Monday, December 24, 2012

Why Obama Should Nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense

The White House's trial balloon of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel  as Secretary of Defense has not yet burst, despite rocks thrown at it by the pro-Israel lobby, the anti-Iran lobby, and some members of the gay community. But there is no question that to date there have been fewer defenders than detractors. And now there is Michael Hirsh saying that the White House is "considering others for the job." (Weren't they considering others beforehand? Isn't that what a "leading candidate" means?) So given the likelihood of tough confirmation hearings, wouldn't it make political sense for Obama to drop this ball now?

Perhaps. But the president should go forward with the nomination.  Here's why:

Let's analyze the opposition. The usual gang of vocal neocons and "Israel-firsters" like the Emergency Committee for Israel, can be ignored. These are the people who did their best to defeat Obama and to plunge the US into foreign wars, convincing themselves that there is no daylight between Israel's interests and those of America in order to absolve themselves of dual-loyalties. Do you really think Barack Obama gives a  fig about folks like William Kristol and his ilk? 

True,  the group is doing its best to whip up senators against the nomination. But we are not talking about AIPAC getting Congress to pass one of its pro-Israel resolutions. We are talking about defeating a president's nomination for secretary of defense. Such a defeat is rare; it occurred only  once in the last fifty years when George H. W. Bush's nominee John G. Tower was rejected because of allegations about his private conduct and possible conflict of interest. Some cabinet nominees withdrew their candidacy in recent years, but because of possible legal infractions (employing illegal immigrants, etc.) 

Then we have the Democrat liberal hawks, and while they are not openly supporting Hagel, they aren't saying no either. Chuck Schumer, whose base is very pro-Israel (and some of it quite rightwing) says that he will have to study Hagel's record. Significantly, Jeffrey Goldberg gives Hagel a clean bill of goods on the Israel question. Unfortunately, Goldberg has to strut his pro-Israel creds by taking a false and libelous shot against Stephen Walt, but the bottom line is that he supports Hagel's tough stand on the settlements. 

If the nomination goes through, then Hagel could be facing tough confirmation hearings. I don't think Obama would lose this one,  but even if he did, the confirmation hearings would bring to the center some of the major concerns of the Obama administration -- the criticism of the settlements while at the same backing a democratic Israel, the disinclination to act unilaterally in the Mideast, the desire to eliminate waste at the Pentagon. Win or lose, this would be a powerful teaching moment for the rest of the country. And it could help revitalize the grand tradition of Republican realism that was sidelined when the neocons took over the party and got us into mess after mess.

Still, if past performance is any indication of future results, the administration may pop its own balloon. I am not just referring to the Susan Rice affair. I heard Jim Jones speak at the first J Street Convention a few years ago, as as a representative from a cautious administration. The next year there was no representative.  True, the president doesn't have to get reelected now. But "no-drama-Obama" doesn't like this sort of fight. 

Which would be a pity. Chuck Hagel may be Israel's last chance for survival as a Jewish democracy. That's why liberal hawks like Goldberg are partial to him.  Given my positions, I should be supporting a secretary of state that assists Israel in going over the cliff (like Hillary). 

But this is one cliff I prefer avoiding.
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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Some Arguments for the Illegitimacy of Anti-Communism (c. 1950)

For Phil Weiss

1. Communism represents the will of the Soviet peoples, and ipso facto it must be respected.

2. The morality of communism could be debated before the October Revolution, but once the Soviet Union has been established, and the people have made their choice, the subject is closed.

3. The singling out of the communism of the Soviet regime for criticism, especially on the part of dissident Russians and those peoples most affected by the regime's actions, can only be explained as indicative of prejudice and bigotry towards the Soviet people.

4. Those who argue for regime change in the case of the Soviet Union, but not in more tyrannical regimes, are deeply anti-Soviet.

5. To question the legitimacy of the communist regime in the Soviet Union is tantamount to wishing the destruction of millions of Soviet citizens -- although the anti-communists may not say so explicitly.

And a P.S. from a reader

6.  The suffering of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War entitles them to have great concern about the anti-communist delegitimizers.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Boycott the Occupation, Not the Settlers

Readers, this post appeared today on Open Zion here.

Samuel Lebens cites some familiar arguments against boycotting Israel in general, and boycotting settlers in particular: Boycotts against Israel won’t bring about positive change, he says, but will only harden positions; constructive engagement has a better chance of winning hearts and minds; effective economic boycotts may actually constitute collective punishment; it is wrong to boycott settles who are two-staters, etc.

I would like to make five points about these arguments.

First, their empirical basis is thin. Do boycotts harden existing positions? Are they  counterproductive? Do they harm progressive elements in oppressive societies? One would expect Leben to adduce evidence from other cases of state sanctions. This he does not do, substituting for data his own take on the Israeli situation. He does not respond to familiar arguments in support of boycotting Israel, as,  for example, the argument that boycotts have a better chance of influencing policy in Israel than, say, in Iran, precisely because Israelis care deeply about their image as a Western style democracy, and the Israeli electorate can and occasionally does influence policy. In Israel even the most trivial artistic boycott is front page news and is used by progressive elements to make their case in the public sphere.

Second, his arguments seem to be directed against boycotts and sanctions in general. After all, it is hard to find a society that doesn’t have some decent people.  Would he have opposed sanctions against Germany in the 1930s on the grounds that such sanctions would be counterproductive -- that they would harden German attitudes, harm progressives, and constitute collective punishment of the German people? If he believes that boycotts are justifiable in some cases, he has to convince us why they are not justifiable in the specific case of Israel. And given his own position as a settler, his arguments cannot appear to be self-serving.

In fact, Lebens allows that some cases of collective punishment may be justified in order to avert a greater catastrophe (“World War III,” in the case of sanctions against Iran). He implies that the suffering of Palestinians under a long and often brutal occupation does not justify collective punishment of the Israelis, or of the settlers, despite the fact that most countries and legal authorities consider the settlements to be  illegal and recognize Palestinian suffering. One comes away with the impression that Lebens is more concerned with the potential suffering of the settlers than with the actual suffering of the Palestinian natives caused by the presence of the settlements That’s his right, but some arguments are needed.

Third, his arguments are what philosophers call “consequentialist,” i.e., they focus on evaluating the morality of acts in light of their consequences. But some acts may be required, or at least commendable, regardless of their results. Boycotts and sanctions can be merely symbolic, and in the case of Israel, they generally have been. The message underlying the call of the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, endorsed by elements of Palestinian civil society, is that Israel cannot be considered a decent society as long as it discriminates against Palestinians and deny them civil rights. The boycotters wish to deny Israel a place in the company of decent nations until civil equality for the Palestinian people is achieved, and even if they fail in their endeavor, indeed, even if they make things worse in the short term for the Palestinians living on the West Bank and in Gaza, many see this as a required moral stance regardless of the consequences. None of Lebens’ consequentialist arguments pertain to non-consequentialist arguments in support of boycotts.

Fourth, Lebens’ claim that the boycotters are “underpinned by an almost unconscious anti-Semitism” because they rarely boycott any other country involves a leap of logic that I have examined elsewhere. The boycotters may have good reasons for singling out Israel for moral opprobrium – especially if they are Palestinian, who are directly affected by Israeli actions, or their supporters. There is no need for them to be concerned for all, or even more egregious, cases of injustice After all, isn’t Lebens principally concerned with what affects him as an Israeli settler?

And this brings me to my fifth point. Lebens seems to think that the settler boycott is wrong inter alia because it affects settlers like him who are decent two-staters and not “racist colonialists.” This is a familiar argument against boycotts and sanctions in general, and indeed, the argument was used by those who opposed sanctions in South Africa, which caused economic hardship not only to anti-apartheid whites but also to many blacks. Yet the reply to this is also well-known: The boycott is not directed against settlers as individuals, but against an oppressive Israeli occupation. Boycotts and sanctions, like workers’ strikes, make all sorts of people suffer. But that suffering may be justifiable in certain circumstances, and, in the long run, may actually benefit both Israelis and Palestinians, including settlers.

A final comment on boycott and engagement: the one need not exclude the other. People are complex, and winning people’s hearts and minds requires various strategies. I endorse the global BDS initiative as an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, although I personally purchase items from Israel (when I live there, it’s hard not to) and generally oppose academic boycotts. How and when to implement a BDS strategy – where should there be boycotts, which companies should be divested from – are tactical issues that need to be discussed and weighed in light of competing principles. Unlike Israel, Palestinians have very few means by which they can advance their cause. If the goal is to win concessions from a hard-line Israeli government, boycotts may be a less effective tactic than firing rockets or waging an intifada. But it is a nonviolent one. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

And the Winner Is...Justice Richard Goldstone

There is now a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, thank God. The senseless military operation initiated by a blundering Israeli overreaction, and resulting in death, destruction, and fear in civilian populations, was only the latest in a series of such operations. And an examination of the cease-fire "understandings," virtually identical with those after Cast Lead, shows that Israel's over-arching strategy in assassinating Chief of Staff  Jabari.was of the "We've-got-to-DO-something" variety. It is unlikely that the cease-fire will hold, but it is sufficient to worry later about future troubles, as the saying goes.

Who won? Ask the Israelis, most of whom opposed the cease-fire, and they will tell you that the other side won. Ask the Gazans, and they will tell you that their side won.  My view is that the real winner was Justice Richard Goldstone, whose report changed the way Israel waged war against the Gazans.

How did Pillar of Cloud differ from Cast Lead? Less indiscriminate shelling; no press blackout; the leaflets to the Gazans telling them to leave their homes about to be destroyed gave routes to the nearest shelter. Of course, this was cold comfort, seeing as the nearest shelter was already overcrowded. In fact, CNN allowed us to see one family moving from school shelter to school shelter until they get could find a classroom for their clan. No white phosphorous, either.Without the Goldstone Report, the civilian casualties and the destruction of property "for the sake of deterrence" would have been higher.

This is not to say that war crimes were not committed by both sides, and I hope that the human rights agencies will investigate these  and issue their reports.

Judge Richard Goldstone was vilified, first by the Israelis and their supporters, and then by the supporters of the Palestinians, who misread his so-called "retraction". No person is above criticism, of course, and reasonable people often disagree. But Judge Goldstone, and those who worked with him, and above all, the Israeli human rights organizations that provided him with data, both directly or indirectly, and who were also vilified by the Israeli government, should take satisfaction in the numbers of lives they saved.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Israel's Turkey Shoot and Hamas' Weapons of Minimal Destruction

There is no "war" in Gaza. There is a military operation by one of the most advanced militaries in the world against a cadre of militants that can't shoot straight because their weapons are relatively primitive and cannot be aimed well.

So much for offense. As for defense, one side has the most advanced shield in the world; the other has...well, no defense at all.

For illustrating the disparity, here is a convenient article and graphic.

So let's talk about civilian suffering.  For tribalistic reasons, the Jewish community in the US has been bombarded  with pictures of Israelis sitting in shelters and safe rooms. We are being told that hundreds and thousands of rockets have been fired into Israel, and that Israelis are being held hostage to Muslim terrorists.

I don't want to minimize the trauma that the Israelis have suffered. On the contrary, I know it is huge, and I fear for the long-term effects. But because I understand how much Israelis who are in harm's way are suffering, I also understand how that suffering, as great as it is, pales in comparison to the suffering of the Gazans. And yes, making discriminations in the amount and depth of suffering does matter.

Name your critirion: Fatality statistics? Death and injury of civilians? Destruction of property? Fear and trauma? Deafening explosives? Feelings of utter helplessness? Of being utterly exposed? On every possible metric, the Gazans suffer more than the Israelis. And after there is another cease fire, and things get back to "normal," the Gazans suffering because of the blockade and the restrictions in movement, not to mention the occupation, will continue

Israelis get this. Ask anybody in Sderot where they would prefer to be now -- Sderot or Gaza City -- and they will look at you as if you are crazy.

On NPR this morning there was a report of Israeli wedding guests who, when they heard the air raid siren, skipped the shelters and went outside to watch the Iron Dome intercept its missiles.Picture that in Gaza.

IDF rockets and missiles have killed more innocent civilians in the last three days than all the Hamas rockets combined in the last eight years!

When you say this to Israelis, they get very huffy. Some will say that it is sheer luck that rockets don't killl hundreds or thousands. But that's an uneducated argument. In fact, they don't kill that many, and Hamas soldeirs knows they won't kill that many. They know that they are just shooting off steam and hoping to beat the house odds that are stacked against them. . In the First Intifada, the Palestinians threw thousands of rocks against the IDF soldiers, and Menachem Begin justified the use of lethal force against them saying, "A rock can kill." But rocks usually don't kill, and we now have abundant evidence that Hamas rockets rarely do the same. That cannot be said for IDF bombardments.

I realize that statistics don't mean anything to most people; if they did, people wouldn't waste their money on lottery tickets. It is indeed scary to hear a rocket exploding, even if explosion was in an open area.

But how much more scary would it be if the rocket were launched by the most technologically sophisticated weaponry in the world? Who would you rather fight? David or Goliath?

Bombs fired discriminately that kill  large number of civilians are worse than rockets fired indiscriminately that have little chance of hitting anybody.

I suppose Hamas is learning this from the Israelis. When a missile was fired towards Jerusalem on Friday, the Hamas leadership said that they were aiming for the Knesset, which according to Israeli military ethics, is a legitimate target.

Instead, the missle landed miles away on the West Bank. Had it killed civilians, Hamas could have done what Israel does in such circumstances.

Express regret and set up an investigation.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

How Two Jewish (and One Stoic) Ideas Helped Me Get Through Yesterday's Sermon in Synagogue

Before I left for synagogue in DC yesterday I resolved that I would not sit through a sermon that painted the Israelis as the innocent victims of murderous Hamas thugs. I expected that additional Psalms would be said for those in Israel, and I would say them with more kavvanah/intention than usual. (Some of my children and grandchildren have been in those shelters recently.) But I would try to insist that civilians on both sides be included in the Psalms.

As it turned out, I would have gladly sat in my safe room in my apartment in Jerusalem -- or in a shelter in Sderot -- than have sat through the sermon I heard. The rabbi, who is a  moderate, learned, and decent man, and often quite liberal and tolerant towards other religions,  began by commenting on the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He then tied that to the weekly portion, which refers to the enmity between Jacob and Esau, already in the womb of Rebecca. Of course, he conceded that Esau was later interpreted by the rabbis not as Muslims but as Christians, and he also said that the prototypical Muslim was Ishmael and not Esau. But what can you's Torah portion was about Esau and Jacob and any typological enemy will do in the current storm.

As the sermon went on, its message became clearer: There is no hope of peace with Muslims, because their values are simply different from those of us Jews. They believe that heaven is acquired through fighting and dying. They use firepower indiscriminately. They target civilians. We Jews live in a bad neighborhood, getting worse by the growth of fundamentalism (this from an orthodox rabbi, who had just used the Bible as a source for historical inevitability!) He ended with the hopeful comment that, as a rabbi, he has witnessed more and more Muslims converting to Judaism.

As he started talking about Islam,  I felt that I could take it no longer. My blood boiling, I weighed the option of walking out. Since I sit in the front row of a relatively small room,  my protest would have been noticed by everybody, including the rabbi. I knew that this would cause a stir, and, who knows, maybe some good would come out of it. It would have been disrespectful to the rabbi, but our sages teach that "where this is desecration of God's name, one doesn't accord respect to rabbis." Or so I reasoned, in my anger.

But then I remembered two important teachings of our sages:

"Who is a hero? One who masters his passions." It's a passage I had learned with my students only the day before, and it smacks of Stoic influence.  Maimonides writes that one should avoid anger, even when anger is appropriate. All right, I realize that some psychologists may disagree. But walking out in a huff is not a way to influence people. And disrespecting the mara de-asra, the local rabbinical authority, especially one whom I respect on many other matters, and who is a friend and colleague, because of a disagreement, is wrong. At any rate, it's not me. 

