Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The New Orthodox Jewish Left in Israel

Nir Hasson wrote a long article in Haaretz's Weekend Supplement on the young orthodox (and formerly orthodox) Jews involved in the Sheikh Jarrah protest movement. I have reproduced some of it below.

There is a sort of "man-bites-dog" quality to the article; after all, young modern orthodox Jews are assumed to be ultra nationalistic racists, whether implicit or explicit, and that assumption is mostly correct. So we are not talking about large numbers, though the leadership role of these activists is interesting. Readers of this blog are quite aware of the phenomenon; I have counted kippot among the activists before. But there is no global explanation for it. Why do some orthodox Jews protest injustices against Palestinians? Why did some gentiles risk their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust? Explanations must be local. In the case of these particular activists, many of them come from academic families; their parents are thoughtful moderates; some were associated with the religious dove groups like Oz ve-Shalom, Netivot Shalom, of blessed memory. With some exceptions, these young people are sophisticated enough to know that "Judaism" is (almost) a tabula rasa that can be filled with (almost) anything from the tradition. The same religion that "produced" a Hermann Cohen "produced" a Meir Kahane, which just means that both are the products of more than just "Judaism."

What distinguishes them from their parents? Their discourse is a discourse of justice, not peace. They are not afraid of linking arms with Palestinians, and I don't mean just the kosher academics like Sari Nusseibeh. Some of them are Zionist; some of them are post-Zionist; all are Israeli, and all care deeply about universal values. And while it's nice to quote verses, they don't have to do it to justify their basic moral values.

What we have yet to see, however, is whether the new orthodox left will translate their social action into political action. This is a problem in general in Israel; talented young activists don't want to be caught dead in politics, and for understandable reasons. But activism without a political base is limited. I hope some of these activists get their hands dirty in politics, perhaps in Hadash.

The Orthodox Jews fighting the Judaization of East Jerusalem

Leading the demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah are some young Israelis with a religious background. They explain their activism and how it correlates to their conception of the true meaning of the Torah

By Nir Hasson

 Not long before Hillel Ben Sasson attended his first demonstration in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Aryeh King − perhaps the person most identified with Jewish settlement there − declared that in the battle over the capital of Israel, the left had been defeated.

"In the past they organized demonstrations," King told Haaretz last November, "but now we have made them understand that they have lost the battle. They can't even recruit 20 people, and if there is a demonstration it's Europeans who take part. Israelis don't show up anymore. We have won."

But King was wrong. A few days later, Ben Sasson and his friends joined the demonstrations in support of residents of Sheikh Jarrah, and thus launched a rearguard battle not only on behalf of the residents' rights, but on behalf of both the status of the left in Jerusalem and their own identity.

"From my point of view, being in Sheikh Jarrah is the full and supreme realization of my religious existence," Ben Sasson says, as he walks on a recent day through the neighborhood. "When I don't show up on a Friday, I feel as though I have not put on tefillin [phylacteries] in the morning. When I am here, I am fighting against the expulsion of people who will become refugees for a second time, but also against the settlers − because they are trying to expel me from the boundaries of legitimacy. They are double enemies: They are trying to plunder the homes of the Palestinians and, by contrast of course, also the religion to whose God I pray."

The eviction of a few families from Sheikh Jarrah last summer spurred one of the most intriguing protest movements in Israel in recent times. Like the weekly demonstrations against the separation fence in the West Bank villages of Bil'in and Na'alin, there is no single body behind this movement. A few dozen activists, in partnership with the residents, are its driving force. They have been joined, every Friday afternoon since last November, by between 200 and 300 people, only a few of whom are Palestinians or are not Israeli citizens.

It is possible to estimate cautiously that about half of the 30 key activists in Sheikh Jarrah are now or were in the past religiously observant. Most are young people in their twenties and thirties, and they represent an entire spectrum: religious, datlashim (formerly religious, but usually people for whom religion and tradition are still important to some degree), datlafim (sometimes religious), "transparent skullcaps" (bareheaded people who describe themselves as religiously observant), secular, and those who do not want to specify their position along this continuum. In any event, nearly all consider Judaism and their religious education and background to be important elements in their political thinking and activism. They also wonder if their presence in Sheikh Jarrah spells the advent of a new phenomenon in religious society, or whether they represent a disappearing breed of the religious left.

The most veteran beard and skullcap in Sheikh Jarrah probably belong to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights. For years the Reform rabbi, who speaks Arabic with a pronounced American accent, has fought shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and many other locales.

"I think this is a new phenomenon," he says. "Something that crosses religions is emerging in Jerusalem today. [These are] young people who are not bound to their parents' conventions and don't care whether their partners in the struggle are religious or not, but all of them share the feeling that our future is in danger."

'Symbolic capital'

"I can imagine one of my cousins saying, 'Again those leftists are identifying with the other side and not with the unfortunate people among us,'" Ben Sasson says. "But in Sheikh Jarrah there is no mistaking the good guys from the bad guys. No matter how you look at it or describe it − there is no way the settlers living there can be considered the good guys and the Palestinians the bad guys. Maybe in other places you can consider Palestinian suffering to be somehow relative, but here it's so clear. And it doesn't matter how what additional data you factor in or even if you 'recruit' Herzl [in your arguments]: It won't make a difference."

A few dozen Palestinian refugee families have been living in Sheikh Jarrah for the past 60 or so years. Of late, a company called Nahalat Shimon, an operative arm of settler organizations, has started to evict them, based on Jewish ownership documents from the end of the 19th century which have been validated by the courts (See box). The settlers have already taken permanent possession of three homes. Many more Palestinian families are in danger of eviction.

Israeli law permits people to claim Jewish property abandoned almost a century ago, but does not permit Arab families to claim ownership over property they abandoned during Israel's War of Independence. Thus, refugee families of 1948 are liable to become refugees again, in 2010 − and this asymmetry is nourishing the struggle in East Jerusalem.

Ben Sasson, son of the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, historian Menahem Ben-Sasson, is currently writing his doctoral dissertation in Jewish studies. The subject: the explicit name of God. He describes the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations as "worship of Hashem [the Hebrew name for God]" and is very eager to engage his settler-adversaries in theological debate. It's clear he has already rehearsed these arguments in his mind many times.

