News Roundup

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I have run across several news items over the past few weeks while sitting at my computer here in Oklahoma that I want to share. They range from the hopeful to the creepy, and I think you’ll find them of interest.

Hope

In case you missed this, two weeks ago the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional the law requiring a three-year minimum prison sentence for African refugees entering Israel, the vast majority of whom are asylum seekers fleeing war or persecution. Coverage in The Times of Israel quoted two of the justices as follows:

Justice Miriam Naor, deputy president of the High Court, said the ruling could be Israel’s “finest hour,” because it would force the country to find “humane solutions… that match not only international law, but also the Jewish worldview.”

The ruling will create “a difficult task” that Israel will perhaps “have to face against its will,” Justice Uzi Fogelman said, but “we must remember that those who come to our shores… are entitled to the right to liberty and the right to dignity that the Basic Law grants to any person as a human being.”

The African refugee situation in Israel is a complicated issue with no easy solutions. However this ruling offers some optimism that Israeli citizens and their leaders might wake up from their xenophobic fog and recognize the deep roots for justice and respect for all people in the Jewish tradition, especially the poor, the helpless, and those being oppressed. Perhaps this ruling also provides a glimmer of hope regarding the 40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens in the Negev who are threatened with the destruction of their ancestral villages by the government or the Palestinians on the West Bank still enduring oppression, violence and impoverishment under the yoke of the occupation.

Perspective

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel (a must-read book for anyone who cares about the future of Israel), recently published a column on the Daily Beast about how the growing refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war might offer some fresh perspectives for understanding the Palestinian refugee situation that resulted from the 1948 war. Gorenberg challenges the accepted narratives of both sides in the conflict – that Israel had a premeditated policy in 1948 to expel all the Palestinians or that the Arab countries kept the Palestinians cooped up in refugee camps to keep the struggle aflame. Instead he suggests that the Syrian civil war, where millions have fled the fighting, offers an opportunity to re-examine these accepted notions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Creepy

Transitioning to the United States, there is a well-funded campaign being launched on college campuses, Generation Opportunity, to convince college students not to enroll in health insurance plans that will soon be offered as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even if it means they forgo health insurance coverage. As Evan Feinberg, President of Generation Opportunity told Yahoo News, “You [college students] might have to pay a fine, but that’s going to be cheaper for you and better for you.” It’s hard for me to fathom how it will be better for college students not to have health insurance if they have the misfortune of being diagnosed with a serious illness.

In any case, the campaign features some video ads (scroll down to view them) with some creepy images that the promoters hope will go viral. It is distressing to see another example of how, what should be reasoned political discourse, has degenerated into the gutter of misleading information and sound bites.

Stereotypes

And finally, I recently viewed this short, four minute video, originally produced by ABC in 2010 (there is a 15 second commercial at the beginning), of the reaction of bystanders to three individuals – a young white man, a young black man, and a young blond woman – all engaged in the same suspicious act.  Although this was not a scientific experiment and the methodology can easily be criticized, it does give one pause to consider the built-in biases that we may not be aware we have and to honestly ask ourselves how we might have reacted. It is a fascinating video and an interesting thought experiment.

Gatekeepers

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Run, don’t walk, to see the academy-award nominated Israeli film “Gatekeepers,” slated for release in the USA today. Go with your friends to see it, especially those on the right or in the center – or those who may not be familiar with what has occurred in Israel these past decades.

The film consists of interviews with all six former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who are still alive. These men were responsible for intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza, for fighting terrorism, for helping to put down the intifadas, and for enforcing the occupation. Their knowledge and insight are unequaled. They are not naïve about the threats that Israel faces but their comments are gripping.

The film addresses two main topics. The first deals with the moral quandaries of fighting terror and trying to save Israeli lives. They describe in excruciating detail the choices they had to make, understanding the line they were walking. Their statements are illustrated with archival footage of past events, including videos of rocket attacks on vehicles carrying terror suspects along with graphic images of the aftermath of terror attacks, which bring to life the dilemmas and challenges they faced.

But the emphasis of the latter part of the film is even more enlightening. Uniformly they castigate the political leadership of Israel for lacking strategic vision, for concentrating on short-term tactics without paying attention to the long-term ramifications. These men dealt with all the political leaders for decades, on both the right and the left, and they are unsparing in their criticism. They, who were charged with enforcing the occupation, oppose it and believe that Israel is headed for disaster.

There have been some excellent reviews of the film. I recommend this one from The American Prospect by Jerusalem-based Gershom Gorenberg, the leading historian of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and author of one of the best recent books about Israel “The Unmaking of Israel.” Gorenberg does a good job of putting the film into a larger political and historical context.

This weekend’s Daily Jewish Forward also reviewed the film but offered some fascinating additional background. (Click here to the read the full article.) The perspective of these former Shin Bet directors can best be summed up by these observations from J.J. Goldberg, the reviewer:

Yes, they say, we abused suspects and killed bystanders. Our job was to stop terrorists, and we did. But they insist Israel has another option. It can extricate itself from the endless cycle of terrorism and repression by negotiating peace with the Palestinians and ending its occupation of the West Bank.

It’s possible, they say. There is a partner on the other side that’s prepared for peaceful coexistence. Israel tells itself there’s no partner only because its leaders don’t want to give up the territories. They’re barreling toward disaster.

Again, these are not leftist Israel-haters talking. They’re the heads of Israel’s security service, the men tasked with penetrating the Palestinian mind, knowing what to expect and how to respond. That’s why it’s hard to watch. If you’ve spent a lifetime hearing that Israel desires only peace but its enemies are sworn to its destruction, this turns your world upside-down.

But the Forward reviewer goes beyond a typical review. He actually checked if the film accurately portrayed the opinions of these men or if the truth was left on the cutting room floor.

I phoned a couple of the security veterans who appear in the film. Did the film accurately reflect their views, I asked, or were they distorted by the filmmaker’s agenda?

“It completely reflects my views,” said Yaakov Peri, who headed the agency from 1988 to 1994. “We discuss these things among ourselves. We all agree.” Peri reminds me, as he’s told me before, that every ex-Mossad chief and most former army chiefs feel the same way.

But wouldn’t the film have been better if it concentrated on moral dilemmas and avoided politics? “If it had, there would have been no point to the film,” said Ami Ayalon, who headed the agency from 1995 to 2000.

“The six of us reached our opinions from different personal backgrounds and different political outlooks, but we’ve all reached the same conclusion,” Ayalon said. “Many Israelis and American Jews want to deny it, but this is our professional opinion. We’re at the edge of an abyss, and if Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t progress, it’s the end of Zionism.”

Like I said, run to see this film. Tell your friends to go. These men have credibility that few can equal. Maybe it will help lead to change.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

Yaffa Yarkoni, The “Soldier’s Singer”

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Many readers of this blog may remember from their younger days the Israeli singer Yaffa Yarkoni who died at the age of 86 a few weeks ago. She was famous during the early years of the state and was especially known for entertaining soldiers.

Haaretz  printed a moving retrospective article last week by Tom Segev that traced the arc of her life – see http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/striking-a-different-tune-1.405805. It is worth reading, both for the nostalgia of a time long past, but also because her life reflected the evolution of Israeli society. Yarkoni was an important player in reinforcing the new nation’s founding mythos and how Jewish Israelis viewed themselves which, as the article points out, under that legendary tough exterior sometimes there was a quiet questioning voice. She even got into a bit of trouble for that when she let that voice slip out publicly early in her career.

But what is really interesting is how, as the country began maturing and the first cracks in the national Jewish solidarity appeared, she peripherally was tarnished through her husband with allegations of corruption involving Ben Gurion’s son. Much later her public image was badly damaged when, in a deeply polarized political climate, she let slip in an unguarded moment a critical comment about the actions of Israeli soldiers. It was a far cry from the seeming unity of purpose in the late ‘40’s.

Reading Segev’s article will bring you back to those early idealistic days, as reflected in the Bab El-Wad lyrics below that Yarkoni often sang, but also will let you reflect on the torturous journey Israel has taken since then.

Bab El-Wad
Lyrics: Haim Guri
Music: Shmuel Farshko

Here I am passing, standing by the stone.
An asphalt road, rocks and ridges.
Day goes down slowly, sea-wind blows
Light of a first star, over Beit Maschir.

Bab-el-wad,
Do remember our names forever,
Convoys broke through, on the way to the City.
Our dead lay on the road edges.
The iron skeleton is silent like my comrade.

Here pitch and lead fumed under the sun,
Here nights passed with fire and knives.
Here sorrow and glory live together
With a burnt armored car and the name of an unknown.

Bab-el-wad

And I walk, passing here silently,
And I remember them, one by one.
Here we fought together on cliffs and boulders
Here we were one family.

Bab-el-wad

A spring day will come, the cyclamens will bloom,
Red of anemone on the mountain and on the slope.
He, who will go on the road we went,
He will not forget us, Bab-el-wad.

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