Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Michael Totten on what Israel and Israelis are really like

"The Greatest Collection of Nightmares on Earth"
August 4, 2010 - by Michael J. Totten
TEL AVIV — I learn most of what I know about the Middle East from the people who live here, and I was a bit shocked when I discovered, years ago, that many reporters—especially wire agency reporters—absorb most of what they know, think, and believe about the region from other journalists. I didn't know anyone, local or foreign, in the Middle East when I first got here, and I initially had to rely on the people I met randomly in cafes and bars and in person via the Internet to teach me what's going on and how the place works. All my information came from the street. Most of my understanding still comes from the street—not from on high, not from newspapers or press releases, and not from foreign reporters who do not live here. Eventually I worked my way up to the prime minister's office in Lebanon, and I've almost gotten that far now in Israel, but my real education has taken place during long sessions in cafes and bars with Arabs, Kurds, and Israelis.
Benjamin Kerstein's name will appear on the Acknowledgements page of my book when it comes out in the spring because he has taught me an enormous amount about Israel during the time I have known him. I met him five years ago when I first came here from Lebanon, when Israel was still a partially Arabized abstraction in my eyes. He was one of the first people who humanized the place for me, and he taught me more than he knows about the Israeli people and how they see themselves and their place on earth and in history. The parts of my book that take place here are better than they would be if I did not know him.
It finally occurred to me during this trip that I should meet him for coffee and record our conversation so you can learn about Israel the way I do.
MJT: So what's it like to read about Israel in the foreign press?
Benjamin Kerstein: Surreal.
MJT: How so?
Benjamin Kerstein: It rarely bears any resemblance to the country I live in, mainly because it either deals only with the conflict or because the news is produced by people who live in the English-speaking Jerusalem bubble.
MJT: Tell me about the English-speaking Jerusalem bubble.
Benjamin Kerstein: There's a large population of English speakers in Jerusalem. The people who speak English tend to gather around each other, especially if they're in the higher reaches of government or the media. They tend to hang out with other English-speaking people. They go to the places where such people congregate, they read English-language newspapers, and they watch English-language television. They have very little contact with the rest of Israel, which is predominantly Hebrew-speaking.
Tel Aviv is quite cosmopolitan, but if you go to the development towns in the south or to the towns in the north and in the Galilee, there are Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking populations there. Journalists have almost no contact with this world. What they portray as Israeli is a corner of a corner of a corner of this country.
So when we read about Israel in the foreign press—especially if we know about the English-speaking bubble in Jerusalem, or if we've ever dealt with the media in Jerusalem—we recognize almost instantly the same themes over and over and over again. All you usually get is the view of a closed subculture, which is not even interesting in my opinion.
MJT: A lot of these journalists don't even socialize with English-speaking Israelis. I know they don't because I've met some of them. I know who they hang out with and how disconnected they are. They hang out with each other and with other foreigners. That strikes me as bizarre because almost all my friends here are Israelis. Likewise, most of my friends in Lebanon are Lebanese.
Benjamin Kerstein: You find this sort of thing everywhere. People with shared interests and a shared language congregate. Hebrew isn't a supremely difficult language to learn, but if you don't have to learn it, you won't. There are people who have lived in Jerusalem for thirty years who haven't learned Hebrew because they don't have to. This affects their opinions, it affects their view of the world, and it affects how they write about it.
There are Hebrew bubbles, as well, of course. Tel Aviv is a different sort of bubble. We even refer to it as ha'bua which literally means "The Bubble" in Hebrew. This problem isn't something that only afflicts foreign language journalists. There are bubbles throughout Israeli society.
MJT: What's the difference between the English-speaking bubble in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv bubble?
Benjamin Kerstein: There are actually a lot of bubbles inside Tel Aviv. When we say "the bubble," we're generally referring to the wealthy and upper-middle class people associated with the high-tech boom. Some use the term to refer to the more freakish elements of Tel Aviv—the artists, the musicians, and the homosexual population that's way more "out" than any other in Israel, and certainly more "out" than in any other place in the Middle East. [Laughs.]
MJT: Without a doubt.
