Wednesday, March 25, 2009

“Seven Jewish Children” and “War is Hell”

This evening I attended a reading of British Playwright Caryl Churchill's ten-minute performance piece, Seven Jewish Children; A Play for Gaza. Had the play been written by an Israel, nobody would have batted an eyelash. But because the playwright is famous, and a leftwing British 'shikse' (I assume), she was pilloried by the Zionists and the play labeled antisemitic, etc., when produced at the Royal Court theater in London.

The reading was co-sponsored by Theater J, the DC JCC's resident theater company, and, was performed on the same night as a New York production. Kudos to its artistic director, Ari Roth, for having the courage to do it, although I am told that politically, his position as artistic director is safe. I had to cross a picket line of the usual Zealots to see the play. Once inside, most of the audience was the predictable Brit Tzedek ve-Shalom crowd -- generally supportive of the play, though a few were a bit uncomfortable.

Roth was keen on artistic balance, and so after the reading of the Churchill play, two "reactions" by British-Israeli and American-Jewish performance artists were read by the actors. Since these reactions imitated Churchill's piece, they came off as much weaker dramatically. Then the audience was given a chance to respond. Then Amitai Etzioni, the GW professor, and a self-described member of the Palmach generation, was given the floor. He lambasted the play as propaganda, and said that Israelis and Palestinians have to look forward, not backwards.

Etzioni, poor fellow, inadvertently provided the dramatic high-point of the evening, when he misquoted a line from the play as "Tell her that we killed the babies deliberately." (The actual line was: "Tell her that we killed the babies by accident.") In fact, this typified the reaction of not only people who did not hear the play, but people who heard what they wanted to hear, and not what the playwright wrote.

Why did the audience react as positively as it did? After all, it is not uncommon for the Brit Tzedek ve-Shalom crowd to display the typical ambivalence of the American Zionist left. I think that the recent reports of civilian abuse by soldiers in Gaza were fresh in the audience's minds, and they were not in the mood to hear calls for balance and context.

Speaking of Israeli war crimes, today Human Rights Watch published its report on the use of white phosphorus shells in the Gaza campaign. It reported what had already been reported in real time: Israeli used the shells in cases where there was no military necessity, and where its troops could have been effectively protected by other types of smokescreen, produced in Israel. Whether the use of these shells was deliberate in order to "establish deterrence," or whether it was just a convenient and cheaper method of providing a smokescreen, is not yet known. When confronted in the past with the use of white phosphorus, Israel's standard answer has been that the use of white phosphorus is not banned in war, which is true, provided that the use is necessary militarily, and precautions have been taken for the civilian population. There is no reason to believe that either of those conditions obtained, as the Human Rights Watch report makes clear.

And for my readers who say, "War is hell!" and "À la guerre comme À la guerre." I say, "Fine, just spare me your moral outrage when Palestinians blow up Jewish babies."

Here is the Human Rights Watch report

Israel: White Phosphorus Use Evidence of War Crimes

"In Gaza, the Israeli military didn't just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops...It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died."

Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report

Indiscriminate Attacks Caused Needless Civilian Suffering

March 25, 2009

(Jerusalem) - Israel's repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during its recent military campaign was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 71-page report, "Rain of Fire: Israel's Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza," provides witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property in Gaza. Human Rights Watch researchers in Gaza immediately after hostilities ended found spent shells, canister liners, and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards, and at a United Nations school. The report also presents ballistics evidence, photographs, and satellite imagery, as well as documents from the Israeli military and government.

Militaries use white phosphorus primarily to obscure their operations on the ground by creating thick smoke. It can also be used as an incendiary weapon.

"In Gaza, the Israeli military didn't just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops," said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. "It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died."

The report documents a pattern or policy of white phosphorus use that Human Rights Watch says must have required the approval of senior military officers.

"For the needless civilian deaths caused by white phosphorus, senior commanders should be held to account," Abrahams said.

On February 1, Human Rights Watch submitted detailed questions to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) about its white phosphorus use in Gaza. The IDF did not provide responses, citing an internal inquiry being conducted by the Southern Command.

In the recent Gaza operations, Israeli forces frequently air-burst white phosphorus in 155mm artillery shells in and near populated areas. Each air-burst shell spreads 116 burning white phosphorus wedges in a radius extending up to 125 meters from the blast point. White phosphorus ignites and burns on contact with oxygen, and continues burning at up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until nothing is left or the oxygen supply is cut. When white phosphorus comes into contact with skin it creates intense and persistent burns.

When used properly in open areas, white phosphorus munitions are not illegal, but the Human Rights Watch report concludes that the IDF repeatedly exploded it unlawfully over populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse, and a hospital.

Israel at first denied it was using white phosphorus in Gaza but, facing mounting evidence to the contrary, said that it was using all weapons in compliance with international law. Later it announced an internal investigation into possible improper white phosphorus use.

"Past IDF investigations into allegations of wrongdoing suggest that this inquiry will be neither thorough nor impartial," Abrahams said. "That's why an international investigation is required into serious laws of war violations by all parties."

The IDF knew that white phosphorus poses life-threatening dangers to civilians, Human Rights Watch said. A medical report prepared during the recent hostilities by the Israeli ministry of health said that white phosphorus "can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed." Burns on less than 10 percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart, the ministry report says. Infection is common and the body's absorption of the chemical can cause serious damage to internal organs, as well as death.

If the IDF intended to use white phosphorus as a smokescreen for its forces, it had a readily available non-lethal alternative to white phosphorus - smoke shells produced by an Israeli company, Human Rights Watch concluded.

All of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time. On January 4, Reuters photographed IDF artillery units handling projectiles whose markings indicate that they were produced in the United States at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in September 1991.

To explain the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, Israeli officials have repeatedly blamed Hamas for using civilians as "human shields" and for fighting from civilian sites. In the cases documented in the report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of Hamas using human shields in the vicinity at the time of the attacks. In some areas Palestinian fighters appear to have been present, but this does not justify the indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in a populated area.

Human Rights Watch said that for multiple reasons it concluded that the IDF had deliberately or recklessly used white phosphorus munitions in violation of the laws of war. First, the repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus in populated areas until the last days of the operation reveals a pattern or policy of conduct rather than incidental or accidental usage. Second, the IDF was well aware of the effects of white phosphorus and the dangers it poses to civilians. Third, the IDF failed to use safer available alternatives for smokescreens.

The laws of war obligate states to investigate impartially allegations of war crimes. The evidence available demands that Israel investigate and prosecute as appropriate those who ordered or carried out unlawful attacks using white phosphorus munitions, Human Rights Watch said.

The United States government, which supplied Israel with its white phosphorus munitions, should also conduct an investigation to determine whether Israel used it in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pointing Fingers Instead of Soul Searching

In today's New York Times, under the headline, "A religious war in Israel's army, " Ethan Bronner reports that several of the testimonies of secular soldiers who served in Gaza, and who allege inappropriate behavior, attribute that behavior to the rise of the religious-nationalist Jews in the army.

Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, "the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war."

Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.

"If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren't representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?" he said. "To whom do we complain?"

Zamir was not only implying with the above statement that the religious soldiers and commanders are in large part responsible for the moral decline of the Israeli soldier. He also seemed to imply that were the army to be composed of units that were more representative of the Jewish people, it would have greater moral legitimacy to do what it did in Gaza.

If that inference is correct, than the secular Dany Zamir is little different from Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the ultra-nationalist Rabbi who said recently that Barukh Goldstein's "error" in killing innocent Palestinians was acting without the authorization of the nation. Had he received such an authorization, then it would have been all right.

Perhaps that is unfair to Zamir. Perhaps not. What he certainly shares in common with the religious nationalist right is the penchant of some Jews to bash other Jews who do not belong to their "tribe".

But is Zamir right? Is there a moral decline in the IDF, and is that decline attributable to the rise of religious nationalists?

Some preliminary points

  • According to one of my informants, there has never been a serious academic study of IDF soldier violence in the Occupied Territories. Which soldiers are likely to be perpetrators? What communities do they come from? What is their moral upbringing? Until that study is undertaken, the answers to these questions are mere guesses. In lieu of serious study, one can bash the religious nationalists (but not the Russians, the Mizrahim, or the secular Ashkenazim) with impunity.
  • Even with such a study, it is difficult to have conclusive answers. A religious soldier may believe that conquering the Land of Israel is a religious imperative, that 'whoever is merciful to the cruel, will eventually be cruel to the merciful' – and still act like a mentsh with the civilian population. By contrast, one can be raised in a kibbutz with humanistic values and still commit unspeakable acts in war.
  • The longer the Occupation, the worse Israel behaves, and the more their bad behavior becomes acceptable and justified by Israeli society. True, there was some pretty nasty stuff in the First Intifada (Remember "Break-their-bones" Rabin?) , but Israel then, at least, made the pretence of caring about the civilian population. It took a more violent Second Intifada for the Knesset to pass the law limiting the Palestinian's ability to sue for damages, to cage Palestinians in ghettoes, and to build a wall to ensure maximum land for Israeli expansion. For their part, the Palestinians were able to kill many more Israelis civilians in the Second Intifada than in the First, though very few recently.

