Brill was used to seeing classified intelligence, but this day was special. The “agent” was one of the first Israeli spies to infiltrate Egypt successfully since the end of the Six-Day War a year earlier. He had photos that supposedly would help reveal Egyptian war plans, including possible preparations behind the ceasefire line.
A small crowd surrounded the agent in the department’s main nerve center. Colonel Avraham Arnan, Brill’s direct superior, was focusing on one photograph. “What do you think it is?” he asked the group of analysts. “It looks like a military bridge.”
It was. Egypt had moved the bridge to less than a mile from the Suez Canal, the strategic waterway that connected the world of commerce but separated Egypt from the territory it had lost to Israel during the Six-Day War. The bridge could be used by tanks and armored personnel carriers to cross the canal and invade Israel—far too close for comfort.
Before sending the agent to Egypt, Israel had pursued other avenues to gather intelligence on what Egypt was doing just over the canal. One officer designed a special platform to mount on tanks so that intelligence officers could stand on them and peer over the 30-foot-high sand barriers the Egyptians had erected on their side of the Suez. The platforms seemed effective until the day an Egyptian sniper took a shot at one of them.
Next, the Israeli Air Force flew reconnaissance aircraft along the border and took pictures of what was happening on the ground. But because of Egyptian surface-to-air missiles, the aircraft had to fly at high altitudes, rendering the pictures of little or no value. That left the IDF with only one viable alternative—live agents on the ground in Egypt, passing for Egyptians, looking like Egyptians, and traveling to the Suez Canal via Europe to take photos of what was happening along the border.
Arnan walked the photo down the hall to alert Aman’s top brass. Brill stood there thinking how crazy it was that one single photo held the key to Israel’s survival.
“We need to launch such an operation to get a single photo of what is happening just over the canal?” Brill asked. He could grasp the significance of the intelligence, but something felt wrong. It just didn’t make sense that there wasn’t an easier way to see what was happening a few hundred feet away.
On his drive home that evening, Brill couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be an easier way to gather intelligence over the canal. Suddenly he recalled a movie he had seen a few weeks earlier in Tel Aviv. The feature had been preceded by a short newsreel that included a story about an American Jewish boy who had received a toy airplane as a gift for his bar mitzvah. Brill’s imagination started going. He remembered that the planes came in different colors, were wireless and pilotless, and could be flown by remote control. What Brill conceived seemed almost too easy: Buy a few remote-control airplanes, attach cameras to their bellies, and fly them over the Suez to photograph Egyptian military positions.
Brill knew he would need partners to implement his idea. So he went to air-force headquarters, snooped around, and discovered Shlomo Barak, an officer who spent his weekends flying remote-control airplanes. He was one of a handful of people in Israel at the time who had the necessary experience for what Brill had in mind.
Brill tried to get the air force to assume responsibility for the idea. He was unsuccessful. “Remote-control planes are toys, and we have no use for them,” officers from the air force’s technology branch told Brill.
So he went back to his own commander. “We can buy a few of these planes for real cheap, install cameras, and fly them over the Suez to spy on the Egyptians,” Brill told Arnan. Arnan wasn’t convinced. He first asked to see the planes in action.
Later that week, they met at a small airstrip outside Tel Aviv for a flight demonstration. Barak piloted the remote-control plane, did some maneuvers, a flip or two, and landed it flawlessly. Arnan liked the idea but wanted to know what it would cost. Brill didn’t know and, so, together with Barak, he compiled a list: three airplanes, six remote controls, five engines, a few spare tires, and propellers. The grand total: $850.
Arnan approved the budget, and a member of Israel’s defense delegation in New York went to a Manhattan toy store, purchased the equipment, and sent it back to Israel in the embassy’s diplomatic pouch. This way, no one would question why an Israeli was traveling with so many toy airplanes in his luggage.
After their safe arrival in Israel, the planes were brought to the Intelligence Directorate’s technological team for further development. They were fitted with 35-millimeter German-made cameras with timers programmed to take pictures automatically every 10 seconds.
“We’re ready to go operational,” Brill told Arnan a few weeks after the planes arrived. The senior officer was still skeptical. He feared the planes would be shot down by Egyptian anti-aircraft fire and suggested that they first see if IDF anti-aircraft teams could shoot them down.
On a hot summer day, Arnan and Brill drove down to the IDF’s anti-aircraft training base in the Negev Desert, restricted one of the roads so it could serve as a runway, and even gave the anti-aircraft gunners a heads-up as to the direction from which the planes would be flying.
The plane took off and started circling over a patch of sand, and the gunners opened fire. The sound was deafening, lasting what seemed like a lifetime. Brill lost sight of the plane and feared the worst. To his surprise, after the smoke cleared, the toy was still there, soaring above. Barak tested flights at 1,000 feet, 700 feet, and then at a mere 300 feet. The gunners could not make a successful hit; the toy airplane was too small a target. After the plane landed, the astonished Arnan turned to Brill and gave him permission to take the plane for flights over Egypt.T he first target was a row of Egyptian military positions located near Ismalia, a town along the Suez and next to Lake Tismah, otherwise known as Crocodile Lake. The team chosen to fly the plane consisted of two people, one a “pilot” who operated the remote control and the other a “navigator” who watched it through a set of 120 x 20 binoculars and ensured that the pilot did not lose his line of sight.
The dramatic first flight, in July 1969, didn’t go as smoothly as planned. First, since there were potholes everywhere, it was difficult to find a piece of road that could function as a runway. After the discovery of a 100-foot airstrip, takeoff was finally approved. Arnan gave permission to penetrate about a mile into Egypt. But then, when the plane was airborne, it entered a cloud of sand. Its momentary disappearance triggered panic that it would crash in Egypt and Israel’s new secret weapon would be discovered. Barak, who served as the navigator, told the pilot to fly the plane in circles and to increase altitude. “Don’t be pressured. Just keep flying until we see it,” Barak told him.
After a few tense moments, the plane finally emerged from the cloud, and the pilot managed to land back in Israel. The film was immediately taken to be developed, and when the photographs came back, Arnan and Brill were stunned. The resolution was amazing. They could clearly see the trenches the Egyptian military had built along the canal. Even communication cables connecting the different positions were visible.
For the first time, Israel had clear photos of the obstacles the Egyptians were building along the Suez and how they were preparing for a future war.
After another mission, this one over the Sinai, Arnan sent the team to the Jordan Valley, where similar fights were conducted over Jordanian positions. The success was mesmerizing, and by the end of the summer, Major General Aharon Yariv, head of military intelligence, had decided to establish an official development team to build a small but sturdier remote-control airplane that could be integrated into regular service. Yariv sent Brill a letter thanking him for his invention: “You deserve praise for this invention because without innovation at all levels and ranks, there would be no IDF.”
A few weeks later, Brill was promoted and put in command of all early-warning intelligence systems in the Sinai. He was confident that he had left his pet project in good hands. It was time to move on. One day, some months later, he received a phone call from one of his original partners. The team appointed by Yariv had tried to build a new airplane, instead of relying on existing platforms, and it kept crashing. As a result, Aman’s top brass decided the project was too expensive and, anyhow, should be overseen by the air force. Aman was shutting the project down.
Brill refused to go down without a fight. Through the course of 1969, he sent a number of letters to Yariv and the rest of the country’s intelligence brass and warned of devastating consequences should the project be abandoned. He pleaded with his commanders not to end the project. They refused to listen.
On October 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the Egyptian military launched a surprise and successful attack across the Suez, proceeding practically unopposed up through the Sinai Peninsula. While Israel ultimately held on to the territory during the bloody debacle, when the war ended, the country was left in a state of trauma. More than 2,000 soldiers had been killed, the most since Israel’s War of Independence.
Brill could barely contain his anger. He was certain that if his project had not been canceled, Israel would have detected Egyptian military movements and had time to bolster defenses or even prevent the war. Seeing what was happening just over the border could have saved thousands of lives.
“Had we continued taking pictures of what was happening just three miles over the canal, we would have seen the Egyptian tanks, bridges, and equipment amassing and understood they were preparing for war,” he said. “Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.”
Aman understood its mistake, dusted off Brill’s old plans, and reached out to local defense companies to begin designing an Israeli lightweight unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—what today is more commonly referred to as a drone.
It would take another few years for the Israeli design to become operational, but in the meantime two things were clear: Israel needed quality intelligence, and that meant getting into the drone business. Brill could not have known at the time, but what he started on the shores of the Suez Canal in 1969 would burgeon one day into a massive, billion-dollar industry for Israel and position it as a global military superpower.A fter several years of research, development, and test fights, Israel’s first drone—the Scout—was finally delivered to the air force in 1979. The first version of the Scout was launched by a rocket, but soon enough, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries upgraded the model so it could take off and land on a runway, just like an airplane.
In June 1982, Israel had decided to invade Lebanon to end the rising cross-border terror and rocket attacks by the PLO. The greatest obstacle was the presence of nearly 20 Syrian Soviet-made surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries deployed in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The SAMs severely limited the air force’s ability to maneuver.
The IAF had been preparing for war. In the weeks before, Scout drones flew over the valley to collect radar and communication frequencies from the SAM batteries. This was precious data needed for what the IAF planned to do next: electronically neutralize the batteries.
Israel’s full-force attack was launched on June 6. An electronic warfare system succeeded in blinding and neutralizing most of the missile systems, and the Scouts assisted Israeli fighter jets in identifying and bombing the missile batteries. The operation was a major success. The IAF destroyed almost all of the Syrian SAMs, and in one fell swoop, knocked 82 Syrian MiGs out of the sky without losing a single Israeli fighter jet.
That operation caused a shift in Israeli thinking. Officers who until then had refused to believe in these new unmanned aircraft had a change of heart. The potential of these miniature drones suddenly seemed unlimited.
In the meantime, while Israel’s Scouts were moving from one successful operation to the next, Israel’s greatest ally, the United States, was having difficulty getting its own drones off the ground. Billions of dollars were being poured into projects that closed down one after another. Nothing seemed to work.
A few years earlier, the Pentagon had funded the development of Aquila, a drone built by Lockheed Martin that required a few dozen people for takeoff but kept crashing. In 1987, after burning through over $1 billion, the Pentagon decided to shut the program down.
Boeing was also working on a drone—the Condor—that came with a 200-foot wingspan, as large as the reconnaissance aircraft it was being developed to replace. That program was also shut down after a $300 million investment. Only one Condor was built; today it hangs in a museum in California.
In December 1983, the U.S. finally decided to ask Israel for help. A few weeks earlier, the U.S. Navy had launched a botched attack against Syrian anti-aircraft batteries stationed near Beirut in response to the downing of an American spy plane. The attack was a disaster: Two American planes were shot down, a pilot was killed, and a navigator was captured. While a few Syrian guns were destroyed, the Syrian anti-aircraft fire forced the U.S. planes to drop their bombs far from their targets. An inquiry into the botched raid concluded that a nearby U.S. battleship had had cannons in range of the Syrian air-defense systems and that they could have been used without endangering American pilots. The problem was that the Navy had no way of knowing where the Syrian missile systems were located. It needed eyes in the sky to direct them.
