So there is hardly any conventional Israeli wisdom that was not challenged in recent days, no entrenched Jewish notion left untouched, no right wing stereotype that was not undermined, no part of what has become the pervasive 21st century post-Goldstone and post-Marmara weltanschauung for most Israelis and many Diaspora Jews that was not contradicted, at least partially, by the world’s reaction to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.
Israel was not alone, the world was not against us, the media was far from hostile, President Obama was a friend indeed and if anyone had a right to feel isolated, misunderstood and much-maligned in recent days, rightly or wrongly, it was the Palestinians, not us. In the entire US Congress, among 100 senators and 435 representatives, the harshest “anti-Israel” statement, if it can be described as such, was put out by the Muslim congressman from Minnesota Keith Ellison, who bravely called on both sides to “show restraint”.
Die hard guardians of Israel’s good name still pounced, of course, on an errant paragraph here or a hint of criticism there, but all in all it was slim pickings indeed for those who insist on clinging to the biblical Balaam’s description of Israel as “a nation that will dwell in solitude”, even when all the facts indicate otherwise.
Like their right wing counterparts, however, pious leftists refused to let the facts get in the way of their dogmas: they resolved their cognitive dissonance with the magical words “Jewish lobby”, which, as the Protocols taught us long ago, has simply taken the entire world hostage.
But with all due respect to eloquent ambassadors, suave spokesmen, telling talking points, persuasive Facebook posts or the tantalizing tweets that everyone was so enamored with in the first few days of the campaign – they had only a marginal effect, at best, on Israel’s success in the battle for image supremacy. Pitted against an internationally recognized, Iranian-inspired terrorist group that glorifies martyrdom, worships death, celebrates massacres, enslaves its own people, seeks Israel’s destruction and hasn’t desisted from its so-called “armed struggle” for a single day of its existence – Israel won the public relations war almost by default.
And even with the deck stacked in its favor, Israel would have had a hard time maintaining its PR edge, Hamas or no Hamas, if the army had invaded Gaza, fought house-to-house and evoked unpleasant memories of Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.
Israel has a much harder time defending itself when it is confronted by a moderate Palestinian leadership or by rock-throwing demonstrators or when it is forced to explain the killing of Turkish “civilians” aboard a ship at sea or to rationalize the undeniable contradiction between its stated support for a two-state solution and the mass settlement of Israeli Jews throughout the territories supposedly earmarked for one of those states. Israel’s image, to a much larger degree than most Israelis would care to admit, is often determined on a case-by-case basis. Biases and double standards notwithstanding, what matters the most are the merits of each individual case.
But many Israelis will draw the wrong conclusions, unfortunately, from this week’s brief fling with world public opinion. It wasn’t our product that was defective all these years, they will tell themselves, but our marketing strategy. All we need now are a few more social media specialists, a reinforced creative department, new recruits of English-speaking front men and one or two brilliant slogans. (And if that doesn’t work, then we will know for sure that the world hates Jews and is fundamentally predisposed against us.)
The reason, of course, is that they had been led to believe that there would indeed be more. “We will agree to a cease fire only when Hamas begs for it,” anonymous ministers told the press in the first few hours of the operation, even though Hamas, as far as anyone can tell, was never the begging type.
But these ministers’ statements were in keeping with a long-held Israeli tradition of overreaching bravado, most memorably etched in Israeli minds in the October 8, 1973 bluster of that most tragic of Israeli army chiefs, David Elazar, who bragged “we will break their bones” a few short hours before the complete failure of a massive IDF counterattack in the Yom Kippur War.
All three statements stained Israel’s good name in the international arena and could be construed as incitement to commit war crimes. What’s worse is that all of the three abovementioned individuals will continue to mingle and operate in Israel’s highest circles and pay absolutely no price for their obnoxious statements which, at best, are no better than what Hamas leaders themselves would say. And what’s worst of all is that you don’t want to know how many Israelis wholeheartedly concur with these three atrocious sentiments, and let’s hope that no one conducts a poll to ask them.
But there is a Reuters picture that I wish I hadn’t seen. I looked at it, almost by accident, and it has been seared into my memory ever since. It shows 6 year old Jamal Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, 4 year old Yousef Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, 7 year old Sarah Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, and one year old Ibrahim Mohammed Jamal al-Dalu, all lying together, faces bruised, eyes closed, breaths extinguished, on a steel gurney in a Gaza morgue.
They were killed in an air force bombing raid in what Israel says - and I am absolutely convinced - was a regrettable human error.
But most Israelis haven’t seen this picture. They wouldn’t want to, even if they could. They may have heard of, but they certainly haven’t devoted too much attention to, the killing of the 8 members of the al-Dalu family. Many of them were harshly critical of Haaretz for having chosen to devote a main headline to their demise.
The righteous indignation sparked and stoked by many years of Israel’s belief in its own victimhood has made most Israelis willfully turn a blind eye to the tragedies of the other side. It is a far cry from the soul-searching angst of the soldiers who were interviewed following the Six Day War in the famous book “Seventh Day”, which has since been depicted as no more than a myth, but which was nonetheless a defining manifesto for people of my generation. Nowadays, it is considered a sign of weakness, even a form of collaboration, to accord too much sympathy or to express too much sorrow at the loss of life, however innocent, however young, among those that Israel is fighting against.
There are two famous Hebrew sayings that come to my mind when I think about the Dalu children. “Happy is the one who seizes your infants? and dashes them against the rocks” is one of the most extraordinarily and bitterly cruel sentences in the Tanakh, at the end of Psalms 137, which contains the famous “By the Rivers of Babylon” cry. And then there is Israel’s “national poet” Haim Nahman Bialik who penned that terrible warning that “Vengeance for the blood of a little child has yet to be invented by Satan.”
Both of these terrifying sayings are closely connected to the helplessness of oppressed Jews living in exile, who can only vent their hatred and anger at their oppressors in words, not deeds. Supposedly, such sentiments were supposed to have remained there, in exile, but obviously haven’t.
But if I had to choose, I would throw in my lot with Bialik - though I don’t know if he was referring only to Jewish children or whether his searing words are also applicable if the blood of the child in question is spilled by accident, as “collateral damage.”
For full coverage of the Gaza conflict, go to Haaretz.com
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev