If you eat Jewish food you’re likely to get heart disease. If you read Jewish news you’re likely to get whiplash.
Consider the last two weeks.
First, the news was filled with remarkable, inspiring stories of Israel’s response to the disaster in Haiti. Just after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the country, killing untold thousands, Israel rushed in a lifesaving search-and-rescue team and a state-of-the-art Israel Defense Forces field hospital.
“I don’t know what we would have done without the Israeli field hospital in Haiti,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton told Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Then a week later, Israel released its 46-page response to the Goldstone Report. The U.N.-sponsored report, led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of war crimes in its war against Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s response reignited debate over its 22-day offensive in Gaza last January and over the control it exercises over Gaza’s population.
Suddenly, Haiti had vanished and the headlines focused on Israel’s use of white phosphorus munitions in crowded civilian areas, its shelling of a U.N. civilian compound, the 1,400 Palestinians killed in Israel’s incursion, the desperate state of Gaza today.
It was whiplash with a side of backlash. In the logic of Israel’s harshest critics, Haiti somehow proved Israel’s inhumanity.
“Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza,” wrote Akiva Eldar in Ha’aretz. “Only a little more than an hour’s drive from the offices of Israel’s major newspapers, 1.5 million people have been besieged on a desert island for two and a half years. Who cares that 80 percent of the men, women and children living in such proximity to us have fallen under the poverty line? How many Israelis know that half of all Gazans are dependent on charity, that Operation Cast Lead [the Gaza War] created hundreds of amputees, that raw sewage flows from the streets into the sea?”
“The Israeli newspaper reader knows about the baby pulled from the wreckage in Port-au-Prince. Few have heard about the infants who sleep in the ruins of their families’ homes in Gaza.”
All over the Internet, Israel’s supporters made CNN’s laudatory coverage of the IDF in Haiti into a viral video. Meanwhile, detractors attacked Israel’s Haitian rescue as a ruse to, as one blogger put it, “clean up the brutal face of Zionism.”
How do sensible people make sense of this? Which is the real “face of Zionism?”
The images of the IDF field hospital near Port-au-Prince are the mirror opposite of the images of the IDF operations in Gaza City.
The stories of Israeli artillery killing children in Gaza jam up against stories of Israeli doctors saving children in Haiti.
The reports of Haiti’s dire need spur blogger snipes about the $3 billion in annual aid Israel receives from America — Haiti has received an average of about $75 million annually over the past 20 years.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to this obvious dilemma when he welcomed 200 Israeli first responders back from Haiti.
“You raised peoples’ spirits; you raised the name of the State of Israel and the name of the IDF,” Netanyahu said last Thursday morning during at a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. “Precisely during these days, during which there are those who conspire against us, and distort and degrade the name of the IDF and the name of the State of Israel, you showed the world the true spirit of the IDF.”
Nations act in their own self-interest. Defending its border with Gaza and offering its goodwill and expertise to those in need — both of these are in Israel’s vital interest. But to understand this is to sometimes hold two opposing thoughts — and hundreds of diametrically opposed images — in one’s head at the same time. And that, it seems, is asking a lot of people.
For too many people, it’s too tempting to bulldoze away the uncomfortable truths to put up a single billboard slogan: Israel is Pure, or, Israel is Evil.
But of course it’s more complicated than that. It’s not Haiti versus Gaza, it’s Haiti and Gaza. Israel destroyed lives in Gaza in an effort to save lives in Israel. It saved lives in Haiti because that’s what Israel does, too. Israel has a history of confronting constant war, existential threats and daily terror — the same forces that made Israel expert at taking lives has made it almost unparalleled at saving them.
Gaza was a tougher call than Haiti, just as negotiating the West Bank is tougher than Sinai. My rule of thumb toward Israel is: Don’t expect perfection, don’t excuse imperfection.
“The question is not whether Israel is always right or always wrong,” said former Knesset Deputy Speaker Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund, “but what we will do to solve the very real problems Israel has.”