Thursday, May 19, 2011

President Obama Delivers His AIPAC Speech Early

President Barack Obama's speech on Middle East perfectly illustrates the phenonemon known as 'PEP' – progressive, except for Palestine.

When referring to the Arab world, he used language like "democracy" and "universal rights". Of Bahrain, where the US is propping up an illegitimate regime, he said, "We have insisted publicly that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal right of Bahrain's citizens." In fact the term "rights was used over 15 times in the speech. But when we get to Israel, "rights" was mentioned once, in this passage,

But moving forward now [in the peace process] on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.

Do Palestinians not have the same rights as their brethren in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Bahrain? Would it be so hard for the President to mention that while neither of the two parties lives in peace, only one party – the Palestinian suffers massive violation of human rights? The answer ,of course, is yes, it would have been hard. For all presidents are drilled in the principle of the symmetry of suffering and the importance of balance (while emphasizing the special relationship with the Jewish state.)

Mr. Obama did mention the occupation. But like Ariel Sharon, he did not speak of the occupation of territory, but rather the occupation of people, i.e., people living under occupation. Are Palestinian lands being occupied? And this sentence gives it all away.

    For Palestinians, [the conflict] has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.

The "humiliation" of occupation, not its tyranny.

And how about this:

    The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself.

What does that mean? Should Israel be preparing itself for cyber attacks? Or is the "technology" referring to social networking? And what about Gaza? Only mentioned when citing the Gaza doctor who lost three daughters.

The Obama Administration, with this speech, has declared itself irrevocably out of touch. I am sorry I took the time to write the above about it.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Last Minute Advice to President Obama Before the Mideast Speech


To: Barack H. Obama, President of the United States

From: One of your many liberal Zionist advisors

Mr. President:

In your address on the Middle East tomorrow, you will be, of course, using teleprompters. Be very careful that you don't let your eyes wander from the screens, or you may quickly find yourself off message.

For example, where you say,

"We applaud the armed resistance of those under attack" make sure you continue, "in Libya", and not "in the Occupied Territories."

And where you say,

"We welcome the unarmed protest of people yearning for freedom," finish "in Tahrir Square" and not "in Bil'in".

Be sure that where you refer to, "the Arab democratic awakening that has spread throughout Middle East countries, like Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc." you don't include "Palestine" in the list.

When speaking of the Arab world, praise civil society. When speaking of the Palestinian territories, praise Mahmoud Abbas and Salim Fayyad.

Don't mixup "viable" and "secure" when referring to the Palestinian and Israeli states, respectively.

And above all, remember to call upon the Palestinians to eschew terrorism and to emulate the unarmed protests in Ni'ilin, Nabi Saleh, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and all those other places in the Middle East somewhere.


h/t to my list friends

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Back to 1948

Most Jews of my generation (and younger) were raised with certain myths about the founding of the State of Israel that we now know bear no resemblance to the historical events. Even reciting these myths are embarrassing for the moderately informed. And we now also know that, even granting counterfactually that some of the myths were true, it wouldn't help the Israel apologist, since the conclusions drawn from the myths are patently invalid.

For example, no educated person seriously accepts the proposition today that the Palestinian refugee problem was created when Arab states declared war on the State of Israel in 1948. That is because it is common and uncontroversial knowledge that half of the Palestinians left in months before the war was declared, when both sides were engaged in riots and skirmishes against each other. No historian, not even Ephraim Karsh, to my knowledge, denies that. But still you will read folks like, say, the Prime Minister of Israel, or, Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who repeat this narrishkeit about the Arab invasion of Israel being the cause of the refugee problem. I am not talking about who is responsible for the exodus. I am simply talking about the fact of the exodus.

Jeffrey Goldberg wrote today a particularly scurrilous piece in response to Acting President Mahmoud Abbas's op-ed in the New York Times. Abbas had written

Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria.

Goldberg called that a "falsification" because one could understand Abbas to be claiming that he was forced to leave by Israeli soldiers pointing a gun at him, or that Israeli soldiers had it in for 13-year old Palestinian boys. But Mahmoud Abbas himself had said that his family left with many others because they feared reprisals from the Zionists. Goldberg calls this "self-exile", rather than being forced to leave home. To drive the point home, his piece asks the question, "Was Mahmoud Abbas' Family Expelled from Palestine?" (Since Abbas never claimed that it was, that is the quintessential straw man.)

So my question for Goldberg is simple: When Jews emigrated from Germany after Kristallnacht, was that "self-exile"? When Jews fled Poland during the Holocaust weeks in advance of the German arriving, was that "self-exile"? When Jews left Palestine in 1947 because they were afraid of Arab reprisals, was that "self-exile"? Or would he say they were forced to leave because of the circumstances.

What is a myth? A myth is a construction of beliefs that allows one to make sense of reality, even though those beliefs themselves are not true, or only part of the picture. For the uninformed Israel supporter, the myth of Israel's founding is brief and simple. With the adoption of the UN's Partition Proposal in 1947, the world recognized the historic rights of the Jews to a state in Palestine. The Zionists were willing to agree to a historic compromise that they would clearly honor; the Arabs were not. Instead, the Arabs initiated a war, called upon the Palestinian refugees to leave, so that the Jews could be thrown into the sea. They lost the war. So much the worse for them. Let's move on.

Now, some of the above is arguably true; all of it is arguably false – but in any event, it is only a partial version of the events. It deliberately leaves out inconvenient truths, and fails to imply the conclusions that that apologists wish to draw from it.

