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It’s On!

29 Jul

I just received the word from Norm: it’s on. Join me, Norm Finkelstein, Ben Kunkel, and many more, at noon today, at the Israeli mission to the UN, 800 Second Avenue (at 42nd Street), to protest and commit civil disobedience against the Israeli assault on Gaza.

I’m joining Norm Finkelstein tomorrow to commit civil disobedience in protest of Israel’s war on Gaza

28 Jul

Norman Finkelstein has put out a call for at least 100 people to commit civil disobedience tomorrow at the Israeli mission at the UN in New York City. If 100 people agree to do it, it will happen. After writing countless posts on Israel and what has been happening in Gaza, I believe it’s time to act. I’m going to join Norm. I hope you will, too. If you are in the New York area and plan to do this, please email Norm at normfinkelstein@gmail.com. If 100 people agree to do this, we will meet tomorrow, Tuesday, July 29, at noon, at the Israeli mission to the UN. 800 Second Avenue, right off 42nd Street. It will be announced tomorrow, at 9 am, whether we’ve reached the 100 mark. [Please note that in an earlier version of this post, I listed Norm's email incorrectly. The correct email is normfinkelstein@gmail.com.]

If you have any doubts about whether this is the right thing to do, watch this video.

The Higher Sociopathy

28 Jul

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it's now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?

A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

A Gaza Breviary

27 Jul

1. One benefit of the carnage in Gaza is that it has given people who’ve never said a word about the carnage in Syria an impetus to say a word about the carnage in Syria.

2. On Friday night, there was a fundraiser for “Friends of the IDF” at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. On Shabbat. Which means cessation, stopping.

3. “It’s all but inevitable…that civilians will die.” A law professor defends Israel’s actions in Gaza.

4. Next time someone tells you that an academic boycott is a bad idea because Israeli universities are bastions of dissent against the Israeli state:

Tel Aviv University is giving students who serve in the attack on Gaza one year of free tuition.

“Tel Aviv University embraces and supports all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel, including its students and employees called up to reserve duty,” the institution says in 24 July statement on its official website.

Meanwhile, a notice circulated at Hebrew University announces a collection for goods including hygiene products, snacks and cigarettes “for the soldiers at the front according to the demand reported by the IDF [Israeli army] units.”

The notice, signed by the university along with its academic staff committee and the official student union, says “we have opened collection centers on all four campuses.”

5. The world’s greatest expert on overdoing it says that Israel is overdoing it.

6. If only the Palestinians had revolted in April. Then everyone would be supporting this Arab Spring, amirite?

7. Fifty Israeli reservists write against the Israeli way of war:

To us, the current military operation and the way militarization affects Israeli society are inseparable. In Israel, war is not merely politics by other means — it replaces politics. Israel is no longer able to think about a solution to a political conflict except in terms of physical might; no wonder it is prone to never-ending cycles of mortal violence. And when the cannons fire, no criticism may be heard.

8. An oldie but a goodie. Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse writes, “Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.” Not for nothing is she the “Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature.”

9. All those liberal journos and commentators who are silent on Gaza: you can almost hear them praying for the GOP to launch a new war against Social Security so that we can all get back to business.

10. A group of Jews occupy the office of Friends of the IDF in NYC. Read a list of the Gaza dead killed by the Israelis. A counter-terror unit of the NYPD  shows up and arrests nine of these righteous men and women. There is balm in Gilead.

11. Say what you will about Mia Farrow, she’s been tweeting and retweeting messages like this: “Tell the U.S. to stop arming Israel.” And kudos to the seven other Hollywood celebrities who’ve spoken out on Gaza. Without retracting their statements, as Rihanna did.

12. James Baldwin in 1979, in response to Jimmy Carter’s firing of Andrew Young after Young met with the PLO at the UN:

But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.

13. The literal othering of Palestine: Washington Post subhead reads, “13 Israeli soldiers, 70 others killed.”

14. If Netanyahu really believes that Hamas’s strategy is to amass “telegenically-dead Palestinians” and display them, why is he being so obliging in his cooperation?

15. The United Nations estimates that roughly 80 percent of the casualties are civilians, many of them children.” Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that the Israelis aren’t targeting civilians. If you’re getting numbers like these, does it really matter?

16. Nicholas Kristof writes, “Hamas sometimes seems to have more support on certain college campuses in America or Europe than within Gaza.” In support of his claim about support for Hamas on American college campuses, Kristof links to a Washington Post article about the American Studies Association vote for BDS. In which the word Hamas appears…never. Not even in the comments. In support of his claim about European support for Hamas, Kristof links to a New York Times article about Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott of Israel. In which the word Hamas appears…never.

17. When it comes to opposing Israel, everyone always has a better tactic. So many better tactics: it’s a wonder we haven’t won yet.

18. The Senate passes a unanimous resolution—100-0—in support of Israel. (Libertarian hero of the anti-imperialist right/left Rand Paul complains that the resolution isn’t strong enough.) Next time an opponent of BDS tells you that we should be focusing instead on cutting off US aid to Israel, ask them how they plan to scale that 100% wall.

