Sunday, September 20, 2009

A darkness unto the nations


       The Goldstone report and the reaction to it have further isolated the government of Israel.  The report is evenhanded, criticizing all atrocities and thus, the massive Israeli atrocities in Gaza.  Some 1300 Palestinains, unarmed, were slaughtered without any way of escaping, including several hundred children; one Israeli 7 year old and some 10 others murdered by Hamas rockets targeted on civilians. The writing of the report is careful; the truth is not “balanced.”   My teacher Michael Walzer wrote wonderfully once upon a time of the care of the Israeli army in honoring the rules of war.  Israel was intent then on being a democracy in the Middle East, if a democracy restricted largely to Jews.  One might have thought that the democracy might expand to Arab Israelis by civil disobedience (Jimmy Carter recently had that thought about what might happen, in the absence of regional or nuclear war, in a quasi-fascist Greater Israel, one state regime).  One might have thought that some powerful forces in Israel might support a Mossadegh,  a democracy elsewhere in the region.  One might have thought…

        Goldstone himself is a South African Jew and a Zionist.  He wrote a report in South Africa which helped prevent vengefulness and violence before the first South African elections.  He stands with Desmond Tutu whose No future without forgiveness, seeing the humanity of Palestinians,  has the greatest sympathy for Israelis.  Tutu was once shunned in Israel for recognizing the Palestinians as human.  But he led blacks in South Africa in a peaceful transition to a decent regime, one featuring the Truth Commission, a light unto the nations, in which they did not kill those who had – by their phobic bloodthirstiness and by their own standards about murder – earned that punishment.  He came back to Israel and many listened to him (though not the governing politicians) with great care.  In the book, he tells a sad story of Eli Wiesel, who was asked by a remorseful concentration camp guard, on his death bed, to forgive him.  Wiesel responded: “Only those whom you murdered can forgive you.” He turned away.  But the dead, however still living in us, cannot forgive.  Wiesel was imprisoned by his guilt (why am I alive when so many are gone?  How can I, even if I spend every day hunting the killers, earn the right to speak for others?).  As Bishop Tutu said, one cannot live in the prison of the past.  One must respond now. Only we can hear the remorse and those voices which ask for mercy. Only we can forgive.

       The establishment in Israel is huddled in a fantasy of righteousness.  All those 400 children – they are all dead because of the innocence of the occupation, the lack of arms of the IDF, the troublemaking of the Palestinians (who cannot leave or obtain food because the state of Israel prevents it)....   Every Jew, they say, including Israeli soldiers (if they were Germans in World War II,  they would be sanctified by Israelis and every decent person worldwide, but in Israel they dare not reveal their names) who spoke up against the atrocities must be denounced as the intellectual “prisoner of the Palestinians.”  Magnes Zionist has a fine post Wednesday here  on the crazed isolation of the Israeli regime:

      Remember the time when Israel was praised as a beacon of democracy in an undemocratic region, when the world cheered tiny Israel fighting a sea of hostile Arabs? Now that the Goldstone Report has come out – the last in a series of reports criticizing Israel's Gaza Operation -- Israel is supported by all the usual suspects – rightwing Jews, rightwing Israelis (Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres on the moderate nationalist right to hyper-fascists like Ayalon and Lieberman), and, I suppose, Christian evangelicals and some conservative goyyim. Not a single liberal or progressive will rise to Israel's defense, because let's face it – when Israelis, Jews, and the rest of the world rise to criticize the bully's actions, when the person accused by the prime minister of Israel as conducting a "kangaroo court" is one of the most respected judges and scholars of international law (and a Jew and a Zionist to boot), when all the evidence against the Goldstone report is linked to research done by the rightwing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, or the rightwing NGO Monitor (which itself does not do fact-checking but instead a lot of googling to dig up dirt on its opponents), then you know that Israel has already lost.”

     This is Reaction in Israel – the racist authoritarianism of the government, featuring the foreign minister Lieberman who is a fascist, the debates in the Knesset over whether Arab Israelis, treated already as second class citizens, must swear a loyalty oath, the continuation of the settlements in which the government funds the destruction of Palestinian homes and/or eviction of their residents, smooths the resettlement of naïve or greedy Israeli rightists – mirroring the Nazis who took every bit of Jewish property off the persons of the dead, these settlers try to live with the madness of taking the homes of others, of ethnic cleansing,  looking out on the dispossession and poverty of the former owners.  If God did not will this, if one does not have racial superiority, if Palestinians are human (let alone, being as I sometimes say, the Jews of the occupied territories)…The teaching of the children not that the Jews, slaves and prophets exited from the bondage of Egypt to welcome strangers and oppose oppression, but that they themselves are worthy of becoming…barbaric, new Pharoahs.

    Magnes Zionist makes the profound point that the Israeli government has built a “legitimacy” at the expense of human rights. I mean this in the full moral sense, that they have made a regime against democracy with explicit, as in the Knesset, endorsement of evil.  The loyalty oath for Arab Isreals thankfully  did not pass the Knesset, but the fact of its discussion – are Jews really citizens of the Weimar republic? Must they swear a loyalty oath? would have been an equivalent discussion in a pre-1932 Reichstag – is tragic.  In its zeal to create a “greater” Israel, the establishment stands against human rights.  But the cause of human rights is the cause of the Jews who suffered the pogroms, the Jews stolen and hidden away in camps by the monsters while all the world looked on in silence (except the partisans in Russia – I have a student in my nonviolence class this quarter whose BeloRussian grandmother, a Jew, fought with the partisans against the Nazis - and of course the many Jews who fought for the US. Stalin sometimes nurtured bigotry against Jews, those near him, as did FDR whose government turned boatloads of émigré Jews back to Europe and would not mention the holocaust during the War because, as George Kennan ignobly said, that would make the war “a partisan effort”).  The cause of human rights is the cause of the Jews.   Perhaps that is why so many Jews following the path taken earlier by I.F. Stone or Noam Chomsky or Ilan Pappe,  with full recognition of the holocaust, stand against what the Israeli government so far does.

      Barack Obama is pursuing a complex path to try to save Israel from itself.  Bush had pursued the crazed policy of isolating Russia by expanding NATO, putting nuclear missiles in Poland and Czechoslovakia.  This was a policy only to help the military-industrial complex, since it placed ordinary people at the risk of war.  Over the shouts of reactionary and self-destructive officials in Poland and Czechoslovakia (if they have missiles, just who will be hit first in an exchange between the US and Russia?), Obama has reversed the Bush policy.  He seeks to decrease tensions with Russia.  This is, in itself, a brilliant move toward peace, toward hororing the end of rather than renewing the Cold War.  But his aim is not simply to achieve decency with Russia but to get Russia to put pressure on Iran to assure the world, by inspections, that its nuclear program is peaceful, that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons (there remains a standard American hypocrisy in this; Israel has several hundred such weapons, and is a great danger to use them, and the US has many more and is the lone power to have used them).  The aim is to reach out to the crazed government of Israel, egged on by Cheney (who was prevented only by the financial crash and some awareness, finally by Bush, that his Presidency had been eaten from within by Cheney’s literal madness), to get them not to aggress against Iran.  Hence, Obama, who has given marvelous speeches recognizing the humanity of everyone in the Middle East, also asked his UN representative, Susan Rice to speak on Thursday critically of the Goldstone Report (Magnes Zionist is right generally, but he wrote before Rice spoke).  The reason she spoke was not to harm the Palestinians but to reassure the isolated and crazed Israeli leaders that the US pressure on them to negotiate with the Palestinians and not bomb Iran was only at the expense of the monstrous greater Israel project, not at the expense of Jews. In diplomacy, very rarely, perhaps what is wrong is right.  Obama deserves to be criticized for this, but the purpose is clear.  Obama has set out a new course: the US  is working actively to save Jews and Palestinians, to push for a two state solution.  This move is  in the context of  making the reactionary Israeli government understand that bombing Iran is not on.  If you like complex realist policies on behalf of conflict resolution – after the Bush years, you would have to be a fool  not to (unfortunately there are a quite a number in the American establishment and news media) – it would be hard to beat Obama.  I again can’t think of a parallel in an American President (Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, was capable of listening and finally saved the world, perhaps Khruschchev similarly – but one could not call the moves of either sophisticated in this way)  or for that matter, a world leader. Let us pray that there will be further moves (that he can not only head off war with Iran, but that he will make himself clear...).

