Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sarah Kreimer's Moving on to 'Stage-two Zionism'

Sarah Kreimer, a former head of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and a pioneer in Jewish-Arab economic development, wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post today, much of which I agree with, some of which I don't. We both made aliyah in the 1980's; we both consider ourselves liberals; we both look forward to an Israel which is not a state of the Jews, but a homeland for the Jews and the Palestinians.

What separates us is that whereas Ms. Kreimer insists upon a two-state solution, a Palestinian state with a Palestian majority alongside an Israel with a Jewish majority, I don't. I prefer the two-state solution (it seems more feasible, in principle, and it has the support of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, as well as much of the world), but I have no rooted objection to some other solution, provided that the solution respects the national aspirations of Jews and Palestinians.

But more than that: Ms. Kreimer rightly wants Israel to become a state of all its citizens, yet in the same breath, she wants it to have a majority of Jews. I suppose that her desire in itself is all right -- a Christian may express a personal preference to live in a US with a majority of Christians. What I fear is that this personal preference becomes a national exigency. And that, I find, problematic.

Once Israel becomes a state of all its citizens; once there is an Israeli nationality (of which Jewishness is a big, though not exclusive, part), then, and only then, can we consider Israel a liberal democracy. A state like that won't be concerned with what percentage is Jewish, because it will be 100% Israeli. (See my post, "Zionism without a Jewish State") Counting Jewish heads should not be an issue. It is not the quantity of the Jews, but the quality of the Judaism, which will determine how much a Jewish state Israel is.

The issue is not one of "moving on to 'stage-two Zionism'", but rather of "moving on to 'stage-one Israelism'. Or, if you like, of returning to the non-statist Zionism of people like Magnes.

Still, Ms. Kreimer and I agree on so many things, that I thought I would show my readers that I am not the only crazy liberal American-Israeli out there who wants to see Israel transform itself into a liberal democracy.

Apr 29, 2008 22:52 | Updated Apr 29, 2008 23:30

Moving on to 'stage-two Zionism'


'Make a decision - are you citizens of Israel, or of the Palestinian Authority?" Yisrael Beitenu MK David Rotem challenged the Arab citizens of Israel in a recent Israeli news interview. Sadly, on the eve of Israel's 60th celebration of independence, ongoing Israeli policy is pushing almost one-fifth of our citizenry - the Arab Israelis, or Palestinian citizens of Israel - into the corner of choosing between being Israelis or being Palestinians; when, in fact, they are both. This impossible choice plagues not only the million Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel - living in Ramle, Lod, the Galilee and the Negev. Rather, it poses an existential dilemma to the basic vision of our country.

I IMMIGRATED to Israel, in 1980, to be part of building a society of which I, a liberal Jew from America, could be proud. Often, I am proud of being an Israeli. When my kids and I push through the Hebrew Book Week crowds, eagerly choosing from among thousands of works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, written in a language that was unspoken 100 years ago. When I go to my Kupat Holim HMO in Jerusalem, and my doctor is Armenian, our pediatrician is a Mizrahi Jew, and the eye doctor is a Russian immigrant. When I walk through the Knesset, and see ultra-Orthodox MK Eli Yishai, secular-Jewish MK Zahava Gal-on, and Muslim Arab MK Jamal Zahalka - all legislating for the State of Israel.

Today, Israel stands among the developed nations as a world leader in health care and technology. There is a lot to be proud of in Israel. A lot to be ashamed of, as well.

In the Negev, the Israeli government continues to refuse 70,000 Beduin citizens the right to settle on lands they have inhabited for centuries. In Israel's mixed Jewish-Arab cities, building permits are denied to rehabilitate Arab homes, while adjacent Jewish neighborhoods flourish. In the Galilee, rather than investing in developing Arab towns, the government continues to constrict their lands in order to expand Jewish towns. As a result, in modern, successful Israel, over 50% of Israeli Arab families live under the poverty line.

SIXTY YEARS ago, the young State of Israel, using the Absentee Property Law, appropriated hundreds of thousands of dunams of land, owned by Arabs who had fled their homes - in the Galilee, the Negev, the mixed cities of Ramle, Lod, Jaffa, Haifa and Acco. Over the coming decades massive government (and international Jewish) investment gave birth to scores of new Jewish development towns, kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the country - consolidating possession of the land. Meanwhile, the Arab towns and neighborhoods that remained continued to be restricted, receiving little public investment, and facing labyrinthine planning systems designed to limit their development, or even re-allocate their remaining lands.

In 2008, this ethnic approach - draconian, yet necessary in the 1950s and 1960s - still dominates national land use and development policy in Israel. Today, if we continue this approach to building the "Jewish democratic state" we doom ourselves to a non-democratic state, known to the world as "Jewish." But such a state will not be Jewish in ways of which we can be proud.

AFTER 60 years, it is time to re-design our current path, with the aim of building a society that fully belongs to both its Jewish and Arab citizens. This aim is not only just; it is in the overall Israeli interest. It also affects, and is affected by, any effort to achieve a two-state solution.

First, despite Yisrael Beitenu's demand to choose, Arab citizens of Israel are Palestinians. In some cases, they are the sisters or cousins of those who left in 1948, who are now living in Jordan, in Lebanon, and in Gaza. In all cases, one million Palestinian citizens of Israel maintain a constant balancing act - between their identification with their Israeli citizenship, and their identification with their Palestinian peoplehood. When their attempts to build a legal home or develop their neighborhood are rebuffed, their identification with Israel weakens. When their country bombs or shoots their people the balancing act becomes intolerable.

Second, failure in building a two-state future increases the national conflict among citizens inside Israel. Since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993, until its violent interruption in October 2000, most Arab citizens of Israel sought their own civic aspirations in achieving equality in the state in which they lived - Israel. They sought, for their stateless Palestinian brethren, a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

As the prospect of a Palestinian state dims, and Israeli government policies and proclamations continue seeking to "Judaize" the Galilee and the Negev, Arab citizens of Israel turn increasingly to the idea of achieving Palestinian self-determination within the State of Israel. The more that mainstream politicians regard Arab citizens as a foreign element to be contained and later jettisoned in a "land swap," the more these same citizens withdraw from participation in Israeli democracy, and seek their future through increased autonomy - as a national minority within Israel.

AS WE celebrate Israel's 60th birthday, we need to make a paradigm shift, and to re-envision our society. Sixty years after the founding of the state, we must declare an end to stage one of Zionism - state-building - and move to stage two of society-building. We need to redefine our Israeli civic enterprise, not as a Jewish State, but as a Jewish Homeland, in a state with shared citizenship. Otherwise, in clinging to the visions that have guided Israel in the past, we will destroy what has been built.

Israel - within its pre-1967 lines - is a shared home. It is a Homeland for the Jewish people; but it also a home for the descendants of the Arabs who were living here and became citizens in 1948. Over these 60 years they, too, have worked, paid taxes, and built their future and their children's future here in the land of their birth.

At the same time, if our Homeland is to be genuinely democratic, with a Jewish majority, a viable Palestinian Homeland must be established alongside ours - with its own Palestinian majority and law of return for Palestinians. As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the Annapolis conference in November 2007: without the two-state solution, Israel is "finished." As long as only one state exists in this Land (between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River), our Jewish national home will not be sustainable. Sixty years after achieving statehood, our national home awaits this completion.

