Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover at a Time of Darkness

I have even less time to write now than I did when I wrote the below two years ago. But in the I/P conflict things rarely change and usually for the worse. Gunther Grass was right, and I only hope that more Germans draw the lesson from their history that no people has the right to be secure at the expense of another people.

More on Grass after the holiday. Let Passover start the countdown of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East -and elsewhere. No country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

I don't have time to write a proper Passover post, and I don't have the strength either. Only those who are of the "things-need-to-get-worse-in-order-to-get-better" school can take cheer this Passover. The State of Israel continues to disappoint erstwhile supporters. Liberal Zionists never expected Israel to be a Zionist utopia; they would have been happy with what the Israeli philosophy professor, Avishai Margalit, calls a 'decent society'. Israel, today, is not by any stretch of the imagination a decent society. That it contains many decent and truly good people, that many of its institutions are decent and good, provides comfort in the present and hope for the future. But, as Akiva Eldar points out in an excellent piece here, we are now suffering our own plague of darkness and hard-heartedness. And there is no end in sight.

Those Jews who suffer the most today are liberal Zionists like Eldar. For years they believed that they could wipe clean the stain of 1967 (and, with the resettlement of the refugees, of 1948), by a fair and decent compromise with the Palestinians. They believed that most Israelis were in favor of such a compromise. But at the same time they were aware that they were a dwindling breed, and as the years have gone by, they have become increasingly marginalized by the chauvinistic center, from Labor to the Likud. Most Israelis never supported a two-state solution; they simply supported getting rid of the Palestinians one way or the other. I am waiting for the liberal Zionist to realize, as I had to realize, that the problems for Israel are much deeper than land for peace, that a question mark hangs – or should hang – over the entire Zionist enterprise of creating a state against the will, and without the participation, of the natives of Palestine. Yet as long as there was hope that the Palestinians could have their own state, where they could exercise their self-determination, where they could receive the refugees, where they could build their own society with its own problems, then one could arguably defend the legitimacy of the Zionist state founded in 1948. But now that that hope has faded, what remains? What moral justification can remain for the systematic and never-ending deprivation of fundamental human rights? Only a society where Palestinians are accepted as equals; only a state which defends Jewish and Palestinians rights to self-determination will be sufficient. And how long will it take for that society to come about?

So the night is long and dark; the lights at the end of the tunnel are flashing, and the time between the flashes become longer. As many have recently pointed out, even the perennially clueless Tom Friedman, Israelis don't really care much about a just settlement with the Palestinians; they have lived very well without it, and as long as they are an economic power, who will refrain to do business with it? Demographically, politically, and, yes, Jewishly, Israel has moved to the right, but frankly, they haven't moved as much as is reported because the society always was on the right.

So what to do? Where there can be no liberation on the national front, one can only turn inward and seek personal liberation – liberation from prejudice, self-righteousness, intense tribalism, and from the insensitivity to the Palestinian, whose land we took and take, and whose aspirations we continue to deny. And to forge bonds with like-minded individuals of all types.

In that struggle for liberation from spiritual slavery, we Jews have much to learn from ourselves and our history, but also from others and their history. So tonight at your seder table (or some time over the holiday, if you don't like to let the contemporary intrude) you may want to ponder this post by my friend, Sam Bahour. Sam is a Palestinian-American businessman living in Ramallah who has taken the time to write his own interpretation of the foods of the Seder Plate. His interpretation is here; I urge you to see the original and to read the comments, which prove, by their very insensitivity, how hard our Jewish hearts have become.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Stamping Out (Mostly) Non-Violent Protests at Ni’lin and Bil’in.

Haaretz is reporting that the IDF has declared the West Bank villages of Bil'in and Ni'lin closed military areas for the next six months – on Fridays from 8 am to 8 pm. The purpose – to stop once and for all the protests against the expropriation of village land for the construction of the Security Barrier (a.k.a. the Land Grab Wall). The closure applies to the area between the Security Barrier and the villages.

As everybody knows, these two villages have been the scene of mass protests, mostly non-violent, occasionally rock throwing (sometimes by IDF provocateurs). The IDF has arrested the leaders, harassed the Israelis who come there, sprayed stink juice on demonstrators, shot and killed protesters – and have not been able to stop the protests.

Of course, the IDF is only carrying out the government's policy, and so ultimate responsibility lies with those rapacious government ministers who covet the expropriated lands for Jewish real estate development, etc. If Israel was really interested in security, they would build the fence within the green line, not on it or outside of it. Yet how much Jewish land has been expropriated for the Wall?

The weekly protests have also been the symbol of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian-Foreign Human Rights activism. It made the Anarchists Against the Wall famous. And it has shown a new sort of struggle, where the Israelis are willing to play junior, subordinate roles, to the Palestinians.

By the way, the English translation of Amira Hass's piece (or, more accurately, abridged adaptation, does not yet have the official reaction of the IDF. You can read that here. But note why the villages are being declared off-limits. It has nothing to do with the villagers themselves, but rather

To prevent outside agitators from arriving at the scenes of the disturbances…the military order applies to Israeli citizens, foreigners, and Palestinians who are not residents of these villages on Fridays between 8am to 8 pm….It is to be emphasized that this does not apply to the villagers who will be allowed free movement.

