Monday, April 25, 2011

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

"Gaza Strip gettin' bombed - Obama didn't say shit" - a line from a song by Lupe Fiasco I heard while driving in my brother's car.

This is why I get angry. The world is so painfully uninformed about the Arab-Israeli conflict that even (very talented) rappers, with obviously little foreign policy experience, are commenting on the poor Gazans who suffer in their little cage.

Of course, the history of the Gaza strip is more problematic than that, and I hope you can note the extreme sarcasm I employed in the above statement. I learned part of the Palestinians history in present-day Israel while reading Thomas Friedman's memoir/historical review of his time as a journalist in Beirut and Jerusalem.

This book took me about 3 months to read. While I was reading it, I had to take breaks and read other books...fiction of course...because my brain needed to relax.

The material is heavy. The writing is prize-winning. The content made me angry and want to argue, in fact, sometimes I did even though I knew Friedman couldn't hear me.

It was written from a particular perspective during a particular time period. Often Friedman would write something to the effect that "if such and such doesn't happen, I can't imagine the consequence" or the converse of that. With more than 20 years having passed since the publication of the book, a reader can note if such and such did indeed happen and what the recourse was.

But, I get ahead of myself.

While I criticize Fiasco, I do so in the light of knowledge. This knowledge I gleaned from reading From Beirut to Jerusalem and the knowledge I get from living in Israel. People still describe the Palestinian state in Israel as "occupied". I did not understand how they could consider themselves occupied in lands that were governed by their own Palestinian forces. It is true, they cannot leave the borders of their area, but this is for the safety of every Israeli(Arab, Jew, Christian, whatever) and every visitor to the Holy Land. When the security fence was erected(only 5-10% of which is a stone wall, the rest is fence), it decreased terrorist attacks by 99%. I'm not sure how the percentage stands after the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem and the murders of the Fogel family in Itamar. Nonetheless, we are safer and they have their place to live.

They could have had more, you know, had they accepted peace at, say, any point. In the beginning, they would have had far more land than the Jews. 63 years later, Israelis have cultivated the land, built infrastructure, irrigated, populated, excavated, and protected their land. In modern times, it's a little too late for the land to change hands.

But, let's go back to the late 1970's when the Palestinian movement was in full swing in Lebanon. Friedman was there to cover the Civil War and was there to witness the massacre of US Marines in the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983. One American told him: "Now, we have some ingenious ways of killing people, but we are restricted by the Geneva Conventions. Well, these people over here never had any conventions." (203) It's a gross overstatement, and yet at the same time, understatement. There are so many good Arab people that to say "they" never had any conventions just plays into the racism and hatred that continues to fuel the fire burning away at peace. On the other hand, those fighting in terrorist regimes do not abide by the Geneva Convention(a 1948 resolution on how we are allowed to fight our enemies) and this, unfortunately, is the presiding belief of most enemies of Arab terrorist regimes. If they will stop at nothing to destroy us, how far must we let them go before destroying them?

Friedman was there was Arafat left Lebanon on a boat, with some of his people, leaving the rest behind to fight for the pleasant existence they had once led before getting involved in fighting. As a leader, Arafat achieved very little for his people, and yet so much for himself.

Friedman was there to see the aftermath of the massacre at Hama in Syria at the hands of the Syrian president to stop a revolt of the Sunni Muslims in the town. Everything was laid wasted. Begin's Israeli army stayed outside the town, neither helping the Syrian forces, nor the Sunni Muslims. It was not Israel's finest hour. Friedman writes of Prime Minister Begin at this time:
"His was a lesson which more than a few Middle Eastern statesmen could learn well: whether you are an Arab or a Jew, you can't heal your grandfather's shame. The dead can never be redeemed - only the living can. He who is fixated on redeeming his father's memory will never see the opportunities of his own world." (177)

THIS is a fundamental principle and problem in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It suits Israelis who are better at moving on, because we've been so successful in the past. But, as I stated before, there were mistakes and there was shame, all caused by trying to "heal grandfather's name". It can't be done. I can no more accept an apology for what the Nazis did to the Jews 70 years ago, than a German teenager can apologize for it. Use any analogy you like, but Friedman is still correct. Peace will only come when we can look at what possibilities we have right now and for the future.

Once Friedman makes it to Jerusalem from Beirut, his whole idea of Israel changes, as has mine in the years I have lived here since I first visited on Birthright. He was infused with a spirit of the idea of a pioneer state called Israel; I was infused by a religious holy land. "It is the place to lose yourself as a Jew." (285) Either way, we both missed a big part of the picture and were left quite puzzled by our misread. He wrote of an encounter he had with an Israeli merchant that I feel totally encompasses at least one of my frustrations with the Israeli/Middle Eastern way of thinking.

He purchased a radio with a warranty. After 9 months, the radio broke. He returned to the merchant. Thee merchant would not accept it.
"Mr. Thomas," he said, "if the radio had broken after one month, or maybe three months, okay, we would have replaced it. But nine months? I'm sorry." "No, no, you don't understand," I said. "This radio has a warranty of one year. One year means one year. It is not optional. It is not at your discretion." He just shook his head again. He did not understand one year. His mind could not see that far, no matter what the Japanese manufacturer told him. By then I had been in Israel too long to try to fight this mentality. in the end, we worked out a complicated Middle Eastern barter deal, which involved me giving him the broken radio and several hundred shekels and getting a brand-new, bigger radio in return."

It's like a big new board game that has no rules. Everyone else has played the game before, except for you and no one explains it right. This is why the West cannot cajole peace in the Middle East. We're playing our own version of a game we don't know the rules to.

1 comment:

  1. True, reminds me of friends who are counselors and they seem to have the most disfunctional relationships. People want you to do as they say and not as they do. A lot of talk, but no pressure of responsibility. I love your writing. It reminds me of Dave Barry, sacastic and very clever.
    And it makes good reading at 4:16 in the morning. I can't sleep and I still miss our Hoover Wolfpack. Best to you both and take care...Mark