Monday, April 30, 2012

To the Delegates at the UMC General Conference in Tampa


To the Delegates at the UMC General Conference in Tampa

Dear Delegates,

Before I say anything, before I try to convince you of anything, I want to express my deep sympathy with you as you face a  dilemma concerning the divestment issue. As one who has believed in the importance of improving the relations between all faiths for my entire life, as a Jew who attended a Christian high school, and who then went on to study Islam and Arabic philosophy in college,  I do not envy your position.

Whatever your decision, you will make some people very unhappy. On the one hand, you may damage relations with many Jews, including Jewish organizations with whom you do good work. As Christians who are deeply aware of the troubled history of Christian-Jewish relations, that may be very, very difficult, a source of pain to Jews and Methodists alike. 

On the other hand, if you vote against divestment, if you amend the resolution, or substitute something “positive”, such as investing in Palestinian businesses, you will have caused enormous pain to those Palestinian Christians who are crying out for support in their struggle for civil and human rights, for the fundamental right to live a life of dignity.

I write you as an American Israeli, an orthodox Jew, a resident of Jerusalem, a professor of Jewish thought, whose children and grandchildren live in the State of Israel. For the last thirty years of my life I have observed almost first-hand the increasing oppression of the Palestinian, the settlements, the bypass roads, the eviction of long time residents from their houses, the destruction of houses, the expropriation of lands, public and private, the unjust allocation of natural resources – and the suffering that has resulted.

I have seen how some members of the Jewish community have allowed their hearts to be hardened to the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians, how they have justified it through appealing to Israeli security needs, or when that tactic fails, by diverting the conversation to some other catastrophe going on somewhere. It is no doubt true that on any day of the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians, something worse is happening to some other people somewhere else on the globe. But I am hard-pressed to think of another people whose suffering has gone on for so long. And, as an Israeli Jew, I am implicated in that suffering.

Sadly, I have heard some members of the Jewish community question the motives behind the divestment campaign, given that today – and every day -- there is some other worse injustice elsewhere. The insinuation is there – “If you are singling out Israel for moral opprobrium, the only explanation can be that you are…” well, I cannot even type the rest of the sentence, so ashamed I am of the sentiment.

I have also seen how other members of the Jewish community have become aware of, and then involved with, the struggle for the basic civil and human rights of the Palestinians. That process will continue, as Jewish supporters of Israel free themselves of the indoctrination to which they have been subjected, as they witness first-hand the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the refugee camps, and as they reach out to people of good will of all faiths to help them help the Israeli government do the right thing.

For that is what this struggle is about. It is not a question of finding a middle way, a compromise, that will make both sides happy/unhappy. There is no symmetry of suffering here. Both sides have caused pain to each other. But only one side controls the life, liberty, land, and resources of the other.

Divestment is a symbolic act. Not a single Israeli will be hurt by it. And while some Palestinians will no doubt suffer economically, much less than did the South African Blacks during that divestment campaign, it will be for a cause and a tactic that all people of good with can rally around – the cause of justice and the tactic of non-violent protest.

The main question is not whether Christians from around the world should show solidarity with Palestinian Christians.  The main question is  whether people of good will  -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and others – will show solidarity with each other.

The injustice towards the Palestinian people is first and foremost my problem, as an Israeli Jew. I am not asking you to do the work for me. I am asking you to join hands with those Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and do the right thing.

If you do that, I assure you that members of the Jewish community will help you to explain your decision to the public, and to the Jews who will not understand – yet – your decision.

Vote yes on divestment, and you will be part of a worldwide effort to get Israel to wake-up to its obligations, to show the consequences of its actions. And you will also show the Palestinian people that they have not been forgotten and that there is hope for them – and for the Jewish people of Israel, as well

Thank you,

Jerry Haber

Saturday, April 28, 2012

On Celebrating Israeli Independence Day 2012

Israeli Independence day came and went. Since the semester is not yet over, I am still in America, and there is little observance here. My synagogue had a special prayer service, but I wouldn’t go to that. If God didn’t have anything to do with the Holocaust – and He didn’t – He certainly didn’t have anything to do with the founding of the State of Israel. It is theologically shocking to attribute to Him a “miracle” that destroyed as “collateral damage” the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents. I can understand how Jews can be happy about the founding of the state, but leave God out of it.

