A reminder: Israel wasn’t kidnapped by the far right. It was handed over, by the vast Jewish middle.

I originally ran this post in The Forward — I hope they will forgive me for reproducing it in full here.

Recently, renowned Holocaust scholar Shaul Friedlander gave sharp expression to a feeling shared broadly by many Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora. “Zionism has been taken, kidnapped even, by the far right,” Friedlander said in an interview with Haaretz. And all around the world, these Jews shook their heads, and sighed. Yes, they thought, it has been.

I have enormous respect for Prof. Friedlander, but I’m afraid I have to disagree. Zionism wasn’t kidnapped, or even merely “taken,” by the far right. It was handed over, with barely a peep, by the vast middle.

Our Ze’ev Jabotinskys, Geula Cohens, and Meir Kahanes have always had a central role in Jewish nationalist thought, but the 21st century has seen their like rise to new prominence. Centrists, hard-core peaceniks, and leftists have watched grimly as Israel has drifted ever rightward since the second intifada. Every step toward peace seemed doomed from the outset, and Israel’s leadership took care to tell us that there just wasn’t anyone to talk to. More and more settlements were built, but again, Israel’s leadership always kindly clarified that these don’t stand in the way of peace, and really, what’s another road, another red roof?

Wars, incursions, bombings – all are sad, indeed, particularly when innocent Israelis are hurt or killed, but human rights abuses by the military? The IDF is the most moral army in the world, and anyone who says different is probably an anti-Semite. Or, if the source is a Jew, a self-hater. Or, if the source is an Israeli combat soldier, a self-hater and an embarrassment to the nation. Demagogues climbed to the top of Israel’s political ladder, gained government ministries, passed anti-democratic laws, and structured budgets to make Israel’s occupation permanent – and the vast middle has watched, and sighed. And written checks, and sent their kids on Birthright, and floated in the Dead Sea.

Because it’s easier. It’s easier to believe that ethnic anxiety is the only true form of Judaism. It’s easier to believe that boys who look like your boys must be nice boys. It’s easier to believe that the bad guys are always bad, that Israeli hi-tech is more important than Israeli soldiers invading people’s homes, and that everything will be…okay. Yeheye beseder! Because Israel is a miracle and we are blessed to be in a generation that doesn’t have to run from Nazis.

Of course, there have always been Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, who have tried to raise the alarm. In September 1967, the Foreign Ministry’s own legal counsel, Theodor Meron, found that “civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Israeli philosopher and moral giant Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned in 1968 that “a state ruling over a hostile population of one million people will necessarily become a [security] state, with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought and democracy.” In 1973, American Jewish leader Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf called on Israel to hold talks with the PLO and pursue a two-state peace. They were ignored, shouted down, or shut out.

The intervening years have seen Jews like Amos Oz, Naomi Chazan, Shulamit Aloni, Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Peter Beinart, Sara Benninga, Uri Savir, Avraham Burg, Jeff Halper, Yossi Beilin, and six former chiefs of Israel’s own secret service agency, as well as organizations like Peace Now, Yesh Gvul, Gush Shalom, Women in Black, Breaking the Silence, Ta’ayush, Combatants for Peace, the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum, the New Israel Fund, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and J Street – along with all their supporters and dues payers and fellow travelers – all telling anyone who would listen that Israel was headed for disaster, that only a just and durable peace could save Israel from itself, that an ugly, angry, rejectionist ultra-nationalism was on the rise, and only we could stop it.

But mostly, we chose not to listen.

Rather than use our vaunted Jewish intelligence to question the very idea that any occupation could ever be enlightened; rather than mine the free press that flourishes in our democracies to seek the truth; rather than look the Palestinian people in the eye and see their pain – we have chosen to listen to those who make us feel good about ourselves. We turn the page when Hass or Beinart appear. We close our minds and our social halls to Breaking the Silence and J Street. We march in Israel Day parades and send emails about BDS and sing Hatikva.

And today Israel and the Zionist dream of a democratic, Jewish homeland hang by a thread. We are inches from a one-state “solution” predicated on the permanent, illegal, unjust and immoral subjugation of millions of people, one that will be soaked in blood (who knows better than Jews that the subjugated tend to rise up?), and leave in tatters the Jewish values we claim to hold so dear.

It’s profoundly easy, and deeply comforting, to think that Israeli politicians like Uri Ariel and Ayelet Shaked and American leaders like Sheldon Adelson and Mort Klein are the problem. That they have taken our dreams and roughed them up, and oy, what can we do?

