Review: The Transforming Fire The Rise Of The Israel-Islamist Conflict

By Steve McDonald

The Transforming Fire
The Rise Of The Israel-Islamist Conflict

By Jonathan Spyer
Continuum 2010, 240 pp.

NBC correspondent Martin Fletcher was bang on when he recently wrote that “Israel has to be the most analyzed yet least understood country in the world.” There is a mountain of literature, and more added to it every day, examining Israel’s many challenges. Whether the issue is one of diplomacy, domestic politics, or the security situation, you can bet there are a dozen thoughtful books and countless articles on the specific topic in question. We have access to endless resources that help us comprehend the trends affecting the region in general, and the pressures confronting Israel in particular.

But can the same be said when it comes to understanding Israelis themselves? The very literature that illuminates the processes, patterns, and policies that shape the region and Israel’s place in it can often, ironically, leave us in the dark when it comes to what really makes Israelis tick.

Thankfully, Jonathan Spyer has given us a groundbreaking – and heartfelt – contribution that bridges the divide. His recently published work, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, is a masterful analysis of the changing dynamics in the never-ending war against Israel, as seen through the lens of one Zionist who was nearly killed in a tank in Lebanon.

Jonathan Spyer, currently senior research fellow at a prominent Israeli think-tank, made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in the early 90’s from the UK. Having survived years of IDF duty in the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention a subsequent bout as an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office, Spyer entered Lebanon in the summer of 2006 under no illusions for the difficulties facing Israel in its brief, painful war against Hezbollah. Spyer’s academic and government background, combined with front-line combat experience, makes for a rare and compelling treatise.

The Transforming Fire centres on the thesis that the war to annihilate Israel has recently shifted from one of Arab nationalism (or pan-Arabism) into one propelled by radical Islamic theology (pan-Islamism). If this is the case, as the evidence affirms, the consequences are enormous.

Take the land-for-peace formula derived from UN Resolution 242, which conceives that in return for recognition, peace and security guarantees from the Arab world, Israel would cede territories captured in 1967. As Spyer rightly notes, radical Islamic theology is not rooted in the same pragmatic parameters of those former belligerents governed by a pan-Arabist perspective. We are no longer dealing with individual Arab states willing to compromise if it means the restoration of national “honour” (as Egypt did in signing the 1978 peace treaty).

Today, we are faced with a transnational Islamist cause that can neither be dissuaded by Western carrots and sticks, nor satisfied with anything less than total victory over the Jewish state. Now more than ever, Israel’s enemies genuinely believe the entire land to be an eternal and sacred Islamic waqf (trust). From their perspective, how can one negotiate away any piece of something that, by definition, cannot accommodate another sovereign power?

The pragmatism so often induced by the nature of state sovereignty, which can bring the most bitter of opponents together to sign treaties, is entirely non-existent among Israel’s hard-line Islamist enemies. And it is precisely this transformed Islamist bloc that Spyer sharply examines – more theological, less compromising, and thoroughly willing to play a very long game in pursuit of the “resistance”.

But the real weight of The Transforming Fire lies in Spyer’s brilliant, often painful, personal account – which offers us a glimpse into the soul of Israeli Zionism.

Walking past body bags lining the street outside Café Hillel, the night it was gutted by a suicide bomber in 2003. Smoking cigarettes in a Jerusalem bar just hours after returning exhausted from Lebanon – and overhearing an Arab journalist voicing his support for Hezbollah. Holding conversations about what it means to be a Zionist with the family of Alon Smoha, a gregarious tank commander killed in an ambush the author barely survived.

It is through these anecdotes that Spyer brings us into the minds and homes of real Israelis. The ones who don’t make the news, who are unknown in the West, and who refuse to be submit to those who wish their annihilation. In so doing, Spyer points to a phenomenon within Israel that many have noted, but few have articulated with as much insight.

In a chapter entitled “The New Jerusalem”, Spyer discusses the diffusion of power within Israel beyond the secular, European circles that founded and led the state in its early years. Understanding the rise of the Sephardim and Modern Orthodox is key to grasping the new face of Israel, which has become more skeptical of its enemy’s intentions and more traditional in outlook. And yet, the New Jerusalem is very much willing to make painful concessions for peace – if only there were a reliable partner on the other side.

Spyer indicates that this transformed Israeli mainstream sees Zionism less as a response to European anti-Semitism and a desire to “be like every other nation” (a view common to many of their Ashkenazi predecessors). Rather, Israelis increasingly see themselves as a modern incarnation of an ancient, unique nation – a response to the totality of Jewish history, rather than the devastations of the pogroms and the Holocaust.

If I were to add margin notes to Spyer’s work, it would be to say that if we indeed accept the entirety of Jewish history, we will see that statelessness is not at the root of our sufferings. Yes, statelessness renders the Jewish people defenseless, and history is replete with its devastating results. The culmination of two thousand years of exile, statehood has been an extraordinary blessing for the Jewish people and the entire world. The benefits are incalculable, and we are fortunate beyond words to be living in this era.

But statehood has not solved the issue of anti-Semitism – because the answer to that question lies in something much deeper within man. Certainly it will not be solved by the issues of sovereignty, borders, and international recognition. And Israel’s suicidal enemies are committed to ensuring that, as long as Israel refuses to forfeit statehood, it cannot be “like every other nation”.

In spite of the dangers and chaos just across its borders, it is astonishing to walk the streets of Israel and observe how “normal” it is. That said, it appears that the new Israeli mainstream is right. Israeli statehood exists to free the Jewish people of stateless persecution, so that we may contribute to the world in our own unique way – just as we have for millennia. But it doesn’t mean that we as a people will ever be treated as “normal”, for the totality of Jewish history shows that that was never the case.

And why should we aim for “normal” and “like every other nation”? Personally, I want something much greater than that. The sort of inspired Zionism that today motivates the likes of Alon Smoha’s family, and Spyer himself. The sort of Zionism felt by the average Israeli who comprises the country’s committed and diverse new mainstream – and just might be Sephardic, Modern Orthodox, or Ethiopian.

If you want to know what that is, you have to read one of the most informative, insightful, and brilliantly crafted books on the Middle East. Read The Transforming Fire.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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