Friday, September 28, 2007

Some More Good News from Israel -- Elisheva Milikowsky and the Sudanese Refugees

Moadim le-simhah (loosely: Holidays are for rejoicing), and this is the Sukkot (Tabernacles) Holiday. I simply cannot write anything critical about Israel, at least not directly. So my next three posts will feature good Israelis doing good things.

The first is Elisheva Milikowsky, a social work student at Ben Gurion University, who has overnight become the most important address for Sudanese refugees in Israel. I am reproducing the entire Haaretz article and interview with her below. But first I want to write something personal about the Milikowskys.

My wife and I are old friends of Elisheva's parents, Chaim and Ella Milikowsky. Chaim is a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University, and the chair of the department. Ella for many years worked with cancer victims who are children. (You will note that at the end of the article, Elisheva's very supportive parents are worried about the "emotional cost" of Elisheva's volunteer work; they know whereof they speak.) Although they live in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, they are certainly among the most liberal of the people living there. More to the point, they are fine, upstanding people.

What Elisheva Milikowsky is doing on behalf of the Sudanese is a kiddush ha-shem, a sanctification of God's name. In a country, and among an orthodox community, where the knee-jerk reflex is "Take care of your own first" (for which, see my post on the Torah Morality according to Tony Soprano), but which usually means, "Take care only of your own," Elisheva shows that we have a responsibility to take care of the most pressing cases of need, especially when nobody else is stepping up to the plate. "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" the Talmud adjoins. Elisheva is that "man" in this time and place. The responsibility is a heavy load, and I hope that she can get help very soon to bear it. But, I just want to tell her how proud she makes us feel, and how proud I know her parents must feel, of the melekhet kodesh, the truly sacred work, she is performing.

One more thing -- as I have written here before, I am a tribalist, and I am hence proud that it is a woman from an orthodox Jewish family (one I am privileged to know) that is the leading activist on the Sudanese refugees in Israel. As I have said repeatedly, it is a little known fact that many of the most prominent activists against injustice and insensitivity to the suffering of others in Israel today come from orthodox Jewish families. It is not their orthodox Judaism that leads them to do what they do -- please read what Elisheva has to say on that score below -- it is the moral upbringing and version of orthodox Judaism that they have received in the homes, and the example set by their parents. Of course, one can bring many more examples of orthodox Jews -- or of any people -- who are not fighting injustice (including myself). But allow me to "kwell" a bit when one of my tribe sanctifies God's name in this way.

The article is here -- please send it around.

One-woman rescue mission

By Nurit Wurgaft

"Shalom, I've come to visit the Sudanese who are here." Elisheva Milikovsky wasn't asking permission; she was informing the reception desk of Beit Hahayal (Soldiers' House) in Be'er Sheva. Two military policewomen who were sitting at the entrance rose without asking questions and took her to the third floor, which was serving temporarily as a detention center for refugees for whom no room had been found in prison. That was at the height of the summer vacation, but the shouts of the children in the swimming pool did not penetrate to the dark lobby of the third floor. There sat two women, refugees from Eritrea, who together with the cleaning women were watching a telenovela whose language was incomprehensible to all of them.

Milikovsky pulled out a notepad, asked what they needed and made lists. "I'll bring you a change of clothes and phone cards," she said, adding: "I can't take you out of here. I'm only a student volunteer."

Milikovsky, 25, "only a student volunteer" from Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, has become the address for anyone connected to the refugees who arrive in Israel via Sinai: soldiers at the border, social organizations, journalists, employers and politicians. How did it happen? Almost by chance, she replies. As part of her bachelor's degree studies in social work at BGU, she participated in a practical course about the Sudanese refugees, who at the time were beginning to leave prison for alternative detention arrangements, in line with a decision by the High Court of Justice.

"Apparently it attracted me for some reason, because I no longer needed the points," she says. "It also seemed important and interesting because it was a less theoretical and more practical course. We had an initial meeting, the students and teachers in the course, with Yiftah Milo from Assaf (Organization for Psychological Aid to Refugees and Asylum Seekers), and I was shocked at the fact that the refugees, who had experienced so many hardships, were being put into prison here. I thought that we had to examine who was making these decisions, how the subject could be brought to people's attention and how to change it."

So in effect you weren't intending to take care of changes of clothes for them, you wanted to work for socio-political change?

"At first, yes. That was in February. The big wave hadn't begun yet and people barely knew that there were refugees here. We began with a registration booth in the university. In April we organized a conference and screened the film 'Hotel Rwanda,' about a hotel owner who in the 1990s saved thousands of Tutsi refugees who were persecuted by the Hutu. We brought one of the Sudanese refugees from Sde Boker to speak and make the event relevant. I remember that after the conference, my roommate said to me, 'It's over, now you can relax.' But even that same night I couldn't fall asleep. The thought that people were sitting in jail for no reason gave me no peace. And then the large wave of refugees began, and since then I haven't been doing anything else."

Is this the first time you've been drawn into something this way?

"In such a total manner, yes. We have a forum for social justice and we were involved with the unrecognized [Bedouin] villages in the Negev, and we led a struggle about the employment conditions of contract workers in the university. But in the other areas there are many organizations that are active. Here there was nothing and we had to do everything."

And she did do everything. Within the few months during which she was involved in activity for the refugees, she located host families, interviewed potential employers, conducted contacts with the social welfare and health services, and spoke of the distress of the refugees in the Knesset and the media.

She says her involvement began with a telephone conversation in which Milo told her about a refugee who was hospitalized at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva and suggested that she go visit him. "He had fainted and lost consciousness at the border crossing, apparently from exhaustion," she says. "That's how it happened that he was hospitalized, while his friends were sent to prison, and when he was released from the hospital, he went to Tel Aviv. This arbitrariness drove me crazy - that just because he had fainted he was outside, while the others may still be in prison.

