Monday, August 11, 2014

Tourism, narrative and the Gaza/Israeli war

Part I.  The art tour

Our tour, in the summer of 2014, was lead by the wise and knowledgeable art historian JP Thornton.  Its focus was northern-European masters of the last five hundred years.  The focus on art was overlaid with news of war, which was continual from the morning we assembled in the Tom Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport for our departure.  One week earlier, a civilian Malaysian airliner, originating from Amsterdam- our destination that day- had been shot down in an apparent act of war over the Ukraine.  We spoke little of it, but it was on everyone's mind.

It was fitting that our quest began in Amsterdam, the center of a culture unique in the world, encompassing unusual extremes of good and bad, which the Dutch juggle continuously and very well.

The Dutch first appear in history as a Germanic tribe, the Batavians, under threat from the Roman Empire.  With great foresight, political organization and skill, they chose a swampy land deemed undesirable by the Romans (and difficult to attack), drained it and over a thousand years became a rich and powerful country.

The Dutch were pioneers in banking and investment, and their eye for commerce continues today with the startlingly open Red Light District and marijuana “coffee shops,” which attract tourism of all ages and serve to make prostitution and marijuana use (relatively benign in the spectrum of human vice) safer.

This is the country that saved much of world Jewry by inviting in the Sephardic Jews of Spain after they were threatened with extinction by the Spanish Inquisition, a process that included formal expulsion of the Jews in 1492 (an easy date to remember).  The Netherlands placed a smart bet in its openness to Jews- the collaboration brought prosperity.

Our travel group had chosen the lens of art through which to view history and politics.  JP planned an itinerary that led us to the 17th Century Dutch “Golden Age," with masters like Rembrandt and Rubens, where we beheld a culture that, unlike most around it, valued beauty that could extend to “commoners,” real looking countryside, and even, in the case of Breughal and Bosch (of the geographically superimposed Flemish tribe) to the inner processes of the human psyche, in ways missing from conventionally prized classical art.

The Dutch have their problematic side, of course.  Their aggressive colonialism contributed greatly to the inequality and chaos of today’s Indonesia and South Africa.  Our stimulating and informative French/Dutch tour guide, Marie, told us that the throngs of Arab and African immigrants now arriving throughout western Europe want to take back what they perceive was stolen from them, and they see the old European colonial cultures as their rightful "candy store."  I know the feeling: When the Spanish expelled the Jews, ostensibly a result of Spanish preference for Catholicism, what they really wanted was to steal Jewish property and cancel Jewish debt.  I've fantasied about whether the Jews, as some sort of coherent body of creditors, could collect.  It wouldn't work for me, though: my ancestors were Azhkenazi, from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, who had nothing to do with Spain.   Damn!

As we ponder today's precarious world and assess its viability, the selfish and short sighted aspects of colonialism are undeniably culpable, but there are cracks in contemporary civilization that require scrutiny.  Marie pointed out to us the highly destructive subway project in Amsterdam,  featuring cranes and piles of dirt that have been congesting the canals and streets for ten years, costing billions of dollars and achieving no subway, as the medieval houses along the construction zones tilt ominously from the undermining of their soggy foundations.  Such depredation of the past is familiar to people in Los Angeles, where "the past" is in short supply anyway, but it was shocking to see in old Europe.  The long lived, art-based ancient civilizations like the Mayan and Egyptian knew a secret we are forgetting: beautiful cultures last longer than ugly ones.  

We noticed too, in the three countries on our itinerary, an inability to fix seemingly fixable problems, like those involving traffic flow. In Amsterdam, due to an infatuation with bicycle transportation in the ‘70’s, it can be life threatening to cross a sidewalk to the curb, because on many streets a throughway for bikes occupies half the sidewalk, on the curbside, with no clear understanding of right of way, so that crossing a street involves, not just waiting for a green “Walk” signal, but agility in navigating the sidewalks on either side.  Hundreds of injuries a year occur from this ill-thought out system (a lady in our group was struck by a bike as she stepped from the bus to the curb), with no apparent attempt to figure it out.

We like to fret about foreign invasion, drought and famine, but it is the inability to solve everyday problems that dooms a civilization- the wars are just a distraction from the crumbling structures within.

Part II.  Narratives of war

To call wars a distraction may seem counter-intuitive, but that is my contention.  War was certainly a distraction on our art tour, as the news was dominated by Gaza and Israel.  Many of our group were Jewish, and a lively discussion of the events in Gaza persisted among the art discussions.  Marie and JP shared their opinions too, so that we had a dual identity of art tour and political discussion group.  There was much to ponder regarding conflicting narratives, in particular as Jewish passengers shared stories from "alternative" news sources, often with unfamiliar names.  These stories gave meaning to apparently missing elements in the mainstream news articles, filling gaps in the narrative.

History is written not only after events, but before.  I learned this when I lived near UCLA in the '70's, in the years leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  I read the L.A. Times in the morning, then walked to the research library and read the English edition of Pravda.  What I found was that each story in Pravda that involved the Soviet Union in conflict with Afghani peoples was re-written with an antithetical narrative in the Times.  In Pravda, Soviet forces were depicted assisting Afghani victims of Afghani oppressors, while in the Times those same "victims" became barbaric monsters doing unspeakable things to their "victims," the erstwhile "oppressors".  Both accounts sounded convincing, and there was no way to tell which was true.  The narratives presented in the mainstream press of each country were almost universally accepted by its citizens as truth, while the narratives of the other country were either unknown or perceived as blatant lies.

