepting the idea that they shouldn't comment about what goes on in Israel because they don't live there, they don't suffer the same threats, they haven't paid with their bodies over there. It's not that Israelis think Americans ought not to talk about it, but their opinions are devalued because they don't see it day by day.

In the past couple of years, a lot of people have said that Israel is criticized unfairly in comparison to other countries. Do you think it does get unfair treatment?
Well, it certainly gets more attention one way or the other. There's a case to be made that more is made of something done by Israeli soldiers than by, for example, Namibian soldiers. But I don't think that Israel could survive without an inordinate share of the world's attention. That attention has worked for Israel's benefit as well.

Some people might say Israel gets the attention because so many people are anti-Semitic. How much do you think anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism are intertwined?
I'm sure there are maybe thousands or tens of thousands or--I don't know how many--who are anti-Israel because they are anti-Semitic. I don't think that stretches the imagination. But I don't think that the world was any less anti-Semitic 20 years ago. And yet 20 years ago, Israel was regarded as a pretty good world citizen. And so my question is, not are there anti-Semites in the world--I assume there are--but are the policies of Israel making that a legitimate or mainstream point of view?

To me, it's a triumph when the state of Israel can be supported even by governments who might be suspected of anti-Semitism. When Israel was either trying to make peace or saying it wanted to make peace, she had quite a bit of support in the world, including from nations that Israel now brands as anti-Semitic. So something changed, but I don't think it was the anti-Semitism.

Have there been times recently when you feel Israel has been criticized unfairly?
Oh sure, it can happen. But there are certain indisputable facts that are regarded as some kind of heresy against Israel that to me are just simple facts. It's been 37 years they've been holding onto this land [Gaza and the West Bank] despite the world's overwhelming certainty that this is occupied land and was always meant to be given back in exchange for agreements of one kind or another. In fact, a number of Israeli governments have followed that policy as well. If you look through a particular prism, you can see most Israeli policies as basically an attempt to hold onto this land.

What I wanted people to see from reading the book was that the upshot of this policy has not been positive for Israel or for the way the world regards Israel. Nobody can tell me that the Israelis are more secure today than they were before they took this land. And certainly not more secure since they kind of slid into holding onto this land. It may be true that they don't have the guns of their Arab neighbors looking down on their settlements as they used to before the Six Day War, but on the other hand, they're afraid to send their kids to school. Which seems worse to you?

You suggest in your book that Arafat was not the sole person to blame for the lack of peace in Israel and Palestine. Since Camp David in 2000, a lot of people have suggested that he is to blame.
Well, that is a very easy way to wash your hands of any responsibility. To say "we have no partner" is a nice way of saying, how could we possibly talk to them?

So you think blaming Arafat is people's way of saying "we can't negotiate if there's not one to talk with"?
Exactly. It's a very convenient rationale because it absolves Israel of any further responsibility for trying to make peace.

The basic solution you outline in the book is simply to give the land back. Have people accused you of offering too simple a solution? There must be more that goes into it than that.
Well, it would be a hell of a start, let's put it that way.

So do you think the Israeli army should pull out of Gaza and the West Bank tomorrow?
Basically. It would be a tad more complicated, but that would be what I want to see get done, yes.

Even gradual pullout from Gaza and the West Bank is very controversial because no one knows what will happen to the settlers there. Do you think that the government has a responsibility to protect the settlers, even if they decide they shouldn't be there?
After a certain period, they're going to have to be on their own. It seems to me that the settlers are ultimately going to have to be offered a choice. They can come back to Israel proper or they can stay on in whatever regime the Palestinians erect there. You know, of course, there's going to have to be a compensation package for their houses and for what they put into them over the years, but I don't think that there's going to be a large population of settlers who would hang on in that land if the Israeli government decided it was not going to be part of Israel.

The recent terrorist attack on the hotel in Sinai seemed to expand the conflict beyond the border of Israel. I wonder if that has changed your opinion at all on what needs to happen.
No, on the contrary, it reinforces what I'm talking about. It may seem draconian to say that Israel just simply has to give back the land. But, I think it's our best chance for longterm survival. I think there are two peoples and arguably there are going to be two countries. It's in Israel's interest in every way to try to get a Palestinian state formed while Israel still has all the power. And it seems to me that when you're facing a demographic problem like Israel is, which is a higher birth rate among Arab people, and you are either now or going to be very shortly a minority in this larger Israel that you propose to control--you don't have many appetizing choices.

You can either give back that land or you can try to kill or shove out some millions of Arabs or you are going to be running an apartheid state where the majority has no vote.

On that menu, there's nothing I exactly want to eat, but it seems to me, giving back the land is by far the best of them.


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