"If you take away their Uzis and kick out the police, sit us down and remove the media − they will leave with their tail between their legs," he says emphatically. "In the Middle Ages disputations were held between learned Jews and Christians. Sometimes the Jews won, in which case they had to escape to avoid being killed. If you bring [the settlers] for a disputation now, I will win. All the Jewish sources are on my side. Their whole activity is twisted. What they are doing is desecration of God's name, in the most explicit way."

Asked to illustrate his thesis, he recites rapidly: "Ezekiel 33: 'O mortal, those who live in these ruins in the Land of Israel ... and you shed blood, yet you expect to possess the land!'"

Another longtime activist who has been prominent in the struggle, Assaf Sharon, 35, is less assertive in this regard. "There is no such thing as [one form of] Judaism," he says. "There are many ideas and streams and motifs − some of them on our side [politically], others not. Unfortunately, the latter are more dominant in the society I grew up in."

Sharon, now secular and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Stanford University, attended a hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies with army service), studying at Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc south of Bethlehem and Otniel Yeshiva, also in the West Bank.

"In one of the left-wing actions in the southern Hebron Hills, we escorted Palestinian children to school, with about 100 settlers surrounding them and the Jeep," Sharon recalls. "They started hitting us and in the midst of all this I heard my name called. It was a friend of mine from high school, who was with them. In the middle of everything there were hugs, and the Border Police removed all the left-wingers, but took no notice of me, because I was with the settlers.

"I was alone facing 40-50 guys, who started to engage in a theological debate. 'Plunder is plunder,' I shouted at them, citing verses from here and there. It was interesting and enjoyable to argue, and it's important for me to feel that Judaism is on my side, not theirs. I really do think that the right and beautiful parts of Judaism are with me, but there is also a great deal of racism and violence in Judaism. Roughly speaking, they are still with the early prophets, at the stage of the conquest of the land, and I am in the era of late prophets, building society. I say we have finished conquering the land, the War of Independence is over and the question that remains is what type of society we will have."

Like most of his friends in the protest movement, Sharon is from a liberal religious family, a relative anomaly in the religious-Zionist landscape. One of the turning points in his political thinking and on the path that ultimately led him into the secular world was November 4, 1995 − the night Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

"It wasn't done in my circles, but I went to the square that evening [for the peace rally] and after the murder I stayed until almost dawn. In the morning I went to the yeshiva. I was very religious then. That day the rabbi of the yeshiva told me that people from [the left-wing youth movement] Hashomer Hatzair wanted to meet with us.

"Just think what a crazy reversal it was," he continues. "Rabin's body wasn't yet cold, and instead of us looking for a way to reach them and ask them for forgiveness − they come to us, on top of which the rabbi approached me because he knew I was considered left wing and that most of the students would not agree to meet with them. In the end, we met, but not in the yeshiva; in an apartment, so people wouldn't see. The Rabin assassination became a 'lever' for the settlers: Not only did they not back down, but since then they've gained key positions, influence in the media, in politics and in culture. Most important, they seized control of the 'symbolic capital' of Israeliness. They are now identified as owners of the Jewish cargo. They constitute the hegemony."

Activist religion

Some members of the Sheikh Jarrah group associate themselves with the remnants of a liberal left-wing religious community which once existed in Jerusalem, but disappeared within the nationalist currents of religious Zionism.

"Sociologically, Jerusalem religiosity is far more pluralistic," says Amos Goldberg, 44, who teaches in the contemporary Judaism department at the Hebrew University and is a major activist in the struggle. "The Jerusalem left is far less anti-religious and contains many more people who are now religious or were observant in the past."

Sharon proposes a different explanation for recent left-wing religious activism: "Maybe it's precisely because we did not come up through the intellectual left, but through Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful], where the principle is that politics must be manifested through activity − you have to be where things are happening and not only where it's convenient to be. The idea is that political activity means action, not persuading someone you are in the right. Maybe from this point of view we are a lot closer to the 'Zambish' types [nickname of Ze'ev Hever, a settler activist] than to others. We also learned from them how to confront the state's mechanisms."

Goldberg mentions a "formative moment," when he experienced the change that led him to Sheikh Jarrah − and even to a detention cell. A few years ago, he joined an escort group provided by peace organizations for Palestinian farmers who were being harassed by settlers.

"I was always left wing, but also a soldier. Suddenly I saw an elderly Palestinian who wanted to plow his field being chased away by a soldier. You identify instinctively with the old man, and you say, 'That soldier is a brute,'" says Goldberg, a doctoral student who is writing his dissertation on Holocaust survivors.

"Suddenly you're in reverse mode: My solidarity is unequivocally not with the state, not with its symbols and not with the police. I consider them ... I hold myself back from saying 'the enemy.' After that you can no longer see things as you did beforehand. I have not switched sides, but one's map of identification changes and once it does, there is no going back."

As a researcher who deals mainly with the Holocaust, Goldberg lets history direct his conscience: "At the personal psychological level, this is a matter of moral duty, the duty of those who are bystanders. It might be a large or a small injustice, but there is no need to wait until the situation becomes so extreme. When one sees injustice and racism such as we have here, you have to intervene."

Goldberg ceased being religiously observant years ago but refuses to define his status today. His children are religious and he wears a skullcap. "It's for protection against the sun and does not make it possible to define me. It's also convenient, because I am getting bald," he quips.

Indeed, he still sees hope in the thinking of some members of religious society, even settler circles: "The discourse of large swaths of the religious public is saliently racist. Their conceptual world resonates with ideas espoused by folk movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. But at the same time, we have to remember that the greatest wrongs against the Palestinians were perpetrated not by the settlers, but by secular nationalism. To pin the blame on the settlers is a type of internal cleansing process that you find in Israeliness. It's precisely within the religious-settler discourse that the potential exists for a different type of political discourse − one that is far more egalitarian. I am referring to ideas that spring from a religious worldview that will sanctify the entire region, because the land is God's and not a nation's. That is where ideas of equality can spring from."

Goldberg draws the ire of his fellow protesters by not rejecting the name Simeon the Just, as used by the settlers, the Jerusalem Municipality and the police to denote the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, because the Second Temple high priest's tomb is there. The debate around the name is the symbolic manifestation of the struggle for the neighborhood.

Goldberg: "The tomb of Simeon the Just was there for a great many years and did not bother the Palestinians. Jews came and there was no violence," he notes. "I want to believe that a joint struggle should also give rise to new language. We have to find a way to say that it's both Simeon the Just and Sheikh Jarrah." Religion, he says, can be helpful in this regard.

To which Ben-Sasson responds, "If only the day will come when the name Al-Quds [the Arabic name of Jerusalem] will also appear at the entrance to the city. If only we will be deserving of this."

Practice and belief

"To grow up in religious society means to translate your beliefs into deeds," says Elisheva Milikovsky, a 27-year-old social worker who was raised in a national-religious home in the settlement of Efrat, near Bethlehem. "You don't just sit at home and cogitate. You put into practice the things you believe in."

Milikovsky gained fame a few years ago, when she became a one-woman institution looking after the African refugees who reached Israel. The standard operating procedure was for the army to leave the refugees it had rounded up crossing into Israel from Egypt on a street in Be'er Sheva, after which someone from the army would call Milikovsky and inform her. She did all she could to help the refugees get through their first days in the country. Since then she has continued to work with refugees, and this, she says, is what eventually brought her to Sheikh Jarrah as well.

"In Efrat it's very obvious that the Palestinians are transparent people. You live in the settlement and don't have the slightest notion of what's going on around you. As a teenager I viewed myself as left wing, but the true change was fomented by my activity with the refugees. I made an effort to see the other side."

Gil Gutglick, 44, production director at Keter Publishing House in Jerusalem, was not a political activist before joining the Sheikh Jarrah protest movement. He has long been secular, but admits that his religious past is one of the reasons he demonstrates in the East Jerusalem neighborhood.

"My Jewish identification is very strong. I feel ashamed that the Jewish settlers are entering the homes [of the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah] while the beds are still warm. That feeling of shame was the first thing that induced me to participate. Amos [Goldberg] sent me an email saying they needed people to be with them. I went after work that day and since then I have been in the neighborhood, whenever possible."

Gutglick is one of 14 activists who are under court order to stay away from the neighborhood for five months, after being arrested in a demonstration on May 14.

"I am religious, but there was a period in which, even though I did not stop believing, I did not want to walk around with a skullcap," says Netanel Warschawski, 27, who also works at Keter. "I was a bit ashamed that in the name of the beliefs of the settlers, and in the name of the skullcap, as it were − people say and do terrible things. I did not want to identify with that society, did not want them to think that I was like them, that we share the same views. Eight years ago I had an argument with friends, during which one said I was 'shaming' the skullcap on my head, and since then I decided that it is precisely an opposite symbol. I am proud to be religiously observant and I represent the religion better than they do. That is why I still wear the skullcap and go to demonstrations with it."

The group of religious and formerly religious activists in Sheikh Jarrah includes young adults as well as people in their mid-forties. Their life stories are illustrative of the changes religious society has undergone in recent decades. Years ago, Goldberg and Gutglick participated in peace demonstrations of religious youth. Sharon, 35, attended the rally after which Rabin was assassinated. The young women in the group, Milikovsky and Shira Wilkof, 29, an M.A. student in town planning at the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, are amazed to hear that such activities even existed.

"What I remember from the sixth grade, three years before the Rabin assassination," Wilkof says, "was a rabbi who taught us Gemara in a special girls' class. When he arrived for the first class he wrote on the blackboard, 'A good Arab is a dead Arab.'"

On the night of the assassination she was in the Ra'anana branch of the national-religious Bnei Akiva movement. "I remember the spontaneous cheers of joy of children in the ninth grade when they heard about the murder," she relates. "There were very few left-wingers where I grew up. That probably has something to do with the difference between Jerusalem and Ra'anana. In Jerusalem you had the liberal intellectual elite. But I am from the intermediate generation, in which there was a facade of open religious Zionism. An atmosphere of 'You are either with us or against us' has now taken over, so I suppose it's 10 times harder these days."

In contrast to Ben Sasson, Wilkof considers her activity the opposite of "worship of Hashem": "My experience is totally different," she explains. "There is no dimension of religiosity in my going to Sheikh Jarrah. On the contrary: It constitutes a very clear decision between the particularist, isolationist messages of religious society and messages of universalism."

Gutglick, who until three years ago lived in the Galilee, has a distinctive take on the whole process: "I lived in a bubble and am missing 14 years of acquaintance with the changes that have occurred in Israeli society. Since I moved back, I have not been able to understand the hatred. I grew up in a right-wing society; we were taken on trips to Judea and Samaria, but there were other things, too. I don't remember hatred like there is today − of Arabs, left-wingers, Tel Avivans, of the other."

It seems that there is no simple answer to the question of what will be considered a victory in the Sheikh Jarrah struggle.

"It's not the kind of thing where if you just solve something, everything will be all right," Sharon explains. "What is happening there is a reflection of the foundations of the Israeli regime: the race-based privileges. So in a profound sense, success in the struggle will be almost a revolution."

Chaim Gans’ Distinction Between the Injustices Committed Against the Palestinians in ’48 and ‘67

Liberal Zionists believe that Israel committed injustices against the Palestinian people in 1948 (and its aftermath) and in 1967 (and its aftermath) – but they try to distinguish between the two, and to find some moral mitigation for the former. Right-winger and left-winger intellectuals like Yosef Ben-Shlomo and Yehuda Shenhav don't buy the distinction. For them, the West Bank settlements are no different from the post-1948 settlements within the Green Line – and it is hypocritical to attempt to make a distinction.

Tel-Aviv university professor Chaim Gans published an op-ed in Haaretz this week that tries to make a moral distinction between the two sets of injustices. His argument is based on the distinction in just war theory between jus ad bellam and jus in bello, between the questions whether a war is just, and whether its conduct is just. According to Gans, the declaration of the state in 1948 was just because the Jewish people needed a state to ensure its survival and its prospering after the Holocaust. But this does not mean that the decisions taken during that war were ipso facto just; on the contrary, a just war can be waged unjustly (e.g., the carpet bombing of Dresden by the Allies.) So although some injustice to the Palestinian was required for establishing a state, that injustice should be viewed as a necessary evil, the impact of which should be reduced. This does not, according to Gans, include the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homes, which was a war crime and unjustified.

By contrast, argues Gans, the settlements created after 1967 have nothing to do with the survival and flourishing of the Jewish state, but only with claims of ownership and historical rights over the Land of Israel. Gans rejects all such claims as irrelevant to the justice of Zionism (although he admits that they may serve to help locate the Jewish state in Palestine). If Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state is based solely on the historical claim that the Jews owned the Land of Israel and never lost that sense of ownership, then the State of Israel has no right to exist, according to Gans.

The post-'67 settlements (in contrast to an Israeli military presence in the territories) cannot be justified on the basis of the needs of a persecuted nation. The settlements are the bases for the continuing injustices committed by a powerful state. These wrongs are being carried out many decades after the persecution of the Jews ended. They are in effect acts of persecution committed by Jews against Arabs with the backing of the Jewish state. So the Zionism in whose name they are carried out cannot be considered just.

Some have claimed that the West Bank is vital for Israel's security. Fine, says, Gans, but that only justifies military control, not settlement.

Gans' argument rests inter alia on the empirical premise that the Jewish people needed a state in order to survive and flourish, that their self-determination required a state. Or, to use the just-war theory language, the establishment of a Jewish state, with the inevitable injustice to the indigenous people, was historically a "last resort." But this premise is highly questionable, and for a Zionist to assume it begs the question. Many peoples anchored to a land failed to survive over the course of human history; ditto for the more recent phenomenon of nation states. Some have suggested that the Jewish people's survival was due, in part, at least, to its dispersion among other nations: or, to be precise, because it fostered a historical memory and common consciousness of being a nation, despite the development of different Jewish communities, bearing a family resemblance, on different soils. There are Jews who feel threatened by Israel's actions, and there are Jews who feel shame because of them. Herzl's utopian vision didn't take that into account. For the hardcore Zionist, of course, the Jew living in the Diaspora was like a comatose patient on life-support – barely surviving, with no autonomy, and with no dignity. But this is a debatable proposition (the annals of Zionism are full of such debates) as are the propositions that a Jewish state best enables Jewish culture to survive and flourish, or allows the Jewish people to be masters of their fate, or that it gives Jews outside that state a feeling of dignity and pride. So it seems to me that Gans' distinction assumes too much of the Zionist ideology as true to be helpful (Of course, this was only an op-ed, where space is at a premium.)

How do the Palestinians fit into all this? They are the innocent bystanders, the collateral damage of the Zionist project. The Zionists would have been happy for them to go away, and indeed, they ethnically cleansed Palestine of most of them for the sake of the Zionist project. They knew that the establishment of a Jewish state would involve injustice towards them, but both Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky argued that the injustice suffered by stateless Palestinian Arabs was considerably less than the injustice suffered by a stateless Jewish people, since the nationalist aspirations of the former could be fulfilled in one of many Arab states. (Neither of them recognized Palestinian Arabs as a people). Gans does not make this argument, but on the contrary, argues for the desirability of the Palestinian state, for limiting Jewish hegemony, in short for a smaller, "gentler" Zionism than proposed by the likes of Ben-Gurion. He does all of this in the book on the right of my blog, and in a forthcoming book in Hebrew.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Bernard Avishai: Targeted Sanctions, Yes; Boycott and Divestment, No

Bernard Avishai is one of few consistently interesting writers on Israel/Palestine On the left, yet a fervent capitalist, he is a strong advocate of transforming Israel from an ethnocracy with liberal trappings to a truly liberal democracy. So when he writes against the Boycott and Divestment movement (in the Nation, no less, and on his blog), using economic considerations upon which he is expert, his arguments deserve serious consideration.

He argues that divestment campaigns are counterproductive, just as they were counterproductive in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s. Citing an interview he once conducted with an anti-apartheid South African CEO, he comes to the conclusion that they undercut progressive forces in business and in education. These progressive forces include not only Israeli Jews, but, increasingly, members of the Palestinian sector who are secular and educated. If I understand Avishai here, boycott and divestment makes even less sense in the case of Israel than in the case of South Africa. For one thing it slows the globalization of Israeli commerce and industry, which will be to the detriment of the secular forces in society. He asks:

Who gains from economic decline and the inevitable consequence of most educated Israelis fleeing to, well, the Bay Area? Wouldn't the rightists, also about 40 percent, be most satisfied to see Israel become a little Jewish Pakistan?

Boycott and Divestment would accomplish driving Israel into an even greater siege mentality

How will B and D do anything but make all Israelis feel demonized and prone to apocalyptic thinking and ethnic cleansing? Already, polls suggest that the Israeli center, which is skeptical of the settlers, feels "the West" does not appreciate what it is like to live with suicide bombers and missile attacks.

Targeted sanctions, on the other hand, are something that Avishai supports:

Foreign governments might well ban consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos produced by Israelis in occupied territory, much as Palestinian retail stores do. The EU already requires Israel to distinguish products this way. If Israel continues building in East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council majority sanctions Israeli tourism, the US government might well choose not to veto the resolution. The Pentagon might sanction, say, Israel Aerospace Industries if, owing to continued settlement, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations break down.

What's the difference between divestment and targeted sanctions? Divestment hurts the growth of the private sector, globalization, and the vision of a secular, liberal society. Targeted sanctions make maximum noise without really hurting the Israeli economy, at least not those necessary for progressive forces.

Bottom line:

Sanction the Israeli government for activities that obstruct peacemaking. Hurt the settlements. But boycott and divest from the private sector, and you maycreate an economic implosion. Israel's ratio of debt to GDP looks eerily like that of the weakest EU economies. Unlike Greece, Israel has a rising class of cosmopolitan entrepreneurs who have been politically complacent, especially during the second intifada and Bush administration. But only they can lead the country out of political crisis—and only if they can hold on to their prestige, which is itself rooted in international commerce. This prestige, after all, is what diplomatic "engagement" aims to achieve—does it not? We want the soft power of global markets to encourage the formation of more worldly business and professional classes everywhere, from Russia to Syria

End of piece.

