Friday, February 12, 2010

Fear of Looking in the Mirror

My old friend Bradley Burston writes a regular column for Haaretz. I don't always agree with him. But the column that appears today is right on the money. I have reproduced it in full, below.
His main insight is that Israel is SO freaked out by the Goldstone Report precisely because it holds up a mirror to Israeli society. And Israelis do not want to look in the mirror. They do not want to admit that they have become a brutal society – at least when it comes to non-Jews and Palestinians in particular. They do not want to admit, that just beyond the green line, a short commute from the glitter of Tel-Aviv or the spiritual heights of Jewish Jerusalem, other people live (and die) horrible lives, largely dues to Israeli policies. They do not want to admit that their government, their army, their sons and daughters, they themselves, sometime commit acts as heinous as the Palestinian terrorists they so rightly decry.

I know this is true. Denial of this sort is of course not a uniquely Israeli trait. But I have had first hand experience of this sort of thing in Israel. When I served in the Israeli army in the early 1980s in the West Bank, I witnessed what by today’s standards were minor humiliations and harassments of local Palestinians. And I heard many racist remarks (“The only good Arab is a dead Arab”, “Kill them while there young”) from our officers and NCOs.

I was disturbed and shocked. I mentioned these things, with some consternation, to my then boss, a born Israeli who had served his full 3 years in the army, mostly in the Sinai, and had fought at the Suez canal during the Yom Kippur war. He was a right winger, but also a real nice guy. Decent in all my dealings with him, and one of the better bosses I have had.

He wouldn’t believe me. I must have misunderstood. There must have been extenuating circumstances I did not understand. “Ani yodeah et Ami” he said by way of explanation: “I know my people.”

Well, of course, he did not know his people. He only knew his small window on his people. Perhaps his army buddies had not acted in this way – there were no Palestinian civilians to deal with in the Sinai dessert – so no one else could possibly do so. But when I though about it, even this could not be true. Racist slurs don’t require their targets to be in view. And anti-Arab racist slurs where so pervasive in Israel, and particularly in the Army where civilian norms of behaviour are put on hold, at the time that it is impossible that he did not hear them at least during his stints in reserve duty. But he forgave them. Didn’t think they were significant. Didn’t realize how they reflected on him and his buddies. It took and outsider – me in this case – to take notice, to take offence, and to hold up a mirror. And he did not like what the mirror was showing him. So he denied it all.

I didn’t make a big deal of this or press him on it. And I didn’t publish a report. So he could persist in his denial and we could continue to be friends.

Goldstone has published a report. And the bad behaviour I experienced pales against what Goldstone reveals. And it is this public airing of what most Israelis know to be true, that really galls and frightens them. It’s not so much that it shows them in a bad light to others, it’s that it forces them to admit that they are not the paragons of virtue and morality they would like to think they are. It forces them to see themselves as other see them. And that is what is really frightening.

I should add that a very similar thing is happening in the Jewish world at large. Jews are having a hard time being told that “their” army - their fellow Jews - committed war crimes, just like other armies do. That we have supported these terrible crimes, just like citizens of many nations have support the crimes if their armies. It shatters that myth that we Jews are all virtuous and would never stoop to the immoral methods used by others. And that is too much to bear.

But looking honestly in the mirror: recognizing and admitting your errors and sins is the only way to correct them. The alternative is to continue on the same path. Schar averah, averah.

Below is Bradley Burston’s article in full:

* * *

Shock: a major medical emergency, often seen after serious injury. Among its signs and symptoms are mental changes including a sense of great anxiety and foreboding, confusion and, sometimes, combativeness.

This is about fear of the dark. Of the monstrous. In this case, the terror of finally uncovering what we ourselves are really made of.

This is about the lengths we will go, and the depths, in order to protect what we so desperately need to believe about ourselves. This is about how many others we will need to blame, vilify, assault, scapegoat and smear, before we actually take one wholly honest long look in the mirror.
This is about the war we made in Gaza, and what it did to Israel. This is about how Israel's conduct of the war has done more damage to the Jewish state than all the thousands and thousands of Palestinian rockets and mortar shells put together. It has been a year and more since a truce was called in Gaza, and - thanks in no small part to Israel's freely admitted policy of hamstringing and stonewalling UN investigators - the world is still at war with Israel.

The result is only now becoming felt. In a thousand ways, in new ways every single day, we have brought the war home.

Israel's battle plan, which effectively called for bludgeoning Hamas and the whole of Gaza into a state of shock, had the further effect, intentional or not, of inducing shock in Israel itself.
We have been sensing the symptoms for a year now. In shock, the first sign to appear is often confusion. A curious sense of weakness can be felt. A restlessness that is little understood. A coldness. Mental clouding. Apathy. Inactivity. There may be blurred vision.
We think: It's not the war. The war is over. The war was over there. The place we can't see. The place we're not allowed to see. The place, that is, that we don't want to look.
The place that makes us much prefer dreading the truth, to the truth itself.

