Inhibited Thinking, Awkward Speaking

I am continually impressed by the stereotyped and mentally gagged quality of American responses to Israel.  We sound virtually impaired.  “It is almost impossible,” as Tony Judt put it in The New York Times, “to discuss the Middle East without resorting to tired accusations and ritual defenses.” (See, “Israel Without Cliches.”)

We tend to fall into polarized positions, unqualified justification for its actions or denunciation of its atrocities.  Somewhere between these extremes there are occasional halting expressions of regret for some unfortunate incident, usually including the obligatory reference to our “special relationship” that remains strong  Beneath the surface, there are strong and frequent hints of frustration.

This is in remarkable contrast with Israeli’s capacity to criticize and even ridicule the actions of their own government.  The recent attack on the boats bringing relief supplies to Gaza is a case in point.  The Israeli daily Haaretz proclaimed:  “Gaza Flotilla Drives Israel Into a Sea of Stupidity.”

Obviously an outsider is more likely to be thought of as intrusive, insensitive or uninformed. But given the level of interaction between our two countries, there is an exceptional degree of knowledge on both sides.  Why can’t we speak more freely?

Our inhibition suggests two things:  guilt and fear.  The guilt, I suspect, is about exposing our always-present, usually-latent anti-semitism.  The recent outburst by Helen Thomas, the “Dean of White House Correspondents,” establishes that anti-semitism in America is still very much alive and not so far beneath the surface, even in sophisticated circles.  The fear is that in frankly criticizing Israel we will seem to give support to such sentiments, or even ammunition.  We would share in the guilt of letting it out of the bag.

And then there is the threat of recrimination and disloyalty.   If we allowed ourselves to voice our dismay or our criticisms, we fear we would be blamed – and perhaps even end up blaming ourselves – for contributing to Israel’s vulnerability.  What if the Arab press should pick it up what we say among ourselves and use it as further evidence of what they are already convinced is true?

So we engage in ineffectual, heated outbursts or we ritually mumble clichés.  I hope that behind the scenes diplomats can still have, as they like to say, a “frank exchange of views.”  Even if we can’t, the diplomatic process requires a bit more reality.

Our governments may be trapped in trying to balance competing – and, possibly, irreconcilable — interests.  But our being tongue-tied can hardly contribute to the thinking we desperately need to grasp these complicated issues.