Benjamin Kerstein: So the phrase is used as a catch-all to describe the high-fashion avant-garde population of Tel Aviv that is actually somewhat parochial. Tel Aviv is the New York City of Israel. It's at once very cosmopolitan and very parochial.
MJT: Yes, New York is like that.
Benjamin Kerstein: People outside New York will refer to a New York mentality, but at the same time, inside New York there are a billion different subcultures. It's the same in Tel Aviv.
MJT: Right.
Benjamin Kerstein: The religious movement here also has a bubble of its own. The settler movement lives in a bubble. The Hebrew-speaking media lives in one of its own, especially the television media.
MJT: What is it that outsiders tend not to understand about Israel? I'm not asking because I want to pick on them, but because I don't want to be clueless myself.
Benjamin Kerstein: The first thing visitors notice is that Israelis are prickly. Native-born Israelis are called sabras. The sabra is a cactus fruit that has prickly thorns on the outside, but is soft and sweet on the inside. That's how Israelis view themselves. We can be aggressive and rude, but once you get to know us, we love you and we want you to marry our sisters and brothers.
What outsiders first encounter is that, and they often tend to base their view of Israelis on that first impression. And they either react negatively or are enthralled by it. They either see us as boorish, violent, and obnoxious, or as honest, tough, and straight-talking but also sentimental and lovable. But either way, they rarely see what's underneath.
Amos Oz once gave the best description of us. He said there is an Israel of the day, and an Israel of the night. Israel during the day is a prosperous and cosmopolitan Mediterranean society, but at night it's the greatest collection of nightmares on the face of the earth. Everyone here, at one point or another, has seen the devil.
Although there's a general awareness of the Holocaust, I'm not sure outsiders are aware of the depth of the sense of trauma in Israeli society. We're a people who really are deeply wounded. Around seventy percent of the people who moved here were forced out of the places they came from. That's true of almost all the Jews from the Muslim world. It's true of most of the Jews from Europe who fled persecution before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, or after the Holocaust. Very few people came here out of free choice.
MJT: Mostly just Americans, right?
Benjamin Kerstein: People from the Anglo-Saxon world, yes. Even Jews who are coming here now from France are coming to escape anti-Semitism. The Jewish community in Turkey right now is undergoing a kind of silent exodus. Initially these people come here with a feeling of liberation. They release a lot of themselves. But they also have a strong sense of trauma and resentment because of what they had to go through. Particularly in the regards to the Jews from the Muslim world, there is hardly any understanding of this on the part of outsiders. There is almost no recognition of it. Outsiders are gloriously unaware of this side of Israeli history.
Most people come here and see the conflict. They come here originally as conflict tourists, like you and me. [Laughs.] They come here for the action. They go to the West Bank, they see the checkpoints and the shootings and the riots. And they develop a loyalty to one side or the other.
There are other people who come here to see the country and have a good time. My sense is that they are astonished at the sense of normalcy here. They're amazed that there aren't bombs going off every day.
It's important to understand that outsiders come here with preconceived notions.
MJT: Of course they do. I did. It's impossible not to. I probably still haven't kicked some of them.
Benjamin Kerstein: Some people come with preconceived notions and are changed very quickly. Others hold onto their preconceived notions and won't ever change. Unfortunately I see that with journalists a great deal. [Laughs.] It's a result of becoming better ill-informed, if you know what I mean. They know more than they used to after spending some time here, but they still don't get it. They see what they've come to see and that's it.
MJT: What about governments? The US and European government have their opinions about and positions on Israel, and most of their officials have never been here. They hardly know anything. They're the ultimate outsiders, way more than conflict tourists or journalists who have at least spent some time in the place.
Benjamin Kerstein: I'm not really qualified to talk about how American and European policymakers view Israel. So much goes on behind closed doors. I don't know how much of it is for show. I don't know how much of what they say about Israel in public is just to protect their interests in the Arab world.
MJT: Feel free to speculate. Everyone else does.
Benjamin Kerstein: My guess is that Europe and America have a pretty simple attitude: they want a solution to the conflict. It's a pain in the ass for them, and they'd like it to go away.
MJT: Of course. Aside from Hamas, Hezbollah, and so on, who doesn't want it to go away?
Benjamin Kerstein: But I also think officials in the US, Europe, and elsewhere are much less naïve than their public statements make them appear. I don't think many of them believe that the peace process, for instance, is nearly as easy as they say it should be. They say things like, "If we could just get the Israeli and Palestinians to sit down and talk, we could reach a solution."
I think most of them are smart enough to know that isn't true. I also think they're smart enough to know that a lot of it isn't Israel's fault, but by blaming most of it on Israel they can buy themselves leverage in the Arab world. I think the Arab world understands this perfectly well, that it's the politics of the gesture.
I have to say, though, that when foreign governments say Israel has to make concessions and take responsibility for the conflict, Israelis take it all very seriously. The charge of disproportionality during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the Goldstone Report—Israelis do not take into consideration the possibility that these may just be gestures. Israelis take it personally, and they become very angry. Israelis feel very strongly that the world is against them.
MJT: Why do you suppose that is?
Benjamin Kerstein: Most Israelis are here because they fled from Muslim and European countries. They don't feel that either of those blocs have the right to lecture them about anything. Why should a country where your parents were expelled or killed have the right to tell you how to conduct yourself in a war against people who are trying to kill you today? This is something hardly any non-Israelis understand. They don't understand how galling we find this.
Israelis are often accused of being arrogant, but they find it extremely arrogant for Europeans and Arabs to lecture them about morals, especially during a war. What has Israel ever done that is as brutal as what Europe did to the Jews, or what Arabs routinely do to even each other during armed conflicts?
I suspect, though, that a lot of the rhetoric is just that. It's just rhetoric. If you look at what Europe actually does, in a lot of cases it's better than what the rhetoric would suggest.
I do think Europe retains an insufficiently pessimistic attitude about the Palestinian national movement, which is perhaps out of desperation. They have to go with either Fatah or Hamas. There is no other option. Most politicians, however ideological they may sound, are basically pragmatists. They think that if Hamas has to be out of the picture, they're going to have to rehabilitate Fatah. Otherwise, there won't be anybody to talk to. They might be right about that, but I think they are overly optimistic about Fatah signing an agreement.
I think the smart leaders in Europe are trying to lessen the tension here now, and I think they're doing a much better job than America is. Barack Obama actually seems to believe that he can end the conflict. He doesn't seem to be trying to lessen the tension. He seem to be willing to exacerbate tensions if he thinks it might bring results.
MJT: What's he doing to exacerbate tension that Europe is not?
Benjamin Kerstein: Calling for a settlement freeze.
MJT: But the Europeans have been doing that all along.
Benjamin Kerstein: Yeah, but it has less bite to it. They don't have much clout here. They have never been able to produce any results. When the US says it, though, the Palestinians are forced to respond to it. If Obama calls for a settlement freeze, Mahmoud Abbas can't negotiate until after a settlement freeze. When Europe calls for a settlement freeze, Abbas can dismiss it as irrelevant and remain in peace talks with Israel, but he can't be softer on Israel than America is.
MJT: How would you distinguish between fair criticism of Israel—and even unfair criticism of Israel, for that matter—and outright anti-Semitism?
Benjamin Kerstein: I think a lot of it is a question of rhetoric. A lot of the criticism is fair, but we often hear criticism which is frankly psychotic—that we're using poison gas, for instance, or poisoned candies to kill Palestinian children. That we poisoned the water in Gaza to prevent reproduction. That sort of thing.
Sometimes the rhetoric is so over-the-top and so vitriolic that it seems to be motivated by a violence that can't be explained away as strident criticism. Comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, for instance. Accusations of genocide. Accusations that are clearly—and this, I think, is the most important—accusations which are clearly drawn from the vocabulary and iconography of classic anti-Semitism.
The "Israel Lobby" trope is a big part of this. You can criticize a group of people who are seeking to influence the United States government, but if you read what is actually being said by the critics of the so-called "Israel Lobby," it comes straight out of the classic anti-Semitic myth of overwhelming Jewish power. I think that's where the distinguishing factor comes in.
