Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Israel: in concept and in reality

As Israel’s raid of a protest ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza unfolded last week, it was interesting to watch how the coverage differed between the United States and Europe. Monday morning I watched as the European headlines scrolled across my RSS feed reader, and then starting at about 13:00 I saw the headlines come in from the main US media outlets. It was as if they were reporting on two different events. The difference in media coverage has been particularly interesting to watch as I am about to head to Israel tomorrow to see the situation for myself.

It wasn’t so much surprising as it was illustrative. During my four years living in Europe I’ve seen firsthand how different the European media’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is from the American media’s portrayal. They’re two sides of a coin, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. It’s rare to see any criticism of Israel in American media or from American politicians, whether from the left or from the right. The main emphasis is usually on the Israeli need for security. In Europe, the main emphasis tends to be on the occupation, and the security concerns of Israel aren’t addressed as frequently.

Just yesterday there was a notable example of the very different media climate with the rather humiliating firing of veteran White House columnist Helen Thomas after she made some incendiary comments about Israel. Until yesterday Thomas was the longest-serving White House correspondent in US history. She’s covered every president since John F. Kennedy, and is the only journalist to have her own reserved seat in the White House press briefing room. Last week a rabbi with a video camera asked Thomas on the street for her thoughts on Israel. She responded,
"Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land; its not German, its not Poland's" She was then asked where they should go, to which she replied: "they should go home to Poland, Germany…America and everywhere else”
It took just days for almost all of Thomas’s contracts to be dropped, and for her to be asked to retire from her long-time employer Hearst. Now of course Thomas, who has always been a columnist paid to express her opinions (which are very left wing) is also almost 90 years old. So it was pretty much time for her to retire anyway. But to be so unceremoniously dumped after 50 years of white house coverage is pretty surprising, until you remember the very sensitive nature of this issue in the country they were delivered in.

Now I’m not defending what Thomas said. Her suggestion that Jews go back to Poland and Germany is not only impractical but shows a remarkable lack of sensitivity to history. She is 90 years old, and people tend to lose their verbal filter with age. And yet it’s important to point out that hers is an opinion that is felt in much of the world – throughout the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. The idea that the the waves of Jewish settlers who arrived in Palestine during the late 19th and early 20th century do not legitimately belong there is not uncommon on this earth. Many people see that movement of people as part of a larger European colonization of foreign lands that was illegitimate. The French had to leave Algeria, the British had to leave Zimbabwe – why, they ask, didn’t European Jewry have to leave Palestine? Whatever you think about this outlook, there is no denying that this is the way many people feel about the situation in the Middle East.

This is not a view very many people would share in the United States. Both the US and Europe are committed to Israel’s existence as a state and believe the Jews have a right to be there. Thomas’s opinions on this matter may be out of step with the majority opinion of her own country, but considered it is an opinion felt by a vast swathe of the world, is it really a sackable offense? Thomas’s parents were Lebanese immigrants, so where her family comes from this point of view is quite common. But you will not find one voice in the US right now that is even defending Thomas’s right to say what she said, let alone the statement itself.

In Europe, Thomas’s words would have been unlikely to be met with the same furor. It’s not an opinion shared by the majority of people here, but it is shared by a significant minority, including many Muslims in Europe. So the fact that an opinion columnist says it out loud would not be too chocking. The only country here where her comments might be very controversial is in Germany, where the issue is still very sensitive.

When I first arrived in Europe it would shock me when I would hear people here say Israel shouldn’t exist, because that’s something I never heard in the US. Again, it’s not a popular idea here and most Europeans would disagree strongly with the idea that Israelis should be sent back to the lands their parents and grandparents came from. But it is part of the discussion amongst the public here in a way it is not in the US.

Going to Israel to see for myself

In a way I feel as if I am caught between two worlds on this issue. On the one hand, I’m from the US East Coast and most of my friends growing up were Jewish. Israel isn’t an ethereal concept for me like it is for many Europeans, it’s a real place where I have several friends living. While I was in high school many of my friends went on birthright trips to Israel and came back with all kinds of stories, and in a way I felt vicariously connected to the country through them, even though I’m not Jewish.