The fallout from such manipulated hostility can persist for years, and it persists today as the Afghan fighters we armed and supported against the Soviets developed, after we left, into the Taliban.

There is nothing new in the practice of manipulating news to stimulate warlike emotions in the populace.  Before invading Poland, Hitler proclaimed that, "Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes."  This view was supported by his loyal media, and the German people clove obediently to it.  Of course the allies' narrative was that Hitler attacked Poland because he was a homicidal megalomaniac bent on empire.  Although I view the latter narrative as the more likely, my point is that narratives drive wars, and narratives are unreliable. Thus, while we read that Ukrainian separatists cruelly shot down the Malaysian airliner, Russians read that no one knows who shot the plane down and that the whole thing is a plot to destabilize the Ukraine and turn it against Russia.  The truth?  Who knows?  All we know for sure is that we are being manipulated by narratives.  

In this context I come to my reaction, as a Jew, to the Gaza/Israeli war.  What am I to make of the stories about Israeli jets blowing up hospitals and homes?  In a poignant twist, a stream of stories about Israeli attacks on Gaza appeared on the day we visited the Anne Frank House and toured the old Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam, which had existed for five hundred years, since the Spanish expulsion.  The Nazi army rounded up all the men, women and children in this neighborhood and sent them to camps where they attempted to kill them all.  How could they do this?  Because in the Nazi narrative the Jews were a powerful force that threatened to destroy Germany and all the countries of the world.  Roaming the old neighborhood lined with plaques and museums about the horror, I was reminded of why, since I first studied World War II, I have believed that the Jews need a state.  When I use the term "state," I mean a powerful state, one with military force, so that when the next Hitler comes, and there always seems to be a next Hitler, the Jews, instead of walking like sheep to the slaughter, can turn on the aggressors and bring them down.  It's a natural response, is it not?  And is there not some truth to it?

But it was here, in this Dutch neighborhood evoking the humiliation and death of Jews without a state, that we read stories of the current Jewish state and its actions in Gaza.  Something seemed missing in the narrative.  Would Israel bomb refugee centers without a supporting narrative?  It seemed impossible, and indeed there was more narrative to be found.  We received a steady diet of it from members of the group who were finding stories on their tablets and mobile phones: Civilians in Gaza are instructed by Hamas to claim militant casualties as civilian, grossly inflating the civilian death count. The tunnels were purposely built close to civilian areas so that attacking them would kill civilians and provide propaganda coups for Hamas.  Why bomb the tunnels and provide Hamas with the propaganda?  Because the tunnels in Gaza extended far into Israel, under Israeli towns, where they were filled with powerful explosives which were to be detonated during the High Holy Days in September, when Israeli families come together, killing up to 50,000 Israeli men, women and children, in an attack meant to dwarf 9/11.  What is the Hamas narrative?  Well, of course, it is that none of this is true.  Which narrative is the truth? How should I know?

What, then, are we supposed to believe?  The answer is clear: We are supposed to believe the narrative of whatever group we are a member of.

Such thoughts did not resolve the problem for me, but they did relieve the burden of wondering if Israel is the moral monster, while Hamas is the virtuous victim.  Hamas deserves every bit of the world-wide condemnation that Israel is currently receiving- because of the narrative it is writing.  After the killing of the three Israeli boys that inflamed Jews around the world and ostensibly started the war, all eyes turned to Hamas for its comment.  That comment was that, while Hamas had not ordered the killings, it condoned them. There was no reported protest to this statement.  What can be gleaned from this is that Hamas' constituency, the people of Gaza- or at least the Hamas supporters among them- accept killing of Israeli children as part of their narrative, because that narrative depicts all Jews as evil and deserving of death.  That is not a morally convincing narrative to me, so at the very least, although I do not hold up Israel's behavior as blameless,  I reject the Manichean dichotomy of "Israel bad/Hamas good."  And with the loss of this distinction, I retain my conviction that the state of Israel has as much moral right to exist as any of the other flawed nations of this earth.  

Returning to the idea that war is a distraction, I don't mean this in the sense that, as one narrative has it, the downing of the Malaysian airliner was a distraction from the Gaza/Israeli war, but in the sense that all the wars on earth, with the hatred of perceived enemies they entail, are distractions from the real enemies of our species.  These enemies include ineptitude at solving the mechanical concerns of civilization, like the traffic problems mentioned above, but they also include, at least potentially- and I realize this requires a new essay- the coming bio-tech and cybernetic revolutions, through which we will recreate our species, redefining everything it has meant to be human for the last two million years.  If we're busy fighting each other, we won't see those revolutions coming, and we won't have a say in how they play out.

Part III.  Conclusion

The trip was a blast!  The company was great and we had a valuable prism for viewing the world.  Hopefully tourism will survive another few decades, so that we can continue to enjoy the balm of travel and the perspective it inspires, as our new history unfolds.