Monday, June 30, 2008

30-Jun-08: Vilnai versus the victims

The Jerusalem Post carries an article by one of This Ongoing War's blogsters-in-chief in today's print and web edition.
Jun 30, 2008 1:04 | Updated Jun 30, 2008 2:22
Vilna'i's primitive paternalism

With his tongue-lashing of Sderot's beleaguered population two weeks ago, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i demonstrated a primitive mind-set common in Israeli politics.

"As for the residents (of Sderot), we here in Jerusalem suffered hundreds of casualties" he began, "hundreds dead. And you know this. Whether on exploding buses or other acts of madness in the heart of Israel. In our Jerusalem."

His tirade then slid into tantrum: "So did we say we can't sleep at night? Did we say we were helpless? Did we say we were abandoned? Would I, as a resident of Jerusalem, ever dream of saying such a thing?"

Like most Israeli politicians, Vilna'i clearly considers himself in loco parentis to his constituents and, as such, feels entitled to scold them freely whenever they are "naughty."

The near-silence that greeted Vilnai's supercilious attack was no less troubling. Israelis are so inured to this sort of paternalism that neither the media nor the public gave the deputy defense minister the dressing-down he deserved.

THE INCIDENT reminded American immigrants what it is they sorely miss. In the United States, an elected official is deemed indebted to the voters who gave him his job. If he forgets this basic tenet of democracy, the media and public waste no time in refreshing his memory.

In April 2007, Sen. Barack Obama committed a similar, albeit milder, gaffe to Vilnai's when he described working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana thus:

"So it's not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Fellow politicians and media pundits immediately accused Obama of elitism and of belittling the working class.

Obama initially refused to apologize for his remarks, but soon admitted they were ill-chosen.

"I didn't say it as well as I should have," he admitted at a campaign rally, later adding: "If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that."

VILNAI'S FAR more brazen attack on victims of terror begs at least that level of apology.

First, it is disingenuous.

As a member of the government, Vilna'i gets a Volvo and a chauffeur at taxpayers' expense. It is highly unlikely he has ever risked his life riding Jerusalem's public buses. And as one of Israel's elite, it is equally fair to assume he does not frequent any of the other sites of most of Jerusalem's bloodiest massacres, such as pizza shops, cafes or promenades.

Second, the fact that Jerusalemites did not take to the streets during the Aksa intifada does not mean their inaction was justified. Vilna'i may praise Jerusalem's victims for their stoicism. But as one of those victims, I regret my silence.

Jerusalemites did not demonstrate the way Sderot residents have for various reasons. The casualty figures were so high that many had either lost a loved one, or knew someone else who had. The entire city was at once grappling with grief and post-traumatic stress. Organizing protest rallies is not exactly an option for people in that mental state.

Finally, we were all naive. Our leaders assured us that they were doing everything they possibly could to contain the terrorists, and we believed them. With hindsight, our gullibility seems astonishing.

WE FIRST realized our error a year-and-a-half into the second intifada. On Seder night March 2002, a massacre at Netanya's Park Hotel stirred our laconic government in a way that the scores of earlier terror attacks had not. One of those attacks, the bombing of Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant, took the life of my 15-year-old daughter, Malki.

Israel's sole response to the Sbarro massacre was to shut down Orient House, Fatah's Jerusalem headquarters. In contrast, it reacted to the Park Hotel atrocity by unleashing the fiercest offensive of the entire intifada, Operation Defensive Shield.

Subsequently, the number of suicide bombings in Israel decreased significantly; the drop between 2002 and 2003 was 50 percent. A poll indicated that 86% of Israeli Jews thought the operation had contributed to their security, and 90% considered it the correct decision. What the poll did not reveal was how many Israelis wondered why hundreds of Israeli civilians had to be murdered before the move was embarked upon.

A GOVERNMENT'S top priority must be the physical security of its citizens as they go about their normal daily activities. It is normal and natural for people to protest when their most basic civil right is violated.

However, far from apologizing after residents of Sderot conveyed their annoyance, Vilna'i dug his heels in: "Those who saw the full picture... will tell (them) that my statement followed another one saying that the nation is falling apart because of Hamas. I said that just as we handled the Syrian threat and the terror in Lebanon, so we will face the Gaza front."

He concluded his self-defense by adding salt to Sderot's wounds: "I did not mean to offend the residents," implying that anyone who had taken offense was just being petty.

Vilna'i also owes Jerusalemites, too, an apology, though we aren't holding our breath waiting for one. He hijacked our grief, our sacrifices and our docility for his own political gain.

Shame on him, any way you look at it.

The author, a freelancer based in Jerusalem, frequently writes on terrorism and on special-needs children. She and her husband founded, in their daughter's memory, the Malki Foundation ( ), providing concrete support for Israeli families of all religions who care for a special-needs child at home.

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