According to the Midrash, God complained when the angels started singing praises after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea: “My handiwork (i.e., Pharoah and the Egyptian army) is drowning in the sea, and you sing praises?”  Some commentators explain that while it was wrong for the angels to sing praises, it was at least human for the Israelites to do so.  But of course, Pharoah and his army were engaged in the attempt to kill innocent civilians – whereas in 1948 it was the innocent civilians who were  killed or exiled or not allowed to return to their homes. What moral person would sing the Hallel collection of psalms in those circumstances? Some say that one is not reciting the Hallel over the  Israeli victory, but over the restoration of political independence to the Jewish people. That sounds somewhat better, but even better is to leave God – and Hallel – out of it.

In Israel, I do celebrate Independence Day – by attending the Alternative Independence Day Ceremony organized by Yesh Gvul. This year my neighbor, Prof. Lev Luis Grinberg of Ben Gurion University, a prominent political economist and sociology, and a founder of Yesh Gvul,  lit one of the torches and gave a moving speech. I asked him to provide me with a translation and here it is:

Torch Lighting Speech, Yesh Gvul Ceremony, April 25, 2012

I, Lev Luis Grinberg, am happy to light this torch in honor of the members of Yesh Gvul Movement, who thirty years ago dared to object to the first war ever declared as a ‘war of choice’; and in honor of thousands of reserve and regular soldiers, and the high school kids (Shministim) who have since then obeyed the dictate of their conscience and refused to take part in wars, military operations and occupation beyond the sovereign borders of the State of Israel. In their willingness to serve their country in prison, they have marked the moral and legal boundary of the State of Israel.

I grew up under a military regime in Argentina, and after I arrived in Israel I had no difficulty to identify with the Palestinian people under military rule, or to object to illegal commands and the State of Israel’s anti-democratic conduct. Nevertheless, I did join the IDF because I saw that there was in Israel a sincere belief in the existential threat to the Jewish people, rooted in the traumatic memory of the Holocaust. It was only later that I realized that the governments of Israel are systematically using that truama and the basic insecurity of the Jewish people to conceal illegal activities of land and water theft, and exploitation of defenseless Palestinian laborers.

The act of objection and refusal is an individual’s declaration of independence, which is a prerequisite for the true independence of the collective. The conscientious objectors’ impressive achievement has been the de-legitimization of the war in Lebanon and the repression of the Intifada in the 1980s, which eventually led to a mutual recognition by the State of Israel and representatives of the Palestinian people. But since then, we have regressed into another round of violence, which swept the majority of the public, beginning with the repression of the second Intifada, through the second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, to the planned imminent war against Iran. These are all wars of choice, which did not encounter the mass opposition they deserved. Yitzhak Rabin’s attempt to deliver Israel out of the mythical world in which it is entrapped, and his assertions that “Not the entire world is against us”, and that “We did not arrive in an empty country”, was brutally trampled upon in October 2000. The repression of the second Intifada has enabled the creation of a strong sense of insecurity which justifies Israel’s violence as if this was a war of no choice.

The memory of the Jewish people, persecuted for centuries by ultra-nationalism and racism, is being tarnished day by day by the utra-nationalism, racism and aggression of the State of Israel, which is in denial of its responsibility for its own actions. Done in the name of the Jewish people, these actions turn into the shame of the Jewish people. But there are still those who have not forgotten what it means to be a Jew: what it means to be a minority persecuted by a violent and aggressive majority. In the last thirty years, many important organizations have come into being, which spread and extend the reach of the original concept of selective conscientious objection upheld by Yesh Gvul. These include the Shministim and New Profile, Courage to Refuse and the Pilots’ Letter, Breaking the Silence and Combatants for Peace, women’s organizations and binational organizations against the occupation and the war. I am lighting this torch in their honor as well, and in honor of the democratic state that we must build, a state grounded in the Jewish universal tenets of justice and equality for all citizens

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Goldberg Slipping on Grass

Günther Grass’s poem What must be said has been defended and attacked throughout the globe. The poem protests against the German sale of a nuclear submarine to Israel; appeals for international control of the Israel and Iranian nuclear program by an authority accepted by both governments; and, though by a German author, refuses to be silent about Israel’s nuclear power, despite Germany’s past crimes against the Jewish people (and humanity). Grass speaks as a German who does not want to be indirectly responsible for a horrific catastrophe, but rather, as he puts it,  wants to give help to Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region – “and, finally, to ourselves as well. This part of Grass’s poem, the main part, is eminently reasonable. Only a twisted mind would find it anti-Semitic or even anti-Zionist.

