As a long-term US expat, I’m sure I looked like a bobblehead while reading Matti Friedman’s excellent article in The Atlantic – raptly nodding yes, yes, yes! Because I’ve long felt that the West’s perception of the Middle East is so skewed by its own weltanschauung as to make it simple fantasy. Michael Oren’s outstanding book tells this story, and (full disclosure) I wrote a whole novel about it.
So, to West, we’re Fantasy Island (which would make Netanyahu Mr. Roarke, and Amir Ohana possibly Tattoo). But fantasy is dangerous when it clashes with reality: when your dream vacation resort turns out to be a cheap tourist trap, or when your dream virtual romance meets bodily functions. When this bubble bursts, the insightful minority looks inward, wondering “where did I go wrong?” But most people just get angry at being misled (which is where many American Jews are stuck).
But that’s only one side of the coin. Friedman writes that when “…Westerners peer out at the world, what they’re really looking for is a mirror.” Yet mirrors are unidirectional, whereas fantasies are a two-way street. As much as I get the geopolitical and strategic importance of what the West thinks about us—I’m living and raising three kids here on Fantasy Island. And what really worries me is that how the West perceives us continues to influence how we perceive ourselves.
There Are No White Hats on Fantasy Island
The Trump days were so much more fun. We were SO Fantasy Island, even including planeloads of visitors, until Covid sadly shut that down. For four years, we luxuriated in being The Good Guys. The US embassy move to Jerusalem, the recognition of sovereignty over the Golan (each valid and important in its own right) reinforced this so strongly that our collective shoulders grew sore from patting ourselves on the back.
Sure, the Europeans were naysayers, but after a while they got busy with the pandemic and piped down. We had a closed feedback loop, in which we could feed our self-perceptions from America, which continued to feed its own perceptions from us…and circle was complete.
We got used to this constant self-validation. Our government certainly did. But anyone who’s lived here long enough—no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re from—realizes that Israel is, has always been, a moral grey zone. In case we needed reminding, we had the latest round of fighting in Gaza to remind us. Were we wrong to bomb Hamas targets in populated areas? Absolutely not. Were we right to kill civilians while doing so? No. Did we have any other choice? No. See? As grey as dishwater after a Shabbat BBQ.
The Bottom Line
The fact is that even though the world seems to really love a good Western, there are no Good Guys and Bad Guys here on Fantasy Island. I don’t choose to berate the world for telling a simplistic version of our story—I expect it. But just because they see us in black and white should not lead us into the trap of doing the same. The road forward in the Middle East is not paved with the moral absolutism that has taken root in our political and social dialogue—but rather with the acceptance of our very grey reality. Don’t let Mr. Roarke tell you otherwise.