Israeli Inspiration, Portuguese Citizenship

June 12, 2013 1:45 pm 18 comments

Romeu Monteiro.

My country, Portugal, is a country virtually devoid of Jews. I am not Jewish and I’ve met a very small number of Jews in Portugal. As is the case in most of Europe, it seems most people here believe Israel to be a belligerent country, riddled with religious extremists and violence. That used to be my belief, but I am not so sure now. I will share with you how I was exposed to positive and accurate information about Israel in Portugal, both through the media as well as through socialization, how I came to love Israel and how I found others in Portugal who love Israel too.

My connection to the Jewish people comes from my learning as a 9-year-old child of the terrible events of the Holocaust, once I read the Diary of Anne Frank in 1999. I felt a strong sense of solidarity with the Jewish people, which transformed itself into a sense of identification as I found myself to be gay in 2000 and felt a victim of prejudice and injustice. As the 2nd Intifada raged in Israel in the 1st half of the last decade, becoming a regular feature on TV in Portugal, I became interested in Israel and the conflict. Palestinians seemed to be so desperate that they were killing themselves to fight Israel. How could Israel and the Jews have become occupiers and aggressors against another people after what they had been through? I asked myself.

As I got interested in the conflict, from the pro-Palestinian point of view which seemed to pervade my surroundings, I started to follow several pro-Palestinian information sources I found online. Among them were the blogs of solidarity movements, Haaretz and Jewish Voice for Peace. I did not see any of these sources as anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic but simply as pro-Palestinian liberal voices. They presented themselves with positive messages, focusing particularly on several Jewish and/or Israeli activists who  fought for Palestinian rights; those who fought on the other side would be grouped in non-humanized entities such as “the Israeli government”, “the military” or “the settlers”. It was easy to blame these entities and not see any kind of anti-Semitism; the fact that these organizations and their actions accurately represented the Israeli people and their will was not discussed. I expected other sources – pro-Israeli sources – to be conservative, racist, intolerant, so I did not feel I would be able to read them. I did not believe that there could be a mainstream credible narrative in support of Israel, as I believed there was a consensus in condemning Israel just as there was in condemning Apartheid South Africa. Some issues just seem to be clearly defined in black and white, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to be one of those.

I remember watching the TV reports of Henrique Cymerman, a Portuguese-Israeli foreign correspondent based in Tel Aviv. His journalism was high-quality and he would talk not only about the conflict but about other things in Israel as well, from culture to technology. Such news which was not related to the conflict was generally positive, although negative items were reported as well. In spite of this and Cymerman’s accurate reporting, there was never a pro-Israel narrative being conveyed, and all the news coming from the Portuguese media about the conflict had the same bottom line message portraying Israel as the aggressor. The reports lacked context and the argumentation needed to debunk the myths embedded in words such as “occupation”, “settlers”, “Palestinians” and “the West Bank”.

In spite of such a negative portrayal of Israel, it was very unsettling for me to consider that a country which I knew to be developed, democratic, westernized and educated, could apply a policy apparently so out of touch with western modernity. It didn’t make sense that a people as educated as the Jews, who had suffered terrible persecution, would not have learned from it. Something didn’t fit. Then, in 2008, after exchanging YouTube comments with Avi, an Israeli from Jerusalem about my age, I asked him to make the case for Israel. I wanted to know what the narrative was for Israelis, why did they support such actions, what did they tell themselves so they could sleep at night, so that I could put together all the pieces of the puzzle. His arguments, based on historical facts and examples of anti-Semitic hatred in the Middle-East vs. the humanist character of mainstream Israeli society, showed me how incomplete and out of context my information about Israel and the conflict was and forced me to learn more. For instance, I remember picking up a book my father passed on to me, Reader’s Digest “Great Events of the 20th Century” published in 1979, and checking the sections about Israel’s independence and the 6-day war, and everything was there: Arab leaders saying they were going to commit a “mongol massacre”, the Arab wish to expel the Jews of Palestine in 1948 etc.. It became very clear that Israel had been acting in self-defense. As time went by and Avi joined the Israeli army, he would share with me what he was learning in the IDF, how soldiers were taught to fire only under very extreme conditions. I also started to exchange Facebook messages with Dalia, an Israeli girl from Netanya who was a student at Tel Aviv University. She would tell me lots of things about Israel, about its culture and politics, especially at her University, among other things. It was amazing to learn firsthand about Israel, the conflict and the political debate from common Israelis, young people just like me.

At this point in time, after the shock of coming to understand that such an important part of my worldview was completely misinformed and that I had been extremely unfair and prejudiced towards Israel and Israelis, I started to become highly sensitive to all things I read or heard relating to Jews and Israel.

I started following other Israeli news sources besides Haaretz, such as The Jerusalem Post, Ynet and other smaller online English language news services. The greatest breakthrough for me was with The Jerusalem Post. I remember noticing how the home page carried a large amount of news about events in the Arab and Muslim world. This struck me because in Portugal the press is very focused on Western countries and their interests, so we are very uninformed on what happens in Muslim and Arab countries. I had never realized that Israelis paid so much attention to what was happening around them, especially in the disputed territories and Arab countries. They were not numb to foreign policy as is frequently the case in other countries.  As I read the articles from these newspapers, especially The Jerusalem Post, I noticed that there was a strong focus on facts, context was provided and I didn’t find opinion mixed into the news articles or an amount of bias that would make me feel uncomfortable. I learned to compare news from different sources and I rapidly understood how different media entities select their news, the facts their report, the context they provide and how they manipulate all this in order to convey a message that speaks to their audience, usually reinforcing their audience’s beliefs. The reality is that 99% of the time they don’t lie, but there are many ways to fool people without ever lying to them.

Over time, I became fascinated with the opinion columns published in Israeli newspapers. I read several columns different people wrote about strong moral dilemmas, where they showed concern for the situation in Israel and in the territories. Multiple op-eds presented the realities of (mis)trust and empathy between Jews and Arabs in Israel and in the disputed territories. Such moral dilemmas are a foreign reality for someone from a country as homogenous, stable and lacking a strong sense of identity as Portugal, but they were presented in an incredibly humane way and so it was easy to empathize.

In real life, as I became more positively involved with Israel, more sensitive to discourse about Israel and as my friends became aware of my interest in Israel, I dealt with different reactions and attitudes. Those that were sympathetic to Israel, unexpectedly, were in the majority.

Suddenly, it seemed that Israel had become mainstream. In 2011, the only openly gay member of parliament Portugal ever had, resigned and traveled to Israel. He would publicly post on Facebook from the beaches of Tel Aviv, among other places. In 2012 and 2013 he returned to Israel for 1-month stays to lecture and conduct research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, while writing about his trip and his fascination with, in his own words, Israel/Palestine. Last year, a group of leading young members of our parliament, including members of the Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats, officially visited Israel and happily commented on each other’s Facebook pages about the interesting books about Israeli History they had bought in Herzliya. The Portuguese Secretary of State for Tourism said recently in an interview he’s fascinated with the State of Israel and that he would love to learn Hebrew. And there are even more examples of Portuguese support for Israel.

It’s not hard to love Israel, or at least to develop some sense of admiration for the country, especially for LGBT people in Portugal. One can mention the 100.000 people who participate in the Tel Aviv Pride Parade, the shelter for LGBT youngsters expelled from their homes which exists in Israel, the fact that Israel recognizes same-sex marriage, the goal of the Tel Aviv municipality of becoming the #1 spot for gay tourism in the world, the gay and lesbians serving openly in the IDF, the fact that Israel has been represented at the Eurovision Song Contest two times by a transexual singer. We wish Portugal would have such a record. This list is incredibly striking for LGBT people, but similar lists can be written for multiple areas of interest: the environment, the economy, science, etc..

Israel is its own best advertisement, even with all its troubles and challenges, it’s hard not to be impressed by this country. In a world where people are more connected than ever and ideas, pictures and videos flow freely and seamlessly, my prediction is that the amount of people who see the real Israel and, thus, see Israel in a generally positive light, will only increase.

Romeu Monteiro was a CAMERA Israel Trip participant. This op-ed was originally published in Hebrew by Politically – the students’ newspaper of the school of Political Science, Haifa University, Israel.

18 Comments

  • Shalom..

    Thanks for your support, but homosexuality is an abomination in Judaism. I don’t believe in murdering gays like the Muslims do, but instead helping them recover from the spiritual illness.. Compassion and love if the way o the Jewish person, not like the Muslim who seek to destroy all who go against their moral codes.

    We Orthodox Jews hate Gay Pride Parades and all the carnality and lust that you respect so much in Israel. I hope you don’t simply support Israel because it is gay-friendly. There are many in Israel who don’t support this type of lifestyle, just like in EUrope. Israel wants to be so much like liberal Europe that it is willing to exchange its culture and forsake its religion to do so.

    • Romeu Monteiro

      Shalom Yonatan-the-Bigot,

      Thank for all your “compassion and love” but let me clear out some points:
      1) You do not represent or talk for all Orthodox Jews (fortunately!).
      2) Gay people like me don’t need your help to recover from “spiritual illness” anymore than Orthodox Jews like you need help to accept Jesus as the saviour or Mohammed as the prophet. If you do need help, I know plenty of Christians who are ready to save you from your sinful ways.
      3) You can hate Gay Pride Parades, lust and carnality all you want, but I would suggest you direct your hate to things which are actually bad for people like: hunger, death, diseases, lack of clean water, etc..
      4) I know several Muslims who treat me with far more respect and decency than you do. Some which serve Israel much better than you ever will be able to.

      Thanks,

      Romeu

    • Shirl in Oz

      @ Yonatan
      A broch tzu dir. I am ashamed of you.

      “recover from the spiritual illness”

      You have rocks for brains. A person has no more control over being born homosexual, than you have being born heterosexual. The same can be said about a person born with, let’s say,Down’s syndrome. Are you going to help them “recover from the spiritual illness” too?

      Get a life.

      It’s not for you to say what Israel should be. There are more of ‘us’, normal logical and compassionate Jews in the world than the bigoted ultra orthodox.

    • Yonatan:

      Speak for yourself.

      You show horrible intolerance. Gays do not chose; nor did you.

      The Orthodox religious community in general are intolerant and hateful. That is not what G-d taught us.

  • Just ask yourselves one question everyone.If these so called “peaceloving” Palestinians were so concerned about their future,why do they refuse to sit down and talk without a lot of ridiculous pre conditions,would it be perhaps that their masters in Iran and various military and financial backers won’t let them!

  • Thank you Romeu for your unbiased point of view concerning Israel. Also for the wonderful and sincere comments your article generated. Thank you for both

  • I liked reading this article very much, although I’m sad that Romeu spent so much time believing the pervasive lies and anti-Israel propaganda that she says is the norm in Portugal. However, I’m really happy that she learned how wonderful Israel is. I wasn’t aware that Israel recognizes same-sex marriage; in fact, I am very surprised. I think that’s terrific.

  • Nancy Kobrin, PhD

    I studied in Brazil and Portugal when I was a university student. I know your cultural heritage well. I am thrilled that you wrote this essay and I hope you make many more trips to visit us in Israel.

    I remember distinctly like it was yesterday in 1969. I was enrolled in the Curso Superior Da Literatura Portuguesa in Lisboa. The functionario came in before the Professor. We were asked to rise. The Professor then called out surnames of maybe ten people. We all had non Portuguese surnames. He then examined us in Portuguese. It was a selection. I was shocked but said nothing. I was still then an assimilated Jew with no knowledge of Hebrew. It was a turning point.

    I am glad you had your turning point too. Keep writing, we need your voice.

  • Thank you Romeu. You are a very intelligent, well-spoken and open-minded young man. I wish you much luck and hope you can open the eyes of others manipulated against Israel by the media.

  • Jo-Ann Morris

    Wouldn’t it be great if other people of the world were intelligent enough to question what they hear and read. Thank you,Romeu, for sharing your experiences and supporting Israel. Shalom.

  • Terrific, and well presented. The learning curve you talk about ought to serve as a model for other young people, so many of whom just drink in the falsehoods about apartheid and ‘illegal occupation’ without thinking. One thing puzzled me. You wrote of ‘a country as homogenous, stable and lacking a strong sense of identity as Portugal’. I have never thought of Portugal as lacking in identity. What about fado, futebol and Fatima? The Grande Noites do Fado? The marchas in every district? The history of the descobredores? The achievements of the Portuguese empire, once the richest in Europe? The great writers like Camões and Pessoa? Amália Rodrigues? Students singing fados after graduation in Coimbra? Custard tarts and all the other wonderful desserts? Bacalhão? The azulejo tilework everywhere? Misia? Alfama? You have a great culture and a great heritage. If you can all come to love Israel too, what a blessing.

    • Romeu Monteiro

      Hi Denis,

      Those are all great features from our national History and Culture. What I was thinking about was our identity as a people. Throughout 8 centuries of national sovereignity we have managed to produce many things which other people associate to us. Still, I don’t think we have a very strong sense of peoplehood, especially because our sense of peoplehood is defined mainly by borders and an ID card. It has been this way for as long as Portugal exists, since Portugal came into being as a region controled by a man who fought for independence and for the Pope’s recognition this region as his Kingdom.

      In spite of that, Portugal is a great country and the Portuguese are amazing people, and I love both deeply. I hope more and more people will come to love Israel, and I think that can be the case. Israel-EU ties have been improving significantly in several areas in the last years, the Jewish heritage in Portugal is being restored and promoted and I am counting in the Israeli embassy’s efforts to help Israel develop ties with the Portuguese. And I sincerely hope Israel and the Israelis do not give up on Portugal as they sometimes seem to have given up on most Europe…

  • Mel Sherwood

    This is a beautifully written piece. Thank you.

  • Alana Ronald

    Thanks, Romeu, for not falling for propaganda, but going to see for yourself. Wish others would do the same…

  • i can ‘t read the comments, why ??? i asked you many times before but you never answer or fix the problem.

  • What a wonderful article from a wonderful, thoughtful person.
    As an openly Homosexual, G-D fearing Jew, who served openly in the IDF in Reserves for almost 23 years (I only discovered and came out after I had finished my 36 months compulsory service), and lived in the Jewish quarter for 18 years, with total acceptance from my neighbours, both Religious and Secular, I’m glad to hear of a GBLT person who appreciates THE ONLY country in the Middle East which respects and legally protects difference in lifestyle.
    I’ve been sickened almost to death by leftwing anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic Gays in Canada, USA, and Europe, who prefer Gay-Imprisoning, Gay-Torturing, and Gay-murdering Moslem countries (including the Arab-occupied Judea & Samaria and Gaza, who are among the worst!) to Israel.
    When I meet them, I suggest they go to these countries, with clothing which outs them (like the t-shirts I can wear freely in Israel and the West: “Nobody Knows I’m Gay”; “I Can’t Even Think Straight”; etc.), kiss their lovers in public, and see how ‘warmly’ they are welcomed there.
    Oddly enough, none of them has ever tried it, so far as I know. Even that hypocritical b—- Amira Haas, an open lesbian in Israel, doesn’t dare bring her German woman lover to Ramallah, for fear the ‘righteous Palestinians’ will torture and murder them.

  • wow. thanks, Romeu. And good luck to you.

  • Will the amount of people who see the real Israel increase? I hope so, but Sarah Schulman, so far, is not one of them.
    http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/13097#.UbjMMOc3vAE

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