The immediate steps on the path to this vision are clear. Jettison the settlement enterprise - both within the Green Line ("Judaizing" the Galilee, the Negev, and the mixed cities of Ramle, Jaffa, Acre and Lod), as well as beyond it (in east Jerusalem and the West Bank). Dismantle institutional discrimination - particularly in land-use, planning, and resource allocation - and develop the country for all citizens equally. Teach Hebrew and Arabic as the official languages they are; and teach the histories, narratives and poetry of both peoples in our schools. Pursue "complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants" - as proposed in Israel's Declaration of Independence.

After 60 years of independence, it is time to recognize that an Israel that attempts to neglect, dispossess or exclude its Arab citizens is not Jewish; and is not sustainable. It is time to stop defining the Jewishness of the state by the amount of land controlled by Jewish towns or citizens, but by the justice of our society. It is time to be guided by the vision of Israel as a decent, fair, democratic society for all Israelis -Arab and Jewish - as we pursue a two-state solution that will allow national fulfillment for both peoples.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Leon Wieseltier's Trashing of Martin Amis's Islam-Bashing

My shul-buddy Leon Wieseltier led off the New York Times Book Review yesterday with a devestating piece on The Second Plane, a bigoted anti-Islam screed by the novelist, Martin Amis. Wieseltier is a maven of literary invective (and single malt scotch, but that's another story.) Just read the opening paragraph of the review, and you will know what I mean.

On Sept. 10, 2001, nobody in America seemed to know anything about Islam. On Sept. 12, 2001, everybody seemed to know everything about Islam. Well, not quite; but it is really a wonder the way the arcane particulars of an alien civilization now trip off every tongue. People who would not know if a page of Arabic is upside down or right side up helpfully expound upon the meaning of jahilliyah. Sayyid Qutb is quickly overtaking Reinhold Niebuhr as the theologian about whom the un- or antitheological pronounce with the most serene authority. Nothing creates intellectual confidence like catastrophe. After the mind breaks, it stiffens; in the aftermath of grief, it lets in only certainty. In a time of war, complexity is suspected of a sapping effect, and so a mental curfew is imposed. From the maxim that we must know our enemy, we infer that our enemy may be easily known.

According to Wieseltier

Amis seems to regard his little curses as almost military contributions to the struggle. He has a hot, heroic view of himself. He writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate. He is not only outraged by Sept. 11, he is also excited by it. “If Sept. 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.” Don’t you see? It no longer matters that we missed the Spanish Civil War. ¡No pasarĂ¡n!

I particularly like the phrase: "with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin." What passes for knowledge of Islam among non-Muslims is so pathetic.

Not that Wieseltier has adopted a multi-cultural stance towards all faiths and creeds. He is still very much the liberal hawk that many of my readers can't abide. And yes, there is the obligatory line that shows that he, too, can be an undiscriminating Islamist basher:

[Amis] is correct that in Islamism the many doctrines of antimodernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are one doctrine

And there is a nary a word about other, more moderate forms of Islam, or non-lethal forms of Islamism.

But the book offends deeply two components of Wieseltier's identity -- his commitment to historical scholarship in all its complexity, and his faith as a religious Jew. Only a deeply religious person could have been so wounded by Amis's indiscriminate attacks on religion, as if it is the source of all modern evils. What Amis and others of his ilk don't realize is that reason, tolerance, and skepticism, are found just as much among the religious as they are among the secular or among the great masses of neither -- and this is as it has always been. Bigotry, sloppy thinking, and, I may add, bad writing, are not the monopoly of any group. On the contrary, the position of the religious intellectual in society, as a member of a beleaguered minority within an elite, cultivates her intellecutal skepticism and humility.

Yasher Koah, Leon. Maybe this calls for an extra shot next Shabbat.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

David Shulman's New Testimony

Last year I posted some excerpts of David Shulman's book Dark Hope, a memoir mostly about his work with Ta'ayush, the Jewish-Arab group that supports those who are suffering the most from the Israeli occupation. (I translated from the Hebrew, not realizing that the book was about to come out in English.)

Yesterday, I read Shulman's moving Afterword to the recently-published English translation of S. Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh, the novella that describes an expulsion of Palestinianan villagers in 1948. I will have a separate post about that book.

But today I want to help circulate a report from Shulman that I just received from Dr. Elliot Horowitz. As far as I know it is not yet on the web. The post also mentions the recently-departed Gerald Cromer, also a professor, and a friend of my daughter's inlaws.

What can I say? My brain screams when I read things like this...and I am reading more and more of them.

Um Zeituna, April 5, 2008

Things are heating up in the hills south of Hebron. We're not sure why. One guess is that someone in the Civil Administration, that is, the Israeli occupation authority, has taken a deliberate decision. Or it may simply be the further, continuous entrenchment of the occupation itself, with its natural effects—the remorseless appropriation of more and more land, the consequent harassment of Palestinian civilians living on or near these lands, the expansion of the settlers-only road system, the soporific, shameful legal system that mostly serves the soldiers and the settlers. In any case, there is no doubt about what is happening on the ground. Two weeks ago Palestinian children were viciously attacked by settlers, and several wounded, as they were walking to school. The army escort that was supposed to protect them stood by passively. Over the last weeks, each time our volunteers have come down to escort shepherds to their grazing lands, they have been assaulted. Amiel and a small group near the settlement of Maon were surrounded, beaten, and nearly lynched. Meanwhile, one of the settler Rabbis has published a legal opinion setting out a calculus of human value in the occupied territories: one Jew, says the Rabbi, is worth a thousand Palestinian lives.

It's clear we're needed. The rains failed this year, the earth is dry, and the grazing grounds are much reduced. The cave-dwellers depend on their herds of sheep and goats for subsistence. For now, at least, there are still a few green wadis suitable for grazing, and the shepherds have to make the most of them. In theory, a rough modus vivendi was worked out with the soldiers: Palestinians can graze their flocks in the flat bed of the wadis between the settlements, but they are forbidden to let the sheep graze anywhere on the hills. Never mind that these hills have belonged since Biblical times to these same shepherds. In practice, moreover, the settlers drive the shepherds away even from the wadi bed, too, usually beating them for good measure.

We walk down the rocky slope, thick with thorns, to join Ahmad, who is grazing his herd just below the cow-barn of Maon. Ahmad is from Tuba, with its tents and caves, a kilometer or so away over the hills. Lambs bleat in the fierce sun. It is early morning. Within minutes, a discovery: small piles of parched maize are scattered over the bed of the wadi; beside them lie a few dead birds and rodents. Ahmad says he thinks they're coated with poison—a repeat of the episode three years ago when settlers from Chavat Maon spread poison through the fields in Twaneh, just down the road. Later we hear that children from Tuba saw several young people from Maon spreading the suspicious maize last evening, the whole length of the wadi. Carefully, we collect samples, which we will have tested in Jerusalem. We mark the many sites with piles of stone, and we send word to the other shepherds to keep their sheep away from this wadi, the main access route to the village.

Morning pastorale. To our left, above us, the cow-barn; to our right, the well-appointed houses of Maon. We follow the goats and sheep through the dry bed; they are chewing furiously, a silent symphony, under the shepherds' gaze. We meet Ahmad's brother Khalid, among others. I sit down on a rock; there is time to chat a little. Ahmad is twenty-two years old. Married? I ask. Not yet. Maybe soon. How soon? Who knows, perhaps a few weeks from now. To whom? Is there a bride? Yes, there is a woman he loves, in Lebanon. This sounds unlikely. Has he studied, thought about going to university? No. He points to the sheep. The Tuba people have no money, only these few animals to keep them going. Soon, when the summer intensifies and the green is gone, life will be precarious again, even more precarious than now. Does he come here day after day? Yes, he does. He comes with the flock, and most days the settlers descend from Maon, beat him up, and chase him away. He points uphill, and we can see that Maon has us in its sights. Someone is studying us through binoculars. A car, probably the security vehicle of the settlement, rattles along the top of the ridge. They are very bad people, Ahmad says. They want to hurt.

Still, he is nonchalant, insouciant, smoking the cigarettes he's been gifted by Amiel; every once in a while, he moves—with astonishing grace and swiftness—to turn a sheep back from the slope, to shape and mould the grazing mass. He seems subtly alert to the physical presence of each of his animals, some hundred in all; he holds them in his mind even as he sings a few snatches of song, teases us for our broken Arabic, tries to fill in the contours of some mental picture of our urban world, so remote from his. He accepts us as if we were simply another piece of this jagged landscape of thorn and stone and grass, with the occasional eagle overhead, and the dark perimeter of his enemies a mere 200 yards away, riding the hill.

I soak in the sun. I am in mourning. On Sunday Gerald died, a friend of infinite closeness; he was 63. Cancer ate through his body with lightning speed—a mere six weeks ago he was vigorous and apparently well. A man of total integrity, a fighter, a Jew of the old school, religious, a humanist, dedicated to doing what was just, and to peace. I cannot understand why I am drinking in this sunlight and tasting the dry wind from the desert and the mingled smells of cigarette smoke and sheep 3dung and wildflowers, and he can no longer feel. I puzzle at this with my mind, sadness welling up through my veins. I turn back to Ahmad with a question. And then they are upon us.

We expected it, after all. A group of settlers is racing downhill toward us, crying out their throaty battle-cries—not words but grunts and hisses and clicks and, from time to time, a menacing scream. There are three in the lead: one in sandals, long white shirt, long blond hair, wild eyes, the mandatory fringes of his under-Talit dancing as he runs; a second with face masked by a black cloth, leaving only a slit for the eyes; a third more heavy-set and ungainly. Behind them, still high on the hill, are more. All right, I say to myself, ready to act, eager to protect: Gerald, this one is for you.

We fan out over the hilltop as the Palestinians cluster with the herd in the wadi below us. We try, at first successfully, to block the settlers' access. They weave around us among the stones, cursing now and crying: "Ufu mipo, Get the hell out of here." We cut them off, again and again, but still they are starting to close in on our friends. Somewhere my mind registers the fact that, for once, they are not carrying guns. On the other hand, a handful of soldiers, armed to the teeth, are also fast approaching from the direction of Maon—a sergeant and several privates. The settlers reach the bed of the wadi and, circling past the shepherds, begin driving the sheep before them, out and away.

We invoke the "law," for what it's worth: these shepherds have the right to graze in this wadi, there's a document signed by the Matak, the senior officer in this area….But the sergeant is scornful of such niceties. "Don't talk to me," he says, "and don't tell me what to do." To his privates, he remarks with derision: "Look at them, it's like kids in elementary school." To us, after a moment's reflection, walking fast, he says: "I don't incline to either side here. Get out." And who are we to tell him that his very presence, guns and all, is what allows these settlers to go on living in Maon and Susya and Carmel—that it is he, by sustaining them here, who allows them to prey upon the shepherds, to beat them and humiliate them and steal their land? I know he won't listen, I swallow my words.

Amiel sends me to stand on the other side of the herd, to keep them from running away as the settlers want them to. I'm not so good at masterminding sheep. In fact, these sheep seem to me imbued with a Zen-like emptiness; they ebb and flow, responding rapidly to the rough shouts of the settlers, who are poking and pushing them toward the end of the wadi, and then, in sudden reversal, to the shepherds' commands to turn back. Every few seconds a fuzzy wave of sheep and goats washes across the wadi floor in some new direction, uphill and down, northward or southward, lapping at the grey boulders, trickling past the whole surreal congregation of helmeted soldiers and settlers in their Sabbath white and the impassive shepherds and our now furious activists. In the midst of these ovine eddies and riptides, there is a steady stream of invective flowing toward us: "You filthy Nazis," the settlers scream, and so on, the usual remarkably unimaginative pastiche. The blond one, his face contorted, grotesque in hate, suddenly rushes down the slope and smashes into Amiel. "Did you see that?" I say to the sergeant. "Arrest him! Look who's being violent here." "Don't tell me how to do my job," says the sergeant, bored, detached. "I told you not to talk to me."

And so it goes, for I don't know how long. Minutes pass. One of the settlers lashes out at Efrat; Amiel, ever chivalrous, rushes in to defend her. "We have the right to hit them, that's what the Torah says, doesn't it?" one settler shouts to his friend, obviously an authority on Biblical hermeneutics. Still busy containing the sheep, I manage somehow to reflect on what I'm feeling. I wonder, for example, if there is hatred in my heart. I scan my innerness as best I can: no trace of hate this time. No fear either. Perhaps, by now, after so many of these clashes, I'm inured. But I'm definitely a person who can hate, that I know. I repeat the scan. There is fierce anger, no doubt about that. Also, I am ashamed to report, something verging on contempt. I see their eyes, almost beyond the human; I hear the crude insults they are shouting; I sense the primitive splitting of the world, the terrible shallowness of mind and heart, the tribal lust for blood, the smugness, above all the frightened, impoverished manhood of the bully. OK, so I feel contempt. I wish I could work myself up to something better, but it probably won't happen today.

By now the settlers have been joined by their security officer, carrying an M-16. Definitely not a friendly presence. He ardently hopes, so he tells us, that our Palestinian friends will stab us in the back when we're asleep. He's pretty sure that they do this regularly. Meanwhile Efrat, delicate, focused, and wonderfully self-possessed, has had enough, and she says to him in crisp rapid-fire, each syllable ringing out distinctly in the desert air: "Maybe you're a killer, too. We don't know. What we know for sure is that you're a thief." "A thief?" he replies, rising to the bait, "at least I care about the Jews, and I'm prepared to give my life for my country." "I hope you won't have to do that," I say to him, breaking my own firm rule: don't engage in banter with the enemy. It never does any good. He turns to me. "And you," he says, livid with hatred, "would you give your life for this country?" "Most definitely not," I answer. I really don't like the idea. In fact, standing there amidst the sheep, I find it hard to think of a worthy enough cause. Is there such a thing? I ponder the problem. Flags, postage stamps, and Independence Day parades are clearly out. My children, grandchildren, friends, my students—yes. No question. But for a state? Maybe, I think to myself, a little whimsical, I'd risk it for the sake of some amorphous notion of integrity. In order to do the decent thing. In order to feel again the strange, unexpected, utterly intoxicating feeling of being free, truly and deeply and shockingly free, that I'm becoming aware of at this moment as the sun burns through my skin.

The soldiers stand more or less between the warring camps; our settler foes are but a pace away. It is Shabbat, almost noon. Amiel deliberately, with excruciating precision, lights a cigarette—almost as serious a crime, in the settlers' eyes, as befriending a Palestinian; a violation of God's commandment for this day of rest. (What rest?) They watch him in disgust. Though I don't much like smoking and usually feel unwell afterwards, I briefly consider whether, under present circumstances, to light my own cigarette might be the Jewish thing to do, an affirmation that God exists.

