While cleaning out my garden shed I came across an old, 1973, edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Although this is Latin for “British Encyclopedia”, it has been published by an American company since 1911.
We must assume that any event which is capable of different interpretations will be recorded according to the American understanding of the world. It is not surprising that my view of the world, as an Israeli, does not always coincide with the American view.
Glancing through the dusty pages, an article caught my eye. No, it was not the Yom Kippur war but an older, but no less famous battle — the Battle of the River Plate.
In 1942, the Graf Spee, a German battleship, was badly damaged by British warships and was forced to seek refuge in the Uruguayan port of Montivideo. The Graf Spey had been preying on allied merchant shipping and sinking unarmed ships carrying food and supplies to beleaguered Britain.
Neutral Uruguay gave the Germans four days to repair their ship. In the meantime, the British battle group waited at the mouth of the River Plate, just outside Uruguayan territorial waters. Captain Langsdorf, realising that his ship stood no chance of escaping, put to sea and scuttled his ship before the British had a chance to destroy it. Captain Langsdorf, in keeping with good German tradition, then shot himself.
All this is recorded factually by the Britannica until, without any warning, we come to the sting in the tail. We read: “The Admiral Graf Spee, commanded by Capt. Langsdorf, sank nine cargo ships before coming to a tragic end”.
There we have it! For the writer of this article the loss of the Graf Spee was nothing less than a “tragedy”.
To be fair, I checked an American dictionary. Perhaps, like pavement and sidewalk, Americans have an entirely different meaning for the word tragedy, but no, Websters clearly states that a tragedy is a disastrous event, an unhappy end.
If the destruction of this terror of the South Atlantic was an unhappy end, what would the writer have considered a happy outcome? The Graf Spee escaping to continue destroying supplies for Britain? Britain, starved into submission, surrendering to Hitler? The United States, on its own against the axis powers, deciding to abandon far-off Europe to its fate? Would this have been a happy ending?
On the same page of the Britannica, we read about the Graf Spee’s supply ship, the Altmark. Some 299 British seamen, from ships sunk by the battleship, were held in appalling conditions in the Altmark’s hold. After the “tragic” loss of the Graf Spee, the Altmark was chased and finally cornered in Jossingfjord on the Norwegian coast. HMS Cossack, defying the Norwegian navy, entered the fjord and rescued the seamen. The Britannica, however, sees it somewhat differently. After the demise of the Graf Spee “the Altmark was to become the victim of an incident ….”
What a curious view of the world the Britannica took back in 1973. Aggressors and tyrants become victims, to destroy your foes is immoral, the loss of a Nazi battleship is a tragedy. Kafka would have felt at home in such a world.
The print version of the Britannica came to a tragic end in 2010 when it fell victim to digital publishing, but its strange view of the world is continued by newspapers such as Britain’s The Guardian.
“Palestinian 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi is the latest child victim of Israel’s occupation” screamed the headlines in a recent (2 Jan 2018) edition of this anti-Israel newspaper.
This “victim” was filmed slapping and kicking a hapless Israeli soldier who could not bring himself to retaliate in any way.
The New York Times is no better. It published (30 September 2000) a photo of a bloodied and battered young man crouching beneath a club-wielding Israeli soldier. The caption identified him as a Palestinian victim, beaten by the Israeli soldier. This happened, the article claimed, on the Temple Mount. The photo clearly showed a gas station in the background, not a common sight on the Temple Mount!
It took wide-spread public outrage to get the NYT to apologize and publish a correction: The soldier had been protecting a Jewish student from Chicago who had been pulled from his taxi by a mob of Palestinian Arabs, and severely beaten.
The Washington Post (19 March 2018) reported that a Palestinian Arab had been killed by the police when the military destroyed a tunnel built by Hamas. There was no mention of “victim”. We had to rely on other sources to discover that there was a victim, Adiel Kolman, who was murdered by the “Palestinian Arab”. The Post considered the death of a terrorist newsworthy but did not consider the death of his Jewish victim worth mentioning.
The Saudi Gazette, perhaps a little biased, was quick to blame Israel:
“Palestinian infant victim of Israeli brutality – A Palestinian baby died as a result of inhaling tear gas during clashes along the Israel-Gaza border, the health ministry in the enclave has announced.”
The Guardian (24 May 2018) rather reluctantly printed the update:
“Gaza ministry removes baby from list of people killed by Israeli army – A doctor was later anonymously cited by the Associated Press as saying the infant had a pre-existing medical condition and that he did not believe teargas caused her death.”
Perhaps it is time that we gave up the old galut dream of seeing the world as others want us to. After so many centuries of exile, we still have not learned the trick. Even life in the fleshiest of pots has not quite managed to turn our morals upside down. We should start to act in our own interest, according to our view of the world, not someone else’s imaginary world. I don’t know how a future editor of the (on-line) Encyclopedia Britannica would describe the demise of the State of Israel, but for us this would be a real tragedy.