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Ariel Gonzalez Headshot

Infallible Israel

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Israel is no more. Its cities lay in ruins, its people wallow in oppression. All signs of Jewish presence in the Holy Land are being eradicated: synagogues closed, cemeteries desecrated, libraries burned. Dissidents disappear into "special" camps in the Sinai Peninsula. Arab leaders convene in Jerusalem to divvy up the conquered territory, renamed Palestine. An Islamic superstate is formed. Every pro-Western ruler in the region has been deposed or assassinated.

This nightmare scenario was envisioned in If Israel Lost the War, a novel written by a triumvirate of authors: Richard Z. Chesnoff, Edward Klein, and future spy thriller master Robert Littell. Published in 1969, it posited a different outcome for the Six-Day War, the 1967 conflict which resulted in the spectacular defense of the supposedly indefensible borders Prime Minister Netanyahu claims would be suicidal folly to withdraw to. In less than a week, the armies of four Arab nations were humiliated. Israel's land mass tripled in size with the capture of the Sinai, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

But in the novel, the Egyptians launch a preemptive strike that effectively wipes out the Israeli air force. Unchallenged in the sky, the Arabs pound military and civilian targets with equal impunity. They even use poison gas in violation of international law. Secular socialist Europe turns a blind eye to the slaughter, leaving only God's country to come to the rescue. But President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers are unwilling to divert resources from Vietnam. In the end, they abandon the Jewish state to its fate. Protests and mass demonstrations erupt. LBJ's approval ratings plummet. Weary and guilt-ridden, he submits his resignation. The Soviets and the Chinese, emboldened by the perception of American weakness, take aggressive measures that bring the world closer to the brink.

Among its other faults -- flat characters and a rushed plot -- If Israel Lost the War is historically implausible. LBJ was a staunch advocate for Israel. As a congressman, he toured Dachau shortly after its liberation. Moved by what he saw, he worked to expedite the admission of Jewish refugees to the U.S. Later he was the first American president to dedicate a synagogue, and the first to host a state visit for an Israeli prime minister. More substantively he supplied offensive arms to Israel, a break with the temporizing policy of his three immediate predecessors. And as Seymour Hersh revealed in his book, The Samson Option, the president remained silent while the Israelis covertly produced weapons-grade plutonium at the Dimona reactor in the Negev desert.

To this day, Israel refuses to confirm its annihilating capability. A shrewd stance. Its underdog status would otherwise be undermined. We have been told repeatedly that Israel is a "tiny oasis of democracy" in a region dominated by dictatorships and monarchies. But this "tiny oasis" is in fact a mini-superpower with advanced technology, a legendary defense force, and a sizable nuclear arsenal. No Arab army has approached its borders in thirty-eight years. Its citizens have bravely endured periodic suicide bombings and rocket fire, which should be condemned by anyone sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. And yet, as wasteful and tragic as these terrorist acts are, they do not constitute an existential threat to the Jewish state as a whole. The same cannot be said of the settlements in the West Bank and the punitive siege of Gaza, which are undermining Israel's identity and integrity.

A crossroads moments is looming for this parliamentary republic: it must enfranchise the nearly four million Palestinians who reside in the occupied territories, or admit to false advertising. To quote Jeffrey Goldberg's pithy assessment: "If [Israel] grants [the Palestinians] the vote, this will be the end of Israel as a Jewish state; if it denies them the vote in perpetuity, it will cease to be a democracy." The settler movement has made a two-state solution impracticable. How likely is it that Netanyahu and the other zealots in his coalition cabinet will order troops into the occupied territories to demolish Jewish homes? These short-sighted men enjoy the privileges of office because a majority of Israeli hearts has become hardened due to disappointment with the peace process. Obama's election did nothing to change this; indeed, it may have raised the level of paranoia.

