Living in Israel is basically like living in Pompei, Yoav Ben-Horin said.
Yes, there’s that big mountain there. You know. Vesuvius. Sure, it lets out smoke sometimes. Shakes a little bit. Maybe some ash. But really no big deal.
The thing is, statistically speaking, the odds are greatly against Vesuvius erupting on any one day, but of course it’s bound to explode some day. So as a happy resident of Pompei, of course you’re complacent.
And then it explodes.
That’s been Israel’s situation, Yoav Ben-Horin said. The cliché about the country’s being in a bad neighborhood — it’s true. The explosion was inevitable.
The marvelously named Mr. Ben-Horin — his last name, “son of a free man,” is our aspiration at every seder — who will speak at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson on October 27 and 28 (see box), has a wide-ranging background that allows him to analyze the situation with both passion and dispassion.
As he grew up around the world — born in Manhattan (“on Fifth Avenue,” he joked, and he meant it, but at Mount Sinai Hospital, not in a penthouse facing the museum) to a family headed by an Israeli diplomat stationed at the U.N., and then lived in Washington, Turkey, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Oxford, Cambridge (the Massachusetts one), Santa Barbara, and now Connecticut, and “I learned English in Burma,” he said — Mr. Ben-Horin’s prismatic vantage point allowed how to see from many angles. His career has led him to teach at Harvard, to work at the Rand Corporation, to work on national security, and to create a global Jewish education department at a day school in Los Angeles.
All this has led to a conversational style that is digressive, unexpected, and deep.
Okay. So. Given all that, what does Mr. Ben-Horin say about the situation in Israel?
He quotes a line from “On the Slaughter,” a terrifying, electrifying poem that Chayim Nachman Bialik wrote in 1904, in response to the Kishinev pogrom:
“And cursed be the man who says:
Avenge! No such revenge — revenge for
the blood of a little child — has yet been
devised by Satan.”
“When you start with that, you tie Israel down almost immediately,” he said.
The desire is understandable, though. Mr. Ben-Horin talked about the nature of the attack, which naturally evokes apocalyptic language.
“What happened was apocalyptic,” he said. “It conjures images as bad as the intifada and 1973 if not worse.” It conjures images of the berserkers, of the Middle Ages, of pure savagery. “It conjures images that are not of our time.
“The deaths of 100 times the number of children from the air doesn’t conjure the same images, although in some ways it’s 100 times more terrible.”
Terrible things shouldn’t compete against each other on a metric of horror, “but still, it’s not the same.
“Because there’s something about faces. About eyes. Something about staring a baby in the face and then killing the baby.” It’s more than a sane person can actually imagine because the imagination refuses to allow it.
But it’s what happened.
So the Israelis have to respond. But “it can’t be for revenge. It can’t be for retribution.
“It is about achieving certain objectives that will make safety possible, allow for some rebuilding, and at least open up the horizons for peace.”
Israel will have to get rid of Hamas’s entire command structure and wipe out its leadership and operational capabilities, Mr. Ben-Horin said, but not for revenge. It’s more pragmatic than that. “Even though we may feel, hey, you have it coming to you.”
There are no good options available to Israel now, and even the bad ones involve risk, he said. On the most basic level, “withdrawing from the territories involves risks, and staying in the territories involves the risks.”
Like the rest of the world, Mr. Ben-Horin assumes that Israel will have to invade Gaza. It must destroy Hamas’s leadership. But “fighting in a dense urban setting is as horrific as any form of warfare other than nuclear.”
Talk about looking your enemy in the eye. In street fighting, there’s no place else to look.
“Especially when one side is already prepared, and we know that Hamas didn’t get into this without already being prepared for a ground operation.”
The attack was brutally immoral, but it seems to have been well planned. Hamas couldn’t have done that so effectively and not realized that it was bringing the attack back home. “They couldn’t have been that stupid.”
Therefore, in Gaza, “every step is going to be booby trapped. You think you know where the tunnels are, but there’s always one you didn’t know. Etc., etc., etc.
“And of course there is the overwhelming power of the Israeli army against Hamas.
He cares about all the innocent life that is at risk, but “I do care more about my nephew, who is in the infantry. And for every Jewish nephew, and for innocent Palestinians.” Degrees of caring seem inevitable. And no matter what it does, the Israeli army is likely to suffer great losses.