A few weeks after the botched operation, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman traveled to Beirut and decided to use the occasion to fly to Tel Aviv to learn about Israel’s use of drones. He had heard about the Scouts and their success in 1982 but had never seen them up close. When he arrived at Israeli military headquarters, Lehman was taken into an operations room and asked to sit in front of a small TV. He was handed a joystick and given control over a drone in flight. Similarly, Marine Corps Commandant General P. X. Kelley visited Israel to view the drone program. At the end of his trip, he was presented with a kind of home video, shot by a circling drone. In some of the footage, Kelley’s head was fixed in the camera’s crosshairs.
After high school, Abe Karem went to study aeronautics at the Technion, Israel’s equivalent of MIT. He then joined the air force, and after his discharge he went to work for IAI.Both men were sold. The next stage, though, was to figure out how to push the deal through the complicated U.S. bureaucracy. Lehman decided simply to skip over the usual procedures and had the Navy directly contract Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to develop a new drone based on the Scout. The Americans wanted something bigger and stronger, with a more advanced avionics system that could serve as a spotter for battleships. IAI soon had a prototype, which it called the Pioneer. After a flight demonstration in the Mojave Desert, the U.S. Navy ordered 175.
Delivery of the Pioneers started in 1986. In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. went to war to free the Gulf state. During one operation, a Pioneer drone flew over a group of Iraqi soldiers, who saw the aircraft and, not knowing what it was, took off their white undershirts and waved them in the air—the first time in history a military unit surrendered to a robot.
A few months after returning to the U.S. in 1983, Lehman learned of another drone under development in Los Angeles, which he was told could also potentially serve as a spotter for Navy gunships. This drone was the work of an Israeli engineer who had recently left a senior management position at Israel Aerospace Industries—manufacturer of the Pioneer—to try his luck in the U.S.
Born in Baghdad in 1937, Abe Karem had moved to Israel just after the state was established, in 1948. By the time he was eight, Karem knew he wanted to be an engineer, and a few years later, he found his true love—aviation. At 14, he built his first airplane and within two years was an instructor in his high school’s toy-plane club. After high school, Karem went to study aeronautics at the Technion, Israel’s equivalent of MIT. He then joined the air force, and after his discharge he went to work for IAI.
During the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, Karem built his first unmanned aircraft. The IAF was having difficulty penetrating Egypt’s Soviet air-defense systems, so within a couple of weeks, Karem’s team had developed a decoy—basically a missile that could be controlled with a joystick—the IAF could use to activate the Egyptian radars, detect their location, and then hit them with anti-radiation missiles fired from nearby fighter jets. Despite its success, after the war, the IAF decided to buy similar decoys from the U.S.; Karem’s version was buried. He argued for the importance of investing in domestic systems to create a local industry but failed. Frustrated, he quit and decided to try his luck in America.
Karem and his family moved to Los Angeles. He set up Leading Systems in his 600-square-foot garage in Hacienda Heights and began building a new drone. Called Amber, the prototype was made of plywood and fiberglass with a two-stroke engine that Karem pulled out of a go-kart. He had the Amber in the air for as long as 30 hours. Eventually, Karem’s company ended up a part of General Atomics, and there Karem built a later generation of the Amber called the Gnat 750.
The turning point for Karem came from a combination of the most unlikely of places—Bosnia and Israel. In 1993, ethnic war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. The combatants wore civilian clothes, and the U.S. government was encountering difficulty in assessing the situation on the ground.
During a brainstorming session one day at Langley, then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey recalled a trip he had made to Israel as undersecretary of the Navy where he had seen a new drone unit the IDF had established. Woolsey saw footage there of a convoy of three Mercedes sedans drive on a road in southern Lebanon. Intelligence, his host explained, had identified a passenger in the second car as a senior Hezbollah operative. The drone, the officer continued, “lit up” the car with a laser target designator, enabling a nearby IAF helicopter to fire a missile and destroy it.
Woolsey had seen this use of laser guidance—referred to as “lasing”—when he served as general counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee during the Vietnam War. Back then, fighter jets did the lasing, but Woolsey had positive recollections of the accurate airstrikes that followed.
“We need a long endurance drone,” he told his staff. He was told it would take six years and cost $500 million to develop. Woolsey then called Karem, whom he’d met a few years earlier. “How much would it cost, and how long would it be before you could be up and operating over Bosnia?” he asked.
“Six months and $5 million,” Karem said. Woolsey teamed Karem up with Jane, a CIA employee (whose full name cannot be published) who had developed a special command-and-control system for drones. In six months, the Gnat 750 was flying reconnaissance missions over Bosnia. A few days later, a live feed from the drones was installed in Woolsey’s seventh-floor office at Langley, and the CIA director was able to watch foot traffic over a bridge in Mostar while communicating with the ground station through an early form of chat software.
The Pentagon awarded General Atomics a contract to develop a more robust drone based on the Gnat, with a bigger engine and new set of wings.
The biggest change to the Gnat was General Atomics’ decision to place a satellite communication link on the aircraft. The company decided that the more advanced drone needed a new name, so it held a competition. The winner was “Predator.” The drone would go on to become infamous as America’s most lethal weapon in the global war on terror, responsible for countless strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. It took Israel and an Israeli engineer to help make that happen.W hat makes drones appealing for militaries is that they can successfully carry out “3D” missions—dull, dirty, and dangerous. “Dull” refers to routine, mundane missions like patrols along borders or maritime surveillance of seas and oceans. These are physically demanding and are extremely tedious and repetitive. While humans tire after 10 or 12 hours, the Heron drone—the Israeli Air Force’s main workhorse since 2005—can stay airborne for 50 hours.
“Dirty” involves entering airspace infected by chemical or biological agents. While a human would have to wear cumbersome protective gear, drones can operate risk-free, making them more versatile. And “dangerous”? That’s more open to interpretation, but it basically covers missions that can be done by a robot instead of a pilot who could be injured or killed.
In today’s IDF, drones are used by all military branches. The air force, for example, maintains drones like the Heron for reconnaissance missions on all of its various fronts—Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.Drones have an almost endless list of advantages, which make them preferable to manned combat aircraft. They are smaller, lighter, cost less, and can hover over targets for longer. Fighter jets have the advantage and disadvantage that they can break the sound barrier, and while speed is an advantage in a dog fight or a mission that requires a quick in-and-out, it means that the aircraft’s presence can be identified almost immediately. Drones can hover over targets while their engines’ humming noise blends into city traffic. It makes them the perfect weapons to hunt and eliminate moving targets, such as terrorists.
Since the delivery of the Scout, in 1979, the Israeli Air Force has used and retired a number of different drones. But unlike the larger fighter jets, attack helicopters, and transport aircraft that are purchased overseas, Israel’s drones are strictly blue and white, developed and manufactured by homegrown Israeli companies. Since 1985, Israel has been the largest exporter of drones in the world, responsible for 60 percent of the global market, trailed by the U.S., whose market share is just 23.9 percent. The customers have been dozens of different countries, including the United States, Russia, South Korea, Australia, France, Germany, and Brazil. In 2010, for example, five NATO countries were flying Israeli drones in Afghanistan.
In today’s IDF, drones are used by all military branches. The air force, for example, maintains drones like the Heron for reconnaissance missions on all of its various fronts—Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.
With a length of about 27 feet, the Heron is just a bit shorter than a Cessna light aircraft, although its wingspan is significantly longer, by about 20 feet. It is powered by a rear propeller, emitting a steady lawnmower-like sound. Its best quality is its autonomous flight system, allowing the operators to insert a flight route before takeoff and then get the aircraft off the ground by pressing just four buttons. The drone then flies to its target and can be programmed to return to a predesignated point at the end of the mission. This allows the operator to focus on the mission instead of on flying the plane.
Heron’s manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industries, does not publicly divulge the drone’s exact cost, but industry estimates put the price tag at approximately $10–$15 million, far less than the cost of a manned combat aircraft. For the price of one F-35 fifth-generation multi-role fighter, one of the most recent IAF purchases, the air force can buy about 10 Herons.
The Heron can fly in two different modes, line-of-sight or satellite. The operator must be located within 250 miles of the drone at all times if it flies in line-of-sight mode. In satellite mode, the drone is controlled via a satellite linkup, meaning that distance is limited only by the amount of fuel it can carry. But the real significance of a drone is in its payload. Herons, for example, carry their cargo in more than one space—in their bellies, on their wings, and in rotating gimbals mounted under the nose. The gimbals include the sensors, which vary based on the mission—day/night cameras, infrared vision, laser targeting, as well as special sensors to identify weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
One Israeli-designed sensor shows the advantages these sensors afford. Called the Chariot of Fire, this sensor can detect changes in terrain, revealing possible locations of underground rocket launchers, a critical capability in a place like the Gaza Strip, where Hamas buries its rockets. Basically, the sensor can detect the invisible.
Israel’s drones were originally designed for ISR missions—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—to fly over targets and monitor developing situations. Early on, though, Israeli military planners understood that they could do more—that the unmanned aircraft could adapt.
The drones were already carrying laser designators, which could be used to “light up” targets that would then be attacked by helicopters or fighter jets. Why couldn’t they carry the missiles, too? Today, Israeli drones, including the Heron, reportedly have the ability to locate targets and destroy them as well. Israel does not confirm that it has drones with attack capabilities. It is, however, well documented that this capability exists; Israeli drones have appeared at defense exhibitions with missiles mounted under their wings, and in WikiLeaks cables, Israel confirmed that some of its strikes in the Gaza Strip were carried out by armed drones. The Heron and the Hermes 450, another medium-sized drone developed by Israel’s Elbit Systems, can reportedly carry laser-guided Hellfire missiles and smaller munitions like the Israeli-developed Spike missile. The Spike causes less collateral damage and is said to be particularly effective in accurate strikes against wanted terrorists.
The Gaza Strip is ground zero for Israel’s drone revolution. There, on a daily basis, the lawnmower hum of drones can be heard in the narrow alleyways. Gazans have given the drones the nickname “Zanana,” Arabic for “buzz” or “nagging wife.” In Gaza, drones collect intelligence and help the IDF build its “target bank” in the event of a conflict.
Weighing a mere 13 pounds, the Skylark has an operational endurance of three hours at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet.During Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, in November 2012, the IDF attacked nearly 1,000 underground rocket launchers and 200 tunnels that had been located and identified with intelligence gathered by drones. The first salvo of that operation was ordered in a drone-assisted attack. Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s military commander, was driving in Gaza City when a missile struck his Kia sedan. Jabari, who had been at the top of Israel’s most-wanted list and had escaped four previous assassination attempts, was finally taken out by a drone.
Before Israel bombs Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks, UAVs are there to survey the target; as helicopters and fighter jets move in to bomb a car carrying a Katyusha rocket cell, UAVs are there to ensure that children don’t move into the kill zone; when IDF ground troops surround a compound where Hamas terrorists are hiding, UAVs are there to provide real-time air support and guide the soldiers safely inside. And when needed, the drones can reportedly also attack.
