I called my friend Moe in Beirut the other night. He sounded tired, dead tired. Not the tired I'm used to him being, which is when it's 4 am and we're just finishing a session in his recording studio in northern Beirut and going out for a late night chicken and hummus. Instead, it's the tired of someone who's been up all night wondering if his apartment building will still be standing in the morning; whether the latest Hezbollah attack will prompt Israel finally to carry out its threat to attack central and northern Beirut (which has largely been spared in the fighting so far because so much of it is owned by European capital and Israel hasn't wanted to piss them off unless it "has to"). Tired of wondering if life as he knew is over for good.
I know the feeling; when I was in Iraq in 2004 I spent my nights sitting in the hall way on the 7th floor of my hotel--the Aghadir, on Salahhhadun Street, which was a huge, ugly, but importantly, very solidly built cement hotel. I and my companions figured that if any RPGs came through the windows we'd at least be safer in the halls because the walls were at least two feet thick. And all the cheap yet delicious local Arak--at 50 cents a bottle, without a doubt the best alcohol bargain in the world helped the evenings pass by a bit more easily, despite the concussive sounds of shells periodically going off nearby, the rumble of American convoys all night long down the street, and relentless sounds of gunfire.
When insurgents blew up the hotel around the block, shattering most of the windows in the front of my hotel with it, I decided to move in with Iraqi friends in a poor/working class neighborhood a half mile away. In their tiny apartment, however, I felt even more claustrophobic, and my heart raced unimaginably fast with each explosion, rumble of tanks or burst of nearby gunfire (all of which sound much worse in a 100 year old small tenement building than they do in a twenty year old large hotel). I would not wish this experience--so mild compared with what people in Lebanon and Israel are going through--on anyone.
Moe, the lead singer of one of Lebanon's premier rock groups, The Kordz was a seasoned pro at this, however, having grown up in the last war. But he never thought he'd have to relive his youth, blasting heavy metal at night in his headphones to drown out the violence outside just like he did twenty years ago. His dreams of a future in Lebanon are shattered; he's looking for a way out. A gig possibility in Germany, maybe a job in London. Maybe he'll stay, if things quite down soon or if he just can't get out (Israel is slowly suffocating Beirut by bombing all the bridges in and out of the city, leaving its residents no way to leave. Please remember this when they bomb the heart of the city and claim, as Alan Dershowitz has done, that any civilians left must be Hezbollah supporters because they were "warned" to leave).
So who am I to complain. Yes, I have not slept more than five hours a night since at least the second week of the war, but that's by choice, and no one is trying to bomb me out of existence, as is happening to friends and loved ones in Haifa as well as Beirut.
But lack of sleep is not why I'm tired. I'm tired because almost daily I am involved in some sort of interview or debate, in print, cyberspace, radio or television, where I am confronted with streams of lies, half truths, disinformation and propaganda parading around as the truth, which is spewed out with such velocity (and often venom) that it is impossible to begin to respond to most of them. And so the audience can only be left to assume that they are true.
This is nothing new. Several years ago I was called a liar on national radio by the right wing Jewish talk show host Dennis Prager because during a commercial break he couldn't find "proof" through google of a Palestinian anti-Hamas demonstration I said I had witnessed. From the moment he called me a liar, every caller to his show picked up on that theme and my credibility was gone. Of course, I wasn't lying; I found the proof the old fashioned way, in the newspaper, and sent it to him as he promised to retract his statement and put me on his show again if I could prove that the protest had taken place. Needless to say he did no such thing.
With the latest war things have gotten even worse. Debating David Horowitz on Hannity and Colmes last week, I was called an apologist for terrorists and one of the most dangerous professors in America, and a disgrace, all within the first two minutes (He and Hannity also tried out the "Islamic fascism" line that the President used in his press conference after the arrest of a dozen people in London for planning to blow US-bound airliners). That's okay; I can handle that. What was worse was that most every claim he made about what was happening between Israel and Lebanon was utterly incorrect. But how to correct the record when you're too busy denying that your Osama bin Laden's favorite Jew? (One tries, that's all one can do. And judging by the loads of emails I got, some people saw through the attacks to the lack of substance beneath. Other's were too busy trying out their best Yiddish vocabulary, calling me everything from a "schmuck" to a "putz"--aren't they the same thing?--and of course, a traitor).