My first reaction is that the global BD movement must have been a lot more successful than I thought for Avishai to get so worked up about it. He seems to think that the movement has the potential of truly emulating the South African BD. But I think that this is highly unlikely. Or perhaps he is gazing into a crystal ball and I am assessing the here and now. But the one effect today of the BDS movement is to serve as a wake-up call to the Israelis who always view themselves as moral exemplars. Or to put it another way, the BDS movement is there to embarrass Israel, to point out its flaws, to keep it in the news, and to reveal its nakedness. That it could seriously damage its economy is, at this stage, anyway, preposterous. Here's an analogy: thousands of Jews put pennies into the little blue charity-boxes of the Jewish National Fund in order to redeem the Land of Israel for the Jews. To this day I know Jews who think that a state was purchased through those pennies! Those boxes had as much effect on getting a Jewish state as BDS has on Israel's economic and intellectual resources – very little.

Yet that doesn't mean that BDS is ineffectual. On the contrary, to an Israeli populace that agonizes daily over its image in the world BDS is enormously important. And not just BDS. One boat with nine dead managed to do what thousands of rockets could not do – force Israel to life the economic embargo on Gaza.

Far from undercutting progressives, BDS – or if you will, BDS Lite -- emboldens them to stand up and say, "Hey, look we are really becoming something like apartheid; we are losing the human rights war; we have to do something."

Avishai talks like the economist that he is. I could agree with him that serious damage to Israel's economy in areas that are important to Palestinians and Israelis alike are not helpful. I also agree that mild US sanctions may have a greater impact than all the student governments on American campuses voting for divestment from Caterpillar.

But as I have written before, the global BDS movement, though economically symbolic, has psychological effect on Israel, and is sufficiently flexible that you can choose B with D and S, or S without B and D (as Avishai has done.) In fact, what he calls sanctions against settler companies I call boycott of settler companies.

That's enough for me to see Avishai and us on the same side of "smart BDS." Three hours before I read his piece in the Nation, I signed a petition calling for TIAA-CREF, my pension fund, to divest from certain companies that "benefit from the Occupation". The importance of this right now is not the divestment, which, I believe will not happen.

It's the petition itself.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Thought Experiment

Many philosophers like thought experiments; ethicists really like them. You know, the "say-you-are-on-a-desert-island-with-enough-water-just-for-you" variety of thought experiment.

So here's one:

In going through the confiscated tapes and videos of the passengers of the Mavi Marmara, you see the video of an execution of a Turkish passenger. The execution, on the face of it, not only contradicts the IDF's official verson of what happened, but it pretty clearly shows a serious violation of IDF code of ethics reports. If you release this video, however, you undermine the credibility of Israel's hasbara attempts, and you invite international condemnation, that could be construed as a threat to Israel's security. Lying ot the public for the sake of security is a time-honored tradition in many, if not all, countries.

What would you do?

It won't do to answer,"The scenario is impossible," because there is well-documented and undisputed evidence of such behavior on the part of all soldiers, including Israeli. One doesn't need a Breaking the Silence handbook of testimonies for that.

Nor will it work to say, "Such a cover-up will be discovered" because many cover-ups are never discovered; sometimes they are revealed by a historian fifty years later.

So what would you do?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dont’ Buy Golan Wines…and Sue Me

American Jewry is only beginning to wake up to the idea that Israel has marched much farther to the right than it ever imagined possible. Peter Beinart noted it, but Abe Foxman didn't get the message, and Beinart called him on that. See here. Every other week, it seems, the Knesset proposes another bill violating civil liberties. And these bills are not just the brainchildren of ultra-nationalists – well, until you realize that all of Israel to the right of Meretz is "ultra-nationalist"

Sydney Levy of Jewish Voices for Peace wrote up the latest travesty on the Only Democracy in the Middle East website. (This, by the way, is a very good website for monitoring the decline of Israeli democracy.)

What is Israel's reaction to the growing nonviolent movement of boycott, divestment, and sanctions? Well criminalize it, of course!

We just learned that a new bill has been introduced in the Israeli Knesset by 25 Knesset members that would criminalize all BDS activities or even BDS advocacy inside or outside Israel. You can find info about this in English here and with more detail in Hebrew here.

The proposed bill would target those that initiate, encourage, or provide assistance or information about boycotts against Israel.

  1. Israeli citizens or residents of Israel could be sued by whoever was harmed by the boycott and would have to pay up to 30,000 shekels in restitution and an additional amount according to the harm established by the Israeli courts.
    This provision would endanger the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, New Profile, Boycott from Within, among others.
  2. Those that are neither citizens nor residents of Israel would lose the ability of entering Israel for at least ten years and would be forbidden from economic activity in Israel (holding an account in an Israeli bank, owning Israeli stocks, land, or any other good that requires registration.)
    It is not clear whether this provision would apply also to entry into the West Bank, although Prof. Noam Chomsky's denial of entry may be a sign of things to come.
  3. A group in a foreign country would also be forbidden from economic activism in Israel. This would apply to the Palestinian Authority as well.

    In the case of the PA, Israel would freeze transfer of money it owes and would use it to pay restitution to those harmed in Israel.

For example:

If, as an Israeli citizen, I sign a petition calling for a boycott of Golan Wines, I can be sued by the Golan wine companies for losses. If I publicize and support Gush Shalom's list of settlement goods to boycott, I can be sued. I suppose if I convince Elvis Costello to cancel his appearances in Israel, I can be sued by irate ticket holders.

If, as a foreigner, I call for a boycott or divestment I can be barred from Israel for that reason alone.

The worse, of course is no. 3 The Palestinian Authority is now urging Palestinians to boycott goods manufactured by the settlers, i.e., the guys who stole and live off their land. This is hurting the settlers' economy. So the settlers had the bright idea that some of the Palestinian tax money that is collected for the PA by Israel will compensate for that loss. You guys don't want to pay money for our products? You will pay money for them even without getting them.

