Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amos Elon (1926-2009)

Amos Elon died earlier this week at age 82. I published this appreciation of him on New Yorker.com.

“Well, I hope you are r-right, dear boy.”

This was the way my conversations with Amos Elon almost always ended. Year after year, ever since the late nineteen-seventies, his expression of “hope” for my analysis of Israel had been a sign that there was really nothing more to analyze, that though I had won the debate I had lost the argument. I had done my duty: had laid out a logic, a possible convergence of forces that left room for peace, or, at last, American action; had shared part of an interview he hadn’t attended, or pointed out an economic trend he hadn’t considered.

But I had somehow neglected the overriding facts of life, which it was his duty to uphold. And uphold them he did. “It is good that you are optimistic,” he’d say, finally. That is, things do fall apart; history is made by people. Oh, yes, there are naïve, avid Arab kids willing to blow themselves up—and demagogues on both sides who secretly feel relief when they do. But there are also maniac settlers, and clueless American Jews, with their lobby. Philip Roth once wrote, “Jews are members of the human race. Worse than that I cannot say about them.” Amos put it a little differently, explaining (as does a character in Roth’s “The Counterlife”) that one lives in Israel because it is the only place on earth where you can tell anti-Semitic jokes.

Of course, this cheerful misanthropy was partly bravado. His warmth—or the evidence of his fierce wish for it—was everywhere, in the books strewn on his desk, or the drawings on the wall, or a sudden call to his wife, Beth. His clever eyes could beckon like a port. The conversation never ended without a hug, which he found awkward and American, but which he never resisted. Yet his warmth was mixed with serious disappointment. He had seen this tragedy grow from its infancy. At times the conversation began before my coat was off: “Did you read what that idiot said?,” the idiot being someone on the Left who should have known better. (Idiots on the Right were just a force of nature.)

Opening questions, I hasten to add, were not just pawn to king-four. Amos hated intellectual games, or, more precisely, intellectual brats and bullies. He cared that the idiot should have known better, and who if not us should say so, for all the good it would do. What writer who is merely skeptical, or querulous, writes essay after essay, column after column, employing a penetrating sense of history to explain Israelis and Jews to themselves, much the way a physician examines patient after patient who will not quit smoking?

Some eulogists have suggested that, while Amos promoted humankind, he had little compassion for humans. This is exactly backward. Amos could not get over how history went wrong because of the ways in which broken-hearted people act together and ricochet off one another, how qualities that we ordinarily like in people—creativity, loyalty, sincerity, steadfastness—combine to create disasters; how human desires, whose details only a compassionate observer can describe, explain everything, including how we routinely throw happiness away:

Had they [Palestine’s Arabs] agreed in 1919, not to turn Palestine into “the” Jewish homeland, but to incorporate “a” national home for the Jews, as stipulated by the Balfour Declaration, a Jewish minority, moderate in size, probably would in time have been absorbed into an Arab-Palestinian state. Had the Arabs not rejected British proposals for a Palestine Legislative Council a few years later, the Jews would have at best emerged a minority within the general Arab framework, similar perhaps to the Maronites in Lebanon….If, if, if. On the other hand, had Israel after 1949 been more sensitive to the fate of the Palestinian refugees—had it permitted more to come back or compensated the rest for their abandoned property rather than allow the neighboring states to exploit the problem for political ends—perhaps some of the intense hatred of Israel that prevails among the Arab masses and ties the hands of more moderate leaders would slowly have abated…

The easy work of hindsight? In fact, this passage is taken from an essay in The New York Review of Books that Amos wrote in August of 1968—an essay in which he was already pleading (against his colleagues at Haaretz) for a sensible partition and warning of the dangers posed by devotees of Greater Israel—people whose excesses he understood, which made them all the more horrible to contemplate. We went together to Nablus in 1981, just before Menachem Begin was reelected, to interview its former mayor, Bassam Shakha, who had lost his legs to a bomb planted by a Jewish terrorist group. While we were there, as if on some cosmic cue, Shakha’s youngest son, who had spent six months in prison, suddenly appeared at the front door, unexpectedly freed. Amos turned to me, moved, as father and son fell into each other’s arms. “Of course, they don’t love their children the way we do,” he said, winking darkly, resigned to what his readers would say even before he began writing.

Which brings me to his books. The best books, Orwell once observed, organize your scattered thoughts, tell you what you already know. But at times they tell you what you don’t know, or more important, what you don’t want to know. Amos wrote so many such books, over a span of forty years—and with Orwell’s glass-like clarity—that you have to ask the question, What big thing did he know that his readers could not easily bear? Where did he get the stamina—how did he sustain the indignation—to stay so far ahead of the readers he worked so hard for?

The record is impressive, even on its face. While Israelis were finally digesting the facts that came out of the Eichmann trial, Amos wrote “Journey Through a Haunted Land,” which gave Israelis their first glimpse of a democratic Germany emerging from the war, burdened and yet surrendering to the passion for normality much as Israelis themselves were—a Germany that Israelis once thought they would never set foot in, but now journey to more or less routinely. After the Six-Day War, while Israelis were still savoring their victory—and Moshe Dayan had not yet surrendered his laurels—Amos wrote “The Israelis: Founders and Sons,” a book that left no doubt about the ideological sophistication, and corresponding blinders, of the pioneering Zionist leaders, but left you wondering about the coarse “realism” of their heirs: people who prided themselves on thinking that the land was theirs the way the sun rises in the morning—that is, that their parents’ philosophical enthusiasms, like theories of planetary motion, betrayed a diaspora mentality.

