Wednesday, October 28, 2015

BDS is Not Bellatrix, Dumbledore or Snape. Maybe It’s Hermione

J. K . Rowling has signed a statement against the cultural boycott of Israel, and has called instead for cultural engagement.  Some of her Palestinian fans have objected, pointing to Harry Potters’ fight against Voldemort and  the Death Eaters. In her reply she asks her readers to consider Dumbledore’s attempt to engage with Snape, then a Death Eater.

As a fan of the Potter series who has expressed solidarity with the global BDS movement (though not all elements of it equally),  I can only roll my eyes at both sides.

I understand why J. K. Rowling thinks that Palestinians supporters of BDS are motivated by the righteous anger and desire for revenge that motivates Harry for much of the series, and that one answer to that anger is to seek out like-minded allies on the other side, to engage, to dialogue, to build projects together.

I understand why Palestinian fans of Harry  think that Israel is run by Death Eaters, its justice  administered by the likes of anti-muggle ideologues like Dolores Umbridge, or mudblood persecutors  like Bellatrix Lestrange.

What I don’t understand is how both parties can so misunderstand the BDS movement, at its core a human rights movement, which calls upon the State of Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands, give full equality to its citizens, and promote  the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland in accordance with UN Resolution 194.

With the likes of Voldemort and Lestrange there can only be war, and justice can be served only by their total defeat. I have no doubt that many Palestinians and their supporters would like nothing less than their oppressors being scattered over the face of the earth. I understand the human desire to punish and avenge.

But that’s not what the BDS movement is about, not at least in its official statements. (What individuals think is not my concern.)  The movement is about applying pressure to Israel to change its policies. Israel is singled out by Palestinians and their supporters because their rights are singled out by Israel for violation.

J. K. Rowling doesn’t understand this. She confuses boycotting with anti-normalization, and she thinks that Israeli artists are boycotted because they are Israeli.  (They are  not).  The cultural boycott does not target Israelis, and allows great latitude for cultural engagement. What it targets is institutions that represent and are complicit with state policies.  Although Daniel Barenboim’s Divan orchestra is now under the boycott, PACBI writes,

PACBI realizes that projects that go against the boycott cannot all be put into one basket or regarded as being equally objectionable. Given the limitations of the boycott movement’s human capacity, prioritizing boycott targets becomes crucial. Such prioritization is a factor of multiple, evolving considerations, moral and pragmatic, that take into account, among other things, the degree of complicity of each project and its expected harm to the overall struggle for Palestinian rights and against Israel’s impunity. While clearly in violation of the boycott, WEDO is not regarded, comparatively speaking, as among the most objectionable projects.

I would add that it is one of the least objectionable projects, especially since Barenboim is persona non grata for many Israelis. But as I said, there can be room for disagreement.

To be sure, boycott, sanctions, and divestment, impact individuals. Institutions are composed of individuals. Labor strikes hurt innocent people.  One can support BDS without being in favor of crippling sanctions, as in the case of Iraq and Iran. And one can always argue about the efficacy and propriety of certain tactics.

Boycotts do not rule out engagement with like-minded people, or even certain collaborations. And, again, there can be disagreement on what projects are covered.

If one doesn’t support some or all aspects of boycotts on principle, but recognizes the importance of standing fast with the oppressed and downtrodden, may I suggest that silence is preferable to signing statements that give succor to the oppressors. For every J. K. Rowling who supports cultural engagement with Israelis, there are many who agree with her but don’t sign initiatives of the sort she did.

When Ron was being stupid and hurtful, Hermione would tell him so, or refuse to speak with him. He would be resentful until he came to his senses.

Perhaps that’s a better model. Or perhaps we should leave Harry Potter out of this.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Why Boycotting Matisyahu is Reasonable, Even if You Don’t Agree with It

Update: Apparently, the Spanish festival has recently apologized and reinvited Matisyahu. The festival organizers' should not be confused with the BDS-País-Valencià, which initiated the action.  The latter will no doubt continue to call for a boycott of the concert and ask other reggae acts to cancel their participation.

The Rototom festival organizers should be criticized twice: for requiring Matisyahu to sign a pledge supporting a Palestinian state (which has nothing to do with the BDS movement or with BDS-País-Valencià, which opposed the action) and for caving into pressure from groups to reinstate. Well, I don't envy them since they were hit from both sides.

But the BDS-País-Valencià should not be criticized for calling for a boycott against an artist who has publically defended Israeli war crimes, or if that is too strong, actions that are considered war crimes by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. For links see below. And to consider their calls "anti-Semitic" is bigoted and offensive, and I don't care where you stand on the BDS spectrum.  

I find it extraordinary that those who sense "anti-Semitism" behind criticism of Israel's human rights abuse are willing to cut slack for Matisyahu on the grounds that his statements were "taken out of context", "immediately dismissed as apolitical", etc. If this is not hypocritical, I don't know what is.

Reasonable people can disagree with BDS-Pais-Valencià's call to boycott Matisyahu, as I said in the post below. But reasonable and decent people can agree. An artist doesn't get a pass for defending human rights violations. An American Jews doesn't get a pass for defending Israel's human rights violations.

An internationally renown reggae artist goes  on record supporting the IDF’s response in the Mava  Marmara fiasco. At the height of the Gaza Operation last summer, he posts on his Facebook page a one-sided defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza by hasbarita Sara Merson, igniting a firestorm of comments for and against.  He expresses love of performing in Israel, and he headlines a“"pro-Zionist festival”. He claims that as far as he knows, “there never was a country named Palestine.”
A Spanish BDS group protests the artist’s  invitation to appear at the progressive Rototom concert whose theme is Peace. At the same time they protest the Israel reggae duo Congo Beats the Drum. The organizers push back against the BDS group’s demand to the artist to clarify whether he supports the three goals of the BDS movement. Instead he is asked whether he supports a Palestinian state (Let us recall that Bibi Netanyahu is on record supporting a Palestinian state.)  The artist refuses both the demands of the BDS group and the organizers’ request to clarify his position on a Palestinian state.
When accused of anti-Semitism by the organizers, the Spanish BDS group writes the following:
The BDS movement is by no means against the Jewish people, in fact there are numerous Jewish and Jews around the world who are part of this movement. For example, the (IJAN its acronym in English), the Jewish Voice for Peace, the Boycott from Within, or other individual Jewish people. International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network A year ago, many Jewish people Holocaust survivors called the "total boycott" of Israel and Gaza bombing related summer with the word "genocide".Similarly, the BDS movement in the Spanish state (through its main coordinator, the RESCOP) consists of non-Jewish people and Jewish people, and recently has campaigned against fascism and anti-Judaism. Finally, it is worth noting that other world notables both Jewish and non-Jewish personalities have joined the BDS and / or have canceled their participation in events in Israel.
So does the Matisyahu cancellation prove that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic? If being Jewish means being automatically pro-Israel, pro IDF,and pro-Operation Protective Edge, I suppose it does. But that’s not how I understand anti-Semitism.
When Israelis cultural groups are boycotted simply because they come from Israel, regardless of their political views, BDS is attacked for being anti-Semitic. When pro-Israel artists are boycotted because of their views, BDS is anti-Semitic.
So why does the Matisyahu cancellation bother liberal Jews who support Palestinian rights?  Well, as liberals, they think that an artist should be free to think whatever he likes (unless, maybe, he is a glatt kosher fascist like the Israeli singer Ariel Zilber, who is routinely attacked by liberal Israelis). If somebody makes a political statement, it is his or her right, but that doesn’t mean to say that others don’t have a right to protest.
But  Matisyahu is not Ariel Zilber. He is just your average, everyday, pro-Israel musician who is clueless about politics and rarely speaks on it. So I can understand why many liberal Zionists may have qualms about this one. Still, they should view as reasonable the actions of pro-Palestinian groups, who are offended by his public defense of Israel have a right to point to his statements and to call for a boycott. 
Liberal Zionists tolerate uncritical Israel supporters because they are family. But we shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t. To be sure, I doubt this Spanish BDS group would have much sympathy for anybody who didn’t endorse the three goals of the BDS movement. But that is their right. Had Matisyahu, who has made political statements in the past in favor of Israel, endorsed a Palestinian state, or justice for the Palestinians, he would not have been cancelled, even with the protest of the Spanish BDS group. But an artist who has politicized his work should not be surprised if he is called out on it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The “High Level International Military Group” on Operation Protective Edge

