by Ratna Pelle
We Western Europeans love dissidents. We applauded the peaceful 'revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine, the current protests in Belarus, and of course the dissidents of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe. We especially love dissidents who are well educated and speak English preferably. African or even Arabian dissidents are far less popular than American or Israeli ones. The former have less opportunities to speak out, and maybe they are simply killed before they can do so, let alone talk to Western media. US and Israeli 'dissidents' don't have these problems, but they are also more popular because they criticize powerful Western countries; particularly progressive people have some difficulties in criticizing the perceived victim. Our former colonies and also the Arab world are still victimized by many people, and many of their problems and also wrongs are blamed on their colonial past or the USA and Israel.
More powerful than criticism from the outside is criticism from within. Almost every Jew who criticizes Israel is embraced by the European left. They especially love them when they express that after what happened to the Jewish people, they should not suppress and humiliate another people (maybe this makes Europeans feel somewhat relieved of their feelings of guilt because of the Holocaust). In contrast, Jews who defend Israel are often depicted as being part of the 'Zionist lobby', a sinister and very powerful plot.
In just about every documentary about Israel you will see peace activist Uri Avnery, Meretz leader and architect of the Geneva Accord Yossi Beilin, or the famous writer and founder of Peace Now Amos Oz, or left-wing journalists like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy. These are all people with an important message, people who have fought in Israel's wars or the occupied territories or worked there for years and have seen the dark sides of 'Israel's right to defend itself'. Since 2002 the so called refuseniks have joined them, after 26 reserve officers signed a letter that proclaimed that they don't want to serve in the territories any longer.
My problem is not with these people, but with the way European media use them. In Israel, they remind people of things they don't like to hear, tell unpleasant truths and confront them with their indifference for the suffering 'on the other side'. They are a counterweight to all the talk about security and terrorism and the almost heroic status the army still enjoys. The aim of most of these dissidents is not to 'bash' Israel, and they are not 'self-hating Jews' as right wing Zionists often depict them. However, some of these people do send a one-sided message, by debunking myths about Israel's 'moral occupation' and the IDF being a 'moral army'. They mostly don't talk about the real threats Israel faces; the many suicide attacks that are foiled, the hate propaganda in Palestinian/Arab media and schools, the misleading information and sometimes outright lies of the Palestinians about Israeli massacres that didn't happen (for example Jenin) or about the route of the fence/wall, Israelis irradiating Palestinians at checkpoints so they get cancer, or distributing toxic food to kill them. Sometimes they even repeat these lies (Jenin, the route of the fence) and so give them more credibility because 'Israelis say so themselves'.
In journalism, a golden rule is to check information and hear both sides. When Israel is involved, and especially criticism of Israel, few journalists apply this rule. What the media show is mostly these 'dissidents', fanatical settlers and sometimes a declaration of a government official. We seldom see Israeli journalists, doctors, artists or intellectuals who explain the Israeli side from a moderate point of view. We seldom hear the Israeli side outside of a negative context. If they are heard at all, these people are always put on the defensive by the all too critical interviewers, whereas the 'good side' can speak out freely and its information is not questioned.
This is not only unfair to Israel, it is also bad for our understanding of the conflict and its complex nature. Recently an MP from the Dutch Green Party told me that the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very simple: Israel just has to abide by international law and stop the occupation. Most of the left and parts of the center in Europe think so. The fact that international law (for example resolution 242) is not unambiguous, that international law is made by countries and shaped by their interests, alliances and power games, and Israel has some good reasons to mistrust the UN, all that doesn't count. Israel is the perpetrator, the Palestinians are the victims. The conflict is reduced to a good guy and a bad guy. It are often the partisans for one of the sides who say the conflict is simple: the other side just has to do this or that, and stop so and so, and everything will be fine. Moral dilemmas are denied, the history is adapted to this image of black and white, and facts that don't fit in are not mentioned.
This was illustrated well by a documentary I saw recently about the Israeli refuseniks. First some refuseniks were interviewed and explained why they refuse to serve in the territories. Then an Israeli air force commander was interviewed and he explained that each time they carried out an operation he was confronted with moral dilemmas. Sometimes he shot, but often he didn't, because the risk of hitting civilians was too great. In the end he was asked if the goal of fighting terrorism justifies the means. 'We try to fight terrorism in the least harmful way', he explained. 'So it justifies the means?', the journalist insisted. 'Sometimes, it does'. The journalist had the answer he wanted. The refusenik was the good guy, the air force commander the bad or at least dubious guy. What was telling is that the journalist didn't understand how the commander could do his job and at the same time be a doctor who also cures Palestinian children. This is very illustrative of progressive European thought. They don't understand the dilemma that the commander wants to save innocents on both sides but that this is often contradictory in the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a teenager, I discussed moral dilemmas with friends by inventing hypothetical situations: imagine you are in a boat with 10 people and it will sink unless someone gets out and will drown. What would you do? Later we discussed whether we would have been willing to risk our lives by taking Jews into hiding during WWII. Sometimes I evaded the dilemma by saying that I don't know because I am not in that situation fortunately. Israelis are in that situation all the time. The refuseniks try to evade it by making a distinction between serving in the territories and fighting for Israel's survival, but this distinction is hard to make in reality, as most suicide attacks are foiled by Israel's operations in the territories, and Israel cannot afford to just wait until it is attacked. And do the refuseniks think it okay that settlers will be massacred because they are not protected any longer? I understand very well the unwillingness of Israeli soldiers to risk their lives for fanatics who uproot olive trees or go to Yeshivas at the cost of the state throughout their life, but Israel has a duty to protect all its citizens. Moreover, most settlers are not fanatics, but ordinary people who could get a home under favorable conditions in the territories, because it was Israeli policy to stimulate settlement of the West Bank. The Israeli government has the moral duty to evacuate at least the isolated settlements deep in the West Bank, and not send its soldiers there and put their lives at risk for something that is not vital for its survival, but rather an obstacle for it and to peace with the Palestinians.
There are a lot of moral dilemmas that Israelis cannot evade and there is far too little understanding for that in much of the outside world, especially amongst progressives. However, there is no justification for maintaining practices that force people to literally defend the indefensible.
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