Tell me who your God is 

Monday, January 26, 2004

It may seem obvious to note that a person’s basic view of mankind determines his or her political outlook. A column by Emunah Elon in "Yedioth Ahronoth" last week reminded me of this basic truth. The author, wife of right-wing Knesset member Benny Elon, complains in her column that Israelis are wrong to try to “attribute our own behavior and aspirations to the [Palestinian] enemy.” Her understanding is that “they want things in a different way, act in a different way, live in a different way and die in a different way.” No solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be possible, she suggests, until Israel is willing to recognize and accept the true nature of this enemy.

The assumption here is that Israelis and Palestinians are fundamentally different. If Israelis were in the Palestinians’ shoes, Elon confidently states, they would be ready to compromise on a two-state solution. (We’ll note in passing the irony of this statement, coming from a publicist for the Israeli settler camp that has done its utmost to block a feasible two-state solution.) But she reminds her readers that Israel is entrenched in a battle against Palestinians, not against Israelis, and that Palestinians are unequivocally committed to wiping out the state of Israel.

There is plenty in the Jewish tradition to support this worldview: Israel is depicted as a chosen people, destined to live alone among the nations, in an eternal state of war with Amelek. The predominant message here is don’t trust the goyim, stay away from the idol worshippers; don’t marry their daughters, etc.

There is, of course, another part of the Jewish tradition – the books of the Prophets, in particular - that is revolutionary in its universal outlook and visions of human brotherhood. Here, the Jewish tradition stresses the divine spark in every person and demands justice, compassion and humility. Here, the biblical sources offer a possibility and hope of achieving reconciliation and peace among people of different cultures and religion; Israel is not condemned to be forever threatened by neighbors who, as Hobbes might say, are by nature “nasty and brutal.”

I don’t know Emunah Elon personally and would like to assume that she would like nothing better than to live in peace with her Arab neighbors. But the clear lines she draws between the good guys and the bad guys, between good and evil, seem to leave less hope for a peaceful denouement.

Ronald Reagan, for example, also fervently believed that his country was leading the forces of light in battle against the forces of darkness. And there are those who argue that it was his steadfast adherence to this political theology that succeeded in bringing about the collapse of the “evil empire” (that is, the USSR, not the New York Yankees). The current U.S. president also seems to share a similar political theology.

The point here, however, is not to argue that one political outlook is more effective or correct than another. Rather, the intention is to note what may seem obvious or simplistic: Tell me who your God is and which part of the biblical tradition sits more firmly in your guts, and I’ll have a good idea of where you stand politically.

The bloodbath in Sweden 

Monday, January 19, 2004

I don’t have much patience for modern art. (But then again, I don’t know a whole lot about art.) I like art that requires some real know-how and skills to produce, not the kind any second-grader can scribble.

Dave Barry wrote in his column this week about the kind of artwork most people find hard to take seriously. A gallery person at an exhibit he saw in Miami Beach explained to Barry, for example, that what looked like “a ratty old collapsed armchair” was actually a piece of art entitled “Chair.” Barry tells us, “I asked her what role the artist had played in creating ‘Chair.’ She said: ‘He found it.” (This piece of work was for sale at $2,800.)

Perhaps my disparaging attitude toward such modern art is part of why I find it hard to get all bent out of shape over the controversial art exhibit in Stockholm. First of all, there is no artistic virtuosity in “Snow White and the Madness of Truth.” Anyone could pour some red dye in a tub to make it look like a pool of blood. And the boat that is floating in this tub, carrying the picture of the woman who perpetrated the suicide bombing at Haifa’s Maxim restaurant, looks pretty simple to make.

The text that accompanies this exhibit clearly expresses sympathy for the 29-year-old lawyer turned terrorist from Jenin, noting that she sought to avenge the deaths of her brother and cousin, resolving, “we will not be the only ones who are crying.” The text’s refrain – “and the red looked beautiful upon the white “ – might also be understood as glorifying the bloodshed.

On the other hand, the text also notes the innocent Jewish victims: “And many people are indeed crying: the Zer Aviv family, the Almog family, and all the relatives and friends of the dead and wounded.” This gives some credence, at least, to the contention of the Israeli-Swedish artists that their work was intended to condemn terrorism and the cycle of bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In short, this exhibit may be in “bad taste,” as the Swedish ambassador to Israel suggested. But is it really an “abomination” as Israel’s ambassador in Stockholm declared? Is this exhibit really so significant that it justified such an extraordinarily undiplomatic response by this seasoned Foreign Ministry official?

I’ve tried to understand the Israeli ambassador’s response. I admit that I’ve lost my cool a few times after seeing political messages I find abhorrent. And I’ve committed some minor acts of vandalism of my own – like ripping off offensive bumper stickers (“Put the Olso criminals on trial” or “No Arabs, no terror”). But then again, I’m not an official representative of the State of Israel. If I were, I hope I would be able to show a bit more self-control in such moments of frustration and anger.

Thus, while I don’t condone the ambassador’s undiplomatic behavior, I guess I can understand how he felt. What I can’t understand, however, is how the president, prime minister, foreign minister and other top officials were so quick to praise the ambassador’s outburst, immediately associating it with an anti-Semitic “trend.”

It’s true that actions sometimes speak louder than words and the ambassador’s actions certainly made a strong statement. But I wonder what Israel’s most famous ambassador would have done in this situation. I think that Abba Eban would not have turned the lights off or pushed them into the pool if he had encountered this exhibit and had found it equally abhorrent. Instead, I picture him delivering some erudite and scathing remarks before making a dignified exit. This would have been a better way to defend Israel’s interests and the honor of its citizens.

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