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Israel's Patronizing Ways
"The 'Israeli on the street,' after all,
knows close to nothing about the Arab
world - so little, in fact, that we can
all easily recite in our sleep those three
or four cliches that sum up all-that-we-
"It is both pathetic and heartwarming to see
the confidence and immediacy with which we
perceive ourselves as distinctly "Western," rather
than as part of the Third World - a self-image
rooted entirely in relativity, a triumph of hope
NEIGHBORS AND OTHER STRANGERS
By Doron Rosenblum
Ha'aretz, 16 June 2000:
Whenever our television screens show a grave-faced speaker beginning his
remarks with "we must remember that ..." it's fairly certain that something
has happened in one of the Arab countries. "We must remember that ..." is a
kind of verbal adapter, used to link the "input" conveyed to the Israeli
public to the somewhat chaotic "output" provided by the Arab world. The
right to use "we must remember that" or "we must understand that" at the
beginning of every insight into Arab affairs is reserved for a select group
of people: a handful of academics, military correspondents, and the media's
in-house Arab affairs experts. Our perception of the Arab world is thus
revealed in all its voluntary alienation: how close those places are to us,
and yet, how very far away.
"We must remember that Assad was not a young man for the Arab world";
must remember that in Arab countries, even tears are never shed by chance";
"We must remember that the Arab world places a high significance on mourning
customs" ... This seemingly illuminating, even humble explanation, intended
to make "the subject" more accessible to us, nevertheless involves some
degree of distancing and estrangement. After all, that "Arab world" is right
here under our noses, if not actually among us, and yet we only enter it
with the help of authorized guides - passing through the "Fatma Gate" of
expert commentary, crossing the "Allenby Bridge" of simultaneous translation
and ironic smiles. It is all done on such a meager stream of insights, such
a narrow bridge between ourselves and that place where everything is
We like it that way. How soothingly distant it all comes to seem. Yes,
us more about those other nations and peoples living right alongside us, but
talk of them as you would talk of Patagonia.
'In inverted commas ...'
So exotic and happily distant is the Arab world to us, that the mere
shield provided by the commentators is not enough. We need yet another
insulating layer, achieved through the commentators' semi-didactic,
semi-comic dialogue with the television anchors. The latter play (play?) the
role of the perfect ignoramus, the so-called "Israeli on the street."
"Why don't you tell us in a few words what Syria is," the anchorman
thunders, "and let's perhaps begin with this question: How many people live
there, anyway?" (The answer to that ranged freely from 13 to 30 million in
this week's media coverage). "I wanted to ask you, and please answer
briefly: Who was this man Assad?" And, "In one sentence, before we move on
to the weather: What do most ordinary people in the Arab countries want?
At times, the anchorman deviates from the role of the ignoramus drinking
droplets of knowledge, and instead sprinkles the expert with a dash of
sarcasm: "Do they even understand the concept of a change in government?" he
might skeptically ask. This week, for example, Channel One's Yaakov Achimeir
interrupted an Arab affairs expert, who was describing the spontaneous
demonstrations in Damascus, in order to say: "But that's 'spontaneous' in
inverted commas, right?"
Patronizing? Not necessarily. It's more of a habit, a kind of "learned
truth" any of us might have inadvertently blurted out, like a cough. The
"Israeli on the street," after all, knows close to nothing about the Arab
world - so little, in fact, that we can all easily recite in our sleep those
three or four cliches that sum up all-that-we-didn't-want-to-know.
(And on second thought: When are our demonstrations ever spontaneous
to dispense with the inverted commas? Is it when the spontaneously organized
buses bring right-wing protesters in from West Bank settlements, or in the
equally spontaneous rides transporting left-wing demonstrators from their
kibbutzim? And what about their respective signs and slogans, all of which
look as though they were simultaneously approved by some impromptu organizing committee?)
'A Western education'
How pleased we are with the new generation of Arab leaders, as with
that many of its offspring spent years in British or American schools. "At
least he has a Western education," we say, as though we ourselves were
sitting in some gentlemen's club in Piccadilly rather than munching
Mediterranean snacks in our Israeli living rooms. You might almost think
that our own political elite was raised entirely on the cricket fields of
Eton or in the halls of the Ivy League, rather than emerging from East
European Bolshevik parties, Jerusalem hummus joints, student thug
associations, or - in the most refined case - army snack bars.
It is indeed somewhat comical that the Arab leaders' Western education
noted - somewhat patronizingly - by precisely those Israeli politicians
whose erudition leaves something to be desired, who in the same breath might
also ridicule Israel's "professors" and its "elite." These are the people
incapable of saying one reasonable phrase in a foreign language, whose
"Oxford" education is limited to shopping on Oxford Street - not to mention
those enamored of spells and amulets, or those who stand guard over Israel's
Indeed, it is both pathetic and heartwarming to see the confidence and
immediacy with which we perceive ourselves as distinctly "Western," rather
than as part of the Third World - a self-image rooted entirely in
relativity, a triumph of hope over experience.
'He uses the Internet'
"As far as we know" - our "government sources" revealed this week, not
without pomposity - "As far as we know, Bashar Assad is a serious, educated,
modern man, open to the free world and familiar with its ways." How many of
our own politicians live up to that description? "As far as we know," not
Even more comforting to us was the fact that the late Assad's son and
was "connected to the Internet" - a fact cited over and over with great
amazement, as though the world had just discovered a pipe-smoking ape. Or as
if "connecting to the Internet" (just like "putting a computer in every
classroom") was in itself a guarantee of humanity, enlightened views, and/or
willingness to make diplomatic concessions. The question of how the medium
is actually used was completely ignored. It is as though someone were to be
filled with great hope because General Franco "used the telephone" or
because Ceausescu "listened to the radio."
It must mean something, this "using the Internet," but it isn't everything.
But our expectations of the Arab world and its leaders are low enough to
make the very fact that someone there uses a modem seem like a light at the
end of the tunnel (just as the act of switching on a computer - even if it's
just to read a horoscope, gamble, or look at naked girls - is viewed here as
the height of education, a kind of start-up activity).
Sometime between their cheery and unexplained vote in favor of new elections
and their unequivocal refusal to join the government (for the same unreasoned
reason), Ariel Sharon and the Likud wheeler-dealers found time to declare
that Assad's death only proved "we must deal carefully with these unstable
regimes around us."
"Deal carefully" indeed ... like elephants in a china shop ... But what
our own unstable regime? The political life expectancy of our prime
ministers is shrinking to a year or two. The assassination of prime
ministers has become part of the political discourse. We are faced with
daily upheavals governed solely by opportunism and ego; with violent
militias preaching insurrection against the government; with patchwork
coalitions that leave the quilt of national identity straining at the seams;
with frequent shifts and turns that reverse not only the basic principles of
our foreign and security policy, but our education and national ethos as well.
But from this great height, from our own "island of instability", we
our tongues at the fickle and capricious nature of the Arab world, whose
regimes, rigidly frozen for 30 years, might be called by any derogatory
name - except "unstable".
So why should we act patronizingly toward our surroundings? A matter
habit, most likely. As Sigmund Freud once put it, while analogies determine
nothing, they do make us feel more at home.
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