Tuesday, July 29, 2014

David Remnick in the New Yorker has got the Neocons's Back; Really.

David Remnick has a short piece in the New Yorker lamenting the current Gaza conflict.  For me, it illustrates what is often wrong with the New Yorker these days: he’s glib and gets the essence wrong.

Remnick, of course, is a great writer.  But the trouble with elegant prose is it can camouflage bad judgment.  Remnick has been known to carry water for Israeli war hawks before.  For example, here he is advocating for the invasion of Iraq in 2003:  
The United States has been wrong, politically and morally, about Iraq more than once in the past; Washington has supported Saddam against Iran and overlooked some of his bloodiest adventures. The price of being wrong yet again could be incalculable. History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them. Saddam's abdication, or a military coup, would be a godsend; his sudden conversion to the wisdom of disarmament almost as good. It is a fine thing to dream. But, assuming such dreams are not realized, a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.
Remnick is good buddies with Ari Shavit and helped peddle his book on these shores.  The main messages of Shavit’s book (“My Promised Land”) are that 1) the world hates the Jews, and it always will, so the Jews need their own state armed to the teeth; 2) If the Jews don’t have their own state, they’ll intermarry and live happily assimilated lives—and we can’t have that;  3) Iran is out to bomb Israel with nuclear weapons (because the world hates the Jews); 4) Yes the “pioneers” who formed the state engaged in ethnic cleansing to form the state; it was necessary (but it means the Palestinians hate the Jews, they’ll never get over it,  so we need to keep a tight lid on the occupation);  5) Israel should abandon the West Bank—but it can’t happen for the next generation or four, so get used to it.  I doubt Shavit would entirely agree with this characterization, but read the book and tell me that this is not the gist of it.

Remnick doesn’t display much wisdom in this latest New Yorker piece either.  He locates the source of this conflict with the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students on June 2.  This misses the point and is misleading.  To be sure Remnick adds wise sounding weasel words —but that’s where he puts his finger: the kidnappings. However, without “unwinding to 1917,” the cause of the present flare up is the Hamas/PA reconciliation pact, which Netanyahu went more or less apoplectic about.  That’s where Remnick should point his finger.

Here's the timeline:

Hamas and the PA announced their intention to form a unity government on April 24, 2014, while we were in Israel.  This was to be followed by elections within six months.  The U.S. indicated guarded support. The EU felt it was an important step towards a two-state solution.  Israel harshly condemned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for choosing a pact with Hamas and Netanyahu promptly cut off the Kerry led peace negotiations.

The technocratic unity government was sworn in on June 2, 2014.  Ten days later, on June 12, three Israeli yeshiva students were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank by rogue elements loosely associated with Hamas.  This group has acted in the past to undermine any softening of Hamas’s position.

Israeli investigators knew the next morning the three had been killed because one of them placed an emergency “100” call, there was an open line as they were shot. The police found a burned-out Hyundai which contained a pair of tefillin,  leather-bound texts that religious Jews strap on for prayer,  DNA evidence from the car that was quickly matched to their parents, and eight bullet holes.  But Netanyahu put a gag order on the press and for three weeks pursued Hamas on the West Bank, destroyed homes, arrested about 400—including every Hamas guy they could find, and killed at least five Palestinians, all the while professing they were hoping to find the boys alive. 

This has led to a barrage of Gaza rockets, Israeli bombing, an Israeli ground invasion and, as of this writing, 1,221 Palestinian dead, 56 Israeli dead, thousands wounded, and Gaza being demolished. 

Remnick, rightly laments the politics of all this:  
The politics are as disheartening as the casualties are heartbreaking. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that if the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, did not find a way to make serious progress on ending the occupation and creating feasible borders and mutual guarantees, the outlines of which have been clear for decades, the consequences would likely be catastrophic—from a third intifada to the end of a two-state solution. Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, made plain the leadership’s attitude toward the peace talks by telling associates that Kerry was “obsessive” and “messianic.” “He should take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone,” Ya’alon said.
But what is he saying?  This seems like unintelligible gibberish aimed at sounding smart, while saying nothing.  Is he criticizing Kerry, or supporting Kerry?  Who knows. Is he seconding Israel’s criticism of Kerry, or holding it up for ridicule.  The reader can take away what she may.  This paragraph is aimed at sounding smart.  It’s not smart.

Remnick, of course did a good piece on Naftali Bennet, Avigdor Lieberman, and Moshe Feiglin in January ’13.  I revisited this for my Feiglin post a couple of days ago.  But to suggest that Natanyahu was ever seriously behind a two state solution, as Remnick does in his penultimate paragraph,  is not really credible.  What's more believable is that Benzion Netanyahu, an unrepentant racist whose motto was “never give up any part of the land,” is presently smiling proudly down on his son as I write this. 

