The Impossible Dream: Honest Debate About Israel


Correspondence Corner:

Jacob Weisberg


Slate Magazine

251 W. 57th Street

19th Floor

New York, NY 10019


I couldn't really listen to Israeli propaganda about the invasion of Lebanon, since as I thought I made clear in my column, it hadn't happened yet. Also, that wasn't really the viewpoint of Saeb Erekat from the PLO, or various others we met with on the trip.

FYI, Slate's policy is that we disclose any relevant interests, so that morons like you can claim we've been bought. Has Eric Alterman never accepted free travel or meals from people with a point of view?  Or do the rules you think Slate should follow not apply to Microsoft and NBC?

Eric replies:  To answer Weisberg's question, while I have no idea what the rules are here at, nor how they apply to contract bloggers, as opposed to say, editors-in-chief, the fact is, no sir, "Eric Alterman never accepted free travel or meals from people with a point of view" on any political matter about which he was writing.  Ever.  But I've also never criticized anyone for doing so, given proper disclosure.  Had Weisberg taken the time to read what I actually wrote here, before writing in to attack "morons" like me, he'd see that even though he is going to bat for Bush (again), nowhere in the short item is he actually criticized for anything.  My moronic inquiry was directed toward the Washington Post Company.  No Washington Post or Newsweek employee would ever be allowed to accept the largesse of an organization like AIPAC, and then write about it, with or without disclosure.  (And I'm betting no employee of the organization has ever accepted a free trip from any pro-Palestinian organization, period.)  So what's the deal with Slate?  Personal invective notwithstanding, my question stands.

Name: Andrew Irving

Hometown: New York, NY


I must say I have been disappointed by your reticence in addressing what is happening between Israel and Hezbollah.  Saying that you "lack the energy to explain everything I find both right and wrong" about Kurt Andersen's column is, to put it bluntly, a cop out.  I have no doubt that you would have the energy to address, persuasively, the William Kristol approach to the issue.  But if what is left of the peace movement is only moved to speak to support Israeli concessions, our muteness when those concessions backfire, almost literally, creating hard choices, like now, greatly impairs our credibility.  MJ Rosenberg has addressed the issue.  So has Sam Freedman.  How about it Eric?  Is kill-ratio a valid measure of proportionality?  Is destroying Hezbollah as a military force a good idea?  Who should do it?  And if it is impractical, what does that mean for a secure Israel?  Is a secure Israel still a goal worth having, if bombing its enemies is the way to achieve it? You're a big boy; step up to the plate and take a swing.

Eric replies :  Dear Andrew:

Thanks for writing.  Smart letter, too, as I am planning to do a Nation column on, as you say, "the William Kristol approach to the issue."

I've not written anything extensive about the Israeli attack on Lebanon for the following reasons:

  1. At first, I couldn't make up my mind what I thought about it.  I shared the view that Israel could not sit still for missile attacks on its cities.  No nation could.  But would the response actually improve the situation?  Would the price in innocent life, property destruction and increased hatred among the potentially violently-armed Arab citizenry justify the costs?  Did the Israeli military planners know something I didn't know?  I didn't know.  Blogs, cable TV, etc, even column deadlines can be the enemy of thought in a complex environment where knowledge is decidedly imperfect.  And so I waited, while expressing my misgivings about the general principle.

  2. Generally speaking, I tend not to sound off on issues unless I think I have something useful to contribute.  I don't think of myself as a politician who has to take a position on everything.  Until it worked out so well in the end finally, I never could make up my mind if I supported U.S. military intervention in Kosovo.  (This was one point on which Andersen was wrong; though he was right about a great deal.  a) I did criticize the invasion, or at least its principles, but b) I was mostly silent because I didn't think I had anything particularly useful to say... yet.)  And by the way, nobody asked me, either.  Had I been asked I would have done my best to give an honest answer.

  3. Where Andersen is very right, however, is that believe it or not, I try to avoid the Middle East whenever possible.  Often times, this is impossible, but the result is rarely a good one.  The level of invective and refusal to listen are equivalent on both sides, with the caveat being that the pro-Israeli side is approximately 99 times as strong in the United States as the pro-Palestinian side.  Whenever I try to say anything remotely nuanced about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am called vicious and hateful things by right-wing Jews even in respectable places like the Boston Globe editorial pages, where liars like Cathy Young apparently abound, to say nothing of the Weekly Standard, or organizations that are set up explicitly for this purpose like Camera, FlAME and The New Republic.  On the other hand I receive quite similar attacks from the other side in letters to The Nation and places like Counterpunch.  There was also quite a bit of disturbing leftish anti-Semitism in the comments section of a short post I did recently for the Guardian's "Comment is Free" Web site.

