December 3, 2006

The relationships that kept an Israeli blogger sane and drove her crazy.On each of the first four nights of the latest Lebanon-Israel war I stayed up until dawn, chatting over the Internet with Charles Chuman, a Lebanese who then lived in Beirut. He sat on the roof of his apartment building, watching as missiles from Israeli Air Force planes fell on his city, and describing it to me in my Tel Aviv apartment, where I was watching the Israeli television news reports.

Sometimes, between his descriptions of particularly loud or close explosions, our conversation was mildly flirtatious – me mock-moaning that I had no time to go the hairdresser because of work demands, he proclaiming, tongue-in-cheek, that he was wearing a pink shirt because he felt comfortable with his masculinity. Our last chat ended just a couple of hours before he left for Damascus, via roads that had been bombed by the IAF over the previous days. Almost as soon as he arrived in the Syrian capital, he logged on briefly to let me know he was safe.

For me, those conversations were a lifeline to sanity. Later, after he arrived in Chicago, Charles sent me an email in which he exactly expressed my thoughts:

‘[Our chats] meant a lot to me… My world didn’t collapse. Kind and good people I didn’t want to become my enemy didn’t become my enemy.’

Blogging was the hottest human-interest story of the Lebanon-Israel crisis of 2006. On July 18, less than one week after the conflict began, I summarized the phenomenon in a post for my own blog, titled ‘The most blogged war?’ I didn’t realize then that the question mark was utterly superfluous. Not only was this the first time in history that residents of two countries at war were able to maintain an ongoing, uncensored conversation in real time, but it was also the first time ordinary citizens were able to provide grassroots reporting in real time. In the same post, I used the term ‘surreal’ to describe the experience of chatting with Charles as my country’s air force bombed his city. I ended that entry on a hopeful note:

‘When this latest round of pointless death and destruction ends, when the anger dissipates, perhaps [we] will remember the personal connections with [the] ‘enemy’. Think about what it means, if the next generation of Lebanese and Israeli politicians and business leaders have intimate and personal knowledge of the others’ humanity.’

The international media jumped on the story immediately. I lost track of the interviews I gave over the following two weeks, sometimes five a day – mostly to European and North American media, but also to China radio and Japanese television. The western media reported the story as an interesting phenomenon; the Japanese and Chinese reporters touched me with their interpretation of its significance.

‘Do you think that bloggers can stop the war?’ asked one of the interviewers for Chinese radio, as we sat at my neighborhood café. That is when I understood that for a lot of people communication by definition leads to humanization and thus to understanding. The thing is, I’m not sure that it’s necessarily true.

During the war dozens of new Lebanese and Israeli blogs popped up. Some invited dialogue with the ‘Other’, and there were many touching stories of Israelis and Lebanese reaching out to one another and engaging in civil dialogue, even as the missiles, rockets and bombs landed. But as the war dragged on, too many blogs were less about live reporting or dialogue and much more about rage, blame, victimization and even hate. Toot, the website that aggregates Arab blogs, created a whole new page devoted to posts about Lebanon and Gaza, complete with a banner featuring a blood red background, Palestinian and Lebanese flags, plumes of smoke and an Israeli tank (subtle!).

When one of the posts on that page presented the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact, I stopped reading. Visits to Toot had become too stressful and heartbreaking. In some cases, bloggers who had written extensively about the need for conciliation and peace between Israel and Lebanon made a complete about-face.

Perhaps the most striking example of the latter was a Lebanese blogger I knew personally, who uses the ‘nom de blog’ Perpetual Refugee (I’ll call him PR). PR and I discovered one another’s blogs at the end of April, when we both read a post Charles wrote after he ‘discovered’ the Israeli blogosphere. Charles linked to a couple of my posts and summarized:

‘Not knowing about ‘them’ is the worst crime we can commit. It invalidates them as humans, as if they don’t even matter. They are Stalin’s faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil bloodsuckers whom it is righteous to kill…’

At first all this unquestioning and uninformed hate makes me angry, but in the end, it’s truly depressing, especially after reading the uninhibited first person narratives in the Israeli blogosphere.

