Israel is losing Mideast conflict, journalist says

For Richard Ben Cramer, Israel today is not the Israel he thought he knew.

Targeted killings, checkpoints, security fences, fear, poverty, all contrast sharply with the plucky open society he’d grown to love. Now, in his view, the Middle East conflict is over … and Israel lost.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish author and journalist spent eight months touring the region in 2002 to find out what had changed. His new book, “How Israel Lost,” reports on his findings.

Next week, Cramer will be in the Bay Area speaking and signing autographs as part of a nationwide book tour.

Cramer says he sought out the root causes of problems he observed throughout Israel and the territories. Among what he views as the most egregious: the disproportionate power wielded by fervently religious factions in Israeli political life.

“The power structure has forgotten the basic tenets of the state,” he says, “and has acquiesced to a gaggle of Orthodox rabbis in enforcing arcane laws. How is that different from an Islamic state?”

But more than anything, Cramer feels the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has had a detrimental effect on Israel.

So what exactly has Israel lost? Says Cramer, the country “lost so many good things about itself. It used to be a place you could go anywhere in perfect safety. There is all kinds of crime now. A tremendous percentage of women live with violence in the home. Social scientists think the violence comes from the continuing conflict.”

Striving to be evenhanded with Israelis and Palestinians, Cramer says there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“Powerful interests on both sides want the continuation of the status quo,” he charges, “either because of a guarantee of position, standing in society or their own prosperity. It’s the most hair-raising allegation: trading blood for power and money.”

Cramer hastens to add he does not see a moral equivalence between democratic Israel and the authoritarian chaos that is Palestinian politics. “It can be very dangerous to your health if you’re an activist for peace on the Palestinian side,” he notes. “You don’t get 150,000 regular citizens to come to the town square calling for peace.”

Still, Cramer seems to reserve most of his ire for Israel, a country he says he loves.

“American Jews are not supposed to ask too many questions about Israel, just shut up, send money and feel terrible they haven’t made aliyah,” he says. “The greatest thing we can do is demand that the behavior we see is in accordance with the highest standards.”

For Cramer that includes halting targeted killings of Palestinians, including even Hamas leaders like Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi.

“They were not about to strap on explosives,” he says. “They represented parties that advocate terrorists acts, but it doesn’t excuse what amounts to an act of murder. If you think someone is fomenting terror, why not have an arrest and a trial?”

Despite his criticism, Cramer has hopes for peace, especially if the voice of the people is heard. “If you look at the Palestinian polls, a majority favors making peace with Israel,” he says, “and even giving up the right of return. On the Israeli side, a majority favors trading land for peace, including settlements. The problem rests not with the people but with the leadership class.”

Though best known for books about Joe DiMaggio and the American political system, Cramer has written extensively on the Middle East. He grew up in upstate New York attending Hebrew school, becoming a bar mitzvah and celebrating the vibrancy of Israel.

Over the years he’s made made many friends throughout Israeli and Palestinian society. With his book, he hopes to impact the debate on the conflict.

“My fondest hope is that people will start asking questions about what kind of state we want to support. You can’t win the war by applying heavier force. There’s no one that can tell you Israelis feel more secure now than in 1968. This after 20 years of ratcheting up repressive measures in the territories. Some will say, ‘They’re blowing up our children,’ and that is true. But you can’t stop it by murdering in turn.”

Richard Ben Cramer will appear at 1 p.m. Thursday, June 24, at Stacey’s Books, 581 Market St., S.F. Information: (415) 896-1606; also at 7 p.m. June 24 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F., (415) 292-1219. He will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 25, at Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. (510) 845-7852.

“How Israel Lost” by Richard Ben Cramer (307 pages, Simon & Schuster, $24).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.