It sure reminds me of when the US federal government, during the Civil Rights movement, declared the South off-limits to those outside agitators from the North who came down to protest segregation.

Or am I misremembering?

Monday, March 8, 2010

“There is a New Left in Town”

I started translating the address delivered at the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration Saturday Night by activist Sarah Beninga, but I was beaten to the punch by the Sheikh Jarrah website here. (And Didi Remez published his own translation here at his indispensable Coteret site)

The rousing speech, which does not have a single author, articulates a vision of the Israeli New Left. It will be very easy for old folks to dismiss them; in the Middle East, cynicism and a "been-there-done-that" mentality prevails. And yes, there are already important groups to which some of the Sheikh Jarrah activists belong, like Ta'ayush and others. But this manifesto captures something new, which, if it develops, will be an important moral and political force in Israel/Palestine --now and as long as the struggle lasts.

Even the consciousness, or the recognition that there is a new left, is important.

I hope that it is widely circulated throughout the world.

There is a New Left in Town

There is a New Left, and it is not a left that is content with peace talks; it is a left of struggle. There is a New Left that knows that there are things you have to fight against even when they are identified with the state and even when they are sanctioned by law. There's a New Left that knows that this struggle will not be decided on paper, but on the ground, on the hills, in the vineyards, in the olive groves. There's a New Left that is not afraid of settlers – even when they come down on us from the hills, masked and armed. This left does not succumb to political oppression by the police, nor does it care what Ma'ariv writes about it.

There is a New Left in town. This left does not want to be loved, does not dream of filling town squares and does not bask in the memories of 400,000 demonstrators. This left is a partnership of Palestinians who understand that the occupation will not be stopped by missiles and bombs, and of Israelis who understand that the Palestinian struggle is their own.

The New Left links arms with Palestinians in a cloud of tear-gas in Bili'in, and with them, bears the brunt of settler violence in the South Hebron Hills. This left stands by refugees and work immigrants in Tel-Aviv and fights the Wisconsin Project [privatized "welfare-to-work" program]. This New Left is us, all of us.

All those who came here tonight; all those who dared to cross the imaginary line separating West and East Jerusalem despite the threats and intimidation  -  we are all the New Left that is rising in Israel and Palestine. We are not fighting for a peace agreement; we are fighting for justice. But we believe that injustice is the main obstacle to peace. Until the Ghawis, the Hanouns and the El-Kurds return to their homes, there will be no peace; because peace will not take root where discrimination, oppression, and plunder exist. There is a New Left in town and this left stands with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah tonight, and it will continue standing with them until justice overcomes fanaticism.

But there is also a New Right in town. A Right filled with envy and racism that seduces the masses with its jingoistic rhetoric. The New Right has no interest in the well-being and the welfare of human beings. The New Right is only interested in a narrow ethnic and tribal loyalty a la Avigdor Liberman.  For the New Right only the Jewish poor deserve attention. And what makes someone Jewish is that they're not Arabic. The New Right has nothing to offer but never-ending war. The New Right has nothing to offer bur hate for the other: Arabs, refugees and leftists.

This New Right creates the fanatic settlers against whom we are demonstrating tonight. These settlers hate Jerusalem. They have no love for Israel and no love for humankind – they love only themselves. There are many amongst the settlers who can and should carry out a dialogue with. But the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah who sing songs of praise to Baruch Goldstein – must be defeated.

The New Right created the mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat. He is a technocrat who doesn't understand or care about Jerusalem. He is a mayor who uses administrative terror against the residents of East Jerusalem and neglects the residents of West Jerusalem, while mouthing empty clich├ęs.  If Jerusalem is a powder keg, then Nir Barkat is the one who is striking the match. But Barkat doesn't scare us and neither do the settlers or Liberman.

We will continue coming to Sheikh Jarrah and everywhere that justice is crushed by the forces of occupation and oppression. Take a look around you; we are not as few as we thought we were! And we will prevail!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

How Three Philosophy Students Bested the Police in the Israeli Supreme Court

The print edition of Haaretz on Friday told the fascinating tale of how three philosophy students, Asaf Sharon, Avner Inbar, and Avichai Sharon, managed to force the Jerusalem Police to allow the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration Saturday night.

Readers of the Magnes Zionist may remember two of those students, Avner Inbar and Asaf Sharon, among the signatories of the letter addressed to Prof. Moshe Halbertal criticizing his New Republic article against the Goldstone Report. Read about it here.

By the way, Prof. Halbertal was at the Sheikh Jarrah protest Saturday night, along with other members of the Old Zionist left. It wasn't his first time there, either. As Rabbi Hanina says in the Talmud,

From my teachers I learned much, from my colleagues I learned more, but most of all do I learn from my students

Here is an adaptation of the Haaretz article by Nir Hason.

