Israel's claim this week that its soldiers killed nine civilians in self-defence on an aid-to-Gaza flotilla it had boarded is at best tone deaf. It strains credibility. You attack unarmed ships at sea and when people resist, shoot them and then blame them. It's beyond Orwellian. The analogies occur to anyone: Home invaders kill residents who try to stop an assault, etc. At least there, no one would assert self-defence. I know elaborate arguments have been unfurled to justify the claim but that's not my point. Whether the claim is right or wrong isn't even the point. It just won't fly with most people. To them, it's implausible on its face. That's where tone deafness comes in.
Whence this tone deafness? It seems to me that Israel's leaders have grown mindlessly, habitually dependent on asserting their own victimization. This was often effective, based largely on sympathies rooted in revulsion at the Holocaust and the history of Western anti-Semitism. But this has gradually changed, due partly to the arrival of generations who, as it were, knew not Hitler and aren't inclined to feel even indirectly guilty for him. The shift became evident during the 2008 Gaza invasion and perhaps even more this week. Yet Israel's leaders still automatically assume the victim position. It's like the boy who cried victim.
Asserting big historical attitude swings is risky, so let me exemplify this by way of Margaret Atwood. Last month, she went to Israel to receive a large arts award from a private foundation. Beforehand, she was besieged by pro-Palestinian groups urging her to boycott the event. She refused, on the grounds that cultural boycotts are counterproductive and contrary to free speech. On her return, she wrote a piece about the experience for the Israeli daily Haaretz. She said she'd largely ignored the issue for years, feeling all sides were behaving badly and hoping for a good ending. But she'd had a quick course now and it was "like learning about cooking by being thrown into the soup pot." Everywhere in Israel, she sensed a shadow. "The Shadow is not the Palestinians" but "Israel's treatment of the Palestinians." It seems to me this is the key to what has changed and poses a new problem for Israel. The core for anyone examining the situation with a fresh eye, isn't what "they" - Palestinians -- are doing to Israelis; it's what Israel is doing to them. "Having strayed into the Middle-eastern neighbourhood with a mind as open as it could be without being totally vacant, I've come out altered," she wrote.
Israel no longer gets a pass, based on the past. It is remarkable how Israeli leaders and their backers have managed to squander so much sympathy and goodwill in so short a time -- but I digress.
The question for Israeli society now is whether it will double down, in effect, on the victim position, or adopt a new stance. Israel has always had public voices who believed the consequence of a past of persecution was not impunity but responsibility. Their views were often reflected in movements and parties. But those currents have become rarer, or less vocal. They grow silent, or acquiesce, or emigrate. Societies that lose their internal dissent and self-criticism have a sad and scary record, especially when combined with a sense of victimization. There's a unique wrinkle in the case of "the Jewish state," which involves the role of Jews elsewhere. Will they contribute to the isolation, via uncritical support from abroad, or assist in some kind of renewal, and help undo the isolation and descent toward disaster?
And in this situation, who is a real "friend of Israel" -- as they say. Is it Margaret Atwood, who raises questions and doubts, or Stephen Harper, who encourages Israel along the same perilous route that brought it to this point?
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