Sunday, March 31, 2013

Playing on your sympathy: the Israeli-Palestinian Meme

Meme:  a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable.

I am a left-leaner.  What must be said here, then, is particularly painful for me.  

Recently, I watched a British TV series about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called The Promise.  The Promise uses a dual story device.  In one story, a young woman visiting an Israeli family is exposed to the gritty violence of today's conflict.  The second story takes us back in time, where the young woman's grandfather is a British soldier during the British Mandate of the Palestine prior to the 1948 partition.  The title plays both on Israel as the Promised Land to which Europe's ravaged Jewish remnants fled after World War II and a promise made by the grandfather character to a dying Arab child hit by an Irgun bullet as he was fleeing Palestine in 1948.  My reaction to this series prompted a huge conversation on my Facebook wall.  I admit, most of the conversing was mine.  I was pretty shaken by the production.  I've posted the entire exchange below, and hope you'll take a look. 

The Promise is a riveting show, really well acted and directed, and "factually-based."  Except so many facts about Israel's actions are missing - or worse, given a back story that is factually inaccurate or incomplete.  I outlined a fair number of these on the Facebook posts below, so I won't repeat it here.  And many facts about the Palestinian role are simply left out.  Those left in are contextualized for viewer sympathy - even suicide bombings.  

The overall effect is to demonize Israel and Israelis, and to suggest that the entire mess is Israel's fault, and has been since before U.N. partition of the area that resulted in the Jewish state of Israel.  For example, the young soldier character of the grandfather, who was present at the liberation of one of the German camps before arriving in Palestine, writes in his diary, 

"What about the Jews and their bloody state for which they fought so hard?  Three years ago I would have said give them whatever they want, they deserve it after all they've been through.  Now I'm not so sure."   

Back in the present, even the story's "one good Jew" (my terminology) - good because he reaches across the Israeli - Palestinian divide to search for peace - is ultimately unable to escape his inherently malignant Jewishness when push comes to shove.  He picks up a gun to defend himself during a terrorist attack on his army base.  When challenged by the granddaughter for firing on Palestinians, instead of saying, "Well, there's a difference between the Palestinians I work with for peace, and the terrorists who just tried to take our lives.  I don't apologize for trying to save the lives of my unit and myself," he simply says, "It's called 'loyalty'," insinuating that Jewish loyalty to Jews will always take precedence over doing the right thing.  Which further implies that doing the right thing between Palestinians and Israelis means Israelis should stand by and let themselves be killed. Wait, how about if we just walk ourselves into the sea, eh?  

And, oh by the way, never again.

But maybe that is the right thing to do, if you believe that the Jews brought all this onto themselves, this movie's premise... and, the premise of the current leftist Israeli-Palestinian conflict meme.  Because this post isn't about The Promise.  It's about an existing meme that's been successfully sold to us who inhabit the ideological left.  The Promise did not create this meme.  It is already pervasive in our culture.  This meme looks at the relative strength of the Israelis compared to the Palestinians, and on that fact alone, denounces the Israelis as illegal occupiers, responsible for the entire middle eastern mess.   The meme is the biblical David and Goliath meme.  We on the left love the underdog.  Me included.  There's some irony in that, since here Israel is the Goliath. 

Take, for example, Code Pink, a woman-initiated group whose mission is anti-war.  Code Pink claims not to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but nevertheless claims the Israeli occupation is the root cause of the conflict.  Reading all the other good stuff on their web page, this one small denouncement of Israel may sound minor.  Yet it spins out as a denial of legitimacy for any of Israel's actions, discounting even highly validating information from sources you think they'd trust.  For example, Code Pink disagreed with a U.N. decision not to open talks with Hamas because Hamas is on its list of terrorist groups.  Considering that the U.N. is notorious for taking anti-Israel positions, you'd think that if even the U.N. thinks Hamas is a terrorist organization, Code Pink would take that seriously.   This link, by the way, will take you to a thorough discussion of Hamas by CNN.  

