Category Archives: Israel-Palestine

Will I save liberal Zionism?

I’ve been working on this blog post ever since I first read Peter Beinart’s excellent piece at the beginning of the week in the New York Review of Books about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, the failure of the American Jewish leadership, and the possibility of a “liberal” Zionism.

Since I started working on the post, there have been numerous responses from both the right and the left. A number of people I respect have taken issue with the concept of liberal Zionism in the first place (see the Magnes Zionist here) while Beinart did an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the gatekeeping journalist of American Jewry. J Street has responded positively to the article, of course, because they are the ones trying to correct the problem of a Jewish leadership that is far to the right of the people it supposedly represents.

I’m not going to try to do Beinart’s article justice by summarizing it. I cannot recommend enough that everyone read the whole thing from start to finish. I’m also not going to try to contribute to the discussion about whether or not there can be a liberal Zionism or whether the concept is flawed from the beginning. Where I do think I can contribute, however, is by pointing out how clearly Beinart’s essay is about me, the author of this blog, and scores of people I know from Montclair, from Oberlin, and from Cairo.

Beinhart starts his essay with a story about a Republican pollster hired in 2003 to find out what Jewish students in the United States thought about Israel. He largely found that they don’t. (I’m an exception, I guess. I think about Israel a lot.) However, when prodded, the pollster found that these young Jews had opinions, just not the ones that the Jewish establishment holds. According to the pollster, we “resist anything [we] see as ‘group think'” and we “desperately want peace.” Some of us even “empathize with the plight of the Palestinians” believe it or not!

This represents a major shift from previous generations of American Jews. Beinart characterizes the changing relationship with the following passage, which reminds me of sitting around with my (brilliant) father at the kitchen table after dinner, picking at a chicken carcass, finishing our wine, and discussing the day’s news:

They vote Democratic; they are unmoved by biblical claims to the West Bank; they see average Palestinians as decent people betrayed by bad leaders; and they are secular. They don’t want Jewish organizations to criticize Israel from the left, but neither do they want them to be agents of the Israeli right.

These American Zionists are largely the product of a particular era. Many were shaped by the terrifying days leading up to the Six-Day War, when it appeared that Israel might be overrun, and by the bitter aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when much of the world seemed to turn against the Jewish state. In that crucible, Israel became their Jewish identity, often in conjunction with the Holocaust, which the 1967 and 1973 wars helped make central to American Jewish life. These Jews embraced Zionism before the settler movement became a major force in Israeli politics, before the 1982 Lebanon war, before the first intifada. They fell in love with an Israel that was more secular, less divided, and less shaped by the culture, politics, and theology of occupation. And by downplaying the significance of Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas, American Jewish groups allow these older Zionists to continue to identify with that more internally cohesive, more innocent Israel of their youth, an Israel that now only exists in their memories.

But these secular Zionists aren’t reproducing themselves. Their children have no memory of Arab armies massed on Israel’s border and of Israel surviving in part thanks to urgent military assistance from the United States. Instead, they have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.

I’m not sure if I would go as far as to call the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment fake–I think that’s excessively strong language. The liberalism is genuine. I’m proud to say that American Jews were widely supportive of the civil rights and anti-war movements–including the aforementioned father. But when it comes to Israel, this commitment to human rights, peace and democratic values has been complicated by feelings of victimhood.

When the generation before mine was growing up, Jews were still banned from country clubs and certain neighborhoods. Top-tier private universities had quotas on Jewish students. Many among that generation had parents or aunts and uncles who escaped Europe’s anti-semitism just before it was too late. And anti-semitism still existed in the United States. This helped to solidify the sense of Jewish nationhood, which coalesces around Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg writes very explicitly in his book Prisoners about how getting beat up by anti-semites during middle school affected his decision to drop out of college and join the Israeli army.

