This is a guest post by Sandy Johnston. Sandy is a recent graduate of List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary and of Columbia University, where he majored in Bible and Archaeology, respectively. He currently lives in Chicago. His interests include, in addition to the study of ancient Israel, railroads and transit systems, urbanism, Israeli and American politics, and critical thought about the future of the American Jewish community. And cats.
(Map of verified incidents, Monday, November 19, 2012. Via the Guardian.)
Now that the latest bout of bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip is behind us, the time has come for analysis, postmortems, prognostication, and punditry. I take issue with a particularly simplistic, troublesome, and unhelpful strand of what passes for “progressive” thought on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that surfaced in threads I saw on Facebook during the latest round of fighting. My desire is not to legitimize Israel’s operations against Gaza nor to delegitimize criticism of the same; in the vein of criticizing most heavily those with whom one most identifies, I write to hopefully help sharpen the arguments and solutions that my fellow progressives put forward about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yes, if I had the energy, I would write a response to some of the equally unsophisticated, idiotic, hurtful, and insensitive propaganda that came from the “Pro-Israel” side.
This past week, rabbis across the country received a request from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to sign a public rabbinic letter to Congress that urged our Representatives and Senators not to cut any foreign aid to Israel as part of the FY2012 budget. The request was co-signed by the rabbinical leaders of four major American Jewish denominations.
As rabbis who received these appeals for our endorsement, we would like to voice our respectful but strong disagreement to the letter. We take particular issue with the statement:
As Jews we are committed to the vision of the Prophets and Jewish sages who considered the pursuit of peace a religious obligation. Foreign Aid to Israel is an essential way that we can fulfill our obligation to “seek peace and pursue it”
We certainly agree that the pursuit of peace is our primary religious obligation. Our tradition emphasizes that we should not only seek peace but pursue it actively. However we cannot affirm that three billion dollars of annual and unconditional aid – mainly in the form of military aid – in any way fulfills the religious obligation of pursuing peace.
This aid provides Israel with military hardware that it uses to maintain its Occupation and to expand settlements on Palestinian land. It provides American bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes. It provides tear gas that is regularly shot by the IDF at nonviolent Palestinian protesters. It also provided the Apache helicopters that dropped tons of bombs on civilian populations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, as well as the white phosphorus that Israel dropped on Gazan civilians, causing grievous burns to their bodies – including the bodies of children.
In light of Israel’s past and continuing military actions, how can we possibly affirm that our continued unconditional aid fulfills the sacred obligation of pursuing peace?
We also take exception to this assertion:
U.S. foreign aid reaffirms our commitment to a democratic ally in the Middle East and gives Israel the military edge to maintain its security and the economic stability to pursue peace.
In fact our ally, the Netanyahu administration, has even rebuffed mild pressure from the US government to comply with the longstanding US position against new settlements in the West Bank. If we believe that any peaceful settlement requires the end of the Occupation and Israel’s settlement policy, how will massive and unconditional foreign aid – and the support of hundreds of rabbis for this aid – promote a negotiated peaceful settlement of the conflict?
An Israeli government that continues to settle occupied territory with impunity will not change its policy as long as it is guaranteed three billion dollars a year. With every other ally, our government pursues a time-honored diplomatic policy that uses “sticks” as well as “carrots.” We believe the cause of peace would be better served by conditioning support to Israel on its adherence to American and Jewish values of equality and justice.
We are also mindful that the Arab world itself feels under assault by the US when it witnesses Palestinians regularly assaulted with American-made weapons. With the vast and important changes currently underway in the Middle East, we are deeply troubled by the message that this policy sends to Arab citizens who themselves are struggling for freedom and justice.
We know that many of our colleagues who have signed this statement have taken courageous public stands condemning Israel’s human rights abuses in the past. We also know it is enormously challenging to publicly take exception to our country’s aid policy to Israel. Nonetheless, we respectfully urge our our colleagues to consider the deeper implications represented by their support of this letter.
Unconditional aid to Israel may ensure Israel’s continued military dominance, but will it truly fulfill our religious obligation to pursue peace?
