Israel is suffering.
This sounds odd, given the common perception of Israel as an aggressor, an occupationalist who tramples on the rights of the Palestinians who desire nothing more than their land, their autonomy. Certainly a nation so violent, a nation so vehemently opposed to its Arab neighbors, a nation whose Jewish heritage demands a negation of the rights of other ethnic and religious peoples cannot be suffering. After all, Israel is likened to the inter-war Germany, a surprising reversal of roles. Such a nation cannot be suffering.
But Israel is suffering. And the perception that it has gotten – of an evil entity – only adds to its suffering.
Israelis are suffering not only from terrorism, violence and constant fear, but also from a poor perception in the eyes of various different factions. Arab nations in general – and Palestinians particularly – refuse to even acknowledge its very existence. In fact, Palestinian textbooks teach children that Israel does not exist as a state and is instead a remnant of British imperialism; a gift of land that the British did not own in the first place and therefore did not have the right to give away. Israel’s very statehood is threatened by this Arab perception. “Israel will not compromise on its existence,” said Relik Shafir, the retired Brigadier General of the Israeli Air Force.
But this is not cause to lose hope. “Books in Egypt are not sympathetic to Jews either, and if you read books from Nazi Germany, or even the rest of Europe at that time, you see a lot of Anti-Semitism.” The historical perception of Jews and the current perception of Israel isn’t a reason “to discourage us from trying.” Israel is ready for peace – it has been ready for peace – as long as its own security is guaranteed.
Though the more extreme Arab opposition to Israel rests on the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist, there are certainly Palestinians who would accept Israel (with varying degrees of reluctance) if Israel would stop exacerbating the problem with its presence in the West Bank. Israel’s violent military presence, coupled with the dispersion of Palestinians from their homes in order to build Israeli settlements, is certainly aggravating the seemingly irreparable ties between Israelis and Palestinians … right?
“We should set the record straight,” says Shafir. “Essentially all the lands that the settlements are built on were bought off of Palestinians.” Though he personally opposes the Israeli policy of settlement building, he recognizes that the perception of strong-armed Israeli armed forces barging into innocent olive trees and slaughtering Palestinians is simply wrong – though it does provide for a compelling fable as to why Palestinians turn to terrorism.
“When the intifada started, it was not because of a settlement. It started because Camp David failed. It started because Arafat thought he could improve his bargaining position by resorting to terror.” An interesting political relations sleight of hand is being played out by Palestinians and Palestinian supporters – one that is effectively painting Israel in an unfortunate light.
The perception of Israel in the media has been impacted by the liberal reflex: If anyone appears to be oppressed, they must have a moral righteousness. Conversely, if anyone appears to be strong, they must have become so at the expense of others. Palestinians have been effectively painted as oppressed; Israel effectively painted as strong.
This is the stuff of great headlines.
“I think that the western media as a whole expects immediate response, immediate news,” says Shafir. The fact that Israel hasn’t bent over backwards – sacrificing the very security that every Israeli has the right to – is eaten up by the media as signs of Israel’s indiscretions toward Palestinian rights. Another interesting role reversal – Israelis as a whole get painted as opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state (even though 90 percent of Israeli citizens support such a state), while Arabs get painted as respectful of a two-state compromise (even though the majority of Arab states and Palestinian people loathe the very idea of Israel). It’s a clever deception, to say the least.
The importance of security is tangible to Israelis, for whom every goodbye is particularly meaningful – this trip to the grocery store may very well be your last. The idea that Israel should negotiate away its strategic safeguards is absurd – though both sides do need to bend. The West Bank, after the Six-Days War of 1967, was seen by Israel as “cards for the bargaining table,” according to Shafir. “Unfortunately, for different reasons – mostly the Arab unwillingness to compromise with us – we forgot to look at things that way. It took a full cycle of the violence that we (have been) at for 30 years for people to realize that these are bargaining cards.” Not exactly a confession that one reads about – or one that Palestinians like to hear. It’s easy to win the PR war against a country opposed to negotiations; it’s another thing entirely to win the PR war against a country who wants nothing more than to negotiate a secure peace.
Besides the perception of Israel amongst Arabs and amongst the media, Israel is suffering from its perception on liberal college campuses – including and especially this one. Terms like apartheid and segregation get thrown around in the same sentence as Israel. These pseudo-academic arguments demand that Israel hold itself to a higher standard of democracy. Certainly, the argument goes, a nation where Arab citizens get treated as second-class is not worthy of our – the righteous, the moral, the educated – support.
“Those who are citing apartheid and so on are using half truths and a distorted, out of context picture in order to prove their points. And half truths are worse than lies.” Israel is not a perfect democracy by any means. But it is not only unfair to compare Israeli democracy to western democracies – it is also intellectually dishonest.
Israel is an attacked democracy, one that has been under attack with only brief moments of respite for its entire existence. “Democracy is tested in times of peril,” says Shafir.
Israel is certainly not a stellar example of a democracy; its population is not treated with full equality. But it has managed to uphold some semblance of democratic values – above and beyond its “angelic” neighbors. “The western media is not really appreciative enough of the fact that democracy is tested in Israel perhaps more than anywhere else. I think that perhaps countries with a less strong democratic background would curtail news media, reporting, dissenting views, whereas in Israel, you can write anything, say anything; the Arab-Israelis can speak out loud with anti-Israeli rhetoric, which they couldn’t anywhere else in the Middle East.”
Israel is being held not only to a different and higher standard than its incredibly non-democratic opposition, but also being held to a different and higher standard than democracies at peace. The debilitating contradiction here should be self evident to everyone who claims to be righteous, moral and educated.
Israel does not wish to be taken with sympathy, nor should its duress be an excuse to forgive egregious behavior. But at the same time, its suffering should not be sidelined as an inconsequential response to its own aggression.
Israel is suffering from a very real threat to its own sovereignty, its own life, its own existence. Its response may arguably be deemed harsh; its democracy may arguably deemed weak. But its suffering cannot be deemed nonexistent. And its responsibility to itscitizens’ safety cannot be deemed unnecessary.