And I also thought, what right do I have to cause anybody discomfort, especially since

All us Israel-supporters, even rabbis, are tinokot she-nishbu "children who have been raised among the Idolators" (tinokot she-nishbu). This rabbinic  phrase has come to mean somebody who have been raised in ignorance of the truth. How can I blame any of my fellow-Jews for their ignorance, since they have been indoctrinated since birth with Zionist myths and Israeli narratives. The mainstream media in this country is hopeless "captured" by the Israeli hasbara machine, whether liberal Zionist (NY Times, Washington Post) or chauvinist Zionism (Fox News, the Murdoch papers). Unless you read Haaretz, which now charges a hefty subscription free, you are entirely clueless as to what is going on, and Haaretz, God bless it, also reflects an Israeli perspective. 

After the services I talked with people who were not happy with the Gaza situation, who were not knee-jerk supporters of the Netanyahu government, but who, out of ignorance, spouted the same hasbara slogans that the Israeli spin machine puts out so well, and now on Twitter and Facebook. They receive links from the Jerusalem Post and Fox News? Can I blame them for their ignorance?

The problem is not Hamas violence or Israeli violence; these are only symptoms of a much deeper mindset, or mentalite, which cannot be erased easily, if at all. Talking with my fellow Jews I felt as if I were  talking with some doctrinaire Marxists, or evangelical Christians (or Muslims, Jews, or "Dawkinsians"), whose entire worldviews were the servant of some ideology.

As is my own, I suppose, only in my case the ideology is the American liberalism with which I was raised.

To be fair, my fellow-congregants have also been raised with a lot of that American liberalism. When one said to me, "Don't you think Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks." I said, "Not only a right, but an obligation." But when I countered,  "Don't Palestinians have the right to defend themselves from Israeli attacks, including cross-border incursions and naval blockades?" I was met with a blank stare. If this had been Israel, my interlocutor would have said, "No, they don't." But for an American Jewish liberal, what I had said had completely thrown him off, at least for a few seconds.

It doesn't occur to most American Jews I know, or for that matter, most people I know, that the Palestinians are the primary victims of the Zionist movement, that they were dispossessed by superior force,  and that they are struggling for decades to enjoy the same life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in their land that the Israelis have enjoyed.  Whether they are second-class citizens, or under occupation,  or in the Palestinian diaspora,  they refuse to admit total defeat, and they will never relinquish their claims. They are among the longest suffering peoples since World War I, and their suffering is compounded because some of those who supplanted them suffered terribly during World War II.

A few of the  lessons I take away from yesterday's portion, which focuses on Genesis 27.

Spin and Deception work in the short term. 

(See under Jacob.)

But the truth will out eventually, even for the Israeli hasbara machine

"The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau"

And Israel is willing for the sake of Zionism to fulfill the Biblical prophecy of Esau

"Then Isaac his father answered and said to him,
From the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling
From the dew of heaven from above
By your sword you shall live."

Only in current Hebrew, this living-by-the-sword is called "conflict management."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Follow-Up Questions You are Not Likely to Hear on American TV

UPDATE: For the "Nate Silver wonks" among my readers the following piece by   dissecting the IDF rocket numbers spin that is bombarding the social media is a must-read.

And Robert Wright and Emily Hauser make the important point that it is pretty hard to determine who started the current round of hostilities. It all depends on the day you pick. What can be said is that only one people has had control over the other people's life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for years.

While MSNBC, the so-called "progressive network," continues to shill for Obama's reelection and avoids the Gaza crisis like the plague, other networks have stepped up to the plate to shill  for Israel -- or at least against Hamas.

Israeli officials and spokespeople line for interviews with the networks, but have you seen Hamas government officials (those who don't live in constant fear of assassinations), or even officials in Gaza being interviewed? At best you have a Washington-based PA official, usually a Fatah aparatchik, who is not unhappy to see Hamas weakened.

Heck, I saw the neoconservative Fouad Ajami, a close family friend of the Netanyahus, who blurbed Benzion Netanyahus book on the Spanish Inquisition (!) being interviewed as an expert on Israel/Palestine!

We have been treated to a parade of statistics for rocket firings provide the IDF spokesperson, never  followed by any statistics of Israeli firepower against the Gazans.

In short, the "narrative" is entirely left to the Israelis and their surrogates. Since the networks and cable news are incapable of coming up with with good follow-up questions, here's my holiday gift to them:

1. "Israel has the right to defend itself militarily against rocket attacks."

Do the Gazans have the same right to defend themselves militarily against shells, missiles, and bombs?

2. "If the Hamas stops shooting rockets, Israel will call off its operation."

Why did Israel on November 8 initiate hostilities after a two week break where there were little to no rocket firing, and none from Hamas?

3. "Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist."

Does Hamas have the right to conduct hostilities against Israel, which doesn't recognize Hamas's legitimacy?

4. "Israel does not negotiate with terrorists."

Why did Israel negotiate with General Jabari over the Shalit exchange?

5. General Jabari has blood on his hands.

Doesn't Ehud Barak have a lot more blood on his hands?

6. How can you compare? Jabari was reponsible for rocket firing.

But wasn't it reported in Haaretz that Jabari was the "subcontractor" for Israel who prevented rocket-firing in Israel, and who had agreed to a long-term cease fire brokered by Egypt -- right before he was assassinated by Israel?

7. There is no moral comparison between Hamas's indiscriminate firing of rockets and Israel's targeted firing of military installations.

If your little sister were killed "unintentionally" by a bomb fired in a civilian area, would you feel less upset because she was only "collateral damage" of a campaign designed to establish deterrence?

8. If a Hamas civilian is killed, that's because terrorists cynically position themselves among civilians.

Where is the IDF's headquarters located?

9. There's still no comparison -- Hamas fires hundreds of rockets, whereas we pinpoint our targets.

If your chief of staff were assassinated, and the only weapons you had were rockets, would you refrain from using them?

10. We withdrew from Gaza, and they answered with rocket fire....

How many years have gone by since Operation Cast Lead, and how have you eased conditions on the Gazans since then?

11. Israel will do everything it can to protect itself.

Especially after Netanyahu lost one election, and can pick up a few seats with the new one -- and Ehud Barak can keep his career and his ego intact.

Another Shabbat without Shalom

Thursday, November 15, 2012

And That's Why Israel Doesn't Want A Cease-Fire

One response to my post below was that I gave the Israeli government way too much credit for having a strategy in the current wave of hostilities. It makes more sense that  they bungled into it the way they bungle into so many things, by over-reacting poorly to events with disproportionate force. 

Call me dewy-eyed, but I like to think that the Israeli government does have a strategy, or at least  a mindset that accounts for its actions. In this case there is at least circumstantial evidence that its plan was to provoke hostilities so that it could a) decrease the chance of a lasting cease-fire and b) strengthen extremists within the Gaza strip and thereby weaken the moderates in Hamas, whose stock has been steadily rising since the Egyptian elections and the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Or it could be just bungling.....

For people with short memories, that is to say, for those who can't remember what Israel did to provoke the rocket fire that served as the pretext for the current operation, there is a very good time line here  It shows that Israel initiated  the current spate of violence on Nov. 4, two days following the US election, and shattering a two-week lull in violence. Most significant was the attempt of Egypt to broker a cease-fire, which the various factions in Gaza accepted, and a key player of which was Ahmad Jabari, the chief of Hamas's military wing. For an account of Jabari's role in negotiations for long-term cease-fire negotiations since the Shalit release, read Gershon Baskin's insider account in today's Open Zion as well as in Haaretz.  Jabari's assassination was a twofer for Israel -- they got rid of a moderate who was trying to produce a long term cease-fire, and they provoked  Hamas into launching massive rocket attacks.  The death of the family in Kiryat Malachi was the collateral damage of Israel's  misguided policy. The last thing they want is the security offered by a long-term cease-fire with Hamas.

