Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Fear and Anger of Michael Oren


     Interestingly, except to be attacked, the Goldstone report does not often make the mainstream press.*  The Israeli ambassador, sent by the reactionary coalition led by Netanyahu, Michael Oren, speaks definitively in the Boston Globe, a liberal paper, of its alleged distortions. He does not mention that Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone panel (hard to get people to listen to your case if you refuse to make it).  Instead, he makes the hypothetical case that if the US had entered Afghanistan and the Taliban had taken refuge in urban areas among civilians, it could not have avoided killing innocents (actually, the US relied on General Dostum who murdered some 1000s of prisoners in transporting them packed in sealed containers; reversing the Bush administration’s attempts to defend Dostum by suppressing any inquiry, the Obama administration has recently allowed this great war crime to be at least investigated).  Israel, Oren says, has been aggressed against by thousands of rockets fired by Hamas. He means to speak of aggression, I think, in the technical and legal sense (in international law mandated by Article 2, section 4 of the United Nations Charter).   What else could this small, beleaguered democracy and law abiding country do but defend itself?

       “Just as the United States entered Afghanistan in response to an unprovoked attack on American civilians in 2001, so, too, did Israel’s intervention, which followed more than 7,000 Hamas rocket and mortar strikes on Israeli towns and villages since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Given the UN Human Rights Commission’s silence in the face of this aggression, and Hamas’s rejection of Israeli offers to renew a cease-fire, Israel exercised its unassailable right to defend its citizens.’

Hamas hides, he says, behind civilians.  They are cowards and assassins.  Israel – with “the most moral army in the world” - takes every step to protect civilians.  Actually, through Breaking the Silence, Israelis soldiers at great risk have spoken out anonymously about the crimes that their fellow soldiers committed.   It would be enough for Oren to try to show that the “mistakes” they report were not a part of policy.  That would certainly indicate an integrity to the regime of the sort that the “most moral army” in the world might have prided itself on (even the phase  “most moral army” is of course psychologically speaking,  grandiose - whatever "moral" armies do, this campaign was not it - and an indication  that something deep is  being suppressed).  

      NATO committed crimes - the bombing of Serbia to protect the Kosovars obviously killed innocents and famously blew up the Chinese embassy; the US used depleted uranium – nuclear weapons which produce striking diseases even in survivors (birth defect and cancers).   Though the commander General Wesley Clark worries about war crimes and is quite thoughtful about it, to attack only from 30,000 feet was,  prima facie, cowardly compared even to the Israeli invasion.  Still, the stories from loyal Israeli soldiers in Breaking the Silence  about a commander, for instance, ordering a soldier to shoot an old women wandering at a distance of a hundred years sadly make some units obvious competitors.  Oren should be careful with the common Israeli government trope that the US committed far worse war crimes in the fire bombing of Dresden…What creates the necessity to use such metaphors? 

         He continues

        “Despite Hamas’s cynical use of civilians as human shields, the Israel Defense Forces repeatedly called off operations deemed too dangerous to civilian populations and endangered its own troops by warning Palestinian neighborhoods of impending attacks. Yet even the most moral army can make mistakes, especially in dense urban warfare; for every Serbian soldier killed by NATO in 1999, for example, four civilians died. By comparison, more than half of the Palestinian casualties in Gaza were military.”

There is no evidence for the last claim.  But let us suppose for the sake of argument that it is true. More than half - let's say half (maybe Oren can try to cut it to a third, just the children...) Of some 1300 killed, 650 would be civilians, many of them children.  Even an ordinary criminal who allowed himself to look might  express some repentance or sorrow, have some thought about whether he really wanted to have done this.  Surely, the "most moral army" in the world, one that engages in an external show of morality (warning Palestinians to leave their houses before blowing them up) to cover up crimes...Michael Oren is in a bad place.  Denial is necessary.

       Though the Israeli government refused unilaterally to cooperate with the United Nations (there is a common rogue state behavior between the Bush-Cheney regime and Israel), Oren says, Israel’s army is really investigating charges of crimes of war:

       “Still, Israel launched investigations into some 100 cases of alleged misconduct by its soldiers, 23 of which continue. If found guilty, as one soldier already has been, the perpetrators will be brought to justice under Israel’s internationally respected legal system.”

Following the standard Israeli government rhetorical move (a colleague of mine also uses it in debate), he might want to compare what the IDF is doing to Abu Ghraib (where a few American soldiers were made to bear responsibility for the Principals – the leaders of the Bush administration except Colin Powell).  Or he might want to contrast the courage and honor of the IDF with the Bush administration’s refusal to allow investigations of war crimes under law (American domestic and international law).  But sadly even the Obama administration, which seems to be limiting such investigations because of how many important people would go to jail for the American system of torture prisons, looks pretty good on General Dostum - though perhaps not US complicity with him - compared to “the most moral army in the world.”

     Oren suggests that the UN is a criminal organization – one which lives to support violence against jews and tolerates the murder of civilians.  The charge is interestingly selective about facts.  He does not recall that a United Nations resolution amazingly founded Israel.  He neglects that  except for the aggression in Iraq, it is too much an instrument  of American policy, for instance in its genocidal boycott of Iraq that killed by UN statistics 4,500 children a month during the 1990s.  The boycott drove  Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, chief of humanitarian operations in Iraq  to  bring anti-leukemia medicine to save a 9 year old girl in violation of the UN ban, and later resign, rightly charging the US, the UK and the United Nations Security Council with violations of the United Nations Convention against Genocide. There is no simple set of facts about the United Nations (composed of representatives of governments) or any government in the world. In Oren’s words,

      “The UN Human Rights Commission, which has condemned Israel more frequently than Libya, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea combined, undertook to investigate ‘all violations of international human rights law' in the Israeli operation - essentially presuming Israel’s guilt. The judges, one of whom had already denounced Israel in print, conducted their hearings in Hamas-controlled Gaza and interviewed witnesses, including several Hamas operatives posing as civilians, selected by the regime. They ignored Israel’s deeply-probing investigation into its own force’s conduct and found only the evidence that confirmed their preordained conclusion. Israel was found guilty of attacking ‘the people of Gaza as a whole,’ of violating their ‘fundamental rights and freedoms,' and arbitrarily killing them.”

See the full text of Oren’s op-ed "UN Report a Victory for Terror" here. The Globe does not reproduce the report itself.  On September 19th, however, it did print an op-ed James Carroll, "A Time of Reckoning" which captures the premedicated abandonment of proportionality by Israel - the Dahiya or perhaps more accurately, massacre doctrine - and its invocation of Truman during World War II here. Carroll writes:       

       Israel denies deliberately attacking civilians, but the Goldstone commission found evidence of an overwhelming assault on Gaza’s civilian population. Chapter XI of the report, for example, cites the shelling of a house in which Palestinian civilians had been forced by the IDF to gather; the intentional bombing of a hospital with white phosphorous shells; the shooting of civilians who were waving white flags, and the subsequent refusal to allow those wounded to be evacuated. 'From the facts ascertained in all of the above cases, the Mission finds that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute (sic) grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.’

        "At the heart of the criticism of Israel is a charge that cannot be readily refuted - that the military operation involved 'the application of disproportionate force.’ Proportion in war has been an essential element of every just war theory. But in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war, Israeli leaders openly embraced what is known as the Dahiya Doctrine, named for an obliterated Beirut neighborhood that had housed Hezbollah fighters. Before the Gaza war, the head of the IDF Northern Command Gadi Eisenkof defined the doctrine: 'We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective these are military bases. This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.’ The Goldstone commission found exactly that, a strategy of disproportionality adopted at the highest levels of command - and efficiently implemented against civilians 'on the ground.’"

      AIPAC and others who campaign against critics of the occupation often try to silence them.   But as Milton once said in defending freedom of speech in  Areopagitica, “so long as truth be in the field,” it will probably vanquish even the most powerful falsehood. Reality has a way of bringing round initially lonely points of view.   In contrast, speaking loudly and hoping to fill the world with his sound, Micheal Oren seeks to silence opposition rather than debate.

         Oren ignores 1) the fact that Israel conquered and occupies Gaza.  Israel is the aggressor, not the victim (a point that even the Goldstone report ignores).  This is decisive.  The ideal Israeli picture is that it is a small democracy in a sea of hostile Arab peoples and tyrants.  There is some truth in this (there would be more if the US and even Israel had not do so much to sustain, through military aid and intelligence cooperation. those tyrannies' crimes against democrats, reformers and civilians; in the attack, Egypt, too, prevented civilians from leaving Gaza).  Israel  was, I repeat, the home for the Jews allowed by the United Nations  after the genocide (in comparison, immediately after World War II, US immigration allowed in Nazi war criminals from Eastern Europe – to be used by the CIA against the Soviets - but refused “displaced” Jews from the same countries…).  But in organizing the initial transfer of the Palestinians, the Israeli government committed, as Ilan Pappe, an Israeli, sadly shows, the crime of ethnic cleansing.  It  could then have tried to settle with the Palestinians, at least commit no more crimes.  Instead, in its victory in the 1967 war, it occupied the territories and continues to ravage the Palestinians. States are, as Oren might say, often founded on crimes.  But the occupation has redoubled the earlier crimes and fitted out luxurious Israeli settlements amidst the misery, degradation and murder (by the state of Israel) of Palestinians.  The occupation is the crime of aggression.  This different and also real perspective is fatal to Oren's stance.   Once one notices that Palestinians are human, it is hard to look at Israel in the same way.  Oren’s loudness, his fear and anger, his denunciation of the supposed hypocrisy of the Goldstone report and the failure even to name the man who led the commission – must be Lord Voldemort - means to hide this central fact. 

        2) This fact explains the otherwise inexplicable.  It is not that the UN Human Rights Commission is fanatically opposed to Israel and that so many governments and European as well as nonwhite peoples are crazed at Jews.  Instead, this fact reveals the carelessness of innocent life that is characteristic of an aggressor and occupier.  Israel rightly points out that Hamas deliberately fires rockets into civilian areas, and murders innocents.  But Israel murders a far larger number.  The Goldstone report names some of this.  It is the tragedy of the Israeli political establishment (and leads to increasing isolation and self-destructiveness) that it sees only the one crime - the crime of the other - and is blind to the greater one.    3 ) In violation of the customs of war and pretty well alone among aggressors, it (along with the Egyptian tyranny) refuses to allow civilians to flee its attacks.  It thus murdered some 650 civilians like fish in a barrel  on Oren’s own account – and then protests that Hamas hides among them.  It must be Hamas’s fault that those children died.  But the bullets or rockets that murdered them were Israeli and US made (every Israeli helicopter is an Apache – a stereotype of fierce warriors but the name also  conjures the US government's genocide against Native Americans),  4) the Commission was headed by the distinguished international lawyer who is also a Jew and a Zionist, Richard Goldstone.  Goldstone helped heal apartheid in South Africa and to make a transition to a decent and elected regime without slaughters (it would be  like Bill Kristol denouncing Desmond Tutu). 5)  in another criminal aspect of closing the borders, Oren (and the United States) have collaborated in starving and denying medical care to the people of Gaza.  The Israeli Defense Forces even shot up UN trucks bringing medicine and food in Gaza.  The markings on the trucks were clear enough (if the IDF, according to the soldiers in Breaking the Silence, shot a wandering old woman 100 yards away to "protect themselves," perhaps this is not surprising).   Oren may feel good that there is an Israeli verdict against one IDF crime, but the facts make this less than reassuring to other observers, notably Goldstone.

       I have a wonderful Palestinian Ph.D. student who attends the Korbel School on a Fulbright.  Unsurprisingly, he is no fan of Hamas or Fatah.  But even if he were, it would do no whit to justify the constant threat of death and pain caused to his wife and four children or to him (so far, they have all  committed the crime of breathing while Palestinian).  In normal times under the Israeli government’s occupation, he calls home and speaks to his family with guns or bombs going off in the background (Israel doesn’t do major invasions and large-scale slaughters all the time, but it does often strike at “Hamas” and nearby civilians).  What Oren accuses Hamas of doing, being careless of or “hiding among civilians,” the Israeli government certainly does: taking out many civilians to get at Hamas. (In firing unmanned drone missiles from Langley, West Virginia into Pakistan, the CIA does similar and similarly self-destructive war crimes).

       Phoning home, Wael says good night to his children never knowing whether the bombs or the firing will make this conversation the last.  He is a Fulbright scholar and Fulbright - a U.S. government organization - asked Israel to let his family go.  But they would have to go to Jerusalem to get visas and "the most moral government" in the world, according to Oren, does not allow this.  It’s a free place, Gaza, Oren tells us, the Israeli army withdrew in 2005, but the Palestinian regime can’t give visas and Gaza has no airport, and every traded good is taxed by the Israeli government for Israeli “help” in facilitating trade and Israel, even against Obama's request, is expelling people from their homes and building new settlements every day… Anybody remember the objections to Pharoah?

        Wael’s wife and children can’t leave.  They were frightened during the invasion and thought they lived too near an Hamas leader.  They moved to her mother’s house.  No Hamas leader in the vicinity, but the house was hit by an Israeli (perhaps American-made) rocket.  Fortunately, they all survived.   But despite the Fulbright request, his family can’t get out.  Who, Michael Oren, is stopping them? 

       Wael has taken several political theory courses with me and we are friends.  I am reminded of such stories every week where I work (on other experiences of my American students, for instance, see here).  The mainstream “news” media show no footage of Gaza.  But the facts are widely and increasingly known.  The reactionary government is a seeming triumph for "greater Israel" but daily undermines what little legitimacy (only through ignorance) the occupation has.  Oren is roaring into a typhoon and the ultimate silence is not the one he seeks to compel…

      President Obama is trying to save Jews from the madness of Israeli policies, and work out some sort of decent settlement between Jews and Palestinians. Such a settlement will be remarkably favorable to an Israel within the 1967 borders roughly (currently the Palestinians have less than 10% of the original territory allocated to them in the UN resolution that created Israel; there is a wall running through it).  There has been too much death.    Hamas seems willing to go along.  Israel would be wise to negotiate an agreement and seek modestly to help the Palestinians rebuild.  But the illegal settlements are a stone around its neck.  The settlements – and not the self-image of the "most moral army," let alone the great egalitarian values which most Israelis initially embraced (undermined of course by racism toward Arabs) and which used to be spoken of by those who admired Israel though not its current leaders (Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, has the affection for such values of Mussolini) – drive Oren’s speech.

      Oren is right that Hamas shoots rockets against civilians.  These are crimes.  They also, counterproductively, strengthen the Israeli government in its course as an occupier and builder of new, illegal settlements (nonviolent civil disobedience would be a far wiser and better course).  They create an atmosphere of fear among ordinary Israelis out of which the Liebermans and Netanyahus emerge.   Hamas had however agreed to a ceasefire and its rockets in the preceding 6 months had killed no one until the Israeli attack. The Goldstone report spells out the crimes on each side.   The Israeli occupying army killed 13oo, including several hundred children, Hamas murdered a 7 year old Israeli child and 12 others.  What Hamas did is a great crime and politically self-destructive.  The Goldstone report criticizes Hamas's crimes.  But however he might have wished to, Richard Goldstone, a lawyer, a decent man, a Jew and a Zionist, could not make the facts different.  1300 dead, several hundred children by the occupiers; 13 dead, 1 child by the occupied.  The sound and fury of Oren’s oratory cannot make these facts go away.

H/t to Jeffrey Herz for sending me Oren’s piece.  As I say about Max Weber here, I have learned greatly from Jeffrey.  Shortly I will post on his long piece about modern totalitarianism in the New Republic which Marty Peretz announces beyond ideology and which makes a very important point about Germany in the 1930s, but talks almost not at all about Palestine.  I hope for willingness to have some conversation or debate about these matters.  As in the case of Strauss’s politics – one does not have to be in the abstract, for or against it  – one can simply look at what the case is, and try to figure out whether anything, livable or sustainable, for human beings can arise from the argument.

*for those who don’t know of Richard Goldstone, a September 23rd article by Claudia Braude in the Jewish newspaper, Forward, critical of the UN organization which commissioned the Report, “Will Goldstone's Gaza report prove him just a naive idealist?” draws a picture:

       “Interviewed four days before the report's release, Goldstone was upbeat about the prospects and unapologetic about his decision to take up the job. 'I was driven particularly because I thought the outcome might, in a small way, assist the peace process,' he told the Forward. 'I really thought I was one person who could achieve an even-handed mission.' Goldstone is widely credited with having helped bring down apartheid through a government-commissioned investigation he led that exposed the existence of covert state-sponsored terror units deployed by South Africa against its own black citizenry. Nelson Mandela, the country's first post-apartheid president, later appointed Goldstone to the country's highest court. More recently, Goldstone has served as chief UN prosecutor of war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. A proud Jew Goldstone is proud of his Jewish identity and links it firmly to his human rights concerns. A president emeritus of World ORT, a Jewish organization that runs several vocational schools in Israel, he also serves on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's board of governors. Characterizing the struggle for human rights as 'a secular religion of our time,' Goldstone once described Israel's existence as its Jewish embodiment. 'This struggle for human rights has been in the most profound existential sense very much the struggle for ourselves - for our own Jewish destiny. For the creation of the State of Israel,' he said. 'I've been involved with Israel since I can remember,' Goldstone told the Forward. 'My mother was very active in the women's Zionist movement.' Also, his daughter Nicole lived in Israel. But he insisted his appointment was due solely to his background in international criminal justice. 'I've no doubt the fact I'm a Jew wasn't the reason I was approached,' he said. On human rights, Goldstone told the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists in 1995, 'We must not only insist that we be judged by those standards by our neighbors and by the international community. We should indeed object vehemently when any [one] seeks to judge us by any other standards.’”

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