What Happens if the Kerry Negotiations Fail?

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I am sorry that it’s been such a long time since I posted on this blog. Life has been hectic and time has been at a premium so please view this column as a bit of catch up.

As most of you know, prospects for peace look bleak right now as the Kerry negotiations teeter on the verge of a complete breakdown. I am posting below a few articles from the past several months that are definitely worth a read since they offer a big picture overview of the situation and the ramifications if negotiations fail.

1 – The most important article that anyone who cares about Israel should read, whether on the left or the right, is from the January 31st edition of The New York Times. Hersh Goodman, a respected centrist journalist in Israel, outlines how the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is growing stronger and, if the negotiations do not succeed, it will gain momentum. As the author states, whether or not Israel fits the exact definition of an apartheid state is irrelevant. The fact is that much of the world, including some of Israel’s key trading partners and world opinion leaders, are beginning to think that it is. There is the old saying, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

Israel’s economy is based on exports and it is closely wired to the world with its booming high tech and biotech industries. All that will slowly grind to a halt if the negotiations fail. Israel will be blamed because it cannot win the propaganda war as it continues to announce new building on the West Bank, as it has done throughout the Kerry negotiations, and the oppressive and photogenic aspects of the occupation continues. The future is an Israel that is economically crippled, as South Africa was. Now those on the right will proclaim “That’s not fair! Israel is not an apartheid state!” but world opinion, fair or not, does not see it that way. It is time that those in power realize that their actions to achieve the dream of a Greater Israel will end up with there being no Israel. Click here to fully understand this dose of reality.

2 – Bernard Avishai, an economist and journalist on the left, has long raised the issue of the economic threat to Israel from the BDS movement and how the current government’s policies will kill the golden goose of Israel’s high-tech miracle. His recent column in The New Yorker offers a analysis of the current political situation in Israel vis-à-vis the negotiations – Netanyahu cannot survive politically with his current coalition if he agrees to a two-state solution. However, there is a course that Kerry and Obama can take, along with the moderate elements in the Israeli polity, to move the negotiations forward. But it will take courage and it is risky. Click here for Avishai’s penetrating perspective.

3 – To reinforce how deeply the ideological far-right has penetrated into Israeli policy making, J.J. Goldberg’s column in The Jewish Forward last February documented how former leaders of the Mossad, Shin Bet, military intelligence and the IDF general staff are being attacked for being pro-Palestinian because they favor a two-state solution and they fear the consequences if the negotiations fail. This article is just one example of how ideology has trumped rational and realistic decision-making in the highest echelons of the Israeli government. Click here to better understand this topsy-turvey perspective.

4 – And finally, to further illustrate the rise of the far-right in Israeli politics, below is an excerpt from an April 11th op-ed in The New York Times with the provocative title, “Are Israel and Iran Trading Places.” The authors’ position regarding Israel is stated succinctly at the beginning of their article.

 “…secular democrats in Israel have been losing ground to religious and right-wing extremists who feel comfortable openly attacking the United States, Israel’s strongest ally. In recent months, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic,” while Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, labeled Mr. Kerry a “mouthpiece” for anti-Semitic elements attempting to boycott Israel.

 Israel’s secular democrats are growing increasingly worried that Israel’s future may bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Iran’s recent past.”

Near the end of the article, the authors segue into a brief discussion of how the BDS movement is gaining traction.

“If Israel continues the expansion of settlements, and peace talks serve no purpose but the extension of the status quo, the real existential threat to Israel will not be Iran’s nuclear program but rather a surging tide of economic sanctions.

What began a few years ago with individual efforts to get supermarket shoppers in Western countries to boycott Israeli oranges and hummus has turned into an orchestrated international campaign, calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli companies and institutions.

From academic boycotts to calls for divestment on American university campuses to the unwillingness of more and more European financial institutions to invest in or partner with Israeli companies and banks that operate in the West Bank, the “B.D.S.” movement is gaining momentum. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently called B.D.S. advocates “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”

In the past, Israel could rely on Western nations and especially the United States to halt such initiatives, but as the fabric of Israel’s population changes, and Jewish populations in the West become less religious and less uncritically pro-Israel, the reflex to stand by the Jewish state, regardless of its policies, is weakening.

