Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Small World

I am a member of a network that contains a large selection of the world's young, rich intelligent elite, and a few hangers-on like me. I posted this reply to someone on a discussion board this evening - I think it requires no further context.

Thanks for restoring my faith in aSW as a place for people who may disagree with each other's ideas but can still manage civilised dialogue. Having been personally compared to a terrorist and seen plenty of postings comparing Israel and Jews to Nazis, it's refreshing to have an open-minded debate.

I can't claim to have any Lebanese friends (though my uncles were all brought up in Beirut in the 1920s and 1930s), but of course I feel for them, and most Israelis and Diaspora Jews do too - certainly everyone I have spoken to. This is precisely because of the suffering we have been through for literally thousands of years.

I don't think there can be many other nations that face existential threats every day, and still have an enormous peace movement and a right wing that ultimately also accepts a two-state solution (with the exception of a very small minority), allows members of its parliament to stand up in the Knesset and call for Israel's destruction, permits free movement of journalists in the country, and relatively open access in what are effectively military zones in the West Bank and Gaza... for me, that says something about Israel's confidence in openness, democracy and freedoms of all kinds.

I think what caused me to write on my blog this now infamous piece about what makes a legitimate target, is that the reward Israel has had for its transparency is for the world to hold it up to a level of scrutiny on every action that it does not - cannot - apply to other countries. I don't think Israel is much better or worse than most Western nations. As George Orwell probably never actually said, good people sleep soundly at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. Every nation has an underbelly. Every nation does things that it perceives to be in its national interest that harms others. But Israel is constantly in the spotlight and is always seemingly caught red-handed, then the evidence is reproduced and distributed for maximum effect. Sometimes, evidence is fabricated, but there is always a willing and unquestioning audience for it.

This is not a justification for those actions; nor do I think they are all unjustified. They simply are there. This is the burden of sovereignty - uncomfortable decisions, or in Sharon's words, "painful compromises", have to be made. Usually in other countries, their own public - let alone the world - never finds out what these things are.

So I have now come to agree that something might just be dying inside Israelis and Jews. This is nothing to do with the Holocaust, and everything to do with this feeling of being constantly scrutinised and criticised. We are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

I believe the common psyche of Israel has changed in the past 30 years since the Yom Kippur War, which defined it as unbeatable by the combined might of all its neighbours' traditional armies, and forced a change of tack from those seeking its destruction, into the guerrilla and terror methods used today by Hezballah and Hamas. During this time, Israel has become materially as wealthy as most of Europe, it has become more secular, and less tied to the land. This last point is important - Zionism was historically related to working the land in some way - I remember countless trips to kibbutzim and forests to plant trees and pick grapes, and feeling intrinsically linked to the earth of Israel. In the modern economy, that is fading.

And I think the process is accelerating. This is partly because of a general fatigue among the older generations, and the newer generations being too young to remember massed armies on their borders seeking their direct and immediate destruction. Instead, there is an exhaustion with the daily grind of queuing to pass through security to get into shops, cafes and bus stations, and a horrible desensitisation that comes from over a decade of seeing body parts strewn across the mangled wreckage of buses and pizza parlours.

It is enhanced by a sense of disconnect with the rest of the world, that they don't understand what we are going through, and why we respond the way we do. This is an inherently Middle Eastern conflict, and I think Israelis had somehow forgotten this and started responding in a European manner. All the peace processes and withdrawals have been touted by our enemies as signs of weakness, but the world eggs us on to give more. Seemingly, they pander to the other side because they know all these groups are tied in what Blair tonight called an "arc of extremism" that spans the Middle East and winds up on London's Tubes and in planes heading for New York.

I think Israelis and Jews have woken up to the fact that no matter what they do, they will be caught in the pincer of being sacrificed at the altar of this extremism by the West in a (vain) hope that this buys immunity from attack on the one hand; and at the same time finds its every action criticised and deconstructed across media outlets and NGOs when it responds to terror on its own doorstep on the other.

If we are to emerge from this with a hope for a positive Middle East that lives in quiet, and eventually peace, and perhaps even prosperity and mutual trust, Israel needs to feel that it can accede to the requests of the Palestinians to give them East Jerusalem, almost all the pre-1967 borders, and sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, without finding that they sacrifice all that only to have a new set of demands and a fresh wave of attacks against it, and must feel secure at all its other borders.

This requires the world to stop equivocating - the line it has taken on Hamas has thankfully highlighted the level of infighting, corruption and patronage in Palestinian society, whilst violence against Israel has only increased since the Disengagement. The world should stop equivocating over Hizballah - I read with disbelief the claims that it is not a terrorist organisation (correct insofar as it is not ONLY a terrorist organisation), when it openly states that it uses methods that can only be described as terrorist.

