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Sapientia re Judea

by on November 19, 2010

You might remember an issue at the end of May involving a Gaza aid fleet, Israel, and eventually the US press corps.  If you don’t remember that incident, I don’t blame you; the amount of information we are bombarded with is extraordinary and we quickly forget news.  Why am I writing about something that happened in May?  I meant to write about it long ago, but it is not a topic that happened once and should only have been written about as a live, immediate, occurrence.  I hope to wrap up my thoughts and bring them, albeit disjointedly, to the present day.

On May30, 2010 – not so ancient history – Israel vowed to stop a fleet, headed by the MV Mavi Marmara, from delivering aid to Gaza. I need hardly remind you that Gaza needs aid.  Why stop the fleet? This BBC article will tell you why. In part:

The Gaza Strip has been under a heightened Israeli blockade since the militant group Hamas seized control in June 2007. Israel wants to weaken Hamas, end its rockets attacks against Israeli towns and get back captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

That is some reason as to the origin of the blockade.  To continue… you can find a BBC article with the synopsis, “There is widespread agreement in Israel and around the world that, whatever the rights or wrongs about the Gaza flotilla, something went badly wrong with the operation to stop it.”   Something went badly wrong?  On May 31, 2010, the commandos of the Israeli Navy said that activists “tried to lynch us.”  Generally, that doesn’t sound like something to do, even in wartime.  For instance, I haven’t heard of any Somali pirates trying to lynch Americans or British – some captives even make it home. That same <a href="BBC article will inform you that the’ interception’ took place about 40 miles off the Gaza coast, about 25 miles beyond the formal limits of the maritime blockade Israel is maintaining on Gaza.

So far, we are  at the point where something went badly wrong as British rappelled in by helicopter in the early morning to prevent a convoy of supplies from reaching Gaza.  You’ll have to trust me – or remember – or read the sources to know that hundreds of activists were taken captive in by the Israelis.  At least nine activists died on board, and seven Israeli commandos were wounded.  (I don’t mean to make light of the deaths and injuries, but since I have to choose what to write about I’m going to not concentrate on this part of the incident.)  As I said, hundreds of activists were seized by Israel. ”

Israel was holding hundreds of activists incommunicado in and around the port city of Ashdod, refusing to permit journalists access to witnesses who might contradict Israel’s version of events.

The emphasis was in the original article. Perhaps I’m not the only one that thinks it strange, then, that if Israel said something went badly wrong and activists were being held incommunicado, that something doesn’t add up.  Glen Greenwald suggests that.  And he adds,

when Israel seizes ships in international waters and kills anyone who resists (and others standing near them), that is an act of noble, plucky self-defense.  But those who fail to submit completely to this lawless and barbarous act of aggression are the Real Criminals who will be prosecuted and imprisoned “to the fullest extent of the law.”  In other words, not only is Israel — which seized ships in international waters and killed civilians — the Real Victim, but the Real Criminals are those on the ship.  But doesn’t the victim of a crime usually want media coverage of what the criminal did?  How odd for the victim in this case to take such extreme steps to ensure that the world cannot hear from the witnesses.

I could almost use Greenwald’s article, and the sources he provides, to make a case in point about Israel.  I encourage you to read his article, his sources, and the events I’m describing.  I’m not just going to use Greenwald and his sources, though, and I don’t want to mention the fact of hundreds of imprisoned activists – and not granted communication – and make nothing of it.  It is a central part of this story. But you might have been wondering earlier why people died in a mission that defied logic.

[The commandos] were sent on a mission that defies logic. A helicopter dropped them, one by one, onto a vessel with a mob on it. Regardless of the activists’ intentions, the IDF’s method of interception was perceived as an act of aggression….  Every military and political leader in Israel knows that when under threat to his life, a soldier is ordered to open fire.

As Mickey Bergman points out, commandos could have easily disabled the rudder of the ship and towed it to port.  Or engaged in discussion in daylight, and not landing in the pre-dawn hours by helicopter – I’d feel threatened too. But the conclusion of Bergman – not so much as justification as a fact – is compelling.

Israeli public opinion is likely to rally behind the soldiers, the military and its government. This is not because the Israeli public likes what happened. The Israeli public’s instinctive reaction, justly, is to show support and solidarity with the soldiers risking their lives for the country’s security. What is painfully missing is political leadership that is brave enough to stand up and make the nuanced argument on why this was not about the individual soldiers’ behavior, it is about the political leadership that sent them on a bad mission. Israel’s government has gone beyond bad politics here. They have demonstrated that the life of a soldier is no longer as sacred as it had always been held.

