Thursday, December 27, 2012

Silwan and Tel Aviv University

I began writing about the injustices in Silwan four years ago and returned to the subject in 2010 when it became a focus for protest by Solidarity, a movement now pretty much exhausted, alas.

Silwan is the heart of East Jerusalem's Arab population, which the ultra-nationalist settler organization, Elad, has been trying to push back from the Old City's main entryway to the Jewish quarter, the Dung Gate. Elad is succeeding--with the help of a sympathetic rightist mayor, and the state's Antiquities Authority--by developing "The City of David," a kind of Jewish archaeological theme park, though any evidence that the excavations have anything to do with King David will persuade only the Bar-Mitzvah boys who flock to the place to earn their manhood.

Elad has also been putting up apartments for its cadres; its declared aim is to encircle the old city with Jews, and link up to Jewish neighborhoods to the north and east, preempting any redivision of sovereignty in the city.  (You can watch this "60 Minutes" report on Silwan, to get a more vivid picture.) Some of the excavations in question have been started over a hundred years ago, but there would be no "City of David," and no mistreatment of the local Arab neighborhood, without Elad, no Elad, without rightist money from abroad, and no Elad power over the place without the collusion of the Antiquities Authority.

It is disgraceful, then, that some of Tel Aviv University's archaeologists are using the political umbrella created by this collusion to start a dig of their own, presumably independent of Elad, and organized purely for scientific research, but unimaginable apart from what Elad is doing there. I said earlier that the Solidarity movement is pretty much exhausted. That's because peace groups around the city have been simply overwhelmed by the momentum toward annexation engendered by the Netanyahu government and its allies. Institutions outside of Jerusalem--even those built on liberal standards--are simply accommodating to, "normalizing," the facts on the ground.

The one hope we have to counter Tel Aviv University's surrender to this momentum is pressure, including international pressure, from scholars who refuse to let the university administration off the hook. Thus, the following letter, and its signatories.  You can join the petition by linking to this website.  You can also read about the whole affair in this Haaretz report.

Here is the letter:

We, members of the academic community in Israel and abroad, representing a wide range of disciplines, wish to protest recent developments that are taking place at Tel Aviv University with the full knowledge of the university administration. We understand that an agreement has been signed between representatives of TAU and the Israel Antiquities Authority, according to which the Institute of Archaeology will conduct excavations in the village of Silwan in Palestinian East Jerusalem. These excavations are funded at least in part by the Elad Foundation, which has legal control over the area called “City of David National Park.” 

The express intention of this Foundation is to “Judaize” the area known as the “Holy Basin,” including Silwan. It pursues this aim by gaining control, through purchase or other means, of houses in Silwan and by planting colonies of Israeli settlers, under armed guard, in the neighborhood. Elad also funds and oversees archaeological excavations and development of the National Park in Silwan as part of its ultra-nationalist program. 

The public nature of archaeological activity at this site, which is carried out in the open with direct impact on the lives of the Palestinian residents of the area, has spurred international bodies-- among them ICOMOS, the body that advises UNESCO on the subject of preservation and heritage, and which includes an Israeli representative-- to re-affirm that any professional intervention in a densely inhabited heritage site requires the cooperation of the local residents. In the absence of such cooperation, archaeological excavation in a built-up area becomes a one-sided, arbitrary governmental act and fails to meet the basic requirements of academic research. 

The planned excavation in Silwan will ostensibly take place in an area designated as a “National Park,” but it is adjacent to—only a few dozen meters away from—the homes of local residents and forms part of the general ideological project of the Elad Foundation. Excavations in this area are conducted under heavy protection by the Border Police and privately contracted security forces. 

Apart from the direct, deleterious impact of these excavations on the lives of the local residents, Tel Aviv University is about to enter indirectly into partnership with an extremist political organization—thereby establishing a de facto position on an issue that is at the center of crucial debate within Israel, with serious political and moral implications. In entering into such a partnership, Tel Aviv University will be granting the Elad Foundation the professional recognition it seeks, recognition that academic institutions in Israel and abroad have thus far refused to grant. 

We appeal to the administration of Tel Aviv University out of deep concern over its unseemly participation in such a project, involving one of its academic units in political activity camouflaged as an academic enterprise. This action will have an inevitable impact on the international reputation of scientific research in Israel—within and beyond the field of archaeology. 