Herzl” came next. You could not put the book down without admiring Theodor Herzl’s courage and practical achievements—his romance turned into a Congress, a bank, a diplomacy. But you could also not fail to reflect on the deeply neurotic sources of Herzl’s ambition and, not coincidentally, of national feeling in general. Amos’s next books—his travels to Egypt, and then his most impressionistic book, “Jerusalem”—sustained these latter reflections, in a way. It was as if he felt that all nationalist and political clichés needed to be explored, down to every frustrated libido and social grievance.

As for historical “lessons,” including the ones in Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat,” we needed to learn how grotesque they could be—how grotesque historical determinism of any kind must be. Amos’s last great book, “The Pity of It All,” tried to nail down this ultimate point by surveying the record of German Jewry, to show that their disaster was by no means preordained, as Zionist theories alleged, but was an unexpected and dreadful interruption in their real progress toward an emancipation unique in Europe until then—and that interruption was another horrifying consequence of the madness and desperation left over from the First World War. The real lesson, if that’s the word for it, was that violence drives people crazy. You needed only ordinary compassion to see this. Violence should be avoided.

This brings us pretty close to the big thing that I believe Amos knew. It was hardly an original bit of knowledge for a Viennese-born Jew advancing, if only in imagination, toward civil society and bildung. People, being people, need political structures that allow them to settle disputes without violence. They—Jews, too—need a state that looks like American or European civil society; they need fair laws and civil rights and common decency, just to keep savage instincts in check. One of the most charming stories he told me (he loved the word “charming”) involved an experience during the 1948 war:

I was a runner in Jerusalem during the war, and one mission was to bring a message to the head of the Haganah in the Jewish Agency building. I arrived one dark evening at the building in the middle of an artillery barrage, with boom-boom everywhere, and the place was gloomy and deserted—except for a light in one office, where I found Dr. Leo Kohn, the legal adviser to the Jewish Agency, curled over his desk, writing. “What are you doing here?,” he asked.

I told him I was looking for the Haganah headquarters.

He pointed me to the basement.

I was young, and a little brash, so I could not resist. I asked him, “What are you doing here?”

He answered almost nonchalantly, in a heavy German accent, “I am writing the constitution of the Jewish state.”

This constitution was never enacted, of course. Kohn’s forlorn hope is what made the story charming. He was, like Amos, a liberal among revolutionaries. And this reminds me of the other backward thing said about Amos, especially after he and Beth began living full time in their home in Tuscany: that Amos—this ultimate journalist insider—left for Europe because he had given up on Israel, or politics, or both. The fact is, Amos had never left “Europe,” any more than Dr. Kohn or, say, Abba Eban did—had never seen Israel from within the closed theories of Labor Zionist theory, or the closed precincts of any Zionist parties. He knew the open society and its enemies, and was sickened by the thought that Israel would fill up with the latter. He was something like our Camus: always an outsider the way a healthy citizen must be: alert to what has been thought said and done in other places and other times.

He was posted in Hungary during the 1956 uprising and saw how absurd revolutions become. As his newspaper’s Washington correspondent, he was a friend and neighbor of John F. Kennedy (“He was furious about our nuclear program”) and celebrated the American civil-rights movement. While Israelis remained stuck in a kind of socialist prudishness, Amos was a natural man about town, an important first for an Israeli intellectual. It was no accident that, when he came back to Israel in the mid-sixties, with his gorgeous, sassy American wife, he began to focus almost immediately on the peculiar, vulgar legal status of Israel’s Arab citizens. He wanted to bring the world to Israel—he lived, above all, in the world.

Nor was Amos indifferent to or (for the sake of expediency) indulgent of Israel’s Orthodox, the way most Israeli leftists were. He actively despised halachic life, the way free-thinkers despise all forms of orthodoxy. He was the first to notice that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were becoming two separate realities. Don’t try lighting Sabbath candles around him.

But during the last weekend we spent together, this past February at his home in Tuscany, with the winter sun setting, I sang to him Bialik’s welcome to the Sabbath bride, and he listened quietly, smiling, amused (and reassured) by the irony of my singing it and his hearing it—the irony that alone saves the Hebrew gestalt from piety. No, he did not live out his last days in his Tuscan home out of anger, but because he wanted the beauty of the place, which was no more than humans deserved. It was, he told me, a matter of dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing.

Arthur Koestler, whom Amos particularly admired, once wrote that there were two planes of experience, the tragic and the trivial, and that artists and writers are blessed—cursed, really—with seeing “everyday experience” on the tragic plane, the “angle of the eternal.” My last view of Amos called that distinction to mind. He was lying in his living room, too weak from the developing leukemia to sit up, unwilling to speak of disease or goodbyes, asking for a blanket, asking perfunctorily where I was going next in Florence, his frail hand in my hand. But then he was reminded of something that some Likudnik had said, something that we had actually covered earlier, but never mind—and it prompted a new scoffing sentence, a new disbelieving laugh, and his voice rose, gaining strength from the pity of it all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why Obama, And What Took So Long?


(I wrote the following for this morning's Haaretz)

It may seem hard to believe, given America's vital regional interests, but the last president to develop a deal to mitigate Middle Eastern violence - and throw the full weight of his presidency and the international community behind it - was Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1957. John F. Kennedy had no wars to respond to, and was largely concerned with preventing Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons. But ever since Johnson - since the Six-Day War, that is - one president after another has behaved as though America's role was limited to facilitating a negotiation between Israelis and their neighbors: a kind of regional Dr. Phil. Israel was the client state, yet presidents, in effect, worked to preserve its freedom of action. They might carp half-heartedly about settlements, or empower their secretaries of state to exert economic pressure about particular instances of foot-dragging (Kissinger on Rabin in 1975, or Baker on Shamir in 1991). But presidents did not - how did Colin Powell put it? - presume to want peace "more than the parties themselves."

