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Haiti versus The Flotilla

by Rob Eshman

May 31, 2010 | 4:38 pm

Haiti versus The Flotilla

By Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief

When I was searching online for video of Israel’s raid on the humanitarian flotilla that left 12 people dead,  I kept coming across footage of Israel’s aid to Haiti earthquake victims that kept thousands of people alive.

One set of videos showed Israeli doctors, in an operation carried out by the Israel Defense Forces, working with urgency and expertise to rescue and treat the victims of a natural disaster halfway around the world.

The other set of videos show naval commandos, in an operation carried out by the Israel Defense Forces, trying both to stay alive and carry out their mission, right in their own neighborhood.

The Haiti video footage shows a traumatized young woman, pulled out from the earthquake rubble, being tended to by a team of crack Israeli doctors, in a field hospital that arrived fully equipped and operational long before any comparable medical facilities, even America’s, were up and running.

The flotilla video shows Israeli naval commandos boarding the relief vessel the Mavi Marmara and immediately becoming embroiled in a violent confrontation with some passengers. While it is still unclear exactly what transpired, by the end of the action at least 12 passengers were dead, allegedly all shot by Israelis.

Not quite as inspiring as the Haiti video.

In Haiti Israel became the world’s heroes, the country you would most want in your corner when your world crumbles. Acting 20 miles out to sea, in international waters, Israel has become the object of protest, outrage and scorn—the country peaceloving peaceniks would most fear.

So, which one is Israel?  How do people predisposed to hate Israel assimilate Haiti?  And how do people who support Israel explain the Mavi Marmara?

“How does Israel survive this one?”  a friend e-mailed me shortly after the headline broke Monday morning.

Well, Israel will survive this one—June 5 is the 43rd anniversary of the Six Day War—if Israel can emerge victorious from encirclement by every Arab army, it can even overcome its own boneheaded missteps.

But what he meant was: How can I stand behind the country that stands behind this?  How do I try to explain to people livid at the tragic loss of life, incensed by the most incendiary headlines and images coursing through the Web?  How do I do it in a way that doesn’t reflexively dismiss Israel from any culpability,  but that balances what I know to be true—that Israel is a country capable of great things in Haiti—with what I also know to be true—the body count on the Mavi Marmara, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

It’s a challenging task.  The tendency is to either buy the images peddled by one side, or the self-righteousness hawked by the other. The kabuki dance of predictable reactions took stage within hours of the first news reports. Mobs took to the streets across the world, governments called Israeli diplomats to the carpet, every anti-Israel group hurried to be more enraged than the next.

Jewish groups, meanwhile, who couldn’t begin to process the conflicting facts, circled the wagons around Jerusalem. The problem with that rah rah reaction is that you just may eventually turn off people of average intelligence who basically support Israel, but sense a more balanced response is called for.

Too many of them are already saying this is a problem of Israel’s public relations. Crying over Israel’s PR has become an especially perverse kind of victimhood: even when Israel shares a good portion of blame, these defenders somehow try to cast it as a victim… of its own inept PR.  But there is no PR good enough to turn the flotilla into anything but a major political and intelligence screw up, and there is no PR maven savvy enough to explain how Israel benefits from what seems to be an endless, quixotic and self-defeating blockade of Gaza.

These reactions ignore the complicated reality that there are, and have always been, two Israels.  It was a country created for positive and negative reasons—to allow the Jewish people to flourish in their own land, and to escape the persecution they faced elsewhere.  Today, those original reasons explain so many of its actions.  Haiti represents the grandest Zionist impulse: to be a light among nations.  The flotilla represents the most understandable Zionist impulse: to secure the Jews against their enemies at all cost, to see and meet threats and enemies on every horizon.

Haiti and the Flotilla.  What we see happening more and more these days are both Israels at once. It is not good versus bad—there is nothing inherently bad about finally being able to defend oneself. And it is not the cliché of promise versus reality; the lives saved in Haiti are just as real as those lost in the flotilla.

It is that Israel is a complicated actor on the world stage: capable of humanitarian triumphs and disasters, prone to brilliant achievement and astonishing stupidity; its military and diplomatic advances always subject to the setbacks of faulty intelligence, hubris and miscalculation.

In this respect Israel is lot like.. every other country in the world.

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