When Israel feels its security threatened by the Palestinians, it has a vast array of economic weapons at its disposal, from boycotts, to closures, to intimidations. But when the Palestinians feel threaten, what can they do?

What is the answer? Not peace. For a peace between Israel and Palestine with the present imbalance of power, in which one is still in a very vulnerable position, will invite this sort of economic warfare. No, what is necessary is strengthening the Palestinian side so that its power will be on a par with Israel's – economically and militarily. Then neither side will find it to its advantage to hurt the other side. (And presumably, the benefits of cooperation will also be felt.)

I should not that this bill is supported by the ultra-nationalist centrist parties and will pass. I heard it reported on the radio with nary a note of criticism.

But…far be it from me to end before Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh on a bad note. Today's Haaretz carried a petition criticizing the Israeli demonization of human rights NGOs, both inside and outside Israel. Many of the signatories were the usual liberal Zionists, but some, like Prof. Yedidya Stern of Bar Ilan University, are straight in the center of the political map.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Turkish Doctor Who Treated the Israeli Commandos on the Marmara

In my last post I featured a picture of an Israeli commando being treated by a passenger of the Marmara (you know, the ship where the passengers intended to kill the commandos, according to the IDF Spokesperson office.) I took that picture from Ali Abunimah's blog, and he had it from a Flickr site.

So when I saw that Robert Mackey of the Lede NY Times blog had not posted the picture with other pictures released to news agencies, I called him on it, as did others. At first he said he wasn't sure the picture was genuine, and he referred me to doubts expressed by Noam Sheizaf in his Promised Land blog. But all Noam had said was that he didn't know whether it was genuine or not, not that he doubted its authenticity.

In the meantime, Mackey did some important leg work, and tracked down the passenger, a Dr. Hasan Huseyin Uysal. He and Sebnem Arsu conducted an interview with Dr. Uysal here.

Some excerpts from the interview:

In a telephone interview conducted in Turkish, Dr. Uysal said that he had treated three Israeli commandos and argued that this proved that the passengers had no intention of killing them:

First of all it's against logic that these soldiers would not be killed but instead be taken to the medical center if the intention of the activists was to kill them. If people on board were so eager to hurt them, why would they not just shoot them to death once they had taken their guns? Why bother carting them inside for treatment? It just doesn't add up.

I am a doctor, and the Israeli soldiers were brought to me to check their medical situation and treat them properly. I had our dead bodies and injured people lying in front of me and I was treating the soldiers that actually killed and wounded them. None of our friends in the center approached to harm or hurt them. Our injured people were lying on the ground, but I rested the soldiers on our chairs.

Asked about the wounds the commandos suffered, the doctor said:

None of the soldiers had any fatal wounds that would cause organ loss or defects. There were scratches on their faces, but since facial skin is sensitive and very likely to bleed in any trauma, there was blood on their faces — which I cleaned carefully to see what kind of injuries they had. In the end, they happened to be only scratches.

The third soldier, however, suffered a cut in his stomach that reached his stomach membrane but not the organ itself. It was nothing fatal. As a doctor, I wouldn't want to guess the nature of this injury but it could have been caused by either landing on a sharp pole from the helicopter or a blow from a pipe with a sharp edge. I couldn't tell.

In either case, it was not fatal but it had to be stitched. However, since we did not ever expect such a confrontation, we had not brought any stitching equipment on board. All we had was simple medical material to dress simple wounds, or drops to ease burning in case tear gas was used. If I had stitching material with me, although I am an eye doctor, I would have treated the boy properly in accordance with my general medical knowledge. I couldn't.

Dr. Uysal said the commandos "were very startled and very scared." He added:

With my broken English I tried to tell them that I was a doctor and there was no need to be afraid and that nobody was going to hurt them. They relaxed after a while and watched us running around, jumping from one patient to another in tears, faced with our friends bathed in blood. I also asked our assistants to keep an eye on them so that they would not be threatened.

We could have as well left them to their fate, but this is not the humanity that we act with. We asked photographers not to film in the medical center and I have no idea how and when that picture was taken but God never leaves good deeds unheard. That picture shows the difference between the Israelis and us.

Asked if he could tell how long after sound grenades were thrown at the ship, at the start of the raid, that the gunshots were fired, Dr. Uysal said: "I was in the lower deck, but could hear all the explosions and gunfire. There was no way I can differentiate the gunshots or other sounds — I am only a doctor, after all."

After the Israeli military took control of the ship, the doctor said that he was treated no differently from the other passengers:

They handcuffed all of us with plastic bands so tightly that they could easily cause irreversible damage to our shoulder tissues. They made us kneel on our knees with hands handcuffed as the helicopters caused sea water to splash on us for three hours. I was shouting that I was a doctor and that my shoulder hurt in a very serious way. They pretended not to hear me. I wanted to go to the toilet; they didn't let me. After I kept yelling about my shoulder they let my hands loose but not those of my friends.

According to Mackey, the other man in the picture was also interviewed in the Turkish media

On Tuesday, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published an interview with Murat Akinan, the man seen standing next to Dr. Uysal in the photographs of him treating a commando, and bringing the Israeli inside the ship in another photograph.

Mr. Akinan said that the captured soldier had been entrusted to him by Bulent Yildirim, the director of the Turkish aid organization I.H.H., who said: "Murat, take him and make sure that he'll be safe. Be careful, don't allow anyone to touch him."

So, Mr. Akinan said, "I took him downstairs yelling, 'Stop! No one will touch this man entrusted to me.' "

He added: "I called the doctor on board and asked him for treatment. Two more soldiers came. People were reacting. I had all three treated. I said to two to three wise people around me that we would not allow anyone to touch them."

According to Mr. Akinan, during his subsequent interrogation in Israeli custody, he was shown a photograph in which the soldier he was leading inside the ship was hit despite his efforts.

"I told them that I couldn't stop everyone," he said. He also claimed that the interrogator admitted that photographs showed that he had acted "with goodwill" toward the Israeli captive in his care.

