A couple of years ago my dear friend Chas Newkey-Burden of ‘Oy Va Goy’ (and other) fame sent me a Hannuka gift which, within minutes of opening it, made me cry.
It was Daniel Gordis’ book ‘Coming Together, Coming Apart’ – a very personal account of his family’s life in Jerusalem during the years of the second Intifada. Gordis not only recounts his experiences, but also wrestles with the complexities of peace and war from the tangled political macro right down to the micro of trying to raise a family in such a situation.
It is a book which offers no answers – only questions – and it is a must for anyone who wishes to really understand how and why the Intifada years shaped Israeli society. It is also an account of a portion of the history of this region written from an angle never employed by history books or grand op-eds in Western newspapers.
So why did it have me in tears by page 3? Because Gordis’ children were my children, his fears my fears, his moral and political dilemmas mine too. He begins by recounting how, after months of nightly shooting from Beit Jala which kept his children awake, he and his wife decided one evening to take advantage of a lull in the fighting to go to see a movie and what happened when they arrived home and found their youngest child – a ten-year old – awake because of fireworks from a local community centre party which he thought was gunfire.
“Holding him, I could feel him shivering. It was a warm spring night in Jerusalem, not even a chill in the air. He was wearing boxers and a T-shirt, and there was no reason for him to be quivering like that. But he was shaking, shuddering in my embrace, so I held him tighter, hoping I could get the shaking to stop.
“It’s just fireworks, Av, just fireworks. I promise.”
He looked up at me, his big blue eyes staring right into mine. “Good,” he said, gripping my shirt tight, with fingers that suddenly seemed very small. “Because I can’t do this anymore.”
All of us who experienced those years had days when we ‘just couldn’t do this anymore’. ‘This’ was trying to explain what was happening to our children, but without lowering ourselves to the point of making sweeping stereotypical generalisations about the murderers of Israeli school-children or grandparents. ‘This’ was not being able to walk into a shopping mall or a cafe without being searched. ‘This’ was not being able to get on a bus without the real fear of there being a bomber onboard. ‘This’ was not being able to open a newspaper or turn on the television without seeing the faces of those murdered that day and wondering when that all-pervasive cloud of death was going to catch up with us too. ‘This’ was not being able to remember what it was like not to be afraid.
Daniel Gordis’ book puts into words a collective experience felt by, and etched into, millions of Israelis, but one that the world would rather not hear about. On the one hand, that experience is callously dismissed. On the other, it is distorted and reshaped into a weapon to be used against the very people whose experiences are derided.
Even when taking into account Bahour’s affiliation with ‘Al Shabaka’ – an organisation which opposes the Palestinian Authority’s negotiations with Israel – one still has to wonder how a born and raised American can be in possession of such warped ideas that he can present the targeted killing of over a thousand Israelis as a ‘popular uprising’ with democracy carved on its standard.
Let’s be quite honest here – and we need to, because Bahour is being anything but – those who died in suicide bombings on buses, in restaurants and in shopping centres did so because they were, or were thought to be, Jews. That was their only ‘sin’, but they had been dehumanised and delegitimized to such an extent by the society from which their murderers came that their deaths became a source of pride for that society, which to this day names streets, schools and children’s summer camps after suicide bombers and other terrorists.
So when Sam Bahour writes about two Palestinian Intifadas in the Guardian, pretending that their aims were identical to the current Egyptian uprising, he of course neglects to mention the charred bodies of Israeli school-children or the ball-bearings deliberately placed in the suicide bombers’ explosive vests to create as much injury as possible to human flesh. To remind readers of such things would undermine his true aim which is to promote the idea that those opposed to a negotiated peace agreement (with all the compromises that entails) are the real freedom fighters – the ones struggling against both a corrupt Palestinian regime and Israeli oppression in order to achieve Western-style freedom and democracy.
Bahour wants readers to identify with those who, like him, refuse to negotiate and compromise and will settle for nothing less than ‘justice’, however much violence it takes to get it. He therefore cynically exploits the real grievances of the Egyptian people in order to throw up a smoke-screen he names democracy, and of course there is no better buzz word around at present.
Obviously, real democratic reform can never come about in any society which deems human beings to be candidates for dehumanisation or death purely on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The day we see crowds on the Palestinian street demanding from their government equal rights for women and homosexuals will also be the day that we will understand that Palestinian society has undergone a process of reform whereby it is mature enough to be introspective instead of blaming all its ills upon foreign forces or an unpopular leadership.
Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent weeks, the failure to understand the connection between a libertarian democracy and basic human rights is by no means a problem exclusive to the Arab world. Too many Westerners – from presidents to newspaper pundits – also appear to feel comfortable about sweeping that subject under the carpet.
History has repeatedly shown us that there is no better weather vane for the health of a society of whatever political definition than its attitude to Jews. Those aspiring to bring democratic change to the Middle East would do well to take note.