November 13, 2010
When I was a 25-year-old law student in New York, I applied for an internship at the Israeli consulate and was surprised to instead be offered a full-time job as a speechwriter for the Israeli Mission to the UN. A bit later, despite not even being Israeli, I was asked to move to Israel to be an English speechwriter for prime minister Ariel Sharon.
By the time I left Israel after two and a half years of writing speeches, I had had more than enough of the whole situation. I flew back to America, ready to forget the whole thing. But it wasn’t as easy to escape as I had hoped.
For starters, I seemed to have unwittingly developed an area of expertise. I don’t mean to suggest that I was anything like an actual expert on Israel–my Hebrew was still shaky and I never could figure out why Israelis drank chocolate milk out of a bag instead of a carton –but I’d gained some firsthand knowledge of how the Middle East functioned, or didn’t.
As a result, when I decided to get into journalism and started to pitch articles, everyone wanted me to write about the Middle East. So soon I was interviewing former colleagues in the Israeli government and analyzing the always horrible situation for various newspapers and magazines.
The analysis was usually simple:
1. People are killing each other.
2. That is nothing compared to the threat of violence on the horizon.
3. There is a glimmer of hope that things will be worked out for the best.
4. But they probably won’t.
It didn’t take a Ph. D. in Middle East Studies to put together this incisive analysis. I made frequent phone calls to interview people in Israel, but because I was now back in North America, many of the experts I was contacting were in the United States. I spoke with American politicians and their aides, lobbyists, Middle East activists of various stripes, military folks and fund-raisers. And as I published more articles, I was approached by more and more laypeople. Laypeople whose convictions were firmer and more entrenched than any I had encountered in the Middle East itself.
“We should attack Iran,” an audience member at one of my speaking events would say, leaving it entirely unclear who she meant by “we” or if she herself was willing to join in the fighting.
“I prefer to think of Hezbollah as political activists, not terrorists,” someone else would write in an email, which to me sounded like arguing that Italy was not really a country, but more like a pizza party.
It was all a bit overwhelming. Before I’d found myself entangled with the Israeli government, I hadn’t known all that much about the Middle East situation. By the time I finished my stint abroad, my eyes had been opened wide to the dysfunctional way the region often worked. But I still had the vague idea that if the situation were being handled by the people I’d grown up with — by those from New York or Los Angeles or Toronto — then everything could have been solved by now.
It turned out that I was horribly wrong. As soon as I started to work as a journalist, I was blown away by the fervency and emotion that discussions of the Middle East elicited in North America. Everyone I encountered — whether they fell on the right among the hawks or on the left among the doves, whether they were Jew, non-Jew, or Arab — seemed sure that if they were just given six months and the authority, they could solve the Middle East conflict once and for all. Probably without leaving their armchairs, or taking a break from yelling at CNN.
Even in Israel, where I’d interacted with Israelis from all over the political spectrum, or at the UN, where I had met various Arab officials, I had encountered very few true Fundamentalists. The majority of those who actually lived in the region dealt with the issue of peace in a practical way, and they seemed to have a firmer grasp of the realities of the situation. For the most part, they seemed to realize that very little could be cast in black-and-white terms, and that the only way to achieve anything in the peace process was to be pragmatic rather than strictly ideological.
Not so in the West, where there was no room for nuance when discussing the Middle East. People I encountered here were set in their opinions. Something as trivial as reality was never going to change their minds.
Shortly after I returned from Israel and started writing about my experiences in the Middle East, I began to get requests to appear as a guest on radio and television shows. The invitations came in from right-wing shows, left-wing shows, shows aimed at Jewish listeners and even from Al Jazeera. It was at one of the first of these — a show that was broadcast on national television in Canada — that I realized just how nasty and unproductive these discussions could get.
I had received a phone call from a producer asking me if I would be a part of a panel discussion. The panel, along with a studio audience and the audience at home, would watch a documentary about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. After that, we could discuss it and field questions from the audience.
Sure, I thought. Why not? Well, soon I would find out exactly why not. On the day of the show, I arrived at the studio and met the producer in the lobby, along with Harris, a political activist from Washington, and Oded, the Israeli who had made the film.
“You three are the moderates on the panel,” the producer told us, and we looked at one another as if trying to discern signs of ideological affinity.
There were a fair number of people involved, the producer explained, among them far-left activists, far-right, pro-Israel activists, former Palestinian prisoners and Norman Finkelstein, a controversial professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
I was peripherally aware that, at the time, Finkelstein was in the midst of a battle to get academic tenure. The child of Holocaust survivors, he was a vocal and acerbic critic of Israel, and his tenure application process had turned highly political.
He and Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor and ardent supporter of Israel, were engaged in what amounted to verbal warfare. A few years earlier, Finkelstein had published a book devoted to attacking Dershowitz’s Middle East stance and accusing him of plagiarism. Dershowitz had reportedly tried to stop the book from being published — apparently asking Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to intervene, since the book was published by the University of California Press. The two academics were now involved in an ongoing personal conflict. Some were even saying that Dershowitz had tried to dissuade DePaul from granting Finkelstein tenure.
Oded disappeared with one of the producers, and Harris and I were led into one of the green rooms, where assorted people were waiting for the show to start. I couldn’t identify some of them, but one group was clearly the former Palestinian prisoners. Looking at them, I thought of my stint in the Israeli government. I had begun it with a reflexive support for Israel and its policies; by the time I had finished, I still only wished the country the best, but had begun to see more complexity in the issues than before.