Remnick concludes: 
Last week, Reuven Rivlin, the scion of an old, right-wing Jerusalem family, took the oath of office as Israel’s President. The post is largely ceremonial, but there was meaning in the occasion. Rivlin was replacing Shimon Peres, who was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1994, for his role in forging the Oslo Accords. Peres, who is ninety, is a champion of the two-state solution. Rivlin is a champion of the Israeli settlers. As he has put it, “I wholeheartedly believe that the land of Israel is ours in its entirety.” Tragically, it is Rivlin’s absolutist view that is in the ascendance for so many, both in Palestine and in Israel.
It's true, Rivlin is a one state guy,  but he’s willing to give everybody citizenship.  Netanyahu's heart lies with the Greater-Israel-without-any-Palestinians crowd. Peres was an old hawk who became a fig leaf for the “we are so peaceful, and would like to compromise, really—if only we had a peace partner—but we-don’t-so-we-really-must-settle-and occupy- forever” crowd.  Give me Rivlin over Peres any day.

[Post has been updated to correct typos, and add link to NYT for the DNA found in the burnt out car]

Monday, July 28, 2014

Udi Segal Takes a Stance in Haifa--Or This is What Happens When You Send your Kids to Mixed Arab-Jewish Schools

America engaged in slavery from its founding days through 1865.  This was followed by decades of reconstruction and Jim Crow separate and unequal.  It took brave individuals, activists, a brutal and bloody civil war, and a hundred year struggle to make this right.

From 1964 to 1975 the United States conducted house to house searches in Vietnam, leveled large portions of the land with carpet bombing, poisoned its people and forests with Napalm and Agent Orange, and committed war crimes there. On May 4, 1970 at Kent State the National Guard killed four students.  

In Iraq in 2003 the United States destroyed a corrupt, terrible, but functioning state. In the process, during the 2003-2005 time period alone, we may have been responsible for 24,000 civilian deaths. Overall, the toll of the Iraq war and its aftermath is 193,000 violent deaths to date.  

Through it all, we had political space in the United States to protest, to try and influence policy. Not enough were engaged, and we were engaged too late, and not enough change resulted. But there was opportunity to say "Not in our name."

For now, Israel still affords political space for people to take a stand. As long as that's true, it's possible to take the long view.

With sufficient engagement by dedicated individuals the arc of history can bend towards justice in time.  Here is a story of one brave youth sacrificing to say "not in my name," sacrificing his freedom for a vision of justice. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

In Praise of FBI Sting Operations

Here in San Francisco, Leland Yee, a long respected state senator was running for secretary of state this spring when his campaign was cut short by an arrest for political corruption.  Yee was indicted in  an FBI sting operation along with a former gangster, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, and 26 others.  Among other things, Yee (a longtime advocate of gun control legislation) is accused of offering to illegally import assault weapons from the Phillipines to the U.S. in exchange for campaign contributions.  

Earlier this week, the S.F. Chronicle reported that the FBI attempted to ensnare our present mayor, Ed Lee, with a $20,000 contribution.  

James Brosnahan, a prominent San Francisco attorney, is defending Leland Yee.  As you might expect, he has been working the press  to create a climate of outrage against public sting operations.  This morning, Willie Brown, our colorful 15-year ex-speaker of the California legislature, past San Francisco mayor, and sartorial man about town joined the fun.  He recounts a story of how he once bested an FBI sting:
The revelation in the Matier and Ross column that the FBI sting operation made $20,000 in phony contributions to Ed Lee's 2011 mayoral campaign hit close to home. They did the same thing to me when I was Assembly speaker.  
In my case, an undercover FBI agent approached one of my aides with a $2,000 contribution - all in crisp $100 bills. The aide, Karen Sonoda, had no idea the guy was an FBI agent - he was posing as an economic development man. But she did know the law, and told him, "You can't make a contribution that way."  She walked him across the street to a bank and had him take out a cashier's check, and fill it out with his name and address.  
When the operation was revealed a few months later and a couple of legislative staffers were convicted, she saw the undercover agent's fake name in the news coverage.  Mortified, she came to me and said, "I took a contribution from these people and I reported it under what was a fake name. I'll return the check and resign." I was both stunned and angry - not at her, but at the FBI. "First off, you are not resigning," I said. "But you are going to amend the filing report, and where it lists the source of the funds, I want you to write 'FBI' in big, bold letters." And I kept the money.
Great story. Vintage Willie Brown, getting the last laugh on the FBI in this intra-governmental intrigue.  Brown, after all, was the master of all manners of palace intrigue throughout a long career as speaker and mayor.  But should we be "stunned and angry" along with Willie, and as Brosnahan would have us be as potential jurors in the Leland Yee case.  Is there something seedy and improper and reprehensible about these FBI sting operations?  Heavens, they even tried their nefarious tricks on football legend Joe Montana!


Sacramento, like Washington DC is afloat in illicit cash seeking influence.  This money has a propensity to corrupt.  We don't have nearly enough controls in place regarding what and who can be purchased with this money.  John Roberts and his cohorts on the Supreme Court don't seem to get it.  "What, money is corrupting?  You're joking," they say.  But we know better.  

I, for one, have no objection to these FBI sting operations.  This is like tort law that keeps  manufacturers of consumer products from cutting too many corners.  If Legislators and their staffers must consider that any sleazy lobbyist who comes along trying to grease their palms might be an undercover agent, it will keep them cognizant of the few laws we do have to guard against the corrupting influence of money.  It means every staffer, like Willie's conscientious staffer in the story above, will know her campaign contribution rules cold.  

That's a good thing by George!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, Sings the Siren Song of Gaza: "Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. ... [It's] the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land."

Moshe Feiglin (b. Haifa '62) is an Israeli politician on the rise.  Elected as a member of the Knesset only in January 2013, today he already serves as deputy speaker of the Knesset.  In May, a poll  listed him as the fourth most popular member of Likud.  

Over the past two weeks Israel has bombed 3,209 targets in Gaza, has killed 856 Palestinians (mostly civilians), wounded in excess of 4,000, destroyed hospitals and other infrastructure, and lost 38 Israelis in the process (NYT's tally). The onslaught lights up the sky to outer space.  

Astronaut Alexander Gerst Reported Seeing Bombing Against the Night Lights of Israel/Palestine
If this bombardment visible from space speaks a language, it speaks the language of Moshe Feiglin.

Feiglin is a deeply religious person. All of his education, it would appear, has been religious. David Remnick interviewed him for his New Yorker profile, The Party Faithful, published in January 2013, right before his entry into the Knesset. Feiglin had just attended the Third Conference for the Application of Israeli Sovereignty over Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank).  Many members of Knesset were in attendance, "including Likud’s Ze’ev Elkin, who declared that it was time for Israel to 'stop conceding and go on the offensive, step by step.' All the speeches favored some form of annexation; the question was how much and how soon," says Remnick.  Feiglin advocated for Israel to pay Palestinians to leave:  "Why not spend ... money ... and permanently rid yourself of the problem?"

Here is the video summary of this conference:  

If you look at the size and quality of this production, the attendees, their fervor, and consider the outsize influence that this highly organized sector of society wields at the polls, it's impossible to conclude that Israel will be able to negotiate a two-state solution any time soon, even if it had a government that wanted one, which it does not.  "Since the victory of the Six Day War, there's been a political vacuum in Judea and Samaria," says Yehudit Katzover, co-founder of the conference: 
"This vacuum sends a message of uncertainty regarding our right to the land of Israel. It awakes hopes among the Arabs and ignites intifadas, and invites pressure on Israel to make concessions.... But there's light at the end of the tunnel.... Since 1967, since the liberation of our heartland, we've come a long way in creating facts on the ground, and thank G-d, we have 400,000 Jews living today in Judea and Samaria in 250 flourishing communities, with more to come.  The second light we see, is the people don't want concessions. The understanding that concessions in the South brought us Hamas, Grad rockets, Katyushas, has reshuffled the deck and people don't want two states. 
And who will say she's wrong?  

In 1993, Feiglin helped found Zo Artzeinu (This Is Our Land), a coalition of religious Zionists who, according to Remnick, "considered the Oslo Accord a violation of Jewish law and political sense." Feiglin acted as a community activist against the Yitzhak Rabin government.  But, says Remnick, "by the late nineties, Feiglin decided that he could exert more influence through conventional political struggle. For him, Netanyahu, who became Prime Minister in 1996, was too soft, too given to territorial compromise. He organized a Likud faction called Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership)."