Netanyahu thinks he can get away with treating the president like traif because of his support among the Christian Right, which regards the peace process as an impious impediment to the Middle East war that will precede or coincide with the long-awaited Rapture. Scratch a philo-Semitic fundamentalist, however, and you'll get a passive acceptor of Biblical genocide. If events unfold according to prophecy, Netanyahu's Jesus-loving friends will one day wave bye-bye to two out of every three unconverted Jews as they are marched off to their deaths. Of course, the prime minister doesn't believe this supernaturally-inspired culling will ever materialize. But to forestall the recognition of a Palestinian state he will happily cosset influential end-timers like Glenn Beck, who apparently has a touch of Jerusalem syndrome, a religiously-induced form of psychosis I first learned about from an episode of The X-Files, in which a grey-haired millionaire leaves a trail of mayhem and destruction in his wake following a trip to the holy city.

Netanyahu's triumphal address last week was dispiriting to behold. Rather than maintain a respectful aplomb, the legislative branch of a revered, 222-year-old constitutional government behaved like the handpicked, rubberstamping deputies of the now defunct Supreme Soviet. Even many of those who would agree that Netanyahu is driving Israel toward a precipice applauded unreservedly, lest the wrath of AIPAC and Fox News be incurred. Thus the pro-Israel lobby inhibits frank and reasonable discussion. Wiser souls than I --Peter Beinart, David Remnick, Leon Wieseltier, Moshe Halbertal, the late Tony Judt, among others -- have voiced alarm at this closing of the Israeli mind, the reluctance or outright refusal to accept even legitimate criticism of Zionism. Jewish intellectuals, such as the ones listed above, are certainly not exempt from censure. If they fail to toe the Likud Party line, they may face charges of apostasy and self-hatred. As Norman Podhoretz (or "Podhorrors," as Harold Bloom calls him) wrote, "The role of Jews who write in both the Jewish and the general press is to defend Israel, and not join the attacks on Israel." And I thought Catholics were the ones who subscribed to an infallibility doctrine.

The recent flap over whether CUNY should award Tony Kushner an honorary degree is an example, albeit relatively innocuous, of the demagoguery and intimidation awaiting those who resist this groupthink mentality. Kushner's fellow playwright, David Mamet, once wrote an unpleasant little screed, The Wicked Son, which took to task non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews who would rather crack jokes than bones with Krav Maga techniques. These "wicked" or, perhaps we should say, "wayward sons" (the term refers to a character in the Passover seder who sets himself apart from everyone else at the table) are born victims, argues Mamet, whose thematic preoccupation with social Darwinism has at last led him to openly embrace right-wing ideology, a union which may prove deleterious to his work, what with his newfound certainty impinging on the ambiguity so essential to memorable art.

Mamet reminds me of a character in The Counterlife, a novel by that lauded wayward son, Philip Roth. In a chapter entitled "Judea," Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego, travels to Israel to try to persuade his brother Henry to return to America and reunite with his wife and kids. The year is 1978, and Henry is a middle-aged dentist who awoke from bypass surgery overcome with shame for his empty Hellenized existence. In New York he is "up to [his] eyeballs in meaninglessness," without "real fear of persecution or violence." So he moves to a West Bank settlement, where he carries a gun and answers to a Hebrew name, Hanoch. He becomes, as Woody Allen would put it, "Jewish with a vengeance." Hanoch introduces Zuckerman to his settlement leader, a brute realist Mamet would admire. His voice dripping with contempt, the leader dismisses "the niceys and the goodies" in Tel Aviv who would negotiate with Sadat. He professes admiration for the Arabs, who are resolute in the pursuit of their goals. But "the niceys and the goodies," he tells Zuckerman, "want to be humane...They are embarrassed by the necessities of survival in the jungle... We have weak people here, soft people here, who like to call their cowardice Jewish morality."

Heaven help Israel if Jewish morality is ever replaced with an unbridled will to power. Then the Third Temple will fall. But a foreign enemy will not be to blame. No, this time it will be brought down by the misguided ardency of its champions.