At this time of increasing threats to the freedom of research in Israel, it is imperative that academic research remain untainted by overt political agendas. We therefore ask that the administration of Tel Aviv University direct the members of the Institute of Archaeology to desist immediately from their connection, direct or indirect, with the Elad Foundation and from any project that is funded, partly or in whole, by that foundation.

The list of signatories can be viewed here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The New McCarthyism of Jewish Organizations: Where Is Our Murrow?

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have regular column.

I am just old enough to remember grown-ups speaking with disquiet about McCarthyism--the first thick book I read was Louis Nizer's My Life in Court, which was largely about the libel case of Quentin Reynolds against Westbrook Pegler, impresario of the scurrilous Red Channels--and I also remember feeling a certain pride in the very large number of Jewish liberals who, like Nizer, helped bring America back to its senses.

Let the galoots disgrace themselves attacking war-heroes like General Marshall.  Let weird groups like the John Birchers and Daughters of the American Revolution and Republican Tafters impugn a man's integrity, then repeat each others' insinuations, then spread them to widening circles in captive media (where sympathetic pens were waiting). Let them point to the public doubts they themselves manufactured "out of whole cloth," as my father used to say. Jews, and Jewish organizations, knew where they stood in the face of such smears. They stood for fairness, patience, sanity. We knew whom an unfair, impatient, insane America would not "be good for."

Louis Nizer
There was Fred Friendly, who collaborated with Edward R. Murrow in challenging McCarthy on CBS. There was Arthur Miller, whose 1953 play, "The Crucible," about the Salem witch trials, was a thinly veiled attack on the House Un-American Activities Committee. There was I.F. Stone who, forced to strike out on his own, proved the grandeur of the first amendment. There was Commentary Magazine before Norman Podhoretz lost his mind. In the America I knew, which only grew more so during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, American Jews--with their worldly souls and experience of the social margins--were the natural opponents (because potential victims) of the fear, flocking, and fanaticism that produced political libels.

Which brings me to Sen. Hagel. I think it is time to acknowledge, bluntly, that certain major Jewish organizations, indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations--also, the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, political groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, along with their various columnists, pundits, and list-serves--are among the most consistent purveyors of McCarthyite-style outrages in America today. Are there greater serial defamers of public officials in fake campaigns against defamation? Starting with Andrew Young and the late Charles Percy, and on to Chas. Freeman and (now) Chuck Hagel, the game has been to keep Congresspeople and civil servants who might be skeptical of Israel's occupation and apologetics in a posture that can only be called exaggerated tact.

Fault Israel and you are accused of faulting Jews in our collective state, or, the same thing, overlooking the venality of our enemies--things only an anti-Semite would do and, of all times, in the wake of the holocaust. This is not a charge anyone in public life wants to suffer or try to deny. My Israeli friends love that old Borsch-belt joke, that anti-Semitism means disliking Jews more than necessary. For American Jewish organizations, the very idea that dislike is ever warranted is proof of bigotry, like Philip Roth's early novels were proof of "self-hatred."

AIPAC et al know that if American politicians--and especially those fighting routinely for Florida, Pennsylvania  and Ohio--are not cowed by the fear of being branded as anti-Semitic they may not be embarrassed into backing Israeli actions ritualistically. Where is the shame and who is our Murrow?

I won't presume to go through the credentials that make Chuck Hagel fit for appointment as Defense Secretary; I saw and heard him in person only once. I also won't repeat, or defend him against, all the charges leveled against him. Others have done this better than I could. (If you want a comprehensive list of the AIPAC-inspired letters Hagel refused to sign, you can find it here.)

Suffice it to say that Hagel is man of independent judgement whose views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict track pretty much exactly with those of Haaretz. He was a distinguished guest at J Street's first national conference. Nothing he's said has not been said by leaders like Ehud Olmert and intelligence chief Ephraim Halevy. Hagel is also a man, like George McGovern, who having served with distinction in the military fears the unknown dangers of resorting to military force except as a last resort and without a clear diplomatic strategy. So he refuses to speak glibly about using force against Iran the same way he refused to endorse war with Iraq. A Vietnam purple heart, he would in retrospect have diplomatically engaged with the Viet Cong.  Should he now disavow engagement with the Taliban or Hamas, for that matter?