In Europe, for obvious reasons, there are not so many Jewish people. In fact as I think about it, the only Jews I know who live here are actually American. I think because of that, Israel tends to become more of a concept for people here than a real country. There isn’t the same cultural connection with the country that exists on the US coasts. My Jewish friends in New York have also noticed this about Europe and often say they feel uncomfortable here. Some of them interpret the greater skepticism about Israel here as being anti-semitism, which they think has never really gone away in Europe.

As for me I feel very caught between the two. The things my friends in Europe say about Israel would be unacceptable in the US, and the things my American friends say about the situation would be derided in Europe. A good friend of mine just moved to Tel Aviv a few months ago, and after much thought I decided I would like to go visit him to see the country for myself. I have so many questions about the country, many of which can’t be answered except by being there. I leave tomorrow night and I literally have no idea what to expect. It will be my first time in the Middle East.

It’s amazing how differently people have reacted when I’ve told them I’m going. My American friends have reacted as if it’s a fairly normal trip. Many of them have been before. But my European friends have been quite shocked that I’m going. Some people quite close to me here have been quite unhappy about it, especially as the flotilla news has unfolded. They see it as an unethical holiday destination, equivalent to visiting South Africa during apartheid. It’s gotten to the point where I’m actually kind of keeping it on the down-low here that I’m even going.

Of course I would like to think that this isn’t just a holiday trip. True, I’m not going for work and am taking days off to make this visit, and I’m sure me and my American friends in Tel Aviv will do our share of partying – after all I haven’t seen them in a long time. But I am also going to observe the country for myself to get a better understanding of how things are there. I plan on visiting Jerusalem and the holy sites, and will be crossing through the West Bank in order to get to the Dead Sea (although I think the highway is quite separated from the rest of the territory). I’m not really thinking of it as a holiday, because I’ll be staying with my friend and won’t be doing too many touristy things. And of course, I will be writing about the visit so in a way it’s a press trip.

I do not think that visiting a country automatically implies some kind of tacit approval of its government, but it is true that I feel a little torn about this visit. Will it feel uncomfortable to be lying on the beach in Tel Aviv while there is such suffering a few dozen miles away? Will I be able to relax in a country that is under constant threat of war with its neighbors? Will it feel distasteful to have fun?

These are all questions I won’t know until I get there I suppose. But I am eager to learn more about the country and to talk to Israelis about how they feel about the situation, particularly as regards the current flotilla mess and the Gaza blockade. If nothing else, it should be an interesting week.


Anonymous said...

Going to Israel was probably the most disillusioning trip I've ever taken. I went there pretty pro-Israel and left feeling much more skeptical. It just felt like a strange place to be, for me. I'm curious to hear your reaction to the visit.

itinerantlondoner said...

Interesting piece, and I can't wait to hear what you think about Israel.

There's been a very interesting shift over the years in the UK. When I was a kid, the media was very very pro-Israel, and was pretty dismissive of the Palestinian cause. It was only during the first Intifada that opinions of Israel began to shift, with the media gradually beginning to treat the story far more impartially, presenting both sides.

There has been a second shift, essentially following the start of the second intifada (and especially since Jenin in 2002) whereby the media have become increasingly anti-Israel, a trend that has reached a new peak with the flotilla.

I've always considered myself a supporter of the Palestinian cause - but I must admit I'm finding the sentiments of many commentators and my friends becoming increasingly alarming, and often drifting into anti-semitism, and it makes me uncomfortable.

One final point - I went to a school in London when I was younger that was about one third jewish (it was in Barnet, home to a very significant proportion of the UK's jews), and interestingly even then most of them had far more balanced views on the topic of Israel than most US Jews that I've met, who have all been very pro-Israel.

(oh, and one more point for people like Helen Thomas - more than half of the Jews in Israel are Mizrahi jews who are descended from Jews who originally lived mostly in Arab countries. Where exactly are they supposed to 'go home' to?)

Steve S. said...

have you followed the story of Boris Johnson and Norman Tebbit complaining of "anti-Britishness" in US criticism of BP?