Code Pink is not the only organization out there that believes Israel owns the problem.  They have been joined by the Presbyterian Church, the Canadian Union of Public Employee, and several other generally credible academic institutions.  It's difficult not to accept a meme outright when it has been embraced by such "legitimate" organizations.  

Don't you feel compelled to doubt me now, knowing that the intelligent, compassionate Presbyterian Church is embracing it?  Even I feel compelled to doubt me!  But I suggest you read this piece by a Presbyterian insider, or this one from the Baltimore Sun, or this  op ed from the Stanford Daily before swallowing the meme whole.  

While there is no doubt that Israel has the physical upper hand, it is not a given that it prefers its situation or that it could easily back away.  This is the fallacy of the meme.  

I could spend a lot of time here showing you why it has not been able to back away, looking, for example, at what happened when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.  You can read about what was supposed to happen here, and what did happen, here and here.  You need to read both of the last two articles to have a full story, as the academic analysis significantly downplays the fear-mongering and the large increase Hamas rockets flying into Israel from Gaza after withdrawal.  I trust my reader to read both articles and put the truth, which is no doubt somewhere in between the two versions, together for yourselves.

But my point is not in that digression.  My point is that, for the meme to be true, you must accept as given that Israel being bigger and stronger automatically makes Israel the bad guy.  Let me ask you to take a short digression, and check this article on guerrilla warfare.  Little "Davids" manage to have the upper hand over "Goliaths" more than you'd think.  I'm not saying that makes Palestinians winners in the current scenario.  I'm simply saying it makes it more difficult than you might guess for Israel to either solve or back away from the problem.  Especially when none of the three Palestinian political powers, Fatah, Hamas or Hezbollah, have as yet verbalized a willingness to accept a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.   

Today I read an article in Algemeiner about a Palestinian NGO whose mission is to promote dialogue and peace within Palestinian society and also between Israel and the Palestinians. This NGO published an article asserting that Jewish blood libel does occur.  Blood libel, in case you've never heard of it, is the [non-existent] practice by Jews of using the blood of non-Jewish children in their ritual Passover food preparation - to make Matzo or wine. This has NEVER been true, as Jews abhor and have always abhorred human sacrifice. Check the biblical story, "the binding of Isaac," at Genesis 22:5, where Abraham binds Isaac and lays him upon a stone to sacrifice, until an angel stays his arm.  You will not find human sacrifice in Jewish tradition anywhere.  Anywhere.  

Nevertheless, the claim of blood libel has been used against the Jewish people extensively - during the Crusades in Europe and the middle east, and later during pogroms in Russia and in Nazi-held areas of Eastern Europe - to justify turning civilian populations out to massacre their Jewish neighbors.  When asked to denounce the article, the NGO simply said it was "promoting open dialogue."  Although it eventually took the article down, it did not denounce the idea that blood libel is a Jewish practice.  It is one thing to promote open dialogue. It is quite another to promote hateful antisemitic falsehoods that rouse hatred and push peace even further away - and that under a banner of a supposed peace organization.   

Blood libel is a meme that is not useful for garnering western support because we are disinclined to believe that Jews kill children and bake their blood into Matzah. But it has been quite a useful meme through-out history for fomenting hatred where anti-Zionism or antisemitism are already in full bloom.  

But "open dialogue," on the other hand, is also a meme.  It's a meme that's much loved and much called for by those of us on the left, and so it is a perfect antidote to ease our discomfort with the blood libel meme that was never supposed to reach our liberal western ears.  It helps us overlook the blatant antisemitic falsehood.  It helps us avoid questioning the meme we've already accepted.

About two weeks ago, one of my dearest non-Jewish friends asked me a question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict framed such that the question itself assumed Israel as the demon in its very wording, and the Palestinians the innocent victim. When I pointed out that the way she framed the question created a foregone conclusion for an answer, she apologized, said she's really very uneducated about the topic, and asked me to help educate her. When I saw today's article about blood libel, I thought of my friend and the way she's accepted the meme without much thought.  After all, we liberals - and I include myself in this statement - like underdogs and hate oppression.  Oh, and we love open dialogue.

