Friday, January 16, 2015

Netanyahu Sells French Jews Short

At the turn of the last century, Nachman Syrkin, a young democratic socialist drawn to the “political Zionism” of Theodore Herzl, was a student in Berlin, a member of a discussion group of émigrés from the Russian Pale of Settlement. One day, the speaker was a left-wing intellectual eager to prove that an emancipated Europe would be a home to all Jews — that separatist nationalisms were a mark of obsolete despair. He held up his tattered jacket. “Look at this,” he said. “The wool was taken from sheep which were pastured in Angora; it was spun in England, woven in Lodz. The buttons came from Germany; the thread from Austria” — at which point Syrkin called out, “And the rip in the sleeve was no doubt from Kiev!”

For Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, last week’s crimes in Paris were that kind of Zionist déjà vu, instructive for emancipated citizens and for Jews — often the same people, yet distinct enough from each other to learn different lessons. The enemy has changed since Syrkin’s time but, for Mr. Netanyahu, apparently, not much else has. The Jewish response must be to self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny that they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground.

Who exactly are “we”? That question is superfluous, because anti-Semites will let us know. And their hatred, which tracks from the Roman expulsion, has migrated in this generation to “Islamic radicalism,” which must be confronted globally, and which, Mr. Netanyahu says, Israel is confronting in the form of Iran and Hamas. The French, and the whole European Union for that matter, must now, in his words, “wake up” and fight to protect “our common civilization.” “Israel stands with Europe; Europe must stand with Israel!” he told Norway’s foreign minister here last week. French Jews, in contrast, must realize that “the state of Israel is your home,” as he told them in Paris after four Jews were killed at a kosher supermarket.

What of France’s republican tradition, to which marchers in Paris gave poignant tribute? Although it has struggled since its inception against ignorance, venality, and primordial fear, it has not failed this generation. What of the once unimaginable standards for European integration? What of French Jews who justly feel themselves a part of French civil society and approach Jewish religious culture with emancipationist skepticism? Would they not be lost — upon arrival and for years — in Israel’s secular Hebrew culture and under its Orthodox religious hierarchy?

Read on at The New York Times

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Kerry's Miscalculation At--And About--The U.N.

It is wrong to believe that global pressure helps Netanyahu win reelection. The opposite is the case.
On December 18th, John Kerry told a luncheon gathering of twenty-eight European Union ambassadors that Washington would not support, or even discuss, any United Nations resolution on Palestine before the Israeli elections on March 17th. The remarks were ostensibly private, though it is hard to believe twenty-eight ambassadors were expected not to talk. (Foreign Policy reported on the meeting the following day.) Kerry was referring to two resolutions. The first, drafted by the Palestinian Authority and presented by Jordan, failed to gain nine votes in the Security Council last night. There were eight votes in favor, including Russia, China, and France; two opposed, the U.S. and Australia; and five abstentions. Nigeria’s last-minute abstention was reportedly secured by a conversation between Kerry and President Goodluck Jonathan.

The defeated resolution reflected familiar P.A. positions on core issues, such as immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood, Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and a three-year deadline to end the occupation of the West Bank. Think of it as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s last-ditch effort, at seventy-nine, to prove his diplomatic standing to a skeptical West Bank street, after months of reciprocal violence between Israel and Hamas during which Abbas seemed only a bystander. Today, Abbas moved to join the International Criminal Court, where Israeli leaders could be charged with violations of the Geneva Conventions, a measure that he had threatened to take if the resolution failed. (Netanyahu had previously countered that a move to the I.C.C. could lead Israel to dismantle the Palestinian Authority.)

But Kerry was actually responding to a second, less imminent resolution, a French initiative reflecting the European Union’s determination to help Abbas without adopting his positions. This resolution would notionally offer symbolic recognition to Palestine and establish principles for a peace agreement, culled from past negotiations and the Arab League peace plan from 2003. (On December 17th, the European Parliament voted to recognize a Palestinian state, four hundred and ninety-eight to eighty-eight, with eleven abstentions.) E.U. diplomats assumed that their own resolution would supersede the P.A.’s, if only Kerry would commit to supporting it and agree to help draft it, ideally incorporating his own unpublished framework from last spring.

