Book Review: Running out of time – and miracles?

A ‘Washington Post’ columnist who once called Israel a ‘mistake’ tells the country’s story with love and candor, but he is pessimistic about its chance of survival.

Israel 'has not only run out of time, but like many mature nations, it has run out of purpose,’ writes Richard Cohen. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel 'has not only run out of time, but like many mature nations, it has run out of purpose,’ writes Richard Cohen.
 In 1948, Chaim Weizmann, the country’s first president, issued a prescient warning. Predicting that Israel would eventually have to contend with “a large Arab majority,” he urged his fellow citizens to adopt one law for Jew and non-Jew alike.
“I am certain,” he wrote, “that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs.”
And so it has been, Richard Cohen, a columnist for The Washington Post, reminds us.
A “messy creation,” conceived at first by Europeans out of “amoral indifference or immoral culpability” and then in atonement for the Holocaust, he writes, Israel arose with “an arrogant disregard for the indigenous peoples” and grew, as (to be sure, have countless other nations) by accumulating and settling lands “in vile yet ordinary ways.”
Its moral basis and its moral imperative increasingly “forgotten and soiled,” it faces wars, terrorism, boycotts, United Nations resolutions demanding its departure from occupied territories, officially sanctioned anti-Semitism and challenges to its right to exist.
In Israel: Is It Good for the Jews?, Cohen recounts the history of country, from the Zionist conception of Theodor Herzl to its current status as “the Middle East’s Jewish neighborhood, affluent, ripe for looting, a land for a hated people and a despised religion, a gated community in the vast Arabian desert.”
Having called Israel itself “a mistake” in a 2006 column, he remains determined to tell its story with love, pride and, above all, with an in-your-face candor.
Cohen writes beautifully, but some of his claims seem glib and simplistic. He maintains that genetic testing has proved the Nazis were “right”: Jews are a people (not a religion or an ethnic group) who share “some innate (invidious) characteristics.”
He cites the “ethnic cleansing” of Germans living in Eastern Europe in 1945 as evidence that “the Holocaust had not come to an end.”
Democracy, he indicates, “was bad for the Jews and could be bad for mankind in general.”
And the anti-Semitism of today’s Middle East, he asserts, “rests on a solid foundation of fact. Israel is awesomely powerful.”
More often, however, Cohen’s stark account should prompt partisans of all stripes to pause and ponder. He points out, for example, that American Jews oppose efforts to designate the United States a “Christian nation,” but do not object to the Jewish State of Israel.
He insists that foes of Zionism are right to argue that European Jews “established themselves in a part of the world occupied by other people” and forced them to make way.
After observing that the Arabs did not accept the UN partition plan granting them about 42 percent of the disputed territory, with the Jerusalem area, including Bethlehem, declared an international zone, Cohen contends that if the Israelis had not forced nakba on the Palestinians “the state would not have survived.”
And he suggests that the Jews “never threw the knockout punch” through the ethnic cleansing of everything west of the Jordan River because they were constrained by “the ethical demands of their culture.”
The Jews of Israel “could be pretty bad,” he emphasizes, “but not as bad as some would like – and not, I think, as bad as the Arabs.”
Cohen ends his provocative book with “a gloomy prognostication” he does not relish making. Israel, he declares, “has not only run out of time, but like many mature nations, it has run out of purpose.”
The Holocaust has lost its distinctiveness and “its power to shock.”
In Haaretz, 36.6% of Israelis recently told the newspaper that they had left the country or were thinking of leaving. Despite some evidence that Muslim women are having fewer babies, a demographic time bomb is ticking.
Attacked from so many quarters, Israel has become “tone deaf to justifiable criticism,” which partially (but only partially) explains why its side of the story “has simply evaporated” in the mass media, whose stories treat rocket attacks from Gaza “as if they were juvenile pranks.”
And the United States may be running out of patience with its ally.
The survival of Israel matters, Cohen concludes, because for all of its imperfections it represents “the best of Western civilization.”
That Israel was created out of colonialism is no more relevant today than the fact that the European settlers of Massachusetts Bay wiped out the Native American Pequot people. What matters, Cohen writes, with a sense of urgency that is widely shared, “is how to proceed” now.
Increasingly, he is convinced, the initiative lies with the Arabs, many of whom perceive that time is on their side – and that the Jews of Israel are running out of miracles. ■
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.