At the smaller end of the IDF drone scale are drones not flown out of air-force bases but pulled from soldiers’ backpacks and literally thrown like a quarterback throws a football. One such drone, the Skylark, was delivered to IDF ground units in 2010. Weighing a mere 13 pounds, the Skylark has an operational endurance of three hours at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet. These Skylarks can be utilized in all types of operations, from random patrols in the West Bank to large-scale ground offensives in places like Lebanon and Syria. This new state of warfare provides commanders with quick over-the-hill intelligence. Commanders are no longer solely dependent on the Israeli Air Force, which in turn can focus its attention on larger, more strategic missions. The miniature UAVs are so popular that by 2016 they were being used by military forces in Australia, Canada, the U.S., South Korea, France, Sweden, and Peru.I n 2009, Israel reportedly achieved a new level in drone performance. It was the middle of January, and Israeli soldiers were operating deep inside the Gaza Strip, the first large-scale ground operation since the “Disengagement,” Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territory four years earlier. The government had just launched Operation Cast Lead in response to the ring of more than 2,000 launched rockets and mortars in the previous year alone. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had decided enough was enough.
While the country’s focus was on the Israeli infantry and armored brigades operating in Gaza, a new threat was brewing far from Israel, in distant Sudan.
Intelligence obtained by the Mossad, Israel’s super-secret spy agency, indicated that a ship packed with advanced Iranian weaponry—including Fajr artillery rockets—had docked in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. These weren’t ordinary rockets; they would change the strategic balance.
Up until then, Hamas’s arsenal had enabled the Palestinian terror group to threaten the homes of the 1 million Israelis who lived in the south of the country. The Fajrs had the capability to go much farther and strike Tel Aviv. The containers, the Mossad learned, were being loaded onto trucks, to be transported north through Sudan and Egypt, where they would then be delivered to a depot near the Gaza border. Then the rockets would be smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels.
The chief of staff of the IDF, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, started drafting a plan to attack the convoy, but the clock was ticking. The moment the trucks crossed the border into Egypt, the strike option would be off the table. Israel couldn’t mount an attack in Egypt, a country with which it had a fragile peace treaty. If the missiles then made it into Gaza, they would be swallowed up into one of the most densely populated territories in the world. While Israel’s intelligence coverage over Gaza was good, it wasn’t a sure bet. The rockets had to be stopped before reaching Gaza, meaning that the attack had to take place in Sudan.
An argument erupted within top defense circles. The doves—those opposed to the strike—warned of Israel’s growing international isolation. The country was already under intense criticism for the rising death toll and extensive devastation in Gaza. News of a strike in another country would be difficult to explain. The hawks, on the other hand, argued that Israel could not sit by and allow advanced weaponry to reach Gaza. The potential threat was just too big.
The final decision was brought before Olmert. In operations like this, the prime minister usually asks a few technical questions about the mission and its risks before giving approval. In this case, in addition to the usual procedures, it would have been important to ensure that the strike could not be traced back to Israel. The mission would have to be done without leaving fingerprints.
The question now was how. Sending fighter jets to Sudan was risky. The entire mission could be jeopardized if there was a malfunction or one of the planes was detected by Egyptian or Saudi radars, which covered that part of the Red Sea. There were also technical considerations, since the target—a convoy of trucks—would be on the move and, as a result, difficult to track. Timing was everything. The intelligence would have to be precise; the fighter jets wouldn’t be able to stay in Sudanese airspace for very long, and they would have limited fuel. The IDF reportedly chose an unconventional route—to strike the convoy with the help of drones. This was a first. Drones had never before been used in long-range strikes in a distant country like Sudan.
Only a handful of officers knew all aspects of the mission. Everyone knew that if word got out, the mission would be scrubbed, and the Iranian missiles would reach their destination in Gaza. The next time Israel saw them would be when they slammed into homes in Tel Aviv.
The yellow, sun-scorched Negev Desert is mostly barren, with little water or vegetation. Few Israelis settled there, leaving the large, dry terrain as the IDF’s primary training ground. Israel’s UAV operators were already experts at tracking moving vehicles, but until they began training for the Sudan mission, they had been focused on a single terrorist driving in a car or riding a motorcycle. To prepare for this one, they had to practice locating and following a couple of trucks loaded with missiles. In the expansive Sudanese desert, this would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
The Heron TP, Israel’s largest drone, with the wingspan of a Boeing airliner, and the Hermes 450, the IDF’s main attack drone, were the UAVs chosen for the operation. The Heron TP would fly in first, at altitudes where it could not be detected, to locate and track the convoy. The next wave would consist of Hermes drones and, if needed, fighter jets, which would dive in for the strike.
On the night of the bombing, there were some clouds, but for the most part the skies were clear, typical January weather in Sudan. As the Sudanese and Palestinian smugglers made their way through the desert, the last things on their minds were the Israeli drones tracking them from thousands of feet above. Even if they saw the incoming missiles, it would have been too late. Forty-three smugglers were killed, and all of the trucks were destroyed.
The initial mission was a success. A few weeks later, in February, Iran tried again. Olmert reportedly approved another strike. This time, 40 smugglers were killed, and a dozen trucks were destroyed.
The Sudanese were stunned. They had known that Iran and Hamas were using their country as a clandestine smuggling route, but Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s government thought Israel would never do something as daring as launch an attack on a sovereign African nation. This analysis led the Sudanese government to the wrong conclusion: that America must have been behind the strike. On February 24, a few days after the second strike, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Alberto Fernandez, was summoned to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, on the banks of the Blue Nile River, for a meeting with Ambassador Nasreddin Wali.
“I have sensitive and worrisome information to relate to you,” Wali told Fernandez. The U.S. official knew what was coming but played it cool. Looking down at his handwritten notes in Arabic, Wali pulled out a torn and worn-out map of Sudan and pointed at an empty patch of desert in the eastern part of the country. Fernandez listened as Wali read out the number of people killed and vehicles destroyed. “We assume the planes that attacked us are your planes,” Wali told the American diplomat.
Fernandez mostly listened as Wali lamented America’s decision to unilaterally strike Sudanese territory and to undermine the two nations’ “tight cooperation” on security.
“We protest this act and we condemn it. Sudan reserves the right to respond appropriately, at the right time, in a legal manner consistent with protecting its sovereignty,” Wali concluded. Fernandez did not deny the Sudanese accusation but promised to relay the démarche to the State Department in Washington.
Even if the U.S. knew that the strike had been carried out by the IDF, as reported, Fernandez refrained from outing Israel to Khartoum. Nevertheless, Olmert could not hold back from publicly hinting at the possibility that Israel had been involved in the operation. A few days after Fernandez’s meeting, the prime minister took the stage at a security conference near Tel Aviv and revealed that Israel had carried out counterterrorism operations in places “not that close” to home.
“We are hitting them, in a way that strengthens deterrence and the image of deterrence, which is sometimes no less important, for the State of Israel,” the prime minister said. “There’s no point getting into details, everyone can use his imagination. The fact is whoever needs to know, knows . . . there is no place where the State of Israel cannot act.”
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How Israel Took a Toy and Made It a High-Tech Weapon
Must-Reads from Magazine
A bright light in a dark place.
When UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced America’s withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last October, it was clear this was only the beginning. UNESCO had spent decades defying American law and denying Israel ownership of its own cultural heritage. The organization’s “extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment,” Haley said. Quoting Ronald Reagan, who withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, she added that American taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for an institution that is “hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.” That logic demands bold actions from the United States. After all, UNESCO isn’t the only arm of the United Nations that offends American sensibilities and advances the objectives of despots and thugs. Now, it seems the UN ambassador is ready to make her next move.
According to the AP’s sources, Ambassador Haley is prepared to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council. This would mark the first time in that institution’s history that a serving member of that Orwellian council has abandoned that post in protest. That fact alone illustrates this defective institution’s deficit of integrity, ethics, and courage.
The UNHRC is a relatively young organization, and it is no stranger to American hostility. The organization was formed in 2006 as the successor to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which had lost much of its credibility by the time it was dissolved because its structure all but ensured human rights abusers would populate the body. Even internationalists and institutionalists, from Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth to former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, were forced to confess that the organization had become a bulwark dedicated to the defense of the world’s worst actors.
The Commission’s successor organization has not proven much better. Though George W. Bush shunned it, Barack Obama’s administration reengaged with the group in 2009. That has proven to be a mistake, and Haley’s determination to restore the status quo would be entirely justified.
Shortly after Obama sought to rejoin the organization in 2010, the UNHRC selected Libya to be a member state through a secret-ballot process despite Muammar Gaddafi’s documented history of torturing his political opponents, repressing women, and marginalizing specific religious practices. Humiliatingly, Libya was ejected from the organization a year later when Gaddafi began openly murdering his rebellious people in the streets, but not before being the recipient of glowing testimonials about the country’s commitment to human rights from its fellow abuser states.
Indeed, states like Saudi Arabia, China, Algeria, Congo, Cuba, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Venezuela, and a number of other pariahs routinely manage to get elected to this humanitarian watchdog group. The Council is plagued by the same problems that undermined its predecessor. Its membership is drawn from the UN’s five regional groups, which ensures geographic diversity. The General Assembly could, in theory, reject a state’s bid for membership on the UNHRC, but there is no incentive for a majority of nations—many of which have their own internal conflicts—to turn on one of their own absent the gravest of abuses.
This leads us to the UNHRC’s irredeemable flaw: Its institutional biases are so skewed in favor of murderers, dictators, and bigots that it serves primarily to legitimize the dregs of the earth.
The Council has a permanent agenda item—item seven—which obliges it to regularly survey potential abuses committed by Israel in the Palestinian territories. Item seven is such a blatant misuse of the Council’s time that Europe and North America boycott the group when that article is invoked.
In 2008, the commission appointed Richard Falk, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and Hamas apologist, to serve a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories. In 2011, Falk was reprimanded by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon for endorsing the idea that the U.S. was behind the attacks on its own territory.
Jean Ziegler, co-founder of the Muammar Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights—which is a real thing that has been awarded to such paragons as Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Louis Farrakhan—currently serves in an elected role on the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Council’s special rapporteur on “unilateral coercive measures,” Idriss Jazairy, is alleged by UN Watch’s Hillel Neuer in testimony before Congress to have executed an “aggressive campaign of non-democracies to muzzle UN rights experts.” One of Jazairy’s most recent reports to the UNHRC is a typical jeremiad attacking the civilized world for maintaining strict sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s government as punishment for Damascus’s use of genocidal tactics and chemical weapons on civilian populations.
Despite Haley’s earned hostility toward the United Nations for its biases against both Israel and the general appearance of sanity, she has proven to be a particularly effective ambassador. Last week, amid a rote condemnation of the Jewish State for engaging in targeted self-defense amid a flare up on its border with Gaza, Haley managed to expose something new: cracks in the UN’s anti-Israel consensus.
In the effort to register America’s disapproval of a resolution condemning Israel that failed to mention Hamas even once, Haley submitted her own amendment condemning Hamas. Surprisingly, a motion submitted by Turkey and Algeria to prevent a vote on Haley’s amendment failed with the support of all of the European Union member states. Even more surprising, Haley’s motion received the support of a slim majority of nations in the General Assembly.