Kerry’s statements at the luncheon were meant to dampen this hope. He was prepared to veto both resolutions on Palestine, he made clear, though he added, tantalizingly, that he might “ultimately support some sort of Security Council resolution that didn’t prejudge the outcome of stalled political negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.” His real message was in his “ultimately”; by inference, the U.S. might support a resolution sometime after the Israeli elections. Kerry had consulted with, among others, former Israeli Justice Minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who has allied with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog to run against Benjamin Netanyahu. Livni urged Kerry to oppose both resolutions, even if one could be made consistent with Kerry’s own framework, and he agreed. Any “text imposed by the international community” would reinforce Netanyahu and “further embolden the more right-wing forces along the Israeli political spectrum,” he told the ambassadors.

Read on at The New Yorker

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Two-State Solution 2.0

I have written so often in the past about the inevitability of confederative models if the two-state solution is to have a chance of working, that this may feel like piling on. But here are two short videos to watch, and spread, if you find them compelling. The first is from IPCRI, or Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, making the argument for greater integration: "two states in one space," they call it. The second is this round table on TV Ontario's "The Agenda with Steve Paikin," in which I make the pitch along with two Palestinian interlocutors. The crux comes at about minute 19:00. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Netanyahu's Inflammatory Bill

This was published on the New Yorker site just before the government actually collapsed, hence the hedged language.  

As a symbolic gesture, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed law establishing Israel as a Jewish nation-state is gratuitous at best, but not exactly new. It is making the same aggressive point to Israeli Palestinians that Netanyahu made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the peace negotiations conducted by John Kerry last year: the Jews are here; they must, as a society, be tolerated; get over it. But it is not merely symbolic. It is a law that aims to govern other laws: a “basic law,” which will have something like constitutional standing. And it is so charged, so offensive not only to the Arab citizens of Israel but even to some members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, that is it likely to collapse that fragile alliance and result in new elections.

The Israeli press, including Haaretz and Ynet, have reported that Netanyahu clashed with a key coalition member, Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, over the law, as well as other issues, including construction in Jerusalem and various tax measures. But it was the “Jewish nationhood” bill that was at the center of the late-night debate and the potential implosion of Netanyahu’s coalition. So what is at issue?

This takes some sorting out, since it is not clear exactly which draft of the Jewish nation-state bill that Netanyahu will present to the Knesset. The original bill, drafted by the ultra-rightist coalition partner Ze’ev Elkin, and which the cabinet approved in a fourteen to seven vote, defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—not, pointedly, of its citizens, a fifth of whom are Arabs. It demotes Arabic from being an official language to having some sort of special status. Minorities, by implication, would have no right to communal expression, though presumably their rights as individuals would be assured. All state symbols would be Jewish ones. Only Jews would have the right to immigrate freely and receive citizenship. The state would cultivate only Jewish heritage and traditions; Jewish law would serve as “inspiration” for laws. Former President Shimon Peres has said that the law would “destroy Israel’s democratic status at home and abroad.” Netanyahu has insisted that he merely wants to require all Israel schools “to teach the history, culture, and customs of the Jewish people.” In fact, he clearly sees a conflict between democratic standards and Jewish national privileges, which, in his view, needs to be resolved in favor of the latter. The judiciary—governed by democratic standards, and unconstrained by a legally binding national purpose—is his real target. His unstated argument is that the courts advance an abstract concept of citizenship, which, unchecked, will erode the concept of Jewish national self-determination. “The judiciary, which recognizes Israel’s democratic side, will also have to recognize that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said, in a statement about the bill, at a recent cabinet meeting.

