Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jewish Ritual, Feminine Spirituality and Tefillin

Jewish women from a variety of streams within Judaism are showing ever greater interest in what have traditionally been considered male Jewish rituals. Their interest is often met with Jewish male disapproval, at times vehement, and rarely thoughtfully presented. It's fair to say that something of a generation-driven feminist-inspired push-back against what are perceived to be patriarchally-determined, arbitrary religious roles is involved. However, while on the surface this issue may resemble the righteous and long struggle for female equality in such areas as suffrage and the workplace, when it comes to Jewish religious practice, a more nuanced understanding is required.

I first addressed this subject around year ago, in Feminine Spirituality and the role of Ritual. There, I notably compared male Jewish ritual to a carpool for dialysis patients and, perhaps more substantively, considered the male-driven glorification, exotification and, indeed, fetishization of Jewish ritual, to the point where, somewhat absurdly, Jewish women feel unjustly deprived of it.

In this, my first blog post from a three month plus hiatus, I'd like to delve once more into this subject. This time around, we'll consider a particular ritual - the wrapping of tefillin. This discussion will be fairly useless if you either don't know what tefillin are, or don't care. So, either learn the basics, or have a nice day. Those with little to no understanding of Jewish faith or customs may find the following material challenging. However, by sticking with me, and using Wikipedia liberally, you may yet think today - always an exciting prospect ;) Plunging right in, then.

To begin, where is it forbidden for women to wear tefillin? There are conflicting rulings by the Rema (who discouraged it) and Gra (who forbade it) but the halacha merely says that women are exempt (Mishnah Berachot 3:3, Orach Chaim 38:3). On the other hand, it’s a time-bound mitzvah tailored (by the Creator) to bolster male connectivity with the divine. So, from a spiritual perspective, it’s something of a misappropriation from the designated intent of the act. It’s like a man wearing women’s underwear; I mean, he could (not really, under halacha, which forbids cross-dressing, but follow the analogy), but they weren’t designed with him in mind.

However, whereas some misappropriations of the tools G-d gave us are actually harmful, in a spiritual sense (like having sex out of wedlock), what’s really the downside to a woman wearing tefillin? The issue seems quite trivial and (the very few) Jewish men who blow this issue out of proportion have a high hill to climb to appear neither silly nor brutish. In my admittedly unscholarly opinion, the worst that can happen is that, by wearing tefillin, a woman is depriving herself of a far greater potential for spiritual action and fulfillment, desensitizing herself to the level of a man. That’s my best dramatic spin on the deal. Oh well, how tragic for her, but my life goes on and everyone else’s should too.

In this discussion, I am disregarding ritual tefillin-wearing from scholarly tefillin-wearing, if it can be called that. In other words, a fully-observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman learning about tefillin and wearing them for a time in that context is different from a Jewish woman assuming the mitzvah of tefillin as hers to perform. There might be no downside to her doing so, but in the same way, what exactly is the upside, from a spiritual perspective? More importantly, what is her spiritual opportunity cost to wearing tefillin?

There are some few exceptions. People bring up Rashi’s daughters wrapping tefillin (although there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence for it). There have been other examples throughout history, both ancient and recent, for which there is evidence. At the same time, none of the women who we know, in fact, wore tefillin, were running around promoting female tefillin use; it was a private matter. Tefillin at their essence are a spiritual tool designed for men. If a gaon, tzadik or rebbe (in the traditional sense, not a graduate of Chicago University’s Jewish Studies program – no disrespect implied) ever privately advised a woman in a specific circumstance to use that tool, to affect a particular effect in her spiritual life, without broadcasting this to the world, it wouldn’t shock me. If a G-d fearing, learned woman (Jewish Studies majors are, again, excluded, from the “learned” adjective, not necessarily the “G-d fearing” – no disrespect implied) chooses to use this tool for some unusual reason, fully understanding the implications, who is anyone else to argue? But in the main this is a tool designed and deployed for the spiritual service of men.

Nevertheless, I recognize that there exist women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. Some would call this outcome a lack of proper education, understanding or the result of a spiritual identity built on non-normative premises and foundations. Personally, and I mean personally, I think it reeks of the worst sort of misogyny that men, who are spiritually lower, have so inculcated in women a reverence for men, that women think doing as men do is the path to their spiritual aliyah. See my previous article on the subject for more development of that vein.

Going back to the notion of tefillin as a tool, consider the purpose of that tool, and equate it with something more tangible… say, crutches. G-d gave men spiritual crutches because they couldn’t walk on their own. Women are perfectly healthy; they don’t need crutches. However, because women see that G-d paid more attention to the men in this regard (the way a doctor pays more attention to the sick than the healthy), they equate crutches with greater connection to the divine. So, you’ve got perfectly healthy women demanding to walk around in crutches. Who knows, maybe someone who thinks their legs are broken really might need crutches as much as someone whose legs actually are broken. It’s a curious thing to watch, and some may call it insanity, that healthy people should walk around in crutches. As I said, my life goes on.

I accept that there are women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. What’s more, and more importantly, I accept that many of these women feel their need to wear tefillin has real justification. This means that anything I or anyone else tells them to dissuade them from wearing tefillin will feed into a self-reinforcing narrative of resistance, and will probably have the opposite effect – i.e. “denying” them tefillin only increases the perceived holiness and necessity of tefillin, etc. Perhaps in the time of the Rema (who urged that women be discouraged from wearing tefillin), Rabbinical authority commanded sufficient weight as to be respected without question. Today, putting up walls in the path of determined people is taken as a challenge to be surmounted at all costs and is consequently more likely to start a brush-fire than put one out.

In summation, here is my suggestion for responsible action on the part of Jewish men faced with this issue. Whenever a Jewish woman wants to wear tefillin, the first thing an observant Jewish man should do is immediately give her a pair of tefillin, without a second’s delay, and show her how to use them. The more determined she is, the more quickly he should submit, because this isn't about denying women a precious instrument of divine service. And after she's done the deed, he should do what he can to engage her in that very necessary conversation about crutches, and how a supremely healthy and powerful spiritual being like her really doesn’t need them. (But whenever she feels she does, she can borrow his.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hidden Camera: Anti-Arab/Muslim Racism in Israel

We've all heard how terribly racist Israeli Jews are towards Arabs. The following, explosive video, unmasks the true face of Zionist Apartheid. Forward to all your Mondoweiss-reading friends with the tagling: "Israeli Racism: The truth is worse than you ever imagined." That way they're sure to watch the whole video, waiting for the truth as they know it to reveal itself.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg: Jewish Men With Kippas Are "Radicals", "Terrorists"

Jeffrey Goldberg's rather ostentatious behavior of late - joining Gal Beckerman in policing the "Occupation" consensus, badgering Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, calling Jews he doesn't agree with fascists, among other activities - has drawn my attention. His self-referential preening, which I once mistook for self-deprecating humor, appears to have peaked, assisted by those with an interest in domesticating a renowned American Jewish Zionist who can direct profanities and ad-hominem attacks at other Jews without incurring consequence. Fine, we all have to make a living.

On Tuesday, Jeffrey published a piece on Bloomberg describing his three worst terrorist fears. Predictably, and rather helpfully for those who are cultivating Goldberg as an asset in the struggle against Jewish sovereignty, the prospect of "messianic" Jewish terrorism took up half the article. Because, as we all know, one out of every trillion human beings has been gravely affected by the deeply deplorable scourge of "messianic" Jewish terrorism. eeZrrraeli hasbara about the ongoing slaughter in Syria or the starvation crisis in Africa cannot be allowed to change the subject from this intolerable situation of "messianic" Jewish terrorism, which demands the immediate attention of America's best known Jewish journalist cum blogger.

Jeffrey Goldberg, respected Jewish-American journalist, felt it was his duty to broadcast to humanity that Jews who believe in the coming of a Messiah - thus earning the "messianic" adjective - are a clear and present danger to world peace. That belief in the coming of a Messiah constitutes one of the 13 Principles of the Jewish Faith, adhered to by all observant Jews throughout history, without a single resultant incident of bloodshed or violence, is irrelevant. For Jeffrey, the important point was to draw a false equivalence between Islamist fanaticism and Jewish virtue; to ensure that civilized people learn to be frightened of Jews, particularly Jews who lovingly adhere to the statutes of their faith, no less than they are of Islamists, and preferably more so. Mission accomplished, indeed.

