March 13, 2003
It is too easy to point a finger.
We live in an age of anxiety -- to put it extremely mildly. By the time you read these words, Iraq might be in flames, Saddam Hussein (or at least one or two of his doubles) may be history -- or on the other hand, maybe not. We in Israel are readying our plastic sheeting, oscillating between the reassuring hunch we won't need it and the awful fear that it won't work. Jews all over are increasingly concerned -- I know I am -- by the insidious buzz that this is Israel's war, that Zionist pressure is manipulating the White House. And then we have the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence, which has heated up dismayingly in recent weeks. In short, not a good time.
On the other hand, the Palestinians, as of this writing, have a new prime minister, Abu Mazen, who is regarded as a moderate. Whether this will make a difference, who knows. I personally remain an advocate of negotiation and reconciliation, but maintain a certain skepticism as well. Consider the case of Hani al-Hassan, an engineer by profession, whom Yasser Arafat, in response to international calls to reform the Palestinian Authority, named interior minister last October. Al-Hassan, reputed to be a moderate, caught my attention in an interview published last month in Newsweek's Internet edition. "The Israeli army," he said, "is one of the strongest in the world, but Israelis always feel under siege. The normal Israeli citizen always feels afraid. Maybe the history of the Jewish people leads to such a feeling. We, as Palestinians, have to help them move away from that feeling."
Well put, I thought; if only such sentiments were actually put into practice. Then I scrolled farther down in the Al-Hassan interview and found the following: "I believe the Israeli army killed [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin because they were against a peace treaty; they want a security treaty, not a peace treaty."
Yikes. If a supposedly moderate guy like Al-Hassan not only believes, but is willing to tell Newsweek, that the IDF killed Rabin, what are we up against? Does he also believe the Mossad was behind Sept. 11?
No less demoralizing was an Op-Ed piece I saw in the Wall Street Journal by none other than Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and panjandrum of the American Jewish left, titled "The Antiwar Anti-Semites." It seems that Lerner was disinvited from addressing the big anti-war rally in San Francisco last month because he had publicly criticized Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), one of the groups organizing the rally, of having "used the anti-war demonstrations to put forward anti-Israel propaganda." ANSWER blackballed Lerner, and the other organizers accepted the veto. "Yet it is inconceivable that these anti-war coalitions would let ANSWER ban a speaker if he accused that group of racism, sexism or homophobia," Lerner wrote. "Why should anti-Semitism be treated differently, as the acceptable -ism?"
If even Michael Lerner -- who describes his position as "both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian" -- is treif for the "politically correct" American left, what's a liberal supporter of Israel to do Just as the loony fantasy of Hani al-Hassan casts a shadow on peace prospects, so too does the odor of anti-Semitism on the left tend to discredit any critique of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. Obviously there is a logical fallacy at work here: Just because hypocrites and scoundrels never miss a chance to smear Israel, it doesn't mean that all criticism of Israel is hypocritical or unfair. But in today's hyperfearful world, where everything seems to boil down to Us vs. Them, this kind of logic often goes out the window.
Let me offer another case in point: Not long ago, a daily newspaper in a large American city published a full-color photo essay titled "Cycle of War," consisting of pictures of Palestinians, mainly kids, under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. The photo essay had not been assigned; a freelance photographer offered the pictures to the paper, which spread them out prominently over four pages. The images are striking, and very distressing. Civilian homes wrecked by the IDF. A little girl walking to school past a scary Israeli tank. A family behind a window grating, imprisoned in their home under curfew. The body of an 8-year-old boy, shot while throwing stones at a tank.
I visited the American city in question a few weeks after the pictures were published. Many members of the Jewish community were, understandably, very upset. Jewish activists had written to the editor, protesting that the newspaper failed to provide context, portrayed suffering on only one side, and had neglected to point out that Palestinian terrorists thrive in the midst of the civilian population, uncurbed by the Palestinian Authority. Supporters of Israel accused the paper of practicing irresponsible journalism and trafficking in "cheap propaganda."
I looked at the newspaper, listened to the anger and wondered out loud: Was it malice, or carelessness, that had led the paper's editors to publish so lopsided a photo essay? Nobody I spoke to thought the paper or its editors were anti-Semitic, or notoriously anti-Israel; it was more a matter of clumsy decision-making. Then I asked a more impolitic question: What about the pictures? Did anyone here really look at the pictures?
The hardest thing, the very hardest, in these awful times is not to allow our indignation, our Jewish patriotism -- even our unassailable right to defend ourselves against terrorists who murder children in Haifa and elsewhere -- to harden our hearts, to erode our capacity for compassion, to undermine our ability to look at the pictures and see the suffering of children and parents on the other side. It is all too easy to point a finger at double-talking Palestinian leaders, cynical left-wing Israel-bashers and hostile or insensitive journalists and say, no matter what we do they will be against us, and the terrible situation is not our fault, so there is no point -- not now, anyway -- in being soft, empathetic or conciliatory.
But if not now, when?
"The conditions under which millions of Palestinians live around us, Israelis, are something we need to know about," Amos Schocken, publisher of the Ha'aretz newspaper, said in a speech last fall at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Schocken admitted that reportage from Ha'aretz, in this Internet age, can be wrenched from its context and misused by Israel's foes -- but insisted that his newspaper must continue to do its job.
"The ability of Israelis to make decisions about their destiny will certainly improve if they have better knowledge, and maybe understanding, of the life, the thinking and the perceptions of our closest neighbors, the Palestinians."
The same is true, I believe, for friends of Israel everywhere.