These are sad days for Israel/Palestine, but today I got a kick out of a story that I thought at first was produced by the satirical mag, the Onion.

It seems that an all male group of generals, security chiefs, and right wing politicians, calling itself the “High Level International Military Group,” has produced a report that not only exonerates Israel of war crimes but praises it for its humanitarian efforts! The timing is viewed as as preemptive assault on the Human Rights Council report due out next week.  Here is how the AP reported the release

In a boost to the Israeli case, the High Level International Military Group, made up of 11 former chiefs of staff, generals and other senior American and European officials who conducted a fact-finding mission, came to similar conclusions. It said: “None of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the (Israeli military) last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population in such circumstances.”

It would have been nice had the AP reporter also written a few things about the “High Level International Military Group”. Like, for example, how “the project was sponsored by the Friends of Israel Initiative” and that most of the participants are on record as supporting the IDF before 2014. With the exception of Pierre Richard Prosper, not a single one of them has any experience in human rights. Many of them are experienced warriors, though.

It will be recalled that William Chabas, “the world expert on the law of genocide and international law” resigned from the HRC Commission on the Gaza Op because he had once taken a $1300 fee from the PLO for legal advice. So one would expect that the Friends of Israel Initiative would bend over backwards to get impartial people to give the IDF a clean bill of goods. Wouldn’t that look better? I mean, maybe these guys are biased?

So here are some parts of the biographies of the High Level International Military Group left out by the Friends of Israel initiative.

Giulio Terzi – “former Foreign Minister of Italy,” and founding member of the Friends of Israel.

General Klaus Naumann – former Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr and Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. As described by former military correspondant for Haaretz, Zev Schiff, in 2002, Gen. Naumann “is known as a friend of Israel and of the Israel Defense Forces.

General Vincenzo Camporini – former Chief of the Defense Staff of Italy,

Admiral Jose Maria Teran – former Chief of the Joint Staff of Spain.

Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper – former US State Department Ambassador at Large for war crimes issues. Served under George W. Bush and recently as a Mitt Romney surrogate.  A speaker against “Lawfare”, Haaretz wrote about him in 2002, “"The United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, is Israel's main ally in its battle against being transformed from accuser into accused.”

Mr Rafael Bardaji – former National Security Adviser for the Spanish government and member of the Friends of Israel Initiative.

Lieutenant General David A Deptula – former Standing Joint Force Air Component Commander, United States Pacific Command and senior advisor to the Gemunder Center at the rightwing Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (Jinsa)

Major General Jim Molan – former Chief of Operations, Headquarters Multi National Force, Iraq and Commander of the Australian Defence College and defender of Israel in Cast Lead against the Goldstone report.

Colonel Eduardo Ramirez – Member of Colombian Congress and former Chief of Security, Colombia.

Colonel Vincent Alcazar – former senior United States Air Force officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Colonel Richard Kemp – former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, defender of Israel after Cast Lead, and a member of the Friends of Israel initiative and defender of Israel in Cast Lead against the Goldstone report.

I want to make clear that I do not wish to cast aspersions on the gentlemen above, or their expertise in their fields.  For whatever reason they are entitled to be loyal supporters of militaries and Israel.

But if this ad hoc group of military brass, diplomats, politicians is the best Bibi can do, all I can say is 

“Bring back Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler!” 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Anti-Israel Blacklist or Human Rights Protest? How the Media Misreported a Teacher Union’s Request

A story reported last week by Inside Higher Education read like a McCarthyist nightmare:  A Brazilian university administrator urgently requested information on Israeli students and professors  in order to comply with a request from “pro-Palestinian groups”.

According to the story, reported also by  YNET, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Jewish Forward,  the administrator, Vice-Rector Prof. Jose Fernando Schlosser, was accused of anti-Semitism and an investigation opened against him. The university, the Federal University of Santa Maria (FUSM) claimed under the law, it was required to provide the information  in accordance with the 2011 Law on the Access to Information.

Reporting for Inside Higher Education, respected editor and journalist Scott Jaschik writes:
The idea that such information might be released to those [“pro-Palestinian”] groups has raised alarm in Israel and among Jewish groups in Brazil. Many have expressed fears that Israelis at the university could be harassed, and questioned why a university should be releasing such information about its foreign students.
Why indeed?  Had anybody  taken five minutes with Google and Google Translator (which led me to  Brazilian peace activist, Moara Crivelente), the readers would have received  a somewhat different story:

On August 28 2014, following Israel’s massive shelling of Gaza in which heavy civilians losses and damage were sustained, and amidst  ongoing protests against  FUSM’s  involvement with Israeli firm Elbit’s Brazilian subsidiary AEL Systems (involvement allegedly having to do with military microsatellite and space weapon research), a freedom of information request was made of the university’s president by three groups: the Trade Union Section of FUSM Teachers, the Central Directory of Students, and  the Association of FUSM Employees (misidentified as “Palestinian” or “pro-Palestinian” organizations in the media reporting.)  To their representatives’ signatures were affixed signatures of members of the Santa Maria Committee for Palestinian Solidarity.

The request, available here, begins with considerations that led to  the request, including the military cooperative research,  and the recent Gaza operation. The request then contains the following five sections:
1) Does the FUSM have any participation in the Space Hub in [the Federal state of] Rio Grande do Sul? If so, in what way? What document underlies this relationship?

2) Does FUSM have any relationship with juridical Israeli persons (private companies, public entities, NGOs, etc.?), including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?

3) Is there any action (Plan, Program, Project, Covenant or Agreement of Cooperation, Protocol of Intentions, etc.) registered and/or in effect with juridical Israeli persons, including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through the cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?