In some cases, shock expresses itself in combativeness. A lashing out even at those who are trying to help.

In our state of shock, we were unable to see that Richard Goldstone was trying to save us. And that the Goldstone Report is exactly what Israel needs. We fought him every step of the way, convincing ourselves - just as in Gaza - that the unfolding catastrophe was the best of the available scenarios.

Had Israel cooperated with the panel, it might have begun to learn how to prevent another war like this one, and how to fight future wars entirely differently. Only now, with the shock beginning to subside, have Israeli military and legal officials begun publicly to concede

We fought Goldstone with everything we had. As if our very identity depended on it. More than Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaida, Ahmadinejad - Justice Richard Goldstone became the enemy. In a bizarre twist of something very akin to self-hatred, far-rightists began routinely, intentionally, sneeringly mispronouncing his name as Goldstein.

Even people whose business it is to know better, people who consider themselves temperate, moderate, lost their minds in calling Goldstone the worst names in the Jewish book.

What is most instructive in this context, is the fact that of all the epithets which Alan Dershowitz hurled at Goldstone in an interview to Israel's Army Radio, the one viewed as the worst of them all - so grave that he later retracted it - was the word moser, used to condemn one who betrays his people by, yes, informing. Divulging privileged information to the outside world.

There is a reason why we so recoiled in horror when Goldstone touched a nerve. It was the nerve that we had done everything in our power to avoid.

Critics of the Goldstone Report have noted that its methodology is deeply flawed, that it fails to adequately acknowledge, assess, and evaluate Israel's side of the conflict. Of late, rightists have gone further, blaming the New Israel Fund, its president Naomi Chazan, and its constituent non-profit organizations for acting as sources of information to the Goldstone mission.

But the attacks have spared the one non-profit organization that, far more than any other, was responsible for the flow of information to the Goldstone panel, and for the tenor of the final report: the government of Israel.

It was Israel which deprived the committee of access to Sderot and Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket attacks. It was Israel which kept the committee from hearing testimony, including rebuttals, from government and military officials. It was Israel which - even before the committee began its work - blackballed any cooperation with the panel, in the process guaranteeing an unbalanced result.

It was the same Israeli government which provided, in the bluster of public statements by the deputy prime minister, the foreign minister, and senior IDF commanders, the most damning evidence of a strategy which would bring devastation to the whole of the Gaza Strip, civilians and armed groups alike.

It is this Israeli government - lending credence to those who believed that it had much to hide - which resisted until the last possible moment the Goldstone Report's most crucial and also its fairest finding: the recommendation that both Israel and Hamas establish independent investigations into its allegations of human rights violations

And it is this Israeli government, in continuing its siege of Gaza, in denying Gazans access to concrete and other materials needed to rebuild homes destroyed by Israeli fire during Cast Lead, that lends further credence to the Goldstone Report's suspicions that Israel's policy has been and continues to be one of collective punishment of a civilian population.

Despite the nightmarish numbers of civilians killed in Gaza, the right has argued again and again that the problem with the war was that it was not pursued aggressively enough. Now, at home, they are getting their way. Finally, the war is being pressed to the full - with peace activists and human rights workers as the primary targets.

The Dahiya Doctrine of overkill and unimaginable, unremitting force, is being applied against the elements of Israeli society most strongly defending democracy and elemental rights. Finally, the war at home is being run the way the right wants. No holds barred. A fresh new onslaught on democracy every single day.

The Goldstone Report is, indeed, deeply flawed. But it is exactly what Israel needs. A deeply flawed report for a deeply flawed country. A country which will not, and cannot, begin to heal itself, repair itself, right itself, unless it faces with honesty and courage the issues and allegations raised by the report.

As long as Israel ducks the report, and keeps buried the whole truth about Cast Lead, it will not recover from this state of shock. Israel will be more vulnerable than ever to destruction from within. And Gaza, ruled by a Hamas which wants to see Israel exterminated - and which has only grown richer, better armed, and more popular as a result of the Israeli embargo - will continue to hold the whole of Israel in a crippling, withering, ultimately destructive state of siege.


Blogger Richard said...

I agree w. you on everything you say both about Burston & this column. It is positively masterful & thundering w. justice & insight.

I too often have issues w. Burston's views, but he hits the nail on the head w. this one.

My friend Larry Cohler Esses tells me that Burston was on Kibbutz Gezer & I know you were as well. That must be how you met. What an illustrious group you must've been w. David Twersky & J.J. Godlberg as well.

2:03 am  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...

Actually I met Bradley earlier. We worked at Habonim Camp together, and we where generally part of the same left Zionist "scene". As were David Twersky & J.J. Godlberg.

10:40 am  
Blogger Eric said...

Who says Jews cannot be fascists
Spit in his eye who would so bash us
Say Im Tirtzu, Tzu Tzu, Tzu

2:59 pm  

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