But the simple truth is that these people – just like the settlers who set mosques alight and the soldiers who kick little boys – are doing what we have let them do.

That’s what silence does. That’s what willed and willfully instilled ignorance does. Those who don’t stand up against that which is wrong are partners in the outcome.

The right didn’t have to kidnap anything. The silent middle handed it over, with a nice shiny bow.

My work on the latest violence in Israel/Palestine.

In reverse-chronological order (not including the work I’ve done as a contract writer, because that’s not officially “mine”):

  1. Israel, Palestine, Gaza War – how to help.” – I put together a list of ideas (contact information, links, etc) for helping the people of Gaza, and supporting Israelis and Palestinians who are striving toward genuine peace. (Click here, or just go to the home page – as of Thurs 7/31/14, it’s on the top).
  2. “9 Years Later, Here We Go Again in Gaza” – Israel withdrew (“disengaged”) from Gaza in August 2005 – I argue that its behavior since (and during) the entire disengagement process has been an effort to make a two-state peace impossible, and is in no small part responsible for what we’re seeing on the ground now. There’s a short summary of that behavior, much of which the world appears to have forgotten. (The Forward; 7/30/14)
  3. “Gaza is Trigger for American Jews’ Tension and Dissonance on Israel” – “Anecdotally, in whispers and off-the-record comments, in sudden Facebook defriendings or empty chairs at services, Israel’s most recent wave of hostilities appears to be leading to increasing alienation for a number of American Jews, despite the call for solidarity.” (Haaretz; 7/29/14)
  4. “ADL Needs To Drop Thane Rosenbaum Right Now” – A response to the recommendations of a leading American-Jewish figure that Israel essentially embrace genocide in Gaza. “On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization… And you have wittingly made yourself targets.” (The Forward; 7/23/14)
  5. “Israel has only two choices: Eliminate the Palestinians or make peace” – In response to another fan of generalized annihilation, this one a member of Israel’s parliament, who suggested “All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for ‘human shields’… Total siege on Gaza.” To which (among other things), I wrote: “In the effort to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these are the only choices Israel has ever really had: Annihilation or peace. All conflict management has ever done is draw out the pain. (The Week, 7/21/14)
  6. “May Gaza Victims’ Memories Be a Blessing” – “We read names. We say names out loud, and hold their souls on our breath. We record names with ink and carve them into stone…. When lives are lost, those left behind do what they can to ensure that the names – at least the names – are not forgotten…. Someone in Israel has taken it upon themselves to perform this sacred duty for people very recently dead, not in stone or ink, but spray paint; the letters are Hebrew, but the names are not.” (The Forward, 7/16/14)
  7. “Where’s Jewish Fury Over Tariq Abu Khdeir Beating?” – “I have no idea what Tariq Khdeir was doing on the day he was savagely beaten…. I saw a boy much like my own, battered like a side of beef. Though the video is silent, still I can hear Tariq’s cries of pain, and imagine the panic coursing through him, just before he blacked out from pain. Shame on those who refuse to see and hear. Shame on them.” (The Forward, 7/11/14)
  8. “Gaza vs. Israel: The never-ending rematch” – On the many, many wars that Israel has fought in Gaza — four in the last eight years. “If we’re trying to uncover a chain of discrete events leading to the seemingly permanent state of war between Israel and Gaza, the waters are muddy.” (Haaretz, 7/10/14)
  9. “Israel’s addiction to military force, its only response in times of crisis” – On Israel’s life-long tendency to use a military sledgehammer in response to every genuine problem — no matter the proven inefficacy of the sledgehammer in times past. (Haaretz, 6/26/14)
  10. Would Israelis Be Kidnapped If Not For Settlements?” – I forgot to post this one on the blog, so I’ll post the top here (The Forward, 6/19/14):

    On Monday the New York Times reported that the recent abduction of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank has raised a “hushed debate [within Israeli society] over the conduct of Jewish settlers.”

    While I think it’s fair to point out that Israel’s reactions to the kidnappings have been marked more by anger and prayer than debate (however hushed), the simple fact that any questions whatsoever have been posed in conversation with an American reporter is significant and reflects a broader shift in attitudes toward the settlement project.

    Earlier this month, Justice Minister (and one-time right-wing stalwart) Tzipi Livni was quite blunt: “It’s time to say things exactly as they are: The settlement enterprise is a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to [a peace agreement].” Moreover, a recent study found that a growing majority of Israelis no longer support that enterprise.

