FEBRUARY 4, 2009
What an antithetical moment this is, what an hour of cheer and dread. There is too much history, and it gives as much ground for hopelessness as for hope. Reason is returning to our government even as our government is beset by problems that seem to defy reason. Washington is consumed by bailouts and parties. Everybody is looking for a piece of the action and experiencing the fierce urgency of now, or FUN. The new president is throwing himself into the reconciliation business, but it is still unclear whether he is prepared to make enemies and to keep them, which is a condition of leadership. It is all very graceful and intelligent and exciting--and ambiguous, and detached from the austerity and the adversity in the country and abroad. Obama wants to be Lincoln and he wants to be Roosevelt, but who, exactly, is Obama? We will know more soon. "Change" is finally here. Almost everywhere one looks, one sees an occasion for grand historical action; but I have a hunch that we are about to be taught a lesson about the mutability of the world.
If I am dour, it is not least because of Gaza. The justice of the Israeli campaign against Hamas and its rockets is plain to me, but I am eaten by a feeling of its futility. It is not within Israel's power to determine the outcome of the Palestinian civil war, but it is within the power of the Palestinian civil war to injure Israel. Perhaps this war will cripple Hamas sufficiently to deter it, as Hezbollah was deterred by the war of 2006, which was not quite the failure that it is renowned to have been. A tranquil southern border would be a considerable achievement. And it would be absurd if Israel, or Egypt, or Israel and Egypt together, did not destroy those tunnels, which originate, strategically speaking, in Tehran. Yet the moral situation is not simple, not even in a war against the darkness of Hamas. "The restoration of deterrence" is a fancy phrase for a reputation for cruelty. A great deal has been written in recent weeks about proportionality. I confess that I have never known how to make those calculations; I lack the ethicist's expertise. In war, obviously, it is better to be stronger: victory is disproportionate. Also obviously, proportionality is not an arithmetical matter: as Michael Walzer recently explained, it is instead a measure of "the value of the end-in-view." Hamas's rockets must be stopped, but how many civilian deaths may be tolerated in the effort to stop them? When do the numbers embarrass the values? So far in this war, 1,060 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed. I am very grateful for that low number: it represents the seriousness with which Israel approaches the protection of its citizens, and I have friends whose children are under arms in Gaza. This is my people, my side. Yet the disparity between the numbers is troubling, and surely it, too, is morally pertinent. The premise of Israel's campaign seems to be that suffering will change the Palestinians. My own impression of people in pain is that it makes them more, not less, like what they are; and the history of nationalism, Jewish nationalism included, illustrates how much hardship people will endure for their conception of their destiny. Anyway, the diseased appetite for martyrdom that is Hamas's contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will find in the miseries of its people only the fulfillment of its dreams. A great scholar of medieval Christianity once observed that "perhaps the apocalypticist might better be described as one on the lookout for crisis, rather than one who merely reacts to it when it happens."
I note with consternation also the increasing coldness with which Israel's struggle for safety is treated. Some months ago the cover of The Atlantic cleverly asked, "Is Israel Finished?" This week the declinist discourse about Israel really took flight. "Why Israel Can't Win," proclaims the cover of Time, and inside the issue the headline of the piece, by one Tim McGirk, escalates the pessimism: "Can Israel Survive?" The old discussion of the viability of a Palestinian state is turning into a new discussion of the viability of a Jewish state. Beware of this, because the question of viability is a not-too-distant cousin of the question of legitimacy. Nowhere in Time's piece, or in any of the other pieces in any of the other journals that express all the proper anxieties about what the Israeli army can and cannot accomplish in Gaza, is a more effective way of putting an end to Hamas's aggressions proposed. And nowhere in this piece is there any indignation about Hamas, about its vision or its violence. It appears that Hamas is so outrageous that it no longer provokes outrage. Its madness is accepted factually, in a sexy spirit of realism. The piece concludes with this: "Israel eventually will have to pull back to the 1967 borders and dismantle many of the settlements on the Palestinian side, no matter how loudly its ultra-religious parties protest. Only then will the Palestinians and the other Arab states agree to a durable peace. It's as simple as that." About the pullback and the settlements: this is perfectly platitudinous, but I concur; and Israel's ultra-religious parties can indeed be damned. But is it really as simple as that? What is the Palestinian responsibility in the establishment of peace? Is it not the case that for a large number of Palestinians, and for all the territory ruled by Hamas, the only contribution that Israel can make to a durable peace would be to agree to its own extinction? Is it not also as simple as that? "I am for peace," says the Psalmist, "but when I speak, they are for war." Not all of them, to be sure, but a lot of them; and enough of them to make of peace an illusion.
On a quiet corner at the edge of Georgetown, across from an old African American church, there stood a massive stone statue of St. Florian, in Roman imperial uniform and with his bucket in his hands, pouring water--the distinguishing attribute of the patron saint of firefighters. The proprietor of the shop that put the statue on the street told me that it came from Eastern Europe, where Florian is venerated. There it stood for many months, apotropaically, until one night it was mutilated, broken in half, and now only the lower torso remains, and the bucket and the water. It strikes me that the bucket and the water will do, even if they are not everything. Assistance need not always come as transformation. Sometimes it is enough to inaugurate just the end of a fire.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier