Monday, May 18, 2009

The "Failure to Communicate"

Last night I watched the documentary To Die in Jerusalem, which I had recorded on my VTR from a broadcast on HBO. I can think of no better way than this experience for Barack Obama and his team to prepare for today's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For all the deep analysis provided by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley (primarily for The New York Review) on breakdowns in efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, there is no substitute for moving from abstract theorizing to a depressingly concrete instance of two ordinary mothers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, attempting and almost immediately failing to communicate. To be fair, these two women are not exactly ordinary. The daughter of the Palestinian woman was a (successful) suicide bomber, while the daughter of the Israeli was a victim of that bomber's attack. The documentary is structured in such a way that we are to believe that both women had the best of intentions in meeting to talk about their respective losses. However, Israeli security measures made it impossible for the Palestinian to come to the home of the Israeli; and, while the Israeli eventually tried to visit the Palestinian's refugee camp, she was held up when Palestinian security measures led to the film crew being detain. Ultimately she gave in to cold feet. Thus, the only conversation that took place was arranged through video conferencing.

Those more adept and conversation analysis than I would probably be able to detect cues indicating that this dialog was doomed from the beginning. Those of us less skilled in such analysis, however, can still appreciate the extent to which ignorance of context on both Israeli and Palestinian sides undermined any positive intentions brought by both participants. Yesterday we saw Obama keep his cool in front of angry anti-abortion hecklers; but undoing the Gordian knot of the history behind the Zionist presence in a part of the world that the British decided to call "Palestine" is going to take more than a cool head. It will also take more than a symbolic reset button.

The problem, as philosopher Wilhelm Schapp would have put it, is that both mothers are verstrickt (entangled) in the web of history. If he had been more familiar with American folk culture, he might have described them as stuck to the tar baby of history; and, indeed, far more individuals than those two ordinary women are now stuck to that tar baby. Those individuals include not only those august players now gathering in Washington. They also include the Israelis involved in the production team for To Die in Jerusalem. (Once we know that the camera crew that followed the Israeli mother to the Palestinian mother's house in a refugee camp is Israeli, or at least included Israelis, we have a better understanding of why the security officials of the Palestinian Authority detained them while deliberating over whether or not to let them continue.) For that matter I, too, am stuck to that tar baby, since, for all I know, my hands will "forget their skill" as I try to type these words!

However, having recently seen You Don't Mess with the Zohan on cable, I wonder whether or not the only individuals capable of freeing themselves from the tar baby are the comedians. Getting beyond the premise for the plot, consider the primary setting for this film: We are on a (fictitious) street in New York that has been divided into an Israeli side and a Palestinian side, both represented by small, but at least moderately prosperous, businesses; and all of those businesses are being forced out by a (not-so-fictitious) character clearly modeled on Donald Trump. All sorts of elements in the fiction of the plot bear more than coincidental resemblance to reality, but there are also significant differences. The owners of these businesses are being displaced, but they are being displaced by a third person rather than by their own opposition to each other. They thus have a common enemy (a role previously assumed by the British colonial authority). Similarly, the street itself is a "two-state solution" in microcosm; but, it is a solution that evolved as the storefronts were occupied, rather than being imposed by some authority (the assumption being that all the property on the block was not controlled by a single owner). The plot thus develops to enable Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the street to unite against the "Trump clone," ultimately building their own (one-state solution) shopping mall to house their businesses in a more buyer-friendly setting. In this fiction the Israelis and Palestinians bar no holds in their accusatory dialog, but their mutual hostility is resolved by being channeled in another direction. The question is not whether or not this plot could mirror reality but whether it teaches us something about how to communicate in the first place.

As I have argued in the past, communication is a fragile process that is easily broken. To Die in Jerusalem informs us about the breakdown of communication in ways that more intellectual analysis cannot do, but it cannot help but embody the biases of those who made it. You Don't Mess with the Zohan argues that such breakdowns can be repaired, but those repairs succeed only in its own world of fiction. However, if all those masters of diplomacy currently in Washington let one film teach them about the problem and the other teach them about a possible solution path, we all may yet be able to free ourselves from the sticky grasp of the tar baby.

No comments: