I too watched in horror the evening news, this time from my home in Jerusalem.
I watched the governor of Beirut break down into tears, and I broke down with him.
Then, the main square in Tel Aviv came on the screen and the reporter announced that the mayor of Tel Aviv, Mr. Ron Huldai, had decided to light up its municipality building with the Lebanese flag.
I was in shock, then in awe, and quickly snapped a picture of my TV screen as if to make sure that what I saw was real.
Before my Ivy League analysis kicked in, or the opinions of the rest of the world- I felt proud for a moment, I was moved. Moved that Mr. Ron Huldai, and Tel Aviv, had extended a human gesture to its sister city Beirut, despite the decades of conflict between their two countries.
Then came the analysis and all the interpretations.
From the right-wing Israelis calling shame and disgrace of showing solidarity with an ‘enemy state’, to Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) in the USA calling the gesture whitewashing (or light-washing). 3 am scrolls through my Facebook feed, reading comments by Lebanese people voicing their opinion and pain, and largely not impressed by this gesture. I read, and am still reading, with deep interest. These are all legitimate reactions, seeded in human experience. In fact, I stand with a lot of them- painfully aware this gesture is largely hollow.
And yet still, I too was trying to find legitimacy in my own, maybe naive, initial reaction; before all the reflections and criticism kicked in.
So, here is my attempt. I offer to you another perspective, one of many that doesn’t seek to cancel out the others. I believe I’m not alone, and from what I can gather, many of my ‘leftist’ friends in Israel, those who’ve been stomping on Balfour daily, had a similar gut reaction to seeing the Lebanese flag in the heart of Tel Aviv. They were similarly moved- perhaps not fully understanding why.
We grew up the generation just after the First Lebanese war, Sabra and Shatila, and the decades of horror between Israel and Lebanon. So maybe it’s easier for us to show ‘empathy’ for the Lebanese people, or separate them from their government or Hezbollah. Yet still, looking back, Lebanon was never a place I’d wished to step foot in as a kid. My father had served in southern Lebanon when I was a baby, he was conducting de-mining activities to neutralize mines left from the first war. Even now when we travel up north to the Golan, he often jokes that he’s put up half the minefield warning signs that still litter many hiking trails. I had also lived through the Second Lebanese war as a 15-year-old kid. I was evacuated from my summer camp up north after Katyusha rockets fell a short distance from us. Later that summer I volunteered with displaced populations and even painted the remanence of a tank left behind from the war, a dystopian pink color. Sometimes I forget how abnormal Israeli childhoods are.
Leaving Israel about 6 years ago, I quickly met Lebanese colleagues turned friends who had also lived through that same war in 2006- on the other side. Admittedly, they had it much rougher than me. Their homes were senselessly bombed, and they soon turned refugees in the world. My re-education about my upbringing and constructed fears had begun. I learned that Beirut was once considered the Paris of the Middle East. I made friends who invited me to Beirut time and time again, comparing it to Tel Aviv. I had even longed to go do a summer internship there, before being told by my professor at Columbia that that was probably not a good idea. Not only because yes, my safety could be at risk, but also because I had to come to terms with what my identity meant to those people on the ground- that they might not want my personal help despite my good intentions.
So, I understand why Lebanon isn’t thrilled with the IDF or Israeli aid swooping in to help after this tragedy. Especially days after Israel threatened to attack. I even understand people’s outrage and double standard around Israel’s gesture to help, to take in wounded and refugees, while simultaneously moving forward with annexation plans and never giving Palestinian refugees the right to return. I am outraged too.
But then I try to reconcile all this intellectual understanding with that first gut reactions and tears I felt while watching the TV screen and that green and white flag last night. I’m reminded that this gesture wasn’t made by “Israel” or the “Israeli government”. It was made by one man, one municipality leader, frankly- a minority voice- and it triggered a response and support by a group of us Israelis here on the ground. Support by people who are not responsible for all the sorrow of Lebanese history even if they’ve probably taken part in some of it. By humans, that despite the complexity of their relationship with their neighbors as outlined above, felt empathy and a human sorrow for their brothers and sisters in Beirut. In the age of globalization and sick governments, I bet people in Tel Aviv have more in common with people in Beirut than they do with other cities in Israel.
Yes- This gesture is only a superficial step, not enough by any means to redeem Israel or Lebanon. but it celebrates their commonalities, and I stand by my gut reaction of awe. I commend the space some Israelis have given to their human dignity to rise. Just as I commend the Israelis who’ve been rising and making pilgrimage to Balfour daily over the past few weeks. They too are a mishmash of left and right ideologies, can be criticized for not putting enough weight on this or that issue. Yet still, I can commend their efforts without losing sight of my own values and perspective.
I would never ask my Lebanese friends or anyone who’d been harmed by Israel to put away their sorrow. If you are angry and are in no place to forgive or reconcile, I am sad but understand. I understand how you might see the gesture as cynical, absurd, outraging- and that is legitimate. This might not be the time for reconciliation. But for those other external voices, who were quick to criticize the gesture, and view it only through their own lens, I hope this offers you another perspective. An Israeli perspective, that doesn’t seek to whitewash or shout louder than other voices. But rather seeks to complicate and breathe life into characters we far too often portray as one dimensional. And hey, maybe even bring you some hope.