My Word: Sounds like trouble

You don’t always have to know a foreign language to understand what’s going on. Sometimes, just hearing it is enough.

US President Obama wins Nobel Prize in Oslo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
US President Obama wins Nobel Prize in Oslo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
You don’t always have to know a foreign language to understand what’s going on. Sometimes, just hearing it is enough. Sports broadcasts and political rallies each have their own distinct sound; someone hurt, someone angry and someone begging for mercy are also easily recognized.
Nonetheless, I was proud I understood the gist of a Swedish colleague’s opinion piece on December 11 without the help of a Bing translation, or the benefits of hearing the tone. It was the words “Mest surrealistiskt,” “Nobels fredspris” and “EU” in the op-ed by political editor Henrik L. Barvå in the conservative Nya Wermlands-Tidningen daily that did it – particularly that “surrealistiskt.”
I was proud, also, of having discovered a member of that rare species, a non-Jewish Swedish journalist who is supportive of Israel.
Barvå pointed out the irony of the Nobel Peace Prize being given to the European Union in a country that is not even a member of the EU.
Of course, this is not the strangest Nobel Peace Prize: As it happens, I was sharing a meal with Barvå and a very mixed group of international journalists on a press tour of Taiwan when the decision to award the prize to Barack Obama was announced in 2009. All of us at first thought it was a joke and we had fun thinking up other Nobel categories in which Obama could have won the award, including literature for his books and the prize for physics, for defying the laws of nature and becoming the first superman to be elected president of the US.
When the peace prize was given to Yasser Arafat (along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) for the Oslo Accords, I don’t remember finding it funny at all.
From a thread of comments that followed Barvå’s Facebook posting, I understood that some of his sense of irony stemmed from traditional Swedish-Norwegian rivalry. It reminds me of the Canadian-American, French-Belgian, Australian/New Zealand divide. As I constantly point out to friends in these countries, they shouldn’t complain. As Israelis know, there are worse neighbors.
I understood the speeches in one of these neighbors on December 8 even though my knowledge of spoken Arabic is basic. It was the way it was said. At a rally in Gaza marking the movement’s 25th anniversary, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal pledged to liberate the entire “land of Palestine, from the river to the sea.”
Picking up on the Arabic word for sea, I initially thought Mashaal was threatening to make the Mediterranean the final resting place of the Zionists. Unfortunately, a more accurate translation did nothing to reassure me. His message was the same. Mashaal does not want Israel within the 1948 borders or the 1967 borders. He doesn’t want Israel to exist at all.
The new Nobel recipient, the European Union, seemed unperturbed, however. While Mashaal, who recently launched hundreds of missiles on Israel, made several speeches threatening to wipe the country off the map, at a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers condemned Israel for daring to announce plans to build in the area known as E1, in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim, just over the Green Line.
It was later reported that four countries – Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Ireland – had tried to put pressure on the meeting to condemn only Israel. At the insistence of Germany and the Czech Republic, two countries Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited last week, they also condemned Hamas – in a manner of speaking. The EU found Hamas’s statements “inflammatory” and “unacceptable.”
This appears to be the background for the unprecedented attack by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on the European governments.
Speaking at The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference at Herzliya’s Daniel Hotel on December 12, Liberman said: “When push comes to shove, many world leaders will be willing to sacrifice Israel without batting an eyelid. We are not willing to become a second Czechoslovakia and sacrifice vital security interests.”
Netanyahu similarly told members of the foreign media at a Government Press Office Hanukka event on December 11 that when the Hamas leaders openly called for Israel’s destruction the only thing he heard was a deafening silence.
“Where was the outrage?” he asked.
“Where were the UN resolutions? Where was [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas? Why weren’t the Palestinians summoned to European and other capitals to explain why the PA president not only refused to condemn this but declared his intention to unite with Hamas? “We cannot accept that when Jews build homes in their ancient capital of Jerusalem the international community has no problem finding its voice, but when Palestinian leaders openly call for the destruction of Israel, the one and only Jewish state, the world is silent.”
And this is a good time to note another couple of surprises I had this week: I found myself in (at least partial) agreement with columns written by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times and Gershon Baskin in this paper.
Friedman wrote: “...there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: ‘Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?’ If Israelis smell that you don’t, their ears will close to you. It is one reason the Europeans in general, and the European Left in particular, have so little influence here.
“The central political divide in Israel today is over the follow-up to this core question: If you appreciate that Israel lives in a neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak, how should we expect Israel to act?”
Clearly I fall into a category that Friedman would consider hard-line – I’m painfully aware that every time the country tries to give up land for peace it ends up being attacked by Palestinian missiles and criticized by the international community. (And I didn’t hear any pressure being put on the Palestinians to get them back to the negotiating table.)
Baskin was the bigger surprise, telling Mashaal to “go negotiate with the Egyptians, not with Israel. Rafah should be an international border between the Palestinian state in Gaza and Egypt... Israel should announce that Gaza has two years from today to take care of its own electricity, water, food and economic needs.”
The trouble is, it’s not only the Europeans who don’t understand what’s going on here. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize granted him prestige but not perception. The US president, having failed to see the Arab Spring could turn into a bitter winter, is now in the strange position of apparently supporting an Egyptian regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of the opposition which is seeking democracy and religious freedom. And the West in general is in a quandary over Syria, wanting to rid it of mass-murderer Bashar Assad, while trying not to hear the calls for jihad being yelled by many of his opponents – calls so bloodcurdling you don’t need to be fluent in Arabic to understand them.
Back in Scandinavia, in the meantime, the countries might be at peace with each other, but the Jewish communities are increasingly scared for the future. That’s why they’re relying on Israel. Friedman might describe life here as “a living political science experiment” but this week in Jerusalem like most of my neighbors I lit Hanukka candles in my living-room window. In the Danish capital this week, Jews were warned that it’s not safe to display any open signs of their religion, even wearing a Star of David.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.