Moreover, as Western countries shift toward greater respect for human rights, the occupation is perceived as a violation of Western liberal norms. A new generation of American Jews sees a fundamental tension between their own liberal values and many Israeli policies.

Click here to read the full column, along with the authors’ views on the potential trends in Iranian society.

It is possible that all we are facing now is political posturing and hardball negotiating tactics on the part of Netanyahu and Abbas, and that the negotiations will get back on track shortly. But if they don’t, the above articles offer a peak at the possible consequences, the least of which might be the further strengthening of the paranoid right as they circle the wagons and work to destroy the democratic and Western liberal underpinnings of Israeli society in the name of survival. There already are influential currents in the Knesset intent on doing that.

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The West Bank in Israel

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Historian Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” devotes an entire chapter making the case that the ideology and practices of radical Jewish settlers and the government in the West Bank are spreading into Israel proper within the Green Line (the border before the 1967 Six-Day War). In this post I want to explore whether developments confirm this thesis, which, if true, has far-reaching implications for the country and its democratic future.

As an aside, Gorenberg’s book, published last fall, is one of the most important and engrossing books about Israel of the past year. It reads like a novel but is chock-full of in-depth research. As an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, he is disturbed by what he sees as the destruction of the core values of Israel and Judaism. If someone like Gorenberg is so concerned, it behooves those on both the left and the right to pay close attention and to take a look at his book.

But let me return to the question of whether the right-wing West Bank ideology is spreading into Israel proper in a significant way. There are two minority groups in Israel that we can view as test cases of this.

Minority Group 1: The Bedouin in the Negev

The first group to consider are Israeli citizens in the Negev who happen to be Bedouin. Loyal to the state and often serving in the Israeli army, many have been forced off their ancestral lands and moved to crime-ridden and poverty-stricken towns. Since they could no longer practice their traditional lifestyle, the social fabric that kept their communities together unraveled.

Today, the government is implementing the Prawer Plan that will force another 30,000 of these Israeli citizens off their lands and into the townships, making way for Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have begun fighting back for their very lives. On March 15 I posted a column on how one such village, Al-Araqeeb, has become a symbol of resistance after being demolished repeatedly by the army and police. A few residents are still clinging to their land and now live among the headstones in the village cemetery, in the hope that the government won’t trespass on sacred ground.

A row of tiny saplings planted by the JNF to create forests on Bedouin land

The rationale for the Prawer Plan is a fear that demographic trends will lead to Jews becoming a minority in the Negev. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu, while speaking about the Bedouin situation, issued this warning:

…a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.

So the fear is of a threat of secession and civil war if Jews do not retain majority control in every geographic area of Israel. Disregarding for now whether this is a valid concern, in order to accomplish this goal Israel is using strategies that destroy the core foundations of a democracy wherein all citizens have equal rights.

The government has been using tactics that it refined in the West Bank to take over the Bedouin lands: unjust and twisted laws enabling the expropriation of property at the expense of one group to benefit another group, ignoring centuries-old tribal practices for recognizing land ownership that were accepted by the Ottoman and British authorities before 1948, accusing subgroups of being a threat, making life unbearable for residents so that they will voluntarily move, and horrific home demolition practices that impoverish families and force them out. As I wrote on March 15, the greatest irony was when a young Bedouin “who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.”

Demolition of a building at Al-Araqeeb on July 27, 2010

Some have labeled the Bedouin situation in the Negev the “West Bank in Israel,” warning that embittered young Bedouins are becoming radicalized. Netanyahu may be fearful of a Balkans-type situation, but he is doing a good job recreating it with his repressive policies and xenophobic comments.

