The Israel-Arab conflict comes to the supermarket

January 25, 2009 at 4:09 pm 5 comments

“I won’t take any oranges from

 damn Israel!”


This scene is based on a true story. Jack Cohen (not his real name) is a middle-aged economics lecturer and writer living in Oxford, England. It’s the second week in January 2009 and the war in far-away Gaza has been going on for over two weeks. He goes into a supermarket to buy a few things. There’s a pleasant atmosphere. Like most places in Oxford, it’s not very big or bustling and the people – shoppers and attendants alike – relate to each other with easy-going cheerfulness. Jack finds what he needs and stands in a small queue by the check-out counter.

A pleasant-looking woman is standing in front of him. When her turn comes to check out her purchases she exchanges greetings with the clerk – all smiles and that sing-along tone so characteristic of the folks in this lovely part of the world. She puts her purchases on the counter. Tomatoes, lettuce, a can of sardines, paper towels …

Then as she puts a bag of oranges on the counter she suddenly lets out a loud shriek. “Oranges from Israeeeel!” She flings the bag to the side and yells, “I won’t take any oranges from damn Israel.” She pays her bill, while the check-out clerk calls an assistant to come and take the oranges away.

Then the check-out clerk turns to Jack, giving him a pleasant smile. “It’s your turn, sir,” she calls out and he begins to put his purchases on the counter.

But Jack is flustered. This is not the first time he’s witnessed a scene antagonistic towards Israel. Living in Oxford, he’s often come across anti-Israel sentiment. Even by other Jews in the academic world of which he is part. But he knows enough about the Israel-Arab conflict to recognize that it is largely the Arab narrative, composed to a large extent, of disingenuously selective omissions and untruths, that everyone is exposed to by the mainstream media, and which clearly implies that Israel is the villain – especially now with the dreadful scenes of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Jack realizes that what this woman did was seen by others in the supermarket, probably even admired and conceivably seen as a role model. Her outburst might have influenced others to resolve never to buy anything made in Israel. As an economist, he knows the damage that an economic boycott can cause. But what could he have done? Even though he was standing right next to her, he felt helpless in the face of such indignation.

Actually he wasn’t really helpless. There were two ways he could have reacted, apart from the lame passiveness which he exhibited. One way would have been to react reflexively and aggressively. He could have told the woman loudly that she obviously didn’t know the reality of Gaza, and accused her of being an ignoramus or an Anti-Semite. That would have been a bad response because it would have led to a shouting match and a further deepening of the woman’s hostility towards Israel and the Jews, probably leading to even more damage to Israel’s image among the onlookers.

A different scenario

The sensible thing to do in such circumstances would have been to try to engage the woman in a conversation. The issue of setting the record straight is so important that it would have warranted even leaving one’s turn in the queue to confront her. But one would need a good basic understanding of the Israel-Arab conflict. Jack happens to have a good grasp of the background to the conflict because he is a long-time Zionist, having frequently visited Israel and he has family there.

Here is a possible dialogue that Jack could have tried to pursue. It is suitable for anyone living outside Israel or traveling as a tourist. It can also be used in Israel itself under certain circumstances. But apart from a good knowledge of the background of the conflict, one would also need a disposition enabling calm confrontation with angry strangers.

Our imagined scene proceeds with the woman hoisting the strap of her shopping bag on her shoulder, and Jack catches her eye and nods: “Pardon me for saying so, madam, but I think that was quite impressive what you’ve just done.”

She throws Jack an angry look. It’s nothing personal. She’s just all het up. “That was impressive,” Jack repeats, leaving his purchases near the check-out counter and walking alongside her in the direction of the exit of the supermarket. Reaching the exit door she mutters: “Those bloody awful Israelis. God, how I hate what they are doing to the poor Palestinians.”

Jack holds the door open for her and says: “Yes, I know, it’s terrible what’s happening in Gaza.” She walks out the supermarket and he follows her, saying: “Any decent human being must be apalled by the death and destruction.”

“I wish there was something more I could do,” she says walking along the pavement towards her parked car, “apart from boycotting their rotten oranges.”

“Oh there is,” says Jack.

She stops: “What? What can we do? There are demonstrations. I’ve been to one. But what else can we do?”

Jack says: “You can learn more about the subject of the Arab-Israel conflict.”

“Oh, I know all there is to know,” she retorts. “I watch the BBC and Sky News and I read The Guardian. She’s about to reach her car. It’s a critical moment because if she gets into her car Jack won’t be able to continue the conversation. He knows he has to say or do something right now in order to keep holding her attention.

He says, “It’s obvious that even though the conflict is far away from us here in Oxford, it is of great importance to us.” She looks at him as though she can’t make him out. He continues: “It’s very important that we get the whole story correctly, don’t you think so?”

A lot of things cross her mind. Firstly – who is this man? She’s thinking about getting home on time to take her daughter to riding lessons. But she is also wondering what Jack meant by “getting the whole story correctly,” and she’s thinking that maybe he has some extra juicy and nasty details about those damn Israelis.

Jack continues: “Getting the whole story of what’s happening in Gaza is especially important if you’re a decent, concerned and honest person. And obviously you are a very concerned person, otherwise you wouldn’t have rejected those oranges.”

She nods with a smile.

“That was really something,” Jack smiles back. Yet he is somewhat uneasy about this line of approach because he feels that he is being sneaky. It’s almost like trying to seduce someone, but he reckons that this is his part in the war for Israel and that we must all try to minimize the number of Israel’s adversaries and win over as many people who understand better what Israel is really up against. Now he’s going to be more direct. It’s yet another critical moment in this encounter.

Expressing reality

“Hamas,” he declares, “is a very formidable, dangerous, devious and ruthless enemy!” She looks at him with a blank stare. Jack continues: “You probably know that the Arabs of Gaza had been firing rockets – every day onto Israeli towns and villages for the last eight years. Thousands of rockets! They’ve caused a lot of death and devastation.”

She frowns. Jack realizes that this isn’t what she wants to hear and he doesn’t want to antagonize her. So he suggests: “The Israelis probably deserved it, wouldn’t you say?”

Puzzled, she shakes her head. She can’t figure out what Jack means. He continues: “Well just for the sake of comparison, if the Welsh government started firing rockets on a daily basis from Cardiff onto some of the neighboring English towns like Exeter or Plymouth, or for that matter onto Oxford – which is only about a minute away by rocket, then you could say that we English deserved it – isn’t that so?”

“That’s absolute rubbish!” she scoffs. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Actually I’m talking about the Hamas government in Gaza attacking Israel and killing ordinary people,” Jack answers. Substitute Gaza for Wales and Hamas for the Welsh government and Israeli towns and villages for Oxford. What do you think our government would do in such a situation?”

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” she chides him. “I’m sorry to say this, but you are being ridiculous.”

“Maybe,” says Jack. “But that is exactly what has been happening to Israel for the last eight years.”

She looks warily for a moment, suddenly realizing that this guy isn’t what she thought he was. He doesn’t share her attitude about those awful Israelis. So she changes the tone of her voice to express her displeasure: “But Israel stole the land from the Palestinians. They kill women and children. They use the most modern jet fighter planes and tanks against young boys armed with sticks and stones.”

Jack has to be careful now. At the outset he knew that it was unlikely that he could turn this woman into a sympathizer of the Israeli cause. His aim for the moment was merely to make her realize that her attitude about Israel was based on a very one-sided view. He wanted her to have second-thoughts. It’s the first step in persuading people to stop hating something.

But by bringing up the old accusations about plundered land and the killing of innocent women and children, she has, probably unwittingly, ensared Jack away from Arab attacks on Israel. If he is not careful he will squander what he’s said so far. He’s got to get back to Hamas. If he discusses her latest assertion that Israel stole the land from the Palestinians and kills women and children, even though he’s got very convincing arguments, he will get himself into a heated squabble and lose the little rapport that he had built up with her.

Explaining convincingly that Israel didn’t steal any land from the Arabs and that women and children are killed in every modern conflct (especially when Hamas uses them as human shields) will take up too much time. He’d have to go over the whole sequence of events starting from biblical times, through the Ottoman era, the British Mandate, the creation of the Kingdom of Jordan and the United Nations Partition Vote of 1947. Then he’d have to discuss the many wars, and who initiated them. He’d need to dwell on the Arab refugee problem and emphasize that the world has never related to the fact that there were also about 900,000 Jews who had to flee Arab countries at the same time that the Arab refugee problem emerged – which in any case resulted from the Arabs’ own attempt to utterly destroy Israel. All this would take time that is scarce, and would create arguments – and arguments are seldom won by anyone. But he can’t ignore what she’s just said. He has to relate to it.