    It’s important to note, however, that if the citizenry shares Livni’s general sense of disapproval, they do not appear to share her reasoning: 71% of those surveyed say settler violence against Israel’s military keeps them from “identifying with” their settler brethren; 59% say the settlements are bad for Israel’s relationship with the U.S…. In fact, while 52% support a full or partial withdrawal from occupied territory in the framework of an accord with the Palestinian Authority, 31% support full or partial annexation — where the difference lies between partial withdrawal and partial annexation is unclear.

    All of which is to say: …the average Israeli still doesn’t appear to understand that every problem raised by the settlements is a necessary outcome of their very existence. Click through to The Forward for the rest.

Me & the zeitgest – we’re like *this*.

So it happened again – I wrote a thing, and someone else was writing about the same thing. My old boss Peter Beinart wrote “Gaza myths and facts: what American Jewish leaders won’t tell you” for Haaretz, and I wrote “9 Years Later, Here We Go Again in Gaza” in The Forward.

Peter:

The point of dredging up this history is not to suggest that Israel deserves all the blame for its long and bitter conflict with Hamas. It does not. Hamas bears the blame for every rocket it fires, and those rockets have not only left Israelis scarred and disillusioned. They have also badly undermined the Palestinian cause.

The point is to show—contrary to the establishment American Jewish narrative—that Israel has repeatedly played into Hamas’ hands by not strengthening those Palestinians willing to pursue statehood through nonviolence and mutual recognition. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when Sharon refused to seriously entertain the Arab and Geneva peace plans. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it refused to support a Palestinian unity government that could have given Abbas the democratic legitimacy that would have strengthened his ability to cut a two state deal. And Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it responded to the group’s takeover of Gaza with a blockade that—although it has some legitimate security features—has destroyed Gaza’s economy, breeding the hatred and despair on which Hamas thrives.

Me:

Even as war continues to rage, August will mark the ninth anniversary of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Dubbed a “disengagement” by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the retreat was greeted enthusiastically by the institutional Jewish community. A full-page ad in the New York Times, spearheaded by the Israel Policy Forum and signed by 27 organizations, praised the plan as “courageous.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations greeted Sharon as “a great and patriotic leader,” and even AIPAC came around, if with a caveat:

“If the Palestinians transform Gaza into a reasonably well-functioning, reasonably peaceful place — not necessarily Sweden — then the world won’t have to pressure Israel to do this in the West Bank,” said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director.

As luck (or possibly behind-the-scene conversations) would have it, the whole disengagement plan was conceived to help Israel avoid international pressure — if not quite in the way Kohr seemed to be suggesting. As Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s adviser and confidante, acknowledged in a pre-withdrawal interview, Gaza was to be sacrificed in order that Israel could better hold on to the West Bank.

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a [diplomatic] process with the Palestinians….

In keeping with the contention that “there is no one to talk to,” Sharon didn’t even coordinate the withdrawal, much less negotiate it, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel simply pulled up stakes, and gave the party with which it had been in a diplomatic process since 1993 nothing to show for its efforts.

Unsurprisingly, Hamas announced that its rockets had made Israel turn tail, and — in the absence of a credible competing claim — declared victory. Less than six months later, Palestinian legislative elections were held, and Hamas narrowly won. As is now abundantly clear, Hamas did not transform Gaza into “a reasonably well-functioning, reasonably peaceful place,” or, indeed, “Finland.”

Most Israelis/Jews/Westerners who discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict point to the information in that last sentence, the falling rockets and recently-discovered tunnels (or, more accurately, “recently-announced tunnels” given that Israel has apparently known about them for some time) and say “That’s why Israel has to do this — it’s all Hamas’s fault!”

And I do not want to suggest, for even a moment, that Hamas is not responsible.

To read the rest, please click through to The Forward.

May Gaza Victims’ Memories Be a Blessing.

We read names. We say names out loud, and hold their souls on our breath. We record names with ink and carve them into stone; we raise them in national squares and on city streets.

When lives are lost, those left behind do what they can to ensure that the names – at least the names – are not forgotten.

Someone in Israel has taken it upon themselves to perform this sacred duty for people very recently dead, not in stone or ink, but spray paint; the letters are Hebrew, but the names are not.

Dunya Mahdi Hamad, who was 16 when she was killed on Tuesday, July 8. Elsewhere her name has been spelled Dunia Mehdi Hamad, or Denil. There’s also Mohammed Ayman Ashour, aged 15. Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra, aged 4. Hana Malakiyeh, aged 27, and her son, Mohammed Malakiyeh, one and a half years old at the time of his death.

