Snap Judgement: Balkans-on-the-Jordan

Israel is not a Jewish morality play being acted out for the imagination of the Michael Chabons of the world.

hotograph of author Michael Chabon at a book signing at WonderCon in 2006. (photo credit: CHARLIE REIMAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
hotograph of author Michael Chabon at a book signing at WonderCon in 2006.
Driving south down the beautiful Adriatic coast last month from the Croatian city of Split, my family and I crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina – and 20 minutes later, again crossed the border back into Croatia en route to our destination, Dubrovnik.
That’s because Dubrovnik is cut off from the rest of Croatia by the small bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina which affords that country its only coastal access, one of the border complications left over from Yugoslavia’s violent break-up during the 1990s. Croatia, in other words, is not contiguous, and won’t be so anytime soon (although fanciful ideas of long underground rail tunnels or giant Adriatic sea-highways are regularly proposed to solve the Dubrovnik enclave problem).
Contiguity is also one of those words that often pops in discussions about the supposedly near-insurmountable obstacles in resolving, or even advancing, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – with the issue being the difficulties in creating a contiguous Palestinian state, both between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and within the West Bank itself.
A visit to that corner of the world once known as Yugoslavia helps to keep in perspective several aspects of the Israeli-Arab conflict that are often mistakenly taken for granted as particularly extreme or unique. This includes the claims that it is possibly the world’s most intractable, destabilizing or inhumane dispute.
The rifts in the Balkans date back over five centuries, and involve ethnic/religious divisions and competing claims so complicated that they make the ones in this land look relatively simple. The tensions there were responsible for sparking the First World War, and a series of smaller ones in the 1990s that killed and displaced more people than six decades worth of fighting between Jews and Arabs.
That decade of Balkan conflict was accompanied by instances of ethnic cleansing and mass rape without parallel in the Israeli-Arab wars (though not the Arab-Arab wars, alas). And while the Balkan’s states are now enjoying a blessed moment of peace in their long, troubled history that one hopes will last, this was only made possible by a massive NATO military intervention leading to the imposition of peace accords that left many of the underlying regional conflicts unresolved.
Why is recalling any of that relevant to our own troubles? Well, while I was visiting Croatia, the American- Jewish author Michael Chabon was making his own trip to Israel and the West Bank, in a tour sponsored by the group Breaking the Silence intended to draw critical attention to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. A day after visiting Hebron, Chabon described Israeli actions in the West Bank as “the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life.”
Really? Chabon is a writer whose work I have admired, and criticism of Israeli policies, even by those without a direct stake in their outcome, is entirely legitimate. But is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay so entirely lacking in life experience, basic historical or geopolitical knowledge, or any sense of imaginative compassion, that after only a few days here he can make this kind of relative judgment? Did Chabon mean in person, with his own eyes? If so – and if that is the qualification by which he makes such public statements – I really suggest he get out about in the world more. For example, before judging the actions of Israeli soldiers, he may want to visit some of those parts of the world where his own countrymen and women are serving in the US war on terror, and first assess the justice, or injustice, of his own government’s policies.
I do credit Chabon for at least not sinking to the occasional outright anti-Israel bigotry expressed by his Jerusalem-born wife, the far-less-talented writer Ayelet Waldman (even he described his first visit here as the “everything Ayelet hates about Israel tour.”) And he offered a partial defense for his hyperbole by claiming that as a fiction writer he can express “an overt point of view that doesn’t try to hide itself, the way journalists are trained to be objective and conceal their biases...”
But condemning Israeli actions without any sense of proportion and perspective relative to both the surrounding region, and the rest of the world, can all too easily escalate into the type of disproportionate criticism that fuels outright anti-Semitism.
This is exactly the kind of situation that developed over the years in the UK, and which is now reaping such bitter fruit for the British Labor Party.
Israel is not a Jewish morality play being acted out for the imagination of the Michael Chabons of the world. It’s a real country, a flawed democracy facing daunting challenges in a corner of the world that can be not inaccurately described as our own Balkans-on-the-Jordan. While its survival has unquestionably entailed moral compromises, its injustices are far from the world’s “most grievous.”
Resorting to such exaggerated rhetoric does no justice to Israelis or Palestinians, or credit for those who claim sympathy for either or both.
One last relevant note from my Croatia trip: While in Dubrovnik, we visited the city’s historic synagogue, the second oldest in Europe. It now functions solely as a museum, with the town’s pre- World War II Jewish population of several hundred shrunk down to barely a few dozen.
The small exhibition on the synagogue’s walls includes a few of the war-time Jewish deportation orders to concentration camps carried out by Croatia’s pro-Nazi Ustashe regime. They remain as potent reminders why it’s our little corner of the Balkans-on-the-Jordan – with all its challenges and compromises – that remains the best hope for Jewish survival into the next century.

The author is the political correspondent for IBA English News.