Saturday, July 26, 2008

support in ending the stalemate

My name is Simcha Levental. I am a 26-year-old Israeli whose army service took me to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ask me about my politics and I'd say I am a moderate who loves his country and who sees his future here. But I have also seen how Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has led to daily humiliations and harassment of ordinary Palestinians. And I have learned that being an occupier, even one without malicious intent, means doing shameful, regrettable, and often self-defeating things.

I am writing to enlist your support in ending the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians. I will not dwell on the lethal violence that regularly takes lives on both sides. That violence is well-known. Instead, I want to draw your attention to the silent injustices and arbitrary acts of brutality that take place day after day. We must confront the fact that, in the West Bank, injustice has become routine, mundane, banal. It has become the fabric of the occupation, and it threatens Israeli society.

Many despair in the face of this reality, but there is a path out of the occupation. Negotiations to create a two-state solution can provide Israel with security and Palestinians with lasting freedom.

In November 2000, I entered the Israeli military with a great deal of enthusiasm. In a democracy like Israel's, it is the responsibility of every citizen-soldier to contribute, and I looked forward to doing my part to defend my country.

At that point in my life, I knew nothing of substance about the Palestinians. The truth is that I hardly even thought about them. And when I did, I could only conjure up stereotypes: a bunch of Arab anti-Semites or terrorists.

Support the work of Shalom Achshav and Americans for Peace Now.

Despite my training as an artillery specialist, my active service took place almost exclusively at West Bank checkpoints with no cannons in sight. The location would change, but the work was always the same: I would stand guard and decide which Palestinians would pass and which would not.

On some days, of course, we enforced a full "closure," meaning that no Palestinians could pass at all. It didn't matter if you were a teacher or a student trying to get to the school right on the other side of the checkpoint. Nobody got through.

Every day at lunch, we closed the checkpoint down until we were done. Queues would form, but we would pay them no mind. If a Palestinian got impatient and started approaching, we knew what to do: One of us would get up and point a rifle at him. He would quickly turn back. If not, we would make sure that he spent many good hours waiting at the checkpoint.

Of course, if a settler came by the checkpoint -- during lunch or at any other time -- he'd just smile at us, wave hello, and walk by. Today, I am filled with rage at that double standard. I know that acts like these corrode the moral fabric of Israeli society. But back then, at the checkpoint, that was how things were.

We held so much power. We ruled over people the age of my grandparents. And we quickly learned that nobody would stop us if we took advantage of it. In those three years, there was no shortage of cigarettes in my unit. We just took them from the Palestinians at the checkpoints. What were they going to do about it?

These were the day-in, day-out realities of my time in the IDF. And there were, of course, examples of more extreme behavior. Like the day my unit set up a surprise checkpoint at the outskirts of a Palestinian village. A local farmer trying to pass through the area had raised a bit of a fuss. He wanted to transport some chickens, but a soldier refused him. Our commander decided to show the Palestinian who was boss. He lifted his rifle, aimed, and shot one of the chickens. End of argument.

It is because of my experience in the West Bank that I am an activist with Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), Israel's largest pro-peace organization, and I support its partner in the United States, Americans for Peace Now (APN). The mission of both groups is to enhance Israeli security by promoting peace negotiations that would end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state.

During my service at the checkpoints I began to ask questions that have no simple answers: Does Israel need to interfere in the daily routine of Palestinian life? Does defending settlements scattered across the West Bank justify the orders I carried out? Are these actions leading Israel to a more secure and prosperous future?

I still struggle with these questions. But I know that much of what I did as a soldier -- much of what the Israel Defense Forces still does in the West Bank -- has nothing to do with making Israel safe.

a.. Consider a poll conducted by the Israeli military that was leaked to the press last December: 25 percent of Israeli combat soldiers who serve in the West Bank testified that they had either taken part in or witnessed abuse by soldiers at checkpoints. Among the abuses reported were: bribe-taking, humiliation of travelers, and gratuitous delays.

b.. Polling numbers can be abstract, so here's something more tangible: Israeli settlers routinely harass Palestinians during the autumn olive harvest, an important source of livelihood for Palestinians in the West Bank. There have been cases of olive groves torched or chopped down. But it's not only the settlers. The Israeli military has often been turned into a collaborator in these crimes, despite Israeli Supreme Court rulings that oblige the military to facilitate the olive harvest. For example, Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, reported that during the 2006 harvest, an IDF division commander prevented the residents of one Palestinian village from reaching their fields as collective punishment after firebombs were thrown on a road near the village.

c.. One more example: Amnesty International reported in March that two human rights activists -- Art Arbour of Canada and Janet Benvie from the United Kingdom -- were attacked by Jewish boys in the West Bank, while a soldier stood by and watched. One of the boys spat at Benvie while another kicked her leg. Arbour was hit on his ear by a rock, causing him to bleed heavily. Following the incident, the two asked the soldier why he had not intervened. He reportedly responded that it was not his job. Such incidents are inevitable in an occupation that has become institutionalized. Every day is volatile, fraught with suspicion and paranoia. A soldier who sees settlers use violence has orders not to interfere. There's a division of labor whereby the police deal with Israeli civilians (i.e. the settlers) and the soldiers deal with Palestinians. And since the police are never around (that at least is my experience) the soldier absurdly ends up an accomplice to violence.

