March 8, 2021

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(Not) Celebrating Jerusalem Day: Fisking a friend

A good friend and colleague wrote the following piece in 2013. At the time, I said nothing despite my profound disagreement. Recently he recirculated the piece on, and, with the approach of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, I find myself, as one historian to another, compelled to fisk.


MAY 20, 2013

Since I fear the long-term outcome of the Six Day War victory, and the poison pill of occupation, I do not celebrate Jerusalem Day.
A historian’s nightmare

FOR A number of years I have refused to celebrate Jerusalem Day, which falls on Iyar 28, or May 8 this year [this year, May 24]. Yes, although I lived in New York at the time, I am old enough to remember the fears that gripped us in the weeks preceding the Six Day War, the thrill of the news that enemy air forces had been destroyed on the ground, the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the declaration that the Temple Mount was in “our” hands. Nevertheless, as the consequences of the 1967 war became clearer, I began to view Jerusalem Day as the opening act of a national tragedy. For many years, I was reluctant to publish the piece below; it seemed far too extreme.

Indeed it was, and still is.

The composition of the new coalition government, whose representatives in key places are committed to generous funding of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, has changed my mind. I fear what will come to pass sometime in the future: Israel – a pariah state – about which no one really cares what happens to its Jewish citizens, since they have lost all moral claim to life;

This is a classic case of inverse moral relativism, or maybe moral perfectionism (exceptionally high moral expectations of self) combined with humanitarian racism (no moral expectations of others) that systematically bows to the grotesque attitude of mean-spirited outsiders as some kind of “reality.” We have not by any means lost a moral claim to life. Israel is an (the?) outstanding case of a democracy that, under conditions that have produced totalitarianism in democratic experiments (starting with the French “revolutionary” terror), has remained robust (even if most of its citizens don’t agree with you). To accept the revolting claims of moral idiots like Terje Roed-Larsen, looking at the ruins of five square blocks of Jenin refugee camp in 2002 through the eyes of the news reports of a “Jenin Massacre” declared that “Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict,” is to in fact abdicate moral responsibility.

Actually, I’d argue the exact opposite. It’s because Israel, in comparison with other nations – and certainly with our neighbors – has such an exceptional moral record (I know, not good enough for you, but, remember, this is a comparative statement), that the reason we are reviled by the “global ‘progressive’ left” is that we are their superior rivals, whom they need desperately to dethrone in order to strut, suicidally, on the global stage as the cutting edge of civilizational values.

an Israel where, if military resources are depleted, there will be no air bridge of resupply, as there was in 1973; a country in which its best youth evade army service, because they refuse to oppress another people for no reason, except to serve communities of settlers who employ every trick possible – legal, political and military – to take other peoples’ land;

No reason? In order to think this way, one has to ignore the longue durée of Arab Muslim hostility to the very existence of Israel – a blasphemous state of should be dhimmi in the heart of should-be Dar al Islam. The magnification of the sins of the settlers to the point of eclipsing the moral depravity of our neighbors – what Matti Friedman calls the “cult of the occupation” – constitutes a form of moral solipsism that no serious historian could seriously entertain. It shares a view in common with “Historians against War” with their messianic notion that war can be banished, who target the only country in the region for whom peace is the desired condition, and end up siding with the warmongers.

countless resources wasted on settlements, while the center of the country decays; all this capped by a systematic attempt to suppress dissent, with anyone who dares criticize current government policy labeled a self-hating Jew and a traitor.

This is a classic trope of the self-pitying. “Poor us, all we did was dare criticize. Can’t those Israeli right wingers take any criticism before accusing us of being traitors?” All we did was compare our own country to the Nazis (not you, but at how many removes are you from them?), all we did was accuse it of apartheid and racism in front of the world, encouraging by action and inaction an enemy who thrives on hatred. Come to think of it, are you sure you’re not talking about our (your) enemies, where really any criticism, no matter how true, is viewed as betrayal of the sacred cause and cause for real violence.