The 1947 UN Partition Proposal did not recognize the historical rights of the Jews to a state; rather, it recognized the historical mess that Palestine had become, and so the UN called for its partition into two states, with an economic union of the two, and which excluded Jerusalem from either people's sovereignty. The Zionists – to be precise, Ben-Gurion and Co. -- accepted partition on paper, and either planned, or acquiesced to the partition of Palestine between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, not the Palestinian Arabs. Even if the acceptance of partition was more than tactical, it was abandoned at the first possible moment by the Zionists, and not because of Arab resistance – but because the Zionists had the upper hand, and they believed (as many do now) that all of Eretz Yisrael belonged to them. In any event, as soon as Arab rioting broke out following the UN acceptance of partition – rioting that quieted down, and then flared up again, with both sides engaging in illegal terrorist activity against the other and against the British, -- implementation of the partition plan was put on ice, and UN Trusteeship, and the deferral of the establishment of the states, was put on the table. The Arabs accepted trusteeship (for a limited time); the Zionists rejected it. (This is never mentioned by the mythologizers.)

During this period, the exodus of Palestinians (and Jews, for that matter, but there were fewer of them) continued apace. By the time Israel declared independence partition had become a dead letter, and both the Zionists and the Arab states were ready to continue the land grab. During the interim period between November 1947 and May 1948, Arab states made clear their intention to go to war to protect Palestine (some had their own territorial ambitions) should Israel declare independence. When they did, they were not singled-out and condemned for doing so. Each side blamed the other for the ensuing war; the world blamed both sides equally.

When Israel advocates say, "The Arabs wrongly initiated the war, and hence they should suffer the consequence of defeat," they are arguably wrong on the premise, and demonstrably wrong on the conclusion. For the declaration of the State of Israel could itself be seen as the casus belli; the fact remains that no international organization or state blamed the Arab states for wrongly initiating the war. But even if we grant that this was an act of aggression, and even granting, against the Fourth Geneva Convention, that territory acquired in a defensive war need not be returned to the aggressor, that would be the case if the territory belonged to the aggressor. But the Arab residents of Palestine were viewed only by the Zionists as the aggressors. Only on the racist premise that all Arabs are responsible for the acts of some, will that work.

And reflect – even if the Arabs were considered the aggressors, like, say, the Japanese, and even if the Zionists were allowed to keep the territory acquired in war -- would this justify the large-scale displacement of their non-combatants – or even combattants, after the hostilities cease? Would it have been justified for the US to seize Japan and not let Japanese refugees return? Under what international norm?

It is at this point in the argument that the educated, informed, liberal Zionist, turns and says, "Look. Let's not go back to 1948. If we do that, we will never get anywhere. That's old history."

That move is fundamental to the identity of the liberal or progressive Zionist. They can't and don't want to go back to 1948. They want to change the subject. And why not? Because they are educated enough not to buy the lukshen of the hasbaritas, progressive enough not to seem themselves as immoral dispossessors, and Zionist enough not to want to open the can of worms of 1948.

Thanks to Ehud Barak, Bibi Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman, we have now gone back to 1948.

And, you know what? That may very well be a good thing.

Note to readers: if you are not a liberal Zionist, i.e., a two-stater who is willing to give up claims to the West Bank and Gaza, then don't bother to leave a comment. This piece is addressed to liberal Zionists.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Nakba Demonstrations, and the Israeli Spin Machine

Today, hundreds of Palestinian refugees, following appeals on Facebook and Twitter, marched towards the Lebanese and Syrian borders, through Qalandia checkpoint, and in Gaza. All the protests were in observance of Nakbah Day.

Finally, the Arab Spring had come to Palestine.

Israel doesn't do popular Palestinian protest well. Like usual, they started shooting at unarmed protesters with predictable injuries and fatalities. Time will tell whether this is a one-day protest, or the beginning of something else.

Then came the Israeli spin. Like Saif Ghaddafi in Libya, the Israelis were blaming…the Iranians. Evidence? None. As if Palestinians living in refugee camps need to be motivated to protest the theft of their land.

Here is the drill: The IDF Spokesperson gets rightwing bloggers like Elder of Ziyon on a conference call and feeds them lokshen/noodles. The bloggers, who believe anything the IDF tells them, trumpet the IDF talking points to the blogosphere. Of course, they have been provided no evidence for those talking points. In this case, the lokshen was that "Hezbollah and Syria organized and helped out in the clashes up north." Again, no evidence.

The same talking points are given to the IDF's press lackeys, like Yoni Ben Menachem, who played the Syria card – again without evidence.

You can see how this works in Anshel Pfefer's piece in Haaretz.:

According to initial reports, the demonstrators that broke through the border fence were not Syrians or Druze, but rather Palestinian refugees who reside in camps around Damascus. It is difficult to imagine that these refugees could have reached the border area without the knowledge, approval and perhaps even encouragement of the central government in the Syrian capital.

While attention was given over the weekend to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the events that transpired on Nakba Day on the Golan Heights surprised the IDF and perhaps even gave Assad what he has been searching for over many weeks – an event that will reduce international pressure on him over the suppression of demonstrations in Syrian cities

The only evidence presented? Surely a protest of this sort would have to coordinated with the central government. But so what? I imagine that any Syrian government, authoritarian or democratic, would be happy to let the Palestinian refugees make a protest action.

In fact, the only authoritarian governments that intervened were Egypt and Jordan – in order to stop Palestinian protesters from getting to the border.

Not a single scrap of evidence links these protests with Iran.

But the spin doesn't stop there. Let's look at Israel's spokesperson in the American media (no, not Jennifer Rubin; I haven't seen what she wrote), Jeffrey Goldberg, a liberal hawk with a limited understanding of what is going on in the West Bank and the Golan, links to Andrew Exum, a liberal hawk with no understanding of what is going on in the West Bank and the Golan. Exum writes:

This will shock all some none of you, but Arab regimes have often cynically used the Palestinian cause to shift the focus away from their own failures and abuses. The clashes today are the best of news for Bashar al-Asad, and only the Lord knows how many brave Syrians will now be gunned down or thrown into prison in Homs, Douma, Hama, Baniyas, etc. while everyone's eyes are on the Lebanese, Syrian and Gazan borders with Israel. Just yesterday, we were all talking about terrified Syrians fleeing into northern Lebanon. Now Syria and its allies have either engineered or have been presented with the mother of all distractions from their own wretched and criminal behavior.

One would expect that Exum or Goldberg could point to a single statement emanating from Damascus that provides evidence that they are playing up the Nakba protests as a "distraction." But who need evidence when a classic Zionist trope – the "cynical-exploitation-of-the-Palestinians-sufferings-by-the-Arab-governments" can be appealed to. In fact, the beauty of this dogma is precisely that no evidence is needed, since it is self-evident.

Goldberg and Exum say nothing about Jordan's regime stopping the Palestinian protesters – and why should they? After all, who cares about democracy when the autocrat is your friend?

I say that Exum knows nothing about the West Bank because he writes this drivel:

What happens when the Palestinians in the West Bank start demanding statehood not through violence but through peaceful protests? How will Israel respond? One option they do not have is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend like the call for Palestinian statehood will go away. And good luck whenever some clever Palestinian leader starts organizing peaceful marches on some crazy hilltop settlements in the West Bank, counting on provoking the kind of response that the media in Israel and abroad will eat up.

Where the hell has Exum been in the last five years? Does he know about the Popular Committees on the West Bank? Does he know about the unarmed protests which Israel has suppressed through a combination of force, arresting organizers like Abu Rahmeh, terrorizing minors in the middle of the night so they can testify against leaders, administrative detentions, and Shabak plants?

Would somebody get that man a subscription to the 972mag? Or to Joseph Dana's blog? Ribono shel olam, maybe Exum should stick to things he knows something about…or is this the effect of his stint at WINEP?

And a parting shot at somebody who should know better, Ethan Bronner, who writes here in the Times:

Like those other protests, plans for this one spread over social media, including Facebook, but there were also signs of official support in Lebanon and Syria, where analysts said leaders were using the Palestinian cause to deflect attention from internal problems.

What "signs"? Which "analysts"? Bronner gets around to these several paragraphs later, when he quotes…an analyst for Israeli Broadcasting Authority and an IDF general, and nobody else. And even those guys just speculate.

Obviously, Syria and Hizbollah, and all Arabs everywhere, support the Palestinians. When Egypt and Jordan cease to be regimes run by the military and an autocrat, respectively, the Palestinians will also get support there. But this is, at best, misleading reporting from Ethan Bronner.

h/t to Ali G

The Never-Ending Nakbah

Today, millions of people around the world observed Nakbah Day, which commemorates the loss of much of Arab Palestine to the Zionists in 1947-1948, and the attendant catastrophes. The responsibility for the loss of Palestine is shared by almost all the players of the day; the UN, which decided on partition, the Zionists, who pursued statehood at the cost of perpetual war, the big powers, which still called the shots, the Arab states, which insufficiently prepared for a war that they were to lose, and the, last and least, the Arab population of Palestine, which, divided among itself, underestimated the strength of its opponents and was outmaneuvered and outflanked.

Later Zionist spin would hold the "Arabs" collectively responsible for the Nakbah – because their leaders refused to recognize the rights of the Zionists to a state in Palestine, or because a small minority of Palestinians (according to Moshe Shertok/Sharret at the time, a minority that did not speak for the Palestinian Arab masses) committed acts of mob violence against Jew (acts that were repaid in full by Jews against Arabs), or because four Arab armies crossed the borders of Palestine in order to protect the interests of the indigenous Arabs, despite the fact that the intervention was never singled out for condemnation by the United Nations.

Yet, in my opinion, it is wrong to limit the Nakbah to the events of the 1947-1948. Some will wish to date its beginnings from the Balfour Declaration, or from the San Remo conference, or even from the First Zionist Conference. There are obviously arguments in favor of those dates.

But I would date the Nakbah from the time that the Zionist movement – or the central power behind the Zionist movement, namely, David Ben-Gurion -- decided on Jewish statehood at any cost. I have written elsewhere that the Zionist desire to carve out a state for the Jews in Palestine could itself be understood as a declaration of war against the indigenous peoples. But, in fairness to many Zionists, the project of building a homeland for the Jews was often justified as good for the indigenous Arabs, and I have no doubt that some Zionist leaders genuinely thought that their efforts would help the natives. Some of these same leaders, when faced with the fact of Arab nationalism, tried to put the breaks on the headlong rush to Jewish statehood, and to think of some method of power-sharing. Had the Zionist movement conditioned the establishment of a Jewish homeland on the consent of the majority within Palestine, the Nakbah, I believe, could have been avoided. But such measures of accommodation and compromise were rejected by the leadership of both sides, polarized between militant Zionists on the one hand, and militant Arab nationalists, on the other (not to mention the terrorists on both sides.) Still, it was the aggressive push towards partition and Jewish statehood that plunged Palestine into the chaos. Had the Zionists accepted UN Trusteeship, as advocated by the United States president, Harry Truman, an Arab-Israeli war could possibly have been avoided. But the Zionists were interested in only one thing – a state at all costs, even the costs of tens of thousands of Jewish lives.

It is important to emphasize that even the attaining of Jewish independence did not require the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, however. The Jewish state did not have to reject the return of the Palestinian natives; for a short period of time, fearful that the United States would not support its admission into the UN, Ben-Gurion offered to repatriate 100,000, with all sorts of strings attached. The offer was subsequently withdrawn. Magnes and Rawidowicz argued for their return. That the State of Israel did not allow them to return, and in many instances, shot returning villages and farmers as "infiltrators," is the real reason why Israel stands accused of ethnic cleansing – i.e., getting rid of as many Palestinians as they were able to, and keeping the rest under military administration, pitting them against each other, infiltrating them with security forces, banning any expressions of national solidarity, etc.

The Nakbah continued for the Palestinian Arabs who were refugees, and for those who stayed – as lands belonging to the latter were transferred to Jewish ownership, as villages were wiped off the map, and forests and Jewish settlements were created on the ruins of the Palestine. And since 1967, Palestine "from the sea to the river" has been under the control (and effective occupation) of Israel, making decisions for the Palestinians under occupation, and expropriating their national and private land.

That nakbah will continue until the maximum amount of justice for both sides is done – and until the 1948 ethnic regime evolves democratically into something that is better for both Jew and Arab living within it.

Bi-meherah be-yameinu, omen.

For very good articles on Nakbah Day from the Israeli perspective, see the 972magazine here

Monday, May 9, 2011

Beinart, Kushner, and Ethnic "Dry Cleaning"

Peter Beinart has written a post worth reading, and worth heeding, on the Kushner-CUNY affair (which has now been settled in favor of Kushner.) Worth heeding, because he calls for a Jewish communal discussion on Israel that includes non- and anti-Zionists, Worth reading, because he sees where the communal discussion is headed. That is Beinart’s main point, and I agree with it.

But after conceding to Kushner some of the problems inherent in the Jewish regime founded in 1948, Beinart offers his own reasons for rejecting Kushner’s call for transforming Israel into a more democratic and less ethnically exclusivist state.

Traditionally, statist Zionists have claimed that Israel is faced with two alternatives: either a Jewish state like the one founded in 1948, or a secular state of all its citizens, which, at best, is binational. That stacks the deck in favor of a Jewish state, since one need only argue that binationalism is unworkable, and that only the Jewish state founded in 1948 can serve as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. The conclusion? Israel as an imperfect Jewish democratic state is preferable to Israel as no Jewish state at all.

These once-debated Zionist claims have solidified into dogmas over the years. Through endless repetition they have been seared into the Jewish consciousness. They represent the frozen thinking of somebody like Yitzkhak Shamir, who famously remarked about Zionist dogma that the Arabs wanted to throw the Jews into the sea, “The Arabs are the same Arabs, and the sea is the same sea.” Nothing has changed.

Are “Jewish ethnocracy” or “secular binationalism” really the only alternatives? Are there no other possibility for creative arrangements? In the over sixty years of Israel’s existence, the only attempts to recognize the rights of the Palestinian minority as a native, homeland minority have been rejected as threatening to the Jewish state. The Palestinian minority has never been invited by the Jewish majority to articulate its concerns and offer possible solutions. That in itself would be too dangerous.

History is dynamic, not static; 2011 is not 1948; there have been enormous changes, especially in the demographic facts of Israel. Yet Israel and its supporters cannot free themselves from their postwar neuroses. Beinart writes:

Israel was created not merely to be a Jewish democracy, but to be a Jewish refuge, and even though most American Jews can’t imagine needing one, the long history of Jewish persecution suggests that we should not blithely assume that diaspora Jewish communities will always be as fortunate as us.

Let us all recall on Israel Memorial Day that the Jewish community that has suffered the most deaths and injuries since 1945 – per capita, if you like -- is the Jewish community in Israel. The long history of Palestine suggests that we should not blithely assume that the Jewish community in Israel will always be as fortunate as us. Moreover, there are other ways to ensure that Israel can serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews besides a blunt instrument like the Law of Return.

Secondly, while there is certainly a tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, Israel’s Arab citizens (those within its 1967 borders) do serve in Israel’s parliament and supreme court. Indeed, they enjoy more rights and live better lives than do their cousins in most of the Arab world, which is why most Israeli Arabs would rather live in a Jewish state than a Palestinian one.

There is no evidence whatsoever that “most Israeli Arabs would rather live in a Jewish state than a Palestinian one.” There is considerable evidence that most Palestinians Israelis would prefer to live in their native homeland – Palestine – and their native state – Israel – than be expelled on the basis of their ethnicity to foreign places. The Palestinian citizens of Israel are in their homeland, with their family and friends. Are we to take pride that they prefer staying in their home as second class citizens to being forced to become refugees like their relatives? Their situation is getting worse, not better.

And most importantly – after sixty three years, the ethos of the state has always been to allow the Palestinian minority to participate in politics while effectively depriving them of all political power. Supreme court justice? Members of the parliament? Fewer and fewer Palestinians vote (per capita) each election – because the system is absolutely rigged against them. It is getting worse, not better.