"At about the same time we heard about reservists at the border who had to buy Materna [infant formula] and disposable diapers with their own money. We sent e-mails to request help and received responses and donations from all over the country. I turned to the [Israel Defense Forces] Southern Command to offer help, so they had my phone number. Apparently that's why they called me later on, when they would bring the refugees and leave them in various places all over Be'er Sheva."

Total helplessness

The first time the army called, they informed her that they had left a group of refugees in front of the police station in Be'er Sheva. Milikovsky was sure it was an isolated incident, the result of official helplessness in dealing with the growing stream of refugees. And still, "This first meeting with people who were left in the street in the middle of the night, this total helplessness, drew me in completely," she says.

From then on, Milikovsky and her friends in the group would go to the public parks where the refugees had been left (or to sidewalks and abandoned areas in the industrial zone), equipped with food and drink and diapers for the babies. They located places to sleep for the first nights and sometimes arranged makeshift ones, and accompanied those in need of medical care to the hospital.

With the help of her friends in the group and the Hotline for Foreign Workers, she began to act as a liaison between the homeless refugees and potential employers, helping the refugees to avoid sitting in jail. "The first employer who contacted me was an elderly woman who had heard me speaking about the refugees over the radio, and asked to employ Sudanese in her family's pipe-manufacturing plant," she recalls. "That was still during the stage when I thought I wouldn't get involved with such things, because I'm only a social work student, what do I have to do with employers? And then I realized that I am involved with such things. It began with the contact with the companies that employ the Sudanese in hotels in Eilat and at the Dead Sea, which still seemed logical to me. Then farmers and private employers also began to turn to me, and my involvement increased, because there is great potential for exploitation here, and if I send someone to work somewhere, I feel responsible."

She speaks with enthusiasm, convinced of the justice of her path, although she does not receive sweeping support from people close to her, and the intensive encounter with foreigners is entirely new to her. In effect, she says, "The first time I saw Africans was on television." There were no non-Jewish foreigners in the religious settlement of Efrat, where she grew up, and certainly not at Pelech High School for girls in Jerusalem. Her first encounter with flesh-and-blood Africans was as a volunteer with the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement, working with the children of Ethiopian immigrants.

During that period, she says, "there was an idea of establishing an absorption center for Ethiopians in Efrat, and there was opposition in the community. I and several others organized a demonstration in favor, but it didn't exactly help."

What is the attitude toward your activity with the refugees?

"There's admiration, but there's also a lot of criticism, mainly from girlfriends who saw me on an everyday basis and thought I was harming myself. Once I told a friend that I wasn't sleeping at night because of it, and she said that there are many good reasons for not sleeping at night, and why the refugees of all things? On the other hand, I have also formed personal ties with students and social activists from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That's very important, because during this entire period it's as though you're in another world entirely, and people from outside don't understand you.

"During exam period I remember walking around the university not understanding how people still had a normal life, how they could be so interested in exams and grades. A gap formed between me and friends, one reason being that people didn't understand what was happening to me. My roommate recently got married, and I remember how one day I returned to the apartment after a terrible day, when the refugees were in the street and we had to take care of food and clothing for them, and she was talking about invitations and about her dress. I felt that I was terribly alone in this business."

What does your family think?

"In my immediate family they understand what I'm doing, and they're proud of me. They ask what will happen with my studies and are worried about me because of the emotional cost, because I would sometimes return home tired and depressed, and they are also worried about the social life I'm neglecting. They wanted me to get away a little, to manage to maintain some distance, to do some other things. Mother wanted me to travel abroad with a girlfriend; but they support me."

And in the extended family?

"In principle, they generally admire my activity that helps others, but they certainly think that charity begins at home, and Africans are not part of our home. That's also obvious with neighbors and friends. I try not to get into arguments. If I get into an argument I use Jewish explanations - remembering the Holocaust and loving the stranger - although that's not what motivates me."

What does motivate you?

"That these are people who are fleeing from wars and from terrible situations, and if they come to us, we have to take care of them. Because that's the humane and proper thing to do, without any connection to the Holocaust and to history and to our Judaism."

Paradoxical solution

In a discussion held in June in the Knesset Committee for Children's Rights, headed by Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), Milikovsky gave the following description: "At 10:30 P.M. we get a phone call that there's a group of 40 refugees, 15 of them children. We get there, we, the students, the only ones who are there aside

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Something Positive About Israel For A Change

One of my steady readers, "gbachrach", suggests that I publish something good about Israel for a change. As usual, he's got a good point. So here goes:

Yesterday, I went, for the first time on a major holiday, to an orthodox egal minyan (translation: an orthodox prayer service in which women are given the maximum participatory role permitted, according to a few orthodox scholars today.) What does this mean, "takhlis", as they say? Well, women read from the Torah, and are called up to the Torah; they recite psalms and incidental prayers ("pisuke dezimra," "kabbalat shabbat," "kol nidre", etc.), and perform the task of "gabbaiyot", running the service. Remember, this is an orthodox service -- mehitzah/partition and separate seating for the sexes. Needless to say, most of the people were young, with a lot of children, bli ayin hara.

Well, it took me a while to get used to it, and I am still not entirely used to it. But everybody was very serious (as befits Yom Kippur); the Torah reading was excellent, and, surprise, very few American accents. This is an Israeli minyan, unlike Shirah Hadasha, the trail-blazer orthodox egal minyan, which appeals to a more American and Carlebach crowd (I am sorry that I am speaking in tounges for my non-Jewish readers.)

The major innovations for orthodox Jewish women over the past thirty years have originated in Israel -- granted, because of Americans living in Israel, but still in Israel. With all my criticism of religion in Israel (my hard drive is too small to contain it all), this has been a blessing. A recent book by Daniel Sperber, Israel Prize winner in Jewish History, well-known and accepted modern orthodox figure, and brilliant scholar -- contains a cogent defence, well-grounded in the sources, for change of this sort. If readers express interest, I will give a short precis of his book.

Orthodox egal is not for everybody. Most of the orthodox will find it odd; on the left, they won't think it is egalitarian enough. But there is a "market niche" in communities of modern orthodox Jews with highly educated women for this sort of thing, and I think it will be the wave of the future for some modern orthodox synagogues.

"Torah will come forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem" the Bible says. On rare occasions, that is true -- and this is one of them.

P.S. For details about the minyan, you can contact me off-blog.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jewish National Fund Bill -- Update from Informed Sources

About two months ago, the Israeli Knesset passed, on preliminary hearing, a bill that would restrict lease of land owned by the Jewish National Fund in Israel to Jews only. This includes land that was expropriated by Palestinians as a result of the 1948 war. This blog was one of the first to break the news here.

The passage of the bill set off widespread protest in Israel and abroad, with some very unlikely people joining the protest, like rightwing ADL leader Abe Foxman and former Defence Minister (and super-hawk), Moshe Arens. Some of the members of the Knesset that had initially supported the bill backtracked out of shame; others have been hanging tough. Then the Knesset went into recess until the end of the Jewish holidays.

Last night, Menachem ben Sasson, who is chairman of the Knesset's constitution committee, came to my shul for holiday prayers. I asked him, hopefully, whether he thought that that the bill would be buried in committee. He said that it would not, that it was not in his committee, and that it would come to the main floor for the second and third readings. But -- and here is main point -- there would be significant changes with the JNF and its relationship with the Israel Land Authority, which administers the land. These changes would involve the JNF's returning to the state the Palestinian land which it purchased in the fifties. So none of that land would fall under the purview of the JNF and its new "Jews only" clause.

Now this solution had already been proposed by former Justice Minister Amnon Rubinstein, in a letter to Prime Minister Olmert. Rubinstein, who criticized the Knesset law. also proposed that the JNF would not lease its land to "Jews only" but to projects of national importance, that could include Jews and non-Jews. Pay attention:

Rubinstein's proposal, made to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, recommends that a distinction be made between JNF lands and state lands, with the organization returning all state lands in return for being allowed to manage the properties under its control "in line with national interests." As an example of such "national interest," he proposes that JNF lands be used for housing projects for discharged soldiers.

Another example of land for "national interests" would be apportioning lands for a "peace village" for Jews and Arabs.

I asked Ben-Sasson if the Knesset was going to come up with something that looked like Amnon Rubinstein's proposal. He said that it would not be identical but it would "be in that direction."

Now, Rubinstein's proposal sounds much better than the original law, which he severely criticized on liberal grounds. But it is just as racist because of the "national interests" clause. For example, the phrase "discharged soliders" is a synonym for "non-Palestinians," since non-Druze Palestinians are not drafted, and Muslim Palestinians are not allowed to serve. This is a common tactic used to discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. When I lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I leased land from the JNF which was made available to IDF veterans or new immigrants, i.e., to keep Palestinians out of the neighborhood (By the way, it is still segregated by law, and the law was sustained by the High Court of Justice.)

As for joint Jewish-Arab villages, I assume that he is referring to villages on the model of Neveh Shalom, the only one of its kind in Israel. He may be liberal enough to include Jewish communities that are segregated, but where Palestinians wish to live, as in the Ka'dan case. That would affirm the status quo and would seem to be a blow to the proponents of the JNF bill.

But would it? The fact is that by returning the land to the state, Israel would be able to keep lands expropriated for Jews only (at least until challenged by the courts, which has not yet happened.) Since most of the Palestinian land is held by the state -- Ben Gurion never felt the pressure to sell it to the JNF because the world didn't pressure him to make it available to Palestinians -- the status quo of not apportioning land expropriated by Palestinians to Palestinians would continue.

Moreover, by defining the mandate of the JNF as leasing land "in line with national interest" then it could be claimed by Jewish communities interested in keeping out Palestinian residents that it is acting in the national interest. Or that the expansion of an Israeli Palestinian town or village is not in the national interest because this is a Jewish state.

In short, the Rubinstein proposal is all smoke and mirrors designed to make us feel good. Once you have a state that is defined as a Jewish state, in the way it is understood over here, you have given up liberal values like equal opportunity, etc. Rubinstein has tried very hard to square the circle time and time again. It won't work.

Remember -- Ben Sasson did not say that the bill would be identical with the Rubinstein proposal, but that it would be in the same direction.

God willing, it will be voted down.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Happy New Year From the Magnes Zionist

This wednesday night begins the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and I am returning to Israel tomorrow evening. I want to take this opportunity to wish anybody reading this blog a happy new year, and may we all be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year. If I have offended anybody by some intemperate language, well, even though I know you can take it -- and give it back in spades -- I am sorry.

The truth is that I never know whether I will continue this blog. There is something almost pathetic about a middle-aged guy, sitting at a computer, thinking that his rants can do anything. But them that can, do, and them that can't, write, and them that really can't, write about it on the web for a small audience of regulars, and a huge audience of passers-by.

When I was sixteen, Elie Wiesel came to town to speak. This was before he was ELIE WIESEL -- he was just another Jewish writer, who had written an incredibly powerful memoir about the holocaust and a few other books, including the Jews of Silence. That was his book about Soviet Jews, and it was a landmark book in getting people aware of the plight of Soviet Jews. He came to my home town to speak about the book.