Some have argued, notoriously, that the Israel lobby must be credited (well, blamed), if presidents have been relucant to lead. This view is too elegant for competent historians, and it also fails to explain why things are changing so fast in Washington. With Benjamin Netanyahu sitting edgily at his side this week, Barack Obama sternly included Americans and Europeans as interested parties in the regional goings-on, too. And he seems poised to sketch out a plan that will bear his stamp, beginning with his upcoming speech in Cairo. Obviously, he wants Israelis to imagine joining a bigger peace process than any they could themselves organize or scuttle. Why Obama and not his predecessors?

This is not the place to review the records of eight previous administrations. But there is an obvious taxonomy for presidents, at least with respect to this region, and Obama emerges as one of a kind. First, we might categorize presidents according to their knowledge of the region - if not their subtlety about the Arab world, then their sophistication about the developing world more generally. This may be compared with, say, a president spouting a Manichaean ideology in which preemption of dark forces takes precedence over any peace, which could anyway never be trusted. (The latter view was hammered into a platform by early neoconservatives during the late 1970s, one that cast America in a perpetual fight against evil - "evil empire," "radical evil," "axis of evil" - and cast Israel as America's biggest aircraft carrier.)

Second, we might categorize presidents as relatively strong or weak. Do they enjoy broad popularity and reliable congressional support for their agenda, however modest, or does presidential popularity fluctuate with media-hyped judgments of their efficacy or ineffectuality, or their virtues or peccadilloes, while each congressional action hinges on tough votes? Finally, do presidents have a peculiar soft spot for Israel, a penchant for seeing it as a tribute to freedom or the answer to an ingenuous religious impulse - as natural to the Middle East as the Holocaust museum is to the Washington Mall or "Jerusalem" is to Baptist hymns? Or, do presidents see Zionism admiringly enough, but mainly through the prism of the practical security problems Israeli leaders say they have?

When you think about it, Obama is the only president since Eisenhower whose profile resembles that of Eisenhower - which means virtually complete freedom to act. One, he has worldly sophistication and knows it; he was brought up in Jakarta and is not put off by the extremist language of the poor and desperate and young; yet his allergy to ultra-nationalist rhetoric was hard won, when he rejected (as only a "mutt" could) Louis Farrakhan's acolytes in Chicago. Two, he has an unprecedented mandate at home. He also enjoys the European Union's support. But, he also has something Ike did not have, the affections of the vast majority of American Jews, 78 percent of whom voted for him. Against this trifecta, it will be hard to flog Israel's role in a clash of civilizations.

Netanyahu - as indeed many Israelis of a certain age - may say that what makes Obama unique is his inexperience, or recklessness, or both. That his presidential predecessors learned from Eisenhower's failure not to meddle in Israeli security strategy. After all, Eisenhower and secretary of state John Foster Dulles forced the Israeli government to evacuate the Sinai after the Suez War. In return, Israel got the opening of the Straits of Tiran, but manned by UN peacekeepers - "the umbrella," as Abba Eban memorably complained to the UN Security Council after the 1967 war, that was taken away "as soon as it begins to rain." Indeed, the justifications for making the Sinai's occupation permanent in 1957 were the same as the ones advanced after 1967: keeping Palestinian terrorism in check, strategic depth through territorial expansion, "deterrence."

But Obama surely knows that this is a very partial assessment of Eisenhower's achievement. Just as the current occupation makes a succession of intifadas inevitable, continued occupation of the Sinai after 1957 would hardly have made a new war with Egypt less likely. As Israelis learned bitterly in 1973, occupation made war inevitable, and on terms that made a preemptive strike diplomatically impossible. For his part, Eisenhower proved that when the U.S. and Europe act together, and rally the UN and America's regional clients, deals get done. On the whole, the decade after Dulles' ultimatum proved to be the golden age of state building, Hebrew cultural innovation and immigrant absorption. So the question is not really why Obama is trying this, but, what took so long?

(I shall take up the question of presidential power and the Middle East more fully in a forthcoming review of Patrick Tyler's book, World of Trouble, in the Nation.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Netanyahu's Economic Peace: Discuss


Sam Bahour and I explore the importance, and difficulty, of engendering the Palestinian private sector under occupation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Israeli Arabs: Time Is (Really) Running Out

Last year, I posted the results of Haifa University professor Sami Smooha's poll, which reinforced hopes that Israeli Arabs, over a fifth of the population, could eventually accept assimilation into Israeli life.

* 75 percent of Israeli Arabs between the ages of 16 and 22 support voluntary national service;
* 68 percent would be willing to live in a Jewish neighborhood, and 80 percent would like Arabs to enjoy parks and share swimming pools with Jews;
* Over 53 percent feel rejected as citizens of Israel;
* Almost 75 percent of Arabs support the return of refugees only to a Palestinian state;
* 45 percent said that they feel closer to Jews in Israel than to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza;
* Almost half support “comprehensive integration into the Western world.”

Prof. Smooha just released new results of his annual poll. These reveal a shocking decline in feelings of identity and citizenship among Israeli Arabs. Only 41 percent of Israel's Arab minority recognize the country's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, as opposed to 65.6 percent in 2003. Only 53.7 percent of the Israeli Arab public believe Israel has a right to exist just as an independent country, according to the poll, down from 81.1 percent in 2003. The saddest result of all: over 40% deny that the Holocaust happened. This might be translated as: 40% believe Jews are liars; or 40% believe Jews use the Holocaust to expropriate, or discriminate against, them.