The problem with the state founded in 1948 is not that it refuses to grow up, as Tony Judt once said, but that it refuses to deal with ethnic minorities with fairness and dignity. And while some of that decline can be attributed to the xenophobia that is a common disease, especially in our post-colonial world, some of it is directly attributable to the desire to build an ethnocracy that by its very nature perpetuates inequality

Tony Kushner was, in my view, imprecise when he referred to the “ethnic cleansing” conducted by the Zionists at Israel’s founding. The phrase conjures up mass murder and genocide along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. Yes, there was violent uprooting and planned dispossession. But the major crime was the laws and directives barring the return of the 750,000 refugees to their homes on the basis of their ethnicity. This is not so much ethnic “cleansing,” with its implication of blood and destruction, but rather ethnic “dry-cleaning”, ridding the country of most of its Palestinian population through legal stratagems that ensure that the natives of Palestine will be effectively barred from full participation in their homeland. Unlike ethnic cleansing, the legal structures behind ethnic dry cleaning have allowed Palestinians to be around 20% of the population and to be given the vote, but to be deprived of political power. This way Israel can say to itself and to the world that it is a democracy. This ethnic dry-cleaning is foundational to the Jewish state and all who support the 1948 state are complicit in it. In fact the liberal Zionists are arguably more complicit, since they require that Israel be a democracy.

These are not signs of an imperfect democracy. These are signs of a society that is careening towards disaster.

Friday, May 6, 2011

What the Tony Kushner Affair Says About the Changing Discourse on Israel in the United States

Tony Kushner believes that Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing at the founding of the state. He is an advisory board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has shown solidarity with the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a movement that has been painted by its critics as aiming to destroy the State of Israel. JVP has endorsed a partial BDS campaign, focusing on the settlements. Kushner says that he opposes BDS, but he supports (and has gathered support for) the Israeli artist boycott of the settlement Ariel, together with other distinguished artists in this country. This partial boycott is taboo in the organized Jewish community and is not endorsed by the liberal Zionist group, J Street.

Because of Kushner’s views, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee, who views himself as moderate on Israel, willing to support honorary degrees to moderate critics of Israel, opposed awarding Kushner an honorary degree. The other trustees, not wishing to engage in controversy, and probably looking at their watches, voted to table (in the US, that means to postpone) a decision on Kushner, effectively denying him the award this year.

The only people who have rallied so far to Wiesenfeld’s support have been hardline rightwingers like Jonathan Tobin of Commentary and Andrea Levin of CAMERA. Liberal hawks like Jeffrey Goldberg have blasted Wiesenfeld, and former New York mayor Ed Koch, who once was liberal, has called upon Wiesenfeld to resign from the Board of Trustees. And the New York Times has, in effect, started a campaign on behalf of Mr. Kushner.

Of course, it is possible to frame support for Mr. Kushner merely in terms of dividing his art from his politics. Of what relevance is his views on Israel to awarding him a degree? He is not being honored for his opinions about Israel. So what’s the big deal? Open and shut case.

But, responds the right, the issue is not so simple. Artists or intellectuals who take immoral positions (e.g., Heidegger) may be appreciated for their achievements in their field, but not necessarily honored by universities. The Israel advocates are trying to paint Kushner as a Wagner, somebody who has crossed a line when it comes to legitimate discourse. He uses a phrase like “ethnic cleansing”! He questions the foundations of the 1948 state!

Nobody’s buying it outside of the hardline Zionist community. After Benny Morris described Israel’s actions as ethnic cleansing (albeit, he claims, without a master-plan); after Israeli artists endorse a settlement boycott; after the Arab spring breathes hope of democracy; after a rightwing Israeli government passes laws and takes positions that are diametrically opposed to that of much of the American Jewish community; after the Gaza Op, Goldstone, and the Flotilla – the goalposts have changed.

Kushner, and JVP, are becoming legitimate within the liberal Zionist community (that’s where I would put the NY Times; Ed Koch was in the center of the American Jewish community once). This is new and this is huge. We are not talking about the New York Review of Books crowd supporting a Brit intellectual like Tony Judt. Mark my words – the ethnic cleansing charge, like the apartheid charge, will become more and more mainstream in the coming months.

My barometer on these things is davka Atlanta’s Jeffrey Goldberg (with whom I share many things in common, except that he writes better than I do). Goldberg is one of a shrinking breed of liberal hawks on Israel. His gut reaction to the CUNY fiasco was outrage. To provide balance for his readership, he then interviewed Wiesenfeld, after the latter had a damaging Times interview – where you can see that Goldberg is anything but enamored of his interviewee (Goldberg rarely thinks that American Jews get Israel the way he does). Here is how Goldberg handles the ethnic cleansing charge:

On this issue, both Kushner and Wiesenfeld have good, if partial, arguments. There were instances in which Arab villages in what is now Israel were forcibly cleared of their inhabitants by Israeli forces. On the other hand, these episodes occurred during a war initiated by Arabs, after they rejected the United Nations partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

This is what I might call “Benny Morris lite.” were it even Benny Morris. The exodus of Palestinians from villages began months before the war initiated by Arabs, unless Goldberg means by that the civil war between Jews and Arabs that began months before the end of the mandate, during which the main exodus of Palestinians from their villages began. That was a civil war that the Zionists claim was “initiated” by Arabs, but which the world saw as just that – a civil war that was inevitable, no matter who shot the first bullet (If Mr. Goldberg were correct, then one would expect some international condemnation of the Arabs for initiating the war, but both sides were roundly – and rightly -- condemned.)

