In the course of a lengthy essay in The Atlantic, writer Jeffrey Goldberg quotes an encounter he had with a Gazan imam named Ibrahim Mudeiris, who had just delivered a sermon in which he had described the Jews as "the sons of apes and pigs."
Mudeiris summed up the current standoff between Israel and the Hamas movement which currently runs Gaza by saying, "It does not matter what the Jews do. We will not let them have peace."
He went on to describe the futility with which generations of Israelis have sought to deal with the Palestinians succinctly: "They can be nice to us or they can kill us, it doesn't matter. If we have a cease-fire with the Jews, it is only so that we can prepare ourselves for the final battle."
What can the Israelis do when faced with such intransigence?
Are They Finished?
Goldberg's lengthy and disquieting ruminations on this question provide no easy answers, but the question in the title of the piece, "Is Israel Finished?" provides the decided noncelebratory feel to a piece published to coincide with Israel's 60th birthday.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert comes across in Goldberg's story as a petulant, defensive figure who is clearly uncomfortable being in the cross-hairs of vocal critics like novelist David Grossman, who lost a son during the prime minister's disastrous Lebanon war. It is also hard to argue with Goldberg's contention that "he is not Israel's deepest thinker."
But you have to sympathize with Olmert during the course of his interview when he expresses impatience with Goldberg's focus on the "flaws in the execution of the Zionist program." Speaking of Israel's many achievements, he begs for a bit of historical perspective.
And for that, readers can do no better than to go to a new authoritative source about the beginnings of the Israeli state, Benny Morris' 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli Wars. Those who do will be left with the inescapable conclusion that there is nothing new about Olmert's dilemma.
Morris is the most famous and certainly the best of the so-called "new historians," who rose up in the 1980s to question the romantic view of Zionism that had heretofore prevailed in Jewish history writing.
The author's diligent digging in the state's archives has resulted in some work that has outraged many Israelis. But no nation's history is that one-sided.
Some Jews speak as if Israel's right to exist is called into question unless all Israelis were and are without a blemish, though that is a notion that is nonsensical in itself and a reflection of a legacy of anti-Semitic delegimitization of Jews.
As such, there will be readers of 1948 who will howl with outrage at Morris' acknowledgement of the fact that there were some atrocities committed by Israelis during the course of their bloody War of Independence.
Others will be uncomfortable with his presentation of the fact that, at certain points of the conflict, the Israelis outgunned the Arabs, even though the few hundred thousand Jews in the country were outnumbered by the tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims in the region who opposed them.
But the general thrust of the narrative is inescapable.
War was inevitable, not because the Zionists were imperfect or wanted of a larger Jewish state than the truncated province offered them in the various partition plans, but because the Arabs never once considered making peace with the Jews on any terms.
"The 1948 war, from the Arabs' perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than a nationalist war over territory," Morris writes. "Put another way, the territory was sacred its violation by infidels [Jews] was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity … The evidence is abundant and clear that many, if not most, in the Arab world viewed the war essentially as a holy war."
Unlike popular historians such as Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's O Jerusalem!, so familiar to readers on the subject, there is no escape from the general into the particular and personal via anecdotes. Without the human interest angles, all we are left with are the results of Morris' unforgiving scholarship in this clearly written and exhaustive volume.
Morris once refused service in the Israel Defense Force because of his opposition to Israel's presence in the territories, and is still reviled by many on the right. But in recent years, he has spoken of the need for Israel to act to stop the threat of nuclear attack from Iran. He has also ruminated publicly that Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, may have erred by not doing what the Jewish state's opponents accused him of having done: actively seeking to push all the Arabs out of the country.
There is nothing about that in 1948, but what does come through is a lack of illusions about Arab war aims, notwithstanding the intentions of the Jews.
If the number of Arab atrocities against Jews were few (though terrible), he notes, it is only because they lost most of the battles and thus had fewer chances to commit crimes.
As for the tragedy of Palestinian refugees, though he has no illusions about the desirability for many Israelis of having fewer Arabs in the territory under their control, Morris comes straight to the point about the responsibility for their suffering.
"The refugee problem was created by the war — which the Arabs had launched," he asserts.
And, for all of of his reputation as a critic of Israel, Morris also points out something in his conclusion that even the Israeli government is often reluctant to say: that there were two sets of refugees created by the war since nearly as many Jews were forced to flee from Arab countries as Arabs who fled from Israel.
Haunted by Defeat
Sixty years after winning a brutal war in which there was plenty of nastiness on both sides, the problem for Israel remains the same. Despite Israel's willingness to make peace and share the land, the Arabs are still refusing to do so whether, as Imam Mudeiris says, the Jews are nice are not.
"1948 has haunted, and still haunts, the Arab world on the deepest levels of the collective identity, ego and pride. The war was a humiliation from which that world has yet to recover," Morris writes.
Despite peace process and some treaties, he understands that still "the Arab world — the man in the street, the intellectual in his perch, the soldier in his dugout — refused to recognize or accept what had come to pass. It was a cosmic injustice."
The "jihadi impulse" is, more than ever, the dominant motive in Islamic life and nothing the Israelis can do or say will change that. All they can do is what they did in 1948, win and survive, and hope that their enemies will eventually have a change of heart.
But, as Morris notes in his final paragraph, the challenge from Iran and its terrorist allies leaves us still understanding that "whether 1948 was a passing fancy or has permanently etched the region remains to be seen."