There are more names, and they are scrawled on the walls of the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, a place that has seen its own residents scurrying for bomb shelters, and picking through the remains of shattered homes. Beersheva is not safe from this war, and neither are Israel’s citizens. Dror Hanin was 37 years old when he was killed by flying shrapnel on Tuesday; his wife and children are left to mourn, just as surely as are the families of Gaza’s dead.

Yet whoever is roaming Beersheva’s streets with a can of black paint knows that even as Israel’s Jews will remember Hanin’s name, most will try never to know the names of the over 200 Palestinians killed so far in Israel’s most recent attack on the Gaza Strip. Just as we tried to never know their names in 2012. And 2008/2009. And 2006. And every other time in between.

Some of those killed in Gaza were actively involved in trying to kill Israelis when they died; a great many of them were not. Surely Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra was not. Surely Mohammed Malakiyeh was not. In forcing these names before the eyes of Israeli Jews, the Beersheva graffiti artist is making a very simple statement: They were human. They must be mourned.

I wonder if names will continue to blossom on Beersheva’s walls, or the walls of other cities. There are so many left to write. Maybe someone will pick up a can of Tambour Black #465-450, the kind that withstands the heat, and spray the names and ages of Ahed Atef Bakr, aged 10; Zakaria Ahed Bakr, aged 10; Mohamed Ramez Bakr, aged 11; and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, aged 9.

They were cousins, and they were apparently playing soccer when Israeli ordnance rained down on their heads.

May their memories be for a blessing.

This post originally appeared earlier today at The Forward.

Where’s Jewish Fury Over Tariq Abu Khdeir Beating?

I have no idea what Tariq Khdeir was doing on the day he was savagely beaten.

I have no idea if — like the American high school student in my own home – Tariq woke up late and lazy, because that’s what vacation’s like. Maybe he slipped on headphones as he reached for his cell, checking his texts or the World Cup stats. Maybe he jumped straight out of bed. Maybe he lay quietly under the covers, trying desperately not to remember his cousin Muhammad’s voice, not to envision his grisly murder, not to hear the sobbing of his family.

Maybe Tariq Khdeir woke up filled with sorrow and helplessness. Maybe he woke up filled with rage. All those years in American schools, walking American streets, hearing about what life was like for his cousins in East Jerusalem, and then there he was, right in the house, with wailing family and shattered hearts. Maybe Tariq wanted to at least see Palestinians fighting back in his cousin’s name, just to see the rocks thrown, just to see the anger and maybe some fear on the other side.

Maybe Tariq Khdeir wrapped his head in a red-and-white checked keffiyeh because he’d been warned not to go out, and he didn’t want to get busted. Maybe he wrapped his head because he didn’t want to be recognized by police. Maybe he got out there and, like many angry young men before him, felt the power of rage surging through the streets and his own veins and picked up a rock. Maybe Tariq Khdeir threw some rocks — he says he didn’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine he did. Grief and fury can muddle the minds of even straight-A students.

I don’t know what Tariq Khdeir did that day, or how he felt, or what he was thinking, but here’s what I do know: He went out to the streets. He was at a protest that had shaded into riot, and his head was wrapped in a keffiyeh. And two Israeli police officers, broad of chest and fully armed, grabbed him – a slight 15-year-old boy — and dragged him to where they believed they would not be seen, and they beat the ever-loving daylights out of him. They held him down. They kicked him. They hit him. They took turns. They broke his nose. They blackened and bloodied his eyes. They held him down and beat him.

Tariq didn’t have a weapon in his hand or on his person. He’d been separated from whoever he’d been with. Whatever he may or may not have done in the moments before the now infamous video of fists and feet raining down on his body, Tariq Khdeir was not any threat, of any kind, to those who pushed him to the ground and raised their boots.

To read the rest, please click through to The Forward.

Auschwitz Selfies? No Big Deal, IMHO

Teenagers, selfies, and the Holocaust — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone over the age of 30 who doesn’t have some thoughts on all three. Last week, though, the world was granted the chance to think about all three at the same time.

It was reported in various places that some Jewish teenagers, while in the course of visiting Nazi death camps, have taken the opportunity to take some selfies.

How many teenagers? Some. What kind of selfies? Varied. What does it mean? No one really knows.

Yet “some, varied, and no one really knows” were good enough reasons for many a furrowed brow and a clucked tongue, because if there is anything we do know as a society, it’s that the Holocaust is serious business, selfies are a sign of dangerous self-involvement, and teenagers will be the end of us all. Not necessarily in that order.

