Friday January 25, 2013

NEW YORK

I have profound feelings for two countries besides my own: England, because I have either lived there or visited it for the last 40 years, I have close friends there, and feel totally at ease on London’s streets and with its politics, films, and literature; and Israel where I have visited only once, and have barely any connections, but which is part of my Jewish identity and history. In fact I could say that Israel’s a deeper part of my unconscious than of my daily awareness. Still, when things happen in either Israel or in England, they conjure up images and evoke emotions that I can’t merely relegate to the back of my mind.

However, whatever economic and social problems England faces, they are dwarfed by what Israel must confront. It’s a country surrounded by enemies -- some dedicated to its destruction, and all very difficult to negotiate with. Israelis also must live with the possibility of suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and with military invasions by their own and their enemies’ forces, all of which move its inhabitants to often feel that they are living on a precipice, where violent conflict is a reality, never an abstraction.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud merged with racist, hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman’s extreme right wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, the chance of a peaceful solution became even more remote. The whole peace process has turned rancid.

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Israel’s policies towards the Arabs -- the aggressive expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem despite the Palestinians calling the plan "dangerous and alarming" -- and the human rights abuses that are an inescapable aspect of their occupation of the West Bank -- tend to arouse much of the world’s condemnation, some engaging in over-the-top attacks on Israel as a murderous pariah state. It’s the kind of denunciation that countries with much more odious human rights records (Russia and North Korea among others) never receive. Of course, neither Putin nor Kim Jong Un would ever be affected by the world’s criticism and outrage, while there is always hope that Israel -- a country where free speech and press still reigns -- can listen and modify its policies.

One could say that there is a double standard in operation when it comes to Israel. Still, understanding Israel’s precarious situation, and the fact that the world holds it to higher standards of political and moral behavior, does not absolve it from criticism for its more tone-deaf and morally dubious policies.

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Recently I have been reading books and articles, and screening films, that take a variety of critical stances toward Israel. The idiosyncratic comic book writer Harvey Pekar (of the autobiographical "American Splendor"), whose strips wryly and mordantly record the mundane, has written a posthumously published graphic book, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me" (Hill and Wang). Pekar’s parents were ardent, uncritical Zionists, and he was brought up to feel pride in Israel’s achievements, but his perspective gradually began to shift. He never turned into a supporter of Hamas, and continued to hold ambivalent but deep feelings about Israel, but he became disenchanted with its policies. He developed a very powerful sense of what is moral and just, and for him "Jews oppressing others just to survive seems dicey."

Call him naive, but Pekar wanted all nations to adhere to a universal standard of decency. Pekar made no pretense of expertise, and may not have said original things about the endless Mideast conflict, but the despair he expressed about Israel’s "mixing military power with religious fervor," with its political moderates and liberals often ignoring the situation (the Labor Party campaigned on economic issues rather than take a stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the just concluded election) echoes my own feelings as well.

A more sophisticated and trenchant critique of Israel’s policies can be found in Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary "The Gatekeepers." Six former leaders of Israel’s Shin Bet security force -- the organization most hated by Palestinians, which oversaw domestic intelligence for the war on terror -- talk to the film’s director, and lay out in uncompromising detail their country’s post-1967 history, as they challenge many of Netanyahu’s policies.

The six have very different personalities, with diverse political allegiances, but all of them are reflective, honest, and outspoken in their criticism of the state they once served. These are well-respected men committed to protect the state by assassinating terrorists and rounding up West Bank villagers -- willing do anything to protect Israel. They were ruthless while exercising authority, but they also can express doubts about the morality and viability of their own tactics. The film allows them to air feelings they obviously never expressed when in power.

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These are men who even the most uncritical of Israel’s defenders, cannot accuse of desiring to see the country’s destruction. But to a man they convey a bleak vision of Israel’s future, and are utterly at odds with the rhetoric of the country’s politicians. They understand the Mideast conflict from the bottom up -- Palestinian villages, refugee camps -- and see nothing good coming to Israel from its current policies. It’s not that they provide some magical resolution, but they feel that the country is facing a leadership crisis that seems to be getting worse.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written: "It’s incumbent on every Israeli leader to test and test again to see if Israel can find a Palestinian partner for a secure peace so that it is not forever fighting an inside war and an outside war."

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com