Andersen: Israel redux — rage and hatred
The firestorm that has rained down upon me after last week’s column has been searing. My emails burn with slurs, curses, hatred and ridicule.
Two readers offered polite scolds for my being ill-informed. Others condemned me to the lowest levels of hell. A wave of invective labeled me as a politically incorrect columnist whose misguided sympathy for the Palestinian people is an unpardonable sin.
In last week’s column, I offered observations while bicycling down the West Bank of the Jordan River. Critics say I was wrong to infer that Israel is responsible for the squalor I witnessed there. They say the Palestinians only have themselves to blame.
For more invective go to comments on The Aspen Times website, some of which I am culpable for. My strongest regret is that hate and rage obscured my overall message — sympathy for the Palestinian people.
From the first day I arrived in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian issue was in my face. A front-page story in Haaretz reported that 1,520 Palestinian children have been killed and 6,000 injured by Israeli Defense Forces since 2000. I felt immediate sorrow and a humanitarian response. I’m not alone in that.
Daniel Gordis, a respected rabbi I met last summer in Aspen, wrote in his book, “The Promise of Israel,” that young American Jews “believe that something has to give,” on the Palestinian issue, “and that something has to be Israel.”
Gordis writes: “Israel is the occupying power, these young Jews believe, the side with the military might and the party with the morally unjustifiable stance. Therefore, faced with a choice between loyalty to their humanitarian values or to their parents’ Zionism, they have chosen the former.”
I side with humanitarian values, as does Ari Shavit, a leading Israeli journalist and civil-rights advocate. In his book, “My Promised Land,” he describes the horrors of the Lydda “massacre” of 1948, and he wrestles throughout with “my moral outrage regarding my nation’s occupation policy.”
During his service as an Israeli paratrooper, Shavit was assigned to the Gaza Beach Detention Camp where he heard the screams of Palestinian suspects under interrogation, or “torture,” as he put it.
“What I see and hear is an entire popular of ours imprisoning an entire population of theirs. … This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure. And I am a part of it all. I comply … I have heard the screams of another. I still do. Even as the screaming men stop screaming. I still hear them screaming. I cannot stop hearing.”
I quote Shavit because his book deeply influenced my views on Israel. It was, in part, through his prism that I looked at Israel during my month-long bicycle tour there. I doubt that many of my detractors have read Shavit, but if they do they will probably excoriate him as they have me for daring to question his nation’s actions in regards to the Palestinians.
To my point on the taking of Palestinian land, Shavit writes, “By working the land with their bare hands and living in poverty and undertaking a daring, unprecedented social experiment, they refute any charge that they are about to seize a land that is not theirs. Yet all this idealistic socialism is just subterfuge, future critics will claim. It is the moral camouflage of an aggressive national movement whose purpose is to obscure its colonialist, expansionist nature.”
To my point on Israel’s moral responsibility for Palestinians, he writes, “For its outstanding economic, social and engineering achievements, the new Israel paid a dear moral price. There was no notion of human rights, civil rights, due process or laissez-faire. There was no equality for the Palestinian minority and no compassion for the Palestinian refugees.”
In Israel, debate is not only a cultural norm, it is a religious tenet that harks to the Talmud. “Israeli society,” Gordis wrote, “may not always be gentle, and it can sometimes be tough and occasionally even ugly. But it takes the free exchange of ideas very seriously.”
That’s why Shavit writes as honestly as he does. That’s why I wrote a column that was bound to elicit reaction. Sadly, the humanitarian message I tried to convey was drowned out in reactionary antipathy.
There is a Hebrew word that seems to describe my experience relating to Israel — balagan — chaos or outburst. Trying to filter American perceptions through the balagan of everyday life in Israel was a daily challenge that was often confounding given the national foibles I gleaned from Gordis and Shavit.
What I discovered for myself is that the story of Israel is heroic, tragic, violent, uplifting, vibrant, inspiring, daunting and rife with balagan. The modern state is set against the backdrop of the Shoa and the moral authority it ascribes, but filled with complex contradictions.
Israel has achieved strength and greatness against all odds. Still, Gordis wrote, the state flounders over the question of the right of the Palestinians to govern themselves in a state of their own.
“We will all know that Zionism has succeeded in shaping Jewish identity and intellectual commitment when Israel’s most passionate defenders also understand that if Jews deserve a chance at the self-expression that sovereignty affords, so too do other people, including the Palestinians.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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