Haley took a substantial risk by abandoning America’s passive role in the UN. Proposing a motion in Israel’s defense and not simply blocking its condemnation as past American ambassadors have done was a real departure. The vote was expected to fail. It is a reflection on changing regional dynamics as well as the ambassador’s competence that she won this victory.
Ambassador Haley’s commitment to not just curbing the UN’s worst impulses but publicizing them and shaming the complicit is the kind of boldness that diplomats’ obsequious commitment to process over effectiveness usually precludes. There is no doubt that Nikki Haley and Donald Trump’s administration are running the most ethical and deft American mission to the United Nations in decades.
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The unlikely rise of a pop-culture leader
When the panels ended and the bar opened, the participants sipped their martinis and made deals until the wee hours. This dynamic was repeated in March 2018 at the Innovative TV Conference in Jerusalem hosted by Keshet Media Group, the largest Israeli television company. Guests included Casey Bloys, president of HBO programming; David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime; Gary Newman, chairman and CEO of Fox Television; and Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT. A month later, at the Series Mania competition in France, the YES series On the Spectrum won the top prize, a year after YES had won with Your Honor. This show about a judge drawn into the underworld after his son critically injures a mobster’s son in a hit-and-run is being remade in English by Robert and Michelle King, the creators of the beloved CBS legal drama The Good Wife.
Netflix is making an English-language version of YES’s The Good Cop, the story of a straitlaced police officer (Josh Groban) and his less scrupulous father (Tony Danza) and is already committed to producing and showing four seasons of Greenhouse Academy, based on a show for preteens called Ha Hamama. The Israeli show, Yellow Peppers, from Keshet International, about a boy with autism and his family who live in a small village in the Negev, was remade by the BBC as The A Word, which is set in the Lake District of England. These are just a few of the dozens of Israeli shows that are currently being remade all over the world.
But the highest-profile upcoming series is an HBO-Keshet coproduction about the kidnappings and murders of Jewish and Arab boys in 2014 that led up to that year’s war in Gaza. Its guiding hand is Hagai Levi. Levi was the creator of the series BeTipul, remade in 2008 by HBO as In Treatment and the first Israeli show to sell its format abroad. Levi is working with Joseph Cedar, perhaps Israel’s foremost writer-director; his most recent film, Norman, starred Richard Gere, and two other Levi movies, Footnote and Beaufort, were nominated for Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category.
How is it that Israel, a country that had no television at all until the mid-1960s and that continues to be under daily attack in elite precincts around the world, has become a leading force in the one of the most influential and important mediums? Is Israel’s prominent new role in television going to prove an enduring facet of worldwide popular culture, or is Israel merely the flavor of the month on the international TV circuit?
From 1966 until the early 1990s, there was just one Israeli channel, run by the government, that featured mostly news, documentaries, shows for children, and imported series. The transformation began when a commercial network, Channel Two, was officially launched in the early 1990s. It caught on, partly because it did things that suggested its programmers actually thought about the needs of the people who were watching. Channel Two showed the news at 8 p.m., when people were sitting around after dinner, instead of at 9 p.m., as the government channel did, when people wanted to go out or go to sleep. It hired celebrities such as pop stars to host game shows, but most of all, Channel Two spent money on programming.
Three companies〞Keshet, Reshet, and Tel Ad〞were responsible for the programming, and by the mid-1990s, they had discovered that local audiences were eager to watch shows about Israelis. A series called Tiranoot (Basic Training), about the army, ran three seasons and made stars out of its cast. Another popular show was a glitzy soap, Ramat Aviv Gimmel, named for the upscale neighborhood where it took place (think Melrose Place on the Mediterranean). It was followed by Florentine, another series that focused on attractive young people and their lives after military service, but in a very different context—it was about their struggles to define their identities in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination in 1995, and it was set in a rundown neighborhood that was beginning to attract artists and bohemians. The cast went on to starin Israeli movies, commercials (which had previously been shown only before movies but were seen now on television), and films (Ayelet Zurer starred opposite Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code).
Another commercial entity, Channel 10, was added to the mix in 2002. Now Israeli television resembles the American landscape in miniature, as broadcasters compete with two cable companies, HOT and YES, featuring dozens of channels with locally produced programming. In addition to Keshet and Reshet, the two largest production companies, there are dozens of others, including Dori Media, Armoza, and Ananey Communications.
But the emergence of Israel as an important maker of international television began in the mid-2000s with BeTipul and Hatufim. BeTipul, which began in 2005 on HOT cable, took an extraordinarily simple (and low-budget) concept—a psychologist (Assi Dayan) treating patients—and realized it beautifully. In each episode, the shrink would see a different patient—a seductive and troubled young woman (played by Ayelet Zurer from Florentine) with whom the therapist fell in love; a guilt-ridden air-force pilot; a troubled married couple who seemed to have everything but were miserable—and at the end of the week, there would be an hour in which he discussed his patients and his life with his own supervisor.
BeTipul was the brainchild of Hagai Levi, who sold the format to HBO for the series it called In Treatment. The credits of the original BeTipul read like a who’s who of contemporary Israeli film and television directors, and include Ari Folman, whose 2008 film, Waltz with Bashir, was nominated for an Oscar, and Eran Kolirin, whose 2007 feature, The Band‘s Visit, was turned into a Broadway musical in 2017. In addition to being made in the U.S., BeTipul has been remade in more than 20 markets—probably the record for a drama—including Russia, Japan, Brazil, and the Netherlands.
The show was so accessible that often they didn’t need to write an American version, said Adam Berkowitz, co-head of the television department at the talent agency CAA, who has brokered many of the deals between Israeli programs and foreign networks. “Instead they just translated the Israeli script, which is ironic, because it means that Israelis talk about the same things in their therapists’ office as Americans. It just shows how much the cultures are intertwined.
Hatufim traveled a similar path. The original was created by Gideon Raff in 2009 for Keshet, and it tells the story of Israeli prisoners of war who return home after a decade and may have been turned into Syrian agents during their captivity. The Israeli version lasted just two seasons and didn’t have a character quite like Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA agent. But, just as with BeTipul, the core of the story was enough to entice American premium cable networks, as well as broadcasters around the world, to remake it. Homeland was on Showtime just two years after Prisoners of War debuted in Israel. Like Fauda, Hatufim has also been a hit in its original Hebrew-language version, with subtitles on Hulu and other streaming services around the world.
The list of formats sold and developed by Israel in the realm of unscripted programming (or reality television) is equally long. A new show called The Gran Plan, in which three grandmothers take charge of a young person’s life for a week (perhaps the ultimate Jewish high concept), has already been sold to 25 territories.
These shows highlight the diversity of Israeli society, but audiences from around the world can connect to their plots. Reshet’s Nevsu, for example, a satirical sitcom about the marriage of an Ethiopian man and an Ashkenazi woman, is being remade by the Fox network.
Religious Jews are also having a moment on the small screen. Young, unmarried Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem were the subject of the wildly popular (and somewhat soapy) Srugim, the title of which is a reference to the kind of kippot they wear. Several shows have focused on the ultra-Orthodox community, including Shtisel, about a strong-willed father and his artist son (which is being remade in the U.S.). One series, Kipat Barzel, which literally means the Iron Dome but which has also been translated as The Iron Yarmulke, about ultra-Orthodox teens who defy their families by enlisting in the IDF, was cited by several industry watchers as one of the few shows that was too Israeli to travel well.
The television industry is moving at such a whirlwind pace that even those in the center of it have a hard time keeping track. “I’m working on four Israeli series that I hope we will shoot this year,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama and comedy for Keshet Media Group〞but when she describes them, there are actually five.
One, called Eyes, is set in the world of Mizrahi music, a popular industry in Israel that has not gotten much respect until recently. Stockholm is about several septuagenarian friends who know that one of them, an economist, is about to be named as the winner of the Nobel Prize. When he dies a week before the announcement, they decide to keep his death a secret until after he is announced as the winner〞after all, how hard can it be? Of course, it turns out be quite complicated. The Missing File is a series based on two Israeli crime novels by Dror Mishani, who was on the writing staff of The Wisdom of the Crowd, a recent series produced by Keshet for CBS. There are two new sitcoms: Age Appropriate, about an older woman with a younger boyfriend; and a second comedy featuring an old-fashioned father living on a moshav whose daughters and son come back to live with him because they can no longer afford Tel Aviv. The list of remakes of Israeli shows abroad that Ziv is supervising is even longer and includes versions of Israeli shows in Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and several Asian countries.
Ziv says of the days when she started her career: “I don’t think any of us thought that content in Hebrew can interest someone out there in the world. The key change, for Ziv, is that TV is now a global industry in a way it never was before. “If you do a good series here, you have a chance to sell it or to make an adaptation. You get a good idea for a series, but you understand that you can’t produce it in Israel or it’s not really a Keshet Broadcasting series, but it’s still a very good idea, so you can take that idea and sell it as an idea to another territory. When producing a series for Israel, she says, “I always think first about the Israeli audience. And then I will think: Will it travel? . . . But the core is: ＆Bring me a good story.’
The one time any show has drawn negative attention for being Israeli was when the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement called for Netflix to cancel plans to broadcast the second season of Fauda in the spring of 2018. Fauda (the title is the Arabic word for chaos) was created by Lior Raz, a veteran of an elite special-forces unit turned actor/writer, and Avi Issacharoff, a journalist who specializes in Arab affairs.
It was sold to Netflix in 2016 by CAA’s Berkowitz. Netflix does not release ratings data, but the series was quickly picked up for a second season and received critical acclaim from around the world. Stephen King praised it as “all thriller, no filler, and the New York Times voted it one of the best international shows of 2017. Palestinian fans who don’t speak Hebrew watch the series on Netflix with English subtitles, and it’s become a guilty pleasure on the West Bank and in Gaza.
In March 2018, a BDS group wrote a letter to Netflix, urging the network not to broadcast the second season of the series. According to the group’s website, failing to cancel the show could “open Netflix to nonviolent grassroots pressure and possible legal accountability.” The plan backfired. Netflix was not going to let a group of easily offended activists dictate its programming. Fifty of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters sent Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a letter that read, in part, “As an organization comprised of prominent members of the entertainment industry dedicated to promoting the arts as a means to peace and to defending artistic freedom, we at Creative Community For Peace (CCFP) want you to know that we stand behind you and Netflix in the face of this blatant attempt at artistic censorship.” The signatories included Rick Rosen, head of television at WME; Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of corporate marketing and communications of Time Warner Inc.; and Jody Gerson, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group.
Netflix didn’t comment, but season two of the drama was released as planned on its spring schedule in late May. According to Raz, the flap will just win the show more fans. “Lior said it best—no one is taking it too seriously, said Danna Stern, the head of acquisitions and programming for YES, the network that created Fauda.
“It’s ridiculous that they’re going after Fauda, because it shows two sides of the conflict and employs Arabic actors, says CAA’s Berkowitz. “A lot of people in the Arab community are watching it and look forward to watching it. One of the reasons I’m so proud of it is that it shows both sides of the conflict and it shows that there are tragedies on both sides and that they’re all human beings. It shows their struggles. It’s not black and white, it’s gray. And it makes people more aware of the situation in the Middle East. I don’t believe it’s terribly one-sided at all. Its purpose is to show the humanity of the conflict and that it’s a real conflict and there is not an easy answer.
