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Monday, December 4, 2006

The most blogged war: a retrospective [by Lisa N. Goldman]

http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2006/12/most-blogged-war-retrospective-by-lisa.html

The Jewish Quarterly
Autumn 2006 - Number 203

The most blogged war: a retrospective

Lisa N.Goldman on the relationships that kept her sane and drove
her crazy

by Lisa N. Goldman
http://www.jewishquarterly.org/article.asp?articleid=252


On each of the first four nights of the latest Lebanon-Israel war
I stayed up until dawn, chatting over the Internet with Charles
Chuman, a Lebanese who then lived in Beirut. He sat on the roof
of his apartment building, watching as missiles from Israeli Air
Force planes fell on his city, and describing it to me in my Tel
Aviv apartment, where I was watching the Israeli television news
reports. Sometimes, between his descriptions of particularly loud
or close explosions, our conversation was mildly flirtatious – me
mock-moaning that I had no time to go the hairdresser because of
work demands, he proclaiming, tongue-in-cheek, that he was
wearing a pink shirt because he felt comfortable with his
masculinity. Our last chat ended just a couple of hours before he
left for Damascus, via roads that had been bombed by the IAF over
the previous days. Almost as soon as he arrived in the Syrian
capital, he logged on briefly to let me know he was safe.

For me, those conversations were a lifeline to sanity. Later,
after he arrived in Chicago, Charles sent me an e-mail in which
he exactly expressed my thoughts:

[Our chats] meant a lot to me . . . My world didn't collapse.
Kind and good people I didn't want to become my enemy didn't
become my enemy.

Blogging was the hottest human-interest story of the
Lebanon-Israel crisis of 2006. On 18 July, less than one week
after the conflict began, I summarized the phenomenon in a post
for my own blog, titled 'The most blogged war?' I didn't realize
then that the question mark was utterly superfluous. Not only was
this the first time in history that residents of two countries at
war were able to maintain an ongoing, uncensored conversation in
real time, but it was also the first time ordinary citizens were
able to provide grassroots reporting in real time. In the same
post, I used the term 'surreal' to describe the experience of
chatting with Charles as my country's air force bombed his city.
I ended that entry on a hopeful note:

When this latest round of pointless death and destruction ends,
when the anger dissipates, perhaps [we] will remember the
personal connections with [the] 'enemy'. Think about what it
means, if the next generation of Lebanese and Israeli politicians
and business leaders have intimate and personal knowledge of the
others' humanity.

The international media jumped on the story immediately. I lost
track of the interviews I gave over the following two weeks,
sometimes five a day - mostly to European and North American
media, but also to China radio and Japanese television. The
western media reported the story as an interesting phenomenon;
the Japanese and Chinese reporters touched me with their
interpretation of its significance. 'Do you think that bloggers
can stop the war?' asked one of the interviewers for Chinese
radio, as we sat at my neighbourhood café. That is when I
understood that for a lot of people communication by definition
leads to humanization and thus to understanding. The thing is,
I'm not sure that it's necessarily true.

During the war dozens of new Lebanese and Israeli blogs popped
up. Some invited dialogue with the Other, and there were many
touching stories of Israelis and Lebanese reaching out to one
another and engaging in civil dialogue, even as the missiles,
rockets and bombs landed. But as the war dragged on, too many
blogs were less about live reporting or dialogue and much more
about rage, blame, victimization and even hate. Toot, the website
that aggregates Arab blogs, created a whole new page devoted to
posts about Lebanon and Gaza, complete with a banner featuring a
blood red background, Palestinian and Lebanese flags, plumes of
smoke and an Israeli tank (subtle!). When one of the posts on
that page presented the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact,
I stopped reading. Visits to Toot had become too stressful and
heartbreaking. In some cases, bloggers who had written
extensively about the need for conciliation and peace between
Israel and Lebanon made a complete about-face.