4) Are there, at the moment, or is there a prospect for the UFSM to accept Israeli students/professors/authorities/professionals? If so, through whose invitation/proposal?

5) Is UFSM, or will it be, beneficiary of any material or human resource of Israeli origin, even if indirectly, that is, through the relationships referred to at items 2 and 3 retro?
There is no request here for names of Israeli students and teachers but whether Israeli students will be accepted in the university, and if so, in what departments. Even in the request sent out by the vice-provost, there was no request for names of Israelis students and teachers. The information requested was not about the students at all but about the programs accepting them.

And the Teacher’s Union response, available here, makes clear its intentions, which was “to clarify press reports that the UFSM participated in  scientific cooperation agreements with companies that provide weapons and technologies to the Israeli war machine”

Was the request itself justifiable? My opinion is the request, despite justifiable intentions, was  carelessly,  and much too sweepingly, worded. The organizations wanted to know whether there were Israeli students and professors invited to study in areas with implications for the military,  and were there research agreements in areas with military-use implications.  That is why they asked “at whose invitation or proposal” the Israelis were invited. But the intention should have been made clearer.

But is even that justifiable? Let us recall that in the US, Iranian students are prohibited from studying the following fields: “petroleum engineering; petroleum management; nuclear science; nuclear engineering; or, a related field” and “Individuals seeking to study in other fields, such as business, management or computer science, but who intend to use these skills in Iran's oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sectors, are also ineligible for visas.”  Clearly the petitioners were concerned, rightly or wrongly, with FUSM’s complicity with military-industrial complex.

But a poorly-worded request for information is not the same as creating a blacklist of opponents (for that idea see a pro-Israel website here.) Nobody asked for names of Israelis, and nobody was interested in harassing or harming Israeli students or professors.

But most sadly – nobody asked for the petitioners’ side of the story.

Inside Higher Education should publish a follow-up.

(Acknowledgment: This post could not have been written without the generous help of Moara Crivelente)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) and the “Anti-Semitism” Charge

Many people have different positions on the wisdom, and even the legitimacy, of tactics involving boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) directed against alleged human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine. But all should condemn recent attempts in some quarters to brand these tactics as “anti-Semitic”. BDS is neither motivated by anti-Semitism, nor it is it, in effect, anti-Semitic. The “anti-Semitism” charge against BDS is false, intellectually lazy, and morally repugnant.

The “Anti-Semitism” Charge against BDS is False. Anti-Semitism has been defined as “a prejudice against, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic, religious, or racial group”. Anti-Semitism is commonly considered a form of racism, in its broadest sense. By contrast, the BDS movement is a movement initiated by Palestinian civil society and its supporters to promote and defend the human, civil, and political rights of the Palestinian people living in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the Palestinian diaspora, most notably the rights of liberty, equality, and self-determination. The movement comprises people of different creeds and nationalities, including Israelis and Jews, and explicitly condemns all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. The BDS movement is in its essence a human rights movement, grounding its call on international human rights law, conventions, and decisions. It not only explicitly opposes anti-Semitism; it is diametrically opposed to it.

The “Anti-Semitism” Charge against BDS is Intellectually Lazy. One of the arguments for BDS’s alleged anti-Semitism is that in singling out Israel for moral opprobrium, the movement reveals its true motivation, which is hatred of the Jewish state, ergo Jews. This is the tired argument of all those who wish to deflect attention away from their own human rights violations. Similar arguments were made by South Africa in response to calls for divestment during the apartheid era; by the Soviet Union, in response to calls for sanctions during the struggle for Soviet Jewish rights; by some southern US states, in response to calls for integration during the civil rights movement. To expect of Palestinians and their supporters that they will devote more of their energies to human rights abuses that little concern them is morally unreasonable. It is also hypocritical, in so far as those who criticize the BDS movement usually devote more of their own energies to supporting Israel than to fighting human rights violations elsewhere in the world. By their example they undermine their own argument.

Another argument is that the global BDS movement, in so far as it deals not only with Palestinian human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, but also calls for full equality for Israeli’s Palestinian citizens and recognition of the Palestinian right of return, wishes to delegitimize and destroy the State of Israel. And since the State of Israel understands itself as the expression of Jewish self-determination, the BDS movement is, in effect, if not by design, opposed to Jewish self-determination, ergo anti-Semitic. Yet this argument rest on a string of questionable assumptions. It concedes, unnecessarily, that the State of Israel can only survive if it foundationally discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens, or defies international recognition of the refugees’ right of return. It confuses criticism of Israel on these points with anti-Zionism, and anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, all of which are distinct positions.

As for the “delegitimization” charge: Israel is a member of the United Nations and recognized by many countries. Its political legitimacy is no more nor less than that of the United States, Germany, Russia, North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. But its moral legitimacy, like that of all states, rests on its adherence to human rights standards expected of all states.

The final argument is that the BDS movement, while itself not anti-Semitic, has attracted supporters who are either motivated by anti-Semitism, or who use anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes. But even conceding this point, similar things are true of the pro-Israel movement, which has attracted supporters who are Islamophobes, anti-Palestinianist, Nakba deniers, and advocates of Jewish spiritual and metaphysical superiority. Bigotry is, unfortunately, a common vice, and its manifestations are to be condemned. But just as opponents of BDS are not necessarily, or even mostly, anti-Palestinian bigots, so the proponents of BDS are not necessarily, or even mostly, anti-Israeli bigots, much less anti-Semitic.

The “Anti-Semitism“ Charge against BDS is Morally Repugnant. Anti-Semitism, like racism, is one our era’s “mortal sins”. To accuse a movement of anti-Semitism is not only to criticize or delegitimize it; it is to tar it as immoral. The BDS movement has been embraced, in part or in whole, by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people and its leadership. To label as “anti-Semitic” Palestinians and their supporters who are fighting for their rights using tried and true non-violent tactics is morally repugnant and itself represents a sort of bigotry. Moreover, in supporting the charge with insufficient evidence and sloppy arguments, one not only fails to establish one’s point; one trivializes and cheapens genuine anti-Semitism.

In short, the “anti-Semitism” charge against BDS is not only offensive to Palestinians; it is offensive to all those who reject anti-Semitism.

It should have no place in the ongoing, legitimate debate over BDS.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Two States in One Homeland Initiative–Thanks but No Thanks

I was asked last summer by a friend what was my reaction to the Two States in  One Homeland initiative. My short answer was that it had some positive elements but it read like a very liberal Zionist document. I went through the proposal and sent the friend comments, mostly my reservations.  Since the initiative may or may not have a conference next week – people are dropping out like flies – I will repeat what I wrote my friend. Here are my comments.

