Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Former General Counsel of UNRWA: Critics are Wrong About Terrorists Working for UNRWA

I plan to write a fuller post on the paper by James G. Lindsay, former General Counsel of UNRWA, which was published by the pro-Israeli think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. As befits the liberal Zionist orientation of that group, the paper attempts to stake out a middle ground between the shrill attackers of UNRWA (the usual suspects on the right) and its Palestinian and European defenders. This middle ground is identifiable with the enlightened Israeli position, i.e., critical of Israel but fundamentally accepting the Israel narrative. So, yes, UNRWRA is political and ideological, no, it is not a terrorist cover, yes, the organization has not taken enough steps to promote the liberal peace agenda, no, it does not publish hate-filled textbooks, etc.

Actually, for a report by somebody who clearly was an "insider," it breaks little ground and is based on little inside information. An enterprising journalist like David Makovsky, Lindsay's colleague at the think tank, could have written over 80% of the report, based on published sources. This is no expose of the inner workings of UNRWA.

So it is quite odd that the report is being misrepresented in the press and in the blogosphere as a harsh indictment of UNRWA. It is not. It clearly represents the view of somebody who does not accept the culture or climate of UNRWA, and UNRWA's general dismissal of the report, which Lindsay mentions, speaks to that point.

How is the report being misrepresented? Consider the question of "terrorists" on the UNRWA payroll. This is an old charge against UNRWA, and Lindsay's report is now being trumpeted as an insider's confirmation. Thus, in YNET

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees employs and provides benefits for terrorists and criminals, asserts a former legal adviser to UNRWA who left the organization in 2007. James G. Lindsay, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as an attorney with the US Justice Department for two decades before leaving to work for UNRWA in 2000

Yet nowhere does Lindsay say anything remotely like this. He says that the UNRWA hires refugees, that the refugees support violence against Israel, and that, in his opinion, better steps should be taken to screen employees. But he rejects Israeli demands for screening, and, bottom line, he basically exonerates the organization:
As shown in the previous chapter, area staff are drawn from a Palestinian population that overwhelmingly supports violence against Israelis, so it would not be surprising if some staff members were involved in such attacks. Yet, of the nearly 5,000 area staff in West Bank and 10,000 in Gaza, few have been convicted of terrorism-related charges. Morever, the relatively few examples of staff involvement in anti-Israeli violence that critics often cite are, for the most part, not clearly convincing.

And in commenting on the Nahd Atallah case, "[Atallah's] use of the UNLP [for allegedly transporting militants] within Gaza..and of the UNRWA vehicle were never established...Despite request from UNRWA, the Israeli authorities did not provide the dates or times when Atallah allegedly misused an agency vehicle."

So, in fact, Lindsay refutes the critics of UNRWA on this point.

The problem with the report is that once again it stakes out a position in the "middle," which represents what I call the liberal Israeli narrative (perhaps I should now include Fatah within that.) I have written about getting stuck in the middle elsewhere. Thus Hamas is entirely demonized; there is no attempt to understand the group as anything but a terrorist organization. Once again, we go back to the ridiculous issue of the Palestinian textbooks, as if bombing civilians and keeping them in a prison were not textbook enough for Palestinian hatred. So, yes, the textbooks don't promote peace, no, they aren't as bad as the critics say they are, etc., etc., Love that middle!

The real purpose of the report is to deligitimize the political rights of the refugees and their supporters, to view the issue of the refugees a humanitarian one that should be solved by resettling them. The author clearly rejects calls for the return of the refugees because he accepts the liberal Israeli narrative. That is his prerogative.

But his appeal to "depoliticize" UNRWA is itself a political one, a partisan stance, just as political as those who want UNRWA to foster Palestinian nationalism. The report would have been less disappointing had it been less partisan, had it attempted to present both sides of the story without landing in the (liberal Zionist) middle that is the accepted discourse in such circles.

It has now been presented to the Obama administration. Let's hope the folks there take it with more than one grain of zahatar.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

American Jews Oppose Israeli Policy in Gaza

"We Shall Not Be a Party to Their Counsel!"

As human beings, we are shocked and appalled at the mass destruction unleashed by the State of Israel against the people of Gaza in its military operation, following years of Israeli occupation, siege, and deprivation.

As Americans, we protest the carte blanche given Israel by the US government to pursue a war of "national honor," "restoring deterrence," "destroying Hamas," and "searing Israel's military might into the consciousness of the Gazans."

As progressives, we reject the same justifications for the carnage that we heard ad nauseam from the supporters of the Second Iraq War: the so-called "war on terror," the "clash of civilizations," the "need to re-establish deterrence" – all of which served to justify a misguided and unnecessary war, with disastrous consequences for America and Iraq.

But as Jews of different religious persuasions, from Orthodox to secular atheist, we are especially horrified that a state that purports to speak in our name wages a military campaign that has killed over 1,400 people, a large percentage of them civilians, children, and non-combatants, with little or no consideration for human rights or the laws of war.

While the moral and legal issue concerning Israel's right to respond militarily in these circumstance can be debated, there is near-universal agreement that its conduct of the military operation has been unjust and even criminal – with only the usual apologists for the Jewish state disagreeing.

As Jews, we stand united with another Israel, the patriarch Jacob, who cursed his sons Simeon and Levi for massacring the people of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. Like Jacob, "we shall not be a party to the counsel of zealots. We shall not be counted in their assembly. (See Genesis 34. 49: 5-7).

As Jews, we stand united with the Jewish sages who rejected the zealotry of the Jewish "terrorists" at Masada, those who masked ethnic tribalism in the cloak of "self-defense" and "national honor."

As Jews, we listen not only when the sage Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" but also when he says, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" Hillel's closing words also ring true in this hour of decision when a full resolution of conflict is demanded of both sides: "If not now, when?"

Finally, as American Jewish progressives, and as human beings, we condemn Hamas and Israel for violating the human rights of civilians on both sides, although we do not necessarily declare these violations to be morally or legally equivalent. We affirm the rights of both Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination and self-defense, as we affirm the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sign the statement
Support the statement

Signers (affiliation for identification purposes only):

Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Rebecca Lillian
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak
Tony Judt, NYU
Howard Zinn, Boston Univ.
Noam Chomsky, MIT
Brian Leiter, Wilson Professor of Law, Univ. of Chicago
Daniel Boyarin, UC Berkeley
Irena Klepfisz, Barnard College
Adam Rubin, PhD, HUC-JIR (Los Angeles)
Mark Le Vine, UC Irvine
Daniel Garber, Princeton, Philosophy dept. chair
Ned Block, Silver Professor, NYU
Gideon Rosen, Princeton
Matthew Noah Smith, Yale
Aryeh Cohen, PhD, American Jewish University
Ilya Kliger, New York University
Aaron Greenberg, Univ. of Chicago
Paul Loeb
Alice Rothschild
Murray Polner, former editor, Present Tense
Larry Yudelson
Jerome Slater, SUNY Buffalo
Joanne Yaron, World Meretz
Chana Bloch, UC Berkeley
Marilyn Hacker, CCNY
Rita Karuna Cahn, UC San Francisco
Nance Goldstein, University of Southern Maine
Gordon Fellman, Brandeis Univ.
Harry Mairson, Brandeis University
David L. Green, University of Illinois
Stephanie Sieburth, Duke
Priscilla Wald, Duke
E. James Lieberman, M.D., George Washington University School of Medicine
Norbert Hornstein, University of Maryland
David Auerbach, Univ. of N. Carolina, Raleigh
Joseph Levine, Univ. of Mass., Amherst
Shari Stone-Mediatori, Ohio Wesleyan Univ.
Ido Roll, Carnegie Mellon Univ.
Philip Wadler, University of Edinburgh
Assaf Oron, Univ. of Wash.
Clare Solomon, Washington Univ.
Judith Norman, Trinity Univ.
Steven Bell, Berry College
Charles Manekin, Univ. of Maryland
Yale Strom, UC San Diego
Ira Glunts, Morrisville State College
Merle Bachman, Spalding University
Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
Dan Fleshler, Realistic Dove
Dan Sieradski, Orthodox Anarchist
Adrienne Cooper
Steven R. Shalom, William Paterson University
Bram Hubbell, Friends Seminary

Ilana Abramovitch, Ph.D.
Kate Abramson
David Adler
Dina Afek
Delmas and Sally Allen
Tracy Allen
Marshall Ansell
Paul Ansell
Harry Appelman
Darwin Aronoff
Jesse Bacon
Sonia M. Baku
Walter Ballin
Adam Barolsky
Kathy Barolsky
Tsela Barr
David Basior
Elliott Battzedek
Elizabeth Biele
Peter Belmont
Nicolas M. Benacerraf
Lori Berlin
Judith Berlowitz, Ph.D
Murray & Marcia Bernstein
Nancy Bernstein
David Eugene Blank
Alan L. Blitz
Hedy Bookin-Weiner
Elisa Bowyer
Sallye Steiner Bowyer
Dennis Brasky
China Brotsky
Ellen Brotsky
Robert Browne
Patricia Carmeli

Rina Chomsky
Liza DiPrima Cibula
Drew Cohen
G. Sherman Cole
Mariani Didyk
Pioter Drubetskoy
Elana Dykewomon
Bacia Edelman
Carole Edelsky, PhD
Steven R. Edelstein
Dr. Amy Eisenberg, Center for World Indigenous Studies
Lynne Eisenberg
Liz Elkind
David M. Ellis Ph.D
Anita E. Feldman
Andrew Felluss
Micah Fenner
Sarah Bendiner Fenner
Eva Ferrero
Raya Fidel
George Figdor
Daniel Fisher
Terry Fletcher
Dr. Chris Fox
Stephen Saperstein Frug
Racheli Gai
Ellen Garvey
Doris Gelbman
Myles Gideon
Jim Glionna
Roberta Gold
Mary Goldman
Daniel Goldstein
Julius Gordon
Sarah Gordon
Bruce Gould
Jessica Greenbaum
Kathy Grisham
Sherrl Grosse Yanowitz Rogall
Kay Halpern
Tony and Hillary Hamburger
Lawrence R. Hamilton
Peter Handler
Paul J Heckler
Wendy Hartley
Glen Hauer
Katherine Herman
Dr. Annette Herskovits
Hanna J. Hoffman, PhD
Jack Holtzman
Rebecca Hughes
Nomi Hurwitz
Spencer Jarrett
Rachel Kahn-Troster
Barbara S. Kane, PhD, LCSW
Ilene Kantrov
Wendy Kaufmyn
Aimée Kligman
Susie Kneedler
Judith Kolokoff
Steve Kowit
Rebecca S. Krantz, PhD
Terry Krieger
Seth Kulick
Judith Laitman
Sheldon H. Laskin
Betsy Lawrence
Mirna Lawrence
David Leipziger
Jack Leiss
Howard Lenow
Oded Adomi Leshem
Yossi Levanoni
Jeremy Levick
John F. Levin
Rebekah Levin
Joan Levitt
Mary-Lee Lutz
Marsha C. Manekin
Richard Manekin
Gideon Manning
Vered Meir
Yitzhak Y Melamed
Marji Mendelsohn
Alan Meyers
Gert Meyers
Katya Miller
Sherin Miller
Susan Miller
Daniel Millstone
Sarah Anne Minkin
Cary Moskovitz
Rick Nagin
Dorothy Naor
Germana Nijim
Sara Norman
Joel Dansky
Henry Norr

Leonard Bruce Novick
Diane O'Bannon
Elijah Oberman
Miller Oberman
Abigail Okrent
Benjamin Orbach
Dr. Stephen Oren
Tova Perlmutter
Karen Platt
Lynn Pollack
Dr. Betty Potash
Harriet Putterman
Avi Rab
Steve Raphael
Joyce Ravitz
Susan Ravitz
Deb Reich
Avram Rips
Mara Rivera
Lee Robinson
Danny Rochman
Jennifer Rose
Dorah Rosen
Ellen Rosner
Sue Rouda
Novelle Saarinen
Lawrence Saltzman
Meg Sandow
Linda Siegel Sang
Marlena Santoyo
Karl Schaffer, PhD
Cindy Shamban
Wendy Scher
Madeline Schleimer
Eugene Schulman
Kayla Schwarz
Janet Settle
Alexander Shalom
Alexi Shalom
Jessica Shalom Greenberg
Lee Sharkey
Nance Shatzkin
Dr Peter Sheridan
Brian S Sherman
Meryl Siegal
David Siegel
Jessica Siegel
Rich Siegel
Earl Silbar
Marc Silverstein
Shayna Silverstein
Esther P. Simon
Miriam Simos (Starhawk)
Jeffrey Sklansky
Laura Sklarsky
Jerome Slater
Kathrin Smith
Daniel Sniderman
Louisa Rachel Solomon
Talli Somekh
Nicole Witte Solomon
Dr. Wendy Elisheva Somerson
Doug Sparling
Tova Stabin
Neta Stahl
Aaron Stark
Burton Steck
Jane Stein
Mark Stenzler
Mae Stephen
Lynne Strieb
Danny Stone
Robert Stone
Shirley Stone
Debbie Stone-Bruell
Uri Strauss
Leslie Sudock
Yaakov Sullivan
Michele Sumka
Cecilie Surasky
Lois Swartz
Doug Tarnopol
Amir & Roni Terkel
David Tostenson
Theodore Warmbrand
Tom Weltsch
Janis G. White
Michael Winograd
Robin Winogrond
Rachel Farrell Wofsy
Bruce Wolman, MD
Ellen Zaltzberg
Michael J. Zigmond


Vote Hadash -- Vote the Palestinian-Jewish Partnership

Before the 1992 elections for the Israeli Knesset I attended a "hug bayit" (parlour meeting) of religious Jews with Naomi Chazan, of the Meretz party. Just the idea that religious Zionist Jews would possibly vote for the "anti-religious" Meretz seemed astounding in those days. Each one us stared with surprise at the unexpected participants. "What is he doing here?" I said to my wife. "Who would have thought?" She replied.

After the election, the host of the evening came up to me and say, "You think you are such a hotshot for voting Meretz. So-and-so voted Hadash."

"So-and-so" was a distinguished Hebrew University professor of classical Jewish literature (I won't say more than that), a "3-minyan-a-day" Jew who had served in the army, and whose children attended rightwing national religous schools (Horev, and that is the last I am saying.) I went up to So-and-so, and I asked him -- the first Jew I personally knew who voted for Hadash -- why, how, he could have done it?

He said, "Two reasons. First, the Arab sector in this country is by far the most underprivileged, and in this country, political power gets translated into support for your sector. The gaps between the Jewish and Arab sectors are growing, and it is a scandal that stikes at the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Second, Tamar Gozansky is a brilliant parliamentarian who achieves much of her legislative agenda, which is socially progressive."

"But," I said, "the party is communist, and you are not a communist."

"I look at what the party does in parliament -- and it does very well, both supporting its sector, and reaching out to others for socially progressive legislation."

Ever since then I have supported Hadash for the same reasons. And now that Dov Khenin, the brilliant Tel-Aviv law professor (from 2004-2006; see comment section below), human rights activist, and enviromental advocate, is prominent in the list, supporting Hadash is a no-brainer for any progressive Jew.

Here are my additional reasons for supporting Hadash -- and for abandoning Meretz, at least until it gets its act together.

1. The Palestinian-Jewish partnership is the only hope for the peoples of the region. Magnes said it, and he was right. It is time for progressive Jews, including Zionists, to climb down the tribalist tree. We have a state, power, and achievements -- and there will always be enough tribalist Jews out there, trust me.

2. The status of Palestinian Israelis in society is even more a scandal. For sixty years they have been excluded from all Israeli governments, "left", "center", and "right" (i.e., center, right, and to the right of Ghengis Khan). They will still be excluded, but the more seats they have, the more their voices will be heard. (This means that Jews can and should vote for other Palestinian Israeli parties as well.)

3. Hadash has the most progressive agenda of any political party in Israel. Enough said about that.

4. The Jews in Hadash know their place. There is no chance that Jews will try to take over Hadash, because Jewish supporters of Hadash know that this is first and foremost and Arab party. There is no room for the "benign paternalism" of liberal Jews, as in the Sixties.

5. Meretz lacks energy; it should be renamed "Viagra". It exists as a club for some Tel-Aviv secularists and some kibbutznikim who became dinosaurs long ago. If more proof were needed, just witness its pussyfooting on the Gaza war (with some very important exceptions, who should be praised for coming out against the spirit of their aging party, e.g., Zahava Gal-On.)

6. Hadash and not Meretz realizes that Israel's problems began in 1948 (if not earlier) and not in 1967 -- with the founding of the "Ethno-democratic State of Israel" by Russian Jews. Hadash wants the State of Israel to become a Western-style democracy, and not another Putinocracy. That probably won't happen for a long time, given the fact that there are so many Russians in Israel. But Israel's decline in the West, at least among the Western democracies, is not too long off.

7. An electoral defeat for Meretz is what it needs to get its house in order, to let the old cattle out to pasture, and to join the 21st century.

Sure Hadash is a political party, and it is not perfect, by any mean. Sometimes it seems to me to be a little too moderate (Part of that is due to the personality of Mohammad Barakeh, its respected leader.) I will say nothing against anybody voting for other Arab political parties either, though the Balad-Hadash rivalry is strong.

But this is a golden opportunity for people sick of the situation to go for Hadash. Whatever government will be formed, Meretz won't be a part of it. So even the old argument that a vote for Hadash is a wasted vote doesn't fly.

If you can't bring yourself to vote for Hadash, then please vote for Bibi or Avigdor, or somebody on the right. I have been hoping for a rightwing landslide in the coming election. That will be pure gold for progressives.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Silence of the Frummies (Orthodox Jews)

In the middle of the Gaza campaign, one of my children, whose political views don't entirely mesh with mine, asked me the following question:

"Abba, I understand the people who justify our going to war in Gaza. But why don't they at least express pain at the lost of so much innocent life – loss for which we are responsible?"

I have no answer to that question. Or, rather, all the answers that come to me (the Israeli spin on the background to the war, the rocket fire in the South, the demonization of Hamas, etc.) don't really do justice to the question.

I have lived through many wars in Israel, and, like all Israelis, I am very familiar with the yorim u-vokhim (shoot first, then shed tears over the victims later) phenomenon.

But I think that this is the first war where virtually no regret has been expressed over the loss of civilian life – and I don't mean just by the chauvinistic center, but even by the so-called "left". Except for the few righteous in Sodom, and the sane voices I have been publishing, there has been nothing. If it weren't for Gideon Levy, our generation would have been swept away a long time ago.

The silence of the Orthodox, particularly, has been deafening. One young rabbi dared to venture that in war there are certain rules that must be observed. He didn't say that the IDF wasn't observing those rules, only that there are rules.

Wow, you mean there are rules of war… now that's a radical concept. I think most orthodox Jews will agree with the terrorist settler Haggai Segal, who says that the rabbinic phrase, "If somebody gets up to kill you, kill him first" should be changed to "If somebody gets up to kill you, destroy him and everything around him first."

Orthodox rabbis, not to mention the rank-and-file of baal-habatim, lay people, are quick to blame the Palestinians for the death of babies in Gaza. "It's their fault." "Better them than us." Mention "proportionality" to an orthodox Jew, and you get stares – I mean, does any orthodox Jew believe that the life of an Arab is worth the same as that of a Jew? If you can find a statement by one, let me know. And while you are at it, if you are orthodox and you will believe that they are of equal worth, let me know.

All right, so I don't expect much from orthodox rabbis and the rank-and-file. I never looked at them for moral guidance of this sort.

But what about the so-called religious doves? What about that moribund of religious organizations, Oz ve-Shalom/Netivot Shalom? Or the hesitant, Ziyyonut Datit Realit, "Realistic Religious Zionism," which burst onto the scene with so much fanfare a few years ago.

