Thursday, September 23, 2010

Happy Sukkot – New Comments Policy

Because of the large number of Anonymous comments I get, which I find very confusing because I don't know who is who, I have decided to limit comments to registered users. I am not actually sure what that means, actually, but I think it is a little broader than just folks with google ids.

Before some start accusing me of a double standard, since I don't use any of my given names, may I add that you don't have to leave your given name, just some name or handle that identifies you. After all, Bacci40 and Y. Ben David, not to mention Child of Abraham, don't use their given names, and I don't think that cramps their style.

Let's see if that works.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Jeffrey Goldberg Sits With the Self-Styled “Friends of Israel”

For liberal-hawk supporters of Israel like Jeffrey Goldberg (and Alan Dershowitz and Marty Peretz and a host of other Democrats forty-four and over), the last years have been difficult. They blink uncomprehendingly at how the Jewish state has increasingly been "abandoned" by the left and by liberals. They are personally uncomfortable about the Occupation and the settlement enterprise, but not so uncomfortable as to raise their voices loudly against Israel's human rights violations and systematic discrimination against its Palestinian citizens and subjects. For one thing, Israel is so fundamentally good in their eyes that it is hard to consider them worse than other states who are "existentially threatened"; for another, to speak openly of these matters would be to ally themselves with the "delegitimizers" and the "detractors."

Goldberg blogged about his attendance at the dinner of the new "Friends of Israel" organization founded by the former president of Spain, Jose Aznar, a strong supporter of George W. Bush and an Islam basher. Aznar is a superhawk who sees radical Islam as a major threat to the West. And he sees Israel as standing in the forefront of the battle against this major threat. (I often wonder how some goyyim are so quick to push the Jews to the front of the line when it comes to Armageddon.)

As I have said many times before, it is important for these sorts of "friends of Israel" to know that they include only those "liberals" who supported the Second Iraq War, urge (somebody's) military action against Iran if crippling sanctions don't work, and accept the "clash of civilization" thesis that lumps groups like al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbollah, and Iran's government in the same boat.

A glance at the names that the ex-president managed to gather shows the conservative bent of all of them (and not only John Bolton, who is a member of the board). Even Vaclav Havel, who was trumpeted as a human rights defender (like his friend, Natan Sharansky; for the possible Sharansky-Havel connection, see Jim Lobe here and here), has joined the group. I wonder precisely how Havel, who did not attend, reacted to this part of Aznar's speech:

On top of that, Israel is under a new kind of attack. Not conventional war as in 1948, 56, 67 or 73. Not terrorism as we saw in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But a new kind of attack – an attack on Israel's legitimacy, on her right to exist. A "soft-war", where many of its adversaries are employing legal tricks, multinational bodies, and an army of dubious NGO's to present internationally Israel as an illegitimate state, as a barbarian State, a State that should be isolated and converted into a pariah State.

Take that, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, not to mention B'Tselem! How dare you criticize Israeli human rights violations? What, you don't actually question Israel's right to exist? Well, maybe you don't, but you sure bash it enough that it is hard for it to exist.

And that is no doubt why Jeffrey Goldberg is at this meeting of (mostly) out-of-power conservatives. It all boils down to those existential fears which trump everything. As Goldberg puts it,

What other country, sixty-two years after its birth (rebirth, actually) requires advocates to argue that it should continue to exist? Why is it that the world's only Jewish country is the only country to persistently face questions about its own legitimacy?

Actually, it is not the only country to persistently face questions about its own legitimacy. As Paul Woodward of War in Context points out, Taiwan's legitimacy is persistently questioned. He writes (in a personal communication):

The existential threat to Taiwan posed by the People's Republic is vastly greater than that posed to Israel by any combination of Middle East threats one wants to conjure up, but that does not lead the Taiwanese to engage in the same kind of histrionics that the Israelis are subject to.

But here's the main point for the self-styled "Friends of Israel" to consider: What other country founded after World War II involved the displacement of the natives by a foreign settler nationalist movement, plunging the region into a still unresolved conflict, and which has occupied territory for forty-three years, denying basic human rights to the natives while expropriating their land and controlling their lives – AND, all the while, claiming to be a Western-style liberal democracy?