Allow me to say something else, something that will be hard for many supporters of Israel to hear: I believe that harassment, intimidation and injustice are unavoidable byproducts of the occupation. The most moral soldiers, the best commanders, will not be able to bend Palestinians to life under the Israeli thumb without resorting to intimidation tactics. That is the ugly reality, and that is why it is so important that we find a path out of the madness, a path towards peace.

It pains me to write about this. I know we Israelis are better than this. So I am speaking out -- not to clear my conscience, but to solicit your help. We need to end the IDF's role as an army of occupation and an enabler of settler violence. We need negotiations. Israel would be much better off if its soldiers could spend their time learning how to defend its borders, not subjugating a hostile population.

The moral case for ending the occupation is clear. And so is the case ending the occupation to improve Israeli security, especially in the wake of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Testifying about the IDF's performance during that war, Israel's former Chief of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Malka, said that the IDF "atrophied" as a result of its almost exclusive focus on enforcing the occupation. "What I can say unequivocally is that the army atrophied for 4-5 years with regard to its fitness. It atrophied," Malka said. "Excessive attention was given to one thing only, the Palestinian issue, [while] other matters were neglected, resources were directed to purposes that do not allow units to reach a reasonable level of readiness," he explained.

Israel and the Palestinians need to negotiate an end to the conflict, to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. We need vigorous, unblinking American participation in the negotiations. And our need is urgent. Time entrenches the status quo.

Negotiations are the only way out of the conflict. That has been APN and Peace Now's position from the start. That's why I ask you to support their work.

a.. It is Americans for Peace Now that argues for negotiations to end the occupation.

b.. It is APN that makes its tough, rational message heard in Congress, in the campaign for the White House, on college campuses, and in the American Jewish community.

c.. It is APN that provides the best resources for the pro-peace community through its website, newsletters, opinion articles, and newspaper ads.

d.. In Israel, Peace Now is the one organization that brings Israelis out to the streets to fight the status quo.

e.. It is Peace Now's Settlement Watch project that monitors the construction of settlements and outposts, providing vital information to the media, diplomats, Israeli officials, and the general public.

f.. It is Peace Now that hosts seminars where young Israelis and Palestinians talk to one another and plan joint political action.

g.. It is Peace Now's attorneys who, again and again, force the Israeli government to address the takeover of Palestinianowned land by settlers. Numerous times, Peace Now's petitions have gone all the way to Israel's High Court of Justice, with significant success.

h.. And it is the activists behind Peace Now that give me hope that Israel can have a future free of the burdens of occupation. As the U.S. sister organization of Peace Now, APN provides 60 to 90 percent of the funds that Peace Now uses for its activities. APN is the gathering place for Americans who believe that Israel deserves better than unthinking support for its military actions, coupled with a blind eye to the reality in the West Bank. Israel needs to live free from the terrible fatalism of simply waiting for the next war.

I am often asked if I regret my service in a combat unit in the West Bank. I always answer no. My experience made me who I am today, and it gave me an intimate understanding of the political and moral quandaries facing my country.

At the same time, my experience opened my eyes to a terrible reality. It shattered my pre-conceived notions about "good guys" and "bad guys." It makes me terribly concerned about the future of Israeli society. It drives me to be a political activist, to fight for change.

If you believe as I do that justice demands an end of the occupation through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, then please join APN. Help end the occupation. Create a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. Make a generous contribution to support the work of Peace Now and Americans for Peace Now.

Our future depends on it.

Simcha Levental Jerusalem

Support the work of Shalom Achshav and Americans for Peace Now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jewish Voices for Peace on Iran

Responding to the Israeli voices and actions noisily advocating a preemptive strike against Iran, Ha-Aretz columnist Uzi Benziman (<>July 21, 2008) writes, "Before bombing Iran, it would be best [for Israel] to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. By the way, there does appear to be a link between the two threats." While Benziman doesn't specify the links, there are at least two significant ones.

First, the effect of foregrounding the Iranian nuclear threat, which both the International Atomic Energy Agency and US intelligence agencies say does not now exist, has been to take the spotlight off Israel's continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories. The agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to open the Gaza Strip crossings last November was only a partial palliative at best. No political progress has been made on the Gaza front since Israeli and the US continue to isolate and reject negotiations with Hamas, which they simplemindedly define as a terrorist organization allied to Iran. According to the latest report of the Crisis Group, in the West Bank, Israel has not loosened its closure regime or halted its military incursions. The economy has not grown much. And the Palestinian Authority has used harsh tactics against Hamas sympathizers, including torture, that undermine good governance. Meanwhile, the negotiations launched at Annapolis in November 2007 are on life support and President Bush is taking no heroic measures to resuscitate them.

Second, the political forces in the United States who have been loudest in advocating a confrontational stance towards Iran are the same forces that have obstructed Palestinian-Israeli peace. Prominent among them are AIPAC, the ADL, the ZOA, the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and right wing evangelical Protestants exemplified by John Hagee's Christians United for Israel.

On June 8 Shaul Mofaz, Minister of Transportation and former defense minister and IDF chief-of-staff, proclaimed that an Israeli attack on Iran was becoming "unavoidable." That same week the Israeli air force carried out a practice bombing run on Iran in the eastern Mediterranean. Two weeks later Israeli officials "leaked" the news of the exercise.

Mofaz is positioning himself as the security hawk in the potential contest to succeed Ehud Olmert as Prime Minister and leader of the Kadima party should Olmert be forced to resign due to ongoing investigations of alleged financial corruption. Like President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, both Mofaz and Prime Minister Olmert reject the findings of the US National Intelligence Estimate released in December 2007 which concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Olmert and Mofaz also apparently dismiss the views of former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy, who said in a public lecture last October that the Iranian threat "is substantive, but not existential" (Ha-Aretz, Oct. 18, 2007).

