Three decades ago, I was a Berkeley New Leftist with a political and personal problem. I had been born in Israel, and, though I didn’t consider myself a Zionist, I certainly didn’t want to see the Jewish state disappear. Yet my comrades on the Left were starting on a long march whose ultimate objective was to demonize Israel and turn it into a pariah among the nations. At Bay Area meetings, I heard Israel denounced as an imperialist aggressor that had “ripped off” the land from the native population and had aligned itself with the most reactionary forces in the world. The Arabs, on the other hand, were the truly victimized, the wretched of the earth, right up there in the pantheon of our movement’s other heroes, the Cubans and the Vietnamese.
None of this made much sense to me. All you needed was a map to see that Israel was a little sliver of a country, surrounded by more than a dozen retrograde, tyrannical Arab regimes. In June 1967, Egypt’s dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had thrown the U.N. force out of Sinai, sent his army to Israel’s border, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and called on his brother Arabs to join in a war to exterminate the Jews. Israel had no international support after its only ally, France, abruptly switched sides. Even President Lyndon Johnson offered only the mildest protest to Egypt’s aggression. After standing alone and routing three Arab armies, Israel had immediately offered to trade “land for peace.” But the Arabs, gathered at a summit in Khartoum, emphatically announced three noes: “no recognition, no negotiations, no peace.”
In arguing these elemental points with my fellow leftists, I realized I didn’t know enough about the country that I now felt morally compelled to defend. So in the summer of 1970, I left for Israel—my first visit since immigrating to America as a three-year-old in 1939. In just three weeks, I saw almost the whole country, from the Lebanese border to the Negev desert in the south, from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River in the east.
It was love at first sight, the beginning of an involvement that changed my life and, ultimately, made me realize how untenable were my left-wing politics. I saw a vital, open society, with virtues that any liberal-minded person should have cheered. Israel was democratic; it was pluralistic; it was equalitarian; it was productive. For progressives, there was a bonus: Israel had kibbutzim, hundreds of collective farms spread across the country—the only socialist experiment of the twentieth century that actually worked (at least for a while) and didn’t end up killing people.
And Israel had all this even though it faced a daily threat to its existence. At the time, a war of attrition with Egypt raged across the cease-fire lines. Israeli soldiers were dying at the Suez Canal almost daily. Palestinian terrorists regularly crossed the borders to murder innocent Israeli citizens.
In many other countries, such external threats would probably have led to restrictions on basic liberties or some degree of militarization of society. But Israel’s civil society flourished. In its dozen or so daily newspapers (the most, per capita, of any nation in the world), you could find every possible opinion about every issue. I was able to have open-ended discussions with leading figures from across the political spectrum: leftist critics of the government, spokesmen for the ruling Labor Party, and right-wing hawks—including two of the architects of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Ariel Sharon and Ezer Weizman.
One of the leftist leaders I met was Ran Cohen, a 32-year-old officer in an elite paratrooper unit. (He’s now a member of Israel’s Knesset, representing the leftist Meretz Party.) At his militantly socialist kibbutz, Gan Shmuel (the Garden of Samuel), Cohen told me that he admired the American Black Panthers and sympathized with Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro. He complained that the unending Arab threats to Israel’s existence made it impossible to organize politically around the class divisions in Israeli society, like a good leftist should. Cohen ruefully described his experiences in Sinai during the Six-Day War: “All my life I had fought for peace with the Arabs, and then suddenly I was forced to kill them in self-defense.”
I got a very different perspective on Israel’s situation from Sharon, then the commander of the southern front, directing the skirmishes with the Egyptian army at the Suez Canal and trying to keep a lid on Palestinian terror in the Gaza Strip. With two other visitors in tow, the general gave me a personal tour of Gaza to show how he had pacified that hotbed of terrorism (with admittedly very harsh methods). To prove his point that only uncompromising strength works against Arab terrorism, Sharon drove us around Gaza’s back alleys in a civilian car with Israeli license plates, accompanied only by a lightly armed military escort.
