I just returned from a Leadership Mission in which 25 people spent a week touring Israel and learning about the geo-realpolitik-media-security issues facing our beleaguered homeland.
We toured the controversial security fence, flew the entire length of the Green Line in a small chartered plane, and toured the Syrian border with an IDF officer who imparted lessons in military strategy that you only hear at West Point. We went through checkpoints, rode in armored busses, and handled guns, bullets and tank missiles. We saw documentaries on the issues, and heard from reporters -- Jewish, non-Jewish and even Palestinian -- from the New York Times, Time magazine, CBS News and more. We met with government ministers, visited victims of terror, and heard from the left, the right, the center, the passionate, the logical, and the frustrated.
I thought I knew my stuff before this trip, as I am an addicted Middle East news and history junkie. But I was wrong. It is one thing to read an article, attend a lecture, or watch a televised report. But to have the opportunity to grill an expert, a reporter, or a politician on their turf is quite another. I discovered vast underlying complexities that I never imagined.
One key insight was that the reporters -- who largely determine the world's view on this issue -- are articulate, worldly, well-educated, experienced, and thoughtful. But each has an inner gyroscope from which they rarely deviate. Events are described via their own subjective-ness that they claim as cold hard objectivity. This bias is refracted onto the morning papers, television screens and radio waves that bombard us daily. Reporters rarely, if ever, get an epiphany reporting here; they come with a viewpoint and report from that perch throughout their careers.
Given what we read in the paper, you would think that no one in Israel is working to counterbalance the negative reporting. But that's not the case. Throughout Israel there are smart, dedicated, knowledgeable people who know the foreign press and are aggressively working to put the news into its right historic perspective. Case in point is HonestReporting, which works with journalists behind the scenes, in addition to having 100,000 members who can bombard editors with emails calling for more historical context, equal time for all sides, and an end to the "tit-for-tat cycle of violence" narrative that conjures a false moral equivalence between terrorists and their victims.
But then again, it is hard to shift the press in Israel's favor when these same reporters are subject to intimidation and blackmail working within the Palestinian territories. If you don't give it Arafat's spin, you will never work in this war zone again. And with no access to the P.A., you're on a plane back home to cover 'man bites dog' stories. One very telling comment was from a Foreign Ministry spokesman, who said that Israel needs us -- yes, you and me, folks -- to advocate and monitor the news on their behalf, as they simply don't have the budget to fight the propaganda war. Imagine the U.S. State Department saying such a thing!
With this trip I began to see the Middle East in a three-dimensional way. I first traveled to Israel in 1984 because I did not understand the conflict and wanted to see it first-hand. Much like the way I went to see the Berlin Wall and Communist Russia and China. I had to see it up close and personal. From this current trip I had the experience one has when looking at those fuzzy pictures of colorful wavy lines that make no sense, and then as your eyes refocus you see a wild 3-D picture jump out that you did not perceive a moment before.
Daniel Pipes spent the week with our group, and here is one of the great ironies he pointed out:
- Rabin ran for election saying he would never negotiate with the PLO, and he did.
- Netanyahu ran for election saying he would never give back the Golan, and he came close to doing so.
- Barak ran for election saying he would never divide Jerusalem, and he offered to do so.
- Sharon ran for election saying he would never do what his opponent was suggesting -- give back Gaza -- and he is now doing so.
Why? Because once these politicians are in power they want to move beyond the status quo and reach for the history books as The Peacemaker. That's great, except that this is supposed to be a democratic process and the leaders often act with minority support. Last week I stood on the roof of the building that houses the grave of Samuel the Prophet, which is the most strategic viewpoint of northern Jerusalem. You can see from the Mediterranean to Jordan, from Bethlehem to Ramallah. The mishmash of Arab and Jewish neighborhoods makes it hard to imagine where any future border might be drawn. As it is, the security fence cuts off Arabs from their fields -- which is the price to save civilian lives. But like everything else in this region, nothing is simple; the Israeli Supreme Court has now ruled that "the state must find an alternative that may give less security, but would harm the local population less."
We visited the security fence at a crossing on the Jewish side. The security personnel refused to have their picture taken. Israeli soldiers usually don't care and, in fact, enjoys being photographed. But these were not the I.D.F. These were Arabs, toting automatic machine guns, who worked for the private security firm that operates the fence. Go figure!
And then we heard about Abu Mazen, the deposed Prime Minister of the P.A. who is part-owner of the cement company that supplies the 4 percent of the fence that is concrete slabs. Smart guy; he benefits either way.
People often ask what it will take for the two sides to make peace. If you take away Palestinian weapons, you will have a peace. If you take away Israel's weapons, you will have the end of Israel.
We spoke to one Palestinian reporter (who asked to remain anonymous), and braced ourselves for some heavy rhetoric. But as he spoke, he started to sound pro-Israel. That didn't make sense, until it dawned on us -- he wasn't pro Israel, he just could not stand, as he put it, "Arafat and his gang of thieves." Arafat has received $7 billion in aid since Oslo, and the Palestinian villages under his grip look as sorry as ever. Where did all that money go? And does anyone even bother to ask?! One highlight was interacting with a Hasbara Fellowships group, consisting of college students who want to become activists on their respective campuses. To take up the gauntlet in the face of heavy pro-Palestinian support, these students must be amongst the righteous of our generation!
After a full week of covering every aspect of Mideast issues, we rolled into Shabbat. Our group was anything but observant, yet the spiritual power and wisdom of our great heritage came as a welcome relief. The week's events were now filtered through the prism of 3,500 years of Jewish survival, and our eternal mission to be the light unto the nations.
The Jewish people have the talents, abilities and social status to right the world's wrongs. If we back away, the world will hate us. If we embrace the challenge, the world will love us.
The Almighty is waking up the Jewish people through blood, fire and tears. The distortions about Israel in the media is God saying to us, "How bad do I have to frustrate you to get your attention and awaken you from the slumber?"
This Leadership Mission brought it all home: A powerful vehicle to understand Mideast complexities, and a prime motivator to take charge of the Jewish future. We've seen it before, again and again. Either we take this message of personal and national redemption to the world, or the world will blow the law of the jungle right back in our face.