All of a sudden we seem to be further from peace than at any time since the Oslo accords. The war in Gaza has recreated an impenetrable filter through which the two sides see two totally different realities. The light of mutual understanding and other-directed empathy, weak as it has often been, has now totally disappeared into a Bermuda triangle of violence, hate and fear.
I have long known that 'the usses and the thems' of the world will look at the same facts yet see totally different realities and create two totally different narratives. I have recently heard two things from Israel’s side and found two things in my email in-box that have made painfully clear that what Israel and many Jews see when looking outward is totally different from what many others see when looking towards Israel. Why are we caught up in this game of 'I see what you don't see?'
In an interview with David Frost, Daniel Ayalon, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, was asked to react to the huge difference in lives lost between the two sides. He answered:
The indifference and callousness in his words and tone (click at the end of the article for the actual audio if you think I am making his answer up) surpassed being surprising and entered into the realm of the frightening.
Before Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Olmert commented on the pressure his country is facing from the UN and a great many people around the world:
And in my email I received from otherwise introspective and level-headed Jewish friends two videos currently being circulated. Both basically had the message that the world has always hated and persecuted the Jews, using examples dating back to Roman times and bringing up the Inquisition, the Crusaders, Martin Luther, the Russian and eastern European pogroms, the Holocaust, the wars of 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006 and 2008. The videos ended with the plea that all we want is this one tiny piece of land and even that ‘they’ want to now deny us. Again.
What is going on here? How is it possible that so much of the world sees an indifferent bully gone mad while Israel and many of her, in particular, Jewish supporters see the specter of age-old antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments rearing its ugly head once again?
As someone who has had the opportunity to emotionally, politically and even geographically look through both sides of this filter I want to share with my non-Jewish friends what Israel sees and I want to share with my Israeli and Jewish friends what much of the rest of the world sees. None of this is meant to directly address, justify or explain the actions of one side or the other in the current Gaza conflict. I want to try and take a step back and take us to an underlying phenomenon that is in part responsible for having gotten us to where we are today.
First to my non-Jewish friends: Israel’s apparent callousness as demonstrated by Ayalon’s words, its indignant refusal to listen to world opinion as expressed in the words of Olmert and this resurgent reliance on the ‘anti-Semite’ card as witnessed by these circulating videos are clearly troubling. But please do not think this is some sort of arrogance born of superiority, evil and or hate towards the Palestinians. That is a mistake. It is a reaction that finds its roots in what should be an understandable deep-seated human vulnerability.
It is undeniable that the Jews were for centuries subjected to vilification, persecution, homelessness and all too often even death. We have never been able to rely on any government or power to help ensure our survival. There have been periods of Jewish communal blossoming (Babylon, Islamic Spain, even pre-Nazi Germany for example) but these have never endured. We have had few friends throughout history and even fewer lasting friends.
This is also why Israel so frequently seems to indulge no criticism from the outside world. All challenging criticism is easily dismissed, nay, must be dismissed, when it, in the perception of many, comes from people who have historically wanted and, so the narrative goes, still want to see us disappear. The perceived lack of empathy and actions to address Israel’s security needs have been for example one of the major stumbling blocks in the peace process. This need for security, combined with a deep lingering feeling of vulnerability, continues to elicit reactions that others will see as extreme but which many in our community will see as necessary and justified.
We are also hurt, confused and outraged when it appears to many in our community that the deaths of Israeli citizens at the hands of terrorists does not lead to the same outrage when, what many believe to be defensive actions lead to the tragic deaths of Palestinians. That's why so many of those videos like I have received are being made and circulated. In our vulnerability, fear and confusion, many see antisemitism as the 'only' explanation.
To my Jewish and Israeli friends: What is very often the view from the other side of this impenetrable filter, a view which too many in our community generally refuse to acknowledge or whose possible validity is denied? The view I am going to sketch is of course not exhaustive, and it in particular leaves out much that is positive (yes, there is much positive), but it includes some of the things that many people find quite troubling and confusing in Israel's behavior.
To begin with, rest assured, Israel is viewed as a legitimate member of the community of nations, a UN member whose right to exist is not questioned. In fact, with the possible exception of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, every other country I dare say, including Arab and Muslim states, have made it clear that Israel has a right to exist. Look at the Arab peace initiative of 2002, repeated in 2007, and the attendance of at least 18 Arab nations as well as members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the Annapolis peace conference in 2007. The entire world may not be happy with certain aspects of Israel's behavior, some may be outraged at times, but our fellow UN-members really do not deny our right to exist. That is something very important that we need to come to grips with.
But many people and states see in Israel the undeniable major regional power with one of the world’s most capable and technologically advanced armed forces, a country that receives billions of dollars every year in military assistance from the United States and almost for sure possesses weapons of mass destruction. They see a country that has ignored more UN security council resolutions than any other member state; a country that for 41 years has been controlling /administering (pick your favorite word) a territory with 3.9 million Palestinians; a country that is walling in more of both its recognized and still disputed borders than perhaps any country in the world has ever done (excepting the Great Wall of China).
They see a country that has divided the land she is occupying/administering into large parcels of land and hundreds of miles of roads open only to her own citizens leading to a situation where 10% of the West Bank population – those who have moved there from Israel – enjoy exclusive use of at least 38% of the land area; whose citizens enjoy free movement of people, goods and services in those territories while the indigenous population is subject to severe restrictions and controls; where these restrictions have led to an economic disaster for the very peoples we say we want to see as our independent and prosperous neighbors; where Israel allocates to the indigenous population between 1/3 – 2/3 of the minimum amount of water that the World Health Organization says is necessary for personal and urban needs while the Israeli population is allocated 3.5 times that amount.
Many people see a state that often denies the indigenous population of the territories permission to receive critical medical care over the ‘green line’ unless the patient or family members agree to become informants for the security forces; a country that for example has seriously dislocated the lives of 160,000 indigenous residents in one city in order to accommodate 800 of her own citizens; where a policy of routinely refusing up to 95% of the building permit requests submitted by the indigenous population in the West Bank leads to the wholesale demolishing of ‘illegally’ built homes while those that have moved there from Israel are freely granted building permits and whose illegally constructed structures are rarely demolished; where a majority of the settlements of those who moved there from Israel have been built either partially or entirely on private Palestinian lands. Much of the world sees a nation that talks a lot about a two-state solution but in the last several years has not made any tangible significant sacrifices in order to progress the cause of a two-state solution.
These are the two views on opposite sides of a filter that in times of conflict becomes impenetrable. Israel sees the age-old specter of anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments and much of the rest of the world sees a playground bully whose talk of peace and sensitivity to the Palestinian's plight looks out of step with its actions.
Neither of these perceptions tell the whole story. But until both sides make an honest effort to see and empathize with the other’s perspective, background, history, vulnerabilities and sensitivities we are going to be caught in an endless and deadly version of ‘I Spy’, the children’s game that we call here in Holland, ‘I see what you don’t see.'