Amiel is more angry, I think, than I have ever seen him. He is a one-man peace movement, single-handedly keeping alive an ongoing course of weekly protests against the route of the Separation Wall in the Bethlehem area, south of Jerusalem. Some years ago, settlers shot him during the olive harvest in the north; he survived. Somehow today the brazen foolishness has gotten under his skin. I can understand his rage. On the way down, in the minibus, I asked him how he imagined things here, in the territories, in five years' time. "More of the same," he said cooly, "only much worse."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

More News from Hebron

On one side of Hebron, the police allow settlers to attack leftwing activists. See Meron Rapoport's article here. That is nothing compared to what the IDF is doing elsewhere in Hebron....

Last month Gideon Levy wrote a long piece in Haaretz about the IDF's war against the Islamic Charity Movement in Hebron. Basically, the IDF wants to destroy the ICM charities, which provide important social services. The stated aim is to undermine Hamas, but since these groups are not affiliated with Hamas, the real aim -- admitted by the IDF -- is simply to destroy Islamic charities to make way for Abu Mazen and the PA, who have been talking about alternative social services (but not providing any).

Richard Silverstein had a good post on it last month at Tikun Olam here.

Of course, one would assume that Israel, as an occupying power, would at the very least pick up the tab and support all the institutions and schools whose funding they have cut. Of course, that is not likely. Better to simply send the kids on the streets, where they will become suicide bombers, blow up Jews, and then give Israel more justification for taking land on the West Bank.

No, I don't believe that the IDF thinks that diabolically. It barely thinks. That's just what happens.

Anyway, this item below is from the Palestine News Network. Thanks to Miriam Adams for giving me a heads-up about it.

Hebron / PNN - Israeli forces stormed the sewing factory of the Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron Saturday morning.

The Israelis issued a mandate in the occupied southern West Bank city that the employees must evacuate within two days. Ownership will be overtaken and the Israelis will close the factory.

A number of workers report that Israeli soldiers also stormed the house of the operator which is also an orphanage. Israeli authorities are confiscating the orphanage and closing it as of 28 April for three years.

Israeli soldiers threatened personnel and workers that if they maintained a presence after this date, they would be arrested for five years.

It is noteworthy that Israeli forces stormed the orphanage and sewing factory weeks ago, detained workers and confiscated equipment. The same situation occurred in the charitable bakery.

The factory opened in 1985 and supplies clothing for more than 4,000 orphans, while other pieces are sold in the markets bringing in needed revenue.

The Israelis have been widely condemned for such a blatant attack on the Palestinian people, leading to student demonstrations and statements by political parties. “This is considered a crime against property, facilities, and charities, yet the international community has remained silent,” the People’s Committee stated.

The campaign to save the orphans and charitable institutions has appealed to human rights and humanitarian organizations for assistance.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Confrontation between Activists and Settlers in Hebron

Y-Net is reporting that around 50 leftwing activists who were on a weekly tour given by "Bne Avraham" organization had a confrontation with ultra rightwing settlers. According to the activists, the settlers attacked the group without any provocation. According to the settlers, the very presence of the group in Hebron constituted a provocation.

Y-Net also reported that the activists complained that the police stood by and did nothing to help them.

Bne Avrham's tours, which are open to all visitors, are the best way of seeing the effect of the Hebron "Jewish" settlers on the Palestinian residents. This week's tour was a rather large one, perhaps because of the publicity surrounding the publication of the "Breaking the Silence" booklet about soldier abuses in Hebron. (See post below)

If videos of the settler violence and the police inaction become available on youtube, I will publish the links.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Breaking the Silence" Publishes New Booklet of Soldier Testimonies -- Hebron

I wish I could bring you a more cheerful post on the first day of hol ha-moed (intermediate days) of Passover, but what is cheerful about Hebron, the heart of darkness of the Israeli Occupation?

"Breaking the Silence"'s new booklet of soldier testimonies about human rights abuse is well-worth reading. An English translation is found here. Please download the pdf file and send it around to people you know (especially the local branch of the Federation people planning the Israel@60 celebration.)

The launch of the booklet was accompanied by a report on Channel 2 News, that you can watch here. It has been picked up so far by Ynetnews, and the Independent. The Ynetnews piece has the predictably "talkbacks", reactions ranging from surprise, dismay, to justifications and hatemongering. I am always interested in reading the people who are finding this stuff out for the first time and seem genuinely shocked.

The Walla news website reported that anonymous hackers broke into the "Breaking the Silence" website Friday night, wiped out the content, and posted their own criticism of the organization. For the report see here. The website is up and running.

Frankly, most Israelis don't care. The army will say that these are a few bad apples, if they say anything. It will be news for a day. There is always the hope that publicizing these stories will result in other soldiers coming forth and testifying. When BTS has a few thousand testimonies, then that may move something. But I don't think so. The truth is that Israelis don't know what it is to be humiliated, or to be occupied -- they have never had that experience in the sixty years of the State. They know fear, and they know mourning, but they don't know the loss of dignity brought about by having their lives controlled permanently by an enemy army. Some of the older Israelis who came from Europe had a taste of this, but not for 40 years. For the younger Israelis, it is simply the way things are. Except for a few righteous people in Sodom.

One reaction you hear from some solders is, "I was in Hebron for six months, and I never saw or did anything like this." You know what? I don't believe that anymore. I think people may not have seen some of the worst excesses described here. But the problem is that what many soldiers see as normal occupation duty (call it "deterrence" if you like), is illegal according to the rules of military occupation and international convention. When your senses are deadened by being in the military, you don't think about what you are doing till later, if then.

As I have written before, even if one buys the stupid line that the IDF is the most moral army in the world (a self-serving and empty statement that is made only by the IDF and its supporters and by nobody else), then that self-styled "moral army" perpetuates immoralities and war crimes on a daily basis -- because, as some of the more thoughtful talkbackers wrote, the occupation of a civilian population renders it inevitable. You can't have it both ways -- if there is an Occupation, you must be immoral. And since Israel has the longest Occupation in modern times (excluding the Chinese occupation of Tibet), it inevitably has the longest term of immorality as an occupying army -- even if it is not raping and hatcheting the Palestinians.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Observing Passover When Still Enslaved -- A Response to Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf's "Liberation and Obligation"

Note: This post is dedicated to my former Hillel rabbi, Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf, one of the first American Jews to challenge the consensus thinking on Israel, and a simply wonderful human being. Arnie has written a piece called Liberation and Obligation in which, in his typical fashion, he balances the liberation of the Palestinians (i.e., the end of the occupation) with the obligation of both sides "to recognize the humanity of the other, and work together toward their mutual freedom, their mutual obligations." Balancing liberation and obligation is a life-long theme of Rabbi Wolf's work, and, to my knowledge, is a cornerstone of his own take on Torah. But it is also, in this context, a caution to the Jewish left to balance its criticism of Israel's morality and concern with the suffering of the Palestinians, with the recognition that the Palestinians are no less morally obligated -- and that Israelis are no less deserving than they are to be free from fear and terror.

This is my response to his essay.

For some time I have been thinking of what a "Palestinian Haggadah" would look like. The Haggadah is the book read around Jewish dinner tables on Passover that recounts the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and celebrates their future homecoming: "This year we are here; next year we will be in Jerusalem."

I stopped the project for two reasons.

First, while the parallels were painfully apparent (compare Pharoah's, "Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us..." with the interminable Zionist discussion of the "demographic problem"), the differences are real, and the project counterproductive. True, a "Palestinian Haggadah" may be instructive for us Jews; it may help to "circumcise the hearts" of those of us who have been made "hard-hearted" by our own tribalism and post-Holocaust traumas. But most Jews I know really aren't interested in having their hearts circumcised by reading parallels between the oppression of the Gazans by Israel and the Israelites by Pharoah.

Still, were this difficulty surmountable, there is another, more powerful reason for abandoning the idea: The Haggadah celebrates liberation, but the Palestinians are still oppressed. How do you celebrate the Feast of Freedom when you are still enslaved?

The answer, according to the Bible, is that you observe Passover before you are free. You unite as a people while you are still under enslavement -- indeed, your sense of national identity comes to you partly as a result of that enslavement. You celebrate yourselves as a people, you remember happier days, you resolve to press onward with your liberation and never to despair: "This year we are here. Next year we will be in al-Quds".

That is my modern reading of the very first Passover, described in Exodus 12, which was celebrated shortly before the exodus. The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice and to eat the pascal lamb, and to prepare themselves for leaving Egypt, while the Lord was striking for them the firstborn of the Egyptians. They were commanded to repeat the ritual year after year, and to tell their children not that it was because the Lord had liberated them from slavery -- for He had not done that yet -- but because He had killed the first born of the Egyptians and had "passed over" the Israelites (whence the name, "Passover".) They were to celebrate their own salvation as well as the mass killings of their Egyptian oppressors -- a harsh celebration, no doubt, yet befitting an oppressed people that had only recently entered into a covenant with God, a people who, like people everywhere, were concerned first and foremost with their own situation; a spiritually impoverished people, no doubt, but desparate for their own freedom, and conditioned by their slavery.

To judge such a people from the mountain top of Sinai, and what is worse, to condition their liberation on their being able to give assurances that they will not rise up against their oppressors (who may actually have their own good reasons for continuing that oppression) is simply unfair -- unless you make the same requirement of your own people.

Of course, no people is given carte blanche to act in any way that it sees fit. We are all of us after Sinai, Jerusalem, and Mecca, and, for that matter, after Noah, and after the Geneva conventions. There are standards to which decent states must conform. If I don't spare myself or my people moral criticism, then who am I? But if I only single them out for such treatment, then what am I?

But there is a progression: first national consciousness and national struggle,then national liberation and the hope for true freedom and security, and then -- and only then, the acceptance of the law and obligations of states. Before Sinai can occur, there had to first be a people (Passover celebrated in Egypt), then a liberated people (Passover celebrated after Sinai), and only then, a nation that takes its place with other nations (Shavuot celebrated after the Giving of the Law).

I repeat what I have said before. The State of Israel was not born as a result of a peace agreement with the natives of Palestine or the surrounding nations. You can see this as a reason to oppose the legitimacy of Israel -- many do. But progressive Zionists don't. They argue for Israel's legitimacy, despite the fact that it came into existence by a unilateral declaration of independence in the midst of an inevitable war, which both sides prepared for and fought. (I am not suggesting that progressive Zionists did not criticize Jewish behavior during the war. But they believed, and believe still, that the declaration of independence without the agreement of the Palestinian Arabs was just.) For progressive Zionists to have one standard for Jewish liberation and another standard for Palestinian liberation is inexplicable to me.

And yet...must the Palestinians win their state in the same way that the Israelis won theirs? Is there no better way? Can such states, born in violence without any agreement, be truly viable? Wouldn't it be better for all us -- Palestinians and Israelis -- to be in the mindset of Sinai rather than in the mindset of the Egyptian enslavement?

If there is another way, then it is when human beings realize that they must bind together to prevent injustice and the oppression. That is our agenda now, and that is our agenda first. Justice now, peace as soon as possible thereafter.

I believe that we will all, one day, get to Sinai, and I hope that we shall all listen to the voice coming from Sinai then.

But now our discourse should focus freedom and liberation -- for them and for us -- from the inequities and injustices of the last sixty years.

A happy and healthy festival of freedom to us all

Monday, April 14, 2008

Yishar Kokheha, Amos! And God Bless You, Jimmy!

When the Jews and the Palestinians have been liberated from their respective neuroses and nightmares,

When the generation of the Six-Day War has passed,

When the only people in Israel who buy into the volkish myths of political Zionism are the religious zionists, and a few ethnocentrists from the former Soviet Union,

When no serious Israeli intellectual, or progressive intellectual in the world, falls for the Israel-as-victim line,

Then part of the responsibility will be due to the courageous publisher of Haaretz, Amos Schocken, whose newspaper has fought tirelessly to expose the moral hypocrisy, shame, and, most importantly, hard-heartedness of an apathetic Israel that reeks of moral chauvinism.

The "non-Semite" who has arguably saved more Jewish and Arab lives than any person in modern history -- Jimmy Carter, of course -- deserves much more than a Nobel peace prize.

He deserves the gratitude and respect of every single Jew and Arab in the world today.

That he is villified by most Jews can only be called, to paraphrase the orthodox Jewish philosopher, Eliezer Berkowitz (in another context). "Hitler's posthumous victory."

God bless you, Amos. God bless the person who wrote the editorial. And, zakhur le-tov, God bless the indefatigable Sol Salbe, for pointing out the editorial to me.

Please read it below or here

Our debt to Jimmy Carter

The government of Israel is boycotting Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, during his visit here this week. Ehud Olmert, who has not managed to achieve any peace agreement during his public life, and who even tried to undermine negotiations in the past, "could not find the time" to meet the American president who is a signatory to the peace agreement with Egypt. President Shimon Peres agreed to meet Carter, but made sure that he let it be known that he reprimanded his guest for wishing to meet with Khaled Meshal, as if the achievements of the Carter Center fall short of those of the Peres Center for Peace. Carter, who himself said he set out to achieve peace between Israel and Egypt from the day he assumed office, worked incessantly toward that goal and two years after becoming president succeeded - was declared persona non grata by Israel.

The boycott will not be remembered as a glorious moment in this government's history. Jimmy Carter has dedicated his life to humanitarian missions, to peace, to promoting democratic elections, and to better understanding between enemies throughout the world. Recently, he was involved in organizing the democratic elections in Nepal, following which a government will be set up that will include Maoist guerrillas who have laid down their arms. But Israelis have not liked him since he wrote the book "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid."

Israel is not ready for such comparisons, even though the situation begs it. It is doubtful whether it is possible to complain when an outside observer, especially a former U.S. president who is well versed in international affairs, sees in the system of separate roads for Jews and Arabs, the lack of freedom of movement, Israel's control over Palestinian lands and their confiscation, and especially the continued settlement activity, which contravenes all promises Israel made and signed, a matter that cannot be accepted. The interim political situation in the territories has crystallized into a kind of apartheid that has been ongoing for 40 years. In Europe there is talk of the establishment of a binational state in order to overcome this anomaly. In the peace agreement with Egypt, 30 years ago, Israel agreed to "full autonomy" for the occupied territories, not to settle there.

These promises have been forgotten by Israel, but Carter remembers.

Whether Carter's approach to conflict resolution is considered by the Israeli government as appropriate or defeatist, no one can take away from the former U.S. president his international standing, nor the fact that he brought Israel and Egypt to a signed peace that has since held. Carter's method, which says that it is necessary to talk with every one, has still not proven to be any less successful than the method that calls for boycotts and air strikes. In terms of results, at the end of the day, Carter beats out any of those who ostracize him. For the peace agreement with Egypt, he deserves the respect reserved for royalty for the rest of his life.