[Quoting Feiglin]  “What happens on the left shows total ideological confusion, a loss of vision. The concept of Oslo has disappeared. On the right, what is fascinating is between Likud and Naftali Bennett. With all modesty, I am behind it. Since Oslo, since Zo Artzeinu, we developed a concept of what the right should do—put a different agenda on the Israeli field and create a new layer of leadership that, instead of coming from the leftist avant-garde, comes from the right avant-garde.” 
In Feiglin’s view, secular Zionism tried to gain a measure of acceptance from its neighbors and the world community by relinquishing land. “The concept we’ve started to develop is that the answer is not with the neighbors—it’s with us,” he said. “We are not like all other nations. The Jews are different. Our goal should be to develop our special culture based on the Torah and the Prophets as a message and a symbol to the family of nations, to all of entire humanity.”.... 
...Finally, I asked Feiglin about his latest thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian question. When I said “Palestinian,” it was as if I had uttered a revolting oath. “ ‘Palestinians’?” he said. “Orwell wrote his book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and there is talk there about ‘Newspeak,’ the ‘Big Lie.’ ” The Big Lie, I was to understand, was the very idea of a Palestinian people. “Do you know about a nation without a history?” he said. “How can a nation exist without history? They are Arabs. They identify with a big Arab nation, and there are many Arab tribes. Every Israeli understands that if, God forbid, Israel disappeared there would not be one Palestinian in the world, because the Palestinians’ self-definition isn’t for a Palestinian state but for war with the Jews. . . . The P.L.O. was established before 1967, and they never tried to create a Palestinian state in the territories when they had them. Their desire will always be to seize any territory last held by a Jew. There was never in history a group that longed to create a state that got more recognition and help from everyone, including us, and yet it is not happening. It just is not.”
And two days ago, on July 25, 2014, Feiglin shared his view of a solution for Gaza in the Jewish Press. His vision entails driving Palestinians into the Sinai desert and populating the Gaza strip with Jews as part of Greater Israel. It is difficult to quarrel with his sense of brevity and directness:
Ultimatum – One warning from the Prime Minister of Israel to the enemy population, in which he announces that Israel is about to attack military targets in their area and urges those who are not involved and do not wish to be harmed to leave immediately. Sinai is not far from Gaza and they can leave. This will be the limit of Israel’s humanitarian efforts. Hamas may unconditionally surrender and prevent the attack. 
Attack – Attack the entire ‘target bank’ throughout Gaza with the IDF’s maximum force (and not a tiny fraction of it) with all the conventional means at its disposal. All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’. It is enough that we are hitting exact targets and that we gave them advance warning. 
Siege – Parallel to the above, a total siege on Gaza. Nothing will enter the area. Israel, however, will allow exit from Gaza. (Civilians may go to Sinai, fighters may surrender to IDF forces). 
Defense – Any place from which Israel or Israel’s forces were attacked will be immediately attacked with full force and no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’. 
Conquer – After the IDF completes the "softening" of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations. 
Elimination- The GSS and IDF will thoroughly eliminate all armed enemies from Gaza. The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave. Israel will generously aid those who wish to leave. 
Sovereignty – Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel. The coastal train line will be extended, as soon as possible, to reach the entire length of Gaza. 
According to polls, most of the Arabs in Gaza wish to leave. Those who were not involved in anti-Israel activity will be offered a generous international emigration package. Those who choose to remain will receive permanent resident status. After a number of years of living in Israel and becoming accustomed to it, contingent on appropriate legislation in the Knesset and the authorization of the Minister of Interior, those who personally accept upon themselves Israel’s rule, substance and way of life of the Jewish State in its Land, will be offered Israeli citizenship.
Liberation of our land "is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land" says Feiglin.  After elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. Gazans will be forced into the Sinai to wander in the wilderness.  That's the language of Feiglin in the Jewish Press. Does this ravaging of Gaza make sense in any other terms?

Set aside whether Israel had a right to defend itself from the ineffectual Hamas rockets by bombing innocent civilians; set aside whether Israel has the right to block off tunnels in order to tighten its siege.  Does it make sense to sacrifice 38 Israelis, and to bomb densely populated civilian areas for three weeks, 24 hours a day, to gain three or five years of "quiet" from pesky, but ineffectual rockets.  Not peace, but quiet.  Feiglin doesn't think so, and in that, surely, he is right.  This operation makes no sense unless you are held captive to Feiglin's Siren song of Gaza.

Experts do not speak of this. What is Israel's end game strategy, asks CNN of its experts.  "There is none" they dutifully agree. Israel has depleted the Hamas arsenal, for now; this operation won't change anything for the long term; Israel will tighten its siege by blocking tunnels.... that's it. Yet, through it all,  Feiglin's Siren song is heard, even as Israel's leadership is lashed to the mast, unable to fully follow its call of "elimination" and "sovereignty."

Note that Feiglin's prescriptions of "ultimatum", "attack", "siege" and "defense" has been expertly implemented by Israel since 2005. Israel has also "Conquered" Gaza twice: in operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) and during the current operation.  Feiglin, of course, will not get his wish of "elimination" and "sovereignty" this time round.  A temporary cease-fire takes effect this morning; the international community will pressure the parties into a longer stand down soon. Israel will reassert its siege.  Tunnels will be closed off.  Fewer materials will get through, for a while. Tunnels will be rebuilt. Feiglin's prescription for "Defense" will be resumed.

When Remnick asked Feiglin about some of the provocative things he has said about Arabs, Feiglin answered: "I did make some mistakes along the way--not with the words, but with the melody."  Peace won't be achieved until Israel stops hearing that melody.