His talk was entitled, "The Writer as Witness," and that was his theme. That and his remark that the Soviet Jews were not the Jews of Silence, but rather that we were -- because we were silent and apathetic about their plight.

I quote Elie Wiesel because he has rather large feet of clay on Israel, and on the suffering of the Palestinians; I will discuss that some other time. But his message made a big impact on one high school kid, who had read Night, and who met briefly with him.

We are blessed in Israel with important writers as witnesses -- Gidon Levy, Amira Hass, Danny Rubenstein, not to mention academics and scholars.

But here in the Diaspora, the witnesses are conversos -- marranos -- who talk to each other and lay low.

Nothing I do may change anything, but if we chip away at this stone of indifference the best we can, we may, collectively, get people to understand what is going on there.

Even if you have no problems with the Jewish state as founded in 1948 you have to realize that it is guilty of massive human violations at every instant of every day. I cannot look in the mirror and say, "This is the price to pay for a Jewish state."

The price is too high. The alternatives have to be explored.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Latest Israeli Peace Offer -- And Why, God Willing, It Will Not Work

The AP is reporting a proposed "deal" between Israel and the Palestinian, being floated by Israel.

All these deals are traps: If the Palestinians accept them, they lose; if they turn them down, they lose. If they accept them they lose because these deals will never be implemented, for a host of reasons, and then they will have made concessions for nothing.If they reject them then they are back to the image of the Palestinians who "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Let us hope that making noises about peace is good for somebody else besides Olmert and Ramon. But I doubt it.

Of course, the worse-case scenario is that the leaders agree to this deal, and it is implemented. What a disaster that would be -- the creation of a non-militarized state in barely contiguous areas on less thant 20% of Palestine, which could not possibly hope to absorb its refugees, and which finds itself in an eternal neocolonial dependence to the settler state....

Not likely that it will happen, though. Glad to see that I can be in agreement with my rightwing critics on this one.

Report: Ramon offers PA West Bank pullout, territory exchange

By The Associated Press

A confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered a broad West Bank pullout in talks with Palestinian leaders on a final-status peace deal, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad and other officials in an effort to put together a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles that will be presented in November at a Mideast peace conference slated to be held in the U.S., Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported.

Ramon is offering the Palestinians an Israeli withdrawal from nearly the entire West Bank, including the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, as part of a final peace deal, according to the report by two respected correspondents for the mass circulation daily.

Tzahi Moshe, a spokesman for Ramon, would not comment on the report. Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki denied that Ramon had met with Fayad or with any other Palestinian government officials.

According to the report's account of Ramon's offer, the border between Israel and the future Palestinian state will roughly follow the route of Israel 's West Bank security barrier, leaving major Israeli settlement blocs and between 3 and 8 percent of the West Bank in Israel's hands.

In return, Israel will cede to the same amount of land inside Israel to the Palestinians to make up for the annexed territory, the report said - possibly including a land corridor between the West Bank and Gaza, a central ongoing Palestinian demand.

Palestinians who became refugees when Israel was founded in 1948 will not be allowed into Israel, but only into the Palestinian state, and an international fund will be set up to pay for their rehabilitation. Holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City will be under the control of the various religions and no national flags will be flown, the report said.

Ramon's plan closely resembles an Israeli offer to the Palestinians at a failed peace summit in 2000. U.S. President Bill Clinton, who hosted the summit, later blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for rejecting the Israeli proposal, saying he missed the opportunity to create a Palestinian state. A new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted not long afterward, lasting for most of the past seven years and claiming thousands of lives.

According to the Yediot report, Olmert approves of Ramon's negotiating activities. If the efforts succeed, the report said, Olmert will publicly adopt the results, and if they fail, he will portray them as a personal effort by Ramon.

Peace moves between Israel and the Palestinians have been intensifying since June, when the Islamic militants of Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip. Following the takeover, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement formed a government of Western-aligned moderates in the West Bank, winning broad backing from an international community eager prevent new gains for the Islamic hard-liners.

Hamas has remained largely isolated in Gaza.

Olmert and Abbas have met several times in recent months. Israel refused at first to discuss the three topics known as the core issues of the conflict - final borders, Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants. But the two leaders tackled those issues at their last meeting on August 28.

Damping hopes for a speedy Israeli pullout, however, are concerns that near-daily Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, where Israeli forces pulled out two years ago, could be repeated in the West Bank if the army leaves security in the hands of Abbas' weak forces.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that no West Bank pullout would be possible until Israel has developed a missile shield to counter rocket fire from the West Bank, which could threaten the country's population centers and paralyze its only international airport. Barak said this will take at least two and a half years.

The Israel-Palestinian Victory at Bil'in -- A Sweet New Year

There are some small victories, small points of light in the dark night of occupation. But this will be a big one, if the army and the government obey the High Court of Justice.

For the last several years, Israelis and Palestinians have been protesting about the route of the separation wall in the area of Modi'in. The route was designed primarily to provide Israeli real estate developers more land to sell to Jews, to annex more land by the State of Israel, and to destroy the lives of villagers in Bilin so that there would be more land. Security, as usual, had little, if anything to do with the route of the security fence.

Does the above description sound outrageous? Not to the High Court of Justice that decided this week to direct the government to make a security fence around Modi'in, instead of the planned Lebensraum wall (the Hebrew equivalent of "Lebensraum" -- merhav mihyah -- was used by Nachum Barnea, Israel's most respected and read journalist, in his shabbat column in Yedi'ot to describe the wall. I hope, God willing, to report on what he wrote.

This is a victory for a gallant band of non-violent protesters (the rock-throwing Arabs in their midst were long ago revealed to be General Secret Service provocateurs, but that's another story).

While older Jewish supporters of the good-old-moral-Labor-Zionism have been writing their polemics in the Diaspora, a young group of protesters -- they call themselves "anarchists" mostly as an inside joke; they have no ideology besides fighting for Palestinian rights -- have been risking their lives facing the rubber bullets of the IDF.

Please read the article below, especially if you are a Peace-Now, knee-jerk, opponent of the Occupation -- the sort of person who thinks Tom Friedman knows what he is talking about. The next time you write out a check for the New Israel Fund, try to think of ways also to support the activists who are sanctifying God's name in public. (And keep writing the checks for the New Israel Fund....)

They, and other groups like Children of Abraham, Ta'ayush, Breaking the Silence, ICAHD, etc., are the future of Israel. May God grant them the strength to continue in their struggle.

A victory for the anarchists

By Meron Rapoport

"I remember the moment I marched among a crowd of Palestinians," said one of the Israeli activists who participated in the ongoing demonstrations near the village of Bil'in, this week. Those demonstrations led to a High Court decision a few days ago ordering the rerouting of the separation fence near the village. "I served in the army, and my first instinct was to look for the signal operator and to check if we were marching properly spaced. The Palestinians shouted 'Allahu Akbar,' which is supposed to be the nightmare of every Israeli soldier, but I suddenly realized that I was with them, that they weren't my enemies."

One must understand. Anyone who went to demonstrate in Bil'in knew that he stood more than a small chance of getting hurt somehow by "his" army: by clubs, tear gas, rubber bullets. Undoubtedly, there were a few who sought out this violence, but it also befell those who did not seek it out. It was part of the deal. The violence that the soldiers and Border Police officers employed against the Israeli demonstrators on an average Friday in Bil'in surpassed that used against the settlers during the entire evacuation of Gush Katif. Nevertheless, a few hundred Israelis made this trip every Friday, without fail, for the last two and a half years. Not all of them at once. Sometimes five, sometimes 50, sometimes 100. But they came.

Most of these people were young, sometimes very young, and they gathered under the rubric of "Anarchists Against the Fence." The Zionist left had no presence there. Not Peace Now and not Meretz (some Meretz MKs sometimes assisted the arrestees, but no more than that) - and certainly not Labor. Older organizations from the non-Zionist left were supportive, and provided logistical assistance, but the initiative still came from the anarchists. They led the struggle.

Without question, it was a rather small group. Not everyone, even the most devout leftist and vigorous opponent of the occupation, is prepared to come and take a beating, to run up and down hills, to breathe tear gas, to be arrested. But it wasn't an insignificant number either, this group of people prepared to come to blows with the establishment. In Bil'in their goal was simple and tangible: to restore the lands to the Palestinians.

It will be interesting to see what their next goal is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tough Jewess -- Wisse's "Jews and Power"

Because of the well-orchestrated media hullabaloo, I went out and bought Ruth Wisse's new book on "Jews and Power." My expectations were low. A book that advances a grand theory of "Jewish power" by a literature professor who is neither trained in Jewish history, nor, judging from the bibliography, conversant with scholarly literature in any language besides Yiddish and English, in a series aimed for popular consumption, should be judged differently than a work of a specialist. Still, some of the previous books in the Nextbook series are useful as introductions to their topics, despite their flaws(I am thinking mainly of Nuland's Maimonides and Goldstein's Spinoza.) And the idea of a series of short, intellectually challenging books for the "educated layperson" sounds promising.

Unfortunately, "Jews and Power" is a tendentious mix of personal biography, Zionist historiography, and cherry-picking of Jewish literature and history,in the grand tradition of Zionist polemics. Somewhere halfway through the book, Wisse completely loses the train of her argument about power and just provides a ZOA-approved guide to the establishment of the State of Israel through the Oslo accords, the sort of thing that Netanyahu, Dershowitz, and Bard could do in their sleep.

Wisse repeats uncritically the narrative of "Exile and Return" that has been debunked time and time again by serious scholars; she manages to get around to David Biale's "beguilingly contrarian" thesis of Jewish power and powerlessness, which is a direct challenge to her book, on p. 174, ten pages before its conclusion. She does not give Biale's book any serious attention; on the contrary, she seems to think that his point is that Jews in the diaspora glorified powerlessness, whereas Biale showed that the Jewish experience in political power had not ended as good for the Jews as the Zionist historiography pretended.

It is not just the tendentious of the material on Zionism -- Wisse completely omits mention of Zionists like Magnes, Buber, Scholem, etc., who don't fit into her master narrative, much less intellectual and liberal opponents of Zionism. (Cultural Zionist Ahad ha-Am get a nod, but is immediately criticized, of course, for failing to realize the need for Jewish power in a hurry.) It is not just the failure to cite, much less refute, any book on Israel-Palestine that does not fit into her mold (Has she even read Morris, Segev, Shlaim, and Kimmerling? As for Khalidi, she argues with a comparison he makes between Palestinians, Kurds, and Armenians, and then proceeds to ignore entirely the main argument of his book on Palestinian identity) She passes over Kimmerling and Migdal on Palestinian identity in silence, preferring to give her own arguments against their being a Palestinian people united by anything except "its antagonism to Israel and its usurpation of Jewish symbols, history or identity." To prove this last assertion, Wisse refers to the fact that "the Palestinians commemorate the birthday of Israel as their nakba, or catastrophe." But it is not the birthday of Israel that is their nakba -- it is the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, the destruction of their lives, and the thwarting of their political aspirations

In any event, I could understand Wisse if she were upset at the Palestinians for whining over the loss of Palestine ("self-pity, self-punishment, and self-destruction at the hands of Israel," whatever that last phrase means) without standing up and resisting. As the advocate of people power, she should be the first to praise the PLO and Hamas for armed resistance, as she does the parallel Jewish organizations, the Haganah and the IZL ("functioning as a good boxer's two fists" (p. 126) -- fist that also killed innocents)

No, it is the mind-numbing shallowness of the book -- as if a professor, any professor, can write a short book on Jewish power and powerlessness that takes in (I quote from the jacket) "everything from the Kingdom of David to the Oslo Accords." When Baer wrote his work on Galut, for all of its Zionist tendentiousness and superficiality, at least he had some grip on Jewish history.

Most of the historical errors reveal the secular Zionist prism through which she views the data. Every Israeli knows where the city of Yavneh is located, but for Wisse it is "abroad" (p. 29), where Ben Zakkai took the first steps "to reconstitute Jewish religious and political authority outside the Land of Israel" (emphasis added.) Yavneh, no less than Jerusalem, is within the Land of Israel, and it became for a short time the center of the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. Of course, this mistake is telling: for the Zionists, the tragedy of 70 ce was the loss of political sovereignty and exile, to which the development of rabbinic Judaism was a response. But it was not the loss of sovereignty and exile that bothered the rabbis at Yavneh. Virtually none of the tannaim even mention "exile", and for good reason, they lived in Israel. Rather, it was the loss of the cult of the Temple, which stood at the center of Palestinian Judaism up until time.

As I have written elsewhere, there was no exile following the destruction of the Temple or the Bar Kokhba revolt; there was, according to Baron, increasing voluntary emigration of Jews over centures because of the depressed economic state of the country. The Zionist narrative of exile, founded on Christian and Jewish myths, is like them -- a myth. This is not to say that later there was not a consciousness of living in exile, or a messianic hope for a restoration which waxed and waned. But to reduce Jewish history to: first, the Jews put their faith in Divine power, and then they decided, before it was too late, to bring about their own rededemption through their own power is Zionist poppycock. And what's worse; it is stale poppycock, the sort of propaganda that one finds emanating from Zionist circles a half a century ago.

Will the State of Israel be good for the survival of the Jews? Only time will tell, although the initial results are worrying. Over the last half-century, many more Jews have found violent death in the Jewish state (one might say partly as a result of their being a Jewish state) than in the diaspora. Antisemitism waxes and wanes according to the rhythms of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and their lands, proving Brian Klug's wise observation that nowadays, most antisemitism is really disguised antizionism, and not vice versa.

Still, as long as self-styled "liberal nationalists" like Ruth Wisse make their home in the diaspora, we can be assured that at least some Jews will survive. It is becoming harder and harder to find neocons of her ilk in Israel among the younger generation of Israelis -- they have to be imported from the diaspora like Michael Oren and Yoram Hazony. This is not a problem, since the growing Israeli diaspora in the US and Europe ensures the requisite level of guilt among the emigres to produce neocons among their offspring. And let us not forget the Russian aliyah...

In a rather odd conclusion, Wisse writes as the thesis of her book:
Jews probably could have endured in the Diaspora had theirs been the only type of political organization in the world. But their political system was not basically structured to defend itself against outside enemies seeking it annihilation.

In fact, Jews and Judaism have survived in the Diaspora, and they are doing rather well at that. It is hard to see how a series like Nextbook, despite its occasional amaratzes, dilletantism, and rightwing slant, could have been produced in Israel (unless some rich American Jewish neocon donated money to the Shalem Center). Wisse should ask why no Israelis are writing Hebrew versions of "Jews and Power," and why there is no public in the Jewish state for such books. Or why nobody in Israel under the age of sixty writes the history of the Israel-Palestinian confilct the way she does, unless associated with the Shalem Center or Bar Ilan.

But wait -- the story gets better. It turns out that the above quotation is an adaptation of Jean-Fran├žois Revel's prediction in 1983 about the "imminent demise of democracy". Oh, boy, was that "Chicken-Little" wrong! Wisse has the honesty to admit that "the implosion of the Soviet Union proved his fears groundless in this instance" but this "by no means lessens the value of his insights."

That's odd. I would have thought that historical facts have a direct bearing on the value of one's insights. They do for historians.

But not, apparently, for professors of literature, where the perception and interpretation of facts are what matters.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Singling Out Israel for Moral Opprobrium

I am a tribalist at heart. I really care about my tribe, or, I should say, the various tribes of which I am a member. I care about them in ways that I don’t care about other tribes. Kant forgive me, but it’s true – there are other tribes that I really couldn’t care less about. When I sense that I am becoming heartless and apathetic to the sufferings of others unconnected to my tribe, I try to work on my “human” side, or my “living being” side, or my “creaturely” side – in order to make a new tribe in which I am a member with whatever Other has a claim on me. But, usually, it’s only about me and my tribes.

So, when critics say to me, “Why are you always harping on Israel when there is genocide in Dafur, or vast suppression of human rights in China?” my answer is that I simply care more about Israel because I am part of the tribe. And just as I would be more upset if I found out that my brother, and not a total stranger, were a murderer, or even a thief, when there are lots of more vicious criminals out there, because he is my brother, so I am more upset about my country perpetrating human rights violations against the Palestinian people for generations, than about the genocide in Darfur. For one thing, I am much more implicated in what Israel is doing than what is going on in Darfur, although I guess we also have responsibilities there as human beings, and as people who can do something about it. But Israel is my country, and its crimes are mine. I know that some will say that this excessive concern for my own is “racist.” But there you have it, I am a tribalist.