Update: videos are now embedded in the post. Enjoy!
As I mentioned in my brief first-day J Street conference round up post, I secured interviews with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative (best known for the Ground Zero Mosque, which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque), and Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian journalist and activist who rocked the socks off the J Street conference. Those videos are now online; the YouTube playlist is here. There are three videos – Mona Eltahawy on social media in the Jasmine Revolution and its potential in the future of the Arab and Muslim world, my question for Imam Rauf on the religious justification for his work, and footage of a few other press-folk asking him questions. Check them out!
Mona did a superb job of addressing the straw man argument made by most of the prominent critics of the social-media-as-organizing-tool theory (Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov, etc.). That is, she made a strong case for how Twitter and Facebook were essential in helping garner support for a mass meeting and demonstration of a kind that was quite rare under Mubarak. Notably, she doesn’t claim that it was Twitter or Facebook that toppled the regime. No, that distinction belongs to the brave Egyptians who risked their lives to claim their basic human rights of freedom of speech and assembly. But if you look closely, most of us arguing for social media’s importance in democratic movements aren’t saying that it’s the Internet itself that overthrows regimes, just that it’s a tool for those who desire to do so. The key to any organized resistance movement, especially one that aspires to nonviolence, is organization. Today, the Internet is often one of the last places where free exchange of ideas can take place. Its fast pace and adaptability mean that dedicated users can often stay one step ahead of those trying to shut down the flow of information. This is what makes it important and in some ways game-changing.
Imam Rauf, who’s been one of my personal heroes for a long time, spoke beautifully about the religious underpinnings of his peace work. I hadn’t planned to ask him about this – the question came about as a result of a topic of discussion on the panel on Jewish-Muslim community relations on which he’d just spoken. One Jewish community leader explained a program called “Iftar in the Sukkah,” in which local Muslims and Jews gathered at an Orthodox shul to share the evening break-fast meal during Ramadan, which for the past few years has overlapped with Sukkot. The image of Muslims and Jews taking part in this ritual together was, for me, amazing, and reminded me of the phrase “ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” – “spread over us your sukkah of peace.” This is pretty much one of my favorite liturgical lines ever, and I felt that I just had to ask Imam Rauf about it. So I mentioned that connection, and asked him what scriptural or Islamic theological justification he found for his work. His answer, that it’s rooted in the very word “Islam,” coming from “Salaam,” was completely in line with his messages of peace and mutual understanding.
I continue to be inspired by the work that both of these courageous activists do every day. Mona Eltahawy speaks truth to power, and Imam Rauf (and the Park 51 project overall) has handled himself with incredible grace in the face of one of the worst smear campaigns I’ve ever seen, and more generally in a climate of increasing American Islamophobia. May they both continue their work and dedication, and may their efforts be rewarded.
The British catamaran Irene, the “Jewish boat to Gaza,” was diverted to Ashdod without incident and without capturing world attention as during Israel’s boarding of the Turkish Mavi Marmara. This was the second boat following the Marmara to be diverted. Predictions of a media circus failed to bear fruit.
Apparently, the global media is bored of this stunt already. Frankly, I am too. It stinks of pageantry, now that both sides now how the game is played. The boat announces their operating rules, the IDF states its intent to intercept, both sides play nice, and the Gaza blockade goes on. Which is not to say the stunt abjectly failed to raise awareness, nor that the violent prior episode was in any way preferable. (God forbid!)
Pageantry consumes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I volunteered to cover a house demolition in East Jerusalem in late 2004, then too the roles were clear. The family applied for a permit, knowing they’d be denied. The Jerusalem municipality took their fee and considered their application, knowing they didn’t grant permits to Arabs as policy. The family built anyway, knowing the one-room hovel would be demolished. And indeed, the municipality sent over two dozen Border Police along with the demolitions crane, knowing the family would resist. The family called in demonstrators to help them resist, knowing their home would ultimately fall. The police removed the activists non-violently, knowing the press stink that would follow if one were harmed. The demonstration happened; the demolition happened. Everybody knew their role. Pageantry.