As for Ezer Weizman, he gave me a charming but stern lecture, explaining why Israel couldn’t afford to surrender its strategic advantage as long as implacable foes surrounded it. As nephew of Israel’s first president and founding father, Chaim Weizmann, and as creator of Israel’s modern air force, Weizman was the closest thing Israel had to royalty. Speaking in impeccable English, with a shrug and a wave of the hand, he brusquely answered my argument that a more conciliatory approach to the Arabs might work. “It’s easy to be a critic from the safety of Berkeley,” he said. “Come and live with us. Then you can join the debate.”
When I returned to Berkeley, I wrote about my visit for Ramparts, the flagship publication of the New Left, of which I had been an editor. Thanks to my leftist bona fides on virtually every other issue, I had permission to deviate from the party line on Israel. It was the first and last time that anything remotely sympathetic to the Jewish state appeared in Ramparts or in any other New Left journal.
Still, my article was no ringing endorsement of Israeli policies—only an effort to convince my fellow leftists that Israel was more complicated than their vulgar Marxist categories allowed. For authority, I cited the work of Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, an icon of our antiwar movement, who during the 1950s had expressed sorrow that his doctrinaire anti-Zionism had kept him from urging European Jews to go to Palestine, where they might have escaped the gas chambers. I also profiled some of the Israeli leftists I had met on my trip, including Ran Cohen. I hoped Ramparts readers would find themselves moved by this sympathetic Israeli radical, experiencing the demonization of his country by the same international Left he nevertheless pined to join.
In my quest to convince the Left on Israel, I made sure to distance myself from the neoconservative writers whose solidarity with Israel I deemed excessive. I cast them as people whose “tribal loyalties” made them unthinking cheerleaders for every Israeli government policy, as if I were apologizing for Israel’s support from the Right. I also couldn’t yet acknowledge something else I had noticed on my brief trip: Israel’s extraordinary achievements in just two decades of independence derived precisely from its embrace of such free-market, rather than socialist, values as individual merit, entrepreneurship, scientific inquiry, and technological progress.
In any event, my quest proved futile. I doubt I persuaded a single leftist to change his view. On the other hand, opponents called me a lot of names, of which “Zionist Pig” was the kindest.
A short time later, I left Berkeley for good and took up Ezer Weizman’s challenge to “come and live with us” in Israel. I got a job as the Israel correspondent of the English New Statesman and moved to Jerusalem. This was hardly just a career move: I had grown tired of the radical Left’s moral blind spots, and I really did want to join the Israeli debate.
The next time I saw Weizman, I was dating his cousin, a Hebrew University theater student. Then I saw him again at our wedding. Building on his immense popularity as a hero of the Six-Day War, Weizman had just forged a merger between the old-line Liberal Party and Menachem Begin’s right-wing Herut Party, creating a new political organization, Likud, of which he became a leader. He would soon become minister of defense in the first non-Labor government in Israel’s history. I never asked him, but I assume he wasn’t thrilled to have a Berkeley leftist in the family. And in fact, I did still agree with Ran Cohen that peace in the Middle East was at least partly up to the Jews—that more generous Israeli government policies, together with some creative diplomacy, might help break the ice with the surrounding Arab states and with the Palestinians.
Giving peace a chance—a second and third chance, even—was what most of my wife’s friends at Hebrew University’s theater department wanted to do. All had served in the armed forces, and some had even served in elite combat units (my wife had spent two years in the air force). They were on average more than ten years younger than I, and it bemused me somewhat to watch them gravitate toward New Left enthusiasms that I had just left behind in Berkeley. Hanging out at Taamon, a nondescript caf&é in downtown Jerusalem, we rubbed elbows with young Moroccan Jews, who were protesting Israel’s alleged mistreatment of the Jews from Muslim lands and who called themselves the Black Panthers.
As Israel prepared for its 25th anniversary in May 1973, a fierce controversy erupted over the government’s plan to stage a military parade in Jerusalem as part of the festivities. Many of our friends opposed the parade, and a few wound up arrested during a protest. The controversy seemed to portend a deeper generational divide: one of the arrested Hebrew University students was Orli Yadin, whose father, Yigal, was the country’s most famous archaeologist and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Orli argued that the parade was unnecessarily provocative to the Arabs, and it wasted money that could help Israel’s poor. Orli’s father and other establishment elders believed that showing off Israel’s new weaponry would make the Arabs think twice about starting another war.
