Grumpy Old Man: Tell the truth

There’s plenty of blame to pin on the other side, but let’s be smart – and that means openly confronting our own foibles and even stupidity.

Boycott Israel sign mispelled boicot (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boycott Israel sign mispelled boicot
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I received an email last week from an organization calling itself Americans for Peace and Tolerance. The email warned about Israel Apartheid Week, a concerted effort by the country’s harsher critics (and, yes, enemies) to solidify their claim that we are no better than white South Africa used to be, and even worse. It’s become an annual event throughout the United States, Canada and some other countries, primarily on campuses.
“What can our side do?” the email said in part. “Tell the truth: that this is a lie and that the real apartheid in the Middle East is Arab Apartheid, where women, gays, Christians, Jews and other minorities are subjugated, humiliated, raped, and slaughtered.”
Can’t argue with that.
“We need the Jewish students on campus to use THIS argument – not to say, as some of our feckless leaders are telling them to say: ‘We are not so bad as they say we are.’” With that approach I can argue.
Although the organization includes in its email a link to an article that can help students counter the apartheid charge, it will take far more if we are to be truly effective purveyors of hasbara, the much-used Hebrew word for public diplomacy, because the problems begin when we throw around accusations. We tend to generalize. We lack or ignore precise facts and figures to back up our assertions. We also succumb to our prejudices. And sometimes we act as if we ourselves have no shortcomings, so when someone else brings them up, we are totally unprepared with a counter-argument or absolutely unwilling to say that our interlocutor is right.
AFTER FIGHTING as a reservist in Lebanon in 1982, I joined a Jewish Agency project called the Zionist Caravan. The Caravan was an annual undertaking that sent young North American immigrants (and, later, young immigrants from elsewhere) back to the old country for a few weeks of traveling from city to city, campus to campus, to explain what life in Israel was really like. The idea was that if this could cut through some of the misconceptions and perhaps even plant thoughts of aliya, terrific.
In November 1982, considering the Lebanon fighting and the bad press Israel had received (much of it due to shallow and sloppy foreign reporting, but some of it entirely justified and even understated), the Caravan spent the majority of its time trying to repair the damage. As the “war veteran” among its members, it fell to me to talk about what really had transpired.
We were on a campus in Michigan, a state with a sizable Arab population, and had set up a table at the student center. A lot of the young people seemed to ignore us, but some wanted information and others stopped to debate. A few among the latter were loud, vehement and ugly in their arguments. One brought to my attention a pamphlet on our table that had been prepared by the Foreign Ministry.
A photo in the pamphlet showed an installation on the roof of a building. The installation had a large, gun-barrel-like protrusion reaching out horizontally over the edge of the roof. The caption said the building was a hospital in Beirut and that the installation was a large-caliber anti-aircraft gun.
The message was clear: The Arabs do their fighting while hiding not only behind civilians, but behind ailing and injured civilians. What’s more, they do so in the hope that either the IDF will refrain from firing back or that it will indeed shoot, launch missiles or drop bombs and kill so many wretched, harmless people that the world will recoil in revulsion and come down firmly on the Arab side.
As a soldier I knew that this reflected a great measure of truth. But the student said this was no gun. When I looked closely I saw he was right: It was a mechanized winch designed to lift heavy loads, and was identical to winches on roofs I had seen just about everywhere in Israel.
Not entirely grasping for a way out, I agreed and said that perhaps it had been placed there to draw Israeli fire. Perhaps, the student agreed. But it clearly was not a weapon, and if we were saying it was, what else were we lying about? That one caption nullified everything we might have gained with our arguments on that campus.
IT IS true that this country is not nearly as bad as the Israel Apartheid Week people and their ilk insist we are. But we can be bad, well beyond the bad of numbskull public relations, and even disgusting. And in so doing, self-defeating.
Take those separate bus lines for West Bank Palestinians. Whoever thought them up clearly doesn’t understand – as the activists at Americans for Peace and Tolerance do – that a good part of the war for our survival is being waged on the battleground of public relations. Israel Apartheid Week, after all, is a PR campaign nonpareil. Look how it’s got us all atither.
Wrongly, however, the organization is recommending that students (and, by extension, the rest of us) basically ignore what the people behind Israel Apartheid Week say about the Jewish state and instead simply tell everyone that the other side is worse – as if anyone cares, considering all the double standards with which we and our supporters must contend. Even worse than that, it’s as if the group is saying that doing bad or stupid things to a lesser degree than our enemy makes it all right.
I say there is nothing “feckless” in confronting our own mistakes and shortcomings, even in public, as long as it’s put in the proper perspective and given the necessary context. Further, there is nothing wrong in standing up for contentious policies, as long as they can be justified. I personally believe our settlement policy is unwise, primarily because of the cost, whether in treasure or public perceptions. But someone who is willing to pay the price can point to more than a few powerful and compelling reasons why Jews cannot be barred from living in the heartland of their heritage.
Just know your arguments. And don’t obfuscate.
That goes for you, too, Americans for Peace and Tolerance.
You describe yourself as being “dedicated to promoting peaceful coexistence in a [sic] ethnically diverse America by educating the American public about the need for a moderate political leadership that supports tolerance and core American values in communities across the nation.”
I’ll forgive your grammar. Yet a more than cursory stroll through your website shows that your ire is reserved mostly, if not solely, for extreme Islam. This is fine. But what about Christian extremists and Jewish extremists? Granted, they don’t fly airliners into skyscrapers or blow themselves up on city buses, but they are out there and they make their views known and felt. They have their haters, too. And many are in America.
So just as I say to Israel supporters everywhere, I say to Americans for Peace and Tolerance: Tell the truth. Call yourself Americans for Peace and Tolerance among Islamists. Nothing wrong with that. You do good work. Or leave the name and go after all dangerous fundamentalists. Were I the joining type, I would join. But tell the whole truth.
We all should tell the whole truth, even about our beloved Israel – smartly, without fear and without shame. Like we say in Hebrew, call the child by its name.