On the same day the press first reported on the failed attempt to dispatch explosives to two Chicago synagogues, The New York Times carried a brief and disturbing report on an altercation between the popular Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany and the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).
Al Aswany, a voluble man in his early 50s, is author of the 2002 novel “The Yacoubian Building,” which was a wildly successful bestseller in Egypt and has been translated into 23 languages. He is a secular and liberal man, resolutely opposed both to the authoritarian Mubarak regime and to the Islamist Moslem Brotherhood. He is a dentist who spent 17 years in Chicago and has a very real appreciation of American pluralism.
By any reasonable standard, he is the sort of person who would be expected to welcome bridge-building, who would support, perhaps even actively advocate, a thaw in the ice-cold relationship between Egypt and Israel— or at least between Egyptians and Israelis. Instead, however, he has refused to allow “The Yacoubian Building” to be translated into Hebrew, because, according to the Times: “My position has not changed regarding normalization with Israel. I reject it completely.”
For its part, IPCRI, an organization founded in 1988, is single-mindedly devoted to overcoming all barriers to a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. It has now informed its constituency that in the hope of “broadening the horizons of the Israeli public,” it is making a Hebrew translation of “The Yacoubian Building” available to anyone who orders it. (The translator was a volunteer; the books are distributed at no charge.) To this, Al Aswany objects, describing the IPCRI project as an act of “piracy and theft.”
Taken together, the two vastly different reports on Oct. 29, one of potential physical violence, the other of cultural violence, one targeted at real Jews, the other at metaphoric bridges, are exceedingly dispiriting. Where is there a flower or even a tiny sprout of hope? True, IPCRI slogs away, but to little obvious effect. Where bridges wait to be built, moats are dug instead; where even in the parched desert of history one searches for a blossom, one finds only bitterness.
Allow me to repeat a slice of history I have cited from time to time these last 15 years. When Yitzhak Rabin became (for the second time) Israel’s prime minister, in June of 1992, he spoke to the Knesset of the urgent need for the people of Israel to put an end to the characteristic Jewish habit of thinking themselves a people abandoned, alone. But centuries of persecution and centuries of the world’s indifference to that persecution rendered Rabin’s urging beyond Jews’ capacity. The aloneness of the Jews was and remains a virtually indelible habit of the Jewish heart, an immutable filter of the Jewish psyche. And in these days of rising anti-Semitism, and in light of the news of the day, who can honestly proclaim that it is ill-founded?
But for a moment, a mirage-like moment, there was rich evidence to support what Rabin proposed. Here are his words on accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace just two years later, in 1994: “We are witnessing a new wind blowing throughout the world regarding its relationship with the State of Israel: The claim that the ‘whole world is against us’ has dissipated in the spirit of peace. The world is not against us. The world is with us.”
The words sound preposterous. The world is with us? How can that have been?
Yet is most assuredly was: Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated exactly 15 years ago this week. Bear with me, please, as I remind you that dozens upon dozens of leaders from countries large and small, traditionally friendly to Israel and often hostile, traveled to Israel on November 6th, the day he was laid to rest, to signify their respect for the man and for the peace he had pursued. (See full list below.)
It was the whole world, even if only for a moment. They had not come because of Rabin’s charisma, he had very little of that; nor because he was so convivial, for he was not. No, they came because for a short while, until his life was ended by an assassin’s bullet, Rabin appeared to be determined, along with Shimon Peres and Yasir Arafat, to put a responsible end to the chronic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
We can never know if that effort would have succeeded. The shift from celebration to isolation has been so abrupt that we are bound to ask: What happened? And though it has only been 15 years, the answer is that very much has happened: a second intifada, two wars in Lebanon, the withdrawal from Gaza and the war in Gaza, a significant rightward shift among Israel’s Jews, the rise of international terrorism in general and of Hamas and Hezbollah in particular, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its regional mischief-making, the astonishing rise of China, the Great Recession and more. Yet even with all that, it is impossible to assert that Israel is inevitably alone, condemned by the nations of the world no matter what it does. Or at least that just 15 years ago, such condemnation was its unalterable destiny.
One may note what’s been left off the list of transformative events in the post-Rabin decade and a half. I have made no mention of the emergence of an apparent partner for peace within the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank. Nor have I made mention of the separation barrier or of the continuing expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem or of the rising Islamophobia in the West. My point here is not to point an accusatory finger at this actor or that. It seems quite clear that along the way, everyone has contributed to the current debilitating impasse. My point, however, is to suggest that the Jewish disposition to see ourselves as a people doomed to dwell alone is pernicious poppycock. Israel and the Jews have lately been substantial beneficiaries of others’ good will. (Some will object to that outright, others will accept it only grudgingly. But if we look at the remarkable intimacy of the Israel-America relationship, and at Israel’s acceptance as a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and count Fidel Castro’s good words as a substantial offset to Hugo Chavez’s, or at Israel’s emerging relationships with India and Greece, it turns out the story is not just of intermittent boycotts and disinvestment campaigns.)
That does not mean that everything’s hunky-dory, that anti-Semitism’s a relic and hatred of Israel merely an obscure footnote. It does mean that we look ridiculous when we automatically deny any connection between our behavior and our destiny. Our behavior does not fully account for what we experience, but neither is it irrelevant to what we experience. Others play a role, and circumstance plays a role, and misunderstanding plays a role — and then there’s us, whether “us” be defined as the Jews or as the government of Israel. No people, nor any nation, not even a superpower, gets to dictate its own fortune, is exclusive commander of its own fate. Neither, however, is it unalterably the impotent victim of others’ malevolence. On this anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, it is bracing to keep that in mind — as IPCRI does, in spite of Alaa Al Aswany.
The full list of statesmen and dignitaries who attended Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral: The United States was represented by President and Mrs. Clinton, by former presidents Ford and Carter, by five members of the Clinton cabinet, by the speaker of the House and its minority leader, by the majority leader of the Senate along with 16 other senators and diverse other dignitaries. From Jordan, King Hussein and Queen Noor and Crown Prince Hassan, as well as the prime minister and the foreign minister; from Egypt, President Mubarak and the foreign minister; the prime minister of Morocco and senior officials of Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia; the presidents of Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Italy, Moldova, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Switzerland and Ukraine; the prime ministers of Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Turkey; 20 foreign ministers (from Armenia, Belarus, Britain, Costa Rica, Cote D’Ivoire, Eritria, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Italy, Japan, Khazakhstan, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Ukraine); senior representatives of Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Colombia, Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, Ecuador, Fiji, Greece, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Mongolia, Papua, Singapore, South Africa, Swaziland, Thailand and Yugoslavia; Prince Charles of Britain, Queen Beatrix of Netherlands and the Secretary General of the United Nations.