Here’s a coincidence for you: For several months now I have been reading the book “The World of Yesterday” by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a cosmopolitan European Jew’s farewell gesture to the lost world in which he grew up. A world of poetry and culture, a world of intellectuals who did everything in their power to eradicate national boundaries, a world that had suffered a massive blow in World War I when it emerged that behind every lyrical poet stood a leader and a power-hungry nation, a world that was smashed to smithereens with the appearance of the Third Reich’s dark shadow.
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I’ve been spending months with Zweig and his poet friends at the opera in Vienna and in the cafes in Paris but it was just last night, after yet another day of reading in the newspapers and on Facebook about the extent to which the Israeli “Arab-loving” left has gone off the rails, that I came to his description of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to appease Hitler. I, like all graduates of the classical narrative of World War II, know how to spout the automatic condemnation of Chamberlain’s flaccidity and how from a surfeit of peace-seeking he shut his eyes to reality, bringing to the world Hitler in his full monstrousness. The sucker Chamberlain who caved to the dictates of the Germans and served them up the Sudetenland on a silver platter. The lily-livered Chamberlain with his apologetic declaration of war. Chamberlain, every leftist’s nightmare. The ultimate knockout blow to a humanist aspiration for peace.
According to the latest fashion in the Israeli opinion market, this is what we are: Chamberlains. Anyone who holds conciliatory leftist opinions, anyone who still dares to hallucinate about dialogue with the Palestinians or to ponder the high price the war exacts from both sides must be one of two things: either wicked or stupid. Sometimes both. It isn’t that up until the past few weeks the discourse on the street in Israel was overly fond of the left. In truth, most of those identified with that camp had already become accustomed to being treated like cold-hearted traitors. What's new is their reformulation as caricatures: simultaneously ridiculous but also dangerous, disaffected and alienated.
It is very tempting to get dragged into this convenient worldview. On side there are the heads-in-the-sky leftists, bleeding heart liberals on autopilot, caring only about how flattering their image is as reflected back to them in the mirror. And facing them, in the opposite camp, are not only those demonstrating authentic social solidarity, but also rationality and the pragmatism. People who gaze deeply and unblinkingly at reality and have the wisdom to understand its implications. This flattering but earnest portrait is perhaps the main achievement of the rhetoric from Israel’s right (or the failure of its left): After an impressive 180 degree somersault, reversing the image of the sides with which I grew up, the right has rid itself of the messianic madmen’s garb, with which it had been identified for many decades, and has succeeded in dressing its rivals from the left in it.
But before we become addicted, or desensitized, to the split between ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, we should trouble it with a few questions.
First, let’s deal with who suffers from the real blindness here and who is denying reality. If there is blindness, to a large extent it is two-sided. Both leftist and rightist camps have their blind spots that they cannot or prefer not to see.
That doesn’t mean both sides are like their crude caricatures - on the left that they are imagining some utopian solution while the right, over coffee with Nobel Prizewinner Daniel Kahneman, is putting together a super-realist, eyes-wide-open solution. Both sides are feverishly pushing events towards the edges of sanity. Perceiving the Palestinians as a monolithic and bloodthirsty bloc is just as rational as describing them only as victims of the circumstances. Both sides of the argument are fleeing from the chaotic everyday into simplistic analyses. “They are all murderers” from the right is no wiser than the left’s “they are all downtrodden unfortunates.” Both of these are a bit less confusing than the truth of the reality (whatever it is).
We all want a kind of statistical graph that lays out all the injustices the two peoples have perpetrated on each other, and then we’ll count them up and cancel them out and emerge from the story with a definitive answer: Good guys, bad guys, from which we can conclude who is right and who is wrong. But you don’t need to have a failing mark in math, like me, to understand that historical and moral disputes are mostly too layered to be measured by such tools.
What remains is coming down to the level of human beings. Zooming in on situations in which people have individualized faces has a role, and recognizing that their decisions have a direct influence on reality. And then asking ourselves: What would we do in the same situation? And admitting with a small dash of humility that to this, too, we have no answer.
Yet nevertheless, what do we do with Chamberlain? In one of the troubling chapters of the book Zweig reconstructs the days after the Munich agreement, when all the people around him were giving themselves up to the great relief at the sword of war returning to its sheath. “I heard two lads joking in the best cockney about the hope that the shelters would be transformed into underground comfort stations,” he wrote from his exile in London. “Everybody laughed with them wholeheartedly, they all seemed more refreshed, more animated, like plants after a thunder shower … and there was a cheerful sparkle in their usually cool English eyes.”
This reminded me of that evening in September of 1993, when the rumors about the Oslo agreement began to take shape. I was watching the news then, sitting on my student’s mattress in an Arab house in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, and with the emotionalism of a 23-year-old (which isn’t all that different from the emotionalism of a 43-year-old), I wrote in my diary about how happy I was to have the privilege of living in this generation when peace will break out. Choking with tears of hope. Between the lines there was also the fear that it wasn’t going to work, but mainly there was a profound supplication that it would.
Chances are that this picture too is very easy to ridicule. After all, just a few months later Baruch Goldstein massacred worshippers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Prophets, and subsequently the suicide attacks began, and Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and more terror attacks, and more settlements, and more roadblocks and the second intifada, and price tag, and more terror attacks. It seems ridiculous to insist it could be possible otherwise.
However, not all conflicts end in a holocaust. And not all agreements crash into an abyss. True, Chamberlain totally failed to read the map but not all maps are the same. History is a lot less predictable and a lot more original than what we give it credit for. Alongside the mess in Iraq, the Ukrainian tangle and the wave of child refugees from Central America who are collapsing on America’s doorstep are also the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid and the election of a black candidate to the presidency of the United States. Humanity is just as surprising in a good way as it is disappointing.
The question is whether in order to win it is better to dig ourselves into our defensive fortifications in the grip of post traumatic disorder because of previous experiences, fearful of being disappointed again like a young woman after a painful breakup – or should we also give an opportunity to something different?
We all know how to point the finger at Chamberlain and his mistakes. Zweig himself committed suicide in 1942, out of utter despair. It is a lot more complicated to spotlight the historical junctures we flubbed out of fear as we clung to the prophecies of doom and rage. Those, after all, are a lot easier to cause to come true. There isn’t much difference between blindness to dangers and blindness to opportunities. And if there is blindness on both sides, I still prefer the blindness of the left, because at least there is still some hope left there.
Sounds ridiculous? In my opinion, there is something nearly heroic in it.
Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York two years ago.