Even if we allow for a little bungling, I still maintain that the assassination of Hamas leaders, as well as the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli citizens, serve the interests of the Netanyahu government, the chauvinistic center in Israel, and all their supporters. I can't see this as a cynical election ploy; for one thing, there is no evidence; for another, if the number of Israeli casualties rise, it could hurt Netanyahu. It is more likely that this was an attempt to do the "house-cleaning" I wrote about below.

As always, the ray of hope lies in Palestinian resistance to aggression, and in the "coalition of the sane" who recognize stupidity, cruelty, and inhumanity when they see it.

If you want to belong to that coalition, subscribe to Haaretz and read Jewish Voice for Peace's eloquent statement on here -- and sign up for their protest activities.  JPV shows  even in a period of spiritual darkness, Jews raise their voices  against the apostates of violence, chauvinism and dehumanization. 


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israel's Post-Election War

I don't know whether Nate Silver gives odds on wars, but the odds of Israel escalating its aggression against Gaza were higher than the odds Silver gave for Obama winning the last election -- I mean the odds on election day.

It has been clear for over a year that  Israel would wait until after the American elections to launch some act of military aggression, and it was clear, to me, at least, that it would not be directed against Iran, Syria, or Lebanon. It seems likely that Israel had decided to conduct an operation in Gaza  before the first rocket was fired from Gaza.

All military actions, indeed, all actions having to do with Gaza, have one goal in mind: the subjugation of the Palestinian people there with minimum cost to  Israel. In hasbara speak this is called  "protecting Israelis," "defeating terror," "defending national security," even "protecting national honor," but it boils down to the same thing -- Israel cannot be secure if the Palestinians have real independence. That is why Israelis are divided into those who want to subjugate Palestinians by giving them no self-determination and those who want to subjugate them by giving them quasi self-determination in a quasi-state.  

I spoke with an expert on the Israeli military shortly after "Operation Cast Lead," and when I told him that many argued that the operation was a reaction to Hamas rocket-fire, he laughed. He said that Hamas rocket-fire was deliberately provoked when Israel broke the cease-fire so that Israel could do a little "spring cleaning," deplete Hamas's arsenal of weapons. He told me that this happens every few years, and that I should expect it to happen in another few years. Israel will assassinate a Hamas leader, Hamas will have to respond (wouldn't Israel, under those circumstances?) and Israel will perform a "clean up" operation. If Hamas is smart and doesn't play into Israel's hands, then Israel will also come out ahead, because it will be weakened in the eyes of the Palestinian public. It's win-win for Israel. That's what having control means.

Since 1967, Israel has occupied Gaza. Since the disengagement -- or more accurately, the "redeployment" -- Israel has effectively controlled Gaza. It has allowed Hamas to wax and wane, at its pleasure, and when it thinks the timing is ripe, it strikes against Hamas. 

The only thing that will restrain Israel is world-wide, and especially US and European, condemnation. As always, the only way to advance the cause of peace and justice in this region is through holding Israel to the standards of a decent state, not the rogue state it has long become.

Note to readers: I'm back in the saddle again.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Loving Fellow Jews, Loving Fellow Humans, Loving "Folks Like Us"

I suppose I should be pleased that Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, whose blog I occasionally read with pleasure, contrasted favorably the Magnes Zionist's posts with Avraham Burg's recent op-ed in the New York Times. Burg was indirectly admonished by the rabbi for criticizing Israel harshly to an external audience, whereas he singled out the  Magnes Zionist for his harsh criticisms of Israel to an internal audience. Since the subject of Rabbi Rosen's blog was "Ahavat Yisrael," love of one's fellow Jews, one can reasonably infer  that he thought that Mr. Burg was more deficient in that trait than is Jeremiah Haber.

I certainly hope that wasn't his point!

For one thing I write a blog that, while having a tiny fraction of the circulation of the New York Times, is addressed to anybody who can read it, and I have a lot of readers who are gentiles. True, I have a tendency to talk insider language, but that is just because blogs are "unbuttoned" affairs, with scads of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors.  I do want to address Jews, of course, but not just. At times I am very happy to be seen in other company.

For example, I just published an essay in an anthology called, After Zionism, ed. by Antony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moor. Among the other contributors were Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy, Diana Bhuttu, Jeff Halper, Joseph Dana, Ahmed Moor, John Mearsheimer, Phil Weiss. The audience of this book is not mainly a Jewish one, and I would not be surprised if those individuals  fail to make most people's Ahavat Yisrael list. (Some of them WILL make mine.)  I wrote in my essay that not all forms of Zionism are treif (there I go again), and that there is a place for a certain kind of Zionism in a transformed Israel/Palestine.  My essay sticks out like a sore thumb in this company, but the editors accepted it because they felt that this book is about trying to envision a more just Israel/Palestine than is the horrible state of affairs today.  

As for Mr. Burg -- well, I assume that he wished to publish his piece in the New York Times because he wanted to reach Americans (including more American Jews than all the readers of all the Jewish media outlets combined)  who consider themselves liberal and supporters of Israel. He has been carrying on a debate with Rabbi Daniel Gordis about Jewish fundamentalism on the pages of the Economist, even though the both of them work withing a five-minute walk of each other. Is this bad? To some it may suggest a lack of ahavat Yisrael to wage the wars of the Lord in the goyyische press.  I don't see it that way. I see Burg's writings as a kiddush ha-Shem, a sanctification of God's name. 

Re ahavat Yisrael, I once wrote:

When people ask me whether I am pro-Israel, I unhesitatingly and unabashedly say yes. I am for Israel, which is the classical name for the Jewish people, I believe in and practice, to the best of my limited capacities, the love of the Jewish people, ahavat Yisrael. But what does that phrase mean? Hannah Arendt pleaded guilty to Gershom Scholem’s charge that she lacked ahavat Yisrael, stating that she loves people, not “the people”, not an abstraction. But even if “Israel” is not taken to represent an abstract collective but rather each and every individual Jew, it is arguably impossible, not to mention undesirable, to love people you have never met, or worse, whose ideology or character revolts you, simply because you are a member of their tribe. (Do you love everybody in your family?)

And yet, for me, ahavat Yisrael means to accord members of the Jewish people a special place in my heart, because I view them as extended family. And that is why as a member of the family I feel worse when some of family act atrociously. 

The basis for the commandment of ahavat Yisrael is the rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The philosopher of education Akiva Ernst Simon wrote an essay in which he showed (much to his dismay) that the rabbis interpreted "neighbor" not as one's fellow human being, but rather as one's fellow Jew. That much is clear; there is love for one's fellow Jew and respect for God's creatures. Still, one does hear the phrase nowadays, "ahavat ha-adam," love of human beings, if not as much in traditional rabbinic Judaism, than at least in the Judaism I admire and cherish.

But I propose here another reading of the verse, "You shalt love your neighbor as yoursefl" -- you shall love the neighbor who is like yourself, that is to say, you should love like-minded individuals, or what we Yanks call, "folks like us."

In my case, "the folks like us" are composed of what my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, would call kol ha-minim, 'all kinds': Jews, Christians, Muslims, lefties, righties. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with all of them provided that we share the same values. As the song goes, "We are family." True, the family may not be a traditional one, but it is family nonetheless. And if this non-traditional family can help members of my traditional family do the right thing...well, that's fine.

Of course it is also nice when members of your family are also "folks like us" -- in this case, folks like Rabbi Jeremy Rosen and Avraham Burg.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bring Back Beinart

Recently, Forward contributing editor Jay Michaelson wrote a long piece challenging the leftwing critics of Israel to reveal their endgame. According to Michaelson, Jewish Voice for Peace says that it is agnostic but the JVP folks he has talked to are for one state. And a one-state solution involves nothing less than the "cultural genocide" of Israel. "There is no way that a binational state will be a safe haven for the Jewish people or that it will preserve Jewish culture." Well, so much for those benighted fools like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Rabbi Benjamin. To quote Michaelson, "NO WAAYYY".

May I respectfully suggest to Michaelson that he stick to issues he knows about in the LGBT community, instead of spouting Hasbara 101, the sort of stuff that intelligent rightwingers would never demean themselves by doing

Let me just take thirty seconds or so to answer his main assertions.

