It was Yom Kippur, and for the first time in many years I was spending it in synagogue.
More than a feeling of kinship and solidarity with my fellow Jews the world over, it evoked a strange sense of timelessness. The hymns that were chanted were the same hymns that were being chanted, with varying tunes and accents, by Jews in disparate locations all over the globe. The Hebrew lettering on the talit, or prayer shawl, of the man in front of me was the same lettering that would have appeared on ancient Jewish prayer shawls in a distant and long-forgotten past.
In Israel, Yom Kippur was marked by the burying of the dead, those cruelly murdered by a suicide bombing in a Haifa restaurant.
The world reacted in outrage when Israel retaliated with a missile strike on a terrorist training camp outside Damascus, accusing Israel of a breach of international law.
The outrage seemed disproportionate to the muted reaction that followed then-President Clinton’s missile strikes on a harmless Sudanese pharmaceutical factory following terrorist attacks on American embassies in West Africa. Those strikes didn’t even have the virtue of being said to strike their target.
Let us leave aside the question for now of whether, if in fact it was a breach of international law to unilaterally strike at a terrorist training camp within another country’s borders, it is not a greater breach of international law to actively cultivate a terrorist training camp within those borders. One does not like to seem to ask probing questions of matters that lie within another sovereign country’s jurisdiction, but what business do terrorist training camps have proliferating just outside a nation’s capital anyway?
However ethically justified the action, the immediate consequences in global perception were obvious. The headlines, hours after the suicide bombing, read not, “Israel victim of horrific massacre,” but, “Israel strikes at Syria,” with helpful commentary in the body of the articles that in so doing, Israel “escalated tensions in the region” and “broadened the scope of the conflict.” Harboring terrorist training camps in one’s country is not, apparently, deemed to escalate tensions of any sort.
We were then treated to the spectacle of an outraged Syria righteously denouncing this deviation from the strict rule of law before the world body.
Israel, like the US, is squandering the sympathy and goodwill that it could otherwise be cultivating by virtue of its victim status.
If the strikes were not launched in urgent self-defense – and they do not seem to be – then surely Israel would have benefited more by bringing her case before UN and, arguably more importantly, the court of world opinion. Surely it would be a wiser policy to try to garner sympathy for one’s plight, than by appearing the aggressor.
Democracies can be said to be at a considerable disadvantage to authoritarian regimes in this respect. A liberal democracy will always produce – and disseminate – dissenting views from within that oppose its official position. The very nature of a democracy is to encourage self-criticism almost to the point of being consumed by it. This showy cacophony of noisy, disordered, factious squabbling is the symphony of a functioning democracy.
An authoritarian regime, on the other hand – like those in the Arab world – produces a unified and homogeneous position for external consumption, by suppressing internal dissent. To compound matters, even democratic observers are constrained in their reporting of the reality of these regimes. When two Israeli soldiers were lynched in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority confiscated the video footage taken by foreign reporters. The images we have of the brutal lynching are courtesy of an enterprising Italian film crew, who smuggled the footage out – and later issued an apology to the PA for the action. More recently, discussing media coverage of Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, CNN’s Eason Jordan admitted to a policy of self-censorship in order to maintain journalistic access to the country. Even the reviled Qatar-based al-Jazeera, which may be said to be one of the region’s freest Arabic-language networks, is only tolerated under an uneasy truce that forbids criticism of its host country.
Any authoritarian regime worthy of its name knows that tightly held control over the production and dissemination of information is crucial to its continued existence. Thus, for example, we have the endless parade of images of Mohammed al-Dura from the Arab world, despite a mounting body of evidence that he was killed by Palestinian gunmen, and not the Israeli Defense Forces.
Mostly, though, it’s only after the fall of a regime that the full extent of its cynicism and brutality begins to emerge, as in the Soviet Union and, more recently, Iraq. Thus we learnt that in Hussein-era Iraq, a regime not known for its distaste of torturing children, parents were prevented from burying dead children in accordance with Islamic law. Instead, the little corpses were kept refrigerated sometimes for months, so that they could later be paraded through the streets – while bereaved parents were cynically ordered to wail with grief – as ghastly illustrations of the consequences of sanctions. As the ghostly parade of dead children winded its way through Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was gold-plating the palace plumbing.
If Israel and the United States are to combat the Arab regimes in the arena of world opinion, then they too must launch public relations exercises. But because they are of necessity subjected to a greater degree of scrutiny, and held to a higher standard of accountability, any attempts to sway world opinion must not sink to the level of unreality produced by the Arab world.
Thus, for example, the self-censorship we saw among US networks post-9/11, where images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center and desperate souls flinging themselves from the inferno of its top floors were swiftly withdrawn from public consumption, should have been strongly discouraged.
By launching a public relations exercise showcasing the horror regularly inflicted on her citizens, both within and without the country, and the stringent security measures that are thereby imposed on them, Israel could convey some sense of the direness of her plight. Encouraging greater journalistic coverage – or even releasing state-produced footage – of the carnage following a suicide bombing attack may bring home the stark realities of terror to a world audience, however distasteful this may be. The world should learn the realities of daily Israeli life, where sidewalk cafes must be patrolled by watchful security guards, a visit to the mall entails a careful search of your purse, and a lost shopping bag forgotten in a bathroom stall results in the dispatch of the ubiquitous bomb squad.
Even at my synagogue in far-away Canada, goers were obliged to show proof of identification to the security guards at the door.
But beyond mere emotional manipulation, these countries should eschew the unilateral policies of the past and more vigorously court world opinion in their endeavors, where doing so won’t impede their own self-defense. From the war on Iraq to the missile strike on Syria, this they have signally failed to do.
The outrage over Israeli actions in Syria did have a bright side, though. This time, the usual chorus of condemnation over the Israeli policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers was muted to only a few, faint peeps.