Back then, I supported the protesters’ arguments. But time proved both sides wrong: calling off the parade would not have affected Arab attitudes one iota, but holding the parade did nothing to avert another war. The Jews argued among themselves, while the Arabs tended to other matters.
My views on the Israeli-Arab conflict before long moved away from those of my young university friends. At 6 am on October 6, 1973, a series of sonic booms jolted my wife and me out of bed in our Jerusalem apartment. Her air-force training led her to interpret the bangs as a military mobilization signal; Israel radio and TV were off the air in observance of Yom Kippur, and many reservists weren’t picking up their phones. Sure enough, the man from whom we had sublet the apartment was soon knocking on our door, asking if he could grab his military knapsack from the storage bin. By noon, Israel radio was back on the air. A few hours later, we heard the announcement: the Egyptian army was crossing the Suez Canal, and Syrian tanks were rolling across the cease-fire lines on the Golan Heights.
The Israeli government knew that a massive, two-pronged assault loomed, yet delayed calling up reserves and refrained from a preemptive attack, in observance of an only-for-Israel rule of war, stating that Israel had to absorb the first blow to prove to the world that it was fighting a defensive war. Even the U.S. insisted that Israel must not strike first. America did not want to give its Arab clients, especially the oil-producing nations, cause for alarm that it was supporting a too-aggressive Israel. Moreover, with the cold war at its height, U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the Middle East was intense. The Soviets had their own client states in the region and might intervene if Israel defeated them too thoroughly—making a Middle East conflict a potential tripwire for a global conflagration. But the policy of taking the first punch would exact a significant cost in Israeli lives.
Realizing that this would be a big war, I called Terry Smith, the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, and asked if he needed some help. He knew my work for the Times Magazine (including a piece I had just published on Israel’s kibbutz movement) and immediately hired me as a stringer. Rent a car, he told me, and get yourself up to the Golan Heights.
At dawn the next morning, I was heading north in a fire-engine red Ford Mustang and learning more lessons about the logistics of Israel’s military predicament. The entire trip to the Golan Heights, where major tank battles already raged, took less than three hours. Along the way, I picked up hitchhikers, clad in military fatigues, trying to reach their units. One was a young professor of nuclear physics at Haifa’s Technion University. Because he was doing military-related research, the government had exempted him from reserve duty, so he never received a call-up notice. Yet here he was, heading to the front lines to try to find his old paratroop unit from the Six-Day War.
I drove the professor up to the northern Galilee region, dropped him off at a designated military crossroads, and wished him luck. Other reservists were gathering at a large field nearby, converted into a parking lot for those driving their own cars to the war. The soldiers locked their cars and then walked a short way down the road to a military encampment, where the reserve units could pick up their equipment. They then traveled five miles or so down the road and crossed the Benot Yacov (Daughters of Jacob) bridge, which separated Israel from the Golan Heights.
It was the closest I would get to the battlefield that day. Military police were turning reporters back and suggested that I should go to a press briefing that the army spokesman would hold at Kibbutz Ginnosar, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Instead, I decided to drive up to the highest point in the area, a famous biblical archaeology site called Hazor. It was a brilliantly clear day. I sat on a little knoll off the side of the road and, with binoculars, watched at least part of what turned out to be the war’s decisive tank battle on the Syrian front.
A line of Syrian tanks had reached almost all the way across the Golan Heights to the pre-1967 border with Israel. At one point, a phalanx of Israeli jet fighters roared over my head. I could see them swooping in and dropping ordnance on Syrian tanks. After a few hours of this, the tanks seemed to turn and retreat back east.