The notion of neutrality and even-handedness suggests that both sides start from a point where both claims are equal and valid. For exhaustively long reasons, I do not believe this to be the case, and ultimately nor do the leaders of the world's governments, which is why they still all do business with Israel but have cut off non-humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Instead of railing against this, the media, the NGOs, and the swathe of "liberal" opinion, ought to be asking why.

Israel could help itself here, but again, I think the national psyche has become like one of a scolded child who refuses to speak because he feels hard done by, so it does not advocate its case with any eloquence. I have long been of the view that Israel can win any argument of the mind, but advocates on the other side will win every argument of the heart. Theirs is emotive, because they show dead babies and dusty streets, whilst the other side seems to be gleaming tanks protecting golden beaches and skyscrapers.

Israel could just as easily show the world some of the lovely white-painted, satellite-dished villa suburbs of Ramallah (pre-intifada, I took a stroll there once), and the serried ranks of armed Hamas militias, and compare them to some of the ugly cramped high-rises of old Rishon LeTzion, crammed full of recent immigrants, and the carnage of the latest suicide bombing. As I pointed out recently on my blog, Israel is still David, and the rest of the world is still Goliath; we have allowed the roles to be reversed in the eyes of most observers.

In this context, the world might provide more of what some have called "loyal criticism" at times like these. By all means, disagree with Israeli policy, but the wall-to-wall, unquestioning coverage of civilian tragedy without anything other than the hollow statements seen in this thread (such as 2 = 500,000), does neither side any good in the long run. Instead, the real "disproportionate response" has come from the world's media and the allegedly neutral UN, who seem to enjoy any excuse to challenge Israel's basic right to exist and defend itself.

To those of you for whom these are still legitimate questions: it is there, it is not going to disappear just to please you, so find a way to accept it and work with it, understand its pressures and its needs, in the same way as you have spent so long trying to understand those of the Palestinians (and frankly failing to do that either). And you wonder why I think Israel should strike back at the media and the UN...

And to those who are itching to claim that I seek some kind of censorship on reporting from Lebanon; I do not. But it would be good to see some more investigative journalism of the kind carried out by the Australian Sun Herald, that questions Hizballah's tactics and takes photographic evidence. If the press is being intimidated by Hizballah into not showing this (as has happened repeatedly under Hamas and Fatah with attempts to make critical reports of Palestinian society or action), or is already practising some kind of self-censorship either for its own protection or out of partisan sympathy, we deserve to know. And we should analyse what it might tell us about the rights, wrongs and causes of the conflict.

So I wish for the Israel we used to have, the one of hope, the one where we were proud of our achievements and sought positive solutions to our problems. I look at the possibilities we have by just being practical - I could post extensively on what should happen to the settlements, how to solve the water crisis, or why the biggest tragedy of a war in Lebanon is that they are the most natural allies Israel could have in the region.

Sadly, I can only think that the Israeli psyche has been on a downward spiral of despair, which is resulting in the actions we see today. It has tried a largely peaceful occupation where they traded prosperity for national aspirations (the fastest-growing regional economy in the world between 1967 and 1987 was apparently the West Bank), it has tried negotiating with Arafat and Abbas, it has tried disengagement from Lebanon and Gaza and leaving them to their own devices. Now, it is responding with the only card left in the hand, which is what often appears to be brute force.

There are plenty of other threads in which we can debate the rights and wrongs of this, but as I see it, Israel feels isolated and victimised (I expect the usual suspects to come tearing in with the typical shrillness on how Israel/Jews are always making themselves victims - funny how the same people usually peddle Jewish/neo-con conspiracy theories, though the two are surely mutually exclusive). So it does what it feels is in its best interests, and hang the consequences of world opinion, which - let's face it - will consist of some meaningless statements and resolutions, and some half-hearted action, just as it does for every other conflict that the West would rather ran its course without involving them.

The national psyche of Israel used to be different - the typical Sabra was tanned, healthy, simultaneously a whizz-kid and a kibbutznik, both educated and a beach-bum, full of gloriously rich contradictions. Most importantly, the Sabra had a thick, prickly skin but once you get into the middle, you find a sweet, soft interior (sabra is an indigenous fruit, hence the analogy).

But now it has been turned inside-out. It finds that its exterior is the soft and hence vulnerable part, and then when the world cuts away at that enough, it hits the prickly, hard interior and gets a very disagreeable reaction.

