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From the Editor’s Notebook that appeared in the June 1988 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete article—along with the magazine’s entire 173-year archive—is available online at harpers.org/archive.

The news from Israel this spring is about a rain of stones, and as I read the reports about the suppression of the rioting in Gaza, I wonder how the story would be told if Israel were a less-favored state. By and large the American media borrow the definitions of the Israeli government and refer to the riots as a cynical strategy rather than as a popular uprising born of desperation and genuine national feeling. Yet for some of us, the Palestinian revolt has had the salutary effect of making Israel more visible through the mists of wish and dream. As long as Israel could win its wars in the desert, the Israeli army could be seen as a company of heroes lately arrived from Camelot or Troy.

But the photographs in every morning’s paper give to the Palestinian “nemesis” the sorrow of a human face. The so-called terrorist becomes the massacred innocent, and the Israeli soldier, once thought to be the paragon of chivalry, the Cossack. Such an exchange of images poses questions that even as recently as six months ago would have been thought rude. I can imagine a fair number of people, Jews as well as Christians, questioning now the terms of the American alliance with Israel. What do we owe, and what do we expect in return for a subsidy of $3 billion a year? Between the Israelis and the Palestinians, does the argument take place in the realm of existential absolutes (civilization and democracy pitted against chaos and pagan superstition), or is it a quarrel about real estate, the colonial settlers haggling with the native tribes about the ownership of the almond trees?

Against what enemy, and in what grandiose imperial design, does the United States seek to enlist the Israeli host? Does the terrible suffering visited upon the Jewish people by Nazi Germany invest them with the rights of the martyred and grant them a kind of moral droit du seigneur? If so, how long shall the license last? Until the Holocaust has become a parable and all the Palestinians have been deported or lost at sea? Do we ally ourselves with a David or Goliath?

Turn the questions the other way, and ask whether the United States wishes to exploit Israel’s military ambition or protect its conscience. Even Israelis in what is now an eloquent minority argue that the iron mask of power ill-becomes a country whose founders conceived of it as a “light unto the nations.” In 1948 the most devout of the Jewish surveyors in the Promised Land regarded the mere suggestion of a nation-state as blasphemy. Defining the strength of Israel as the strength of a transcendent idea, they thought the power of David resided not in the weight of his stone but the luminousness of his spirit. The Israeli heirs to this belief advised against holding the captured Arab territories after the 1967 war not because of the harm that would befall the Palestinians but because of the corruption that would subvert the Jewish state.

That state now places its trust in the force of arms, and so must resort to the vocabulary of a police state, as in South Africa or Algeria. The children born within its walls inherit these gifts of hatred and anger. They learn to tell the necessary lies, to one another as well as to foreign television crews, and they learn to see not with the eyes of the soul but with the propagandist’s floodlights. Meanwhile, presidential candidates say as little as possible about the riots, and Henry Kissinger advises Israel to blind the television cameras in the occupied territories and suppress the rioters as “rapidly” and “brutally” as possible. The suggestion is that the fault can be found not in the deed but in the image, not in policy but in how policy looks in print and on film.

Recall that the story of Goliath ends unhappily for the Philistines—their camp plundered, the road to Shaaraim strewn with the bodies of the slain, their champion dead on the ground under bronze-plated armor weighing five thousand shekels. One might have thought that the Washington geopoliticians would have learned, after twenty years in the Asian wilderness, the lesson that one army can defeat another but not a people.


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