1. The implicit acceptance of Zionism by Palestinians. I cannot see many Palestinians accepting the notion that Jews have an attachment to the land by “profound historical, religious, and cultural ties,” that in any way provides them with a claim or even an interest in it being a homeland, certainly not in the way that this is expressed. I note with satisfaction the use of the weak term “ties”. But, frankly, this seems to be a (weak) recognition of the legitimacy of Zionism, and I don’t think it is reasonable to expect most Palestinians to accept this, and they should not be considered unreasonable or intolerant for not doing so. Of course, if some wish to do so, fine but that’s not a great basis for shared dialogue. I think it is perfectly reasonable for Palestinians to say, “We understand that the longing for residence in “Eretz Yisrael” has played different roles in the Jewish religious tradition over the centuries, and that traditional Judaism teaches that “Eretz Yisrael”  is the patrimony of the Jewish people, that Jerusalem is holy to the Jews, that the Temple was built on the Haram as-Sharif,“ etc. But that is in no way an admission of the truth, much less legitimacy, of any of these claims.  Again, if some Palestinians want to do so, that’s their business.

2. The parity between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. There is no parity in the eyes of most Palestinians;  there is certainly no parity between the Zionists and the Palestinians. In  the document there is no mention of Zionist as a settler colonialism, of the forced displacement of the majority of the Palestinians and the importing of Westerners with the national consciousness (of some) that they are returning to their imagined homeland.  Perhaps it is best not to go down that road, but then there is no reason to accept the liberal Zionist narrative of “two peoples struggling over one land” – unless the two peoples are the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, not the Jewish and Palestinians peoples. I could see using “Israeli Jews” rather than “Jews” in many places in the document; that would be less objectionable.

3. Immigration and Naturalization:  Here the proposal is intriguing, more so than I thought at first reading. It may be possible to implement the right of return based on the acceptance of 900,000 Palestinian refugees and their families, and the acceptance of proportional number of permanent residents.  For instance, according to the proposals, Palestinian refugees can be naturalized in Palestine and then can reside in Israel, as permanent residents, and with compensation by Israel.  Let us assume that there are around 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, and around 600,000 Israeli Jews living over the green line (not counting the Golan Heights). That’s about 15%.  That means up to 900,000 Palestinians (including refugees) can live as permanent residents within the State of Israel, presumably on lands close to their native landscapes, or other strategic parts. For example, several hundred thousand Palestinians can be settled on lands to the West of Jerusalem, in what are now JNF forests, thus providing a demographic balance to the West of Israeli Jewish settlement to the North, South, and East of Jerusalem over the green line. But all this is only after the right of return is recognized by Israel and refugees are given the choice of returning to their native landscapes and families, as guaranteed by international law.

4. Jerusalem. No mention is made here about sovereignty. Who does Jerusalem belong to? To God? To the world?

5. Security

I take it, then, that there will be two modern armies of more or less equal capacity, or at least acting in coordination. Does this mean decreasing the size and power of the IDF? Am I right here? If so, this is a vast  improvement to the Geneva Initiative, where the Palestinians had to farm out their security to a multi-national force.

6. Joint Institutions

Nothing to add; all good ideas.

7. Palestinians with Israeli citizenships.

Here again the parity breaks down and betrays the liberal Zionist  spirit of the document.  Why give a Jewish minority within Palestine rights as a national minority, and not give, say, the Christian minority those same rights? Because Jews are members of a nation and not a religion? But that’s the view of Zionism! Moreover, why would Palestine agree to naturalize any Jews as part of a national minority, especially those with outspoken irredentist aims who are in their land illegally? There are over a half-million Palestinian Israeli citizens and their numbers have been artificially kept at 20% in order to preserve a Jewish state that is democratic, what I call ethnic cleansing in the “service” of democracy. Will they have rights as a national minority? Where is the parity because settling Jews illegally in occupied territory and resettling Palestinians legally, according to their legal and recognized rights?

None of the above would be necessary if Israel and Palestine were to become states of all their citizens, in which all disadvantaged minorities would expect affirmative action to improve their representation in society, etc.  Of course, as predominantly Jewish, Israel’s culture, language, calendar, would be predominantly Jewish, a “Jewish America”, as it were. But as I oppose the State of Israel that is an ethnocracy with some trappings of democracy, that would be alleviated, to be sure, by granting minority ethnic rights, so I oppose the State of Palestine as an ethnocracy with some trappings of democracy. As the document says, one does not correct injustice with injustice.

8. Reparations

I do believe that reparations should be paid both individually and collectively to Arabs and Jewish refugees  from 48 and 67, not just for loss of property, but for much more. However, realistically speaking, close to a 100% of this burden will be placed on Israel, and it is hardly reasonable to expect Israel to be fair in determining the nature and amount of the compensation. This can only be done as a result of internationalization of this question, for which, see below.

I object on principle of including mention of the flight of Jews from Arab lands within this document. The flight of Jews from Arab lands is not the affair of the Palestinians, and they are under no obligation to mention this in connection with the Palestinian refugees, Arab and Jewish, internal and external. I understand that there is no official connection – but the reference in the document  I find insulting insofar as it singles out the Palestinians.

Moreover, why are Palestinians expected to call for the return of Jews, if possible, to their native lands, but they are not expected to call for the return of their own refugees to their own land, if possible, in the same document?

9. The international dimension.

Under the present circumstances, the notion that Israel will allow any matter of internationalization strikes me as odd. If this is put in there in order to sweeten the bill, it will clearly be rejected. But of course, Israel will reject everything.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Operation Protective Edge and the Israel Defense Forces Testimonies

Several days ago, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which takes testimonies from IDF soldiers, published a booklet of over sixty testimonies of soldiers involved in Operation “Protective Edge”, the Gaza Op of last summer. The report has been overshadowed by other news from Israel, and aside from a long (and good) report in the Washington Post and some other major newspapers, and a fine opinion piece by Elisheva Goldberg in the Forward, it has faded fairly quickly in the US news cycle. This indifference is in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted its revelations of IDF war crimes in Occupation Cast Lead.

Part of this indifference is due to the fact that many of the testimonies describe policies and actions that were publicized widely  last summer. We had enough evidence last summer that Israel’s operation in Gaza intended not so much to stop Hamas rocket fire as to “mow the lawn”, i.e., to deplete Hamas arsenals, to punish Gaza collectively for its support of Hamas, to seek revenge for the humiliation of the IDF by Hamas fighters, and to show the Israeli public that the government was doing something after the kidnap/slaying of the three Israelis on the West Bank.  As the operation dragged on the harshness of the response increased. Israel had pretty much free rein to do what it wanted. Feeling humiliated by the kidnappings and the rockets, which it was unable to stop, it unleashed its fury.

Another part of the indifference is due to the fact that the world has become inured to these periodic eruptions.  Israel is neither condemned nor condoned; it is simply ignored. And Israel has also learned how to ignore these testimonies, barely taking the trouble to reply, unlike the testimonies that followed Cast Lead, which occasioned a huge push back from IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu and the IDF. The IDF spokesperson can be counted on to repeat their talking points, whether it believes them or not. This time it repeated the mantra that the organization should have contacted it with the testimonies, and it turns out that Breaking the Silence did just that.