If this law were, as Netanyahu mostly seems to want the public to believe, only about collective rights, it would be superfluous, irritating to the Arab minority, perhaps, but not inconsistent with democratic norms—and not even preëmptive of confederal relations with a future Palestine. Democracies everywhere protect their distinct national cultures and languages. The point is, however, that this new law is not really about conserving collective cultural rights, but rather about confirming individual legal privileges. Israel’s democratic freedoms are real, to be sure, but they coëxist with legalized inequalities between Jews and Arabs.

Read on at the New Yorker

Friday, November 21, 2014

Crisis In Jerusalem

Again, Palestinians armed with whatever was at hand attacked Jews in Jerusalem, killing four citizens and fatally wounding a police officer before achieving martyrdom. Again, the Netanyahu government demanded that President Abbas denounce the murders and end incitement. Abbas, again, has repudiated “all acts of violence against civilians,” distinguishing himself from Hamas and bowing to American pressure but implying—as if he needed to—that the Israeli Army, police, and settlers have committed atrocities of their own. Again, the State Department has issued its condemnation in a tone of mandatory righteousness. In Jerusalem, anxiety is mounting. “I know why they do it, and I know why we do it,” my wife, Sidra, once said to me. “And I don’t know what to do.”

Last week, it was an attack on a rabbinic zealot at the Begin Heritage Center, across the street from the Cinematheque, where the remaining Jerusalemites with secular tendencies take in a film by Mike Leigh or Denys Arcand. The place is a ten-minute walk from our home, in the German Colony. A block away is the former Café Hillel, which was bombed in September, 2003. Across the main street, Emeq Refaim (The Valley of the Ghosts), is another café, Caffit, where two suicide bombers were foiled on two separate occasions. At the summit of the gentle hill overlooking the valley, near Terra Sancta, in the Rehavia quarter, another café, Moment, which was bombed in 2002. Walk another ten minutes, into the city center, and you come to a pizzeria that was bombed twice. The nearby Ben-Yehuda Street mall was bombed. When I draw an imaginary circle of a couple of miles around our neighborhood, it encompasses the sites of five bus bombings. The cafeteria near Sidra’s office, at the Hebrew University, on the ridge above the entrapped neighborhood of Issawiya, was bombed. You remember the pattern and—if you are not family—forget the names.

Robert Brym, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, studied all hundred and thirty-eight Palestinian suicide bombings between September, 2000, and mid-July, 2005. He concluded that they represented less than a quarter of the attempted missions—most were foiled by Israeli forces—and that the vast majority of the Palestinian youths who killed, whatever their ideological predispositions, had themselves lost a friend or a close relative. During those five years, Israeli forces undertook some two hundred assassination attempts, eighty per cent of which hit their targets, often causing, Brym writes, considerable “collateral damage.” This time, in the suburb of Har Nof, three of the four victims were rabbis; their murderers are said to have been enraged by the rightists in the Netanyahu government agitating for access to the Temple Mount, also the Muslims’ Noble Sanctuary. Yeshiva students walk around Jerusalem wearing T-shirts with an illustration of a crane removing the golden dome from the Mosque of Omar. (The caption says, “Sometimes, it is permitted to remove the kippa,” the Hebrew word for both a dome and skullcap.) At the news of the murders, some residents of the East Jerusalem suburb of Jabel Mukhaber set off fireworks. There is vague talk of the national conflict turning into religious war.

Read on at The New Yorker

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Netanyahu's Misguided Prophesy To The Nations

Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, which fell this week, makes the Book of Jonah its liturgical centerpiece. For many, Jews and non-Jews alike, the connection of this text to repentance is all too clear. Perhaps the most famous sermon on the subject, certainly the most paradigmatic, is that of Father Mapple in Moby Dick, whom Ishmael hears just before he first sets sail:

Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. 

Mapple continues, explaining why Jonah ran away.

All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do - remember that - and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men, will carry him into countries where God does not reign but only the Captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that's bound for Tarshish. 

