In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s main character Von Humboldt Fleisher is the consummate American, caring about America more than anything else. He also reads voraciously, but the more he reads, the more despondent he becomes – because he’s not seeking that sort of complexity. He wants a simpler universe.
“History,” Bellow says of Humboldt the American, “was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s sleep.”
Fifty years before Bellow’s novel, in 1907, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote his third and final play, A Strange Land. In it, he introduces the young Russian Jew, Gonta, just back from several years in America. Gonta had gone to America “to forget,” he says. And when asked what it was that he was hoping to forget, he responds, “Who I was.”
Two utterly different writers, one American and one European, separated by an ocean, by largely competing ideologies and by half a century. Yet for both, America was the place where one could essentially put on blinders.
In America, you could forget who you were; in America, you could get a good night’s sleep even in the midst of the nightmare called history.
That, of course, has been key to America’s greatness, to its optimism, to its sense that every problem has a solution. It has come of age fighting most of its wars in lands far away, buffered by large oceans that make the world the object of interest – but not the source of personal distress.
Israel could not be more different. No one goes to Israel, temporarily or permanently, to forget who they are. No one goes to Israel to get a good night’s sleep in the midst of the nightmare called history.
To go to Israel is to have who you are be the focus of your very existence.
To go to Israel is to sometimes live the nightmare even when you’re awake.
No oceans here to serve as buffers. No luxury of fighting our wars far away, in lands we will never see. During the Second Lebanon War and more recent Gaza conflicts, our friends packed up food for their sons who were on the front – sometimes for Shabbat, and sometimes just because – loaded up the trunk of their car, and drove to deliver the food to the boys.
No Iraq or Afghanistan – out of sight and often out of mind – here.
The DNA of the world’s two largest Jewish communities could not be more different.
We need each other and have much to learn from each other, but we could not be more dissimilar. One is a place where you can imagine that if you play your cards right, you’ll have no enemies; the other is a place where such a delusion can get you killed. One is a place where young people have “Holocaust fatigue” and wish to hear no more about it – after all, it was a long time ago, and it’s time to move on; the other is a place where Yad Vashem is a national institution, where Holocaust imagery and memory are to be found everywhere, where Israeli rightists printed posters of Yitzhak Rabin dressed as Hitler (and then pretended to wonder why he was assassinated), where haredim dress their kids up as concentration camp victims to make a political point, and where the Shoah is – for better and for worse – a reminder of the Jewish people’s very real vulnerability.
That is why the “give peace a chance” mantra of many thoughtful, Israel- committed and well-intentioned Diaspora Jewish leaders strikes many middle-of-the-political-road Israelis as ludicrous. “If US Secretary of State John Kerry fails, it will be because the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships could not summon the courage to take the painful steps required for peace, security and dignity,” said one recently. Ah, the luxury of balance, of optimism, of the belief that every conflict has a solution.
It’s the gift of the buffer of the oceans.
It’s for that reason that I’m actually delighted that the Israel book du jour for American Jews is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (a book I reviewed very favorably in this column). It’s wonderful because not only does Shavit’s book raise important questions about Zionism that we must all confront, but because his gifted pen illustrates that deeply committed Zionists – who live here, send their kids to the army and plan to stay here whatever might happen – believe that the key to meaningful Zionism is asking terribly penetrating questions about the choices we have already made.
So here’s my question to today’s Humboldts, who simply don’t want the nightmare to bother their sleep. Where are the Palestinian or Arab Ari Shavits? I don’t mean Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Wafa Sultan, who hate the tradition in which they were raised. I mean committed Muslims who choose to stay in Lebanon, or Syria, or Jordan, or in the West Bank – and who write critically of their own culture the way that the Israel-loving Shavit writes of his.
Have you read or even heard of a single book by any citizen of those countries (who choose to stay there) who says that the 1947-1949 Arab attack on Israel was a mistake? Have you read or even heard of a single book by one of those people that says that the attempt to destroy the justborn Jewish state was morally wrong? Have you read a single book by a committed Palestinian who says that just as the Palestinians have a right to a state, so too do the Jews, and it’s time for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Neither have I.
When (not “if,” but “when,” I fear) the talks fail, it will be in part because both Israeli and Palestinian leaders made some serious mistakes. But the real reason will be because the War of Independence isn’t over. The real reason will be that to this day, no Palestinian leader will look at their people and say “The Jews, too, are indigenous here. They, too, have a right to a homeland here, so let’s share.”
Have you heard any of them say that, in Arabic, to their street? Do you think it’s likely to happen soon? Do you think you’re likely to live long enough to hear that? Neither do I.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His forthcoming biography, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, will be published by Nextbook in March.