Some might be surprised, perhaps, to hear this: sometimes I wish, in an alternate universe, that I had been born in Israel. (That's very alternate indeed, because I happen to be somewhat older than Israel, but no matter.) It seems to be the only place where you can have a decent discussion about the Middle East.
There is a passionate debate going on in Israel at the moment. It has to do with an organization called the New Israel Fund, which, thanks to a right-wing student group called Im Tirtzu, is now in the centre of a controversy that extends from the street to the Knesset.
Briefly, and I shall try to refrain from offering my own take on this, Im Tirtzu has sourced a number of negative references to the Israeli Defence Force found in the Goldstone Report to several NGOs that have received money from the NIF.
The fallout has been swift and amazing. A veteran columnist at the Jerusalem Post, Naomi Chazan, who is also the NIF President, has been summarily fired. An invitation to her from the Union for Progressive Judaism in Australia has been abruptly cancelled because of the controversy. And everybody's talking.
It's really worth reading a number of commentators to get the flavour. Perhaps the most noticeable thing--obviously, given the locus and the ethnicity of most of the folks in the brawl--is the absence of the a-word. No one is being silenced or distracted in that stupid and dishonest way with which we in Canada are all too familiar. It's a bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred verbal combat, not necessarily respectful or decorous, often not, in fact, but it's on topic. And, if you follow the links, you will see that there are far more than two intractable sides to the question--there are many sides, of both the tractable and intractable varieties. Everyone in Canada who has a position on Middle Eastern affairs, no matter what that position is, can find his or her counterpart in Israel.
Goldstone, unsurprisingly, comes in for his share of criticism. He has recently been subjected, unfortunately, to some of the same hyperbolic ranting that breaks out in Canada whenever the topic of the Middle East comes up. But this sort of thing seems to be the exception, and in any case the conversation has shifted now, from the contents of his report, which do not escape critique from partisans on all sides--but rather, to how those contents were compiled.
Here is a pretty good overview of the discussion, from the Washington bureau chief of JTA. Everybody is in there, from the NIF and Im Tirtzu, of course, to the far-right American pastor John Hagee and Peace Now.
And here are some of the voices raised in debate: Are the Goldstone criticisms of the IDF true? False? Does it matter? Is the use of caricature in the debate appropriate? Why has the IDF relied on some of the same sources for which NIF is now under attack? Are the NIF critics McCarthyist? Hey, NIF, you're too thin-skinned! How much criticism is too much criticism? The NIF is objectively pro-Iran! Your funding sources should be investigated! So should yours! We want dialogue! This is all very complicated!
Despite the seriousness of the issues at stake, it's a joyful noise. It makes the current Rights and Democracy talkfest here at home sound positively pallid by comparison. And it makes the Middle East debate in North America look frankly cartoonish--which it too often is, when it's allowed to happen at all.
We could learn something from the way these folks are carrying on. This is just how debate should be done: it's messy, frenetic, open-ended, meaty, with many sides digging deeply into the subject-matter. It makes me profoundly envious. A pity, isn't it, that it can't happen here?