Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Some of the worst is right here in Boston

I promise that this will be my last post re: Richard Goldstein [I hope].  Just in case you'd like to think that we're not so bad here in liberal, progressive Boston, a letter from Barry Shrage, the head of Combined Jewish Philanthropies [CJP], greater Boston's Jewish Federation, was forward to me. It includes just about everything Bibi Netanyahu would like you to know about Israel: security, rockets into Israel, delegitimization, Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, yada, yada, yada. And he even has the chutzpah to ask us to pass the letter on:
"Help get the word out regarding the Israel we know and love. Lies have now been unmasked and the truth seeks the light of day. As Israel fights for its life and reputation against a worldwide conspiracy of delegitimization, we can do no less. 

To me, Goldstone’s op-ed confirms what we’ve always known. In a region filled with the most murderous violence, Israel is among the world’s most moral nations. The IDF, while under constant threat from genocidal enemies, remains committed to a code of honor that distinguishes it from every other army on earth. . . . ."
And it gets worse. Read it if you have the stomach for it.

Where were you Richard Goldstone when we needed you?


This is an edited version of a post that I originally titled "Where are when we need you Richard Goldstone." In the middle of writing it I received an e-mail about Goldstone's interview with the AP which puts things in something - but only something - in a different light. If you don't have the stamina to read this long post, scroll down to the bottom an read Jessica Montel's [from B'Tselem] piece in today's Washington Post and take a look at the disturbing YouTube video about the Samouni family whose almost annihilation was apparently, says Goldstone, a "mistake".

In the last couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to attend a number of presentations which dealt all or in part on Justice Richard Goldstone and his famous/lauded/ condemn/disparaged report on “Operation Cast Lead,” the Israeli invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009.  At the Jewish Voice for Peace national membership meeting in Philadelphia I heard Phil Weiss and Adam Horowitz, two of the authors of the definitive book on the Goldstone Report, who gave a harrowing look into the reality of Cast Lead.  Last week Anat Biletsky, former chair of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and currently the Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy at Quinipiuac College, spoke at Boston College where she gave a self-described depressing view of the fascistic trends in Israel that she feels can be reckoned from Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.  Then I heard Weiss and his other co-author, Lizzy Ratner, at Harvard underscore even more vividly what Weiss and Horowitz had said in Philadelphia. Finally, a few nights ago I heard and spoke with Danny Bar-Tal, a professor in the psychology department at Tel Aviv University who, if anything, was more depressing than Biletsky.

Then comes Justice Goldstones “reconsideration” in last Friday’s Washinton Post, of “his” report [more about the quotation marks around his in a moment]. I feel like I’m behind the curve on this, given how much has already been written about this. But I don’t want to critique what Goldstone did or didn’t say in his op-ed, lots of people have already done that. To read some of this just google Goldstone or check out a searing critique by Ilan Pappe or Alex Kane on Mondoweiss, or see Horowitz and Ratner talking about Goldstone’s article.

I want to address two things here: the Israeli response to Goldstone’s “reconsideration” and the absence of a credible statement from Goldstone himself.

Ever since the publication of the Goldstone Report the Israel right-or-wrongers have condemned it as biased and anti-Israel and have rejected it as totally illegitimate.  Worse, despite Goldstone’s sterling bona fides as a hardcore Zionist and supporter of Israel, they have vilified Goldstone personally as incompetent, untrustworthy, anti-Zionist and self-hating. The attacks were so disgusting that they included threats to demonstrate outside of Goldstone’s grandson’s Bar Mitzvah if he tried attend. Now, based on the Post op-ed, which repudiated very little, those who attacked Goldstone viciously are jumping on a "Goldstone has come home and vindicated us" kind of bandwagon, braying to the world that “we’re okay after all, it was all an awful anti-Semitic farce and look, even Goldstone himself admits it.” Author/journalist Jonathan Cook has a good look at the Israeli reaction on the Israeli Occupation Archive where he notes 
“Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, immediately called on the United Nations to shelve the Goldstone Report; Ehud Barak, the defence minister, demanded an apology; and Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, said Israel’s actions in Gaza had been “vindicated”.

My good friend, the late Hilda Silverman, was hyper-vigilant [but right] about fact checking. She alwys reminded us that if you say that there were about100 people at some action and it turns out that there were only 87 you can be sure that CAMERA, “Honest” Reporting and the Israeli government will not only point that out but use it as a way of [to use a phrase!] delegitimizing whatever else you’ve said. I remember talking to Hilda in 2002 when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, the invasion of the refugee camp in Jenin in the West Bank. Over-anxious reporters spoke about a “massacre” with all kinds of numbers being thrown around. Eventually credible sources were talking about 75-80 Palestinians killed and finally there was general agreement that there was about 56 Palestinian deaths. The main story became “there was no massacre!” as if the 56 had not died and the IDF had not leveled a major part of Jenin.