More importantly, however, the real “ethnic cleansing” occurred when the State of Israel barred the return of the Arab refugees to their homes. By forbidding the return of the native Arabs to their homes and villages, against the opposition of the United Nations and Zionists like Judah Magnes and Simon Rawidowicz , the new State of Israel effectively cleansed Palestine of the majority of its Palestinian inhabitants.

But here’s my point – whatever one feels about Kushner’s claims, it is now legitimate among liberal Zionists to discuss them without dismissing their advocate as anti-Semitic. They are worthy of being discussed – which means that the dissatisfaction with the Jewish state founded in 1948 can be expressed publicly without always incurring the marginalization that has been the fate of critical folks like Kushner up until now.

I think Goldberg realizes this. Not wanting to diss Tony Kushner, he has to reclaim his position in the “middle “by bashing former Ambassador Chas Freeman for his “anti-Semitic invective,” by placing him in a multiple choice quiz with Khaled Meshal, David Duke, Louis Farakkhan, and an Islamic terrorist – and why? Apparently, Freeman made the unoriginal claim that current day Palestinians are descended from ancient Jews, who converted to Islam and Christianity. Whatever one thinks about the history --it is prima facie not whacky- and the relevance of the point to today, it certainly doesn’t qualify as anti-Semitic invective. If Goldberg was referring to something else that Freeman said, he cites no examples.

For Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Tony Kushner is anti-Semitic (or would be, if he were gentile.) For Jeffrey Goldberg, Kushner is kosher but Chas Freeman is anti-Semitic. The difference between Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and Jeffrey Goldberg, and who they consider to be anti-Semitic, teaches us about the weakening of the Zionist narrative in this country, a weakening that will continue as more Israelis and Palestinians struggle with confronting their past and planning alternative models for living together in the future. (It also teaches us about what is legitimate for gentiles to say about Israel -- but we knew that already, didn't we?)

And by the way -- neither Tony Kushner nor Chas Freeman has an anti-Semitic bone in his respective body. It won’t take long before gentiles realize that – and shortly after, I pray that Jews will, too.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Contact the CUNY Board of Trustees About Their Decision Not To Award Tony Kushner an Honorary Degree

Take a few minutes to copy and paste the letter below (or better, substitute your own letter) and email it to the following members of the board of trustees.;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

Dear CUNY Member of the Board of Trustees

What were you thinking?

Did you really think that allowing an uninformed partisan hardliner deliver an inaccurate rant against Tony Kushner in order to torpedo his honorary degree -- without engaging in a serious discussion and presenting Mr. Kushner’s side -- would redound to your credit?

Do you often like to see CUNY’s name dragged through the mud?

Since when is Zionism a litmus test of a CUNY honorary degree?

May I suggest that you issue a statement of apology to Mr. Kushner. And that you change your decision, regardless of whether he decides to accept the honor or not.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Osama Bin Laden as the “Wicked Witch of the West”

ADDeRabbi, an orthodox rabbi who is an occasional commenter on this blog, gave links to several posts in which Proverbs 24:17-20 was cited in reference to the death of Bin Laden.(See his comments on the post below.) I took the trouble to look at the links; I was curious to see with whom I agreed. Of course, all the posters agreed that dancing in the streets, or shouting "USA, USA" was not appropriate behavior, except, perhaps, for amkha, who may be allowed their jubilation. At the very least, they agreed that dancing in the street was not the Jewish ideal.

The response that surprised me most was that of William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton and a noted philosopher, He writes in TNR

How should we respond to the killing of Osama bin Laden? My first reaction was unbridled joy. As I was crawling into bed (too late) last night, I giddily allowed myself to sing, "Ding, dong, the wicked witch" from The Wizard of Oz.

But then

This morning I had second thoughts, not because I harbored any doubts about the justice of the deed or had changed my mind about its positive consequences for the United States and the world, but rather because educated congregants at my synagogue reminded me of the restraints my religion places on the satisfactions of vengeance. One quoted Proverbs 24:17—"Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased ."

So, after going to bed, with visions of Margaret Hamilton and Osama bin Laden dancing in his head, Bill Galston, philosopher and ethicist, went to shul in the morning, and had to be reminded by "educated congregants" that one should not rejoice at the fall of one's enemy .


I think that Galston's story may be what Plato called, a "Noble Lie", a pedagogic whopper told for maximum rhetoric effect. It is hard for me to imagine him singing "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" at any time, much less having to be reminded in shul on a Monday morning that one's passions need to be restrained. And if he hadn't gone to shul? No, he was doubtlessly using considerably literary license to get a point across to the folks chanting, "USA, USA". He had to say, "Look, I am like you. I am not some wimpy bleeding heart. I also wanted to whoop it up. But after the initial rush – which in my case actually lasted only a few seconds - I knew that this was not the goal we should aspire for."

We are mortals, not machines. There is a sense in which it is "natural" to rejoice over the death of an enemy; it is probably programmed into our DNA through eons of evolution. But part of moral education is not only to tame what is natural, "to conquer our drives" but to try to extinguish some of them altogether . Often we fail; we are mortals. But the better our moral training , the less likely we are to fail.