Ah, but you will say, that’s all well and good for you. You are an Israeli; you are a traditional Jew; you have a right to criticize. But what about criticism from folks who are outside the tribe entirely, like from some of those British and German leftwing intellectual-types? Shouldn’t they be more concerned with Darfur than Israel? And if they aren’t, isn’t that a sign that they are unreasonably fixated on Jews?

Not necessarily. Even though such people are not part of my Israeli Jewish tribe, they may be part of another relevant tribe (say, the Palestinian tribe, or the Friends of Palestine tribe, or even the People-who-Expect-the Countries-That-Present-Themselves-as Civilized-Should-Act-in-a-Civilized-Fashion tribe). Whether they feel themselves to be perpetrators or victims, they are perfectly right in focusing their attention on whatever tribe they belong to, as long as they hold that tribe to a justifiable ethical standard. To demand of them to spend that much energy on other tribes may be Kantian, but it ain’t human. We selectively reward and punish all the time. Speed cops certainly do.

What, then, would bother me? Well, if people criticized Israel for behaving in ways that they excuse, or worse, approve of, in others, without further justification, then that would raise my suspicions. If an American of Irish descent would see nothing wrong in the IRA killing innocents and then would blame Israel for doing the same thing, then I would question that person’s consistency, sincerity, and motives. If a person criticized Israel’s actions because she felt that they embody the negative qualities of Jews everywhere, then she would be a member in good standing of the Antisemite tribe.

I think that the Israel advocates understand the tribalism thing. Because they are always singling out Israel for special consideration. They don’t criticize the massive amount of foreign aid that Israel gets from the United States, although, as Kantians, they should be against such preferential treatment. No, they support the preferential treatment because they are, like me, tribalists. I am sure they give good reasons for their position, but why don’t they spend the same amount of time lobbying for other worthy, even worthier causes, than Israel?

So when somebody argues against the academic boycott of Israel as follows:

"The singling out of Israel for special punishment is not about achieving a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It can only stigmatize the Jewish state for being particularly malevolent. This, whatever the intention, feeds negative historical stereotypes and can fuel anti-Semitism." (italics added; see here)

I reply as follows: First, I appreciate that the speaker, unlike others, does not call the “singling-out of Israel for special punishment” in itself morally wrong or anti-semitic. There may be good reasons for singling out Israel on this point; whether Israel is deserving of an academic boycott needs to debated on its merits. Suggest to the Israel Lobby, who single Israel out for preferential treatment, that their actions can fuel antisemitism, and they will respond that antisemites will be be antisemites whatever the Lobby does, and that the preferential treatment is deserved because of Israel’s strategic importance to the US, etc.

And, ribono shel olam, isn’t it time to give the “the possible fueling of antisemitism” canard a rest? How many times has that one been used to stop us orthodox Jews from reporting to the police wife-beaters and rabbinical child-molesters?

On one point I agree with the speaker: the singling out of Israel for special punishment is not about “achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict”. Rather, it is about achieving justice and dignity for a group that has been without it for too long a time, and, incidentally, for those of us who care, about taking care of Israel’s soul. The punishment is to rectify an intolerable situation that has festered since 1948, and especially since 1967, namely, the thwarting of the Palestinian's people right of self-determination, and the hell that they have had to endure as a result. The fact that other peoples, including my own, have suffered hell in the past, is entirely without relevance to this part of the story.

Speaking of stories, here is one I leave you with:

Once upon a time, two small boys, Pete and Paul, were fighting over a garment. Pete grabbed the garment, wrestled Paul to the ground, and sat on him, at first for days, then for months, finally for years. Pete had nothing against Paul personally. He even made sure that he had enough to eat and drink to stay alive. But Pete was afraid to get off Paul’s stomach, because whenever he did, Paul would start clawing at him, and Pete was scared, for himself and for the garment. He was even willing to share a bit of the garment with Paul – he certainly did not stand to gain by having to take care of Paul -- but how could he be sure that Paul wouldn’t use the opportunity to grab the garment from him, or worse, sit on him?

Whenever an onlooker started to rebuke Pete for sitting on Paul, he would say, “Why are you picking on me ? I am only sitting on the kid; he’s not dead or nothin… If you turn around, you will see plenty of people doing worse things.” And he was right; it was an awful neighborhood. Pete began to suspect that anybody who criticized him was really a friend or relative of Paul, or at least unwittingly gave him support. Because if he really cared about crime, why was he just going after Pete?

Pete was also right to be afraid of Paul. You see, Paul hated Pete and, aside from his getting his freedom and the garment, he would love nothing more than to see Pete dead for what he had suffered all these years. But instead of sending somebody for the police, or seeking outside help, of which he was always suspicious, Pete just kept sitting there on Paul.

And there he sits, to this day: holding on to the garment and defending himself from the accusations of the onlookers by saying, “Hey, I am willing to let the guy up, provided that he….”

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Jews, Power, and Garbage: Part One

I haven't finished looking at the Sunday Times, but I did manage to see two items of interest.

First is Steve Erlanger's frontpage story, "West Bank Boys Dig a Living in Settler Trash," which describes how some Palestinians are quite literally living off the garbage of Jewish settlers out of sheer desparation and poverty.

This is the sort of human interest story one doesn't see enough of in the Times, which usually bashes Israel for making the lives of the Palestinians miserable.

The Zionists always claimed that the Arabs of Palestine would benefit from a Jewish state, and here is the proof: after ruling 3 1/2 million people for forty years without granting them citizen rights, expropriating their lands, restricting their movement, and building walls between their villages and their fields (for the purpose not of security -- ok, not just of security -- but also of providing "living room" for the settlers -- at long last the settlers are doing something for the Palestinians. They are producing garbage that supports the natives -- and the natives aren't paying for it.