Many people have pointed out that, in reality, Goldstone actually did not renounce very much but, by saying he was “rethinking” certain limited things – mostly that he now seems to think that the awful and illegal killing of civilians might not have been the result of Israeli military policy – although he does not question that there was awful, illegal killing – by saying even this the defenders of Cast Lead are already discrediting the entire UN report.  David Horowitz, in the Jerusalem Post, tells us:

“But the astounding piece in The Washington Post by the Jewish justice, who presided over the Goldstone Report that accused Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, represents nothing less than an apology to Israel.

“If I had known then what I know now,” he writes in the first extraordinary paragraph of his mea culpa, “the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.”

How dramatic the about-face. And how terrible that it was necessitated.

How tragic, that is, that Goldstone so misplaced his moral compass in the first place as to have produced a report that has caused such irreversible damage to Israel’s good name.”

[Read the rest of the article – it gets worse!]

And finally [and I’m rewriting this section having just seen that Goldstone clarified his position in an AP interview], where has Goldstone been in the last four or five days? How could he not have realized the way he would be used by the Israelis by even suggesting that maybe he needed to “reconsider” what the report says. “If I knew then” he says – well sure, whenever we learn new things it informs our previous ideas. But nowhere does Goldstone repudiate the basic truth of the report.  but now, despite good clarifications from people like Adam Horowitz, for much of the world, that doesn’t matter.  The story now is that the Goldstone report was wrong, Goldstone said so, Israel is vindicated. It would have been nice if he had never written the Post piece – but having written it he owed it to us to have clarified it immediately so that he couldn’t be used this way. Some have posited that Goldstone succumbed to the constant pressure and invective that he’s had to endure [See Ian Williams in Foreign Policy in Focus] and wanted, at least to some degree, get his detractors to see that he’s still the good Jew, the good Zionist he was before the report. Well, the reality is that it hasn’t really done anything to mollify those who have attacked him. Most, like Horowitz, are happy to use the Post article to vindicate Israel and the IDF, but they still think Goldstone has neither said nor atoned enough.

One last thought about speaking out. I said at the beginning that I’d explain why, when talking about Goldstone’s report I put quotation marks around “his” report. We tend to forget that there were four people responsible for writing it.  Where are the other members of the UN commission that wrote the report, Professor Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who was a member of the High Level Fact Finding Mission to Beit Hanoun (2008); Ms. Hina Jilani, Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and former Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, who was a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (2004); and Colonel Desmond Travers, a former officer in the Irish Armed Forces and member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI). A distinguished panel who all signed the final report. Will they say anything about this situation or will they be properly, diplomatically silent?

Two final notes:

If you want to see what really happened to the Samouni family [who was almost wiped out by "accident," click here

 And finally, probably the most reasoned piece about all of this is by B'Tselem's executive director, Jessica Montell in today's Washington Post. Check it out.



Saturday, April 2, 2011

What a difference a few decades makes

Shavua Tov.

This evening I had the problematic pleasure to hear a really nice concert.

Shir Appeal
Honorable Mention
For many years the social action committee at my synagogue, Congregation B'nai Brith in Somerville Massachusetts, has held a benefit for  a wonderful domestic violence program, Respond. This year we sponsored a concert featuring two very different - but each in their own way wonderful - Jewish a cappella groups. Shir Appeal [a wonderful pun: shir ha-piel literally means Song of the elephant] is "Tufts University's ONLY Co-ed, Jewish A Cappella group" and has tremendous energy and a wonderfully quirky take on Jewish/Hebrew songs.  Honorable Menschen [also a great pun] is "Boston's premiere semi-professional Jewish a cappella group" and is really polished with clever uses of a variety of musical styles.

The problem? Shir Appeal opened the evening with the iconic Naomi Shemer song, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav [Jerusalem of Gold].  Just a couple of years after living in Jerusalem I was part of a group that ran a Jewish educational program for teenagers where music played an important part of what we did. Songs like Yerushalayim Shel Zahav were at the heart of our groups' sense of who, as American Jews, we were and what we were connected to. Both the words ["Jerusalem of Gold, of bronze and of light"] and the underlying message [the rebirth of our Jewish homeland, the center of our religious identity] were inspiring, comforting and a sign of God's love and eternal commitment to us. For me personally it evoked the many hours I spent soaking up the grandeur of the Old City from the outside and the enormous sense of comforting spirituality I felt when meandering through the maze of narrow streets inside. I can remember, even decades later, passing the reassuring mixed salad of people: Orthodox Christians in their long black robes and high hats, Orthodox Jews and Hasidim in their black suits and hats and a variety of Arab types in the homes and shops that were packed into to such a physically limiting space.  I remember the feeling of comfort I derived from all of these disparate peoples sharing this palpably holy place. A place I thought of as Ir Shalom, the City of Peace.

