The country I wanted to love

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Fourteen years ago, I received a writing assignment that any journalist would have jumped at: to go with other media representatives on a week-long visit to Israel and to report on our observations. Although the trip was sponsored by the Israeli government, and therefore clearly a PR initiative, we were under no instructions as to what to write about, or how. Of course there were implicit or effective restrictions: our itinerary did not include visits to Gaza, the West Bank or other Palestinian-controlled areas, and we had no interviews with Palestinians (interestingly, one of our companions, ABS-CBN’s Uma Khouny, was half-Filipino and half Arab-Israeli).

As expected, we saw the best of Israel, the sites that any “Holy Land” tour would have included: the Temple Mount, the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea, Masada, the bazaars and so on. We also visited a kibbutz and marveled at how its inhabitants could coax so much life and verdure out of barren desert. We were brought to a state-of-the-art facility where we drove an Israeli-made, 100 percent electric car around a track (this was in 2010, mind you). Just outside Tel Aviv, we met children at a hospital where they had heart operations they couldn’t have afforded or gotten otherwise; these children included Palestinians, Angolans, Chinese and yes, a Filipino. We watched vibrant performances of contemporary Israeli dance and music. We were moved close to tears by a visit to the Holocaust exhibits at Yad Vashem.

We left deeply impressed by the Israel we had seen and experienced, and I reported as much in two “Penman” columns for The STAR. We were aware that we had not seen everything on our carefully curated tour, and we understood that there were simmering tensions behind the high walls that were rising all over the place to block off zones that the government might have considered unsafe, but there was a time for every story, and this time was our hosts’.

Israel did not even need to invite me to gain my sympathy. Like many Catholic boys in the 1960s, I grew up steeped in the belief that the Jews were God’s chosen people – why else would he have delivered them out of Egypt (a scene replayed over and over again in Technicolor on Holy Week) to the Promised Land? I read Leon Uris’ Exodus and enjoyed the movie version with its memorable theme, “This Land Is Mine.” I learned to sing “Hava Nagila,” and so did you.

Over the next decades I would watch countless documentaries on the Mossad and its exploits in capturing Adolf Eichmann, freeing the hostages at Entebbe, going after the leaders of Black September in the wake of the Munich Olympics massacre and gathering intelligence leading to the Yom Kippur War. The eye-patched Moshe Dayan and the grandmotherly Golda Meir were both cinematically compelling. More than biblical heroes, Israelis and Jews represented the finest of human qualities – tenacity, ingenuity, resolve, courage and imagination. Even beyond Israel, who could argue with the brilliance of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jascha Heifetz, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Marc Chagall? Never mind the Rothschilds and the Shylocks.

But now much of that luster has tragically vanished, lifted like so much vapor, in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Gaza and its horrific toll on human life.

Like most onlookers from afar, I was appalled and outraged by Hamas’ attack on Israeli communities and citizens last Oct. 7; subsequent reports of rapes and executions showed these assaults to have been premeditatedly barbaric, calculated to sow fear and terror in the enemy. No matter the history behind them, no matter the grievances that may have led to their unleashing, the violence committed, especially against innocent civilians, was brutish and repulsive.

Israel may have gained the moral high ground at that point in its pledge to avenge the victims, recover the hostages and destroy Hamas, but it soon lost that superiority in its disproportionately savage invasion of Gaza. All its claims to sophistication and efficiency in waging war – the kind of surgical operation on display at Entebbe and elsewhere – went out the window in air strikes that have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, including hapless children; even those who miraculously survive will forever bear the scars and trauma of this assault. To “weed out” Hamas, Netanyahu’s Israel has chosen to flatten and to destroy the whole garden. And as if the world were not watching, an Israeli commander even declared on TV that “there is no famine in Gaza.”

This has gone far beyond “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The Israelis have claimed buckets of Palestinian eyes and teeth for every one lost to an Israeli. They have exceeded even the Roman practice of decimation, by which every tenth man in a cohort was executed in punishment for the offenses of the lot; instead, ten Palestinians seem to have suffered for every Hamas member deemed at fault for the Oct. 7 attack (the actual kill ratio has been 30 to 1). The supreme irony of it is that Israel has merely guaranteed that Hamas’ age-old causes and resentments will live on, and even prosper, with global sympathy for Palestinian self-determination, as may have been Hamas’ game plan all along.

Of course, the State of Israel does not need our admiration and affection, and we understand that it is engaged in an existential fight for its life on many fronts, as it has been since its inception in varying degrees of intensity; the same can now be said for the Palestinians. My opinion as a distant Filipino commentator will change nothing (except perhaps preclude me from further invitations to deplane at Ben-Gurion airport). I realize that what I am saying here will please neither side of this conflict and their partisans, and I expect to receive mail to insist that I failed to see this and that and to justify the ferocity of their actions. I know that we are no longer watching a movie with a billowing theme song and clear heroes and villains.

But I suspect I am not alone in expressing my great sadness over the turn taken by a country I wanted to love. I can only take refuge in thinking that not all Israelis are Netanyahus, and not all Palestinians are Hamas. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” I wonder if that line from Deuteronomy has its equivalent in the Torah, or the Koran for that matter.

*      *      *


Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

vuukle comment


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

Get Updated:

Signup for the News Round now

or sign in with