I do not know whether it is a function of age, or just a result of over-exposure to excessive news reporting and commentary (most of it inaccurate or irrelevant) in the course of our recent skirmish in Gaza, but during three weeks I recently spent in the UK, Paris and Berlin I made a determined effort to avoid any news from Israel.
This was made easy by not possessing a smartphone or laptop computer (despite the fact that I am perfectly well aware of the convenience and advantages these gadgets offer), the fact that Kol Yisrael radio stopped broadcasting on shortwave back in 2007, and the fact that Operation Protective Edge ended several days before I left the country. On the few occasions that I did watch televised news, Israel was not mentioned.
The Europeans were preoccupied with Scotland, the Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Islamic State and the European-born Muslims who have joined its ranks, and their own local murders and scandals. The British are also preoccupied with the phenomenon of illegal infiltrators (mostly Africans), especially through the port of Calais in France.
Apparently, despite our own perception of ourselves, Israel is not the center of the world, and while in Glasgow for a political science conference held by the ECPR, I actually bumped into two Chinese students (one studying business administration and the other children’s literature) who had never heard of Israel.
I must add, however, that they also knew nothing of the trouble in their own country regarding the Muslim Uyghur population, and had never heard of Ürümqi, a city of 3.3 million and the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region in China.
Given all the news about the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, and especially in the three countries that I visited, I had prepared myself for some unpleasant encounters, but even though I deliberately carried a linen bag bearing Hebrew letters on it as a sort of provocation, I didn’t encounter a single anti-Semitic or anti-Israel comment. This is not to say that the problem of rising anti-Semitism in certain circles in Europe, both Muslim and non-Muslim, does not exist, or that anti-Israel sentiments are a figment of the imagination of our Foreign Ministry, but merely that there seems to be major exaggeration in the descriptions of the general atmosphere. Even the Muslim taxi drivers I chanced to take rides with in all three countries said nothing nasty or out of the ordinary when they found out I was from Israel.
I would add that one should even take official warnings regarding possible terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets abroad in proportion, since the likelihood of one’s getting wounded or killed in a traffic accident in Israel is many times greater than the same happening as a result of a terrorist attack abroad.
Does anyone warn us against going out on the roads in Israel? My greatest surprise during my trip was that at the ECPR conference I attended I didn’t hear a single word uttered against Israel, even though I had been warned by some European colleagues that there had been demands from certain academic circles to boycott Israeli academics. Several Israeli academics presented papers without being interrupted, and on the subject of the Knesset (I attended several panels on parliamentary issues which fall within my sphere of research) there seemed to be more than just polite interest in the Israeli case, which in many respects is sui generis, and not necessarily in the negative sense.
Again, I am not saying that in various European (and American) universities there aren’t any unpleasant anti-Israel manifestations, or that some severe criticism of Israel’s policies and activities vis-à-vis Jewish settlement and the Palestinians in the occupied territories doesn’t exist, but merely that when one travels through Europe today one does not feel under constant attack.
Detaching oneself from Israeli news does not necessarily mean that one’s frame of reference does not remain Israel. For example, listening to the local population in Glasgow (including taxi drivers, who seem to be as talkative as their Israeli counterparts, only with impossible accents), it occurred to me that as far as many Scotsmen are concerned the English have been in occupation of Scotland for over 300 years, even though the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united on the basis of a treaty approved by the parliaments of both countries (nationalists are not always particular about the facts). So when Israel is accused of being responsible for the longest occupation of foreign lands in modern times (as King Abdullah of Jordan recently did), one has strong grounds for refuting the accusation.
The ongoing European debate about how to react to the atrocities committed in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere by extreme Islamic forces, and the appropriate steps that should be taken to try to confront this reality, naturally give rise to the question of whether we should try to cash in politically on the situation by pointing out that at least part of our own conflict with Muslim terrorist organizations should be seen within the same context, or whether we should simply sit back and trust the Europeans to reach the desired conclusion.
Once I got home last Thursday at noon, it took me no more than an hour to update myself on the current local news – first and foremost the strike at Ben-Gurion Airport, that meant that I had to return to the airport in the late afternoon to collect my luggage, which had spent several hours going round and round a conveyor belt. My taxi driver updated me on most of the rest – the spreading phenomenon of east Jerusalem children throwing stones at Israeli vehicles, Gideon Sa’ar departure from politics, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political headaches, Stas Misezhnikov’s transgressions, the IDF’s lack of financial accountability, Lady Gaga’s concert.
When I got home I discovered that the gas company had inadvertently turned off my gas supply while I was gone, and I got into an argument with its representatives as to whether the company may only turn off one’s supply in one’s absence, or whether they can also switch it back on again in one’s absence (after some yelling on my part, my gas supply was reconnected while I drove back to the airport). Welcome home.
May I suggest that in the coming year, when on vacation, you leave your smartphones and laptops behind.
It won’t kill you, and you might even enjoy some time out from our stressful reality. I assure you that nothing much will have changed when you reconnect.
The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.