Harriet Sherwood’s Cultural Baggage.

Many years ago I went down to breakfast in a hotel in Istanbul only to find a large tour group of British holiday-makers already ensconced in the dining room.  As I perused the luscious menu, the waiters hovered around the other tables, trying to take orders. At each table they got the same instructions: “Just a pot of boiling water and some bread rolls”. My amusement at the perplexed expressions on the waiters’ faces then turned to uncontrollable snorts of laughter as the tourists began to set out upon the tables an impressive array of produce from the motherland, ranging from Tetley’s tea bags to Robertson’s marmalade.

That same prissy and parochial attitude, that inability to even try to be open to a different culture, that passing of judgement according to standards of ‘I know what I like and I like what I know’ are often glaringly apparent in Harriet Sherwood’s writing, and her latest missive subtitled “IDF programme for young Jews from outside Israel is part of a militaristic culture” shows that in nine months in Israel Sherwood has done nothing to try to understand the place in which she lives. That would not matter if Sherwood were just yet another British tourist with a head full of unshakable stereotypes, but she is supposed to be a foreign correspondent who enables her readers to better understand a foreign country. If Sherwood herself can’t be bothered to try to comprehend Israelis, what chance do her readers have?

In her article Sherwood interviews a young woman from Britain who has taken part in a voluntary eight week program for gap-year students. In other words, two women from the same culture discuss a project in no way representative of what conscripted Israeli youth, who serve for a minimum of two to three years, experience.  The tone is already set by Sherwood’s choice of closed questions:

“An IDF video on youtube says that, in lectures and training, emphasis is placed on Israel’s security situation. I asked Lucy Cohen how that came across, and whether there was any acknowledgment of the IDF being an occupying force in the Palestinian territories.”

Naturally, Sherwood sees no necessity in reminding her readers how and why Israel came to be in control of land conquered and occupied 19 years previously by the Jordanian army or in pointing out that the areas still under Israeli control are in fact those defined as such under the Oslo accords which Palestinian representatives signed of their own free will.

“Her group had done a role play on an IDF mission to search a “house with terrorists”. Some of the group, she said, equated “Arabs” with “terrorists” without distinction. “I would say that there’s quite a lack of education,” she added.”

“The group”, one presumes, refers to the foreign students. In other words, this paragraph tells the reader nothing about Israel where Bedouin Arabs, Druze Arabs, Circassian Muslims and Christian Arabs serve side by side with Jewish Israelis in the IDF. All we learn here is that “some” (two? three?) of a group of unknown size made up of non-Israelis hold less than open-minded opinions. But Sherwood is only now getting into gear.

“I’ve spoken to young Britons, here on holiday or to visit family, who report a feeling of awe or admiration at their Israeli counterparts in uniform and toting loaded weapons.

Others are repelled by what they see as the glorification of the military.”

It is of course highly significant that Sherwood has chosen only to speak to “young Britons”. English-speaking Israeli soldiers are not exactly a rarity here by any stretch of the imagination, but to talk to them, to try to understand what it is like to be responsible for the defence of one’s country at the age of eighteen, might upset Harriet’s apple cart of stereotypes. She might even discover that guns are not ‘toted’, but carried for a very good reason and that whilst soldiers travel, the weapons are not loaded.

Now, let’s take a look at Sherwood’s use of the phrase ‘glorification of the military’. Given the overall tone of her article, we can probably safely conclude that in this context the definition she had in mind was something along the lines of “to cause to be or seem more glorious or excellent than is actually the case”.

Israelis do indeed hold their soldiers in high esteem, particularly those serving in elite units, because they are only too aware that those eighteen to twenty-one year-olds are sacrificing the best years of their lives to serve their country and protect its civilian population. On the other hand, unlike in Britain where one can live for years – particularly among the middle classes – and never really meet a soldier, in Israel the army is a people’s army. The soldiers are our children, our parents, our siblings, ourselves. The idea that something so universal, so ordinary,  can be glorified (particularly in Israel, where every wart and stumble is analysed and dissected by a much less docile media than that in the UK) is actually quite laughable. Washing a soldier’s smelly socks is not exactly conducive to exaltation in my experience.

