A Journey to Israel

A Journey to Israel

DURING THE FIRST two weeks of August, along with three friends, professors like myself, I traveled in Israel, talking with people in the government, the new opposition, the army, and the universities. We were there when the cease-fire went into effect, and the “American initiative” was the chief topic of our conversations. We talked of a possible peace, but the notes that follow are notes on a nation at war. I won’t try to discuss the diplomatic moves, for anything I wrote would be out of date long before this issue of DISSENT appeared. The content of our conversations was (mostly) as ephemeral as political talk always is, but the impressions left by the people and the country are profound, and they relate mostly to the experience of war—an inescapable experience in Israel and one not broken, even temporarily, by the cease-fire.

The Longing for Peace

Despite the years of intermitttant fighting, there is no exaltation of war or of the military virtues in Israel. Judging from the bookstores of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, of which there are an extraordinary number, military history is a little more popular than in the U.S., but no one we met wants more of it. The country is too small, the knowledge of death too intimate: everyone, literally everyone, has had a friend, son, husband, brother, or cousin killed in 1967 or the years since. And Israeli culture is not constructed so as to regard these deaths as anything but tragic. I can’t think of an analogy less apt than that of Sparta, and the reason is apparent in every snatch of conversation: there are no Spartan mothers in Israel.

But if a resumption of full-scale fighting is their greatest fear, the priorities of Israelis after that are peculiar to them, the product of their 22-year history. My own sense was that these priorities might best be expressed this way: better half a war than half a peace. Better the present lines and the war of attrition than a peace like that of 1957, which draws in the perimeters in exchange for nothing more than a temporary lull. Half a peace inevitably means a weaker Israel, open to continuous threat, semi-permanently insecure. The trauma of May 1967, a decade after the Sinai retreat and the American promises that induced that retreat, has left its mark on Israelis in a way visitors can only begin to understand. The terrible anxieties of that month and even more the sense of international abandonment have generated a pervasive conviction that, short of a “real” peace, Israel’s security requires military strength and territorial buffers. Hence Israeli intransigence is likely to be much in evidence by the time these notes appear. What it amounts to is a refusal of false hopes and false promises—not (except for a very few) a commitment to a “greater Israel.”