The one person who would have had some moral clarity, albeit from a liberal religious Zionist perspective, is Avi Ravitsky. But Avi was hit by a bus two years ago and is no condition to speak.

That leaves another Avi, Avi Sagi, of Bar Ilan. Don't expect much from him, although he may yet surprise. Rabbi Melchior? In the midst of an election campaign, don't expect much from him, either. Tzvia Greenberg, the so-called haredi leftwinger of Meretz? Not when it comes to Palestinians. Menachem Forman, the settlement rabbi with the weird ideas about sharing the land? He is still talking about peace, not justice. Uriel Simon? Nada. Mikky Rosen? Unfortunately, dead. Yeshayahu Leibowitz? Long dead.

Shammai Leibowitz, Avrum Burg (Is he still frum?) B. Michael. OK, that's three. Menachem Klein, and a few members of the Yedidya shul. Some orthodox academics. Anybody else?

No, for moral enlightenment we have to look at the younger generation of human rights activists who are either orthodox, or datlashim (formerly orthodox). I won't name names; you know who you are.

So here's my appeal. If you know of some orthodox Jews who are speaking out, if not in condemnation of Israel, at least with deep sympathy with the suffering of the Gazans, let me know. When I get ten men and women (you see, I will go for a conservative minyan) I will breathe easier for my generation.

On Shabbat we read about God's hardening Pharoah's heart. We Jews are Pharoah now. And the Palestinians are the Hebrews.

Thank God for the (mostly non-orthodox?) rabbis who are coming up with a statement condemning Israel's actions in Gaza, which will be up again Sunday night. See it here.


A Sanctification of God’s Name in Washington, DC

In the Fall of 2007 I was thrown on the Obama bandwagon by a shul buddy of mine. I didn't know squat about Obama then. I had heard of "The Speech," but I hadn't actually heard it. And, although I wasn't wild about Hillary, she seemed the most realistic candidate to support. The truth is that I wasn't much interested in politics. Living in Israel had killed my faith in the political system.

My shul mate had invited me for Shabbat lunch, where I learned that he was working hard for the Obama campaign. In fact, he was one of Obama's principal bundlers. Why? Because he genuinely believed in Obama, and had been a great admirer since they were at Harvard Law school together. Mind you, my friend was a top Washington litigator, and making oodles of money that I couldn't even dream about. But he was also working very hard on behalf of Obama's campaign. If Obama won and he joined the administration, he would take an enormous salary cut.

So when this Washington corporate lawyer, who sounded almost gaga and moon-eyed talking about Barack, asked me whom I was supporting, and I told him, "Hillary," his polite response was, "Hey, she's good; if she gets the nomination, I will help her, too."

But then he turned to me and said, "So, what's your take on Israel?"

For the next twenty-five minutes, over dessert, I told him exactly what I thought. I don't usually do this, especially when I have been invited over somebody's house for a meal, and especially on Shabbat. That's why I write a pseudonymous blog. I don't like confrontation.

At the end of my speech, my host, a liberal Zionist, was somewhat in shock. He had never heard anybody that looked like me talk this way. He said, "Look, I don't agree with most of what you are saying, and I know that Obama doesn't. But I will tell you this. You are not a Hillary supporter. You are an Obama supporter."

Well, I figured that he knew these things better than I did, so I let him throw me on the bandwagon. Shortly afterwards I became a believer. Well, enough of a believer to contribute much more than I should have to the campaign (but who didn't?), to co-host a fundraiser, to blog about Obama, and to get up at 5 am on Election Day to help get out the vote.

Recently, my friend left his lucrative job as a litigator and joined the Obama administration. He was sworn in this week as the president's Deputy Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform. The first executive order that Obama signed last week, on lobbyists, was written by him.

You have no idea how proud I am that this portfolio has been given to my friend, a modern orthodox Jew, and a real mentsh.

Yasher koah, Norm. You renewed not only my belief in the political system, and in the importance of getting involved in it. What you are doing is a real kiddush ha-Shem, a sanctification of God's name.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Don’t Just Speak Out, Cry Out!

Now that the artillery has ceased firing, we are seeing a few Israelis speak out against the horrors of this so-called war, a war whose main goal was not to stop the rocket fire, which could have been done without a single death, but rather to wreak havoc on a defenseless civilian population. (That statement, of course, is not at all controversial, since even defenders of the war concede that the purpose of wreaking havoc was to weaken Hamas, and to show them that "the boss went crazy.")

Tom Segev, who wrote eloquently against the unnecessary and immoral war from the outset, has published a piece about the scandal of Israeli apathy. I hope his "History Lesson: The History of [Israeli] Self-Righteousness" is translated into English.

The history of Israeli self-righteousness is rich with condemnations and expressions of regret over injuring civilians. Israel's self-image is based on the assumption that the IDF is better than other armies. "We at least try not to injure civilians." That wasn't true even before the destruction and the death that the IDF sowed in Gaza in recent weeks. But this time it seems that many fewer Israelis than in the past feel that what happened there – should not have happened.

This operation stands out not only in its cruelty, but mainly because it did not succeed in drawing Israelis out of their apathy. This apathy is chiling and is no less shameful than the actions themselves.

Haaretz, in an editorial, has called for a governmental inquiry into war crimes. Even a wimpy Labor party liberal like philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel has written a powerful accusation against Israel's conduct of the war. I don't agree with his claim that Israel's aim was just. But I certainly agree that it was deadly, and that the campaign was morally despicable

Of course, most of the Israelis I know are damn satisfied with the death and destruction. "Don't blame us for the death of all those babies. We only killed them – it wasn't, like, our fault, or anything. Hey, the Americans killed more people in Dresden and Hiroshima" (My God, I have heard normal people speak such obscene filth.)

Still, like Abraham, I am hoping that a few more righteous people in Sodom will emerge, and that even, mirabile dictu, a prominent religious Jew will speak out against the slaughter. (Hey, if you are orthodox, you have a certain faith in miracles.)

But a governmental inquiry into Israeli war crimes? Not by the Israeli government, please.

No, the civilized people of the world, Jew and Gentile, should cry out against the barbarism. Sign the petition Richard Silverstein and I have written here, at the very least. Or better yet, send a letter to your local newspaper, call a radio station.

Don't just speak out, cry out!

My God, I Was (Mostly) Right!

Less than a month ago, I wrote a post called, "To War! To War! Fredonia's Going to War!" Here is an excerpt of what I wrote then:

If you are looking for predictions, I would say that this will be less of a disaster for Israel than the Second Lebanon war, but will be a disaster none the less. The major goal of the war is to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. That won't happen without another cease-fire agreement. For there to be a cease-fire agreement, there has to be a motivation for Hamas to sign a cease-fire agreement. Israel is not providing it with the motivation now. Israel will neither destroy nor significantly weaken Hamas; it may set it back in terms of armaments, but Israel has little room to maneuver. The siege on Gaza has strenghthened Hamas, and if they hold out against Israel – and they will – they will be strengthened even more.

There is, however, another war goal that Israel can meet in the short run. That is to wreak havoc in Gaza, to kill a lot of Arabs, to show them who's boss, to avenge national honor, to "do something" when our settlements are under attack. That will make the Israelis feel better, and that is nothing to sneeze at. The difficulty is that if the rockets keep on coming – as they did in the case of the Second Lebanese War – then Israelis will feel increasingly frustrated. And they will take it out on Kadima in the next elections and hand the government to Netanyahu and the Likud party, which has been sinking in the polls. So this is the Kadima's government second attempt to commit political suicide; the first attempt was the Second Lebanese War. I am betting that this time they will be successful.

OK, I got the above mostly right. True, there is more of a positive feeling after this war than after the Second Lebanese war, but not among everybody, certainly not among the right. Has the war strengthened Hamas? Maybe not in Gaza, but certainly in the West Bank.

I still think that there is a good chance that Bibi and the right will get elected, and that will be a sure sign that people are dissatisfied with the ambiguous ending of the war.

What else did I write a month ago?

So, here's the forecast:

The offensive will go on for some time. Resistance, if there is any, will melt. We will not reoccupy all of Gaza, just enough to fulfill the "do something" criterion of success. At some point we will declare that we have accomplished the major goals of the offensive, and we will negotiate, through some third party, another cease fire. Mission accomplished, with lots of casualties to their side, and the rockets continuing to fall on our side.


That's the best case scenario.

The worst case scenario for Israel is that Hamas fights better than anticipated. That will mean that Israel will get bogged down the way that powerful countries get bogged down in urban guerilla warfare. If the objectives are limited, and if the fighting is limited to parts of Gaza, then Israel's loss will be relatively minor. If things spread – and they will if civilian casualties are heavy – then we are back to the Lebanon fiasco. Hamas may be counting on it; as it is, the war serves the short-term interests of Hamas and the Israeli government.

I gave the "worst-case" scenario because I did not know well how Hamas would fight. The results, apparently, were mixed. But the important thing to note is that the rockets did not stop till after the cease-fire.

On the whole, I was right. And this is what is depressing.

For if I, with no real military expertise or training, could get it right, what about the military experts, and war-mongers, who got it wrong?



Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How "The Most Moral Army In the World" Urinates On the Floor of University Professors

It shouldn't surprise me to learn how the Israel Defence Force bombs children deliberately (see under "double effect" or "collateral damage"), or how Israeli soldiers wreck buildings and cars for the sheer kef (fun), or how soldiers routinely steal from the homes they occupy. In a military operation like Cast Iron, or Defensive Wall, this is the norm, not the exception -- this is what soldiers do. Further proof is given by the IDF denials. As I have pointed out here before, the IDF spokespeople often lie, and their lies have been documented by various organizations.

One such organization is "Breaking the Silence" (Shovrim Shtika), which does a wonderful job collecting soldier's testimonies, e.g., about the combat unit that trashed a Palestinian doctor's office, leaving a pile of human excrement in the middle of the office. Now is this official IDF policy? Of course not, it doesn't have to be. It is an extension of real policies known as "hafganat koah" (displaying power) or "hafganat nokhekut" (displaying presence) -- showing the Arabs who is boss.