Israel's inability to live in peace with the Palestinians– even if it is not solely responsible for the mess – is primarily responsible for raising the questions not of its legitimacy, but of the root of its persistently bad behavior. It's the Occupation and the Conflict, stupid. If the Occupation were to end and a just solution to Palestinian statelessness would arise, then Israel would still have plenty of foundational problems, especially in its discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens. See here for the latest. But the world would not care about those, just as it now does not care about those now.

Surely Goldberg realizes that no Zionist ever maintained before the nations of the world that the price for a Jewish state in Palestine would be unending war and deprivation of basic human rights, unless the Palestinian natives capitulated. Even Lord Balfour would not have issued a declaration for that sort of Jewish homeland.

So the issue is not whether Israel is a liberal state or not, or a state of which liberals can be proud. Goldberg writes:

Israel's many flaws have not (yet, at least) overwhelmed the fundamental truth that it is the safest and best place in the Middle East to be, among other things, a woman, a gay person, a journalist, and a dissident

This is true, and worth being proud about, though the trends toward increased fundamentalism and illiberalism in Israel are disturbing. (And the fact that Israel is better than Saudi Arabia on this point isn't exactly worth crowing about.) But Israel is also a place of systematic and never-ending discrimination against Israeli Palestinians and deprivation of human rights of all Palestinians. In terms of fundamental human rights, West-Bank Palestinians are much worse off than the Jews of Morocco and Iran.

A true liberal shouldn't crow about a country's liberal achievements and quietly put the violations on the back burner – until peace comes

Goldberg wants to marginalize deligitimization? To do that he is going to have to marginalize a lot of Israeli human rights groups, the New Israel Fund, Meretz, Haaretz newspaper, etc. He'll have to marginalize the people he admires.

And I don't envy him for that one bit.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Jewish New Year Message of Hope and Change

I am often accused of "doom and gloom" pessimism. "Why don't you write anything nice about Israel?" I am asked. "Why are you so down about the future?"

I am not pessimistic -- in the long run.

With respect to the survival of my people, the Jewish people, I cannot be pessimistic. We have survived much worse than our current travails (due to the dark cloud of ethnic chauvinism that hangs over many Jews.) And as a traditional Jew, I believe that God's promise of indestructibility to the Jewish people, born out by history, remains eternal. And as for that other promise of the Land of Israel – that, too, remains eternal. But for the Jews to be truly at home here today and tomorrow, they cannot be usurpers or conquerors. Political Zionism turned them into those. That stage will pass and a new political regime will appear. Israel, I pray, will become a liberal democracy and cease being an ethnocracy, membership of which is guaranteed through religious conversion. And that new regime will preserve, I believe, all that is good about Israel and Israelis – and that is an enormous amount.

With respect to the survival of the conquered and dispossessed, the Palestinian people, I cannot be pessimistic. For sixty plus years Israeli Jews have written them off. "They will be absorbed by their brother Arabs"; "They are fellahin without national consciousness"; "Jordan is Palestine". Yet they are still here in Palestine, and in their diaspora, and they continue to grow in numbers and in political strength. Their cause is being championed by more and more people of good will, including, I am proud to say, Jews.

In the short term, the inhuman occupation will continue, and, tragically for them and for us, the Palestinians will continue to suffer. But there is a light at the end of their tunnel. And ours.

In the meantime, I will do what I always do, kvetch, and enjoy the company of kvetchers, praise the activists who fight for justice, castigate the excessive tribalists (especially the ones with brains who should know better), and respectfully disagree with those who respectfully disagree with me, of whatever political stripe.

For the sin of snarkiness and impatience (especially in the comments section), I am truly sorry.

Shanah Tovah – Have a good year!

Reposted with Video: A Fiddler On the Roof in Ariel? Sounds Crazy, No?

Jewish Voice of Peace gets a big yasher koah for lining up some of the most talented theater people in the US and UK to support the decision of Israeli actors not to appear in the Occupied Territories. That decision was backed also by a list of Israeli academics and cultural icons of the Zionist and non-Zionist left.

What is interesting about JVP's list that it doesn't include just the usual suspects. OK, so Vanessa Redgrave is there. But so is somebody who almost never signs petitions, the great Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. In fact, the number of first-time signers demonstrates that every day more and more people are jumping on the "No-business-as-usual-in-the-Occupation" bandwagon.

Among the signatories I noticed one of the giants of the Broadway musical stage, Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for the Fiddler on the Roof. Of course, his approval is not needed to put on the show in Ariel, and the Cameri Theater may one day bring it there.

But I know one Tevye who won't appear there: the legendary Theodore Bikel, who has played Tevye more times, apparently, than Topol. He, too, is a signatory.

And here is another Tevye who has endorsed the actor's letter, singing Harnick's "If I Were a Rich Man" in a recent Jerusalem production of Fiddler.

Email subscribers: you can see the clip here

Shanah Tovah/Happy New Year!

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Tikvah Fund’s “Censorious” New Webzine: “Jewish (Rightwing) Ideas Daily”

The Tikvah Fund has launched a Jewish webzine called, "Jewish Ideas Daily." I became aware of its existence when one of its contributing editors requested permission to link to an article I had written. I wasn't familiar with JID, but I gave my consent. In my naiveté, I thought that the webzine would host a spectrum of opinions, albeit one within the Zionist consensus (My naiveté has limits.) After all, Prof. Moshe Halbertal, who is associated with the Zionist left, and often attends the Sheikh Jarrah protests, is the director of the Tikvah Fund's Center of Law and Jewish Civilization at NYU.

Then somebody sent me a link to an opinion piece by Prof. Allan Nadler defending the building of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance on the site of the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem. There was a place for comments, and a note saying that "comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive." When the author claimed that Israel "has been extremely painstaking in its treatment of old Arab cemeteries," I disputed this by linking to Meron Rapoport's article in Haaretz, "History Erased," that documented the widespread and deliberate destruction of Arab villages, mosques, and monuments by the Israeli government, much to the consternation of some Israeli archaeologists, in the period following 1948.

When my comment was published, the link to Rapoport's article, and the reference to 1948, disappeared. I submitted the Rapoport link again, this time with a justification for it; once again, that part of the comment was cut. I left a third comment just with the link, and that wasn't published at all.

Hmm, I thought, maybe Rapoport's article wasn't "on-topic" enough; the cemeteries in those Arab villages had indeed been destroyed, but only mosques and monuments were explicitly mentioned in the article. But now I was on the JID email list, and I began to receive links to other articles. One was "The Romance of Gush Etzion", which expressed the emotions of a settler returning to the pre-1948 Jewish West Bank settlement that had been destroyed by Arabs in the 1948 war (and now has been enlarged threefold, much of which is through the expropriation of Palestinian private land). I left a comment calling the article "well-written" and "moving," but pointed out that "moral consistency and fairness dictate that anybody who supports a Jewish right to return to pre-48 Jewish settlements should also support the Palestinian right of return to their pre-48 villages. Both peoples were uprooted and were civilian 'collateral damage' of war." Nothing abusive or off-topic, albeit not popular. The comment was not printed.

So I tried again. This time the article was by JID's managing editor, Elliot Jager, who wrote on Ramadan. Never having heard of Jager, I thought he would write an article about the place of Ramadan in Islam, or, perhaps, an article on how Palestinian Muslims in Israel celebrate Ramadan. Then I read the sort of Islam-bashing-David-Horowitz-style article that one has been accustomed to read on rightwing Jewish and Christian websites. So I left a comment criticizing the Islamophobia, and pointing out that contrary to Jager's claim that "Israeli authorities have gone to great lengths to facilitate access for West Bank Muslims to their shrines atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem," Israeli authorities had in fact forbidden access to the Temple Mount during Ramadan for all West Bank males under the age of 45. Women aged 30-45 needed a special permit.

This time, my criticism of the author's take on Islam made it in. But the bit about Israel refusing to allow Muslims under 45 to worship at the Haram ash-Sharif was cut. I submitted it separately. Again, not accepted. Apparently, any critical reference to Israel that did not pass JID's litmus test was censored.

Look, I run a blog. Once you have a comments section, you will get all sorts of comments. Not all need to be included, and a moderator has a right to publish what he or she wants. "Jewish Ideas Daily" can certainly filter comments according to its published criteria. I have told some people who leave comments on my blog that they have to shorten their comments, and nasty and abusive ones should not find their way in.

But what is JID afraid of? Three times they censored my comments, removing unflattering opinions about Israeli policies. Had the comments been published, one of the JID's readers could have responded.

