Repeat after me…(Seth Freedman)
“Repeat after me – Aravi tov…” “No – I don’t want to” “Say it, just say it – Aravi tov…” I shrug and accede to his demand, “Aravi tov…” “…Aravi met”. And with that, a broad smile spreads across his face, as he beams with paternal benevolence, having taught me one of the most important axioms with which to live my life by. Namely, that “A good Arab is a dead Arab”. Welcome to Israel in wartime. I’m not writing this from a military perspective – cos I don’t have one. Even after a year and a half in a combat unit, my army-related knowledge doesn’t stretch much further than how to hide an iPod from a commander whilst on guard duty. I should know more, I should care more – but I don’t. Those tasked with fighting and winning wars in the name of Israel are, I trust, capable enough of strategic planning and tactics without me chucking my two shekels in.
I’m also not writing this from a political perspective – sort of. As in, I certainly don’t have any magical solution to how we defend ourselves from the perennial threat of attack on our borders – far wiser heads than mine spend their lives attempting to tackle that issue – and, thus far, they seem to have faltered at the first every time they try. (With the exception of the delightfully couldn’t-give-a-damn Ahmedinejad – whose suggestion that wiping out Israel would solve the Middle East’s problems is, sadly, as true as it is outrageously unpalatable).
What I do want to talk about is the effect that this war has had on those around me – both in Jerusalem and back in the Motherland. How previously moderate friends have turned into nationalist bigots, how previously meek and mild acquaintances now spout bloodthirsty rhetoric when urging on “our boys” in Lebanon, how previously unacceptable racism is now dropped into conversation as casually as discussing the football results.
I’ll start with my fifty year old neighbour who taught me all I needed to know about the world’s billion or so Arabs in one easy-to-remember phrase. I was sitting on my garden wall, enjoying the last rays of the Friday sun, drinking a can of Coke and bothering no one. Yossi, the man who lives above us, came downstairs to throw out his rubbish, spied me, and before I could make a run for it, approached me and clamped a bear-like hand on my shoulder.We exchanged pleasantries, before he launched into his daily diatribe about how the Muslims are out to kill us all. Now, he knows I don’t agree with him – in fact, that I think his views repugnant – yet still he persists with his “educating” of myself. Whenever I argue back, along the lines of “But not all of them want to kill us…”, he smiles wryly and says “You’re a young boy – you don’t understand. Come and talk to me in twenty years, and then we’ll see if you say ‘Yossi – you were right’”.
It’s a waste of time even arguing the toss with morons like this. His logic is easily deconstructed – his generalisation and predjudices for a start – but the fifty year old hatred behind it is harder to shift. All I can do is, forcefully, show him that his xenophobia does not rub off on me, no matter how many times he bombards me with it, and leave it at that. I’m caught between having to show a bit of derech eretz to an elder, and wanting to smack him round the face for his racism. As I told him yesterday, rewind sixty years, and the whole of Europe were using the exact same phrase as him – with only one minor adjustment – substituting Jew for Arab. But he smiles beatifically again – “Let’s talk about it in twenty years, boy”.
I play football twice a week with a crowd of ex-pat Brits and South Africans. Largely religious, largely well-educated, largely jumped-up little racists. Until the conflict started, I was happy to ignore the occasional anti-Arab remark that I heard as we warmed up – not the right arena to get in an argument, I decided – but then came the war. Now, as we got changed for the match, all those around me were full of “Let’s napalm the whole country”, “We need to show all the Arabs who’s boss” and – my favourite – “One soldier’s life is worth more than ten of their villages” – straight out of the Kahane guide to tolerance and morality.
Now, I’m neither an apologist for, or a sympathiser with, the terrorists who attack Israel non-stop. In fact, it was Homat Magen (Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, 2002) that made up my mind to move to Israel and fight for the land of my forefathers. However, there is a difference between defending your country with decency and turning into a rabid Islamophobe the minute things heat up.
But it’s hard to stand up to these “patriots” when there’s a war raging. Inevitably, when I suggested to my footballing friends that perhaps napalm was going a bit far, I got “Well, what would you do? Invite them round for tea and give them some more land?” – er, no – I just rail against the casual comments that genocide is somehow acceptable in the current situation. Not because I really think these clowns have much influence outside the football pitch’s fence, but because it filters down into what they teach their children – for example, one guy said that our friend Ari (who’s fighting in Lebanon now) “has shot an Arab – so we should let him play for free next game”. And everyone laughs, and no one says a word in protest.