Back to Jerry. Cynics will say that the commandos were more valuable to the Turks alive (as hostages) than dead. But that flies again in the face of the IDF Spokesperson remarks above.

And according to Haaretz, an Israeli intelligence and terrorism NGO reporting that according to intelligence reports, the troublemakers on the deck were about 40 Turkish “security guards” associated with the IHH, and that the rest of the passengers were not involved. That’s a bit less than 10% of the boat.

The report said while most of the Mavi Marmara's 500 passengers were humanitarian volunteers who underwent security checks before boarding the ship at Antalya in Turkey, a group of 40 IHH activists had boarded the ship in an Istanbul port beforehand, keeping apart from the rest of the passengers throughout the journey. If these reports are correct (and they have all sorts of problems with them, which I won’t go into now), then that would not conflict with the behavior of good people like Dr. Uysal.

But once again, how can we believe Israel until an independent investigation is launched?

Monday, June 7, 2010

The IDF Spokesperson's Detachment from Reality

Ali Abunimah reproduced some of the Turkish pictures from the Mavi Marmara on his blog. (If you are a subscriber and don't see the pictures, go to Ali's blog.)

On these and other pictures the IDF spokesperson responded, "This is clear proof of Israel's repeated claims, that the boat was carrying mercenaries, whose sole purpose was to kill the soldiers."

Now when I look at the picture -- no, when any normal, sane person looks at the picture -- I see a soldier being treated for wounds. Even if the wounds were inflicted by some of the Turkish passengers, does this scene look the effect of people "whose sole purpose was to kill soldiers."

So I can only conclude that either the IDF Spokesperson's Unit is made up of babbling idiots -- and I know that not to be true, from personal acquaintance -- or that it simply assumes that most people will not bother to look at the pictures and that it can say what it likes.

The scariest possibility is that some people look at this picture and see the bald-headed fellow trying to kill the commando. If such people exist, then they make holocaust deniers seem eminently reasonable in comparison.

Why isn’t the Israeli commando talking about how he was treated, as portrayed in the picture?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tevye’s Anatevka and Nasr’s Yalu

At the end of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the protagonist Tevye and his friends are banished by the Russian authorities from their village, Anatevka. It is a very moving scene. (Above is a picture from a current production of Fiddler in Jerusalem; full disclosure: I play Tevye.)

Night after night in the theater, as Israeli Jews watch actors reenact the Jewish exodus from a mythical shtetl (loosely based on the events of 1905), I wonder to myself how many of them make a connection between wha they see and the forced exodus of Palestinian Arabs from their villages. And if they make the connection, what is the effect?

From my own limited experience, I have found that refugees, or more accurately, their children, are not particularly sympathetic to other refugees. Of course, I shouldn't generalize. But I hear the argument that since we (or our parents) were able to become acclimated in our new lives, why should we shed tears for other refugees who haven't done the same thing? In Israel you hear this sentiment expressed by Ashkenazim about the Sephardim (Orientals): "My parents came here as poor refugees and worked hard to pick themselves up. Why should I feel sorry for those whiners?" And you also hear, "OK, they were also done an injustice, but, hey, they should get over it already after forty three years." When I point out that many Palestinians have indeed worked hard to pick themselves up, in America, France, Jordan, I get the response, "So what are they whining about?" This is from Zionists who claim a right to return to Eretz Yisrael after a two-thousand year "exile".

When I see the end of Fiddler I cannot help thinking that the Russian authorities who forced Jews like Tevye to sell their houses were in a better moral position than the Jews who refused to allow Palestinians back into their homes. After all, the authorities gave Tevye and his friends three days to sell their houses and made it clear to them that they would not be returning. They sold their property at a loss, obviously, but they sold. In the case of the Palestinians, those who left their home during fighting were not allowed back into their homes after the area was seized by Israel – even if they were still in the vicinity. Ah, but you will say that the Jews didn't do anything against the Czar. Uh…how many Jews led the revoution?

Today along the 443 road there is a demonstration noting 43 years of Occupation. This is from the press release of the organizers:

The villages Yalu, Imwas and Bet-Nuba in the Latrun enclave were completely destroyed by the Israeli army during the occupation in June 1967. On some of their lands settlements such as Mavo Horon were built; other lands became the Canada Park, where Israeli citizens spend their leisure time.

For many years the uprooted residents of the three villages used to convene on these lands on the 4th of June. Yet, even this symbolic act was taken away from them with the erection of the Separation Wall. The land which used to be their home is now forbidden for visitation. However, the uprooted residents don't comply with their expulsion and insist on their right to return.

The majority of the families live today in the villages around the road 443. During the 80's, thousands of dunams were expropriated from the residents of these villages under the pretense that the road will serve them as a major route to Ramallah. However, the road is closed to Palestinian vehicles for years. The Supreme Court has ordered to open a section of the road, in a way that will not enable easy access to Ramallah through the checkpoints of Bitunia or Kalandia. The opened road will hence lead to nowhere.

In our joint rally on June 4th we will raise our voice against the policy of expropriation and segregation and call together for life in dignity, equality and freedom.

The story of Yalu, Imwas, and Beit Nuba is particularly sad, as described here

Tom Segev and Jessica Cohen write that, in 1967, Yalou was one of three populated villages in the Latrun area where residents were told to leave their homes and gather in an open area outside the villages, after which they were ordered over loudspeakers to march to Ramallah. Segev and Cohen estimate that about 8,000 people left as a result of that order. They also write that, "In the general order distributed to Central Command soldiers, Imwas and Yalu were associated with the failure to take the area in 1948 and were described as 'terms of disappointment, terms of a long and painful account, which has now been settled to the last cent.'"[11]

So this was a "price tag" operation – failure to take the area in 1948 sealed the villages' doom in 1967.

In Fiddler on the Roof Tevye's daughter converts to Russian Orthodoxy and marries a Russian named Fyedka. When Fyedka hears of the expulsion order of the Jews he becomes sickened and, together with Chava, decides to leave Anatevka. He obviously does not believe that things can be changed.

Will we Israelis be forced to become like Fyedka? Or will we, like Tevye's other son-in-law, Perchik, stay here and fight the injustice?