I can’t relate to that. In New Jersey, where I grew up, you’re just as likely to find a Goldschmidt as a Williams on the green at the local country club. Harvard, needless to say, no longer has quotas. I’ve encountered far more anti-Jewish comments from French expats in Cairo (but not Arabs–that’s a story for another day) than I did in the 22 years I lived in the United States. This doesn’t mean that anti-Jewish sentiment doesn’t exist in the United States. It does, but we’ve come a long way and for this reason, my generation has none of this baggage connecting us to Israel and making us want to treat it exceptionally.

Beinart says it well:

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.

Yup.

The essay ends with an impassioned plea to try to save Zionism from itself. My generation, Beinart argues to his audience in the New York Review, must not be allowed to abandon Israel completely. Instead, we have to push for a more just, more equitable Zionism. He uses the example of an impressive and growing protest movement in occupied East Jerusalem as an example of what we could become:

For several months now, a group of Israeli students has been traveling every Friday to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where a Palestinian family named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers. Although repeatedly arrested for protesting without a permit, and called traitors and self-haters by the Israeli right, the students keep coming, their numbers now swelling into the thousands. What if American Jewish organizations brought these young people to speak at Hillel? What if this was the face of Zionism shown to America’s Jewish young? What if the students in Luntz’s focus group had been told that their generation faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?

“Too many years I lived in the warm embrace of institutionalized elusiveness and was a part of it,” writes Avraham Burg. “I was very comfortable there.” I know; I was comfortable there too. But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication. Let’s hope that Luntz’s students, in solidarity with their counterparts at Sheikh Jarrah, can foster an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. Let’s hope they care enough to try.

Well, as one of Luntz’s students (Luntz is the pollster mentioned earlier), I want to respond to the author: I think that he makes a strong and powerful case for upholding liberal values in the “only Jewish state on earth.” Perhaps if this conversation had emerged twenty years ago, there would be a better chance for saving Zionism for us. But I think that he misses something completely.

I think the time for supporting Zionism–even an “uncomfortable” one–may have passed. In a generation as globalized as mine, with access to international news through the Internet, with high rates of participation in study abroad programs, with cheap flights around the world, the concept of a Jewish state, and indeed the concept of ethnic nationalism at all, might be dying. (I realize I’m probably to the left of most Americans and American Jews, but I’m confident that this is the overall trend.) I hope, however, that as our commitment to ethnic nationalism fades, our commitment to human rights does not.

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This year in Egypt

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

Last night marked the beginning of Passover, the holiday where Jews around the world celebrate the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. I am, of course, in Egypt.

I’m not really celebrating this year. In fact, I’m not celebrating at all. Last night I tried to go to a seder at one of the few remaining synagogues in Cairo, but I wasn’t allowed to enter. (I suspect that at least part of the reason I was turned away was because I told security outside that I’m a journalist. I won’t prove them right by writing on the Internet about the seder or the synagogue.)

I understand that security is an important issue for the small (and shrinking) Jewish community here. It was just a few weeks ago that some crazy threw a homemade bomb at the main synagogue downtown. But I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to celebrate one of my favorite holidays—particularly one in which observers open their doors to symbolize inviting guests to the table.

Then again, I’m not sure I how I could celebrate Passover in Egypt. An important part of the seder service is, basically, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Egyptians. At its most grisly, this involves commemorating the ten plagues that God cast upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the first-born. The killing of civilians is something I always object to.

Of course we’re dealing with Biblical times here, when things were bloody and there was a lot of smiting going on. But there’s still something uncomfortable about glorifying the punishment that befell the Egyptian masses, especially when you’re in Egypt, surrounded by the Egyptian masses. Yeah, my boss can be a slave driver, but does that mean I want his first born dead? (As an interesting and relevant side note: “Pharoah” is the word sometimes employed by hardline Islamists to describe the Mubarak regime and other ‘secular’ dictatorships in the Middle East.)

And then there is Israel, which has been an ever-present issue in my mind for every Passover in the last few years. Passover is not just about the escape from Egypt, it is about its end point: the promised land of Israel. This doesn’t mean that observing seder is an endorsement of Zionism, but it gives context to notions of Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The seder ends with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a concept I’ve always found problematic but fascinating (hence the name of this blog).