From my interviews with soldiers later that day, I learned that I had witnessed the deepest point of penetration of the massive Syrian armored column. The Syrians had actually enveloped an Israeli army base at Kfar Nafakh, just five miles west of the Benot Yacov bridge. When the Syrian tanks broke through the outer line of defense, the base commander, Raful Eitan, ordered a hasty retreat. Eitan was a legendary, battle-hardened officer. The sight of him abandoning an outpost sent shock waves through the ranks. The soldiers knew that if the Syrian tanks had broken through at Kfar Nafakh, the road to the Benot Yacov bridge would have been open. From there, it was just a stone’s throw into the heart of northern Israel.
My story about the Syrians advancing to Kfar Nafakh made the Times front page the next day. (The paper was more generous with stringers in those days—I even received a byline.) I stayed in the north until the end of the war’s first week. By then, some of the Times ’s experienced war correspondents had flown in from various parts of the world and the paper no longer needed me.
On my last day, I was able to drive across the entire Golan Heights, past the partly destroyed Israeli post at Kfar Nafakh and then on to the farthest point of the Israeli counterattack. I passed the charred wrecks of dozens of Syrian and Israeli tanks, and the smell of burning flesh still hung in the air. I only came to a stop at an Israeli military police roadblock at the western edge of the Golan Heights. There was a tourist observation deck nearby, outfitted with telescopes. Peering through one, I could see Damascus clearly on the horizon.
After the initial Syrian successes of the battle’s first two days, the Israelis had mauled their enemy so badly that the plain leading to Damascus was wide open. The Israeli army could have reached the gates of the city in a day. But the Kremlin threatened to intervene to save Hafez al-Assad’s regime. The United States then conveyed to Israel that it must not move its forces past the pre– October 6 cease-fire lines, from which Syria had launched its attack. Once again, the rigged Middle East rules were in full effect: the Arab states could break cease-fires without fear of international censure; Israel could defend itself and repel the Arab attacks, but if it made the war so costly to the aggressors as to deter the next one it would meet with widespread global condemnation.
I didn’t write about these questions at the time, but I couldn’t help but speculate. Suppose the Syrians had actually occupied a piece of northern Israel? Does anyone believe that Syria’s government would then have offered to exchange “land for peace”? And what kind of treatment could the Jews living in “Syria-occupied Galilee” have expected from the occupiers—from the same army units that executed most of the Israeli soldiers they captured during the war?
Israel’s difficult predicament became even clearer to me when I got a chance to visit the other war front. A few days after returning from the Golan Heights, I received a call from Ehud Olmert, a friend of mine in Jerusalem. Olmert would go on to become Jerusalem’s mayor and then a cabinet minister in Ariel Sharon’s current government. In 1973, though, he worked for one of the small right-wing parties in the Knesset. He told me that he planned to drive down to the Suez Canal and try to get to Ariel Sharon’s command post on the canal’s west bank. Did I want to come along? At first, it sounded far-fetched. Yet the cease-fire held, and I knew that Olmert had good connections—indeed, he was a friend of Sharon’s. So I said, why not?
Starting out from Jerusalem at dawn, we reached the canal by noon. Somehow, using Olmert’s Knesset credentials and my press pass, we talked our way past several Israeli army checkpoints. We received permission to drive his car over one of the pontoon bridges that Sharon’s troops had laid down over the canal a week earlier. At a desperate moment for the Israeli forces, Sharon had found a gap in the Egyptian line, crossed over to the canal’s west bank, encircled the Egyptian Third Army, and turned the tide of the war in the south.
When we got there, I realized again how small Israel was, and the extent to which its wars are family matters. One of the first people I met at Sharon’s headquarters was Gideon Altschuler, another of my wife’s cousins. A retired career army officer, he had been mobilized into Sharon’s reserve division and now functioned as its chief of operations. He was too busy to spend time chatting about the events of the previous two weeks, but he did point out the surroundings, including the area where Sharon had trapped the Egyptian Third Army. Another familiar face in the camp was Yossi, the 30-something proprietor of the Taamon caf&é. Seeing one of bohemian Jerusalem’s best-known characters in Sharon’s lair was so incongruous that I blurted out, “What are you doing here, Yossi?”—to which he naturally replied: “What are you doing here, Sol?” Yossi explained that, by luck of the draw, he had wound up assigned to the headquarters unit of the division Sharon had patched together during the first two days of the war. As a radio operator, Yossi was at the center of one of the bloodiest and most heroic episodes of any of Israel’s wars. It was amazing to hear this Jerusalem peacenik, who would never vote for Sharon, sing his praises as a battlefield commander.