The BDS move has certainly not spooked anyone in the Israeli television industry; in fact, most of those I interviewed seemed surprised that I brought it up. Certainly, the buyers at the two recent television conferences were more than happy to purchase Israeli shows. The most logical conclusion is that Israeli television has reached a tipping point—as the country’s high-tech industry did a generation ago—at which its product is of such good quality and so easy to work with that it has become an integral part of the international industry. Virtually no one, no matter how political, removes Intel Pentium processors, some of which are manufactured in Israel, from their computers, or refuses to exchange emails with someone whose antivirus program contains software created in Tel Aviv. Academics can try to ban Israelis from international conferences, but it seems unlikely that audiences watching, say, The Baker and the Beauty (poor baker falls for a supermodel) in their native language will be political enough to know or care about its blue-and-white origins.
A more serious question is whether Israel will ever be a center for international television production. In 2014, two English-language shows began filming in Israel. Dig (a USA Network/Keshet International coproduction) was a mystery about an FBI agent investigating a murder in an archeological site in the Old City. Tyrant (for FX/Keshet International) was a drama about a ruling family in a Middle Eastern country whose son, a doctor in America, comes home for a wedding and gets roped into intrigues. After each show had wrapped a few episodes, the war with Gaza broke out and both series moved production, Dig to Croatia and New Mexico, and Tyrant to Morocco and other locations. (Dig ran one season and Tyrant ran three.) Even Homeland chose not to film in Israel during its sixth season, when Saul (Mandy Patinkin) visits his sister, a West Bank settler, but shot instead in Morocco.
An interesting development took place in 2017, when Netflix remade the tween adventure drama Ha Hamama as Greenhouse Academy. This English-language show set in California was filmed entirely in Israel. A small group of American actors joined the Israeli cast, and an American writer, Paula Yoo, collaborated with Israeli creator Giora Chamizer to write the series. Israeli crews speak English and are good at filming on a shoestring budget and a tight schedule, and that made Israel attractive as a location for Netflix. It seems unlikely that viewers who don’t know about the true location would ever guess.
“I think there will be more series that will be filmed in Israel in the future, but I think it would be helpful if the Israeli government offered tax breaks that are as competitive as other countries’, said Berkowitz. That said, the idea that Israel might at any moment find itself at war is clearly going to affect the comfort level of production companies.
Whether or not Israel actually becomes a locale for television shows, the fact remains that millions of viewers around the world are watching programs developed by Israelis every day, and many more such shows are in the pipeline. Jews have always had an affinity for storytelling, which was put to good use by the movie moguls who created Hollywood. Now it’s Israeli Jews who have used their brainpower and energy to crack the popular-culture code. And while some academics and intellectuals would like to boycott everything Israeli, the architects of the Israeli television boom have already harnessed the power of the airwaves to entertain the world.
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My time among the propagandists
Efrat’s first homeowners moved into the suburban hilltop community in April 1983. Starting with 50 families, some 250 souls, Efrat has since developed into a full-fledged, independent municipality whose current populace is about 12,000. Its master plan, approved by an Israeli Labor government during the mid-1970s, foresees a total population of 30,000. Efrat boasts a number of highly rated schools, a large and active community center, a well-used multilingual public library, sports fields and playgrounds, shopping centers, a soon-to-be completed shopping mall with underground parking, a plethora of medical clinics, and numerous synagogues (to date all Orthodox)—in short, pretty much every type of institution or facility that makes a town a town.
The view from Efrat is pastoral, even biblical. Local Arab shepherds daily guide their flocks of sheep and goats across the abutting highways and past adjoining vineyards. Some of these vines were planted only in the early 1980s by residents of nearby El Khadar on empty unclaimed fields in a failed effort to thwart the first stages of Efrat’s construction. In late spring and summer, the green vineyards carpet the valleys that form the floor below the surrounding southern Judean hills. Along some of these hilltops lie the homes of Efrat, with their distinctive burnt-orange tiled roofs.
Another thing about Efrat. Its proximity to Jerusalem and several Palestinian Authority towns has facilitated its becoming a popular destination for politically themed visits, part of a larger industry known as alternative tourism. This refers to visits by foreigners, often self-described “social-justice warriors,” touring conflict areas in different parts of the world. They come to observe circumstances on the ground, to meet the actors, and to learn about the local history. Some arrive with more activist agendas.
I began meeting with foreign tourists in Efrat in 1990 during my term as an elected member of the Efrat town council. Initially the groups with whom I met were exclusively Jewish, mostly Americans who were curious to visit a new Israeli “settlement,” and Efrat, as noted, was easily accessible to tourists staying in Jerusalem hotels. The ruefulness expressed in more recent years by many American Jews outside of the Orthodox community regarding the presence of Jews living in Judea and Samaria hardly existed in those days. To the contrary, I remember the pride expressed by Jewish visitors to Efrat who were impressed by what they saw.
Following the September 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the newly formed Palestinian Authority, the first step in a process intended, among other things, to reduce violence in the region, Israel experienced a wave of terrorist attacks, mainly suicide bombings in different parts of the country, resulting in a precipitous decline in the number of American Jewish tourists.
During this period, I received a phone call from a tour guide based in the nearby Arab town Beit Sahour. He had heard that I met with overseas visitors and wanted to know if I would meet with a group of Australian tourists. With no little naiveté on my part, and having become comfortable with discussing the Israeli–Palestinian conflict with mostly uncritical Jewish groups, I agreed. To my chagrin, when the group arrived in Efrat, following an initial exchange of pleasantries, I found myself the target of a volley of contentious questions from these non-Jewish visitors. Why would I build my house on other people’s land? Why was the travel of all Palestinians being restricted? Why do Israeli soldiers shoot live bullets at Palestinian children?
The continuation of violence resulted in Jewish tourist groups refusing to travel beyond the 1949 armistice line out of fear, even though most of the terrorism was taking place within Israel proper. During the years of the second intifada (2000—2004), American Jewish tourism virtually disappeared. Many Christian groups, however, continued coming. Over time, word of my willingness to meet with pro-Palestinian foreign groups spread, Efrat became the default “illegal settlement” to visit, and I became somewhat of a go-to settler for dozens of Christian and secular human-rights cum social-justice groups mostly from North America and Western Europe.
Over the years, using the name “iTalkIsrael,” I have spoken to thousands of tourists in Efrat. This activity is part of the broader burgeoning field of Israel advocacy, Israel probably being the only sovereign nation-state in the world in need of such championship to defend its existence. Unlike most others working in this field, I strive not to preach to the converted. The overwhelming majority of people with whom I meet do not try to hide their pro-Palestinian sympathies. Why, I am often asked, do these people come to Efrat? Undoubtedly they come for a variety of reasons. The most common, I believe, is curiosity.
American visitors generally have some Christian affiliation, though this varies from high church to Quakers, Mennonites, and some nonaffiliated congregations. Western Europeans coming from France, Germany, Belgium, England, and Ireland are less likely to self-identify as Christians, though many acknowledge being raised in Christian homes.
The groups I meet range in age from as young as high school to senior adults, including some of mixed generations. College-age groups are common. I am a Baby Boomer who was politically aware and active on the campus of Northwestern University at the height of America’s entanglement in Vietnam. During that era, for all but a minority of the student body, it was a given that “Nixon’s War” was unjust and wrong.
And so it is today with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The foreign students with whom I meet in Efrat universally view the Palestinians as the oppressed and Israel as their oppressor. This is consistent with the results of a Pew Research Center survey from May 2017 cited by the New York Times that indicates the Palestinian cause is rapidly gaining support among American university students while support for Israel is eroding.
One outstanding example is a recent visit by a group of undergraduates from Boston College. Their coming to Efrat, as is often the case, was but a short stopover within their extended itinerary. The students’ keener interests lay elsewhere as their time in the region was mostly devoted to meeting with Palestinians, especially activists, and with Israeli Jews on the far political left. They came to Efrat to witness “an illegal Israeli settlement occupying stolen Palestinian land” and for the opportunity to meet an “illegal settler.”
Their short time in Efrat, if approached differently, could have been an educational opportunity to better understand the other position framing the Israeli–Palestinian conundrum, the position with which these students were less familiar. My potential contribution lay in a perspective that came from living in Efrat for nearly 33 years. Time and propinquity have by default granted me insight into some of the complexities and nuances of this conflict that are unattainable in any other way. In addition to observing and writing about this topic, I meet with hundreds of visitors each year.
These students’ seminar on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict began in Boston with classroom studies followed by a mandatory 10-day overseas field visit. Their stop in Efrat lay somewhere in the middle of their schedule. After finding seats in the synagogue, the students waited until the completion of my introduction and my request for their questions. They then responded. Their questions and the tone in which they were presented were accusatory and antagonistic to the point of hostility. It seemed as if this group had arrived with a prepared, even scripted, agenda. The issues they raised were drawn from the familiar litany of Palestinian calumnies against Israel and settlers. Among them:
“Does providing security for your settlement require the IDF to arrest and torture seven-year-old Palestinian children?”
“What would you say to a Palestinian whose home is being demolished in order to make way for a new Israeli settlement?”
“We spent time with Palestinian families who say they often have no water because of Israel. Why does Israel steal water from Palestinians?”
The feeling in the room was akin to a combined cross-examination and indictment where both Israel and I were on trial. This was not the Q&A of any conventional academic setting. These students’ purpose in coming to Efrat was neither to listen nor to learn. They had descended into the belly of the beast on a mission to deliver a message. Wherein lay the source of their animus?
Their hostility may be presumed to have been the product of a combination of sources: the bias of their classroom lectures, the partisan readings they had been assigned, and the politically skewed experiences of their tour up to that point. Their course, Sociology 3367, “Human Rights and Social Justice in Israel & Palestine,” is taught by Boston College Associate Professor Eve Spangler. Spangler is an outspoken and inveterate pro-Palestinian-rights activist. Outside of class she serves as a faculty adviser and a speaker for the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and she promotes the BDS movement. Spangler is also a founding board member of American Jews for a Just Peace and lectures for Jewish Voices for Peace, two radical political groups at the far-left margins of the American Jewish community.
Sociology 3367, according to the course syllabus, “is designed to prepare students to better understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.” Students are advised that the course is presented through a “human rights framework.” It is intended “to test [the students’] capacity for using their education to serve the world.…The course is an opportunity to explore the possibility of making history.”
In describing the course’s higher purpose, the syllabus casually integrates incendiary words and phrases such as “apartheid,” “genocide,” and “ethnic cleansing/sociocide,” subtly attributing all these evils to the state of Israel. The syllabus further states that the students will be “bearing witness—to the sufferings and resilience of occupied communities and the courage and wisdom of dissidents,” a barely veiled reference to Palestinians living under Israeli authority. Such emotionally charged and partisan language belongs to the lexicon of the far left and its repertoire of accusations against the Jewish state. Introducing these terms into the course syllabus is a clear signal to students as to the political views of the professor.
