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Can’t Bear to Read: “Our Harsh Logic“

Ira Chernus can’t bring himself to open Our Harsh Logic, a collection of testimonies by Israeli soldiers who have served in the occupation army in the West Bank and Gaza, but he explains why it must be read.

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When you were in school I bet that, at least once, you wrote a book review without ever reading the book. Well, that’s what I’m doing now – not because I’m lazy, but because I physically cannot get myself to open the book. The book is Our Harsh Logic, a collection of testimonies by Israeli soldiers who have served in the occupation army in the West Bank and Gaza.

The publisher sent me a review copy after I agreed to write about it. I mean, Americans really have to know about the “random brutality, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, hatred, and dehumanization” (as Publishers Weekly put it) that Israelis inflict on Palestinians, day in and day out. The most disturbing thing about this occupation, like any military occupation, is just how routine the cruelty is, how it’s dished out casually and randomly, all part of an ordinary day’s work.

No, not by every soldier. There are some who manage to keep their moral compass. But everything I’ve read about the occupation points to the intense pressures on decent kids – and the large majority of Israeli soldiers are kids, in their teens and early twenties – to do things that they never imagined they’d be capable of.

I have read plenty about the occupation. That’s why I can’t get myself to open this book. I know what I’m going to find – not the details, but the general idea. And I know that many of the details will probably be more upsetting than I expect to find. That’s always been my experience, as a critic of the occupation since it began in 1967: As bad as I think it is, the truth is always worse.

If you want to get an idea of what I mean without reading the book, check out these excerpts offered by one of its editors, Oded Na’aman, on

So how do I review this book without opening it? One way is just to scream, at the top of my lungs, “NOT IN MY NAME!!!” The knowledge that all these abuses are done in my name is what makes it most painful for me to even hold this book in my hands.

The government that sends those young Israelis to be occupiers claims to be acting in the name of all Jews everywhere – and that includes me. It claims that the occupation, with all its viciousness, is necessary not merely to protect Israel’s existence, but to insure my survival and that of my fellow Jews everywhere.

This is the logic used to legitimate the occupation – more precisely, to try to legitimate it, since prolonged occupation is always illegitimate. It’s an absurd, harsh logic; hence the appropriate title of the book. Who can really believe that Israel, with its overwhelming military might – including the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal – was ever threatened by poorly armed, poorly organized Palestinians, many of them still children?

It’s even harder to imagine that Palestinians ever threatened the millions of Jews like me who live in middle-class American comfort. And by now, even the ineffectual violence some Palestinians once practiced has virtually ceased.

The argument Israel uses to justify continuing occupation is a tortured logic, stretched far beyond the limits of what actual reason will allow – just as the Palestinian people have been stretched far beyond the limits of what any people should be expected to endure, and as so many Palestinians have been quite literally tortured by their Israeli captors.

The thought of torture gives me a way to reflect on (if not exactly review) Our Harsh Logic with more than merely my own tortured scream of outrage. When did I first read about Palestinians being tortured in Israeli prisons as a way to extract information? It’s so long ago I can’t even remember. But I do recall that when the first reports of torture appeared in US media, the loudest cry of outrage didn’t come from those of us who opposed the occupation.

The loudest cry came from the many American Jews who would not believe this was true, because they literally could not believe it. The evidence was incontrovertible. Yet the idea went beyond the bounds of what they believed was possible. So they could only respond, “It’s impossible. It can’t really be happening. There must be some trick.”

It was like an audience watching a magician doing tricks that seem to violate the laws of nature. In this case though, the “law” was a fixed cultural conviction: Jews are basically a moral people.

Most American Jews assumed a simple syllogism: Being Jewish is a religious as well as cultural identity. The essence of any religion is its ethical ideals. Therefore, the essence of Jewish identity must be its ethical ideals. No one denied that sometimes Jews can do bad things. But most US Jews assumed that being Jewish is somehow fundamentally tied to the notion of morality.

So they felt immense pressure to keep on believing that when Jews act as a group they must be acting in the name of some moral values. Denial of the truth was an invaluable tool, and it worked well for a while.

Then came the first intifada, the Palestinian rebellion, in 1987. The Israeli defense minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, told his soldiers to “break their bones.” American TV news showed the results in living color. All too often, the color was blood red. Denial was much more difficult to come by.

But most US Jews quickly found a second line of defense. They adopted Israel’s harsh, absurd logic: Israel was doing some terrible things. But it was forced to inflict all this death and suffering, because that was the only way to protect its very existence from evildoers bent on destroying the Jewish state simply because it was Jewish.

To prevent such an immoral aim certainly seemed like a morally defensible goal. So whatever means were used to achieve it seemed to be morally acceptable, even though deeply regrettable.

The linchpin of this harsh logic was the idea that Israel, despite its overwhelming power and its obvious control of the territories, was actually the victim. The Palestinians, despite their obvious weakness, were somehow the aggressors. Whatever victims have to do to save themselves from aggressors is justified. Doesn’t everyone believe that?

A large portion of American Jews found comfort in this image of Israel as an innocent victim, constantly menaced, constantly insecure – an image at the heart of the myth of Israel’s insecurity, which dominated American Jewish life for so many years.

Fortunately people do change. Many who once lived by this myth now realize how absurd it is. The morality of the occupation, once taken for granted in organized American Jewish circles, is now a topic of serious, often heated, debate.

What caused the change? Among Jews I know, it came most often because they recognized, for the first time, the real suffering that ordinary Palestinians endure every day. It’s as if they had been staring blindly for years, then for some reason finally allowed themselves to see. Now the Jewish community is granting permission to see, and the miracle of sight is spreading rapidly.

If Our Harsh Logic had been published a decade or more ago, it would have been met with mass denial, decried as “anti-Israel,” and effectively banned in the organized Jewish community. Now it will be widely read. It will open many Jewish eyes, outrage many Jewish minds, and touch many Jewish hearts.

Most American Jews still believe that Jewish identity should have some essential connection with ethical ideals. The idea of a Judaism, or Jewishness, empty of all morality strikes them as senseless – a logic too harsh to tolerate. Just a few pages of Our Harsh Logic should persuade any reader that the occupation and the tortured logic used to justify it are also far too harsh to tolerate.

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