But he takes a different tack: “How do you know that Israel stole the land from the Palestinians? And that the Israelis kill women and children?”

She blinks, shaking her head as if to convey that she thinks this is a stupid question: “It’s in the news all the time. Don’t you watch TV or read the newspapers?”

Jack nods. “Yes, indeed I do. And I get the distinct impression that Israel is an aggressor nation. Most of the news media conveys the impression that the Jews in Israel have robbed the Palestinians of their land. Israel is a danger to world peace. Israel makes war all the time. Yes, I pick all that up from the newspapers and the television.”

“Well, there you are,” she sang out.

Jack continued: “But there’s something that I don’t understand. There’s something that just doesn’t make sense. Maybe you can help me”?

With mock patience, she says, “What don’t you understand?”

Jack takes a deep breath and asks: “Do you know …” He hesitates briefly and continues: “What is the Jewish population of Israel? And what is the population of the Arab countries?”

She doesn’t have a clue. Jack continues: “And how big is Israel? And what is the combined land mass of all the Arab countries?”

She shrugs her shoulders and says, “How should I know, and in any case, what’s it got to do with anything?

Jack says: “It’s got to do with everything.” Then he tells her the statistics. “There are about six million Jews in Israel. That’s a lot less than the entire population of London. And there are about three hundred million Arabs in the world, many of them more or less surrounding Israel. In other words there are about fifty times as many Arabs as there are Israelis. Also in size Israel is one of the smallest countries in the world. Its about the same size as Wales. While the Arabs have the second largest land mass in the world – larger than the USA or Canada or China. And they have the largest oil resources in the world …”

She stops Jack. “So what? That’s all the more reason why the Israelis want to steal land from the Arabs. They are so full of themselves, these J…” She eyes Jack for a moment, trying to sum him up. Then she continues: “… these Israelis. They think they are God’s chosen people.”

Jack shakes his head. “Most Israelis aren’t religious. They don’t take that kind of stuff seriously. But just think about it for one minute. Israel’s Jewish population is about half a percent of the total Arab population in the world. If you add another billion Muslims, most of whom really hate Israel for whatever reasons, ask yourself candidly: does it make any sense whatsoever, for Israel to want to pick a fight when they are so dreadfully outnumbered in every way? Think about that. Does it make any sense?”

She shakes her head irately, thinks for a moment and replies: “Well I know what I see on the TV and read in the newspapers and I get a completely different picture from what you’re saying.”

Jack: “Well three hundred million Arabs controlling most of the oil in the world make a lot more noise than a few million Jews. That’s one of the reasons why you see mainly the Arab point of view on the news. There are other reasons, but that’s one of the reasons why Israel looks so bad on the news.”

She begins to open the door of her car. Then she turns to Jack and asks almost accusingly: “So tell me, how do you know all this?”

He’s not sure how she will relate to what he’s said if she realizes that he’s Jewish. He looks at her piercing blue, almost hostile eyes and they help him make up his mind. “I’m a Jew,” he says simply. “That means that I have to know a lot of stuff – just to survive.”

She nods coolly, pouting her mouth and screwing up her eyes. Jack adds: “The Jews have been connected with the Land of Israel for over three and a half thousand years. All that Israel wants more than anything else in the world is to live in peace with all its neighbors. But when attacked, Israel does what any other country would do and that’s defend her citizens. This latest war in Gaza actually started eight years ago when the Arabs of Gaza began to fire rockets at Israel’s towns and villages. Israel never retaliated properly. There hasn’t been a single Jewish soldier or civilian in Gaza for over three years. But the mortar and rocket attacks kept increasing all the time. At a certain point the people of Israel couldn’t take it anymore. That’s what this present war against the Hamas terror army and government is all about.”

She’s about to get into her car and shakes her head. “I don’t know. You’re too glib.”