But wait, there's more! Who are these "messianic" Jewish terrorists, and where are they hiding?

"A few months ago," Jeffrey helpfully directs us, "I visited a building in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City owned by a radical yeshiva." Aha! So that's where the "messianic" Jewish terrorists are encamped, biding their time to strike the blow that ends the world. Camped illegitimately, Goldberg likely wishes to add, it being the Muslim Quarter, and thus the dreaded and preferably Judenrein "West Bank".

To my knowledge, which I admit is limited (where's Yaacov when you need him), the only yeshiva of any prominence in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City is Yeshiva Ateres Cohanim. Here it is on Google Maps, in relation to the Temple Mount. Here's a brief video (click the link, I command you) about the yeshiva, encompassing the history of the place, which has been a center of Jewish learning since 1886, when it was known as Yeshiva Torath Chaim (pictured on the right, 1920s).

That's right, the building now home to Ateres Cohanim housed a yeshiva long before the international community decided that Jews should not be allowed to live in "East" Jerusalem, and longer still before Jeffrey Goldberg decided that any Jew who lives in "East" Jerusalem is a "radical". What's more, the building is the sole survivor of the Jordanian occupation, during which time the other 80 yeshivas and synagogues in the Arab controlled portions of the city were destroyed. The building laid empty after the Arab pogroms of 1936, entrusted to an Arab caretaker, until Israel reunified Jerusalem in 1967.

Today, the Yeshiva is under the direction of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the heads of the Religious Zionist movement in Israel. This "radical" is famous for inciting such "messianic" Jewish terrorism as instructing Jewish soldiers to obey their orders when expelling Jews from settlements. The outrage! In addition, most or all of the yeshiva's students apparently serve, or have served, in the IDF. So, not only do these guys actively participate in the defense of their country, but their Rabbi instructs them to respect civil authority. If that's not radicalism, I don't know what is. In fact, had you obeyed my command and clicked the link earlier, you would see that the students attending this yeshiva exhibit none of the tangible symbols of the "ultra-orthodox", who are among Goldberg's preferred Jewish radicals - they are either heavily trimmed or clean shaven, lack the distinctive black and white garb, etc.

In all respects, the very people Jeffrey Goldberg describes as "radicals", and casually associates with "messianic" Jewish terrorism, appear to simply be young, law-abiding Jewish men, happily learning about their faith and serving their country. Yet, halfway around the world, these guys, who have done nothing wrong, are libeled as "radicals" by a self-promoting American journalist peddling his "insight" into the Jewish world, who happened to have once climbed up their staircase, fishing for a story of Jewish perfidy.

For Jeffrey, it wasn't enough to warn the world of "messianic" Jewish terrorism, which has claimed untold lives - literally, untold, for there is nothing to tell - conflating a fundamental precept of the Jewish faith with the terror and death made real by other hands. No, he wanted to make sure that everyone knew who these "radicals" were, walking around in our midst, conspiring to bring about the apocalypse. And so, Jeffrey Goldberg, esteemed son and lover of Zion, has reduced to the status of "radical" and prospective "messianic" terrorist every Jewish man wearing a kippa. Listening to the audience applaud, one might think this is his most proudest achievement. I'll leave it in his hands to decide.

Foreskin Man Gets Circumcised


I haven't laughed that hard in months. Capt. Israel even wraps tefillin around his left arm and (possibly?) forehead! Now that we're certain he's either straight-up Chabadnik or a "friend of Chabad", I feel comfortable recommending a tzitzis-type cape, or he can tuck them in, to reduce his drag coefficient. How about a "kosher-sense", to avoid treif (non-kosher food) by instinct? A little tight around the crotch, though. Not so good for the uhh... le virilité. There is potential here. Of course, the real battles are yet to come - does he go by OU-D or Cholov Yisroel, etc.

Check out the artist, Arlen Schumer. (h/t EoZ)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Silencing Dissent - A How To Guide by Gal Beckerman

Two weeks ago, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, released a video on YouTube entitled "Israel Palestinian Conflict: The Truth About the West Bank". In the video, Ayalon recounts some of the legal, historical and political facts surrounding Israel's acquisition of Judea and Samaria (along with the Sinai, Gaza and the Golan) from hostile Arab armies which had massed to snuff out the Jewish State in 1967. The video made the usual rounds at EoZ, IsraelMatzav and other pro-Israel blogs. I thought little of it at the time, sure that this small contribution to Israel's public diplomacy, which merely revisited a broadly uncontroversial perspective of historical events, would have little impact outside pro-Israel circles.

Certainly, I thought, Ayalon's emphasis that the legal status of the West Bank is "disputed" and not "occupied", while factually true, would do little to challenge the emotionally charged meme of "Occupation"™©®. So fundamentally ensconced has the Arab narrative been into the vocabulary of the conflict, that even former Israeli Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert, and former President Bush, albeit for the purposes of political expediency in advancing their own programs of resolving the conflict, which necessitated Israeli territorial concessions, themselves adopted "occupation" as a descriptive term for Israeli policy in the territories. In this context, what chance did Ayalon's blip of dissent have of being widely heard, much less accepted?

However, pro-Palestinian advocates, sensing a challenge to their carefully constructed edifice of Israeli venality, could not leave well enough alone. Former chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat threw a tantrum of indignant accusations, charging Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister with pursuing a "pro-conflict agenda", but not actually rebutting the legal or historical facts in question. Likewise, Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), responded in a live discussion on al Jazeera English (time: 9:50):
We have an adjudicating body in the world called the Security Council of the United Nations, and they have held that these territories are occupied and Israel is the occupying power on dozens and dozens of occasions, unanimously, including the United States. So, as a legal and political fact, Danny Ayalon is wrong.
Really, Mr. Ibish? How many of the Security Council resolutions pertaining to Israel and "occupation" invoked Chapter VII, giving them legally binding status? The answer is zero. How many non-Chapter VII resolutions affirming Israeli "occupation" had US backing? After a cursory examination, the answer appears to be zero, as well, demolishing your statement in its entirety. And what does the American veto of the UN Security Council draft, last February, which sought to condemn Israeli settlements as "illegal" therefore mean for their present legal status? Doesn't it follow from your logic, Mr. Ibish, that if the UN Security Council, which you recognize as the "adjudicating body" for international law, did not conclude that the settlements are illegal, then their legitimacy is assured as "a legal and political fact"?

In so aggressively challenging Ayalon's characterization of the territories as "disputed", and not "occupied", pro-Palestinian advocates have catapulted what has long been a consensus issue into the spotlight of public debate and scrutiny. The resultant mainstream media and blogosphere exposure has led some 180,000 people (and growing) to now be exposed to the Deputy Foreign Minister's views, which happen to also represent the position of Israel's government. The contrast between Ayalon's clear and factual delivery, and the inability of those policing the "Occupation" consensus to offer a factual rebuttal has been startling, and has led to more serious questions.

Driven as it is by political elites and powerful Arab and pro-Arab constituencies, the last thing those who maintain and defend the consensus of "Occupation" desire is an open-minded exploration of its foundations. And so, in an effort to squelch growing dissent, Gal Beckerman, a writer at the Forward, has chosen to challenge not the facts but their messenger. Apparently, the actual legal, historical and political status of the territories in question is irrelevant. We can surmise, from the subject of his ire, that what matters most to Mr. Beckerman is not what was said, but who dared to say it.
Ayalon’s video is identical, image for image and in large part word for word, with one [...] made in May for the YESHA Council, the organization that represents and lobbies for the settlers. [...] Should we not be concerned when the foreign ministry of Israel is using the same propaganda as the settlers? Or should we just assume that their interests are one?
What difference does it make who made or provided the inspiration for the video? Why is it so obscene that an Israeli minister, or ministry, would collaborate with a constituency directly representing at least 10% of Israel's population, referencing ideas which are supported by a plurality of Israel's citizens, not to mention history and law? The concepts introduced by Ayalon in the video are based on coherent and defensible legal, historical and political perspectives. We are all free to disagree, should we choose to do so. However, to refuse actual debate in favor of this anti-settler demagoguery that Gal Beckerman is engaged in is intellectual policing at it's barbaric height.

