Column for Jewish News April 21 2016
Perception, I have begun to think, is nine points of the law. If something looks bad, our natural assumption is to believe it IS bad, and generally we fail to make the necessary inquiries. The question is whether to take something at face value or pick it apart for its probable motivation.
What, for example, are we to make of the recent visit to Israel, at the invitation of the ruling Likud party, of the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party, Hans-Christian Strache?
It’s only four years since Strache posted an anti-Semitic cartoon on his Facebook page; and yet, apparently, according to a report in a Vienna newspaper, his intention in going to Israel was to “make himself kosher”.
Strache’s ambition was duly achieved with a visit to Yad Vashem, though a more politically-savvy response came from former Israeli president Shimon Peres, who refused to confer on Strache the legitimacy of a meeting.
According to reports, some Likud politicians have been pressing for years for the ban on contacts with the Freedom Party to be lifted.
Most notorious under its late leader Jorg Haider, the party has become a by-word for its anti-Muslim sentiments – and, allegedly, it is now in favour of settlement building in Israel, thus potentially explaining Likud support.
So was it a good thing that Strache got to tour Yad Vashem? Possibly: if I thought for a minute that it might go to changing his mind about Jews, I might applaud it.
As it is, it seems to me to have been a cynical exercise in rebuilding the Freedom Party’s image and not much more. I can’t, comfortably, believe that the Strache leopard changed his spots.
However, in another part of the right-wing forest, some other perceptions may be changing. Uri Ariel is Israel’s agriculture minister and has just paid a visit to some of the West Bank checkpoints.
Ariel is a member of the Jewish Home Party and has no automatic love for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he frequently denounces as not right-wing enough.
But even Ariel appears to have been shocked at the conditions imposed on Palestinians waiting to come in to Israel to work.
He said: “Go and see how they stand and wait to enter Israel at the checkpoints. It’s shameful and a disgrace to the state of Israel and to the security establishment. People stand there in terrible conditions: in the summer, heat, in the winter, rains.”
He added that workers often arrived before dawn and waited for hours without shade or water. He asked: “Why can’t we fix this?”
I may say that – in line with the general air of cynicism about such pronouncements – some of Ariel’s words it may have been uttered as a way of attacking Netanyahu. Part of me also responds by saying “and now the late news”, insofar as Ariel appears just to have woken up to this “disgrace to the state of Israel” when others have been pointing it out for many years.
But, you know, we should sometimes take what we can get. And if a politician like Uri Ariel can make a statement like this and, in fact, go further by saying that Gaza should have an international port, then should we not embrace what he is saying, wholeheartedly?
I don’t for a minute think that the minister is about to become the Palestinians’ best friend. But he appears to have been struck by a rare political moment of clarity, which should be welcomed by both those of the Left and of the Right.
This weekend, those re-telling the story of Pesach will have the annual opportunity to unpick the thinking behind the Exodus, the plagues, the suffering of the Jews as slaves in Egypt.
But above all, the seder is an occasion to celebrate freedom – freedom from opportunism and a chance to applaud simple human courage.
A friend has taken to signing off his emails, “Do good things.”
That’s not a bad message with which to welcome Pesach as our liberation festival. Remember, perception is – almost – everything.