In an ostensible show of academic balance, the course’s readings are authored by both Palestinians and Israelis. While it is to be expected that Palestinian authors write from a Palestinian perspective, anyone familiar with the literature on this topic will immediately recognize that the Israeli authors chosen by Spangler are all leftist academicians such as Morris
, Pappe, Segev, Rogan and Shlaim, Kimmerling and Migdal, who also promulgate the Palestinian narrative. Some, such as Pappe and Shlaim, have even denounced Israel and have taken academic positions elsewhere. This is intellectual obfuscation at its best. How does one not wince at the statement found in the syllabus: “Academic integrity is a standard of utmost importance in this class”?
Spangler also heads the fact-finding “Israel/Palestine” trip. The professed purpose of this tour is to enhance the students’ classroom readings and discussions with an opportunity to study the conflict through on-site observation and meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian players. To facilitate the educational content and logistics, Spangler turned to the Siraj Center, a Palestinian travel agency located in Beit Sahour, adjacent to Bethlehem; no Israeli agency is credited in the planning. The Siraj Center is a successful vendor of “alternative tours” whose stated objective is to make tourists “more aware of the situation in Palestine.” Although this visit is described by the course syllabus as “an immersion trip to Israel/Palestine,” nowhere on the trip’s itinerary does one find “Israel.”
The 10-day itinerary clearly reveals the tour’s ideological purpose. It is mainly dedicated to meetings with Palestinian speakers or with Israelis on the far political left who champion Palestinian nationalism even as they challenge the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. The three exceptions are a visit to Yad VaShem (Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem), the stopover in Efrat, and another short visit to the southern Israel border town of Sderot. These are the sole opportunities afforded the students to hear Israeli voices, be they Jewish or Arab, that do not emanate from the extreme left. But even visits to Yad Vashem have been exploited by some to serve the Palestinian narrative. Some anti-Zionist Israeli tour guides, Jews and Arabs, use the museum’s horrific scenes to liken the present circumstances of the Palestinians to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.
Almost everywhere they traveled, the students were guaranteed to receive an earful of anti-Zionist rhetoric. The roster of speakers and sites included:
Sahar Vardi, a spokesperson for the Friends Service Committee’s Israel program in eastern Jerusalem, who served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces;
OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a United Nations relief
organization that functions as a major public relations organ promoting Palestinian interests;
Mahmoud Abu Eid, a prominent Palestinian journalist and critic of Israel; a tour of the city of Hebron from the Palestinian perspective;
Tent of Nations, a small plot of land developed as an environmental farm located in the center of the Israeli-settled Gush Etzion region
south of Jerusalem by the Nassar family who use their claim of property ownership and the history of their court case against the Government of Israel as a public relations and income generating source;
overnight home hospitality with Palestinian families in Bethlehem;
lunch at a Palestinian refugee camp;
crossing an IDF checkpoint alongside Palestinians;
a visit to Birzeit University, a center of Palestinian political radicalism;
a tour of the Arafat Museum and Mausoleum in Ramallah;
a video conference with Gaza residents;
a meeting with Mariam Barghouti, a Ramallah-based journalist and advocate of the BDS Movement, and others who represent a similar perspective.
Other than myself, there was no Israeli voice from the right of the political center, or even from the center left.
By the time the students arrived in Efrat there was no gainsaying their partisanship. Conflicting facts were dismissed, some even ridiculed. Anecdotes they were offered that described day-to-day coexistence between local Jews and Arabs were ignored because they didn’t fit the recognized paradigm. Consequently, additional information that would have broadened their understanding of the conflict was either rejected or remained undisclosed, since this acrimonious session ended earlier than it might have otherwise.
The Boston College visit seemed designed to overwhelm the students with powerful affective experiences and poignant imagery that lent credence only to the Palestinian narrative. It appeared to be a stratagem whose purpose was to win over the students’ emotions. In this respect, it was similar to other “alternative” tours whose covert objective is to capture people’s passions. Such tours target the heart, not the mind.
These experiences have engendered the development of a different kind of “alternative” tour program in Efrat, a “counter tourism” itinerary, as one person has quipped. It is based on a two- to four-day homestay in the community, Thursday through Sunday, for Christian college students. The participating Christian institutions, it should be noted, are not affiliated with any of the evangelical churches known for their Zionist sympathies. The semester-long overseas Middle East Studies programs they offer are based in surrounding Muslim countries, Jordan, Egypt, or Turkey. They allocate more time to the Islamic world, Christianity, and to the region’s Palestinians than to Israel. But their program directors are committed to offering their students a somewhat broader perspective of the conflict.
These programs commit to an extended stay in Efrat, in contrast to the more typical 90 minutes, which affords the students a tour of the town and the surrounding Gush Etzion region. During their stay, they listen to lectures from some of the local residents, among them distinguished professors, senior military and security personnel, and noted rabbis. They learn about the state of Israel, Judaism, Jewish history ,and Jewish culture, this time from a Jewish and Zionist perspective. But, according to over 500 post-visit completed questionnaires received to date, the greatest impact on the students is made by the families who serve as their Shabbat weekend hosts. These are a number of English-speaking families who generously welcome these students into their homes.
Once the sun begins to set on Friday evening, these Christian students are immersed, for the first and most likely only time, in a full and traditional Shabbat. They attend synagogue services on Friday night and Saturday morning, returning each time to a sumptuous meal accompanied by traditional Shabbat melodies. The no-holds-barred Shabbat-table discussions delve, I’m told, mainly into Jewish religious practices and beliefs about which the Christian students are endlessly curious. But the talk usually gets around to politics and how these Efrat residents view the conflict. The discussions often last long into the night or at least until the lights in the house are automatically extinguished by the Shabbat clock. Throughout their stay, the students encounter a cross section of the residents. They listen to the many views and learn that some, to their surprise, strongly contradict one another.
The “alternative” weekend in Efrat challenges some of the opinions about Israel to which these students had previously been exposed. Following this weekend, one student wrote: “No one can be dehumanized—IDF, settlers, right-wing Zionists—they’re all people like me trying to do what’s right.” Another wrote: “Settlers are people too.”
What accounts for the dissimilarity in the responses of students whose itinerary brings them to Efrat for only a lecture, the Boston College group being only an extreme example, and those who remain for a Shabbat weekend? Both are familiar with Israel being publicly censured in mainstream and social media. Both have been exposed to readings in which Israel is accused of practicing apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Both arrive in Efrat influenced by previous meetings with Arab and Israeli speakers on the far political left.
Student groups making only a short call at what is, in their eyes, a “settlement” such as Efrat are virtually fated to leave with the same opinions they had when they arrived. Their visits are too circumscribed to facilitate the type of social interaction with residents that with sufficient time can engender trust and credibility. Without developing trust and credibility in the people they meet, the students remain resistant to allowing any contradictory information to alter their world view.
By contrast, students whose visit lasts a few days, irrespective of their experiences until then, develop a sense of Efrat as a community of people—people with names and faces, with family roles, with personal aspirations and personal problems, with favorite sports teams and musical groups, and with dental appointments just like them. These people have opinions, many opinions. And they express a desire for peace. Upon their departure, most of these students acknowledge a newly acquired appreciation for the complexity of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Without losing sympathy for the Palestinians, they are willing for the first time to take Israeli arguments under consideration, and they recognize some of themselves in these “settlers.”
Both types of visits point to the importance of emotions in shaping people’s political views, a fundamental principle for those engaged in Israel advocacy. The pathos engendered in visitors taken to witness the squalor of a Palestinian refugee camp or the overshadowing presence of “The Wall” is calculated to elicit strong sympathy for the condition of the Palestinians, especially when these experiences are presented from the Palestinian perspective of victimhood. It is easy to understand how, following these experiences, a frontal lecture by an anonymous settler who insists on the ancient historical and modern legal rights of the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria or, even less relevant, being shown a PowerPoint presentation that boasts of Israel’s high-tech achievements, might fall on deaf ears and even rankle a group of compassionate foreign visitors. Pro-Palestinian ideologues and the Palestinian Authority long ago learned that the mind follows the heart and not the other way around. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, take note.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The brilliant and problematic work of a Jewish writer who didn’t want to be one
Roth’s title story transcribed in credible dialogue the summer romance of clever Neil Klugman (klug is Yiddish for clever) with Brenda Patimkin, whose family had already moved from Newark, where Neil still lives with his aunt, to more prosperous Short Hills. This was the familiar adventure of a boy attracted erotically and economically to the girl who would satisfy both sets of his ambitions but who is upended by her bourgeois scruples. The erotic part of the plot centers on his demand that she facilitate their sex by getting a diaphragm from the Margaret Sanger Clinic, and the economic part, on preparations for the wedding of Brenda’s older brother Ron in the kind of merger-marriage the family expects. Rather than pursue his real ambition of becoming a gym instructor, Ron is headed for the family business—Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, located “in the heart of the Negro section of Newark.” I would have paid greater attention than I did to the sociology of the novella had I realized that this would remain Roth territory over his lifetime.
The mature Philip Roth was not proud of this debut collection, and I am likewise a little embarrassed to admit the almost unreserved admiration I felt for all its six stories and the title one in particular. I laughed at the preliminary exchanges between the sparring couple (“What do you look like?” “I’m…dark.” “Are you a Negro?”), and at the portrait of the Hadassah-member mother who asks about Martin Buber, “Is he orthodox or conservative?”I thought brilliantly funny the scene in which Ron plays his record of “Goodbye, Columbus” that turns out to be a transcript of the final game of his football career at Ohio State. Columbus—get it? I especially fancied Neil’s discovery in the basement of Brenda’s wealthy home the family’s old Newark refrigerator that had once stocked butter, eggs, and herring in cream sauce but was now heaped with
fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!
Because the three Patimkin children are competitively proficient in every trendy sport, the yard is similarly overstocked with their equipment. This was the most energetically rendered put-down of the Jewish upper middle class I had ever seen. And it was such fun! I sent my fan letter to Roth, c/o Houghton Mifflin Company, complimenting him for blasting “the Battleship Patimkin.” Get it? I felt I was almost in his class of wit.
But already back then I had one reservation about the story. A subplot involves a little Negro boy who comes to the library, where Neil has a summer job, looking for books on “heart”—by which he means “art.” Neil alone among the staff encourages and shields the little boy whom others mistake for a potential thief.
“Who took these pictures?” he asked me.
“Gauguin. He didn’t take them, he painted them. Paul Gauguin. He was a Frenchman.”
“Is he a white man or a colored man?
“Man,” the boy smiled, chuckled almost, “I knew that. He don’t take pictures like no colored men would. He’s a good picture taker.…Look, look, look here at this one. Ain’t that the fuckin life?”
What I distrusted about this sequence, in addition to the self-serving portrait of the racially sensitive narrator and the condescending portrait of his protégé, was the contrast the story set up between the alleged boorishness of prosperous Jews and the “spontaneous” appreciation of art by the indigent black child. This was only a little less heavy-handed than the stuff of Jewish Communist or Socialist propaganda. It was one thing to play off the more genuine or honest Jew against phonies, as Roth does in several of the other stories, but it was itself part of the phoniness to make an invidious comparison between crass Jews and the allegedly more genuine and honest (because less privileged and more discriminated-against) non-Jews.