Fast forward  more than three decades later. I've driven around the outskirts of the city and once again wondered at its amazing beauty: the gold of the Jews' Temple Mount which Muslims know as the Noble Sanctuary, the blinding sun reflected by the Dome of the Rock and on the ever-present Jerusalem stone, all enclosed within the seeming safety of the ancient walls.  Then I remember walking again through that same labyrinth I walked years ago. But now I can't escape the realization that all the old types - Hasidim, Christian priests, Arab shop keepers, etc. - are still there, except the sense of their moving through a shared, sacred place is gone and all I can see is a mass of people who, while packed together and bumping into one another, seem, in some surreal way, to be inhabiting totally different places simultaneously. Because of this I find that it is painful, almost impossible to go into holy places I was once so moved by. I'm not even able to go down to the plaza near what was once known as the "Wailing Wall" and is now, since 1967, the "Western Wall." I remember that on my last trip there I could only watch from the terrace overlooking the plaza, viewing the mostly black-garbed men [the women are separated by a barrier  into a contained, smaller area,  where they are forbidden to do certain rituals] in various forms of prayer, the golden-domed Mosque looking on over the wall, all "protected" by the always present uniformed, armed Israeli soldiers.

This evening these images forced themselves into my mind as I listened to the wonderful harmonies of Shir Appeal and flavored the rest of the concert for me. I wanted to let myself fully enjoy the music and the energy of the two talented groups but couldn't free myself of the words they sang, words that were once comforting, energizing and so much part of my Jewish being but now insist on reminding me of how the "conflict" has so drained the hopes of so many of those old songs.  James Carroll, the ex-priest who is now an insightful author and Boston Globe columnist, recently introduced his latest book, "Jerusalem Jerusalem." The double title reflects his sense of a city that is the most fully holy place on earth [shalom comes from a root meaning "whole-ness"] and, simultaneously the place that has engendered some of the disharmony between peoples.

Strange how symbols change over the years.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Palestine, economics, Deval PATrick and Bob Kraft - looking for input

Last month, when Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's office announced that he was going on  a "Massachusetts Innovation Economy Partnership Mission 2011" to Israel and the United Kingdom with a coalition of the state’s leading business executives and senior government officials, an alliance of about a dozen local groups and individuals reconstituted the "Massachusetts/Palestine Trade Association. We sent a letter to the governor to suggest that, given the situation in Israel/Palestine he reconsider making this trip - and, realizing that given the late date and the kind of people who the governor was going with he was not going to call the trip off, we suggested that he meet with some business and tech people in Palestine and offered to get him in touch with people we know there. We closed our letter with a request to meet with him before he went and, not at all surprisingly, when I spoke with someone in his office I was told that the advance team had already left, Governor Patrick was very busy, and if we contacted the appointments office maybe they could arrange something when he came back.

Then, this past  Tuesday the Metro Section of the Globe ran "Pats owner’s deep ties to Israel are personal" focusing on Bob Kraft's long-standing relationship with and philanthropy in Israel. The article noted that Kraft "spoke of a grander vision for the country’s economic independence, rooted in a capitalist belief that financial prosperity will promote peace and stability for Israel and its neighbors. He said he had "employed Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank at his companies until security checkpoints imposed after the second intifada made it impossible." It quoted Kraft, who has significant interests in Israeli firms:
“We need to create jobs in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel and Jordan and Syria and Lebanon,’’ he said. “I’m rooting for a lasting peace in that area of the world. . . . I hope American entrepreneurs and Mideast entrepreneurs can work to help do that.’’
Gaza Shopping Mall
So, I thought,  maybe the way to address this issue is through Bob Kraft - take him at his word and, given how successful he was in convincing the governor to go to Israel, maybe we could approach him to interest the governor in exploring the potential for investing in industries in the West Bank. I sent an e-mail with these thoughts to the people on my Association list and the few responses I received suggested that there was  little interest in pursuing this either because people thought that Kraft would simply not respond or that the nature of his politics in regard to Israel/Palestine would make it futile to relate to him as some sort of ally. 

Then I had an interesting piece of input. I recently wrote about Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian that spoke at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies last week. After his presentation I had an opportunity to talk with him for a while during which economic conditions in Palestine came up. I shared what had been going on around the governor's Israel mission. I also shared my concerns about how positive movements in the economy were being manipulated by the "pro-Israel" people. The Israeli PR machine tells us that last year the West Bank had the most economic growth in years, that "they" were building big, beautiful, modern malls [with air conditioning!] and PA Prime Minister Fayyad has made economic development the cornerstone of his program so there's really nothing to worry about.

His reaction, included two thoughts, one which I anticipated and one that I didn't. First he said that we shouldn't be concerned about what was being said, the important thing was to do anything we could to help the Palestinian economy - the other side is going to say whatever they're going to say regardless of what we do and Palestinians need whatever help we can give them.  His second response was that it is really important to project an image of Palestinians as modern, sophisticated people rather than backward, tribal victims and initiatives like this could be helpful, if for nothing else at least educating people.

So, Husam pushed me back into that place of vacillation: would it be helpful to invest time and energy into pursuing the idea of talking to Governor Patrick [possibly through Bob Kraft] or is the potential for getting anywhere with this - coupled with the Massachusetts statehouse's current priorities, so remote that we should just let this go? It would be interesting to know what people think about this.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The JVP Brandeis Petition is On-line

In case you haven't seen it yet, the JVP-Brandeis folks have put their petition up. You can - and should - sign it here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The churning Middle East and . . . .