Had Galston written everything that he writes, but added, "I was a bit embarrassed at the unbridled joy that I felt since I should have known better", then that would have been more appropriate. But that would have lessened the pedagogic value of the story for amkha (Hebrew for: "liberal hawk readers of TNR")

The Chabad rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, were a bit more morally blunt than Galston. They say that Torah commands us to hate wicked people. Really? I once bought a frum children's book in which the author said that "Hashem hates Amalek". I never will forget the look of shock on the faces of my kids when they heard the line. How can Hashem hate anything? they asked. (I threw away the book; maybe I should have burned it first.)

Their Torah preaches hatred; mine doesn't. But, you will say, that's what the Torah says. To that I answer, the Torah speaks in the language of men. It is never right to hate people. Hatred is a destructive emotion. Anger is a destructive emotion, even when it is righteous. (See the Rambam on this, who by the way, also speaks in the language of men occasionally.) We are commanded to pray that sins be removed from the world, not the sinners. Hatred is a natural emotion? So is lust. Ask Rabbi Boteach, who has written on the subject. And that makes it…what?

When I heard that Osama Bin Laden was dead, my immediate feeling was not of joy but of relief. But then I started to think about it. How was he killed? Was this simply an assassination? Were innocents killed? Was there a possibility of bringing him to trial? Will there be repercussions? Can we expect retaliations against US targets? Will this make life easier or harder for American interests in the Middle East? How will this play in the region? Was he taken out because he was a threat or because of the wounding of our national pride? Was this a revenge killing? How many tyrants will use the killing of Bin Laden to justify their own "war on terror"?

After thinking a few minutes, I was still gratified, especially because, according to initial reports, which I would like to believe, Bin Laden was not killed until he showed resistance, albeit without a weapon. I was gratified that, unlike the Israelis, the US soldiers were willing to take grave risks to ensure that collateral damage was held to a minimum. No 12 –ton bombs were dropped on the compound (had we done so, we would have been war criminals, even if the target was Bin Laden.) Sure, the official explanation for no bomb was that it was important to verify that we had killed Bin Laden. But the fact remains that enormous political and physical risks were taken; and the lives of some innocents, anyway, were spared. That sends a powerful message to many quarters (I hope Israel is one of them.) Still, this was not an act of justice; it was an act, I hope, to prevent further evil.

I shed no tears over the death of Bin Laden. He was a horrible man and a horrible Muslim. He was a mass murderer. His desecration of religion nauseated me as a religious man. But I would have preferred a trial. And if he was to die without trial, I would have preferred that it be at the hand of one of his own treacherous allies. Life is not a video game, or a revenge match. A criminal plotting a major crime has to be stopped. But what we should do, we should do – not out of hatred, not out of vengeance, not out of wounded pride – but in order to stop evil.

And we should do it with humility, regret, and with a heavy heart – and, preferably, through an international system, if possible.

Not like cowboys.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On the Fall of Osama Bin Laden

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;

when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice,

or the LORD will see and disapprove

and turn his wrath away from him.

Do not fret because of evil men

or be envious of the wicked,

for the evil man has no future hope,

and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.


(Proverbs 24:17-20)


Of the people who died with Osama Bin Laden there was a woman "who was used as a human shield", according to the official US account.

Perhaps the lives of the commandos were endangered, and there was no other choice but to kill the woman.

Or perhaps some people think it all right to kill innocents in order to get at Bin Laden, even if there was a choice.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On the Jewish Zealot's Contempt for Jewish Morality

The Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim famously wrote that in the wake of the Holocaust there was a 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. Jews were obligated to survive as Jews, or else they would be doing the work of Hitler, who wished to exterminate them.

Fackenheim’s emphasis was on sheer group survival, although he surely meant that there was an obligation not merely for Jews to survive, but for them to survive as Jews. For there is really no separate commandment for Jews to be Jews, certainly not in response to Hitler. In fact, if Jews cease to be Jews in any meaningful moral/religious sense, if they cease to aspire to the higher vision of life that the Torah and morality vouchsafes them, if they are simply a group like any other group, then there is no moral imperative, or for that matter, religious imperative, for them to survive. Throughout the ages, wicked Jews were put to death – by God, or by other Jews – and nobody wept because these Jews failed to survive – but because they failed to survive as Jews

In the Passover Haggadah we read

Go out and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. For Pharaoh decreed only against the males, but Laban sought to uproot all, as it is written (26:5), 'An Aramean sought to destroy my father’ (text taken from here)

According to the commentary of Rabbi Menachem Kasher in the Haggadah Shelemah, Laban’s sin was worse than Pharaoh’s, for the latter intended the physical destruction of the Jews, whereas the former intended their spiritual destruction through assimilation. I would add to Rabbi Kasher – through assimilation to Laban’s tribal mindset.

Hitler did not merely want to destroy the Jewish people, though that genocide is horrendous crime enough – he also wanted to destroy their decency, their insistence on remaining moral agents. He wanted to turn them into animals moving in packs, clawing against each other for survival. He wanted to destroy their humanity.

Throughout the ages there have been Jews who convinced themselves that they are bound by the most basic and banal tribal “commandment” – the commandment to fight all who dishonor the tribe. So it was with Simeon and Levy, who led the massacre against the people of Shekhem, and who then wished to kill their own brother Joseph – for which they were castigated by their father, Jacob. Levy’s divine recompense was to be denied any part of the Land of Israel, for what God would give a fanatical mafioso like Levy a portion in the land? Better keep his ilk in the Temple, far away from land, settlement, and politics. From Simeon and Levy to Rabbi Meir Kahane and the West Bank racist rabbis, the Kena’im – the zealots – have done greater harm to the Jewish people than all the external enemies of the Jews together. Jewish self-government of the Land of Israel was stopped after a zealot killed Gedalya, the Jewish governor appointed by Nebuchadezzar. Jerusalem was destroyed, and tens of thousands killed, because of the zealots. Jewish autonomy was thwarted, due to the ultra-nationalist Jews.

