14 July 2009

Thanks to...

...the ever-depressing Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. If this report from the New York Times is accurate, Hoenlein continues to represent the rear-guard of thinking on Middle Eastern and Israeli issues, while continuing to reinforce the fiction that he and his organization are actually representative of the broad perspective of American Jews.

Let me just say, once again - and as if it isn't obvious from what I've written in this space over the last 9 years - that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations does not represent me. Its title notwithstanding, these are self-appointed grandees, coming from organizations whose interests and attitudes are usually far from mine, on issues ranging from Israel to Israel-and-New York to anti-Semitism.

So, despite what I wrote about then-Senator Obama back in 2007, when he gave a speech to APIAC: if his attitude, reasoning, and words as reported by the Times are true, then there may be hope for a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace process after all.

And kudos to J Street and its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, for becoming enough of a powerhouse countervailing force to get a seat at the table during these discussions. That speaks as much to the change within the American Jewish community (and the fading of an older, long-entrenched generation) as it does about the openness of the Obama administration.

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10 February 2009

Frank Rich, My Mother, & Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I don't think that my mother and The New York Times' Frank Rich are actually talking about politics and the bailout (aka "stimulus"), but sometimes I wonder. There are certain parallels in their sense that the stimulus is mis-focused and the situation a bit off the rails. There are also some obvious differences in terms of how far each goes in criticizing the Obama administration directly.

At the same time, both seem to hold dear an assumption that President Barack Obama's entire governing plan would be different and, thus, that the bailout would be different than it had been under George W. Bush. Obama himself famously said that he feels like a "blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." We are now seeing the impact of that, in terms of the peoples' shattered perceptions.

Ever the cynic, I voted for Obama - but outside of an immediate sense of post-November 4 euphoria, tried to keep my expectations low.

If there was any single indicator of how not-different Obama would be from past attempts at American government, it was his ring-kissing episode with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March 2007. Perhaps, one might argue, such obeisance was crucial for getting elected. Perhaps not, might one argue, once they've looked at what portion of the American population is Jewish (4%). Obama's margin of victory was greater than 4%. He might have won even if he'd been more honest about the mess that is Israel / occupied Palestine / the Middle East, and about what America's role in fixing it should, nay must, be.

What does this have to do with the economic stimulus package? Well, my mother has been focused like a laser on how off-track the bailout is, wondering why it's OK to dump billions of dollars on banks and bankers, but not on the people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their retirement savings, etc. She's not wrong.

Meanwhile, Frank Rich has been focused like a laser on the way that the Obama administration has - already, in just a few short weeks - danced around the ethical guidelines it once said it would hew to so closely.

Both have a right to be upset because - so far - the Obama administration has given us only a new version of politics-as-usual. The rise of the left on November 4th has not brought us clarity or a new vision, but rather exactly what the rise of the opposition always brings after they've been in opposition: revenge. In this case, it's been a more polite, mildly more accommodating form of revenge - but the results of those accommodations are additional goodies for the Republicans (e.g., more corporate tax cuts) rather than a realistic compromising of positions and dollars, or a genuine refocusing of priorities. Instead, almost everything counts as a priority, adding up to nearly $800 billion.

Rich said this weekend that Obama "is not Jesus," and he's right. Obama isn't Jesus, but it's also an irrelevant comparison because even Jesus couldn't sort out this mess.


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18 January 2009

"Ancient History"

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I have two distinct early memories of reevaluating my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both dating to the beginnings of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987-1988. One memory is of watching the news with my grandmother, who shook her fist when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir came on the screen and started a sentence that began “This little asshole...” As we listened to and absorbed the news of more rock-throwing protests, and more Israeli repression of those protests, my grandmother’s evident sadness prompted much discussion about the nature of the Zionist enterprise to which my grandparents had dedicated so much of their lives.

The second memory is of a series of conversations with author and political scientist Amos Perlmutter, who (for reasons I no longer remember) was for a while an occasional dinner guest in our house. Perlmutter challenged me to think, to criticize and evaluate my perspective on the conflict, and while we approached the matter rather differently, I recall distinctly our finding agreement on the (myriad) ways in which Israel had done itself harm by its mishandling of both its Arab-Israeli minority and the Palestinians whose lands it continues to occupy.

My grandmother and Perlmutter are both dead, while the whole messy and idiotic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians remains.

This “ancient” history is top of mind as I read about the current fighting, and think about the evolution of my own views over the years—particularly as I have expressed them here, starting in October 2000. Actually, I think my perspective evolved during the period of the first intifada and has subsequently stayed much the same, bound tightly with a belief in the moral unacceptability of the Israeli occupation. The change since then has focused more on my own religious beliefs, and figuring out ways to personalize, humanize, and “own” a religion (Judaism) and a culture (American-Jewish) in spite of all the (often offensive) things being done in the name of Judaism and Jews, both American and not.


Last week, I said I’d provide a round-up of past columns on this subject. At the time, I was not focused on just how much material that might be. However, in looking through it there are some interesting items and perspectives (if I do say so myself). I have collected all the links together for the years 2000-2006, and they can be accessed easily here: Roundup.html.

