LOST CAUSES are not wrong causes, unless winning is the measure of right. The historical victory of an idea reveals nothing about its merit: power has uses for fictions, and the popularity of lies is an ancient feature of human affairs. I am always stirred, when I read the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians, by the boldness of the Jewish retort to Christian triumphalism, to the arrogant Christian insistence that the lowly social status of the Jews was proof of their lowly spiritual status—was any argument ever more rigged?; and always offended by the Hegelian view, which survives in many forms, that it is for history to vindicate philosophy. There is no shame and no error in a minoritarian existence. If one is in error, it is hardly because one is not in a majority. For this reason, the legitimacy of lost causes is one of the gifts of a democratic order, in which heresy is merely another opinion and dissent does not require an extreme of courage. The beauty of lost causes may be hard to appreciate, though, in a society such as ours, with its pornographic obsession with winners, and its harsh assumption that failure is a blow to dignity. In my eyes, the pursuers of lost causes possess an extra measure of dignity, because one really should be intransigent about what one believes to be true. This confers an inner strength that cannot be defeated by circumstances. The spine owes a great deal to the mind, even if one should not think with one’s spine; and so the pursuer of lost causes can be, paradoxically, the most stubborn of fighters. Yet I would not exaggerate the glamor of lost causes. Sadness always attaches to the deferral of a dream.
I HAVE BEEN THINKING about lost causes because I have concluded that one of my causes is lost. I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. I am still quite certain that the establishment of the state of Palestine is a condition for the survival of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state and a democratic state, and that for Israel not to be a Jewish state would be a Jewish catastrophe, and for it not to be a democratic state would be a human catastrophe; and that the only solution there has ever been to this conflict is the solution that was proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, that is, the partition of one land into two states; and that the Jewish settlement of the West Bank was a colossal mistake, and the occupation (and the indifference to it) corrodes the decency of the occupiers; and that the Jewish state is a secular entity; and that anti-Semitism, which will never disappear, does not explain the entirety of the history of the Jews or their state, or exempt Israel from accountability for its actions. An impenitent Zionist and an impenitent dove, in sum; but to the consternation of some of my comrades, a hawkish dove, too, since I see that Israel has enemies and I believe in the ethical primacy of self-defense. I have irritated some of my comrades also with my unglowing view of the Palestinians and their inability to recognize the historical grandeur of compromise. Since 1977, and really since 1947, they have refused one proposed solution after another, as if the “unviability” of an imperfect state is not preferable to the unviability of statelessness. In recent decades they have added a new religious maximalism to an old secular maximalism. But still I concur in the necessity and the justice of their demand for a state, and still I yearn for a serious Palestinian diplomacy.
ALL THESE BELIEFS, however, are beginning to seem pointless. Reality appears to have other plans for itself. Hamas maintains its terrorist and theocratic sway over Gaza, and criminally fires hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians, and extols the destruction of its arsenal and its infrastructure by Israel as some sort of apotheosis. Mahmoud Abbas celebrates the attainment of observer-state status at the United Nations with a mean and small speech in which he accuses Israel of “one of the most dreadful campaigns of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in modern history,” and of unprovoked “aggression” in Gaza, and of “an apartheid system of colonial occupation, which institutionalizes the plague of racism.” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian leader for whom we longed, is a tragic figure, undone by Palestinians and Israelis together. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu petulantly responds to the General Assembly vote with an outrageous proposal for Jewish housing in the area east of Jerusalem known as “E1,” which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians. He allies his party with the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the fascist face of Israel, who has proposed loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, and then his party, I mean the Likud, demotes its moderates and promotes the odious likes of Moshe Feiglin, who refers to Arabs as Amalek and advocates their “voluntary transfer” from Israel. As these anti-democratic maniacs flourish in Netanyahu’s base, one increasingly hears in those quarters the ugly old refrain that Jordan is the Palestinian state. And there is no significant opposition to Likud, only a petty and fragmented and pathetic assortment of self-interested figures and parties. People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will. So what if the two-state solution is the only solution, when nobody is desperate to solve the problem?
I HAVE BEEN RE-READING The Shepherd’s War by my old friend Meron Benvenisti, his controversial essays of the 1980s, in which he described “the virtual permanence of the present situation,” and reported that “after implementing a project which concerns people’s lives, one may discover that it is irreversible,” and contested the progressive view that “there is no such thing as an irretrievable loss, options are never closed, there is no need to trouble our conscience over what we have wasted, no reason for perpetual sorrow.” He was vilified for his fatalism. I think he is owed an apology. It has been almost half a century since Israel acquired the territories in a war to save itself, and more than half a century since the birth of Palestinian nationalism. Those were the allegedly provisional decades, the cost-free interim in which both sides were to come to reason. Sure, the struggle continues. The debate must go on. But how long is an interim? What if reason never comes? When does hope become illusion?
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Discouragement.”