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The Escape Artist

Israelis are caught in a trap: A majority believes the occupation can’t continue, but the same majority is convinced it can’t end. Has Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman finally found a way out?

Mark Horowitz
October 10, 2018
Photo: YouTube
Micah Goodman, author of 'Catch-67.'Photo: YouTube
Photo: YouTube
Micah Goodman, author of 'Catch-67.'Photo: YouTube

Last year, Micah Goodman had the strangest feeling. It was as if every person in Israel was reading his new book, Catch-67. He’s no egomaniac; if anything, he’s modest to a fault. But Israel is a small country and his book was the No. 1 nonfiction bestseller for the whole year. Wherever he turned, it seemed, someone had read it and wanted to talk.

Goodman wrote Catch-67 to jump-start a national conversation, and it worked. Israel’s three elites—the political, military, and media establishments—devoured it. Goodman knows this because he discussed it with nearly all of them. They reached out to him, or, if someone told him that this general or that cabinet minister was reading it, he’d say, “Really? Do you happen to have their email?” and he’d reach out to them. It was every author’s dream.

The book was argued about in the Knesset; there were debates on TV. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak felt the need to write a long critical review in Haaretz. (In Israel, former prime ministers review books.) Goodman responded at length in the same pages, after which Barak came back and basically reviewed the book a second time, responding to Goodman’s objections while softening his own critique.

At 44, Goodman has become, if not the leading public intellectual in Israel, the most ubiquitous. He’s a professor, an intellectual historian, and a philosopher. He wrote two earlier bestsellers interpreting classic Jewish texts. He lectures in Hebrew and English on Jewish theology, history, and ethics. (You can find a lot of his talks on YouTube.) But Catch-67, available in English this month, is different—it’s not about Herzl or Maimonides. It’s about politics, which in Israel means only one thing: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We met in Jerusalem, and the first thing he told me is that his book was not meant to be about the conflict. It was supposed to be about the debate about the conflict. He wanted to create an MRI of the Israeli brain, a map of the historical and philosophical circuits that structure public perceptions and shape current policies. Israeli political debate is frozen, in his view, as it is in many other countries. Israel has broken into warring tribes, and current discourse is “less an exchange of ideas than an affirmation of identities.”

By listening sympathetically to all sides and anatomizing the competing arguments, maybe he could help Israelis engage more productively with each other and even find new answers. And by bypassing the operational details, the contested maps, all the bitter history, he might get to the fundamental mindsets dividing Israelis. He didn’t want to propose any new peace plans. That would be just another installment in wishful thinking.

Here’s the basic layout, as Goodman sees it: The Israeli left, or what remains of it, treats the status quo as unsustainable. If Israel can’t find a way to end the occupation and withdraw from the West Bank, the Jewish state won’t survive the inevitable demographic crisis when Palestinians eventually outnumber Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—not to mention the immorality of ruling over a powerless population of noncitizens. The right doesn’t buy that. Only by holding onto the territories, they insist, can Israel guarantee its own security and shield its citizens from an increasingly chaotic and violent Middle East.

In Catch-67, Goodman takes the deeply unpopular view that both sides are right:

If this conversation were rational rather than ideological, the sides would recognize both dangers but disagree on how much importance to attach to them. Israeli political discourse, however, does not work this way. Instead, each side highlights danger while totally denying the other. … 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.

It’s not that Israel is moving right, he thinks, it’s that endless war is driving Israelis crazy, just as it did Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Goodman’s book is about the conflict between Israelis and Israelis; Palestinians barely figure in it. His specific proposals to solve the crisis aren’t that new, but there is something dramatically new about his reframing of the debate. He’s trying to remind Israelis of how much they actually agree on, regardless of their ideological divisions. It sounds hopelessly quixotic, especially today, but the man does make a compelling case.