Not to be outdone by Mofaz's blustering, Olmert made a not-so-secret visit to Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona on July 1 which served to advertise its nuclear capacity. Israel's nuclear weapons are a major source of regional insecurity, and its neighbors often express their concern about their danger. Doesn't Olmert's visit then seem counterproductive? Isn't it notable that, as was the case before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, intelligence professionals have a more sober analysis than the political leaders to whom they report and whose policies are supposedly based on that analysis?

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini, another aspirant for Olmert's job, is positioning herself as the "moderate" in the Kadima leadership. She has criticized Olmert's exaggeration of the Iranian threat. Shortly after Halevy publicly downplayed the Iranian danger, Ha-Aretz reported that Livini also believed that "Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel." The same article revealed that Livni was out of the loop on Israel's decision to attack Lebanon in 2006 and that her chief advisor was pessimistic about the possibility of reaching a permanent settlement with the Palestinians any time soon.

However, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, were interested in convening the Annapolis conference and encouraging Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, although there was no hope of them succeeding during the president's last year in office. The real purpose of this charade remains unclear. To the extent that it had a strategic vision, it seems to have been motivated by the desire to line up America's "moderate" Sunni Arab allies - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf statelets - against Hamas and its shi'a supporters, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

So, Livni has dutifully headed up the Israeli negotiating team and Rice has logged tens of thousands of miles in fruitless visits to the Middle East with almost nothing to show for her efforts. Until she dispatched Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to Geneva to meet with Javier Solana, the European Union's High Representative for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on July 19, Condi had fallen into line behind warmonger-in-chief Cheney on Iran.

This is the first official contact between the United States and Iran since the revolution of 1979, a momentous policy shift followed up by public discussion of the possibility of opening a US interests section in Teheran. It is especially remarkable since only two months before, while addressing the Israeli Knesset, President Bush compared Barack Obama's willingness to engage in diplomatic talks with Iran to Europe's appeasement of Nazis at Munich in 1938. Meanwhile, Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has been conducting his own campaign against a US strike on Iran.

Earlier this month, he warned against opening a "third front" and called for "dialogue" with Iran. On July 20 he told Fox News Sunday that he was concerned that any US or Israeli strike on Iran would risk "significant" turmoil in the Middle East. Thus, it appears that the likelihood of an American assault on Iran has been significantly reduced. Since two-thirds of all Israelis oppose a solo Israeli attack on Iran according to a poll conducted last December, Prime Minister Olmert might want to avoid a second unpopular and potentially disastrous military adventure.

However, it's too soon to breathe a sigh of relief. The Geneva talks did not produce the result that Solana hoped for. He gave Iran a two week deadline to freeze uranium enrichment in return for freezing the sanctions now in place. However, as Julian Borger wrote in The Observer "for now, US moderates are in the ascendant."

Lest good sense win the day, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has leaped into the breach to promote an ultra-aggressive posture towards Iran embodied in House Concurrent Resolution 362. According to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, this non-binding resolution "was the top agenda point of the 7,000 AIPAC members who descended on Capitol Hill" after their annual conference in June.

The resolution, which is on the fast track to adoption by the House and Senate, demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran's nuclear program.

This language, as one of the bill's 247 (!) co-sponsors Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) acknowledged, "could lead to a US blockade of Iran." Unless it is authorized by a UN Security Council resolution, a blockade is a violation of international law and an act of war. Should this occur it would be the ultimate irony, since Israel claimed that the casus belli for its preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria in 1967 was Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran. But AIPAC and its allies in the Bush administration and the US war party are not particularly good at learning from history.

Joel Beinin, Professor of Middle East History, Stanford University
Oakland, CA, July 22, 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Twisted Politics of Expulsion (thanks, Eldad)

The Historian and the Twisted Politics of Expulsion Dr. Benny and Mr. Morris


Is it possible for someone who matter-of-factly supports crimes against humanity to be a good historian? A startling and provocative question, no doubt, but one that inevitably arises upon consideration of the remarkable career of Israeli scholar Benny Morris. A professor in the Middle East Studies department at Ben-Gurion University, Morris is well-known as one of the most important of the "New Historians," a group that upended traditional Zionist historiography of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In the first edition of his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), Morris conclusively demonstrated, through the mining of newly released Israeli government archives, that the refugees from the 1948 war had, overwhelmingly, fled or been expelled by Israeli forces rather than left as a result of encouragement by Arab leaders, as a previous generation of Israeli propagandists had claimed.

After the release of that book and in subsequent years, with the publication of Israel's Border Wars (1997) followed by a general history of the conflict, Righteous Victims (1999), Morris was generally lauded by liberals as a historian willing to expose uncomfortable truths about the Israeli past. This Morris, the seemingly liberal Morris, rose to fame at the time of the first Palestinian intifada and the Oslo period that followed, when both support for Palestinian resistance to occupation and new hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict gained traction around the world.