Friends, you have never, ever heard me say that Israel is blameless in its conflict with the Palestinians.  And as we get further and further away from the concentration camps, it is harder and harder to remember not to hate.  Israeli children are being brought up with hatred all around them, just as are Palestinian children.  This hatred exacerbates the problem from both sides.  

Yet, it is a slippery slope from the reality that Israelis do, indeed, contribute to the Palestinian-Israeli problems, to a meme that claims Israelis are fully and malevolently responsible for the situation, while Palestinians are completely blameless and helpless.  

These two powerful media events - a riveting British part-fact, part-fiction TV show, and a libelous, antisemitic article published and promoted by an NGO with peace as its mission - use the legitimacy of their organizations coupled with bold-faced lies to perpetuate dishonest memes about the Israeli role.  These memes are incredibly effective in villainizing Israel, particularly with certain groups of people whose hearts - understandably so - go out to the underdog.  

But memes created from twisted facts do not change facts on the ground.  They do not change Israel's need to protect its people, and they do not help us get to peace.  

# # #

Sandy Price shared a link.
Friday near Phoenix

I just got through watching a BBC production called The Promise, a skillful but virulently anti-Zionist production that portrays all Israelis as rich, loyal to the Jewish cause no matter what, ok with needless violence, and the situation inIsrael, which is referred to as Palestine throughout, as entirely the fault of the Jews. The first part in the four part series does show the suffering of the Jewish people by the hand of the Nazis, and also the fact that the British rounded up the Jews who came from Germany and put them in camps. But after that, there is only the story told from the perspective of the Arabs. No wonder so many people think Israel is the bad guy. Nothing is ever that black & white.
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  • Michele Kerr likes this.
  • Dax Howard BBC has always been kind of anti-semetic, hasn't it? At least I remember hearing that criticism quite a bit.
  • Drew Alyeshmerni I'm an Israeli citizen, and I'm leaving Israel after 7 years because I'm sick and tired of scraping by month to month AND watching my debt GROW. So much for that...
  • Neil Berro The Brits like to think they are moral
  • Robyne Stevenson I watched the first episode at your prompting and started learning history I never knew. I hope to watch the rest of it as well and will keep your admonitions in mind.
  • Melanie Hoffman Greenberg Not a surprise, considering the source, BBC.
  • Sandy Price Melanie, a surprise considering the director is Jewish.
  • Dax Howard Well that makes it a little more interesting. Lol.
  • Sandy Price Robyne Stevenson, that's how I felt when I watched the first episode. And it's very well done - riviting even - as a story. But after the first episode, they intentionally make the Brits and the Arabs sympathetic, and made the Jews out as pure evil. Nothing is that black and white.
  • Sandy Price For example, the series equates the Irgun's bombing of the King David hotel with Palestinian suicide bombers. This is very far-fetched. They give lots of context for the actions of the Brits and the Palestinians, but no context at all for the actions of the Irgun. And, completely contrary to the film, the Irgun loudly warned the Brits to evacuate the King David Hotel before the bombing, whereas suicide bombers intentionally do not warn, hoping for the largest possible loss of life. They neglect to mention that the Irgun was not the only acting group in Israel at the time, and that many other Jewish groups inside and outside of Israel condemned the Irgun. Ben Gurion called them “the enemy of the Jewish people”. Also, I don't know who decided to paint Israeli Jews as rich people living in Hollywood style homes, but land is at a premium in Jerusalem, and some of the best off families live in small apartments. I know my relatives do. This simply plays into the myth of Jews as wealthy bad guys. And I know VERY FEW Jews, Israeli or American, who hate the Arabs and want to move them into the sea, or do not feel compassion and dream of a solution that enables the Palestinians and the Israelis to live together in peace. Yes, I've met a crazy or two, but they are the exception, not the rule.