According to an emmigrè rabbi (now living in Israel):

There seems to be a lot of passing-the-buck here and and a great deal of finger-pointing when looking for people to blame for what was obviously an ill-conceived operation…. Hubris on the part of this government played a big role is this tragic drama to be sure. But Israel is a democracy with a free press and already serious questions are being raised from diverse perspectives.

I would accord hubris the reason this and many other devastating historical events have occurred. However, finger-pointing and accusations of hubris, though possibly true, will not solve anything.

It is not for me to decide when history begins. If I begin Israeli history in 1880, or 1933, or 1947, or 1967, or 1973, or in the depths of recorded history, or in the 7th century, I do so because I cannot here write an exhaustive history of Israel, or the peoples of Israel in the Diaspora. I must choose a point at which to begin explanations and historical comparisons and what precisely is relevant to the moment and what is not. Therefore, when I cite a paper that begins a story in 1967, that is because the author of that story too must make a choice. For a discussion on Israel, which involves conversations on hope, and hubris, and many intangibles, it is not necessary to know the complete story of Maimonides, fascinating though it is. There will be much left out, and I am aware of many of the things I will not say here.

What does Israel want?  Is it acting for, or against, its own self interests?  It’s a state founded in the modern history of the Holocaust (or HaShoah – calamity) and Nakbah (catastrophe).  Israel, the modern state, has had very little peaceful history.  Israel has convinced America – and America has convinced Israel – that there’s a very serious threat posed by Iran.  What did Israel want in carrying out a commando raid?  I am not surprised that in this regional conflict – a conflict that affects us all – the Prince of Jordan, El Hassan bin Talal commented,

perhaps Israel is seeking total isolation to justify continued violence leading to further pre-emptive strikes and a regional war.

Don’t misunderstand His Royal Highness. His message to us is “let us not surrender to hatred.” His closing comment is “I am fully aware of the fact that the Near East, once known as the Cradle of Civilisation, has become a tinder box of war; but in losing sight of peace and humanitarian law, we are surrendering one-by-one to the crushing power of the opportunist ‘hatred industry’.”  Nor is HRH bin Talal the only royal to comment on Israels actions.  Queen Rania, also of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, asked rhetorically, “what do chocolate, cookies, A4 paper, potato chips, cumin, toys, jelly, nuts, dried fruit, nutmeg, and goats have in common?”. The answer is that Israel forbids Gaza from importing any of these objects.

The failure here is political.  Israel is not a state in the middle of emptiness; I mean that Israel is subject to influence and to flaws, and if its most powerful ally doesn’t object, why would Israel?  For Greenwald,

the real question for Americans is our own country’s responsibility for what Israel does; as virtually the entire world vehemently condemns Israel’s conduct, the U.S. — as usual — acts to protect the Israelis at the U.N. and joins it in heaping blame on its victims.

It seems to me, occasionally, that Israel responds to ultra-Zionist ranting, including that of neo-conservative Americans, but ignores the (unprofitable?) desire for peace.  And if we Americans – neo-conservative, ultra-liberal, and everything in between – want to help Israel listening to James Zogby is a good place to start.

So what should the US do with Israel? If they are a friend and an ally we value, we tell them the truth. Tell them that their behavior is unacceptable and is only making the world more dangerous for us all. Demand that they submit to an independent investigation (since the attack was on a Turkish vessel in international waters). Demand that they end the blockade of Gaza (since this is something the White House has called on Israel to do since the President’s second day in office). And demand that they recognize the consequences of their reckless behavior, not only for their interests, but ours as well.

Or we can, as we have done too many times in the past, jump in the hole they’ve dug and wallow around with them, until we’re both a mess and then spend the next year or so trying to clean up.

All of these opinions and recommendations I’ve cited happened between May 30 and June 2, 2010.  On June the 3rd, activists described Israeli raid on Gaza aid convoy.  Bulent Yildrim of Turkey, a member of IHH, which organized the flotilla, admitted activists using guns in self-defense, and added, “I took off my shirt and waved it, as a white flag. We thought they would stop after seeing the white flag, but they continued killing people.”  Norman Paech, a German, said he saw only three people – activists – resisting the soldiers rappelling onto the deck.  Dimitris Gielasis, a Turk, said “they came up and used plastic bullets, we had beatings, we had electric shocks, any method we can think of, they used.”  Perhaps that sounds normal to you.  After the many years of preemptive war and torture that the US has engaged in recently this sound par for the course.  But it is no less inhumane than before, and except by those who execute these actions is generally condemned.  Israel could have reverted to other courses of action.