But, like much of the liberal Israeli intelligentsia, Morris was deeply shaken when the second intifada began in the fall of 2000. He accepted the establishment Israeli (and American) claim that the breakdown of the Camp David summit the previous summer was entirely the fault of the Palestinians and that they launched the new intifada because they would never really accept the Jewish presence in Palestine. In an astounding January 2004 interview in the leading Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Morris went much further, arguing that the "ethnic cleansing" - his words - of the Palestinians was justified; that it was not only justified but that Israel's leader at the time, David Ben-Gurion, didn't go far enough and should have expelled all the Palestinians then living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; and that today's Palestinian citizens of Israel are "a time emissary of the enemy that is among us." Morris topped off the tirade by applauding the "clash of civilizations" world view common in the West after September 11, condemning the entire Islamic world as one in which "human life doesn't have the same value as it does in the West" and "the people we are fighting.have no moral inhibitions." In a mad crescendo of bigotry he condemned Palestinians as "barbarians" and Palestinian society as "in the state of being a serial killer. It is a very sick society.. Something like a cage has to be built for them.. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."

Of course, not only liberals and leftists but anyone remotely respectful of human rights or common decency was horrified at this and similar jeremiads. But it wasn't so easy simply to dismiss Morris out of hand. For one thing, his fulminations occurred at the same time as publication of the revised edition of his book on the Palestinian refugee problem. In the new edition Morris gave more credence to critics of the first volume who had accused him of underplaying support for "transfer" (expulsion) among the Zionist leadership. He admitted that "by the early 1930s a full-throated near-consensus in support of the idea began to emerge among the movement's leaders"; indeed, "transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism - because it sought to transform a land that was `Arab' into a `Jewish' state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population."

True, Morris still denied evidence of "a policy or master-plan of expulsion." But he came much closer to the idea that there didn't need to be a policy because expulsion was "in the air.accepted as inevitable and natural by the bulk of the Jewish population." Not only that, but in his new edition Morris documented more instances of Israeli massacres, rapes and expulsions during the war. His politics may have become, well, barbaric, but Morris the empiricist historian, Morris the painstaking comber of archives, continued to report what he found. And those findings, if not always his interpretations of them, were valuable.

Now, with 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Morris has published his magnum opus on the war. So which Morris wins out? The ideologue and bigot, or the careful researcher and historian? Blessedly, the latter - for the most part. The book is, on the whole, a judicious and carefully argued narrative, and hews to the general themes of his earlier, nonpolemical writings on the war. Morris is at his best when explaining the broad strategic context and balance of forces between the contending sides - how it was, for example, that the Yishuv, as the Jewish pre-state community was known, though seemingly outnumbered and outarmed, was able to prevail. Morris contrasts the careful planning for statehood and military preparations of the Yishuv with the haphazard organisation, almost complete lack of planning and near-constant infighting among not only the various Palestinian factions but also among the Arab front-line states.

As Morris demonstrates, the two sides were actually fairly evenly matched at the start of the conflict, but by April-May of 1948, the Jewish forces, primarily because of crucial Czech arms shipments, had not only rough parity in number of soldiers but also in weapons and ammunition. While a UN arms embargo deeply damaged the Arab war effort, causing critical shortages, the Jewish side had become expert at evading it, even as they benefited from the technical expertise of international volunteers and financial donations from the Jewish Diaspora, especially in the United States. Between the UN's November 1947 partition resolution and the Arab invasion of May 1948, the Zionist leadership carried out a rapid build-up and professionalisation of its armed forces, transforming the Haganah militia into a genuine army; it nearly doubled in size between the May 15 Arab invasion and July, by which point it outnumbered the Arab forces.

Morris continues to deny that there was a master plan to expel the Palestinians, but, as in his previous books on the refugee problem, he presents so much evidence that expulsion was both understood and widely accepted by the Jewish leadership that the lack of a clear, unambiguous order from the top seems almost beside the point. He reports "the near-systematic destruction of villages after conquest and depopulation" that began in April and continued, with occasional lapses, for the rest of the war, on every front. By the late summer of 1948, "a consensus had formed that the refugees were not to be allowed back during the war, and a majority.believed that it was best that they not return after the war either.. If allowed back, returnees would constitute a demographic and political time bomb, with the potential to destabilise the Jewish state." Morris is also forthright in reporting atrocities. The massacre at Deir Yasin in April 1948, near Jerusalem (carried out primarily by extremist Jewish militias but in concert with the Haganah), is only the most infamous example; the worst concentrations of these were in the northern Galilee in late October. "In the yearlong war," he says, "Yishuv troops probably murdered some eight hundred civilians and prisoners of war all told." The Arab side committed atrocities too, of course, but Morris says "the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality."

It's only in his final chapter, titled Some Conclusions, that Morris the ideologue really shows his colours. He downplays the nationalist element that dominates the discussion not only in his previous books but also the entirety of this one, switching into full Bernard Lewis, clash-of-civilizations mode, arguing that the conflict was "part of a more general, global struggle between the Islamic East and the West," with the Arab abhorrence of Zionism "anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia." He argues, on the one hand, that "the Arab war aim, in both stages of the hostilities, was, at a minimum, to abort the emergence of a Jewish state or to destroy it at inception" - but then has to acknowledge that this wasn't true: the most powerful military player on the Arab side, Jordan, secretly colluded with Israel, was willing to accept a Jewish state and was primarily concerned with seizing the Arab-populated West Bank and thus preventing formation of a rival Palestinian state, as called for in the UN partition resolution. In perhaps his most outlandish claim, Morris asserts that expulsionist thinking on the part of the Yishuv "was in large part a response to the expulsionist ideology and violent praxis of [Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin] al Husseini and his followers" in the decades leading up to 1948. In other words, expulsion was forced on the Zionist movement - if the Palestinians had not been so ill-mannered as to resist the seizure of their native land, and had instead quietly left when the settlers first arrived, the Zionists would not have had to expel them.

So we return to our original conundrum: can a man seemingly without ethical scruple, who exuberantly supports ethnic cleansing and damns entire religions and ethnicities to perdition, who blames the victims of a historic tragedy for their misfortune, make valuable contributions to historiography? It doesn't seem possible. And yet Benny Morris, at least by the evidence presented in 1948, seems to have done just that. The political judgments may often be twisted, and the moral sensibility may be damaged beyond repair. But the well-trained historian lives on.

Roane Carey is managing editor of The Nation in New York and the editor of The Other Israel and The New Intifada.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

June 30, 2008 Issue Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative

Looking Into the Lobby

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference is one of Washington’s most important—and least reported—events.

by Philip Weiss

For three days in the capital in early June, suspense built over the question of how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference would greet Barack Obama. There was a lot of grousing about Obama in the hallways of the Washington Convention Center, and AIPAC officials repeatedly warned the faithful to be respectful. “We are not a debate society or a protest movement. … our goal is to have a friend in the White House,” executive director Howard Kohr said in a strict tone. It wasn’t hard to imagine things going poorly: Obama gets booed on national television. He feels insulted. Conservative Jewish donors and voters turn off to Obama. He becomes president without their support. AIPAC has no friend in the Oval Office.

But of course, Obama complied. His speech became the annual example the conference provides of a powerful man truckling. Two years ago, it was Vice President Cheney’s red-meat speech attacking the Palestinians. Last year, it was Pastor John Hagee’s scary speech saying that giving the Arabs any part of Jerusalem was the same as giving it to the Taliban. Obama took a similar line. He suggested that he would use force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, made no mention of Palestinian human rights, and said that Jerusalem “must remain undivided,” a statement so disastrous to the peace process that his staff rescinded it the next day. Big deal. The actual meeting had gone swimmingly.

This was my first AIPAC conference, and the first surprise was how blatant the business of wielding influence is. The conference makes no bones about this function, the most savage expression of which is the Tuesday dinner at which AIPAC performs its “roll call,” where the names of all the politicians who have come to the conference are read off from the stage by three barkers in near auctioneer fashion. The pols try to outdo one another in I-love-Israel encomia. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surely won the day when she teared up while dangling the dogtags of three Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah and Hamas two years ago.

The second big surprise was that apart from coverage of the headline speakers, the AIPAC conference is a media no man’s land. It would be hard to imagine a more naked exhibition of political power: a convention of 7,000 mostly rich people, with more than half the Congress in attendance, as well as all the major presidential candidates, the prime minister of Israel, the minority leader, the majority leader, and the speaker of the House. Yet there is precious little journalism about the spectacle in full. The reason seems obvious: the press would have to write openly about a forbidden subject, Jewish influence. They would have to take on an unpleasant informative task that they have instead left to two international relations scholars in their 50s—Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of last year’s book The Israel Lobby.

The press is missing a phantasmagorical event. Imagine a basement meeting in the Warsaw Ghetto transplanted to the biggest hall in Vegas, and you have something of the feeling of the thing. The staging is faultless. Little documentaries called “Zionist Stories” play on the Jumbotron, complete with footage of Auschwitz, and then the subject of the documentary comes out on stage to thundering applause. There is breakout session after breakout session on Middle East policy and Jewish identity and anti-Semitism, with star turns by Natan Sharansky, Bill Kristol, and Leon Wieseltier. The press was excluded from “Advanced Lobbying Techniques,” but still this is a feast of the political condition. And posh. The roll call is described by AIPAC as the largest seated dinner in Washington. The wine flows. I went about in a daze of awe and admiration.

My awe was for men like Haim Saban, a toymaker and giant donor to the Democratic Party. After his Zionist story, Saban came out on stage wearing a platinum tie and white shirt and silver gray suit. He has wonderful presence and something of an Arab look—black-haired, wide forehead. He was surrounded by 200 college students, veterans of the Saban Leadership Seminars he sponsors at AIPAC.

On Middle East policy, Saban is barely distinguishable from his Republican counterparts, who are there in equal force. The main hall of the conference was filled with lavishly-produced banners featuring AIPAC donors, not a few with trophy wives, alongside statements of their mission. There was Donald Diamond, an Arizona real estate developer whom the New York Times recently profiled on the front page after he raised $250,000 for John McCain. The Times said nothing in its piece about Diamond’s Israel work. But that was all the banner was about. “The U.S.-Israel relationship is the single most important determinant of democracy in the world, and we must commit to securing it,” Diamond wrote. “It is so obvious to us that the Jewish community is a family and that we have to take care of each other.”

I was writing that down when an AIPAC spokesman stopped to check my credentials. The audience for this stuff isn’t the public, it’s people in the hall—other rich Jews who might put AIPAC in their wills.

At most conventions, people gather out of self-interest. Therein lies my admiration: the AIPAC’ers didn’t come for selfish reasons. They are devoutly concerned with the lives of people they don’t know, very far away. Yes, people with whom they feel tribal kinship. When Israelis came out on the dais to speak, they were almost invariably overwhelmed by the generosity, if not the Vegas schmaltz. “There is a tremendous amount of love in this place,” Meir Nissensohn, an Israeli executive of IBM, said in wonder. “If it was a beaker, it would explode.” Even a sharp critic like myself of what AIPAC is doing to American policy in the Middle East was frequently moved by the pure loving feeling that surrounds you at every moment.