Beckerman's piece represents a blatant and chilling attempt to end debate and silence dissent. The easy contempt with which he attempts to tarnish the credibility of Ayalon's factual presentation is startling. The Deputy Prime Minister gets his talking points from "the settlers", the Untermenschen, we are led to believe, a sinister people with no right to engage in debate, without opinions or perspectives worth merit, with no legitimacy whatsoever. Forget the facts, Beckerman enjoins us. Instead, let's consider how an elected minister in Israel's government could dare to represent the views of these degenerate lepers, "the settlers".

To quote a friend, "ish don't think so". Intellectual Freedom: 1. Gal Beckerman: 0. True story.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pro-Israel Means Anti-BDS, Continued...

Jewschool continues to explore BDS and Israel's new Boycott Law. Bravo to Charles Lenchner for highlighting one of the most important aspects of the BDS campaign - it's failure to achieve the desired results. He points to a resolution by Israel's leftist groups, led by Gush Shalom, to boycott Israeli settlement products back in 1997, purely independent of like-minded Palestinian efforts in the past decade. Since then, of course, settlements have considerably grown. Meanwhile, Israelis have interpreted the efforts to pursue an economic boycott of their state, or sectors within that state, as illegitimate attempts to manipulate the country's policies outside the electoral system - a challenge to Israel's sovereignty. Predictably, they have responded not with compliance, as BDS advocates assured would occur, but with defiance.

Calls for BDS within Israel are widely perceived as an egregious abuse of the freedoms granted to Israel's citizens, in an attempt to undermine the country. It should have come as no surprise then, that the government's early, stumbling efforts to deal with the issue would necessarily touch on the balance of democratic rights, social responsibility and the national interest. And so, the new Boycott Law, pending court challenges, offends however slightly liberal sensibilities. However, instead of throwing a fit, as I wrote last week, Israel's left should recognize the Boycott Law as the undoing of their rationale for pursuing BDS:
The people who once advocated BDS as an attempt to make Israel a more open, pluralistic and liberal country, by their estimation, have now managed to fail, miserably and in the most counter-productive fashion imaginable. Perversely, if not predictably, their actions contributed to an inverse outcome than the one they sought.
If you take a specific course of action, but achieve the opposite of your intent, doesn't that mean that your initial assumptions about the value of that action were wrong? Charles, writing in Jewschool, approaches the issue from a different perspective than I, but comes to similar conclusions:
If the BDS strategy fails, it will have strengthened the most backward elements in Israeli society, giving more and more prominence to the least democratic politicians. It will have played a role in the unraveling of the protections that did exist, for Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab.
This point is not lost on Israel's enemies. Long convinced of the country's unique evil, the editors of Electronic Intifada or the heads of ISM are thrilled at the prospect of provoking an Israeli reaction they can then characterize as indicative of the country's innate, anti-democratic character. It's the equivalent of walking up to an innocent person on the street, spitting in their face, and then decrying their violent nature for striking you back.

For decades, these vermin have pounded tables everywhere, screaming that Israel is an illegitimate, racist, fascist regime. They have endorsed terrorism, justified murder, dabbled in explicit anti-semitism, rewrote history and manipulated the real suffering of Palestinians to further a radical agenda that would deny the Jewish people self-determination. To them, the failure of BDS brought about by a muscular Israeli response is no less a brilliant achievement than the movement's success. If BDS can force Israel’s surrender along the ‘67 lines without a reciprocal Palestinian commitment to peace, then they've come one step towards their final objective of destroying the Jewish state. And if Israeli society resists and strikes back under duress, however imperfectly? Just as well, this demonstrates the true, anti-democratic fascism of Israel’s people, undermining one of the Jewish state's central pillars of legitimacy.

The Six Day War, Oslo, Camp David, the Second Intifada, Disengagement, Annapolis, the Lebanese and Gazan Wars - BDS ignores the historical experiences which have shaped Israeli policies and influenced the country's electorate. It pursues Israeli concessions in tunnel-vision, without regard for Palestinian behavior, trying to force the hand of one party to a bilateral conflict in which both parties are dynamic participants, and which can only be resolved along the two state formula by negotiations and mutually agreed concessions. BDS willfully blinds itself to the explicit unwillingness of Palestinian leaders make those concessions: to recognize Jewish national rights, to stop deluding their displaced people about “return”, to accept and enforce an end to all claims. The movement corrodes and polices the conversation about the conflict, equating efforts at normalization, cooperation and coexistance with collusion, illegality and treason. BDS first discourages Palestinian moderation at the negotiating table, without which the conflict will never be resolved, and then punishes the Israelis for it, without context, without understanding, without compassion.

I concede that some individuals, steeped in the issues, can advocate a nuanced, "soft" BDS, targeting this settlement or that company. However, to the mass of people who join the campaign, nuance is not a high calling. The overall message is one of irreverent sanction and pressure, directed not against one company or one Jewish community on some Judean hilltop, but against Israel as a whole. BDS conditions its supporters for confrontation, in time eroding nuance and formulating ideological rigidity in the interest of achieving its objectives.

As we've seen with groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace, the failure of a "soft" BDS approach, purely against the settlements, often drives individuals into total BDS, which was at first unthinkable. Such is the logic of confrontation, that failure demands escalation. The grounds for an initial rejection of total BDS are quickly forgotten in the heat of battle. The emotional friction of "soft" BDS conditions its operatives to double-down on dogma, shirking reason or empathy antithetical to their goal. Boycotting just the settlements, what I've termed "soft" BDS, proves to be a gateway drug for broader and deeper anti-Israel sentiment, rapidly inching towards the eliminationist fantasies of Israel's unequivocal enemies. "Soft" BDS proponents feed the beast, unwittingly, perhaps, but no less than had they planned it from the start.

As I pointed out in the past, focusing on this or that point about the new Boycott Law misses the forest for the trees. BDS is interpreted by large sections of Israeli society as nothing less than one front in a war of aggression to exterminate the state and its people, all of them. How else to explain that left-wing kibbutzniks near Gaza are now an important plank for the growth of Yisrael Beteinu, or that Kadima's legislators first proposed the Boycott Law to begin with?

Isolating one form of pressure and violence from another is becoming untenable - Palestinian rockets today, Turkish flotillas tomorrow, British boycotts of Israeli academics the day after, Egyptian pipeline explosions and threats to end the peace treaty the day after that, Palestinian rejection of national Jewish rights, Iranian nuclear development, UN Resolutions, war crimes commissions, UNESCO's defilement of Jewish history, growing Hezbollah armaments, and on and on it goes. The carefully scalpeled nuance of "soft" BDS proponents is but one drop in the deluge.

The pressure building on Israel's citizens is not specific, it is general, targeting all sectors, all classes and communities. It should not be surprising to careful observers of the Jewish state that elements within Israel's society, a growing plurality, are responding in kind, not with a white flag, or even a raised finger, but with a defiant fist. For those who care about the state and its people, that thrown fist is no gauntlet, eliciting the will to subdue, but a cry for help, requiring the empathy and understanding of a friend.

This article is based on nearly a decade of pro-Israel activism, writing and observation of the BDS movement. It touches on themes which may be unfamiliar or unhelpful to casual readers simply trying to learn more about combating BDS in their community. For those who fall into this category, I strongly urge you to visit Divest This!, widely considered the best blog for BDS related news, resources and analysis from a pro-Israel perspective. Be sure to check out their free e-book, "Divest This: How to Stop the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Attack on Israel". It contains everything you need to know about dealing with BDS in your community, including historical background, case studies and tactics.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pro-Israel Means Anti-BDS

Over the past few years, various Jewish and non-Jewish individuals advocated, many in good faith, in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as an effective tool for pressuring Israel's government and society to change policy on Palestinians and settlements. Some of these individuals were truly well-meaning. They saw in BDS - not the vile BDS of Ali Abunimah but the "soft" BDS of KFJ, of Jewschool fame - a low-friction option to influencing Israeli policy while remaining a pro-Israel Zionist in good standing.

Wasn't it perfectly foreseeable that instead of bending to such pressure, Israel's electorate would first see it as an infringement on the country's rights and sovereignty and instead respond with a government coalition to confront it? Let's keep that in mind the next time someone has a bright idea for pressuring Israel to change policy "for its own good".