(P.S. from Jerry -- the situation in the West Bank, of course, is not apartheid -- that is an insult to apartheid -- but much worse. At least in apartheid, black South Africans were not as restricted in movement as were the Palestinians. Both groups, of course, were considered to be culturally and morally inferior to their overlords. No, the proper word is not "apartheid", but rather, hafradah had-tzedatit, which may be roughly understood as "limiting the freedom of the untermenschen to protect the well-being of the ubermenschen")

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Dove of Peace? Or Rather the Hammer of Justice and the Bell of Freedom? On the Thirtieth Anniversary of Peace Now

In Jewish law, a woman whose husband refuses to divorce her, or who disappears without a trace, is called an "agunah", a woman "chained" or "anchored" to her husband. She cannot remarry, and any child she has with another man is a bastard.

By engaging in the discourse of peace, the Israeli left, whose flagship organization is Peace Now, has left the Palestinian people agunot to an unattainable peace for over sixty years.

I don't mean to begrudge praise to Peace Now, which recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Two cheers for the group that managed noisily, if unsuccessfully, to mobilize against the Occupation. More effective organizations followed in its wake.

But Peace Now, and the entire Zionist left, chained the fate of the Palestinian people to something called "peace" or the "peace process". "We should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza for the sake of peace." "We should give peace a chance."

By framing the withdrawal in terms of "peace", the movement could appeal to the basic human desire for peace, i.e. peace and quiet.

But, as the rightwingers cogently argued, if the key issue was peace, then why was there a State of Israel to begin with? In order for the Jews to have peace? If that was the justification, then Israel is a collosal failure. For Israel is the least safe place for Jews today and from the founding of the Jewish state. Certainly it is more likely that a Jew will be killed for being Jewish in Israel than anywhere else.

No, the purpose of the Jewish state was to allow the Jewish people to determine its own destiny, to free itself of the yoke of the gentiles. The point was not peace but freedom. The "Jewish national anthem" Hatikvah doesn't speak of peace but of freedom, "to be a free people in our land."

The Israeli left was much influenced by the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 60s, which wanted to "give peace a chance." Better they should have listened to the Pete Seeger song used in the Civil Rights movement, "If I Had a Hammer." They would have sung of the "hammer of justice" and the "bell of freedom," not the chance of peace.

For the justice of Palestinian self-determination is no more dependant on a final peace agreement with Israel than is the justice of Israeli self-determination. David Ben-Gurion did not condition the establishment of the state of Israel on a peace agreement with the Palestinians, much less their acceptance of Zionism.

Justice, freedom, dignity -- those concepts should have been the core concepts of the Zionist left. Even the American progressive Brit Tzedek ve-Shalom, though I appreciate the addition of "tzedek" (Justice), are too quick to tie the inalienable rights of the Palestinians to a just peace.

The philosopher Joseph Levine has pointed out that an incontrovertible fact about the birth of Israel is that an ideological group of mostly secular European settlers came to Palestine, displaced a large group of natives, and founded an ethno-nationalist state that excluded (from the nation) the remaining natives. Zionists strongly justified their actions with a variety of considerations; opponents did not. But given this fact, and the fact that the nationalist Palestinian aspirations were recognized by the same countries that recognized Jewish nationalist aspirations in the 1947 partition plan (rejected, with justification, by many Arabs and Jews on the left and on the right), the best goal the Jewish state could ever hope to justify was that of "parity" between the two peoples -- one neither dominating nor being dominated by the other, in the words of the pre-State Zionist left.

So one would expect the Israeli Zionist left to agitate for the establishment of a Palestinian state, equal to that of Israel, regardless of the question of peace -- unless it took the principled opposition to the establishment of either state until peace and security had been achieved for both peoples.

But the Israeli left (and I include its progressive Zionist supporters outside of Israel) have always taken the existence of the State of Israel for granted, at the same time as it has conditioned the existence of the State of Palestine on peace and Israeli security. It will argue that peace advances Israeli security since it will focus always on the interest of the Jews.

That is why the Israeli left collapsed after the failure of the Oslo process. Without peace, there could only be the peace process. And without the peace process, there could only be pain, frustration and postponed dreams. So the interminable arguments over whether or not there was a partner for peace missed the real issue -- how best to advance the legitimate self-determination of both peoples.

I don't deny the power of peace, although I am not on the level of, say, Judah Magnes, who was a principled pacifist.

But the central issue here is not peace. It is justice. The time has come not to put away the bullets but to bite them, to say that the Palestinians deserve *at least* as much as the Israelis deserve, regardless of how that affects Israel. Agreeing to that involves a collosal concession on the point of the Palestinians, one which they may rightly choose not to make. I am not saying that security is not an important issue. Surely no people will willingly commit national suicide because of a moral argument. But my point is that the concern for Israeli security is not a sufficient reason to allow the abominable situation to continue, where one side has everything and the other has nothing.

When the discourse of justice, of self-determination is adopted, then the options are either two strong and equal states for both peoples, or no exclusive state for either. Either option entails reducing Israeli power for the sake of Palestinian power, a tzimzum (contraction) for the sake of promoting an equitable solution.

This is not altruism.

This is ordinary justice.

Shlomo Riskin -- Bad Moral Luck?

"Evangelical Christians and Jewish people will stand together, declaring a God of love, not hatred, and calling for peace, not violence," said Rabbi Riskin, who recently launched the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel” (From a press release; see here)

The American philosopher Thomas Nagel has pointed to a phenomenon he calls “circumstantial moral luck”. There are people who find themselves in circumstances in which they act immorally. His example is the Germans who supported Hitler in the 1930’s. Certainly, they are deserving of moral censure, because they chose to act immorally. But had these same Germans emigrated before Hitler came to power, they would not have had the opportunity to act immorally. It was their “bad moral luck” to be in Germany.

Well, it is not exactly the bad moral luck of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, to be deeply implicated in the immorality of the settlement enterprise. After all, he chose to leave the United States to lead Efrat – arguably one of the most harmful, and certainly the most hypocritical, of the West Bank settlements. (See my "There are no kosher settlements.") Still, had Rabbi Riskin stayed in the United States, he may have had a pretty decent career as a liberal orthodox rabbi. Riskin was never an intellectual or for that matter, much of a talmid hakham. But he was very good at presenting a liberal version of traditional Judaism back in the late sixties and early seventies, and he was a bridge-builder between various communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, in New York.

But seduced by the dark side of religious Zionism, and driven by the dream of empire-building on cheap land, he emigrated to Israel and founded (with Moshe Moshkowitz) the town of Efrat, a sprawling settlement built entirely on Palestinian private and public land that never ceases to expand into, and pollute, the surrounding region. Through this his life-project, Riskin has caused more tragedy and pain to more Palestinians than any other rabbi of modern times, certainly more than Meir Kahane and his ilk.

Yes, that is a tough judgment. Let me explain what leads me to make it.

You see, it hurts me, as an orthodox Jew, when an ethnic chauvinist like Meir Kahane spouts racist pap in the name of traditional Judaism. It hurts me more when a cultured rightwing rabbi like Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinowitz appeals to John Locke (!) in order to protest against the evacuation of settlers, But it hurts me most when a “liberal modern orthodox rabbi” like Riskin offers moral justifications for his stands that are so transparently self-serving, and, well, so extraordinarily bad. And, it is not just his arguments, but the consequences of his actions for the surrounding Palestinians of the growth of the Efrat, which should pain any decent human being.

