The feeling of helplessness of a poor lonely victim, confronting the rage of a lynch mob and frantically realizing that these are his last moments, accurately reflect the current psychosis of the majority of the Israeli public, writes Anshel Pfeffer.
“We felt like the Ramallah lynch.” I am certain that the unnamed Israeli naval commando who said these words to a reporter a few hours after the bloodbath on the Mavi Marmara regrets them now. It is quite clear why the image came to his mind at the time. None of us has forgotten the pictures of a baying mob literally hacking to pieces the reservists Yossi Avrahami and Vadim Nurzhitz nine and a half years ago and throwing their bodies out of the window of a Palestinian police station.
But the visual resemblance is where the comparison ends. The two unarmed reservists were on their own, after straying into Ramallah, and were cruelly murdered. They were dead before the army was even fully aware that they were missing. True, the naval commandos on the Turkish ferry were surrounded by club-wielding enemies, intent on killing them – one of them was even thrown off the deck – but they were simply at a very temporary tactical disadvantage. Backing them up was all the firepower and might of a modern navy, and indeed the results were not surprising. After a few minutes of scuffling, in which seven commandos were wounded, the full force was unleashed and nine people on the other side were killed. Hardly a lynch situation.
But it was that remark that was picked up by the entire Israeli media and used as the headline encapsulating the whole bloody event. Why? Because the feeling of helplessness of a poor lonely victim, confronting the rage of a lynch mob and frantically realizing that these are his last moments, accurately reflect the current psychosis of the majority of the Israeli public.
Everything that followed the disastrous raid on the Gaza flotilla – the descriptions in the media, the justifications of the Israel Defense Forces spokesman and the reactions of the politicians – prove how detached we have become from the way that Israel is perceived from outside. One sentence that was repeated over and over to justify the final outcome was: “And what if they had succeeded in killing one of our soldiers?” This is a rhetorical argument that is unanswerable in any discussion held in Israel. No matter how many combatants we have lost in all the wars, operations, accidents and other foul-ups, every time the radio announces the death of yet another an IDF soldier, something dies within every one of us.
That is a noble sentiment, a feeling of a society with a shared responsibility and destiny, but we have lost any other perspectives and are incapable of realizing that it is only we Israelis who feel this. We have hunkered down deep inside our collective bunker and have lost sight of any suffering or loss on the other side.
I don’t want to use this column to discuss the shortcomings of Israeli hasbara, as the implications of this event go well beyond public relations in their significance. But one thing that was very clear to me on Monday, as I watched the Israeli media strategy unfold before the television cameras at the Ashdod port, was how all the professional spokespersons swiftly fell back on the same comforting tropes that appeal only to the Israeli public and a shrinking group of die-hard supporters overseas. Even the experienced professionals, who should know better, could do no more than to convince the already convinced.
Let’s just continue their argument for a moment. Say that two IDF commandos had been killed in the confrontation. It would have been another national tragedy for us, but would anyone outside of Israel have been moved? Not a bit: They would simply have been two heavily armed soldiers carrying out an illegal raid who were killed by brave civilians defending a ship bearing humanitarian aid. None of Israel’s arguments – that the members of the Turkish relief organization IHH were actually murderous jihadis, that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that Israel was prepared to allow the cargo to go through its own port and that the blockade is justified as the only way to keep more missiles from reaching Hamas – would have been any more persuasive. Not because they were badly presented or inaccurate, but simply because moral people around the world see almost everything that happens in the region as a result of a deeply immoral situation that the Israeli leadership and the great majority of the Israeli public is doing nothing whatsoever to change.
That may be a simplistic perspective, devoid of any nuance, but it is not an anti-Semitic or even anti-Israeli position, as some try to persuade us. It is simply a moral viewpoint. And even most perceptive Israelis can’t seem to see that. Our powers of analysis are impressive, up to a certain level. A few hours after the dust settled it was clear what had gone wrong on a tactical level. On Monday evening, in one of those moments of tired, off-the-record frankness, an IDF colonel said to me, “Come on Anshel, we all know what the problem was here. This was a policing operation, not something for a real army.” He was right, but this is far from an isolated example. Criticizing the IDF is too easy. The real blame lies with successive Israeli governments and the broad public that are not brave enough to end the 42-year-old occupation and prefer instead to throw the army at the problem. As good as our army is, the result will only be more and more bloodshed. So how do we deal with it? By convincing ourselves that we are the moral ones and everyone else just wants to kill us.
If only we had some real friends, friends we could trust implicitly, who could point out the error of our ways. This could be the shining moment of the Jewish Diaspora. They love us, but they also see things from another perspective. We need a strong, unified voice from the Jewish leadership in the United States and Europe telling Israelis enough is enough, you are hurtling down the slippery slope of pariahdom and causing untold damage to yourselves and us. Lift your heads above the ramparts and see that the world has moved on.
Instead, we find the establishment of the Jewish world crouching with us in the bunker.
In his breathtaking analysis of the decline of secular Zionism in America, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books last month, Peter Beinart describes how the leaders of America’s major Jewish organizations have succeeded in estranging an entire generation of young Jews from Israel “by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does.” In doing so “they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”
Beinart persuasively explains how this has convinced many young Jews that they have noting in common with a country whose policies contradict so much of what they have been brought up to believe in. But there is another damaging aspect to this cheerleading. Every Israeli cabinet minister who is greeted by cheering audiences during visits abroad fails to see all those who, disgusted, prefer to stay at home.
They return to Israel convinced that at least the Jewish people are still behind us and that our opponents are simply anti-Semitic. Other voices, such as the new lobbies JStreet and JCall, are ostracized by the establishment instead of being treated as what they really are, authentic voices for many concerned Jews.
When the history of the Jewish people in the early 21st century is written, the conclusion will be unavoidable. In its hour of need Israel was let down by the Diaspora.