Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

“Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome”

Talking about Israel is perennially topical, and on the packed Sunday afternoon there was palpable expectation about David Berlin and Hirsh Goodman delivering their talk based on their respective books.


Unlike the poetry world where poets seem mainly to write for each other, writers seem to not appreciate each other’s work. Or at least this was the point bemoaned by Berlin as he took the stage first. He mused aloud that it would be an interesting proposal to have authors having to present one of their contemporaries’ work as if they themselves had written it. David Berlin has an impressive CV with being editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada and founding editor of The Walrus being a couple among several other accomplishments. He started by directly extricating a quotation from Goodman, which is essentially that the question of “Will Israel survive?” infuriated Goodman as the premise on which his potential book was to be predicated on.


Berlin’s contention is that writing about the Middle-East would always be a slippery eel of a task since being in a state of flux is indicative of normalcy. This is apparent more so with this year’s regime collapses in Arab North Africa. While Berlin’s point is valid, it is only a half-truth since there are certain characteristics (e.g. the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict) which endure. And for these things that do endure, and for the histories which are tangible, explanations do serve a vital role. Berlin’s book The Moral Lives of Israelis is more of a memoir, filled with varying anecdotes and pointed opinions that any sort of prescription or analysis proper on the State of Israel. This came out clearly in Berlin’s presentation; when juxtaposed with Goodman, Berlin’s personalised pronouncements dragged, seemed jumbled and out of focus. That is not to say that aspects of his presentation do not possess merit.


Berlin’s explanation of how his book came to be is a humbling lesson of listening to editorial advice and willing to let go one’s own voice with respect to the narrator were enlightening. With prodding from his publisher, he allowed the narrator (himself in this case) to get more removed from the text to allow the stories themselves to stand out by itself. In the story which featured in his reading for the afternoon, Berlin’s main concern in questioning an Israeli major centred not as much on human rights violations, alleged or real, but on the training which each Israeli soldier received before being deployed to volatile zones. Berlin, being a sabra and a former member of an Israeli reconnaissance unit (the self-same which Ariel Sharon was a part of) recalled his own experience in the past as an Israeli soldier as being different in that were treated better by their superiors. His main concern was that the original vision of Zionism or a Jewish state by Herzl did not have in its core victimhood as its animating factor, but rather a state where “Jews doing it right” or being the biblical “light unto the nations” was at both its heart and reality. He feared that this ideal was getting dimmer. He outlined an incident at checkpoints in the West Bank, where the diplomatic passports of the Canadian delegation he was a part of were temporarily confiscated, almost causing an incident. His ending of the talk seemed abrupt, with his father’s death, and if sardonic, then failing at providing levity.


As Goodman strode on to the stage, he immediately addressed the incident of the Israeli checkpoint by saying that even Canadian checkpoints in Afghanistan (or checkpoints anywhere) which are susceptible to violent incursions are fraught with tension and mistakes. His rejoinder then illustrated the fact that it is mainly Israeli NGOs which publicize aberration and mistreatment at the checkpoints.


Goodman’s recently published book is The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. In what sounded like an extraordinary statement (and perhaps an overreach) Goodman said that he believed the threat from a nuclear Iran is good for Israel since it “concentrates the mind” but that the heavy catastrophic consequences that would result from an Iranian should be taken seriously. While this may be true, as Berlin would criticize later, using a sense of alarm to promote unity could lead squashing disagreements all on the premise of security. Still, this seems a better attitude than passive panic. With respect to the Arab Spring, Goodman felt that Arab citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and now Syria were dealing with themselves, rather than using Israel as a scapegoat, and that this being a step forward.


Goodman was also bracingly honest about a couple of issues that perennially linger but is often difficult to give a straight answer which doesn’t offend. The one-state solution, was out – since it would mean the destruction of a Jewish state due to the demographics that a right of return would entail. This is often a point which is difficult for Canadians to have sympathy for since an open multicultural milieu is something we value and live out. But an analogy with Québec and it self-identity as a nation is better as it shows that far from being exclusionary, Québec welcomes anyone who accepts the reality of its language and cultural identity. Similarly, Israel hosts 1.2 million non-Jews who are mainly Arab Muslims and Christians and even the Jewish population of Israel is diverse. He also noted that with respect to the settlements, it was hard enough to remove the 16,000 in Gaza and it would be near impossible to remove the 300,000 or so now in the West Bank. He cited that over 60% or the Israeli army is drawn from the young people with links to the settlements and commanding their extraction would lead to civil war in Israel. His solution is land swaps based on density (although the question of contiguous borders remained unanswered). This would inevitably mean that there will be some “hard-core” settlements deep inside the West Bank – since they are a small minority, Goodman sees no problem with them being citizens of an independent Palestine. (Well, maybe he should check with the Palestinian Authority first.) Goodman’s chief concern was that there were many who did not want to see peace between the two sides but this shouldn’t stop Israel from dealing with the current PA administration and using a 10 year hudna or ceasefire with the ideologically unrelenting Hamas. While the settlements may have originated from a time in the 1960s when the “Western Front” posed threats from both Iraq and Jordan, the corrosive effects that occupation brings were acknowledged by both speakers. Another point of agreement was the rejection of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel as being ignorant, flawed and slanderous.


Berlin’s point about preserving the secular nature of Israel, pointing to the presence of a mezuzah at a government official’s drew a rebuke from Goodman that one shouldn’t feel threatened by it since it was present since time immemorial and was rather innocuous. However, Berlin’s insistence that having it at an official, public location (again a comparison with Québec and the crucifix in its legislature comes to mind) is different than having it displayed outside someone’s home is valid. Although this squabble may be small fires next to the incredible growth of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel posing a far greater problem in terms of internal strife.


While the Arab Spring and the recent Occupy movements have commanded a large portion of media coverage, two other protests in India and in Israel against corruption and for social justice have had a deep political impact. Goodman felt that this new generation of up to a million, marching in the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, would indeed make strides towards the dream which Berlin alluded to; based on achievement and compassion than victimhood and occupation. There is still a long road of reconciliation and compromise by both sides but being a hopeful realist isn’t a bad place to start.