Pretty soon PR was leaving comments on my blog. He was particularly supportive when I wrote a scathing report about a panel of Arab reporters at a media conference I attended in London, and other Lebanese bloggers joined PR in praising me for challenging the panelists.

PR began to write a series of very raw, moving and sensitive stories about his visits to Tel Aviv, where he headed the regional office of an international company. He exposed emotions and deeply held prejudices that few of us have the strength to examine: he described facing his demons, overcoming taboos and humanizing people who had previously been a faceless enemy. Then, one day in mid-May, he left a cryptic response to one of my blog posts: ‘I’m here.’

We met that same evening. I picked him up from his hotel and took him to a popular seafood restaurant on the beach. We sat outdoors, the waves murmuring quietly as we talked for hours over a bottle of wine and some Middle Eastern appetizers. I felt an instant click of empathy: we were about the same age, had similar worldviews and interests. The conversation flowed.

He told me, in stark terms, about the emotional toll his visits to Tel Aviv had exacted from him. The long interrogations at the airport. The difficult-to-suppress paranoia. Were his phone calls and movements monitored? Were there listening devices in his hotel room? I tried to soothe his fears with logic: You’ve never tried to hide your nationality, I said, and you work for an internationally known corporation. There’s no reason for the security services to be concerned about you. But in the end I fell silent, not only because I didn’t really know for certain whether he was being watched or not (although I thought it very unlikely), but also because I didn’t want to offend him by making light of the worries that were expressed in his rigid shoulders and his tightly wound body language.

We were the last patrons to leave the restaurant that night. When the bill arrived, PR glanced at the sum for a nanosecond, discreetly extracted a few large-denomination bills from a money clip and placed them in the folder, too fast for me to see, rising as he did so and gesturing to me, ‘After you’. I knew he had left an outrageously large tip, but he didn’t seem the least interested in waiting for the change. I couldn’t imagine an Israeli man behaving similarly – which is not, I hasten to add, an aspersion on the male members of my tribe. PR’s behavior was simply an illustration of an etiquette I’d practically forgotten since moving to Israel. It was different – an old-fashioned world I’d left behind without regret. But it was pleasant, and I told my inner feminist to be quiet.

I wanted to show PR my Tel Aviv – the liberal, laid-back, fashionable city that I love above all others. I wanted him to relax and enjoy himself. I guess I wanted him to love ‘us’. The next time we met I took him to one of my favorite restaurants, an intimate candle-lit place furnished in flea-market style, where the daily menu of seasonal dishes is typed by hand on thick paper inserted in an old-fashioned Hebrew typewriter. PR told me it reminded him of similar restaurants in Beirut.

On the final night of what turned out to be his last visit (although we didn’t know that at the time) we went to a fashionable bar on Lilienblum Street. When PR went to the washroom the owner, who is a friend of mine, came over to talk. ‘Who’s the guy?’ he asked. He’s Lebanese, I told him, and I really want to make sure he has a good time, so anything you can do?

Without another word my friend headed for the washroom and escorted PR back to our banquette, chatting and laughing to put him at ease. Pretty soon we received shots of vodka on the house and my friend joined us, together with a few of his acquaintances. Relaxed from the alcohol, we made fun of regional politics and prejudices, talked about peace and open borders.

The Israeli guys told PR they were dying to visit Beirut and asked him about the city. Hmm, they said, sounds like Tel Aviv. After PR left he continued to write deeply personal essays about his experiences in Israel. About discovering that his Tel Aviv taxi driver was a Lebanese Jew and that they shared a mutual longing to return home. About the emotions he felt upon meeting Israeli Arabs – ‘ghosts’, he called them, because they are ignored by the Arab world. About the self-loathing he felt during a business meeting with a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, when he struggled to overcome his racist feelings toward Jews. ‘Have you heard the one about the three rabbis?’ is the title of that post. ‘I still felt strange,’ he wrote. ‘There was still a small amount of animosity towards these people. Fuelled by a large amount of written and rewritten history. And a pea for a brain.’