Father Mapple, en passant, ferrets out of the Book of Jonah Jonah’s own idea of what a Hebrew is, someone who knows God’s power, and who knows better than to expect mercy when sins are great:

'I am a Hebrew,' he cries- and then- 'I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!' Fear him, O Jonah? Aye, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then! We know what happens next. Jonah, admitting that the roiling seas are his fault, is tossed overboard by terrified shipmates. 

Then Mapple reaches his climax:

He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. 

Jonah calls out to the Almighty. The fish pukes him up. Mapple says:

And Jonah, bruised and beaten- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean- Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it! 

That was it. The challenge is to preach the truth in the face of falsehood. To brave the fight, and scoffers be damned. The world is made up of people who know the truth and people who either don’t know it or resist it. And the way to get people to be good, or afraid to be bad - and what’s the difference? - is through a kind of permanent regime of deterrence: We warn like Father Mapple, warn like Jonah eventually did. And we will preach a force that will find you anywhere, idiot. All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do.

I thought of Father Mapple watching Benjamin Netanyahu explaining the struggle against militant Islam from the UN’s podium this past week. “To protect the peace and security of the world, we must remove this cancer before it’s too late,” he said. As with Father Mapple, Netanyahu warned of two kinds of people, the peace-loving and the bloody-minded. Israeli leaders must therefore do something hard but inescapable: Bring a message of deterrence, preach the truth in the face of falsehood, bomb if you have to and the New York Times be damned. “Israel is fighting a fanaticism today that your countries may be forced to fight tomorrow.”

I felt, I confess, sadly embarrassed for Netanyahu, our sanctimonious impresario of settlements--of "mowing the lawn" in Gaza--the way I imagined Ishmael feeling a little ashamed for Mapple, whose righteousness so clearly cut against his grain. Jews have had Yom Kippur longer than we’ve had the Likud. Was this really what the Book of Jonah taught? Why, really, did Jonah run?

Actually, the people of Nineveh are not the real villains. They are not very bad: One perfunctory warning from the prophet and even the cattle are put into sack-cloth. No, it is Jonah the book is warning us about, that we should not be like him: Angry, hungry for the punishment of crime, incapable of managing ambiguity. Jonah finally admits to us, or God, the real reason why he ran, but only after God forgives Nineveh:

I pray Thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repentest Thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.' And the LORD said: 'Art thou greatly angry?' Then Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.

Jonah’s melancholy, you see, has nothing to do with fearing God's mission. It has everything to do with fearing God's compassion. You sort of get the feeling that Jonah builds the booth to look out onto the city in the forlorn hope that God would incinerate the sons of bitches after all. He obviously feels more comfortable far away from the people he was notionally saving—that he cares about humanity more than mere humans. He would rather die than live with the confusions brought into the world by forgiveness.

Jonah, in other words, is hardly the hero in the book. God is. What’s missing from Netanyahu’s speech, and Father Mapple’s sermon is a kind of critical self-consciousness, which is the real lesson of God’s actions. The heart to be transformed is not in Nineveh—it is Jonah’s: God acts as a kind of cosmic therapist. God then sends a plant; Jonah falls in love with it—or at least with the shade it provides. God causes the plant to wither—not to prove his power some more, but because he realizes that, as with a numbed child, you can teach compassion only step by step. God asks Jonah if he is aggrieved by the death of the plant. Again, Jonah is so aggrieved he says he would rather die than live. God asks, finally talking past Jonah’s neurosis, so then how am I to feel about the people of Nineveh, who “do not know their right hand from their left”?

Terrorism is not tolerable - that’s true. Members of my own family have been its victims. Still, the God of Jonah teaches, first and foremost, the renunciation of Manichean visions, this notion that life presents us with heroic struggles against evil forces—the idea that goodness rests merely, or even mainly, on the terrible power of good forces to intimidate the bad. How would God help Israel’s prime minister to see, to paraphrase the novelist David Grossman, the little Hamas in oneself? I suspect the future of what Jews mean by Jews will depend very much on the answers we provide to these questions.