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Husam Zomlot speak at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard where he is, among other things [a PLO representative to the UK (2003-2008);  PhD degree in economics from the University of London, an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and a BA in Economics and Political Science from Birzeit University; specializing in international peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction programs; the United Nations; the Oxford Research Group; the London School of Economics; and the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute] a Visiting Fellow. His topic was "A Paradigm Shift: The Arab-Israeli Conflict and Regional Transformation." His lecture raised a couple of questions for me, one of which I'll share here.

Husam distinguished clearly between past revolutions in the Middle East which were really coups - violent takeovers of existing regimes, usually led by relatively small groups from the "top." Tunisia and Egypt [but not Libya], however, were mass non-violent, grassroots movements aimed at dislodging the leaders of existing, non-democratic regimes [e.g., Mubarak and Ben Ali]. He presented a mostly optimistic view of what all of this upheaval will mean for Palestine. He was in Ramallah, for instance, when 2000 Palestinians came out to the streets before being dispersed [non-violently] by Palestine Authority police. He expressed his disappointment at the relatively low turnout in the West Bank but feels that this has to be seen in the context of ongoing non-violent demonstrations that have been, and continue to go on elsewhere like B'illin. Husam also contrasted that with 10,000 demonstrators in Gaza who were violently dispersed by Hamas.  

Like the topic of this presentation, many people have been asking what effect the events in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially elsewhere will have on Palestine, which raises a question for me: Were Palestinians to rise up, who would they be confronting? The Israelis whose occupation of their homeland is strangling them? A Palestinian Authority/PLO that many see as helpless at best, collaborationist at worst? A Fatah party that is only marginally less corrupt than it was when it lost the election to Hamas? Hamas whose support has been quite low but grows steadily the longer Israel's siege continues?

My point is this; Palestinians are, in effect, struggling on three fronts all within a physically dwindling battlefield. Add to this the growing paranoia in Israel as its leaders see quasi-allies like Mubarak being pushed out and the fear of what comes next overwhelms them. Along with bombs in Jerusalem, mortars coming from Gaza and horrific murders in "settlements" moves Israel to what seems to be its only way of responding: harder, more violent retaliations. It makes one wonder what Palestinians can do to fulfill the aspirations that a good part of the world agrees they deserve but few will do enough to help their actualization. Many people feel that world opinion is finally shifting and things are beginning to change - certainly that was part of Husan Zomlot's perspective.

In my travels in the West Bank and Gaza I have been continually amazed at the resilience and persistence of the Palestinian people. Yesterday [and I'll say more about this in my next post] Husam repeated something I often heard in Palestine, particularly when people talked about what Israel was doing or trying to do to them: "We're not going anywhere." For a people, many of whom still carry the keys to houses they were forced to leave, some of them six decades ago, that's a pretty amazing statement. Inshallah.


Just a word about the bad news from Israel this week.  There can be no debate over the horrific nature of the murder of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar. The settlements are illegal and Itamar is populated by some of the  most extreme Jewish settlers - none of which begins to excuse or explain the awfulness of the slaughter. Likewise, while the growing obstinacy of of the Netanyahu/Lieberman regime makes some of us have some understanding of why a small number Palestinians turn to armed resistance, ultimately we cannot feel anything but condemnation about the recent bombing near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. And, frankly, I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said about the consequences of lobbing mostly useless missles into Israel from Gaza.
  
Having said that I can't let a couple of things pass. First, I have to wonder if Israel's leaders will ever learn [as our, Jewish, tradition teaches us] that the cycle of violence is never ended by violence. Already Israel has begun it's usual "retaliation" in Gaza and Interior Minister Eli Yishai's solution is to build 1,000 more settlement units for every Jew murdered [and this while Israel and the PA are still looking for whoever it was that murdered the Fogels]. In the U.S. meanwhile the institutional Jewish community is already churning its well oiled wheels in order to bang the war drums [my apologies for the mixed metaphors] not to mention the e-mails I've already begun to receive asking me, in the wake of the "growing attacks on Israelis," to contribute to one or another institutions or specific funds. I'm willing to accept that when the people making the decisions in Israel hear about these incidents they are first pained by the terrible loss of life but I just can't push away the horrible feeling that, on some level, they are also happy to have another excuse to carry out these terribly misdirected [and I think ultimately self-defeating] retaliations. I could say much more, but what's the point.


Tomorrow: Palestine, Economics, Deval PATrick and Bob Kraft
 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sailing with the Exodus - again

[This is not just a nostalgia piece - but you may have to read to the end to understand why I'm writing this.]

The other night I was "cruising" my non-cable TV listings and stumbled on a PBS showing of "Exodus." I first saw this epic movie as a somewhat post-Bar Mitzvah young man with about six years of four day a week Hebrew School, confirmation class and a solidly Zionist family. I thought Exodus was wonderful. Whenever I speak to groups and talk about my background I say - only partly facetiously - that the two great heroes in my family/community were David Ben Gurion and Paul Newman. 