A few days later, I debated the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein on KISS FM in NY. The same discourse prevailed: a clash of civilizations, one between good and evil, democracy and freedom versus Islamist terrorism; the usual Bush Administration arguments since the Iraqi invasion (the fact that these justifications jibe so little with reality in Iraq doesn't seem to bother those who now make them vis-a-vis Lebanon). When I attempted to point out, as I've done in previous posts, that things are more complicated than they seem, he would have none of it. It was all a jumble of half-truths, misinformation, distorted arguments and a few key facts. Little things, like Israel
He began by explaining (and repeated several times) that since its withdrawal in 2000 "all Israel wanted was security in its northern border" and did nothing to provoke the July 12 attack and kidnapping by Hezbollah (not true; in fact, Israel has repeatedly violated Lebanese sovereignty since then, as reported regularly in UNIFIL and Security Council reports); and that Hezbollah was in fact the first party to launch a large scale missile attack, during the kidnapping (not true; as the conservative and very pro-Government Jerusalem Post reported the next day, Hezbollah fired anti-tank rockets at the patrol it attacked; certainly an immoral activity but in no way the same as launching a huge missile attack into civilian areas of Israel.
These little nuances count for a lot however. And when you have a dozen or two of them twisted this way and that, the resulting distorted picture of reality is easily confused with what actually happening; in so doing it dulls the sense of urgency or outrage that most people would otherwise feel at Israeli actions (of course, we all feel outrage at Hezbollah's actions. That's the easy part).
Hoenlein also argued that Israel always wanted peace, that Jews had the "right" to return to Israel (as if Palestinians didn't have the right to stay in Palestine), had signed fifteen agreements over the year and broke none of them, and was willing to "give up 95% of the West Bank in a peace deal" that once again the recalcitrant Palestinians rejected.
Each one of these statements is demonstrably false. Israel has regularly violated agreements its signed, particularly those related to the Oslo process. I am writing a book about these negotiations, so know something about them, but how does one explain 300 pages worth of evidence and arguments in one sentence? It's impossible, and thus it's extremely difficult to counter such arguments in the media of radio or TV. By claiming that it's true, at the very least people assume it might be true, even though empirically speaking his claim is demonstrably not true. Again, how can I explain, in the midst of so many other false claims, that the idea that Israel was willing to give up 95% of the West Bank is besides the point, since the way it has divided the territory, bisecting it with settlements and bypass roads, strangulating the Palestinian economy, and more, make the seemingly generous offer meaningless on the ground, where it counts. (For a detailed analysis of this dynamic, see Israeli geographer Jeff Halper's description of Israel's ever deepening "matrix of control" over the Occupied Territories, here.
Score two to Mr. Hoenlein. (That fact that the show's host kept asking us to "keep our answers short" didn't make my job any easier, since it takes a lot more words to correct misinformation than it does to throw it out there).
He made other claims too: That Ahmedinejad wants to destroy Israel. Score three, but that's only half the story, since in 2003 and 2006, as Yediot Ahronot, the conservative Israeli paper reported a few days ago, the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khameini, Ahmedinejad's superior, publicly agreed to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a larger settlement of outer regional issues (including its nuclear program, which Iran is clearly holding on to, at least in part, for a grand deal to trade its weapons potential for Israel's weapons). So things are a bit more complicated, once again, than the typical portrayal of Iran as a maniacal and irrational regime bent on destroying Israel and dominating the Middle East
Then there was the problem of Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz calling for southern Lebanon to be turned into dust. First, if I recall correctly, Hoenlein replied that he didn't really say it; then when I provided date and source (the Israeli paper Haaretz, July 28) for the comment, he claimed it was "taken out of context." As if one can say that southern Lebanon should be ground to dust in some other context. Never mind that his remarks caused an uproar in Israel precisely because the context was quite clear--and on the television sets of hundreds of millions of people around the world. But what's more, according to Hoenlein Israel non only didn't harm Lebanon, it in fact did a world of good for Lebanon during its 18 year occupation begun in 1982. He saw that with his own eyes when he visited the "good fence" which Israel set up in the waning years of the occupation. Israel even flew Lebanese to Haifa for medical treatment! As if that justifies an illegal invasion, occupation and war that killed at least 20,000 Lebanese, not to mention the Sabra and Shattila massacres. How does one counteract someone who's still stuck in an imperial mind set that sounds more like Winston Churchill speaking when he was Colonial Secretary than any honest, respectable person would dare to speak today?