Why should Hagel's stance be thought anathema to Jewish organizations? Let's get real. The latter throw their weight around, presumably on behalf of us Israelis, but really on behalf of the Israeli right, whose orthodoxy and pathos they relate to more readily than to Israeli peace advocates. The weight they have derives from their being able to hold American politicians to endorsing a "special relationship" with Israel, where special means unconditional, and Israel means the Likud's version of it, so that (as James Baker and Howard Dean discovered) even the desire for American "even-handedness" is treachery.

Hagel had the brass to call this grass green: Congresspeople will tell you openly that AIPAC has become one of the most feared, and secretly loathed, presences on Capitol Hill. Hagel spoke with thinly veiled contempt--which he came by honestly--of efforts by the Israeli lobby to intimidate dissenting diplomats and legislators. Ah, but he spoke of the power of the "Jewish Lobby"--not the Israeli lobby--which was the opening the lobby's hallelujah chorus needed to brand him a bigot.

Funny how you disapprove of what Israel has become and you are told you are disapproving of Jews in the collective sense; but when you call the Israel lobby "Jewish" you have crossed the line into anti-Semitism. And spare me talk about how calling the lobby "Jewish" gives, say, Evangelicals short shrift; without Danny Ayalon prepping him, Reverend Hagee wouldn't know Hamas from Hummus. (As if one dares not speak of Catholic and Evangelical groups opposing abortion, only "pro-life" advocates, if one wants to avoid being branded as anti-Christian.)

Will no one put an end to this dangerous creepiness? I don't mean someone who will simply speak in Hagel's defense (like the Omaha rabbi whose synagogue Hagel regularly visited, or David Brooks, who in a private letter to Peter Beinart, admitted that Hagel is not an anti-Semite). I mean someone who will reveal and condemn this moral extortion.

Where is the American Jewish Murrow, a figure with the necessary gravitas among Jews and their "friends" to expose the Jewish organizations in question and tell them that their defamations have to stop; someone who will go on offense specifically against this disgusting, AIPAC-inspired method of vetting politicians on some "pro-Israel" scale--someone who'll denounce the lobby's ways of creating buzz in destroying the reputations of honorable public servants? Tom Friedman is commendably bold today; but he has been "right too soon" on Israel for some time and thus lacks the credibility of, say, Brooks.

So where indeed is Brooks? Why will he not go public with a criticism of the machine that besmirched Hagel? He claims to want many more Republicans just like the senator and presumes to teach us, in every third column, about the dangerous foibles of human nature, especially when we humans seek cheap solidarity? Where is Mayor Bloomberg, who is a lion for common sense when it comes to fiscal issues, climate change and guns, but can't seem to rouse himself to stop these disgraceful public campaigns carried out in the name of Jews? Where is Morley Safer or Bob Simon on "60 Minutes"? Come to think of it, where is Jon Stewart, our real Murrow nowadays, who'll take on the methods of Fox News, and imply peacenik positions on the conflict here and there, but otherwise cannot seem to get beyond Joseph Lieberman impersonations?

Some claim the attack on Hagel is the problem of deranged Republicans, and in a way it is.  But that is like saying gun control is a Republican problem, implying that the NRA is just a natural feature on the landscape--as if there is no point figuring out where, given a tail and a dog, the wagging starts. No, this attack on Hagel started with the predictable Jewish organizations and pundits, who are now practiced at creating momentum for all kinds of attacks on the peace process. (Its latest initiative is to sign-up congresspeople to, of all things, close the office of Abbas' PLO in Washington--i.e., to punish him for taking his case to the UN, which the Israeli peace camp generally endorsed.)

President Obama, one hopes, will stick with Hagel and force the issue, much as Beinart has advocated. But Obama also has to count Senate votes for confirmation. Besides, he cannot as president attack the power and intoxication of Jewish organizations, which have many Democratic supporters, any more than Eisenhower could simply attack McCarthy and Taft supporters and utterly divide the Republican Party. Any president must be a consensus-builder and this one has an especial fear of divisiveness.

We did not take notice of attacks on the NRA until Republicans joined them. To have punch, the exposure of AIPAC and company must rather come from American Jews of the old school who have conservative credentials and something of a bully pulpit. This is their moment. The sigh of relief will be loud. And I know a great many Israelis who will join in.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lethal Weapon, The Sequel

I cannot be the only reader of this morning's headlines to notice that, almost simultaneously with the Newtown killings, a deranged man on the other side of the planet, in Chengping China, stabbed 22 schoolchildren; or to wonder if there could be a more perfect illustration for why the ubiquity of assault weapons in the U.S. is so scandalous.