Jerusalem, we have a problem. Benjamin Netanyahu is saying that "time is running out" on Iran, that Israel faces an existential threat and has to act. He is missing, as I stressed in The Hebrew Republic, the real existential threat to Israel as we know it--and the real count down. Among the things Netanyahu will raise with President Obama today is the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as as "Jewish state." But as Israeli Arabs well know, there is a difference between a Hebrew-speaking republic (that is, a democracy with a Jewish national character), and a country that preserves over 90% of available land for settlement by legally ethnic Jews, that awards citizenship to anyone who qualifies as Jewish according to Halacha, that preserves a huge Jewish Orthodox school system through public taxation, that annexes Arab parts of Jerusalem, including the Noble Sanctuary, that hands over to rabbis jurisdiction over marriage, divorce and burial--do I bore you?

And on top of this, the regular eruptions of violence between Israel and Palestinians make polarization inevitable. As I argued before, the Gaza operation may not have deterred Gazans from further violence, but it certainly deterred Israeli Arabs from imagining themselves real citizens of Israel.

OBAMA, PRESUMABLY, WILL be too polite to ask Netanyahu: "What kind of Jewish state?" But perhaps his people could later put the question to Uzi Arad, the other Israeli official in the room, who wrote in the New Republic a few years back what Avigdor Lieberman now suggests, that Israel keep the settlements and offer Palestine, in return, the Israeli Arab towns in the Little Triangle. “The various land swap plans,” Arad writes, “proposing a tradeoff of territories aim to increase ethnic homogeneity... [so that] the Jewish majority would remain at 81 percent until 2050." Gee, 81 percent until 2050. And here I thought math was hard; that, anyway, Arab families living in Israel for 61 years, raised in the Hebrew language, and aspiring to lives in Israeli hospitals, high tech companies, and universities, might (if we can get past their rage) actually enrich the country.

Look, Arad was a colleague of mine for a while, and whatever he thought of me, I found him very engaging. I even once tried, in a modest way, to help him raise money in Toronto for his Herzliya Conference and research institute. He always showed me respect, even warmth (though I was hardly in a position to be his rival). I found him brilliant and morally serious; he once told me, what I took to be a kind of foundational fantasy, that he would like to organize a secret force to strike at anti-Semites anywhere in the world--something like the late Mordechai Richler's St. Urbain's Horseman, I thought.

But a warm Jewish heart is not public policy. Neither is Israel a big Jewish family. Arad wants us to think that the problem is Palestinians not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But does he recognize Israel as a state at all--I mean a state in any ordinary sense, like France, or even Quebec? In November 2003, he co-authored (with Uzi Dayan and Hebrew social scientist Yehezkel Dror) a new “Zionist Manifesto” for Israel, which was presented to the Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. It aimed to give “constitutional status” to Israel as a “Zionist-Jewish state,” a state of the “whole” [read, world] Jewish people.” Arad’s manifesto also called for a state that would teach “the feeling of a right to the Promised Land, which is a central principle of Judaism.” It also called for “the preservation of democracy for all of its citizens.” It did not say if this were a central principle of Judaism.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bibi Gun


I have learned much from Jeffrey Goldberg, and generally admire what he does with his contradictions; but yesterday's New York Times column on Benjamin Netanyahu is troubling on so many levels one hardly knows how deep to drill first.

Basically Goldberg is saying this: You may suspect (given Netanyahu's record, presumably) that the prime minister is an ideologue and something of a manipulator, that he is actually committed to Greater Israel, and is throwing Iranian sand in our eyes, trying to distract us from the occupation and the settlements. But this would be wrong.

Netanyahu, Goldberg continues, truly does believe that Iran is a threat to Israel's very existence, and he believes this for three reasons: strategic, Jewish, and familial. I, Goldberg, do not necessarily believe these things myself, but I have access to Netanyahu and his strategic planners, a purchase on the way Israeli Jews think, and a sympathetic grasp of his family dynamics. So I'm going to explain him to you. (Goldberg does not tell us why, if he does think Netanyahu is misguided, the prime minister's sincerity is a virtue or even worth talking about; or why Netanyahu and his aides particularly like to speak with him. But I digress.)

THE STRATEGIC POINT is the important one, and Goldberg does not so much report it as (how did Stephen Colbert put it?) write it down. He is, no doubt, accurately reflecting the views of most of the professionals currently involved in Israeli strategic planning, from Uzi Arad (Netanyahu's confidant and head of Israel's National Security Council) on down. Roughly, their scenario runs like this:

Iran may or may not be going for a nuclear bomb, but we have to assume that it is; and once Iran reaches the capacity to build one, this will change the Middle East in a way that will eventually destroy Israel. Even if mad mullahs do not just drop one on Tel-Aviv, the mere fact of a "nuclear umbrella" will embolden Hamas and Hezbollah to fire missiles. It will also turn Iraq into a client state, which will cause Kuwait and the Gulf states to fall in line behind Iran's power. Then Saudi Arabia will fall in line, or get a bomb of its own, or both; all of which will eventually bring Islamists to power in Cairo. So Israel cannot allow these dominoes to fall, which will bring its end. Even if an Israeli air strike only delays the Iranian bomb by a few years, it must hit before doomsday processes are set in motion. (Goldberg is by no means alone in reproducing this scenario. Israel's foremost Churchill wannabe--also a kind of IDF stenographer--Haaretz's Arie Shavit, has been flogging it for months; you can read Shavit's version here.)

I say currently involved in Israeli strategic planning because there are plenty of professionals, from former intelligence boss, Ephraim Halevy, to former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who think an attack would be madness, however uncomfortable it might be to live with a nuclear Iran. But how about mere civilians using their heads for a change? The fact is, every terrible domino that the existence of an Iranian bomb is supposed to topple is far more likely to be toppled by an attack on Iran.