The corrupted Jew/untainted non-Jew dichotomy seemed to me not only dumb, but trite. That same year, 1959, in Montreal where I lived, there appeared Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. It was a novel uncommonly similar in its cultural assumptions, though whereas Neil Klugman is the sympathetic alternative to the smug Jews of New Jersey, Duddy Kravitz is himself the Jew who aspires to acquire—in his case, land. Roth’s satire of the Patimkin wedding has its comic parallel in Richler’s parody of a crass bar mitzvah, and both works assume that Jews sacrifice their souls in their climb from immigrant poverty into what passes for security. The only characters capable of true affection and loyalty in Richler’s plot are a French-Canadian young woman and a Gentile epileptic, both of whom he betrays. Duddy Kravitz was a knock-off of Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run? (1952), who scrambles over people in his climb from New York’s Lower East Side to Hollywood. That was preceded, in turn, by Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)…and along the way there was plenty of fiction of varying artistic quality featuring similarly avaricious members of the tribe. I appreciated the wonderfully rendered cliché of the Jewish nouveaux-riches Patimkins but less so the redemptive Gentile as “heart” instructor of the uglier Jew.
Philip Roth was in no permanent danger of yielding to that cliché. Rather than follow up Goodbye, Columbus with books in the same vein, he moved away from Jews and tried his hand at more conventional American subjects and literary approaches. Maybe because I read his next novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good, mostly out of duty, I felt that he had written them dutifully to prove himself master of American fiction and not just its Jewish precincts. But for that I didn’t need Roth and could have gone straight to Henry James. Then something happened. On an overnight trip to New York in 1967, I stayed with Montreal expatriates who suggested we invite another friend to join us for dinner. Our friend agreed to come on condition that we let him bring a new story he had just discovered. He insisted on reading us—aloud and in company!—“The Jewish Blues” from the first issue of a paperback magazine called New American Review. We laughed harder than we ever had (maybe ever would again) at this shpritz of stand-up comedy delivered from a horizontal position. “The Jewish Blues” became the third chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint.
Written as a series of monologues that form six psychoanalytic sessions, Portnoy’s Complaint was built entirely on clichés—the Jewish son with an Oedipal complex, the vociferous mother and constipated father, Freudian analysis with a Viennese refugee, the Jew’s sexual attraction to the Gentile shiksa and corresponding fear of the assertive Jewish woman. But because joking depends on a shared cultural vocabulary, Roth’s recourse to the clichés of American Jewish culture were in this case justified and, indeed, indispensable to the comedy’s success.
Freud had explained it all in his study of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, leaving comic writers to combine as they saw fit the features of joking that he identified, such as condensation, double entendre, displacement, faulty reasoning, etc., for purposes ranging from pleasure to aggression. Freud poignantly explains the need for this irreverence: “What these jokes whisper may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality.” Civilized adults may be forgiven for using comedy to bring release from taboos they must continue to observe. When Alex Portnoy says, “I am the son in the Jewish joke—Only it ain’t no joke!” the comedy exposes the distress that laughter only momentarily relieves.
Once the laughter subsided, a number of questions arose: Did the joking of insiders suit a general public? And did Portnoy’s Complaint really break taboos, or did it exploit a cultural shift that had already set in? On the sex front, Roth was barely keeping up with the times. Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine in 1953 and opened the first Playboy Club in 1960. Portnoy coincided with 1967’s Summer of Love when a group called the Hombres recorded “Let It All Hang Out.” Students were burning American flags, storming political conventions, and trashing universities. Roth’s obscenity had nothing on Lenny Bruce. It was only because Alex Portnoy was represented as “Assistant Commissioner for The City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity” that his sexual and lexical breakout felt almost as sacrilegious as Hester Prynne’s adultery. The impression of repression made for the comic release.
As I saw it, the real risks Roth took were not orgiastic or onanistic—but lay elsewhere, mainly in his satire of Christians. Alex’s father is speaking:
“They worship a Jew, do you know that, Alex? Their whole big-deal religion is based on worshiping someone who was an established Jew at that time. Now how do you like that for stupidity? How do you like that for pulling the wool over the eyes of the public? Jesus Christ, who they go around telling everybody was a God, was actually a Jew! And this fact, that absolutely kills me when I have to think about it, nobody else pays any attention to. That he was a Jew, like you and me, and that they took a Jew and turned him into some kind of God after he is already dead, and then—and this is what can make you absolutely crazy—then the dirty bastards turn around afterwards, and who is the first one on their list to persecute? Who haven’t they left their hands off of to murder and to hate for two thousand years? The Jews!”
This eruption is accounted for by the parents’ years of kowtowing to bigoted employers, but Alex is even more offensive than his father when he notices a picture of Jesus floating up to Heaven “in a pink nightgown” in the home of a girl he is trying to seduce:
The Jews I despise for their narrow-mindedness, their self-righteousness, the incredibly bizarre sense that these cave men who are my parents and relatives have somehow gotten of their superiority—but when it comes to tawdriness and cheapness, to beliefs that would shame even a gorilla, you simply cannot top the goyim. What kind of base and brainless schmucks are these people to worship somebody who, number one, never existed, and number two, if he did, looking as he does in that picture, was without a doubt The Pansy of Palestine….
Rereading this book (as I have done more than once), I wondered whether the narrator’s assaults on Jews and on himself were not the excuse for attacks on Gentiles and on Christians specifically. In the past, Jews who lived as a minority among Gentiles—and at their mercy—reasonably refrained from aggressing against their hosts. In hostile or potentially hostile societies, Jewish boys were discouraged from fighting back lest it bring on collective retribution. For the same reasons, Jews held back as well from verbal insult, and this prohibition burrowed deep into the culture. Roth violated this taboo, feeling sufficiently at home in America not to have such concerns about offending the goyim and probably realizing that, as with sex, what was once forbidden was now becoming all the rage.
As he anticipated, those truly offended by Portnoy were not Christians but Jews. Criticism came from some of the distinguished Jewish elders of the day, like Marie Syrkin in New York and Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem—intellectuals who had borne the full weight of anti-Semitism a mere two decades earlier and who now feared the consequence of Roth’s Jewish impropriety. Syrkin saw the leering Nazi-style anti-Jewish stereotype behind Roth’s Jewish joking. A little like the chief rabbi of Moscow who is reported to have warned in 1919, “Trotsky makes the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills,” Scholem thought that by trotting out every negative stereotype of the Jew, this self-styled “American writer” was actually stoking a new anti-Semitism. Trotsky had quit the Jews by changing his name from Bronstein, but just as the Moscow rabbi warned that Jews would be charged for his deeds, so Scholem wondered “what price the world Jewish community is going to pay for this book.” A second tier of criticism from American rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders protested Roth’s negative portrayal of the Jewish way of life, and from reviewers there were objections to the book’s alleged lack of artistic merit.
Against all these charges, I sided with Roth. In the late 1960s, Jews had reason to believe that there was little danger of triggering anti-Semitism in America: Jews were then at the height of their popularity. Liberal sympathy for Holocaust victims was unadulterated by fear of having to absorb Jewish refugees, now that Israel was there to absorb them. Paul Newman had strode the screen like a colossus as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger’s film Exodus, based on the Leon Uris bestseller, projecting Israel’s new image of masculine competence. Moreover, Judaism was by then enshrined as one of America’s three religions—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—sharing their fate, for better and worse, including as targets of satire. Roth’s debut coincided with the Jewish moment in American culture, and he proved it by eventually surpassing all other Jewish American novelists in popularity. By raising the specter of anti-Semitism, Roth’s anachronistic critics made Roth seem all the more up-to-date.
I was in no greater sympathy with those who expected Roth to be “fair” to the Jewish community. We were by then a small army of college-graduated Jews who had been trained to differentiate advertising from literature, and to reject the notion of any writerly loyalty other than to writing itself. When accused of misrepresenting the Jews, Roth responded in this magazine with an imagined list of similar complaints that might have been leveled at other authors, e.g., to Fyodor Dostoevsky for the portrait of Raskolnikov: “‘All the students in our school, and most of the teachers, feel that you have been unfair to us….’ ‘Dear Mark Twain—None of the slaves on our plantation has ever run away. But what will our owner think when he reads of Nigger Jim?’ ‘Dear Vladimir Nabokov—The girls in our class…’” When it came to defending artistic independence, Roth was clearly able to hold his own.
The more vexing question of Portnoy’s literary merit was raised most cogently by Irving Howe—in this magazine in 1972. As the literary critic who defined the New York intellectuals (also in this magazine), Howe seemed to be speaking for his intellectual cohort when he quotably wrote, “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” He then cruelly tried to substantiate his claim. Nonetheless, Howe managed to inflate the book’s impact while depreciating its value by calling the novel a “cultural document of some importance,” claiming that younger Jews took it as a signal for abandoning their Jewishness while some Gentile readers took it as sign that Jews were no better than anyone else:
[They] could almost be heard breathing a sigh of relief, for it signaled an end to philo-Semitism in American culture, one no longer had to listen to all that talk about Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdom, Jewish families. Here was Philip Roth himself, a writer who even seemed to know Yiddish, confirming what had always been suspected about those immigrant Jews but had recently not been tactful to say.
Was it not praising with faint damn to credit Roth with having changed the direction of American culture? And why should Howe be more distressed than the rabbis? This panning could only help further stoke the image of Roth as a bold, renegade Jewish writer.
Roth later got his own back in a recognizable caricature of his critic (as Milton Appel in The Anatomy Lesson), but this was more than a personal feud. The book and the controversy it stirred marked a shift in American Jewish culture—a generational one. Howe, like Roth, had once rebelled against Jewish observance and like him, too, had married “outside the faith,” but by the time he wrote this review essay, he had created anthologies of Yiddish literature and had retrieved his heritage in World of Our Fathers, a cultural history of the Jewish immigrant experience.
Howe’s generation was saturated with old-world Jewishness. Delmore Schwartz could evoke the Jewish intonations of a mother’s speech. Isaac Rosenfeld wrote some of his stories in Yiddish. Joseph Dorman’s film Arguing the World, takes Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer back to their immigrant neighborhoods and probes their attachments to their Jewish upbringing. While Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are often linked with Roth in a triumvirate of Jewish writers, there is actually a world of difference between the older writers who drew from a reservoir of Jewishness and Philip Roth, whose mother made jello, not challah, whose dad played baseball rather than read the Forverts. Howe addressed this difference when he charged Roth with running on empty:
Portnoy’s Complaint is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life. Nor does Roth write out of traditional Jewish self-hatred, for the true agent of such self-hatred is always indissolubly linked with Jewish past and present, quite as closely as those who find in Jewishness moral or transcendent sanctions. What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm (a little nastiness is something else), nor any desire to engage with them as a fevered antagonist; Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a “human being.” Who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so lofty in spirit never to have shared this fantasy? But who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so foolish in mind as to dally with it for more than a moment?