Jack says, “I’m not suggesting that you automatically believe every word I’ve said. Just think about it and come to your own honest conclusions. Check it out on the Wikipedia. If you like I’d be very glad to further our conversation.”

Jack gives her a visiting card. She sits behind the steering wheel and is about to close the door when he adds: “By the way, if you’re already boycotting Israel’s oranges there are other things that you should avoid. For instance, be sure not to use your cell phone, because the voice mail technology used in it was developed in Israel. So were many of the components and programs in your computer. Also be very wary of what medicines you take or what medical procedures anyone in your family takes. Many of the breakthroughs in modern medicine were done in Israel.”

She looks puzzled as she begins to pull out of the parking space and drives away. Jack waves and she nods her head. There’s so much more that Jack wanted to say. He had wanted to talk more about Hamas’ ultimate aims, tactics and ruthless cynicism. But there just wasn’t time and anyway, there is a limit to how much a person can be expected to change his or her attitude during a brief conversation. But at least she was exposed to a few home truths. Maybe the next time she watches the BBC or reads the Guardian she’ll be able to relate with less gullibility to slanted presentations and with more openness to reality. Also the more, people with a good knowledge of the Arab and Islamic fundamentalist quest to eradicate Israel, become vocal, the better chance this woman and others like her will know which side she must join in the coming global struggle for sanity, common decency and freedom of the spirit.

Jack had followed all the rules of engagement:

1. He never shouted or belittled the other person.

2. He appealed to her sense of self-respect and suggested that he was sure that truthfulness is an important issue for her.

3. He tried to avoid confrontation until some minimum form of rapport had been made.

4. He suggested an opposite conclusion to the obvious. (England would deserve being rocketed by terrorists.)

5. He focused on one main issue and avoided dealing with too many other issues at once.

6. He realized he couldn’t change her mind in one short conversation. The aim was to get her to have second thoughts.

7. He ended the encounter amicably with the suggestion of a future chat.

See also:


Entry filed under: dangeous lies and halftruths, Things not mentioned in the press. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

How to end Gaza’s misery THINGS USED TO BE REALLY BAD

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ruth Morris  |  January 26, 2009 at 10:15 am

    All I can say is that the scenario is brilliant. It gets into the head and skin of the person trying to present Israel’s case. Ralph Dobrin should be out there giving workshops to Jews who care about Israel but don’t know what to do. Yashar koach!

  • 2. Angela Wine  |  January 26, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Exclellent although difficult approach to the problem
    Thank you Rafi – will try it out next time

  • 3. SomeIntegrity  |  January 26, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    A potential movement could be a call for rescuing the Palestinian people from their suicide ordering leaders.

    In the distant past the people of East Germany were hostages of ruthless Soviet supported regime.

    The East German regime plotted with all imaginations to overthrow the West German freedom.

    The West German freedom won.
    They are free now.

    The Palestinian people deserve no less than such a rescue.

    The overthrow of the Hamas leaders is not possible.

    The rescue should include the Hamas members who out of no choice are in the organization.

  • 4. Peter  |  January 26, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    1. Not all Guardian readers are opposed to Israel. I’ve been reading it for decades and am strong supporter of Israel. The G gives a left of centre viewpoint. No more or less than some Israeli papers!
    2. The scenario is unrealistic. In the UK people hardly ever mention politics in public. They are much too reserved! Starting a conversation with a stranger in a supermarket queue and following her to the car park is likely to land you in a police cell!.
    3. Jack would do better by telling the till assistant to put the oranges in his basket as there are two sides to every story.

  • 5. robbie  |  February 9, 2009 at 8:04 am

    I agree with Peter that following someone out of the spuermarket and to thier car is inadvisable and could be dangerous; and also that picking up the oranges and putting them in my own basket is an excellent and effective alternative strategy. The scenaio is not unrealistic, however – just a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine was accosted and harrangued in the salad aisle at Sainsburys by a middle-aged, middle class woman who noticed her choosing Israeli tomatoes – my firend’s response was to ask the woman if she believes without questioning everything she reads in the newspapers/sees on TV news about other political issues – I think asking someone how they would feel if an organisation in Wales was sending rockets every day for 8 years into English towns near the border is a good place to start the `dialogue’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


%d bloggers like this: