I have a standard regimen every time I prepare to travel to Israel, about every year and a half. Buy some shekels. Arrange my interviews. Make sure my passport hasn’t expired.
And one non-standard step: I pull out a three-decades-old, tearing-at-the-edges, 20-page reprint of a series of stories written for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the wake of the start of the Camp David Middle East peace process.
Richard Ben Cramer, then a globe-trotting reporter for the Inquirer, wrote the pieces on a two-week assignment that stretched into a months-long venture and adventure that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
The Inquirer distributed the series to promote Cramer’s extraordinary work, which took the reader behind the headlines and politicians of Israel and its Arab neighbors, into the homes and lives of plain people. I reread his words every time I’m off to Israel to remind myself of how great writing is done.
“Report from the Mideast: A human drama” is my inspiration.
Cramer died the other day, at 62, from lung cancer, remembered more as an author than as a journalist. His books brought him both praise (on the 1988 presidential election, in the literary footsteps of Theodore White; and on Joe DiMaggio), and criticism (for one about Israel, “How Israel Lost: The Four Questions,” Simon & Schuster, 2004).
“How Israel Lost” clearly lost Cramer friends in pro-Israel circles. He criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and came out strongly in favor of Israel withdrawing from Gaza and the West Bank.
“It may seem draconian to say that Israel just simply has to give back the land,” he said in an interview with beliefnet.com, “But, I think it’s our best chance for longterm survival … Nobody can tell me that the Israelis are more secure than they were before they took this land”.
Notice that he said “our.” A native of Rochester, he was raised in a typical Jewish family, and continued to consider himself a “zionist” – small z.
“I think Israel ought to exist and needs to exist for the Jewish people,” he told beliefnet.
He wrote, one reviewer opined, as a “disillusioned, distant and bitter lover.”
His sympathy for Israel – not at the expense of the peoples of the neighboring, often press-hostile countries where he gained unparalleled access to people’s home –
He told of one “old man” praying at the Western Wall. “To say the prayers right here, in the sight of all, with fear from no one,” Cramer quoted the man as saying, “this is a dream come true.”
I reread these words every year. And I continue to get inspiration from Cramer’s writing and from his career.