It was impossible for Roth to recover what he never had, but Howe accused him of embracing the hollowness of what American Jewish life had become rather than trying to fill it.
This cultural shift also had a political undercurrent. Some of the New York intellectuals had undergone a political transformation from left-tending liberalism to neoconservatism. Having started out on the left, they understood its dangerous attractions and the corresponding need to protect American freedoms. Once opposed or indifferent to Zionism for its national backsliding from the international ideal, they discovered Israel and accepted responsibility for its defense. They were not all Cold Warriors to the same degree, but they wanted to bring down the Soviet Union. They were shocked by the radical assault on elite universities where some of them were now privileged to teach. Their disquiet intensified as protest against the war in Vietnam morphed into an attack on Western civilization. Though Howe continued to call himself a socialist, he was like the others culturally conservative, and he associated Roth with the radical impulse. He decries Roth for his vulgarity, by which he means not the scatology or descriptions of masturbation but “the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification.” In Howe’s judgment, Portnoy’s Complaint violated the standards of civilizing refinement that the older Jewish intellectuals were trying to uphold.
My political sympathies were generally with the New York intellectuals—but the book made me laugh. I was learning to trust my own response when it contradicted that of my literary betters, and my artless reaction to Roth’s novel made me ready to defend him from Howe’s critique. I thought Howe had missed the whole point of the comedy: Laughter would explode the clichés of American Jewish culture, including the image of the arrested adolescent who was passing himself off as the typical Jewish male. Laughter was a therapeutic purge, part indictment, part confession, with curative potential. Portnoy’s mock-analysis culminates in the punch line: “So [said the doctor] Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” This was both part of the comedy and its resolution. Alex was about to rise from the couch a somewhat steadied Jewish American male capable of love and happiness, as donor and recipient. I saw this work as a signpost on the road to the cultural and political maturity that the neoconservatives had already reached, and I expected Portnoy’s creator, the original klug man, to move on.
Was I right?
Irving Howe was proved spectacularly wrong in his assessment of Roth’s literary powers. Endlessly inventive, Roth may have bombed with the works that came in the immediate wake of Portnoy, such as Our Gang and The Breast, but the creation of Nathan Zuckerman in the late 1970s as a Roth stand-in served him for eight full novels, ranging in style from postmodern to traditional and in quality from passable to great. Roth proved fully capable of probing the human soul in tight novellas and epic sagas. And in a one-man literary Marshall Plan, he also generously sponsored the work of European authors—Tadeusz Borowski, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Milan Kundera—and featured other writers in his fiction, reviving Anne Frank in one of his novels and including (then) living Israeli Aharon Appelfeld in another. We now know that serious heart problems curtailed the range but not necessarily the intensity of his writing. From book to book one never knew what to expect, so I acquired and read almost all of them.
It is harder to confront Roth’s effect on American Jewry. As said, no other American writer was ever so closely associated with Jewish subjects and a Jewish readership, nor can one imagine Roth successful without them. Yet the attachment had not been his idea. When Roth’s designated biographer, Blake Bailey, said recently, “The Jewish thing was really what informed Philip as a writer,” he then noted that the credit really went to George Starbuck, Roth’s first editor, who had been given a longer manuscript and discarded all but the stories with Jewish themes. Starbuck made the shrewd decision that Goodbye, Columbus would be about Jewish life in America at the time when Jews were all the rage. Roth said, “In many ways, George formed my career, because I didn’t know that I was a Jewish writer.” It was a shotgun wedding, not unlike Roth’s unhappy first marriage to Margaret Martinson, from which he was released by her death. He could not quit the Jewish union, however, without giving up the dowry of fame it had brought him, so he stayed to the end in the cheerless marriage.
Roth’s denial of meaningful Jewish attachment remained an essential feature of his writing, complicated by the lack of alternative, for unlike Russian Jewish writers like Boris Pasternak who turned to Christianity, he disliked Christianity even more than being a Jew. In a 1961 Commentary symposium on “Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals,” the year after he had won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, Roth wrote that he could not distinguish a Jewish style of life different from the American urban and suburban middle classes, or any values separating Jews from others.
There does not seem to me a complex of values or aspirations or beliefs that continue to connect one Jew to another in our country, but rather an ancient and powerful disbelief, which, if it is not fashionable or wise to assert in public, is no less powerful for being underground: that is, the rejection of the myth of Jesus as Christ….And wherein my fellow Jews reject Jesus as the supernatural envoy of God, I feel a kinship with them.
Needless to say, this form of kinship is not a basis for any true affection. He then goes on to deny any other form of religious or cultural cohesion so that “we are bound together, I to my fellow Jews, my fellow Jews to me, in a relationship that is peculiarly enervating and unviable. Our rejection, our abhorrence finally, of the Christian fantasy leads us to proclaim to the world that we are Jews still—alone, however, what have we to proclaim to one another?”
It is one thing to nurse such a paltry idea of the Jewish people but much more troubling to use it as the basis of a literary career. Roth’s rejection of faith is the kind that many Jews admit to at the start of their cognitive and emotional development. Daniel Bell fondly recalled telling his rabbi that he could not have a bar mitzvah because he did not believe in God and having the rabbi answer, “Do you really think He cares?” But Roth’s starting point remained his endpoint: American Jews were Jewish only by negative definition. The influence of this idea is everywhere manifest among those liberal Jews who, while finding no inspiration in their own religious tradition, reflexively distrust true Christians, especially evangelicals even when (or especially when) they are Israel’s strong supporters. Their rejection of Christians supersedes and displaces their affection for fellow Jews. That this insults Christian honesty and undermines Jewish security is not as troubling as the mean defensiveness of those who actually hold such views. Roth could fall back on the privilege of the satirist. His cultural adherents have no such pretext.
Roth was just like the earlier generation of Jewish writers and intellectuals in remaining attached to his childhood, but its imagined inauthenticity left him stuck in a time warp. The work that shows off this emptiness to greatest disadvantage is the 2004 novel The Plot against America. It reimagines what might have happened to Philip Roth’s actual family—father Herman, mother Bess, and brother Sandy—had Nazi sympathizer Charles A. Lindbergh become the Republican candidate for the presidency and defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The idea for such a dystopian fiction must have occurred to Roth because by the turn of the century anti-Semitism was once again on the rise in America, but he re-created an obsolete scenario instead of the real one. As had already been obvious for decades, the new aggression against the Jews originated in the Arab war against the Jewish state and had been couched since the 1960s in the slogans of Soviet anti-Zionism. The Zionism-racism accusation, pushed through by the Soviet-Arab axis at the United Nations, penetrated the United States from the left just as German-Nazi propaganda had once done from the right. The aggression had flipped political sides. Casting Palestinians as victims of Israeli imperialism and appropriating for them the role of refugee victim, a coalition of grievance and blame made common cause against Israel and against American Jews who supported their homeland. Rather than deal with this new threat, Roth retreated to his childhood politically, to take on the familiar Nazi bogeyman and refight the war that American troops had already won. He misidentified the target.
Fortunately, there were also times when Roth was able to fashion aspects of his “peculiarly enervating and unviable” relation to the Jews into masterworks. He did this by returning as Nathan Zuckerman to the familiar Newark of his childhood to treat as tragedy the spiritual hollow he had once subjected to satire. American Pastoral (1997) looks at Seymour “Swede” Levov, a fleshed-out version of Ron Patimkin, who innocently pursues and apparently achieves his idea of American success. The handsome Jewish Sports Hero marries the Gentile Beauty Queen, wins his reluctant father’s approval for the union, and settles down with his wife in the suburban paradise of Rimrock. A century earlier, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Possessed to probe the emergence of Russia’s intellectual mercenaries, and Roth uses this unlikely setting to do the same for the American radicals of the late 1960s.
Meredith Levov…the “Rimrock Bomber” was Seymour Levov’s daughter. The high school kid who blew up the post office and killed the doctor. The kid who stopped the war in Vietnam by blowing up somebody out mailing a letter at five a.m. A doctor on his way to the hospital…
The Swede’s younger brother updates Zuckerman, his high-school classmate, who then searches out and brings us the full story: How could a good man like Seymour Levov, living out his version of paradise, breed a monster? But he does. Of course this embrace of violence in the name of salvation was not strictly a Jewish issue, but Roth showed privileged insight into how the escape from Jewishness formed part of it.
Roth attempted something on the same scale three years later in The Human Stain. The main setting is a New England College where Zuckerman has befriended one of the deans, the Jewish professor Coleman Silk, who is spuriously accused of insulting African-American students by using the term “spooks” to describe their ghostly disappearance from his class. In the ensuing purge, Silk is revealed to be a light-skinned African-American who, when he decided to pass, did so as a Jew, until then—at least outwardly—successfully. Roth manages to break out of his constraints as a Jewish writer through the story of an African American who is breaking out of his constraints as a black man, and in the process inevitably damages his family and himself in ways that Seymour Levov unwittingly does in Rimrock. Roth avoided the charge of political incorrectness that he would have incurred as a writer had he written about a Jewish professor by casting accusers and offender as black-on-black rather than black-on-Jew. Roth was careful never to offend the liberal hand that fed him even as he took on hot topics. He was shrewd as well as smart.
Through this entire career studded with prizes and fame, Roth never graciously accepted his designation as a Jewish writer, much less any implicit responsibility or affinity for the Jews or Israel. Whom was he denying? A sad feature of his life as a writer is that in never pretending to feel anything for the Jewish God, the Jewish homeland, or the Jewish people, Roth could not luxuriate in the affection and gratitude that many readers accorded him. At the heart of his fiction, hence of his standing as a writer, is distrust of Jewishness and secondarily of America as home to that Jewishness. Cold kasha. Adverse relation to one’s habitual subjects is not the best recipe for great art, and Roth did as well with it as anyone could, but I wish that after Portnoy if not before, he could have reached the threshold of love.
With the sadness that attended Roth’s retirement from writing in 2012 and his death in 2018 came the realization that his work was never joyful. Funny and witty certainly, vital and intelligent always, and highly entertaining, but never plainly happy in the way a well-matched bride and groom enchant family and guests at their wedding. I was startled to find in the essay quoted above that Irving Howe calls him “an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny.” He saw this before I did
Here is the Russian Jewish short-story master Isaac Babel (1894–1940 ) on Odessa, the “Newark” of his childhood:
If you think about it, [Odessa] is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan jackets, love children because, let’s face it, it is good and important to love one’s children.
Babel loved the Jews for what they were, the enjoyment of bourgeois pleasures being the best of their qualities. Babel loved being who he was despite the heavy price it exacted. Although he was first silenced and then tortured and killed at Stalin’s command, his work breathes happiness and joy. (With due respect for the difference, one thinks back to the legends of Rabbi Akiva that wrest laughter and joy from the great Destruction.) How is it that the modern Jewish writer who functioned under the most aversive moral and physical conditions should have cast himself as the harbinger of sunshine in Russian literature, whereas the novelist who benefited beyond all others from America’s freedom and opportunity should have put so little of its pleasures into his writing?
It might have been because Roth could never bring himself to say, “Damn right, America—I’m your Jewish writer, and thank you for letting me be proud of it!”