Friday 9 January 2009

Israel: a grassroots perspective

Israel moves into Gaza. As it hammers home its frustration with Palestinian attacks on its population there are world-wide protests proclaiming their solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Of course there are the official announcements, the commentators, the lines we are fed through the media. Although cynics may differentiate between society on one side and its leaders on the other, in this case on both sides the two are largely at one.

Knowing Israel and knowing the Middle East another picture presents, a view from the grassroots that tells the story somewhat differently.

Just as individuals can be identified by their particular characteristics, so can demographics and societies. Societies do differ from each other, sometimes less, sometimes more so. And just as the social dynamics among individuals can be observed, so can their counterparts at a larger scale.

Put one person into a confined space with another and innate differences have the potential to create problems simply because each other's way of life cannot find a common ground. This equally holds true at the higher scale.

Israeli society is marked by centuries of a maturing culture that developed into a sophisticated whole where remnants of a more ideological and religious past have learned to coexist with modern sentiments. The old does exist, it does play a part, but a minor one.

The Middle East, Palestine included, did not evolve to the same extent. There traditional relationships between families, tribes, and obsessive affiliations of many kinds hold sway over daily affairs, all under the roof of a religion that infuses mannerisms to a degree hardly understood by outsiders.

The core of any religion - not its social graces but its spiritual aspect - is based on phantasy and conjecture. The core has become the soul of its bearers, at any scale. Since one's imagery must be reconciled with reality at some point, the mind has devised however subconscious means to circumvent the inevitable pitfalls. To put it crudely, it has become an expert liar to itself.

There more intense and the more pervasive the phantasy, the greater the need to lie in the face of reality.

Foreigners get a glimpse of such dynamics when engaging with the locals, whether it be a business venture or general social contacts. In the Middle East nothing is certain until the very last moment, and even then surprises can be sprung. A visitor to Israel experiences a more familiar, methodical, rational environment.

Israel does not have honour killings, precarious interactions with the opposite sex, the constant worry of transgressing a religious code hiding within some scenario. Children, indeed the general population has not been mixed indiscriminately with its militants.

At times a visitor may wonder why the constant bobbing of the head during a religious ceremony does not make anyone consider the effects on the brain, but most Jewish kids are exhorted to study and educate themselves. Try anything remotely critical in an Islamic society and suffer the consequences - better still, don't try.

Relax in a Tel Aviv café and admire the architecture of your surrounds, a modern product that found its way on to the world heritage list. A current achievement, unlike its Middle Eastern counterparts left over from a distant past. Talk, discuss, debate; then argue who pays for the coffee.

Is it any wonder the two sides cannot co-exist? But also observe who in the current climate rallies to the Palestinians' side. They are groups largely associated with constraint, impediment, anti-development. Greens, anti-Westerners, those that have lost the connection with the sophisticated here and now. Their affinities are telling.

And here is another thing. I am addressing myself to those who rather read a book than chase a ball, who rather have a serious conversation than shout the antics of a movie's rascal at each other. Every now and then these individuals will encounter the bully, who cannot stand anything above themselves and to whom civilised behaviour is anathema. The cultured victim will not lash out immediately, but resentment will build. Contrary to a certain popular misconception that intelligent people are weak, the response will come eventually. And when it does, naturally that act is out of proportion to the current provocation. Yet it also is effective, a characteristic alien to the bully. Who will be condemned? Not so much the bully, who yells and screams about the injustice of it all. Usually the bystanders will take his side, not bothering with the deeper reasons and the history of the moment. A sad set of circumstances that can be found in the school ground as well as in adult life. If at the larger scale the effects of a defensive action include the entire mishmash of civilians and children the screams become even louder. And the world sees the little faces but does not see the sadistic build-up.

Add the current Western preoccupation with the dysfunctional rather than achievement and a suffering drunk tends to get more attention than the difficulties of the disciplined. Let's not forget, one can get drunk from many things.

Israel does have a problem. Hamas is only part of it.