There is also a great deal of criticism of Israel that isn't criticism. Criticism implies a certain degree of rationality, analysis, and objectivity. Much of what is regarded as criticism is actually an assault. It is intended to wound and cause pain. It is intended to demonize. The way, for example, some people off-handedly accuse Israel of genocide, as if this is not even in question. This, to me, is obviously intended to be as hurtful as possible. I can't even begin to explain to you how offensive the Nazi comparison is.
MJT: Try.
Benjamin Kerstein: It's like a person who raped and murdered your child stands up in court and says you did it. That's what it feels like. It's difficult to even respond because it's so unthinkably cruel to say something like that. To compare us to our worst enemies, enemies who decimated us, our fathers, our grandfathers within living memory—it's not just that this isn't within the realm of rational discourse, it isn't even in the realm of human decency.
The issue of human decency is a big one. It may be difficult to define, but whenever criticism crosses that line, that, to my mind, is where anti-Semitism begins. Anti-Semitism ultimately is a refusal to accord basic human decency to the Jewish people. It's a refusal to relate to a certain group of people with the common human decency with which you would relate to anybody else.
That's what racism is, essentially. If you saw someone being beaten up in the street, you'd try to stop it if you were capable. At least you would think it was bad.
MJT: You would call the police.
Benjamin Kerstein: Exactly. But a racist would see a black person being beaten up in the street and be indifferent to it or even think it's a good thing.
MJT: What do you think about people who say they aren't anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist? They don't have a problem with, say, Jews in New York, but they intensely hate Israel. I know many Arabs like this.
Benjamin Kerstein: Again, you have to look at what they're saying. Do they even have any idea what they're criticizing? A great deal of what I see out there that's referred to as anti-Zionism doesn't actually make any reference to Zionism. They don't know anything about Zionism. They have a few quotes from Theodore Hertzl, a few quotes from David Ben-Gurion, and the rest is your standard "Israelis are racist, Israelis are genocidal, Israelis are Nazis." And this is called anti-Zionism. Legitimate anti-Zionism would have to engage in some way with Zionism.
MJT: "Zionist" is often just used as an epithet.
Benjamin Kerstein: Exactly.
MJT: So can you briefly define Zionism for people who aren't really sure what it is?
Benjamin Kerstein: Zionism is a group of ideologies which try to deal with the question of what it means to be Jewish in the modern world and how the Jewish people should deal with being in the modern world. The answer Zionism has almost always advocated is that the Jewish people need political sovereignty in a nation-state. There was a small group in the 1920s and '30s who wanted a bi-national state with the Arabs and believed Zionism could be fulfilled that way, but they were very much on the fringe, and since the founding of the State of Israel, those non-state variations have pretty much fallen by the wayside. Since 1948, Zionism has been more or less defined by the nation-state of Israel.
It's more complicated than that, obviously, but here are the basics of Zionism: First, the Jewish people are a people, and because they are a people, they are entitled to self-determination in their own homeland by right and not by sufferance. And that homeland is the land of Israel. There's a debate within Zionism itself about whether the Jewish state can be in only part of the land of Israel and what exactly is the land of Israel in terms of borders, but it has to be in the land of Israel.
MJT: It can't be in Uganda.
Benjamin Kerstein: Exactly.
MJT: Would you say that those who describe themselves as anti-Zionist are saying, whether they intend to or not, that Israel has no right to exist?
Benjamin Kerstein: That would be true by definition.
Now, you could say that Gandhi's anti-Zionism was at least internally consistent with his pacifism and other aspects of his ideology. I would say he was historically wrong, but you can make the argument that he was anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. And you can certainly say that certain Haredi groups who base their entire worldview on the Torah and oppose a secular state of Israel for religious reasons are not anti-Semitic.
But I don't see how you can support self-determination for Palestinians while declaring yourself anti-Zionist—and therefore opposing self-determination for Jews—without being anti-Semitic. If you support self-determination for one people, you cannot deny it to another. And I do not accept that the Jewish people are not a people. It's historically wrong, it's culturally wrong, it's objectively wrong on every level.
I also don't see how someone can support the self-determination of other non-Jewish peoples while describing themselves as anti-Zionists and say they aren't anti-Semitic.
But you can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic if you say, for instance, that you're opposed to the idea of the nation-state in general. I think you'd be unrealistic, a utopian dreamer with a totally irrelevant argument, but I could believe that you're not an anti-Semite. But I think there are very few people out there who genuinely believe that. Maybe some anarchists feel that way.