With the passage of Israel's Boycott Ban, we are entering a new reality, where a plurality of Israel's citizens - living between the hammer of ongoing Palestinian violence and diplomatic aggression, the sickle of "human rights" groups and the anvil of international delegitimization efforts - have reached the conclusion that a form of war is being waged against them, a war to which they must begin to respond. Here are their new tools to do so:
The bill will allow citizens to sue individuals and groups that call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts. It also prevents the government from doing business with companies that initiate or comply with such boycotts.
This law will probably be amended by court challenge, and will likely be better for it, but its essence, as an expression of popular will, should not be lost on us. Israel's society no longer considers BDS an acceptable venue for organized protest of government policy (the individual's right, of course, is reserved). You don't want to buy a bottle of wine because it was made by Jewish hands in the Shomron? It's every bigot's right. But launch a public campaign against the company and you've crossed the line from protest to predation. Furthermore, the blurry distinction between vile and "soft" BDS - in truth, the two enable one another - is sufficiently inconsequential as to be irrelevant. Those who consider themselves pro-Israel and pro-BDS are hereby put on notice - from now on, you've lost the right to be both.

The people who once advocated BDS as an attempt to make Israel a more open, pluralistic and liberal country, by their estimation, have now managed to fail, miserably and in the most counter-productive fashion imaginable. Perversely, if not predictably, their actions contributed to an inverse outcome than the one they sought. There is a mystical Jewish saying that "what comes from the heart, enters the heart". Whatever it was that pro-Israel BDS-supporters thought came from their hearts was received as an act of aggression, of rhetorical violence complementing and competing with actual violence for the same outcome. For the well-intentioned, perhaps some soul-searching is in order.

The international campaign of BDS, in all its forms, is no longer an outlet for legitimate dissent against Israeli policy, but a weapon in the hands of those at war for Israel's destruction. For those who truly care about Israel, this new law, no matter its fate, should serve as your wake up call: pro-Israel means anti-BDS. You want to change Israeli policy? Stop conspiring and confronting, and start convincing.

I've published a follow-up piece on the subject of BDS and Israel's Boycott Law. It delves more deeply into the issue, provides more context and insight and is recommended reading.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Der Spiegel's Israel Libel

Silke, a friend and frequent reader of this blog, turned my attention to an essay on Israel's political and cultural climate published in the English language edition of Der Spiegel, a prominent German publication. The following is a letter I wrote to their editorial department. I'm also attempting to get in touch with the author, Juliane von Mittelstaedt, in order to talk some sense into her, but have so far not been able to find her contact information. I'll keep trying. Far too long has the pro-Israel community allowed this encroaching libel, which is so at odds with reality, to take root in the European consciousness.
Dear Juliane,

Articles like yours are unfortunately becoming more and more the norm. You've interviewed some left wing Israeli academics and recycled standard tropes peddled by marginal, left-wing Israeli pundits against the state, immigrants from Russia, religious people and the settlers.

Did you talk to a single religious person? No. Did you speak with a settler or a Jew from the former Soviet Union? No. Did you talk to a government minister to discuss the many civil liberties concerns you raised? No. You based this entire analysis on two interviews - both interviewees were of the same political persuasion - and recycled leftist Israeli propaganda. It may surprise you to know that the opinion pages of Haaretz reflect a discredited ideology and a collapsed analytical framework, which the overwhelming majority of Israelis no longer view as credible.

There are some 100,000 Jews of Soviet descent living in Germany. I wonder, would you dare to describe them as seeking authoritarianism as a consequence of their upbringing, the way you do Soviet emigres in Israel? Have the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who are now citizens of the US, Britain, France, Australia and other Western democracies ever indicated a taste for fascism? This ongoing slur against Russian-speaking Israeli Jews as being somehow uniquely undemocratic and uncivilized has breached all bounds of decency. Avigdor Lieberman, the great fascist bogeyman of Israel's radical left, has somehow managed to raise from nothing a consensus-based political party and grow its support across the spectrum of Israeli citizenry, from Russian Jews to Israeli Druze.

And then, after spending three or four pages regurgitating talking points that Israel is a land of racist, fascist, theocratic hatred, you write two paragraphs about how it's still a democracy and, surprisingly, its people are more happy than many Europeans! Do you not see the implied absurdity, that a land of racism, hatred and growing intolerance would feature such happy people? Does it not ring alarm bells in your mind that these two visions of Israel - one a racist, oppressive theocracy, the other a pluralistic, innovative democracy - cannot in the real world both be true?

It would take a 20 page essay, going line by line, to counter every single distortion made in this article, and, of course, no one will ever read that essay. What you've described isn't Israel. It's not the religious Jewish community, or the Russian Jewish community or the settler community. You've bought into an insidious caricature of a nation peddled by its least responsible critics. How sad that is for a serious paper like Der Spiegel, which really tries to inform its readers about the world.

In the future, please try to broaden your perspective and expose your readership to the other 90% of Israeli society whose opinions and outlook on life this article, sadly, does not even attempt to represent.
Those of you who have not been following this blog for long may enjoy a related essay I wrote some months back. It is rather self-descriptively entitled: Do Russian, Middle Eastern and Observant Jews Hate Democracy? For those not inclined to read it, I'll save you the trouble (though you really should read it) - the answer is "no".

The US and Europe Drift Towards the Lieberman Plan

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, apparently acting on behalf of Europe's foreign policy establishment, has come out with a proposal for the launch of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The plan appears to be nothing more than a fleshed out version of Obama's "Cairo II" speech proposals, meaning that the President used his recent trip to Europe to consolidate the Western world's policy on the subject.

Despite semantic differences, the US and Europe have now drifted towards an interim solution which delivers a Palestinian state on boundaries the Israelis can probably live with, with some adjustments, while deferring on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees. The indefinite postponement of emotion-laden final status issues means that Israel will formalize its sovereignty over a united Jerusalem, while the Palestinian refugee issue is allowed to lapse into irrelevance. Meanwhile, since the Palestinian leadership will not be forced to compromise on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees - in theory these will be subjects for future negotiations - they will be able to sign off on the interim treaty without losing face with their rejectionist public.

As a kicker, Europe and the US have now both adopted the default and principled Israeli position that the goal of negotiations is "two states for two peoples" - a formula which recognizes a Jewish State of Israel alongside a Palestinian homeland in a future Palestine. This is a point of considerable Palestinian resistance, while Israel's approach now enjoys near universal (and public) international support.

Add to this a limited Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and a demilitarized Palestinian state - both likely outcomes of final status negotiations - and what we have is essentially the plan promoted by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman some months ago, when he called for a long term, interim agreement. Of course, Lieberman's proposal included a much more limited Palestinian geography, while the Europeans and Americans are attempting to spur negotiations by offering the Palestinians maximum boundaries as a starting point. However, since the actual borders will be determined by negotiations, not fiat, Israel retains the ability to make changes based on its needs.

The important point is that the concept of an interim solution which can deescalate the conflict without resolving it, an Israeli initiative based on a pragmatic assessment of reality, appears to have taken root in the international system. In the narrow sense of the politically possible, this outcome is a victory for Israeli diplomacy, even while the optimal solution would be to deny Palestinians sovereignty - and the capacity to wage war against the Jews with the resources of a state - indefinitely.

Whatever the Palestinians now do - whether they reject the French proposal or accept it - it seems fairly clear that Europe and the US are now collaborating on preempting provocative Palestinian unilateralism at the UN Security Council in September. The Palestinians can challenge this diplomatic alignment, but at the risk of losing painstakingly assembled diplomatic support, and at the cost of an extension to the status quo in the territories. As for Israel, having a Europe draw publicly closer to core Israeli policies in line with the Jewish State's national interests is a welcome sight.

Safeguarding Israeli Democracy by Defending Israeli Identity

Something remarkable happened over the Israeli Independence Day celebrations held some two weeks ago. For the first time in recent memory, Palestinian citizens of Israel did not hold mass protests commemorating "Nakba Day". The "Catastrophe", or "Nakba" in Arabic, is a term which reflects the Palestinian narrative of dispossession and tragedy in the wake of the founding of the Jewish State in 1948. As a historical event of mass collective trauma, the Nakba began the process of consolidating a common, modern Palestinian identity from its more lose, regional-tribal-cultural antecedent. The Nakba has long inspired fervent Palestinian nationalism, including in its radical, nihilist and violent forms, while encouraging little introspection within Palestinian society on its own culpability in first instigating a civil war to dispossess and butcher the Jews of the Levant, and then losing.

Given the prominent role the Nakba serves in Palestinian cultural memory, and the seeming importance of "Nakba Day" for Palestinians in maintaining generational continuity, the lack of major processions and events commemorating the "Catastrophe" this year on the part of the Palestinian community residing in Israel is noteworthy, perhaps even astonishing, and certainly deserving of attention. To approach this development in the appropriate frame of mind, and within a context which can impart meaning, we must first tell a story, a true story.

In 1997, the municipality of Nazareth, a mostly Arab-populated city in the north of Israel, and the third most important site for Christians in the Holy Land, decided to renovate the square around the Church of the Annunciation. The planning called for the construction of a modern facility to welcome Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world. Days before construction was set to begin, a newly formed group representing the country's Islamist movement occupied the square and refused to leave, demanding that a Mosque be constructed on the square to commemorate the nearby grave of a local sheikh.

The police, intimidated and fearful of provoking a confrontation with some two hundred determined protestors, were reluctant to clear the square and deferred what they felt was a sensitive matter to Israel's political echelon. The government began a series of discussions with the Islamists in an attempt to craft a workable compromise that would suit both the Christian community and the extremists who occupied the square. After some deliberation, government negotiators proposed that a small mosque be constructed on the site.

However, instead of resolving the situation, this concession served as a provocation for even greater demands. Whereas, before, the Islamists were relatively few in number, as word spread through the Muslim community of their determination and success during negotiations, their newly formed movement swelled with supporters, rapidly growing in power. The compromise was swiftly rejected. Instead, the Islamists now multiplied their demands, insisting on building the tallest mosque in the Middle East, surpassing the Church of Annunciation in height. As negotiations dragged on, the Islamist movement utilized the ongoing controversy to build its power base within Israel's Muslim Arab community.

In this way five years elapsed, during which time the Islamists maintained a firm grip on the square, turning it in to an open-air mosque and regular meeting place. As the movement's influence grew, it presented new demands, gathering Muslim support within Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and throughout the Middle East for the building of a new mosque on the Temple Mount - a site which is home to the ruins of two ancient Jewish Temples, and the seat of Jewish religious identity. Encouraged by Israel's Islamists, the Islamic authority supervising the site, the Waqf, authorized excavations in the area of Solomon's Stables. This has since become widely acknowledged as one of the greatest acts of archeological destruction in modern history. Untold quantities of artifacts, thousands of years old, were unceremoniously dump-trucked from the site and discarded in ravines. Heavy earth-moving equipment plowed through sacred ground which would normally have been gone through with specialized combs the size of toothbrushes.

Arab nations seized the opportunity to warn Western governments that if Israel were to intervene to stop the new construction on the Temple Mount this would provoke tension and even bloodshed against Western interests throughout the Middle East. European countries swiftly applied pressure to Israel, adding to a state of paralysis. Meanwhile, outrage by the Jewish community and the pleas of world-renowned archeologists were met with indifference, if not outright hostility. All this only bolstered the confidence of the Islamists, who proceeded to redouble their claims on the square in Nazareth, and began building a mosque without government permission.

Few in the world had been very concerned about the desecration of sacred Jewish land on the Temple Mount. However, when the first foundation stone had been laid by the Islamists at the square in Nazareth, the Christian world erupted in outrage, and demanded that Israel do something. Ariel Sharon was then Prime Minster of Israel, and he appointed a high-level commission which would study the issue and offer a proposal for the government to adopt. Natan Sharansky, the venerable Soviet dissident and author, then Minister of Housing and a deputy prime minister, chaired the commission. He describes what happened in his book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy:
I called for an open public review of the entire situation. [...] While the Christian representatives passionately called for an immediate stop to the abuse of a sacred site, the message from at least some of the Arab religious leaders and Arab members of the Knesset [Israel's Parliament] was threatening. I was told in no uncertain terms that any attempt to deny them the right to build the mosque would trigger a bloodbath across the Mideast. I was warned that there would be pogroms against Jews everywhere in the Moslem world, in outrage that Jews would take sides in a conflict between Moslems and Christians.

Then came the final chapter in this episode that took me by surprise. We went to Nazareth to hold local hearings. Lawyers, businessmen, an editor of the local newspaper, and influential members of the community, both Arab Moslems and Christians, asked to talk to me face to face, in private, without protocols, to deliver a message. It would be a tragedy, each of them said privately, to give in to the extremists. The city had already begun to live in an atmosphere of fear. Only by opposing the extremist demands and taking a stand against them could we rescue the community. The respected members of the community had become afraid to speak publicly. But the wanted the state to act. I realized that our appeasement had betrayed not only Christian identity, not only moderate Moslems, but democracy itself. (pages 197-198)
The committee proposed three nearby sites for the Islamists to build a mosque of whatever size they wanted, but these offers were again rejected. It became clear that the Islamists were not interested in compromise. Their extremist public demands were merely a tool in the behind-the-scenes battle for leadership of the Muslim Arab community in Israel, and control over Nazareth. They gained from conflict and tensions; a resolution to the crisis was against their interests.

Ignoring dire warnings that bloodshed would engulf the entire Middle East, Sharansky decided to take a stand. He made a recommendation to the government that the police should be ordered to clear the square, that tourist center construction should proceed as planned, and that several nearby locations would be made available on which to build a mosque, if the Muslim community desired it. As the Knesset deliberated over the recommendations, thousands of police officers were brought to the city in expectation of mass violence, which never materialized. As Sharansky puts it, "There was no bloodbath and no violence. The moment the government started to act, the Islamic movement lost its power and attraction in Nazareth..." (page 199).

With this story and its lessons freshly pressed into our consciousness, let us return to the lack of commemorations marking Nakba Day within the Palestinian community in Israel. These events, which have been held regularly for decades by Israel's Arab citizens, did not take place for one reason:
Ahmed Mahmid from Umm al-Fahm said: "I am very sad there are no demonstrations in Umm al-Fahm. Apparently the Lieberman bill succeeded in shutting us up and this poses danger."

A Tira resident told Ynet, "Every year we demonstrate on Nakba Day but this time we shall not because of the new Nakba bill. It's not over fear, but we are certain that after such a demonstration police will arrest the organizers and indictments could be filed against us. It's better not to take responsibility for such steps."
What is this Lieberman bill? Have Israeli authorities, acting in the spirit of racism and fascism, outlawed public expressions of Palestinian identity under threat of arrest? Hardly.
The "Nakba bill", proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu [an Israeli political party], requires the state to fine local authorities and other state-funded bodies for holding events marking the Palestinian Nakba Day by supporting armed resistance or racism against Israel, or desecrating the state flag or national symbols. [...]

The bill, which was reworked before its final passing, states that the finance minister will be charged with deciding when to withdraw funds from various groups after considering the opinions of the attorney general and a professional team comprised of members of the ministries of finance and justice.

In other words, local municipalities and government-funded organizations which sponsor (i.e. pay for) Nakba Day events will come under scrutiny and may have their government funding withdrawn. There is no infringement on the private right of Palestinians to mark Nakba Day - an important cultural event for their community. The law merely prevents government funds from being used in a manner contradictory and, indeed, hostile to the principles and identity of the State of Israel. Just as the French government doesn't sponsor events where French flags are burned, and the American government doesn't fund groups which advocate for Montana to secede from the United States, so too Israel - the democratic nation state of the Jewish people - needn't have to subsidize cultural events which are fundamentally at odds with the nation's raison d'etre.

Israeli parliamentarians from Liberal and Arab parties issued harsh criticism, equating the bill with "thought police", warning that it would "
exacerbate tension" and "greatly contribute to Israel's de-legitimization in the world". Yet, here we all are, still in one piece, more than two weeks from when Nakba Day was to be held. Israel's Arab citizens did not riot in revolt. As in Nazareth, the moment the Israeli government acted to stamp out this abuse of public funds at the expense of national identity, those elements in Arab Israeli society which had been using the Nakba Day events to rally opposition against the State of Israel, and thus empower themselves, lost their power and fell silent. 

This is an important point: No one stopped Israel's Arab citizens from commemorating Nakba Day. Simply put, government funds were withdrawn to pay for these events. If the Arab community felt so strongly about protesting on this day, they could have continued even without government monies. However, what we see is that Nakba Day was merely a tool for local Arab Israeli politicians to build their own personal base of support, having more to do with internal Arab community power politics than Israel. The moment the heads of local governments could no longer sponsor the events, pay for them with government money, and take personal credit for leading the resistance against Israel, the all-important Nakba Day no longer became such a priority.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beteinu party sponsored the bill, is held in most of the liberal Western intelligentsia to be somewhat of a dunce and a right-wing fascist. Yet this law, which has reduced the incentives for Israel's Arab community to worship an extremist historical narrative which is at odds with the identity of the state, is likely to improve relations between Israel's Jews and Palestinians. A generation of Arab Israeli children will now grow up without the formative radical experience of Nakba Day. A day in which rejectionist elements in Arab Israeli society were strengthened no longer exists. Far from fascistic, Lieberman's firm but fair approach will, over time, reduce tensions amid Israel's varied communities, promote cultural integration and strengthen inclusive, democratic and pluralistic values.

Fearing bloodshed and conflict, many Western intellectuals pander to and appease the demands of Islamists and Arab radicals, thinking that negotiations and compromise are the surest path to a peaceful resolution of any outstanding issues. This may very well be the case, but we should consider that Arab and Islamic societies do not always function or respond in the way leaders in Washington DC or London expect them to. Israel's experience demonstrates that compromising with radicals may very well marginalize the forces of restraint and reason within Arab societies, and further embolden extremists. As in the case of Nazareth and the Lieberman Nakba Law, taking principled, uncompromising but fair stands in defense of national identity actually strengthened the moderates, weakened the radicals and fostered democratic values in line with national interests. Europe, which is increasingly dealing with the radicalization of its own Muslim and Arab populations, should spend less time snickering about Avigdor Lieberman, and instead take note of Israel's example.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Powering the Future

Take everything you've learned over the past few years about Peak Oil, our world's dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, the vital necessity of transitioning to renewable energy sources to avoid the end of the world as we know it, and flush it down the drain. Michael Lind argues that far from nearing the end of our addiction to fossil fuels, we're just getting warmed up.
As everyone who follows news about energy knows by now, in the last decade the technique of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," long used in the oil industry, has evolved to permit energy companies to access reserves of previously-unrecoverable “shale gas” or unconventional natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, these advances mean there is at least six times as much recoverable natural gas today as there was a decade ago. [...]

The implications for energy security are startling. Natural gas may be only the beginning. Fracking also permits the extraction of previously-unrecoverable “tight oil,” thereby postponing the day when the world runs out of petroleum. There is enough coal to produce energy for centuries. And governments, universities and corporations in the U.S., Canada, Japan and other countries are studying ways to obtain energy from gas hydrates, which mix methane with ice in high-density formations under the seafloor. The potential energy in gas hydrates may equal that of all other fossils, including other forms of natural gas, combined.

If gas hydrates as well as shale gas, tight oil, oil sands and other unconventional sources can be tapped at reasonable cost, then the global energy picture looks radically different than it did only a few years ago. Suddenly it appears that there may be enough accessible hydrocarbons to power industrial civilization for centuries, if not millennia, to come.
Not to mention the reality of nuclear fission, and the promise of nuclear fusion. Which isn't to say that solar, wind, biofuels and geothermal don't have a place in the energy mix, or can't offer competitive solutions in localized markets. Rather, a rational government energy policy free of apocalyptic hysterics and an obsession with trendy solutions wouldn't incentivize and then subsidize renewable energy generation to the tune of tens of billions, on the taxpayer's dime, in the midst of an economic downturn, or ever.

In case you're wondering how Israel will fare in this brave new "fracking" world of plentiful energy, the answer appears to be, quite well. Tiny Israel seems to be sitting on top of massive natural gas deposits and the world's third largest oil shale reserves, with some 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and as much as 250 billion barrels of recoverable oil - enough to rival Saudi Arabia, and within stone's throw of Europe's energy markets. Boycott that, bitch.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pressing the Palestinians on Recognizing a Jewish State of Israel

Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) has written an article for Foreign Policy about Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence that Palestinian Authority President Mahmous Abbas recognize the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Here is precisely what Netanyahu said during his speech in Congress last week:
President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people -- and I told you it wasn’t easy for me. I stood before my people, and I said, “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, “I will accept a Jewish state.” Those six words will change history. They’ll make it clear to the Palestinians that this conflict must come to an end, that they’re not building a Palestinian state to continue the conflict with Israel, but to end it. And those six words will convince the people of Israel that they have a true partner for peace.
The venerable Ibish has written on this point before, in October 2010, when Netanyahu offered to extend the settlement freeze in exchange for the Palestinians accepting Israel as a Jewish state. Here's what he said then:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal earlier today that Israel might agree to a two-month extension of the partial, temporary settlement moratorium expired in late September on condition that Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" is insulting and frivolous.
There is a reason Ibish, a pro-Palestinian centrist and pragmatist, is so prolific and quite visibly vociferous on this subject - it is a point of potentially very deep Palestinian weakness. He repeatedly delves into the legal, political, diplomatic and cultural ramifications of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, but he's evading the one point that counts most, from a Jewish/Israeli perspective, and the reason this issue is being brought to the table - the psychological dimension.

Whether this "demand" is new or not is irrelevant. An argument could be made that the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland in the Arab world has always been the root of the conflict. On the other hand, Israel's longtime Foreign Minister Abba Eban rejected making this a point of negotiations with the Arabs, as he felt the state's character should not be subjected to an Arab veto. However, it's fairly obvious that, since Oslo, all Israeli governments considered the end goals of negotiations to be a Jewish State and a Palestinian State, and moreover a Palestinian recognition and acceptance that this outcome was the final goal. It was only after the launch of the Second Intifada that Israel's pro-peace center and left were shocked that the Palestinians they had been working with for years never intended to recognize a Jewish state, but an ambiguous state, which might one day become Palestinian also.

Whatever the arguments, those Palestinians (and Americans and Europeans and Arabs) who desire a two state solution should readily meet Netanyahu's challenge. Instead of accusing him of throwing up obstacles to peace, they should immediately nullify those obstacles at their source. If tomorrow the Palestinian Authority, Arab governments and Europe were to erupt in proclamations by leaders recognizing the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and the legitimate and historic right of Jews to reside in it, whatever opposition Netanyahu has mustered to a two state solution will crumble instantly. The psychological impact of such an event, were it to be conducted credibly, would force an immediate return to negotiations and result in surefire Palestinian statehood within months.

The inability of the Palestinian leadership to recognize this point - or perhaps they recognize it just fine - leads to the very troubling conclusion that this conflict really isn't about land or Palestinian self-determination. Perhaps the obstacle is not one which Netanyahu has created, but one which he has identified. Israel's center-left opposition leader Tzippi Livni said it best, sometime during her deliberations with senior Palestinian negotiators in the last government; to paraphrase: If we're talking about two states for two people, then who are those two people? For most every government in the world the answer is clear - the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. It's high time the Palestinians (and the Arabs) ended their indefensible rejection of this very basic international consensus.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jordan Isn't Palestine, But It Could Be

In recent months, popular Arab revolts have removed from power the long-ruling monarchs of Egypt and Tunisia, and are presently attempting to dethrone those of Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. The phenomenon has been commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, and while complex in nature - driven in various countries by ethnic, religious, sectarian and something reminiscent of class conflicts - it is, at least to Western ears, primarily about enfranchisement, if not exactly democracy as we in the West know it. The Arab peoples, in the plural, wish to have a greater say in how their countries are being managed. Presumably, in every country under discussion the people are many, the government forces are few, and so "the people", barring violent, bloody and prolonged crackdowns, and maybe despite such crackdowns, will emerge victorious, eventually if not immediately.

