Sunday, January 23, 2011

Critical Challenges and Daunting Dilemmas Facing Israel: My talk at Congregation Beth Shalom, Seattle: Shabbat, 1/22/11

Critical Challenges and Daunting Dilemmas on the Israeli Political Landscape. The Israeli political landscape can be a minefield of domestic and international issues where miscalculations can be deadly. Henry Kissinger once remarked “Israel doesn’t have a foreign policy; only a domestic policy” My talk was an effort to paint a picture of the of existential angst facing ordinary Israelis. Topics included BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), Iran, the Palestinian conflict and prospects for, if not peace, at least interim accords and stability in an ever changing Middle East.

A variety of articles/blogposts/reading list, etc. are provided at the bottom of this post which were referenced in the discussion

Prelude to my talk:

On being tired and thirsty--and Jewish:

When tired and thirsty the Italian says, "I must have wine."
The Mexican says, "I'm tired and thirsty. I must have tequila."
The Russian says, "I'm tired and thirsty. I must have vodka."
The German says, "I'm tired and thirsty. I must have beer."
The Greek says, "I'm tired and thirsty. I must have ouzo."
The Jew says, "I'm tired and thirsty. I must have diabetes."

At a major International Zoology Conference on Elephants, presentations were made by leading experts of the gargantuan mammal. An English scholar gave a lively presentation on "The Elephant and the Hunt." A French expert spoke on "The Love Life of the Elephant." An Indian scholar offered a brilliant paper on "The Elephant and his March towards Death." Then a short, stout man from Israel stepped up to the podium with reams of paper and announced the title of his talk, "The Elephant and the Jewish Problem."

Safe to say we as a people are comfortable with both suffering and self-involvement.

Following up on elephants lurking in rooms, an excerpt from Judea Pearl piece honoring the memory of the late Richard Holbrooke:

A Champion of Truth Doha, Qatar, April 2005–

At a high-profile get together called the US-Islamic World Forum, organized by the Qatar government and the Brookings Institution, there was a conference packed with more than 150 scholars and leaders from all sides who, for two full days, diligently discussed the needs and means for achieving democracy, reforms and renaissance in the Muslim world. Oddly enough, there was hardly a Muslim speaker who did not tie the implementation of such reforms to “progress toward settling the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.”

From the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to Rami Khouri, former editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon, almost every speaker ended his or her speech with a reminder that the Muslim world is not ready to accept reform for its own sake; reform is, in fact, a concession to America, and will be granted if, and only if, it “resolves the Palestinian problem.”

None of the speakers spelled out what “solution” meant to him or her; it was probably part of an unspoken agreement to avoid controversial issues for fear of spoiling the friendly atmosphere of renaissance and collaboration. It was only in private conversations that I discovered that, to most of them, the “solution” was unquestionably the same one proposed by Helen Thomas.

Richard Holbrooke spoke at the last session of the conference, addressing a large audience of Arab dignitaries, scholars and pundits. After repeating the great things that America can do for the Muslim world – in science, education, freedom, entrepreneurship and more – and after saying all the things that a seasoned diplomat would say on occasions like this one, he added one innocent remark that fell like a bombshell: “By now,” he said, “two and a half generations of Arabs have been brought up on textbooks that do not show Israel.

The audience was stunned. I can still hear the pin-dropping silence as he calmly went on: “Such continued denial of reality, at the grassroots level, is a major hindrance to any peaceful settlement of the conflict.” (I am quoting from memory.)

I watched Holbrooke’s colleagues from the Brookings Institution to see how they reacted. Their faces were blank.

There were a couple of Palestinian women sitting next to me, and their faces looked like they had been caught cheating on an exam. One of them raised her hand and started to say something about checkpoints and occupation (“settlements” were not in fashion then), but in Holbrooke’s presence, she sounded more like someone complaining about the video cameras that caught her stealing.