Nevertheless, the testimonies are extremely important for three reasons:

First, they are first-hand testimonies that will be of great use to future historians and unbiased observers.  Some people who are unfamiliar with Breaking the Silence assume that those who give testimony oppose the military’s operations. Of course, there are those. But just read the testimonies, and you will see that they include soldiers who justify what was done, or at least those who think that Israel could not have acted differently. These are extraordinarily detailed and moving testimonies. After the BtS’s publication of thousands of testimonies, not one has been shown to be fabricated or distorted.

Second, the testimonies show that the IDF’s  violations of the Laws of War were not uniform, that they changed in the course of the operation, depending upon a variety of circumstances. The idea that violations of the laws of war are inevitable in urban context is simply false.  Israel behaved badly, but at times it behaved much more worse than at others.  And with each operation in Gaza it sinks lower and lower into a moral morass – and sinking with it are the apologists for evil among the supporters of Israel.

Third, and most important, the number of testimonies testify  to a pattern of willful and deliberate reinterpretation of the Laws of War that weakens its two main principles: the principle of discrimination (i.e., distinguishing  between civilians and soldiers), and the principle of proportionality (i.e, making the force exercised proportionate to the legitimate military goal).  What is interesting about this reinterpretation is that it differs from the call to change the laws of war for the “war on terror”.  The adoption by the IDF of the Asa Kasher/Amos Yadlin theory that says minimum risk to our soldiers, increased risk for the enemy’s civilians, has nothing to do with asymmetric warfare; it basically says that wars are fought between peoples and not between armies, and hence, almost anything goes.

And, as pointed out by others, it works both ways. That is, if Israeli soldiers should be considered as civilians because they  are reservists, then Israelis civilians should be considered as soldiers for the same reasons.  That could justify Hamas kidnapping and killing Israeli civilians if they feel it necessary to free their soldiers – since the rule is “our soldiers trump your civilians”.

In the coming week I plan to make available some of these testimonies, which are much more powerful and eloquent than anything I could write.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is Service Learning in Israel “Tikun Olam-Washing”?

Dr. Max Klau and Rabbi Sid Schwartz (a rabbi for whom I have enormous respect)  have written an article arguing that young progressive Jews that are alienated from Israel can become connected via service learning programs, like those run by an organization called Yahel.  These are programs that bring young people to Israel who do volunteer work with mizrahim, Ethiopians, Druze, etc.  According to the authors, the Yahel experience is

an experience that provides a realistic, complex and nuanced understanding of a country that is talked about largely in the abstract during polarized debates back on college campuses in the States. And along with that nuanced and complex understanding emerges a genuine sense of connection.

The authors follow the story of “Jennifer,” who was raised in a home that “equated Zionism with racism. Like many secular, progressive young  Americans, she spent her college years immersed in a campus culture that, at best, questioned the current policies of the state of Israel and, at worst, demonized the country as a pariah state.” But after working with Ethiopians in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon Le-Tziyyon, “Jennifer” feels much more connected to Israel

“Through her service, she is encountering issues of race, gender, economic justice, immigration, and  – of course – the conflict with Palestinians – as they are experienced every day in Ramat Eliyahu and beyond.”

Yes, she is – and that is the problem. Because in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon, she will never observe the daily lives of Palestinians under Israeli control. She will not encounter Palestinians, except in terms of the “conflict”. Jennifer will learn more about what it is to live under Occupation by attending campus meetings of Students for Justice in Palestine and J Street U in the United States,  than she will in an Israeli town that gave thirty per cent of its vote to the Likud, and almost as many votes to the racist Yahad party as to Meretz (3%). She will be closer to the West Bank experience in Ann Arbor than she will be in Rishon.

A look at Yahel’s website shows that none of the programs work with Palestinian Israelis, much less Palestinians under occupation.  This is social justice “within the family”.  It is not social justice for the most underprivileged group of Israeli citizens, Palestinian Israelis.

Of course, working with all underprivileged is important, and I am the first to applaud Yahel and other programs for doing that.  I am not for dissing social justice programs of any sort; just as justice should be blind, so too social justice.

But service learning programs in Israel will not further young progressive students’ understanding of the core human rights/social justice issue in Israel today – the treatment of the Palestinians under Occupation. To me, it’s like telling college students  during the civil rights era, “Don’t demonize the South; go and tutor its poor white children.”

Israel is constantly thinking of way to engage liberal Jews in order to divert their attention from the elephant in  the room.  Progressive Jews have an obligation to see what is being done in their name in Areas B and C.  If they can’t visit Gaza, they should learn about the lives of Gazans, who remain under Israel’s effective control. 

Service learning should not be “tikun olam washing” – a way of connecting with progressives while sweeping under the carpet the central problem facing Israel – and its supporters today.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It’s Time for Liberal Zionists to Support Some Sticks against the Netanyahu Government

Liberal Zionists don’t like the global BDS movement, but they also think that the Obama administration should get tough with the Netanyahu government. Josh Ruebner, the Policy Director of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, wrote a good piece in The Hill which shows some of the concrete steps the Obama administration can take if it is serious about is reassessment.

1. Clog the arms pipeline. Even though Congress will appropriate more military aid for Israel in this year's budget, there is a myriad of ways in which the Defense and State Departments can delay, if not completely suspend, the signing of contracts and the actual delivery of weapons.

2. Report on Israel's violations of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Under the AECA, countries receiving U.S. military aid can only use weapons for legitimate self-defense and internal security. Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians — the vast majority of whom were civilians — last summer, oftentimes with U.S. weapons such as F-16 fighter jets and Hellfire missiles. The Obama administration should send a report to Congress documenting these human rights abuses and suspend future deliveries of specific weapons systems as outlined in the AECA.

3. Sanction Israel under the "Leahy Law." Under the Leahy Law, specific units of militaries which commit human rights abuses are ineligible to receive U.S. training and weapons. In addition, individuals who commit human rights abuses are denied U.S. visas. While there is some evidence that high-ranking Israeli military officials have recently been denied U.S. visas, the State Department's reporting on the implementation of Leahy Law sanctions is opaque. More extensive and public sanctioning of Israel under this law is warranted.

4. Declare Israeli settlements a national emergency. Under the National Emergencies Act, the president has broad and unilateral powers to declare an emergency in response to a foreign policy crisis. By designating Israeli settlements as an emergency, the Obama administration could regulate, or even prohibit, any transaction in foreign exchange that will directly or indirectly contribute to the expansion of Israeli settlements.

5. Shut down "charitable" funding of Israeli settlements. Dozens of organizations currently recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as 501(c)(3) nonprofits funnel tens of millions of dollars to Israeli settlements every year. There is nothing charitable about dispossessing Palestinians from their land. IRS guidelines do not allow for the funding of illegal activities, which Israeli settlements are according to U.S. policy and international law.

Ruebner, adds, “after more than six years of offering Israel more and more carrots only to be repeatedly snubbed, it is long overdue for the Obama administration to brandish the proverbial stick.”

Now it seems to me that liberal Zionists who want to preserve the State of Israel as “Jewish and democratic” should be interested in supporting some of these methods, none of which would hurt Israel in the manner that  serious state sanctions would. They would certainly be more effective  than the boutique tokenism of not buying Hebron wines from merchants on the Upper West Side.