You should try and understand, as Malik is attempting to do, the psyche of a nation that was born out of the ashes of its parents and siblings, and has since been robbed of its innocence by a thousand cuts and a million words and images, from its enemies and so-called friends alike. You should guard against the one-sided and often calculating wall of "even-handed" opinion that swamps our institutions and journalists. You think you would demand the same scrutiny and criticism of yor own nations if they were in the same situation; but believe me, they would act in a far worse manner - and most have done in the past.

If the yardstick of opinio on Israel had been historically placed only after serious thought as to what you and your own country would do in similar circumstances, I believe (setting aside that this whole conflict may never have happened because Hizballah would have been disarmed or north of the Litani since 2000) that views on the situation might have been different. More people (and hence media) would have seen this as a defensive struggle in which Hizballah had to take most responsibility for civilian casualties on both sides.

I note that this is the majority view in the USA according to recent surveys. Setting aside the usual bunk about how the insidious "Jewish-Zionist lobby controls America/the Christian fundamentalist-neocons control America so of course they are biased", there is something of an affinity that I think runs between the national psyches of Middle America and Israel. I have travelled extensively in the MidWest, New South and SouthWest of the USA, which I consider to be "real America" - neither the European exclaves of the east and west coasts, nor the hicks and hillbillies of the Deep South and the far north. What I find there is a profound connection to the land, and the same contradictions I love in Israel - technology and farming, intellectual thought and the big outdoors, that same thick, prickly skin and sweet, soft interior. I think that is the real reason why most Americans understand Israel, and hence support it, when Europeans don't - they draw closer to the Israeli side because they understand it and see its merits and its claims for justice, whilst they cannot understand the other side, nor find much merit or an equal claim to justice.

Most of all, for my own sanity, I hope for the day when I can stop writing such long postings and aggressive-sounding blogs. I long for the point where I can sit in a cafe in Tel Aviv without being frisked, and meet a Lebanese family popping down on the coastal railway for a weekend. I look forward to my friends and family not having to pull on a uniform for a month every year. I cannot wait to show Payam, Adil, Malik, Marwan et al around the cooperatively built and run gas-fired power station between Sderot and Gaza that lights the schools in which children on both sides learn about the culture of the other, and visit each other to find out more.

I know for certain that this is a perspective held by about 99% of Israelis. Supporting them in this vision is not a zero-sum game - you do not have to stop criticising Olmert, or to abandon calls for a ceasefire, or to think you have deserted the Palestinian or Lebanese cause, and you certainly must not excuse the behaviour of errant Israelis who overstep the bounds of self-defense - we don't and won't either.

I hope this national pop-psychology gives you some insight on what I think is the problem - unfortunately, you can't plop a nation down on the psychoanalyst's couch, charge him $200 an hour, and talk through the problems so easily.


Anonymous said...

I found out about this place by accident, was looking for some info about a subject and got this on google, since then I read it regulary.
This article/post however moved me, it stated exactly how I feel, so helpless to the reality of being doomed no matter what we do.
I am 24yo from Israel, have served in the army and have friends fighting right now, I live in the Krayot and am living a war situation right now, betwin siren to siren, though I'm sure the ppl in lebanon are suffering much more.

I'm close to tears, 'cause I know the words we say are meaningless to those who critizise us, I sometimes think my English isn't good enough, but I realize it doesnt matter what I say, since I am the one saying it, an Israeli, a "biased opinion" that is automaticly ignored by those who critisize Israel blindly.

Keep on writing, you give me hope and make me feel better for those 10-15 minutes I read your words.

Anonymous said...

You might review the terms and conditions of aSmallWorld. Discussions and content, not to mention details about members (such as names), is expressly not permitted.

Anonymous said...

Oops... Meant to say that forum discussions and content (and member details) in aSW are not permitted to be published in public. It is a private community, and members expect their comments to remain within the community, not published to the world such as you are doing.

freedmanslife said...

You might want to read more carefully before making petty remarks. You would realise that my postings on this site are of MY OWN remarks on aSW and therefore I see no reason why aSW has some kind of copyright over my own writings.

The only other piece I posted was from a very pleasant guy I got into some dialogue with on aSW, on the understanding that he was favourable to a broader audience reading his insightful and interesting comments, but you don't seem to have made your dig at me under that entry.

I also note that the average thread on aSW probably has a higher readership than my blog, and that you decided to post anonymously.

If you have a problem with me copying my own words across from aSW or using those of someone I had a dialogue with, whose opinions I did not agree with but nonetheless gave them a platform on my own website, please feel free to have me banned from aSW, which frankly has deteriorated from a serious professional network into a talking-shop for trustafarians anyway.

I can only conclude that you have a very specific agenda in sniffing for this kind of thing 8 months after publication... unless you work for aSW, are the person who wrote those original remarks, or are prepared to identify yourself, kindly stop flaming my site.