So has there been a moral decline in the IDF? As others have correctly pointed out, the last campaign in Gaza was particularly repugnant from a moral standpoint. But I cannot see it as qualitatively different from previous campaigns. And I am glad to see that Gideon Levy shares that view. And certainly there is no reason – yet – to believe that the rise of the religious nationalist ideology is behind the hardening of Israel's heart. Anybody who lived in Israel through the Gaza campaign knew that Israelis of all stripes didn't give a damn about what happened in Gaza. "Served them right" is what you will hear people say who belong to all the tribes of Israel.

The tendency to attribute the evil to religious nationalists – their Hamasniks or our own – is more often than not a convenient excuse for not looking in the mirror. Ehud Olmert is not a religious nationalist. Ehud Barak is not a religious nationalist. Avigdor Lieberman is certainly not a religious nationalist. And let us not forget Bibi.

Olmert and Barak and Livni share the responsibility for what happened in Gaza, not some rabbi in the military rabbinate, who provide the secular leaders cover by making them look moderate.

The article ends with Prof. Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University and Hartman Institute making the by-now hackneyed distinction between the peace-loving, moderate religious Zionists, and the ultra-nationalist Land of Israel Zionists. Halbertal, like Zamir, professed to be shocked when he learned of how the troops behaved in Gaza. Once again, Levy is there to say to those shocked, "Bullshit. You knew exactly what was going on during real time – all you had to do was read the newspaper."

Israelis appear to be doomed to live in a perpetual "Groundhog's Day" where they repeat the endless cycle of being shocked whenever they hear of the IDF's traditional and predictable behaviour. Even their reactions are predictable. And there will always be the New York Times Israel correspondent (using a liberal Zionist Jew) consulting the Hartman Institute "philosopher" (a modern orthodox liberal Zionist Jew) for the "moderate" position.

In the beginning there was Tom Friedman interviewing David Hartman. Friedman begat Bronner and Hartman began Halbertal. Nothing has changed; they all say the same thing.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the IDF, the Hartman crowd just follows in the footsteps of another Israeli apologist, liberal Zionist, Michael Walzer, who has constructed an entire Just War theory with the IDF in mind.

All the military ethical codes don't do a damn thing when the folks in charge are operating under their own tribal morality, and when the "war on terrorism" becomes cover war crimes. The difference between the US and Israel is that we have been governed by Bushes and Chenies for the last sixty years (with maybe a slight breath of fresh air from 1993-1995.)

Stop bashing the religious right.

All our hands have spilt this blood.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Times on the Gaza War Crimes

The NY Times ran a front page article on Amos Harel's piece in Haaretz about IDF war crimes (see below). The most interesting observation was that of Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, who has been lecturing at defense colleges.

Unfortunately, I think that selective use of killing civilians has been very much on the agenda for fighting terror. The army believes that a weak spot of Israeli deterrence is its strong commitment not to kill civilians, and there has grown the sense that it might have to temporarily overcome that weakness in order to restore deterrence.

Supporters of Israel, of course, want it both ways. They claim that Israel does not target civilians, and when soldiers do, they are punished. But they also claim that establishing deterrence in the war on terror requires, "regrettably," that civilians are killed. The terrorists shouldn't think that they can get away with disguising themselves as women in order to blow up Jews, or using civilians as human shields. In the Gaza campaign, the IDF knowingly killed civilians (sometimes after dropping leaflets warning them to leave) in order to establish deterrence.

As long as Israelis view the IDF as "the most moral army in the world," the IDF will be able to do anything short of mass rape with justification. They still don't get it that the IDF behaved worse in Gaza (It's Gaza, it's the Hamas; It's revenge for the chutzpah of the Muslim pishers sending in their damn rockets) than even in the Second Intifada, despite the fact that Israeli casualities were ten times less. Consider the following remarkable evidence

Amir Marmor, a 33-year-old history graduate student in Jerusalem and a military reservist, said in an interview with The New York Times that he was stunned to discover the way civilian casualties were discussed in training discussions before his tank unit entered Gaza in January. "Shoot and don't worry about the consequences," was the message from the top commanders, he said. Speaking of a lieutenant colonel who briefed the troops, Mr. Marmor said, "His whole demeanor was extremely gung ho. This is very, very different from my usual experience. I have been doing reserve duty for 12 years, and it was always an issue how to avoid causing civilian injuries. He said in this operation we are not taking any chances. Morality aside, we have to do our job. We will cry about it later.

Defense minister Ehud Barak responded to the stories with the following line:

    "The Israeli Army is the most moral in the world, and I know what I'm talking about because I know what took place in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq."

Note who he is comparing the Israel army with – the Serbian army in Bosnia and the the US army in Iraq, both occupying forces that committed war crimes. But there is a difference. The Iraq war, which was senseless and immoral, was not a long-term affair; the war in Bosnia was nasty, brutish, and relatively short.

But what other country has been at war for over sixty years, with no end in sight? Length matters, and, in my opinion, an army that commits "minor" war crimes and acts of humiliation over a long period of time, is as bad or as worse as one that does much more serious things over a short period of time.

Which reminds my fable about Pete, which I hereby repeat:

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.

Pete was even willing to share a bit of the garment with Paul – he certainly wasn't interested in taking 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? There were wrose things going on in the neighborhood.

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…."


Thursday, March 19, 2009

On the Deeper Roots of IDF War Crimes in Gaza

More stories are emerging daily from Israeli soldiers about indiscriminate skilling of civilians, defacement of property, and other war crimes in the recent Gaza operation. The most recent article appeared in today's Haaretz. As Richard Silverstein has pointed out, the English version is less complete than the Hebrew version. But it makes for chilling, if predictable, reading.

The problem with these stories is that, inevitably, they remain at the level of the perpetrator, the soldier. So soldiers acted against the IDF Code of Ethics? That is regrettable, it will be said, but it just means that the IDF will have to give them one more ethics seminar. It is still the most moral army in the world, according to Defense Minister Barak (Who is number 2?) So why the fuss?

The Military Advocate Office has requested that the testimonies reported by Harel be turned over to them, so they can investigate, draw conclusions, and prosecute, if necessary. This, of course, is he standard answer. Haaretz has called for an external investigation.

But who will investigate and prosecute the Military Advocate Office?

You see, the main issue is not the illegal actions of the soldiers, but rather the illegal orders of the commanders, the military culture of "searing into the Gazans consciousness" and "the boss has gone nuts."

In interviews given today to various media outlets, the IDF veterans' group Breaking the Silence makes the following points:

  • The story in Haaretz today is consonant with many testimonies the group has collected over the last two months.
  • The scale of IDF war crimes in Gaza's Cast Lead operation is unprecedented, surpassing those of Defensive Shield and the previous Gaza campaigns.
  • More blame should be placed on the IDF brass. The IDF should not be throwing the soldiers to the (toothless) dogs, but should be investigating the chain of command.

    One of the talkbacks in the English edition of Haaretz said, "Big deal, just one story." Haaretz will be publishing more in the days to come.

    But get ready for the book of testimonies to be published by Breaking the Silence in a few months.





Monday, March 16, 2009

On an “Anti-Semitic” Form of Zionism That Ultimately Diminishes Zionism Itself

Anti-semitism means many things to many people, but inter alia it means to deny the right of Jews to self-expression, to demonize them, to try to shut them up with scare tactics. Anti-semitism is essentialist – it claims that Jews cannot have differences of opinions because it mandates Jews to be all of a certain type, no matter how they may appear to disagree.

In the L.A. Times, computer science professor Judea Pearl published his latest rant against anti-Zionism, labeling it "hate," "more dangerous than ani-Semitism," "seeking the physical destruction of five and a half-million people," "stabbing in the back" members of the peace camp, and other raving lunacies that one rarely hears here in Israel, thank God. According to Pearl, the "marginal minorities at best" of anti-Zionist Jews around today are either post-nationalist lefties, Neturei Karta righties, or they "hide, disown or denounce their historical roots in favor of social acceptance and other expediencies.".

This from a Jew who lives in the city with the largest number of Israelis outside of Israel – Los Angeles!

The "arguments" he adduces are the same stale and mindless ones we hear constantly from the dogmatic Zionist camp. My favorite is the "If-Every-People-Has-A-Right-to-a State,-then-Why-Not-the-Jews?", which has got to be the worst argument in the political Zionist arsenal. There are many peoples and ethnic groups that don't have states or homelands – just look at the Wikipedia article on ethnic groups and peoples for a long list. You can believe that Jews are a people or a nation without saying that have a right to a state, or that if they have a right to self-determination, you can claim that it doesn't have to be exercised in Palestine, or, for that matter, in the form of an ethnic state. Or you can argue that even if the Jews have a historical right to Palestine, it does not trump the rights of the natives, a majority of which the Jews ethnically cleansed between 1948-1952. All these arguments were made by Zionists prior to 1948; all are condemned today as heretical.

Are Jews a people? Are they a religion? The answer to that question, according to Pearl, depends on how it plays to the advantage of Zionism.

Anti-Zionism disguises itself in the cloak of political debate, exempt from sensitivities and rules of civility that govern inter-religious discourse, to attack the most cherished symbol of Jewish identity.

All of a sudden we are told that anti-Zionism violates the "rules of civility that govern inter-religious discourse." So Pearl wants to have it both ways – the Jews are a religion, Zionism=Judaism, and hence Zionism, like Jesus, is above discussion! But he also claims that the Jews are a nation, from which "it follows" that they have a right to take over their historic homeland and deny the rights of the native Palestinians to an equal sort of self-determination. To deny them that right would be to offend their religious sensitivities!

Look, it is not Pearl's Zionism that I mind – but the crazy logic that he uses to demonize the anti-Zionists, and the sort of hate-filled rhetoric that is taken from the ultra rightwing arsenal (Hmm, where have I seen Jews being accused of stabbing the nation in the back before?)

What about this familiar scare-tactic posing as an argument:

First, anti-Zionism targets the most vulnerable part of the Jewish people, namely, the Jewish population of Israel, whose physical safety and personal dignity depend crucially on maintaining Israel's sovereignty. Put bluntly, the anti-Zionist plan to do away with Israel condemns 5 1/2 million human beings, mostly refugees or children of refugees, to eternal defenselessness in a region where genocidal designs are not uncommon.

This is hogwash. Pearl cannot give an example of one anti-Zionist who advocates a system of government in Israel/Palestine which would make 5 ½ million Jews defenseless. To accuse Jewish anti-Zionists of plotting for the destruction of Jews is viciously anti-semItic. True, more Jews have died since World War II violent deaths due to war in Israel and because of Israel, than in any other place on the globe. But it is also true that the Palestinians have been vastly more defenseless than the Jews for the last eighty years. (And by the way, will Pearl allow the Palestinians a state in which they will not be defenseless, in which they will have an army the equal of the IDF?)

But more to the point, transforming a Zionist ethnocracy in Israel/Palestine doesn't mean replacing it with an Islamic Republic (in which state, by the way, the dhimmi Jews would have more rights than the Palestinians currently have on the West Bank). There could be two genuinely equal states (a solution that Pearl probably rejects, though he professes not to), a federation, or a confederation, or one state, or any solution in which both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples would have a great measure of self-expression and self-determination.

Because the Zionists adopted the Biltmore platform, because a Russian socialist named David Gruen designed the Jewish State hastily in 1948, and which remains today without a constitution, does this mean that the Zionist regime is the only bulwark against a future Holocaust of 5 ½ million Jews, God forbid?

Gimme a break!

Calling for regime change to make Israel more democratic and less Zionistic by non-violent means is not tantamount to genocide. By Pearl's logic, when Ronald Reagan called for the end of the Soviet "Evil Empire", he wanted to leave millions of Soviet citizens defenseless and liable for destruction. He did nothing of the sort, nor do the anti-Zionists. Most anti-Zionists today are unhappy with the Jewish State for many reasons, but they do not advocate a violent overthrow any more than did Reagan. And if one looks at some of the recent proposals of the Israeli Palestinians citizens for a more multi-cultural and democratic state then the current Jewish ethnocracy, the Jews would arguably be a lot more secure in the region than they are at present – and Israel would arguably be a much more meaningfully Jewish state, in the cultural and even religious sense, than it is at present. (See Bernard Avishai's book, The Hebrew Republic)

What saddens me most about the Pearl op-ed is how it reflects the staleness of Zionist discourse today. Over sixty years ago, there was a vibrant, intellectually exciting debate not only over Zionism, but over what shape it should take. Now, Zionists like Pearl are locked in an orthodox political Zionist dogma that sees only one form of Zionism – political Zionism as expressed in the institutions of Israel – as legitimate, and all forms of anti-Zionism and non-Zionism, as "worse than anti-Semitism."

I can forgive Pearl and those like him the anti-Semitism implicit in their remarks. There is a long tradition of Jewish intolerance to Jews, and some of my Jewish friends (though not my best friends) are anti-Semitic in this way.

It is Pearl's intellectual suffocation of non-statist forms of Zionism that saddens me. This sort of dogmatically orthodox Zionism is better described as "anti-Zionism."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Traub on Khalidi in Today’s NY Times

The New York Times has a liberal slant, but "liberal" means one thing in dealing when dealing with the US and most of the world, and quite another thing dealing with Israel, especially if the liberal is Jewish. The Jewish liberal writing in the Times feels free to criticize Israel, and its American supporters in the Amen corner, and does so frequently – especially with regard to settlements and the Territories. The Jewish liberal is particularly impatient with Jewish defenders of Israel, such as Abe Foxman, Alan Dershowitz, and those to his right. But the Jewish liberal, like his Zionist left counterpart in Israel, never goes too deep in his analysis of Israel and problems, stopping at 67 and not going back to 48 or 1897. On the contrary, the Jewish liberal positions himself between Chomsky, Judt, Pinter (with whom they never engage but always ridicule) on the left and the usual suspects on the right. He thus presents himself as "fair and balanced," when, in fact, he is still very much within the Zionist consensus.

Liberal-slanted newspapers and magazines always call on Jewish liberals to review books on Israel/Palestine. Leslie Gelb on Walt and Mearsheimer, Jeffrey Goldberg on the same, now James Traub on Khalidi's new book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance on the Middle East. I wonder how that happens. I wonder, for example, if contributing writers like Traub, who write on Jewish subjects and for whom Israel is very important, volunteer to review a book whose subject matter lies entirely out of his expertise. I wonder when is the last time the New York Times asked a Palestinian, or for that matter, a non-Jew who is non-partisan, to review books on Israel-Palestine?

These reviews are predictable. They always begin by saying nice things about the author and summarizing the thesis of the book. Then they launch into a defense of Israel, or more accurately, an attack on the Arabs, which can be summed in the following: Don't bash Israel or the US; the Arabs are responsible for their own troubles. The review always insinuates that the book is a polemic and not scholarship, but the arguments of the book are never seriously engaged.

For example, the one detail in Khalidi's book that Traub considers in the review is Khalidi's claim that Truman favored Israel because of domestic political considerations. That annoys Traub, who points out that the claim is based on hearsay evidence. But would it annoy anybody besides an American Zionist, who is deeply committed to the proposition that the founding of the State of Israel was right and just, and who is proud of US support? My point is not to dispute Traub on Truman; certainly, Truman, as a religious Christian, was moved not only by political motives but also by his religious faith to overrule his State Department. But this is the sort of knee-jerk response that makes these reviews dull, predictable, and polemical.

How polemical? After Traub admits that Khalidi "recognizes the complicity of Arab regimes in their own predicament," he spends several paragraphs blaming the Arab world for their troubles, as if he is waging a polemic with a Islamist, and not a Palestinian-American secularist with whom Traub would tend to agree, or at least would read more charitably, were his views not prejudiced by his American and Jewish tribal loyalties.

The review ends with the obligatory and paternalistic put-down: the book, we are told, is important, not because its thesis may be correct, but it reminds us "how very hard it is to make progress in a region where memories are long, and practically everything is blamed on the United States (or Israel.)" In other words, if only the Palestinians were to forget about 1948 and take responsibility for their problems, then things would be a lot easier for everybody concerned, including themselves. That's the credo of the liberal Zionist.

Perhaps Traub should read Khalidi's previous book, The Iron Cage, which both shows the importance of not forgetting about 1948, and argues for major Palestinian and Arab responsibility for the Palestinians not having their own state.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Selling Purim to Progessives

Jerry's Note: I wrote this post last year. Since then the IDF has committed massive war crimes in Gaza. Aside from that, the same dreck contines. But I will still defend Purim – and here it is.

However you look at it, the holiday is not exactly a favorite among Jewish progressives. The Megillah/Scroll of Esther celebrates a victory of the Jews over Haman, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. OK, so the Jews did not take spoils, certainly an advance over today's IDF (which explicitly prohibits taking spoils, and has prosecuted a few soldiers for it, but where taking "souvenirs" is widespread, if I can believe the reports of soldiers in my family and in the group "Breaking the Silence")

Ah, but let's leave the IDF out of this one, shall we?

It's not just the Scroll of Esther that discomfits progressives; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing; it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) It's the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk.

The stone-drunk business reminds me of a story. Once my family was invited to the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore for the festive meal on Purim. I thought, well, what could possibly go wrong? It's a happy holiday, and the yeshiva students at least know what they are doing. Well, when my children saw drunken yeshiva students vomiting on the lawn outside the yeshiva, my only consolation was that wouldn't want to go back and enroll in the joint. And they didn't, although they did go to some modern orthodox Israeli yeshivot.

All I know is that Maimonides, not exactly a liberal, would be aghast at how the holiday has been turned -- by some -- into a drunken orgy of Jewish ethnic particularism.'s my attempt to sell Purim to progressives a bit late for this year, but not for next year, or the year after that.

Consider the following:

The Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, all of them were implicitly guilty, including the sons of Haman. Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course. But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either.

Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives. I adopt both readings, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued pursuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Judaism and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is pretty mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place.

So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just forget about the rest. I don't drink on Purim; if I am really feeling frum/religious, I will have a shot of scotch before I go to bed, whereupon I will not be able to distinguish between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai". I will have a good time with my grandchildren, and pick a prayer service where there is a lot of decorum and the scroll is read in a respectful manner, without all the lunacy of the vulgar plebs (amkha, in Hebrew).

And, of course, I will overeat, give baked goods that my friends will regift and throw away, and distribute a modest amount of charity. (Note to me: why did Peter Singer have to make me feel guilty in a down year?)

I will read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy us because we were different from them. And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by bad people in power, in the name of culture and ethnic homogeneity.

Because if what Haman wished to do to the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

Purim and Aviner

Barukh Goldstein's memory lives on. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leader of the rightwing settlers, said that while Barukh Goldstein was a tzadik, he shouldn't have killed all those Arabs without first getting the permission of the Oomah. Now, the Hebrew word, in the sense he gives to it, is taken from the German, i.e., das Volk. (Actually, the word was originally from the medieval Arabic ummah, but the term in medieval times simply meant "religious community." It took German romanticism to turn Das Volk into a metaphysical concept that, when merged with racism, culminated in Nazism.) The modern use of the Hebrew term in Zionist ideologues comes from German romantic nationalism. It is one of the not-so-subtle ironies of history that the only people who still use these volkish metaphysical notions that were discredited by Nazism, are Jews like Aviner. You see, he is a disciple of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who managed to imbibe the volkish concepts of his father, Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, a mediocre and confused thinker, who is considered profound by other mediocre and confused thinkers.

Aviner's hiddush was not his praise of Goldstein but his criticism of him, i.e., of his "unlicensed" action. (In Aviner's community, nobody criticizes the tzaddik Goldstein.) And what Aviner seems to be saying is that had Goldstein been a soldier sent by the IDF (the army of the oomah) he would have been justified in murdering innocents.

Silverstein writes me that it's people like Aviner that keep him (and presumably others) from being orthodox. That is one way of coping with it. But I prefer my way. I consider him to be a deeply sick man (He used to impersonate a young girl named Yael in his parsha column, until he was apparently warned to stop, and he has been accused of sexual harrassment), and if there are many people who agree with him, then they are sick too, or brainwashed by an idolatrous, i.e., immoral ideology. But while I won't daven with Aviner (his Judaism is suspect, in my opinion, because he is cruel), that doesn't mean I will cease observing commandments because of him. The two of us have this is common – we think that the other is a tinok she-nishbah, a captive child raised among the idolaters. Where we disagree is what constitutes idolatry. For Aviner it is Western liberalism and culture; for me, it is the Judaism of Gush Emunim. Among my culture heroes are the German rabbis of the nineteenth century whom he despises for their diaspora mentality. Why should I cede my Judaism to him?

Forget about the Oomah. Let's talk about Uman. Like Pharoah, Rabbi Aviner is disturbed by masses of Jews leaving the country to worship their god in the wilderness, only for him, country is Israel and the wilderness is in the Ukraine. Now, I must admit, that I, too, don't like the cult of Rabbi Nahman of Braslav's grave. The sort of avodah zarah that goes on in Uman is enough to make a Maimonidean scream. Still, there are three good things about it: first, it pumps money into the Ukrainian economy, which sorely needs it; second, if the Braslav crazies are there, then they do less mischief in Israel; and third, it upsets religious Zionists like Aviner. After all, how dare all those frum moonies leave the Land of Israel for the Ukraine, just because a tzaddik is buried there.

So there you have his character -- upset that orthodox Jews leave Israel to go to Uman for the holidays but content that, had Goldstein received permission from the Volk, he could have slaughtered all those innocents.

I love orthodox Judaism too much to let it be profaned by the likes of Aviner.

Back in the Saddle Again

It has been a very busy semester, but with Spring Break, I can take a breather from my day job and comment on the news of the day – well, at least, some of the news.

Chas Freeman. It warms my heart that the Freeman appointment was derailed by the usual gang of "Israel advocates" (a.k.a. Israel haters) like AIPAC, Schumer, Peretz, et al. You won't see the younger generation of Obama supporters, or, for that matter, most of the Democratic party, gunning down people like Freeman – at least not over Israel. No, it is always the same coalition of old-fashioned Zionists schreiers, liberal and conservative, that run the ultra-nationalist (and tiny) gamut from Goldberg to Krauthammer.

Little by little the Israel Lobby is shrinking to the post-67 baby boomers who still get a tear in their eye when they hear Naomi Shemer's, Yerushalayim shel Zahav, the song whose lyrics managed to expel Arabs from the markets of the Old City.

So that is the good news about the Freeman fiasco. The more that the Israel lobby gets blamed, the more it will be deligitimized – which it already is, at least among the intelligentsia.

And speaking of cockeyed optimists, just read Glenn Greenwald's piece in Salon about Freeman, Roger Cohen and the New York Times. That ought to pick you up.

Hamas. There are two ways for Israel and the US to strengthen Hamas: fight them, and support Fatah. I understand why Israel adopts the former; as long as the Occupied Territories are a home to militant Islamist nationalists, Israel can easily hold on to them. I am less certain why the US is still isolating Hamas. True, there is not a lot of love for Hamas, even among pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab diplomats and policy-makers. Everywhere Hillary goes in the region she hears the same refrain – stop Hamas. The problem is that the only people who can stop Hamas are the Palestinians – not the Saudis, not the Egyptians, not the Jordanians, not the Europeans or the Americans, and certainly not the Israelis. The policy of dividing and conquering the Palestinians – a policy which led, among other things, to a misguided Oslo process that caused the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis – has failed time and time again. Now we are told that Gaza will not receive aid unless the PA recognizes Israel's right to exist. If this means that the Palestinians have to recognize the justice of Zionism, then that demand is morally obscene – roughly equivalent to requiring a rape victim to recognize the justice of her rape. But even if it means the recognition that one side will not seek to destroy the other side, then that is a demand that both sides should agree to and only when the situation between the sides is more equal. Why is it reasonable for Israel to demand this unilateral concession from the Palestinians when no Israeli leader has ever recognized the right of the Palestinians to the state of Palestine? But even worse, the demand is a non-starter for the ultra-nationalists of both sides – who have to be included at least in some way. If Obama can make a show about bipartisanship, not meaning a word of it, then why can't an Obama administration make a show about inclusiveness in Israel-Palestine.

