Lessons From Israel

I‘ve been here in Iowa at the International Writers Program for a while now, but it took me a long time to get used to it. In Israel, I avoid shopping malls, because they are places where bombings occur. I eventually overcame this reflex and actually went inside one, and once I did I had a deep feeling of relief, one that I never had in Israel, at not having to look around all the time, not always having to assess everything for danger.

When the first explosion happened, I was sleeping, so people knocked on my door and woke me. It took me 15 minutes to understand that it was happening in America, because it seemed so impossible. I was sure that they were saying it was a bombing in Israel. When I finally understood it was in New York, I thought it must be at the Israeli Embassy.

There are writers here from many countries. Only after Tuesday’s events did I discover that most of them have experienced bombings and terrorist attacks in their own countries. It didn‘t matter if they were from the Philippines or from Serbia or from Georgia or from Bulgaria, they all experienced these kinds of horrors in the past, but none of them could believe this sort of thing could happen here, in America.

When I watch the American media, it’s clear that they are not used to dealing with terrorist acts. There is a great demand for news, but not much to tell, and it‘s exactly like the laws of economics: When there is great demand and little merchandise, the quality of the merchandise goes lower and lower, but people still buy it. So television, instead of sticking to providing information and a legitimate interpretation of it, goes through the entire spectrum of its viewers’ emotions. You have a piece that talks to hysteria, a piece that talks to paranoia, a piece that talks to mourning, a piece that talks to vengeance, and all these things are shots in the dark. When someone in the media says, “An operation like this couldn‘t have been done without the sponsorship of a country,” you don’t get facts, you get the network‘s (and your own) wishful thinking. Because if there is a country behind this, there must be someone who can pay for these actions. Such wishes disguised as information are very irresponsible and dangerous.

In Israel, both the news broadcasters and the audience really know it when there is no news to give. They are both more laid-back. The subtext there is, “We’re not giving you any more -- we know that you have the TV turned on, and if something new happens we‘ll tell you.” The American subtext is, “We will give you new information every minute.” Because of people’s thirst for news and this need to give them something, the news is given from an angle of disproportion. So everything appears under the title “Attack on America,” which is very reductive. It makes the public feel it is under constant attack. Instead of just saying, “A horrible thing has happened, and we‘re investigating,” they say, “Oh, they arrested this Egyptian guy in Florida!” and “Oh, someone saw a guy with a mustache in Chicago!” They try to keep this prime-time feeling going by saying, “It’s not over yet. Don‘t turn off the TV, because you are under attack. You should know what’s going on. You have a wife. You have a kid. And you should be ready for this.”

In most places, when there is a terrorist bombing, people go into the streets a lot more freely, because they know that the attack has been done and they are not in danger. Terrorism is like PR -- when you do one attack, you usually don‘t do many, because you’ve already proved your point, and the police and the military will have their guard up. But here they keep giving you the sensation that if they hit the World Trade Center you should wait five minutes, because they might hit the Empire State Building too, which causes people unnecessary anxiety. And that‘s not the role of the media; the role of the media is to interpret what’s going on.

But what scares me even more than this “America Under Attack” theme is the “America Unites” headline that is now replacing it. I know from Israel that the subtext of this insistence on unity is that criticism now becomes illegitimate. But it is particularly in times of danger and chaos that the role of the opposition becomes an important one, and it cannot and should not be a 20 quieted under these unity slogans. In Israel, where there really is constant attack, I‘m afraid it happens all the time. People feel that they must control the agenda, that because there is constant danger there should be a hierarchy of what we talk about now and what we don’t. And the things that you are not allowed to talk about are the things that are supposed to weaken you -- things that involve asking questions and doubting, things that are necessary for every society. They are the first things about which people say, “Not now, let‘s do it when it’s safe.” But I would say that if I‘m in danger for my life, I want to be able to ask all those questions so if I die at least I know what I’m dying for.

I don‘t think that a bigger army or defense budget could have stopped these attacks; it’s not a question of money. The most important thing that should be understood is that future warfare may not be on the national level. It will be based on groups of people with the same ideas from many countries. It is very discomforting to know that all those people in the suicide attack came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are countries that are friends of America. This is really the most frustrating thing that I know from Israel, that you suffer loss and you don‘t know against whom to retaliate. This puts countries in a very weak position, because you think if you have a big defense budget you will be stronger. But if you have this kind of invisible enemy, your missiles don’t do you any good.

If America doesn‘t react to these things wisely, this fracture could become even bigger, and we could easily find ourselves in a kind of Western-worlddeveloping-world conflict that could lead to a much larger fight. It just shows how much the Palestinian problem was the tip of the iceberg. In a sense, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could serve as a microcosm of this potential larger-scale Western-vs.-Muslim world conflict. I hope that the American government will be smart enough not to repeat our history and our mistakes. Because if not, very soon the entire world will fall into the violence that now reigns in the Middle East.

The author of three books of fiction, two collections of comics, a musical and an award-winning film, Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most highly regarded young writers and has long been an eloquent spokesman for peace. He will read from The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God, the first of his works to be translated into English, at Midnight Special in Santa Monica on October 1. For this piece, he spoke to Ben Ehrenreich on the phone from the University of Iowa, where he is a resident at the university‘s International Writers Program.

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