I have spent a good deal of time with another prime minister this past year, nobody’s hero now, who himself launched two wars against “the missiles.” He can speak for himself, but my impression of Ehud Olmert is that he is not at all certain in retrospect that Israelis saw enough of what Jonah’s God would have wanted us to. When I asked him about his proudest moment of statesmanship, he told me this:

Olmert had sat in on meetings in which Ariel Sharon had treated Abbas as the representative of a defeated, insurgent enemy that needed to be intimidated. This often made Olmert cringe. So when he assumed office, and tried to set appointments with Abbas, he was not surprised that Abbas kept putting him off, determined, Olmert surmised, to avoid more humiliation. Finally, they set an appointment for a Thursday evening, and again Abbas cancelled at the last minute. So Olmert got him on the phone and said: “I understand why you might want to insult me, but why insult my wife?” Abbas was taken aback and said he did not understand. Olmert said: “When Aliza found that you would be coming, she spent the last 24 hours preparing your favorite dishes for dinner. What shall I tell her now?”

Abbas came, eventually met with Olmert 36 times, and the two came closer to a comprehensive agreement than any previous leaders. This is not the kind of approach to truth and power Father Mapple, or Netanyahu, would have respected. But I like to think that the Book of Jonah's God would have been relieved.

This article appeared in Haaretz online.  It is adapted from a Yom Kippur sermon delivered to the Harvard Worship and Study Congregation in 2011.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is Liberal Zionism Impossible?

A couple of Sundays ago, the Times published an opinion piece by Antony Lerman that seemed calculated to prompt a moment of truth. Lerman writes that “liberal Zionists,” or “liberal Zionism,” or “Jewish liberals” in the diaspora (he never quite narrows this down) are, thanks to the latest Gaza war, facing an unprecedented crisis. The time has come to choose between Jewish loyalties, which tend to boil down to “Zionism,” and human rights. Lerman comes by this moment honestly. He’s worked for British Jewish organizations for thirty years; he’s come to believe that it’s futile to try to persuade most diaspora Jews—who are often liberal in spirit, but who have made “unquestioning solidarity with Israel the touchstone of Jewish identity”—to press for fairness to Palestinians and democratic reform in Israel. Conspicuous American Jewish liberals, such as Peter Beinart, Roger Cohen (who, like Lerman, is originally from England), and the leaders of J Street, the advocacy group set up as a counterbalance to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lament that “what Israel is doing can’t be reconciled with their humanism.” Yet, he says, they fail that humanism by remaining “Zionists,” by which he means remaining supporters of “the two-state solution,” where one state is Israel.

Lerman believes that serial Israeli governments have made that two-state vision impossible. Benjamin Netanyahu effectively rejected it; the Israeli left is “comatose.” “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary,” he writes, and it is carrying out an “open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.” Indeed—and here is Lerman’s real point—Zionism has always forced Jews to decide between “the dictates of religion and political ideology” and liberal principles. The Jewish state was founded on injury to Palestinians, Lerman writes. “Liberal Zionists” have, with hypocritical regret, justified this historic injustice as necessary. But Gaza is so grotesque that they have now been pushed “to the brink”—or should be. The brink of what? Lerman is not entirely clear. He wants the threads of his argument to braid into a case for a new movement: a partnership with Palestinians “to achieve equal rights and self-determination for all in Israel-Palestine.” At the same time, he insists, liberal Jews should feel free to rethink whether they need to be committed to the existence of any Jewish state at all: “Jewish history did not culminate in the creation of the state of Israel.”

One could pick at Lerman’s threads. Is anything but a two-state solution, complemented by ordinary confederal arrangements, really conceivable? Is the Israeli peace camp really composed only of exhausted leftists—is the country’s business community not getting mobilized? Yet the most striking thing about Lerman’s argument, with its focus on whether the Zionist idea can be reconciled to the liberal imagination, is how provisional he takes Israel to be. He seems consumed with historic Zionism’s veiled essence, yet he’s oblivious to its obvious achievement: namely, a home for Israelis that has a reality other than as a cause for diaspora Jews...

Read on at The New Yorker