The Judaism that arose from the ashes of the Temple – rabbinic Judaism – eschewed the fanaticism of the zealots. Only in times of national madness – when messianic fervor enflamed rabbis like Akiva and Simeon b Yohai – were the Jews once again doomed to repeat the mistake of the zealots. And all Jews suffered for their messianic madness.

Far worse than the religious Jewish zealot is the secular Jewish zealot. Himself an am-haaretz, an ignoramus, when it comes to the demands that Jewish tradition and morality make upon the Jews to act decently, the secular zealot will never forgive those Jews who seek justice and truth when it may dishonor the tribe. Some secular Zionist thinking rejected these Jewish moral demands as the product of a “golus mentality.” Such zealots made the Jewish nation into an idol and worshipped it as the supreme value.

The tribal contempt that Simeon and Levy felt toward the inconvenient truth-teller Joseph is mirrored today by the tribal contempt that the new zealots feel towards inconvenient truth-tellers, like Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and, most of all, Judge Richard Goldstone. The pathological contempt felt towards this man by new zealots like Alan Dershowitz and John Podhoretz demands an explanation.

I maintain that the contempt felt towards Richard Goldstone by Podhoretz, a man totally without any credentials when it comes to knowledge of Jewish tradition (can he understand Hebrew?) or international human rights law, is indicative of this peculiar form of Jewish selbsthasse, this chafing at the yoke that morality places on the Jew, and for that matter, on all decent people. It is the contempt that the zealots felt towards the rabbinic Jews, the contempt celebrated by the suicide terrorists at Masada, the contempt felt towards all Jews who place loyalty to God, Torah, and Truth, over loyalty to the tribe.

Am I exaggerating? According to Podhoretz here, Goldstone “was chosen because he was Chosen. The powers-that-be at the UN plucked Goldstone from septuagenarian obscurity two years ago to serve as the front man for the commission designed for the purpose of trumpeting Israel’s guilt precisely because he is a Jew.” Evidence for this assertion? None, of course. And what were Goldstone’s motives for accepting the position? Here Podhoretz is at first glance kinder than Dershowitz, who speculated he was angling for a Nobel Prize.

What Goldstone himself thought when he was plucked from obscurity at the age of 71 and placed at the red-hot center of world politics is between him and his Maker.

Again, obscurity? The man who had been the chief UN prosecutor in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, who had served on the South African Constitutional Court until retirement in 2003, who had chaired the Independent International Commission on Kosovo from August 1999 until December 2001, who had served on the Independent Inquiry Committee into the Oil for Food scandal, chaired by Paul Volcker, in 2004? Goldstone’s motives for accepting the UN fact-finding position may be unknown to Podhoretz, but they were all over the web: Inter alia

Goldstone explained that he had long "taken a deep interest in Israel, in what happens in Israel, and I have been associated with organizations that have worked in Israel" and "decided to accept it because of my deep concern for peace in the Middle East, and my deep concern for victims in all sides in the Middle East.”

And this is precisely what disgusts a secular Jewish zealot like Podhoretz – not the findings of the Goldstone Mission, but the very act of betrayal of the tribe by a Jew who evinces a deep concern for victims in all sides in the Middle East. And why does he feel no sympathy for Goldstone, now that he has been attacked by the Left?

Because the damage Goldstone did by fronting this report is inseparable from the fact of his Jewishness. If he had been deserving of special praise for having supposedly transcended the parochial interests of his people and speaking out, then one can also say he is deserving of special criticism for having allowed his Jewishness to be used as a weapon against the Jewish state.

In fact, Judge Richard Goldstone deserves no special praise for “transcending the parochial interests of his people.” He is a judge, goddamit – that’s what judges are supposed to do! Nor is he deserving of special criticism for having allowed his Jewishness to be used as a weapon against the Jewish state. He is a judge, goddamit – of what relevance is what other people will do with what he writes? Goldstone, according to Podhoretz, should have refused to head the UN fact-finding mission because inevitably that mission would have found Israel guilty (after all, the UN is anti-Semitic to its core), and inevitably his Jewishness would be used as a weapon against the Jewish state. He should have known that no matter what his motives are, no matter how much he acted in the name of justice and truth, no matter how much his expertise and experience would have contributed to the mission, he should have disqualified himself because he knew that his Jewishness would be used by the goyyim against the Jewish state.

Who would have thought that the son of Norman Podhoretz, of all people, would counsel a Jew not to do what he thinks is right -- because it could provide “fodder for the anti-Semites”. Oy, such a shonde/shame!

Is this not the hatred of doing the right thing because it may harm the tribe – and not even the tribe, but a part of the tribe that has behaved abominably? Is this not the epitome of tribalism that the Torah calls upon all decent people to transcend? Should an Italian judge disqualify himself from sitting on a Mafia case because Italian-baiters will use his Italian identity to legitimate their hatred?

Ribono shel olam, as Akiva Ernst Simon asked, “Are we still Jews?

(h/t to Ali Gharib)