There are three goals toward which the Israelis will move, Mr. Ben-Horin said.
The first is to destroy all of its leaders.
The second is to “deal a horrendous blow to its membership — and already over 1000 were killed in Israeli territory.”
The third is to change the conditions that allowed it to be born and slouch almost literally to Bethlehem.
Can the first objective be achieved? “I think so.” Can the second objective be achieved? “Yes, I hope so.”
What about the third one? “Can the eradication of that which gave rise to Hamas be achieved?
“That is a much less knowable proposition. Not that the first two are completely knowable.”
To be obvious, the future by definition never is knowable. (What American historian in say 1980, or even 2000, could have predicted where we are today?)
As for the third, the changing conditions, it’s necessary to note that the situation “that led to the rise of Hamas are not only the obvious political ones, but have far deeper cultural, economic, historical, and theological roots.” They didn’t have to lead to Hamas, and might not do so a second time. And armies don’t eradicate those kinds of conditions.
It is necessary to completely eradicate Hamas, no matter the cost, but it also is necessary to realize that it is not for vengeance. It is not retribution.
It is deterrence.
It is to leave a scar that functions as a reminder not to do that again.
The Israelis have to decide how many soldiers’ lives they may sacrifice to destroy Hamas; they will never know how many they spend until they’ve spent them, but that grim calculation must be made. “They know that it will be more than 100 and less than 50,000,” he said. “If they knew it would be 300,000, they’d say no, it’s not worth it. If they knew it would be 200, they’d say let’s go.” And of course every one of those decisions would be made knowing the extraordinary, irreplaceable value of every single life.
“But they don’t know. And therefore we are throwing the dice. We’re doing everything in our power to channel that throw as we would like it to turn out, but we’re also realizing that there’s a limit to how much control we can have.” Because, again, it’s the future, and the future, by definition, is unknowable and uncontrollable.
He does wish that Israel had waited before getting ready to enter Gaza, Mr. Ben-Horin said.
“Hamas is not going anywhere. And Hamas is prepared for Israel’s bombardment and invasion” — really it invited them.
“I look at the rhetoric that all but commits Israel to immediate action and I say, What’s the rush? They’re all there to be hit tomorrow.
“Why not take a couple of weeks to mobilize the U.S., the U.N., Saudi Arabia, Qatar? Why not build at least two huge tent cities, on both the Egyptian and the Israeli sides of the Gaza Strip? They would be able to accommodate half a million or more people. And build half a dozen superb hospitals, supplied with all the water and baby formula in the world.”
And then the attack on the terrorists still inside Gaza could begin.
The reason that Mr. Ben-Horin gives for Israel’s inability to wait is sad. “Israelis understandably feel that we’ve got a very narrow window of sympathy,” he said. Israelis are used to the world ascribing every evil to them.
But it’s not happening now, he said. Yes, college campuses can be toxic. Yes, there are local outbreaks of anti-Israel sentiment, often sloping over to unmistakable antisemitism, but that not the general mood.
“It’s actually stunning,” he said. “If you look at the mainstream media, look at everyone, everyone, whether it’s Meet the Press or meet your grandma, you notice that every mainstream interviewee who is asked about or discusses the destruction in Gaza, either precedes it or hastens to add a reference to the horrors in Israel. Just about nobody of significance in the mainstream media has come out to say, oh, you know, on the other hand.”
And the official reactions continue to support Israel. Not only do politicians broadcast their support, but local police departments continue to send cars to sit outside local synagogues, not to harass but to protect the Jews inside.
An interview with Mr. Ben-Horin is not a standard experience. He is broadly educated, he makes allusions and gets them, and he does not pontificate. This is a brief excerpt of our conversation, which also touched on Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Steve Bannon, the American Civil War, the Odyssey, NCIS, among other subjects.
He will talk about Israel, Hamas, and Gaza on Shabbat in Emerson. He’s also sure to address many other subjects. The best way to find out which ones is to go and listen.
Who: Yoav Ben-Horin
What: Will be scholar in residence
Where: At Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson
When: On Friday, October 27, he’ll speak at services that start at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday, October 28, services are at 10; he’ll speak then. Food and Q & A follow both services.
RSVP: Guests are very welcome with advance RSVPs to firstname.lastname@example.org or 201-265-2272, for security and head-count purposes.