We’re living in a high-tech world.  Computers record every site you’ve visited, phones can record a video of everything you do.  It shouldn’t have surprised Israel – they showed that they expected it, and thus kept the activists incommunicado – that there were videos of Israeli commandos landing on the convoy vessels. The videos weren’t immediately released, of course, thanks to the Israelis, but it should be clear it’s becoming harder to hide all pictographic evidence of an event like this. It doesn’t matter who you’re supporting here – the Israelis, the activists, or both – a video shows Israeli commandos landing and the ensuing battle.

Of course, Israel has a right to an opinion too, and it has a right to defend itself.  Amidst all this discussion of he-said she-said politics it shouldn’t be forgotten that real entities and states are involved, and real people lost their lives.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed Israel’s opinion.  “If the blockade had been broken, it would have been followed buy dozens, hundreds of boats,” he added. “Each boat could carry dozens of missiles.” But this isn’t just an Israeli affair. Countries responded,

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, meanwhile, announced his country was breaking diplomatic relations with Israel. British Prime Minister David Cameron urged Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, calling the raid “completely unacceptable.”

Pope Benedict XVI urged both sides to resolve the problem with dialogue, not violence, telling pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square that he was worried the raid would have “dramatic consequences and generate more violence.”

Let’s return to the question of Israel’s interests and Israel’s actions. Mark Levine is hoping the US will understand that, “it has never been about security. Not for one day. It has been about land and power. And this is where it has led. And we have [the US] made it possible.” We have feigned love of Israel while sane Israelis, Palestinians, and everyone else have begged us to stop the bleeding. Instead,

we have pretended to be its friend, but we are the friend in the way your drug dealer is your friend, sitting with you late at night listening to your problems while hooking you up with your next fix – only in strange twist, the American people rather than the Israelis are paying for the habit their government and corporate elites grow richer sustaining.

We are the ultimate facilitators of this insane and immoral arrangement, which is part of our larger addiction to war that now reaches $1 trillion per year.

What the US – and Levine efficiently blames the US – has allowed to happen to Gaza is sheer madness.  It appears increasingly that this issue is not an Israeli issue alone, nor an Israeli-Palestinian issue.  Both Israel and the political capacity of Palestine may want to refer to this as an internal issue, but clearly that has been a large international outcry, and a pointing of the finger at countries and organizations well beyond Israel or the Mediterranean.

There are many more knowledgeable than myself about the internal workings of Israeli politics.  I do want to point out, though, that they have  a system of proportional representation in the Knesset. Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, the former US Ambassador to Morocco, wrote on June 2,

[that] in less than six months, under its truncated Likud government, Israel has managed to alienate its most important regional Muslim ally, Turkey; angered the United Arab Emirates with the botched assassination saga in Dubai; endured expulsion of diplomats from Australia and the United Kingdom — two of Israel’s greatest friends.

They did all that -and more. I’m sure you’d forgotten some of those incidents. Here I am writing about a forgotten incident, and there are several relevant parts I had forgotten of until now. I won’t say more on the subject than to point out how easy it is to forget these things quickly…. I wrote briefly about Iran’s involvement in this, and I’ll take an ambassador at his word that “Israel’s actions may undermine efforts to muster sufficient international support to have the United Nations impose the type of crippling economic sanctions against Iran that could mean the difference between a chastised Iran or an Iran with a nuclear bomb.” Ginsberg agreed, at the time that he was writing this, that the Israeli response – sending in commandos – was partially justified since the convoy had signaled that they would not stop, but also an unnecessary show of force since a ship can be peacefully stopped. There’s also a point I’d like to put emphasis on.

The facts are under investigation, and time will tell which side was “legally” within its rights under international law. But legality rarely trumps public perception, and perception, not legal treatise, influences public opinion.

The far-right ultra-nationalist party- that’s strange, there’s also a far-right, also ultra-nationalist bloc in the US – of Israel has done a good job (a very good job, at the end of May) of making clear to other countries – including the United States – that outside opinions can and should be ignored. With that indictment leveled at Likud and the Israeli far-right, Ginsberg points out the recklessness of Hamas and the inability of Fatah. They are to blame for the plight of their people as well, and an indictment of Israel is neither complete nor valid unless reasons for Israeli behavior are put into context.
I wrote earlier about how the time frame of a conflict is created by writers. Henley calls this conflict between Israel and Palestine a “Sixty Year Mortgage … Of Blood!” Obviously, that’s meant as humor. And sixty years is an estimate. Still, the facts are correct enough, and the analysis sounds good enough.

