October 21, 2018

Should I talk to my enemies?

As I went through the long, exhausting prayers of Yom Kippur this year, reading a litany of sins, both personal and communal, and asking God for forgiveness, I occasionally reflected on the emotional reaction to my column last week about my debate with Israel bashers at a church in Culver City.

Friends whom I admire wrote to me, saying things like, “Nice column, David, but you shouldn’t validate these people,” or, “You’ll never change anyone’s mind, so why bother?” or, “I don’t know how you kept your composure; I would have exploded,” and so on.

As I symbolically tapped my chest with my fist during the prayers of lamentation, I wondered: Is talking to my enemies something I should repent? Should I add it to my list of sins?

Honestly, my reaction has been just the opposite. The experience of meeting with a virulently anti-Israel crowd has energized me. I am now more convinced than ever that supporters of Israel must enter the lion’s den whenever possible and make the case for the Jewish state.

The question is, how to make that case.

So far, much of Israeli hasbara has focused on “Israel is just,” “Israel is right,” and “Israel is also a victim.” Even if those claims are strong and defensible, they go only so far. They are too defensive, too reactive.

What I learned that night in Culver City is that there’s a better approach — it’s called “Israel is successful, and the Middle East needs that success.”

I had to experience extreme hostility to fully appreciate how Israel’s enemies are desperate to position Israel as a resounding failure. By focusing solely on Israel’s mistakes with the Palestinians and dismissing the bigger picture, they are turning Israel into a one-dimensional caricature — a country that never stops failing, a country worthy only of condemnation and boycott.

When I turned the tables at the debate and spoke of Israel as the only country in the Middle East worth emulating, I found clarity. The crowd’s anger had no effect on me. I wasn’t defensive. I wasn’t pretending that Israel makes no mistakes. 

What I had identified was a bigger truth that could benefit all 330 million people of the Middle East.

This truth is that Israel holds the secret to the future of the Middle East. It’s a simple fact that no country in the region today comes close to providing the economic opportunities and human freedoms Israel provides. Even if it takes a century, the only way the region will ever create decent societies is if its countries emulate the Israeli system. 

As I saw firsthand that night, this idea drives Israel’s enemies absolutely bonkers — but maybe that’s because it’s painfully true. 

“The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism … than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago,” Al Arabiya Washington bureau chief Hisham Melhem wrote recently in Politico. “Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed.”

Israel — tiny, reviled, courageous Israel — can rescue Arab history. It’s not about perfection, it’s about character. Israel has the character of a successful country. It doesn’t hide its faults — it can’t. It’s a messy, flawed, loud, imperfect society that is saved by its wide-open nature, its basic freedoms, its creative energy and its independent judiciary. The injustices are many, but so are the activists who are free to fight those injustices.

As much as Israel must never stop trying to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, it can’t allow itself to be defined solely by this failure. Movements such as Peace Now and J Street may annoy some Israel supporters, but they are components of Israel’s successful character. Their very existence speaks to Israel’s open system that allows everyone to fight for the cause of their choice.

Next time you get annoyed by a Jewish peace group, ask yourself: Wouldn’t it be amazing to have these peace groups in every Arab country in the Middle East? 

That’s why I will accept future invitations to talk to my enemies — so I can talk about Israel’s peace groups, Israel’s social activists, Israel’s system of freedom that encourages nonstop scrutiny of its own flaws and mistakes. That is the Israeli way that the rest of the Middle East must emulate if it wants to deliver on the promise of the Arab Spring.

The most interesting reaction I got to last week’s column was from a friend who recently did a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat called Vipassana. The course taught her, she said, to have “empathy/sympathy toward someone who is being angry toward you, instead of giving into it.”

While continuing to defend itself, Israel must also show empathy for the people of the Middle East who have been conditioned to despise Israel and see it as a curse rather than a blessing.  

More than anything, Israel is a big idea, and it is no sin to share that idea with people who need to hear it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.