As an English major, I love a good Mideast argument that hinges on the correct interpretation of the “hypotactic past perfect.”
The somewhat convoluted background: This week’s New Yorker includes a short story by Israeli Shani Boianjiu, which describes a confrontation between a female Israeli soldier and Palestinian demonstrators, told from the soldier’s point of view. Anti-Zionist blogger Philip Weiss calls it ”propagandistic fiction”; Open Zion’s Raphael Magarik responds that Weiss completely misreads what was intended as irony on the part of the author.
You’ll have to read the story and the two responses to get the gist, but I liked what Magarik had to say about the tendency of anti-Israel writers to ignore the facts or points of view — and, as important, the empathy — that might cloud their black and white picture of Israeli calumny:
Nobody likes seeing things from the perspective of his enemies, whether they’re suicide bombers or checkpoint-manning soldiers. 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 be more ambiguous than they looked …. But if we don’t read “Israeli army fiction,” we’re shirking the demands of moral empathy. And that’s a lesson that American observers of the conflict cannot afford to miss.
This also seems to be the subtext of the Alice Walker affair, in which the novelist turned down a Hebrew publisher’s offer to publish 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.
It would seem 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.
Cohen-Levy quotes Steven Spielberg, who has a great term for these kinds of reductionists: “The great simplifiers.”
UPDATE: The comments about the story, which appear at the end of Boianjiu’s interview with the New Yorker, offer an interesting and depressing view of how polarizing the Mideast debate can be. Choice comments include “blatantly propagandistic and one-sided”; ”reeks of privilege and one-sided ignorance”; and “Nakba Denying IDF porn.” (I agree with the reader who suggests many of these readers were driven to the New Yorker site by Mondoweiss and similar Israel-bashing sites.)
So maybe I am blinded by my own pro-Israel bias, but I saw the story as a fairly caustic comment on the Israeli army and its culture. The story is a deflating parody of the IDF’s ”rules of engagement,” and a pox-on-both-your-houses satire of two sides in an endless conflict who are caught in their respective “roles.”
A female officer mans a four-person checkpoint along a rode upon which (satire 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 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 Palestinians patiently await her decision. The story does not suggest — as some crticis insist — that the rules of engagement prove the humanity of the Israelis. If anything, it conveys the opposite: The author forces you to imagine whether, in the heat of a tense standoff, any of these means of dispersal can be seen as humane, and whether their use should be up to the discretion of 21-year-old kids who were, as the story explains, banished to an obscure checkpoint because they literally couldn’t shoot straight.
Propaganda? Only if you take pride in an army whose soldiers, as depicted in the story, spend their days guarding empty highways and getting duped by 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.