Israel is not a Jewish morality play, Mr. Chabon

Driving south down the beautiful Adriatic coast last month from the Croatian city of Split, my family and I crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina — and 20 minutes later, again crossed the border back into Croatia en route to our destination, Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik is cut off from the rest of Croatia by the small bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina that affords the country its only coastal access, one of the border complications left over from Yugoslavia’s violent break-up during the 1990s. Croatia, in other words, is not contiguous.

Contiguity is one of those words that pops up in discussions about the supposedly near-insurmountable obstacles in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — specifically, the difficulties in creating a contiguous Palestinian state, both between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and within the West Bank itself.

A visit to that corner of the world once known as Yugoslavia helps to keep in perspective several aspects of the Israeli-Arab conflict that are often mistakenly taken for granted as particularly extreme or unique. This includes the claims that it is the world’s most intractable, destabilizing or inhumane dispute.

The rifts in the Balkans date back five centuries and involve ethnic/religious divisions and competing claims so complicated that they make the ones in Israel look relatively simple. The tensions there were responsible for sparking World War I, and a series of smaller ones in the 1990s killed and displaced more people than six decades worth of fighting between Jews and Arabs. And while the Balkan states are now enjoying a blessed moment of peace in their long, troubled history, this was only made possible by a massive NATO military intervention leading to the imposition of peace accords that left many of the underlying regional conflicts unresolved.

Why is recalling any of that relevant to our own troubles here in Israel? Well, while I was visiting Croatia, the American Jewish author Michael Chabon was making his own trip to Israel and the West Bank, in a tour sponsored by the group Breaking the Silence intended to draw critical attention to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. A day after visiting Hebron, Chabon described Israeli actions in the West Bank as “the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life” (“ ‘Worst thing I have ever seen,’ ” May 6).

Really? Chabon, who lives in Berkeley, is a writer whose work I have admired. Criticism of Israeli policies, even by those without a direct stake in their outcome, is entirely legitimate. But is he so entirely lacking in life experience, basic historical or geopolitical knowledge, or imaginative compassion, that after only a few days here he can make this kind of judgment? I suggest he get out in the world more.

Chabon offered a partial defense for his hyperbole by claiming that as a fiction writer he can express “an overt point of view that doesn’t try to hide itself, the way journalists are trained to be objective and conceal their biases.” But condemning Israeli actions without any sense of proportion and perspective relative to both the surrounding region, and the rest of the world, can all too easily escalate into the type of disproportionate criticism that fuels outright anti-Semitism.

This is exactly the situation that developed over the years in the U.K., and that is now reaping such bitter fruit for the British Labour Party.

Israel is not a Jewish morality play being acted out for the imagination of the Michael Chabons of the world. It’s a real country, a flawed democracy facing daunting challenges in a corner of the world that can be described as our own Balkans-on-the-Jordan. While its survival has unquestionably entailed moral compromises, its injustices are far from the world’s “most grievous.” Resorting to such exaggerated rhetoric does no justice to Israelis or Palestinians.

One last relevant note from my Croatia trip: While in Dubrovnik, we visited the city’s historic synagogue, the second oldest in Europe. It is now a museum. The small exhibition on its walls includes a few of the wartime Jewish deportations carried out by Croatia’s pro-Nazi Ustashe regime. They remain potent reminders of why it’s our little corner of the Balkans-on-the-Jordan — with all its challenges and compromises — that remains the best hope for Jewish survival into the next century.

Calev Ben-David is the political correspondent for Israel’s IBA English News and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where a version of this column originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.