Jerusalem is the holy city for Jews. Does this justify house demolitions and land confiscation, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on movement? Of course not. But it helps, again, to give a context to the Israeli attachment to the city, an attachment so strong that the Israelis will take their policies to the heights of belligerence. This year, we’re having this discussion even more than usual. For a more a more religious and sentimental take on the situation than I usually have, check out Bradley Burston (a Zionist, but a bleeding heart) on how to think about Jerusalem at your seder this year.

Despite its problematic contemporary subtexts, I love the holiday. I appreciate its message about freedom and oppression and liberation. These are the values I find most important in my religion. And it’s a good opportunity to be with family and friends, drink wine, eat brisket and the gefilte fish (like a fish hotdog), and discuss the finer points of oppression. I’ll miss that this year.

I also like to keep kosher for Passover, something I have done with mostly success for the past ten years. I’m going to try to do it this year, though it will be especially difficult in a country that is one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of bread. (Macaroni sandwiches, while not exactly common, are more readily available in Cairo than they are anywhere back home.) Not to mention the difficulty of getting a decent macaroon anywhere in this city.

But so it goes. I am a stranger in the land of Egypt and I guess I’ll have to adjust to the peculiarity of my situation. Next year in.

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Filed under Egypt, Holidays, Israel-Palestine, Jews, Life Abroad, Personal Stuff

Ehud Barak says the word “apartheid”

Didn’t I tell you the Israel-as-South-Africa narrative was picking up steam and the Isarelis are worried about it?

AP says: Barak said if Israel controls the West Bank and Gaza but does not allow Palestinians to vote, “that will be an apartheid state.”

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Israel in Haiti

I don’t agree with everything Bradley Burston says in his recent column about Israeli aid to Haiti, but I think he gets the main point right here:

For all the time that [the Israelis in Haiti] have been working, however, people far away, snug in the comfort of their laptops, have been furiously busy as well, people who are enraged to the boiling point by news reports of the Israeli rescue mission. People who see it as their mission to tell the world exactly what’s wrong with all of this.

Over the past week, the work of the Israeli medical team has become a kind of Rorschach for how people view Israel and Israelis. Most of the comment, it must be said, is supportive. Even on the part of those who cast the humanitarian misery in Gaza in contrast.

But for a shocking number of others, the bottom line is simple: Israel, and Israelis, can do no right.

I’ll admit that the Israelis are using their field hospital in Haiti to boost their image to the rest of the world. But let’s be honest: It’s sad, but PR is almost always a consideration in humanitarian situations.

But I think the important thing is that Haiti needs all the help it can get. Your opposition to the occupation or Israel’s other policies should get in the way of that.

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New Israeli crackdown

Israel seems to be changing tactics when it comes to the occupation.

AP ran a story about the trend yesterday:

In the most high-profile case yet, Jerusalem police detained the leader of a leading Israeli human rights group during a vigil against the eviction of Palestinian families whose homes were taken by Jewish settlers.

Since the summer, dozens of Palestinian and Israeli activists have been picked up, including those organizing weekly protests against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier as well as others advocating international boycotts of Israeli goods.

Some of the Palestinians were released without charge only after weeks and months of questioning.

This morning, Haaretz had another news item with similar implications:

The Interior Ministry has stopped granting work permits to foreign nationals working in most international nongovernmental organizations operating in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, Haaretz has learned.

In an apparent overhaul of regulations that have been in place since 1967, the ministry is now granting the NGO employees tourist visas only, which bar them from working.

Organizations affected by the apparent policy change include Oxfam, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Terre des Hommes, Handicap International and the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker organization).

So you’ve got Israel arresting non-violent activists and impeding development workers, and furthermore forcing Jared Malsin, an American editor at the Palestinian t Ma’an News Agency, out of the country. Altogether, this is starting to look like a trend.

What gives? Why is Israel suddenly going after non-violent action against the occupation so heavily? I have a theory: Israel is worried about losing its legitimacy and non-violent activists, nosy journalists, and European do-gooders are not going to help its case.

