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“How We Became a Night Unto The nations”

25 Nov

It’s one of those uncharacteristic grim rainy days here in Jerusalem. It’s been far too easy to kid myself into believing that the blue skies and pleasant temperatures I had become some used to could somehow defy the “law of seasons” and leave us with a perpetual summer. Oh well…

Rain or shine one thing that is guaranteed is that the newspapers here in Israel will be full of the latest news from the front-line of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The barrage of news stories of settlements, possible terrorist activities, and diplomatic meetings are endless; perfect for any Middle East news junkie like myself. The sad thing is that after a while it can all begin to wash over you, without any of it featuring on your radar. No matter what anyone writes or reports, no matter how optimistic or enlightening the news piece or opinion article may be, you’re sure to be left with the knowledge that nothing positive will ever come out of it. Gosh, I’ve been here only 6 weeks and already I’ve become cynical about the daily pronouncements of “peace plans”, “settlement freezes”, “UN deals” etc., etc.

Enough of the pessimism; here’s an opinion piece I read in this morning’s Haaretz: How we became a night unto the nations by Yoel Marcus. He writes how Israel, post-independence, was admired internationally in the West, but has since seen its reputation take a battering in the wake of the prolonged occupation and countless bloody wars.

Looking back on the history of Israel it is striking how much good will there was once was for this tiny country that rose from the ashes of the pogroms and the Holocaust, how they eked out a viable functioning democratic viable state from the inhospitable territory that makes up today’s Israel, defending themselves from Arab attacks on all fronts. It’s remarkable really. I could muddy the debate by mentioning  the displacement of millions of Arabs, but the fact remains that until probably the 1980s perhaps Israel was viewed overwhelmingly positively in the West.

But admiration for Israel’s strength gradually turned into resentment over the side effects of the prolonged occupation. Don’t speak Hebrew in public places overseas, tourists to Europe are warned today. Indeed, the days when someone could ask what language we were speaking and we would answer “Hebrew” with pride are long gone.

Israel’s military might and its unrestrained use of this might have turned the David-versus-Goliath analogy into an asset for the Palestinians. Israel is no longer described as at risk of being destroyed, but as a strong country, aggressive and domineering, as Charles de Gaulle once said. President Shimon Peres was recently greeted by angry demonstrations in Argentina and Brazil. Many countries boycott Israeli products, and Israeli lecturers on college campuses throughout the West endure catcalls. During Ehud Olmert’s recent lecture tour of the United States, he was greeted almost everywhere he went with cries such as “child killers!”

The belief that all foreigners must have a negative impression of Israel extends to the commercial field as well.  Easy Jet, when promoting the launch of their new route between London and Tel Aviv, chose not to mention Tel Aviv an Israeli city; any association with Israel deemed likely to put off travellers. I would argue that this not because Europeans must be inherently anti-Israeli, but rather because we still think of Israel as county where terrorist attacks must be a daily occurrence – that, at least, was the impression I got when I told people I was moving to Israel. Generally people were saying a) “I’ve heard it’s wonderful country” or b) “What about all the wars and terrorist attacks?”

So while it’s true that Israeli politicians might continue to get a hard time abroad, having to deal with the torrent of tough questions or outright abuse I don’t agree with the fact that Israelis can’t travel in the West and feel as if they must quieten they voices when they speak Hebrew, as Yoel Marcus alludes.

The views of Israeli in Western university campuses is of course a different matter:

Of greatest concern is what is happening on American campuses, which are slowly becoming pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. That is dangerous because this is where America’s future leaders are bred. But our opponents are not motivated by anti-Semitism, as our political hacks like to claim. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then anti-Semitism is the last refuge of the occupier.

I am glad to read that he doesn’t fall back on the anti-Israel = anti-Semitic equation that is so widespread among nationalistic commentators here and really makes any criticism of Israel very hard.

He concludes with these words, which I think hold a lot of truth:

Before sticking our noses into the problem of Iran’s nuclear program, which is a source of international concern, it would be preferable for our government to discuss how we got to where we are – no longer a light unto the nations – and what needs to be done to stop the freefall in our international image before it’s too late.

The question is then, whether improving the international reputation of Israel involves addressing the grievances of the Western world by enabling the creation of a viable Palestinian state? Or does it involve Israel tirelessly arguing their plight, hoping that the world will come round to the Israeli view that they are they still the David in the David vs. Goliath battle against nuclear Iran, suicide bombers, Qassam rockets, Hamas and Hezbollah?

I don’t hold much hope for either of the two options at the moment…but then what’s new?

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