Even if Netanyahu’s fear is valid, the Bedouin villages threatened with destruction account for only 5 percent of the land in the Negev. There is plenty of other land available for Jewish towns in the wide-open expanses of the desert, and there is no need for the JNF to destroy the way of life of 30,000 Israeli citizens for some additional dunams of forest. This makes no sense unless it is viewed through the prism of the ideology of the West Bank settlement enterprise, where there are similar objectives of building Jewish settlements while forcing the local population out. This brings into focus Gorenberg’s thesis.

A demolished Al-Araqeeb house

Minority Group #2: African Refugees

There are approximately 50,000-60,000 African refugees in Israel today, mainly clustered in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Most entered Israel illegally, and the numbers crossing the border have increased dramatically. Many, if not most, are asylum seekers fleeing war, torture, rape, and genocide. This is a complex subject with no easy answers, but the government’s repressive policies are deplorable, especially given the Jewish history of fleeing persecution.

Homeless African refugees sleeping in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv

For months, while Nicholas Kristof has been writing columns in The New York Times about the Sudanese government bombing villages in the Nuba Mountains and the resulting mass starvation (a replay of Darfur),  Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government ministers have been accusing these same Africans, who are fleeing for their lives, of being migrant workers and an existential threat to the Jewish state. This culminated several weeks ago with a race riot in south Tel Aviv where refugees were attacked on the street and shops were destroyed by a violent mob of hundreds. The mayhem occurred immediately after Knesset members inflamed a crowd of 1,000 at an anti-African rally. This is how I described it in a blog post on May 25:

Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement from Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home.” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Not much has changed since the riot. Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the Interior Ministry that is responsible for immigration, has said that most Africans are engaged in criminal activity and few deserve asylum. On May 31st in an over-the-top interview in Maariv, he went further and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by Africans but “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” Last week’s newspaper headlines blared “Prime Minister: 25,000 illegal African migrants should be deported as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not new. In a post on March 10 I described how the Netanyahu government has been demonizing the refugees for several years, alleging that the influx of African refugees is a demographic threat to the existence of a Jewish state and defining them as labor migrants or infiltrators (a term previously used only for terrorists). This terminology has been picked up by the media, creating a sense of hysteria over the threat posed by these helpless people.

Given Interior Minister Yishai’s attitudes, it is not surprising that the government has set up an ineffective system to screen refugees (PDF) for valid asylum claims. For example, those fleeing from the Sudan and Eritrea (an extremely repressive government that is ranked below North Korea on some measures), who make up 85% of refugees entering Israel today, are not allowed to apply for asylum. In contrast, 97% and 99% of Eritrean refugees are granted asylum in the United States and Canada, respectively. Africans from other war-torn and repressive countries can apply, but as I wrote in a March 4 column describing Israel’s flawed asylum procedures, in 2008 and 2009, of the 3,200 asylum applications submitted, only three were approved. In 2011, the results were even worse: 3,692 asylum applications were rejected and only one was approved. (NOTE: These statistics also included some asylum applications from non-African nationalities.)

The government’s response to the refugee challenge is to build massive prisons in the Negev desert where new refugees – men, women and children — will be incarcerated for up to three years. Last week saw the announcement of plans for additional facilities that will include tent prisons, where tens of thousands will be incarcerated. This week, a new bill backed by the government was discussed in the Knesset that would impose five-year prison terms on anyone employing, transporting, or providing housing to refugees. If Israel begins forcibly repatriating refugees to their repressive home countries, as Netanyahu has threatened, many will face prison, torture, or death.

The government could choose a more humane approach that is consistent with the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Holocaust. There are alternative policy choices that could be made, but instead the government has chosen repression and incitement while ignoring traditional Jewish humanitarian values. For some perspective, it is interesting to read two recent op-ed columns by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this brewing humanitarian crisis. This past winter I helped organize a breakfast program for refugees in Tel Aviv to provide a morning meal to those who would otherwise go hungry all day. In three months we have served over 30,000 meals. The Good People Fund, an American non-profit that raises money to relieve hunger, poverty and human suffering in Israel and America, has funded this program and continues to solicit donations to keep it going. An article describing the breakfast project in this past weekend’s New Jersey Jewish Standard quoted Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of the Good People Fund: “We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out. Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.”)

Breakfast being served to refugees in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund (www.goodpeoplefund.org) is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

The West Bank in Israel

So how do the Bedouin and the African refugee situations exemplify Gorenberg’s thesis about the West Bank ideology penetrating Israel within the Green Line? The incitement against these two groups comes from the same desire – for many a religious mandate – for Jews to redeem the entire Land of Israel and ensure Jewish majority control. In the process, the rights of non-Jewish minorities are considered less important and inevitably leads to abuse. As Gorenberg details in his book, many yeshivot now teach that the commandment to settle the land takes priority over other ethical and moral commandments in Judaism.

One very public example of this occurred before the 2009 invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) when the Army’s chief rabbi distributed a booklet to soldiers that included the following:

We are commanded by the Torah to build our state in it [the Land of Israel] and forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.

The booklet goes on describe the Palestinians as being identical to the ancient Philistine enemy, and exhorts soldiers to show no mercy toward militants and civilians alike.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO, wrote in a letter at the time to the Defense Minister that the booklet “contradicts the basic principles of the laws of war…and also contradicts the principles of Jewish morality in the name of which the Chief Military Rabbi is supposedly speaking.” Gorenberg, commenting on this and related episodes, wrote that Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski, who founded a yeshiva in an illegal settlement, was “legitimizing the religious right’s anti-humanistic attitudes and its claim to be the voice of Judaism.”

Many claim that the treatment of the Bedouin and the refugees is simply racism. Even Jews from Ethiopia, who are black, have experienced serious discrimination in Israel based on their color – and as described in this article, some are struggling with their identity because of the Tel Aviv race riot.

However, I think it is more complicated than that. Professor Shaul Magid, who writes a blog on The Times of Israel, has a more insightful perspective now that Jews find themselves as a majority ruling a country:

Some have written that the attacks against migrants in south Tel Aviv are an example of racism. While racism exists in Israel as it exists everywhere, I am not convinced this is the root of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is “otherness.” More precisely, how does an oppressed people became a true majority and refashion its identity so that otherness is not by definition a threat? In this sense, the Arabs have made it too easy for the Jews in Israel to be a majority and yet not identify as such. Holocaust imagery is still used to justify Israel’s behavior, as if a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the backing of the only true superpower can be equated with the emaciated living corpses of Auschwitz. The comparison is nothing less than grotesque. It is arguably the case that the victim has no ethical obligation other than to survive. But the majority is not the victim, at least not in that way. This is not to say that majorities can’t be threatened. They surely can. But majorities, unlike besieged victims, do have ethical obligations toward minorities in their midst.

What I am suggesting is that the mentality of the victim — the identity of the besieged minority — still functions as a pillar of Israeli self-fashioning, and this, I believe, underlies the tragic episode of the migrants. The “other,” any “other,” is a threat by definition, even when she is basically powerless…. what a majority produces when it identifies and acts as a victimized minority is tyranny.

I agree with Magid’s assessment – and this applies as well to the Palestinians. For 45 years they have lived under an occupation that includes policies — practiced on a mass scale — of home demolitions, property theft, economic deprivation, and incarceration without any semblance of due process. I am not referring to policies instituted for security purposes, which are valid, but rather policies that have no reason other than “redeeming the land” and forcing Palestinians out. These practices mostly occur under the radar and are rarely, if ever, covered in the overseas Jewish press. The same goes for the non-security-related violence that is endemic to the occupation – and is rapidly increasing – and the day-to-day harassment and intimidation that occurs.

And now these policies, and the ideology behind them, are being applied to the Bedouin and the refugees, in different ways for each group. The difference between the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line is indeed getting blurry.

Interestingly, Gershom Gorenberg hardly deals with the abusive aspects of the occupation in his book. Rather, he concentrates on the establishment and spread of ideology. One example he uses is right-wing West Bank settlers who are purposefully settling in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, bringing their ideology with them and creating conflict in areas where formerly co-existence reigned. His thesis is that this will spread to other segments of Israeli society, which it seems is already occurring.

In summation, Gorenberg uses the following allegory to describe what is happening to the country he loves:

In “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s classic Yiddish play, a character in an unnamed Eastern European town a century ago runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he places a Torah scroll in his home. He has a matchmaker find a pious groom for her. His plan fails. A wooden floor cannot keep the two realms of his life apart. Reverence for a sacred scroll cannot ward off corruption when people ignore the words written on it.

Let us read Asch’s drama as an allegory for what happens when a fragile democracy tries to maintain an undemocratic regime next door in occupied territory. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot. Nor can politicians’ declarations of reverence for liberal values.

In recent years, the corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel have been glaring, especially the vocal, shameless efforts of the political right to treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens…. Unchecked, the offensive against democracy has grown wider. The political right uses charges of treason to attack critics of policy in the occupied territories, and seeks legislation to curb dissent and the rights of Arab citizens and to bypass the Supreme Court.

And finally, Gorenberg quotes philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in 1967 joined a small chorus of prophetic voices, including David Ben Gurion’s, that warned of the grave dangers the occupation posed to Israeli society.

Only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel

Strange Comrades: Gershom Gorenberg and Israeli Singing Star Noa

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What would the Talmud say about the suppression of public debate over Israeli policies in the American Jewish community? This is the question posed by Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg in “An Open Letter to American Rabbis” in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. Gorenberg , who made aliyah 35 years ago, wrote “The Unmaking of Israel,” a highly readable book chock full of facts that make a powerful case that the occupation of the West Bank is destroying Israeli democracy. But in this Letter, he shifts his attention to America and expands on a theme that Peter Beinart focused on in his recent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” – the stifling of criticism in the American Jewish community about Israeli government policies. But Gorenberg uses an interesting twist, drawing on a Talmudic text to illustrate that healthy debate is an essential part of the Jewish tradition and that limiting debate undermines that heritage.

Along similar lines, a controversy has recently erupted around the Israeli singing star Achinoam Nini, also known as Noa, for her participation in an alternative Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) commemoration on April 24th. Last weekend she posted a moving column which illustrates what can happen to public figures in Israel today who dare to act contrary to the expectations of the right-wing ideologues. (I attended the event where Noa performed and wrote about it in a short blog post on April 25.)

I wish it were possible for every rabbi and Jewish communal leader in America to read these columns by Gorenberg and Noa. It might lead to more open and informative conversations.

Jewish Power and Victimhood: Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”

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Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, is undoubtedly the most controversial, and most important, Jewish book of the year. The Times of Israel just featured on their website a review I wrote that I think you will find interesting. I highly recommend this superbly written book – what Beinart writes about is of the utmost importance to anyone who cares about Israel.

I began my review with this quote from an interview with Peter Beinart in Haaretz Magazine on March 23, 2012:

If Israel does not survive as a Jewish democratic state, I want to be able to tell my children that I did what little I’m capable of. I’m a writer, so what I can do is to try to sound an alarm. I just want to be able to say that to them.

His book certainly sounds the alarm in a highly informative and compelling manner.

To read the review, click here: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-review-of-peter-beinarts-the-crisis-of-zionism/

Because I think Beinart’s book is so important, I encourage you to share this post via email, Facebook or Twitter to those who might be interested.

Good News, Bad News, and some Intriguing Political Analysis

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There was lots of interesting news during the past several days while I took a short vacation to drive through the Galilee where, after this winter’s torrential rains, yellow and blue wildflowers cover the hillsides and some areas resemble the dark, green woods of New England. So here are three items that make for interesting reading.

Supreme Court ruling on Migron

This is good news if you care about the rule of law in Israel and the importance of enforcing Supreme Court decisions. In 2006 the court ordered that the illegal settlement of Migron be evacuated and the land be returned to its rightful Palestinian owners. This was followed by 6 years of delays and government inaction. Recently, an agreement was reached between the government and the settlers, without consulting the Palestinian landowners, that would have delayed the evacuation until 2015. Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected this agreement and unanimously ordered that Migron be demolished by August 1st. Click here for key excerpts from the justices’ decision.

Migron settlement. Credit: Reuters

Despite settler claims to the contrary, Migron was a clear-cut case. Here is a 2008 article describing an Associated Press investigation of the settlers’ claims of ownership. One of the documents presented to the court was a bill of sale by a Palestinian farmer, Abdel Latif Sumarin, that was signed and notarized in 2004. Unfortunately for the settlers, Mr. Sumarin had died over forty years earlier in 1961. The notary, who is based in California where the fictitious sale was purported to have occurred, also declared his signature was fraudulent. See the article for more details.

Of particular note, and perhaps more indicative of the attitudes behind the settlers’ actions and the government’s policies, is a reference at the very end of the article to Itay Harel, a settler who lives on that particular plot of land:

“Itay Harel, a social worker who lives on the Sumarin plot in Migron, insisted the sale was legitimate, although he refused to discuss it in detail. He also made clear that from the settlers’ perspective, the sale was beside the point.

‘This land belongs to the people of Israel, who were driven off it by force,’ Harel said, referring to the defeat and exile of the Jews by Rome in A.D. 70. He said no Palestinian had a rightful claim to any part of the West Bank.

‘Anyone who claims the land is his is lying, and it is said that if you lie enough times, you start believing it,’ he said.”

Israeli Politicians and defense officials are scrambling to figure out where to move the settlers and how to avoid a violent confrontation with their supporters. Even worse for the government, this might open the door to many other court decisions that settlements have been built on privately owned Palestinian land and must be evacuated. We can expect that the Knesset will attempt to address this issue. Today’s newspaper reported that already there are bills under consideration that stipulate “if a community [Jewish settlement] is erected on private land in good faith, after a certain number of years the rightful owner cannot evict residents but can demand compensation.” So far these bills have been blocked but Migron is a game changer.

Riot in a Shopping Mall

One week ago 300 fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team descended on the Malha Shopping Mall in Jerusalem to celebrate the team’s victory in a game. They stood on tables and chairs, screaming “Death to the Arabs” and then proceeded to attack the Arab workers in the mall.  As one shop owner said, “…they beat the hell out of them.” Arabs were hurled into shops, smashed against plate glass store windows, and chased up and down the escalators. The entire riot was captured on the closed circuit video cameras in the mall. A very large contingent of police eventually arrived 40 minutes later and cleared the mall. Then nothing was done. No one was arrested or prosecuted despite the video evidence. The media ignored the incident until the Haaretz newspaper broke the story five days later last Friday. Click here for more details.

A frame of Beitar fans in the Malha Shopping Mall taken from a video clip.

Over the weekend, the police were scrambling to do damage control, claiming there will be a thorough investigation and that the perpetrators will be prosecuted. One can only imagine the police and media response if 300 Arabs had invaded a shopping mall and then chased and beat Jewish workers.

The problem is that the lack of police follow-up is not unique. I documented a long history of police ignoring violence against Arabs in East Jerusalem in a February blog post. The situation is especially egregious in the West Bank. The human rights NGO Yesh Din reported that over 90% of police investigations into settler violence against Palestinians resulted in no indictments (97% resulted in no indictments if the crime was limited to destruction of Palestinian property). Even worse, as I reported in the February blog post about East Jerusalem, it is often the Palestinians themselves who are arrested if they file complaints. Click here for an example.

Why the Israeli public votes as it does

Here is a thought-provoking article which argues that the political status quo of the West Bank occupation is a rational choice that the Israeli public has chosen, given today’s environment. The article offers an intriguing explanation for why the Likud and Netanyahu are so popular right now, despite polls that show many Israelis would like to end the occupation.