  • Sandy Price The thing that is bothering me, aside from the obvious, is that you can claim that this is well-researched and the history is accurate, e.g. there was a bombing of the King David - which I'm not defending, mind you - but you can create a story around it that makes it sympathetic, or a story that demonizes. Later in the series, there is a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant, and one of the characters - however unlikely this is - finds herself in the home of the family of the bomber, and they weave a very sympathetic story around this family, even though the character herself and her host family's son had been terribly injured in this bombing. There is no such sympathetic contextual story around any of the actions of the Jewish people. When the main character visits her host family's patriarch, who was in the Irgun, he is shown as a pompous, wealthy character who is proud of his actions. The host mother - and other Jews - call Palestinians "animals." There are many scenes of Jewish children throwing rocks at Palestinian women and children - something I've never heard of EVER - but no scenes of Palestinian children throwing stones at Israelis. In this film, all Israeli soldiers are ALWAYS cruel to Palestinians. And, even "the good guy," the host son who is working for Palestinian/Israeli peace, cannot escape his evil Jewish heart. When he is visiting his old unit and it is violently attacked by gunfire, he picks up a gun to defend himself and his unit, which the director paints as his loyalty to fellow Jews being stronger than his morals, rather than painting it as an attempt to defend his life, or the lives of his fellows.
  • Melanie Hoffman Greenberg Very upsetting portrayal. But, unfortunately, not so unusual. When Martin Fletcher was the Middle East correspondent for NBC (Jewish and British) I would yell at him during his reports. I tried to get him fired by speaking to the head of NBC news. Years later, I find out he is a child of survivors and his son in the IDF. Don't know why he reported the way he did, just like you described, showing one side as sympathetic and only one side of story. Too many news organizations today decide ahead of time what view they want to get across instead of just reporting the facts.
    Friday at 8:43am via mobile · Unlike · 1
  • Dan Field Sandy, What is scary to me is how many young liberals are very sympathetic to the idea that the Israelis and American Jews are evil because they abuse Palestinians and will not allow them the freedom of having their own country. Their historical context is very weak.
  • Sandy Price Yeah I know. Not even just the young ones.
  • Dan Field Agreed. Many Americans, that are not Jewish, in their 30' and 40's insist the Israelis are at fault and Israelis they need to accept the Palestinian demands
  • Melanie Hoffman Greenberg Israel's biggest shortfall is their inability to work the PR. They are doing it better on FB, but not the major media.
  • Sandy Price Melanie, how can any pr possibly overcome this sort of fact-twisting?
  • Melanie Hoffman Greenberg It's hard because a lot of it is the mindset of the news organization.
    If they could bring the news departments on fact finding trips, it would be great, but that won't happen. They just don't have the funds to send a lot of positive stories to the outlets. Gene just said they should bring John Stewart to Israel, as his reporting is pretty negative and he loves JS. On FB I am seeing a lot of stories about medical and other technology advances, helping other countries in times of crisis and even getting medical support to Syrians.
  • Sandy Price Check this. You just want to reach through the computer, take the guy by the lapels and say, "Hmm... we can all agree that liberal western ideals are perfect, and take the Israel away from the Jews because everyone SHOULD get along, or we can acknowledge the reality of history. Jews are despised scapegoats throughout history, and have a right to a safe haven.
  • Melanie Hoffman Greenberg You go girl! (To your comments/article above)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Southwest Air - Standardize This!

Love this visual!

Today I had a chance - again - to practice self control on a phone call with a customer service rep for a large corporation. 

What is it about telephone customer service that makes it so frustrating?  It is the place I am most likely to lose my cool.   My hunch is that it's because there's no way to get from "here" to "fair."  

Sunday I attempted to apply "travel funds" - money Southwest Airlines holds when you cancel a non-refundable flight - to a ticket purchase. I put in the confirmation of the cancelled flight, hit "apply travel funds" and was swiftly booted to an error message. My second choice would have been to purchase the tickets using points. However, in the five minutes before I called customer service first to find out why the internet wouldn't take my travel funds, I received a receipt that confirmed the tickets and charged them to my credit card - even though the error message was still on my screen and I'd never gone back to complete the purchase.  I purchased dozens of flights via Southwest's website over the years, and I know this is not supposed to happen. But it did.