JVP hides its endgame, which is the one-state solution. No it doesn't, and no it isn't.  Had Michaelson bothered to google that organization (he doesn't bring a single reference, or link, to anything he asserts) he could see that they have a whole list of principles including, "Israelis and Palestinians have the right to security, sovereignty, and self-determination within political entities of their own choosing." Now what Michaelson should have least argued was that that's what they say, but you can't believe those "cafe leftists" (his offensive dig).  Instead he writes that the JVP people he has talked with are one-staters. So what? The organization includes one-staters, two-staters, no-staters, etc. I, for one, am not a one-stater. I am not at all agnostic on what I want for the endgame, which is that Israelis and Palestinians will have security, soveignty, and self-determination. On Michaelson's logic, if there are gay-right activists in an organization  who prefer Obama over Romney that commits the organization to being a front for the Democrats.

The one-state solution is "anti-Semitic"  because it means that "every people on the planet, from Peruvians to Pakistanis, deserves self-determination — except one. This is where anti-Zionism slides into anti-Semitism. Why are Jews to be treated differently from every other nation on the planet? Is Jewish nationhood more dubious than others?" In fact, there are many nations that don't have a state, including the Palestinian nation, which was repeatedly  promised a state, but whose territory is under the control of the "Jewish nation." I never knew that peoples have a right to a state at the expense of another people's, or on that people's territory. And, let's face it, shouldn't a liberal have problems with any nation-state who accepts new members into the nation on the basis of  religious conversion alone? 

Israel is singled out for moral opprobrium by the left. Oh, how I wish that  were true  -- the left, including the Arab left, has spent enormous time in the last year or so on something called the "Arab spring" and "Arab civil society," the Syrian civil war. And, darn it, the human rights organizations are always devoting most of their time and resources to other countries besides my own. But Michaelson bizarrely insists that the left -- including the Jewish and the Palestinian left -- are anti-Semitic unless they show more concern about the plight of the native Americans than about the fate of the Palestinians. But that is nonsense and offensive nonsense at that. Michaelson himself cares more about the plights of US gays than about the genocide of the Native Americans. Does he really think that gay rights in the US is more important  than the fate of the Roma in Europe? And if he does,  should he be suspected of bigotry toward the Roma for that? For that matter, does he think that leftwing criticism of Israel is a greater tragedy than the Chinese suppression of Tibetan rights? So why is he writing about Israel and not writing about Tibet? (For more on this ridiculous hasbara point see my essay here.)

Michaelson and I write on Israel because we are Jews and stakeholders. Palestinians and their allies are also stake-holders. If I arrange for a family member who has committed a crime to be arrested, am I to be criticized because I didn't tell the cops to go after more serious killers?  Should I have merely tried to solve the problem within the family? Written a letter to the editor? Flaunt my liberal creds?

I have a lot to disagree about with Peter Beinart, but at least Beinart makes arguments, cites sources, and takes his subject seriously. When I read stuff in Jewish media outlets like Michaelson's piece here, I am reminded of Maimonides' point about the illness that afflicts experts in a certain field who feel that they can make pronouncements in areas outside their expertise.  

Had he lived today Maimonides may have called it "contributing editor syndrome." 



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

NGO Monitor Coins an Anti-Semitic Slur: "Jew-Washing"

It's perfectly kosher for a rightwing Jewish organization like NGO Monitor to disagree vigorously with a leftwing organization like Jewish Voice for Peace. But in a recent op-ed in the New York Jewish Week,  Yiktzak Santis and Gerald Steinberg use the trademark tools of their organization --lies, half-truths, and insinuations -- to smear an organization they don't like. 

Still, something that is worth noting is their invention of a new anti-Semitic slur: "Jew-washing."

Before I get to that, let's start with the facts. 1. The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to boycott settlement goods by a whopping 71% of the general assembly's membership. 2. A decision to divest from companies that profit from the occupation was narrowly defeated (by two votes). 3. The assembly voted to accept a recommendation that would allow individual pension holders to invest their pensions in companies that do not profit from the occupation.

Now let's move on to the Santis and Steinberg lies and half-truths. They begin their op-ed as follows:

At the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this month, a motion to adopt a boycott of three companies for doing business with Israel was hotly debated and narrowly defeated.  At this Christian gathering, a group of “young Jewish activists” provided important “testimony” supporting the motion to isolate and demonize Israel 

Lie.  There was no motion to boycott any company for doing business with Israel. As reported in the JTA, the motion was to divest from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank, i.e., that directly benefit from the occupation. Santis and Steinberg knew this, and one can assume that they wrote what they do in order to defame those who supported the motion.

Even if JVP supported a total boycott of Israel, which it does not, that would be entirely irrelevant to the authors' misreporting of the motion. (And while we are on the subject of "lies," JVP is not  an "anti-Zionist group." It  includes Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, two-staters, one-staters, no-staters, etc.)

Slur. The authors have the right to believe that this the motion isolates and defames Israel. But there was no "motion to isolate and demonize Israel." 

Half-truth.  Note that Santis and Steinberg referred to the defeat of the divestment motion. They did not mention the approval of the settlement boycott or providing their members with a way to divest personally. That would have made Jewish Voice for Peace less "fringe" like.

And now for "Jew-washing":

These were the “Jew-washers” – very visible actors in many such political attacks on Israel, particularly in Christian frameworks.  They are influential beyond their actual numbers, providing a convenient means for cleansing such actions from the stains of double standards, demonization and sometimes anti-Semitism against the Jewish state of Israel, and even Judaism itself.

"Jew-washers"? I guess what the authors mean is that JVP and other Jewish groups presents a veneer of Jewish respectability, a hekhsher, for the anti-Israel activities of the BDS'ers. And this is the first slur of what I shall call the "Nu, anti-Semitism!" 

What is the "Nu,  anti-Semitism!"? It is saying to Jews, "Nu, you have no right to say or act upon what you think. because that aids and abets  the anti-Semites” (defined as "people who provide criticisms of Israel that  we at NGO Monitor consider to be unfair.")

The "Nu, anti-Semitism!" is occasionally charitable enough to believe that the Jews in question are self-hating, or naive, or have unreasonable expectations of Israel, etc., etc. As the authors say, their intentions are irrelevant (in other words, such Jews lack the basic human right to be judged on the basis of their intentions.) But by hanging out the dirty laundry of the tribe for all to see, and, worse, by joining with the tribe's enemies (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc.), they are "Jew-washing."

And the "evidence" for "Jew-washing" provided by Steinberg and Santis?

In many cases (sic) Jew-washing is also used to whitewash the blatant theological anti-Semitism that accompanies the church-based BDS attacks on Israel.  One example is Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian group that is very influential in those mainline churches active in the BDS wars.  Its theology includes supercessionism – a reading of the New Testament that considers the Church to have superseded the Jewish people in God’s promises – and deicide – the charge that “the Jews” killed Jesus – that served as the basis for centuries of anti-Jewish persecution.

Giving Sabeel a thorough Jew-wash is JVP’s Rabbinical Council, which in its “Statement of Support for the Sabeel Institute” acknowledges “the more radical incarnations (sic) of some of [Sabeel’s] theological images.”

Yet, Sabeel’s frequent denigration of Judaism as “tribal” and “primitive” and comparisons of Palestinians to Jesus on the cross put there by the Israeli government’s “crucifixion machine,” does not seem to affect JVP’s rabbis, who assert that it is “a mistake to dismiss Palestinian Christian theology wholesale.”

Now, if I said that an organization "whitewashes the blatant theological anti-Semitism that accompanies the church-based BDS attacks on Israel' (Note that Steinberg and Santis just called a bit under half of the Presbyterian General Assembly "blatant theological anti-Semites" ), I would be prepared to show how Jewish Voice for Peace gives some Jewish cover for this.  Instead, the authors refer to a JVP statement that says as follows:

We are aware that many Jews point to the more radical incarnations of some of Ateek's theological images. We believe, however, that it is a mistake to dismiss Palestinian Christian theology wholesale. As Jews, we are much more troubled by the “End of Days” theologies of fundamentalist Zionist Christians such as Pastor John Hagee, who believe that Jews will either convert or go to hell when we've fulfilled our theological purpose. This is anti-semitism par excellence. 

