Do Israel’s critics suffer from a lack of irony? A little background: A recent New Yorker magazine includes a short story by Israeli writer Shani Boianjiu, which describes a confrontation between a female Israeli soldier and Palestinian demonstrators. In large part because it is told from the soldier’s point of view, anti-Zionist blogs like Mondoweiss declared the story “propagandistic fiction”; on the New Yorker’s own site, commenters called the story “one-sided” and “Nakba-Denying IDF porn.”
So you can probably imagine the story: Righteous young soldiers — poets in uniform, really — sadly but bravely face down bloodthirsty Palestinian protesters, while a settler digs the foundation of his new home side by side with the Arab man who happily sold him the property.
Actually, the story is nothing like that. Rather, a troubled female officer heads a four-person checkpoint along a road upon which (irony alert) no one travels. Three Palestinians — two adults and a child — approach the checkpoint and politely request that the soldiers suppress their “demonstration” so that their grievances make it into the newspapers. The ensuing action plays out like an outtake from Catch-22 — the officer is seen reading carefully through the absurd army instructions about when to use shock grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas to put down a demonstration, while the Palestinian trio patiently awaits her decision.
Some critics insist the story unduly celebrates Israel’s vaunted “rules of engagement,” intended to minimize civilian casualties. Maybe it’s my pro-Israel bias, but I thought the story suggested exactly the opposite. The author forces you to wonder how, in the heat of a tense standoff, a 21-year-old kid could be expected to interpret rules cooked up by army bureaucrats.
Nor are the soldiers depicted as heroes — instead, they are misfits banished to an obscure checkpoint because they literally couldn’t shoot straight. Propaganda? Only if you take pride in characters who spend their days guarding empty highways and shooting friendly demonstrators, and spend their nights having rough sex and getting off on feel-bad stories from the day’s papers. Not exactly Cast a Giant Shadow.
There’s a bigger, sadder story here. It’s about the inability of Israel’s critics to tolerate the Israeli point of view, or consider anything that might cloud their black-and-white picture of Israeli calumny. In a post for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog, Raphael Magarik bemoans this lack of “moral empathy.”
“Nobody likes seeing things from the perspective of his enemies, whether they’re suicide bombers or checkpoint-manning soldiers,” writes Magarik. “It’s harder to fight ‘The War of Ideas in the Middle East’ once you realize that Israelis — left and right — are self-reflective, critical, and smart, and that they care about lots of the same things you do. Things turn out to be more ambiguous than they looked.”
A fear of ambiguity also seems to be the subtext of the Alice Walker affair, in which the novelist turned down a Hebrew publisher’s offer to translate her book, The Color Purple. Walker acknowledges that she would like to have her book read by “the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside.” But it is more important, she writes, that she support a cultural boycott of Israel.
I would have thought that her book — about the corrosive effects of racism and human subjugation — would be the very kind of thing she’d want an Israeli to read, perhaps as “the spark that ignited a new dialogue,” as Amelia Cohen-Levy put it in Tablet. But Walker and other BDSers seem to fear the dialogue — afraid, I suspect, that they might find a situation far more complex than the one they project.
In her take on the Walker affair, Cohen-Levy quotes Steven Spielberg, who took flak for his own ambiguous portrayal of the Arab-Israel conflict in Munich. “I do not claim to be providing a peace plan for the Middle East with my film,” Spielberg told a German newspaper. “But is that a reason to leave it all to the great simplifiers? Jewish extremists and Palestinian extremists who to this day regard any form of negotiated solution in the Middle East as some kind of betrayal?”
So let’s hear it for irony, ambiguity, and moral empathy. As long as the Middle East debate is waged by the “great simplifiers,” it’s going to be the same old story.