published Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Balázs: Determining 'truth' in Gaza conflict requires humility

Thomas P. Balázs

EDITOR’S NOTE: Second of three parts.

How dangerous, really, are those rockets Hamas has been firing at Israel? Is the Israeli Defense Force like an armored soldier turning his weapons on a kid shooting spitballs?

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, writer James Fallows approvingly quotes an Israeli professor who expresses outrage that anyone, especially Americans visiting Israel, would fear “the ongoing drizzle of rockets.”

“The rockets,” says the professor, “are not really scary nor are they a true existential threat.”

I won’t try to analyze the Israeli professor’s intellectual and emotional predispositions, but I will assert that neither he nor anyone else can justify such flat statements of “truth” about what are essentially matters of perception. As I suggested in my column July 23, clarity about this conflict seems hopelessly stymied by ethnic, political and religious — not to mention geographic — biases.

My family and I recently dined with a couple living outside Tel Aviv who, like the Israeli professor, say they’ve watched rockets fly and get shot down with no concern whatsoever for their own safety. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, who survived Auschwitz and every war in Israel since 1948, was deeply shaken last week by the sirens and explosions when they went off while she was home alone.

I’ve seen people rush to bomb shelters; I’ve seen kids crying in basements; I’ve seen people pull over their cars during sirens and lie face down in the grass. I’ve felt my own adrenaline spike. The FAA was so concerned about Hamas rockets it stopped U.S. planes from flying in or out of Ben-Gurion Airport for more than 24 hours.

To suggest people aren’t or don’t have the right to be afraid is to misrepresent reality in a way even a postmodernist can’t abide. You can’t dictate or dismiss other people’s emotional responses even if you have a doctorate and belong to a think tank.

The existential threat is, likewise, not so simple because it is also a matter of perception. Obviously Hamas does not have the fire power to destroy Israel militarily. At the moment. But many, if not most, Israelis see this current conflict with Hamas not as a war but as a battle in an ongoing war that does threaten Israel existentially.

The same Israelis who told me they watched rockets fly from the roof of their building — and who identify with the political left — also acknowledged that Hamas seeks to frighten Jews, tourists and businesses out of Israel (and partially succeeded last week with the near complete shutdown of Ben-Gurion). Hamas, they said, aims to cripple Israel’s economy and thus gradually weaken, and, yes, eventually eliminate, the country.

Is that such a far-fetched narrative?

Depends on your perspective. I’m pretty sure it’s a narrative Hamas holds. After all, if they don’t think they are frightening Israelis and making it more difficult for the state to function, if not exist, why do they keep lobbing all those spitballs and calling down the wrath of the Israeli Defense Force?

No one can really attest to the truth of perception, but we can recognize the power and reality of the narrative. What the whole situation calls for, in terms of reporting and commentary, are frank admissions of the limits of one’s perspective and a whole lot more humility on the part of pundits and prognosticators.

Thomas P. Balázs teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is currently in Israel visiting family and working on a novel set in Tel Aviv.

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