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.