Self-obsessed blogger goes native in the Middle East
Seth Freedman’s collection of columns and anecdotes about his travels in Israel and Palestine is more a juvenile journey of self-discovery than an exercise in eyewitness reporting.
It would appear that Seth Freedman, an observant London Jew who became a peacenik reporter after a one-and-a-half-year stint in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has had two major life-changing experiences. The first was when he gave up his cushioned life as a stockbroker in the City of London to become a volunteer in a combat unit of the IDF. The second was when he became a writer for the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF), a website where readers can comment on articles in public discussion threads.
Freedman’s new book, Can I Bring My Own Gun?, which blends fresh accounts of his many tours of the West Bank with old CiF columns and personal diary entries, offers readers an opportunity to behold his transformation from ‘wide-eyed immigrant to the Holy Land’ to ‘left-wing’ Guardian reporter.
He believes the unwieldy discussion threads under his CiF pieces have provided something of a political schooling. CiF did ‘more to open my eyes to the true feelings on both sides [of the Israel-Palestine conflict] than any other forum could ever have hoped to have done’, he writes. He likens his relationship with the Guardian, which he seems to believe holds the status of a Samizdat publication in Israel, to a marriage. Married partners, he explains, may not always agree on everything but can still end up influencing each other, and so it is with him and the Guardian editors. ‘Only the couple themselves… fully understand the intricacies of their relationship and attraction to one another’, he writes.
It’s embarrassing stuff. Large chunks of Can I Bring My Own Gun? are dedicated to fawning over his beloved and defending it against those who disapprove of their union. Apparently, Guardian-bashing is so rife amongst Jews in Britain and Israel that Freedman believes that reading the paper ‘cover to cover’ on a flight from London to Tel Aviv, as he did, is an act of bravery.
The title of his book is a quote from one of Freedman’s fellow volunteer conscripts, a young Texan who wanted to know if he could use his own weapons in the army. Freedman, who was perhaps less gung-ho but no less keen, at least at the beginning, to ‘serve his country’, soon grew uncomfortable with the IDF’s dehumanising treatment of the Palestinians.
He decided to make an illicit visit to the West Bank during an army furlough. After his discharge, he continued, spurred on by his anonymous critics and admirers on CiF, to venture into the occupied territories. He slowly realised that not all Palestinians are Jew-hating, suicidal terrorists.
To his credit, Freedman ‘shed his blinkers’, as he puts it. Confronted with the harsh realities of the Middle Eastern conflict, he gradually distanced himself from what he calls the ‘Israel right or wrong’ brigade. He does not flinch from airing his views in a public forum, recognising that it is best simply to dismiss the ‘self-hating Jew’ label that he is continually stamped with.
He documents the shameful subjugation of the Palestinians at the hands of zealous Israeli settlers. He has some good insights into the impotence of the Israeli left and how demography guides much of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. He explains how a deeply entrenched sense of fear and victimhood has come to justify, for Israelis, segregation of the Palestinians, and he comments on the fruitlessness of hundreds of international volunteers and activists, equipped with cameras and preconceptions, flocking to Palestine to document ‘Israeli brutality’. At one point (though he might not be aware of it) he echoes Leon Trotsky’s prediction that Israel would become a ‘bloody trap for the Jews’, asking how ‘the supposedly safest place to be a Jew has turned out to be the most dangerous’.
But there, I’m afraid to say, is where the credit for this contrite columnist ends.
As a writer, Freedman’s concerns are twofold. One: it is important to be balanced. Two: it is important to ‘put yourself in other people’s shoes’. The result: a grating, repetitious collection of PC columns by a writer who sees reporting as a combination of fact-finding and soul-searching. He approaches his column as a vehicle not just for putting forward arguments for peace and against the occupation, but also for coming to terms with the ‘intense journey of discovery’ he embarked upon when he emigrated to Israel. Inevitably, during his emotional journey, he sways to and fro in his stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. So perhaps flip flops are the kind of shoes that would fit Freedman best…
Overall, Freedman is critical of the Israeli political leadership, of settlers, of the apathy amongst some hip Tel-Avivians, and of the luggage of prejudice that many olim (immigrants) carry with them to Israel. He also has no time for suicide bombers, for the rhetoric of hate he hears in the West Bank, or for corruption amongst Palestinian leaders. Yet on other points, he is less consistent and at times finds himself cringing at his earlier columns as he is confronted with new viewpoints on both sides of the so-called Green Line. For instance, he ends up regretting his quite sober assessment of the naivety and self-righteousness of international peace activists after having met and spoken to some of them. He calls his earlier column on the subject ‘highly inflammatory and highly regrettable’.