It’s an infuriating constant. I am enraged that the state-imposed impoverishment and economic stagnation of 1.5 million Gazans has achieved epic banality. It burns my heart that few in America seem to give a shit either way, pro or con. Unless a protest has a new, creative gimmick, it will be ignored. It’s also a crying shame that the organizers of the flotillas are harmful to and a distraction from the importance of the message. Utter predictability fosters inhumane callousness. ”Israel fatigue” turns away so many passionate, progressive and particularly young Jews. We’ve seen these headlines before. It’s the pageantry that kills us.
In the wake the Gaza Flotilla episode many labels were tossed about describing those on the Mava Marmara. It became clear quite early on that they were not peace activists solely interested in getting their cargo to Gaza. They were interested in provocation, in challenging the Israeli government against what they believed was an illegal blockade depriving Gaza’s citizens of food, clothing, and building materials. M.J. Rosenberg in the Huffington Post likened them to blacks who sat at all white lunch counters in the South during the Jim Crow era. They weren’t there for the pancakes. Some even called those on the Mava Marmara “terrorists.” This is an odd appellation given that they were not armed with deadly weapons nor were they travelling to Gaza to wage a battle against Israeli citizens.
The use of the term “terrorist” has become common nomenclature in Israel of many who openly and actively challenge its policies regarding the Palestinians. Of course, Israel had, and has, it own “terrorist” organizations (the Irgun and Lehi, more recently the Jewish Underground and today those who terrorize the Palestinians cave dwellers in the South Hebron Hills). And some of the members of the Irgun and Lehi ended up becoming prime ministers of the country, i.e., Menahem Begin and Yizhak Shamir. This irony rose to the surface this Sunday when I opened the New York Times Sunday Magazine and read Deborah Solomon’s interview with Tzippi Livni, the head of the Israeli Kadima party.
Solomon asked Livni:
Your parents were among the country’s founders.
They were the first couple to marry in Israel, the very first. Both of them were in the Irgun. They were freedom fighters, and they met while boarding a British train. When the British Mandate was here, they robbed a train to get the money in order to buy weapons.
So, Livni’s parents, who were both members of the Irgun, an organization that not only engaged in acts of terror against the British Mandate but was also guilty of killing Arab civilians, are called freedom fighters. Livni proudly and without solicitation speaks of how her parents robbed a British train to take the money to buy weapons. One could only assume the illegal weapons were used to commit acts of violence. But Livni’s parents are not terrorists while those on the Gaza Flotilla who were engaged in what began as a non-violent act of provocation (that is, until their ship was boarded in a pre-dawn raid by Israeli navy seals) are called “terrorists”? Here is one dictionary definition of terrorism: Terrorism is the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.
We all know the answers from both sides, repeated ad nauseum. However, given the volume of this crisis and the loose ways in which “terrorist” is used by Israel, I find Livni’s proud declaration of her parents criminal and ultimately violent behavior somewhat jarring. Freedom fighter’s indeed.
As a member of this blogging community, a fairly lefty one at that, I am sure I am the only person who got the hard-copy of the Wall Street Journal today. So I am taking on a personal responsibility to report to all of you that the Simon Weisenthal Center has provided all WSJ readers with a very important supplement to their papers:
“2010 Top Ten Anti-Israel LIES”
You can download the seven page document for yourself, but here are some of the highlights. More »
Left-wing Jews in NYC held a debate for and against boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and the whole thing is on YouTube. Voices against feature JJ Goldberg and Kathleen Peratis; those in favor feature Hannah Mermelstein and Yonatan Shapiro.
PMO announces plan to ease Gaza siege, but no such decision made
The Prime Minister’s Office announced on Thursday that the security cabinet had agreed to relax Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip, but as it turns out, no binding decision was ever made during the cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a press release in English following the meeting, which was also sent to foreign diplomats, was substantially different than the Hebrew announcement – according to the English text, a decision was made to ease the blockade, but in the Hebrew text there was no mention of any such decision.
