Saturday, September 15, 2007

Conversations: What 'Ordinary' Israelis Think about Ha'Matzav' or 'The Situation'

Probably the most noteworthy observation I have here is that most of the Israelis I talk to are not terribly interested in going on about Ha'Matzav or The Situation (which is a general term here to connote the ongoing struggles vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the larger Arab/Persian world). People are weary of discussing developments unless they are personally affected (for example, the parents of soldiers who were attacked at the army base in the Negev last week were very vocal in their concerns and expressed their contempt for how the government is handling things). Many here have created a psychic safety-valve to keep from going insane; from the never-ending struggles and perpetual state of uncertainty, lack of clearly defined borders, and the ever present specter of being one major suicide bombing away from seeing their world literally blowing up around them. It's understandable too, because just to negotiate through day to day life here is enough to keep most Israelis very preoccupied. Between the traffic, the congestion, the pushiness, the bureaucracies, the honking, the crowds, the constant vigilance required when just crossing the's easy to understand why for most Israelis, solving the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not always high on their list of priorities. Plus, Israelis are among the most vivacious, curious, engaged people on the planet. The people I talked with are interested in travel, literature, music, wine, and all the other amenities of the modern world that their contemporaries in Europe and North America are interested in; maybe even more so, because there is such a strong sense of 'carpe diem' here. Israelis have a life, and a rather full one, and as one friend said, "I just want to be like other people; a nation among nations." He's weary of the Matzav because he wants to be able to get on with his own very full life; three children, a wife, a career, playing music, visiting with friends and family...all the things that regular people do.

Many Israelis have also developed what in psychology is known as 'compassion fatigue.' Following the first Intifada and through the Oslo years, there was a major shift in consciousness among most Israelis, when they came to see the legitimate concerns and rights of Palestinians, and were willing to act on rectifying past wrongs. That was what Oslo was all about. But with the eruption of the second Intifada and the barbaric, deliberate bombings of civilians inside the Green Line, even the mainstream Left in Israel came to understand that this was about far more than 'land for peace' and reasonable compromise among civilized peoples with border disputes. This was an existential war and it was hard for Israelis to not see the other side as wanting to displace them from their homeland of Israel proper. Now, two years after the withdrawal from Gaza and the relentless Qassam attacks from its northern precincts and one year after the war in Lebanon (launched from where Israel also relinquished territory in May of 2000), and 20 months after Hamas' election victory, Israelis feel less than sanguine about 'peace' prospects with their neighbors. Moreover, they have little psychic space left over for empathizing with the plight of the Palestinians (they fully acknowledge that the Palestinians are suffering), who they see as largely having made their own bed. Where in the 90's there was much empathy and goodwill toward Palestinians, today there is more of an attitude of 'we wish you well in creating a civil society and maybe eventually having normalized economic and even social interactions with you; but the burden of proof is now on you to create such a society--and the signs so far are not encouraging; we withdrew from Gaza completely, even left you the Greenhouses, and instead of making a pilot project of independence and building democratic, civil institutions, you destroyed what beginnings were left to you and voted in a fundamentalist, Islamist party who is more interested in destroying our State than in building yours; so you'll excuse us if we continue constructing our separation barrier and get on with our lives. As King Lear once intoned to his wayward daughter Goneril: "Mend when thou canst; be better at thy leisure: I can be patient..."
At least that's how I read how many Israelis feel today. Trouble is the other side can be extraordinarily patient as well. They can sip tea for generations and wait us out. Time is not necessarily on our side.
In one of my conversations with a friend of a dear Israeli friend of mine, he related a very interesting take on this very issue by Israeli commentator Tzvi Yehezkeli at the 'Arab Desk' on Channel 10. According to Amnon, Yehzkeli spoke of the incredible patience of those in the Arab world. That they understood time very differently than those of us in the Western world where we tend to see things much more short-term and present-centered. When an old Arab man was asked how he felt about seeing Israeli tanks roll in front of him, he replied that it didn't phase him all that much because in the long run, over decades or even centuries he was confident that the land would be returned to the Arabs (reminded me of Ali's pronouncements in the staircase scene with Avner in Munich).
But on a more promising note, Yehezkeli also noted that in his conversations with average Palestinians, there was a growing recognition that they could no longer lay all their problems at the feet of the Israelis. That there was growing acknowledgement that their legacy of electing/supporting poor leadership was at the heart of their predicament. That corruption is rampant, tribal affiliations are superseding larger associations, and that until they begin the process of correcting these flaws, they will likely continue to languish behind while they watch Israeli society flourish and prosper. There is a growing understanding that as Israelis feel more secure behind their security barrier, they will be less concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, until they see concrete, on the ground changes. Of course, if Hamas continues to grow in strength in the West Bank after it's coup in Gaza, then all bets are again off. Meantime, most Israelis see this fall's big Summit Conference as worthy of little more than a yawn right now.

I did speak with one Israeli who was more than happy to talk about the Matzav. She is an energetic social worker and happens to be my wife's cousin. What's fascinating about Rachel is that she bucks the general trend of apathy/indifference, is working tirelessly to make life better for Israeli-Arabs, works in their midst in Yafo (Jaffa), and even sees herself as something of an Arab Jew. I had some problems with this characterization, regardless of the fact that both her parents were born in Morocco, clearly an Arab land. I did a little checking on Wikipedia and by their reckoning, it's quite a stretch to describe Rachel as an Arab Jew.
Be that as it may, she's clearly a committed Israeli Jew of Arab-land ancestry. Rachel works at a social center in Yafo with Israeli-Arabs, including children. She's making a difference, and as a fellow social worker, I know that sometimes we make a small dent in the world and the ripples are how larger changes come into being. Rachel works with battered women, families and children. Sometimes she's met with suspicion but over time, she usually wins her clients over. If nothing else, she's doing important work by demonstrating that interconnections are still possible between the two peoples. And she's involved in the crucial work of education.
Rachel tells me the tension and even hatred is palpable. Yet Yafo remains a city where there is a lot contact between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, for better or worse.
Rachel and I argue about who's responsible for what. She tells me that she spent the last year in Dohar, Qatar and was ashamed of what she saw Israel doing during the Lebanon War of last summer. Of course, she saw what "Israel was doing" filtered through Al Jazeera. When she spoke to me about human rights, I couldn't help but point out that the violations were so rampant on the other side (deliberately targeting civilian populations on the Israeli side; hiding behind civilians and using them as human shields) that it was like an Alice in Wonderland Universe. I mentioned Marvin Kalb's excellent study, The Media As A Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict.
But Rachel had many important points to make, not least of which is that it's so important to continue listening, hearing other points of view, and not seeing the world only in black and white hues. She's proud to be friends with people with such divergent perspectives as Tom Gross and Gideon Levy. Certainly left me with more to ponder in this ever so complex land of infinite challenges and possibilities. More tomorrow
David Brumer

1 comment:

Lao Qiao said...

I suggest that you tell Rachel that Golda Meir was the first woman in history to become a head of government who was neither the daughter (like Indira Gandhi) nor the wife (like Sirimavo Banadaranaike) of a previous head of government. Tell her that on the other hand there are honor murders among Palestinians. And point out to her that feminists, despite these facts, are much more likely to be pro-Arab than they are to be pro-Israel.