Crude diatribes and wishful thinking

A Pulitzer Prize winner attacks Israel

By Tom Gross
June 29, 2004

Book reviewed:
“How Israel Lost” by Richard Ben Cramer
(Simon & Schuster, $24)


To judge by his new book (“How Israel Lost”), Richard Ben Cramer exemplifies much of what is wrong with Western reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Cramer, who amazingly won a Pulitzer Prize for his Mideast coverage for the Philadelphia Inquirer, disparages Israelis (“those assholes”), upsets or offends his fellow Jews (by insisting, for example, on using a small h for holocaust) and is positively condescending to Palestinian Arabs (“His skin was a beautiful café au lait”). He seems almost proud when he tells us that his readers accused him of being a “self-hating Jew”.

But most worrying of all, considering the large following he has attracted on both the left (especially among publishers, academics and students) and also on the anti-Israeli far right, Cramer is frequently just wrong. His diatribe against Israel is littered with errors.

Yet this simplistic Israel-bashing obviously has widespread appeal. Cramer may often be foolish, but from the point of view of those waging the propaganda war against Israel he is what Lenin would have called a useful idiot.

-- Tom Gross


Ariel Sharon is an “old
Bastard,” says Cramer

IF Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Ben Cramer had wanted to make out an effective case against current Israeli policies, he could have come up with a very different book from the crude diatribe he has written. “How Israel Lost” is superficial, often sloppy, and badly one-sided.

While Mr. Cramer is occasionally critical of the Palestinians (he calls suicide bombing “a lousy tactic” and describes Yasser Arafat as corrupt), his book is essentially a tirade against Zionism of the kind which has become all too fashionable among journalists and academics in recent years. It is symptomatic that he can’t even bring himself to capitalize the word: he uses a lower case z throughout (and for that matter he uses a small h for holocaust). By contrast, Arab terms such as Intifada get respectful upper-case treatment.

But Mr. Cramer’s animus is directed not just against Zionism but against Israelis themselves. Early in the book, he tells us he is Jewish, which to judge from what follows he seems to think gives him license to disparage and insult Israelis, often in the crudest fashion. (“What’s the point of being Jews, if there’s no ache of humanity left in you?” he writes of Israelis as a whole; “those assholes – were these the heroes of the Six Day War?” he writes of some random Israelis; Israelis “spit on each other” – and so on.)

On the other hand he is positively condescending to Palestinian Arabs in stressing how admirable he finds them. They are “good, hospitable, dignified, rational, articulate,” he writes. “It is the joy of visiting in Palestine that you will be received with graceful kindness.” “His name was Zeid Zaki Zeid... His skin was a beautiful café au lait.” The Palestinians are “an educated and cultured people.”


Ehud Barak, above at the UN,
is condescendingly dismissed by
Cramer as an “old drag queen”

It is true that his brash know-it-all style is sometimes amusing, but at other times it is anything but. He can be utterly crass – when he writes that “the Jewish people had had some bad experience with the Czar-Duce-Fuhrer types”, for instance, or when he talks of that “old bastard” Sharon and “that old drag queen, Ehud Barak.”

On other occasions, he sounds as though he is regurgitating the misleading soundbites of Arafat’s spokespeople and redefining the history of Palestine in line with the standard PLO narrative. He also trots out allegations of Arab girls being raped by Israeli forces in 1948 which are completely unproven and almost certainly untrue. Indeed it comes as little surprise when he reports, almost gleefully, that when he was Philadelphia Inquirer Jerusalem correspondent twenty-five years ago he was regularly accused by readers of being an “Arab apologist” and a “self-hating Jew”.

Richard Ben Cramer

In this new book Mr. Cramer defines Hamas as a “successful Islamic resistance group” whereas Menahem Begin’s Irgun (which never targeted civilians in the way Hamas does) are “Jewish terrorists.” So are the members of Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which seems to be something of an obsession with Mr Cramer. At least, one wonders why in the Glossary at the end of the book, the second longest entry (running to 11 lines-only “War of Independence” is longer) is for Kahane – a marginal figure who died 14 years ago – whereas the entry for Islamic Jihad (an organization very much alive and killing) gains only three lines, and the one for the PLO, just five lines.

You can gauge how out of touch Mr. Cramer’s account is if you consider that he doesn’t even mention Yasser Arafat’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terror group responsible for more than 100 suicide bombings and armed attacks against Israeli civilians during the last three years.


He also trots out tired stereotypes. The Israelis have a “first-world standard of living” because “we’ve paid for it,” he writes. In fact, for many years now, US aid has been marginal to the robust economy Israelis have built. Israel has by far the largest number of hi-tech start-ups per capita in the world and has attracted venture capital at rates exceeding most European countries. Exports jumped by 22 per cent in the first two months of this year alone.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, one of the
two most active Palestinian terror groups,
is not even mentioned by Cramer

The country’s medical services give Israelis a life expectancy which now exceeds that of the US and UK. It has, proportionately, the highest number of university graduates in the world, and an impressive record in the arts and sciences. It also enjoys rapidly improving relations with China, India, Russia and other powers.

The cover of another edition
of “How Israel Lost”

I mention these things because Mr. Cramer resolutely ignores them, along with so much else. Instead, he is eager to assert his thesis that Israel “has lost” – though it is never made clear exactly what he thinks it has lost, other than his own sympathy (if it ever really had it).

In a remarkable admission eight pages from the end of the book, Mr. Cramer writes “I know it’s a fine time to tell you, now, but I’m always wrong about the Middle East.” Most informed readers will have reached that conclusion some time earlier.

More typical than Mr. Cramer’s last-minute show of humility, however, are his breath-taking displays of arrogance. At one point he writes that “any Jew who’s not an Israeli, and not on psychotropic drugs, could solve this Peace-For-Israel thing in about ten minutes of focused thought. Compared to, say, Cyprus, or Northern Ireland, it’s a piece of babka.” Which at least wins some kind of prize for wishful thinking.

(Tom Gross is the former Jerusalem correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph of London.)