Among the devout there is only one real issue: What is the latest AIPAC line? This is the organization’s function. After consulting closely with the Israeli political leadership (leaning toward the right wing), AIPAC regurgitates a simple version of Israeli policy to its followers, who in turn regurgitate that line to American politicians. AIPAC’ers do this with the conviction that Israel’s life is on the line. “It is we that are the guardians of that relationship,” AIPAC president David Victor said. James Tisch, the Lowes executive and leader in the Jewish community, warned the audience that it might be 1939 all over again were it not for them.

AIPAC makes sure the Israeli line is America’s line by cultivating politicians before they reach the national scene. Victor described this process when he warned the audience that 10 percent of Congress will be new next year because so many seats are open: “Do we know them? Do they know us? Have they been to Israel? Do they understand the issues we care so deeply about?” Finding Israel activists in the suburbs of Detroit is easy, Victor said. “But how about finding the one right person to reach out to candidates for communities like Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or Tacoma, Washington, or Council Bluffs, Iowa? Ladies and gentlemen, the success or failure of the pro-Israel community rests on three words, our personal relationships.” And people accused Walt and Mearsheimer of fostering a conspiracy theory.

AIPAC flashes its relationships the way kids trade baseball cards. Bill Kristol said that Hart Hasten, a Holocaust survivor and successful Indianapolis businessman, had been crucial to shaping Dan Quayle’s view of Israel, having “spent a lot of time” with Quayle when he was still a congressman. (Quayle’s office later told me, “The statement Bill Kristol made was not exactly accurate. Mr. Quayle said his broad knowledge of Israel came from many people and sources, not specifically from Mr. Hasten.”) Dan Senor, an analyst on CNN and former AIPAC intern, boasted that AIPAC won over Spencer Abraham when he was the head of the state Republican Party, years before he became a Michigan senator. The party was $500,000 in debt, and an AIPAC leader helped him pay that off. And of course, the famous story was told of George W. Bush going up in Ariel Sharon’s helicopter in 1998, two years before he ran for president, and saying of Israel’s ten-mile waist, “We have driveways in Texas longer than that.”

The anxiety about Obama is that he is so new to the scene that few people have had a chance to get to him. The relationship guy is Lee Rosenberg of Chicago, who introduced Obama. “I can personally attest that Senator Obama is a genuine friend of Israel,” he said. In 2006, Obama “fulfilled a pledge he made to the Chicago Jewish community” and visited Israel. And the topper: Obama “has gotten to know” Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who is against ever dividing Jerusalem. Rosenberg looked pale, drained—as queasily forceful as a mob boss vouching for an unknown family’s bona fides.

The good news I can report is the new AIPAC line. In some ways the organization is belligerent: speakers emphasized the need to attack Iran before it gets nukes and to invade Gaza to take on Hamas. But peace is in the air, too, now that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government is working overtime to cut a deal with the Palestinians on the West Bank and with the Syrians for the return of the Golan Heights. AIPAC reflected this policy. I heard a few conference-goers saying at microphones that the Bible gives Israel a right to the West Bank. But they received only a smattering of applause, and in one instance the moderator said the questioner was using inappropriate language.

The soul of the conference for me was Tal Becker, the highly personable Israeli negotiator. “I see [Palestinian negotiator] Saeb Erekat a lot more than I see my wife and kids,” he said, promising that if he and Palestinian moderates fail to reach an agreement, their goal is “to keep talking and keep talking and keep talking.”

Yet before you get out your handkerchief, reflect that AIPAC has for more than 30 years promoted the colonization process. In 1975, when President Ford wanted to reassess Mideast policy over Israeli intransigence, he was cut off at the knees by an AIPAC letter signed by 76 senators. Then in 1989, when James Baker went before AIPAC and told them to give up their idea of a Greater Israel including the West Bank, George H.W. Bush received a letter of anger signed by 94 senators. In both instances, AIPAC was hewing to the Israeli government line and nullifying American policymaking.

No, AIPAC’s change of heart cannot be ascribed to the good thinking of American Jews. They’re not thinking at all. They have passed on their full powers of judgment to the Israeli government. In that sense, the Zionists in that hall might best be compared to Communists of the ’30s and ’40s, who also abandoned their judgment to a far off authority even as they argued this and that subclause codicil in intense councils. On my train ride back to New York, a little rich kid of about 14, traveling with his uncle in the seat behind me, called his parents to complain that Obama’s views on Israel seemed “tailored” and “he’s never really stood up for Israel.” Indoctrination, pure and simple.

The great sadness here is that American Jewry is the most educated, most affluent segment of the public. Yet on this issue there is little independent thinking. The obvious question is whether they don’t have dual loyalty. As a Jew, I feel uncomfortable using the phrase, given its long history, but the facts are inarguable. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic speaks of everything “we” should do to make peace with the Palestinians, then corrects himself to say what Israel should do. Speaker after speaker says that Israel is in our hearts. People who emigrate to Israel are applauded, and when the national anthems are played, one cantor sings the “Star Spangled Banner,” but the “Hatikvah” has two cantors belting it out, with the audience roaring along. Maybe most revealing, I heard a right-wing Israeli politician sharply criticizing Olmert’s policy in the West Bank. Think of the scandal it would cause if American politicians went abroad and criticized the president’s foreign policy. It’s no scandal here because AIPAC is a virtual extension of Israel.