In other words, JVP's rabbinical council, while not endorsing Ateek's theological images, say that they have to be understood in light of the ongoing suffering of Palestinian Christians at the hand of Israelis. One may consider this too forgiving on the part of JVP, but the point is that they are not excusing or whitewashing such images, but saying that they should not be allowed to get in way of the bigger picture.

Should we accuse rightwing groups of "Jew-washing" because they form coalitions with John Hagee's ministry? Or "Christians United for Israel"? Of course not.

For all I know, Christian Zionists  who eagerly await the mass conversion of Jews have contributed to NGO Monitor. 

I say, "for all I know" because the trademark smear of NGO Monitor has yet to come. Of JVP they write,

Their motivations, like their financing, are unclear and irrelevant – the fact that they provide a useful cover for non-Jews to justify gratuitous. Israel-bashing is what counts.

If their financing is irrelevant to the author's argument then why make the remark  that it is "unclear"? Oh, that's an easy one: This is NGO Monitor, which has made a career of insinuations about the "unclear sources of financing" of the organization it "monitors." In fact, even when the source of funding is entirely transparent, they either use the sources to delegitimize the organization or  raise the specter of secret funding.

In NGO Monitor-ese, "unclear funding" means "funding by donors whose identity we cannot discover, and therefore smear through association, no matter how much our staff Googles.”

This wouldn't be so bad were it not that NGO Monitor's own funding is no less "unclear" than that of Jewish Voice for Peace. Last spring  Haaretz published an expose showing how NGO Monitor hides the identity of its donors. That is in Hebrew, but a good account of it in English is here. NGO Monitor's funding is a lot more unclear than that of the NGOs the organization purports to monitor, whose transparency is mandated by law.

But rest assured, NGO monitor, most of JVP's budget is made up of individual donations. They lack the heavy guns that you have, but they would not demean themselves by saying that you provide cover for the anti-Semites.

The "Nu, anti-Semitism!" slur of “Jew-washing” demonizes, and in general, impugns the character of Jewish critics of Israel.  If you think that leftwing Jewish groups are not allowed to join coalitions with non-Jewish groups that criticize Israel's  existence as a Jewish state; then you target leftwing Jews  as Jews. If you believe that Jews are not allowed to make certain arguments or take certain actions because they are Jewish, then you claim that Jews are not allowed to possess the basic human right of expressing their opinions and acting on them in a responsible, non-violent manner.

That’s what makes "Jew-washing" an anti-Semitic slur. It unfairly singles out Jews by judging them by a double standard. And it denies them fundamental human rights.


Monday, July 9, 2012

National Service for Palestinian Israelis?

Every so often the suggestion is raised that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like Jewish citizens, should do some form of national service. Since Israel effectively bars them from military service, and since most of them have no desire anyway to fight in an army that oppresses Palestinians, the proposed alternative is some sort of non-military national service. The claim has been heard recently because of the work of the Plessner Committee, which is recommending military and national service for the ultra-othodox.

A state that defines itself as a state of the Jews, and only of the Jews, and then foundationally discriminates in a myriad of ways against its non-Jewish citizens, cannot morally demand equality of obligations. The answer is to transform the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens, with equal rights and obligations for all. With 5 1/2 million Jews, and with Israel's history, it would still very much be a state in which Hebrew and Jewish culture would be dominant in the public sphere, a state that would look like an ethnic democracy rather than an ethnocracy. And in that case, we could have the philosophical and practical argument about whether national service is a good idea.

Some of my liberal Zionist friends will demur, and it's for them that I write this post. Some, like Peter Beinart, will claim that while Israel is a flawed democracy, it is a democracy nonetheless. They will say that it is indeed unfortunate that there has been a systematic, inegalitarian distribution of resources that favor Jews at the expense of Arabs. But Israel has, at least, in principle, the resources that can make the system more egalitarian. Who knows? Were the Palestinian Israelis to accept some sort of national service, perhaps that would make it easier for them to be accepted within the society, and then they could make the case for a more equitable distribution.

Akiva Eldar, a man whom I respect immensely, agrees with me that under the present circumstances, Palestinian Israelis should not be required to participate in national service. But he also argues today in Haaretz that Palestinian Israelis have more political power than they they think. Instead of staying home in droves whenever there are national elections (only a bit over 50% vote), they could promise to vote for a center-left coalition if some of their political demands are met. After all, and here I return to Beinart, during the years of the second Rabin government, because of coalition arrangments, there were significant steps taken to bridge the gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens. It is, theoretically, possible -- if only the Palestinian Israelis would vote.

Sadly, Eldar's stance is typical liberal Israeli self-delusion. Discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is not just institutional, it is foundational. They are 20% of the population, yet they have virtually no political power. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state.

Beinart's invoking the second Rabin government is illuminating. . Rabin was elected in part because of the Arab vote. Yet even Rabin did not have the political will or ability to bring the Arab political parties into the government coalition. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state. So Arab Israelis could expect to get further funding if they supported the government outside the coalition, and hence not control any ministries, which is the main source of resources for all parties.

Even this was too much for many Israelis, who claimed that the Oslo process was illegitimate because it rested on Arab votes. Attempts to require a Jewish majority on major issues in the Knesset failed, but narrowly. The one time that an Israeli government made some serious gestures towards its Arab citizens, it lost its legitimacy in the eyes of those who had been brought up to believe that Israel was a state of the Jews, not of its citizens.

The lessons of Rabin's failure was learned well by the next Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak. In the 1999 elections close to 75% of the Palestinian Israelis voted, and over 95% of them voted for Ehud Barak for prime minister. When Barak won in a landslide, he promised to the be prime minister of "kulam," everybody. What he meant was that he was going to be the prime minister of all the Jews, left, right, and center, religious and non-religious. He did not want to be perceived as the prime minister of the Arabs. So despite the fact that no sector supported him more than the Arab one, he refused to meet with the Israeli Arab political leaders after the election, not even extending them the courtesy of being invited to informal coalition talks. After all, he thought, they were in his pocket; who else would they support? After the fiasco of Camp David, the beginning of the Second Intifada, and the October police riots against Palestinian Israelis, leaving 13 Palestinian Israelis dead, and despite Barak's attempts to placate the Arab citizenry before the election with Or Commision report (whose recommendations were not implemented), only 18% of Palestinian Israelis voted in the 2001 elections. And why should they? Wouldn't it be more convenient for them to simply flush their ballot down the toilet?

From 1948 until the present, Palestinian Israelis have been effectively "present absentees," people who dot the Israeli landscape but who are not seriously noticed by Israeli Jews. When they were under military government in the 1950s and 1960s, voter participation was very high. As Karin Schefferman of the Israeli Democracy Institute reported in 2009

In the 1950s and 1960s, the voting rate of the Arab citizens of Israel was very high - from 90% in 1955 to 82% in 1965. Neuberger (1965) suggests that the high turnout during these years was actually imposed by the dominant Mapai party, which took advantage of the clan social structure of the Arab population and used the military government to pressure Israel's Arab citizens to vote for Mapai's satellite parties: "The Israeli Arab Democratic List", "Agriculture and Development", "Cooperation and Brotherhood" and "Progress and Development". Therefore, the high voting rates during these years do not necessarily indicate a desire to participate, but rather fear of the Israeli regime

I suppose that there is a certain amount of progress if some of the citizenry doesn't live in fear of the government, and unlike their Palestinian brethren on the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Israelis do not live in fear. As ethnocracies go, Israel is pretty enlightened and liberal.

But the idea that increased voter participation is going to significantly help the Palestinian Israelis is a liberal Zionist myth. A visiting professor of US Constitutional law recently asked me, "How many Knesset seats would it take for the Palestinians to be a member of the coalition?" I answered, "61, i.e., a majority -- because no Jewish prime minister will ever invite them into a coalition."