The inevitability of it all - that the people will win, and the tyrants will lose - is a powerful driver of events and opinion. This is particularly so in Western capitals, focused heavily, as American and European leaders currently are, on coming out of the present disturbances on the side of the Arab people, and not of the dethroned despots - i.e. with their regional interests intact. It is fair to say that the chattering classes of Washington punditry are entirely consumed, at the present moment, with the thrill and inevitability of Arab self-determination, suffrage, democratic institution building; and more than all the rest, on being seen as having always predicted and supported this drive to freedom. Yet, there is one country which the Facebook and Twitter revolution appears to have passed over, and which has escaped the attention of our favorite, ever-indignant, newly freedom loving newspaper columnists - Jordan.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is, well, a kingdom. As is generally known, the Hashemites were once the leading tribal clan in what is today Saudi Arabia. The First World War found them rulers of the region of Hejaz, a part of the Ottoman Empire on the Western edge of the Arabian peninsula bordering the Red Sea. As you can see from the (Spanish language) map, the Hejaz region contains the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, making the Hashemites who once ruled it quite prominent and powerful, but under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman Turks, of course, were at the time joined with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria in an alliance called the Central Powers. Facing them in the First World War were Russia, France, Britain, Italy, other small European states and, eventually, the United States - the Allied Powers. By 1916, the war for the Central Powers was beginning to go badly. The Hashemites, ruling a corner of an Ottoman Empire weakened by war in Europe, and encouraged by the British, declared independence from the Turks.

From 1916 to 1924, the Hashemites ruled an independent Kingdom of Hejaz, with British support. They were driven from the area by a competing Arab tribe - that of Ibn Saud, the kind of Najd - which was eventually to conquer most of the Arabian peninsula and form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The British, meanwhile, had busily carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire with the French, and were in a position to resettle their loyal Hashemite subjects as rulers of a mass of largely unpopulated desert to the east of the Jordan river, across from what is today the State of Israel, and what was then referred to as the region of Palestine.

Since independence from colonial British control, Jordan has been ruled by Hussein bin Talal from 1953 until 1999, and since then by his son, Abdullah II. Reforms since the late 1980s and '90s have made this constitutional monarchy less dictatorial, with several competing, if largely impotent political parties. While doing research for this article, I was frustrated by a lack of all but cursory information on Jordan's political system. The country's close alliance with the United States perhaps mutes closer inspection of Hashemite rule by Western analysts. The most cogent explanation I found about the country's political institutions and state of affairs, surprisingly, was from the Daily Kos:
Jordan is nominally a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament, only the lower house of which is elected. In addition, there is a cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister, which is nominally responsible to the lower house. In practice, none of this matters because the king holds all political power. He is able to dissolve the parliament, appoint and fire prime ministers and cabinets, and call for elections at will.

The lower house is elected under a rather undemocratic voting system called Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), in which each voting district has more than one seat, but the voter is allowed to vote only once. So in other words, something like 3 to 5 MPs represent any given citizen, but that same citizen had a say in the election of only one of them.

In Jordan, family and tribal ties play an important societal role, so there is a duty to support those candidates with family ties. So instead of voting for someone who will best represent her interests, the voter will instead be more inclined to look for her family's name and cast her only vote for that candidate. The Jordanian elite know of this dynamic and exploited it when they set up the current electoral system. On top of that, they also gerrymander the districts so that the rural areas which are dominated by East Bankers receive more representation than the more Palestinian cities.
The article is worth reading in full, as it progresses to discuss current tensions between Palestinian Jordanians and "East Bankers", meaning non-Palestinian Jordanians, mostly of Hashemite extraction. This, then, in the contradiction of demographics and politics of Jordan, is where our own focus lies.

Estimates of Palestinians among Jordan's 6.5 million people vary widely, from just under half of the Kingdom's citizens, to nearly three quarters of its (legal and illegal) residents. Thousands of Palestinians, including from the West Bank and Gaza, gain Jordanian citizenship (legally and illegally) every year, while several thousand Palestinians are quietly stripped of their citizenship by Jordanian authorities fighting the creeping encroachment of Palestinians on national life. Yet, without wholesale action by the government to disenfranchise 3-4 million Palestinians, the demographics are inescapable. From the perspective of demography alone, and in light of the popular protests sweeping the Arab world, which seek to translate popular will into political reality, Jordan isn't Palestine, but it very well could be.

The opposition to Palestinians within Jordan's ruling elite and Hashemite masses is often quite vocal. Everyone from army officers and civil servants to Hashemite tribal leaders decries the country's slide into "Palestinization". The King's wife, Queen Rania, is Palestinian. Their son, and the heir to the Kingdom's throne, could in a different cultural setting be the solution to easing ethnic tensions and enabling coexistence with the "other" in Jordanian society. Instead, the Hashemite elite may well regard him as illegitimate, a further "Palestinization" of their country at it's highest levels.

Hashemite unity - control over the levers of political and economic power, and the security forces - along with gradual political reforms and considerable American financial aid have so far prevented the country from sliding into the revolutionary fervor of their Arab contemporaries throughout the region. Protests in Amman have been small, peaceful, and seem to be readily pacified by the King's cabinet shuffling and economic subsidies. The country's long term stability may not be assured, but with some creative management it appears unlikely to undergo Egyptian or Syrian style upheavals.

However, if we are interested less in stability and more in in the principles of self-determination, democracy, suffrage, and all the other fine ideas coursing through the blood of the Arab Spring, at least according to Western pundits, the picture becomes more complex. A benevolent dictator rules Jordan - an ally of America, yes, but a monarch with absolute powers. The Hashemites aren't threatened with becoming a minority in a country their tribe rules by diktat and force of arms - they already are a minority, and a really small minority at that, numbering as few as 25% of the country's total population.

Very near to Jordan, across the river for which the country was named, the Jews, too, have a country. Israel rules over territories in which - if we exclude Gaza (and we should exclude Gaza), in other words, expressly in the West Bank region - reside some 1.5 million Palestinians. Were Israel to annex the West Bank and enfranchise its Palestinians, the Jewish-Arab demographic balance would fall to about 65%-35%, respectively. Yet this, a situation under which the Jews would remain an overwhelming majority in their national homeland, is considered unpalatable, unjust and morally indefensible. Meanwhile, across that river, a mere 25% of Jordanians rule the other 75%, and no one among Washington's chattering classes bats an eye!

The real question, in light of the Arab Spring, and the mass uprisings which we are told are driven by the universal human urge towards democracy and freedom, isn't whether Jordan is Palestine, or even whether it could be Palestine. The real questions are whether Jordan should be Palestine, and whether Jordan will be Palestine. Is this not the most moral, just and inevitable outcome for an overwhelming majority ruled, against its will, by a minority? We should consider the possibility.

A Struggle of Generations

The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews.

Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it, Turkey threw out a million Greeks, and Algeria a million Frenchman. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese-and no one says a word about refugees.

But in the case of Israel the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab. Arnold Toynbee calls the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis. Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace .

Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world. Other nations when they are defeated survive and recover but should Israel be defeated it would be destroyed.
Eric Hoffer, LA Times, May 26... 2011 1968. There's more.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Iranians are Building a Missile Base in Venezuela

I don't know how credible this report is in the German Die Welt (translated version), but if it's true, Iran appears to be building a missile base in Venezuela, with cooperation of Venezuela's anti-American President. Since Iran doesn't have any enemies in South America that it needs to threaten with missiles, we must assume that this is an attempt to deploy a second strike deterrent capacity against any attempts by the US to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program by force.

Needless to say, if this information is true, the American people, and certainly American policy makers should be informed that an Islamist regime which spent the better part of the last decade helping to murder American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which is currently building the nuclear weapons and missiles to threaten what it calls the Little Satan, meaning Israel, now seems intent on deploying these missiles within range of what it calls the Big Satan, meaning the United States.

The obvious parallel is to the Cuban Missile Crisis. A less obvious parallel is that Iran is building up yet another proxy to threaten its enemies on its behalf, like with Hezbollah and Israel. If true, this will be the first time in two decades that a foreign regime, operating in a state of undeclared war with the US, intends to target the American people. Something to keep in mind going forward.

American Pressure, Israeli Resistance and the 1967 Lines

The furor over Obama's mentioning of the 1967 lines (more precisely, the 1949 armistice lines) as a basis for territorial negotiations with the Palestinians is entirely overblown. Actually, there were multiple furors here. First, some pro-Israel advocates and Republican Jewish vote-seekers lambasted the President for "throwing Israel under a bus", and the like. This was followed by a counter-furor by the Jeffrey Goldberg wing of the pro-Israel movement, which trends more sympathetic to the Administration, and a variety of assorted "we wish Israel had never been created, but since it was, and we're scared to be called anti-Semites, we support it, meanwhile condemning it day in and day out" bloviating hobgoblins - Andrew Sullivan comes to mind. This was then followed by a counter-counter-furor by the first group against the second group, calling them anti-Semites, Kapos, JINOs (Jews in Name Only), etc., succeeded by a counter-counter-counter-furor by the second group against the first group for calling them mean names and making them cry, and so on.

As tempted as I am to take sides, or maybe carve out my own personal furor, I'll simply restate that the entire issue of the '67 lines constituting a basis for negotiations is essentially irrelevant, and needs to be seen in its historical context. The US has always preferred that Israel make territorial withdrawals from lands claimed by the Arabs, and not only from the West Bank, Gaza, Golan, Sinai, and Lebanon, but from anywhere and everywhere it could be coerced to do so. For instance, take Operation Alpha, a joint attempt in 1955 by the British and Americans to pressure Israel into accepting a land link between Egypt and Jordan that would run through the Negev.
In contacts that the US and British embassies made in Cairo with Nasser and his Foreign Minister, Mahmud Fawzi, primarily in the first half of 1955, it was clarified to them that the Egyptians had a “desperate” need for a land connection with Jordan. Thus, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Fawzi paid a visit to Washington on June 24 to talk with Dulles and George Allen, he reduced the question of whether the agreement would stand or fall to the territorial continuity question, and to a demand that Israel relinquish the Negev. The establishment of Israel, according to him, divided the Arab world, by creating a physical separation. For example, he said, if he wanted to travel by car from Cairo to Damascus, he would have to receive permission from Mr. Sharett (then the Israeli Prime Minister), and this situation was unacceptable to the Arabs.

The Anglo-American pressure on Israel to concede on the subject of the Negev increased after September 27, 1955, when Nasser published the details of the arms transaction he had signed with the USSR. Part of the American and British moves were public knowledge. Israel was principally shocked by the speech that Anthony Eden gave in Guildhall, London, on November 9, 1955. Eden called for a territorial solution to the conflict based on a compromise be made between the partition borders and the armistice lines, clearly suggesting an Israeli concession in the Negev.
Israel's situation in 1955 was precarious, to say the least. By this time, the Soviets Union had fully recovered from WWII and began actively subverting British and American influence in the Middle East, primarily through massive shipments of advanced weapons to Arab states, which directly threatened Israel's survival. Meanwhile, the only other global powers capable of countering Soviet armaments - the British, at the close of their empire, handing off the torch of hegemony to the Americans - were actively plotting to dismember a tiny, poor country of scraggly Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands.

Then, as now, Israel's leadership responded how it always has and always will - it resisted. Ben Gurion didn't rush out with a plan of his own, in order to "take the initiative", reduce international pressure and give the Arabs slightly less than Washington wanted. Instead, the "Old Man" stood firm in the face of an unprecedented challenge, with one superpower arming Israel's enemies to the teeth, and the other actually plotting, in secret, to undermine Israel's internationally sanctioned territorial integrity against her will. Operation Alpha is notable for the sheer contempt shown by Washington towards Israeli rights and territorial interests, which, as for any other nation state, are intrinsically tied to security, economics and national identity. It was not, however, the last instance of American pressure being brought to bear against Israel to concede territory to the Arabs.

Just as today, in response to American pressure, Israel's center-right Prime Minister speaks of the '67 borders as "indefensible", more than forty years ago, in 1969, Israel's center-left Foreign Minister Abba Eban, the consummate diplomat par excellence, said the following to Germany's Der Spiegel (translated):
"We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz."
Remember, this was in 1969, years before any Israeli settlement of the West Bank took place. Israel's refusal to return to the '67 lines is not about protecting its settlements, though of course, this issue adds certain layers of practical, emotional and political complexity. Rather, Israel's narrow coastal plain, whether populated heavily or sparsely, in 1969 or in 2011, is fundamentally, chronically insecure without some minimum control over the mountainous ridges which overlook it. The insecurity of Israel's coastal plain is an immovable feature of geography which no peace agreement can ever mollify, but which can be durably addressed only by controlling the West Bank's hilly spine.

In the many decades since Israel's founding, and certainly after the Jewish State's victory over the Arabs in 1967, there has not been a single American President who has not pressured Israel to relinquish territory claimed by the Arabs. In this sense, Obama and his supporters are right to point out that American policy has long considered the 1949 armistice lines a basis for territorial negotiations between Israel and the Arabs.

Likewise, however, in the many decades since Israel's founding, and certainly after the Jewish State's victory over the Arabs in 1967, every single Israeli government has resisted American pressure to relinquish territory to the Arabs, without exception. It should, therefore, only stun the stupid, or the historically uninformed, were this Israeli government, or the ones that follow it, to continue the long Israeli tradition of resisting American pressure on territorial concessions to the Arabs.

Portraying longstanding and quite public Israeli resistance to American pressure on territorial withdrawal as some unprecedented act of contempt against America, a slap in Obama's face, or the act of an ungrateful recipient of American treasure - a point of view peddled by Andrew Sullivan, among others - is nothing less than vapid, emotion-driven demagoguery.

Bloviating hobgoblins, led by their leader and my personal pet project, would like you to believe that this time, it's different. Before, they claim, America had no real interests in Israeli territorial concessions, since no American interests were at stake, except for a general desire to ensure stability and peace in the Middle East. Now, however, an alignment of critical factors have turned America's ability to extract territorial concessions from Israeli into the prism through which the US deals with the Arab world. Israel's intransigence, they assert, is single-handedly murdering American credibility with the Arab world, cutting Obama's great vision for peace off at the knees.

However, this perspective is long on dreamy, emotionalized narrative and short on history. America has been pressuring Israel to make territorial concessions to the Arabs since 1955 precisely because it saw opportunities for itself in doing so. Operation Alpha was planned in support of vital American interests, to ensure that Egypt's Nasser, and the Suez canal would not fall under Soviet influence, which they eventually did. The stakes were no less bigger then than they are now; Nasser was a firebrand, inciting pan-Arab revolution and aggression against Western interests throughout the third world and welcoming Soviet influence. America and Britain saw an opportunity to keep Nasser contained by offering up a chunk of Israel, at the time a small, weak, thinly populated state, surely not a country that could resist American and British demands. Israel did resist, it prevailed, and in doing so it earned respect and confidence. What good is an ally which cannot define and vigorously defend its own vital interests?

History has demonstrated that the US is committed to Israeli territorial integrity only when Israel is prepared to fight to maintain that territorial integrity, including, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, by resisting US pressure on territorial concessions to the Arabs which run counter to core Israeli interests. This doesn't mean that Israel will never make territorial concessions, for indeed, it has, but never exclusively as a consequence of American pressure, no matter how fierce, and always in exchange for clear, rational benefits towards its own interests, as it and only it defines them.

American policymakers know this. President Obama knows this. Mentioning the 1967 lines wasn't about picking a fight with Israel; it was throwing a rhetorical bone about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Arab masses which the President was addressing. As for the Palestinians, Obama slapped them across the face with both hands - no to unilateral adventurism at the UN, no to East Jerusalem and yes to an interim territorial deal first proposed by Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and which the Palestinians have already rejected. This interim deal normalizes Palestinian national life but leaves core Palestinian demands unresolved indefinitely, to be resolved only by negotiations with Israel, while solidifying Israeli control and legitimacy over Jerusalem, settlements and the Jordan Valley.  Even a vigorously pro-settlement advocate such as I have problems seeing this as an anti-Israel speech.

American policy in the Middle East will always seem pressing, but with the exception that the oil must flow, its interests are essentially tactical and fleeting - impacting the balance of power, blocking regional or international competitors, and so on. When it fails, America can always remove, regroup and rededicate itself to pursuing the regional interests it views as important in one generation or another. In contrast, Israeli interests are strategic and permanent. Israel cannot escape its geopolitical reality, and it will never subject its security and territorial integrity to the vagaries of American policy fancy when these run counter to core Israeli interests.

The Americans have always asked Israel to relinquish territory to the Arabs, and they always will. The Americans are dealing with the Arabs, and need to take Arab desires into account, or at least appear to be doing so publicly. Where such American pressure runs counter to Israeli interests, the Israelis will resist, as they always have. In the past, when the Israelis resisted, the Americans never pushed the issue so as to cause a rupture in relations. Some are urging the US should do just that, but they are a fringe among policymakers. This dynamic of pressure and resistance to territorial concessions is built into the US-Israeli bilateral relationship, and signifies nothing important in and of itself, no matter how hard Andrew Sullivan beats his slipper against the keyboard.

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