Next, we are treated to Sherwood’s pseudo-psychological explanation of the role of the army in Israeli society.

“ The role that compulsory national service plays in Israeli society serves a number of purposes. Firstly, it provides the IDF with the raw material any army needs to fight battles. Secondly, it strongly reinforces the sense – felt acutely by most Israelis – that their nation is under constant existential threat. Thirdly, it serves to bind people together in a common experience.”

This, one has to admit, is priceless as an example of just how ridiculous a journalist can be when he or she is afflicted by a cultural blind-spot. First, there is the use of the phrase “raw material” – usually employed when talking about an innate object – which not only dehumanizes the soldiers themselves, but also takes no account of the soul-searching this nation undergoes in all sectors of society when military action is necessary. Unlike in Sherwood’s country, here the sons and daughters of Prime Ministers also serve shoulder to shoulder with the son of the street-sweeper. That fact makes for a kind of accountability of which Sherwood obviously cannot even conceive.

According to Sherwood, the army exists in part in order to deliberately manufacture a sense of constant existential threat. She is so locked in her own mental straightjacket that she cannot acknowledge that the IDF exists precisely because of the threats to Israel’s existence from day one of its establishment. Indeed, her lack of comprehension of the region as a whole prompts her final fluffy “why can’t they all just get along?” paragraph:

“The decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has produced a deeply-militarised culture on both sides. Instead of inculcating young people in weapons training and their inalienable right to the land, the prospects for a peaceful solution might improve if Jewish and Palestinian teenagers were taught more about a culture of peace, reconciliation and co-existence.”

So, seeing as Harriet Sherwood obviously has no intention of speaking to actual Israeli soldiers and finding out how they really feel about having to guard their country’s borders in the cold and rain or the searing summer heat, let me offer her the point of view of the mother of some of those soldiers.

This week I have been running around with our son – the youngest of five children. He is nearly seventeen and received his call-up papers some time ago, but by now we as a family are old hands at this. On Tuesday he had an optician’s appointment, on Wednesday he had to go to the call-up centre in our local town and on Thursday for a medical test at the local hospital. Next he has to return to the call-up centre and will receive his ‘profile’ – an assessment of his physical and mental abilities which will determine his choice of unit for the three years of his service.

I would very much prefer to be discussing with him choices of universities instead of army units right now. In fact when his oldest brother was born, around the time of the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, I was convinced that by the time he grew up there would be no need for him to go to the army. Of course, I was very wrong and so far I have stood four times choking back the tears as the child I have spent eighteen years protecting got on a bus at the call-up centre which would take him or her to places where I could no longer look after them.

We have been very lucky: all our children have come back safe and sound from Lebanon, from Gaza and from the hell-holes of Ramallah, Schem and Hevron during the second Intifada. In another year and a half the youngest will get on that bus too and another three years of sleepless nights and missed heart-beats at every late-night knock on the door will begin. I wish it were different. I wish my children had been able during those golden years to travel or study like the majority of the world’s youth. But it isn’t like that here, and the reason for that is not because Israel is a ‘militaristic’ society or because Israelis don’t want peace. The reason is that there are those in this world who do not want this country to exist – people who dress babies up as suicide bombers, who glorify (and here that word is appropriate) terrorists by naming town squares after them and teach small children that Jews are sub-human.

And if Harriet Sherwood is not perceptive enough to realise that if Israelis tomorrow lay down their guns and break out in a rousing chorus of ‘Kumbaya’, peace will not instantly descend upon the Middle East (quite the opposite, in fact), then she should stick to writing about subjects she does understand,  because clearly not only she is not up to doing her job, but she is also guilty of promoting untruths and entrenching misguided opinions about a conflict obviously far too complex for her level of understanding.

Just like those British tourists with their tea and marmalade, Harriet Sherwood clings to the cultural baggage she brought with her to a place where it is not in the least bit relevant and prevents her from discovering what is really happening around her. And just like generations of British colonialists and missionaries who stomped around the world with the aim of imposing their own standards and ideals on ‘inferior’ native populations, she too really does believe that she knows what is best for Israelis.

So much for ‘post-colonialism’.

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