Derangement is universal, but the difference between impulsively hurting and impulsively killing is the difference between an automatic handgun and a kitchen knife. Strange, isn't it?, that a country that was founded on the principle that people are too imperfect to be trusted with concentrated power--hence, that they needed the separation of powers at virtually all levels--should not be separated from the power to kill at virtually all times.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lieberman's Lucky Break?

Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation—or “resignation,” since he has not taken his name off the Likud-Beiteinu list for the upcoming elections, and seems to be angling for a quick plea bargain—comes with a familiar rhetoric, which is the sad secret of his success and of the Israeli right’s more generally. If he is not actually convicted, I fear this whole episode will do him more good than harm.

Last night, Lieberman began playing jujitsu with the charges in prime time. He has been, he told an audience assembled to light Hanukkah candles (including throngs of reporters), the subject of rolling investigations for 16 years. Imagine: 16 years! And why? He didn’t condescend to say, so obvious was the answer. Because he has been the teller of unvarnished truths, the tough survivor who, just because of his otherness, has always been under threat of being taken down.

He doesn’t really have to resign, he added, so trivial and baseless are the charges against him. But today he said he is doing so to show voters what integrity looks like. And who is doing the persecuting? Vaguely, the legal community, with its relentless, nerdy prosecutors and supercilious judges, which everybody knows are elitist and leftist.

Just as the EU’s indictment of Israel for settlement expansion betrays the inherent anti-Semitism of Europe, and veils its reflexive persecution of Jews in legalese, his indictment for improprieties results from the sick contempt with which he is viewed by a corrupt establishment. He lives without illusions. So he is always on the verge of being destroyed.

To be clear, and pathos aside, the larger case against Lieberman is far more brazen than anything Ehud Olmert was charged with, and was dropped largely because of the way the case against Olmert fell apart. Prosecutors did not want to go into court yet again without witnesses who could testify directly against the defendant. Still, the circumstantial case against Lieberman involved much more money and was much more transparent: 

In a nutshell, Lieberman returned to the Knesset in 2004, and his 21-year-old daughter Michal was suddenly named the director of a consulting firm, which was actually an obvious means through which her father received payments from “foreign sources,” 11 million shekels in all. (The payments were listed as consulting fees, though the daughter was a student of literature at Hebrew University.) Lieberman also received more than 2 million shekels in salary, for two years of employment.

Worse, since 2006, when the investigation began, various witnesses in other countries were suspected of being suborned. Most recently, an accountant in Cyprus, who was to have testified for the prosecution, delivered an unexpected coup de grace to the prosecution’s case. The only thing the prosecution was left with was thin: an undisputed meeting in which an Israeli ambassador, who in the course of his official duties had got hold of secret information about Leiberman's case, shared this with Lieberman before he became Foreign Minister--and the ambassador was later promoted. If you can’t prove corruption, you try for obstruction of justice.

The real question, of course, is political. The charges have seriously raised the stakes. If over the next several days it appears clear that the case against Lieberman will stand up in court, this will unquestionably be a blow to the Likud, about which more in future posts. But if Lieberman gets the expedited process he’s demanded, and manages to work out a slap on the wrists for breach of trust—like Olmert, not a conviction for malfeasance, but for the appearance of malfeasance—we are going to hear much more about “16 years.” And rather than Lieberman becoming an embarrassment to Israel, most Israelis will consider him its embodiment.


From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chanuchristmas, Again

Every year, for the past five, I've sent out this little homily on the reciprocity between Chanukah and Christmas.  I hope it warms you and yours.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fabulous Fives

It just occurred to me that this blog is five years old this week, 486 posts, or so my magical Google slave tells me. I confess a certain cumulative satisfaction. But I just read my first post, which I entitled (anticipating publication of The Hebrew Republic), "How Democratic Can A Jewish State Get?" And I was chagrined to find how little things have changed since the posts began, or should I say how little the preoccupations of journalists and their critics have changed as conditions on the ground have worsened.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I sense that things are coming to a head. Anyway, we plod on, if for no other reason than the world seems deceptively safer at bedtime when one quells morning anger with afternoon arguments. If you think others would enjoy subscribing, why not send along a prod? Email subscriptions are easy: just look to your right.