For all practical purposes, Israel has its original goal, formal control of all of Mandate Palestine west of the Jordan, within its grasp. Because it’s not completely insensible to global political reality, it can’t just annex the West Bank and be done with it, but it can plainly add any given piece of the West Bank to itself at any time. Roughly ten percent of Israel’s Jewish population lives in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. They’re not moving back. Israel does have to finesse the public-relations of the process, but the public relations are subordinate to the process.

And on the international level, or at least a broader view of the region,

Turkey is not going to war for the Freedom Flotilla. It took all of a day for the United States to conclude a deal whereby Israel gets to investigate itself. The Iranians are either not trying to get nukes, or if they do get nukes will be very careful with them. The Iranians will fuck you up, but never at any substantial cost to themselves. Israel can levy a substantial cost on Iran any time it wants. The Palestinians can’t do more than annoy and neither can Hezbollah.

First of all, there’s the demographic issue here.  If ten percent of Israelis live in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, and you want them to move, that’s like asking every resident of the state of California to leave California.  There are logical alternatives, of course, that don’t involve asking one of every ten Israelis to move.  How about integration (the opposite of segregation)?  Or a freeze on new housing?  There are many solutions, and none of them are easy.  But if it was easy, it would have already happened….  Secondly. there’s the international response to Israel’s action.  I’ve already written some about this, but it’s worth remembering that Israel is a superpower in the region with substantial military force and support.  And we keep returning to Israel’s intent. Andrew Sullivan wrote that he did not believe,

and have not written, that Israel intended this slaughter. I do think that disabling the vessel would have been far smarter, and the decision to assault it was reckless. I also think that if you believe that the blockade is illegal (and that’s a perfectly legitimate position), and that you are attempting to break it, and you are then assaulted in international waters by shock-troops, self-defense is an option. Especially when your ship contains building materials, toys and wheelchairs and has on board a host of activists from many countries. There was a clear element in the raid of making a show of force – pour decourager les autres. This was a “Don’t Fuck With The Jews!” moment. It was unnecessary, and a sign of Israel’s increasingly erratic behavior.

Several times I’ve cited authors here who suggest that Israel is increasingly erratic, committing politicide, or acting irrationally and disproportionally. For those who criticize Israel, it is because they care. I would dare say that those who criticize Israel and take it to task for erratic or self-destructive behavior care far more about Israel than those people – in America they are the neo-cons – who unswervingly praise Israel and use its military might for their own gain. But most of us would agree with Andrew Sullivan.

And let’s not delude ourselves: the reason so many of us find the policy toward Gaza repellent is that it is quite obviously an attempt to collectively punish the people of Gaza for voting for Hamas, and then for lobbing missiles after Israel’s withdrawal. That was the element of the 2009 war that was so horrifying to those of us on the outside, and that is why this blockade, designed to maintain total control over 1.5 million people (and to benefit various Israeli economic sectors), is so disconcerting.

And it is, of course, self-reinforcing. Has the war and the blockade hurt the idea of Hamas? Au contraire. It has legitimized it. When you end up killing civilians to prevent access to toys and wheelchairs, you have lost any desire to win the war of ideas and have retreated instead to the logic of force. The Bush-Cheney administration is, in other words, alive and well … and in Jerusalem, and backed by the opposition, because it is backed by the people. This is one of the problems with democracy….

The question we have to face is whether Israel is now too far gone to be rescued. The enormous opportunity offered by the election of Obama has been thrown in the face of the US and the world. The alienation of Europe and Turkey seems driven by willful obstinacy and near clinical paranoia. And the knee-jerk response of the AJE has only made matters worse. I’m not sure, as Millman notes, that the US could do much good anyway. Pressure backfires; diplomacy doesn’t work; and the truth is: Israelis cannot really absorb the fact that they have to give up the dream of Greater Israel or become a pariah state.

That’s why, in my view, the settlement question was the right one to start with. A temporary freeze on construction was the minimum necessary to see if the Israelis are serious about some kind of resolution. The Israeli public simply isn’t. And no Israeli government can over-ride such a massive consensus, even if it wanted to (which it doesn’t). At some point, the US will have to decide how to deal with this. We should, of course, do all we can to be reasonable and argue for a comprehensive deal. But we should not delude ourselves into believing Israel will ever accept it.