Your flagship paper fashions its English pages to intensify the dose of lethal, own-goal journalism it pumps into the Western public sphere, while you wring your hands and worry out loud that it’s true, what they say about your people. The people who are subject to accusations of betrayal in Israel are by and large people who transgress the bounds of moral decency, and suicidally, like the Israeli professors who, after 1982 came out of the woodwork, eager to denounce their own country to a foreign press eager to demonize the country. As Edward Alexander put it:

During the 1982 (Lebanon) war, a whole range of Israelis whom nobody outside of Israel had ever heard of before, from professors to publishers of pornographic newspapers, became instant European celebrities by applying the epithet “Judeo-Nazi” to other Israelis, in precisely the style of “projection” that antisemitic Jews have been practicing since the Middle Ages (Jews against themselves, p. 6).

No country in the world, a fortiori the Middle East, tolerates the degree of dissent that Israel does. Haaretz says things about Israel that Le Monde and the Guardian will happily repeat, but these papers would never say similar things about their own country. Jews are masters of standing against themselves. It’s our strength, and overdone, it’s our weakness.

When that awful day comes, Israel of the Zionist dream will be fruit ripe for plucking by its enemies.

So why give them a proleptic victory? Why cringe at the thought that Europe and the Western progressive left, in a fit of supersessionism, fed by an insatiable appetite for stories about Jews behaving badly (which you happily feed them), driven by a combination of on the one hand, moral Schadenfreude at Jewish (self-)debasement – the pariah with “no moral standing,” [!] and, on the other, a shameful proleptic dhimmitude in the face of Muslim triumphalist bullying, might make the catastrophic decision to throw us into the Jihadi maw? Why do you echo their suicidal “moral” discourse, amplifying their folly, rather than rebuke them? Are you so absorbed in the moral perfection of your own people that you cannot see the larger picture. You’re a historian, damn it.

Exactly how will the defeat come? That I do not know. I am a historian, not a prophet. What gives me nightmares is the way history might be rewritten then. We are accustomed to see Jordanian King Hussein’s decision to attack Israel in 1967 as his greatest strategic error. If only he had not been tempted, if only the Egyptian president Gamal Nasser had not gambled, and Hussein had not been pushed by domestic and international considerations, then Jordan would still be controlling the West Bank and East Jerusalem. How differently things might have been, if only Hussein had restrained himself then!

Ah yes, the good old days when Jews and Christians who supported them were denied access to holy sites, when Jewish graves were desecrated and synagogues destroyed, when Jordan occupied a Judenrein Jerusalem, and took pot shots at Jews, when there were no institutions of higher learning on the West Bank, and whole cities didn’t have telephone service…

History, however, is in constant dialogue with the present. It is written from the perspective of the present, asking new questions about the past. How will history judge Hussein at that awful moment in the future, if and when the Zionist dream collapses on the consequences of its own folly? What will historians write then?

That Western nations in their folly abandoned their only true civilizational ally in an effort to appease Muslim triumphalism, and thereby signed their own death warrant.

My principal nightmare goes as follows: Arab countries realized that they had little chance to defeat Israel of 1967 militarily. That country was strong in spirit and had a clear shared moral purpose. Therefore, a more sophisticated and sinister strategy was required. Start a war, but lose it, lose territory as well, so that Israel will swallow the poison pill of the appetite for conquest, for domination and for expansion. Rot Israel from within.

Talk about rewriting history ex post facto, ex post defectu (out of failure). That’s like the Guibert of Nogent rewriting the history of the “first” crusade (aka apocalyptic last war). Having taken the city and Jesus did not return, they retrospectively attributed to Pope Urban the apocalyptic prophesy that the Christians must take the city so the Antichrist can come and take it back and then start the final battle. As if Urban would charge up the Franks – and people from all over Latin Christendom – by telling them to go take Jerusalem so they can get their asses kicked by Antichrist.

The Arabs didn’t start the war to lose it, and their military loss was also a massive, redoubled humiliation on the world stage – nothing like mobs screaming “drive the Jews into the sea!” in front of international news media and getting beaten spectacularly to produce a massive, global, loss of face. Hussein was brought into the war because, in order to save face, the Egyptians lied to him, and he felt that did he not join in he would lose face among his fellow Arabs.

