Looking for truth among the lies

Trying to find some reality among all the strong emotions that the issues of Israel and Palestine th

Israel draws extreme reactions. For a tiny country of only seven million people, it arouses unique passions. It touches deep feelings, some of which are easy to understand, while others are beyond logic.

On one side are those who damn the country. Their motivations vary: anti-Semitism and a visceral hatred of everything Jewish; or objections, based on religious belief, against the presence of a Jewish state on perceived Muslim Waqf land; or Jews on the left who feel driven to distance themselves publicly from Israel for reasons that are not always fathomable but seem to stem from embarrassment at having been born Jewish.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its grip on the Gaza Strip are bad enough, but critics distort and exaggerate these with accusations of "genocide". They falsely try to convey a picture of marauding Israeli soldiers, randomly killing as they go, and of artillery shells fired without any care. They ignore the context of the conflict, which has put Israel on the defensive, in an unceasing struggle to survive, from even before its founding as a state nearly 60 years ago.

The Palestinian occupation is described as unprecedented in the world. Never mind China's long occupation of Tibet. The tragedy of the killing of Palestinians is claimed to be without parallel - as though there were no Darfur, no Rwanda, no Bosnia.

The prejudices of these critics are so deep-rooted that they are unwilling or unable to take on board that both sides contribute to the conflict, and that it is as little a matter of Israelis bad and Palestinians good as one of Israelis good and Palestinians bad. They pervert the meaning of Zionism, as if it were a uniquely racist ideology, instead of a national liberation movement comparable with others elsewhere. They condemn the "Jewish state" as though no group of people had the right to decide for itself how it wants to order its society. (And they do not know, or they choose to ignore, that the Jewish state is diluted by the considerable percentage of people who are not Jewish - the Arab 20 per cent and the roughly 7 per cent non-Jewish Russian immigrants. Even children of immigrant workers are now slowly getting citizenship.)

The detractors also accuse Israel of "apartheid", seeking to equate Israel with the old South Africa so as to have it branded an illegitimate state and hence open to international sanctions. But Israel is not an apartheid state. Its Arab minority certainly suffers discrimination, and that is wrong and objectionable, but to compare them with black South Africans under apartheid is laughable.

At the other pole of attitudes towards Israel are those many (perhaps most) Jews around the world who support it unreservedly. To them, Israel can do no wrong. That is understandable: the creation of Israel fulfilled the centuries-old dream of a persecuted people. Israel's existence means that Jews have a champion to protest against anti-Semitism wherever it surfaces. It is the ultimate place of refuge. Jews will no longer go to the slaughterhouse.

Yet one cannot justify denial of criticism. Israel is in occupation in the West Bank, and that leads to cruel and ugly actions. Hundreds of checkpoints control the movement of Palestinians. Israel's hold on the territory is steadily extended by aggressive settlers and the government fails to fulfil its promises to curb them. The Gaza Strip is a prison of misery and despair.

Israelis are morally corrupted by what they do in the cause of survival. The details are known. The information appears daily in Israeli new s papers and is carried in the international media. Those supporters of Israel who refuse to face up to the realities lose credibility. Integrity and justice demand exposure, questioning and action.

Apart from the opposing groups of supporters and critics which react, each in its own way, with knee-jerk predictability, there is a broad cross-section of people around the world whose attitude towards Israel is shaped by what they read in newspapers and see on television: they react with dismay and anger, and sympathise with Palestinian suffering. They have a negative view of Israel as an oppressor. On the other hand, many are repelled by what they see on the Palestinian side of the fence: suicide bombings have seriously shaken the Palestinians' moral high ground and their international support - quite apart from the damage done to peace efforts by driving many Israeli Jews to the right.

These different opinions featured earlier this month on the Guardian's Comment Is Free website when a week was given over to the launch of the Independent Jewish Voices network. The IJV signatories include some of Britain's brightest intellects, whose critical views are aired all the time all over the place; but they explained that they'd had to start the organisation to beat the retribution the Jewish establishment exacts on those who criticise Israel. However implausible that might be, the week did yield well over a thousand posts to the blog, covering the range of possible views about Israel. That is healthy, and long may this free expression continue. It is up to readers to reach informed conclusions by picking their way through the evasions, the distortions, the ignorance, and the lies.

Benjamin Pogrund is co-editor of "Shared Histories: a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue" (Left Coast Press); he will be speaking about it on 4 March during Jewish Book Week