Can some of our prominent liberal Zionists, academicians who claim to be in favor of a Third Way, who don’t like what they (wrongly) see is a one-state bias of the global BDS movement, articulate ways to pressure Israel? Or will we be witness to even more liberal Zionist handwringing, teeth-gnashing, and liberal pieties about an illusionary “peace process”?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hillel’s Betrayal of Its Own Principles: Targeting Jewish Students at Swarthmore

In 1992, Bnai Brith International Corporation registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office the name “Hillel” to designate “association services; namely, promoting the interests of members of the Jewish religion through religious, career and vocational counseling programs, sporting events and social programs, and by providing information on issues concerning human rights and inter-faith relations.”

Twenty-three years later, the Swarthmore College Hillel, which has declared itself an Open Hillel because it won’t accept Hillel International’s political guidelines on Israel,  is sponsoring a program with Jewish civil rights veterans who criticize Israel’s human rights record called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversations with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.”  In response, International Hillel’s legal counsel has cautioned Swarthmore that it will take action to protect its trademark if the program is under the Hillel name. As a result, the Swarthmore Hillel is being forced to change its name. Read about it here.

International Hillel has misrepresented Open Hillel as a group that promotes an anti-Israel and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) agenda. In fact, Open Hillel only wishes to give a forum to speakers who do not pass the International Hillel Israel loyalty test. As an organization it doesn’t itself promote BDS, much less an anti-Israel agenda.  Just go to their website and see for yourself.

The evolution of  Hillel  from an organization that, inter alia, provides information on human rights to Jewish students,  to an organization that suppresses such information when it comes to Israel,  has been well-told by John Judis in the New Republic.

Hillel’s stance toward Israel began to change in 2002 in response to donor generosity and the onset of the Second Intifada. That year, using a donation from the Schusterman Foundation, a significant funder of AIPAC and of the campus watchdog David Project, Hillel started the Israel on Campus Coalition. Its motto was “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” In 2010, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, Wayne Firestone, a suburban D.C. lawyer, became the head of Hillel, and instituted explicit political guidelines for Hillel chapters to follow in sponsoring speakers and partnering with organizations, which included co-sponsoring events and allowing events to be held in Hillel buildings.

Former presidents of Hillel International like Richard Joel and Avraham Infeld were no less pro-Israel than Mr. Firestone and current president Eric Fingerhut,  but a lot more sensitive to different constituencies within the Jewish community.  Mr. Firestone and Mr. Fingerhut tend to identify being Jewish with being pro-Israel (Mr. Fingerhut is described in his official Hillel bio as “an active member of Ohio’s Jewish and pro-Israel community,” as if the two are coextensive). For some pro-Israel Jews,  to wish to boycott or place sanctions on Israel in order to stop Israel’s human rights abuses is tantamount to anti-Semitism and has no place at Hillel.

Recently, Mr. Fingerhut cancelled his appearance at the J Street conference because a Palestinian speaker was on the program.  The message to students: listening to representative Palestinian spokespeople is against the spirit of Hillel. (For the response of Benjy Cannon, the President of J Street U National Board, see here.  Full disclosure: Benjy was my student, and I am the faculty advisor for J Street U at UMD.)

And what are Jewish students to make of this? Even if you are deeply opposed to the BDS movement, does it make any sense in the world to throw Jewish critics of the policies of Israel – not of this or that Israeli government, but of the state  – out of Hillel, or to demand that they keep their mouths shut in order to enter Hillel?  Who is International Hillel  to decide who is a Jew and what is a legitimate Jewish opinion? If Maryland Hillel, one of the best Hillels in the country, invites the Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, a former Hillel board member and donor, to speak – will it be sued by International Hillel for trademark infringement? Ribono shel olam, have we come to this?

In a letter to Swarthmore Open Hillel’s Joshua Wolfsun, Eric Fingerhut wrote, “Rabbi Hillel is perhaps more famous for his saying in Pirkei Avot, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” What Mr. Fingerhut perhaps does not know is that  Hillel’s saying immediately continues “And when I am for myself, what am I?” Am I an egoist only looking out for my own tribe? Or am I a mentsh, who looks out for the welfare of all human beings created in the image of God. After all, when asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said,

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

That is Hillel’s most famous statement, the Golden Rule, the  foundational statement for the very human rights discussion that Swarthmore Open Hillel wants to have. And  International Hillel sees this human rights discussion  as  contrary to Hillel’s mission! It is the very essence of Hillel’s mission.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Right Wing Nation

Update, March 18, morning, Jerusalem:

Israel is a Right Wing Nation. What is “center” in Israel is right in the rest of the world. What is “right” is extreme right is, well, you fill in that one. Even had Herzog evened the score with Netanyahu he would not have been able to create an alternative government. That has been clear from the beginning. 

There is a progressive, liberal, civil rights movement in Israel; indeed the third largest list in the Knesset will be what journalist Haim Baram calls the “consistent left”.  Congratulations to the Joint List; mabruk; this is the list I voted for.  But because that left  is predominantly Arab, it will never be invited by the Israeli Jewish parties to coalition negotiations. It appears that Meretz, the Jewish nationalist Left, will also be in the Knesset; good for them. But their numbers are small, and the soldiers’ votes might actually kick them out. They are also now part of a permanent opposition.

Whether there is a narrow rightwing government, or a centrist-rightwing unity government (I prefer the former), liberal and progressive Jews and non-Jews will have to continue to question  their relationship to the State of Israel. This is not a state that is presided over by a unpopular tyrant. This is a state run by a very popular Jewish bigot, who gets elected by telling his supporters that there will be no Palestinian state, and that they must get out and vote in order to stop the Arab citizens of Israel “who are voting in droves.”

“This is your god, O Israel” Aaron said to the Israelites, as they worshipped the golden calf of bigotry, deceit, and self-centeredness.

Today it will be it a little easier for liberals to distance themselves further from a country with which they cannot identify. Tonight, it will be a little easier for them to identify with the Palestinian Israelis, who are fighting for their civil rights just as the Jews fought such for such rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Today, the big winner of this election are the Palestinian people, who will press ahead for statehood, who have shown how, even after ethnic cleansing, they are a force to be reckoned with. The global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement will take off, and more progressives and centrists will support.

As for the Jews, how does the Hebrew song go? We survived Pharoah; we will survive this as well.

Hope and Change–How Israel Maybe Took a Step Today Towards Being Democratic and Jewish

Israel is not a liberal democracy that supports the flourishing of its citizenry.  In fact, it is not a democracy, since democracy requires consent of the governed, and Israel controls, directly and indirectly,  millions of Palestinians  without their consent on the West Bank and Gaza.  It is not a liberal democracy even in what Peter Beinart calls “Democratic Israel”, because it excludes a large percentage of its citizenry, native Palestinians, from the nation that the state represents. And because any government that rests on the votes of those outside the nation is considered, by a  great number of Israelis, illegitimate.