Holbrooke answered her politely and comfortably: “Your textbooks do not show Israel on the map, and that does not help the peace process.”

There was no need for further elaboration. The elephant that everyone was pretending did not exist suddenly appeared in the room. Two days of hard deliberations, with Arabs pretending that “progress in the peace process” doesn’t really mean the elimination of Israel, and Americans pretending they have no reason to doubt it, had ended with a refreshing spark of honesty.

How to Be Human

Rabbi David Wolpe:
Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach used to say that if he met a person who said "I'm a Catholic" he knew he was a Catholic. If he met a person who said "I'm a Protestant" he knew he was a Protestant. If he met a person who said "I'm a human being" he knew he was a Jew.
Jews have led some of the great universalist movements of the world. They did so under the illusion that if all people were just alike, the thorny problem of being different would disappear. It never did. It never should. Being a Jew is not a problem but a blessing and a destiny.
There is no such thing as a person in general. Each individual grows up with a certain family, land, heritage, language and culture. To deny it is to cast off a piece of oneself. Jewish is not opposed to being human; rather it is an ancient and beautiful way to be human.
In every age there are those who dream of homogenizing the world. It is an ignoble dream. When we honor difference we honor the One who created this diverse, multicolored pageant of a world.

Living Ahavas Yisroel
Martin Jaffee • JTNews Columnist

The k’lal (the universal) was always known only through the prat (the particular). The road to universal human fellow-feeling first wound its circuitous route through the tangled pathways of intense Jewish communal solidarity.Which may have something to do with my dad’s response when, years ago, I came home from college touting the prophecies of Rosa Luxemburg, about whom I’d learned in a political science course. Jews, I proclaimed (over a plate of borscht with sour cream), should lead humanity out of the darkness of its particularistic atavisms into the clear light of “world citizenship.” This time, Dad knew better than to argue. He just looked up to the Heavens, spread out his hands in the classic Zero Mostel-Tevye pose and mocked: “I love humanity; it’s the people I can’t stand!”It took me years to understand the depth of his insight and satire. How easy it is to love a concept, and how difficult to love reality in all its particular messiness! How easy to forget that, if humanity is a family, it begins with a real mother, a real father, real brothers and real sisters — those who speak your language, know the smells of your kitchen, share your nightmares, and, it must be said, hate your enemies and love your friends, because, after all is said and done, “you are our flesh and blood.”

Just this, I suppose, is what irritates so many “universalists” (Jewish and otherwise) about the centrality of the concept of ahavas Yisroel (“Jewish love for Jews”) in Jewish ethical thought. Why shouldn’t Jews love all humanity equally? Why focus on the insular, bounded “tribe” at the expense of the whole? Isn’t “tribalism” the root of all social evil? The simple answer is: You can’t love “humanity” unless you see in it some familiar faces. It’s through the love called forth by those faces that we learn to see in them something larger — “humanity” as a potential community — something that never really exists, although we strive to reach it. While love of the “tribe” can certainly descend to “tribalism,” it is also true that “humanity” is revealed most richly through the “tribe.” When we lose our “tribe,” we lose the very thing that enables us to find a wider place in the universally “human.”

Ze'ev Jabotinsky in 1911: “Every accusation causes among us such a commotion that people unwittingly think, ‘Why are they so afraid of everything? Apparently their conscience is not clear.’ Exactly because we are ready at every minute to stand at attention, there develops among the people an inescapable view about us, as of some specific thievish tribe. We think that our constant readiness to undergo a search without hesitation and to turn out our pockets, will eventually convince mankind of our nobility; look what gentlemen we are – we do not have anything to hide! This is a terrible mistake.”

