Thursday, September 01, 2005

Leon Wieseltier

DovBear yesterday issued a challenge to right-leaning bloggers to address Wieseltier's article in the New Republic.
As you'll see, Weiseltier's article makes several points about Gaza that I've been struggling (for lack of talent) to present myself. I'm curious to hear what the "other side" thinks when the argument is made properly and by someone with Weiseltier's skill.
I've decided to try and tackle the article as well, so here we go:
Even faced with the idea of Greater Palestine, it is impossible not to rejoice in the defeat of the idea of Greater Israel. It was always a foul idea, morally and strategically. It promoted the immediate ecstasy of the few above the eventual safety of the many; it introduced the toxins of messianism and mysticism into the politics of a great modern democracy; it preferred chosenness to human rights; it subordinated laws to visions, and the Jewish state to the Jewish millennium; it worshiped soil in a primitive, almost un-Jewish way. The settlers of the West Bank and Gaza are not a Jewish vanguard, they are a Jewish sect; and in their insistence that the destiny of their state and their society should be held hostage to the fulfillment of their metaphysical and historical conceptions, they have always displayed a sectarian self-love.
To rejoice in the defeat of the idea of greater Israel is a sad enough attitude; to do so when faced with the idea of a Greater Palestine particularly so. Wieseltier is assuming as 'givens' that their religious beliefs have no place in the world; that there were human rights violations which the Israelis were guilty of, with no mention of the reverse; and that visions superseded law. He assumes that the Palestinian political stance is completely consistent with international law, while the Israeli position is not; that the reasons for being there were completely messianistic and had nothing to do with logic, facts, law, or personal choice; and that all the citizens who were there were part of a[n implied extremist (in views)] sect. Rather than address those false assumptions, I am only making mention of them to show his basis to be predominantly flawed.
His next paragraph points out a quote from a single book by a settler in Netzarim that asserts that there was no rain before the Israelis moved in, and nothing could be grown in the sand; but that now there was rain and they have wonderful bounty. Aside from wishing to see the context, and the rest of the book for that matter, one person's strange statement is meaningless; and most of the statement is true, save for the 'now the rains fall' part. There was no vegetation, or much of anything, in the sands of Gaza. The manner in which the Israelis built and nurtured the land is nothing short of incredible. On the other hand, ridiculous statements from the Palestinians are consistently far worse and far more ridiculous - and repeated not by a few settlers in a book but by the majority of their people on a daily basis.
For this reason, when I behold the photographs of the settlers in Gaza uprooted by Israeli soldiers, empathy almost completely deserts me. I seem to have a heart of stone, and I am not entirely embarrassed by it. More precisely, I regard the eviction of the settlers as the appropriate reward for their own hearts of stone. For many other Jews gave their lives and their limbs so that these Jews could grow their holy tomatoes and study their holy texts in this desert. In order to satisfy their individual and collective aspirations, the Israeli civilians who lived in Gaza required the sacrifice of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. In the years of Jewish settlement in Gaza, 230 Israelis were killed there. A substantial number of them were soldiers. Why is the life of a Jew in a uniform worth less than the life of a Jew in a greenhouse? That is stone-heartedness. And yet one hears mainly about the sacrifices of the settlers. Surely the same stirring revival of Zionist agronomy could have been accomplished in the equally arid zones a few miles to the north or the east, in a place called Israel.

I am curious as to whether or not Wieseltier has empathy when the Israelis would bulldoze the homes of suicide bombers. In those cases, too, the people have hearts of stone, and are usually quite proud of the murders committed by their family member. Even if he did not feel empathy for them either, I would still feel it is sad that he feels no empathy. Even if they did make a choice to live in this situation, they did so with the blessing of their own government, and they are not being given a choice to remain in houses and on land which they have put their life's work into. As my friend Shraga (who lives in Israel and just this week finished his army stint) wrote to me in an e-mail today:
What I have to say in closing is that we should all be crying for these people and for ourselves regardless of our political or religious affiliation. I'm proud of Amos Oz (Nobel Prize Israeli author) for saying that. What disgusts me are the people who only worry about the animals being moved and don't feel sorry for the people because they were just putting on a show for the cameras; and the disengagement is not a question of people's lives, but rather one of property.

As for the assertion that it cost Israeli soldiers' lives, this is something that is hard to judge. In most of the last few decades, the majority of Israelis felt that the settlers were serving as a front-line against the Palestinians (and the other Arab nations). Most people felt that by being there, the settlers were drawing attacks on themselves, and away from the larger Israeli cities. A statistic Wieseltier conspiciously leaves out is the number killed across the rest of Israel; and how those numbers changed in relation to the people living in Gaza. While in Israel, I once discussed with an intelligent guy who worked in an internet cafe the different political views in Israel. It was a couple of weeks before Sharon crushed Mitzna, who advocated disengagement while Sharon ran against. The cafe worker was planning on voting Shinui, who advocated strong defense along with an anti-religious policy, which worried the man. He was by no means a 'rightie', but he thought Mitzna's plan was crazy, despite his own personal belief that some settlements should go. He told me about his army experience, in which it frustrated him that a dozen soldiers were needed to protect 4 or 8 caravans in the middle of nowhere; but by the same token, he felt that the larger settlements served a great role in the defense of the country. He was by no means messianistic, mystic, or any other term Wieseltier used - he was, in fact, completely irreligious - but he recognized the neccesity to have a Jewish presence there.
One hears a great deal, too, about the courage of the settlers, and about this, too, we should be clear: throughout their experiment in revising the meaning of Israeli statehood and denying the possibility of Palestinian statehood, the settlers enjoyed the protection of a fearsomely powerful army, whose energies they diverted from more pressing tasks, especially in times of crisis. They required, and they deserved, the protection of the Israeli army against their wild neighbors, who, unimpeded by their politics and incited by their religion, frequently rained rockets and other kinds of terror upon the intruding enclaves; but the vulnerability of the settlements was not evidence of their validity, or of their bravery.
The claim that they diverted energies from more pressing tasks, especially in times of crisis, is unfounded. The IDF has always been capable of dealing with many large issues at once, and to say that soldiers in Gaza were needed elsewhere has no basis. Israel has fought the invading armies of large countries simultaneously; a few hundred soldiers in Gaza, many of whom it is fair to say will now be needed to make the borders stronger than they had to be in the past, did not cripple the Israeli army.
As for being courageous, throwing one's self stupidly into a dangerous situation is not a sign of courage. But doing so because you feel that the risks are worth taking for important ideals is. Even if one disagrees with their actions, these settlers felt that their actions were important for the safety and viability of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. A person who volunteers to be a US soldier is courageous, even though many feel (stupidly, I might add) that what they are doing is wrong. These are different, but somewhat similiar, situations. Both are standing up for what they believe in, and in a dangerous situation. That is courageous.
(As a side note, I might add that a terrorist 'acting on what they believe in' is not the same, and to try and make moral equivalencies based on one facet of the equation is ridiculous. While I mentioned only one facet between the soldier and settler, there are many others. By the settler and terrorist, there are very few.)
Wieseltier's next paragraph focuses on his belief that the disengagement is correct, assuming it works. As I do not believe it will work, I disagree - but he is equally entitled to his opinion. He also says
2,600 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. Many of those deaths are plainly attributable to internecine Palestine violence, and more generally to the virulently rejectionist character of Palestinian nationalism; but Palestinian costs are human costs, too. Empathy is not a tribal faculty, it is a universal faculty, and such universalism is also a teaching of the Jewish tradition. The suffering in Gaza has been everywhere too great.
This, too, I believe everyone agrees with. While he sheds no tears of empathy for the removed settlers, I believe most Israelis do feel sorry that the Palestinians have lost so many lives as well. We may not shed tears, either, but empathy we do have - though as a caveat, I'll add 'as long as they do not support the terrorism.'
He next asserts that 'expulsion' is a term meant to invoke reminders of the past, while 'evacuation' would be more accurate. I disagree - evacuation usually brings to mind people being helped to escape someone/something; this is an expulsion, even if one believes it will have positive effects. The left in Israel referred to it as a "Geirush" (Expulsion/Disengagement) as well - not as an evacuation. I also am not sure if Wieseltier knows Hebrew, but it seems from my own limited knowledge of Modern Hebrew that the terms are all similiar - if not the same - in Hebrew.
His next paragraph makes a true point, that the disengagement is the action of a democratically elected government. For this reason, even though many disagree with it, they did follow it - particularly soldiers who asked halachic shailos and most often heard the response 'avoid the situation if possible, but if you are in it you must follow your orders'.
