Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A mixture of thoughts

In France Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie has been in overdrive trying to prevent the conflict in the Middle East from spreading to France, which is one of the few European countries to have both a large Arab population and a (relatively) large Jewish population (the UK is the other). I attended a rally in support of Israel Sunday morning in the park by a tree planted in memory of Itzhak Rabin. There were some inspiring speeches, including one from an Israeli diplomat. I have the feeling the French press is starting to understand Israel and the Jewish community a little better, but it's a slow process.

After the rally S. and I toured the main mosque in Lyon. The visit had been arranged between the mosque and one of Lyon's reform synagogues several weeks ago, and it was decided to go ahead with it, despite the recent events. It was a wonderful experience. The people were very warm, and the mosque is beautiful. Our guide explained some of the basics of Islam in a straightforward manner. I told him how to say a couple of things in Hebrew and he was so appreciative. All the visitors went away feeling they had learned something important. The synagogue and the mosque also arrange regular get-togethers between Muslim women and Jewish women. The women have discussions, or they invite a speaker. Mostly, they just get to know each other. I wish we could have more moments like that, because here too, there isn't much mixing between the two communities. Deep down I think most people want peace, mutual respect and understanding, but the radical elements put such pressure on the ordinary people. I know that Arab-Jewish discussion groups exist in Israel, too, because I hear about them every now and then when I'm riding in the car listening to Radio Judaica Lyon, but it's rare that I hear or read about them in any other media.

Following the wedding of S.'s friend's son in Jerusalem, we celebrated the "shabbat chatan" in the hotel with our friends' families. During one of the meals I left the group, who were singing Jewish songs, to fill up my plate at the buffet tables. As I walked past a group of Christian pilgrims in the other part of the dining room, one of the men made the sign of the cross over himself before eating. Meanwhile, all of the people working in the hotel were Arab. You find this mixture in other countries, too, but there's something special about it in Israel, in Jerusalem, thanks to Israel's policy of open access to religious sites. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the three religions could always co-exist in such harmony?

I read a wonderful book last year, called "Three Cups of Tea". It's about an American who survives a failed attempt to climb K2, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, only because of the hospitality of the local people in the northern reaches of Pakistan. After that experience, he decides to devote his life to building schools in that region. He realizes that it is most important to educate girls. Whereas educated boys move away from their remote mountain villages when they grow up, the women become the cement of the local community. They become nurses and engineers and teachers. They have fewer children. They cause the general socio-economic level to rise. But there are so many cultural and religious impediments to this process.

The Palestinians as a people have made so many tragically bad decisions. They have had a painful lack of good leaders. And they still haven't understood that they must take their destiny into their own hands. They must stop crying "Help us!" to the world and help themselves. And they have a powerful weapon: the womb. In the short run this will make them more numerous, but in the long run it will work against them, because the faster the population grows, the harder it will be for them to climb out of poverty. After September 11, 2001, when people were wondering why Islamic terrorists had attacked the United States, B., who was seven at the time, said, "Maybe they're jealous."

Anyway, I know "our" side of the story pretty well, but I know very little about the other side, about what Arab people feel and believe, as individuals.

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 05, 2009

This year too in Jerusalem

Last year at this time, B’s bar mitzvah and our subsequent trip to Israel brought me out of blogging slumber in order to write about non-political events. This time, it was the wedding of S.'s childhood friend's son that drew us to Israel. The geopolitics nearly overwhelmed us.

It is difficult to find words to describe my feelings upon reading that people were being killed just a few miles from where we were vacationing, on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border: a mixture of sympathy for both Gaza’s and Israel’s civilian victims and an understanding of Israel’s anger and need to protect itself.

Unavoidably, our sympathies lie more with the Israeli side. The eldest son of my Princeton classmate S., whom we visited again this year, is probably in Gaza right now. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and to his family. I'm biased, and it seems to me that the Arabs of Palestine brought this tragedy on themselves when they voted for Hamas in the first place. Of course this vote was only the latest in a long string of bad choices the Palestinian Arabs have made over the years. But it's not too late. All Hamas has to do is renounce terrorism and stop firing rockets into Israel, and the war will end.

Not that we really felt the war in any way while we were in Israel last week. Had we not seen newspapers, scanned our favorite websites when we had internet access or discussed politics with people we met, we might never have known the difference. In fact, once I did know what was going on, I would have preferred a few more reminders, such as more thorough searches and other security measures.

In entering Tel-Aviv’s Friday crafts market, Nahalat Binyamin, a security guard was checking backpacks, handbags, and the like. I purposely opened only one of the two zippered compartments of my backpack to see if he would ask me to open the other. He didn’t. Okay, that was one day before the Israeli air raids started.

At the end of our 10-day stay and five days after the start of Israel’s military operation, we attended the wedding in Jerusalem. I was expecting to see a security guard at the entrance with a list of guests to be checked off as people arrived – and showed identification. In fact, there were no security measures. Maybe in both cases there was profiling going on. If so, it was a very discreet operation. The wedding itself was a moment of joy. I wish N. and R. much love, long life, good health, healthy offspring, success, tolerance and mutual understanding in their future life together.