When soldiers steal -- oops, sorry, take souvenirs -- when they are caught, and when somebody in the press makes a stink, or when a slightly humane commander reports them, they are punished. That happens in the few cases, and they are trumpeted as evidence of the way the IDF prosecutes offenders.

All this is common knowledge and, as I said, denied only by the apologists or the naive.

So when I read something like the following in today's New York Times

Others here who might seem like natural liaisons with Israel in future peace-building dealings were also enraged. Fakhr Abu Awwad, a chemistry professor at Islamic University, who earned a doctorate at the University of New Orleans, had his house taken over by Israeli commandos days ago after he and his family fled.

When he returned to the house on Monday, he found bullet holes in the walls, televisions, closets and clothing. His toilets had been shot up; his cigars, watch and wife’s jewelry pilfered; and his floor urinated on, he said.

“This is the most moral army in the world,” he said in fluent English, a sarcastic reference to how Israelis speak of their military, as he walked around the house pointing out the damage. Mr. Abu Awwad said he was affiliated with neither Hamas nor Fatah.

I said to myself, "Well, maybe this is improvement. Now IDF soldiers urinate on a doctor's floor, instead of defecating on it. "

Maybe they were aiming their urine at the toilet and inadvertantly it ended up on the floor -- collateral damage. After all, it is hard to believe that the most moral army in the world would intentionally shoot up a house, steal from it, and then piss on it.

Ah, what better way to ensure that no rockets will be fired at Israeli settlements?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

From Despair to Hope -- in Ten Hours

In a few minutes I leave behind my Jerusalem home, and I board a plane for my DC home. The Jerusalem I leave behind is sullen and grey, defensive, and self-righteous. In three weeks the Israel Defence Forces wreaked more havoc, killed more civilians, including hundreds of children, and raised the century-old cycle of violence to a new height – or low. Israel won't mourn now, not when it is only Arab children we have killed. Our time to mourn will come in the not-too-distant future, God forbid.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Out of the depths of pain -- for the blood of innocents on my, yes, my hands, since I am as implicated as any citizen in the madness. Out of the depths of pain for those who can feel no pain, no emotion, at the passing of children. And why not? Well, take your pick: a) it is us or them; b) they started it; c) they could have acted better; d) all or none of the above, and a thousand other asine and idiotic justifications that only selfish children and -- world-famous novelists like A.B. Yehoshua – are capable of coming up with.

Yes, there is despair, but there is also disgust, both self-disgust and disgust and those who are not disgusted. Were it not for the fringe, the righteous in Sodom – no, were it not also for my belief that the public façade of self-justification and self-righteousness masks a lot of discomfort, even with all the cliches that we repeat like mantras to soothe ourselves – then my despair would be even greater.

Two plane rides, a half of day of traveling, and I will be in Washington, DC, the City of Hope, watching the inauguration of Barack Obama. I will rejoice in the national celebration of one fatherland, and try to suppress the memories, and the images, of the other.

Will the "audacity of hope" spill over from Washington to Jerusalem?

My fellow-blogger, and eternal optimist, Gershom Gorenberg thinks that it will. In an op-ed in Haaretz today, Gorenberg rejects the doom-and-gloom forecast of Husein Agha and Rob Malley in the current New York Review of Books and prefers the upbeat tone of Martin Indyck's latest book, where it is claimed that what we need now is an intensive effort on the part of the new president. (What would-be peace-maker doesn't make that claim?) Surprisingly, and without any argument, Gorenberg says that Indyk is right and Malley wrong – and that the Gaza War proves Indyck right.

After the years of neglect under Bush, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has blown up again, on Obama's doorstep. Grim photos appear in the media. Relations between Israel and Turkey, both American allies, are crumbling. While careful not to conduct foreign relations before the inauguration, Obama promised last week that his team would become "immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process." At her confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke of the "tragic humanitarian costs" borne by Gazans and of the incoming administration's "determination to seek a peace agreement."

But the last time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict blew up was after the American Administration made an intensive effort – some say it blew up partly because of that effort -- and two strong leaders (well, Arafat, anyway), were running Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The point of Agha and Malley's article was that no matter whether the American effort was intensive or half-hearted, whether the leaders were strong or weak, at the end of the day, the two0-state solution did not interest enough people on either side. (The Israelis are always in favor of the Palestinians having a "state," not a state.)

For Gorenberg, who wrote a great book on the beginning of the settlement enterprise on the West Bank, everything begins and ends with the 67 Occupation – as if one could only get Israel to evacuate settlements, and to withdraw to the 67 borders, all would be right with the world. That, of course, is the faith of the liberal Zionist. But on what is that faith grounded? Blessed are the peacemakers, and I include within that Indyk, Ross, Miller, and, yes, Kurtzer. But they are all failed peace-makers, and I don't think it is for lack of effort.

I am going to the City of Hope in a few minutes. The problems that Barack Obama face are extraordinary. But the economy will one day recover. The Iraq War will one day end. The war in Afghanistan will one day end.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am afraid, will never end – not as long as Israel is Israel and Palestine is Palestine. It has been going on for a century. During that time the Soviet Union rose and fell, there were two World Wars, Europe began to adopt a federal model.

Yes, there were three years of hope, cut short by a Jewish assassin's bullet. But that hope may have been as false as the Middle East hopes of the new administration.

Things may get better at some distant time in the future. But not with the current constellation of power.

I sure hope my mood changes when I get to DC.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Join American Jews in Condemning Gaza War

Richard Silverstein and I, along with Verso Books, the publishers of A Time to Speak Out, have prepared the following statement from American Jews condemning the Gaza assault and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. We hope that you will sign it and encourage others you know to do so as well. Roane Carey of The Nation has expressed some interest in publishing it there, if we succeed in getting a significant number of signatories. We hope you will help start a viral campaign by promoting this statement as widely as you can via e mail, websites and general word of mouth.

To sign, please send your full name, title (if you wish), & affiliation (if you wish) to this address. It is only for signatures and not for regular correspondence. For that, please e mail Richard directly. Of course, you can leave comments on this blog.

"We Shall Not Be a Party to Their Counsel!"

As human beings, we are shocked and appalled at the mass destruction unleashed by the State of Israel against the people of Gaza in its current military operation, following years of Israeli occupation, siege, and deprivation.

As Americans, we protest the carte blanche given Israel by the US government to pursue a war of "national honor," "restoring deterrence," "destroying Hamas," and "searing Israel's military might into the consciousness of the Gazans."

As progressives, we reject the same justifications for the carnage that we heard ad nauseum from the supporters of the Second Iraq War: the so-called "war on terror," the "clash of civilizations," the "need to re-establish deterrence" – all of which served to justify a misguided and unnecessary war, with disastrous consequences for America and Iraq.

But as Jews of different religious persuasions, from Orthodox to secular atheist, we are especially horrified that a state that purports to speak in our name wages a military campaign that has killed over 1,000 people, a large percentage of them civilians, children, and non-combatants, with little or no consideration for human rights or the laws of war.

While the moral and legal issue concerning Israel's right to respond militarily in these circumstance can be debated, there is near-universal agreement that its conduct of the military operation has been unjust and even criminal – with only the usual apologists for the Jewish state disagreeing.

As Jews, we stand united with another Israel, the patriarch Jacob, who cursed his sons Simeon and Levi for massacring the people of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. Like Jacob, "we shall not be a party to the counsel of zealots. We shall not be counted in their assembly. (See Genesis 34. 49: 5-7).

As Jews, we stand united with the Jewish sages who rejected the zealotry of the Jewish "terrorists" at Masada, those who masked ethnic tribalism in the cloak of "self-defense" and "national honor."

As Jews, we listen not only when the sage Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" but also when he says, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" Hillel's closing words also ring true in this hour of decision when a ceasefire is demanded of both sides: "If not now, when?"

Finally, as American Jewish progressives, and as human beings, we condemn Hamas and Israel for violating the human rights of civilians on both sides, although we do not necessarily declare these violations to be morally or legally equivalent. We affirm the rights of both Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination and self-defense, as we affirm the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Breaking News: Israel and the Bush Administration Agree: No Arms Smuggling to Gaza

After weeks of intense fighting in which over 1000 Palestinians have been killed, Israel and the US are close to an agreement that Hamas should not smuggle arms to Gaza

I kid you not. Today's Haaretz lead headline (in huge type): "Israel US close in on deal to halt arms smuggling into Gaza". Read it (and weep) here:

So let me get this straight. Hamas has not yet agreed to stop smuggling weapons. A lame duck administration, with less than a week to go, is now promising Israel that it will help to do…precisely what?

According to Haaretz, this is Israel's wish list for such a momentous agreement.

  • A U.S. declaration calling on the international community to deal with the smuggling of arms from Iran to terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.
  • Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S. for identifying the sources of weapons, with focus on the network linking Iran, the Persian Gulf and Sudan.
  • An international maritime effort along the smuggling routes to find ships carrying weapons to the Gaza Strip, possibly with the involvement of NATO.
  • An American and European commitment for the transfer of technologies to Egypt that will help it uncover tunnels.
  • Plans for the economic development of Rafah, with particular emphasis on the Bedouin to undercut the financial motivation for building and operating tunnels.

Look, if such "achievements" help Israel to stop the war and accept an Egyptian cease-fire, fine with me. (See under Lebanon II)

Meanwhile, Haaretz's commentators Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff have an analysis that backs the Israeli narrative on the cease-fire: Hamas lost, Israel reestablished its deterrence. (See under Lebanon II)

And, apparently, an overwhelming amount of Israelis are happy with the war and the way it has been conducted. That is not such a bad thing. It is because they weren't happy with the way the Lebanese war was conducted that Olmert prepared for war in Gaza in the first place.

Moral of the story: to make most Israelis happy you have to pound the Palestinians, blow them to bits, and wreak heavy destruction.