Of course, AIPAC and its roll call of politicians would say that American and Israeli interests are identical. I wonder how those politicians really feel. Their I-love-the-miracle-of-Israel rhetoric is so endless that it creates an undercurrent of doth protest too much—an impression that if there weren’t so much money at stake, they would run from Israel with winged heels.

AIPAC takes care to remind the pols of deeper reasons to help the Jews. The Holocaust imagery never stops. And there is a related theme: that Jews are the golden goose of Western society. The very last of the “Zionist Stories” AIPAC showed before Obama and Clinton spoke was of a scientist, IBM’s Nissensohn. The piece emphasized Israel’s contribution to high-tech industry from software to desalination, hinting at a traditional Jewish idea: for a society to flourish, it must treat Jews well. Haim Saban’s story made the same point. Look what Egypt lost when it forced the Saban family to flee.

The theme of the conference was “The U.S.-Israel Relationship: Built to Last.” But that seems another case of protesting too much. AIPAC is beset on many sides.

It surely noticed how much attention Palestinians got this spring for commemorations of the Nakba, their dispossession in 1948 and onwards. AIPAC fought back with its own dispossession narrative. About 700,000 Jews, including Haim Saban, were forced out of Arab societies following the formation of Israel. One of them was novelist Eli Amir, who grew up in privileged Baghdad and was forced into a refugee camp in 1950. Amir appeared live by satellite and berated AIPAC for not highlighting his story before this year.

Another problem for AIPAC is the growing alienation of younger Jews from Israel’s hardline policies, especially as those Jews do well here and assimilate. “I worry a lot more about the American Jewish community than I do about Israel—about which I have grave doubts,” Wieseltier said.

AIPAC is happy to work with non-Jewish Americans. At one dinner, I sat at the same table with Mark and Carrie Burns, Christian evangelical radio hosts from Illinois. Carrie said that many Christians she knows will vote on Jerusalem being in the hands of the Jews as a litmus issue. Thus AIPAC may hope to replace dwindling elite influence with populist numbers. I wouldn’t hold my breath. Carrie said that at a synagogue she addressed, the first question came from a high-school girl who said, “But isn’t Israel an apartheid state?”

The Jews are quietly leaving the room. Saban described his horror at visiting his son’s college, Wesleyan, and seeing a table on peace in the Middle East at which Israel was demonized. Some of the kids at that table were surely Jews.

Especially now that an alternative lobby, J Street, has formed on its left, AIPAC seems to be making gestures in a more peaceable direction. One was the testimony from Sderot, the Israeli city bordering Gaza that American politicians must learn to pronounce or face political doom. (I think it’s Stay-ROTE.) It was inevitable that someone from the region would take the stage, and it’s impossible to imagine a more appealing spokesperson than Chen Abrahams, a pretty, soft-spoken kibbutz-dweller of about 40. The audience was utterly quiet as she described the terrible price her community has paid for the siege of Gaza. Nothing like the price the Palestinians have paid, I’d note. Still, if this was schmaltz, it was real schmaltz. At the end of her taped appearance, Abrahams said, “My biggest hope is for peace. I believe in talking to them, I don’t believe in wiping them out.” I was stunned.

Then Abrahams came out on stage to a standing ovation, and it struck me that it might be possible to take all the loving energy in this place now directed at helping other Jews and redirect it to great effect. If the AIPAC legions were somehow convinced that Jews will only be safe in the Middle East if the Arabs among them were also safe—without checkpoints, without a siege, with the dignity and freedom that Jews have had in the West—all these arrayed powers might then be directed to a larger idea of family and produce a miracle at last.

Philip Weiss is at work on a book about Jewish issues. He blogs at

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Some country faces a catastrophe

Whenever President Bush and "The New York Times" agree on the need for humanitarian intervention in the world, you know that some country faces a catastrophe. Iraq is the present day example. "Saving" the Iraq people from Saddam has resulted in a million deaths, a destroyed infrastructure, and a land poisoned by depleted uranium.

How could America's good intentions result in such devastation of another country and its people? Because good intentions are almost always a lie when it comes to US foreign policy. We invaded Iraq for its oil deposits, possibly the richest in the world. "Saving" the Iraqi people was propaganda, something the Times does very well.

Bush and the Times are again focusing on humanitarian intervention, this time in Darfur. Doctors Without Borders has termed their reports of genocide as "totally incorrect." And the fact that Sudan has a great deal of oil just never makes it into our national debate. But the pressure is on for another military invasion and occupation, all in the name of humanity.

If the US cared about humanity, it would tell Israel to end the apartheid treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But the Israeli lobby has become as powerful a force in US foreign policy as Big Oil. With its allies in Congress and the US media, both lobbies are behind the Iraq occupation and the push into Darfur. Even more dangerous for the American people, both lobbies are working behind the scenes for an attack on Iran.

Fred Nagel

Friday, July 11, 2008

Jewish and against Zionism (thanks, Jack)

Jewish and against Zionism
Sam Bernstein reviews a book that takes on the common accusation leveled at Jews who criticize Israel.

July 10, 2008

AS ANY anti-Zionist knows, raising opposition to Israel and Zionism immediately draws accusations of anti-Semitism--and, if the dissenter is Jewish, accusations of self-hatred.

Review: Books
Mike Marqusee, If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew. Verso, 256 pages, 2008, $26.95.