Many of us have been struggling to understand the ways in which the blockade of Gaza and the Flotilla disaster have benefited Israel. The answer of the Israeli government has always been that the blockade is necessary for security and that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza (needless to say UN relief representatives on the ground in Gaza have a different take on this). In an article today in Haaretz, “Blair Hails Deal with Netanyahu to Ease Gaza Blockade,” we read the following:
At their first meeting [between the British and Israeli teams], the envoy handed Netanyahu a document prepared by Blair’s staff that included suggestions for easing the blockade. The prime minister told Blair that he never thought the blockade as constituted was particularly wise, as he understood that the civilian population, and not Hamas, bore the primary brunt.
Wait a minute. Bibi said he “never thought the blockade as constituted was particularly wise,” and he “understood that the civilian population, and not Hamas, bore the primary brunt”? This contradicts Israel’s entire justification of the blockade and confirms what critics have been saying for years. The Israeli response has always been just the opposite! Now after the Flotilla disaster, after worldwide condemnation, after the deaths of nine civilians, after all this Bibi basically says what his critics have been saying all along?! Truly amazing. If this is so, Bibi, why have you let a poorly constituted blockade continue for three years when you knew it was the Gazan population and not Hamas that was suffering. And why have you consistently denied this was the case. In Israel there is a saying when one is not sure about the intentions of another’s incompetence, “is he a klutz or a putz?” You decide.
Ashley has been living in and reporting from Gaza for the past several months and her blog Dispatches from Gaza offers invaluable, in-depth perspectives of life under the blockade. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Post Magazine, Global Post, Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and Ha’aretz.
In my last post, I expressed strong dismay at specific actions of the Freedom Flotilla organizers:
When the Gaza Freedom Flotilla refused Noam Shalit’s offer to advocate for them with the Israeli government if they’d deliver items to his son, they demonstrated a motive in their analysis of the conflict.
Two commenters, kyleb and Jew Geuvara, quickly pointed out a factual error on my part which I feel deserves its own post not merely as a retraction and acknowledgement of insufficient research on my part, but because it significantly changes my perception of the situation. kyleb’s comment linked to this article which contains the following statement:
Israel claims that we refused to deliver a letter and package from POW Gilad Shalit’s father. This is a blatant lie.
Read the rest of the article for the full story, but it appears that the flotilla’s purported refusal to deliver said letter and package was concocted entirely to smear the flotilla, whose organizers had in fact agreed to Noam Shalit’s request. Not only does this damage the image of Noam Shalit as a peace activist, but it absolves the flotilla of a great deal of blame in the situation. While I’m still furious at whoever thought it was good idea to fight back at the commandoes boarding the Mavi Marmara, I no longer view the two parties (Israel and the flotilla organizers) as equally culpable. While I reject the characterization of Israel as brutal, bloodthirsty, and having planned a “massacre” (a term which I find inaccurate and non-constructive), I believe they deserve the lion’s share of the blame for what went wrong.
Michael Oren on Israel’s loosening of restrictions on food: “We were not feeling obliged to provide Gaza with snack food.” He also asserts that the Turks were “hired thugs.” I think this is what the Twitterverse is calling “Hasbaracalypse.”
Attentive as always to the sentiment of my peers who obsess less about this issue than I do, the past weekend’s flotilla events have only confirmed what Peter Beinart wrote. His words confirm what I and others on Jewschool have long prophesied: young Jews are refusing “to check their liberalism” at Israel’s door.
All week, the reticence of my peers — actively engaged Jews in their 20s and 30s — to have “the Israel conversation” with me has been collapsing. Amazingly, friends who long avoided it. The sudden burst of awareness about Israel’s prohibition of cooking ingredients, toys and minor life amenities in Gaza has undermined sympathy for confroting even rebar-wielding provacateurs. Israel’s international disregard sours in their mouths. The severity of Israel’s recent behavior has shaken so many loose from the inhibitions to say openly and angrily, “What the fuck? How could Israel do that?”
“This has given me so much guilt. What is it about this that is different from what normally goes on there?” asked one friend over brunch.
“It’s like Israel tries to solve every problem with the military,” mourned another friend the night before. An organizer by profession, she smartly asked, “Where can we put political pressure to make this stop?”
