07 July 2008

a typical situation in these typical times

It was with no small amount of mirth that I read this morning of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest interview scam, involving his attempts to have an Israeli and a Palestinian analyst explain the difference between hummus and Hamas. The interview took place in Jerusalem as part of a wider show being filmed on what Israelis refer to as "The Situation".

I had a very enjoyable brunch a few days ago with a visiting Israeli academic. We met in a local Lebanese cafe as he was suffering a hummus withdrawal, and our morning started with a conversation on similarities between the Irish and the Israelis, one of which was our understated references for the past, with the Irish calling the Second World War "the Emergency" and the conflict in Northern Ireland as "The Troubles". "The Situation" in Israel is of great interest to me, but curiously enough is very difficult to write about.

Although I am not Jewish, as a theologian whose thesis was on the Josianic Reforms (Old Testament stuff, for all you non-theologians), Israel and Judaism has always been a topic close to my heart. I was fortunate enough to visit Israel a number of years ago before the second Intifada erupted, spending two weeks traveling around the country. Even I, with my impeccable atheistic credentials, couldn't help but be moved as I walked along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, past the hordes of self-flagellating Filipino pilgrims reenacting the Stations of the Cross. I traveled into the Palestinian territories and visited Jericho; I traveled south and climbed up Masada at dawn; I traveled north to the Golan and saw illegal settlements and the Peace Line, and visited Safed and Tiberius in Galilee; I swam in the waters of the Mediterranean at Tel Aviv, and came away with a deep love for the country and a strong desire to return.

But just because you have a deep appreciation for a people and a place, doesn't mean that you have to accept everything about it unconditionally. What was interesting about Baron Cohen's latest prank, done in his camp Austrian character Bruno rather than Borat, was that he broke the international taboo of making fun of "The Situation", and probably only got away with it because he is Jewish.

Jewish and Israeli are not the same thing. Some of the fiercest international critics of the actions of the Israeli government are Jewish, though they are often quickly labeled as "self-hating Jews". My hummus-loving colleague considers himself Israeli, but not Jewish, being staunchly secular. But all the same it is quite difficult for anyone who is neither Israeli nor Jewish to express discomfort with "The Situation" without being labeled anti-Semitic. The recent vilification of Jimmy Carter (the man who brokered the Camp David Accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt) for labeling the treatment of the Palestinians as 'Apartheid', is a perfect example of this.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt examine this in some detail in their recent book, "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy". Mearsheimer (from University of Chicago) and Walt (from Harvard) originally wrote an article on the subject commissioned by Atlantic Monthly, who later declined to publish it for fear of the controversy it would attract. The London Review of Books later picked it up and its publication caused a media storm with both authors being labeled, unsurprisingly, anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews. This despite both authors strongly and vocally supporting the existence of the State of Israel, if not its current policies. They argue that that current relationship, in which Israel is the largest single recipient of US aid outside of Iraq and Afghanistan (around $4 Billion despite having the 29th highest per capita income in the world according to the IMF in 2006), weakens both US and Israeli positions in the world, increases terrorism, and decreases opportunities for genuine peace in the region. They examine how this relationship arose since the Nixon administration, who advocates this relationship, and who benefits from it.

One area that they touch on is the rise of the Christian Right pro-Israel Lobby. This group, composed of Christian evangelicals, believe in a strong and enlarged Israel, as written in the Bible as being necessary to bring about the end of days, Armageddon and subsequent second coming of Jesus. This lobby includes some of the highest profile members of the evangelical movement: Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, Congressmen Tom DeLay and Richard Armney, Senator James Inhofe and the novelist Timothy LaHaye, author of the "Left Behind" series. Their aggressive support in recent years is tied to their belief that the apocalypse is imminent, in a "Look busy, Jesus is coming" sort of way. The subject is also examined extensively by Chris Hedges, who writes in "American Fascists" of evangelical trade shows being attended by the Israeli Tourist Board advertising "Left Behind" themed vacations to the Holy Land.

This would be amusing if it weren't for the fact that the current occupant of the White House is one of those who supports Israel because of his belief in the coming End of Days as prophesied in the Revelation of St John. Seriously, the man with his finger on the button genuinely believes that Israel must be restored so that Jesus will come back, destroy the sinners, and take him into heaven. How can any Palestinian or Arab feel comfortable negotiating with someone who holds those publicly stated beliefs?

Israel is just a country, like any other. It has its good parts, and bad parts, good people and bad people. Just as Baron Cohen shows that you should be able to laugh at anything, you should more importantly be able to discuss anything, in a logical and rational manner. "The Israel Lobby" is a great place to start for anyone looking to understand why it is so difficult to have such a discussion.

Links
Sacha Baron Cohen's Israeli prank
The Israel Lobby - Mearsheimer and Walt
American Fascists - Chris Hedges

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