The Arab League’s three no’s of Khartoum (September 1967) to Israeli willingness to withdraw in exchange for peace reflected a) the Arab commitment to permanent war with the Zionist entity, and b) their choice of negative sum – leave Muslims under Israeli sovereignty rather than give up the desire to destroy Israel, – were indications of how primitive their thirst for revenge. Turning that into a clever strategy is just that, clever.

These tactics did not seem to work at first, but eventually they proved effective. No nation can maintain the spirit that allows it to flourish when it is at the expense of another people.

What is this? post-modern oracular? The entire history of human “flourishing” is linked to “at the expense of another people.” The Romans kept it up at the expense of many other people for over half a millennium. All premodern societies are built on the exploitation of others – weaker neighbors, peasantry, women. As a dictum uttered by an historian, this is silly. As a Jewish moralist, however, it is how Jews think. It’s just so unseemly to turn it into a universal and then turn around and use it as a weapon against your own people.

The people you have in mind here are presumably the “Palestinian” people, those Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, abandoned by their leaders in 67, just as the refugees of ’48 were betrayed by their fellows… those who, only after ’67, began to think of themselves as Palestinians. This formula: at the expense of others, is the Palestinian formula, a demopathic effort to make Israel feel guilty for what the Arabs have done to their own people. It’s the whole Nakba is the suffering of Palestinians that Jewish freedom necessitated (often linked to Nakba=Shoa), with which they curse our independence and joy, rather than curse their leaders who never had any intention of giving them independence.

Apparently it’s working with some Israelis.

Indeed, the Arabs who stayed in Israel have not suffered from Israel’s victory, and certainly not what their leaders and parents told them the Jews would do if they won – quite the contrary is true, no matter how many faults we Israelis can find in our behavior. As for those in the West Bank, not only is their living standard much higher than most non-oil exporting Arab states, but before our oppressive presence, the Jordanians did not allow them any institutes of higher education.

Hussein of 1967, in retrospect, will be declared a strategic genius, the Saladin of the 20th century.

If you’re thinking of how the Arabs will remember him, then you don’t understand honor-shame culture, in which the strategy of losing to win is unbearable. No matter how it “turned out” he would not be a Saladin. If you’re thinking of how the West (only place which, at least for a over a century, has produced serious, self-critical historians) will remember him, then probably as a sad example of a limbic captive, an oneidophobe who brought catastrophe on his people to avoid shame.

He found the key for which others searched in vain. All this, of course, is rewritten history, with nothing to do with the motives of the actors of the time, but tragically and ironically, perfectly in accord with the consequences I fear and the way they might look at some time in the future.

All this retrospective imperfect indicates is that you have combined your moral perfectionism – Israelis shouldn’t control other peoples lives even if those people want to wipe them out – with a complete acceptance of the moral depravity not just of Jihadi Islam – exterminate the enemy or be exterminated by them – but of the West – side with Islam and make Israel pay dearly for defending herself. I’m sure you don’t mean to do this, but you encourage everyone’s worst instincts while pursuing your moral ideals.

Holidays are meant to commemorate events, so they are inextricably involved with perceptions and memories of the past. Jerusalem Day is meant to commemorate a victory. Since I fear the longer-term outcome of that victory and the way it may be reinterpreted at some time in the future, I do not celebrate it.

If the danger of the right is that it so loves its own that it hates others, the danger of the left is that it so loves others it hates its own. In applying a ferociously demanding moral standard to your own people and accepting without criticism (from you) a very low moral standard for others, you deprive yourself of the joy of celebrating the wondrous unification of Jerusalem under civilized sovereignty, where all faiths can worship openly.

For almost 2000 years, Jews in Jerusalem lived in debased and degraded conditions. Now, for the first time in two millennia, we have the chance to live here standing upright נקוממיות בארצנו, and you wring your hands over how we might be alienating fools and knaves?

As a historian, as a Jew, as an Israeli – celebrate! Let your heart be connected to your people and to their millennial sojourn upon this glorious and unhappy planet!

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