Friday, September 02, 2005

When Israelis Are Wet Rags

Sometime during my college years in Boston, when the Oslo Accords were still new and there was no irony in referring to the Palestinians as peace partners, I went to hear an Israeli and a Palestinian debate the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

I expected a lively discussion, with both sides hurling accusations at one another. I expected it to get heated, maybe one or the other losing his tempter, perhaps even throwing something. But that didn't happen at all. Debate wasn't really the right word to describe it. Today, I would call it a lecture. Both sides took turns explaining why Israel was wrong about everything. No one defended Israel, and no one mentioned any Palestinian or Arab role in the conflict.

It was my first exposure to Israeli post-Zionism.

I'm reminded of this "debate" because I encountered a similar situation in the Frontline/World special on the Middle East called Occupied Minds: A Palestinian and Israeli on the Road, which debuted on Aug. 30. Two journalists, an Israeli and a Palestinian, go to Jerusalem to learn about each other's people. Unfortunately, the Israeli, David Michaelis, believes the Palestinians are currently experiencing a second "nakba," and the Palestinian, Jamal Dajani, who narrates the work, believes in a one-state solution. Both seem like nice, intelligent people, but neither one apprears too anxious to examine both sides equally.

What's frustrating about the work is that the Israeli fails to stand up for Israel on virtually any issue. He seems vaguely convinced that the two-state solution is better, but only because it seems more practical. He refuses to challenge any of the Palestinians he interviews. And he makes some of the program’s strongest indictments against Israel. What's the point of having "an Israeli and a Palestinian" if they both hold Palestinian views? In this case, the Israeli simply serves as a figleaf for the Palestinian message.

As a result, we get something that appears balanced on the surface but fails to shed real light on the complex Middle East reality. When the two go to visit an Israeli victim of terror, who lost an eye in a suicide bombing, the Palestinian interviewer challenges him to defend an IDF bombing that killed Palestinian civilians. But when they visit an Arab Israeli, that aggressiveness is gone, replaced by nods of empathic understanding. No one brings up the question of Palestinian terror, and neither reporter challenges the Arab Israeli at all, even when he makes ridiculous accusations, such as his claim that Russian immigrants to Israel are taking Palestinian land.

About halfway through the documentary, the two journalists split up, with the Dajani headed to (pre-disengagement) Gaza to talk to frustrated people at a checkpoint, and Michaelis attending a right wing rally in Jerusalem. where he clearly feels uncomfortable and doesn't talk to anyone. He also goes to Emek Refaim St., where he notes the increase in security since his last visit and remarks that Jerusalem has become the world's capital for suicide bombings.

When they meet up again, the Palestinian admits it was good they didn't go to Gaza together, or the Palestinians would have lynched the Israeli. Later in the program, however, they agree that peace will come when the Israelis, not the Palestinians, learn to be good neighbors.

The program concludes with a tour of "the wall itself," Israel's security barrier in Jerusalem. We see old Palestinian women struggling to cross the wall and cursing Israel. We also meet a Palestinian farmer who is unable to reach a portion of his land because of the barrier and an Israeli city planner who hints that the wall is really a political structure. The Israeli journalist concludes that the wall causes Palestinains to hate Israel more deeply.

At the end, Michaelis and the Dajani sit on a park bench discussing what they'd seen. The Israeli talks about how he sees little to be hopeful about, but one never knows where a solution can come from. "The wall in Berlin came down, South Africa has been turned upside down, unimagined things can happen," he says.

"We have a saying about driving in Israel: don't be right, be clever," he adds, explaining that Israelis have to consider pragmatic solutions. The Palestinian responds that it is up to Israel to find the solution because Israel has more power in the region.

The finished product clearly gives a pass to the Palestinians on many difficult questions. When an Arab Israeli dentist says many of his clients haven't been able to pay their bills since the intifada began, it is taken as a fact of life, not something the Palestinians have control over, as though they didn't start the intifada, and they aren't continuing it.

The reporters show that Palestinian lives have been effected by Israel's security measures, but never discuss the fact that the Palestinians destroyed a peaceful political process by launching a campaign of terror. We see the Israeli right wing at a rally with its slogans and banners, but not Palestinian terror rallies. We hear about suicide bombings, but we never get a feel for where the bombers come from and what role they play in Israel’s security measures.

We also get a strong sense of Palestinian suffering, but all of it seems to be at the hands of Israel. The reality, of course, is far more complex. There are Palestinian armed groups causing chaos in the territories, and massive corruption in the Palestinian government. During the height of the intifada, there were reports of Palestinians hording international aid and selling it to hungry people.

It would also be nice to hear Palestinian perspectives on what the Palestinians should do to contribute to peace in the region. But if the public had any sense of Palestinians other than victims, it could undermine support for the Palestinian struggle. Clearly, the two reporters of the Frontline documentary were not taking any chances on that happening.


At 9:35 PM, Blogger MC Aryeh said...

A very good piece, KR. Starts with a bang of an opening, and maintains its momentum till the end. Would like to see more reviews from you.

I wonder if it would even be possible to have a real debate - would a Palestinian and a pro-Israel Israeli actually agree to be profiled where both sides are presented?

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Kalman Rushdie said...

Thanks for the positive feedback.

There is a website, that features one question each week and two pro-Palestinian writers and two pro-Israel writers give their opinions. So, I'm sure there are people who strongly support one side or the other and are willing to engage the other meaningfully.

But, no doubt, it is hard to find.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger oishkapipik said...

This trend shows itself in all aspects of the media. It frustrates me to no end. I was listening to this radio interview on the radio two weeks ago between a Palestinian student and an Israel student. They had to search pretty hard to find such an uninformed deufus of an Israeli. It was really quite comical!! I think the Israeli was more pro-palestinian than the palestinian.

It just seems to get worse and worse, its gone way past rediculous a long time ago.

At 2:31 AM, Blogger lisoosh said...

When you say Pro-Israel, exactly what do you mean?
Pro green line borders? Pro maintaining the West Bank and Gaza? Indignation at suicide bombings and terror as means to a political end? Which policies do you envision as pro-Israel?

At 9:29 PM, Blogger Kalman Rushdie said...


You pose an excellent question and I thank you for asking it.

In brief, I do not believe that a certain set of political opinions is inherently pro-Israel to the exclusion of all else. When I say that a person is pro-Israel, I mean that the person puts Israel's interests above the interests of those who oppose Israel.

I do not, however, accept the argument that punishing Israel is ultimately in Israel's interest, and therefore those who seek change in Israel through international sanctions are actually pro-Israel. I find that logic perverse.

Ultimately, the test comes down to this: does a person's positions on Israel help those who care about Israel or those who hate Israel and want to see it destroyed.


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