Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide

Israel Is Less Violent Than Most Countries
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 6 2006 3:16 PM

Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide

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Dear Shmuel,

Man, you should write angry all the time. I didn't mean to push your buttons. Well, OK, maybe I did. We American Jews don't let our buttons get pushed so easily, but this is because, as I've noted already, we are perfect in every way.

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There's another, kinder, way to make the point I just made: You, like most Israelis I know, seem to have no hidden agendas, and you're completely alive to argument and ideas. One of the best aspects of life in Israel is that every day there is like a week here. I suppose this is because you've got huge things to think about. After all, you are central to the Jewish future, and we are not. (Here's where I annoy my American co-religionists who think that America truly is the Promised Land. It is not. It is a wonderful refuge, but it is ultimately peripheral to the Jewish story.) Despite your understanding words about American Jews and their complicated relationship with Israel, you know, as well as I do, that our relationship contains elements of vicarious thrill-seeking, and that we are, in fact, not overly committed to the idea of Israel, because if we were, we'd be there and not here.

On the subject of violence, I'm flummoxed by the conclusion you draw about my position: I never said that Israel is more violent than other countries.

And I certainly don't believe that America is a violence-free society.

Israel, I think, is actually less violent than most other countries. Most peoples, when provoked the way Israel has been provoked, lash out mindlessly and viciously. Israel sometimes fails to meet my impossible standards for the responsible conduct of difficult wars—and the standards of your own left (and your own newspaper)—but God forbid you should think I believe that Israel is unrestrained in its violence.

Another point: I was not placing a value judgment on the term "violence-averse." Yes, American Jews are violence-averse. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes this is a bad thing. You read my book: You know I believe that violence was, in fact, a solution to my diaspora-induced passivity.

On your criticism of the United States and of the "brutal" way in which it conducts war—you're not going to get an argument from me, either about your conclusion or on the fact that sometimes wars need to be waged brutally. Actually, you've made me realize something about myself. I have a weakness for oversimplified idealism. First I was idealistic about Israel in an all-encompassing way, and then, when I became disaffected with Israel, I transferred my sense of absolute idealism to America. When I was in Ketziot, the Israeli prison camp in which I served, I always thought that America would never countenance the sort of petty cruelties in its own military prisons that we inflicted on the Palestinians. Then came Abu Ghraib, and I soon reached the conclusion, based on firsthand experience, that Israel would never countenance the kind of cruelty inflicted on Iraqis in American prisons in its own jails. Ketziot wasn't a Club Med, but there were limits to Israel's bad behavior in the first intifada (and the second, as well). I think that Israel lost itself a bit during the first uprising, just as America has lost itself a bit during the recent, highly depressing, debate about torture.

Rosner, I think we could go on forever (two Jews, three opinions, and all that), but we can't, except maybe on your fine blog. I'd be happy to continue the quarrel. And I certainly do appreciate your kind words about my book.

Best wishes,
Jeff

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.

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