Israel used to pride itself on its saikhel – that special combination of ingenuity, wily intelligence, common sense and low cunning that is a hallmark of what used to be called a yiddisher kopf. Honed through the generations as Jews learnt to defend themselves in an inhospitable world, it was the display of this kind of native intelligence that used to gain the admiration of Jews around the world when they saw it demonstrated by the State of Israel. Even Israel’s enemies were grudging admirers of Israeli saikhel .
Those days are long gone. Certainly for Israel’s enemies. But also for many of Israel’s supporters, as we see over and again the ways in which the State seems to keep making choices to its own detriment. The latest fiasco over the Gaza flotilla has caused upset and disquiet not only in the Diaspora but in Israel too: ‘If [defence minister] Ehud Barak does not resign, Israel will be perceived in international public opinion as a country in which not only does no one ever resign from his ministerial post, but also a country...that ought to be given collective punishment as a sovereign entity.’ Not some left-wing fringe view but that of Yedioth Ahronot, Israel’s best-selling, populist paper.
Intercepting an aid convoy in international waters...failing to ensure sufficient numbers were on hand to deal with what they should have known would be stern, and potentially violent, resistance...the lack of proportionality in defending themselves, using lethal force so that at least 10 passengers died and scores were injured: whatever the hostile intent of a minority of those on the lead ship the Mavi Marmara (and that there was malign intent from some seems clear), this catalogue of Israeli errors lead to a catastrophe. Obviously so for those dead and injured. But it’s also another catastrophic failure of Israel’s capacity to react to provocations with anything approaching saikhel.
Of course the flotilla was provocative, with its shrewd combination of humanitarian relief and PR opportunity. But what did they expect Israel to do in response to the flotilla after such a tight 3 year blockade of Gaza’s waters? ‘Oh, look: Turkish boats, Irish boats, mothers and babies, film-makers, Nobel prize-winners, the author of Wallander noch! ... how can we say No to these good souls? Do please go ahead and deliver your largesse...’ The organizers of the flotilla must have known it was never going to be plain sailing – and that quite likely it would end in tears.
The situation in Gaza is dire. Aid is of course desperately needed and Israel’s intransigence in relation to what it allows in and what it refuses is part of their ill-considered game-plan of retaining a major stranglehold on the territory combined with minor concessions – though to what end it all is for, who knows? What we do know is the bitterness of blighted lives, the hatreds stored up year-by-year, and the maddening emotional and mental turmoil of those who once loved Israel with an almost religious passion – but now feel dismay at what Israel wreaks, and despair at what Israel has become.
As so often the Book of Proverbs seems to capture - sadly,aptly - the mood of the moment: “A person is commended for their saikhel – but a twisted mind is held in contempt” (Proverbs 12:8).