In the evening, Sharon invited Olmert and me into his trailer for a snack. Some of his top officers were there, as well as another journalist. The conversation was off the record, and in any event my Hebrew was inadequate. Still, I caught the general drift—Sharon was venting about the absurd situation Israel now found itself in. Because Israel had to absorb the Egyptians’ first blow to appease international opinion, scores of its best young men had to die in the lightly fortified strong points on the east bank of the canal.
In all, Israel lost 2,400 men in the delayed effort to repulse the Egyptians and Syrians and throw them back to the cease-fire lines. Now, with the Egyptian Third Army surrounded and Sharon’s forces sitting astride the Ismailia-Cairo highway, the U.S. and the Soviets imposed yet another cease-fire and ensured that a defeated Egypt would not have to sue for peace. Several weeks later, negotiations initiated by U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger at Kilometer 101, not far from Sharon’s encampment, produced a disengagement-of-forces agreement giving Egypt control of the canal again.
Over the next three decades, my wife and I lived in Israel for several extended periods. After we had children, we traveled there almost every summer. Though I couldn’t vote in Israel’s elections, as my wife sometimes still did, I now felt entitled to take part in the “debate”—a debate, I had come to see, whose ultimate question was always that of war and peace.
I remained haunted by the lesson I had learned in 1973 on the Golan Heights and at the Suez Canal about Israel’s vulnerability. Israel had zero margin of error—literally, it could not survive the loss of one war. The Arab regimes had nothing to lose except the lives of thousands of their own soldiers, which they were cavalier about anyway, and some treasure, which they could always replace with the help of one of the big powers or the Saudis. Thus, they were free to try and try again to destroy the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, I still found myself suppressing such dark thoughts, because they led to politically incorrect conclusions. Right-thinking people had to assume a certain degree of rationality on all sides. They had to assume that if you offered someone a better deal, he would take it, and that with enough goodwill all differences could be overcome—after all, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were now pursuing d&étente; Richard Nixon had even gone to China. Weren’t the Arabs rational human beings?
This orthodoxy held that anything called a “peace process” was always better than war. And it wasn’t just in Europe and the United States that the mindset prevailed, but in Israel too. Despite all of the failed peace overtures of the past, wasn’t it worth trying yet one more time? To think otherwise, to believe that there might be something inherently violent and unreasonable in Arab Muslim political culture was—well, racist.
Rather than indulge such heretical thoughts, Israeli intellectuals found it easier to look critically at their own country’s culture and history. They produced revisionist narratives of the nation’s founding and ethos. Historians uncovered archival evidence—surprise—that the Israeli government and military’s actions were not always pure. In the 1948 War of Independence, not all the Palestinian refugees fled because their own leaders told them to leave; some received a push from Israeli army units. In other words, Palestinians also had legitimate historical grievances. Thus, it was time to try again to split the difference.
And who but a fringe of settler fanatics wanted to rule forever millions of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? My wife’s entire family now belonged to Shalom Achshav, the Peace Now movement. Even Ezer Weizman became a leading dove and resigned from the Likud government, because it wasn’t yet offering all of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians for their future state.
It’s amazing how quickly public opinion in Israel had shifted on these issues. After the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s official position was that it would never relinquish the militarily strategic outpost at Sharm al-Sheikh, which controlled access to the Red Sea. Moshe Dayan expressed this national consensus: “Better Sharm al-Sheikh without peace, than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh.” But it took only one visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for all of Israel to swoon and forget Sharm al-Sheikh. Thus, in 1978, the allegedly “right-wing,” allegedly “rejectionist” government of Menachem Begin evacuated every square meter of the Sinai Peninsula in return for a cold peace with Egypt. It was Ariel Sharon, Begin’s defense minister at the time, who ordered the forcible removal of all Jewish settlers from the Sinai. In the 1980s and 1990s, two separate Israeli governments offered a similar “land for peace” deal to Syria. Given what I had seen on the Golan Heights in 1973, I found this gesture astonishingly optimistic—and I secretly sighed with relief when Hafez al-Assad rejected the offer.