Then, on a larger scale, is the jingoistic attitude rife around the country at present. Early on in the war, Bank Leumi plastered billboards with adverts declaring “Israel be strong” and “We will triumph” – noble sentiments indeed, but I found something disturbing about the blurring of war and peace. Namely, that a company dedicated to profit margins and yields should suddenly be drawn into chanting nationalist slogans instead. Of course, the rationale behind it is to entice new business to this patriotic firm, but I’m not sure I’d have approved had it been Natwest screaming “Batter Baghdad” on a North London high street. I never felt entirely comfortable with the Sun’s devotion to “Our Boys In Basra” when I lived in England, but now – having witnessed the same thing here – realise that this is the inevitable response of a nation at war. We have to get behind our troops, we have to support the war effort – but at what expense? Mainly at the expense of rational and balanced thought, I fear.
Mum. Between her and Dad, I’ve been set examples of decent and moral behaviour throughout my life – from giving tzedaka and showing kindness to animals, to racial tolerance and anti-misogyny. I’ve always looked to them to guide me when faced with an ethical dilemma, and that made it all the more stark when I heard my usually rational mother say last week “This war’s turned me into such a racist”.
Her first reaction to the fighting had been one of extreme sadness and fear for Israel – perfectly understandable, though I didn’t share the pessimistic outlook. However, as the war progressed and world opinion shifted against Israel, the siege mentality took over for her, and countless other British Jews. Fear breeds defensiveness, which in turn manifests itself in ways such as hostility to outsiders – or, to give it another name, racism. With the greatest of respect to her, and those around her, there is no excuse for racism that can be held up to logical inspection. If you’re saddled with anti-Arab emotion, “it’s all cos of the war” is no more acceptable than saying you’re anti-Pakistani “cos they come over here and take our jobs”. Or that you hate Jews “cos they run the world, innit?”. Not on, and not on my watch – I can’t change people’s minds with one conversation, but I can – and must – make sure they know that it is not acceptable, to me at least, to be so casual with their hatred.
(An aside - British Jewry, and no doubt other Jewish communities round the globe, like to vent their frustrations at the perceived bias against Israel in the media. “The BBC are so anti-Israel”, “CNN just hate us” they whine. Fine – ever seen Fox News? A hundred killed in Lebanon and they lead with two wounded civilians and a burning car in Haifa. Not that there isn’t anti-Israel bias out there, but there’s enough pro-Israel sentiment that I don’t think we need get too worked up about it).
Working at the Jerusalem Post, I get to see right-wingers in their element. A right-wing paper, staffed with right-wing reporters, and no one to counter their vitriol, so it runs riot. I don’t really care all that much – these leopards ain’t gonna change their spots on my say so – but when a dartboard appeared with a picture of Nasrallah in the centre, I cracked. I want him got rid of as much as the next man, but… do we really need the conflict trivialised so? Do we feel big because some wag pinned a picture of our enemy to the bullseye? Is that how we best display our pent-up rage? A small issue, but again – if you let the little things go, this kind of behaviour creeps into daily life – it colours how we talk to each other, to strangers, to the next generation – and gradually becomes standard fare. It doesn’t take long to go from being on the receiving end of the “Gas a Jew” song at Chelsea to joining in the “Death to the Arabs” chanting at Betar’s Teddy Stadium.
Finally, a bit of a tangent. For all that I want our own house put in order, for all that I want to believe that we can make peace with our enemies and live happily ever after, an incident over the weekend in England did nothing to assuage any doubts I might have. The Muslim Council of Britain – the seemingly moderate voice of Islam in the UK – sent shivers up the collective spine of the British public. In their open letter to Tony Blair, they implied that Britain’s foreign policy needed altering if the country wanted to prevent further terrorism on its soil or in its skies. A shocking declaration for them to make publicly – the idea that a Sword of Damocles, in the shape of bus and train bombings, hangs over the government, and that only policy-change in favour of the terrorists would stop the sword from falling. A frightening image emerges of alienated Muslim youth in Britain who are ready to kill for the cause, but not only that – that they have managed to convince their elders and betters that the only way they’ll halt their murderous plans is if the government takes fright and accedes to their demands.
And there is the perfect example of what will happen in Israel if racist and xenophobic behaviour is not nipped in the bud. Left unchecked, the vine of intolerance will spread, strangling even the moderates amongst us with its extreme views and threats of violence. We’re not there yet – after all, Kach was banned and remains so – but under the surface in Jerusalem, and over the counter in the Shtachim, the throwaway comments of today will beget the Jewish terrorists of tomorrow.