I think the Israel-as-South-Africa-narrative is picking up steam. To prevent that, Israel is trying to stop people from knowing what’s going on there. Unlike a lot of other human rights absusers, Israel is fairly transparent. (I also believe this is part of what keeps it in the news so much. Hardly anyone thinks about, for example, North Korea, which is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.)

Then again, if you want to be the Only Democracy in the Middle East, you can’t go around arresting journalists and aid workers.

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There is no sovereignty, man

This is, as far as I know, the only actual photo of the underground wall that is being built. It ran in Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition last week.

When I was sixteen I used to make a really great argument that free will doesn’t exist. I’d be sitting in the car next to my friend and we’d have a conversation that went something like this:

Max: “There’s no free will, dude.”

Friend: “What are you talking about, man?”

Max: “No, dude. Seriously, man, you think there is, but really there isn’t.”

Friend: “Dude, of course I have free will!”

Max: “Okay, dude. If you have free will then run this red light and drive down that one-way street.”

Friend: “Dude! I can’t do that!”

Max: “Exactly, dude.”

I’ll admit it’s a pretty sophomoric argument, but at its heart there was an important truth. Free will only exists within the parameters that society has established for action.

Anyway, I thought of this whole thing when I went to the Daily News Egypt website this morning and saw the headline on the latest story about Egypt’s underground wall that is supposed to prevent smuggling. The headline reads, “Gaza barrier a ‘sovereign right’: Egyptian state-owned daily”.

“Egypt, which protects its sovereignty, has the right to develop the barrier separating it and Gaza. It has a right to have a wall that is strong and not subject to collapse.”

The editorial is the closest Egypt has so far come to officially confirming it is building the underground barrier to stem smuggling into Gaza through underground tunnels.

“Sovereignty” here reminds me of free will in my old argument.

Smuggling tunnels into Gaza are really not a threat to Egyptian security. However, they are a problem for Israel’s blockade on Gaza. And the US, which backs both Israel and Egypt, has the power to stop them.

There is every indication that the underground wall is a project undertaken at the behest of the United States. Some newspapers have even reported that the US Army Corps of Engineers is helping to build the wall.

So what does “sovereign” really mean here? Seriously, dude. Think about it.

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Is the CIA addicted to torture?

The Guardian reported the day before yesterday that the Central Intelligence Agency is “working closely” Palestinian security forces who are known to torture Hamas members.

Of course, this isn’t shocking. CIA has a long tradition of supporting regimes that torture, murder, and violate human rights in any number of ways. This is in Latin America, in the Middle East, around the world. In pursuit of American interests overseas, Washington is almost always willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. American support for Egypt is, naturally, the first example that comes to my mind.

This isn’t to say that CIA support for Fatah torturers shouldn’t be condemned. This is important because this fits in with a pattern of torturing Islamist militants that has developed over the last eight years.

Barack Obama has said he wants to end torture and secret imprisonment. So far his movement in this direction has been slow. Despite a brief flutter of excitement over the summer when Attorney General Eric Holder said there would be an investigation, it seems clear that those who condoned and practiced torture during the Bush Administration will not be held accountable. Meanwhile, the Guantanamo prison remains open eleven months after Barack Obama took office. Just now are American policymakers seriously talking about what to do with the prisoners.

There has been no new evidence of CIA or American military torturing people in the last year (correct me on this if I’m wrong), but it could happen again. I think that during the Bush Administration, the CIA was let off the chain when it comes to torture and now they’re hooked.

Something comparable happened during the early years of the Cold War when CIA got very comfortable using covert operations to take out regimes in the Third World. Once they started they couldn’t stop, even after it became clear that the tactic didn’t always work out. See Bay of Pigs after the 1957 Syrian Crisis, for example.

The Central Intelligence Agency is prone to going rogue. I think it’s in the organization’s nature. Because much of what they do is clandestine, they are able to resist scrutiny from outside. In the 1950s and 1960s this meant that they could plot assassinations and coups with impunity. Now it means that they can torture prisoners and assist others in torture.

The exposure of CIA complicity in the torture of Hamas members in Palestine is not surprising. It is, however, yet another indication that the organization needs to be reigned in.

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