I don’t expect that Israel’s raid of a convoy at sea will lead to peace with Hamas.  The point of this critique is not to find a solution to an age-old conflict – although that would be wonderful.  So far I’ve simply recapped events and described reactions to them.  Now, describing the reactions and needs of Israelis, we’ve seen a dichotomy, in which people pursue interests that lead them farther away from peace.  One possibility that is not compatible with a good reality is,

[that] the proposition that the State of Israel, which was conceived as a way of normalizing relations between Jews and all other peoples, might instead be normalizing anti-Semitism is not one we can simply close our eyes to in the forlorn hope that it will go away of its own accord.

Why would there be increasing anti-Semitism? Is it extremist Muslims? Large-scale immigration? The Qu’ran? Western governments that never liked Jews anyway? ‘Self-hating’ Jews? These are all possibilities put forth by Tony Klug in the Tikkun article. And as for ‘self-hating’ Jews, “a novel recent addition to those labeled as members of the ‘self-hating’ community are the Israeli government officials responsible for overseeing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s partial construction freeze, whom disgruntled West Bank settlers have greeted as ‘anti-Semites.'” Perhaps I just put my finger on the problem; settlers who think any version of Judaism that is not their version must be wrong. Of course, that’s a perfectly natural human sentiment, but it doesn’t help that the Israeli government follows the wishes first and foremost of settlers. “There are still plenty of authentic anti-Semites around, doubtless rather enjoying the moment. But maybe some introspection on our part is also warranted. Is it possible that we ourselves have in some way contributed in recent times to the overt rise in Jewish unpopularity?”  However, anti-Semitism is not the same as it once was. Still from Tikkun,

The Jewish reality has changed dramatically since the end of World War II, with the establishment of a Jewish state and the entrenchment of equal citizenship rights in most if not all countries that Jews inhabit. Whichever way you look at it, there simply is no comparison in reality between past trumped-up accusations of abusive power leveled against a downtrodden, defenseless community that time and again was made to pay a heavy price for these baseless smears, and the current accusations of improper use of power against an advanced, nuclear-armed state which, for the past forty-two years, has enforced a harsh military rule over the lives of another downtrodden, dispossessed people, while relentlessly colonizing their remaining land.

The comparison Jewish shtetl of the Middle Ages to the current Palestinian plight is common, and sadly accurate. The subjugation of the Palestinians is the reason anti-Semitism is increasing. However, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are very different. Anti-Semitism might be the hatred of anything Semitic (at least, by definition, but usually it’s just dislike of Jews. Anti-Zionism would be dislike of anything of the Zionist cause, which is promotion and retention of the ‘Holy Land’ of Israel. Sadly, Helen Thomas, the fifty-year veteran of the White House Press Corps, found that the difference doesn’t matter much to those who rush to defend Israel. She was forced to retire after a video surfaced -within days of the Israeli commandos assaulting the convoy – in which she said that the Jews should leave occupied Palestinian land. That may be anti-Zionist (in much the same way self-proclaimed pro-Zionist author Noam Chomsky is called an anti-Zionist) but it is not anti-Semitic, which is what Helen Thomas was accused of being.
The point is not to solve an age-old conflict in a jiffy. That will take time and effort. A wide area of human interests came together because of Israelis raiding a convoy. While morally that may have been the wrong move, it’s probable that you already forgot it happened, and so the damage to Israel is not great. However, it’s was the wrong move that could have prevented several incidents, ranging at least as far as Helen Thomas. The solution could have been moderation. With Israel’s action, according to Queen Rania,

moderates around the world lose out: people like me, who dared to believe that the road to peace doesn’t have to be a lonely and desolate one. That a two-state solution is not the figment of a naïve idealist’s imagination. And those whose ethical responsibility it is now to deal with the science of reality, to form a coalition of humans that question and confront the assumptions of those on their far right, and to reaffirm the ethos of moderation.

After all, isn’t moderation where most of the living is done?

Well, speaking as a moderate, I fear if the tides don’t turn in our region, moderation will be amongst the most painful casualties of continued aggression and hard line policies. As someone who lived through the late King Hussein’s fight for peace, until his very last breath, and watches his son, my husband, King Abdullah, continue that fight, it actually breaks my heart to see us moving further and further away from peace.

Peace. People. Moderation. I would have thought that those were too heavy a price to pay for sustaining a hardened stance.

So, when flotillas came to break the blockade, they came to help the people of Gaza. But, just as important, they came to break the blockade on the Israeli mind.

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