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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Middle East, NOT Middle Earth

I have a confession to make. In my last post, I apologized for a month long silence and blamed it on a time crunch. In truth, I have been experiencing a time crunch as my blissful year in Israel comes to an end, and I try to drain out every last drop of תענוג, spiritual pleasure, that I possibly can. But -- I was also avoiding my blog for another reason.

The post before last, I wrote a tribute to the state of Israel in honor of Israel's Independence Day. I had planned that tribute to be the first in a series of comments about Israeli politics and society, and I've been avoiding making those posts. Writing about Israel is likely to be career suicide for a rabbi; if she is critical of Israel, the hawks will have her head, and if she is supportive of Israel, the doves will skewer her heart. But even aside from concerns of how I will be received, I felt in all honesty קטנתי -- I am too small. The situation here so complex, what can I say that is not an oversimplification?

And yet, I have made worthwhile observations, and so, with a deep breath, I will share a few notes. Consider my post today to be the second in a series of seven about the political situation in Israel. To give you a sense of where I am going, here is a list of all the titles:
1. Celebrating Israel
2. This is the Middle East, not Middle Earth!
3. Sayid
4. The Security Wall
5. Ethnic Struggle 
6. Borders
7. The Future

This is the Middle East, not Middle Earth

I am frustrated by the way conversations about Israel seem to flatten everything down to a battle between good and evil.

The BBC is possibly the worst main-stream offender on the anti-Israel side. Several organizations, for example Just Journalism, have been tracking their biased reporting. I am not a regular follower, but I recently came across one relatively tame example: take a look at this short article about Daniel Viflic, a 16 year old boy who was killed this year by a rocket fired from Gaza into Israel. The article concludes:

It was the most serious violence since Israel's conflict with Hamas in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

About 1,400 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers, were killed.

I was shocked to learn that a single death had led to a conflict of such large scale, killing 1400 people, and that somehow I had missed the entire event! (It took me a few moments to realize that in recalling all those deaths, the article was reminding us of Operation Cast Lead of 2008-09, not the response to Daniel Viflic's death.)

Notice how the BBC typically refer to "Israel's conflict with Hamas", NOT the conflict between Israel and Hamas -- ignoring the fact that Operation Cast Lead, as brutal as it was, was a response to a daily onslaught of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel that has been traumatizing the residents of southern Israel, Jewish and Bedouin alike. Political science professor Jonathon Rynhold of Bar Ilan University refers to the BBC news coverage as reflecting a post-colonial mentality. He contrasts his own views: "I see this as a conflict with two sides."

So why does the BBC see this as Israel's conflict? Many Jews consider their one-sided views to be antisemitic. I actually think the BBC is racist in the opposite direction. My chevrutah Shaiya Rothberg -- whose views are usually quite left -- once pointed out to me that groups who see Israel as solely responsible for the conflicts in this region must think that certain types of people (third world? Muslim?) cannot be held responsible for their own actions.

But on the other side, I am equally frustrated by the all-too common Israeli view of Arabs as monolithic (they are all violent Jew-haters), or of Jews as the only humans in the region who really matter. Earlier this year, a private group paid to place larger-than-life pictures of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt"l, on the sides of city buses. Next to the Rebbe's welcoming half-smile were the words מדינה פליסטנית אסון ליהודים. (Translation: A Palestinian State is a disaster for the Jews.) Imagine how Jerusalem's Arab citizens, or, worse, her Palestinian visitors, must have felt boarding those buses! If that is hard to appreciate, try imagining the reaction if there were to be adds on California buses announcing: "Spanish in our schools is a disaster for true Americans."


  1. Ilana,
    Thanks for this series. Frustration is a good word to describe a thinking/caring person's response to the political situation here. Nuanced, considered thought is rarely heard
    Looking forward to the rest

  2. Nice post, as always!
    Will we see you before you leave?

  3. We are all deeply concerned about the state of Israeli politics, now and forever. Your thoughtful, intelligent comments lend a much needed humanity to the problem which has gotten out of hand. Real people making the effort to get to know each other seems to bridge the the understanding gap somewhat. Thank you so much for your heartfelt efforts.