The Divide After Conquering: Israel’s Persistent ‘Catch-67’

February 27, 2019

Jewish history can be divided into several “before” and “after” moments — the Babylonian Exile in 597 B.C.E., the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., and the Holocaust that ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 are only a few examples. For the modern State of Israel, however, the watershed year was 1967.

“On the eve of the Six-Day War, Israel formed a national unity government (a broad coalition of all major parties) for the first time in its history,” explains Micah Goodman in “Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War” (Yale University Press), a courageous and compelling book that demands the attention of anyone who claims to care about Israel. 

“[T]he whole of Israeli society united as well, and a sense of solidarity spread among Jews across the country and throughout the world. This unity formed the backdrop for the greatest victory in Israel’s history,” Goodman writes. And yet, the triumphant end of the Six-Day War also marked the beginning of a deep and enduring divide in Israel and the Diaspora: “The powerful sense of unity that had dominated on the eve of the war collapsed, ultimately, because of the results of that same war. … The territories conquered in just six days of conflict sparked a debate that has endured for fifty years.”

“Catch-67” (translated by Eylon Levy) was originally written and published in Hebrew for an Israeli readership, and the author hoped to detoxify the bitter political conversation that dominates the Jewish state. In his introduction to the English language edition, however, Goodman concedes that he fell short in that aspiration.

“[T]he book has failed to change or even calm the political debate in Israel,” Goodman writes. “Instead of healing discord, the book itself sparked discord. Many right-wing readers argued that I took a left-wing stance, while many left-wing readers argued that I favored a right-wing position. A book whose author begged its readers to rise above attempts to categorize was itself subjected to countless attempts at categorization.”

Indeed, the premise of “Catch-67” is that the question of what to do with West Bank is now the defining principle of a shattered Jewish world. “Israelis express a wide range of opinions on such matters as the economy and society or the role of religion in the state, and the clashes between their ideas provoke lively and even stormy debate,” Goodman writes. “Nevertheless, Israelis have absorbed their viewpoints into their very identity on one topic alone — the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Israelis, their opinions on the environment, say, or interest rates play a part in how they think. In contrast, their opinions on where to place Israel’s eastern border form a part of who they are.

“The way to move beyond stalemate, Goodman proposes, is to ‘stop thinking in dichotomies and start thinking in degrees.’ He encourages us to pay less attention to ideological purity and more attention to facts on the ground.”

Here we find the irony that is the cutting edge of “Catch-67.” How to manage the Arab-Israeli conflict is the existential question that Israel must answer correctly at the risk of its very survival, but Goodman insists that the debate over the right answer is shockingly shallow. “What remains is an asymmetry between the profundity of the problem and the superficiality of the thinking it provokes,” he concludes. And so Goodman drills deeply into the moral, emotional and psychological roots of the problem in the hope of reframing and thus reinvigorating the encounter between Israelis and Arabs.

“The dominant emotion among Israelis is fear,” Goodman argues. “Israelis fear the Palestinians. This fear is ancient, deep, and common to Israelis of all political stripes.” By contrast, “[t]he dominant emotion among Palestinians is not fear but humiliation. Palestinians are not afraid of Israelis, but they feel humiliated by them.” A dangerous chemistry is at work: “When fear and humiliation collide, each becomes stronger.” As Goodman sees it, then, the problem cannot be solved merely by drawing lines on a map. “The conflict between these two nations is a clash of emotions — specifically, a painful confrontation between fear and humiliation,” he proposes.

To set the table for the conversation that he envisions, Goodman surveys the history of Zionism in general and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. He devotes a substantial portion of his book to the fine detail of what we tend to call “left-wing” and “right-wing” Zionism, reaching all the way back to the earliest conflicts between Labor Zionism and Revisionism and tracing those conflicts into the volatile politics of contemporary Israel. “The First Intifada shattered the secular right, and the Second Intifada shattered the Zionist left,” he argues. “When these ideas had been abandoned, only one ideology still stood: the Zionism of the religious right,” he writes, and Israel was delivered into “the new reality of the deep and comprehensive confusion that is engulfing Israeli politics today.”

The title of Goodman’s book, a play on Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” captures the crazy-making dilemma in which Israel finds itself. “If the State of Israel wants to defend itself from the Muslim majority surrounding it, it must not pull back from Judea and Samaria; but if it wants to defend itself from the prospect of a Muslim majority within it, it must do so,” Goodman sums up. “This paradox exists because everyone is correct. The right is correct that a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would endanger Israel; the left is correct that a continued presence in the territories would endanger Israel. The problem is that since everyone is correct, everyone is also incorrect — and the State of Israel is trapped in an impossible double bind.”

The way to move beyond stalemate, Goodman proposes, is to “stop thinking in dichotomies and start thinking in degrees.” He encourages us to pay less attention to ideological purity and more attention to facts on the ground, including challenges of security, which favors a one-state solution, and demography, which favors a two-state solution. Above all, he demands an open-minded and honest approach to peacemaking that is based on pragmatism rather than true belief: “The modern world calls on Israelis to lower their expectations of both war and peace, and to move from a politics that attempts to change reality toward a politics that finds a way to live with it instead.”

“Catch-67” is a book that dares to imagine a solution to one of the most intractable geopolitical conflicts in the long history of the Jewish people, but Goodman also embraces a more modest goal: “I have sought throughout to acquire an understanding heart; to listen with empathy to different viewpoints; and, guided by the spirit of the Talmud, to try to rehabilitate Israel’s fractured conversation.” In that effort, he has succeeded magnificently.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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