Conflict transforms both Israel and foes

Review: The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, by Jonathan Spyer. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4411-6663-0.

By Vic Rosenthal

I read a lot of books and articles about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but I can’t remember when I read anything as exciting and relevant as Jonathan Spyer’s The Transforming Fire.

This is a remarkable book, in which Spyer blends academic and journalistic analysis with his own experience as an IDF reservist called up during the Intifada and the Second Lebanon War. It’s so well-done that I had difficulty putting it down.

Spyer explains the rise of Islamism in the region and the way it has taken up the flag of ‘resistance’ from the corrupt and exhausted secular Arab nationalist movements. He explains the revolutionary optimism that inspires the Islamists, and their view that Israel is an ‘abnormal’ entity in the Middle East, one which has lost its ideological foundation and the ability to sacrifice. They are sure it is decaying from within and are prepared to fight a war of attrition for as long as necessary until it collapses.

But just as the face of Arab rejectionism has changed in the crucible of conflict, Israel is changing too, and not all segments of Israeli society are moving in the direction that the Islamists think. Although the left-wing Ashkenazi Zionist elite, the source of most of Israel’s political and cultural leadership for many years, is indeed ‘privatizing’ — turning inward, away from involvement and sacrifice, there are other segments of Israeli society that are gaining influence and control, and they are prepared to fight for their survival as a Jewish nation. Spyer writes,

What is happening … is not the general decline into fractiousness and ennui which the ideologues on the other side would like to see. Rather, as the old elite steps back into self-privatization, its place is being taken by new forces, formerly marginal or hardly heard from in Israeli society…

Most important and most visible of these groups is the national religious community. Religious Zionists, with their distinctive knitted skull-caps, are emerging as the dominant group in the fighting units of the IDF…

Other population groups, meanwhile, increasingly over-represented in front-line units of the IDF, are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, members of Israel’s Druze community, and lower-class Israelis of North African and Asian origin…

Involvement in combat and elite units of the military, of course, is only one gauge of public commitment. But in a society entering a long period of protracted struggle against an enemy committed its destruction, it is a fair measure of which population groups remain most committed to the the society’s professed goals.

What is taking place in the Israeli military is that the long-established elite of secular Israelis of European origin is giving way to something new. A new elite, more Jewishly observant, perhaps more narrowly nationalist, less European in origin and in outlook. (pp. 77-78)

This transformation is somewhat harder to see from the outside, because the left-wing elite still has a firm grip on Israel’s academy, media and arts, and their point of view is heard — especially in English — more loudly than others.

This leads to absurdities like a recent article by Peter Beinart — widely considered important among liberal US Jews but ignored in Israel — in which he blames the very groups cited by Spyer as holding the key to a reinvigorated Zionism as guilty of creating an illiberal, undemocratic, morally defective Israel. Beinart could not be more wrong, but it’s understandable that he takes this position: the Israeli ‘authorities’ he quotes include Yaron Ezrachi, Ze’ev Sternhell, Shulamit Aloni and David Grossman, all members of the establishment that is in decline.

But Spyer, who made Aliyah to Israel from the UK in 1991 and has had the opportunity to serve in the IDF is in a much better position than someone whose main source of information about Israel is the English edition of the left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper, where post-Zionist intellectuals write from the Tel Aviv ‘bubble’! Perhaps this is where Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah gets his ideas about Israel’s ‘weakness’?

Spyer’s analysis — both of the Islamists and of Israel — is fascinating and explains much, from the behavior of Hizballah and Hamas to that of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who famously said

We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies, we want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies [speech at Israel Policy Forum in 2005]

Spyer’s friend Alon Smoha, who lost his life in Lebanon a year later thanks in part to Olmert’s incompetence, would not have agreed with him. His brother Dekel put it this way:

This nation has passed through the exodus from Egypt, countless wars in conquering the land, the destruction of two Temples, the Holocaust, and this nation is alive and living and breathing. While empires rise up and live and fall, this nation goes on living. (p. 86)

This is an important book, light-years closer to reality than the imaginings of writers like Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen and of course Peter Beinart. Buy it and read it if you want to understand Israel’s enemies — and Israel.

Jonathan Spyer (right) waits to cross Lebanese border, 2006

Jonathan Spyer (right) waits to cross Lebanese border, 2006

For more about Spyer, see this interview by Michael Totten.

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