Perhaps the most striking example of the latter was a Lebanese
blogger I knew personally, who uses the 'nom de blog' Perpetual
Refugee (I'll call him PR). PR and I discovered one another's
blogs at the end of April, when we both read a post Charles wrote
after he 'discovered' the Israeli blogosphere. Charles linked to
a couple of my posts and summarized,

Not knowing about 'them' is the worst crime we can commit. It
invalidates them as humans, as if they don't even matter. They
are Stalin's faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil bloodsuckers
whom it is righteous to kill . . . At first all this
unquestioning and uninformed hate makes me angry, but in the end,
it's truly depressing, especially after reading the uninhibited
first person narratives in the Israeli blogosphere.

Pretty soon PR was leaving comments on my blog. He was
particularly supportive when I wrote a scathing report about a
panel of Arab reporters at a media conference I attended in
London, and other Lebanese bloggers joined PR in praising me for
challenging the panellists.

PR began to write a series of very raw, moving and sensitive
stories about his visits to Tel Aviv, where he headed the
regional office of an international company. He exposed emotions
and deeply held prejudices that few of us have the strength to
examine: he described facing his demons, overcoming taboos and
humanizing people who had previously been a faceless enemy. Then,
one day in mid-May, he left a cryptic response to one of my blog
posts: 'I'm here.'

We met that same evening. I picked him up from his hotel and took
him to a popular seafood restaurant on the beach. We sat
outdoors, the waves murmuring quietly as we talked for hours over
a bottle of wine and some Middle Eastern appetizers. I felt an
instant click of empathy: we were about the same age, had similar
worldviews and interests. The conversation flowed.

He told me, in stark terms, about the emotional toll his visits
to Tel Aviv had exacted from him. The long interrogations at the
airport. The difficult-to-suppress paranoia. Were his phone calls
and movements monitored? Were there listening devices in his
hotel room? I tried to soothe his fears with logic: You've never
tried to hide your nationality, I said, and you work for an
internationally known corporation. There's no reason for the
security services to be concerned about you. But in the end I
fell silent, not only because I didn't really know for certain
whether he was being watched or not (although I thought it very
unlikely), but also because I didn't want to offend him by making
light of the worries that were expressed in his rigid shoulders
and his tightly wound body language.

We were the last patrons to leave the restaurant that night. When
the bill arrived, PR glanced at the sum for a nanosecond,
discreetly extracted a few large-denomination bills from a money
clip and placed them in the folder, too fast for me to see,
rising as he did so and gesturing to me, 'After you'. I knew he
had left an outrageously large tip, but he didn't seem the least
interested in waiting for the change. I couldn't imagine an
Israeli man behaving similarly - which is not, I hasten to add,
an aspersion on the male members of my tribe. PR's behaviour was
simply an illustration of an etiquette I'd practically forgotten
since moving to Israel. It was different – an old-fashioned world
I'd left behind without regret. But it was pleasant, and I told
my inner feminist to be quiet.

I wanted to show PR my Tel Aviv – the liberal, laid-back,
fashionable city that I love above all others. I wanted him to
relax and enjoy himself. I guess I wanted him to love 'us'. The
next time we met I took him to one of my favourite restaurants,
an intimate candle-lit place furnished in flea-market style,
where the daily menu of seasonal dishes is typed by hand on thick
paper inserted in an old-fashioned Hebrew typewriter. PR told me
it reminded him of similar restaurants in Beirut.

On the final night of what turned out to be his last visit
(although we didn't know that at the time) we went to a
fashionable bar on Lilienblum Street. When PR went to the
washroom the owner, who is a friend of mine, came over to talk.
'Who's the guy?' he asked. He's Lebanese, I told him, and I
really want to make sure he has a good time, so anything you can
do . . . Without another word my friend headed for the washroom
and escorted PR back to our banquette, chatting and laughing to
put him at ease. Pretty soon we received shots of vodka on the
house and my friend joined us, together with a few of his
acquaintances. Relaxed from the alcohol, we made fun of regional
politics and prejudices, talked about peace and open borders. The
Israeli guys told PR they were dying to visit Beirut and asked
him about the city. Hmm, they said, sounds like Tel Aviv. After
PR left he continued to write deeply personal essays about his
experiences in Israel. About discovering that his Tel Aviv taxi
driver was a Lebanese Jew and that they shared a mutual longing
to return home. About the emotions he felt upon meeting Israeli
Arabs – 'ghosts', he called them, because they are ignored by the
Arab world. About the self-loathing he felt during a business
meeting with a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, when he struggled
to overcome his racist feelings toward Jews. 'Have you heard the
one about the three rabbis?' is the title of that post. 'I still
felt strange,' he wrote.

There was still a small amount of animosity towards these people.
Fuelled by a large amount of written and rewritten history. And a
pea for a brain.

Further down he describes one of the rabbis coming over to talk
to him during a break between meeting sessions. The rabbi took
PR's hand:

His hand was so warm. It was as if I were walking with a father
figure. I felt no animosity. Is this what a Zionist feels like?
It felt as if I were but a child being led by his grandfather for
a leisurely stroll.

I cried a bit when I read that post. I was starting to understand
how deep the prejudice went ('a Zionist hand'?), and I began to
wonder if he saw me as 'Lisa, my friend' or 'Lisa, my Jewish
friend'. I suspected it was the latter, but I really did not want
to examine that suspicion. I was so excited about the lovely
little community of Israeli and Lebanese bloggers that had sprung
up in response to the blog posts written by PR, Charles and me.
We were slowly peeling back layers of prejudice and fear and
discovering that we had a lot in common. Tel Aviv and Beirut
sounded like mirror images of one another – two Levantine cities,
only three hours apart by car, both with a sophisticated
nightlife, dynamic culture, beaches, cafés and beautiful,
fun-loving people. One Israeli friend started a blog called
Israel2046, about a utopian future, 40 years hence, with weekend
trips in Beirut and Tel Aviv facilitated by a rapid rail link
between the two cities. It was a lovely dream – until Hezbollah
woke us all up on 12 July 2006.

Within days PR changed completely. On 17 July he wrote a
devastating post called 'Cleansed'. It was full of references to
'them' – as in 'I know them.' He used words like 'hate' and
'enemy'. His extended family lived in Beirut, but his home and
immediate family were in Dubai. He left, travelling overland to
Damascus. Mixed up with his rage was guilt at abandoning Lebanon.
And just like that, apparently without any effort, he removed the
jacket of tolerance and understanding. (In one of the last
comments he left on my blog, he wrote that he still considered me
his friend but would never visit Israel again.)

A lot has happened over the past five days. A lot of misery has
befallen my loved ones. My numbness is now gone. My guilt has
dissipated. My anger has returned. And my hatred consumes me. And
I'm back in my element . . .

I know them. I worked with them. I made friends amongst them.
Together we had built a fragile bridge between our two cultures.
Yet, as with every other bridge built over the years, it was
cruelly destroyed by barbarism. Only this was with my blessing.
This is one bridge I don't want to rebuild.

Most of the comments were predictable. Lebanese expressed
sympathy and support, while Israelis expressed sadness, disgust
and anger at his abrupt turnaround. But one comment, from a guy
named Matt, really stood out:

I enjoyed reading you until now, but I'm moving on. I say this as
the husband and father of Arabs who are sitting under the Qassam
barrage in Israel, right next to Gaza.

It would be easy (and probably justified) to join the hate crowd,
but no thanks. There's already too much of that here and I've got
better things to do with my short, meaningless life on this earth.

Over the following month a few bloggers managed to remain
detached. Most, however, did not. Some of the Israeli bloggers
devoted enormous amounts of energy to exposing media bias towards
Israel, or to blanket condemnations of all Muslims, or to
excruciatingly detailed descriptions of Israeli suffering.
Amongst the Lebanese bloggers there were conspiracy theories
about Israel's secret desire to control Lebanon's water resources
and gory photos of dead children. Words like 'genocide',
'massacre' and 'war crimes' became part of the Lebanese wartime
blogging vocabulary.

But there were many who were determined to maintain a dialogue.
Israeli blogger Amit Ben Basset switched from Hebrew to English
in order to 'take advantage of blog power and open a channel to
all'. Anat Al Hashahar, a mother of two and a former army
intelligence officer, started a blog called Israeli Mom and
invited feedback from Lebanese readers. She also started an
online forum 'for friendly debate', called MEtalk, together with
a Lebanese and an Iranian she met online. An ex-pat Lebanese who
calls himself Bad Vilbel started a blog devoted to understanding,
and Charles remained comfortingly true to form. I also received
many encouraging, beautiful e-mails from Lebanese ex-pats living
in Europe and North America.

But there were many days when the cacophony of hate online
brought me very low indeed. It was difficult to stay balanced. I
focused on telling apolitical stories about human encounters
during the war. I wrote about the friendship between the editors
of Time Out Beirut and Time Out Tel Aviv, how they had met and
clicked at a Time Out conference in Cyprus last May – right about
the time I met PR – and how their friendship had been strained,
albeit not broken, by the war. I described my experiences in
Metulla and Kiryat Shmona, border cities that were under constant
Katyusha bombardment, in an apolitical, personal diary. I wrote
about interviewing Sami Michael, the prominent Israeli author and
peace activist who was born and raised in Baghdad, and I put a
short video recording of him speaking in Arabic on my blog. That
was how I kept sane – by writing about human beings, human
connections and the longing for peace.

Now that the post-ceasefire dust is starting to settle, I'm
trying to work out whether the hate and rage expressed during the
war was a symptom of a sort of psychosis, or whether it was a
raw, primal expression of true feelings that were covered by a
thin veneer of socialized civility during peacetime. Is it
possible to change minds, or are some people simply wired to hate
and others to search for understanding? And if so, which is the
majority?

One Dubai-based Lebanese blogger, 'AM,
(moithinkingoutloud.blogspot.com) provided a hopeful answer. On
23 August I posted my translation of the eulogy David Grossman
wrote for his son, Uri, who was killed in battle two days before
the ceasefire. It's practically impossible to be unmoved by that
eulogy. In her response, AM wrote:

I kept convincing myself and was comfortable thinking that the
only people who deserve my love and concern are my own. I've read
much during the war and the majority of my readings did nothing
but hurt the opinion I had of Israelis before the war, not sure
if you remember but I was an addict of your blog before the war.
Those other blogs I read made me furious and enraged to a point
that I fell back into the 'hate' trap for a while before I settle
into the 'ignoring all others and being selfish' stage. What
helped of course was my determination of stop reading all Israeli
blogs.

A couple of weeks ago, somebody comments on my blog recommending
yours and in my mind 'duh, as if I never read her'. I resisted
for almost 2 weeks to click on that link which would bring me
here. In my mind, 'I don't care about them anymore'. I am sure
you understand that I have my reasons, this war brought the worst
in each of the parties involved and as I always thought and said,
'war is ugly'. At the same time, I am aware that I may have
chosen the easy way out which is to turn my back and close my
eyes on whatever I don't like or whatever is causing me pain
forgetting that there are some in this world who are just 'good'
or as good as I can be.

And here I am today . . . I read the eulogy and I cry . . . just
like I cried when I was watching my people die and cry on TV . . .

We exchanged e-mails, and a few days later she wrote a post
called 'A hope, a dream'. After describing the roller coaster of
emotions she'd experienced during the war, she wrote:

Suddenly this filthy war hits and disrupts Lisa's dream, mine and
the dream of many others out there . . . would I be insensitive
for I still am interested and wanting to dream?

Charles and I are still in regular contact, and I have made a few
new Lebanese friends who reached out when our countries were
locked in mutual destruction mode because they share the same
dream. PR and I have not been in contact since the beginning of
the war, but the truth is I didn't respond to his last e-mail
because I was so appalled by his 'hate post' that I just couldn't
deal with him any more. I didn't want to understand how someone
who knew Israelis, who had visited the country on many occasions
and been greeted with open arms by quite a lot of people, could
consciously decide, overnight, to hate them all. Perhaps he will
change his mind again, and we'll be able to renew contact. I
don't know. I think we are all still very tired and wary. It
seems that we are hostages to very old, deeply held prejudices,
to geopolitical interests and perhaps even to human nature.
Perhaps, I thought one day, the desire to make peace is in fact
contrary to human nature. Perhaps the need to hate is something
that we must constantly examine and struggle against, again and
again and again.

---
Lisa Goldman is a freelance Canadian-Israeli journalist living in
Tel Aviv. She blogs at www.ontheface.blogware.com


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at http://zionism-israel.com/israel_news/2006/12/most-blogged-war-retrospective-by-lisa.html. Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.

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