Further down he describes one of the rabbis coming over to talk to him during a break between meeting sessions. The rabbi took PR’s hand:

‘His hand was so warm. It was as if I were walking with a father figure. I felt no animosity. Is this what a Zionist feels like? It felt as if I were but a child being led by his grandfather for a leisurely stroll.’

I cried a bit when I read that post. I was starting to understand how deep the prejudice went (‘a Zionist hand’?), and I began to wonder if he saw me as ‘Lisa, my friend’ or ‘Lisa, my Jewish friend’. I suspected it was the latter, but I really did not want to examine that suspicion.

I was so excited about the lovely little community of Israeli and Lebanese bloggers that had sprung up in response to the blog posts written by PR, Charles and me. We were slowly peeling back layers of prejudice and fear and discovering that we had a lot in common. Tel Aviv and Beirut sounded like mirror images of one another – two Levantine cities, only three hours apart by car, both with a sophisticated nightlife, dynamic culture, beaches, cafés and beautiful, fun-loving people.

One Israeli friend started a blog called Israel2046, about a utopian future, 40 years hence, with weekend trips in Beirut and Tel Aviv facilitated by a rapid rail link between the two cities. It was a lovely dream – until Hizbullah woke us all up on July 12.

Within days PR changed completely. On July 17 he wrote a devastating post called ‘Cleansed’. It was full of references to ‘them’… as in ‘I know them.’ He used words like ‘hate’ and ‘enemy’. His extended family lived in Beirut, but his home and immediate family were in Dubai. He left, travelling overland to Damascus. Mixed up with his rage was guilt at abandoning Lebanon. And just like that, apparently without any effort, he removed the jacket of tolerance and understanding. (In one of the last comments he left on my blog, he wrote that he still considered me his friend but would never visit Israel again.)

‘A lot has happened over the past five days. A lot of misery has befallen my loved ones. My numbness is now gone. My guilt has dissipated. My anger has returned. And my hatred consumes me. And I’m back in my element… I know them. I worked with them. I made friends amongst them. Together we had built a fragile bridge between our two cultures. Yet, as with every other bridge built over the years, it was cruelly destroyed by barbarism. Only this was with my blessing. This is one bridge I don’t want to rebuild.’

Most of the comments were predictable. Lebanese expressed sympathy and support, while Israelis expressed sadness, disgust and anger at his abrupt turnaround. But one comment, from a guy named Matt, really stood out:

‘I enjoyed reading you until now, but I’m moving on. I say this as the husband and father of Arabs who are sitting under the Qassam barrage in Israel, right next to Gaza. It would be easy (and probably justified) to join the hate crowd, but no thanks. There’s already too much of that here and I’ve got better things to do with my short, meaningless life on this earth.’

Over the following month a few bloggers managed to remain detached. Most, however, did not. Some of the Israeli bloggers devoted enormous amounts of energy to exposing media bias towards Israel, or to blanket condemnations of all Muslims, or to excruciatingly detailed descriptions of Israeli suffering. Among the Lebanese bloggers there were conspiracy theories about Israel’s secret desire to control Lebanon’s water resources and gory photos of dead children. Words like ‘genocide’, ‘massacre’ and ‘war crimes’ became part of the Lebanese wartime blogging vocabulary.

But there were many who were determined to maintain a dialogue. Israeli blogger Amit Ben Basset switched from Hebrew to English in order to ‘take advantage of blog power and open a channel to all’. Anat Al Hashahar, a mother of two and a former army intelligence officer, started a blog called Israeli Mom and invited feedback from Lebanese readers. She also started an online forum ‘for friendly debate’, called MEtalk, together with a Lebanese and an Iranian she met online. An ex-pat Lebanese who calls himself Bad Vilbel started a blog devoted to understanding, and Charles remained comfortingly true to form. I also received many encouraging, beautiful emails from Lebanese ex-pats living in Europe and North America.