  4. I would accept this as the price to be paid for truth, justice, etc, and the fact that this is the life I've chosen if I thought it did any good.  But it never does.  No one ever listens.  The thing about the Middle East is that nobody ever changes their mind about anything.  They don't listen.  They just wait as long as they can before interrupting and then scream at one another.  (Look at Weisberg's letter above.  He did not even notice that he was nowhere criticized.  He just called me a moron because he presumed I disagreed.  And that guy is the editor of Slate.)  People don't really want to know anything that changes their worldview.  I was in synagogue on the Saturday morning after the attack and the rabbi instructed everyone to write their senators to ensure they supported Israel unquestioningly.  In New York!  The speaker that afternoon was the Israeli consul general.  (The previous rabbi, who was kicked out by the board in an extremely divisive and anti-democratic process that violated every known tenet of due process, was on the board of Americans for Peace Now.)  Did anyone in the synagogue raise the issue that maybe the invasion was a bad idea--or perhaps even morally wrong?  To ask the question is to answer it and believe me, I saw no point in raising it either before or after services.

    As a corollary, when I was in Venice, I briefly broke my rule over a lovely dinner where I sat with a new friend who is the European bureau chief for Al-Jezeera.  We had an extremely warm, friendly and informative discussion--although I found some of his views about global Jewish power quite worrisome--until an American leftist--one I actually like--objected to some of my answers to my friends questions in typical dismissive know-it-all Chomsky/Cockburn fashion, instructing me that the Arabs have always wanted peace with Israel, but Israel wouldn't give it to them, and Mossad is actually doing all the damage that's being done in the Middle East.  I ended that conversation and unfortunately, I cannot help but like that fellow less than I used to.  (Fortunately we were eating in the casino, so the entire night wasn't ruined.  I just went upstairs.)  Anyway, my point is, it's not generally useful and almost always destructive.  Sometimes silence really is golden.

  5. So finally, we've seen about two weeks of this invasion and my guess is: it's a catastrophe.  Look at this report in today's Times.  Then read this and this and this.  Countries often go to war to solve problems because, while it doesn't solve the problem they were facing, it does solve their political problem.  But war is rarely an effective, or morally valid means to address issues that are not ones of national survival, and armies are not good at fighting popularly supported guerrilla insurgencies.  Rather they feed them, much like bullets and Japanese movie monsters.  This Israeli attack is nowhere near as counterproductive, dishonestly defended, incompetently conducted-and hence, morally indefensible as America's invasion of Iraq.  But it does look to be an extremely bad idea, both morally and pragmatically, nevertheless.  And nothing in life is as wrong as killing and dying for no good reason.  I've not done a systematic reading of all of the literature, but of what I have so far read, I think young Yglesias has come closest to giving voice to my thoughts and feelings when he writes here, "A foolish war is never a just one -- and Israel's war is a moral and strategic folly."  It's a remarkably smart and sensitive piece--albeit one written from (our mutual) narrow perspective of "as an American Jewish friend of Israel..." and hence may not be compelling to someone who does not think or feel this way.

  6. A point I'll return to in The Nation, also borrowed from Young-but-Remarkably-Wise-For-His-Age, Yglesias: Isn't it interesting that I, and so many others, are accused of self-hatred, conspiracy-mongering, and collective character assassination whenever one muses that perhaps Jewish voters care at least as much about Israel as they do about say, Toledo.  Anyone who has ever attended synagogue or a Hadassah convention, as I did a few years ago, knows that amongst themselves, Jews make no such pretensions.  ("Good or bad for Israel; that's all I need to know" as one Hadassah bubbe said to me regarding the issue of bias in the media.)  The competing idea, put forth by Marty Peretz and William Kristol--that everything in the world that helps the right-wing in Israel--just happens to be in the interests of all Americans, even if, it, um, gets a few of them killed, well, it's hard to believe we're expected to take that seriously, but the fact is, if you don't hew to it, you're either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew.  (Walt and Mearsheimer may have written a sloppy paper but does that make them Jew-haters?  You'd certainly think so by reading 90 percent of the commentary on their essay.)

All that was by way of introduction to this piece by David Gelertner in The Weekly Standard, yes, The Weekly Standard, that attacks American Jews for caring too much about their own country and not enough about Israel.  Why does the Weekly Standard hate American Jews?

Thanks for giving me the chance to say all this.

Name: Peter H. Dohan, MD

Hometown: Huntington, NY

Dear Dr. Alterman, yours is one of the few blogs I read.  Must be addictive.  Here's a question:  Have the Arabs and the Jews really been fighting for thousands of years?  My vague understanding of history is that when the Old Testament Israelis came on the scene, they knocked a few heads and there was the warfare of the neolithic and bronze ages; however, during the Pax Romana, there were no conflicts twixt the Jews (who were a large minority in the Roman colonial population) and the rest of the population, many of who later became Arabs. The only real warfare as I understand it came with the beginning of the Zionist movement and hard-heartedness of both sides of the question.  This is a relatively new conflict as far as I can figure out, well dwarfed by the 100 years war, the reformation and counter-reformation, etc.  So when I hear air-head commentators say this is an age old conflict, they shine darkness where there should be light and add to the hopelessness of the situation.  Let's invest Dick Cheney's One Percent in economic development in the region and teach Peace.  It seems hard now with the rockets flying on both sides, yet someone has to stand up for sanity and humanity. Shalom and salaam.

Eric replies: Dear Peter,

You are right, of course.  This is a conflict about land and resources.  Nothing else.  All of the hatred generated by both sides grows out of that.  That's why it's such a shame that neither polity could be motivated by its leadership to support the solution negotiated at Taba.  It's clear that the compromise is there.  But it remains many years and many thousands of deaths away.