Now, who wins and who loses?

I can't see anybody winning. Hamas will still be in power, and since Israel won't allow elections, they will remain in power. The border crossing will remain open (until Israel closes them) and that is about Hamas's only achievement in the war. Many Gazans are unhappy with Hamas, but are more unhappy with Israel. Since Israel has no alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza – Fatah won't come back in, and Israel sure won't take charge – Israel will just continue to make the lives of the Gazans miserable. And that means that the ranks of Hamas will swell, after a while.

Israel gets its pride back – at the price of its international image, and at a time when more and more people are identifying its policies with those of the Bush mindset.

So this is what we have come to? A Jewish state that buys short periods of respite through slaughtering civilians? Every two to three years we will have to go through the madness again?

Ah, Herzl's dream….

How Jeffrey Goldberg Plans to Give the West Bank to Hamas

Recently, I read in a prominent newspaper an op-ed that concluded as follows:

The only small chance for peace today is the same chance that existed before the Gaza invasion: Europe, the United States and, mainly the Arab states , must help the Likud's enemy, Labor, prepare Israel for a complete withdrawal from the West Bank, and then hope that the Israelis, vast numbers of whom are unsympathetic to the Likud, see a Palestinian state on the West Bank as an alternative to the squalid vision of Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.

Although I agree with the sentiment, and although, frankly, I would welcome anybody to help Israel out of mess it has gotten itself into, the world declaring war on the Likud doesn't seem to be such a great idea. Knowing Israelis, they would resent such blatant interference in their internal affairs, especially if it is backed by sanctions. Liberal fantasies aside, it is counter-productive to appeal to external pressure. It didn't work in Iraq. And it hasn't worked in Iran. Any innocent knows that.

Not, apparently, Jeffrey ("Hey-I-am-American-Israeli-Who-Understands-What-It-Takes-To-Get-Rid-of-Hamas") Goldberg. The above quotation was taken, with obvious modifications, from his latest op-ed in the New York Times. Only he wrote, of course,

The only small chance for peace today is the same chance that existed before the Gaza invasion: The moderate Arab states, Europe, the United States and, mainly, Israel, must help Hamas's enemy, Fatah, prepare the West Bank for real freedom, and then hope that the people of Gaza, vast numbers of whom are unsympathetic to Hamas, see the West Bank as an alternative to the squalid vision of Hassan Nasrallah and Nizar Rayyan.

Since the squalid vision of Nasrallah and Riyyan is no different from the squalid vision of the Israeli right, especially the religious Jewish right – it certainly is no more racist or bigoted – and since, the religious right has not been ostracized from Israeli society, one wonders why Goldberg doesn't offer the same prescription to Israel? Well, the answer is obvious. The Israeli religious right, while calling (and shooting) the shots on the West Bank, still doesn't run Israel's government. Of course, if the Palestinians had a state as strong and secure as Israeli, neither would Hamas. One has to thank Israeli interference, a corrupt Fatah, and Hamas' network of social and charitable organizations, for Hamas' power today.

What Goldberg should have said is as follows: The countries of the world should recognize the result of the Palestinian elections. They should make Palestinian security and well-being no less a priority than Israel's security and well-being. They should not interfere in the Palestinians' internal affairs, but they certainly can make their preferences known, the same way that the US and Europe clearly favor a Labour government over a Likud government in every election.

Moreover, the Palestinian people should get their act together and present a united front in dealings with Israel and the world. A divided Palestinian people is bad for them, good for the Israeli rejectionists, and plays into the hands of their own extremists.

As for Hamas, I yield to no person in my disgust with its charter and its theology, which I take as seriously as I take the theology of the rightwing religious Zionists in Israel, Hamas' ideological counterparts among the Jews. I live among them and read what they write. A lot of it is damn scary.

But I also know that nothing in Goldberg's article – or in anything I have read about Hamas – suggests that they would not welcome a long-term truce with Israel, in which they could build their Shari'a state, waiting, of course, for Allah to strike down the Jewish pigs and apes, in the way that the religious right in Israel prepares for the building of the Third Temple, and the destruction of Amalek. I assure you that I can live with that, just as I can daven with people who pray for similar things to happen to the Palestinians. (And imagine how they will feel – and how they will act -- when the Palestinians have their own state in the heart of Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem.)

Haaretz journalist Akiva Eldar, whose opinions on Hamas are a lot more reliable than Goldberg's, wrote recently about how the campaign against Gaza is handing the West Bank to Hamas. Goldberg apparently still believes that Israel, American, and Arab governments can bring about regime change and weaken Hamas. The idea wasn't convincing when Krauthammer was cheerleading the American invasion of Iraq. Why think it will work better in Palestine? At least America holds out the promise of withdrawing from Iraq totally.

And precisely what is the "real freedom" that Goldberg is willing to offer the Palestinians? A single state on the West Bank and Gaza, with a strong army – at least as strong as Jordan's – that can defend itself from the threat of Israeli aggression?

Or two quasi-states with a police force, a pretty flag, stamps, and casinos, whose economy is controlled by – you guessed it – Israel.

Now that sounds like a recipe for a Hamas take-over.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The State of Israel? Or the State of Simeon and Levi?

How apt that, when the State of Israel is waging a war of "national honor," "restoring deterrence," and "destroying a group of lawless terrorists," we read in the synagogue last Shabbat of Jacob's "blessing" of his sons, Simeon and Levi. Earlier, Simeon and Levi had led the sons of Jacob in a massacre and plunder of the Shechemites, after offering them peace, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dina. Jacob's response appears there to have been more pragmatic than principled; he feared for his clan's position among the peoples of Canaan. Now, on his death bed, he curses them for their anger, and for their attack on Shechem

Two years ago, Hebrew University Avi Ravitsky was supposed to give a Shabbat talk on what he called Jacob's different reponses, principled and pragmatic, to the actions of Simeon and Levi. When Avi was hit by a bus in Jerusalem (he still has not recovered), I volunteered to pinch-hit for my friend and teacher.

Here is my Devar Torah/Torah Talk from then. It is even more timely now than it was then, unfortunately.

When Jacob first learns of the massacre of the people of Shechem, the seizure of their property, and the carrying off of the wives and children, he says to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanite and the Perizite; my men are few in number; so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed." Jacob doesn't appear to be making a principled criticism, certainly not a moral one; he seems to be concerned only with the practical consequences of the massacre. Simeon and Levi's response: "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" appears to be a principled response. It is left unanswered, as if to say, perhaps, that the principle of national honor trumps all practical considerations.

Not until Parashat Va-yehi, when Jacob blesses the tribes, do we hear his ethical response:

Simeon and Levi are brothers: their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council. Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when are angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless, I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel," etc.

Liberal religious zionists, are bothered, almost embarrassed, by Jacob's purely pragmatic response in Va-yishlah. Is this the only criticism that Jacob can make of the massacre? By contrast, when they read Jacob's response in Va-yehi they breathe a sigh of relief. The Bible is now vindicated for them as a source of moral authority, a bit late, perhaps, but better late than never.

This was to have been Avi's topic – the question of the pragmatic and principled responses to Simeon and Levi. And I decided to use it for my own topic today. But the more I read, the more I came to question the assumption of the different responses. Can Jacob's two responses be neatly labeled as "pragmatic" and "principled," respectively? Whose principles and whose pragmatism? Consider the interpretation of the Schechem story by Avi's ideological opponents in Israel, those who view Simeon and Levi not as worthy of censure, but as positive role-models. I am not referring to the rightwing secular Zionists of yore who criticized the galut mentality and morality implicit in Jacob's responses, but rather to their present-day disciples, the religious Zionists of the ultranationalist camp. Unlike their secular forebears they are reluctant to criticize Biblical figures like Jacob -- patriarchs are still patriarchs for the fundamentalists. So they have to cope with Jacob's criticisms of their heroes.

How, for example, does the rightwing understand Jacob's harsh blessing of Simeon and Levy recorded in Va-yehi?

Well, one exegetical move is to note that Jacob does not curse Simeon and Levi directly, either themselves or their deed, but rather he curses their anger. Had the two slaughtered the men of Shechem dispassionately for the greater glory of God and Israel, then their actions would have been entirely praiseworthy, according to this interpretation. Some of the religious ultra-nationalists criticize the sons of Jacob for taking spoils; others are not happy about the capture of the gentile women, needless to say. But on the whole, they justify the sons' behavior, and truth to tell, there is a long exegetical tradition behind them that does not shirk from explicit description.

Let me, for example, linger on the scene of the massacre, as described by the fourteenth-century philosopher, scientist, and exegete, Levi Gersonides, in his commentary on the Torah. The problem facing the Gersonides as an exegete is not a moral one. Rather, it is to explain how only two men, Simeon and Levi, were able to kill all the male inhabitants of Shechem without raising the alarm. His reconstruction of their silent but deadly rampage is a tour-de-force of exegesis: Once the men of Shechem had agreed to undergo circumcision, for example, they needed, of course, mohalim (circumcizers), and who were the logical candidates if not the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi. On the day following the circumcision, the third day after the violation of Dina, the mohalim made follow-up visits to treat their patients. In house after house the process repeated itself; first they would ask the families to leave the room so they could treat their patients; then when the door was closed they would kill their patients with their swords -- – the same swords, presumably, that had been used for the circumcision. On their way out, they would ask the families to leave their patients to recuperate alone. In this way, the two men were able to decimate the entire male population before anybody found out; once their opposition had been rubbed out, they called in their brothers to finish the operation.

Their tactics may not have been pretty but given the relative weakness of the sons of Jacob, the argument of the ultranationalists goes, they had no choice. In any event, the commentators emphasize that their cause was just: in failing to bring the perpetrator to justice, the men of Shechem were complicit in his crime of rape, seduction, or unnatural intercourse, according to the commentators. True, Hamor had spoken of peace to Jacob but he also had promised his own people that they would acquire the cattle and property of the sons of Israel as soon as the two peoples united, a duplicity no doubt typical of the men of Shechem. It is also true that the sons of Jacob did not hear these promises, but perhaps they could infer it from the willingness of the people of Shechem to be circumcised.

