June 2006

According to the Independent, Corporal Gilad Shalit was “kidnapped”. The Guardian referred to him as a “hostage”. And BBC online believed him “abducted” and “kidnapped”. It was a revealing choice of terminology. Soldiers who are seized by an enemy are usually considered to have been captured. But Britain’s liberal media preferred to use words that misleadingly suggested Cpl Shalit was a victim, an innocent whose status as a soldier was not relevant to his fate.

The tribal factor

29 June 2006

In a recent skirmish with leading members of the American Jewish activist community, the prize-winning Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua claimed that secular Jewish identity was meaningless outside Israel. Upsetting his audience in Washington, he argued that Jewishness in the Diaspora was impermanent: if China ever became the world’s foremost superpower, he warned, American Jews would migrate there to assimilate rather than in the US. “For me there is no alternative… I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You [Jews in the Diaspora] are changing jackets… you are changing countries like changing jackets,” he told the leaders of the American Jewish Committee. Delegates called his comments “impertinent”, “foolish”, “tasteless” and “impolite”.

The killing by Palestinian militants of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third from an army post close to the Gaza Strip set the scene for Israeli “reprisals” and “retaliation”, according to the reports of BBC correspondents in Israel and Gaza yesterday. The attack by the Palestinians, who sneaked through tunnels under the electronic fence surrounding Gaza, marked a “major escalation in cross-border tension” (Alan Johnston) that threatened to overturn “a week of progress on two fronts” (John Lyon): namely, the recent talks between Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan, and between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas.

If you keep lying long enough and with enough conviction, people start to believe you — or at least doubt the evidence in front of their own eyes. And so it has been with the Israeli army’s account of how seven members of a Palestinian family were killed, and dozens of other Palestinians injured, during shelling close by a beach in Gaza.

 This week, according to reports in the Israeli media, even Marc Garlasco, a Pentagon expert on the effects of battlefield weapons hired by Human Rights Watch to investigate the deaths, “conceded” that he could not contradict the findings of the Israeli army’s own inquiry.

Like bars around the globe, Sammy’s café is buzzing with a typical mixture of the overheated passions and home-grown wisdom unleashed every four years with the arrival of the soccer World Cup. Suddenly everyone watching on the giant open-air screen in Sammy’s courtyard is an expert on Paraguay’s top goal scorer or the previous form of Costa Rica’s left-back. No one in Nazareth, the effective capital of Israel’s more than one million Arab citizens, has been this engrossed in football since the surprise victory two years ago of a neighboring Arab town, Sakhnin, in the Israeli Cup. Sakhnin’s practice ground was a clearing in an olive grove.

Imagine the following scenario. A Palestinian gunman boards a bus inside Israel and rides it to the city of Netanya. Close to the end of the line, he walks over to the driver, levels his automatic rifle against the man’s head and pumps him with bullets. He turns and empties the rest of the magazine — one of 14 in his backpack — into the passenger behind the driver and two young women sitting across the gangway. As bystanders in the street outside look on in horror, our gunman then reloads his weapon and sprays the bus with yet more fire, injuring 20 people. He approaches a woman huddled beneath a seat, trying to hide from him, lowers the gun to her head and pulls the trigger. The magazine is empty. As he tries to load a third clip, she grabs the burning barrel of the gun while other passengers rush him.

Israelis have a word for it: “hasbara”. It is often misleadingly translated as “advocacy for Israel”. But what the word signifies more deeply for Israel’s supporters is the duty, when the truth would be damaging, to dissemble or to disseminate misinformation to protect the interests of Israel as a Jewish state — that is, a state with an unassailable Jewish majority. If hasbara is expected of the lowliest members of Israel’s international fan club, it is a duty of the first order for the country’s prime minister. Which is why no one should be surprised that Ehud Olmert’s speech to the US Congress last week was an unpalatable stew of untruths, distortions and double-speak. Washington’s credulous politicians, of course, lapped it up, bobbing up and down as they gave the Israeli prime minister a series of standing ovations.

A low-key but injudicious war of words briefly broke out between Israel’s two most senior judges in the wake of the May 2006 decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law. A temporary measure passed by the Knesset in July 2003, the law effectively bans marriages between Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israeli citizens. The two judges’ squabble was an indication of how crucial each believes the statute’s permanent addition to or removal from the books will be in determining Israel’s future in the new era of separation from the Palestinians that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes will dawn as he seeks unilaterally to determine his country’s final borders. Will Israel be a state that is ruthless and unselfconscious about protecting its Jewishness, or one that maintains at least a pretense of respecting universal rights of citizenship?