19. I get an email from some religious Zionist group called American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate asking for a donation to support “the necessary funding for the religious needs of the combat soldiers.” After all the murder and mayhem those soldiers have committed in Gaza, I can see why their “religious needs” are great.

20. It’s July 18. First tweet I read this morning is from The New Republic: “‘Israel is acting strategically, not emotionally, in Gaza,’ writes Leon Wieseltier.” Second tweet I read this morning is from Alex Kane: “Israeli military analyst: Israeli tanks ‘received an order to open fire at anything that moved.'”

21. A reporter at Vox tweets this: “Israel-Palestine conflict has killed 14 times more Palestinians than Israelis since 2000.” David Frum responds thus: “Never enough dead Jews for some.”

22. Thirty-three Israeli academics condemn the bombing of Gaza. Thirty-three. That’s why we’re not supposed to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Because of these righteous 33. The logic is almost biblical.

23. It is not just the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city.” Imagine that phrase—the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city—applied to any urban center in the United States.

24. Gideon Levy on “our wretched Jewish state“:

The youths of the Jewish state are attacking Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem, just like gentile youths used to attack Jews in the streets of Europe….The Jewish state, which Israel insists the Palestinians recognize, must first recognize itself.

25. Israeli artist Amir Schiby commemorates the Israeli killing of four Palestinian children playing on a beach in Gaza.

Four Boys on a Gaza Beach

 

The Closer You Get

30 Apr

Yousef Mounayyer wonders why, in the recent media debate over whether Israel is an apartheid state, Palestinian voices have been so conspicuously absent. In his history of the slave market in the antebellum South, Harvard historian Walter Johnson provides an answer. “One of the most durable paradoxes of white supremacy,” writes Johnson, is “the idea that those who are closest to an experience of oppression (in this case, former slaves) are its least credible witnesses.”

Update (11:50 pm)

Or perhaps it’s that Palestinians are only useful insofar as they provide “personal testimony.” The larger questions—Is this apartheid?—have to be left to the (non-Arab) experts. “Give us the facts,” as Frederick Douglass’s white patrons told him, “we will take care of the philosophy.”

How Long Do You Have to Practice Apartheid Before You Become an Apartheid State?

27 Apr

The Daily Beast reports on a speech John Kerry gave to the Trilateral Commission:

The secretary of state said that if Israel doesn’t make peace soon, it could become ‘an apartheid state,’ like the old South Africa. Jewish leaders are fuming over the comparison.

South African apartheid lasted from 1948 to 1994: 46 years in total. The Occupation has lasted 47. What Jeffrey Goldberg has called Israel’s “temporary” or “provisional” apartheid is now one year older than South Africa’s “permanent” apartheid.

During the Iraq War, Thomas Friedman routinely predicted that “within the next six months,” we’d find out whether Iraq was going to be a democracy or a basket case. So recurrent were these predictions, long after the six months had expired, that it led to a fresh coinage: the Friedman Unit. Perhaps it’s time we coined a new phrase: the Goldberg Unit?

Kerry is hardly the first to make such warnings about the Occupation continuing; they have a long lineage. Just after the 1967 War, none other than David Ben-Gurion apparently warned that if the Occupation continued, Israel would become an apartheid state.

Which raises the question: How long do you have to practice apartheid before you become an apartheid state?

NYU: where Socratic dialogue is a Soviet-style four-hour oration from the Dear Leader

25 Apr

So the pro-Israel forces are in a tizzy again about a violation of campus propriety.

It seems that the Students for Justice in Palestine group at NYU distributed fliers across two dormitories informing the students that they had to evacuate their dorms because the buildings were going to be demolished within three days. The obvious point being to model what it feels like to be a Palestinian, who is routinely subjected to such notices. Which is exactly what the flier said. And just in case there was any confusion, the good folks at SJP took pains to write across the bottom of the flier:

THIS IS NOT A REAL EVICTION NOTICE. This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront an a regular basis.

eviction-notice-final-2-page-001

Now pro-Israel students, groups, and politicians are claiming that the fliers are anti-Semitic and that they create a “hostile campus environment.” NYU has launched an investigation.

More hilarious, the university’s spokesman says that the fliers are “not an invitation to thoughtful, open discussion” and that they are “disappointingly inconsistent with standards we expect to prevail in a scholarly community.”

From the university where Socratic dialogue is a Soviet-style four-hour oration from the Dear Leader.

Outlook (5 pm)

For a much fuller and more comprehensive dissection of this “controversy,” see Phan Nguyen’s masterful take.

Being in Egypt: When Jews Were a Demographic Time Bomb

13 Apr

From the Haggadah:

And they did us evil, those Egyptians. They made us seem malevolent, as it is written: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel has become too many and too massive for us. Let us find a solution for this before they further multiply.

Two points. First, the evil that the Egyptians did to the Jews was to construe them as malevolent, as wicked. Second, their wickedness consisted in becoming a massive nation within a nation. The Egyptians understood the wickedness of the Jews, in other words, by virtue of the demographic challenge they posed to the Egyptian nation.

I’m not big on readings of the Haggadah that seek to extract contemporary political instruction from the text. Often those sorts of exercises seem more facile than fertile. But it’s hard for me not to see a kind of parable of contemporary Israel/Palestine in this passage.

Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic. Even if every Palestinian were to lay down his or her arms, their mere existence as a people within the borders of Israel is understood to be a malignant growth within the nation. Actually, according to Wikipedia, that understanding of the demographic threat has always been there; it just has become more prominent in recent years, perhaps because of the cessation of most forms of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This understanding of the demographic time bomb—itself a revealing phrase—is something that unites Zionists of all stripes. A few years ago, writing in Commentary, Michael Oren identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of “seven existential threats” facing Israel.

 

Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.

Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.

Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.

Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.

Notice the stress Oren puts on “ideally”—even he thinks a two-state solution to the “demographic threat” isn’t likely— and the challenge he sees in removing the settlers from the West Bank (and the small numbers of settlers he mentions).

Now here’s the more liberal Peter Beinart speaking recently at Columbia:

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

And it is because of my fear of that that I write much of what I do on this very subject.

Beinart’s more optimistic, I think, about the prospects of a two-state solution. But the same understanding of a demographic time bomb is there.

Vanessa Redgrave at the Oscars

2 Mar

When I was a kid, there was probably no actor more reviled among Jews than Vanessa Redgrave. This was the late 1970s, and Redgrave was an outspoken defender of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel.

It all came to a head in 1978 at the Academy Awards (this is why I’m thinking about her tonight). Redgrave was up for an award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia, a film my family refused to see (boycotts run deep with me, I guess). The Jewish Defense League was out in force that night. Apparently there had been a major campaign to deny Redgrave the Oscar on the grounds that she supported a Palestinian state. She got it anyway. Instead of offering an olive branch to her critics, or keeping quiet about the controversy, she took the opportunity of her acceptance speech to denounce the “Zionist hoodlums” who had campaigned against her nomination and possible receipt of the award.

Her speech didn’t go down so well with the audience, some of whom booed her. Later that night, the playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky used the opportunity of his presenting the award for Best Screenplay—to Woody Allen for Annie Hall (Allen, of course, has himself become the source of some controversy this year)to denounce Redgrave for using the opportunity of her acceptance speech to make a political statement:

I would like to saypersonal opinion of coursethat I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning the Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple “thank you” would have sufficed.

Whatever you think of the protagonists, it was great theater.

Thinking back on that night tonight, I was curious to see where Redgrave wound up landing on the issue of Israel/Palestine as it presents itself today.

I did a little research and noticed that in 1986, she came out in favor of a cultural boycott of Israel. No surprise there. This position earned her no end of condemnation from defenders of Israel, including Jane Fonda, her co-star in Julia. Fonda joined Tom Hayden, her husband at the time, to say:

We are appalled at Vanessa Redgrave’s attempt to organize a cultural boycott of Israel. We urge all cultural workers to strongly oppose this vicious act and we are confident that it will be rejected by people of conscience everywhere.

In 1986, Hayden was in the California State Assembly, his eye on higher office. I have no idea if that played a role in the two making their statement.

But in 20o9, Redgrave would join Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman to issue a denunciation of filmmakers who were protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision to spotlight and showcase films coming out of Tel Aviv. As Redgrave and her co-authors put it in a letter published in the New York Review of Books:

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

Now she was a critic of the idea of a boycott (though in truth the filmmakers weren’t calling for a boycott; they were merely protesting this one decision). Ironically, one of the most prominent voices protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision was…Jane Fonda.

Since the debate over Israel and Palestine increasingly pits parents against children in the Jewish community—the most recent Pew poll, which got so much attention last fall, documents a decreasing attachment to Israel among younger Jews—I can’t end this post without posting this clip of Redgrave and her father, Michael, doing Act IV, Scene 7, from King Lear. It’s the scene of Lear’s and Cordelia’s reconciliation. Lear had unfairly banished Cordelia from the kingdom over some perceived slight, and now, slipping in and out of madness, he recognizes the terrible wrong he has done to her. He says:

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

And in one of the most heart-breaking lines, Cordelia responds:

No cause, no cause.

That murmured protest of Cordelia—no cause, no cause—seems especially poignant in light of the ways that Israel/Palestine has divided Jewish families and the generations.

Gaza: A Tower of Babel in Reverse

1 Mar

The Tower of Babel is a story of the peoples of the earth, united by a common language, coming together in order to establish and preserve themselves as a unity in the sky. Gaza is a Tower of Babel in reverse. Having already cut off its residents from the rest of the world by land and by air, the Israelis built a wall to the bottom of the sea in order to seal them off entirely. Despite some periodic reversals, that isolation remains, thanks in part to the collusion of the Egyptians. Unlike its biblical predecessor, this upside-down Babel is still standing.

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