I was sitting in a lecture hall at a British university. Bored by the speaker, I began glancing around the hall. I noticed someone who looked quite familiar from an earlier academic incarnation. When the session ended, I introduced myself and wondered if, after years that could be counted in decades, he remembered me.
He said he did, at which point I commented that the years had been good to him. His response: “But you’ve changed a lot.”
“How so?” I asked with a degree of trepidation, knowing that, self-deception aside, being 60 isn’t quite the same as 30.
Looking me straight in the eye, he proclaimed, as others standing nearby listened in, “I read the things you write about Israel. I hate them. How can you defend that country? What happened to the good liberal boy I knew 30 years ago?”
I replied: “That good liberal boy hasn’t changed his view. Israel is a liberal cause, and I am proud to speak up for it.”
Yes, I’m proud to speak up for Israel. A recent trip once again reminded me why.
Sometimes, it’s the seemingly small things, the things that many may not even notice, or just take for granted, or perhaps deliberately ignore, lest it spoil their airtight thinking.
It’s the driving lesson in Jerusalem, with the student behind the wheel a devout Muslim woman, and the teacher an Israeli with a skullcap. To judge from media reports about endless inter-communal conflict, such a scene should be impossible. Yet, it was so mundane that no one, it seemed, other than me gave it a passing glance. It goes without saying that the same woman would not have had the luxury of driving lessons, much less with an Orthodox Jewish teacher, had she been living in Saudi Arabia.
It’s the two gay men walking hand-in-hand along the Tel Aviv beachfront. No one looked at them, and no one questioned their right to display their affection. Try repeating the same scene in some neighboring countries.
It’s the Friday crowd at a mosque in Jaffa. Muslims are free to enter as they please, to pray, to affirm their faith. The scene is repeated throughout Israel. Meanwhile, Christians in Iraq are targeted for death; Copts in Egypt face daily marginalization; Saudi Arabia bans any public display of Christianity; and Jews have been largely driven out of the Arab Middle East.
It’s the central bus station in Tel Aviv. There’s a free health clinic set up for the thousands of Africans who have entered Israel, some legally, others illegally. They are from Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere. They are Christians, Muslims, and animists. Clearly, they know something that Israel’s detractors, who rant and rave about alleged “racism,” don’t. They know that, if they’re lucky, they can make a new start in Israel. That’s why they bypass Arab countries along the way, fearing imprisonment or persecution. And while tiny Israel wonders how many such refugees it can absorb, Israeli medical professionals volunteer their time in the clinic.
It’s Save a Child’s Heart, another Israeli institution that doesn’t make it into the international media all that much, although it deserves a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Here, children in need of advanced cardiac care come, often below the radar. They arrive from Iraq, the West Bank, Gaza, and other Arab places. They receive world-class treatment. It’s free, offered by doctors and nurses who wish to assert their commitment to coexistence. Yet, these very same individuals know that, in many cases, their work will go unacknowledged. The families are fearful of admitting they sought help in Israel, even as, thanks to Israelis, their children have been given a new lease on life.
It’s the vibrancy of the Israeli debate on just about everything, including, centrally, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. The story goes that U.S. President Harry Truman met Israeli President Chaim Weizmann shortly after Israel’s establishment in 1948. They got into a discussion about who had the tougher job. Truman said: “With respect, I’m president of 140 million people.” Weizmann retorted: “True, but I’m president of one million presidents.”
Whether it’s the political parties, the Knesset, the media, civil society, or the street, Israelis are assertive, self-critical, and reflective of a wide range of viewpoints.
It’s the Israelis who are now planning the restoration of the Carmel Forest, after a deadly fire killed 44 people and destroyed 8,000 acres of exquisite nature. Israelis took an arid and barren land and, despite the unimaginably harsh conditions, lovingly planted one tree after another, so that Israel can justifiably claim today that it’s one of the few countries with more wooded land than it had a century ago.
It’s the Israelis who, with quiet resolve and courage, are determined to defend their small sliver of land against every conceivable threat – the growing Hamas arsenal in Gaza; the dangerous build-up of missiles by Hezbollah in Lebanon; nuclear-aspiring Iran’s calls for a world without Israel; Syria’s hospitality to Hamas leaders and transshipment of weapons to Hezbollah; and enemies that shamelessly use civilians as human shields. Or the global campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy and right to self-defense; the bizarre anti-Zionist coalition between the radical left and Islamic extremists; the automatic numerical majority at the UN ready to endorse, at a moment’s notice, even the most far-fetched accusations against Israel; and those in the punditocracy unable – or unwilling – to grasp the immense strategic challenges facing Israel.
Yes, it’s those Israelis who, after burying 21 young people murdered by terrorists at a Tel Aviv discotheque, don the uniform of the Israeli armed forces to defend their country, and proclaim, in the next breath, that, “They won’t stop us from dancing, either.”
That’s the country I’m proud to stand up for. No, I’d never say Israel is perfect. It has its flaws and foibles. It’s made its share of mistakes. But, then again, so has every democratic, liberal and peace-seeking country I know, though few of them have faced existential challenges every day since their birth.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, it’s said. Israel is a good country. And seeing it up close, rather than through the filter of the BBC or the Guardian, never fails to remind me why.
Since writing “How can you defend Israel?” last month, I’ve been deluged by comments.
Some have been supportive, others harshly critical. The latter warrant closer examination.
The harsh criticism falls into two basic categories.
One is over the top.
It ranges from denying Israel’s very right to nationhood, to ascribing to Israel responsibility for every global malady, to peddling vague, or not so vague, anti-Semitic tropes.