I viewed the film at least one other time many years ago and, frankly, don't remember much about how I felt except that it was very emotional. So now I offer this review, 50 years after Exodus first opened.
To begin with, despite the stellar cast and production group [Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo based on the best-selling Leon Uris novel; directed by Otto Preminger; starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Sal Mineo, Ralph Richardson, Lee J. Cobb, Peter Lawford, David Opatashu and Hugh Griffith!] this really isn't a very good film. The dialogue is stilted, sometimes pedantic and frequently preachy.  None of the actors quite overcomes the shortcomings of the script and, at 208 minutes [almost 3 ½ hours!], it's not long enough to capture the enormous scope of the events yet too long to completely capture my attention. 

Then there is the story. Every myth and stereotype is included before the heartbreaking last image fades.  The cast includes every "type" we need for a story like this: There is, of course, Ari Ben Canaan [Paul Newman] the ultimate sabra - hard and prickly as a cactus outside with a soul soft enough to ache for the wall between his father and uncle, and ultimately able to make room in his heart for the shicksa  turned pseudo-Zionist, Kitty Fremont [Eva Marie Saint]; Ari's father Barak, the Ben Gurion figure [Cobb] and Barak's estranged brother Akiva, the stand in for Irgun leader Menachem Begin [Opatashu]; the violently angry Dov Landau [Mineo] whose rage - and expertise with explosives - were born in the hell of Auschwitz where his life was saved by blowing up the bodies of his fellow Jews gassed in the "showers";  the almost unbearably innocent Karen who is the only one who can break through Dov's shell and, for the sake of the story, has to die; Taha, the "good" Arab, an almostzz brother to Ari, whose father gave Barak the land on which his village was founded and who, like Karen, must die, hung by the bad Arab followers of the Grand Mufti and a vicious German Nazi.

 And, as for the mandatory plot lines: a boatload of Holocaust survivors ready to give up their lives if they cannot go to Palestine; the charming anti-Semitic young British officer who is outsmarted by the clever Ari; the hostility between the moderate, heroic, good Haganah [represented by Ben Gurion/Barak Ben Canaan] and the extremist, violent Irgun [Begin/Akiva Ben Canaan], but even the Irgun is made up of well-intentioned, misguided Jewish heroes so even they aren't terrorists [Dov, after blowing up the King David hotel, killing 91 people, reminds us: "We gave them three warnings. If they want their own people slaughtered that's up to them"; the obligatory scene where the American Presbyterian Kitty first begins to understand it all as she sits on the hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley with an intense Ari, taking in the beauty of the resplendent view of the valley that the amazing halutzim [pioneers] brought, literally, to life [Ari to Kitty: "I know every tree we have planted here"]; teenagers carrying babies with taped mouths on their backs, in dead of night, to save them from the impending Arab attack; and, finally, Ben Gurion/Ben Canaan's rousing balcony announcement of the UN partition vote, including a heartfelt plea to our Arab "brothers" to stay in their houses and stand with us to build the new nation.

So, here's the point: everyone should take the 208 minutes to watch this movie. Exodus is the narrative of Israel that my my generation grew up with, never suspecting that any of it might not be true - and certainly unaware of any parallel narrative.  We on the "left" have appropriately demanded that Israelis, Jews and Zionists at very least listen to and acknowledge the Palestinian narrative.  It is just as important that we listen to and acknowledge the Zionist narrative. On the one hand it is only fair to listen to our adversaries and remember, myths are not always false. There was a Holocaust and centuries of the persecution is part of the Jewish experience. And there were Jews who thought they were developing a nation that would include all of Palestine's people [e.g., Buber and Magnes]. We cannot diminish these realities nor should we.  But, if the morality of this isn't persuasive enough, think of the strategy. How can we hope to reach our goals of ending the occupation and guaranteeing the civil/human rights of Palestinians without understanding what motivates those who stand in the way of those goals.
I can't deny that now and again, as I watched the movie, I cried. I could chalk that up to the swelling strains of Hatikvah and the Exodus theme, both used to great effect throughout the film. But, if I am honest, I have to acknowledge that I was also crying for the loss of my innocent past, a time when the story of Israel was simple, when I could count on the ultimate success of my heroic people. For cripes sake: wasn't Paul Newman there to make everything turn out okay?!?!
 

 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The splendid Chutzpah of Alan Dershowitz


Chutzpah (pronounced ho͝otsʹpă) from the Hebrew word u (vpmj), meaning "insolence", "audacity", and "impertinence." The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts,' presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to."

Another definition: Chutzpah is the quality shown by a person who murders his mother and father then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan

Or: A book by Alan Dershowitz.

The other day The Huffington Report ran an article by Alan Dershowitz entitled “Israel Has the Right to Attack Iran's Nuclear Reactors Now” which offers a dershowitzian legal argument in support of a possible attack by Israel against Iran. There is no reason for me to expound on the  civil liberties lawyer’s [as he is identified on Huffington] uncritical support of Israeli policy, but the basis of his argument in this article cries out for comment.