A Personal Note to Readers

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I want to thank you for following this blog.  On average there are well over 100 people who are reading the posts. This is especially gratifying since I began it only one month ago.

As you may have surmised, I am writing the blog mainly because I am worried about the future of Israel, both for its survival and what kind of country it is becoming.
Right now many Israelis share this concern and feel the land they love is being distorted into something unrecognizable.

Last fall a friend who made aliyah 40 years ago posted a column on her blog that was addressed to Sara, a young Israeli who was brutally attacked and beaten by settlers including off-duty police during a violent incident on the West Bank. Our friend used strong language but this only reflected her grave concerns.

In your report you say that before this night you could not imagine fascism. You are not alone, Sara. Most of the people in Israel cannot imagine fascism. Most of the Jews in Germany and Holland, even in the early 1940’s, could not imagine fascism. It’s hard to connect the dots—a law here, a ruling there; broken window here, graffiti there; silence here, apathy there—until it’s too late and the dots become a wall with no exit.  We fail to put the pieces together because we cannot bear to imagine the home we love becoming a fascist state…. As long as the violence against Palestinians took place in the occupied territories, we didn’t see, we didn’t hear, we didn’t know. We could continue to delude ourselves in our quiet lives that we lived in a democratic country.” (To read this heartfelt post, see http://writeinisrael.com/2011/10/09/practice-imagining-fascism/)

Like our friend, I want Israel to remain a country with all the safeguards of a true democracy and one that lives up to the ethical ideals embodied in the Jewish tradition.

Sadly these yearnings are endangered today. Nonetheless I remain optimistic and I believe that America has a critical role to play. But American politicians will not exert the influence they have to convince Israel to change its policies until the American Jewish community alters its perspective. My experience is that the preponderance of American Jews view Israel through a nostalgic lens but have little knowledge of the modern state. I am convinced most Jews would be upset to learn what is actually going on here and would demand a change from their community leaders if they did know.

Which brings me to this blog. The reason I am writing it is to do just that – to inform as many people as possible about what is happening in Israel in the hopes that my efforts, in addition to others who are doing similar work, will begin to change perceptions.

So, as you read future posts, I hope you will forward on the columns that you feel would be of particular interest to your friends, relatives and other contacts. You can do this via email to individuals or community lists, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. It’s also not too late to do it with prior posts as well.  I realize we all hesitate to do this – no one wants to impose on others and be a bother – and I felt the same when I first launched this blog last month with a series of emails to our friends and family.  But if we don’t actively spread the word we won’t have an Israel that embodies the universal ideals on which it was founded.

For my part, I promise to continue to do research, to dig for more information, and to go out and report on things I see with my own eyes. I will try to keep my commentary and opinions from seeping in too much – although sometimes that is hard to do when I encounter something particularly disturbing – but I will try to let the facts speak for themselves while attempting to provide some measure of balance.

I hope this request is not too chutzpadik and I apologize if I have overstepped the etiquette of blogging.

Regards from the shores of the Mediterranean,

Allen

PS: As I was about to press “publish” to send this note to you I received an email alert from Rabbi’s for Human Rights that three Bedouin homes in the West Bank were demolished between 11:00 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. last night, displacing 20 family members including young children into the cold desert night environment. The bulldozers were accompanied by a contingent of heavily armed soldiers. Their crime was lack of a building permit – which in the Catch-22 of the occupation is nearly impossible to obtain. You can read details of this incident at The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions at http://www.icahd.org/?p=8107 .

This is just one example of the many events that seldom get reported. I hope to write about these situations in a more systematic way so that readers will understand how widespread these practices are and the strategic objectives behind them.

Haredim and Democracy Redux

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Over the weekend I became a bit uncomfortable with the previous column I posted last Thursday titled “Haredim and the Future of Israel.” This is a complicated issue and in my desire to shorten a long post I edited out some of the nuances.

I fear I may have implied that the Haredi world is monolithic. In fact, there are many different sects ranging from those who support the Jewish state to those who reject it. Some sects are more extreme than others in their religious practice or have different customs altogether.  Although they all share a similar worldview, the actions of the most extreme groups, who have attracted the attention of the media, have been criticized by many in the Haredi world or at the least not supported by them.

To illustrate an alternative lens through which to view the ultra-orthodox community, there was an interesting Op-Ed printed in Friday’s Haaretz that presented a modern woman’s positive experience, some might say even a quasi-feminist perspective, on the Haredi world. See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/can-ultra-orthodox-culture-go-overboard-in-its-quest-for-modesty-1.408262

The writer, Robin Garbose, embraced orthodoxy as an adult and founded Kol Neshama, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides “professional artistic training and performance opportunities for girls and women in a Torah-observant setting….” (Her extensive bio in the entertainment industry and the performing arts can be found at http://www.kolneshama.org/staff-bio-robin-garbose/.)

Garbose directed the recently released film “The Heart that Sings,” a movie by and for women. The cultural divides that fracture Israeli society were on display when the film was shown at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. (For those interested, you can read various responses to the event at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/tel-aviv-cinematheque-tries-to-bar-men-from-screening-of-film-by-ultra-orthodox-director-1.403985 and http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=250905)

On a related note, I felt that my previous post may have inadvertently lumped together the Haredi world with the more mainstream and larger Orthodox community within which there is diversity as well. An example is last Friday’s Op-Ed in The New York Times written by Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Bronx. Rabbi Linzer presented a modern Orthodox perspective and offered a strong critique of the extremist Haredi outlook. See his column “Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html?_r=3&src=tp .

And finally, for those that can’t get enough about this topic, Yossi Klein Halevi, the author and columnist who is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote an excellent overview of the Haredi-secular clash in this article from The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/israel-faces-up-to-religious-extremism/article2305648/

Democracy versus Judaism:

Today’s Haaretz has dueling Op-Ed pieces that also touch on my last post. The first is from Benny Katzover, the influential settler leader whom I quoted last Thursday as advocating the replacement of Israeli democracy with Judaism. Haaretz gave Katzover an opportunity to clarify his position which he did in this morning’s Sunday paper at this link: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/drought-and-emptiness-prevail-1.408550

I think he may have dug himself into an even deeper hole. Katzover presents a morally warped argument, within an Israeli context, to justify authoritarian or theocratic rule in the name of a higher goal.

Even worse, he uses factually incorrect statements to make his point. For example, he wrote, “the destruction of terrorists’ houses is generally prevented by the High Court.” He is referring to the policy of Palestinian home demolitions that the courts in Israel occasionally have prevented. Never mind that over 20,000 homes and other structures have been demolished by government bulldozers, often with little notice, bankrupting untold innocent families and making them homeless. Their crime was not housing terrorists but rather the inability of Palestinians to obtain building permits to meet their families’ needs or simply to do repairs that have to be done. This is just one example of how Katzover and his allies – a powerful and dominant force in Israeli government – has perverted the ethical and moral dimensions of Judaism for their version of serving God or some mythical Jewish destiny.

The response to Katzover was penned by Yair Sheleg at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/father-judaism-and-mother-democracy-1.408549 .

Although I question a few of the examples Sheleg offers at the beginning of his column, the latter half is a clear exposition of the inherent tensions built into any democracy, balancing the collective good against individual rights. By implication he exposes Katzover’s thesis as simplistic and lacking depth.

These two columns taken together are a replay of arguments by those who justify oppression in the name of some higher ideal versus those who defend the human dignity of every person.

Atlanta:

On an unrelated note – or perhaps some would say closely related – I expect many readers have already heard about the infamous column by Andrew B. Adler, the publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, who published a column on January 13th suggesting that the Mossad might consider assassinating Barack Obama. It almost slipped under the radar until Gawker.com picked it up last week and it has since gone viral. See: http://gawker.com/5877892/

Some say Adler is an aberration or he simply made a mistake. I think that is disingenuous. Rather he is a symptom of what has gone terribly wrong.

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