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some Grounds for Optimism

Moshe Arens, former Defense Minister, and noted Israeli hawk, has endorsed a one-state solution for Israel/Palestine. It can be achieved in a matter of months. Israel should formally annex the West Bank and offer the Palestinians citizenship. As he puts it:

Adding another 1.5 million Muslims, the population of Judea and Samaria, to Israel's Muslim population would of course make the situation considerably more difficult. Would a 30-percent Muslim minority in Israel create a challenge that would be impossible for Israeli society to meet? That is a question that Israeli politicians, and all Israelis - Jews and Arabs alike - need to ponder.

Unlike the dire predictions heard so often, Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria would not be the end of the State of Israel, nor would it mean the end of democratic governance in Israel. It would, however, pose a serious challenge to Israeli society. But that is equally true for the other options being suggested for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This option of Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria merits serious consideration.

Of course, Arens is not interested in adding Gaza to the equation; he doesn't care about the former Philistine region from an Eretz Yisrael standpoint, and he doesn't want all those Arabs. The fact that the Palestinian people are located in both the West Bank and Gaza, and in other places around the world, means nothing to him. And it is not as if Arens is giving up on his credentials. The idea not to annex the territories was conceived by the Labor Zionists, and not by Herutniks of Arens ilk. He presumably would keep the same legal mechanisms in place to keep Israel Jewish – the law of return and the nationality law.

Still, there is an element of thinking-outside-the-box, and if the effect of the Arens' piece (he joins Reuven Rivlin here) is to think of different ways to end the Occupation, then that is a blessing in itself.

It sure beats proximity talks.


George W. Obama and the Israeli Spin Machine in America

Where to start, where to start?

Israeli government radio and the tabloids parrot the hasbara machine, interviewing the mother of a naval commando while not interviewing any passengers of the Flotilla (at least none that I heard). The Israeli spin is that the Turkish ship had terrorists and mercenaries, that once again the IDF was defeated by its hyper-morality and good-naturedness, and that the world is hypocritical. Nothing new there. Haaretz, as usual, is a beacon of liberal Zionism, with its annual writers' issue dominated by Amos Oz's essay on the limits of power, an essay that could have been written (except for some details) anytime in the last forty three years , although it would accurately describe Israel from its inception. Oz, like other aging liberal Zionists in Israel, hearken back to the mythical Gan Eden/Garden of Eden that was the state before the sin of 1967; all this is weary, stale, and unprofitable stuff. We are locked into some kind of eternal return machine, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

I shudder to think what the next Israeli "price tag" attack on Palestiniean civilians will be. A state whose elite unit was humiliated by Turks with clubs and dagger will need to "reestablish deterrence." We have been through this before as well. After the Second Lebanese War, that feeling of fashlah/failure and humiliation among the Israeli public led to the war crimes of the Gaza Operation. I hope Israel will not take the advice of one of my friends here on Facebook, who said, "Next time we should not risk the lives of our soldiers; we should just torpedo the boats." Of course, were Israel to do something like that, they would say that there were weapons on the boat.

Here I sit in Jerusalem and see the utter disconnect between the World and the US, a disconnect that happens frequently when talking about Israel and the Middle East. The mainstream media in the US has been bombarded by the Israeli spin machine in the last forty-eight hours, and a content analysis would show this. And we are not talking about Fox News. Let's take that liberal, progressive cable channel, MSNBC. The best one can expect will be an attempt for balance, right? I mean, this is what it means to be progressive on Israel in the US – gently criticize, then talk about its real security problems, then go on to bash Sarah Palin. But no, we have three Israel-cheerers, followed by journalist and blogger Glenn Greenwald for "balance". Among the Israel cheerers is guest-host, Eliot Spitzer, Hopkins law professor Ruth Wedgwood (nee Glushien) and former Netanayahu chief of staff, George Birnbaum. As if that were not enough, Wedgwood, known for her neocon political views and her support of Bush administration policies like military tribunals, was brought back to respond to Glenn Greenwald. (Greenwald's short segment is well-worth watching on his blog here)

And all this on MSNBC, the station of Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow (for the complaints of her viewers that MSNBC is neglecting the Flotilla story read here). Once again, you have the "progressive-on-everything-but-Israel" syndrome. When will that change? Probably not for some time now.

And the Obama White House has once again shown that on Israel it is continuing the policies of the previous administration; it doesn't even talk tough anymore. And why? Well, there are several reasons. Israeli newspapers point to the need to cultivate and retain pro-Israel fundraisers and donors, and an election year is not the best time to go head-to-head with Israel. So the official reaction is to deplore the deaths, not to condemn anybody, and to ask for time to study the situation. I would like to think that this will end in November, but it won't. When Rahm Emanuel takes a bar mitzvah trip to the Occupied Golan Heights with his son, you know that there is something much more basic. Obama was elected with a lot of Jewish – oops, I mean, pro-Israel money, and don't expect to see anything new, there. After the election, maybe some tough talk, maybe a peace plan, but a lot of backtracking after that. Every year is an election year.

I would like to think that the above explanation for Obama's wishy-washiness is indeed his motivation. What I fear, though, is that he and the White House think that they are acting on principle and not because of political expediency.

My fear is that Obama sees the Flotilla business as one of his "distractions," something to get by in order to advance the peace process. Well, Mr. Obama, THERE IS NO PEACE PROCESS NOR WILL THERE EVER BE ONE IN THE CURRENT CONSTELLATION OF PARTIES. It is past time to say that human rights of the Gazans trump peace; that holding those rights hostage to a never-ending process, in which absolutely no progress has been made, is a scandal. Better to stop the peace process now and ensure that these rights are not trampled on.

The blockade must end now; Fatah and Hamas must get their act together; Israel must negotiate with all the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people. That is in the short term. In the long term, those representatives will have to speak for not only the Palestinians in Palestine land now, but for the Palestinians barred from returning to their land.

President Obama could have saved a lot of time had he took one man into this administration who is saying the above: Robert Malley. See the response to the Flotilla fiasco by the International Crisis Center, where Malley heads the Middle East section. That response places the blame squarely on the shoulders not only of Israel but of the United State and the Quartet's support of the blockade.