GOLDBERG, VENTRILOQUIZED BY Netanyahi and Arad, is not convinced. "Talk of containing Iran after it acquires a nuclear capacity," he writes, "does not make the Israelis (or Iran’s Arab adversaries, for that matter) happy and, in fact, might push them closer to executing a military strike." Notice the parenthetical aside, implying as Netanyahu loves to imply, that Israel would actually be doing the work of moderate Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, and with their tacit blessing. Goldberg does not tell us that Mohamed El Baradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and an Egyptian, has called a strike "completely insane"; that it would "turn the region into one big fireball, and the Iranians would immediately start building the bomb--and they could count on the support of the entire Islamic world."

If you want to know what an Israeli attack will really mean, just read this extraordinarily trenchant summary by Reuven Pedatzur, ironically entitled, "Here's how Israel would destroy Iran's nuclear program." The piece, relying on a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, blasts the Netanyahu-to-Arad-to-Goldberg thesis more thoroughly than a bunker buster.

Oh, as for missiles coming from Gaza and South Lebanon, you may remember that these have not needed an "Iranian nuclear umbrella" to be launched. You also may have noticed that Israel's nuclear umbrella did not seem to do much good against them either, or for that matter, get its neighbors to fall in line. It seems that, if you subscribe to the big swinging dick theory of diplomacy, the enlargement you can expect from a nuclear bomb is rather limited. (I have had more to say about deterring, not attacking, Iran here and here.)

BUT STRATEGY IS not enough, apparently. To really get Netanyahu we must also understand how "Amalek" (the biblical people that mercilessly attacked the rear of the camp when the children of Israel were leaving Egypt) rattles around in the minds of Israeli planners--also how hard it is to be the son of the Jabotinsky movement's favorite historian of Jew-hatred, and the younger brother of a military icon, to boot. Amalek, Amalek. The ultimate enemy, the metaphor for every anti-Semite, Nazi, and terrorist.

Goldberg might be forgiven for going all squishy here about Jewish fears, though Netanyahu is not the only person to have a difficult father or lose a loved one to terror. But as long as we are onto Amalek, Goldberg might also have noticed that there are two times that biblical Israelites themselves commit genocide. The first, in Prophets, when Samuel commands King Saul to attack Amalek for what their forebearers did. They were to kill every child, lamb, and calf. The second time was after Haman, the Amalekite prime minister in the "comic" Book of Esther, planned to annihilate all of the Persian King's Jewish subjects. The Jews responded preemptively, and with the King's permission, to "destroy, massacre, and exterminate" all of Haman's "sons," and the killing became a bloodbath against Jewish foes that--so the story goes--took over 75,000 lives.

Such Jewish stories, and whether Israelis are to regard them as heroic or tragic, raise the question of what Netanyahu means when he insists on Palestinians recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state." But that's another story.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Pope And Ruby's Tuesday

(Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin, second from the left)

Pope Benedict XVI is not a man to feel sorry for himself, or even think his pronouncements just those of a man. Yet it is hard not to extend him some sympathy for braving a trip to Jerusalem this week. The mission was delicate from the start, stepping as he was into the middle of a blood feud between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. As the world's most famous neither-of-the-above, he was bound to be seen as a some kind of proxy for the conscience of the world--something like what the stately Notre Dame complex has come to represent among the buildings of Jerusalem: a neutral place where Israelis and Arabs go for "dialogue," while Christians listen, encourage--remind. The Pope's silence would have been interpreted, not as tactfulness, but as cowardice. Who in the middle of a quarrel does not imagine, well, an audience?

At the same time, of course, the Pope represents the great rival tradition whose dogmas and power have inspired both ghettos and crusades. Both sides want him in a state of apology, or at least vaguely official regret. And here is where missions become impossible. Dwell on Jewish suffering from European anti-Semitism, and you invite a reprimand from Palestinian nationalists and Muslim clerics that you are implicitly justifying the Naqba. Dwell on the occupation of Palestine, and you are inviting a reprimand from Zionists and Rabbis that you are justifying attacks on the national home. Fail to dwell on either, however, and you are accused of not assuming the church's indirect responsibility for both catastrophes: the Jews will say you are cavalier about the Holocaust, the Muslims ditto about colonialism. Both will say the old suffering of Jews led to the new suffering of Palestinians. Who in the middle of a quarrel does not also wish for a third party to blame? Habemus Papam, no?

All of this explains why this pope more than others has needed to rely, if not just on photo ops, then speech writers with an over-sized delete button. Indeed, this pope of all popes, a writer in his own right, has almost certainly developed a strong propensity to (as Nabokov put it) "kill your darlings." He tried to get fancy about the sources of The Western Tradition and found himself skewered for Orientalism. He thought to reinstate those he did not need to reinstate, retreated, and wound up making his infallibility seem rather hypothetical. So if anyone has learned the value of Rashi's aphorism, "kol ha'mosif gorea," ("he who adds substracts"), it is Benedict XVI. Which brings me to Reuven Rivlin, the Speaker of the Knesset--"Ruby" to his friends.

RIVLIN WAS NOT happy with things left out of the Pope's speech at Yad Vashem. He had already boycotted the Pope's arrival ceremony, even the visit to President Peres' residence. But Rivlin did go to Yad Vashem on Monday evening. By Tuesday morning he was all over the airwaves. "He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Rivlin told Israel Radio. "With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination":

I came to the memorial not only to hear historical descriptions or about the established fact of the Holocaust. I came as a Jew, hoping to hear an apology and a request for forgiveness from those who caused our tragedy, and among them, the Germans and the church. But to my sadness, I did not hear any such thing.