For my part, I hope that Hamas hangs tough and doesn't give in to US bullying. It is about time that the US shows as much concern for Palestinian security as for Israeli security.


See the post above – a blast from last year.

Monday, March 2, 2009

ZOA-Sponsored Speaker on Campus: Israel Should Speak With Hamas

It's Palestine Solidarity Week at the University of Maryland, and the student branch of ZOA is bringing Khaled Abu Toameh to campus. Abu Toameh, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, is the Palestinian journalist beloved by the right wing. He says what the neocons want to hear: that the PA is corrupt; that Hamas will never change; that Israel has no Palestinian partner; and that we are in conflict management rather than in conflict resolution mode. When the ZOA sponsors a Palestinian speaker, it is either a "former terrorist" or a "former reporter for the PLO." One day they may find a former Arab to speak.

I can't blame Abu Toameh for being sponsored by an organization that claims that there is no Palestinian people, that the Arabs don't have any right to a state in Palestine; that none of the Israeli settlements, much less the outposts, are illegal. After all, it is hard to be a Palestinian journalist under any circumstances – if Abu Toameh can't liberate Palestine, he can at least liberate some of his honoraria money from the Zionists and their neocon allies.

But what the Maryland ZOA'ers probably don't know is that about a month ago, Abu Toameh gave a briefing to a group of American Israel advocates, on a tour sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, in which he said that Israel should offer the Palestinians a state on 98% of the West Bank, and to speak with Hamas.

Khaled Abu Toameh: If I were an Israeli Jew I would go to the Palestinians and say "Listen, folks. I'm prepared to give you a Palestinian state and the Israeli majority approves of that, not because we love the Palestinians, but because we want to be rid of the Palestinians."

There's a majority of Jews today who want to disband most of the settlements and take only two percent of the West Bank. My Israeli Jewish friends say to me, "You know, Khaled. You Arabs can take whatever you want. Just leave us alone. It's no longer a territorial dispute for us. We'll give you anything you want if you just go and leave us alone." Some of them even go further than that. Some of them say "Just leave us Tel Aviv, the airport, and the beach."

In the wake of these positive changes that have happened inside Israel, all you need is a strong partner on the Palestinian side. There is some hope, but only if there is a strong partner on the Palestinian side.

General Tom McInerney: But not Hamas.

Khaled Abu Toameh: I don't care. If I were Israeli I would talk to any Palestinian who wants to talk to me, and I would shoot any Palestinian who shoots at me. I wouldn't ask if they were Hamas. You know what? Believe me, if you listen to Hamas and Fatah in Arabic there isn't much of a difference, especially these days. Fatah fought alongside Hamas in Gaza. Today they said they lost 36 fighters and fired 900 rockets at Israel. Fatah.

Mario Loyola: Hamas pretends its casualties are lower, and Fatah pretends its casualties are higher.

Khaled Abu Toameh: Look. Look. As I said before, let's stop saying "Fatah" and "Hamas." Talk to anyone who wants to talk. Talking to Hamas does not mean that you recognize Hamas or that they become your buddies. The funny thing is that Israel went to war against a party that it doesn't recognize. And in the end Israel made a cease-fire unilaterally and negotiated with the Americans and the Egyptians for how to end it. And Hamas is still sitting there.

The entire "briefing" was published by rightwing blogger Michael J. Totten on Feburary 1. But later Totten took down the post, at the request of Abu Toameh and placed this note instead:

A Minority Report from the West Bank and Gaza (Deleted)

I had published the transcript of a talk and follow-up interview with a prominent and respectable Palestinian, and it caused a bit of trouble that neither he nor I anticpated or wanted. The transcript has been removed at his request.

The transcript of the "briefing" can be read in the comment section (!) of Phil Weiss's blog here and on another blog, here.

Should I speculate that Abu Toameh asked Michael J. Totten to take down the post because he didn't want to offend his rightwing hosts who bankroll his appeances? Who knows? Abu Toameh, is, after all, a man of principle. When he was threatened by Fatah, he didn't back down.

On the other hand, maybe ZOA's carrot is better than Fatah's stick