Then, under the 1993 Oslo agreements, the Israeli government allowed the terrorist organizations to return to the West Bank and Gaza to begin creating the infrastructure of a future Palestinian state. Before there was even a peace treaty or ironclad security arrangements, Israel handed over tens of thousands of weapons to Yasser Arafat’s militias, supposedly for “peacekeeping.” All the while, the Palestine National Covenant stated explicitly that the goal of the liberation struggle was not a state next to Israel but rather the replacement of Israel with a Palestinian state from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River.
No nation in the world has taken so many mortal risks for a putative peace with its most implacable enemies. Even after the first Oslo agreement blew up in Israel’s face in the form of exploding commuter buses and pizza parlors, Ehud Barak’s government went back to Camp David and offered the Palestinians yet another agreement—same terms, no problem. Once again, the Palestinian leadership rejected the best deal they are ever likely to get short of Israel’s elimination (a far better deal, incidentally, than Jordan and Egypt offered the Palestinians when those Arab regimes controlled the West Bank and Gaza). Instead, Yasser Arafat went home to launch yet another savage war of extermination against Israel’s civilian population, with the guns that Israel had given him.
Why did so many well-meaning Israelis and Americans believe in the early 1990s that a reasonable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians was within grasp? One answer is that the Soviet empire had just collapsed, and the cold war was over. In Israel, as in other places, hope arose for a peace dividend. For Israel, the dividend included the fact that its traditional enemies, big countries like Syria and Iraq, could no longer count on Soviet military aid, so they were less of a threat. Israel could now take more chances trying to solve the problem of the West Bank and Gaza. The Clinton administration encouraged this optimism by promoting the idea that military force was becoming an anachronism in settling disputes.
Among those who saw through the illusions of the time were the neoconservatives, of whom I had been so wary in the seventies. From the beginning, they viewed Oslo as a trap that would lead not to peace, but to the slaughter of innocents. And they made their case in the face of almost overwhelming support for Oslo within the Jewish community and the Washington political establishment (including most Republicans). I vividly recall a dinner I had at an East Side restaurant with neoconservative dignitaries Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, shortly after the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. My wife and I remained cautiously optimistic that this handshake, and all it symbolized, would lead to something good for Israel. In any case, we felt, no real harm could come from giving Oslo a chance. But Podhoretz and Decter were in despair, convinced that Oslo would lead inexorably to another major war with the Arabs, and on terms far more disadvantageous to Israel.
Things didn’t turn out exactly as the neoconservatives predicted—with, first, the creation of a Palestinian state, which would then become a springboard for another assault on Israel by the Arab states—but they correctly assessed the pathological nature of the Palestinian liberation movement. Like the premature anti-fascists of the 1930s, who understood the radical evil faced by the democracies of those days, the neoconservatives have had the bad taste to show us what we wanted to avoid admitting—that this conflict is not about disputed territories. It is about Israel’s right to survive as a democratic Jewish state. And after September 11, it’s clear that it is also about whether the Islamo-fascist movement that is at war with our civilization will succeed in making the Middle East safe for obscurantism and tyranny.
The late Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban once famously noted that the Palestinians “have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It was a clever line—except that it implies that the problem with Palestinian leadership is absentmindedness. In fact, Palestinian leaders have carefully thought out everything about the current suicide-bombing campaign, with the far from unreasonable expectation that it would bring tangible benefits to the Palestinian cause. After all, that cause was never as popular in the chancelleries of Europe and the campuses of America as it became after the first round of suicide bombings.