* * *

“If you disagree with me it’s not that you’re wrong,” Goodman says, describing the Israeli mood today, “It’s that there’s something wrong with you.” Sounds familiar. We’re in a coworking space in Rehavia that Goodman often uses when he’s in Jerusalem. He makes coffee for us and we sit down to talk. At first glance, he’s got the generic Israeli look—razored scalp, small kippah attached God knows how, striped polo shirt unbuttoned and untucked. But his almost childlike enthusiasm for ideas and arguments comes as a surprise. His warmth and accessibility make him a seductive proselytizer for sometimes difficult positions. I can see why he’s a successful lecturer, author, and teacher. For someone so intellectually formidable, he still reminds me less of a university professor than a young evangelical preacher who enjoys sharing the good news, even when it’s bad news.

“Over 70 percent of Israelis have no desire to rule over the Palestinians,” he insists, “but a similar proportion have no faith in the possibility of reaching a peace agreement.” Simply shouting “end the occupation” won’t work unless you can convince Israelis that a Palestinian state won’t mean Hamas rocket launchers atop the West Bank hills that overlook Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport. Given the state of things in today’s Middle East, that’s a tall order. The rockets-over-Ben-Gurion scenario is every Israeli’s worst nightmare, left or right.

Goodman is cagey about his own politics. He used to teach at Hebrew University and is affiliated with the centrist Shalom Hartman Institute, but he’s also religious and is the founder of Ein Prat, a pluralist beit midrash in the West Bank. (He lives in a Jewish settlement nearby.) What’s obvious is that he hates ideological rigidity. Eylon Levy, the Israeli broadcaster who translated Catch-67 into English, told me that Goodman is “anti-ideological. He’s the house philosopher of the radical center.” These days, that’s a lonely place.

“I like to see myself as inspired by the Talmud,” Goodman explains in barely accented English. (His American-born parents emigrated to Israel before he was born.) “The Talmud is probably the first and only text in any culture that canonized a disagreement. Roman law canonized the law; there may have been disagreements beforehand, but in the end, there was the law and that’s what was canonized. The Jews canonized not the law, but the disagreements about the law, turning those disagreements into something sacred.”

Goodman grins and admits that modern Israelis are hardly exemplars of that tradition. Leftists accuse him of being a right winger, while the right often thinks he’s a leftist. He tries to disarm ideological audiences by starting with a compelling and persuasive presentation of their own side first. Then they’re willing to listen. One prominent politician on the right told Goodman that after reading Catch-67, he finally understood the left’s demographic argument. That’s a sad commentary on the state of things, but it’s also a hopeful sign. As Goodman writes:

Israelis’ way of thinking would be so much more productive if they stopped defining the situation as a “problem” and started framing it as a “catch” instead. Why? Because problems are meant to be solved—and this problem has no solution. A catch, however, is not meant to be solved—it is meant to be escaped from. And Israel’s Catch-67 can almost certainly be escaped from too.

Like many Israelis of his generation, whose young adulthood was defined by the failure of Oslo and the Second Intifada, Goodman opposes the occupation while disdaining many members of the Oslo generation who still cling to the same old answers. His cohort scoffs at the glib certainties of diplomats and Western columnists—especially Americans and Europeans—who claim to know what an ultimate solution must look like, even though it inevitably looks remarkably like the failed Clinton Parameters of two decades ago.

“[Israelis] never ask how to reduce the incidence of terrorism,” he writes. “Instead, they want to know how to eliminate it. They never ask how to reduce the intensity of the conflict, only how to solve it. They never ask how to minimize the occupation, only how to end it.”

Goodman’s vision is simple: Israel can’t go back. But Israelis can still extricate themselves from the zero-sum game, heal their ideological wounds, and only then begin thinking clearly again about peace with the Palestinians. Goodman is perversely cheered by the fact that in recent years both the left and the right have dropped their idealistic fervor. The left rarely speaks of peace anymore, and instead only preaches about the demographic threat to Israeli democracy. The right’s messianic dream of a Greater Israel has been reduced to dire warnings about security. In both cases, older, more positive visions have devolved into dark and fearful predictions of doom. As a result, Goodman is convinced that a centrist coalition could appeal to both sides by proposing to unilaterally lessen the occupation without diminishing Israeli security—not so much to help Palestinians, but to break Israelis out of their Catch-67.