And why not? Because it's a Jewish state. The hand-wringing of the widening gaps between Jews and Arabs allow Israelis to sleep better at night.

But it is just more liberal Zionist mauvais foi

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Progressive and Religious Zionist -- Part Two

Given the orthodox record of silence on the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, is it consistent for somebody who defines him or herself as religious Zionist to be supportive of the rights of the Palestinians to live as a free people in their homeland? Is it consistent for such a Jew to be concerned with the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people over the six decades of the State of Israel's existence, including expulsion, denaturalization, destruction of hundreds of villages, expropriation of property, pervasive legal discrimination, inequitable distribution of government funds - and all of this within the borders of what Peter Beinart calls "democratic Israel," without even mentioning the occupation and control of the West Bank and Gaza for over two generations?
Perhaps consistency in these matters is unnecessary. After all, people have conflicting intuitions, loyalties, etc., and even those who strive for some internal consistency may end up compartmentalizing. One can be progressive on Palestine and orthodox Jewish without the two having much to do with each other. But the orthodox are not fond of such an answer, for there remains the rabbinic directive to ensure that all one's deeds are for the sake of heaven. Even if we acknowledge that complex identities are formed from many conflicting and irreducible influences, we can attempt to see whether there is a common element that runs throughout them, sn element that can help others, should they desire, resolve some of the tensions within their own complex identities.
Fortunately, from the very beginning of religious Zionism until the present there runs a subterranean river of progressive thought that places rapprochement with the Palestinian Arabs at the center of binyan Eretz Yisrael, the building up of the Land of Israel. This "third way" of religious Zionism, a progressive religious Zionism founded on Torah and morality, is barely known to historians, and even less to those who consider themselves religious Zionists. It exists mostly in the publicistic writings of a handful of progressive religious Zionists thoroughly the twentieth century. Although most orthodox (and non-orthodox) supporters of Israel were indifferent to the injustices committed by Zionists against the Palestinians, there were voices in religious Zionism that regarded such injustices as violation of the Torah. These voices did not treat the Palestinians as "strangers among us" but rather as natives with national rights. They were willing to limit Jewish hegemony over Eretz Yisrael, or even curtail it, in the name of their progressive values. And they were orthodox Jews.
Some of their aspirations were not so distant from those of the mainstream Zionists in the 1920s and 1930s. Those familiar with the history of Zionism know that the Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state founded in 1948, and further crystallized through discriminatory legislations such as the Law of Return (1950), the Absentee Property Law (1950), the Nationality Law (1952), and the Land Acquisition Law (1953), differed considerably from most Zionist models proposed until World War II and the Holocaust. When Jews constituted a minority in Palestine, and especially after the Arab disturbances in 1929, mainstream Zionists floated several proposals for Jewish national self-determination, including binationalism, federalism, confederalism, etc. There were voices who recognized that Palestinian Arabs should have political rights, and that Palestinian nationalism was justifiable - and these voices included Vladimir Jabotinsky, who as late as 1940 wrote that
In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered as an Arab, and vice-versa. […] The Jewish and the Arab ethnic communities shall be recognized as an autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law […] Each ethno-community shall elect its National Diet with the right to issue ordinances and levy taxes within the limit of its autonomy and to appoint a national executive responsible before the Diet.[1]
Others went further, but conventional Zionist historiography after the establishment of the state either ignored these plans or dismissed them as utopian or merely tactical. As the Zionists gained in numbers and strength, and certainly after the 1948 War of Independence, the recognition of rights of the native Palestinians, most of whom were barred from returning to their homes, lessened considerably.There were religious Jews, some of them quite prominent, who called for building a just society together with the native Arabs of Palestine, who despised the increasingly militaristic and aggressive tendencies of the yishuv, and who never ceased to cry out against discriminatory policies, practices, and laws of the new state.

Yehoshua Radler-Feldman, who wrote under the name of R. Binyamin, is remembered today, if at all, as one of the founding members of the Brith Shalom circle and as a literary critic. But Radler-Feldman was also one of the central figures in religious Zionism, a visionary and activist who founded and edited religious Zionist journals, served as the secretary of Mizrahi, worked towards the establishment of a religious university, and was accepted in all circles of the yishuv. Although he left Brith Shalom shortly after its founding, he was a member of all subsequent societies that preached Jewish-Arab rapprochement, and he became the editor of the journal Ner, published by the Ihud Association, which had been founded by the binationalist Judah Magnes. Like Magnes, Buber and most other binationalists, Radler-Feldman, accepted the decree of history after the founding of the State of Israel. But he continued to raise his voice in protest against the discriminatory measures against Israeli Arabs, the expropriation of their lands, and the refusal to let the Palestinian refugees return to their homes.
Responding to Prof. Hugo Bergmann, who had criticized the decision to launch Ihud's journal after the founding of the state, Radler Feldman writes:

My brother Bergmann: By providing "a platform for truth, love, and peace," we do not have the idiotic intention that these three values are our exclusive possession.…Rather we wish to say - and to repeat and drill it to ourselves most of all - that we consider these three to be foremost in rank. Other people bend their knee to other important values, such as nation, homeland, class, religion, party, and family. Whereas we place the aforementioned values first, and subordinate all the others to them. We subordinate even the Holy One Blessed be He, Himself to them, for, so to speak, the Creator of these values is also subject to them, and must justify His governance before them.[2] 
In 1939, after Jewish terrorists of the Irgun had conducted a series of attacks against Arab civilians, Radler-Feldman edited a collection of essays, addresses, manifestos, and publicistic pieces by Jews condemning the spilling of innocent Arab blood called, Against Terror. And already in 1907, while still in Galicia, he wrote the poem Masa' Arav ('An Arabian Prophecy') which begins
When you come to inherit the land,
Do not come as an enemy and an adversary
But bring greetings to the inhabitants of the land
Build not your generations' sanctuary in resentment, indignation, or enmity
But rather in love, grace, justice, and faith
Hatred will arouse strife, but love will allay wrath
It will bring brothers together, and make peace with the distant
You shall love the inhabitant of the land, for he is your brother, your self, your flesh
Do not avert your eye from him.
Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.
Radler-Feldman was an intense idealist, interested in literature more than in politics, but other religious Zionists associated with Ihud, like Prof. Akiva Ernst Simon and Dr. Simon Shereshevsky, also offered pragmatic and political considerations for their views, and in this they were closer to men like Magnes and Buber - though the question of the relation between morality and politics was always debated among them. Space doesn't permit reproducing here the publicistic writings by religious Zionists who were critical of the state for its crimes against the Arab natives. Typical is this passage from Dr. Shereshevsky, writing in Haaretz in September, 19, 1969.
…People are speaking of "Greater Israel" and God's promise to Abraham "To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river" (Gen 15:18). Most of those who cite the verse are fascist unbelievers, or believers and God fearers with fascist opinions. What is the practical, real meaning today of the words, "To your descendants I have given this land,", when Arabs have lived for generations on a great part of this territory. Who and what will symbolize this "greater Israel"? The soldier who is armed "from the sole of his foot to the top of his head," the armored vehicle and the tank that strikes fear in the hearts of the citizens who live under a regime of "emergency regulations"?
Unlike contemporary critics of Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians under occupation, such as Gideon Levy of Haaretz, the religious Zionist critics often appeal to traditional texts. But their rhetoric also has a contemporary ring, and their voices, silent for too many years, may serve as an inspiration for new generations of religious Zionists who have plenty to cry out against in this religious and Zionist wilderness.
Today, religious Zionists can be found among the young men and women who protest the Judaization of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, the removal of the Bedouin from their lands in the Negev, the ongoing siege of Gaza, and the never-ending theft of Palestinian lands and resources for settlements under the guise of "security." They are the latest manifestion of the subterranean river of progressive religious Zionism that begins with Radler-Feldman, and which recognizes the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and Jews to live as free people in their land.