The poem employs, however, rhetoric that is offensive to Iranians and to Israelis.  It calls the Iranian leader a loudmouth who keeps his people under his thumb and pushes them  to organized cheering. It imputes to the Israeli leaders the claim to have a right to a first strike capability that could “snuff out” or “annihilate” the Iranian people by using the nuclear submarine sold it by the Germans.Both claims belong more to the exaggerated bombast of living rooms (and blogs) than to a serious cri de coeur. They demean the poet, and they enable the poem to be easily dismissed by the partisans.

But suppose Grass had been more accurate in his description of the possible consequences of Israel’s attack? Suppose that instead of writing “a strike to snuff out the Iranian people” he had written  “a strike that may kill or maim hundreds of thousands of people”?

According to the Center for the Strategic and International Studies, a strike on the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor alone “will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site, and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands depending on the population density along the contamination plume.”

Criticism of Israel on that score would not only not count as being anti-Semitic; it could even be advanced by those “sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma.” Or so says Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

The morality of a [pre-emptive Israeli] strike, which could cause substantial Iranian casualties, would be questioned even by those sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma.

Goldberg is astounded at the line that Grass did use and considers the poem anti-Semitic. But had Grass’s poem included the more “modest” claim of the possible hundreds of thousands of casualties, rather than the possible annihilation of the Iranian people, would Goldberg have dropped the anti-Semitism charge? In a post accusing Grass of anti-Semitism, Goldberg says that Israel is “contemplating targeting six to eight nuclear sites in Iran for conventional aerial bombardment,” which may be correct,though one retired American general thinks otherwise.  There is, to be sure, a clear difference between the nuclear bombing of conventional sites and the conventional bombing of nuclear sites. But what they share in common is the possible causation of  “substantial Iranian casualties,” to use Goldberg’s phrase. So why is Grass being anti-Semitic when he morally criticizes the consequences of an Israeli strike, whereas Goldberg is not?

If I understand Goldberg correctly, there are two distinctions between Grass’s standing vis-à-vis the moral criticism of Israel, and his own. First,  Grass is a German and a former member of the SS.  So he has to shut up – unless, perhaps, he proves himself to be one of those Germans who are “sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma.”

Second, Goldberg misreads Grass as saying that Israel seeks to annihilate the Iranians. This is nowhere stated or implied by Grass in his poem.  Instead, he says that Israel seeks the right of a preventative first strike which could annihilate the Iranian people. What’s the difference between the two? Well, it’s the difference between saying that Israel attacked Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in a way that could (and, in fact, did) kill fourteen hundred Gazans and between saying that  Israel sought to kill fourteen hundred Gazans.

Why does Goldberg read Grass in this way? He writes

To make yourself believe that Israel is seeking to murder the 74 million people of Iran, you must make yourself believe that the leaders of the Jewish state outstrip Adolf Hitler in genocidal intent.

Goldberg reads Grass as accusing Israel of outdoing Hitler in its evil “genocidal intent” – a reading that is interesting for what it says about Goldberg’s own mind,  but it is more interesting for what it says about the manner in which some Israeli advocates  think about criticism of Israeli military power, to turn one of Goldberg’s felicitous phrases.  What could be more anti-Semitic than accusing Israel of being more genocidal than Hitler? After all, to call for a nuclear embargo on Israel is to imply that Israelis cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the use of nuclear weapons, or in the bombing of nuclear facilities. It is to demean the Israelis, to place them on the same level, if not lower, than the Islamist regime in Iran. It is to claim that like the Iranians the Israelis are not to be trusted with nuclear weapons because we suspect them of genocidal intent. 

Goldberg writes:

On Iran’s threats to end the Jewish state -- which was built on the ashes of the German Holocaust -- Grass is tellingly silent.

If by “being built on the ashes of the German Holocaust” Goldberg refers to Benny Morris’s comment that some Jewish soldiers in Palestine, fresh from the DP camps, considered the Arabs they were facing as if they were Nazi soldiers, the point is well taken.

But allow me to point out that only one country, Israel, has threatened to carry out a first strike against the other.

The president of only one country, Shimon Peres, has implicitly threatened a military strike that could wipe the other country off the face of history.

President Ahmadinejad, like Khrushchev  and Reagan, should be criticized for inflammatory rhetoric. But not for military threats of a first strike.

And let’s not forget that Israel threatened Iran with a preventative attack in 2003, before Ahmadinejad was elected president.

Perhaps Mr. Goldberg will provide a link to Iran’s threats of military actions  to end the Jewish state in a first strike.  On this he is tellingly silent. 

(More than a hat tip to Marsha B. Cohen, whose indispensable post on the human costs of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities  should be required reading for anybody who cares about Iran, Israel – or humanity.)