There’s good news and bad news. In the good news category: Friends this month shared an article from Britain’s The Spectator with a long headline that condensed the message of the piece: “Israelis don’t care that we hate them. But they’d like to know why.” It was written by Brendan O’Neill, a colorful character who does not shy from taking a stand, and the title summed up the theme he heard repeatedly during his travels around Israel.
“Talking to Israelis feels a bit like talking to fans of Millwall FC,” O’Neill opines at the start of his column. “‘No one likes us, we don’t care,’ sing Millwall fans. Israel is the undoubted Millwall of global affairs, loathed by almost every Westerner who considers himself decent and they’ve adopted a similar cri de coeur. ‘Europe doesn’t like us. Americans do not like us. We can live with this,’ says a kippah- wearing guy at the Western Wall. He sums up a sentiment I hear across this country.
“If you were in Iran or North Korea, long-time chart-toppers in the international community’s gallery of rogue states, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid when a citizen expressed disgruntlement with the wicked West. But Israel? This tiny nation was for so long the West’s best bud in the Middle East; a bright democratic outpost in an otherwise autocratic desert. To hear Israelis speak ill of the West, to see them raise their eyes to the heavens at every mention of the United Nations or the European Union, feels weird.”
Which brings me to the bad news: The “nobody loves us” attitude is so prevalent that my friends and colleagues thought that O’Neill’s piece is noteworthy – although it does imply that we care more than we let on. Everybody likes to be liked – otherwise Facebook wouldn’t exist.
Published as it was hard on the heels of the visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron, the article served as a timely reminder of the change in the world’s fortunes if nothing else. Cameron is no Stephen Harper. He didn’t have the warmth of his Canadian counterpart. Nonetheless, his speech in the Knesset went down well – especially when he announced he had learned the meaning of the Hebrew word “balagan” (“big mess”) and stated in his best attempt at a Hebrew accent “Anahnu beyahad,” “We’re [in this] together.”
One of the reasons Cameron’s soothing tones were so welcome was his strident comments just a few years ago. In June 2010, in a speech in the British parliament, Cameron said: “Everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza.”
The following month, during a visit to Turkey, he upgraded the image to a “prison camp.”
It was not long after the Mavi Marmara flotilla tried to break the international blockade on Gaza. When IDF soldiers boarded the ship, they were received with remarkable violence by the ostensible peace activists, and in the ensuing clash 10 soldiers were wounded and nine Turkish members of the IHH were killed – an incident that still haunts Turkish-Israeli relations despite what should be common interests.
There was no mention of the fact that Israel at that time actually did have a prisoner in Gaza – abducted soldier Gilad Schalit, whose whereabouts were still unknown; there was no reminder of the nature of the Hamas regime or the regular rocket attacks launched from Gaza on southern Israel; nor of the fact that Gaza does receive humanitarian aid, both from Israel and via Israel; and that it happens to have another border, the one with Egypt.
No wonder Israelis get frustrated with always being considered the bad guys. As people told O’Neill, repeatedly, we feel like “we’re treated like a pariah state” and are held to double standards.
“The most interesting explanation I hear for Israel’s unpopularity among latte-sippers,” O’Neill observes, “comes from Richard Pater, a political analyst from Radlett who has lived in Israel for the past 15 years. (Israel has loads of Jews from boring bits of Britain who have taken the quite wise decision to act on their right to migrate to this far warmer, more exotic part of the world.) ‘The lesson many in the West took from the Holocaust is that nationalism is bad; the message Jews took from it is that nationalism is necessary.’ “This cuts to the heart of today’s fashionable disdain for little Israel. What many Westerners seem to find most nauseating is that Israel is cocky, confident and committed to preserving its national sovereign rights against all-comers.
In short, it’s a lot like we used to be before relativism and anti-modernism. I think that Israel reminds us of our older selves, our pre-EU, pre-green days, when we, too, believed in borders, sovereignty, progress, growth.”
WHETHER IT was the “Arab Spring” or simply more experience, Cameron seems to have finally got it. He marveled at Israel hi-tech – the spirit of entrepreneurship and chutzpah that gave us the moniker the Start-up Nation. And while setting out his vision of the benefits of peace, he apparently realizes that the Israel-Palestinian dispute is not the source of all evil in the world and solving it won’t make the other problems go away – from global jihad to Putin’s expansionist ambitions or nuclear North Korea.
Although the British prime minister quipped that he had been warned about the probable parliamentary antics of our MKs – his visit coincided with the passage of the controversial ultra-Orthodox draft law – the rocket attacks that took place during his trip came out of the blue.
Palestinians in Gaza, evidently much less of a prison than Cameron had previously thought, chose the day of the prime minister’s visit to launch the largest barrage of rocket fire on Israel since the end of the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. As I monitored the news of Cameron’s progress on March 12, I also tried to keep track of the number of missiles – 20, 30, 50 – and worried about friends in Sderot.
And this is another reason we feel misunderstood. As I’m sure O’Neill also heard: “How many rockets would other countries be expected to put up with on their cities and towns?” That I don’t call my friends after every rocket, but only after particularly severe attacks, is more to their credit than mine: They just get on with their lives, and although I wouldn’t go as far as calling Sderot “exotic” it is certainly sunnier and friendlier than much of Britain. The rocket attacks also put another problem into focus.
Call it the Klos-C dilemma. The IDF capture of apparently Gaza-bound missiles on a ship 1,500 kilometers from Israel’s shore – an incredible feat of intelligence and operational skills – served to demonstrate part of the Israeli paradox. On the one hand, Israelis felt that the world showed an astonishing lack of interest in the heist, even though Israel is not the only target of jihadists; on the other hand, we know the obsessive view of Israel as a war zone is also harmful.
Many of those dealing in Israeli public advocacy (hasbara as it is known in Hebrew) are struggling to get away from that battlefield image. Just as when you think of Brazil your mind goes to the carnival and beaches rather than the poverty and crime, so should Israel rightly be perceived as a fun, Mediterranean country with a good food, a vibrant cultural life and places of unparalleled religious, historical and archeological interest.
Anybody who witnessed the country celebrating Purim this week could see that we excel in being different: in being ourselves. We survived the ancient Persian plot to destroy us, hence the Purim holiday; and we’ll survive what Hamas and Hezbollah throw at us. We just don’t understand why the world blames us for wanting to survive at least another 4,000 years. It’s not so bad being likened to Millwall FC, nicknamed “The Lions”; it’s feeling like the ball that’s kicked around that we find hard.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.