There is nothing wrong with changing your mind – or with admitting to it. But reading Freedman’s book, it soon becomes clear that in regarding it is as crucial to empathise with everyone whose lives he reports on, to feel their pain and experience their predicaments, he inevitably swings back and forth between lauding and loathing their views. His writing may be ‘honest’ and emotive, but it inevitably involves some turbulent changes of heart.
Freedman sees his personal experiences and his stubborn efforts to squeeze into others’ shoes as lending him authority on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but ultimately his elevation of the visceral over the analytical means his book is severely lacking in insight into the political particularities of the region. He shows little understanding of the underpinnings of Zionism or of how and why the characters of Israeli and Palestinian societies have changed over time.
It is his conviction that entering into the mindset of the natives is of primary importance for anyone wishing to understand their psyche that leads him to believe that volunteering for the IDF is a worthy pursuit. Informative and insightful political assessment does not require this extreme form of ‘participant observation’, of course. In fact, a lack of distance and disinterestedness can negatively impact on a journalist’s ability to formulate comprehensive and complex political analyses.
Instead of original insights, Freedman dishes out unappetising platitudes, often through insulting allegories. He likens Zionists to smokers who, having been presented with overwhelming evidence that cigarettes cause cancer, either go on the defensive and try to deny it or just decide to quit on the spot. In other words, those who subscribe to Zionist ideas have simply been duped and must be weaned off the lies they have bought into. For some (like Freedman), the detox period is shorter than it is for others.
Luckily, Freedman is at hand to guide the Zionist addicts away from self-harm. In one of his early columns for CiF, he relays a passionate discussion with his family during a Sabbath meal, which led him to conclude: ‘If we do not take the opportunity to educate Israel whilst it is growing up, we’ll be left with a wild, unruly adult version in 50 years time, totally oblivious to critique or censure…’ He told his family: ‘It is me – and other critics of Israel – who are the true Zionists, the true supporters of Israel. We help Israel see its failings, rather than just lavishing praise upon it when times are good. We aren’t fair-weather fans, who make a great fuss over the good deeds but then go quiet over the bad ones. Thus we are the ones who can hold our heads to the world and say “deal with us – we’re playing with a straight bat”.’ (This column, Freedman proudly reveals, attracted over 200 responses on CiF.)
So what Israel needs is to be disciplined by young Hampstead Jews who use the word ‘thus’ at family dinner-table discussions. Apparently, the world needs to listen to them and ignore those deluded, spoon-fed Israeli Zionists. It’s enough to make you choke on your chicken soup. But then again, Freedman may have changed his mind since he wrote that cringe-worthy piece.
Palestinians, too, are likened to sick individuals in need of the care of outsiders. Freedman compares the villagers of Nilin to ‘terminally ill patients… vainly fighting… the ever-spreading cancer of Israeli settlements across their ancestral land’. The potential ‘cure’ to Palestinians’ malaise is the intervention of the international community and peace activists, apparently. Freedman pins his hopes for peace and reconciliation on peacenik activism, particularly that aimed at children and young people. In being relatively untainted by politics and antagonism, his logic goes, innocent children can look beyond what often seems like insurmountable differences between Israelis and Palestinians.
While traipsing the villages and refugee camps of the West Bank, Freedman felt that the ‘hollow expression in the world-weary eyes of parents who saw no hope for their children’s future was every bit as haunting as any Oxfam appeal for starving African villagers’. However, watching Palestinian and Israeli schoolchildren play during an exchange organised by the Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage renewed Freedman’s hopes for the region’s future. This was ‘a massively instructive experience for anyone who had any doubt that people from the two sides can put aside their differences and seek common ground between them. The children might not have the reins of power in their hands, but they were the potential voters, soldiers and militants of tomorrow, and childhood memories like these could be critical when it came to choosing which path to take in the future.’
This focus on children as the only hope for the future is not only clichéd; it also belittles Israeli and Palestinian adults who are apparently unable to act maturely in the interest of peace. But adults are of course the only ones who can affect any meaningful political change, and discounting them as being corrupted by politics and a deep-sewn hatred means sidestepping local actors and inviting outside rulers and commentators to act and speak on their behalf.
Freedman is one of the most widely read writers on CiF, where he as carved a niche as the only former IDF volunteer reporting from the West Bank and Israel. While his position is quite unique, his insights are not. What is most interesting about the so-called ‘Seth Freedman phenomenon’ is what it reveals about the age of blogging, where emotive soul-searching can be mistaken for rigorous eyewitness reporting, and where sounding off anonymously in online discussion forums can be mistaken for rigorous political debate.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.
Can I Bring My Own Gun?, by Seth Freedman, is published by Five Leaves Publications. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)