“I am giving up on Israel. They can’t ask me to defend this policy,” said another the day before that. More »
What is grating on my nerves about the Freedom Flotilla matters now that the passengers have been unloaded in Ashdod is the rhetoric around the event. Chillul Who said it well: You can trust both sides to tell only the truths that paint them in the best light. Call me a liberal, but the pursuit of truth was always more important than the selective release of peices of the truth to get what you want.
In opposing efforts to show their separate causes in the best light, supporters of the Israeli government and Palestinian activists are inventing facts and distorting international law to suit their agendas.
Take for example the American Jewish Committee’s official statement: it calls the flotilla “pro-Hamas” and claims they exist “to bolster the despotic Hamas regime and its Muslim Brotherhood support base in Turkey and elsewhere.” One can accuse the Free Gaza Movement of happily singling Israel for condemnation and turning a blind eye to Hamas’ crimes. But the Free Gaza operation was created and launched by secular, Palestinian solidarity Europeans, not the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood.
Elsewhere in the same statement, the AJC asserts erroneously that the IDF encountered “automatic weapons” upon arrival. No source, by either IDF or media outlet, has made such a claim. The IDF press office has released photos of improvised weapons, but no guns. Reportedly, two guns stolen from Israeli soldiers were found later. Israel no doubt was expecting (hoping?) to find guns and rocket-building materials on board. But so far, the flotilla had no guns.
What does the AJC think they’re doing by inventing facts?
I’ve seen footage of the confrontations aboard the flotilla that suggest that the passengers on the ships were ready for an armed attack. @IsraelMFA (on Twitter) is already using this to claim that the IDF was right to board the ships. I’m not so sure. Obviously the passengers knew Israel wasn’t just going to let them through, and while I very much disagree with their decision not to act peacefully upon being boarded (which would have kept this in the realm of peaceful civil disobedience), I do think that Israel deserves the lion’s share of the blame for deciding to board the ships a) in international waters and b) with soldiers instead of riot police – a clear message that they didn’t prioritize peaceful resolution.
Moving forward, I think this is going to be as big or bigger than Cast Lead. The accuracy of the image of Israel as a violent aggressor against peaceful activists is certainly debatable (I think the protesters should have stuck to pacifism if only to increase the accuracy and power of that image), but it’s what the world is going to see. We’re at a turning point.
My father commented to me that if Israel was a person, they’d have been committed to a mental institution by now for acting suicidal. I really can’t understand the thinking that went into Israel’s actions today. There is no plausible way that they’re going to come out on top of this one. So far, I’m not sure whether or not that’s a good thing, but it looks pretty indisputable from here.
Truly disturbing news from the Mediterranean: 10 dead are reported after Israeli commandos boarded six ships assembled by the Free Gaza Movement to break the Gaza seige. (Read Noam Sheizaf for background and liveblogging.)
In addition to the international condemnation for boarding a boat in international waters, guarded statements from the US, and another dramatic recalling of Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, the consequences for the peace process are dire: Prime Minister Netanyahu has canceled his Tuesday meeting with President Obama.
The narratives diverge: Bloggers within Israel are reporting that Israeli news is portraying the IDF commandos as victims of a lynch mob-in-waiting. Yedioth called the flotilla’s response “a brutal ambush at sea.” The IDF released this video (below), showing soldiers outnumbered and beaten with pipes. The Free Gaza Movement official statement claims the IDF began shooting live fire “the instant their feet hit the deck.” The group’s livestream (now offline) claims to have proof.
All of this remains to be seen, and despite some bloggers’ rush to make judgments before the facts are sorted, I await more clarity. And I’m not rushing to absolve any side of total innocence.
While excellently-intentioned, the Freedom Flotilla lost its tenuous innocence for me when they rejected an amazing opportunity to unite two sides: Gilad Shalit’s father offered to advocate on their behalf if the flotilla would bear a message to his son. What a gesture to the Israeli public that would have been, that human rights are not the purview of Palestinian suffering alone, but Israelis too. That the conflict is not between Israelis and Palestinians but between purveyors of violence and innocent civilians. It would mean calling out Hamas as well as the IDF for blame. Despite the vastness between Palestinian losses and Israeli, there are yet Israeli losses the Jewish public deserves acknowledged. And a father misses his son. But the Freedom Flotilla rejected mutual culpability.