Paul Berman on the wave of Palestinian terrorism from 2000-2004, in his book, "Terror and Liberalism": “Each new act of murder and suicide testified to how oppressive were the Israelis. Palestinian terror, in this view, was the measure of Israeli guilt. The more grotesque the terror, the deeper the guilt…And even Nazism struck many of Israel’s critics as much too pale an explanation for the horrific nature of Israeli actions. For the pathos of suicide terror is limitless, and if Palestinian teenagers were blowing themselves up in the acts of random murder, a rational explanation was going to require ever more extreme tropes, beyond even Nazism.”

All the above as a prelude to our people's predilection for obsessive self-reflection, at times veering dangerously into self-flagellation, self-abnegation, and what Ruth Wisse describes as a "moral solipsism."

None of which is to suggest that Israel is perfect, or that its political system is a paragon of virtue. I don't mean to imply that there aren't real threats to Israel as a democracy; that the occupation isn't untenable and not only bad for the Palestinians, but also insidious and corrosive to the soul and moral fiber of Israelis; that Israelis aren't becoming more xenophobic and even anti-Arab and in some cases, down right racist about it. All this is sadly true and should deeply trouble and concern us.

BUT, I also want to paint a picture of Israel in a broader context that gives crucial perspective to understanding the situation, or as it's known in Israel, "Ha'Matzav."

First, a little about my background. I'm a psychotherapist and social worker by trade, and have been working with our Jewish elders for the last 14 years, as a social worker and now as a Hospice Director. I'm no stranger to fighting and advocating for the rights of the downtrodden and dispossessed. For years, I believed that Israel should leave the territories, if necessary unilaterally, working from the premise that we can't control the actions of another, but must do what's morally correct for ourselves.

The Second Intifada blew the lid off of the that belief system. Like most Israelis, I came to understand that the land for peace equation, which seemed so logic and sensible, was anything but. When suicide bombers began exploding themselves in Israel proper, it became obvious that this was no guerrilla war intended to liberate land the Palestinians dwelled in, but rather it was a war for the eradication of a Jewish State. The Hamas suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya in late March 2002, which came to be known as the Passover Massacre, where 30 Israelis were killed during a Seder and over 140 wounded, many elderly Jews and a number of Holocaust survivors, was a major turning point in my understanding of what exactly was happening. And of course, it was a major turning point in Israel's history, because shortly after Passover, Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, sending the Israeli Defense Forces back into the West Bank and Gaza to stop the hemorrhaging.

Okay, but now it's almost 10 years later, you say, Arafat is long gone, and much has changed. We shouldn't stay stuck in the past. And I would certainly agree. However, I'd also aver that it's vital to fully internalize and comprehend what has happened over the past 10 years in order to better understand what's happening today.

As a segue to that understanding, I'll recapitulate an interesting debate between Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart a few months back, following Beinart's publication in the NYRB of an essay entitled The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment (which I have commented on here). I think Beinart is largely correct about that failure but for mostly all the wrong reasons (see my blogpost above for specifics). In any event, the essay caused quite a raucous in the Jewish community, as Peter is a modern Orthodox Jew, former editor of the liberal but staunchly pro-Israel journal The New Republic, and is considered a public intellectual who has always espoused Zionist ideals.

In the debate, Peter Beinart was given the podium for his opening remarks, and for 20 minutes he offered up a litany of Israel's current ills. When it was Daniel Gordis' turn to respond, he allowed that he actually didn't disagree with most of what Beinart had identified as issues of concern. These issues included increasing xenophobia among Israelis, anti-Arab sentiment bordering on racism among some young Israelis, the problematic nature of Avigdor Lieberman being Israel's foreign minister, issues with the Haredim including proposed new conversion laws, (in)tolerance for religious pluralism, corruption in public life, and on and on. Gordis did take issue with the fact that in all of Beinart's criticisms, there was no mention of what has transpired in the last ten years. He went on to elaborate on that context:

Four years of the Second Intifada, which was anything but an "intifada" or spontaneous uprising, but rather, a terror war against Israeli civilians. Withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 leading to an increase in Qassam rockets and mortar shells fired into southern Israel. The Lebanon/Gaza War of 2006 after Hezbollah raided the northern border, killing several Israeli soldiers while Hamas infiltrated the southern border, killing Israeli soldiers and capturing Sgt Gilad Shalit, who remains in captivity to this day. Hamas' bloody coup in June 2007 in Gaza, where they murdered rival Fatah Palestinians, in some cases by throwing them off rooftops, blindfolded and handcuffed. A further increase in rocket attacks into southern Israel which finally reached such unacceptable levels (upwards of 70-80 a day during late December 2008), culminating finally in 'Operation Cast Lead,' when Israel responded with a massive show of force to repel the attacks. The world's response, accusing Israel of "disproportionate use of force" and labeling Israel the 'War Criminal.' The Goldstone Report, which came to be known in Israel as the "Goldstone Effect," rendering Israelis ever more reluctant to consider further withdrawals or other painful sacrifices in search of peace for fear of finding itself on the docket of public opinion as war criminals in the event it had to again go back into the territories to respond to ever more powerful (and longer range) rocket attacks. The Orwellian absurdity of Israel finding itself the accused, when exercising the greatest of restraint, until left with no choice but to defend its vulnerable citizenry of the south. Fighting an asymmetric war against Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, who deliberately use their own children as human shields, hide in their own civilian populations, deliberately target Israeli civilians, all blatant war crimes. Dealing with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement, the unabashed effort to demonize and delegitimize Israel. We've seen it here in the Pacific Northwest, with unsuccessful efforts at boycotts at the Madison Market in Seattle and the Food Co-op in Port Townsend (largely thanks to Rob Jacobs and StandWithUs, the AJC and other local Israel Advocacy organizations), as well as the successful boycott of Israeli products at the Olympia Food Co-op. It's important to understand that the real danger is not economic hardships imposed on Israel (the boycotts will have scant economic effects), but rather the powerful symbolic import of the efforts. The real purpose behind BDS is to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world, to make the analogy of Israel to South Africa. so that if you are seen as supporting Israel, it becomes tantamount to what it would be like if you supported Apartheid South Africa in the 80's.

Okay, so this is all broader context, and it doesn't even include the Iranian nuclear threat, where a megalomaniac with delusions of ushering in an apocalyptic era of the 12th Hidden Imam by eradicating Israel, continues his dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons (the good news here is that it seems that the Stuxnet Worm and other covert ops have actually set the Iranian nuclear project back considerably, with some estimates by as much as several years; nonetheless, others caution that Iran may still be less than a year away from having the capability to construct a nuclear bomb). And let's remember that Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are all subsidiaries of Iran, who Iran uses at this juncture as proxies in its war against the Jewish State.

All this should offer some perspective to how and why Israel has moved more to the right politically. It didn't happen in a vacuum. Let's remember that in 1992 Labor and Meretz had 56 seats between them in a Knessest of 120 seats. Today, Labor has imploded, with leader Ehud Barak creating a new party, Atzma'ut or Independence, taking 4 of the remaining 12 ministers from Labor with him. Labor's ability to remain viable is anyone's guess at this point. Meretz currently has 3 seats in the Knesset. This sea change did not happen because ordinary Israelis are inherently extremist, xenophobic, racist or warmongering. It is natural for any society living under the kind of strain Israel has over the past decade to become a lot more security conscious, hardened, suspicious, distrustful of a world that has largely abandoned her, and develop compassion fatigue for the plight of the 'Other.'

So yes, Israel's democracy currently has problems galore. Our foreign minister is a demagogue and not the best representative for us internationally, to say the least. But we need to remember too that this is part of the price that we pay for the in-gathering of our people, with upwards of a million Russian now being an integral part of the fabric of Israeli society.

I'd like to offer up an analogy of Israel as a kind of Jewish Rashomon (Kurosawa's 1950 film where a rape is re-examined from four different perspectives; that of the rapist, the victim, her Samurai husband, and a witness). Hat tip to Yossi Klein Halevi for the idea

If you're a South African Jew, it's quite natural for you to be exceedingly concerned about the possibility of Israel veering into Apartheid; if you're a South American Jew, you may well be anxious about the stability of Israel's democracy; a Russian Jew and you're likely most wary of Israel's enemies and Israel's ability to contend with them; a Jew from Arab lands and you may be baffled by all the mea culpas and Ashkenazi soul-searching regarding our behavior; an America Jew with a certain antipathy to the Bush/Cheney years, a penchant for civil rights issues, fairness and justice; well, you get the idea: We all bring our diaspora histories--and baggage--to the table.

I would argue that it's equally important to recognize and appreciate how well Israel has done, given the enormity of strain its society has lived under for the past decade, and in some ways, for the past 62 years. We shouldn't take Israeli democracy for granted; instead we should celebrate it for the miracle that it is.

As a point of comparison, we might consider too that if the United States had Israel's parliamentary system, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party would most likely have a much larger stake in the governing coalition than Lieberman's Israel Beitenu party has. You could also expect to see many smaller and much scarier parties having representation, including survivalist militia groups and hard-core religious zealots.

Now imagine that kind of governmental configuration and suppose San Diego and other parts of southern California had been the target of rocket attacks from irredentist Mexican groups for the past 10 years, launching literally thousands of crude bombs and mortars into our country. What do you think the response of that government would be? What do you think the response of the current American government would be? What would the French do if residents of Alsace-Lorraine of German heritage decided to reclaim that land, and continually sent suicide bombers into Parisian cafes, buses, and discotheques, followed by crude missiles and mortar shells? Let's remember that Israel's neighbors are not the Canadians or the Mexicans.

Other points touched upon.

Settlements as red herring issue. Israel has shown that when necessary, it is willing and capable of dismantling settlements from Yamit in Sinai to 21 settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, uprooting thousands of its citizens across the Green Line. Sharon intended to dismantle more settlements in the West Bank following the Gaza withdrawal in '05 and Olmert ran--and won Kadima leadership--on a platform of further withdrawals from the West Bank. Hamas' ascent to power, of course, changed all that.

Bush's letter to Sharon on April 14th, 2004, recognizing new "facts on the ground."
"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."

See Gil Troy's piece below, "Settlement Subtleties" to better understand that not all settlements are alike.

Q & A: why the Hilltop Youth are not as dangerous as Palestinian extremists and could be easily subdued if a real peace agreement were in sight.

Why the peace process right now is in shambles and the notion of peace on the horizon is a chimera.

I'd like to end with a short blogpost by Jeffrey Goldberg on the continued vitality of Israel's democracy:

Yes, Israel is still a democracy, and no, I'm not referring to Ehud Barak's departure from Labor in order to form another perishable party (more on that later, unless I find these recent events too dispiriting to write about, in which case, radio silence, or maybe something about Stuxnet).

What I'm referring to is something else, the after-effects of the Moshe Katsav trial -- you know, Moshe Katsav, the ex-president of Israel convicted of rape. (Remember when Ben-Gurion said Israel would be a normal state when it had Jewish garbagemen, prostitutes and cops? I don't think he had president-level rapists in mind.) A few weeks ago, as some of you know, I wrote a post asking whether Israel would forever remain a democracy. Of course, people who despise Israel decided I had written definitively that Israel's democracy had already disappeared, but what are you going to do? Very few people know how to read on the Internet.

Anyway, when the Katsav verdict came down, I didn't quite realize who had delivered it. Now I do, and it is sort of stunning. There are six aspects of the Katsav trial which prove that Israel is still a democracy, and a country very much unlike all of its neighbors.