When I told this to the first customer service rep, she did not believe me.  By the time I got to the fourth customer service rep, he said something like, "I can't always explain why these burps happen.  It somehow populated ...well, I just don't try to explain." 

The first customer service person told me that I had to call a special number to get a refund, which had to be done within 24 hours, and then I could re-book using my travel fund dollars. Except, due to weather related call volume, that phone number gave me a busy signal each of the 30 or so times I tried it between Sunday and this afternoon. When I finally got through, they offered to refund me the money so I could use my points - even though the 24 hour period had passed - but in the interim the ticket prices had risen. Meaning, whether I pay in dollars, travel funds or points, if I get a refund now, a repurchase will be at a higher price.

Although they were apologetic, they do not see the fact that the computer took $237 dollars off my credit card without permission, or that they were not available to refund the money in time for me to preserve the fare, as a problem.

I spent the entire conversation talking myself down so that I would not sound like a bitch to the guy on the phone, knowing this really wasn't his fault. And it wasn't even his attitude. It's just the way it is, and nothing he can do about it.  

And by the way, an apology that is not accompanied by fixing the problem feels like no apology at all.

There is a tension between what a human being - the customer service rep - might be moved to do by the plight of another human being, and what it is in a company's best interest to do.  This tension occasionally results in a gap between what it might be right to do, and what the company has authorized someone to do.  Or even what it is possible to do. For example, I'm pretty sure Southwest's computer system would not let the rep give me tickets today at Sunday's fare - even though that would be the fair thing to do.  

In an older, slower, smaller world, your beef could be taken up with the proprietor.  You knew the proprietor. He or she was probably a neighbor, or at least lived in your community. The proprietor had an interest in keeping customers happy in a more immediate way than today.  There were fewer customers.  Customers talked among themselves.  He or she had a reputation to keep.  

Today the beef is with the proprietor, but it's handled through channels and layers.  And there are so many customers, that this all has to be standardized.  And there is technology, which both enables amazing things like online ticket purchases, and constrains our ability to have a truly human interaction - eye contact, facial expression, things that make us human to one-another, and hopefully draw out the best in us.

To Southwest's credit, the customer service guy actually gave me his first and last names, which I think is a step up from the normal run-around one gets.  And all four of the customer service people I spoke with, the woman last Sunday, the two women at the Rapid Rewards Customer Service number I called today when I was sick of a busy signal at the other customer service number, and the last fellow, were polite and even "patient."  More patient than I.  At the beginning of the call, I even apologized to the last of these folk in advance for whatever frustration he heard in my tone, after spending so much time trying to resolve a problem that should never have happened. 

I think Southwest wants to keep customers happy.  But in standardizing everything - and I understand why it has to be standardized - it cannot anticipate things like weird computer phenomena, or my not being able to get through to customer service past their 24 hour deadline due to heavy weather in the middle and eastern half of the country. 

So, given those realities, there are questions to be answered.

Who should take the hit for something that can't be corrected because of the nature of the system, even when it wasn't my fault - in this case, for pillaging my credit card without my permission, removing the choice I had about how to pay?  The company or the customer? 

What approach might help the poor customer reps who play the middle between customers and big, impersonal, corporate proprietors, even when they are trapped by constraints like these?   What would ease the frustration for customers, and what would maintain good will on the part of the proprietor?  What else could they do that they're not doing now?

Here is my idea:  why not "standardize" some of these responses:

Let the customer be right, like the good old days.  Train your reps to be ombudsmen instead of defensive line backers.  Find a way to get faster resolutions, instead of lengthy waiting periods that waste hours, compound frustration, and create bad will.  If one person can't solve the problem, enable that person to "take" the customer to the person who can, and to stay on the line for a few moments as the ombudsman, to smooth the transition.  If all else fails, create and factor into the bottom line some "gimmes" that can be used liberally to soothe customers in situations like these.  

What ideas do you have?