Lest you think I am getting carried away, let me quote you an article from the neoconservative Israeli journal Azure/Tekhelet,entitled, "Plowshares into Swords: the Lost Biblical Idea of Peace." The author, David Hazony, the former editor-in-chief of the journal, writes with respect to Jacob's response in our parsha as follows:

While Jacob responds with what today would be considered a "pro-peace" argument, that is, a willingness to sacrifice one's integrity or concern for justice for the sake of avoiding conflict, the rogue brothers retort that the family's honor and the punishment of evildoers are principles that far outweigh Jacob's political concerns. If the "peace" between the peoples was ruined, it was the rapist and his cohorts, not the victims, who were to blame. And the scriptural account goes on to vindicate the brothers. For even though the argument appears to end in a stand-off, ensuing events prove Jacob's judgment to be misguided: "And they traveled, and the terror of God was upon the neighboring cities, and they did not pursue the children of Jacob." Not only did Simeon and Levi ensure that justice was carried out and the family's dignity maintained, but their uncompromising action went much further in preventing conflict and neutralizing the threat of war than Jacob's policy of appeasement. The security that the family of Jacob suddenly enjoyed, which enabled them to travel freely and accumulate wealth, was due precisely to the strength demonstrated by the brothers in defending the purity and honor of God's chosen, and of God himself, by extension. (Italics mine)

With respect to Jacob's second response, the blessing/curse in Va-yehi, Hazony writes,

It is unlikely that Jacob ever fully appreciated the merit of his sons' position, for Levi's tribal elevation later on comes in direct contradiction to the curse they received from Jacob on his deathbed.

In other words, the "pro-peace" liberal Jacob just didn't get it.

I quote this at length not because of its novelty – there is nothing here that has not been said before by rightwing Jewish nationalists, or, for that matter, by rightwing nationalists anywhere -- but because I think it calls into question the distinction between the pragmatic and the ethical responses of Jacob. According to the rightwing nationalists, Jacob's first response is not at all pragmatic; it is based on the principle of a pseudo-peace, i.e., the principle of defeatism and appeasement. On the contrary, pragmatism is to be found in the rhetorical question of the brothers, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" For the practical consequences of Jacob's "peace" would be far worse than the failure to take harsh military action. In a land like Canann whose inhabitants only understand the language of violence, deterrence is justified both on principle as a practical policy.

But the neat division of pragmatic and practical is hard to sustain even for the liberal religious zionists. Why can't Jacob's first response be viewed as a principled one, the principle being that the peoples in Land of Canaan should behave peaceably towards each other. Can we really infer from Jacob's response in Va-yishlah that the only considerations moving him are practical, that had he been more powerful than the Canaanite and Perizite that he would have approved of Simeon and Levy's tactics? Likewise for the patriarch's response in Va-yehi, surely it is as pragmatic as it is principled. Given Simeon and Levi's record, it would be imprudent to give them a significant inheritance in the land of Israel, to allow them to develop a power base that would be constitute a thorn in the side of the tribes. Jacob's language is harsh in Va-yehi, but there is no reason, to my mind, to interpret his words to Simeon and to Levy as based on moral principle rather than pragmatic policy. For children with the unbridled zeal of Simeon and Levy, inheriting the land is a curse rather than a blessing; let Simeon have some land so long as it is dispersed among the lands of Judah, and as for Levi, let his religious zeal be channeled into the Temple service. For their own sakes, as well as for the sakes of the fellow Israelites, they should not live united on the land. This is as much the blessing of a realist as it is the curse of a moralist.

In any event, whether one accepts the liberal religious Zionist interpretation of the responses, or the ultranationalist interpretation, or neither, my broader point is that when it comes to defending war or peace, pragmatic considerations and moral ones invariably go hand in hand. There are very few dyed-in-the-wool realists who entirely divorce pragmatism from moral principles. Everybody wishes to appear moral, but it is not true, pace Michael Walzer, that everybody agrees on what morality means, nor does everybody agree on the relative weight of the moral values.

So now that I have completely undermined the premise of my title, that one of Jacob's responses is pragmatic, the other ethical, how should we, then, characterize them?

To my mind, Jacob's first response is that of a parent who rebukes his son after he has committed a heinous act for the first time. The parent does everything she can to scare her son so that he will not be a repeat offender. She tells herself that this was an isolated incident, that her child's act does not reflect a vicious character, that he can listen to reason and change. Later, after a lifetime of offences, when she sees that the vice cannot be eradicated by scare tactics or moralizing, she attempts to minimize its damage by coping with it. Jacob, at the time of the initial incident, knew little of his sons' vicious character. His response to Simeon and Levy's action was to reason with them, perhaps to scare them a little. At the end of his life, he knows them all to well. He does not disown or disinherit them; they are his children. But the time for reasoning with them is over; a parent can only lament their character flaws, while trying to cope with them in some way. His blessing is to remove them from political power, for their sake, and for the sake of the Israelites.

For a State of Simeon and Levi cannot endure for long.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How the IDF Covers Its Derrière: The Bombing of the UNRWA School

OK, so you are the commander of the IDF (or its spokesperson), and you learn that an IDF missile has rammed into a UNRWA school building killing innocent civilians, including children.

So what do you do? First you conduct a "preliminary" investigation, and then release a fiction to the press: (You can check it out on the IDF website here.)

Hamas Operatives Killed in UNRWA School

After an investigation that took place over the past hour it has been found that amongst the dead at the Jabalya school were Hamas terror operatives and a mortar battery cell who were firing on IDF forces in the area. Hamas operatives Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar were amongst terrorists that were identified as killed.

"We face a very delicate situation where the Hamas is using the citizens of Gaza as a protective vest," said IDF Spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, following the incident.

To make the story look good, you accompany it with footage of Hamas operatives firing from within the school.

Unfortunately for you, it is revealed that the footage is from 2007, and the story is contradicted by the United Nations representatives on the ground.. Then some weird things start to happen:

First, UN officials say to Haaretz that IDF officers, in conversations with them, have retracted the story. There were no Hamas operatives in the school.

Then, in response to the growing publicity, the IDF conducts another "preliminary" investigation. The terrorists mysteriously disappear from the school and from the story. Now you tell the press that an IDF patrol wanted to take out a team of terrorists that was firing near the school. A "technical malfunction" made the use of a "smart missle" impossible. So the commander used a missile with a GPS system that has a 30 meter margin of error. Regrettably, missles slammed into the school.

To make things appear better, you can add that not that many people died in the school bombing, that Hamas routinely inflates numbers.

Of course, I have absolutely no reason to believe the IDF's second or third story, as I had absolutely no reason to believe the first story.

Why would any rational person believe an organization like the IDF that routinely lies?

Here is the latest IDF version of the incident. Tomorrow it may be something different. Since the IDF bans journalists from Gaza, and does not allow residents to send out pictures via cell phones, who can know what is really happening there?

One last thing. The new "investigation" is reported in Haaretz. But, just in case, you keep the original bogus story on the IDF website.

Not everybody reads Haaretz.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

“What Would You Do if Mexico Was Shooting Rockets at Texas?” And Other Extraordinarily Dumb Questions

"If you are in your apartment and some emotionally disturbed person is banging on the door, screaming, 'I'm going to come through this door and kill you,' do you want us to respond with one police officer ... or with all the resources at our command?" said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

I guess it depends if I force that guy to live in my hallway and make him go through check points every time he has to take a dump.

Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, January 8, 2009


Jon Stewart gets it. George Will, Michael Bloomberg, and a host of intellectually-challenged Israel advocates don't.

Lobbing rockets at civilians, even if the probability of their doing much damage is low, is a war crime and should be condemned. Not as much, of course, as accurately massacring, with the latest weapons, close to nine hundred people (as of today), a quarter of whom (at least) are civilians, including over two hundred and fifty children and babies.

But still, it merits condemnation.

But just condemnation, Jerry? What would you do if your civilians were being rocketed? I mean, would you just sprout the old anti-war drivel? Would you just talk about the causes of Palestinian resentment? Isn't it your duty to protect your own citizens?

The best response to these "klutz kashes" (dumb questions) appeared last week by veteran Israelן commentator, Haim Baram in the City Paper, Ha-Ir. I paraphrase his points:

We (the Left) are always asked for answers to situations that were deliberately brought about by the Establishment's policies that are diametrically opposed to our own. We cannot deny that the Kassams on the development towns and the areas near Gaza are an intolerable situation, nor that we emotionally identify with our citizens in the South. But we have always recommended a different policy, a policy that entailed a constant struggle with those elements in the country who prefer territorial expansion in the Occupied Territories, anti-Arab racism, mixed up with real and imagined security anxieties, to peace.

Baram says that what is needed is a strategic, and not just a tactical, structural change in Israel's thinking – but that there is no leader who is able or willing to lead such a change.

The steps that we should have taken in the past – and, in my opinion, we can still take are as follows. First, in the declarative sphere: Israel must recognize the results of the PA elections, and to declare its willingess to negotiate with any responsible element in Palestine which is prepared for dialogue. It must emphasize that in the middle and long run it has no intention to hold any territory whatsoever that it captured in the 67 War. In exchange for these declarations, Israel will demand of Hamas to cease immediately the rocket fire from the Gaza strip, and the terrorist activities with Israel. Both side will agree to station European forces on the border.

The Israeli government should involve the Europeans more in both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, and ask the Obama administration to suggest new ways to break the impasse in negotiations and to support the Obama's policy of engagement with Iran. A negotiated peace with Syria, a durable cease-fire with Hizbollah, and a statement against the Islamaphobic "clash of civilizations" mentality, will help improve relations not only between israel and and Islamic countries, but between Jews and Muslims throughout the world

It is almost unnecessary to say that this change will lead to opening the Gaza border, supplies of food for its inhabitants, the renewal of movement between the West Bank and Gaza, and Israeli aid for development of health and educational institutions. All of these steps will improve Israel's image in the world, reduce the bloodshed, and will alleviate the burdens of the Israeli inhabitants in the South….