Many “pro-Israel” commentators attempt to answer the many imagined Israel “delegitimizers” by rooting the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist in the 1947 United Nations partition plan, Dershowitz resorts to numerous U.N. positions and international laws. Given not only the way Israel has regularly denounced and/or ignored the majority of those same sources, but also its ongoing general rejection of the U.N. based on what it sees as an overwhelming bias against Israel, Zionism and sometimes Jews, this argument takes on an almost Kafkaesque  dimension.

Dershowitz begins by citing the delivery of weapons to Gaza:

"Iran's recent attempts to ship arms to Hamas in Gaza is an act of war committed by the Iranian government against the Israeli government. The Israeli Navy seized the ship, loaded with weapons designed to kill Israeli civilians, and traced the weapons back to Iran.”

I have no desire to defend Iran, it’s despicable leaders or it’s pretty obvious support of extremist factions in the Middle East. What I find astounding is the fact that Dershowitz roots his argument this way:

“Under international law, these acts of war -- known as Casus Belli -- fully justify an Israeli armed response. Even the UN Charter authorizes a unilateral response to an armed attack. Providing weapons to a declared enemy in the face of an embargo has historically been deemed an armed attack under the law of war, especially when those providing the weapons intend for them to be used against the enemy's civilians.”

Few people would accuse me of being at a loss of words, but I hardly know what to say about this – here is where the “chutzpah” chimes in.  Dershowitz has always joined those who say they reject all those awful things the U.N. has said about Israel and those anti-Israel/Zionist/Semitic resolutions but here he seems to say, “but this time they’re right and it means we can attack anyone we want.” Nor does the famous civil libertarian and defender of human rights address the whole question of the legality or morality of an “embargo” that “unilaterally” sentences a million and a half human beings to a life of fear and poverty.

But there is another issue that, to my continuing amazement, seems to have been totally swept under some universal carpet: Our [by which I mean citizens of the United States] government’s total disregard of our own laws, particularly the The Arms Export Control Act which sets specific standards for who we can and will sell which kinds of arms to, and specifies the consequences for misusing these weapons. Michael F. Brown, in his exhaustive examination of this act, “Arms Export Control Act: Israeli Breaches & U.S. Indulgence Result in Palestinian & Lebanese Civilian Casualties” says:

American law is clear regarding the “Purposes for Which Military Sales by the United States Are Authorized.” The Congressional Research Service asserts that Section 4 of the Arms Export Control Act notes sales can be made to allies “solely for”:
* “‘internal security’”
* “‘legitimate self-defense’”
* “enabling the recipient to participate in ‘regional or collective arrangements or measures consistent with the Charter of the United Nations’”
* “enabling the recipient to participate in ‘collective measures requested by the United Nations for the purpose of maintaining or restoring international peace and security’”
* “enabling the foreign military forces ‘in less developed countries to construct public works and to engage in other activities helpful to the economic and social development of such friendly countries.’”5

Dershowitz then goes on to say [and remember, this is in support of Israel’s legal right to attack Iran]:

“the recent killings in Itamar of a family including three children, demonstrate how weapons are used by Israel's enemies against civilians in violation of the laws of war. Even babies are targeted by those armed by Iran. Hamas praised the murders.

First let there be no mistake, the murder of the Fogel family was indefensible and horrific. [Isn’t it sad that I have to say that or I’ll be accused of defending something like this?] Let’s overlook the reality that we don’t know who the murderers are [one emerging theory is that they are Asians/Philipinos who worked for the Fogels and were not paid, but who knows] and that they used knives [“smuggled” in from Iran?]. My question for Dershowitz is: has he ever spoken about, much less condemned, the murder of 1,620 Palestinian children, mostly by the Israel “Defense” Forces, between 1987 and 2010? [Figures from B’Tselem, "The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories"? [And I don’t overlook the 142 Israeli children who were killed during that same time period, even though almost all of these deaths have been reported in the media.]

I give credit to Dershowitz for acknowledging that attacking Iran should be a last resort, “But under no circumstances should the military option ever be taken off the table. Israel must preserve its ability to exercise its fundamental right of preventive self defense.” [emphasis mine]. One can only wonder whether Israel, Dershowitz or, for that matter, the U.S. will ever recognize the fundamental rights of Palestinians to live in their own homes, return to their properties, have enough to eat, drink their own water, send their children safely to school, travel unimpeded or exercise the civil liberties Alan Dershowitz is famous for defending.

Or do these aspirations just prove the Palestinians' innate chutzpah?

Friday, March 18, 2011

One way to help the JVP'ers at Brandeis


The other day I wrote some of my thoughts about the situation at Brandeis Hillel and their rejection of the JVP chapter there.  The group is getting ready for a petition drive and meanwhile they’ve asked that people write letters supporting them and criticizing Hillel’s decision. The three best people to write to are Larry Sternberg, Brandeis Hillel’s executive director, Andrea Wexler the president of their student board and Wayne L. Firestone the president of the national/global Hillel.