(You may read the Pope's Yad Vashem's address here, and judge Rivlin's complaint for yourself.)

WE SHOULD UNDERSTAND who is talking here. Ruby Rivlin, 70 years old, a lawyer by training, whose undistinguished legal career amounted to advising and managing Betar Jerusalem's football team. He graduated, in other words, from Menachem Begin's Herut youth movement into a party job, and from there into party politics. He postures as the scion of a great sage's family, but he has been, really, the product of a club-become-party-become-job.

And since the party he joined was more or less fanatic, he became a fanatic, too. Rivlin never met a settlement he did not like or a war he did not think "existential." He opposed the Oslo process, bad-mouthed Yitzhak Rabin (even after his assasination), and mocked any movement toward a two-state solution. He railed against Aharon Barak's Supreme Court's efforts to bring in protections for elementary human rights. Even Ariel Sharon, whom he had sucked-up to for a generation, proved not hawkish enough for him in the end. He split with Sharon over the Gaza operation, not on security grounds, but because he did not think Jews should drive Jews "from their homes."

And while I'm on the subject, Rivlin is a notorious glad-hander. He thinks his smile, which is zealously sweet, makes up for any excess or offense. He is blushingly plump and uncomfortably chummy. He thinks that gravitas means saying a little louder than others what is perfectly conventional. He teared up when, after running for the presidency against Peres, he withdrew so as not to lose by a mile; he declared his withdrawal "statesmanship." Imagine a cross between Hubert Humphrey and Sean Hannity .

SO THE REAL question that Rivlin's morning after interview evokes is this: where does a hack like him get the nerve to attack the Pope in this way, after all, the head of a church of a billion and a half Christians, and your guest, for Christ's sake? How could this kind of talk seem so conventional, so approved, that a person so lacking in erudition and moral authority as Rivlin feels that it's safe, even cool, to treat a Pope's visit to Jerusalem the way, say, Pat Buchanan might be treated at an AIPAC convention?

Just to be clear: the young Ratzinger never joined Hitler Youth (though all youth like him were added to it rolls automatically). His father was bitterly anti-Nazi; his retarded cousin was taken away and killed by the SS. He was drafted into an anti-aircraft battery at 16 and soon thereafter deserted. And as Tel-Aviv Univeristy's Dina Porat gingerly put it (on the radio the following day), we need a little perspective--kzat proportzia--here. In 1904, Pope Pius X told Theodore Herzl: "The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Jerusalem cannot be placed in Jewish hands." No sooner had Pope Benedict XVI landed at Ben-Gurion Airport than he expressed the wish that "both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders," and then he added: "It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the shoah... [and] pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."

True, virtually all of my Catholic friends think Pope Benedict a kind of Church Likudnik, dogmatic, imperial, allergic to dissent. But that is hardly the point for Rivlin or is implied by the loose talk. For this Israeli government in particular, the Pope's squelching of Vatican II's energies fits nicely with their own orthodoxies. What they want is more about the Holocaust, more contrition.

Funny, in the early 1960s, Israeli elites saw the Jewish state so much as a pioneering adventure--the culture of Hebrew labor, the dignity of self-defense--that they tended to bury talk of the Holocaust, which seemed to them a symbol of Diaspora Jewry's woeful path. Ben-Gurion staged the Eichmann trial just to correct what he took to be Zionism's aloofness from the suffering of Holocaust survivors. Foreign dignitaries, meanwhile, were taken to the kibbutz, or the Hebrew University. Today, guests are whisked off so quickly to Yad Vashem that they cannot tell the difference between its gloom and their jet-lag. Their speeches must include a syllogism in which the "Holocaust" forms the first part and "the Jewish state" the second. They cannot just express their fellow-feeling. They will be graded for levels of sincerity, from "cold" to "understanding." Mention Iran and you get extra credit.

MY LATE FRIEND, Ilona Karmel, who barely survived the Plashow death-camp (and like the Pope was an avid reader of the theologian Karl Rahner), once described American Jews who kept bringing up the Holocaust to her as people with "scars but no wounds." It is like they are trying to get a moral pass in advance of any moral action, she said. Israelis do have wounds, of course, and Holocaust Remembrance Day has now been so braided in with Passover, on one side, and Memorial Day and Independence Day, on the other, that it is seems officially necessary to forget where wounds stop and scars begin.

Still, one listens to Rivlin and cannot help but wonder what, if anything, he learned from the 20th. century other than the need to serve his movement more fiercely and to say "mine" more loudly; to take the territories promised by his movement and be holier than you know who. You also have to wonder if his arrogance, which blends all too easily into Israel's political background, does not suggest a new fundamentalism. If many Jewish Israelis, like many Christians before them, are not trying to achieve innocence simply by identifying with the scars of the innocent murdered, by means of a passion play of their own, with a gospel of their own, only the Romans are the Nazis, and "the Jews" are Poles (Ukrainians, Hungarians, etc.).

Alas, as Rahner might have said, innocence is overrated. He did say, unremarkably, that "self-realization...embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life." Presumably, this is true of nations, too. Does Rivlin really need Hillel and Jesus to know that passion is not justice and apology is not permission?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ezra Nawi, Jailed

I have written about Ezra before and have not hidden my admiration. He is a tireless human rights activist, who has established unique connections, and affections, with the villagers in the South Hebron hills. I have often sat in the back of his truck, being ferried to stand watch over fields that would not be plowed were it not for his courage and resourcefulness. I have seen Ezra stand, dignified, against settlers who regard him something the way Klansmen regarded Jewish northerners who came to bear witness against Jim Crow. He is the subject of a poignant film. He is also my plumber, as it happens, and he does not overcharge his customers.