There’s no point in dwelling at length on card-carrying members of these schools of thought. They’re living on another planet.
Israel is a fact. That fact has been confirmed by the UN, which, in 1947, recommended the creation of a Jewish state. The UN admitted Israel to membership in 1949. The combination of ancient and modern links between Israel and the Jewish people is almost unprecedented in history. And Israel has contributed its share, and then some, to advancing humankind.
If there are those on a legitimacy kick, let them examine the credentials of some others in the region, created by Western mapmakers eager to protect their own interests and ensure friendly leaders in power.
Or let them consider the basis for legitimacy of many countries worldwide created by invasion, occupation, and conquest. Israel’s case beats them by a mile.
And if there are people out there who don’t like all Jews, frankly, it’s their problem, not mine. Are there Jewish scoundrels? You bet. Are there Christian, Muslim, atheist, and agnostic scoundrels? No shortage. But are all members of any such community by definition scoundrels? Only if you’re an out-and-out bigot.
The other group of harsh critics assails Israeli policies, but generally tries to stop short of overt anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism. But many of these relentless critics, at the slightest opportunity, robotically repeat claims about Israel that are factually incorrect.
There are a couple of methodological threads that run through their analysis.
The first is called confirmation bias. This is the habit of favoring information that confirms what you believe, whether it’s true or not, and ignoring the rest.
While Israel engages in a full-throttled debate on policies and strategies, rights and wrongs, do Israel’s fiercest critics do the same? Hardly.
Can the chorus of critics admit, for example, that the UN recommended the creation of two states — one Jewish, the other Arab — and that the Jews accepted the proposal, while the Arabs did not and launched a war?
Can they acknowledge that wars inevitably create refugee populations and lead to border adjustments in favor of the (attacked) victors?
Can they recognize that, when the West Bank and Gaza were in Arab hands until 1967, there was no move whatsoever toward Palestinian statehood?
Can they explain why Arafat launched a “second intifada” just as Israel and the U.S. were proposing a path-breaking two-state solution?
Or what the Hamas Charter says about the group’s goals?
Or what armed-to-the-teeth Hezbollah thinks of Israel’s right to exist?
Or how nuclear-weapons-aspiring Iran views Israel’s future?
Or why President Abbas rejected Prime Minister Olmert’s two-state plan, when the Palestinian chief negotiator himself admitted it would have given his side the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank?
Or why Palestinian leaders refuse to recognize the Western Wall or Rachel’s Tomb as Jewish sites, while demanding recognition of Muslim holy sites?
Or why Israel is expected to have an Arab minority, but a state of Palestine is not expected to have any Jewish minority?
Can they admit that, when Arab leaders are prepared to pursue peace with Israel rather than wage war, the results have been treaties, as the experiences of Egypt and Jordan show?
And can they own up to the fact that when it comes to liberal and democratic values in the region, no country comes remotely close to Israel, whatever its flaws, in protecting these rights?
Apropos, how many other countries in the Middle East — or beyond — would have tried and convicted an ex-president? This was the case, just last week, with Moshe Katsav, sending the message that no one is above the law — in a process, it should be noted, presided over by an Israeli Arab justice.
And if the harsh critics can’t acknowledge any of these points, what’s the explanation? Does their antipathy for Israel — and resultant confirmation bias — blind them to anything that might puncture their airtight thinking?
Then there is the other malady. It’s called reverse causality, or switching cause and effect.
Take the case of Gaza.
These critics focus only on Israel’s alleged actions against Gaza, as if they were the cause of the problem. In reality, they are the opposite — the effect.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it gave local residents their first chance in history — I repeat, in history — to govern themselves.
Neighboring Israel had only one concern — security. It wanted to ensure that whatever emerged in Gaza would not endanger Israelis. In fact, the more prosperous, stable, and peaceful Gaza became, the better for everyone. Tragically, Israel’s worst fears were realized. Rather than focus on Gaza’s construction, its leaders — Hamas since 2007 — preferred to contemplate Israel’s destruction. Missiles and mortars came raining down on southern Israel. Israel’s critics, though, were silent. Only when Israel could no longer tolerate the terror did the critics awaken — to focus on Israel’s reaction, not Gaza’s provocative action.
Yet, what would any other nation have done in Israel’s position?
Just imagine terrorists in power in British Columbia — and Washington State’s cities and towns being the regular targets of deadly projectiles. How long would it take for the U.S. to go in and try to put a stop to the terror attacks, and what kind of force would be used?
Or consider the security barrier.
It didn’t exist for nearly 40 years. Then it was built by Israel in response to a wave of deadly attacks originating in the West Bank, with well over 1,000 Israeli fatalities (more than 40,000 Americans in proportional terms). Even so, Israel made clear that such barriers cannot only be erected, but also moved and ultimately dismantled.
Yet the outcry of Israel’s critics began not when Israelis were being killed in pizzerias, at Passover Seders, and on buses, but only when the barrier went up.
Another case of reverse causality — ignoring the cause entirely and focusing only on the effect, as if it were a stand-alone issue disconnected from anything else.
So, again, in answer to the question of my erstwhile British colleague, “How can you defend Israel?” I respond: Proudly.
In doing so, I am defending a liberal, democratic, and peace-seeking nation in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, where liberalism, democracy, and peace are in woefully short supply.
Tags: Arab Middle East, Christians in Iraq, Copts in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Israel, Israeli medical professionals, Jaffa, Jerusalem, mosques, Muslims, Nobel Peace Prize, Orthodox Jewish, refugees, Saudi Arabia, Save a Child's Heart, Tel Aviv gays, the West Bank