How Three Philosophy Students Drove the Police Crazy

Somebody who entered the chambers of the Supreme Court yesterday was treated to a strange sight: across from three judges and the states attorney representative, all in black robes, as is customary, stood three young bearded students. The three, Asaf Sharon, Avner Inbar, and Avichai Sharon, among the central activists against the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, were the sole authors of a petition and represented themselves in court without legal counsel. "We studied the law, the directive of the Police's Central Command, and the relevant petitions to the High Court. We followed the police's conduct, we received help from the residents, and we wrote," said Avichai Sharon."

Asaf Sharon took the role of litigator. "I felt pretty pressured. I am not accustomed to stand before judges. I never studied law. On the other hand, I felt quite certain of our claim and of its justice," Sharon said."But it was a very frustrating experience for me to see the District Commander say things that were far from the truth."

Apparently the Jerusalem Police didn't take their opponents seriously. When the petition for a demonstration was first presented to them, they refused even to consider it, saying that it was necessary for the petitioners to give a reason for the protest. When the petitioners arrived at court they were supported by people such as former Minister Yossi Sarid, the head of the Israel Civil Liberties Association, Haggai Elad, who himself was arrested at one of the demonstrations.... Avichai Sharon explained,"There is an important message that reflects the way we have organized, which is without any institutional backing. We are simply people that live in this city, who are consumed, disturbed, and worried by this story"

Sheikh Jarrah and the Birth of a Coalition

Around five thousand demonstrators protested the eviction of Arab families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and the settlement there of rightwing Jewish extremists. It was the largest Sheikh Jarrah protest and the largest joint Israeli-Palestinian protest so far.

The protest was composed of an interesting mix – Jewish leftwing activists, mostly (but not entirely) young; the Zionist left Meretz-Peace Now crowd, mostly (and entirely) old; Israeli Palestinian activists, and representatives of the evicted families. There were Israeli singers and a Palestinian hip-hop group from Shuafat. Many of the speeches were given in Arabic, both Jerusalem colloquial and standard, and judging from the crowd, more of the younger Israeli Jewish activists understood the speeches than the older generation. The “drummers” and the clowns were there in full force – these are activists who play the drum and dress up as clowns in an attempt both to lighten up the protest, and to drive home the point of non-violent protest. I also saw some familiar faces and fellow bloggers, including Rabbi Brian Walt (Didi Remez was also there, but I didn’t catch up with him.)

The speeches represented the spectrum of the new coalition – from an Israeli Palestinian actor-activist who protested the presence of an Israeli flag with the word “peace” on it, saying that there will not be peace until there is one democratic secular state, to the older generation of Peace Now activists like Daphna Golan and Mossi Raz, the latter speaking of two states. Dov Khenin of Had ash gave a rousing speech, and there were a bunch of red flags.

But in my opinion, the highlight of the night was a speech delivered by young Israeli activist, Sarah Benninga, who spoke about the New Left and the New Right. As soon as I get my hands on that, I will try to post some of it. At the end of the demonstration, three hundred activists were allowed to walk to the site of the Palestinian homes. Initially, the police had refused the protesters a permit to demonstrate near the houses, citing the usual reasons given for suppressing democratic protest in Israel (sensitive territory, friction between settlers and activists, difficulty of protecting the protesters, etc.) The court threw out all of the reasons but nevertheless did not allow the big demonstration to be held next to the houses. That was the compromise.

Haaretz published in its Friday Hebrew edition the fascinating story about how the activists beat the police in court. I will translate that in a separate post.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Saturday Night Live from Sheikh Jarrah


Readers of this blog have been informed of the weekly protests in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem/Al-Quds against the eviction of Arab residents from their homes. These evictions – with the imprimatur of the "leftist, activist" Israeli High Court -- demonstrate the immorality and hypocrisy of the Israeli Jewish occupation of Jerusalem – where Jews are allowed to reclaim pre-1948 houses but Palestinians are not. The purpose of these settlements is to Judaize all of Jerusalem and to herd Palestinians into ghettoes – and, of course, to ensure that Jerusalem is cut off from the Palestinian West Bank.

These are dark times. There is no peace process, thank God: the peace process is a scam, a stalling tactic that Israel and the Palestinian Authority used to maintain the status quo. Hillary stands up and make jokes about gefilte fish while people suffer in Palestine. Why George Mitchell hasn't quit yet is a mystery to me.

"Peace, peace, and there is no peace." No, now is not the time for peace. It is the time for protest, for demonstrations, for boycott, divestment and sanctions, for delegitimizing the very regime that fosters such injustice in my name.

And let's not forget about prayer.

There are so many things to do, even for ineffectual academics like yours truly. But why go to demonstrations? Years ago, after my umpteenth Peace Now demonstration, I swore off demonstrations. I still hate those things. I hate the crowds; I feel sorry for the police; and where does it get you? But then the next demonstration rolls around, and I say to myself, I won't be there?

So come to the demonstration at Sheikh Jarrah. Forget Rabin Square in Tel-Aviv. And when you come, say hello to the old white guy with the scruffy beard (no, not Uri Avnery), wearing a cap.