But there were many days when the cacophony of hate online brought me very low indeed. It was difficult to stay balanced. I focused on telling apolitical stories about human encounters during the war. I wrote about the friendship between the editors of Time Out Beirut and Time Out Tel Aviv, how they had met and clicked at a Time Out conference in Cyprus last May – right about the time I met PR – and how their friendship had been strained, albeit not broken, by the war.

I described my experiences in Metulla and Kiryat Shmona, border cities that were under constant Katyusha bombardment, in an apolitical, personal diary. I wrote about interviewing Sami Michael, the prominent Israeli author and peace activist who was born and raised in Baghdad, and I put a short video recording of him speaking in Arabic on my blog. That was how I kept sane – by writing about human beings, human connections and the longing for peace.

Now that the post-ceasefire dust is starting to settle, I’m trying to work out whether the hate and rage expressed during the war was a symptom of a sort of psychosis, or whether it was a raw, primal expression of true feelings that were covered by a thin veneer of socialized civility during peacetime. Is it possible to change minds, or are some people simply wired to hate and others to search for understanding? And if so, which is the majority?One Dubai-based Lebanese blogger, AM, (moithinkingoutloud) provided a hopeful answer. On August 23, I posted my translation of the eulogy David Grossman wrote for his son, Uri, who was killed in battle two days before the ceasefire. It’s practically impossible to be unmoved by that eulogy. In her response, AM wrote:

‘I kept convincing myself and was comfortable thinking that the only people who deserve my love and concern are my own. I’ve read much during the war and the majority of my readings did nothing but hurt the opinion I had of Israelis before the war, not sure if you remember but I was an addict of your blog before the war. Those other blogs I read made me furious and enraged to a point that I fell back into the ‘hate’ trap for a while before I settle into the ‘ignoring all others and being selfish’ stage. What helped of course was my determination of stop reading all Israeli blogs.

A couple of weeks ago, somebody comments on my blog recommending yours and in my mind ‘duh, as if I never read her’. I resisted for almost 2 weeks to click on that link which would bring me here. In my mind, ‘I don’t care about them anymore’. I am sure you understand that I have my reasons, this war brought the worst in each of the parties involved and as I always thought and said, ‘war is ugly’. At the same time, I am aware that I may have chosen the easy way out which is to turn my back and close my eyes on whatever I don’t like or whatever is causing me pain forgetting that there are some in this world who are just ‘good’ or as good as I can be. And here I am today… I read the eulogy and I cry… just like I cried when I was watching my people die and cry on TV…’

We exchanged emails, and a few days later she wrote a post called ‘A hope, a dream’. After describing the roller coaster of emotions she’d experienced during the war, she wrote:

‘Suddenly this filthy war hits and disrupts Lisa’s dream, mine and the dream of many others out there… would I be insensitive for I still am interested and wanting to dream?’

Charles and I are still in regular contact, and I have made a few new Lebanese friends who reached out when our countries were locked in mutual destruction mode because they share the same dream. PR and I have not been in contact since the beginning of the war, but the truth is I didn’t respond to his last email because I was so appalled by his ‘hate post’ that I just couldn’t deal with him any more.

I didn’t want to understand how someone who knew Israelis, who had visited the country on many occasions and been greeted with open arms by quite a lot of people, could consciously decide, overnight, to hate them all. Perhaps he will change his mind again, and we’ll be able to renew contact. I don’t know. I think we are all still very tired and wary. It seems that we are hostages to very old, deeply held prejudices, to geopolitical interests and perhaps even to human nature.

Perhaps, I thought one day, the desire to make peace is in fact contrary to human nature. Perhaps the need to hate is something that we must constantly examine and struggle against, again and again and again.

(Reprinted with permission from Jewish Quarterly, where the article first appeared)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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