Tag Archives: Israel

Words cannot express this shame

I have been wavering between the brink of rage and the verge of tears since I got up this morning. Basic details on Ynet; more info on +972.

May each of the 37 “parliamentarians” who voted for this thing die slowly, and alone. Preferably of thirst, in the desert.1

 

Footnotes

  1. Note: I am strongly opposed to any action intended to cause any person to die in such a manner, and this is not to be interpreted as incitement to murder. It is merely that I would find it a fitting fate if they were to suffer that way, especially if they had nobody to blame for it but themselves. []

On self-definition and basic decency

Last week, I Facebook-liked a news item about an acquaintance of mine, Y., giving birth. The reason this was national news in Israel is that Y. identifies himself as a male. The article respected this, using the male gender even on the verb for “gave birth”. Two other acquaintances of mine made snide comments on Facebook, culminating in “it’s like they’re trying really hard to show that it’s actually a man who gave birth”.

I can understand this sentiment quite well. Some five years ago, Y. gave me a ride in his car; his self-definition as a male was new to me at the time, and indeed I had never had to deal with this situation before. I knew that Y. wished to be seen and treated as a man, and wanted to respect that, but it took me a lot of effort to start using the male gender for him.1 I remember sitting in the passenger seat, struggling with awkward silences, and trying to figure out how to speak to him, until I finally got a male “you” out of my mouth. Continue reading On self-definition and basic decency

Footnotes

  1. It’s important to note that in Hebrew, there are two different forms of singular “you” – one for males, another for females. The same applies to other pronouns, like “your”, as well as to verbs, like “like” – so I can inflect the sentence “Do you like hamburgers” one way for addressing a male (ata ohev hamburgerim?) and another for addressing a female (at ohevet hamburgerim?), but I have no way of leaving the sentence neutral as it would be in English. []

Anti-Germans as anti-Semites

United for global change!

I just got back from Leipzig’s #globalchange festival/demonstration. At one point, I noticed two guys holding up an Israeli flag, and went over to ask what that’s about. It was the only national flag present and I wasn’t sure what it was doing there. “We’re here to provoke,” said one of the guys. “This demonstration is structurally anti-Semitic.” The idea, of course, is that a demonstration with anti-elite, anti-banker sentiment is anti-Semitic, whether the demonstrators know it or not. I tried to argue against this odd rhetoric, but he quickly said he doesn’t want to discuss it.

These counter-demonstrators are, I gather, anti-Germans. This is a movement considered to be left-wing and anti-fascistic, with a commitment to unconditional solidarity with Israel. The paradox of the “provocation” I witnessed is that this was the only mention of the “banking=Jews” stereotype I could detect in today’s demonstration, or indeed in all of the Real Democracy Now activities that led up to it in the past half year. It seems to me like the anti-Germans were the only ones bringing anti-Semitism into the demonstration. It annoys me to no end that they weren’t open to discussion, and this post is my attempt to say what I would have told them if they were willing to listen.

I recently read a pamphlet titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere”, a fascinating guide to understanding and combatting anti-Semitism targeted at social change activists. It can be found online [PDF] and I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are involved in any kind of movement for social change. It makes the crucial point that anti-Semitism is:

“a divide-and-rule strategy that has served to maintain ruling classes, conceal who actually has power, and confuse us about the real systems of oppression that pit us against one another.”
(Chris Crass, Quoted on a now-defunct website hosting the pamphlet.)

Historically, rulers and ruling elites have used anti-Jewish sentiments to deflect the anger of the oppressed masses towards a relatively powerless group (Jews). In a way, it comes down to rulers explicitly or implicitly fostering the belief that the Jews, not the rulers themselves, are the problem.

What those anti-Germans were trying to do today was the same in reverse – delegitimizing an expression of legitimate grievance against the ruling class by claiming it’s an illegitimate expression of intolerance against Jews. This makes me pretty angry, I have to say. If I had detected any anti-Semitic sentiment or rhetoric from the demonstrators, I would go berserk. But I felt very comfortable at the demonstration, felt it was a matter of global solidarity, explicitly inclusive to me (with my irrelevant Jewish background) and to anyone else. The first thing that made me uncomfortable there was the anti-Germans with that big Israeli flag. How dare they insinuate that the German banking system is controlled by Jews? Where the heck did they get that idea?

You know what, I don’t actually know the names and backgrounds of any major German bankers. And I don’t need to. We were demonstrating against the absurd situation in which Europe and the world are in crisis yet the number of millionaires in Germany has only increased. We were demonstrating because we’re told things are going to get hard and we have to live in fear of economic collapse while those who were involved in creating this mess have nothing to fear and they continue to control much more wealth than the rest of us. Even if it so happened that 99% of German bank owners are Jewish, this wouldn’t have been an anti-Semitic demonstration.

Speaking out against someone who happens to be a Jew is not anti-Semitism. Speaking out against “the Jews” or attacking someone because they’re a Jew is anti-Semitism. Is those anti-Germans’ approach supposed to somehow protect Germany from a resurgence of anti-Semitism? Seems to me like at the very least, it muddies the waters and creates confusion about what is or isn’t anti-Semitic, making it easier for real intolerance to fly in under the radar. Even worse, it can actually re-enforce anti-Semitism by suggesting that speaking out against the powers that be is speaking out against Jews – supporting the false equation that “(the) Jews” are responsible for the power structures we live within.

There. I think I got it out of my system now. Has anyone else encountered similar situations, where people meaning to fight intolerance end up implicitly encouraging it?

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On systemic problems (a response to Mattan)

In his guest post, Mattan Mamane argued that any form of central planning of the economy should be avoided, and only turned to when necessary. I have to say, I tend to agree with this approach. But first of all, I think there’s a case to be made for placing severe limitations on freedom when it comes to economics, because such limitations are already – actually, always – necessary. And second of all, there is planning and there is planning – not all planning is the same.

Now, I feel I lack some of the historical background knowledge that Mattan brings along. I can be ignorant sometimes, as I form my opinion in discussions more often than in deep reading. But if I’m not mistaken, the important insight of socialism is that there are certain dynamics in an unrestricted market which severely, systemically, and systematically limit the freedom of vast swathes of the population.

The idea of basing the economy on central planning is not a good one, that’s for sure. It depends on the planners being very smart, very well-informed, very quick, and very moral. With any of those missing, people will suffer. But obviously there are many economies, most economies really, which are based on many individuals making individual decisions without central planning, but within a set of rules and systems designed to protect societies from some of the ills of unlimited capitalism. I said “most economies” but it’s really all modern states, as modern states have laws and modern governments manipulate the economy in all kinds of ways. It’s really a question of how.

Mattan brought up a good example: privatization. Privatization of public institutions can be good, but the calls in the #J14 movement to end privatization in Israel are justified: the kind of privatization pushed there by Netanyahu and others is not the right kind; calls for tenders are tailored towards single corporations or individuals with large sums of money. As a result, privatization is used to drive more economic centralization and harms the competition needed for a free market; instead of a single government carrier for public services, we get a single private carrier, without the checks and balances of public oversight nor those of multiple private shareholders.

So it’s not privatization itself that is good/bad, it’s how you privatize that can be a great thing or a really bad thing. In the same way, combatting economic centralization or poverty can be done in good ways and in bad ways, and I think Mattan’s suggestion of focussing on freedom is a very good one.

However, I would caution Mattan and others from believing the oft-repeated claim that everyone is better off in a USA-style capitalistic society. Perhaps they are when compared to economies based on central planning, but the modern state is a very new thing as far as history is concerned, and we probably have all kinds of economies to try out. I think it is key to recognize systemic problems with existing systems, and try to figure out how these can be overcome.

One systemic problem of capitalistic societies is poverty. Here I mean relative poverty: being poor compared to the people in your society – not some absolute idea of poverty compared to the whole planet. We are all encouraged implicitly or explicitly to be innovative, take charge of our future, and be the very best we can be. Poverty, as I understand it, is a feature of the system of modern society: the existence of a category of person who, from birth, is not so likely to achieve those things which we should all aspire to. Perhaps some people are poor because they somehow have less potential, by nature, but this is not what I mean.There are many brilliant people born into poverty, who simply have the odds stacked starkly against them from the start. ((I believe that people’s ability is affected very much by their schooling and upbringing; specifically, I think that a traumatic childhood – such as that experience by most of us in unjust factory-like child-correction institutions mockingly called “schools” – is key to limiting people’s ability in most areas. But that’s a topic to be tackled separately.))

The measures taken against poverty are many and varied, and some are better than others. Welfare, at least as I know it in Germany, is not a very good one, in my opinion. Under this system, people have access to a living stipend if they meet certain criteria, the main type of welfare being available to people who are unemployed. Even assuming the stipend is enough to keep them from being poor, this system still limits their freedom: they have to go through embarrassing, even humiliating bureaucratic procedures on a regular basis and are forced to take a job, any job, even one they would hate. Such a system makes poverty slightly less awful without making it go away, and diminishes people’s freedom in the process.

Does this mean that welfare as a whole is a bad idea? I don’t think so. The German system just isn’t a good way of doing it. Perhaps all welfare systems ever tried aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean a good one can’t be created.

What I beg you to realize is that systemic problems in an economic system are never “somebody else’s problem”. They belong to everyone in that system, whether you happen to mainly benefit from it or mainly suffer. Like me, you probably have that image in your mind of a self-made man insisting that he made every single cent by his own hard work and wits, insisting that nobody ever helped him, outright raging that he doesn’t owe anybody anything. I’m sure many wealthy and successful people feel this way; if they didn’t personally make the fortune but rather inherited, they might feel this way on behalf of whatever ancestor did. But those who feel this way are deluding themselves. We live within complex social systems which can empower us to do great things or condemn us to lives of hardship. Sure, some measure of luck and some measure of ability are involved – but they do not exist in a vacuum. If you benefit from a system and that same system makes others suffer, their suffering is your problem, and you are benefitting from it whether you like it or not. I don’t mean to say the wealthy or successful are evil or something – just that no matter what they think, they bear a responsibility for the poor and the failures.

I think we have to take responsibility over the systems we live in and be brutally honest with ourselves about what they do right and what they do wrong. And when we recognize a wrong, we have to be creative and find a way to fix it while doing as little wrong as possible. It’s not easy, but it seems to me like an interesting challenge, and I believe it is the right thing to do.

 

I have one or two more guest posts lined up to continue this discussion. In the meantime, comments are open. What do you think about all of this? Are there good ways to improve capitalism? If so, what are they?

Guest post: Give freedom a chance (Mattan Mamane)

As part of my trying to figure out the whole economics thing, I’ll be asking some friends (of different ideological persuasions) to guest-post on the subject, and I’ll try to follow up with some kind of thoughtful response that doesn’t reveal quite how little I know about these things. First up is Mattan Mamane (who has a new blog in Hebrew), whom some may call a libertarian. Your thoughtful responses are most welcome, of course.

While writing this guest post, I tried to summarize for myself what stood behind my political ideology, what holds it all together. It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that the single foundation for almost everything I believe in is my freedom. Living through my own resolve and conviction is the thing I hold dearest and is actually the only thing I care about in the political field.  As long as I don’t cause harm to others, no one should care who I have sex with or how, no one should be able to control what I think or read – as no one makes better choices for me than myself. This is the liberal creed, and I believe most people today agree with it, most political beliefs just claim different ways to achieve this. We all realize, though, that freedom can fail; one’s freedom may conflict with another, and most of us agree that some safeguards are needed for everyone to receive the most freedom. Some of us think freedom fails at more places (for example, some will argue that saying certain words hurts people or causes people to hurt other people, depriving them of their freedom) and as a result support more control over people and actions (like taking away someone’s freedom of speech). Others are more permissive and agree to give freedom more of the benefit of the doubt: they first see where freedom fails, and only then see where we should limit it. Today, most people associate the right with the former, as they’re more skeptical towards where freedom works and think a more organized society is better suited to give everyone the most of their freedom, while the left is associated with the latter.

Socialism is seen by many on the left today to be inspiring as a way to achieve better personal freedom and liberty.  Socialist ideas first began appearing around the 18th century in reaction to “liberal” thinkers of the French Revolution. Early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon argued for a controlled society to combat the destructive ideas of the revolutionary “Liberals”, but instead of an aristocratically ruled society he argued for a meritocratic rule. Before the Second World War, Socialism was adopted by the liberal-minded in countries such as England and Germany, who contended that a more organized economy will result in more liberty, with parties such as Labour suggesting reformist adaptation of Socialism, in contrast to the revolutionist adaptation that occurred in Russia.

There is something alluring about a Socialist economy: with so many people acting against each other as they please for no clear goal, how much must go to waste! How much more efficient and productive could we be if we organized the economy under one central plan for the benefit of all of us?

But I would like to refute the claim that Socialism leads to more personal liberty. Actually, I would even go further to suggest that Socialism in its very essence must lead to an authoritarian society.

An economy is always changing; it depends on many factors. It’s the combined preferences, needs and wants of millions of people and their ways of interaction. A planned economy must always look all around in order to receive these inputs and output appropriate measures. The problem is that there is no “right” plan to direct the economy; each field will probably see its own plan as the best – I’m sure the scientists would love to see the bulk of the money going toward scientific achievement, but how much should be given to the farmers, who argue that the bulk of the money should go to them, as they produce the food? Each member of the society has his own plan that is based on his own skills, needs and wants.

It’s clear no democratic institution could establish such a plan by voting, it would take years and by the time any choice is made the economy would crumble through lack of action – so they must outsource the economy to “committees” and “experts”. Like a military operation, leading an economy requires efficiency, quick action and quick decisions – privileges only available to someone who is not under the restrictions of democracy. Each person must have his plan overridden by the central planner. This is the reason every Communist and Socialist regime fell into authoritarian rule: a centrally planned economy is the enemy of liberty and freedom, and history has proven this again and again.

Of course I realize that today most people, even the ones on the further reaches of the left, do not want a Socialist republic or a Communist rule; all talk of economics today stays within the realms of a liberal economy. We are all capitalists: we all agree that where the market works, it should remain, because we realize that free enterprise is a necessity for our freedom and that the free market, where it works, is the only moral way for people to interact in their skills, abilities, time, needs and wants.

But some people are more skeptical of economic freedom, and thus are usually more easily persuaded into giving up this freedom to the controlled alternative: such features of planned economies like welfare, nationalization of companies or assets, etc. I find it curious that they seem to see fighting against privatization and the free market, and for welfare and regulations as the means in themselves. Shouldn’t we let freedom work? We should see how permissive we can get, how much we can let people run their own life – and then see where and if it fails and how can we fix it in the least disruptive way.

Regulations, welfare, nationalization and such are tools to be used where freedom fails, they are used when we must control people for what we assume is the benefit of all of us. This should be the very last resort, the extreme alternative – like taking someone’s freedom of speech.

I think we should always look for the option that involves more freedom and more liberty, and I always try to give freedom the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. Whenever I’m dealing with a problem – like Israel’s housing prices, so high that they resulted in mass demonstration across the country – I try and look for the way to fix it that involves the most freedom, only when I can’t find it I consider the alternatives.

I will leave with a plea: Please, try and give freedom the benefit of the doubt.

A response to Max Blumenthal: Social justice for all, even settlers, is a good start

A neighbourhood in Ariel.
As much as settlements may remind of us of evil death robots, they are nonetheless home to human beings, many of whom are victims as well as criminals. (Image via Wikipedia)

Max Blumenthal has been raging against the official inclusion of the massive, strategically placed settlement of Ariel in the #J14 housing protest movement. (See Max’s Sunday post and Twitter stream.) I have to strongly disagree with his position, and I would argue that social justice for all, even the settlers, is a good goal and a good start.

I should preface this by saying that I’ve been following Max’s blog for months and this is the first time I ever strongly disagree with him; I think Max is an excellent journalist and activist and I believe we share many core values. I also agree with his assessment that the settlements, Ariel in particular, are unacceptable on multiple levels: they are built on stolen land, make people’s lives miserable (to put it mildly), and have done much to intensify and prolong the conflict.

However, the fact that the residents of Ariel are part of a horrendous crime does not mean they are not the victims of the Israeli socio-economic and political system along with the rest of us. No doubt, any person who knowingly makes the choice to move there is making themselves part of the occupation. But the fact that the settlements have grown so slowly despite massive government support, and the fact that only about a third of the West Bank settlers are ideological, tells me that the West Bank is hardly anyone’s first choice for location. Since stolen land tends to be the cheapest kind, especially when it’s also subsidized, there has always been a strong economic incentive to move to the settlements. The people who end up making that choice are people who, like the rest of us, were not able to achieve the standard of living they aspired towards, but made a dubious choice (one supported by many vocal members of society and government.)

Let me be clear: nothing can justify the choice to be part of the colossal crime of the settlements. But making that wrong choice does not make a person or their family less of a victim.1

But making this about the wrongs perpetrated or perpetuated by different parts of Israeli society is the wrong way to go. I’d say it plays right into Netanyahu’s hands, and goes along perfectly with the economic and social system of Israel, pitting sectors of the populations against one another. If Netanyahu had his way, J14 would exclude the settlers (alienating big parts of the right), it would exclude non-Jews (alienating big parts of the left) and it would be almost entirely a movement of spoiled young Ashkenazis whose parents and grandparents were part of the old elite (alienating almost everyone else). With that kind of movement, Netanyahu could just sit tight and wait for it to blow over.

But since the movement is radically inclusive – going both against mainstream prejudice (e.g. that the Arabs are not part of this society) and the prejudice of many activists (e.g. that all settlers are the enemy) – it is able to actually achieve something, and so far has not made an enemy of any major sector of society. Only the government and some far-right nationalists seem strongly against the whole thing. And this openness is undermining vital underpinnings of the occupation – whether J14 acknowledges the connection or not.

How? First and foremost, it has ended the prevailing apathy in much of society and made it possible to discuss almost anything. People are very publicly talking about racism, the division of resources, even the use of “security” to silence social movements, and many people are actually listening. This won’t end the occupation tomorrow or in a month, but then nothing else could, either. In the longer run, it sets the stage for major changes to happen, and we may find many more people willing to listen than we did before. The movement  seems to be redefining “left” and “right” so that for many people, being a “leftie” isn’t the absolute worst possible thing ever anymore.

Moreover, the movement’s focus on the division of resources will make it very difficult for future governments to act as if the settlements are the only part of the country worth their attention (as this government sometimes has). The movement may well work against the interests of the settlement movement while at the same time working in the interests of individual settlers. These interests are not identical.

Finally, with general welfare now at the center of the public agenda, and general disillusionment about the government’s narrative, many people will be reminded of how peace is in their own interest and refuse to buy excuses for maintaining the current line of policy.

I think it is unrealistic to expect immediate solutions from J14 – whether for social issues or political ones. There’s a lot of work ahead and absolutely nobody can predict how things will go. But looking for excuses to distance oneself from J14 plays only into the hands of the status quo.2

Footnotes

  1. In the same way, the generation that started this country was both victim and perpetrator, and the two do not cancel each other out — the victimhood does not cancel out the atrocities as the right would have it, and the atrocities do not cancel out the victimhood as some in the far left would have it. []
  2. And anyone who doesn’t see their position or background represented in the movement should stop whining, go out and make their voice heard. The only thing stopping you is you! []

Money, politics, and the ideologies I’ve gone through

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about economics. Now, with tent camp protests across Israel and a 40,000-person march over the price of housing just a few days past, I find myself getting involved in discussions of free market vs. socialism on a very concrete level, and I’m guessing there will only be more of these. I’d like to tell you a little about the different positions I’ve held on these matters, and to try to figure out where I stand now. I haven’t read all that much, I could be much more knowledgeable than I am, and wish I were, but somehow I’ve managed to go through quite a lot of ideologies since middle school.

The first time I recall taking a stance on free market vs. socialism was in the eighth grade, when I made friends with a ninth-grader who was in the Israeli Communist Youth Alliance. I went to their meetings for a while and remember arguing for the ideal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, which seemed like a very nice idea. Then at some point I had an epiphany that in practice, this would require going against human nature, as it takes away the fruit of people’s labor.

I don’t really know what my point of view was after that happend; these matters probably weren’t very central to me at the time, but I just don’t really remember. I do remember that I started getting a more libertarian perspective as I got involved with democratic education. I suppose I could have been described as a left libertarian, but I thought of myself as a social democrat.

Then, at eighteen, I read a book arguing for libertarianism, and became a libertarian. And a few months later, I read a couple of texts leaning towards anarchism, in particular T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, and became a sort of anarchist. Very quickly, however, I acknowledged the limited applicability of anarchism in the reality around us today, and became what might be called a realistic anarchist, which is basically someone who is an anarchist at heart but doesn’t do much about it.

That must have been the point where I stopped paying attention to the economic side of things, which is unfortunate because it was also the time when I was probably first able to grasp the way that side of things works. I quickly slid into a kind of apathetic agnosticism about the whole thing, no longer calling myself an anarchist. I always stayed committed to personal freedom when it came to opinion and behavior, but for years now I have been unable to truly pick a side on the free market vs. socialism debate. I do believe that free-market capitalism is a highly effective and “smart” method of allocating resources. But there are two principal problems: that we never start with a flat playing-field, and that money brings along political influence.

It’s worth noting that every single socio-economical or political ideology seems to commit itself to some kind of idealized concept of the citizenry. Libertarianism assumes people are empowered, independent, and generally rational. Capitalism tends to assume the same. Communism assumes the people are committed to the joint effort. I think each of these systems does work well when the assumption is met. It’s just very unusual that it is.

In the case of free-market capitalism, I can imagine it being quite perfect if the playing-field were flat; if everyone were more-or-less equally rich, equally empowered, equally able to make an informed decision, obviously there would be no need for a welfare state. Everyone would be free to do what they want, with money just as with anything else. Nobody would have to be a loser. But this is an imaginary scenario we are never likely to encounter in real life.

When you combine this with the second problem, you have a real problem for libertarianism or free-market capitalism. In every present or past polity I can think of, money has been able to influence politics.

Sticking just to democracies for now, the influence of money on politics seems almost inevitable. Donations are only the most obvious part. The media is a more tricky aspect – those with big money can directly influence public opinion, and there’s no reason to expect this would always be done in an equal and balanced way, under any system. The result is quite simply that my opinion is less influential than that of a multi-millionaire, because my opinion can only reach people I know and people who read my blog, but I cannot easily get it into print media, onto large mainstream websites, or onto physical advertising of any kind. (Yes, I could afford a small print ad, but nothing major that’s likely to reach a whole lot of people, and not in a sustained campaign of any sort.)

So since we start with a tilted playing-field, our free-market economy ensures that the democracy is tilted towards those who start off with more resources. It seems to me that while laws might limit the tilt to a degree, they cannot eliminate it. Money is needed for effective political action, so political interests with moneyed supporters inevitably have an edge on the competition.

That’s more or less where my thoughts are now. I hate the idea of limiting people’s right to do what they want with what they work for and what they own, but I hate even more the idea of politics helping those who need help least urgently. Moreover, any system that creates and maintains social classes full of people who are essentially condemned to be losers is not the kind of system I want to be in.1 And when we look at Israel, we see a place where there are remarkably many people who are extremely rich, but far more people who are incredibly poor. And public policy does not seem to be able to alleviate their hardship, nor even make a reasonable standard of living and independence accessible for middle-class twenty-somethings.

Like it or not, the government is deeply involved in directing the flow of money in Israeli society, as in most if not all modern democracies. Whether or not this is ideal, it seems clear to me that we should be demanding that the government tilt the economy towards those who need most help, not those who need the least. In recent years, especially under Netanyahu, it seems to be doing its best to allow the rich to get yet richer, while the poor grow poorer and more numerous. (And those who think the income gap is only a problem for the poor, maybe inform yourself about effects it has on crime rates and the spread of epidemics.)

Footnotes

  1. Before someone comes and tells me that even the poor can work their way out of poverty, let me preempt: yes, individually they can, but in practice being born into poverty makes it very likely you will never feel you have the power to change the situation you live in for the better. You will also likely have neither the connections, nor the education or the background to climb the social ladder. While some individuals do manage to do it, it’s quite telling that those born into poverty tend to stay in it, and this tells me it’s a systemic problem, not the individuals’ own fault. []

From the Iron Wall to the Wall of Fear (by Shalom Boguslavsky)

I had the pleasure of translating an important post (Hebrew) by the always-excellent Shalom Boguslavsky. Here it is in English:

Should you strengthen the van, you will weaken the rear.
Should you strengthen your right, you will weaken your left.
If you send reinforcements everywhere, you will be weak everywhere.

Sun Tzu,
“The Art of War”, ca. 500 BC

Fifteen years ago I didn’t know what “Nakba” means. I was probably more politically involved than today, I had already entered into dialog with Palestinians, I was familiar with the Palestinian National Covenant and all that stuff. I wasn’t exactly an ignoramus in these things, but I didn’t know the term “Nakba”, for the simple reason that nobody around me was using it.

Now it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know the term. It’s in every mouth and in the headlines of every paper. Netanyahu gives a special speech in its honor, “Im Tirtzu” distribute a brochure full of bullshit about it, and the very best publicists write articles about it. It doesn’t matter that most Israelis’ response varies between curling up in a whimpering ball in the corner and vehement denial. The central thing is that the issue is on the table. Because political success is measured in what’s being talked about even more than in what’s being said. Almost nobody in the Jewish political system wants to talk about the Nakba. They would not have brought it up on their own initiative, and nonetheless they have been forced to deal with it.

The credit for this success belongs mainly to Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Oslo two-nation-states doctrine left them as dead weight, and so, unrepresented by the government of the Jewish state and neglected by their Palestinian brethren, they started moving to turn the Arabs of 1948 into a political group demanding recognition as such, from the Palestinians, from Israel and from the international community.

Here there is an interesting parallelism between them and the settlers. The settlers, too, have been required to pay the price for a solution that does not address their needs. The settlers, too, have been pushed to reorganize and make themselves present in the public discourse, and they too have used 1984 to do this, and for a similar reason: floating the issue of ’48, reminding everyone that the heart of the conflict lies there, is the best way to float the limitations of a solution based on the 1967 lines. So the settlers, like the leaders of the Arabs of ’48, make sure again and again to remind us that Sheikh Munis is conquered land, and that a solution will not come without seriously addressing this fact. In this respect, the the most radical thing in today’s politics would be if the settlers and the Arabs of ’48 started to talk. Unlikely? Maybe, but stranger things have happened and I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened too.

In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote his exemplary essay “The Iron Wall”. Besides being a master’s class in political writing, the article was quite on target for its time, and to a significant degree for ours as well. Jabotinsky presents the Zionist movement as a colonial project no different from the familiar European colonialism (today some would call him “traitor” and “anti-Zionist” and demand to check his funding over this). He argues that the attempts at dialog with the Arabs are fantasy, as no nation – and he recognizes them as such – would agree to a foreign entity being established on its lands, and his conclusion, which he called an “iron wall”, is that the Jews must become such a force as to make it impossible to move them elsewhere or hinder them from realizing their aspirations. But the “iron wall” has an expiration date: when they realize the Zionist project is a fait accompli, Jabotinsky wrote, the moderates will come to us with offers of mutual concessions, and then the conflict can be solved in dialog.

In 1923, all of this was science fiction. But as befits a text that reflects sober recognition of reality more than some political ideal or another, we got to see it come true. The “iron wall” was put up, the Arabs failed in their attempt to hinder the Zionist project, suffering catastrophe in the process, and since the 1970s the moderates have been coming to us with offers of mutual concessions. They don’t do it out of recognition of the rightness of the ways of Zionism – this they will never do – but because it is clear to them that the presence here of Jews as a national group is a fait accompli. They regret it, but will clench their teeth and find ways to co-exist. Just as Jabotinsky knew they would.

But his self-proclaimed heirs on the Israeli right have substituted the practical “iron wall” of force with an ideological “iron wall” made of fear.

My right to exist here comes from the fact of my existence here, as ending it would be an unjustifiable wrong. The right of the group to which I belong to define itself in terms of nationality comes from the right to self-definition and not from anything else. Where is such a thing to be heard, that such basic rights depend on some belief in the “righteousness of the way”? Who would ever think, for example, to make the right of the United States to exist dependent on the belief that the catastrophe imposed on Native Americans was justified? What’s this bullshit?

The international community recognizes the rights of Jews in the Land of Israel due to the fact of their presence in it. Even the Arabs, for the most part, are willing to recognize them on this basis, and of all people the Jewish politicians, wannabe patriots that they are, are shouting from every hilltop and under every tree that if it were only proven that our history does not excel in justice and morality or that our narrative is not absolute truth, we would have to pack the suitcase and swim back to the Ukraine. And you know what? Our history is no less ugly than others, and full of glorious atrocities. Those who believe recognizing that cancels their right to exist here are welcome swim to the Ukraine themselves. I am not here because of blind faith in some lie, and I intend to stay here even if it were proven that the fathers of Zionism were vampires from another planet that came here to conduct medical experiments on the local villagers.

So this is my “iron wall”: the rights of human beings do not depend on the purity of the historical circumstances that brought them where they are. This is a position we can defend. If we need to defend every misdeed of Zionism if not all Jews everywhere – as the Right wants us to – we will fail. And that is exactly what is happening now.

I am actually rather conservative as regards the Palestinian catastrophe. I do not accept, for instance, the claim that the status of refugee can be inherited. If it were so, all residents of planet Earth would have to receive such status. I also think it’s important to remind everyone that the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was bi-directional: the Jews were expelled from areas seized by the Arabs. I think the ethnic cleansing we committed was more a matter of circumstances than a dark conspiracy, and I certainly don’t beat myself up over the crimes of Zionism.

But I certainly admit and acknowledge them, do not presume to justify them all and certainly think we should take responsibility for them and resolve the matter in conjunction with the Palestinians. Not because there’s a matter of absolute justice here but because this is unfinished business between us, and we will have to resolve it. And yes, this will have a price that I don’t necessarily like. That’s how it is.

But for us to deal with it, we need our politicians to cease their endless paranoid prattle. It may help their career to tie our very right to exist here with their personal ideology, but it does not serve any Israeli interest. Just the opposite. Their constant din is what’s eroding the justification of our existence and what gives tailwind to the delegitimization of Israel. Of course it also serves their career pretty well. Dealing with the Nakba does not scare me at all; our politicians’ stupidity does. They are the only existential threat around.

Fear and tear gas in Nabi Saleh

(June 10, 2011)

Today I had a small taste of confronting the Israeli occupation from the Palestinian side, and I confess that even my brief exposure was traumatic.

Heeding the invitation of my friend Gershon Baskin for Israelis to join him at the weekly non-violent protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, in the hope of mitigating the brutal force the Israeli army exerts against the protesters, I set out early Friday morning with most of the things on the list Gershon sent me – food, water, sunscreen, a towel against tear gas – in my backpack, and a sense of foreboding in my heart.

When I said I was afraid of being hurt, Gershon replied “you’re right. It can be dangerous.” He had no words of comfort, except for repeating that he was going to call the army command before the demonstration started and tell them that dozens of Israeli supporters were going to march with the Palestinians, and ask them to take that into consideration.

As planned, we arrived at 8 a.m. for the 1 p.m. event, hoping to get into the village before the army sealed it off. But it was too late: soldiers blocked the entrance and waved us off. They had also put up a sign declaring the village “Area A” – under control of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords, which Israeli law forbids Israelis to enter. The village is really Area C, which Israelis are allowed into. The sign was a lie. We parked a ways up the road and then the dozen or so activists who had arrived hiked into the village through the fields for twenty minutes. On the way, Gershon advised us to speak quietly and silence our phones. The village had been declared a “closed military area,” and we were violating the law.

We soon found out that two activists who tried to enter the main way were arrested and charged with “attempting to break through an army barricade.”

After gathering in the village square, we were invited to the home of one of the village leaders, a friend of Gershon’s, with whom he had coordinated our solidarity visit. Over coffee in his spacious salon our host briefed us about the village’s struggle to reclaim its land on which the settlement of Halamish was built. He said the Israeli High Court ruled in their favor but they never got their land back or were allowed access to their fields abetting it. Settlers took over Nabi Saleh’s spring and for the past two years the villagers had tried to march to it every Friday but had been held back by the army.

Gershon told us that at first a lot of Israelis had signed up for this action, but as the week went on they started cancelling out of fear. He said he didn’t blame them. I didn’t either: after being the first one to sign up, as Gershon told me, out of a sense of outrage at the army’s brutality and my wish to join the campaign to challenge it, my fear took over. As the day neared I slept worse every night, and the last night I hardly slept at all.

While we waited for the march, there was less talk of principles of non-violent resistance than of practicalities: what to do against tear gas and how to behave if arrested. My friends and I agreed we were here to make a point by our presence but our cowardice would keep us at the back of the crowd where we would be less exposed. I kept thinking of my family worrying about me at home and couldn’t wait for it to be over, even before it started. An Israeli journalist who was with us felt that we were insufficiently welcomed by the villagers, that they could have been more appreciative of the effort and gesture we made in coming out. An activist answered her that it wasn’t for us to tell the Palestinians how to behave. I admit I had also expected a little more visible appreciation for what in my society is an extraordinary show of solidarity with those most Israelis see as enemies. But when I considered how badly they had been treated by Israelis for so long – and where were we then? – I understood their complex feelings. Besides, they did welcome us into their homes and tell us they would do everything they could to protect us.

In one of the homes we visited, our host told us his 19-year-old daughter had been beaten up by Israeli border police last month and put in the hospital. In an unusual turn of events, the police were put on trial and she was summoned to testify against them. When the same young woman admired my new wide-brimmed straw hat, I gave it to her in exchange for her showing me how to wrap my scarf around my head Palestinian-style. An activist offered me jasmine perfume to spray on the front of my scarf as an antidote to the anticipated tear gas. Another advised us to buddy up and a third said the most important thing about tear gas was not to panic.

As the event drew near, Gershon made his phone calls to the army but was not successful: at the two offices he reached – the local and regional commands – he was unable to speak to the officers in charge and left messages with unreliable-sounding young soldiers. It looked like the central plank of his initiative – informing the army of our presence and asking them to be gentle – was falling apart.

At 1:15 people started streaming out of the mosque and amassed for the march. A young man with a megaphone said a few words and I translated for my fellow activists: “Today we are marching for the martyrs who died on Israel’s borders with Syria,” referring to a protest earlier in the week. We looked at each other in confusion. Weren’t we marching for an end to the occupation and allowing the villagers to access their spring?

We didn’t have long to ponder this because within 100 meters and 60 seconds the first tear gas canister was fired from far off at the entrance of the village into its center. Immediately everyone started running back, away from the soldiers, but, as it happened, towards the tear gas: it had landed behind the group, and the only way to get away from it was to run right through it. I found myself with two of my buddies, one particularly affected and, sure enough, panicky. Although I too was gagging and tearing, this put me in the position of being the abler one and my attention was on helping my friend. The three of us found our way to the home we had been invited to use for shelter, and there we were cared for until we felt better. Our hosts had much experience with gas, as it was used in the village in large quantities every week and often fired at or into homes. When this happened, the effect lingered for days. Sometimes, furniture caught fire.

As we left to rejoin our comrades, our host said “please remember us and come back not only in situations like this, but to visit us.” I promised to remember but doubt I will visit.

Outside we could hear the repeated pounding of canisters being fired at a distance, but we stayed in the village center while the confrontation was elsewhere. I informed my friends that I had had enough, I really couldn’t take it anymore, and was ready to go home. They were too, but it was not at all clear there was a safe way out of the village: the army was likely to spread gas everywhere, even in the fields. I felt trapped and hunted. There was nowhere safe to go. It was also clear that there was nothing I could do or say, and it didn’t matter who I was: the military machine was proceeding apace, and its orders were to act relentlessly to contain and especially deter the Palestinian resistance. Activists observed that not only did the presence of Israelis not make things better, it had apparently made things worse. Huge amounts of tear gas were fired for hours and several activists and villagers were evacuated by ambulance.

We were told the village was sealed and there was indeed no safe way to leave. But my friend and I got lucky and got a lift out with a BBC van that had managed to enter the village with its press privileges.

The terror of being exposed to physical harm did not leave me for hours. I know I am not brave in that way. Besides a relatively mild whiff of tear gas I was not even hurt. But worse was the feeling of being trapped and threatened. The activists who have been experiencing this regularly for years can laugh, and the Palestinians who have no choice can scoff at my delicacy. After all, I can decide that I did my bit for the struggle, this is not for me, and go on to entertain my friends with stories of my little adventure. But if I multiply my brush with fear a million times over, I think I got a glimpse of what it feels like to be under military occupation, having no voice and living under the constant threat of violence day in and day out.

In the comfort of my home in Jerusalem, I wonder if the jasmine is blooming outside, or if that scent rising up from my neck is just lingering in my imagination.

Tales of sun and cloud cover

Leipzig in summer.

Whew. Over a month without a post. And what a month it has been!

Summer is finally here. Summer in Germany is something altogether different from summer in Israel, as I learn anew every year. Winter in Germany is something altogether different from Israel’s so-called “winters”, too. And it all comes down to sunlight, for me.

In Israel, the sun is omnipresent and a real health hazard. It is just too fracking hot most of the year. Here, on the other hand, I desperately miss the sun all winter, and as soon as it’s out I feel like I have to jump on the opportunity and expose my skin to its incredible warmth, the warmth that reminds me that it’s not so bad, the light that reminds me that the world isn’t all that grey after all.

Now, summer here isn’t as reliable as it is in Israel. In Israel, summer is summer. Sunlight, nonstop, every day, all day. Here we get summer rains (an oxymoron to me) and even full cloud cover – in June!! Very strange. But this makes me appreciate the sunlight even more. After waiting for it all winter, summer can be coy, making me wait again. I get suspicious. Has global climate change hit us so hard already? Did the BP oil spill knock out the jet stream like I read it might? I watch the skies. Like a Stark, I know winter will come again, sooner or later. I dread it. Then the sun comes out again and everything looks different.

I have an Egyptian friend and (language-learning) tandem partner – he wants to know Hebrew and I want to know Arabic. He always says he doesn’t want to talk about the conflict, but we end up on that topic every time we meet. Last time we had lunch, the sun was shining bright, and I noted that when the sun shines, I think the Middle East is headed towards peace and prosperity like never before; when the sky is grey, I’m sure Israel is on the brink of fascism or civil war and dread what might become of all the people I love.

Well, we had grey skies and rain for the past few days, and I’m still getting over the accompanying sense of impending doom, but today the sun is shining. The StuTS is behind me, but busy times are still ahead. This weekend two very good friends of mine are getting married (congrats, F&B!); I’m trying to finish an old term paper, practice for Spanish class, and get preliminary reading done for my degree thesis; and, of course, I have to prepare the EUDEC Assembly for this summer.

Time flies when you’re too busy to check what time it is. I might try to write more this month, but maybe not such heavy long posts, and likely little or nothing about Israel/Palestine. The situation there is getting more complicated by the hour and I haven’t been following closely enough to make informed comments lately. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, less despair-inducing topics out there…