Those who read the above and dismiss it as hopelessly utopian have nothing to offer in its stead -- except further bombing, disastrous ground operations, the intensifying of hatred on both sides, and a complete end to the process of dialogue with the Palestinians and the Syrians. There is no serious element in the Chavinistic Center [Baram's favorite description of Likud, Kadima, Labor, and elements of Meretz -JH] that can offer any alternative plan, even to what I have advocated here…Since there is no chance that the Israeli voters will choose to talk with Hamas, and it is reasonable to assume that the political arena will move even further to the right in the coming months, we can do nothing but to grit our teeth and say the truth as we see it

Bravo, Haim. Nobody could have said it better.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sane Voices from Israel/Palestine IV

Berny Avishai and Sam Bahour are clear thinkers and great human beings. Would that they were running the show here, and not the small leaders of Hamas and Israel, their only distinction being the beards.

This piece appeared today in Haaretz, probably on Berny's and Sam's respective blogs.

Playing into the hands of Hamas 

By Bernard Avishai and Sam Bahour 

Israel and Hamas are not equals on the battlefield - not at all, clearly - and when the power to harm or control others is this uneven, it is meaningless to speak about moral symmetry. But as the current onslaught in Gaza unfolds, it is sadly evident that both sides are continuing to respond to real provocations in ways that are not morally right, or even politically smart. 

If Hamas thought that lobbing missiles into Israeli civilian neighborhoods was a decent or proportionate response to the grim realities of the occupation, they were wrong. On the other hand, if Israel thinks it can bludgeon the Palestinians into political surrender, or get Hamas - or the Palestinian community at large, for that matter - to acquiesce to military occupation then it, too, is wrong. 

There is no military solution to this conflict. Until both sides fully grasp this, the world can expect only continuing violence and vendetta, with civilians on both sides paying the price for leaders who - because of pressure, ambition or hubris - feel that they must do the most damage, fire the last shot or make the most credible threat. Indeed, it is sad, and repellent, to hear military correspondents speak of "teaching a lesson," "increasing pressure," "making a statement," achieving "deterrence," when those they are reporting on are really trying to control the news cycle, or win arguable (and in any case temporary) psychological advantage, by killing, or accepting the deaths of, people at random on the other side. 

Operation Cast Lead - the heart-wrenching death and wanton destruction the Israeli army is inflicting on Gaza as we write - is the product of just such thinking. In the first week, Israeli air raids killed over 500 people, many of them non-combatants; invading ground forces have now killed 100 more. Israelis knew in advance that Hamas forces are not a regular army; they will not come out of hiding and be mowed down like soldiers in World War I. To go after them effectively, in, of all places, the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on earth, the IDF would have to level its towns and cities, block by block, and intensify the nightmare of the Gazan population, more than half of which is children under the age of 15.  [Jerry's note: as of today, Israel has killed more than two hundred children, according to Palestinian and international observers.]

This cannot succeed in achieving Israel's stated aim of degrading Hamas' long-term capabilities and motivation. It will certainly not undermine Hamas' appeal, especially since the electricity and water infrastructures are also inevitably targeted. Now that Israeli soldiers have been killed in this tragic operation, there are the unavoidable cries that the IDF "go all the way," so their deaths would not have been in vain. But Israel cannot make Hamas surrender - it cannot "win." Meanwhile, the carnage will help Hamas, and other Palestinian military factions, make their case - not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank too. A glorious stand will even turn them into cultural heroes among Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens. 

It should be clear by now that Hamas' appeal only grows when Israelis attacks Palestinians. It increased when Israel insisted that occupied territory was merely "disputed," ignoring its obligations under international law, and tried to dissociate its unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza from the continuing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas appealed to circles upon circles of Palestinian youth, who, grieving for friends or relatives killed in clashes with occupation forces, or appalled by iron-fist policies, succumbed to rage or survivors' guilt. Its appeal increased in the absence of any concrete progress toward peace, indeed, when the peacemaking process seemed endlessly stalled. 

Hamas' appeal spread, finally, when Palestinian economic life seemed futile, or inevitably corrupt - when a fight to the last martyr seemed the only chance at a meaningful life - or death. Give Gazans open borders, relief from grinding poverty, and business opportunities with West Bank and foreign partners and, over time, this will win over Hamas-controlled tunnels and smuggling every time. The Palestinian private sector, centered in Ramallah, has begged Israel and the international community for 18 months to allow it access to Gaza, to build new businesses. Israel refused. Tragically, many who have been killed this past week were not Hamas militants, but rather Palestinians who worked in Hamas-run ministries or institutions because they had no choice if they wanted to feed and clothe their children. 

The critical point, surely, is that one cannot do in two weeks with force what you need to do over a generation with reciprocity. Even as it worked toward an overall solution to the conflict, Israel could have respected international law regarding occupation, observed the Geneva conventions, helped build Palestinian civil society, stopped settlement construction, invited international monitors, and allowed Palestinians to compete non-violently, politically, economically and socially. It could have, in short, allowed for unity and rationality in Palestinian politics. This is not, well, rocket science. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Thought on the “Bombing Tics” Post Below

When I posted on how Israel devalues the lives of the Gazan civilians, and I claimed that at least part of that could be explained by Israeli racism, I knew that I would get a lot of reaction. I also knew that some reactions would be by Israeli racists and their supporters. But I also thought – or hoped -- that I would get at least some reactions from people who would reject the premise that Israelis are racist, and that the IDF devalues the lives of the Gazans not only because they are enemies, but because they are Arabs.

But I didn't.

This confirms my views that Israel and its supporters (except, perhaps, for the professional hasbarah folks) simply don't care any more about the accusations of racism. Their feeling of the Gazans as "tics" is so engrained that they aren't offended by people saying, "How can you treat innocent human beings in this manner" And, of course, one didn't have to wait until the current Gaza campaign to know how Israel and its supporters view Arabs – not just militants, not just Islamic fundamentalists, but all Arabs -- including Jewish and Christian Arabs.

But Israel is concerned about its image in the world. So when Israel bombs a school killing 40 Arab civilians, including children, the IDF felt the need to invent a story that Hamas militants were firing from within the school. (It is possible that the IDF is telling the truth; however, as they routinely lie about such things, and as they have been censured by the High Court for their fabrications, and as their story has been denied by the UN, which has a much better track record than the IDF spokesman, we can assume that this is just another lie.) When that turned out to be false, they produced an archival film that they claim shows that once there were militants there.

Of course, even Hamas gives moral arguments. The claim that are fighting for the liberation of Palestinians from a cruel Occupation (true), their people in Gaza are suffering under Israeli siege (true), they harm far less civilians than Israel (true), they have far fewer military options than Israel (true), and their firing into civilian populations is no less indiscriminate and far less lethal than Israel's (true). While all this is true, they still commit war crimes, although their war crimes are much less deadly than Israel's

Well, as we sow, so shall we reap. When Jewish children are blown up by a terrorist' bomb in Hadera (or Baltimore or Paris), Israel will cry out – rightly – against the terrorism that it has done its utmost to foster. And there will be some who will justify the blowing up of Jewish children as the price one must pay for the security of living in a Jewish state.

We shall have given Hitler a posthumous victory, to use Emil Fackenheim's phrase.

Some people have said, "Well, what do you want; this is a war." But what happens when you have a state, whose very existence ensures that there will be a war, who is, intermittently, always at war. No other state in the Middle East (in the world?) has lived in a state of war for over sixty years.

Maybe it is time to rethink a better arrangement for the Jews and the Arabs?


Monday, January 5, 2009

Magnes’s “Half-Savages” Remark

Recently, I read a particularly awful piece of the "Zionism-Is-Racism" variety on Znet by Jason Kunin. It was awful mostly not because of the thesis – much of classical Zionism is racist in the leftwing sense of that term – but because of the sloppy reasoning, tendentious citations, and downright ignorance of the author. As I wrote in a comment, a monkey with a typewriter could have written a better critique of Zionism.

I have just spent the last twenty minutes trying to log on to Znet to attach my comment. Because Kunin calls Magnes a racist, I will publish it here.

In any event, I challenge Mr. Kunin to respond to my comment wherever he sees fit. I wrote:

This article is simply awful. It is full of lies, tendentious readings, half-truths, and shows pretty much a complete ignorance of it subject.

Let me just focus on one example. We are told by Kunin that Buber and Magnes, who opposed political Zionism and, in the case of Magnes, actively worked against the establishment of a Jewish state, were racist towards Arabs. Now, since it is well known that neither favored a state in which Jews would have more rights than Arabs, then what would be the point of their racism?

But enough of hypotheticals. What is the evidence for the author's remarkable claim? He writes:

"It is a testament to the racism of even the most enlightened Zionists - the ones who supposedly promoted Jewish-Arab cooperation - that Judah Magnes referred to Arabs as "half savage" [2], and Martin Buber lived after 1948 in the confiscated house of Edward Said's family, despite their letters imploring its return.

First, note the "supposedly" – does the author have any evidence for the qualifier, or does he just want to be snide?

The reference to Buber is simply ridiculous. How does Buber's not wanting to leave the confiscated house of Said's family make him into a racist? The story is not even true and does not appear in Said's authobiography (see below). But even if it were, tmat may make him a jerk -- but a racist? That is your evidence? And so if somebody buys a house that was confiscated in war, rightly or wrongly, and doesn't want to move out, that ipso facto makes him a racist? Doesn't that term have any meaning for Kunin? If Kunin knew anything about Buber, he would have focused on an earlier stage of his career, before he had anything to do with Arabs, and when he was influenced – as were many European intellectuals -- by romantic, volkish notions of blood, soil, and man. But Kunin's knowledge of Buber apparently extends to Said's house in Talbieh.

Let's go on to Magnes. One would expect from the reference to "half-savage" that Magnes had written something like this:

"There is something in the Arab race, or people, that makes them incapable of intellectual improvement. Their race, their culture, is inferior, oriental, semitic. They will never be equal to us -- they are in their very nature half-savages."