The second item is a "review" of Ruth Wisse's new book (published by Nextbooks/Schocken) on Jews and Power, by the British lawyer, Anthony Julius, who has, to my knowledge, no background or professional expertise in Jewish history, but who is not too far from Wisse's ideological camp (more liberal hawk than neocon): he has been sponsored by the ADL in speaking out against the so-called "new antisemitism," and wrote a thesis and book on antisemitism in T.S. Eliot.

Not surprisingly, the review is positive, without a single word of criticism, but that may be simply the nature of a Julius-Nextbook-NY Times review.

You see, Julius reviewed for the Times Sherwin Nuland's book on Maimonides, also published by Nextbooks, showing that just as you don't have to be a Maimonides expert to write a book about him (Nuland is a Yale physician and not a Maimonides scholar), you don't have to be one to write a review, either.

But there is something in the puff that caught my eye. The London barrister writes:

Certainly, the book reads as a setting-down of conclusions reached across several decades of controversy and reflection. But it also has a certain delicacy, in particular in its openness to alternative histories, alternative political arrangements. “It is worth considering how the Middle East might have evolved had Arab rulers accepted the partition of Palestine,” she writes. There would have been some voluntary shifts of population. Arab Palestine might have federated with Jordan. Regional priorities would have dictated new patterns of trade, commerce and development. Jews and Arabs who wanted to live in the other’s land could have traveled back and forth.

It is good to be reminded of such possibilities by someone who is also such a doughty defender of Israel. It has always been an aspect of Zionism’s utopianism, this vision of Jewish-Arab cooperation, a mutual flourishing in the one region. This book is both an acknowledgment of that openhearted, clearsighted desire for peace, but also — and so to speak — in the meantime, a celebration of the new Jewish ability to await its arrival. If there is not to be peace, Jews at least will be able to defend themselves against their self-declared enemies. This, in the end, is what it means for Jews to have power.

What Wisse is saying that had the Arabs accepted the Partition Plan, then a utopia -- or at least, something a lot better than the present -- would have ensued, in which Jews and Arabs who wanted to live in the other's land could have done so. Note the "delicacy" of the comment about "voluntary shifts of population," i.e., a transfer of natives out of the Jewish-designated area to the Palestinian area (there were few Jews in the Palestinian area to be shifted out of.) This standard Zionist argument is presented by Julius as an "openness to alternative histories, alternative political arrangements"! Alternative to what? Certainly not to straightforward Zionist narrative!

To put Wisse's point differently -- had the Palestinians accepted partition, and cleared out of the Jewish state "voluntarily" -- the ultimate Zionist fantasy -- then peace and harmony would have reigned. There would not be a refugee problem (because of the voluntary "shift" -- such a nice word, that), but a two-state solution.

But that is an entirely unproved assertion. On the contrary, it is arguable that had the Palestinians accepted partition, the Israelis would be today occupying the West Bank and Gaza.

How so?

Well consider that there was a strong irredentist camp of Zionists that opposed the partition plan, and just as strong a camp of Zionists that were unhappy with the 48 armistice lines, and who were prepared to take the West Bank at the first opportunity. Consider that Ben Gurion himself said that the acceptance of the partition plan was only tactical, a first stage in the conquest. Consider that the newly founded State of Israel never formally accepted partition and worked against it. Consider the 1956 invasion of Sinai and the 1967 invasion of the West Bank, despite the armistice lines.

Now: even if these military operations were absolutely justified in Israel's eyes, they happened, did they not? And who can guarantee that they would not have happened had the Arabs accepted partition?

The "woulda-coulda-shoulda" school of history is part of the propaganda war. It may be true that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, as Eban said. But it is also true that the Zionists never refused to offer them an eminently refuseable offer. Of course, the Zionist always considered the offer generous, since they felt that by right all of Palestine belonged to them, including the East Bank of the Jordan.

It is time to put the rest the counterfactual canard that had the Arabs accepted partition, things would have looked better today. We simply don't know that..

According to Avi Shlaim, the Jordanians and the Israelis agreed to split mandatory Palestine to the detriment of the Palestinians -- yet this did not guarantee that Israel would neither invade nor settle the West Bank when the opportunity arose.

It may be that had the Arabs accepted partition, Jews and Arabs would have lived together in harmony. It may be that had the Zionists accepted permanent minority status in a secular Palestine, the two groups would have lived together in harmony. The Zionists rejected minority status; the Arabs rejected partition. No doubt, in retrospect, an Arab acceptance of partition would have placed them in a better position tactically to pursue their aims. It is hard to see that their situation could have been worse.

But arguably in any event they would have been outfinessed by the Zionists, given the power differential.

And that's what it is about, according to Wisse -- power.

The rest is garbage...

Saturday, September 1, 2007

On Comments to the Magnes Zionist

This blog has been really active for around two months, and I am starting to get a lot of comments. It's hard enough to write posts (and you will notice that I am writing fewer) without having to respond to some very lengthy comments.

One option would be to publish all comments (except the nasty ones) and then respond as I see fit. I don't mind doing that, provided that people don't complain if I don't respond.Silence is not assent.

Another option would be for me to try to summarize some long comments in my own comment. I can see the day when I am swamped by comments citing Mitchell Bard chapter and verse, and it may be helpful to do that.

So...what I am trying to say is that if I don't publish your comment, and that offends you, I am sorry. I am not trying to censor you, but sometimes I just don't have the time, or sometimes I think that I have made my point clear. If you see this as an admission of defeat, well, fine.

But I see the comments not as an opportunity for ideological opponents to get their own point across -- start your own blog for that -- but as an opportunity for me to clarify what I have to say.