* * *

Later the same afternoon, we drive through the Judean hills to Neve Ilan, where Goodman is delivering a talk to a small group working with his friend, Rabbi Benny Lau, another well-known name in Israeli public life. Lau occupies the same blurry, paradoxical position on the political spectrum as Goodman: the liberal wing of the national religious movement. Lau’s latest mission is 929, an online Daf Yomi project designed to get Jews reading and discussing a daily section of the Tanakh every day for 929 days (not counting weekends).

Goodman’s talk is called “Israel’s Three Tribes.” It’s a variation on one he’s given before (there’s an English version here), in which he lays out the intellectual and ideological evolution of the three branches of Zionism that shaped Israel: secular-socialist, religious-nationalist, and ultra-Orthodox.

His argument is that in the 1970s all three strands changed dramatically, leading to a new synthesis. It’s heady stuff, but for the two dozen young Israelis in the small hotel meeting room—most of them more liberal and probably less religious than Goodman—it’s painfully relevant. The declining power of the secular Zionist left, and the rising influence of the religious right, has defined their lives.

As he speaks, Goodman bounces around the room, circling, grinning, gesticulating. He makes jokes, asks questions, hops over to a whiteboard in the corner to scribble a crude diagram. He notes reactions and encourages questions as he goes. As usual, he disarms them with his sympathetic rendering of secular and leftist ideas, then surprises with an even more passionate and compelling appreciation for the spiritual appeal of ultra-Orthodoxy.

It’s obvious, again, that this man loves the interplay of big ideas. They are like breathing, physical creatures to him. In his version of Israeli history, ideas and ideology are far more important than economics or class or military victories. He’s all superstructure, to use Marxist lingo, and in Israel, there’s a great deal to be said for that approach. Zionism, little more than one man’s dream a century or so ago, proves how a single very big idea can change everything.

After his talk, on the road back to Jerusalem, the same inhospitable hills that were dry and drained of color earlier are now, at sunset, washed with pink and gold. Beauty here sneaks up on you. Goodman draws a small map in my notebook, showing me where we are in the Jerusalem corridor, which juts out like a finger into the West Bank. Recently he has become obsessed with maps.

He’s been looking at government and military maps of the West Bank that show access roads, settlement construction, border fences, and population centers—the kind of maps that Middle East negotiators have been poring over for decades. “I thought this book was about analyzing the Israeli conversation,” he admits. “But ever since it came out I’ve gotten more interested in what the conflict was about.”

Though the book does offer two sample policy proposals, they were only meant as food for thought. So I’m surprised to hear him say that he’s suddenly more keen to discuss detailed and concrete proposals.

“But now I have a clearer plan!” he says with a laugh, acknowledging his about-face. He’s been getting a lot of new ideas from military officers who’ve opened up to him since the book came out, in part because no one else would listen.

“There is a new generation of commanders and generals in the army,” Goodman says. “They’re not big dreamers. These are people whose military experience is influenced by the Arab Spring and who have a different worldview than the people whose military experience was before the Arab Spring. They are real pessimists about the Middle East.”

The officers have been sharing their ideas for small steps that could ease tension without risking security, based on their own experiences serving in the occupied territories. A typical proposal is to designate more roads and build tunnels that could be under Palestinian Authority control in order to connect Palestinian population centers and make travel between them easier.

“Wow, here’s a very small, very technical thing,” Goodman says of the idea, which he’s seen the maps for. “But what it does is it shrinks the experience of occupation dramatically, without shrinking security for Israelis at all. So I thought, are there more ideas, are there more steps like this, that break the zero-sum game? Catch-67 is based on the idea that there is a zero-sum game. But on the small-steps level there isn’t that trap. So let’s deal with small steps. Every general I spoke to had one small idea, and I thought, you guys never meet and put your ideas together? If we take all these steps and we put them together, the sum of the small steps is actually a big step. It’s actually a plan.”

Cede more of Area C (the territory fully controlled by the Israeli military) to the Palestinian Authority’s control, ease restrictions on business and trade, have fewer checkpoints and more freedom of movement—just don’t call it a peace plan. Don’t even call it an interim plan. Real peace might come later, or it might not. Reduce the conflict without solving it, that’s his plan.

“Today’s zero-sum game is that the more we control them the less we are threatened by them, and the less we control them the more we’re threatened by them. So the game is occupation and security. But it’s false,” Goodman says. “We could actually shrink dramatically the amount of occupation without shrinking the amount of security for Israelis.”

It sounds good, but I reluctantly point out that most of these proposals are not new. An organization of former IDF officers called Commanders for Israel’s Security, for example, have already presented a very detailed proposal along the same lines, and this week the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies released their own plan, which reads as if inspired by Goodman’s book. Goodman welcomed the CIS plan as part of the process, but he doesn’t think you can create a broad Israeli consensus around such ambitious, all-inclusive models in today’s political climate. His own more limited and cautious proposals are still rejected by both the right and the left, either for going too far, or for not going far enough.

I also remind him that “shrinking the occupation” won’t appease Palestinians, who’ve been burned too often with promises of interim steps that lead nowhere. Goodman knows they would reject it. His approach to the conflict is to ask nothing of the Palestinians, no quid pro quo. “Instead of Israel offering the Palestinians more,” he writes, “it should expect from them less.”

That leads us back to Israeli politics. How can he remain optimistic? The political class may have engaged with his ideas, but no politician has translated them into a popular platform. If anything, the trend is moving in reverse. Trump and Bibi are reinforcing ideological rigidity. Even if a centrist majority exists in Israel, as Goodman insists it does, where is the evidence that these voters are ready to overcome their political indifference?

There is none, he admits. He illustrates the problem by describing a plan that was put forward last year by the IDF’s chief of staff, seconded by the minister of defense, approved by Bibi and his cabinet. It ceded control of additional land around the Palestinian city of Qalqiliya to the Palestinian Authority to enable the overcrowded city to build new housing. Less occupation, no less security. But as soon as settler groups got wind of the proposal, they were able to pressure right-wing Knesset members using social media to amplify their voice. The left wasn’t interested because the plan did nothing to end the occupation. And the absence of an equally motivated centrist coalition that could face down the energized settler minority doomed the plan. Bibi reversed himself, a scenario that recurs again and again.

“People are so sober today,” Goodman says. “They are allergic. They realize that this can’t continue but they also know it can’t be solved.” He thinks a winning political pitch would be: “The right wants to manage the conflict, but that’s another word for status quo. The left wants to end it, but that’s another word for two-state solution. We’re not going to end the conflict—and the status quo is unsustainable—so let’s try shrinking it. Maybe people will see that there’s a way that their perplexity can lead to pragmatism rather than indifference.”

Is that happening anywhere?

Goodman is blunt. “The answer is no. Israelis have lost their certainty, which is very unusual. Perplexity should have led to new curiosity and new ideas, but instead, politics in Israel and around the world right now are not about policies, they’re about identities. We don’t vote for policies, we vote for our tribe. And the right always wins at that game. We need the center back in the conversation.”

We’ve arrived at our destination. I’m sorry we have to end the interview on such a downer. A few days later, I have coffee with Eylon Levy outside his broadcast studio in Jaffa, facing the sea. Levy was Goodman’s student at Ein Prat before he did his military service and then became a TV journalist. He volunteered to do the English translation out of a personal commitment to Goodman and his ideas. He thinks the book helped Israelis articulate their own feelings about the conflict, and he wants it to help outsiders in the West better understand what’s going on.

“There are reasons Israelis are where they are,” he says, “and it’s not just ideology or messianism. There are serious arguments above and beyond the ideological stances. You need to work with them, rather than try to force a solution on them. And stop trying to minimize the gravity of the challenges facing Israel.”

I can hear a rising frustration in his voice. He’s in his late 20s. Oslo barely existed for him. He’s of an Israeli generation that has no illusions. The West still thinks the issues are easy and the solutions are obvious. But Israelis are caught between an impatient moralistic West and a disintegrating Middle East. “I’d be quite happy,” Levy says, “if Micah’s book causes some people with fixed opinions to pause and say to themselves, ‘Maybe this isn’t so simple. Maybe they have a point.’”

That would be a start.

Mark Horowitz is Senior Editor at Tablet magazine. He tweets @MarkHorowitz.