All of Israel’s concessions and offers of “land for peace” have not only failed to appease its enemies; they have actually intensified hatred for the Jewish state and for Jews period. Thirty years ago, when I first started arguing with the Left, only a few groups overtly supported the Palestinian cause. Today, even as the Palestinian movement indoctrinates its children into a death cult, anti-Israel sentiment has reached fever pitch even in the most respectable intellectual and academic precincts: Harvard University’s English department invites a poet who called for the murder of Jews on the West Bank; Columbia University’s Middle East studies program becomes a virtual ministry of information for the PLO. The most popular guest speakers on American campuses are Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, both advocating the dismantling of Israel.
At a now-famous Town Hall forum in the 1970s, Susan Sontag stunned her largely leftist audience by conceding that Reader’s Digest readers would have learned more about what happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin than readers of The Nation would have learned. Because Sontag was one of America’s leading radical intellectuals, many took her comments to mark the end of the American Left’s romance with communism. How ironic, then, that Sontag has recently taken to the pages of The Nation to express her solidarity with—no, not the innocent Israelis blown up in discos and pizza parlors—but with Israeli draft resisters and Rachel Corrie, the young American “pacifist” accidentally run over by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza. Corrie and her comrades in the Palestine Solidarity Movement had come to the Holy Land to be human shields. They didn’t stand guard at Israeli supermarkets or malls, or ride Israeli buses. Instead, they chose to interpose themselves between Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli soldiers courageously trying to break the suicide-bomber apparatus. Sontag offered aid and comfort to the suicide bombers by charging that Corrie was “killed by the forces of violence and oppression”—that is, Israel. To Sontag, all the courage rested with those who, like Corrie and the Israeli draft resisters, “fall out of step with one’s tribe.”
This year my wife and I and our 16-year-old son went to spend Passover with our “tribe” in Israel. Since 9/11, when my son fled north from Stuyvesant High School, three blocks from the World Trade Center—and when so many phoned from Israel to ask if we were safe, as we have phoned so often after suicide bombings in Israel—we have understood in the most intimate way what our Israeli friends and family go through every day. This year I went to Israel with deep trepidation, expecting the worst. We understood what a devastating impact the suicide bombings were having on Israeli life, what numbing fear families felt as their children went off to school or merely to the corner playground. We had heard about people losing their jobs or leaving the country, and about a growing sense that the government might not be up to the job of smashing the terror networks or finding some way out of the impasse. Some people had even begun to think the unthinkable—that Israel might not bear up indefinitely under the stress.
Yet what I saw moved me deeply and renewed my hope that the Israeli people would bend but not break. I felt this most clearly on the afternoon we spent on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street with some of my wife’s family. These ten or so blocks in Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhood have been transformed over the past decade into one of the city’s most popular gathering spots, with the dilapidated Bauhaus-style buildings spruced up, and new boutiques and caf&és opening for business. Every Friday afternoon, Sheinkin Street becomes the closest thing that this gritty city on the Mediterranean can call a movable feast—and the celebrations have continued without stop through one of the deadliest assaults on its civilian population that any free society has ever had to endure.
The Sheinkin Street caf&és overflowed, the sidewalks and streets full of young people pulsed—with families with children, with veteran Tel Avivans, with hawks and doves, with postmodernist fans of Susan Sontag, and with traditionalists. All knew that the suicide bombers had already struck many times in adjacent neighborhoods and regularly target popular places like this. So to this visitor, the lively scene represented an uplifting display of the defiance of evil that our president is trying to mobilize everywhere. Indeed, I found myself wishing that George W. Bush could magically be there, because this president understands what many of his supposedly enlightened and articulate critics find so difficult to admit: that there can be political movements, like Islamic terrorism—in which the jihad and the intifada merge—that are so pathological in their hatreds that we can solve the problems they purport to care about only after they are defeated.
That Friday afternoon, Sheinkin Street was more important in understanding what will secure a decent future for the Middle East than any State Department– or U.N.-crafted “roadmap.” It showed the resiliency of a brave democracy that has endured lethal assault from the same people who want America and Americans to die—not because of our faults, but because of our democratic virtues. That’s why Israel now deserves the support, without apology or equivocation, of the U.S. government and of every fellow democrat in the world.