Amira Hass: Getting the message to Israelis about what's normal

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Normality has always figured in Jewish experience. For almost two millennia, living in exile among non-Jews seemed normal for religious reasons: Jews had somehow botched their relationship with their God and exile was the consequence. In His own good time, he'd eventually end it. Meanwhile, Jews lived among "the nations," fruitfully, painfully or both. There were occasional messianic eruptions involving attempts to return to the Holy Land; they were always treated by rabbinic authorities as heretical.

But in modern times, a separate existence among others came to seem abnormal. So there were attempts to "assimilate," with or without religious conversion. When these failed, or partially failed, one proposed alternative was for Jews to return to their ancient land and become a normal people, like everyone else: they would farm and engage in the normal range of activity. A German-Jewish philosopher I knew had spent time with a German farmer, as prep for his move to Israel. When I lived in Israel as a student, we were amazed at the sight of Jewish cops and hookers! Normality had been achieved.

I thought about that this week when I spoke with Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist whose beat is the occupied territories, where she has lived for almost 20 years: first in Gaza, now Ramallah. She's here on a speaking tour. We discussed the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement, which aims to isolate and stigmatize Israel, as boycotts did to apartheid-era South Africa. I said I feared it would undermine the potential constituency for a peace settlement in Israel, by evoking memories of anti-Semitism. She said, "I don't agree," in a straight-ahead tone. "Israelis are able to live a normal life five minutes away from the occupation. They need to get the message that this is not normal and moral. Something has to shake them."

She is not an all-out boycott backer. For one thing, "As an Israeli, I cannot boycott Israelis." But she's also a complex thinker who sees contradictions and double standards: "If you boycott Israel, why not boycott its backers like the U.S. and Canada?" There's a Cassandra quality to her, spotting the idiocies on all sides. But she had underlined one aspect of a boycott that I'd missed.

It reminded me of a Toronto Bar Mitzvah where I heard a Canadian Jew explain why he loved visiting Israel. "I whiz through customs, rent a car and just drive. I can go anywhere, I feel so free and at home." It was a lovely thought, everyone deserves that feeling -- but five minutes away are Palestinians born there (or their families) who will never be able to take the same exhilarating drive. It isn't normal. Israelis and their supporters should be shaken into seeing that.

Hass uses "normal," which seems like a bland word, in an intensely moral way that jolts you: This cannot be the norm for human behaviour. (Come to think of it, Dalton McGuinty ran in this election pretty much as Mr. Normal. But it can take guts to express normal thoughts like, Good Things Cost Money, in the current political climate of tax cutting. As for bland, Ontario's very successful premier, Bill Davis, liked to say, "Bland works." It worked for him, as normal seems to work for McGuinty, mainly because it feels true to their natures.)

Hass is splendidly undogmatic about all this. Boycotting investment in occupied areas may make obvious sense but "a visit by a string quartet . . . ?" The point isn't to formulate rigid rules for action, it's to somehow get that message to Israelis about what's normal. She also shows respect for those elsewhere, who must decide how they can best support a just peace. What she offers is some useful info and insight, then it's on us.

It's the classic role of the journalist as witness, but there's something else, which she must have heard often and may make her wince: the prophetic comparison, not in the sense of people who predict things, but those figures from biblical times who stood up to kings, speaking truth and justice to power. Sorry, King David or King Ahab, but this is not normal, what you are doing, simply because you want to or are able to...

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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