1) An ex-president of the nation was brought to account for his alleged crimes. Doesn't happen too often in Israel's neighorhood.
2) The crimes in question were crimes against women. Happens only rarely in the non-democratic East.
3) Two of the three judges in the Katsav case were women -- doesn't happen.
4) Here's the stunner -- the head judge of the three-judge panel was an Arab Israeli named Geoge Karra.
5) Maybe this is the real stunner -- No one in Israel seemed to think it abnormal for an Arab citizen of the Jewish state to sit in judgment of a Jewish ex-president.
6) And, by the way, the president was convicted.

I'm not expecting the forces of progressivism in Israel to have a particularly easy time in the coming years, not with Avigdor Lieberman, the intemperate foreign minister, playing a central role in politics. But the Katsav trial, weirdly, has reinforced the idea with me that Israeli democracy is far from a lost cause.

Very lastly (before the list of recommended articles), another revealing joke

Dan Rather, Katie Couric & an Israeli Sergeant

Dan Rather, Katie Couric, and an Israeli sergeant were all captured by terrorists in Iraq. The leader of the terrorists told them that he would grant them each one last request before they were beheaded.
Dan Rather said, "Well, I'm a Texan, so I'd like one last bowlful of hot, spicy chili."The leader nodded to an underling who left and returned with the chili. Rather ate it all and said, "Now I can die content."
Katie Couric said, "I'm a reporter to the end. I want to take out my tape recorder and describe the scene here and what's about to happen. Maybe someday someone will hear it and know that I was on the job till the end." The leader directed an aide to hand over the tape recorder and Couric dictated some comments. She then said, "Now I can die happy."
The leader turned and said, "And now, Mr. Israeli tough guy, what is your final wish?"
"Kick me in the ass," said the soldier."
"What?" asked the leader? "Will you mock us in your last hour?" "No, I'm not kidding. I want you to kick me in the ass," insisted the Israeli. So the leader shoved him into the open and kicked him in the ass. The soldier went sprawling, but rolled to his knees, pulled a 9 mm pistol from under his flack jacket, and shot the leader dead. In the resulting confusion, he jumped to his knapsack, pulled out his carbine and sprayed the terrorists with gunfire. In a flash, all terrorists were either dead or fleeing for their lives. As the soldier was untying Rather and Couric, they asked him, "Why didn't you just shoot them in the beginning? Why did you ask them to kick you in the ass first?""What?" replied the Israeli, "And have you two jerks report that I was the aggressor?!

Hussein Agha & Robert Malley: Who's Afraid of the Palestinians?

Time Magazine: Response from the Prime Minister's Office to article, "Israel's Rightward Lurch Scares even some Conservatives

Leslie Gelb: President Emeritus of CFR: America Pressures Israel Plenty

Rich Richman: Everyone Does not Know what Everyone Supposedly Knows

Benny Morris: Bleak House

Gil Troy on Settlement Subtleties

My JPost review of Daniel Gordis' "Saving Israel"

My film review in Congress Monthly of "To Die in Jerusalem"

Judea Pearl on Richard Holbrooke: A Champion of Truth

Daniel Gordis' excellent reading list

Blog List
In the Trenches: (blog) David Harris: (National Director of the AJC)
Goldblog : Jeffrey Goldberg
South Jerusalem : blog by Gershom Gorenbeg and Haim Watzman, journalists and authors Troy: History Prof, McGill U
Ruminations: Yaacov Lozowick: historian, author
The Jerusalem Post:
New Israel Fund:
Bitter Lemons: Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Daily Alert: prepared for Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Orgs (sourced from around the world)
Summary of editorials from Hebrew Press:
Go to “editorials” changes daily; need to subscribe


George Jochnowitz said...

The fact that Israel, the most hated country on earth, has a free press which freely criticizes government policies shows how uniquely moral Israel is.
Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela--three countries that do not share a border with Israel and have no tangible quarrel with Israel--are devoting their resources and wealth to opposing Israel's existence. Iran in particular has provoked the world to impose sanctions against it. Have leftists ever suggested boycotting or divesting from Iran? Of course not. The Left licks Islamic ass.

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