Looking monstrous, feeling virtuous: How delegitimization distorts

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6 -28-10

Last week I was bicycling through Jerusalem’s picturesque German Colony. Suddenly, at one of those blind intersections where the picturesque building looms dangerously close to the picturesque curb, an SUV cut me off. I braked. The next thing I knew my face was bonded with the pavement on picturesque HaTzfira street.

I was lucky. My helmet did its work. I stood up immediately. I had no headache, no neck pain, no breaks, no internal injuries, and am happy to be alive. But I ended up with stitches on my now-very fat lip, a swollen nose, a huge multicolored raspberry across my left cheek, a black eye, and stitches over my eyebrow. I look monstrous.

All this while facing a week with 2 bar mitzvahs, 4 speaking engagements, and 5 end-of-year kids’ class parties or performances, including my younger son’s Tae Kwon Do competition just hours after the accident. My wife wisely insisted I skip the competition, to avoid “freaking out” everyone. Otherwise, although my children suggested I hibernate, I attended every event.

Walking around with a gruesome face, however temporary (I hope), has stirred up “stuff,” as we non-touchy-feely guys call “feelings.” I gird myself for each interaction, from going to the bank to greeting friends, planning what to say, seeking just the right tone of bravado. I recall my teenage years in the 1970s. Back when Woody Allen was king of New York, we Jewish-intellectual-wannabes built our defense mechanisms around his. As kids from Queens, my friends and I constructed personae compensating for our lack of good looks and lack of wealth by mocking vanity and materialism.

Steeped in a culture worshipping blond-haired, blue-eyed, moneyed jocks – on screen and even at university – we were happily countercultural. Our unkempt hair, flannel shirts and t-shirts, ripped jeans and construction boots, were our uniform, our own particular psychic armor. Rather than competing with the mythical WASPs in realms we never could master, we changed the channel, valuing winning quiz bowls not college bowls or beauty pageants.

Even so, it’s no fun unsettling passersby, and wounded pride kicks in on many levels. Expressions of sympathy often come with bike safety lectures, as if I failed. I constantly relive the moments before the accident, wondering why I had not fixed my shrieking brakes, should I have been going slower? Seeking to reassert control over my life, I made sure, before Shabbat, to order new glasses, fix my watch, buy a new bike – and helmet.

Simultaneously, as I wander about looking gruesome my newfound insecurities are blunted by feelings of self-righteousness. I know I’m the same me who never before received double-stares on the street. My fleeting disability provides a quick taste of how tough life is for those born impaired or permanently scarred by some moment in life you relive constantly but never can undo. Looking monstrous, feeling virtuous reminds me of my graduate school poverty. Working as an historian never felt as pure as when I was accumulating debts rather than earning a salary.

Politically, my horrid new look has me wondering about the distortions in Israeli political culture that come from appearing so monstrous to most of the world. Our enemies’ enmities – like people’s prejudices – clarify yet distort. Underlying the latest surge in attempts to delegitimize Israel is a systematic campaign to single Israel out for special opprobrium. No country has endured such a decades-long campaign against its very right to exist, fueled by petro-dollars, ramped up by Islamist fanaticism, ingrained into Arab political culture, integrated into parts of Western political culture. No other country has been kept on probation for 62 years, with its legitimacy subject to good behavior, with its leaders, founding ideology and people condemned so harshly, so disproportionately.

And yet, as I do with my accident, Israel should take some responsibility for its own predicament. Just because you are paranoid does not mean you do not have enemies. Just because you are demonized does not mean you do not make mistakes. Dismissing any criticisms because they amplify the vicious condemnations is as destructive as not taking responsibility for how criticisms delegitimize. Israel must learn from legitimate criticism and make necessary policy changes, while fighting off illegitimate criticism and defending its right to self-defense.

That is why the current moment is so dangerous. Too many of Israel’s honest, patriotic critics are not doing enough to fight delegitimization while too many of Israel’s ardent patriotic defenders are not doing enough to help Israel reform where necessary. Those deemed to be on the “left” must marshal more forces to fight delegitimization, distancing themselves from the ugly cesspools of Arab anti-Semitism and Palestinian rejectionism feeding it. The Zionist left must do a better job criticizing Israeli failures in the territories and elsewhere without using false analogies about Nazism and Apartheid, without repudiating Zionism’s essence, while acknowledging the poisoned atmosphere in which Israel operates. The Zionist “right” must stop using our adversaries’ fanaticism as excuses for failed leadership. Just days after President Barack Obama fired his top commander in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to fire any number of incompetent Ministers because of coalition politics and this lockdown mentality becomes even more glaring.

As the New Israel Fund meets this week, the left and the right must rally together, fighting delegitimization while acknowledging differences on other issues. The stakes are too high to accept the denial on the left which minimizes the harmful nature of the vicious attacks on Israel or to accept the laziness on the right which hunkers down rather than moving forward.

As my own recent experiences reminded me, appearances count, like it or not. Israel needs some of its critical patriots to help improve its image abroad. Israel also needs some policy changes and governmental renewal to make that image change significant, not just cosmetic surgery. Better to feel virtuous because you are, rather than because others misperceive you.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

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