In fact, Magnes believed nothing of the kind. In the 1929 letter referred to, written after the massacre of non-Zionist Jewish men, women, and children in Hebron by bands of Arabs, he speaks of his version of Zionism as "not depriving the Arabs (or the Jews) of their political rights for a generation or a day." His Zionism "is desirous of having Palestine become a country of two nations and three religions, all of them having equal rights, and none of them have special privileges.: a country where nationalism is but the basis of internationalism, where the population is pacificistic and disarmed -- in short, the Holy Land...."

Magnes continues:

"We have been toying with the words 'Jewish State,' 'majority,' "Jewish Palestine," 'politics', "Balfour Declaration,' etc. long enough. It is time that we come down to realities. We have passed resolutions concerning cooperation with the Arabs, but we have done very little seriously to carry them out."

"I do not say that this is easy of achievement nor do I absolutely know that it is possible. The Palestine Arabs are unhappily still half-savage and their leaders are all small men. But this policy of cooperation is certainly more possible and more hopeful of achevement than building up a Jewish Home (National or otherwise) on bayonets and oppression."

So, as you see, Magnes doesn't even refer to "Arabs" as half-savages, but to the "Palestinian Arab" masses – mostly fellahin -- as "still" half-savages. So much for Magnes's alleged racism – and Kunin's intellectual honesty.

What did Magnes mean? Some background.

The letter, as I said, was written in 1929, a particularly difficult time for Magnes, when his vision of cooperation was going up in smoke following inter-communal violence. He had urged Arab cooperation, and his American friends and backers like Felix Warburg were pointing to the Arab massacres as a reason against such cooperation.

Was Magnes a Eurocentrist, an American snob, who could look down his nose on the fellahin? Certainly, in that sense he was a creature of his times and his upbringing, European orientalism -- and he was a university president. Yes, he uses the phrase " still half-savage" (the author leaves out the adverb"still" thereby intentionally distorting Magnes's point for the purpose of his diatribe) in a private letter, and he uses ethnic terms and generalizations that, after WWII, we are rightly sensitive about. But if anything, this makes his willingness to give full and equal political rights to the Palestinian Arabs immediately, and, at a later date, to limit Jewish immigration, even more impressive. And if one looks at his writings on his views of Palestinian Arabs, one finds in general a positive attitude, and always an attempt to balance negative remarks about them with similar statements about the Jews.

The truth is that Magnes opposed Palestinian Arab nationalism as much as he opposed Jewish nationalism. He hated all nationalism. In the same letter he writes:

"Palestine does not belong to the Jews and it does not belong to the Arabs, nor to Judaism or Christianity or Islam. It belongs all to them."

What about this paragraph from a letter written one week later:

"I must say that I have been amazed that not one official Jewish voice has been lifted in sympathy with such slain and injured Moslems or Christians who may have been innocent: that no money was earmarked for their injured. Of course, the Arabs were the aggressors and the most bloodthirty. Do I also have to be shouting that? But do you not know that we, too, have had our preachers of hate and disseminators of lies, our armed youth, our provocative processions, our unforgivable stupidity in our handling of the Western Wall incidents since last Yom Kippur, making out of what should have been a police incident an international political issue."

In other words, while he did not absolve Arab gangs of responsibility of massacring Jews in 1929, Magnes also was quick to claim that a local incident had been fanned into a big deal by Jewish nationalists, like the Revisionist youths. He unceasingly criticised Jewish terror, as he unceasingly criticized political nationalism, and was called 'traitor" by his students at Hebrew University for it.

Look, one can find problems with Magnes' Cultural Zionism, and it is understandable that his binationalist schemes didn't go far with the Arabs at the time, who were intensely nationalistic and saw no reason why the Jews should have any political rights in Palestine, besides that of minority rights at best.

But elements of the vision of Magnes are now almost the official doctrine of Palestinian and Jewish non -Zionist intellectuals – whereas he is completely ignored by even the most liberal Zionists.

Let me give the last word to Edward Said, whom Kunin apparently despises -- or will, after what he sees what Said said about the "racists" Magnes and Buber.

"…during the inter-war period, a small but important group of Jewish thinkers (Judah Magnes, Buber, Arendt and others) argued and agitated for a binational state. The logic of Zionism naturally overwhelmed their efforts, but the idea is alive today here and there among Jewish and Arab individuals frustrated with the evident insufficiencies and depredations of the present. The essence of that vision is coexistence and sharing in ways that require an innovative, daring and theoretical willingness to get beyond the arid stalemate of assertion and rejection. Once the initial acknowledgment of the other as an equal is made, I believe the way forward becomes not only possible but attractive. (italics mine)

(from "Truth and Reconciliation")

Edward Said was a great Palestinian and a great man (despite the fact that I didn't agree with all of what he said.) The way forward that he personally found attractive was first forged by Judah Magnes.

(For further reading, Arthur A. Goren's Dissenter in Zion, from which the above passages are taken, is indispensable.)

Note to commentors on this piece – if you are to the right of Meretz, don't even bother to write. This is a family squabble among leftwing Jews.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Philosophical Elaboration of the “Bombing ‘Tics’” Post Below

During the Second Lebanese War, my friend Georges Rey, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, asked me a simple question: "Would Israel be bombing Southern Lebanon if the Hizbollah terrorists were surrounded by Jewish civilians rather than Arab civilians?" If they wouldn't, he concluded, then there is no moral justification for the current bombings, for Arab civilians have no fewer human rights than Jewish civilians.

A similar thought experiment has recently been proposed Joseph Levine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. I would like to thank Joe for allowing me to post his as yet unpublished (and untitled) op-ed on the Magnes Zionist blog:

By Joseph Levine

Israel's current assault on Gaza has sparked controversy in the mainstream press. But for all their differences, critics and supporters share a fundamental assumption: that Israel, as a Western industrial democracy, accepts the Enlightenment idea of the absolute value of individual human lives, and recognizes the inalienable rights that stem from it.. Against this background, Israeli officials are seen as facing a tragic dilemma: how to confront threatening forces who do not share these values – Islamic extremists -- without sacrificing their own moral standards. Thus, supporters of the action in Gaza ask how else but with deadly military force can Israel protect its citizens from rocket attacks, while the critics insist that the bombing, with its high human costs, is anyway a poor means of ensuring Israel's security.. The critics, of course, are correct. But in their tacit endorsement of the "clash-of-cultures" frame, they let Israel off the moral hook. The current assault is not governed by a painful recognition of conflicting demands of human rights; rather it is animated by profound racism, tribalism, and the ancient doctrine of collective guilt.

To see why I say this it is only necessary to engage in a simple thought experiment. Suppose Hamas terrorists were hiding out in Tel Aviv (or Los Angeles, or London, for that matter -- the exercise is equally illuminating applied to the U.S. and or any other "civilized" Western state). Would an assault of the sort we have seen against Gaza even be contemplated? Would Israeli officials grimly but dispassionately calculate the cost-benefit ratio concerning a massive aerial assault on Jewish neighborhoods? Would American and European officials condone such an attack? Would the pundits express their sympathy with Israel's terrible dilemma? Of course not! The very idea of such an action would be recognized immediately as morally outrageous, and anyone who proposed it would be treated with contempt. You can hear the voices: What, are we just like Hamas and Al Qaeda? They don't respect human life, but we do.

Except, of course, "we" -- members of the self-consciously enlightened West -- don't - any more than "they" do. If we really acted out of the values we claim to espouse, then there would be no asymmetry in our reactions to the suggestion in the thought-experiment. Either we would acquiesce in the decision to sacrifice the people of a Tel Aviv neighborhood for sake of the greater good, or – more likely – we would have to see Israel's current assault against Gaza as morally out of bounds. The fact that the cases do not immediately strike us as parallel– a regrettable necessity in one case, a moral atrocity in another – betrays the existence in us of two very primitive, anti-Enlightenment impulses: racial/tribal chauvinism, and a belief in collective guilt.

The first one is obvious. If we are honest, we'll admit that the men, women, and children of Gaza seem different from Israeli Jews and other "Westerners" – they are "Other," not fully human. We vehemently disavow such judgments, of course. But if we don't believe it, what explains the result of the thought experiment? Why would we not be willing to kill hundreds of "us" in order to protect the rest, when we are prepared to kill as many as necessary of them? It's simple: they just don't count as much as we do.

But maybe not. Someone might object that there is a morally relevant difference between the two populations: because Hamas is a Palestinian organization, it is morally justifiable to put Palestinian lives at risk in order to protect Israeli citizens. But this objection simply lays bare the second anti-Enlightenment element in the modern Western psyche: the notion of collective guilt. But why should the mere fact that Hamas is Palestinian justify imperiling the lives of Palestinians who are not Hamas fighters, who are not personally responsible for the terrorist acts the organization commits? It is only if one believes that all Palestinians are made guilty in some way, simply by -- how else to put it? -- being of the same tribe as Hamas. How else can one find a basis for distinguishing between potential victims who are innocent and Palestinian and those who are innocent and like "us?"

Collective guilt is a notion that is as morally primitive and abhorrent as any of the ideas supposedly espoused by "religious extremists." This is why collective punishment is prohibited by international law. Moreover, embracing the doctrine of collective guilt means abandoning the moral high ground. Terrorists always appeal to the notion in justifying the taking of life. Al Qaeda viewed the victims of the World Trade Center bombings as minions of the Great Satan, just as Hamas views its victims as collaborators in the occupation. If we wish to repudiate such thinking, we must not indulge it in ourselves.

Once we give up belief in collective guilt and relinquish allegiance to the tribe, there is nothing left to distinguish the very real victims of Israel's assault on Gaza from the imagined victims in my thought experiment. Indeed there is no morally relevant difference. Vociferous outrage is the only humanly decent response to Israel's brutal assault. It is what's demanded by those Western, Enlightenment values we all supposedly hold dear.