You can write to both Sternberg and Wexler at:
Brandeis Hillel
415 South St.
Waltham, MA 02453
or e-mail Sternberg at sternber@brandeis.edu or the Hillel phone: 781-738-7777
Wexler can be e-mailed by going to the Brandeis Hillel web page and clicking on “contact us”

Firestone is at the world headquarters at
            800 8th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
or through his e-mail: wfirestone@hillel.org or phone # 202-449-6560
If you go to the Hillel web site you might want to go to the page with their guidelines – they have some lovely language about pluralism and inclusiveness – and then there’s Israel!


And the JVP folks remind me that letters to the editor are particularly helpful, especially to the Brandeis newspaper, The Justice which you can easily do here.

Let’s fill all their boxes with lots of mail – and, if you're a Brandeis alum your letter would be particularly compelling.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of Hillel?


In my last [as in previous] post I talked about the recent Jewish Voice for Peace Annual Meeting, and there are already some fascinating items traveling through cyberspace about its energy and potential for effecting the Israel/Palestine discourse. One topic that, understandably, had many people talking was Brandeis Hillel’s  recent rejection of the university’s JVP chapter’s application for official recognition.

Much of the chatter about Hillel’s decision has centered on the semantics of  “BDS” [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], Israel being “democratic” and “Jewish” and what it means to be “pro” and/or “anti” Israel. Personally I think that this incident has exposed an incredible hypocrisy on the part of the “global” Hillel institution. While talking about Hillel’s commitment to “pluralism,” its desire to include all of  Jewish students on campus and its self-description as “The foundation of Jewish Life on Campus,” the organization has now announced that there are limits to the kinds of Jews, or at least the limits of those Jews’ opinions that are acceptable in its “pluralistic” foundation.

I actually don’t question Hillel’s right to make this kind of decision, nor do I fully reject the argument that individual Jews are still invited [if not welcomed] to participate in Hillel activities and programs. The rejection of a group that is outspokenly rooted in Jewish tradition with a strong commitment to traditional Jewish ethics and values, however, is setting a frightening precedent.

The obligatory disclaimer: I am both a former Hillel Director and a long-time member of Jewish Voice for Peace.  Having said that I want to comment on the title of this post: no, of course I’m not predicting the imminent closing of Hillel groups and houses across North America.  Hillel still provides some important services to Jewish students and, even if it didn’t, heaven knows it has enough money and high-powered supporters to tread the waters of the status quo for decades.  And this is especially true now that an enormous amount of resources are being directed to Hillel only because of fears that its mission might not be as “pro-Israel” as some would like.

My feeling is that, despite the current spike of support for Hillel, and because so much of this support is based on an “Israel right or wrong” mentality neither Hillel nor the rest of the institutional Jewish community is really paying attention to the realities of young Jews.  For some years now we have observed that Jews on campus have become vulnerable to the “anti-Zionist” and “anti-Semitic” assaults on them.  I believe that these claims expose a kind of paranoia rooted in old feelings of victim-hood and are self-defeating as a strategy – but I won’t seriously argue that here.  What may be more important is the blinder-ed response to the perceived threat.  The great minds of the institutional Jewish community have decided that the only way of protecting our children is to cushion them from any dissenting opinions while filling them with as much “positive” information about Israel as the community can pay for. [It’s not just coincidental that, on the “adult” level Israel has forbidden its citizens from going into Palestine, arguing its for “security” reasons but actually so that Israelis won’t see the realities there, at the same time as huge amounts of money are poured into public relations firms whose mission is to continually “re-brand” Israel, especially in the American market.] What is not permitted is the suggestion that if Israel confronted the worst of its misguided [and often illegal] policies that that would change the world’s [including our children’s] perception of Israel.  Ending the occupation or giving Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights and services would go much further than images of top-notch Israeli athletes, sparkling beaches or international Israeli beauty queens.

So, what is the current reality of Jewish life on campus? When I was still part of the Hillel family perhaps the number one reason for pushing students towards the Hillel House [certainly among the parents of Jewish students] was to gain an edge in the fight against inter-marriage.  As in most parts of the Jewish community we focused significantly on getting Jewish students to interact more with other Jews in order to protect them from the temptations of exotic non-Jewish potential mates. Our emphasis was on creating more attractive – and admittedly Jewish – programming.  There was, of course, nothing wrong in enticing students to come to the Hillel House on Friday evenings for a good Shabbos dinner and enjoyable program. What we often overlooked, however, was the reality that, as our third and fourth generation Jews had become more and more successful in assimilating into the “American” culture the historic ties were being broken down. Perhaps the one saving grace was a re-focusing on the historical Jewish commitment to social justice, “Tikkun Olam” if you will. Now, my field in graduate school was social ethics, so I think this was a wonderful trend. We American Jews are right to feel proud of our involvement, far beyond our numbers, in the civil rights movement, our support of women's liberation, and our earlier than most community’s disgust at the war in Viet Nam. We were not thoughtful, however, of two consequences of these tendencies.

