Jerusalem & Babylon / Excuse Me, Do You Feel Guilty?

Don't expect Israelis to develop feelings of collective guilt - they deserve a generation of normalcy and peace first.

Surely I can ask you this question on the eve of Yom Kippur, when we are all called up for a reckoning of our misdemeanors. You don't know what you're supposed to be feeling guilty for? Look it up in tomorrow's viddui, where all the sins are conveniently listed in aleph-bet order, ready for speedy expiation.

The interesting thing about viddui, and almost the entire Yom Kippur litany, is that while Jews recite them together in synagogues and they are even worded in the plural, they are all private misdeeds committed by the individual. So we are all held responsible for the wrongdoings of each and every Jew - but what about the injustices wrought by society and the nation?

Cinema City- Gilad Levy- Sep 11 2010
Gilad Levy

I wouldn't be indulging myself with these theological musings, and probably boring you in the process, if it wasn't for the fact that at least a couple of writers for two of the world's most influential publications seem to think all Israelis should be feeling collective guilt.

Two weeks ago, Time Magazine ran a cover story titled "Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace," and this week, as if by coincidence, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen penned an op-ed with exactly the same theme, entitled "Peace Talks? What's on TV?" If you have not yet read them, then choose just one, whichever pops up first on your browser. They share an identical premise - both focusing on the seemingly carefree life of work and play in and around Tel Aviv, as proof that Israelis just don't give a damn anymore.

Actually, don't even bother pulling them up, this paragraph from Karl Vick's piece in Time encapsulates the entire concept: "They're otherwise engaged; they're making money; they're enjoying the rays of late summer. A watching world may still define their country by the blood feud with the Arabs whose families used to live on this land and whether that conflict can be negotiated away, but Israelis say they have moved on." You get the picture.

The Vick-Cohen observation is casual, unoriginal and downright insulting. Eight years ago, I was drinking my morning coffee on my balcony when I heard an explosion. I ran out half-dressed, jogged up Hebron Street and in five minutes was covering another suicide bombing. Standard drill - update the website on exact location and number of casualties, interview eyewitnesses, check with forensic experts about any new components in the explosives belt and take down the Jerusalem police chief's statement.

In under two hours, the debris cleared, the road hosed down and reopened to traffic, we sat in a packed cafe nearby, a group of reporters trading jokes and stories, finally having that morning coffee. Were we acting in a ghoulish or cynical fashion? Certainly not, in a few hours, when the bodies were identified, we would be called on to report from the bereaved families' homes and funerals. Meanwhile, like everyone else, we carried on with lives.

A few months later, Yedioth Ahronoth's financial commentator, Sever Plotzker, was the first to write about how the Israeli middle class had triumphed over terror and continued thronging the malls despite the bombings. Londoners kept on singing during the Blitz, Israelis never stopped shopping.

Now it seems they are supposed to feel guilty for enjoying a brief period of minimal terror and warfare, which so far has lasted 20 months.

Hard-core stories from the front lines

Some of Israel's defenders have accused Vick's story in Time as having an anti-Semitic slant, reminding us of the magazine's prior record from the "Begin rhymes like Fagin" episode 33 years ago - but I don't think this is the case. While it may seem unfair that these writers are singling out Israelis, when the middle class in any country could have just as easily been disparaged for building their comfortable bubbles and ignoring injustice, poverty and turmoil down the road, they are not doing so because of anti-Semitism.

Foreign journalists, whether stationed in Israel or here on a brief visit, have to live with the fact that they're leading an extremely comfortable life in Jewish Israel while receiving kudos from colleagues and readers back home for delivering what look like hard-core stories from the front lines.

There is some risk for photographers and camera crews, usually local ones, who occasionally come under fire, but what's the worst that can happen to an American or European reporter? Getting hassled at a checkpoint? Dealing with bureaucracy crossing into Gaza? All good copy and great for laughs over cocktails at the American Colony Hotel. They know the truth though - this is one of the softest jobs in journalism, with a degree of prestige inversely proportional to actual risk. How better to alleviate their own guilty conscience than push it off on the Israelis?

But while the Vick-Cohen attitude is lazy and dishonorable journalism, there's one problem: there is a kernel of truth to it. Israelis should not have to apologize for their relatively comfortable, near-normal lives, and with normalcy comes a degree of ambivalence - but we have become a bit too good at turning a blind eye to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and refugees living in ghettos in most Israeli cities, along with forgetting the pointlessness of settlements and occupation across the Green Line.

I made two forays into the Judean Desert last week, to join a rangers patrol protecting an endangered population of desert goats from hunters, and to visit an exciting place of learning where men and women immerse themselves in the great texts of the Jewish and Western canon. In both cases, I met well-meaning Israelis, but both groups seemed oblivious to the fact that they are situated in a disputed territory, surrounded by 1.5 million human beings denied of the same civil rights they enjoy.

Yom Kippur is about personal, not national guilt, because Jews were never responsible for the actions of the country in which they lived. There are immediate practical and moral reasons to try much harder to resolve the problems stemming from a lack of borders, constitution and charter of civil rights; an awareness of the suffering of others is key to this. But don't begrudge Israelis a rare period of calm or expect them to develop a collective feeling of guilt, they deserve a generation of normalcy and peace first.