But this is only half the reason I'm tired.
The other reason is that Muslim leaders--from guerrillas to presidents, in Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere--have made it almost impossible for anyone to defend Islam and the Muslim world, and so peace and reconciliation with them, from attacks by the likes of Horowtiz and his allies. When Ahmedinejad or the founding documents of Hezbollah and Hamas speak of destroying Israel, no amount of nuance or context will convince people that reality is different from these texts or statements. When school books in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere continue to be rife with anti-Jewish or Western stereotypes, it's impossible to explain why most of them don't hate most of us. When al-Qa'eda crashes planes into American buildings, no one wants to hear that other Muslims have the "right" to defend themselves against occupation, especially when the occupier is our special ally (of course, when Muslims are occupied by our adversaries, like the Soviets or Saddam, then they not only have the right to fight the occupier, we'll help and even do the job of resisting for them). When Hezbollah fires rockets at Israeli civilian centers, everyone forgets that Israel has killed far more civilians than Hezbollah--at least so far. When after every appearance on TV I get sent emails with dozens of links to videos of al-Qa'eda beheadings, texts of jihadi documents, and the like that the sender cites as proof that all Muslims are evil and I am a self-hating, naive moron... well, after a while, it's hard to keep replying with detailed histories, explanations and clarifications.
Even the long dead are resurrected to prove the argument that Muslims are essentially irrational Jew and American haters who can only be pacified by the sword. The most famous example of this is, of course, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was a major Palestinian nationalist leader whom after his exile by the British collaborated with the Nazis. In my debate with Horowitz on Hannity last week, the first sentence out of his mouth--after being prompted by Hannity's intro question that specifically asked whether Ahmedinejad is another Hitler and "Islamo-fascism" the same as Nazism, the proof Horowitz cited for his claim that an implacable hatred permeated the Muslim world was the Grand Mufti, followed by a fallacious claim, discussed by me in an earlier posting, that the Qur'an said that "Allah won't come till all the Jews are killed."
But the greatest harm comes from the violence of groups like Hezbollah or Hamas. It is a political and moral disaster for Palestinians and Lebanese, as we see in the "dust" of Lebanon and the rubble of Gaza. Israel and the US are extremely adept at using every act of violence against them to advance their own policy goals. In Israel's case it is strengthening its control over the biblical heartland of the West Bank, all the while decrying Palestinian terrorism. In America's, it's strengthening its position in Iraq, all the while stating that we'll leave as soon as we're asked to (but the potential for full scale civil war we have generated is so bad that now neither Sunnis nor Shiites feel secure enough to ask us to leave).
I always try to explain to people that the most important thing I've learned as an historian is that History doesn't care who's right or wrong, it only cares who's smart or strong. In this regard, Palestinians have been ill-served by the leaders for decades, if not a century. Hezbollah is being portrayed as having played its hand against Israel fare more smartly than most Palestinian leaders have been able to do--and indeed, seemingly smarter than Israel has played its hand in the latest conflict. Hezbollah has also shown itself to be stronger than Israel or the world had imagined it to be. But it has done both at a terrible cost to its people that belies any sense of accomplishment it leaders can take at having stood up to the mighty IDF. Indeed, sometimes one can be too smart and strong for one's own good. Israel is now learning that lesson in spades. Let's hope it doesn't take Hezbollah fifty years to do the same.
The real question is, When is everyone going to wake up and realize that violence breeds more violence, that twisting the truth and history to support immoral policies, whether your the victim or the victimizer, makes you less strong and secure, not more. Perhaps people could think more clearly if they just got a good night's sleep. But when will that happen?
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