I have the impression that "Jewish Ideas Daily," perhaps like other projects supported by the Tikvah Fund, is so paternalistic that it will not allow anything "treif" that deviates from the old school Zionist consensus to be published, unless it is immediately contested. God forbid that a target audience of Tikvah -- bright young Jews -- should be exposed to "radical" folks like me, an orthodox Jew, American-Israeli, and a Jewish Studies professor.

So much for the ideological diversity that supporters claim for Tikvah. See my article here. But JID is a fairly new 'zine, and this is the period of repentance. Who knows? It's never too late for them to do teshuvah. In the meantime, I won't be reading it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Has Aliyah (Jewish Immigration to Israel) From North America Peaked – Or is It Stalling?

Here's something that caught my eye. In today's Haaretz there was an article about the "sharp rise" in aliyah since last calendar year (the calendar in question is the Jewish one), in fact, 18%. This is the second year in a row that there was such a rise. Jewish Agency's Natan Sharansky put the good news succinctly:

"After 10 years during which we saw less and less immigrants, now we see an increase," said Sharansky yesterday at a press conference at the Jewish Agency's Jerusalem headquarters. "This year there were more immigrants from the former Soviet Union, more immigrants from the United States, from Britain and from South Africa - there's an increase from almost everywhere."

From the Hebrew version we learn that 5,130 Jews made aliyah from English-speaking countries, but the Jewish Agency didn't say what percentage increase that was, and understandably so – the increase was lower than in previous years.

That struck me as odd. I personally know people making aliyah from America, and I have been to the sleek new offices of Nefesh b'Nefesh, the organization that since 2002 markets and organizes aliyah. The stories in the media of the last few years have been about the sharp rise in the number of North American immigrations from year to year. Here's one from 2007. And here's one from the Wall Street Journal at the end of 2009. And what about all those pictures in August of plane-loads arriving?

But a comparison of the first six months of 2010 (1707) with the same time frame in 2009 (1746), using the figures from the Ministry of Absorption, shows a slight drop in aliyah from North America this year. (The biggest month is traditionally August.) The numbers, of course, are still good compared with five years ago, but they are so small as to be insignificant in the greater scheme of things.

So what should we conclude from this? That despite the efforts of Birthright and Nefesh b'Nefesh, and despite the continuing recession in America, and the relatively good economic times in Israel, or the ability to live in one country and work in another – that despite these and other facts, the "mini-boom" in aliyah from America has peaked?

Or would it be better to infer that the numbers of new immigrants to Israel is so miniscule that an overall rise in 18% (depending on how you count, and whom you rely on for your statistics) means very little – in fact, it means an increase of a mere ¼ of 1 percent of Israel's population (7,308,800).

Since the waning of the Russian aliyah in the early 1990's, there has been no numerically significant aliyah, which is why the per cent increases can be so big. Isn't it past time to reformulate the Law of Return to be more in keeping with immigration policies of the nations of the world? Preference can be given to people fleeing religious persecution – but no more than that.

Or, even better, to replace it with an immigration law that gives some preference to the two major national groups, Jews and Palestinians?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

When A Conference on Jew-Hatred Turns Into Jew-Bashing – and One-Sided Scholarship

Organize a conference that invites virtually only hard-line Zionists (ranging in ideology from New Republic liberal hawks to Commentary neocons, with the occasional rightwinger settler) and you get the conference that Yale's Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism and the International Associations for the Study of Anti-Semitism sponsored last week.

Take a look at some of the plenary and keynote speakers: Irwin Cotler, Jeffrey Herf, Richard Landes, Deborah Lipstadt, Meir Litvak, Menahem Milson, Dina Porat, Milton Shain, Bassam Tibi (the token "good Muslim") and Ruth Wisse. Looks more like a conference sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America. Even one sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute would have better balance. Didn't see too many Jewish progressives invited (actually, I didn't see any.)

Do only hard-line Zionists care about anti-Semitism? No, not really. But the study of anti-Semitism has gravitated in that direction because it has been taken over by Israelis and Zionists, and is supported mostly by hard-line Zionist money. Sorry to be blunt, but I can think of no other explanation. Look at the comments by Israeli Foreign Ministry's Combating Anti-Semitism czar, Aviva Raz Shechter, one of the main keynote speakers at the conference, in an interview to the settler's radio station, Arutz Sheva:

I spoke of the new face of anti-Semitism which couches itself in the more trendy term known as anti-Zionism. College campuses are hotbeds for the apologists of terrorism who call themselves human rights activists. They reserve their harshest criticism for Israel, yet they remain silent in the face of Muslim human rights abuses that occur in such countries as the Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and other countries.
These same people are also in the forefront of organizing academic boycotts of Israeli professors, and sadly, some Jewish academics have played a major role in this. When I speak to government leaders, decision makers and these purported human rights activists, they tell me that if Israel would only "cease and desist in being an occupying power", then that would obviate the need for Israeli opposition groups. I respond by telling them that this is nonsense and haters will always come up with new reasons to hate Jews. 