My fellow old Jews will have to forgive me, however, if I refuse to hop on the worry wagon.

To read the rest, please click through to The Forward.

Why does the UN love these Israeli caves? Jesus Christ Superstar, obvs!

What makes a place so special that it might be considered the inheritance of all humanity — a World Heritage site, as it were?

If you were to consult UNESCO’s list of World Heritage criteria, you would see that the international body that determines such status considers ten benchmarks. Does the site “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization,” for instance, does it “contain superlative natural phenomena”? All those things are, no doubt, very important.

But when it comes to one of the most recent additions to the U.N.’s list, Israel’s Beit Guvrin Bell Caves, there’s even less doubt as to what the real reason was: “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Oh, you won’t find a hint of the rock opera in UNESCO’s announcement, or in any of the various press reports — but trust me.

The Bell Caves served as the location par excellence for a crucial early set piece in the 1973 film version of the musical, directed by Norman Jewison. The disciples and their women have set up camp (goats and all) more or less at the feet of Jesus, and are exuberantly demanding to know (in the parlance of the time): “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happenin’!” Jesus insists that even if they knew the path they trod, they wouldn’t understand, but the excited acolytes will not be dissuaded. Mary Magdalene comes along and soothes Jesus with a cool face-and-foot wash, and Jesus allows as only she knows what he really needs.

But then! A drastic tonal change: In comes Judas….

To read the rest, please click through to The Forward.

Israel & gay cash + Israelis distance themselves from settlements – kinda.

I was away! But now I’m back. And while I was away, I wrote the following two pieces for The Forward:

1) Israel Loves Gay Cash — Just Not Gay Marriage: 

What do you reckon is the busiest time of year for Tel Aviv’s hotels — maybe the High Holidays? Perhaps Christmas/New Year’s, when America’s families are on vacation? How about Gay Pride Week?

Bingo!

…Tel Aviv’s message is clear: Come, have fun! We love your party attitude and your wallet!

To which Israel’s national government can only add: Just don’t fall in love and try to get married.

Even as Tel Aviv was raking in that sweet, sweet gay cash, a few miles away in Jerusalem the Knesset spent Wednesday rejecting a marriage equality bill…. To read the rest, click here.

2) Would Israelis Be Kidnapped If Not For Settlements?

On Monday the New York Times reported that the recent abduction of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank has raised a “hushed debate [within Israeli society] over the conduct of Jewish settlers.”

While I think it’s fair to point out that Israel’s reactions to the kidnappings have been marked more by anger and prayer than debate (however hushed), the simple fact that any questions whatsoever have been posed in conversation with an American reporter is significant and reflects a broader shift in attitudes toward the settlement project.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister (and one-time right-wing stalwart) Tzipi Livni was quite blunt: “It’s time to say things exactly as they are: The settlement enterprise is a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to [a peace agreement].” Moreover, a recent study found that a growing majority of Israelis no longer support that enterprise.

It’s important to note, however, that if the citizenry shares Livni’s general sense of disapproval, they do not appear to share her reasoning: 71% of those surveyed say settler violence against Israel’s military keeps them from “identifying with” their settler brethren; 59% say the settlements are bad for Israel’s relationship with the U.S. The violence of some settlers against Palestinians, the financial drain on Israel’s increasingly inequitable society, or the obstacle that settlements pose to achieving a workable resolution of the conflict do not appear to be major concerns. In fact, while 52% support a full or partial withdrawal from occupied territory in the framework of an accord with the Palestinian Authority, 31% support full or partial annexation — where the difference lies between partial withdrawal and partial annexation is unclear…. To read the rest, click here.

Gay, ultra-Orthodox – and married.

What do you do if you’re ultra-Orthodox and gay? You almost certainly hide.

On Thursday, Israeli daily Yediot reported new figures released by religious-gay support group Hod indicating that “two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox homosexuals [in Israel] have chosen to marry women despite their sexual inclination”; almost all of the more than 1,100 men included in Hod’s report admitted to having sex with other men at least once a month.

According to Hod founder Ron Yosef, an Orthodox rabbi and gay activist:

The situation of homosexuals in the Haredi society is much more difficult because of the social isolation they live in. A gay Haredi man cannot share his situation with his friends in the community or the yeshiva, his family members or rabbis, and “coming out of the closet” is definitely inconceivable.

To read the rest of this, please go to The Forward.

I’m No One’s ‘Heretic’

Last Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”

“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”

It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?

Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.

Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).

To finish reading this, please go to The Forward.