[UPDATE: Jewishpress.com revised Feiglin’s piece on July 27, 2014.  Some of the rhetoric has been softened.  No explanation is given but some of the changes highlight that Feiglin is not speaking for the government (e.g. “will” is changed to “should in several instances”).  Under “Ultimatum” “Sinai is not far from Gaza and they can leave” has been toned down (?) to “They should consider heading to Sinai, which is not far from Gaza.”  Under “Attack” “conventional means” is now up front to emphasize he is not talking about dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza.  Glad to hear it.  Siege” has been reworded: it is time for total military siege, but Israel “will allow exit from Gaza.” Under “Defense” the reference to “no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’ is dropped.  Conquor” has changed “will” to “should” and the order of words has been rearranged.  Under “Elimination” “will” has been changed to “should.”  Under “Sovereignty” “part of Israel” has been changed to “parts of our land” and the order of words has been rearranged.  The entry here reflects the July 25 version]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Standing on a Soapbox in my Living Room

Today an obnoxious blog post showed up in my living room via my Facebook feed. A friend commented on a bit of detritus, and, voila, courtesy of the FB algorithm, there it was, staring me in the face. I see the headline ("I'm Done Apologizing for Israel") and I try to avert my eyes.  But it's too late. Somehow, when someone stands on a soapbox in my living room to make provocative statements, I feel compelled to respond.  I can't help it. Friends don't always appreciate it. They get all excited because I state a dissenting view when they share on FB; I speak up and they complain "why are you raining on my parade?"  Well, I say, because you are standing on a soapbox in the middle of my living room, that's why.  

Today's offender does not know me.  He probably means me no harm. Yet, surely by posting on the Internet, he must have known he was acting with reckless disregard that his provocation might show up in my living room and disturb an otherwise perfectly peaceful evening.   

He's a rabbi, this particular offender.  And not just any rabbi, but a rabbi recognized by Newsweek magazine as one of America's 50 most influential rabbis. He's from Berkeley; a self-professed "progressive" in favor of gay rights, gun control, pro-choice, and granting refuge to illegal immigrants.  He considers himself a spiritual leader.  So he says, when it comes to Israel, we might expect him to "react to Israel's military actions in Gaza with scorn and criticism."

Well, actually no.  Anyone who is awake and paying attention has surely noticed that lefty spiritual leaders in America these days are the most mindless, reactionary apologists for Israel on the planet.  If you haven't been paying attention, read Peter Binart's "The Crisis of Zionism."  So here's my first peeve with this rabbi on his soapbox in my living room:  for him to suggest that because he's a lefty I should expect him to be critical of Israel killing in excess of 630, and injuring in excess of 3,700 Palestinians in 10 days by bombing densely populated areas, means he is implicitly assuming that I'm a moron--that I haven't been paying attention.  

So, no, although annoyed, I am not surprised that this "spiritual leader" is sitting on his soapbox in my living room spouting the standard Israel apologist talking points:  (1) how can you say it's wrong for Netanyahu to bomb civilians--just look at the anti-Semitic chants at protests in Los Angeles, Paris, Antwerp, and Boston; (2) how can you say Netanyahu is over-reacting when Israel is treating wounded Palestinians in this conflict, when (just in the last 48 hours) Israel has let 10 tons of supplies into Gaza, when Israel has agreed to two humanitarian cease fires while Hamas has rained down rockets on civilians?  How indeed. 

For every anti-semitic chant last week in Los Angeles, Paris, Antwerp, and Boston, there have been chants of "death to Arabs" in Jerusalem.  Our "spiritual leader" does not deem this worth mentioning.  Contrary to what our "spiritual leader" says, of course, no Hamas rockets have rained down on civilians:  virtually all rockets have been intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome (developed with American aid and ingenuity and money, thank you very much) or have fallen on empty fields.  How can we be critical of killing 630 Palestinians and wounding 3,700 when Israel treats some of the wounded?  Really?  Our "spiritual leader" might benefit from reading the Thomas Mann short story Tobias Mindernickel.  It's about a highly disturbed fellow who mercilessly beats his dog, only to take great pity on him and nurture him lovingly back to health--repeatedly, until the dog finally dies, at which point the man is very sad.  

Why do we need to apologize for Israel's killing of Palestinians, asks the "spiritual leader," when Hamas is using building materials to build smuggling tunnels instead of schools? Isn't it o.k. for Israel to kill women and children and old people when Hamas has such obvious disregard for them?  "I am done trying to apologetically explain Jewish morality," says our spiritual leader. "I am done apologizing for my own Jewish existence."  He says "I have lost 20 of my sons in the last three days." He refers to IDF soldiers.  Soldiers who were party to the murder of 630 Palestinians, mostly non-combatant civilians. 

