Trying to balance triumph and tragedy

It seems to be de rigueur these days for liberals to temper their criticism of Israel with an equal volume of praise for the miracle in the desert – what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls “keeping several truths in tension in your head at the same time.”

In other words, if you criticize the occupation, the depredations of the settlers or the deliberate policy of stomping on any chance for peace, your critique needs to be balanced by an equal measure of praise for Israel’s vibrant civil society, dynamic democracy and so forth. Like the scales of justice, which must be in perpetual alignment.

Without such harmony, Friedman writes, you are peddling a fantasy about Israel. You are not giving a true picture of what the columnist describes as “one of the most amazing political experiments in modern history.” I’m happy the millions of Palestinians on the receiving end of Israeli rifle butts can now comfort themselves with the knowledge that it’s all a fantasy.

I haven’t read “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” a new book by journalist Ari Shavit. Judging by Friedman’s review, however, it seems to subscribe to this balanced scales approach when discussing Israel. It’s certainly the approach of Friedman himself, who has built an impressive career by reducing everything he can get his hands on to simplistic sound-bites, in order to make it understandable to Americans and to serve the purposes of the capitalist-colonial elite that he represents. (The title of Belén Fernández’s book about him is The Imperial Messenger.)

Based on that same logic, any description of Hitler’s concentration camps and wholesale murder in the late Thirties should have been balanced by paeans to how he had slashed German unemployment, built the autobahns and stabilized the economy.

Similarly, one would have been peddling a fantasy in the Seventies if one’s criticism of apartheid wasn’t balanced by due recognition that South Africa had the strongest economy in Africa at the time and just about the only functioning democracy (for whites only, of course.) In fact, that was precisely the line taken by the architects of apartheid. Friedman and Shavit are treading a very well-worn path.

Friedman’s moral relativism is grotesque. The fact that Israel has built-up a dynamic high-tech sector has absolutely no bearing on the gradual, but effective, ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In fact, it can be argued that the military complex responsible for the repression of the Palestinians is the very engine that drives the country’s technological development.

That was certainly the case in apartheid South Africa, where precious metals mined by what amounted to virtual slave labor were what drove the country’s economic success. Just as Hitler’s economic miracle was driven by rearmament.

Israel has a senior minister (Naftali Bennett) who believes that the Palestinians are no more than a piece of shrapnel in the ass, which can, and should, be ignored. The Friedmans of the world don’t go that far. They acknowledge the shrapnel, but immediately avert their gaze to the rest of the body, which, they say, is healthy and shrapnel-less. A balanced approach. Friedman describes it as being “affectionate, critical, realistic and morally anchored.”

To me, it is just the opposite. When it comes to the body that is Israel, the Palestinians are a suppurating, gangrenous wound, not just an innocuous piece of shrapnel. And gangrene, if untreated, spreads to the entire body, soon enough. What seems healthy today will not be so for long.

I can’t speak for Shavit’s book, but Tom Friedan’s review is a morally-compromised palliative – something that might make us feel good about ourselves, but does absolutely nothing about getting us to behave morally and sensibly. Israelis need to wake up, not to be lulled into a self-satisfied coma by yet another sensitive evocation of the glories of Zionism – with a nod to the regrettable excesses in the territories, of course. (But why worry ourselves with that?)

Fuzzy, romanticized reminiscences about the good old days of early Zionism and look-at-how-liberal-I-am glee at Tel Aviv’s gay bars will get us through another year, or two or five of sleepwalking. And then?