Terms of Engagement

Our Promised Land

How the beautiful, painful, and problematic birth of Israel mirrors modern America's moral ambiguity.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

I have been reading My Promised Land, Ari Shavit’s extraordinary account of the founding and growth of Israel. It is a book one reads not simply for historical instruction but for moral guidance. Shavit is an ardent Zionist who is nevertheless imbued with a sense of Israel’s tragic condition. "Tragedy," as Shavit uses it, does not refer to the suffering of the Jewish people but rather to the suffering — the unavoidable suffering — of the Palestinian people as a result of the Zionist project. In his narrative of the brutal conquest of the Arab city of Lydda by Israeli forces in May 1948, Shavit returns again and again to the idealistic, even utopian young men who killed Arab civilians and forced the entire population into a death march in the desert. Their anguish, shame, confusion is Shavit’s own; and so is their acknowledgment that it could not have been otherwise. Both conquest and expulsion "were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state." No Lydda, no Israel.

What would it mean for an American to apply this tragic understanding to his own circumstances? In regard to the national founding, the analogy to Israel is glaringly obvious. If the American pioneers had accepted that the indigenous people they found on the continent were not simply features of the landscape but people like themselves, and thus had agreed to occupy only those spaces not already claimed by the Indians, then today’s America would be confined to a narrow band along the Eastern seaboard. No Indian wars, no America. And yet, like slavery, the wars and the forced resettlement constitute a terrible reproach to the founders’ belief that America was a uniquely just and noble experiment.

But when I say that I am reading Shavit for moral guidance, I’m thinking of the American present, not just the past. The tragic sense is largely alien to Americans, and to American policymakers. Americans have an almost unique faith in the malleability of the world, and of the intrinsic appeal of their own principles (a faith which Shavit writes that Israel’s settlers shared until the Palestinians first rose up against them in 1936). In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger argued that all American presidents from the time of Woodrow Wilson (possibly excepting his own pupil, Richard Nixon) have been idealists, because the American people refuse to elect someone who speaks the tragic language of 19th century European statecraft.

But Shavit is not asserting, as classic realists do, that no one set of animating principles is better than another, and thus one should be agnostic among them. Nor is he simply warning, as realists do, that great projects inevitably miscarry. Shavit argues that we must act, and do so in the name of a moral vision; but that our action must be governed by a recognition of the harm we cause to others, and perhaps also to ourselves. The bad outcome does not prove bad motives, but neither do the good motives excuse the bad outcome.

This distinctive combination of resolution and ruefulness sheds light in several directions. The gross failure to distinguish between motive and outcome echoes through almost every word George W. Bush spoke in the aftermath of 9/11, including some of the first: "Like most Americans, I just can’t believe" that "people would hate us…. Because I know how good we are." And so Bush set out to export American goodness in the form of his "freedom agenda" — and remained bewildered that the world refused to understand America as it understood itself. If some recognition of human frailty, or even some basic humility, had survived in someone around the president, perhaps the White House would have understood, to take one very consequential example, that Iraqis would not welcome their conquerors with hearts and flowers, and would have prepared accordingly.

At the same time, as Leon Wieseltier noted in his New York Times review of My Promised Land, "The appeal to ‘tragedy’ can be easily abused." Realism, with its moral skepticism and deep awareness of unintended consequences, typically counsels inaction in the face of horror. The cautionary sensibility of President Barack Obama has been a welcome change from his predecessor’s faith in magic, but the president’s tragic awareness has at times served as a pretext for immobility. When pressed earlier this year on his decision not to forcefully aid the rebels in Syria, Obama rhetorically asked, "how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?"

How, that is, can I choose to do something when I am unable to do everything? That is a facile line of reasoning which Obama himself would have scorned a few years earlier. Shavit’s twin lessons are "one must act" and "one must know."

For generations, Americans distinguished themselves by blithe action, always underwritten by the national certainty of virtue. Now that Americans have been eating the bitter fruit of that harvest, above all in the Middle East, we have quite suddenly become persuaded of the wisdom of not acting at all, or as little as possible. It’s as if the national fall from innocence, which in Shavit’s telling only increased the grim commitment of Israel’s settler generation, has induced in Americans a kind of national paralysis. Perhaps the negative capability required to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time is just too alien to the national psyche. Instead of George Bush’s "if they hate us, we have to explain ourselves better," the national mood has become "if they hate us, we’re leaving." Where is the national groundswell of support for Obama’s potentially ground-breaking diplomacy with Iran? Nowhere. He’s on his own.

For Shavit, the twin poles of the Israeli condition are "intimidation" and "occupation" — Israel as victim of its neighbors, and as victimizer of the Palestinians. For the United States, the poles are "power" and "justice." For the left — and if you doubt there is still a respectable left, see Andrew Cockburn’s self-righteous dismissal of American foreign policy in the current issue of Harper’s — the United States is a mighty blunderbuss with a dollar sign slapped on the side. For the neoconservative right, America is the world’s salvation, even if the world is too blind to see it. In the real world, there is no escaping either America’s hegemonic power or its commitment to founding principle. Both Israel and the United States view themselves not merely as a sovereign entity but as a cause — and for that very reason give themselves license to visit terrible harm on those who are seen to obstruct the cause.

In January 2009, I would have said that Obama, a visionary with a chastening sense of history, was the ideal figure to craft a post-9/11 foreign policy. No American president I can think of, save perhaps John F. Kennedy, shares Shavit’s twice-born wisdom. Obama really was prepared both to act and to know. If he has not succeeded, I think the problem lies at least as much in the stars as in himself. The stars will, eventually, realign. One hopes that whoever succeeds him will be able to make good use of his or her good fortune.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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