This is no spiritual leader, this is one of stout Cortez's chaplains. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Vision for Gaza

 On Sunday afternoon, July 20, 2014, the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco sponsored a “stop the sirens in Israel: emergency community gathering” to show solidarity with Israel.  Nearly 1,000 showed up.  The crowd marched nine blocks in festive, flag waving manner from the Jewish Community Center on California Street to the temple on Arguello, where they heard from rabbis, students, Dr. Andy David, Israel’s general consul to the Northwest, Congressman Jared Huffman, members of the Board of Supervisors, and others. 

There was a call from one speaker, without a hint of irony, that Hamas “stop the senseless killing,” and pious declarations by others that “not a single Israeli soldier would shoot if they had a Civilian in their sights; not one.”  The organizers were well prepared to stamp out dissent and disruptions.  Large lettered signs at the entrance warned that anyone disrupting the proceedings would be promptly escorted out, and a large contingent of security guards efficiently manhandled the four or five protesters from the sanctuary as they stood, at strategic intervals, to express their solidarity with Palestinians.  The crowd was prepared for this.  They jeered, hollered, and blew instruments that looked like a cross between a Shofar and a Vuvuzela to drown out what was said. “He’s an Arab; he’s obviously an Arab” an elderly man behind me remarked to his wife as one of the protesters was led away.  “Should we bet how many there will be tonight?” laughed one.  They did not hear the message the protesters would bring. They did not feel the pain or predicament of Gazans. 

The crowd was there to share the pain of Israelis.  And it’s true, sirens and rockets flying, are disturbing.  The rockets have larger range than in the past, and you never know when one of them will do real damage.  Yet, for now, there can be no doubt that the real victims are in Gaza.  Israelis have a ringside seat to the festivities, with beer and pretzels. 

 What does it all mean? No matter how we got here, no matter how this will eventually be resolved (and all conflicts come to an end), for now there is the stark fact of the rockets stockpiled and fired by militants from Gaza. Like hijacked airplanes, like suicide bombings, rockets cry out to be stopped.  Is there a vision for what comes next?

U.S. House Resolution No. 167, co-sponsored by Jared Huffman, and adopted by the House of Representatives on July 11, 2014 points out that the U.S. has provided $235,000,000 in fiscal year 2014 for Iron Dome research, development, and production.  Jared Huffman noted that this technology has granted considerable strategic latitude to Israel of how and when to respond to rocket attacks.  The fact that all rockets (surely it’s not just luck) heading for populated areas can be intercepted at will, means Israel can decide when and how to respond.  Huffman noted, carefully, that Israel has in fact shown considerable restraint in responding to rocket fire over past couple of years—until now.  It was a soft reminder that, perhaps, the option was there for Israel to continue not to respond. 

It’s worth noting that, assuming Israeli bombing has degraded 1/3 or so of the rocket arsenal, after 60 days of rocket attacks, the arsenal in Gaza would be effectively depleted.  There is no risk that this rocket barrage would go on indefinitely.  Had Israel stopped its bombing campaign and abstained from a land invasion into the densely populated areas, it seems certain that the rocket barrage would soon have ended.  Hamas would not fire at its current rate to the last rocket.  There is reason to doubt, therefore, the proposition that “of course” Israel must “do something” about the rockets.  It’s not at all clear that the killing of ~430 and injuring of ~3,000 to date is morally justified—and we’re only part way through.

Yet, even with the effectiveness of the Iron Dome, it is difficult to quarrel with action designed to stop a rocket barrage for days on end. If we put it in U.S. rocket/per capita terms, it would be like the U.S. absorbing 4,200 rockets per day: it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t do something about this.  And so, morality aside, world leaders concede the point. 

Gabriel Scheinmann and Raphael Cohen have an article in The National Review on July 17, 2014.  They place Operation Protective Edge in the context of a very long war of attrition with the Palestinians. 

“While it may frustrate many, “mowing the grass,” as Israelis call it, is a strategy, just one for a different kind of war—a Long War. These conflicts are protracted and grueling battles of attrition. There are no quick political solutions. There are no big decisive battles. There are no victory parades. With this perspective, Israel’s ongoing operation is shaping up to be a solid victory in its extended campaign against Hamas on three counts. ….

Since its 2005 Disengagement, Israel has previously conducted three limited military campaigns in the Gaza Strip in order to quell rocket fire: Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Each operation led to an immediate and precipitous decline in rocket fire. ….
Israel, widely presumed to have a lower pain tolerance than Hamas, may now be able to win a war of attrition. To be sure, continued rocket fire still imposes a psychological, economic and human cost on the Israeli population. That said, by minimizing civilian casualties and limiting infrastructure damage, Iron Dome has leveled the battlefield.  ….
To date, Protective Edge can claim a modest series of victories, with the potential to achieve even more. Looking beyond the Palestinian arena, the operation serves as a deterrent to other terrorist groups poised along Israel’s northern and southern borders and Iron Dome’s effectiveness may cause Iran and Hezbollah to reevaluate their missile-centric strategies. Protective Edge may also cause the death-knell of the Palestinian unity government. These are solid, yet fragile, steps forward in a long war. It is easy to imagine how these gains can be reversed if Israel overplays its hand.

