Jerusalem & Babylon / A Year in the Bubble

Israelis' provincial perspective on events sometimes causes trivial stories to be blown out of proportion.

I had lunch this week with an old acquaintance who is working now as a lawyer in one of the departments of the Justice Ministry. Despite smiling throughout our meal, he found it hard to suppress his rage when talking about the media. Being subjected to diatribes in the press is an occupational hazard, but for once, I felt that I agreed with him.

"Every paper and radio channel I opened over the last two months has been talking about 1,200 children of illegal immigrants," he said. "And I know that this is a tragedy for them but at the same time we are doing nothing in any way about the tens of thousands of refugees coming in from the south every year, people to whom we have both a moral and legal duty as UN-recognized refugees from a war zone in Sudan. But in the media you are just obsessed about this minor affair because children singing are sexy and people are worried about how it will look if Israel deports children."

His words echoed those of a battalion commander on the Egyptian border I met last month. "There really is no way to turn them back," he said. "We have seen what the Egyptian guards do to them if they catch them. My soldiers just take cover when the Egyptians start shooting, then if any of the wounded still get over the border, we send them to hospital."

Both men are right and the reality they are dealing with is one we are busy running away from, preferring to deal with more simple moral issues. The entire Israeli media, and even such celebrated Jewish luminaries from abroad as Elie Wiesel, have focused on the 400 children who currently fall outside the new residency boundaries. They prefer to ignore the fact that in its 63rd year of independence, the Jewish State still relies on an outdated law, based on Nazi racial ideology, to define its national concept of citizenship and identity.

Tendency to tunnel vision

Looking back on a year of news coverage (this is a Rosh Hashanah column, after all ), our collective inability to look outside our little Israeli bubble seems to be the main characteristic. To be honest, that would probably be true of most of the last 62 years, but I don't think the dissonance between Israelis' self-image as globalized, cosmopolitan citizens of the world - and our tendency to tunnel vision - has ever been so pronounced. This isn't just about us looking at events solely from the local prism - as opposed to seeing us as outsiders do (all too often these foreign observers are prisoners of bubbles of their own ), I am referring to our increasing failure to look at the wider picture of just about anything.

Take the stories that have dominated the news over the past month, from the most serious to the seemingly frivolous. Let's begin with the so-called "Galant document," the story that one of the editors at this paper said "saved August for us." The nasty rivalry that has poisoned the highest ranks of Israel's defense establishment is naturally more than simply that, and the hyperbole about "a breaking of the nation's trust in the IDF" was partially warranted.

But aside from a tiny handful of columnists, the public debate totally disregarded the fact that the ongoing saga demonstrates just how skewed the relationship between the army's high command and its supposed civilian overseers is. No matter how central a role the armed forces play in Israeli society, such an imbalance cannot be allowed to persist in a democracy. Yet if you learn a bit about the clashes between David Ben-Gurion and the generals of 1948, the only conclusion is that we have actually gone backward in most regards of civilian oversight. Despite all this, recent polls prove that the public still trusts the IDF above all other institutions.

Staying with the army, we had the photo album of Eden Abergil, the young woman who shocked the blogosphere and became an overnight international sensation thanks to two photographs from her army days in which she was seen grinning with bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners. Commentators were quick to blame her for yet another blow to Israeli hasbara and the IDF Spokesman had a field day castigating her for conduct the violated the army's "ethical code."

It was left to human rights groups such as B'Tselem and Breaking the Silence to remind us that Eden was not the one to blame, but 43 years of occupation during which - like it or not - generations of Israelis ceased to see the other side as human beings. This is not a political issue of left and right and it transcends the debate on the future of Israeli presence in the West Bank - small wonder that we moved on after 48 hours.

Missing the point

The "big" story of the month seemed to be the summit in Washington and the opening of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The "big" question that everyone was asking was "has Netanyahu crossed the rubicon?" Yet another escape from reality. I admit that I, like everyone else, spent time pondering this question until I participated in an international panel of "experts" on Al Jazeera last week. I belatedly realized after hearing the Palestinian representative that Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas may by now be in the same camp. Around them, the forces fighting for one state, be it Jewish apartheid-style or binational "right of return" chaos, are gradually gaining the upper hand.

I'm not saying that the two-state solution is totally lost - at least I hope it isn't - but the question of whether it is still salvageable is far more important than how well Bibi and Abu Mazen can get along.

And now, for hopefully the last story of the silly season, ironically, the argument over when to end summer time. This was naturally framed as yet another state vs. religion clash, a question of who rules our lives, down to the very time of day, but that is an oversimplification. Finance Minister and former philosopher Yuval Steinitz for once got it right when he said that he doesn't see why anyone needs to make such a fuss about something that in macroeconomic terms makes only a negligible difference.

On a scale of all the unresolved issues of Jewish identity bedeviling Israel, this really is probably the least important. If Israelis who fast on Yom Kippur feel that it makes it psychologically easier to do so if clocks are set back in advance, then indulging them is worth the very minor nuisance of going back to winter time while still sweltering from a hamsin.

If we are about to launch the long overdue kulturkampf over Israel's future identity, let's try and make it a fight for something real. Here's to a year of trying to see outside the bubble.