I don’t believe Israel is substantively a Jewish state either,at least not with respect to  these issues. That is not to say that there are not a great many Jews here; on the contrary, it is a state of the Jews, and there are Jewish institutions, and Jewish folks like other folks, some good, some bad.  But it is not a Jewish state in the sense that its founding principles do not embody core Jewish principles, in my opinion.  In its treatment of its minorities, its underprivileged groups, its foreigners, it does not reach the level of a decent society, much less a Torah society.  The fact that there may be better or worse societies in the world  doesn’t affect my view that this society is not, on these questions, a substantively Jewish society

Israel could become substantively democratic if it  grants real political power to native Palestinians by ending the occupation; creating the ability for native Palestinians who are not citizens to become citizens, including the Palestinian refugees who wish to return; recognizing Palestinian Israeli citizens as a homeland minority with national and cultural rights; and empowering Palestinian parties by giving them control over ministries and budgets.

This is, of course, a dream. But today we are moving closer to realizing the dream, with the election of a party to the Knesset that will fight for those goals, the Joint List.

There are still many hurdles to face. For years I have been saying pessimistically that even if there were 20 or 30 members of the Knesset that believed in the aforementioned goals, they would be in a permanent opposition, because Israel is considered to be a Jewish state. Even the Joint List has said repeatedly that for ideological reasons it cannot sit in a Zionist government that makes decisions affecting settlements, Palestinians, lands, etc. There is almost a coalition of interests to keep Palestinians out of the government.

And then I read the vision of Ayman Oudeh, the lawyer who heads the Joint List,  who says that in ten years there could be an Arab prime minister of Israel, and that empowering Palestinian Israelis will be good for all Israelis.

And I remember the example of the anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox parties, who found creative ways to take care of their underfunded sectors without being full fledged members of the government, until time did its own work, and they began to be members of the government.

How can Israel become substantively Jewish? By becoming a society that attempts to eliminate social injustice.  By becoming a desegregated society. By saying to itself, “If we are commanded to love the stranger as ourselves, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, how much more so are we to take care of  ourselves, our citizens, especially those who have suffered through the creation and maintenance of an ethnic exclusivist state!”

Such a state will have its flaws; no state is perfect.  But such a state and only such a state will be worthy of the adjective “Jewish”.

One small step was taken today for Israel to become substantively Jewish and democratic – and, also, Palestinian.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Selling Purim to Progressives Yet Again

It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim, with some modifications.  The last time was in 2012. But when I read yesterday what I wrote then, I realized that little had changed in the last three years.  There was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with his annual Purim message: present-day Iran is Persia, its leader is the wicked Haman, they want to destroy us; if the US doesn’t come through, “there will be salvation from another place,” in other words, Israel will get the job done, i.e., unilaterally attack Iran without provocation (and no, tweeting that Israel should disappear is not a provocation, much less a casus belli). In 2015 Bibi told the US congress  “I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.” Now that’s a provocation, although not as explicit as the constant threats Israel has issued against Iran.

So without further ado, here is what I wrote in 2012:

This year [I present my post]  a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu gave  a megillah/Scroll of Esther to President Obama.The scroll, read twice on the holiday of Purim, relates the victory of the Jews over Haman the Agagite, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg explains the point of Bibi’s gift:

The prime minister of Israel is many things, but subtle is not one of them. The message of Purim is: When the Jews see a murderous conspiracy forming against them, they will act to disrupt the plot. A further refinement of the message is: When the Jews see a plot forming against them in Persia, they will act to disrupt the plot, even if Barack Obama wishes that they would wait for permission.

Goldberg reads Bibi right, but Bibi reads the megillah wrong.  In the story, the Jews are saved only because the Jewish Queen Esther convinces the Persian king to execute the wicked Haman, after which the king  authorizes the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers.

The real message of the megillah for Bibi should be:  Diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act  only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.

Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy.  It's not just the Scroll of Esther; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.

Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way.  And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.

Consider the following:

As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent.  Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either. 

Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.

I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless. 

So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality.   I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.  

And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by  withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity.

Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

10 Reasons Why a Liberal/Progressive Zionist Should Support the Joint List in the Israeli Elections

If you are progressive/liberal, a supporter of democratic Israel, and, for good measure, a Zionist, there are two parties you can conscientiously support in the coming election.  (If you are a Zionist and not progressive/liberal, there are many parties to support, ranging from the moderate right (Labour) to the ultra, ultra right and proudly racist (Yachad).

The two parties worthy of your consideration are Meretz and the Joint List. 

Meretz needs no introduction; it is a veteran left wing Zionist party that represents the best of the old Zionist tradition, consistently working to make Israel a liberal democracy within the confines of statist/ethnicist, Zionism. Its leader, Zahava Galon, is a hardworking parliamentarian whose voice deserves to be heard. If you are liberal Jew who finds it hard to leave the Zionist tribe then Meretz is an acceptable alternative for you.

But if you are truly a progressive and care about both Israel and the Palestinians, then  leave the Zionist tribe this election.  Here are ten reasons why.

1. For the first time in history there is one political list that represents the most under-represented sector of Israeli society, Palestinian Israelis, the sector that has consistently been denied political power as permanent members of the opposition. (For those unfamiliar with the Israeli parliamentary system, money flows only to the sectors represented in the governing coalition, and since Arab parties are barred by the “Jewish state” ethos from joining the government, the Arab sector is routinely shafted. No amount of liberal pieties about the importance of closing the gap can change this fundamental truth: the Jewish state foundationally discriminates against its Arab citizens.)

2. If you are a progressive/liberal,  then you should support an Israel that is a nation of all its citizens, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious, haredi, and secular, male and female, etc., etc.  There is only one party that speaks in the name of the Israeli people (ha-Am ha-Yisraeli) and that is the Joint List. Most of the others explicitly claim to represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. If you are Sheldon Adelson that won’t be a problem. But if you are progressive, it should.

3. If you are a progressive/liberal, then you should support a party that has deliberately been ignored and dismissed by the media and official Israel  in this election, despite that it is now polling as the third or fourth largest party in the election – only because it is composed mainly of Palestinians Arabs.

4. If you are progressive/liberal and a Zionist,  then you should  be worried at the growing disaffection of Palestinian Israelis, whose participation in the democratic process has plummeted in recent elections.  And the reason is simple: Arabs have the right to vote, but they may as well flush their ballot down the toilet since all the major Zionist political parties refuse to sit in a governing coalition with them. Even Labour recently announced that it  would only sit in a coalition with a Jewish party (not in so many words, of course, but that was the clear implication of its statement “from Meretz” to the right).

5. If you are a progressive/liberal and a Zionist, then you should be alarmed at the racism and bigotry that infects virtually all segments of Israeli society, left, right and center. The Joint List is running on an anti-racism platform, and has reached out to the disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society, primarily, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and women, those who have suffered from the institutional and personal racism that is so endemic in Israeli society.

