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.