To be sure, the initial goal behind Efrat – the creation of a model Torah community in the Land of Israel which would be tolerant of others (at least other Jews) and would offer a liberal vision of Judaism – was a noble one for an orthodox rabbi. One cannot fault Rabbi Riskin for his idealism and his yetzer ha-tov (good inclination). But to build such a community within the 1967 borders was virtually impossible. The availability of West Bank land a stone's throw from Bethlehem, and government subsidies for building in the territories, were too much of a temptation. The yetzer ha-tov bowed to the realities of the yetzer ha-ra’ (evil inclination) eased by the aforementioned moral rationalizations.

Take, for example, Riskin’s constant appeal to the “Israeli national consensus”. Already in the late 1970s, he was questioned about the wisdom of building a town on land that was not even annexed by the State of Israel. “Don’t worry,” I heard him tell a potential resident in 1979, “Gush Etzion is in the national consensus. It will never be given back.” I was not sure what he meant by that: Rabin had said around that time that he would not mind traveling to the Etzion Bloc with a passport. The facts that nobody in the world recognized the legitimacy of the settlement movement; that Efrat was even not in the Etzion Bloc, but only in an imagined Etzion bloc that knows no borders, and that the settlements were not entirely uncontroversial even in Israel – did not give him pause.

Another example: Although Efrat was built entirely on Palestinian land, Riskin subscribed to the fiction (which was official Israeli dogma then and now, though few besides Riskin actually believed it) that Palestinian public land could be cultivated for Jewish settlement. Of course, it subsequently turned out that most of the land was not public land, but private land, that the public/private distinction made no difference to anybody outside of Israel, and that the Fourth Geneva Convention, according to everybody in the world except for some Israeli and Jewish lawyers, forbade the expropriation of the Occupied Territories by Israel. Any argument in a storm.

With the advent of Oslo, Riskin could no longer masquerade as the liberal orthodox rabbi who was willing, “theoretically”, to trade land for peace. He wasn’t even ready to consent to a temporary freeze on Efrat’s expansion that was declared by the second Rabin government, on one of those rare occasions that Israel attempted to adhere to its commitments on settlement freezes. Like the “states-rights” segregationists of the sixties, Riskin appealed to a higher law. In one of the most farcical moments of the Oslo years, he was arrested, draped in a tallit and holding a Sefer Torah (!), on a hill outside Efrat.

Here were some of his self-serving justifications made to reporter Ira Rifkin in 1995, the year which outed him as a rightwing extremist in moderate's garb:

"But this land is too small for a separate Palestinian state. It's a prescription for war, and I don't want to commit suicide -- that's also an ethical value," he said.

Riskin’s first justification was not unreasonable, then or now. After Israel had prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state for almost a half-century and, contrary to international law and common-sense morality, had expropriated Palestinian land for Jewish settlement and denied both the right of self-determination and Israeli citizenship to the occupied population, the resultant Palestinian state that had international legitimacy since 1947 was, and is, not obviously viable. But it was the conclusion that he drew that showed the defects of his reasoning. After all, the territory allotted to the Zionists by the 1947 partition plan was also tiny and raised the question of that state’s viability. But rather than work to see how a viable Palestinian state would be possible, which would have been a just way to proceed, he decided to deny 3 ½ million people under occupation, and millions of people in exile, any sort of self-determination in their homeland. And why? In order to expand his Torah community, complete with red-roofed villas and swimming pools. (A comparison of the water allotment to Efrat per capita to that of the neighboring El Khader boggles the mind.)

Here is another Riskinesque argument from the same article:

[When Efrat was founded] "It was unthinkable that Israel might one day consider giving up this community, and we're not going to leave here.”

Unthinkable? Perhaps. The city of Efrat was illegal under international law, but not under the law of the occupier. Before the First Intifada, Riskin could, like a nineteenth-century British colonialist, rely on his self-declared good relations with the village chieftain of neighboring El-Khader to ease any doubts. The land-grab was in full swing, and Riskin could, in his mind, fall back on the idea that Efrat was in the national consensus.

But anybody with half-a-brain and not motivated by blind nationalism and a lust for expansion could see that there was something – how should I say – “risky” about building over the Green Line. The sole Israeli argument for Jews settling the Etzion bloc was that it had been settled by Jews prior to 1948, an argument that can justify the return of millions of Palestinians to Israel. But for Israelis like Riskin, the Jews have a right of return to their pre-48 places of residence, but the Palestinians do not.

So that is why Riskin in 1995, betrayed by the Palestinans of the First Intifada in 1987, and by the Rabin government in 1993, had to resort to another argument:

“Turn the other cheek is not a Jewish ideal.”

Well, “turn the other cheek” is certainly not the ideal of a mafioso, barbarian, or tyrant. But Riskin’s option in the late seventies was not of turning the other cheek but rather of driving people from their lands, people who had rights to those lands even if they had made war on Israel from them, which many of them had not. (By the way, anybody familiar with Jewish writings on ethics know that “turning the other cheek” is a Jewish ideal. To say otherwise is to appropriate an anti-Jewish Christian stereotype, which many modern European Jews, mostly secular, did. As usual, the orthodox later adopted the apologetics of their secular brethren.)

"To the victor belongs the spoils if the victor is moral," he added. "For the immoral loser, there can be no spoils."

Ribono shel olam, it is hard to know which is more offensive – the sheer stupidity of the remark or the obtuse moral premise on which it is based. Even if the Palestinian people had, without any provocation, declared an offensive war on Israel, they STILL would have the same right to self-determination as the Israelis had. The question was never one of who started the war, but what people had the right to a state. And it was internationally recognized (though, as Rashid Khalidi points out in the Iron Cage, not recognized enough) that the Palestinians had a right to a state. And who gets to decide who is the aggressor and who is immoral – the victor? Who declared the Palestinians the aggressors? Israel?

Riskin’s decline -- or his display of his true colors -- continued. After 1995, if not considerably earlier, he abandoned the argument of “Gush Etzion” for the fundamentalist arguments of Gush Emunim. Suffice it to say that when the question of the illegal outposts arose, all pretence of Efrat’s “legality” was thrown to the winds. In the Fall of 2007 he supported the settlers of Givat Eitam, an expansion of Efrat that was illegal, even by Israeli expansive legal standards. See here. So, given his downward moral spiral of the last thirty years, should we be surprised that the rabbi who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in the sixties (he says) is now allied with conservative Christian evangelicals like the Reverend John Hagee?

Now, it is not unusual for orthodox Jews to make common cause with conservative Christians on social issues -- and against liberal Jews. That tradition goes back at least as far as fifteenth-century Spain – just read the praise of Christian thinkers by such Jewish conservatives as Isaac Abravanel and Isaac Arama, etc., against earlier Jewish thinkers” such as Joseph ibn Kaspi and Moses of Narbonne (thinkers who had been led astray, according to Abravnel and Arama, by Arabic Aristotelianism.) And in the nineteenth century, the first orthodox Jewish political party made common cause with Polish Catholics in their fight against Jewish liberals. The coalition managed to win a seat in the Austrian parliament for the orthodox chief rabbi of Cracow. The coalition of orthodox Jews and conservative Christians is as Jewish as bagels and lox.

What is irksome in the Riskin-Hagee partnership is that what brings them together – outside of their shared lust for the Holy Land – is their common hatred for Islam. “Islam itself seems poised for world domination,” opines Rabbi Riskin, “following a line of jihad-inspired Wahhabi fanaticism.” Pretty soon he will have us reading the Protocols of the Elders of the House of Saud, I suppose.