Ezra is now facing jail: "His 'crime,'" writes Neve Gordon, in a comprehensive report, "was trying to stop a military bulldozer from destroying the homes of Palestinian Bedouins from Um El Hir in the South Hebron region. These Palestinians have been under Israeli occupation for almost 42 years; they still live without electricity, running water and other basic services and are continuously harassed by Jewish settlers and the military – two groups that have united to expropriate Palestinian land and that clearly have received the government's blessing to do so." You can read and watch what you need to know here, but you can also read more about Nawi from David Shulman here.

Attention Washington press corps: If you do not ask Benjamin Netanyahu about Ezra Nawi when the Prime Minister visits Washington, you are not doing your jobs.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Once Again...

...if you have a few minutes, you may want to read through the remarkable string of Comments at TPM Cafe in response to my recent post on Olmert's offer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

For Sale: Parcels Of The Jewish State

This little column by Hebrew University law professor, Daphna Golan, is not to be missed. While Prime Minister Netanyahu prattles on about Iranian nukes, or the need for Palestinian leaders to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," the government continues to remake realities on the the ground, utterly confounding the question of what Jewish state is to be recognized. Golan writes:
Israel has long promised there would be no new construction in West Bank settlements...Yet this week, a Jerusalem daily promised that any Israeli factory willing to move to the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim would benefit in three ways. First is the community's "Ideal location," ten minutes from Jerusalem. The map featured in the ad shows only Israeli communities as recommended sites for factory owners to build in - no Palestinian communities, even those next door to the settlements. The second advantage is accessibility. In case the Americans do not understand,...Israel has built roads for Israelis alone to use, so they can live and work in the occupied territories without having to come across Palestinians. Route 443 was paved for the sake of accessibility to Ma'aleh Adumim...Third, the advertisement promises the same tax deductions as in "National Priority Area A," adding: "Ma'aleh Adumim's industrial park has the largest land reserves in the Jerusalem area.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Olmert's Unprecedented Offer


Ehud Olmert has been telling anyone who will still listen that he and Mahmoud Abbas were "very close" to a settlement this past fall; that he presented the PA president a deal and map--in his words, a more generous offer than any ever made by an Israeli prime minister, and that Abbas "refused to sign."

Sources close to their conversations have now filled in the essential details of their talks. Journalists take note: If anything about the following account is mistaken, then it is up to Olmert, the putative maker of the offer, to confirm or deny things, point by point. The idea that these are delicate diplomatic negotiations, and must remain secret, is ridiculous. We are not speaking here about two private people negotiating the price of a rug in the bazaar.

Olmert and Abbas had little standing among their own citizens when they took on these talks; for both, negotiating was a kind of ongoing photo-op. Yet every clause of what Olmert offered has a moral idea behind it--therefore a public consequence to it. If Abbas rejected something, we should all have the chance to judge if we would have, too. Israeli politics are still suffering from Ehud Barak's warped account of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Then, too, Yasir Arafat was presumably made an offer of unprecedented generosity and he rejected it. The resulting meme was: "Israel offered Palestinians everything, and Palestinians came back with violence." This meme was not quarantined in time, and it has infected the talk of Israeli voters, journalists, and American "supporters" ever since.

HERE ARE THE details of Olmert's offer:

Prologue: Sources say there was never a document, formal or informal, presented to Abbas. Everything offered by Olmert was offered orally and provisionally, and with the specific proviso that Olmert's ideas were not endorsed either by Foreign Minister Livni or Defense Minister Barak.

1. Olmert offered an Israeli withdrawal from 96% of the West Bank, but he did not include Jerusalem in this calculation. Israel would compensate Palestine with a land swap amounting to 4% of Israeli territory: 2.5% would be Israeli land in the Negev added to the Gaza Strip, while 1.5% of Israeli land would be the area devoted to a land bridge between the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized.

(Note: Since Jerusalem was not included in the land calculation, Palestinians plausibly argue that withdrawal would really be from 94%. They argue, moreover, that the 1.5% devoted to a land bridge would actually be Israeli controlled. But leaving aside the arguable specifics of the withdrawal, it is clear from these numbers that Olmert--unlike Barak at Camp David in the summer of 2000--accepted the principle enshrined in the offer of the Arab League in 2002, that any deal would be based on the 1967 borders, that is, on the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by force; that land would be exchanged 1:1. This is a principle which must be preserved in any final deal.)

2. Israel would, in return for the land given to Palestine, annex the territory of the major settlement blocs (including Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron, and Alfe Menashe), the Gush Etzion bloc, the town of Ariel in the Samarian hills, the land between Maale Adumim and East Jerusalem, and the towns hugging the 1967 border near Jerusalem, Har Adar and Givat Zeev.

(Note: A glance at a map shows that to retain especially Kiryat Arba, Ariel, and the territory between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, Israel would require sovereign roads and land bridges that cut the Palestinian state into four enclaves, two north of Jerusalem and two south of it, while cutting East Jerusalem from the descent to the Dead Sea. More important, these annexations would leave the most ruthless Israeli settlers in isolated pockets that are bound to become targets for ruthless insurgents on the Palestinian side. The only possible justification for these annexations is the Israeli government's distaste for confronting the settlers; defending them after a deal would serve as justification for all kinds of military escalations.)

3. Israel agrees to accept up to 30,000 refugees within its 1967 border. But this is a humanitarian gesture only. It does not in any way imply that Israel endorses the Palestinians "right of return."

