Review of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion: A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, by Richard Forer
Demosthenes, a Greek, said, “All Greeks are liars.” Prosterman, a Jew, said, “Many Jews are big phonies.” He’s careful not to overly-generalize or self-incriminate, as Demosthenes did. When this was presented to Steve Bhaerman (who assumes the guise of comic alter ego Swami Beyondananda,) he asked why. Prosterman cited Jewish Republicans who abandoned the Civil Rights and progressive movements for Reagan, and others who are fervent civil rights advocates EXCEPT when it comes to the Palestinians. The Great Swami replied, “The issue boils down to three things: fear, tribalism and denial. Jewish exceptionalism. Victimhood makes you an exceptional victimizer.” Then he recommended a book.
Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, is an accounting of Richard Forer’s journey from unconditional defender of Israel , to thoughtful advocate of human rights for all. His chapter on Gaza gives exhaustive discussion of the Goldstone Report, which is a hot topic because of Richard Goldstone’s volte face in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Roger Cohen noted in his New York Times column, ‘We have a new verb, “to Goldstone.” Its meaning: To make a finding, and then partially retract it for uncertain motive.” The initial Goldstone Report was equally critical of the IDF and Hamas for their excesses, and spared no candor in calling out Israel for the unnecessary deaths of 1,400 people, mostly civilians, over 22 days in 2008-09. One group of “military” casualties turned out to be traffic cops who had just graduated.
While the book contains flaws, it is impeccably researched and references many unimpeachable sources. Among them are Israeli government and military officials, highly placed academic sources, and the world’s prominent human rights organizations. Then there is the Torah and Talmud, along with Maimonides. Other sources include former Israeli political and military leaders such as Abba Eban, David Ben Gurion, and Moshe Dayan, who took a more generous view of Palestinian rights in their later years. Also cited are human rights organizations such as the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, and Israeli human rights groups composed of former Israeli soldiers.
President Jimmy Carter and Professor Norman Finkelstein have both been vilified by the American Zionist community for their candid assessments of the historical and current political dynamics. Forer presents thorough reviews of Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, and Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Indeed, Finkelstein’s soul-searching tome was the primary impetus for Forer’s own “transformation.”
Carter’s book elicited great wrath from the Zionist community for its candor, though Forer reminds us, “Jimmy Carter is the best friend Israel ever had:” Indeed, no other American president has done as much to protect Israel and ensure its security. The former President has been vilified by Abraham Foxman for calling out the inconvenient realities of Israeli political and military dynamics. Forer states in the chapter devoted to their dialogue, “Foxman is projecting what is not true because it serves his purpose of diverting attention away from the evidence in Carter‘s book.” Carter’s book is written by a statesman who not only initiated the Camp David Agreements, but also did his homework on all relevant historical accountings and documents. Forer also does his due diligence, with very few deficiencies.
There is an absence of early historical research. It would have been nice to see a preface with an accounting of the break up of the Ottoman Empire and its consequences. The current mess can be attributed to the British making two separate agreements on the same piece of real estate during World War I. Namely, the Balfour Declaration (1917) which stated the British intent to support a “Jewish Homeland” in Palestine , was preceded by two years by the McMahon Correspondence.
This was a series of cables and letters between the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca , which laid the framework for an independent Arab country in Palestine . It was the Arabs’ reward for coming to the aid of Great Britain against the Ottoman Empire and Germany in World War I. Ultimately, the Crown determined that the Jews would make better guardians of the Straights of the Suez , to better ensure the free flow of global commerce, and that determined policy. But the Arabs have always had a valid political claim to a Palestinian homeland since the San Remo Conference in 1920, aside from their families’ presence there for centuries.
A few chapters briefly touch on the early organic nature of the Zionist movement, which began in the late 19th Century. Arabs and Jews lived harmoniously in Israel/Palestine through the early 20th Century, until the political Zionist movement began to send more Jews to Palestine than could be absorbed by the primitive infrastructure at the time. The Shaw Commission of 1930, in its report on the 1929 riots, and the Peel Commission of 1937 both came to the same conclusion as Winston Churchill: that Jews and Arabs had lived in relative accord until a Jewish movement that originated in Europe implanted itself in Palestine , intent on turning the land into a Jewish state.
Forer makes a number of dramatic arguments: “The condemnation of Israel is not a product of anti-Semitism. Rather, the behavior that elicited the condemnation fans the flames of anti-Semitism worldwide.” He also deconstructs the phrase, “self-hating Jew”: “The use of the label ‘self-hating Jew’ is a cop-out. This near automatic reflex is the resource of someone who is too lazy and/or obstinately unwilling to try to understand a point of view that challenges his own beliefs and assumptions. People who say this are, in fact, victims, but not of anti-Semitism. They are victims of an unexamined mind, which has no tolerance for negative images of Israel .”
Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, was a critique of Alan Dershowitz’s A Case for Israel; and elicited a campaign of academic terrorism by Dershowitz. He noted that Dershowitz relied heavily on Joan Peters discredited hoax, From Time Immemorial. Other critiques have stated that Dershowitz actually lifted some passages and sources from that book without verifying the substance or credibility of those sources. Forer argues, “Dershowitz knowingly ignores his main historical source‘s account of the intentions of David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist movement regarding the division of Palestine so that he can promote his own version of history.”
In retaliation for calling that out, Dershowitz initiated a defamation campaign against Finkelstein in an effort to deny him tenure at DePaul University in 2007, which was successful. Ironically, the Peters book was a source of arguments and comfort for Forer prior to his “transformation.”
Forer grew up wedded to the gospel of Zionism, as presented in most American synagogues’ religious schools. Though not personally observant, he was an unconditional defender of Israel until recent years. He traces his growth through exposure to books and documents that he began to read with great reluctance and skepticism. Beyond Chutzpah was literally an epiphany for Forer, who had been a member of AIPAC.
One of the most dramatic sources is an Israeli woman named Leah, who is a former member of Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, and other right-wing Zionist organizations. Deir Yassin was a Palestinian village that suffered a massacre in 1948, and became the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof. Kach held a Purim Carnival there, and the experience was the beginning of Leah’s transformation. She was disturbed to hear them talking disrespectfully about Yitzhak Rabin, who had just been assassinated, and finally left the group when hearing children sing, “Death to the Arabs” to the tune of the Israeli folk-song Am Yisrael, Chai. She said, “If I hadn‘t known these people were Jews I would have thought they were Nazis. My husband and I just looked at each other and said: ―This isn‘t normal. . . That was the last time I attended one of their events.”
Leah recounts that during the 2nd Intifada, she attended an interfaith service at the Western Wall with Jews, Muslims and Christians, and was inspired that, “One of the things I had learned in the Chabad community, whose goal is to bring the Messiah, was that if you want the Messiah bad enough you should act as if he is already here. Well this was it, wasn‘t it? To see Muslims, Jews and Christians praying together to one God and not fighting was remarkable.” She added, “Now there is a theory going around that Palestinians were originally Jews who always lived on the land and converted to Islam in the Seventh Century. Even Orthodox Jews are talking about this.”
Forer is clear that many of Israel ’s policies and actions towards the Palestinians are a tragic anathema to Judaism. He also takes strong issue with the compulsion to reference the Holocaust whenever Israel is criticized for policy abuses: “If we automatically bring up the Holocaust to defend the actions of the Jewish state, we will be guilty of exploiting its horrors in order to promote selfish political manipulation.” He takes Holocaust deniers to task, while also pointing out, “The Holocaust is one of the most documented events in human history. Like him (Iranian President Ahmadinejad), deniers of the Palestinian tragedy refuse to examine the available documentation. How are they any less ignorant?” Manachem Begin compulsively referred to the Holocaust whenever anyone questioned the settlement expansions he began in the late 1970’s, and which remain the most provocative element obstructing any real peace and security for either side.
Myths are exposed and debunked including the one about how Islam preaches a doctrinal hatred of Judaism: “If it is true that Arabs have an inborn hatred of Jews, how were Sephardic Jews able to find refuge in North Africa , Turkey and other Muslim lands during the Spanish Inquisition?” Also the Paris Mosque was responsible for saving at least 1,700 Jewish children during the Holocaust.
The Israeli journalist Amos Oz dramatizes how Arabs and Jews are, “Two victims of the same oppressor. Europe – which colonized the Arab world, exploited it, humiliated it, trampled upon its culture, controlled it and used it as an imperialistic playground – is the same Europe that discriminated against the Jews, persecuted them, harassed them, and finally, mass-murdered them in an unprecedented crime of genocide.”
Breakthrough is an appealing and provocative read for anyone who has a strong feeling about Israel . It is natural for Jews to react with forceful denial or avoidance when they read about Israeli settlers and troops abusing Palestinians. To realize that people are being beaten up, and having their homes and crops bulldozed in the name of Zionism (as an extension of Judaism) is a horrible thought to confront and comprehend. It is a painful and disturbing realization for any Jew who has always believed that Israel is a blameless victim, to learn that the IDF is no more merciful than General Sherman was in Georgia .
Victimization has been overplayed – It has become a self-defeating and self-fulfilling prophecy. As the author noted, “What is a friend for if not to speak the truth when he sees someone he cares for acting irresponsibly and self-destructively?” Demosthenes lived in a more simple time. Swami Beyondananda may have summarized it best that exceptional victimhood makes for exceptional victimizers. That hand has been overplayed.
H. Scott Prosterman
H. Scott Prosterman is a writer in Berkeley, and holds an M.A. from the University of Michigan, Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He publishes commentary and analysis on various issues related to the Middle East .