During the 1970s, I became familiar with the young Yossi Klein, the feisty left-wing editor of the Long Island Jewish World who made aliya in 1982. Aside from adding to his name, he’s since achieved status as a respected mainstream journalist and writer. Among other things, he’s a contributing editor and Israel correspondent for The New Republic and the author of “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist” — about his time as a teenager supporting Meir Kahane — and “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden” — on his late ’90s dialogues with Muslims and Christians in Israel and the Palestinians territories.
I heard him speak at my Upper West Side Manhattan synagogue this past Shabbat, the last of a long line of annual speakers to honor the memory of Paul Cowan, the gentle, good-hearted liberal journalist — the author of “An Orphan In History” — who decided to seriously observe Judaism as an adult and played a critical role in reviving this Conservative congregation (Ansche Chesed).
Klein is as powerful a speaker as he is a writer. He spoke memorably on how Cowan steered clear of political correctness by discovering the lives of people he disagreed with, getting to know their fears and pains rather than engaging in stereotypes and in easy condemnations. It is in this spirit that Klein embarked upon his quest for common ground with Muslims and Christians for his “Garden of Eden” book — especially with Palestinian Muslims in 1998 and ’99.
I respect his judgment that Islam is neither an evil doctrine as depicted by the fire-breathing right among both Christians and Jews, nor simply a religion of love as stated by (of all people) George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 and believed by the PC-prone left. As with Christianity and Judaism, Islam contains textual references that are objectionable — even hateful — to modern sensibilities. As with the other two as well, Klein notes that there are statements of tolerance and universalism.
A point he made that was new to me, but clearly true, is that Islam is the only one of the three Western monotheistic faiths that was born in power, specifically through the immediate spread of an empire. This is in contrast to Judaism — born of a small struggling people, even a faith of slaves as recounted in the Bible — and Christianity, emerging from the sufferings on the Cross and of its earliest adherents who endured more than two centuries of persecution. What this means for us today is that Muslims see political power as a matter of right; they see it as unjust and unnatural that they’ve lost this status to the ascendency of the “dhimmis” (the Koran’s protected minorities) of the Christian West and the Jewish State of Israel.
Klein mentioned the following Muslim argument he is familiar with: “Don’t worry. We have a place for you [as a protected minority] under Islam.” This medieval form of pluralism during Islam’s Golden Age was better for the Jews than what Christianity provided, but is not acceptable by today’s standards, because it guarantees that Jews would be constitutionally subservient to Muslims.
Klein darkly suggested that the memory of empire is probably behind the Madrid train bombings two years ago. He also recounted a Jewish-Christian-Muslim panel discussion he helped organize on the future of Jerusalem. The organizers could only find one Muslim participant (a high school principal from the Galilee) at the last minute, because it’s hard to find Muslims who feel secure enough to engage in such public events; and this individual spent his time denying that the Jews ever had a Beit Migdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.
Klein’s talk was even more pessimistic than this indicates; he believes that the Oslo peace process failed because the “secular elites” among both Israelis and Palestinians ignored the religious dimension. He sees a religious dialogue as essential, and — believe it or not — finds the only hope for peace in this context. He wishes that all Muslims were Sufis, the most open-minded variant of Islam, but joked that there’s still a difference between California Sufis and Palestinian Sufis. Yet, from almost everything he said, hope is somewhere between slim and none — since Palestinians, including the moderates, will not concede any legitimacy to Jews as a sovereign indigenous people in the Middle East.
I too regard this as a problem, but not necessarily a deal breaker. We can engage with “technical moderates” who make a peace agreement out of practical necessity and not because they understand our yearning for Zion or our need for a Jewish state as a safe haven. I also think he exaggerates the extent of this problem. I know of at least one or two Palestinians who accept the legitimacy of Zionism and I’ve never explicitly sought out others.
But what disturbs me about Klein’s views is that he relies on this religious meta-theory for Israel’s perpetual war without examining what Israel does on the ground. Klein’s a moderate who does not lament his support for Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza and sees a need for further withdrawals from the West Bank. He is very typical of Israeli political attitudes, a bellwether who has long voted for the winner in elections. In ’92 he supported Rabin, in ’96 he switched to Netanyahu, in ’99 he was for Barak, in 2001 and 2003 for Sharon, and in 2006 for Olmert. He now joins with a majority of Israelis as seeing Olmert as an empty suit.
He proudly sees himself as a realist who rejects the Greater Israel fantasies of the right while also rejecting the “naivite” of the left. Not once do I recall him mentioning the option of actually engaging with Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations or of responding to, at least in terms of exploring, the Saudi/Arab League peace proposal. He now sees the prospect for a Palestinian state as nothing more than a terrorist “Hamasland.” He categorically rejects the notion that if Israel withdrew to the pre-1967 borders, peace would result; he might even be right, but in prejudging the Palestinians in this way, he engages in stereotypic thinking, the opposite of Paul Cowan’s empathic approach to journalism.
You would think that Klein would be humble about his political instincts, because not only has he consistently voted with the winner, but he’s also consistently seen his prior choice as a mistake. One can forgive him his youthful indiscretions as a Kahane supporter and then perhaps an overly vociferous leftist before making aliya, but his political mood-swings as an adult undermine his credibility as an analyst.
I would have given him more credit if he saw how tenuous and fragile Israeli peace moves were in the 1990s. Soon after the handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993, much good will was shattered by a heinous event in February 1994. The failure of the Rabin govenment to provide redress to the Palestinians for Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Muslims at the Hebron mosque was a critical moment because it gave impetus (along with another 30 or so Palestinians who were killed by police and/or soldiers in rioting that followed) to the suicide bombing campaigns of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In fact, the man who adapted the suicide belt for Palestinian use, Yihyah Ayyash — Hamas’s “engineer” — is said to have been inspired by these events to become a terrorist. An appropriate response to Goldstein would have been for Israel to remove the violent extremist communities of settlers who spawned Goldstein from Hebron and/or Kiryat Arba. Rabin almost went that way but lost his nerve.
Furthermore, the wave of terrorism that erased Shimon Peres’s 20-point lead over Netanyahu early in 2006 was a direct response to the Shin Bet “hit” on Ayyash. (Ayyash deserved to die, but it would have been wiser for Peres not to stir up a hornet’s nest by killing him; Rabin — ever the more prudent leader than Peres — had already nixed one shot at Ayyash and probably would have vetoed this as well.)
With the election of Netanyahu, although he continued to engage in negotiations brokered by Washington, Israel had a leadership that no longer really believed in the peace process, and this made a difference. Moreover, the settlement population did famously double during the 1990s and continued to expand even under Barak, also a prime minister who departed from the Oslo timeframe and disregarded its spirit.
Obviously, I can’t recount all of the misjudgments and mean-spirited policies by Israel (let alone the crimes of Palestinians), but there’s plenty of explanation here that has nothing to do, per se, with religious doctrine. This is why I see Klein as mistaken in his viewpoint.
And his prognostication for Iran is both grim and laughable. In fact, I did laugh when he suggested that the only likely fix for a nuclear Iran is an Israeli attack. I am not laughing about the danger, nor of the slim prospects for the feckless international community to effectively deal with this looming crisis, but to think that Israel (or even the US, which he now discounts because of the quagmire in Iraq) could come up with a military solution against Iran’s hardened and dispersed nuclear facilities seems ludicrous. In the same spirit, Klein disappoints in thinking that there really was a military solution to the problem of Hezbollah last summer or of Hamas today.