First, these activities thrust us closer to a part of American society that was no longer significantly concerned about things like race, gender, religion and sexual preference – and, inevitably, “marrying Jewish,” for many of us in the sixties and beyond, was not as compelling as our parents might have wanted. And, secondly, this tendency to make social justice one of the, if not the, center of our Judaism meant that we were more likely not to be tied to the synagogue and traditional practices like kashrut as our parents and grandparents, and, most significantly, more committed to ideals like fairness, human rights and justice while we tended to have more of a sense of spirituality than religiosity [think of the small, but significant, drift of Jews to Buddhist practice].

It is, therefore, not surprising that when the American Jewish Committee studied the American Jewish community a few years ago, while not hiding anything, played down the results pertaining to young American Jews.  They, like others, found that young Jews did not have the same ties with or feelings for Israel as their parents. To understand this we have to understand a kind of dialectic that exists relative to Israel and Judaism or Jewish-ness. Israel and the institutional Jewish community have been incredibly successful in conflating Israel with being Jewish. Israel is, we are told over and over, the “homeland of the Jews” and, while we condemn Palestinians for their feeling of persecution by “Jews” [which, of course is a form of Anti-Semitism] – we don’t consider the reality that we make no distinction between the two categories [and, therefore, if you criticize Israel you are, almost by definition, anti-Semitic]. The truth is that we continue to merge Zionism with Judaism. For many of our children who have been, thankfully, imbued with those values of fairness and justice, when they see Israel enacting policies that are clearly unjust, having already become, relative to their parents’ generation, somewhat less attached to religious Judaism, say “wait a minute. If that’s what Israelis/Jews do to others, maybe that’s not the community I want to be part of.” The result is that more and more young Jews are identifying themselves less and less primarily as Jews – and inevitably both our community and the state of Israel suffer.

Where does this leave us? No, of course we won’t witness the demise of Hillel for many years, if ever. However, if we try to “hold on” to our young people by trying to sanitize and justify what Israel does, even when its actions are patently inexcusable, we will eventually lose more and more of them. Every person who has worked for a Federation funded agency [as I have] has know for more than a quarter century that fund raising has become more difficult as younger Jews feel less connected to the institutions of American Judaism. Were it not for the appeals to our deepest fears [“we are headed towards another HOLOCAUST!” and “ANTI-SEMITISM has never been so rampant”] that motivate older, wealthier Jews to dig deeper into their pockets, we would be in big trouble. Those hooks, however, are becoming less productive as time passes. And an Israel that is becoming more and more of a pariah, even among “mainstream” Jews, doesn’t help.

So, by Hillel excluding the Brandeis JVP chapter from its community they do, indeed, send a message but probably not the one they think they do.  An op-ed in Brandeis’s independent newspaper, the Justice, gave a well-reasoned defense of Hillel’s decision. That op-ed, however, was written by the leaders of the AIPAC and Zionist Organization of America connected campus groups. I suspect that their opinions will, for now, persuade some students [and others] to, at least, accept, without much struggle, Hillel’s rejection of JVP.  In the long run, however, this incident will be one more in a pattern of rejecting anyone who in any way criticizes Israel. In time that can only undermine both Israel and the Jewish community.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

There is hope for the future

This first post was inspired by my attendance at the Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP] Annual Meeting this past weekend. As others on line have pointed out, the meeting [the point was made a number of times that this was a meeting and not a "conference"] actually focused on the work that JVP is doing rather than a series of "talking heads."  There were some well known speakers, but even they managed to stimulate a considerable amount of valuable discussion both among the presenters and between presenters and attendees.

I was energized in a way that I haven’t been for some time – by the number of people there from all across the continent and foreign countries [I was told about 200], as well as the obvious sense of commitment to doing and acting that I perceived on the part of most of the participants. 

More than anything, however, I was exhilarated by the large contingent of young activists. I had the tremendous pleasure of talking to a group of graduates and students from Boston’s Hebrew College rabbinic program, a student of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah class I taught in Cambridge years ago who has become an all grown up young woman who is working on social justice issues at a Jewish agency in Washington, D.C., and, most moving, the Young Jewish and Proud folks. These are the young people who stood up at the national Jewish federations’ General Assembly, interrupting Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu’s presentation with signs that declared ideas like “The occupation delegitimizes Israel.” If you haven’t already seen it you must read “The Young Jewish Declaration.” One of the young Jews explained the difficulty in creating this document given the wide religious, social and gender differences within the group. There is an old adage that says “a camel is a horse put together by a committee.” Well, somehow these young people have created a magnificent show pony that is galloping around the world. Go to their web site where you will find the Declaration, a video of their General Assembly action and articles by some of these amazing young people. 

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend came Motzei Shabbat [Saturday evening] when the Young Jewish and Proud folks read some of their poetry. It’s been a long time since I was moved the way I was listening to these special, beautiful written gifts. I’m intent on getting some of their work at which time I will post it here.

For some of us aging ‘60’s activists who are sometimes jaded, tired and burned out this was like a powerful jump start. As one who sometimes despairs of who will carry on with our work, I have rarely experienced an elixir as powerful as these proud young Jews.  These are our children as well as our future and that makes us proud too.