After all, the abandonment of the Israeli settlements is the policy of a legitimate and democratically elected government of the Israeli state. (In this respect, it resembles the establishment of the Israeli settlements.)
Most Israelis have correctly realized that, all its spiritualizations notwithstanding, Jewish settlement in the territories was an essentially political project whose objective was the extension of Israeli sovereignty over millions of Palestinians, which is an invitation to catastrophe.
As he notes, the disengagement was reflective of the original founding of the settlements. For this reason alone, one could argue that he should empathize with the settlers, whose government seems to have turned on them. This was also not, as he claims, a desire to express sovereignity over millions of Palestinians. The Israelis have no desire whatsoever to be anywhere near the Palestinians, but you play with the cards you are dealt. In this case, Sharon has decided that the sovereignity which came along with defending Israel and its people had become too much.
Wieseltier's misunderstanding of the people who were there is disgusting.
The young settlers who awaited the end swaddled in their phylacteries and their prayer shawls, in their martyrdom kit, were ridiculous. They degraded the instruments of their faith by conflating them with the fortunes of their politics. No martyrdom awaited the hotheads in the woolen skullcaps. They were doomed only to the frustration of their fantasies. The romance of settlement is over.
Nobody in those shuls or davening in their house one last time was being a 'martyr', or anything like it. They are religious people who did not give up hope that their prayers would be answered, or perhaps they felt that the last act they do there be a religious one - not a political one. Many kept davening even as they were carried off. Wieseltier's attitude toward the religious [edit: here] is obvious and disgusting.
But the worst did not happen. The better angels of the Jews carried the day. Twenty-five settlements were ended in six days. There were no casualties. The army was shrewd and compassionate. The settlers went in peace, if not for peace. Now the struggle over the interpretation of the event will begin. Is Gaza a precedent for the West Bank? The Israeli right will insist that it is not, and I expect Sharon to concur, as a necessity of politics. But I do not see how the dismantling of Gush Katif cannot be seen as a precedent, not least because of the breathtaking decency that was demonstrated there. The dread among the Israeli right has a basis in reality.
Wieseltier's conclusion seems to be, "Since everything went so smoothly, and the settlers did not fight, then the same can be done in the West Bank." This is idiocy. Had they fought, would he change his mind? This implies that terrorism is right in its thinking: If you do not fight, you will lose; but if you do, nobody will want to deal with it, so they'll keep on making concessions. The settlers did not fight (the idiots who came in and struggled are stupid, and not representative of the settlers) because they felt it was wrong to do so. The ones in the West Bank should be punished because their compatriots in Gaza have moral decency? That is outrageous.
Still, history is full of precedents for things that do not come to pass. The unilateralism of the withdrawal from Gaza cannot be repeated in the West Bank, where the outcome must be the eschaton known as "final status." Without Palestinian compromise on certain ideological and territorial issues, for which there is no precedent, Gaza will have been not a breakthrough in foreign policy but an adjustment of security policy. In the Netzarim volume, a settler piously (and erroneously) quotes a biblical verse and observes: "If God had wished to destroy Gush Katif, he would not have performed all these miracles for us." Whatever the theological perplexities into which the settlers have now been thrown, they may still cling to one reason for their belief that God is on their side: He sent them, and Israel, Palestinians for their enemies. If the fall of the settlements in the West Bank is premised upon the rise of a Palestinian readiness for significant concessions, the settlers should not lose hope.
His first statement makes a lot more sense than his second. Gaza is not a breakthrough foreign policy, unless it ends up working. But this is only true if it works completely - to then say 'if the fall of settlements in the West Bank is premised upon the rise of a Palestinian readiness for significant concessions' is illogical. Why should the Israelis make concessions while the Palestinians express 'readiness'? If that readiness evaporates, the Israelis are left with nothing, and have lost an incredible amount.
This is the one sentence that everyone must understand and agree upon: Until the Palestinians demonstrate unequivocally that all concessions have been made, and agree that no more claims or attacks will ever be made in the future, the Israelis have no responsibility to make a single further concession. Otherwise, we are wasting our time; not to mention our land, our houses, and the lives of our own.


  1. Wieseltier's attitude toward the religious is obvious and disgusting

    You should read "Kaddish" among other things by Weisletier before you presume that you know his attitude toward the "religious"

  2. I should have included "in this article/instance" - thanks.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Sorry, I appreciate comments, but I won't tolerate unneccessary curse words. You can make the same statement without them.