When the first news of the passing of writer Richard Ben Cramer, at the age of 62, flashed across Twitter on Monday night it inspired dozens of mini-tributes from well-known authors, political journalists and sportswriters, marking his influence on their lives and media careers. Yesterday longer tributes and detailed obits appeared.
Always highlighted, and justly so, were his epic book on the 1988 race for president, What It Takes, and his 1980s profile of baseball hero Ted Williams for Esquire, considered by many one of the best articles to appear in that magazine. Often mentioned were other magazine pieces, such as his account of Bobby Sands’s funeral in Ireland, other baseball writings, and his years as a newspaper reporter, covering the Middle East, for which he won a Pultizer Prize.
Rarely mentioned, or if noted only in passing, was his most recent book, from 2005: a brave, and tough, critique of modern day Israel titled How Israel Lost: The Four Questions. Cramer, who was Jewish and raised to fully support Zionism, knew that region well and roundly condemns the Israeli occupation policies. What It Takes has quickly shot up the Amazon bestseller charts, but much-overlooked How Israel Lost is not following. It’s ranked 224,000 right now.
To spark more attention for it, I am writing this now—and wanted to get it posted ASAP, so I’m keeping it short for now. But in brieft: It is a “love letter” to Israel, but the kind written by a disillusioned family member or close friend. The four questions, meant to refer back to the Passover questions, are: What is a Jewish state? Why do Americans care about Israel? Why don’t the Palestinians have a state? Why is there no peace?
Amos Elon in his New York Review of Books commentary called it “Solid and irrefutable…. Cramer’s theme is the tragic predicament of the Israelis and Palestinians…funny and bitterly sad, shrewd and down-to-earth…. This book is a powerful polemic that deserves to be read.” You can watch Cramer talk about the book on CSPAN here.
Asked in a Beliefnet.com interview, shortly after publication, if anyone had been accused him of being anti-Zionist, he replied: “Has anyone not? Anything that threatens the idea of Israel’s victimhood is a threat to the industry of supporting Israel in her victimhood. When you suggest in a book that maybe Israeli policy is making the situation worse, not better, you’re bound to be regarded as a threat.” (He was also, by the way, sharply critical of Arafat.)
He went on:
[T]here are certain indisputable facts that are regarded as some kind of heresy against Israel that to me are just simple facts. It’s been 37 years they’ve been holding onto this land [Gaza and the West Bank] despite the world’s overwhelming certainty that this is occupied land and was always meant to be given back in exchange for agreements of one kind or another. In fact, a number of Israeli governments have followed that policy as well. If you look through a particular prism, you can see most Israeli policies as basically an attempt to hold onto this land.
What I wanted people to see from reading the book was that the upshot of this policy has not been positive for Israel or for the way the world regards Israel. Nobody can tell me that the Israelis are more secure today than they were before they took this land. And certainly not more secure since they kind of slid into holding onto this land.
I think there are two peoples and arguably there are going to be two countries. It’s in Israel’s interest in every way to try to get a Palestinian state formed while Israel still has all the power. And it seems to me that when you’re facing a demographic problem like Israel is, which is a higher birth rate among Arab people, and you are either now or going to be very shortly a minority in this larger Israel that you propose to control—you don’t have many appetizing choices. You can either give back that land or you can try to kill or shove out some millions of Arabs or you are going to be running an apartheid state where the majority has no vote.
On that menu, there’s nothing I exactly want to eat, but it seems to me, giving back the land is by far the best of them.