It is precisely these attempts by Zionism to squash all criticism of Israel, especially from Jews, that Mike Marqusee takes head on in his latest book, If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew.

Starting with the papers of his late grandfather and Marqusee's own personal experiences being raised as a Jew in post-Second World War America, the book beautifully weaves together a broad, yet intimately personal, history of anti-Zionism and radicalism in Judaism. Equal parts biography, autobiography, history and commentary, Marqusee powerfully strips Zionism of its claim to represent and speak for all of world Jewry.

Central to Marqusee's task is the re-appropriation of Jewish, anti-Zionist and leftist history--a history that is consciously buried by the Zionist establishment. In this process, he shows the strong connections between history, how we understand the present, and the frameworks we can utilize in determining the future.

Marqusee weighs in on an impressively diverse and rich array of subjects, including (but far from limited to) the Jewish workers' Bund, Jewish Enlightenment philosophy, political struggles within the New Deal coalition, parallels between Zionism and right-wing Hindu nationalism, the claims about "left-wing anti-Semitism," discussions with Muslims about Zionism, Jews in the Middle East, and the parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

These discussions and explorations radiate out from Marqusee's narrative center: the life of his maternal grandfather, Edward V. Morand (aka EVM), a Jewish leftist active in New York politics in the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite being involved in virtually every left-wing cause of his time, EVM increasingly became an ardent Zionist, which led him to unconsciously sacrifice many of his radical principles. Marqusee is particularly horrified by EVM's political positions in 1948--the year of Israeli "independence," or al-Nakba (the catastrophe), as it's known to Palestinians. As Marqusee writes:

In the midst of [Israel's] one-way process of destruction, displacement and plunder, EVM's constant cry is "no retreat." He seems to have entirely lost his former distaste for war and militarism...In this war, there seems to be only one kind of victim, Jewish.

Marqusee attributes EVM's political twists and turns, in part, to a "failure to imagine the people on the receiving end of your dreams. It's a failure rooted in Western and white supremacy, a network of unexamined assumptions that has proved much more ineradicable and insidious than anti-Semitism. EVM's writings of 1948 resound with it, and offer inadvertent testimony to the racist character of the Nakba and Nakba denial."

These political contradictions and hypocrisies are exactly what led Marqusee himself out of the Zionist trap. In a very candid section, Marqusee relates an experience that is no doubt familiar to many Jewish anti-Zionists: the first time he was accused of self-hatred.

He describes hearing an Israeli soldier speak to his Sunday school class just after the 1967 Israeli war that began the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The soldier was going on about how "the Arabs are better off now, under Israeli rule. You have to understand these are ignorant people. They go to the toilet in the street." Marqusee responds:

Now, something akin to this I had heard before. I had heard it from the white Southerners I'd been taught to look down upon. I had heard it from people my parents and my teachers described as prejudiced and bigoted. So I raised my hand and when called upon, I expressed my opinion, as I'd been taught to do. It seemed to me that what our visitor had said was, well, racist.

The young Marqusee was immediately denounced. Angrily, he went home to share this experience with his normally supportive parents. At the dinner table, he added to the story, putting forward his opinion, heavily influenced by the anti-Vietnam War movement, that "It was wrong for one country to take over another, or part of another, by military force...Suddenly, [my dad] barked, 'Enough already!'...Like my Sunday school teacher, he made me feel that I'd said something obscene...'I think you need to look at why you're saying what you're saying,' he said...'There's some Jewish self-hatred there.'"

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IN THE end, Marqusee answers the question set out by the title:

"If I am not for myself..." then others will claim to be "for me"...[I]n defining myself as an anti-Zionist Jew, I am for myself, and at the same time and without contradiction, for others...I find in anti-Zionism emancipation both as a Jew and as a human being...

Jews today can no more escape the question of Zionism than they could the question of anti-Semitism in earlier eras. The problem today isn't that Jews are in denial of their Jewishness or of the threat of anti-Semitism, but that Jews are in denial about Israel, Zionism, the Nakba, the occupation, the wall...

The people who call us self-haters want to steal our selves from us--appropriate our selves for their cause--and speaking as a self, I'm damned if I'm going to let them get away with it.

The task of anti-Zionists is to explain the role that Zionism serves in the U.S. imperial project, while also breaking the notion that Zionism has anything to do with Jewishness. As Marqusee puts it: "[T]he Zionist dominance of the diaspora, and especially the diaspora in America, is a mutable, historical phenomenon--not the inevitable expression of 'Jewish self-interest'--and the continuation of that dominance is by no means guaranteed."

Easier said than done, right? In addition to reclaiming history, we have to understand that Israeli war crimes and the logic of Zionism itself can shake even the most veteran of Zionists.

Just look at the development of Marqusee's father--the same dad who first called him a self-hater. As Marqusee writes:

[I]n the end, the Zionists tested his humanity beyond endurance. After the news broke about the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, he phoned me from New York. "Ok," he said, "you were right. They're bastards." He started to make contributions to Palestinian causes and to raise the issue among his friends.

The struggle against Zionism's dominance over Jews and Palestinians won't be easy, but Marqusee has made an important and captivating contribution to that fight. If you've ever had trouble arguing that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, or if you just want to get a sense of the rich diversity of Jewish history and its relationship to radicalism, then you should pick up this book.

I just bought a copy for my dad--the first person to call me a self-hater. If Marqusee can convince his dad, then I guess I'll hold out hope for mine as well.