So, if you are a "trendy" anti-Zionist (what about the old-fashioned sort?), or non-Zionist, or a Zionist who supports an academic boycott of Israel because of the Occupation, you are ipso facto an anti-Semite. Now, I doubt that all of the participants shared the views of Ms. Raz Schechter, only most. Some, no doubt, would have been more interested in the following plenary session:

Self-Hatred and Contemporary Anti-Semitism

Professor Doron Ben-Atar, Fordham University: "Without Ahavath Yisrael: Thoughts on Radical Anti-Zionism at Brandeis"

Professor Richard Landes: "Scourges and Their Audiences: What Drives Jews to Loathe Publicly and What to Do About It."

Professor Alvin Rosenfeld, "Beyond Criticism and Dissent: On the Jewish Contributions to the Deligitimation of Israel"

Labeling Jews who are consciously and conscientiously attempting to fulfill Jewish and universal ideals of justice as "self-hating" is, well, anti-Semitic.

Now, I don't agree with the views of many of the participants – I find some of them offensive – but so what? Academic conferences are supposed to feature experts in their field. Maybe the only people speaking about the "New Anti-Semitism" and "Palestinian Anti-Semitism" are of a certain ideological stripe?

Rubbish. I ask the organizers, and especially Charles Small, one simple question: Where were the other voices?

Where was the voice of Oxford Prof. Brian Klug, who has written of the Myth of the "New Anti-Semitism"?

Where was the voice of Mideast analyst Tony Klug, who has raised the question, whether Israel is responsible for the growth of global anti-Semitism?

Where was the voice of George Washington U. Prof. Nathan Brown, who has criticized the conclusions and methodology of Itamar Marcus's work on Palestinian textbooks. (Marcus spoke at the conference, "The Central Role of Anti-Semitism on Creating the Palestinian Identity" -- Note to Joel Migdal: How come you never put that in your book on Palestinian identity?)

And, dare I add, where was the voice of Norman Finkelstein, who has criticized Phyllis Chesler's book on the "New Anti-Semitism" in Beyond Chutzpah (Chesler was there.)

I suppose the answer of the organizers would be: If you don't agree with our understanding of anti-Semitism, you are probably an anti-Semite, and you don't invite "anti-Semites" to a conference on anti-Semitism. No, you invite Rabbi David Nessonoff who experienced anti-Semitism after he interviewed Helen Thomas to give a keynote talk.

By accepting the hard-line Zionist discourse on anti-Semitism, without even bothering to hear an alternative voice, Yale's Center has begged the question. Any academic conference that is so one-sided is bound not to be taken seriously, and, frankly, I see the time coming, if it has not already come, when the study of anti-Semitism will not be taken seriously by scholars without a Zionist act to grind. And that, dear readers, is the nub of the problem. There is anti-Semitism around the globe, and there should be serious scholarship of it. And those scholars who are serious should refuse invitations to conferences that are so extraordinarily one-sided.

When I was an undergrad at Yale, an irate alumnus wrote a letter to the Yale Alumni Magazine, complaining that because Yale admitted so many Jews, his son couldn't get accepted. The letter provoked many letters of outrage bemoaning the legacy of WASP anti-Semitism at Yale.

A more insidious form of Jew-hatred is now being peddled by the right-wingers who demonize progressive Jewish and non-Jewish voices. Sad to say, this sort of anti-Semitism was given a public forum at Yale. The PLO representative complained to Yale's president that the conference bashed Palestinians who are themselves Semites. Judging from some of the titles, there was good old fashioned anti-Semitism there as well. But most of all, we saw a conference that Zionist-ized, politicized, and ulimately, trivialized, anti-Semitism.

Hat tip to Mondoweiss, my favorite global watcher of rightwing anti-Semitism