Contrast Riskin’s new rightwing “Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Tolerance” in Efrat with the more inclusive “Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies” in Baltimore. Both groups were founded for the purpose of fostering understanding between two religions. Yet when the Baltimore Institute saw the ignorance and growing prejudice of Jews and Christians against Islam, it hosted a lecture series last spring, inviting four prominent experts on Islam to explain “What Jews and Christians Need to Know About Islam.” Whereas Riskin’s group’s mission statement raises the specter of “confused and concerned masses threatened to be overwhelmed by material secularism on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other.” In other words, Riskin’s group has bought into the bigotry of the Christian right against Islam. Nary a mention of moderate Muslims.

Of course, Rabbi Riskin is savvy enough to know about the moderate Muslims. But God forbid he should mention them, or how they are the majority of the world’s billion plus Muslims. That would ruin his lucrative coalition with the Christian Islamophobes.

You know, the yetzer ha-ra’ (“evil inclination”) works in mysterious ways. Instead of fighting bigotry (which would include, in my mind, fighting Islamic, Christian, and Jewish bigotry) it seduces “moderate” rabbis like Riskin into sanctifying bigotry. How ironic that in order to justify Jewish dialogue with Christians, Rabbi Riskin cites the following passage from Maimonides’ Code of Law.

"There is no human power to comprehend the designs of the Creator of the Universe since our ways are not His ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. Hence all of the words of Jesus the Nazarene and of the Ishmaelite who came after him (Muhammad) served to pave the way for the King Messiah and to repair the whole world to serve the Lord in unison, for it is written, (Zephania 9:3), 'I shall make all the people pure of speech, so that they all call upon the name of the Lord and serve Him with one heart.'

"How so? The entire world has been filled with the words of the Messiah and the words of the Torah and the words of the commandments, and these words have been disseminated even to faraway islands, and to many nations of uncircumcised hearts, who are now dealing with these concepts and with Biblical commandments…"

Now, as Rabbi Riskin knows, Maimonides considered Islam to be a monotheistic religion and, theologically less objectionable than Christianity. Maimonides preferred Islam to Christianity, although he was certainly familiar with fanatical Muslims like the Almohads, who had forced him and his family to leave Spain. But on Riskin’s interpretation, Maimonides’s statement justifies a partnership only with Christians. Muslims – even non-Arab Muslims -- are dropped from the team.

The truth is that Maimonides’ statement justifies nothing of the kind. It doesn’t speak of partnership or tolerance; rather, it is an attempt by a medieval thinker to fathom why God would allow such “false” religions as Islam and Christianity to thrive. If, however, we want to use Maimonides for the sake of interfaith understanding, we should at least be true to the symmetry he posits between the two religions, Islam and Christianity. But to do that, one would not have to be a truly liberal orthodox rabbi who believes in fostering understanding between religions for its own sake (such as Rabbi David Rosen, whom you should read about here), and not one who speaks with the voice of a liberal Jacob, but wears the garb of an Uzi-wielding Esau. Not a rabbi who divides his moral universe into those who support his empire and those who do not.

U-ve-khol zot. And yet…Rabbi Riskin has been a moderating force in some areas of orthodoxy, such as the participation of women in advanced Torah study, and the plight of the agunah. What a pity that he had the bad “moral luck” to be caught up in the settlement enterprise. When the Jews leave Efrat – and by God they will, sooner or later (unless they live there under the jurisdiction of the state of Palestine, may it speedily be built),-- some of Riskin’s legacy may be salvaged in his institutions of Torah learning.

Unless they succumb to the morality of their founder.

Friday, April 4, 2008

When Clerics Say Outrageous and Offensive Things

What do Pastor Reverend James Wright, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu, and Imam Sheik Yunus al-Astal share in common? Well, among other things, a penchant for making outrageous and offensive comments. Here is Chief Rabbi Eliyahu's latest pearl:

"Even when we seek revenge, it is important to make one thing clear – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs.

"The Talmud states that if gentiles rob Israel of silver they will pay it back in gold, and all that is taken will be paid back in folds, but in cases like these there is nothing to pay back, since as I said – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs," added Rabbi Eliyahu.

And Sheikh Yunis al-Astal, from Steven Erlanger's piece on Hamas's anti-Judaism in the Times.

"The reason for the punishment of burning is that it is fitting retribution for what [the Jews] have done,” Mr. Astal wrote on March 13. “But the urgent question is, is it possible that they will have the punishment of burning in this world, before the great punishment” of hell? Many religious leaders believe so, he said, adding, “Therefore we are sure that the holocaust is still to come upon the Jews."

And as for the Reverend Wright...well, I don't have to cite his statements, do I?

The reactions to these statements range from enthusiastic support to unrelenting condemnation of the statement and the speaker, including calls for silencing him in some way. Somewhere in the middle, trying to juggle conflicting values and conflicting loyalties, thinking people may be found. How should they react to hatred and to offensive statements?

As somebody who defines himself as liberal and orthodox (hence, a fundamentalist), here are some of my thoughts:

1. Don't assume that the speaker is articulating a well-thought-out and consistent ideology. Religious folks, like everybody else, hold inconsistent beliefs. That is because they are generally not that sophisticated and because their sources speak with many voices. The Talmud teaches "Righteous gentiles merit a place in the World-to-come" as well as "Kill the best of gentiles." What you hear depends on what best serves the immediate interests of the speaker.

2. Religious rhetoric is particularly inflammatory -- but don't assume that the cleric buys into the implications what he is saying, even when he says it. "Rabin is an informer"; "The Arabs are Amalek"; "The Jews are apes and pigs," etc., are not harmless statements; they can lead others to kill. But they are said all too often in the way reserved for unthinking people (or politicians.)

3. Try to find out about the context of the remarks. There is a big difference between a Palestinian making an anti-Semitic remark during the Second Intifada and a German making the same one during the Holocaust. Both are to be condemned, but the second is to be condemned more. It is one thing for Eliyahu to stand up at a funeral service and make an anti-Arab racist slur. That is bad -- but it could be worse were he not to make it at a time of stress, but at a time of relative peace and coexistence. I am not saying that anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than is strictly necessary (the bon mot attributed to Isaiah Berlin). But I do believe that what is particularly invidious about German anti-Semitism, besides its racism, is that in no way could the Jews be objectively viewed as responsible for the troubles of the Germans.

4. Avoid the human tendency to self-righteousness and smugness. Haaretz used to regularly feature on Sunday mornings some of the outrageous pearls of former Chief Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef in his public lecture the night before. Such statements reaffirmed the moral values and Jewish identity of the secularists, but were counter-productive in trying to engage his community in dialogue.

5. Realize that the inflammatory quotes are the result of cherry-picking. In Steven Erlanger's piece on Hamas' anti-Judaism, several quotes appear to have been supplied to him by Jewish and Israeli watchdog associations like MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch. Itamar Marcus and Yigal Carmon, both rightwingers, hunt the statements of Hamas as assiduosly as the Clinton campaign hunts the statements of Rev. Wright. It makes for good copy, but does not spread a lot of light.

In my opinion, Steven Erlanger's piece on Hamas was a disappointment. He did not talk to a single expert on Hamas or on religious fundamentalism. Rather, like other liberals, he cherry-picked quotes that put Hamas in a very negative light. Is Hamas anti-Semitic? You bet you it is. Just read the charter. But is anti-Semitism at its core? No, at its core is Islamic fundamentalism and a Palestinian national movement. And anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism are not anti-Semitism.

The way to dampen the anti-Semitic fervor of Hamas is to force it to confront the images of other Jews besides that of Occupier. And if that fails, do what one can to minimize their influence. Right now, Israel adopts policies that ensure the growth of Hamas.