Michael Saenger

Facebook, Israel and Diet Coke

One of the things about the internet that we’ve all noticed by now is that it makes information easy to find.  The problem, of course, is that we almost always filter our information.  Most people rely on only a few sources of information, and so views tend to get affirmed by everything they see.

Facebook offers some hope, really.  As difficult as it is to find a space to see and consider other ideas, Facebook is one of those rare places.  And even Facebook is selective in many ways.  I think we all know that our friends often go through more grief than they show.  We only see the happy moments in each other’s lives.

So what happens when disagreement occurs?  Well, at least it doesn’t devolve into what happens elsewhere on the internet: a competition, in the comments section, to see who can come up with the cheapest and easiest insult.  I had enough of that in third grade, and I don’t really want to go back to that.

So let me take a moment, for anyone who cares, whether my friend or not, and whether they agree or not, to explain how I came to support Israel.

As a Jew, I had heard Israel discussed often.  My beloved childhood rabbi returned from a trip there, having been spat on by more conservative Jews because he was Reform.  He came back and talked openly about Israel to our congregation, and was sometimes interrupted during a sermon by congregants who felt he was too pro-Israeli.

So long before I started studying the situation seriously, I could see how high passions were.  Honestly, when I first went to Israel in 2004, I did not know what to think.  Was it going to be a nation under siege?  Apartheid? Would I be revolted at what I saw?

My eyes were open.  Probably the most important moment for me was when I was walking through Haifa with my late cousin, Haggai. He showed me a mosque, right in front of us.  Somehow, I was surprised.  The image of Israel that I had been given by the media led me to think that mosques were somehow forbidden.  And here I was, only a few blocks from his flat, standing in front of a mosque.  A man from inside saw us, and invited us in.

The imam looked at us and asked, in a very deep voice, whether we wanted coke or diet coke.  We took off our shoes and sat down at a table; we were joined by another Jew, a Palestinian and two Israeli Arabs, and we had a fast conversation.  The conversation, as often happens in Israel, moved between languages.  English, Hebrew and Arabic were often spoken simultaneously, and we were all trying to be both hospitable and direct.  One of the Muslims turned to my cousin, and said, “Would I be welcome in your house?”  Haggai answered yes. He followed, “What is your address then? I will be there with my family.  What is your address?”

Probably he was speaking English, instead of Hebrew, in order to make a point to me.  His point was that he did not feel equal.  I understood that, but I was also looking at the entire situation, and sipping my diet coke, and thinking, if there is any hope, it is because of conversations like this.  Angry, honest conversations. I wanted to take a picture of us all, but the Palestinian told me to be careful. He was worried that I was a journalist, and that the picture would be shown to extremists in the West Bank.  He knew that the very fact that he had entered that mosque could be dangerous to him.

That mosque was willing to invite Jews in, though.  And Israel protected its ability to do so by allowing various religious minorities to live in peace under a blue and white flag.  I continued to travel through Israel, and I came back.  I saw a nation that was, in many ways, more tolerant than my own.

I admit that I wanted to love Israel. I have heard enough stories of the Holocaust to want it to succeed, and when I hear Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, I understand it in a very fundamental way. It is a song of hope and I wanted to believe in that hope.  But when I researched the topic, I went in with open eyes, just as I did in walking through Haifa and into the mosque.  The more I learned, about anti-semitism in the media, about the deceptions practiced by such leaders as Arafat, and about the fundamental commitment of such groups as Hamas to exterminate the Jewish state, the more I came, very thoughtfully, to a strongly pro-Israeli position.  Not because it fulfills my dream alone, but because it offers the only real hope for coexistence in the region.

I ate with my cousin at a restaurant that was jointly operated by a Jew and a Muslim.  It had been attacked by suicide bomber, but it was back in business. I cannot imagine the horror the owners witnessed, and yet they chose to rebuild their restaurant.

The tragedy of what’s happening now in Gaza is terrible.  And there may be little hope that Facebook can be any more helpful than the mainstream media at changing anyone’s mind or honestly bringing people closer together, of seriously considering who is at fault.  But if we have any hope of a solution, it must be through humble information gathering and direct, honest dialogue. That, for me, was the lesson of the mosque in the Jewish state, and it is why I support the nation of Israel.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
Related Topics
Related Posts