March 23, 2011

Politically Correct?

I thought hard before writing this, and the words don't come easily. I've written and erased at least four sentences so far. Do I really want to write this down?

Living in the Middle East has its challenges, and as a woman -- and a Jewish woman -- I've felt the need to occasionally keep a low profile. I didn't really expect to have to do it in the workplace, however.

My colleagues are, almost overwhelmingly, anti-Israel. My newspaper most definitely is. It's difficult to be in the middle of all of it, and I never say a word. Talking about Israel in this environment is like talking about abortion in the US. It will just get ugly and nothing you can say will change anyone's mind.

Yet it is impossible to escape. I sit near the editorial team -- hardcore pro-Palestinian folks. I don't think they are two-state solution people, either, although I may be wrong. I've stopped listening because, frankly, it makes me ill. Paul says now I know what it's like being the only Republican in a Democratic profession. I suppose, sort of. But this goes much deeper. And it is relentless.

I am not a hard-core "Zionist," but I wanted nothing more in college than to spend a year abroad in Israel. I believe Israel has the right to exist, obviously. I think there should be a two-state solution. I don't support the crazy settlers, and I think at times both sides are equally insane. I think peace is necessary but I'm not sure it's possible. Above all, I do not believe it is a black and white issue.

I also have colleagues who do not believe any of this. American colleagues, British colleagues especially.

I am careful how much I reveal about my religion to most people; my colleagues with an Arab background seem to be the most tolerant. I work closely with two women who are of Palestinian descent. An Egyptian who sits nearby knows, but only because we've talked about Halal vs Kosher. I don't think any of them have a problem with me.

Then, yesterday, a colleague was telling me about a book he was reading: From Beirut to Jerusalem. He seemed surprised to find it was objective. He wanted to recommend it, but he couldn't think of the author. Some Jew, he said. Another chimed in, yeah, a Jewish name.
It was the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, one of the best-known columnists in the US.

Some Jew? Seriously?

Today, he called across the desk to chat with me. That's what we do in the newsroom, make observations, talk about the news, whatever. But he said (and I am paraphrasing here because I was a. stunned at what he said and b. stunned that he assumed I would agree) "I can't believe the Israelis are shelling Gaza like this. The Israelis are awful. They're so craven. I hate them."

I should have said "Colleague, I'm not the best person to talk to about this." Instead, I said nothing. I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to get into it. I have to listen to the anti-Israel stuff all day long. I have to make an effort not to read it in my newspaper. In this neck of the woods, Israel is responsible for all the world's evils. And I have to wonder, if you're anti-Israel, are you anti-Jew? Does it come into play? Can you separate the two?

I've decided I will speak up the next time it happens -- and it will happen again. I hope my colleague will have the good grace to be embarrassed, at the very least.

But sometimes, I find it hard to live here.


G. Rarick said...

I think you can certainly be opposed to Israel's politics and not at all be anti-Jew. An easy separation, in my book. Sure different from the IHT, where never was heard an anti-Israel word....

Anonymous said...

Hi Leah,

You don't need to be offended, you just need to accept it and move on. You will not be able to change the entire mindset of the people you work with, and considering that you spend most of your day with them, it's better to be on neutral terms rather than bad ones.

Having said that, I must say one more thing: I am a Palestinian Muslim, and I can guarantee you that the chances of finding a Palestinian Muslim (non-Israeli citizen) working in a professional role in Israel is close to zero. Sure, they may work as labourers, but you will not find a Muslim expatriate working in Israel as a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist or a teacher. You are a Jew working in Abu Dhabi; that tells you a lot about the state's policy compared to your beloved Israel, which will simply not issue work permits for Muslims (I actually tried to inquire about that while I was in Canada by calling the Israeli embassy).

People can have their opinions. You may not agree with them, but that is their right and no one should force them to change their minds. I understand your frustration; I experienced it while working side by side with Jews in Canada, but you simply have no right to 'expect' people to accept your (or Israel's) presence in their midst.

Pick your battles, you don't need to make a mountain out of a mole. People here are simply talking, and you have the real chance to educate them about your views. Educate them, not shove it down their throats.

Finally, believe it or not, the number of people who actually CAN distinguish between being a Jew and being Israeli is quite large and they do exist in Abu Dhabi (I know because I live here, and find it fun to engage in such arguments with acquaintances at work or in cafes). But don't forget that what we see here in the Arab Middle East is the Arab version of the story, the opposite of what people in North America view.

Shalom / Salam

PS: I heard that there actually is a synagogue in Jumeirah in a private villa, if you are a practicing Jew.

John said...

I'm sorry you had a boorish experience with your colleagues at admc. the "some jew" comment is particularly offensive
You should definitely say something next time it's raised. And I commend you and raising the issue in your blog.
I spent nearly two years at The National and although I hardly discussed Palestinian/Israel issue with all my colleagues (your US abortion debate analogy seems particularly apt) and have a notoriously Pollyannaish approach to life, my experience was that everyone I knew was able to separate the actions of the Israeli government and that of Jewish people. (As does the UAE Government, which is happy for Jewish people to work in the emirates and restricts it's dispute to the govt of Israel) I never heard anyone in the newsroom dispute Israel's right to exist but there was almost universal condemnation of what was perceived as Israel's recalcitrance in its approach to peace, happy to let the settlers build on West Bank land and thus make a final peace settlement more problematic
Maybe part of your difficulty is having come from the US, which is seen by us outsiders as a system that is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. To those brought up in that environment, no doubt that bias seems simple normal
But could I say that my overall impression after reading your well-reasoned post was that you now have, possibly unwittingly, gained an understanding of just what it's been like to be Muslim in the United States since 9/11.

Leah Reiter said...

John, thank you for your well-thought-out comment. You make some valid points. But I must say I do have, in my opinion, a good idea what it must be like to be Muslim in America. The anti-Muslim tirades I have heard on political television shows make me very uncomfortable. Too, having spent seven-plus years in France, I witnessed more than a little anti-Muslim sentiment. The lesson, I imagine, is that we cannot generalize about people and perhaps we ought to keep our opinions to ourselves a little more often.

Leah Reiter said...

And may I also point out that growing up where I did was hardly a multi-cultural community, in terms of religion