Security was very present in the Old City of Jerusalem. There were soldiers on every corner, or so it seemed, although they were mostly engaged, like police and security personnel everywhere, in giving directions. I embarked on an international relations mission of my own, intent on finding Mafouz, whom I had met along the via Dolorosa last year (see this post). It was raining, it was late in the day, and S., B. and D. were waiting for me in a café in the Jewish Quarter. Time was of the essence. I darted in and out of the market streets, up stairways and past the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. What seemed like a wondrous collage of cultures last year started to look like a huge, open air souvenir shop this year. At one point, only a few meters from the spot where I had met Mafouz and thought he lived, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper if he knew him. He recruited me instead to “help him” write a sign in English for his shop, then insisted on giving me a “gift”. He put together a set of earrings I knew S. would never wear, because the clasp was made of some unidentified base metal. Then he explained that one of the earrings was a gift; the other was not. I felt I was caught in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I managed to extricate myself, but after a few more enquiries, Mafouz was, alas, nowhere to be found.

While in Israel we heard that many Gaza residents would like to be rid of Hamas. In our Tel-Aviv hotel, one of the valets told us that the (Arab) hotel manager has family in Gaza. He said that when he goes there he sees Hamas “officials” driving around in luxury cars while the rest of the population cowers. I would have liked to see confirmation of this in the press.

The articles I read, in the New York Times and Le Monde, seemed more balanced than during previous cycles of Arab-Israeli violence. Perhaps this was due in part to the Israeli government’s concerted media strategy together with its restrictions on media coverage from inside the Gaza strip itself. With each passing day, however, the media tide seems to be turning against Israel’s intended message. Images, it seems, speak louder than principles.

So allow me to conjure up an image of my own. The story begins in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Millions of ethnic Germans have been chased out of western Poland and across the Oder-Neisse line, Germany’s present-day eastern border. These ethnic Germans remain in refugee camps just over the border in Germany, refusing to integrate themselves into the rest of Germany, preferring instead to live indefinitely in the miserable conditions of the camps while demanding to be able to return to their ancestral homes in Poland, a "new" country whose right to exist they do not recognize. (For its part, Germany shows no interest in integrating them anyway, lest the economic strain the country is already experiencing be exacerbated.)

After a while, the refugees claim they are not really Germans after all, they are … Pomeranians and Silesians, and they demand the “right of return” to “occupied” Pomerania and Silesia. In the meantime, they elect a “militant” organization – international journalists alternately call the members “militants”, “activists” or “fighters” – to represent them, which starts sending suicide bombers into Poland in an effort to break Poland’s resolve and obtain the sympathy of the international community. Miraculously, the strategy works. Thus, once a fortnight or so, Szczecin (Stettin), Wroclaw (Breslau) and scores of other Polish cities and towns where the ethnic Germans used to live become a backdrop for carnage: an outdoor market, a crowded bus, a discotheque, etc. Occasionally even cities as far away as Warsaw and Krakow are targeted. It doesn’t matter how many civilians are killed during these attacks, because the world forgets about them quickly. However, it remembers that the exiled Pomeranians and Silesians are so desperate that resorting to indiscriminate violence is, alas, all they can do.

The Pomeranian and Silesian “militants” also forge ties with other European “militant” organizations, such as ETA, the IRA and the Red Brigades, who supply them with an arsenal of weapons of ever-increasing strength. Before long, they can fire rockets deep into Poland, generally from within the refugee camps, vowing to destroy the “Polish entity” and to drive every last Polish man, woman and child into the Baltic Sea.

In an effort to avoid civilian casualties, Poland generally takes no military action, but instead imposes a blockade around the refugee areas, carefully inspecting everything that goes in or out. This is only partly effective, however. Through complicity with their German friends to the west, the Pomeranian and Silesian “militants” smuggle in weapons, but don’t pay much attention to their people’s need for food, clothing, medicine or other basic necessities. The world condemns Poland for “besieging” the refugee camps and decries the abject living conditions of the people there.

Occasionally, Poland does take military action to crush the “militants”, calling them by their real name: terrorists. When this happens, Pomerania and Silesia become the world’s most important geopolitical hotspots, and with one voice, the entire international community calls for an end to the violence.

Now I ask you: could you imagine for one second that such a situation might actually be allowed to exist? And even if you could, how long would Poland put up with these shenanigans before losing its patience?
a) a month
b) a year
c) five years
d) 60 years

Now suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine such a situation were possible and that Poland did put up with it for 60 years. Now, finally, imagine that “Poland” is less than one-tenth its actual size, has around one-fifth its current population and has enemies not only on its western border but on its eastern and southern borders as well, and you have approximately the situation in which Israel has lived for much of the past 60 years.

Israel’s demands are so unreasonable, aren’t they?

Does peace still have a chance? I still hope so.

Labels: ,