6. If you are a progressive/liberal and a Zionist  then it’s time you start thinking outside the box in order to extricate  Israel from the undemocratic mess in which it is mired.  It will be harder (though admittedly possible) to ignore the Palestinian citizens of Israel when they have 15-20 seats in the Knesset. I have argued that for Israel to be a true democracy it needs more Palestinian representation, not less. The answer of many liberal Zionists is to argue for a two state solution in which a Palestinian state that discriminates against its Jewish citizens is created alongside an Israeli state that discriminates against its Arab citizens. Balancing discrimination with discrimination is not the answer. Eliminating discrimination is.

The next four reasons to support the Joint List are directed at Meretz supporters.

7. Isn’t it time you tried something new? I supported Meretz in 1992, when it reached the height of its political power and when it was able to “energize Rabin” (“Yumratz Rabin!” in Yossi Sarid’s immortal phrase) The only Israeli political party I ever actually joined was Meretz. But Meretz is still very identified with  Tel-Aviv, white, ashekenazi, secularists and is no longer a national party in any sense of the term. It still plays the anti-dati/religious card in its elections, and waffles whenever Israel embarks on a military adventure, always attempting to balance a  fundamentally imbalanced situation.  Not always, but too often, its “pep” has replaced its “energy”. (“Pep” as an acronym stands for “progressive except for Palestine”; the Hebrew word meretz means energy.”

8. If you are going to vote for a party that will be in the opposition – and Meretz definitely will be in the opposition, if it gets into the Knesset at all – why vote for a small party in the opposition when you can vote for a large party that has greater power on the committees?

9.  For years, pro-Israel Jewish progressives have said, “If only the Arabs could get their act together, think what political power they may have! Think how Israel would look!”  Well, now is the first – and depending on the response, perhaps the last – time that this is happening. Wouldn’t a Meretz supporter want to support this development, at least for one election?

10.  The Joint List is predominantly Arab, but it is definitely not the Joint Arab list. It is actively seeking Israeli Jewish partnership and I see a time when the list grows larger and incorporates people who once found their home in Meretz and even Meimad.  The Joint List is the best development in Israeli politics in years. It came about after the rightwing parties attempted, through legislation upheld by the Supreme Court, to limit Palestinian representation in the Knesset, even in the opposition. Progressives should show the Israeli public  that these moves will only boomerang.

And finally, the disgusting and so far successful attempt (until, God willing, the court overturns it) to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi for some of the statements she has made should be enough for any true Jewish liberal not to support any of the parties that did not actively protest that decision, and that includes Labour. (For the record, I also protest the decision to bar Baruch Marzel from running, although there is no comparison between the two at all. In fact, he was the collateral damage of the attempt to silence Zoabi.)

Look this is politics and no choice is perfect. I realize that by casting my vote for the Joint List, I am also  voting a religious fundamentalist political party that makes up one of its components. That’s hardly progressive. And I also am sympathetic to the Palestinian claim that the elections are a sham, that Israel is a democracy only for the Jews, and that even if the Joint List gets 30 seats, they will still sit in the opposition. (In fact, I made that claim once.)

And yet…when some of the polls last week showed  the Joint List either neck-or-neck or outpolling Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party.  I almost leapt with joy – isn’t this the Israeli that progressives would want to see, a liberal, vibrant, inclusive democracy, rather than the reactionary nineteenth century ethnocracy it has become?

Let’s give the Joint List  a chance. We can hope that there will be change.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Shalom Hartman Institute, the Muslim Leadership Initiative, and “Faith Washing”

The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, in some of whose programs I have participated,  runs one called the Muslim Leadership Initiative.  Here is a description of the program from the Hartman Institute website:

The program invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. The program also encourages participants to experience how Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel, identify themselves, while exploring the issues of ethics, faith, and practice…MLI seeks to expand participants' critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine. This is achieved through a rigorous academic curriculum and exposure to diverse narratives.

The program has been criticized by “organizations, groups, and individuals committed to Palestinian self-determination” for various reasons: the Hartman Institute is considered to be complicit in the Occupation and therefore should be boycotted; the Muslim Leadership Initiative provides a distorted picture of Judaism, at best, (in so far as Judaism is equated to Zionism) and is “faithwashing” hasbara at worst; the Hartman Institute is funded by Islamophobes, etc. (Many of these arguments can be found in links  here and here.)

Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a member, has issued the following statement:

Jewish Voice for Peace echoes the concerns of our Muslim partners who reject the efforts of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative to use interfaith relations as an excuse to justify the Israeli occupation.

We underscore that being Jewish and Judaism are not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israeli government policies. These false assumptions limit the scope of Jewish-Muslim relations and distort their nature. They also ignore the voices of countless numbers of Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Here’s my take:

1. Supporters of BDS of Israeli academic institutions may legitimately boycott, if they so desire,  the Hartman Institute because as an institution it seems to me to fall within the PACBI guidelines. That is, as far, as I can see, the most cogent argument for pro-Palestinian voices not to participate at the Institute on principle. Like everything else regarding BDS, it’s an individual call.

2. Any rejection of the Muslim Leadership Initiative itself should be based on its curriculum, and since none of the critics refer to the curriculum, but draw inferences based on selective quotations of a website, the identities of some of the programs’ leaders, and references to organizations other than the Hartman Institute, the criticisms are flawed. Knowing some of the people involved in the program, I am sure that they want to have Muslims understand why Israel and the Land of Israel (Palestine) is important for the Jews, according to their own Zionist understanding of Judaism, which is shared by many Jews.

3. The Shalom Hartman Institute is unabashedly Zionist, and its vision of Judaism is unabashedly Zionist, what is called in Israel “centrist”.  It is also opposed to the BDS movement, as is every Israeli institution I know of.  Anybody who participates in its programs can find that much about the Institute very quickly. Muslim scholars who participate in their programs – and there have been many Palestinian Muslim leaders who have – know all this. One can participate in a program without accepting the basic premises of the people offering the program. In fact, one can learn a lot about liberal Zionism and religious Zionism in programs like that. Of course, that’s not  a sufficient reason to participate. I am a progressive, and I have no desire to participate in many programs at the Cato Institute, especially those that may be outreach, even though I may learn a lot about from them.

4. I frankly find offensive statements that tell me what Judaism/Christianity/Islam  is and isn’t.  These are big religions with multiple traditions and reducing them to one-size-fits-all is intellectually lazy and counterproducitve. I find laughable a statement like “we reject outright…the notion that what is happening in Palestine is a ‘religious conflict’.”  For many Jews and Muslims it very much is a religious conflict; that is part of the problem. And many Jews, indeed, most Jews, conflate Zionism and Judaism. I don’t agree with them, just like I don’t agree that radical Islam is all there is to Islam.  But if I were a Muslim, and I were only to talk to anti-Zionist Jews, then I would never be able to understand the pull of Zionism for Jews.   Not understanding the pull of Zionism for Jews has been a serious defect of the pro-Palestinian movement.

5. Finally, the notion that one speaks only with one’s allies strikes me as bizarre.  I happen to be one of the“countless numbers of Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”  But if I were a Muslim, and I were trying to understand why Israel has become so central to the majority of Jews who are identifiably Jewish today, I wouldn’t spend most of my time talking to folks like me.

6. Go back to number one.