Still, while I knew that Israel often locked up Palestinians for what might seem to an outsider like mild offences — throwing stones at heavily armoured tanks, for example — I also thought that a solid portion of jailed Palestinians were there for good reason. So I couldn’t help but wonder who exactly I was sharing the stage with.
Eventually, we were called to the studio. There, scattered among the bright lights and camera equipment, were about a hundred audience members. Our chairs were labeled with our names and set up in a circle. The audience sat around us in a bigger circle.
One of the Palestinian former prisoners was seated directly beside me, and we greeted each other and shook hands. We made small talk and I wondered what he would think once he found out that I had been a mouthpiece of the government that imprisoned him. I didn’t know if he had tried to blow up Israelis or if he had just sworn at the wrong border guard, but I did know that he had recently been in an Israeli jail and I had recently been in the Israeli government, and we were chatting just like two strangers seated beside each other at a wedding — one from the groom’s side and the other from the bride’s.
Before anyone on the panel was officially introduced, we watched the movie together. It was a portrayal of the culture and difficult conditions Palestinian prisoners had to weather in Israeli jails. I thought it was interesting but fairly innocuous — from what I knew about Israel, it wouldn’t have been particularly controversial there, where criticism of the state’s policies from a multitude of different angles was the norm.
But, as it turned out, the video was extremely controversial on this side of the world. Right after the movie ended, the host launched the discussion and it quickly grew heated. A few right-leaning panelists denounced the film for being too sympathetic to the Palestinians and not mentioning Israeli suffering. Some on the left criticized it for not showing what they believed to be the true extent of the plight of Palestinian prisoners. For a long while, the Palestinian former prisoners stayed quiet, but when the host asked the one beside me to speak about his impression of the movie, he said that his experiences had been much more gruelling than those portrayed in the film. This enraged the far-right activists, who started yelling. That, in turn, enraged the far-left activists, who started yelling louder. Things were not going well.
The host only introduced his guests after they jumped into the fray. And since I’d quickly realized that this was not an argument I wanted any part of, I was not opening my mouth. So I just sat up there–a silent, nameless figure on a violently heated panel.
Soon the argument had veered away from the movie itself and back toward the old hackneyed Middle East debate. Those on the far left talked about colonization, checkpoints and brutal Israeli soldiers. The panelists on the far right talked about terrorism, suicide bombing and biblical land claims. Those on the left seemed to believe that Israel was the cause of all of the Middle East’s problems, as well as the deficiencies in American foreign policy. To the right, Israel was always correct — even if its security measures were disproportionate or its settlement policies unproductive. The panelists on the left thought that any measures Israel took to protect its citizens’ lives were discriminatory, that its policies were designed to oppress the Palestinians, and although they didn’t say it explicitly, it sounded like their prescription was for Israel just to simply cease to exist. Those on the right thought that every waking thought of each Palestinian was to kill all the Jews on the planet. When they looked at a Palestinian, all they saw was Hitler. As they argued, in louder and louder voices, it was almost as if the two sides couldn’t even hear each other at all.
A few times Harris and a couple of the other relatively restrained people managed to push their way into the conversation, trying to strike some kind of middle ground before being yelled back into silence. It was during one of these exchanges that I noticed an interesting little aside.
In the front row of the audience, just behind my Palestinian neighbour and me, were a couple of his friends. Before the show had started, they had been chatting a bit in English, and had greeted me as well, unaware of my backstory. Now, as Harris and a few other nonfanatics tried — more or less vainly– to have their voices heard, one of these audience members leaned forward to speak to his friend, the Palestinian former prisoner beside me.
“It’s easier to deal with the extreme Zionists,” he whispered. “Much harder to deal with the moderates.”
The Palestinian nodded in agreement. With the panelists screaming tired cliches back and forth, it was the most interesting observation I’d heard so far.
Meanwhile, the shouting continued, and I remained quiet, increasingly aware that I was the only one who wasn’t getting involved, while a studio and television audience looked on, probably wondering why I’d been put on the panel in the first place. Self-conscious, I started staring downward to avoid the camera, which meant that I found myself looking directly at Norman Finkelstein’s socks.
Wow, I thought, Norman Finkelstein is wearing some pretty flamboyant socks.
They were a medley of col-ours in an intricate pattern, and as I continued to stare at them as a distraction, I wondered if he always wore socks like that or if he had just chosen to wear them because he was on TV. Anyone watching the show would have seen a group of people ferociously debating the Middle East, and one person staring at his copanelist’s feet.
Eventually, the host asked for members of the studio audience to comment, and a succession of them did, mostly spouting the same angry arguments aired by the panelists, only in far less lucid forms.
The final one, though, brought the emotional pitch up a notch. He was a teenager of Palestinian descent, but English was his native tongue, and it was clear that he was just as North American as me. Immediately after getting ahold of the microphone, he launched a barrage of angry insults at the right-wing pro-Israel crowd on the panel, berating them and accusing them of “stealing my country.”
One of the panelists took the bait and started yelling back.
“But it’s not your country!” he screamed. “It’s our country!”
The teenager’s eyes started to tear up, and he continued to scream until his microphone was taken away and everyone was quieted down.
It wasn’t really either of their countries, I thought. They both lived on the other side of the world, and enjoyed the kind of security and peace of mind that those living in the region — both Israeli and Palestinian — could only dream of. But they both believed they had the answer to the conflict, just like everyone else on the panel.
And that’s when I decided that I would be the one to finally make Middle East peace. If nothing else, I figured, it would shut everyone up.
Excerpted from HOW TO MAKE PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST IN
SIX MONTHS OR LESS: Without Leaving Your Apartment by Gregory
Levey © 2010 by Gregory Levey. Excerpted with permission by Free Press,
a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.