On the first day of his stay in Tel Aviv, M., a Lebanese blogger, found himself on the promenade not far from Jaffa. "Jaffa was supposed to be ours, an Arab-Palestinian town. I thought to myself, 'Why the hell did I agree to come here?' but then I turned north toward the Tel Aviv port. I sat in a modern pub and had a glass of wine. There I felt at home," he said.
M. is a man in his twenties who was born in the United States, to where his parents had immigrated in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. He would visit his family every summer in Lebanon, and five years ago he decided to go and live in Beirut where he found work in the communications field. M. has been writing his blog, in English, for several years. He wrote live from the demonstrations following the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri as well as during the recent war in Lebanon, and provided his readers with personal impressions of the atmosphere in Beirut.
He recently came to Israel for a visit of several weeks as the guest of the Burda Center for Innovative Communications at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. During the visit, he promised to participate in writing a "good neighbors" blog (www.gnblog.com) in which Israeli and Arab bloggers participate, but his virtual connection with Israel began even before the war. M. examined the Israeli blogs in the wake of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declarations in favor of wiping Israel off the map. He wrote about this to his Lebanese audience and got many responses from Israeli surfers. A virtual community of Israelis and Lebanese was created, but it disintegrated during the war. According to M., the community consisted mainly of Israelis with right-wing tendencies and of Anglophone origin, but after the war in Lebanon there was a change - Israelis for whom English was not a mother tongue began visiting the Lebanese blogs and responding to them. Among the regular visitors one can find, for example, "Amir from Tel Aviv", "Yohai" and others.
During his visit to Israel, M. met up with many of his virtual friends and foes. He says most of them are from the political extremes - he met many more Jewish supporters of Hadash or Yisrael Beiteinu than members of the Labor party or Kadima. He mulled over many times in his mind whether to come to Israel. For some of his readers, particularly the Shiites, a visit to Israel implies loss of legitimation and credibility. But M. was curious and decided to accept the invitation.
So how does Israel seem in the eyes of a Lebanese? M. says he was amazed mainly by the poverty he encountered in Israel. "You have to understand, in my imagination Israel appeared to be like Jouniya [an affluent town north of Beirut - YS]. I didn't imagine there was any poverty here at all, that there were beggars at the intersections or the Western Wall. In Lebanon there is no such thing; there you can see Mercedes and Lamborghinis on the roads. There is no doubt that the Lebanese perceive Israel differently from how the Israelis see themselves. The Israelis think everyone wants to attack them and that they are weak, while the Lebanese believe that Israel is stronger than it actually is."
M. himself is a Christian, but it takes time to get information on this from him. It is not accepted practice in Lebanon to ask someone so direct a question about so sensitive a subject despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that one's communal affinity plays so large a role in Lebanese society. "There is a different way to know," he says. "First you ask about the family name, or the parents' names. Most of the names are clear and give away the ethnic affiliation, but if that doesn't help, you ask the person where he comes from. There are very few cases where you are left without an answer."
These days M. is busy writing in his blog about the tense situation in Lebanon, about the growing fears of the man in the street, about the suspicions and the emigration of young people of all ethnic origins. He recently wrote: "My work requires me to travel abroad frequently, and every time I return to Lebanon I find fewer and fewer friends are still here." Nevertheless, he says, Beirut is still full of places of entertainment, restaurants and coffee shops, and he says it is very similar to Tel Aviv. "The proximity to the sea and the openness of people in Tel Aviv certainly remind me of the atmosphere in Beirut," he says, "the behavior of the Tel Avivians, too. But when I went into a pub here and a friend said to me that everyone sitting there had probably taken part in the last war in Lebanon, I felt a chill go over me."