[1]The Jewish War Front (London, 1940), pp. 216-218, cited in D. Shumsky, "Brith Shalom's Uniqueness Reconsidered: Hans Kohn and Autonomist Zionism," Jewish History 25 (2011): 339-353, p.346.
[2]Ner 1:5.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Religious Zionist and Progressive on Palestine–Part One

Dear Readers,

I have gone for around six weeks without posting anything. During those six weeks I have been very busy, but there’s another reason for my silence. After shouting for the last four years on this blog, I have grown hoarse. It’s not so much that I have lost my voice. It’s more the fear of endless preaching to the choir.   Does any of this matter?

So while I ponder my future, I will publish some stuff I had been working on. My last piece (below) was posted here and on Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog on the Huffington Post. This post is part one of a longer article that Peter asked me to write on how one can consistently be modern orthodox and progressive on Palestine. If I get some good comments on these posts, I may write a version for him.

While researching the history of religious Zionism, I found out, much to my surprise, that not only could one  be modern orthodox and a supporter of Palestinian rights, but also that one could be religious Zionist and a supporter of the Palestinians – their human rights, their civil rights, and their right to self determination.

Sounds a bit like squaring the circle? Well, here goes:

Can a religious Zionist advocate the rights of the Palestinians to live as a free people in their homeland of Palestine? Can a modern orthodox Jewish supporter of Israel be concerned with the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people over the six decades of the State of Israel’s existence, including expulsion, denaturalization, destruction of hundreds of villages, expropriation of property, pervasive legal discrimination, and inequitable distribution of government funds – all within the borders of what Peter Beinart calls “democratic Israel,” not to mention the Israeli-controlled territories of the West Bank and Gaza? I will argue yes to both questions in Part Two of this essay. In Part One I will try to support the more modest claim that religious Zionism does not require attaching any special religious or theological significance to the state of Israel, certainly none that would influence religious Zionist attitudes towards the native Palestinians. Moral outrage at the trampling of Palestinian rights by successive Israeli government is certainly compatible with a modern orthodox position; but some orthodox have gone further to claim that Judaism requires concern for the rights of the Palestinians. The latter claim I will take up in Part Two

Few orthodox Jews, in Israel or abroad, have cared about the actions taken by the mainstream Zionist movement and the State of Israel against the native Arabs of Palestine. To be sure, individual orthodox rabbis, and rabbinical bodies have condemned Jewish vigilantism against Arabs. But rarely have they criticized the Israeli government and the IDF for its treatment of the Palestinians. In their silence, of course, they differ little from most secular Israelis.

Jewish law does not view the Palestinians as natives of Palestine but rather as “strangers and sojourners” in the Land of Israel. They are often categorized as Noahides with the legal status of “resident aliens,” with limited rights vis-à-vis Jews, or as Amalekites, who have no rights at all. A few religious Zionist rabbis are willing “in principle” to support Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, out of a concern more for the welfare of the Jews than for justice for the Palestinians.[1] And even those rabbis are increasingly few and far between.

Indifference to the fate of Palestinian Arabs can perhaps be illustrated by the classic of religious Zionist theology, Kol Dodi Dofek (translated into English as Fate and Destiny), by Rabbi Joseph Dov Solovetichik, the most influential figure in modern orthodoxy in America (and increasingly influential in Israel). Nowhere in the essay is there any acknowledgement that the so-called “miracle” of the birth of the State of Israel was accompanied by the Israeli government’s refusal to allow most of the Palestinian Arabs, the majority of the population of Palestine, to return to their homes after the war, in violation of the resolution of the very same United Nations whose diplomatic support for Israel had been cited by R. Soloveitchik as an example of Divine providence. Instead, the author repeats the myth of how the Jews returned to a desolate and barren backwater, and portrays the Arabs (“the mobs of Nasser and the Mufti”) as Amalekites, who are solely motivated by anti-Semitism.

And yet -- although most modern orthodox Jews today support the State of Israel founded in 1948, statist Zionism is not fundamental to orthodoxy in the way that other beliefs and practices are. Indeed, there is room in modern orthodoxy for a spectrum of opinions on the State of Israel, from the belief that it is the “beginning of redemption” to the belief that it does not advance the cause of Jews and Judaism. Zionism, non-Zionism, diasporism, anti-Zionism, or none of the above, are all viable options for modern orthodox. These options are compatible with the Jewish concern for the welfare of Jews and Jewish communities.

Orthodox Judaism can be characterized by three elements: the practical, the observance of Jewish law, the theological, the view that law as divinely revealed in the Sinaitic covenant; and the sociological, the affiliation with orthodox communal institutions. Add to this the elements of openness to influences from without the tradition, and a greater degree of personal autonomy in the interpretation of one’s obligations under the law, and you have “modern orthodoxy”, although, truth to tell, the dialectic between openness and insularity is a feature of Judaism throughout its history.

Of course, modern orthodox Judaism, like all orthodox Judaism, considers Eretz Yisrael to be the land promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jewish law discusses the sanctity of the land as well as the commandments whose observance is rooted in the land. Even those rabbis who spiritualized the Land of Israel in their writings never conceded the title of the actual land to the gentiles. But the Zionist decision to actively settle the Land of Israel, and push for Zionist hegemony, was a matter of dispute between Zionist and anti-Zionist orthodox rabbis, and it hardly helped the religious Zionists that the leaders of the Zionist movement were non-observant Jews. Disputes between Zionism and orthodoxy lasted even after the Jewish state was established because of its avowedly secularist and often anti-orthodox ideology.

For the devaluation of Zionism in the Jewish scale of values one looks again to the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The “Rov” saw in the establishment of the State of Israel the unmistakable hand of divine providence, and he criticized himself and other orthodox Jews for not responding adequately to the Divine call. But as Prof. Yaakov Blidstein has pointed out, religious Zionism occupies a very small place in R. Soloveitchik’s writings, which focus mostly on individual, family, and community. Prominent religious Zionists appear to have exerted no influence on his thinking, Prof. Blidstein raises the question of whether it is even appropriate to call him a religious Zionist.[2]

This pragmatic religious Zionism can trace its roots to the thinking of Rabbi Yizhak Yaakov Reines, the founder of the Mizrahi movement and continued to guide the Mizrahi and its Israeli political wing, the National Religious Party, as long the movement was run by European-born and educated orthodox Jews. With the development of an indigenous leadership, raised and educated in Israeli religious Zionist institutions, religious Zionism accorded theological and mystical value to the state – as long as the state allowed it to pursue its agenda.

The first significant cracks in the relationship between religious Zionism and the State occurred in the evacuation of the Yamit settlements, and the fissures increased during the Oslo years, which ended with Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination by a religious Zionist. During the Oslo years there were religious Zionists who wondered whether it was appropriate to say the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, so disappointed were they with the acts of the government.

Rabbi Avraham Wallfish, though not willing to go so far as some of the disappointed, wrote in the wake of the Disengagement from Gaza:

Of the three core values of Religious Zionism, statehood is the one most deleteriously affected by the Disengagement. Not only were the organs of statehood utilized for purposes most Religious Zionists regarded as morally and religiously wrong, but serious question marks were raised about the way in which they function, and in particular about the way in which they were seen to be riddled with special political interests and corruption…I think we need at the present time to scale down our axiological evaluation of the state. [3] (italics added)

For both Rabbi Wallfish and me, the State of Israel should not be assumed to be an unconditional value for religious Zionists; its worth must be measured against the standards of Torah in both its particularist and universalist elements. The dispute between us will be over which values and which political model fulfills better the demands of Torah and morality, and how best to implement that model in an imperfect world. A state that repeatedly violates the rights of the Palestinian Arabs subject to its dominion cannot, in my view at least, be the state that the Torah desires.

[1] For example, those rabbis who believe that saving Jewish lives supersedes holding on to greater Israel, and, hence, territorial compromise can be made.

[2] “Gerald Blidstein, Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New York, 2012), pp. 19-35.

[3] Avraham Walfish, “Religious Zionism Post Disengagement: Future Directions, ed. Chaim I. Waxman. New York, 2008, pp, 57-92, esp. 80-81.