“Mowing the grass” will not produce singular, stunning victories, but it is a mistake not to recognize it as a distinct strategy—namely, attrition. Over time, by achieving modest gains, at an acceptable cost, and with wide international support, Israel can hope to exhaust Hamas. Attrition may not be crowd-pleasing, but it has kept Israel safe, successively neutralizing the airline hijacking, the suicide bomb, and perhaps one day soon, the rocket. As the unstated takeaway from Israel’s counterterrorism experience makes clear, tactics alone have actually served Israel pretty well.”

This raises the question, what comes at the end of this war of attrition against Hamas?  What does defeat of Hamas look like? Can Gaza hope to become a vibrant city state?  What kind of support would it need to succeed?  Would Israel and the world community come up with, say $3 billion/year, or more as needed?  If the Gazans stopped making rockets and set about to develop sophisticated infrastructure, develop industry, agriculture, I don’t think Israel would stand in the way. 

The annoying way Israelis have of putting this to Palestinians is to say: “If only you loved your children more than you hate ours….” Yet, it’s not totally crazy to ask why don’t Gazans devote themselves to building up a city-state.  Can visionaries be found for Gaza as a Singapore of the eastern Mediterranean?  Could such visionaries win out over the visionaries who are aiming to have Gaza join ISIS and conquer Israel?  Why not? 

For Gazans to accept defeat in a war of attrition with Israel, and to find the internal vision and leadership to build a shining City on the eastern Mediterranean would be a huge shift, perhaps on the order of Israel giving up on Zionism.  Yet, Gaza has gas reserves it could fight for in the ICC.  Gaza would be recognized as a separate state by the UN in a New York minute?  They would be able to marshal world support with the right non-corrupt leadership.  I know, it’s crazy.

Note, this has the usual solution backwards.  It separates Gaza from the West Bank, and says, perhaps, Gaza is easier to solve than the West Bank.  Perhaps Gaza becomes a separate state, and the West Bank becomes absorbed by Israel?  Crazy.

What Israelis need to recognize is they owe a great debt to Palestinians.  And they owe a great deal of empathy to Gazans for the challenge facing them today, empathy and understanding that was totally absent at the gathering I attended yesterday.   

Saturday, July 19, 2014


You bragged how once your men In savage mood,
Butchered some Saxon prisoners.
That was good!
I trust you felt no pity when they stood
Patient and cowed and scared, as
prisoners should.

How did you kill them?
Speak and don't be shy:
You know I love to hear how Germans die,
Downstairs in dug-outs. "Camerad!" they cry;
And squeal like stoats when bombs
begin to fly.

I’m proud of  you.
Perhaps you’ll feel as brave alone in no man’s land
when none can save or shield you
From the horror of the night
There’s blood upon your hands.
Go out and fight.  

I hope those Huns will haunt you with their screams
And make you gulp their blood
in ghoulish dreams

You’re great at murder.
Tell me, can you fight?  

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

And here is Samuel West reading the poem.  

This poem was censored and was known by a much tamer version for a long time.  I ran across it when Harry Brighouse linked it on Crooked Timber. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Operation Protective Edge and What I See When I Look at Hany Abu-Assad’s Film "Omar."

Standing on a traffic island in the heart of The German Colony in Haifa this spring my traveling companions and I met three high school sisters and their aunts from El Makr, an Arab town east of Akko. We jostled deferentially, taking pictures of the lights up in the Baha’i Gardens. Although El Makr is just a few miles up the road, this appeared to be a special outing for the girls.  Like us, they were tourists and we formed that quick and uninhibited bond that only travelers can experience.

The girls were eager to share. We spoke two, three times as we meandered past the cafes up David Ben Gurion Boulevard. They danced around the elephant in the street: “The Jews,” they said, “we have a problem with them.” It was not said with animus, but rather to hint at a central existential fact about their lives. 

A couple of days ago, as Israel and Hamas were slouching towards Operation Protective Edge the girls directed us to Hany Abu-Assad’s new film, Omar. “This explains everything,” they said in a Facebook message.  So we watched the film, and indeed, it explains much. 

The current tragedy playing out in Israel started with a reconciliation pact between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which Netanyahu hated and has tried to sabotage.  It appears that a rogue faction of Palestinian actors attempted to sabotage the pact from the Palestinian side with the kidnapping and murder of three Yeshiva students in the West Bank.  This was followed by a massive, overly broad crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces, the discovery and burial of the three dead students, a massive funeral, and a retaliatory abduction and murder of a 16 year old Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem by six soccer hooligan, religious nationalist zealots.  This was followed by rocket attacks from Gaza and retaliatory strikes from Israel. 