Israel’s policy of blockading Gaza makes my skin crawl and my stomach sick. Collective punishment is a fate the Jewish people suffered throughout history, for crimes only imagined. It is an added layer of difficulty that Israel’s collective punishment is for crimes real: the rocketing of Israeli civilians and the kidnapping of Israelis. But these acts by a few do not justify punishment of all. The bottom dropped from my stomach when I read this news this morning. Ten people died, for this?
I hope the Flotilla planners and Netanyhu are happy with their results. The Netanyahu government no doubt appreciates the pause in making concessions to peace. Again, Hamas sits on the sidelines and escapes paying for its part in this dark comedy. The deterioration of Israel’s standing was a goal of the Freedom Flotilla from the outset. And instead of mitigating it, Netanyahu, you have worsened it. A victory on all sides.
My heart goes out to the families of the dead and for the speedy recovery of all those injured, including the soldiers.
Last night, I heard Prof. Jonathan Sarna give a lecture on Democratization in American Jewry in the years following the Revolutionary War. He explained, using a couple of fascinating examples, that in that period of time you start to see the waning of the authority of the synagogue, and the Jewish community more generally: break-away shuls, a Kohein marrying a widowed convert against the wishes of the shul leadership, and a learned individual finding halachic solution to issues involving the excommunication of intermarried Jews, against the wishes of the kahal.
During Q&A, someone asked about the relationships of the break-away shuls to the organizations from which they departed. Prof. Sarna explained that, in time, exterior threats would cause these groups to come together. I’ve heard a similar explanation about the relationship of the Hasidim to the Mitnagdim after the haskalah. The modern example given was an Orthodox Rabbi sitting on the bimah of a Conservative shul in Boston during Cast Lead, claiming that differences between them needed to be put aside when Israel was threatened.
I understood his point, but the example made me cringe. I remember there being some level of objection from within the Jewish community, even during Cast Lead, and it pains me that the best example for the uniting of Jewish community is around a mythic threat to Israel (which is not to say that I approve of rockets, either). It being erev Yom Yerushalayim, I’m also reminded of the mythic existential threat from ’67, but I digress.
We’ve done an OK job of covering a number of recent cases of civil rights problems in Israel (here, here, here). Over at Zeek, Moshe Yaroni sums things up beautifully:
Israeli democracy is under siege, and it’s no less stark than that. For years, the peace groups in Israel have been warning that occupation cannot co-exist with democracy without one eventually strangling the other. It is no longer a theoretical argument. More »
Didi Remez at Coteret (which, if you care about Israel, you should be reading regularly), cross-posted a piece from a new blog called Gaza Gateway, about Ahmed Sabah, a Palestinian who has been separated from his family in the West Bank, and is currently camped out at Erez crossing, refusing to enter Gaza. We’re starting to see the effects of the recently passed military order giving the military much broader power to arrest and deport. Sabah’s case is worth following in and of itself, but the kicker from the post is the following:
On the one hand, Israel claims that it has ended its occupation of Gaza and that Gaza is a “foreign” and even “hostile” entity for whose 1.5 million residents – Israel bears no responsibility. On the other hand, Israel has determined, that Mr. Sabeh is a “resident” of the supposedly “foreign” entity of Gaza (through Israel’s control of the Palestinian Population Registry) and that Israel may force him to live there (through Israel’s control of Gaza’s borders).
Compare Mr. Sabeh’s plight with that of Palestinians who entered the West Bank from Jordan, but Israel refuses to “recognize” their residence and issue them Palestinian ID cards. Israel does not try to deport them to Jordan, because Israel cannot dictate who is a citizen of Jordan and cannot force Jordan, a sovereign state, to accept a deportee. Not so for Gaza, part of the occupied Palestinian territory, where Israel decides who is a Palestinian resident and uses its control to dictate where he or she may live (in the case of Mr. Sabeh – thus far with only limited success).
Maybe President Obama and Elie Wiesel should chat about this.