MJT: What do you think of people who say the Palestinians have a fake made-up identity? Some insist the Palestinians are just part of a monolithic undiversified Arab mass.
Benjamin Kerstein: It's not my business to tell the Palestinians whether or not they exist. It's also not their business to tell me whether or not I exist. If I demand that from them, they have the right to demand that from me.
I think people who say the Palestinians don't exist are…myopic, to put it delicately.
Some of this, though, is just reciprocity, people throwing rhetorical hand grenades back and forth. They say we don't exist, so some of us say they don't exist. The Palestinian national charter says very straightforwardly that the Jews are not a people. Now, there are some Israelis who say the Palestinian national identity didn't exist until after 1948, which is not necessarily untrue. You can make the argument that Palestinian national identity as we know it is basically a product of the Nakba.
MJT: Before 1948, the Palestinians of Gaza said they were Egyptians. Today, though, they're different. Gaza is not a distant suburb of Cairo. Over time it has become something else. Egyptians think so, too. Egyptians don't look at the people of Gaza and see themselves. Egypt is walling them off.
Benjamin Kerstein: Either way, it's not my right to define other people. To say they aren't a people doesn't strike me as an honorable argument. I have to agree that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination, but I also have the right to say that they don't have the right to determine themselves upon the destruction of Israel.
MJT: Zionism doesn't have anything to say about Arabs, does it?
Benjamin Kerstein: Not a great deal. Zionism is concerned with Jewish rights and sovereignty in the modern world. Its efforts have always been in that direction. It doesn't have any position on Arabs. None of the things that all forms of Zionism share have much to do with the Arabs or any other non-Jews. This is true of almost all national liberation movements. They tend to be very parochial and inward-looking.
MJT: The Palestinians are a bit unusual.
Benjamin Kerstein: In what sense?
MJT: They define themselves in opposition to you.
Benjamin Kerstein: Yes, they do.
MJT: The Lebanese identity, for instance, has nothing at all to do with Israel. There is an Egyptian national identity that would be the same even if Israel didn't exist. The Palestinian identity, though, was defined in opposition to Israel.
Benjamin Kerstein: Yes. One of the biggest obstacles to peace is the degree to which that's true. Making peace with Israel might feel like losing part of their identity to a certain degree, or at least losing any sense of coherence to their identity. I don't know how relevant this is, though. The Palestinians believe themselves to be a people, and therefore they are. I don't have the right to argue with them about it. I only have the right to say their rights are not unlimited, that we have rights, too, and they need to recognize ours. I won't go any farther than that. I'm not going to say Palestinian identity is a conspiracy or a lie. This goes back to the issue of common human decency. It simply demands that you extend a certain amount of reciprocity to someone else.
MJT: How optimistic are you about resolving this conflict within your lifetime?
Benjamin Kerstein: I don't know. Anything can happen in the Middle East. Everything can change tomorrow, but I'm pessimistic. I don't expect to see it during my lifetime. It's always best to gamble on pessimism in this part of the world. Things fall apart here. Instability is the norm. Stability is temporary and can only be achieved and maintained with great effort. Order here tends toward collapse.
I am a long-term optimist, though. The conflict does reach states that are manageable for certain lengths of time, and it seems like these are increasing. The outbreaks of violence get less severe as time goes on. There hasn't been a major war since 1973.
MJT: The war in Lebanon in 1982 wasn't major?
Benjamin Kerstein: No, because Israel wasn't facing the full weight of an enemy army during that war. There hasn't been a full-on war, with the marshalling of all available resources between the states in this region since 1973. All the wars since then have been limited to a certain degree. And the Second Lebanon War was less severe than the first one.
MJT: It was, but the next one will probably be a lot worse. Everyone thinks it will be worse, in both Lebanon and in Israel.
Benjamin Kerstein: We may be taking a terrible turn. I hope not, but it's a real possibility.
MJT: But you're also right that anything could happen. If the Iranian people remove their government, it could change everything.
Benjamin Kerstein: That may ultimately be the only solution, but nobody knows. Nobody really knows anything.

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