(Note: The number itself is not very different from what was agreed to in the Taba Agreement and the Geneva Initiative. Those agreements recognized the Palestinian "right of return" in principle, but presented "modalities" for actualizing this right through resettlement in the Palestinian state and financial compensation. No Palestinian leader can come away from a negotiation without this principle being recognized; to abandon the right of return is something like denying the suffering of Palestinian refugees since 1948; indeed, the agreement of PA people to fulfill this right without returning to Haifa, Jaffa, and Acco was a major concession. For his part, Olmert once told me that he will never accept the right of return, since it implies that Israel was born in a great act of cruelty. But being cruel does not always make one wrong, and having a right does not mean actualizing it without regard to other rights. The Arab League Plan states that there must be an "agreed" solution for the refugees. It is time that all sides adopted the Taba and Geneva formulation as a way of meeting the conditions of the Plan, which Olmert did not.)

4. Jerusalem: Jewish neighborhoods would remain under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods would be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. This would resolve all points of contention except for the disposition of the Old City, the so-called "holy basin." The latter would be subject to a trusteeship of four countries: Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

(Note: Of all of Olmert's reported offers, this seems to me the most creative and morally intelligent. The old city is, in effect, an international museum. The question of sovereignty is really a question of custodianship. It seems unimaginable that the mosques on the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) would ever be removed from the administration of the Muslim Waqf (religious administration). Nor would the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be removed from the administration of the various churches that have negotiated custodianship over generations. Nor would the Wailing Wall be removed from custodianship of the Israeli government. Making access open to all, and sovereignty something more international, is merely calling the grass green. And what would redeem our religions more than an all-sided willingness to share rather than to war? Finally, Saudi presence in the city's custodianship would not only establish a presence for the Arab League, but invite further Saudi investment in Jerusalem tourism, which will be Palestine's leading "export" sector for a generation.)

Olmert, it is true, cannot now make policy any more the leaders of the Geneva Initiative could. Out of power is out of power. But his offer provides yet another confirmation of the utilitarian calculus upon which any deal can be based.

Then again, the fate of his offer, and the political constraints surrounding it, prove once again that the time has passed for more negotiations. The time has come, rather, for the U.S. to fully embrace the Arab League Plan, fill in its blanks with derivatives from this calculus, rally Europe and the UN Security Council to its version of the Plan, and present it to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in a comprehensive package (international forces in Jerusalem, defense pact with Israel, investment plan for Palestine, etc.). The Plan should then be put to a referendum in both Israel and Palestine. Is it not obvious that this (and only this) can work, and that every day we do not install the Plan is another we drift toward Balkan style civil war and ethnic cleansing?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pogrom At Um Safa


This, from David Shulman, his account of yesterday's action at Um Safa:

Pogroms: it's something the Jews know about. I grew up on those stories—Cossack raids on the shtetl, the torture and killings and wanton destruction. My grandmother had a brother. They lived in Mikhalayev, in the Ukraine. One day the Cossacks came, and everyone panicked, and the seventeen-year-old brother tried to hide in a pond, and he drowned. She mourned that young death all her life; the dead don't age, and some wounds never heal.

And now it turns out—who would believe it?—that there are Jews who also know how to carry out pogroms. For the last ten days or so, settlers from Bat 'Ayin in the so-called Etzion Bloc have been paying violent daily visits to their Palestinian neighbors in Um Safa, perched high on the edge of the western ridge that overlooks the coastal plain all the way to the sea. A terrorist from Um Safa entered Bat 'Ayin two weeks ago, murdered a settler boy with an axe, and wounded another. The police caught him soon thereafter. But that hasn't stopped the Bat 'Ayin settlers from repeated rampages to wreak revenge on Um Safa. They've already killed four innocents, and another eleven or twelve have been wounded by gunfire. As if that weren't bad enough, the soldiers have apparently been making common cause with these settlers, opening fire readily at the villagers. Life in this most beautiful of the mountain villages has become a nightmare; not that it was easy before.

We get the emergency call around 5:00 after a long day that started off in Susya, in South Hebron. At first it looked as though we'd never get through the barriers and the roadblocks; like last week, we had police and army on our tail from the moment we left Jerusalem. Two full buses and several private cars headed south by the long route twisting over the dry hills. A grey, sultry day, summer approaching: in the endless battle in the wadis and terraces between green and brown, green seems to be losing ground. Every once in a while the soldiers would stop one of the cars and threaten to stop the buses. But, happily, by midday we had rendezvoused at Susya with a van of Palestinian activists from all over the West Bank. All in all, some 150 Combatants for Peace—former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian members of the armed resistance organizations who have given up all forms of violence—had come to meet each other and to see the reality of South Hebron.


Read on...

Friday, May 1, 2009

Housekeeping

Several hundred subscribers to this blog choose to get its periodic posts in their "inbox"--you know, so they don't have to check to see if there is anything new. Dare I say there is very good sense here? Just enter your email address in the box to the right and follow the simple instructions.
I'd be grateful, naturally, if you suggested the blog to friends or family members. I have done the math: if every subscriber got one other person, why the number of subscribers would double! (If others are intrigued, but not familiar with the site, you may enter their emails yourself and they would have the option to accept the updates or not. Of course, if you are already getting posts by email, this pitch, and this arrow, will be superfluous, though not the praise for your good sense. But you will actually have to click through to the site to sign others up.)

Also, 900 people so far have watched the Hebrew Republic lecture (recorded at Vanderbilt University) on You Tube. The lecture provides not so much a synopsis of the book as a context for its themes, that is, for why the peace process is so stuck. (Incidentally, if you have questions you feel the lecture is not addressing, or suggestions for developing the argument, suggestions for other venues, and so forth, please feel free to be in touch at the following email: b1@bernardavishai.info.)