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Fania Oz-Salzberger

In praise of war pains

Lebanon war disappointment should be basis for self-improvement

This was a difficult summer for Israel and doubly difficult for Israelis' self image. The damages of the second Lebanon War are difficult to estimate because only some of them are quantifiable: The loss of life, injuries and mental wounds, damage to property, losses to agriculture, and forest fires.


Other damages are not quantifiable because they are still being constituted: Personal traumas, social and political shocks, declining public trust in the political and military systems, a growing rift in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel, and cracks in our deterrent power in the face of hostile states and groups.


There may be some long-term damages that we cannot yet fully estimate: Deep cracks in the fundamental pact between civilians and the government, and deterioration in Israel's geopolitical standing in the Middle East and the world.


National depression

No wonder that most Israelis are currently coping with, to put it mildly, national depression.


However, in contradiction to more apathetic peoples, our depression is filled with energy. The Israeli version of human nature tends to cope with such bad times with great vigor and by using three main tactics: Wallowing, fury, and escapism.


The wallowing part manifests itself through endless picking at the wounds. The fury, which during the war was directed at Nasrallah's well-protected head, is now channeled toward the government, IDF general staff, media, and the United Nations.


The escapism manifests itself through the current attention to the local version of Star Search, and I even know people who read plenty of good books in the past month and a half.


All those reactions are natural, human, and expected. However, I would like to modestly make mention of two states of awareness that seem to be lacking here at this time, maybe because both hide behind long words drawn from foreign languages: Perspective and proportion.


Perspective is a matter of time and the accumulation of additional events, which cannot be predicted, in the coming months and years. Once we have perspective we will know whether this summer only gave rise to seeds of calamity, or rather, one or two hopes. We still cannot know. But proportion, in small, easy to digest portions, can be already offered at this time. So there:


We spoke about depressing?

Indeed. People here are sad, and scared about being so sad. But the depression is not only natural and understood, it is also a stimulus for mental and practical repair – in the army, local and national government systems, and public discourse. Less arrogance and more insights. Meanwhile there are reasons to be sad, and that's completely legitimate both for individuals and for the national mood.


Perhaps, as Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua noted recently, us Israeli Jews seem more humane and likeable when we're depressed and failing somewhat. At the end, the Europeans may even start to love us again. On second though, let's not go overboard with the depression.


Wallowing over the sense of failure?

Yes, wallowing and disappointment. Completely normal. But here's a little proportion: Hizbullah supporters are sitting atop burned ruins in Beirut and Tyre and rejoining in victory, while we are crying defeat at the blossoming Gan HaVradim park in Jerusalem and the flourishing high-tech strongholds in Tel Aviv and Herzliya.


So please do pay attention now and then to our great privilege, which is the result of hard work and a powerful economy: Feeling the bitter taste of broken expectations and the failure to meet the standards we set for ourselves. Saying difficult, tough things about ourselves in the midst of a lively public arena and a media that ranges from active to hyperactive.


Hearing diverse voices (and I believe we should be hearing more and more of them), including those of Arab Israelis, objectors to the war, and those who want us to capture Beirut - and cursing at them via online talkbacks because this is a free country.


Why is this good?

First of all, because freedom is good, in case we forgot. Secondly, wallowing in our pain can also constitute a basis, not only disappointment. The IDF has just released from a tough and traumatic round of reserve duty thousands of thinking people that have said, and will keep saying, difficult things to the Israeli public.


The reservists and regular soldiers, and certainly those who sat in bomb shelters in the north, should be speaking out, and preferably we'll have authorized state representatives sitting there with them with recording equipment.


I wish that we'll be smart enough to distinguish between the screw-ups that require us to find the guilty parties behind them and the mistakes that require lessons but not guilty parties. If this time around we manage to learn something from the pain, let there be pain.


Fury has its own range, and these days it is being translated into protest whose result is difficult to predict. I will offer only one proportional observation here: These days the people of Israel is much angrier at itself than it is at Hizbullah and Hamas.


I, on the other hand, am very angry at those who fired missiles at me after I fully withdrew from their territory. But that's only my opinion. You may be angry at whoever you wish, but please translate the fury to practical conclusions, at least when it comes to those requiring government support in the north.



Here Israelis actually showed a wholly proportional reaction, and immediately after the last rocket landed they headed en masse to Galilee guest rooms and restaurants.


Tel Aviv, meanwhile, continued to go out to restaurants the theater throughout the month of war, with special discounts offered to the tens of thousands of northern residents who fled to the center. At the same time, Tel Aviv continued to carry Israel's economy on its wide shoulders.


And still, a quick reminder: Many people now have to roll their sleeves and fix what's broken. And sleeves are not rolled at cafes.


And a few more proportional comments

The overwhelming majority of Israelis didn't go anywhere, neither geographically or mentally, but rather, chose to stay here for the summer. Overall, 60 percent of residents outside the missile range did something - donations, assistance, hosting – for the sake of residents under attack.


The excellent medical system did its job and its employees, both Jewish and Arab, offered first aid and saved lives quietly, modestly and responsibly throughout the war.


The public arena was loud and stormy and the myriad of voices found in a free, pluralistic society were being heard. The media got everyone mad and raised issues requiring incisive examination of the war and its results, in accordance with the basic mandate of liberal-democratic media.


Any attempt to produce here a "united front under fire" was doomed for failure, and hooray to that failure! Hebrew newspapers and websites published responses and blogs from Lebanon in the midst of fighting. The Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem presented, in a variety of summer events, the grand tradition of Muslim civilization.


We didn't have a united front, but we did have plenty of human solitary and open discourse. Fundamental interests of Israeli society, its cultural infrastructure, and in depth moral discussion did not collapse and were not silenced.


All this, dear friends, is what we refer to as a "civil society." At its best. And no, the writer is not in the business of comforting. We're in pain now. But if this pain is the beginning of a cure, examining reality is the beginning of the repair process.


We may have won this war, and we may have not. Meanwhile, we need to fix – and to do that, we can't be feeling bad only. So let's get the ball rolling, with a little proportion.


Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger is a history professor at Haifa University and a member of the Israel Democracy Institute public council


פרסום ראשון: 08.30.06, 20:20
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