Ian McEwan Missed the Real Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, February 22, 2011

The delegitimization campaign tries to rob Israel of its normalcy, poisoning the conversational stream about Israel so everything becomes about settlements, occupation, conflict, violence.  This Palestinian conceit makes everything about Israel be about Palestinians, exaggerating their hardships, caricaturing Israelis as uniquely evil, rooting every Middle East problem in one local conflict. Those of us seeking a peaceful two-state solution should explain that both a delegitimized Israel and a Palestinian culture of victimization are obstacles to peace.   Woe-is-me self-pity and righteous indignation discourage generosity; feeling demonized or demonizing your enemy prevents compromise.

 

To resolve this conflict – like all conflicts – truth, nuance, subtlety, complexity, criticisms, contradictions and moral clarity are our friends.  In that spirit we should welcome the British novelist Ian McEwan, who accepted the Jerusalem Prize at Sunday night’s opening ceremony of the Jerusalem Book Fair as a friend to Israelis and Palestinians. Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat sounded pathetic in telling McEwan: “We appreciate your decision to come to Israel despite many pressures.” She should have welcomed him more grandly, less defensively, to a country that “embrace[s] freedom of thought and open discourse,” which administers “the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute” to its “precious tradition of a democracy of ideas” – which was how McEwan described Israel.

In accepting the prestigious prize, McEwan impressed the crowd with his magnificent soul and eloquent tongue — an artist who believes in the novel’s liberating power and a novelist who believes art can reveal truth. Nevertheless, when he stopped talking literature to talk politics, he sounded naive.

Unlike most British intellectuals who simply condemn Israel, McEwan acknowledged that “hostile neighbors” threaten Israel. He condemned Hamas’s charter for incorporating “the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and repudiated “the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns … of an extinctionist policy towards Israel.”

Still, seeking “balance,” his indictment of Israel was sloppy and superficial. He said “It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip,” exaggerating Gazans’ suffering and implicitly blaming Israel when the 2005 disengagement could have spawned a free, prosperous Gaza had the Palestinians built one. He blamed “Nihilism” for “unleash[ing] the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories,” when it was self-preservation. And he claimed “East Jerusalem is steadily being drained of its Palestinian inhabitants,” when East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population jumped from 66,000 in 1967 to 268,000 in 2008. B’tselem reports 22 houses demolished with 191 people displaced in 2010, hardly a “drain.”

This is not to claim that Israel is beyond criticism – zero demolitions and displacements are ideal. But incorrect albeit trendy criticisms undermine McEwan’s search for “creative” paths to peace. More deluded was his claim that Jerusalem “lacks … small talk,” because “politics enters every corner of existence.”  Perhaps when a famous novelist defies boycott threats to visit, he only hears politics. But Israel’s charm – and part of the conflict’s messiness – comes from being a country of small talk, middling lives, and tall tales, making it livable for Arab and Jew alike.

No, Mr. McEwan, Israel is not only defined by the conflict. Seeing Israel through that lens exclusively is like seeing England only throughLondon’s fog – everything appears grayer, grimmer.

Israel’s rich, complex, sometimes depressing sometimes inspiring but surprisingly normal life was demonstrated dramatically in Tel Aviv, the same night McEwan spoke in Jerusalem. A premiere of “Strangers No More,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school showcased an Israel of messy problems and creative solutions, of soaring aspirations and impressive achievements.

Bialik-Rogozin educates more than 800 children from 48 different countries who have landed in Israel as refugees or as children of migrant workers.  The film follows three students through a school year – one 12-year-old from Eritrea never attended school before. This school of hugs and hope accepts kids the world has rejected into a loving, stimulating, embracing multicultural refuge where Hebrew functions as the cultural touchstone and linguistic safety zone. “In education, there [are] no strangers,” the principal, Karen Tal, explains. “Everyone has a special story,” their own traumas. “We cannot change the past.” But “we can influence our future.”

This prophetic principal, these gallant teachers, undertake heroic efforts for “their kids,” making house calls, buying them bicycles, arranging visas for parents. “This is my life, this school,” Mohammad from Darfur exclaims. “I feel like I’m with my family here.”

The legendary hi tech investor Yossi Vardi supports the school. Vardi is a myth-busting pioneer with a heart of gold and a platinum rolodex, er contact list. Years ago, he proved you could make money with Israeli start-ups. Now, by mobilizing his many friends and considerable resources to teach these kids, he is showing that Israelis can take responsibility for themselves philanthropically – and that not everything about Israel is about Palestinians.

Noting that for the last three years, an Israeli film concerning some aspect of “HaMatzav,” the situation, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the President and Founder of S-Curve Records, Steve Greenberg, ended the evening by praising the film – and Vardi’s army of do-gooders — for focusing on the real Israel. Even more important, Greenberg said, these visionaries prove that no matter what Israel’s challenges, the Jewish impulse toward “Tikun Olam” can mend the world – making great art out of life’s difficulties while using great art to heal life’s difficulties – just as McEwan and other great novelists do.

Vardi’s army proves that Israel is not merely an Embattled State or a Start-Up Nation, but what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute call a Values Nation.  Vardi’s people, like many Israelis, live in prose, making small talk – while also making grand, healing gestures which ennoble us all and reveal the real Israel.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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