What you see from here

The fight against dehumanization is not an easy one. But it has an unexpectedly easy first step: considering, regarding another place and people: “what you see from here.”

Riding in Israel (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Riding in Israel
‘What you see from here you don’t see from there.”
Thus Ariel Sharon, reworking a line by lyricist Yankele Rotblit, described how his move to the premiership inspired his shift in views.
Anyone who wants to understand the Middle East is in Sharon and Rotblit’s debt; their proverb perfectly encapsulates the problem with how the world looks at Israel. Too often, people do not encounter – or actively deny – the Israeli “what you see from here,” what life is really like on the ground here.
Instead, people fall back on, or actively promote, what you see about Israel from “there.” The portrait you see from much of the world is increasingly dominated by context-free, cherry-picking, distortion-mongering media; UN initiatives that single Israel out for condemnation or seek to block Israel from self-defense; and a growing movement to delegitimize and ultimately dismantle Israel itself – from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to the Goldstone Report, from headlines like “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” (Time’s cover, September 13, 2010) to charges that even Israel’s purported virtues are mere whitewash.
This skewered portrait conveys the following dogmas: 1) Israel is the permanent in-the-wrong aggressor in the conflicts; 2) its problems or mistakes are somehow exclusively Israeli, or inherent to Israel’s identity in a way not true of other countries; and 3) conflict is the only significant thing that ever happens in Israel – all other things here exist merely in reference to it.
Of these three dogmas, the first is perhaps the most famous refrain of anti- Israel bias. What is less appreciated, however, is that it is the latter two that make the first marketable, by portraying Israel as something other than a genuine country: ordinary, wonderful, messed-up, unique, human and normal like any other; and rightfully deserving recognition, engagement, respect and belonging in the family of nations like any other.
The third of the above dogmas defines Israel as a controversy, a problem; the second as singularly deformed or demonic among the world’s nations – all before any conscious conversation about Israel’s position in its conflicts has even begun.
What you see from here is that, regarding each of these dogmas, the opposite is true. The conflicts here are not simple. But before one even gets to that conversation, it must be understood that Israel is not merely half a conflict’s hyphenated name, it is a country, full of life, culture and human beings. And Israel’s problems and mistakes are not exclusively Israeli, but distinct Israeli incarnations of human problems shared throughout the human condition.
LET ME start with what you see from one Jerusalemite apartment: my own.
On my shelf sit CDs and books that re-imagine traditional Jewish ideas in vivid modern ways: the Idan Raichel Project’s orchestra-rock, Hadag Nahash’s hip-hop, Etgar Keret’s stories, Yehuda Amichai’s poetry. They mash up kaleidoscopically with Psalms and Prophets, Shabbat and Yom Kippur, with the genius of minds over millennia and the journeys our lives.
I can stroll from my apartment to the First Station and see the train-track park’s Torah-themed, modern-setting murals, for example, one of people buried in smartphones, with the caption “It is not good that man be alone” (Genesis 2:18). From my neighborhood’s hillside walking path, I can absorb the golden glow of the Old City, the Jewish people’s historical womb since the creation our ancient texts.
What you see from here, in other words, is a country.
Just as Shakespeare and the Beatles are not mere whitewash for the UK-Ireland conflict but a country’s culture on its own terms, so too, Psalms and Idan Raichel should not be seen merely in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, e.g. as whitewash for it; they exist as Israeli culture on its own terms. To reduce that human tapestry to the conflict’s single thread is to deny the normal humanity of Israel.
What you also see is a country that has problems and whose government at times does things wrong. In this respect too, Israel is neither more nor less human than any other country. Honoring civil and human rights, balancing liberty and security – these needs are simultaneously and deeply urgent, and in no way solely Israeli.
This article addresses not those problems themselves, out of respect for their complexity, but rather the way people talk about them, and the conclusions they draw. Problems like these exist on two levels: (1) Is a given policy good? (2) Is that country, warts and all, a normal human country? Anti-Israel bias attempts to obscure the truth that one can debate the former, one can passionately answer “yes” or “no,” and that does not change the bedrock answer of “yes” to the latter.
Lastly, from here you see the real dangers and rejectionism that Israel faces, and the real things its government does right – as real as the booms that millions of Israelis and I heard from our bomb shelters the summer before last; as real as the peace-treaty map Netanyahu’s predecessor put on the table and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused.
When you reckon with those realities – and from a starting point in which Israel is a genuine country – you get a fuller, more nuanced understanding of this region, one that treats both Israel and its conflicts seriously.
WHAT IS at stake? If the world fully accepted Israel as a genuine country, it would be more likely to treat Israel like one.
Some consequences would be geopolitical – from diplomatic standing to national safety. Others would be subtler, regarding Israelis’ experience in this world.
Imagine a world where Israeli university debate teams can enter tournaments regardless of what country they’re in; where Idan Raichel can perform abroad without protesters outside his concert and outside concerts of his countrymen; where the Olympics would not refuse to hold a proper commemoration for the 40th anniversary of the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
The underlying anti-Israel injustice, and the platform for all others, is the unrecognized humanity of Israel. People of conscience must fight against any people or country’s being treated this way.
The fight against dehumanization is not an easy one. But it has an unexpectedly easy first step: considering, regarding another place and people: “what you see from here.”
You’ll be surprised by what you didn’t see from there. ■
The writer is a legal scholar and journalist, specializing in the intersection of culture, religion, law and politics and in international law, and is currently studying Talmud and Tanach (Bible) at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.