As of this writing, 80 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, many houses have been destroyed, and rockets have exploded over Tel Aviv, near Be'er Sheba, and up near Haifa--without any Israeli casualties thus far.  And they are just getting started.  As I watch this tragedy unfold, I can't help but think--this is the dynamic portrayed in the film Omar writ large.

Here is A. O. Scott’s sketch of the film in the NYT:

Amjad, Omar and Tarek, militants affiliated with the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, carry out a sniper attack on an Israeli military outpost. This … leads to a series of tragic and sometimes absurd events that ensnare everyone … in a web of conflicting loyalties and motives. … Arrested and imprisoned, Omar is told by Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), the Israeli officer handling his case, that he can either cooperate and inform on his friends or spend the rest of his life locked up far away from Nadia and everyone else he cares about. Though Omar tries to find a way out of this predicament, the Israelis are always a step ahead of him, and everyone back home assumes that he has already turned collaborator.

….Mr. Abu-Assad shows a world from which all trust has vanished, where every relationship carries the possibility — perhaps the inevitability — of betrayal and where every form of honor is corroded by lies. Omar grows increasingly dependent on Rami, and correspondingly suspicious of Tarek, Amjad and even Nadia. The future he had originally envisioned for himself, as a fighter in the Palestinian cause who could marry his sweetheart and take her to Paris on a honeymoon, comes to seem almost ridiculously na├»ve.

Omar is so completely trapped that it becomes difficult to imagine how his story will end, a narrative blockage that symbolizes the larger impasse in which Jews and Arabs, whatever their specific allegiances, now find themselves. “Omar” does not offer the promise of a just or satisfying resolution, a fatalism all the more devastating given its realistic methods and humane, understated performances. The film’s final scene feels shocking and abrupt, but also chillingly inevitable, consistent with the logic of a situation that defies all reason.

“Narrative blockage” seems like an apt metaphor. As Richard Falk has recently pointed out, no one has a narrative with enough plausibility to challenge the status quo. There is no agreement on strategic goals. For years now, the world community has paraded the two-state solution like a corpse. In the meantime, Israelis speak of “mowing the grass” and Palestinians feel trapped between suffering quietly or carrying out sniper attacks on IDF outposts like the protagonists in Omar, kidnapping the vulnerable, or launching ineffectual rockets from Gaza—which all seems to amount to the same thing, with predictably tragic consequences. 

Even absent a convincing narrative, however, there is the question of tactics for both sides. On the Israeli side, as Marc Ellis has noted, “mowing the grass” works. To the extent that Israel is satisfied with its military Spartan existence, there is nothing on the horizon to topple this state. Military power won’t do it, terrorism won’t do it, and it seems unlikely that BDS will get the job done either. Marc Ellis is not idly belittling the Presbyterian’s BDS resolution, and the fact that Noam Chomsky is muddled on the concept does not bode well.  But surely Chomsky is correct that meaningful sanctions by the U.S. or the UN are not in the cards any time soon, and BDS without the S doesn’t amount to much. If Israel ever decides it wants peace for real, tactics will change, but until then no outside force is on the horizon to make it change. 

What about the Palestinians? Do they have tactical options?  Looking at Omar it seems clear enough within the confines of that film that joining the Aksa martyrs brigade and killing one soldier in a sniper attack was a poor tactical life move on the part of Omar and Amjad. Tarek is a special case because he gets to enjoy some personal power for a while.  But none of them accomplish anything positive for Palestinians as a whole. What’s more, it’s clear they had no hope of accomplishing anything positive for Palestinians as a whole by what they did. It was an idiot move, plain and simple. Getting shot at while climbing the wall to visit your girlfriend, and being arbitrarily abused and forced to stand on a wobbly rock one-legged by roaming border guards, makes the choice understandable. It doesn’t make it better.

It was the Tareks in the West Bank that did the damage with the kidnapping and murder of three Yeshiva students.  By all accounts their goal was to undermine a working relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. They have been spectacularly successful. It is the Tareks in Gaza that are firing the rockets. By all accounts the very purpose of their rocket attacks is to invite an Israeli invasion because sympathy for another 1,000 innocent Palestinians dead will raise the stock of Hamas, lower the popularity of the PA, and maybe bring the Egyptians back into the picture. These people are not Palestinian patriots. They are not freedom fighters. They are the few looking to enhance their power at the expense of innocents.

It's time to put an end to the open air prisons that are Gaza and the West Bank, but it's not going to happen while Hamas is intent on stockpiling rockets and firing them indiscriminately at Tel Aviv.  In the meantime, the Israelis are a much too-compliant tool in this cynical game. This Operation Protective Edge will do nothing to protect Israel, but it will work to provide an edge to the worst elements within Hamas. That’s what I see when I look at Omar.