        An American President, Obama is still pursuing the madness in Afghanistan.  General McCrystal, a torturer in Iraq, has the bright idea that the US should stop murdering civilians.  He is acting forthrightly to prevent such murder.  It is good that he does this, every army should – learn from the self-conception of the Israeli army in the 1960s -  and his efforts cast a glaring light on the seven years of butchery conducted by the Bush administration of Afghanistan (Obama is allowing investigation of General Dostum's murder of some thousands of prisoners in 2001).  But McCrystal has mistaken his vocation.  The army which does not bloody the world with its so-called “collateral damage” does not exist.  Even the Chinese or the Vietnamense revolutions, genuinely popular forms of guerilla war by the home team, committed atrocities (read carefully, William Hinton’s Fanshen about the story of the Chinese Revolution in a village where he had then lived – the American immigration authorities stole and held his notes for 10 years, when he returned from China in 1953; the book was only published in 1965 - underlines this point; for instance, there is a story of a Communist leader whose parents, landlords, had been killed in the peasant uprising…).  If you want not to murder civilians, don’t invade.  If you seek not to create reasons for the survivors, and for children, to hate you for lifetimes, if you want to make the Taliban unpopular, to get Afghanis to fight and reject them, withdraw your army…Hamas had lost popularity dramatically among Palestinians until the Israeli atrocities in Gaza. 

      Leo Strauss’s writings are now popular among reactionary academics and activists in Israel.  I met Michael Kochin, a thoughtful Israeli student of Strauss, at the APSA panel I organized debating Strauss’s May 19, 1933 letter to Loewith in 2007. He characterizes Strauss as a reactionary and is perhaps himself an Israeli reactionary.  He even found something good in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (another disaster, greater morally than even militarily).  Like many rightwing Israelis, he moves in a framework – lives on a planet of fear – that most of us fail to understand.  Strauss himself lived on such a faraway and later perhaps esoteric planet – available mainly if somewhat delphically to the political clique he inspired - for much of his political life. He thought modern society decadent.  Some late surface remarks aside, he detested democracy (often in the same essays if one reads on).  He saw a hope even in the German national revolution (a unique place for a very scholarly Jew) and of course in a political Zionism, which was in fact, and now increasingly overtly and brutally, a form of national socialism (the kibbutzes have faded; perhaps one should say national capitalism with the emphasis on benefits for Jews like the settlers; in any case, he favored an Israeli “national revolution” not sufficiently distinct from the onetime German revolution).  See here and here.   On Strauss’s Delphic account, he spent his life on the “theological-political problem”: how smart authoritarians or Fuehrers or “statesmen” can use the foolish religiosity of others to put across their views.  The political philosophers of Strauss’s inspiration in Israel encourage the demented rabbis who seek greater Israel, the advisors to the army who wish to save Jews by inciting soldiers to kill old women walking a hundred yards away, to make the only decent people those who put down their guns, refuse to serve in the occupied territories or speak out (even in fear of giving their names) to name the crimes.  Sadly, Strauss and the political zealots among his followers - a minority of devoted students of Strauss defend the humanity of Palestinians - encourage such a religious movement at the expense of "the childish and pathetic inalienable rights of man."

      Will Altman went to the meeting on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Strauss’s What is Political Philosophy of the Claremont Institute at the American Political Science Association this September, and asked the panelists a question which shaped the subsequent discussion.  Why didn’t Leo Strauss, who was centrally interested in the “theological political problem” ever mention the decent liberal solution, the separation of church and state?  No matter how attentive to Strauss’s hidden writing and subtlety, no one in a crowd of people enamored of Strauss, or for that matter, someone like me who am very critical of Strauss’s politics but would rather Strauss had not thought this, can think of any examples (I asked Peter Minowitz, who referred me to several interesting discussions of politics and religion by Strauss, but as he said, struck out on even a discussion, let alone sympathy for separation of church and state (since Peter wrote a book carefully defending Strauss against unjust attacks, this is quite an admission). He is still looking. It would be good to find one.  Given all this trouble among those who should know, Altman’s question makes it all too clear about why the neoconservatives in the US and Israel betray the recognition of human rights, the cause of equality, the way each of these regimes might be rather than is (I mean this in the sense of Gandhi’s response to the reporter’s question about what he thought of English civilization - he said: “it would be nice” - or perhaps in Obama’s sense of seeking a more perfect union).

    My friend Ilene Cohen tells a sad and memorable story about a reactionary response to a speech to a Kosher Jewish supper club by Michael Walzer at Princeton in which he defended the separation of church and state and talked of its possible benefits in Israel.

     “I recently sent out one of the regular Jerusalem Post columns by Michael Freund. As I believe I wrote, Freund, who is Orthodox, graduated from Princeton in the 1980s. He moved to Israel and worked for Netanyahu in the 1990s. Very right wing, now involved in an organization that seeks to bring ‘lost Jews’ back into the Jewish fold (I can’t even begin to explain that one).  Freund was part of a right-wing, pro-settler cohort at Princeton that included Yoram Hazony, one of the founders of the Shalem Center, a right-wing "think tank" in Jerusalem (which was home to Michael Oren before he went to Washington as Israel's newest ambassador). These Princeton students used to make little unscheduled speeches/harangues during dinner at the kosher eating club of the time (Stevenson Hall), telling students of their duty to go to Israel and ‘settle.’ Most striking memory of Michael Freund was his comment to the speaker at a Friday night Shabbat forum on the Princeton campus, as follows.

The speaker was Michael Walzer, who was addressing the topic of religion and democracy in Israel--the issue being the proper role of Orthodox Judaism in the government establishment. Walzer was talking American "separation of church and state" or some such thing.

Freund stood up to comment during the Q&A: "If I wanted democracy, I could stay here."

You know how there are some things that you hear that you never forget?”

This is a regime against democracy.

        Obama is trying to head off Israel from launching world war (and the US to attentuate the impact of its recent aggressions). With difficulty, we can step back from conflagration throughout the Middle East – with its dangers over the next 25 years  of nuclear war between Israel and Iran or Pakistan and India, or we can continue the Bush-Cheney-Israeli government course which leads rather plainly to destruction. See here.   If the Israeli government continues to brutalize Palestinians daily, and to hassle young women from the Middle West – some of my students -  who go to Palestine and try to protect the evicted even on programs organized with the Hebrew Univesity of Jerusalem, Israel is lost.  See here and here.  A tragic article by Naomi Chazan, sent to me by Ilene Cohen, underlines this point, though it also indicates again, in the Jerusalem Post, that decency is alive in Israel. The spirit of those who exited Egypt still lives. Like Richard Goldstone, it will take each of us naming the truth and standing up for democracy, undergirded by the human rights of each person,  in Israel and the US, to make a difference.

Critical Currents: A tale of two polls

Sep. 3, 2009


The Jewish experience in the 21st century is marked by its democratic character. For the first time, Jews throughout the world, with virtually no exceptions, live freely in open societies. Yet recent polls conducted in the two major concentrations of Jewish existence today - Israel and the United States - reveal a growing divergence of views, interests and mind-sets. These focus squarely on differing approaches to the role of Israel in contemporary Jewish life. Without a thorough, honest and critical reassessment of the humanistic and moral underpinnings of Israel and what it represents, its centrality in the Jewish world will continue to wane.

Attitudes toward Barack Obama among American and Israeli Jews are symptomatic of a much deeper parting of ways. Last week, a Smith Research poll conducted on behalf of The Jerusalem Post showed that only 4 percent of Israeli Jews see the US president's policies as pro-Israel (down from a paltry 6% in June and a dramatic drop from the 31% who viewed them as such in May). A majority of respondents (51%) consider the new administration's position more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel, and 35% think they do not evince a bias for one side or the other.

The most progressive leader of the US in recent memory is not liked in Israel.

IN CONTRAST, a poll of Jewish Democrats (78% of American Jews voted for Obama), commissioned by the conservative Traditional Values Coalition and released a couple of week ago, shows that 92% approve of the president's job performance. In addition, 58% of those queried said he was doing a good job in promoting peace in the Middle East (only 16% disagreed with this statement). The majority of Jews in the US stand solidly behind Barack Obama.

The glaring gap in the attitudes of Israeli and American Jews toward the relationship between their respective governments is undeniable. Assuming that these latest surveys are methodologically sound (they are, indeed, entirely consistent with other polls carried out during the past few months), then the immediate lessons are clear. From the point of view of the present administration in Washington, recent steps have obviously not resonated with the Israeli public, whose built-in defensiveness has been magnified as a result of efforts to propel a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict. From the vantage point of the Netanyahu government, the bulk of American Jewry is at odds with its basic precepts. Their identification with Israel no longer extends to unequivocal support for its actions.

The growing rift between these two major Jewish communities is not indicative merely of a disagreement over policy directions. It mirrors far more profound processes taking place in both settings.

In the US, Jews have, time and again, evinced steadfast support for the liberal principles of equality and social justice, which they equate with their Jewish heritage as well as with universal values. These binding norms have helped to fuse their collective identity and continually guide their outlooks and their behavior. Concern for the downtrodden, the disempowered and the other has become central to the Jewish ethic in the US. As Darren Pinsker so skillfully demonstrated in these pages just last weekend ("Obama and the Jewish vote"), most Jews in the US consistently adhere to social-democratic precepts domestically and to dovish positions internationally. These views are an inextricable part of their makeup as Jewish citizens of the US.

Trends in Israel point in quite different directions. As more Jews outside Israel - in Europe and Latin America as well as in North America - have internalized the democratic ethos, those in Israel appear to be disengaging from its roots. Six decades of independent achievement are increasingly being clouded by the acceleration of socioeconomic inequalities, the prevalence of discrimination among Jews of different backgrounds (shamelessly brought to the fore by the effort to exclude pupils of Ethiopian origin from some religious schools in Petah Tikva), the systemically unequal treatment of Arab citizens as well as continuing rule over another people, with all that this entails.

THE ISRAEL Democracy Institute's annual Democracy Index released barely a month ago uncovers an alarming rise in intolerance, bigotry and outright racism which flies in the face of basic democratic principles. A dangerous combination of religious formalism and unfettered patriotism, coupled with an almost inexplicable attachment to neoconservative doctrines, has narrowed Jewish horizons in Israel and threatens to erode its egalitarian foundations.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Jews in Israel and abroad are drifting apart: The symbiotic relationship which bound them together in the past cannot survive in the free environment of the 21st century unless it is cemented by a renewed commitment to human dignity and the values of justice and equality that give it meaning.

Initially, the mutually sustaining link between nascent Israel and world Jewry was predicated on a commonality of tradition and destiny. Jews throughout the globe provided Israel with material support and political backing; in return, Israel's existence offered the promise of a safe haven and a much-needed rallying point for affiliation and mobilization. Implicit in this somewhat uneven exchange was the belief that Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, would exemplify the Jewish contribution to a just global order by constituting a ‘light unto the nations.’

This normative bond has gradually unraveled as Israel has become a fully industrialized country and Jews from the former Soviet Union and its sphere of influence have been liberated from the shackles of totalitarianism. It is also this ethical tie which is in desperate need of repair.

There is a steep decline in American Jewish sentiment toward Israel. If, in the annual American Jewish Committee survey of 2006, 37% of US Jews claimed that they felt very close to Israel, by 2008 -scarcely two years later - this figure dropped to 29%. Undoubtedly the Second Lebanon War, corruption in high places, the Gaza offensive and shifting global currents have left a mark on American Jews. They have found outlets other than Israel to articulate their Jewish identity and their ongoing dedication to its moral dictates. Israel's actions and the discourse of its leaders no longer dovetail with those of its founders and of many Jews who in the past drew inspiration from their deeds.

Any hope for the revival of a constructive partnership between Jews in Israel and elsewhere must build on the humanistic worldview that has informed the Judaic tradition in the past and has become the essence of Jewish existence today. This requires a serious, frank, egalitarian and value-driven global effort to review and update the Jewish agenda and to make it relevant to the challenges of the present century.

Such an undertaking is a reciprocal obligation - that is the only way to make Israel and the world it inhabits a better place for all. Until such a dynamic is put in motion, the two polls bear evidence to the dual poles which represent the Jewish trajectory today."

H/t Debbie Main for requesting that I write about this.

No comments:

Post a Comment