Two items to which I want to draw particular attention—because they seem to resonate in the current moment—are my brief report on the Palestinian protest in New York from October 2000, and my comments about Ariel Sharon’s speech in New York in March 2001.

Will we humans ever learn?

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14 January 2009

With God On Our Side

Two news items worthy of attention:

1. Gershon Baskin had an excellent column in yesterday's Jerusalem Post, titled "Encountering Peace: The sun will come out tomorrow - or maybe not", and it's well worth reading.

2. On NPR's Morning Edition today, reporter Greg Allen had a good story about Jews and Muslims in Florida trying to "seek common ground." Some of the dilemmas sounded similar to the rally I attended on Sunday.

Coming soon: I'll recap and catalog my Israel- and Palestine- related articles from the start of this site back in 2000.

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11 January 2009

All we are saying

I just got back from a peace protest / rally on 2nd Avenue at 42nd Street. This was an event organized as a distinct contrast to the pro-Israel rally taking place on 42nd Street, and to the pro-Palestinian rally taking place at Times Square. For a brief summary of the three events, see the Muslim-Jewish Journal.

Rallies are rallies, so I won't rehash the details of standing around in the cold holding a sign because I've now done it... Nor will I reiterate my views on the current Middle East Madness, which are clear enough here and here.

Instead what I will say as a takeaway from today's event(s) is: there is a lot of hate in the world, and it's rather sad. In some cases, just downright pathetic.

In the two hours I was out there today, many people walking by - on their way to the "main" rally - shouted nasty things at our group. Some stopped to "argue," otherwise known as shout. One guy made the effort to walk around us a few times shouting "Kill them all!" as he headed to the pro-Israel rally. Well, gosh: "Kill them all" is really the right message isn't it? I mean, that doesn't make the (Jewish, wearing a yarmulke) guy sound like a genocidal nutbag, does it? Other people tossed out ridiculous arguments about how Hamas "started it," which is about at the intellectual level of a kid in elementary school.

On the eastern side of 2nd Avenue was another protest, this one by a small group of Satmars waving a Palestinian flag and holding signs against both Israel and the murder of Palestinians. So a small group of Modern Orthodox men took it upon themselves to come to the rally seemingly only with the intent of harassing the Satmars. They had signs - pre-printed - about how the Satmars are not authentic Jews (hunh?) and with absurd slogans like "Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism!" (If you want my take on that nonsense, read this piece about Stanley Fish, from 2007.) It says something sad about the insecurity of those young men that the best they could come up with is a way to harass a bunch of Satmars. I spoke with one of the Satmar gentlemen, and he said "They hate us more than they hate the Arabs."

The best thing to come out of this for me? The response from the cabbies and bus drivers along 2nd Avenue, many of whom gave me a thumbs-up sign, and one of them even pulled over briefly to ask some questions and offer support.

Will any of this make a difference? I don't kid myself. Hateful ideologies are difficult to dislodge, even (especially!) if you're Jewish and a Zionist and too clueless to realize you're full of hate. But it says a lot about the tremendous insecurity of American Jews that two small groups of protesters can arouse such intense hatred and expressions of anger. To me, this suggests that many of these people are not as confident in their views as they would like others to believe.

Anyone for a little "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"?

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10 January 2009

Stupider & Stupider

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It’s Saturday evening and as I catch up on the news from today … I start to wish I hadn’t bothered. The New York Times headline reads (in part) “Israel Warns of More Extensive Attacks,” while an analysis from DEBKAfile explains that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal put the kibosh on ceasefire talks.

If you’re reading this and have any ambiguity about my view on this idiotic quasi-war, see my piece “Dueling E-mails” from last week. Since then, a few different items have popped up in news reports, and I want to address four of them here.

1. According to several news reports (see Reuters, Voice of America), Cardinal Renato Martino, an aide to the Pope, called Gaza “...a big concentration camp.”

Hmmm. Martino’s description requires more nuance than he surely provided. If, by “concentration camp,” he meant a place like Auschwitz-Birkenau—where people were systematically murdered—he is clearly wrong. However one wishes to characterize Israel’s actions (e.g., stupid, cruel, inhumane, dangerous, unlikely-to-help-in-any-realistic-long-term-way), Palestinians in Gaza are not being systematically murdered as were the Jews, Roma-Sinty, homosexuals, etc., at Auschwitz.

If, on the other hand, Martino meant a concentration camp like Sachsenhausen—an internment camp, where people were deprived of basic human rights (food, medicine, freedom of movement), and where political prisoners and others did die on a smaller scale—then he is probably right.

Why am I even focusing on this? Because as much as I condemn Israel’s actions in this instance, rhetoric that is inaccurate and disproportionate to the situation is as harmful to both sides as any real military action. Accusing the Israelis of exterminating Palestinians simply is not true—however terrible the situation is and however many people have died. Such language becomes a propagandistic version of pornography, especially when attached to graphic images, and ultimately it undermines the Palestinian cause.

2. In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Natan Sharansky published an interesting opinion piece titled “How the U.N. Perpetuates the 'Refugee' Problem”; it is very much worth reading and should be free even for non-subscribers.

Towards the end, however, Sharansky’s argument collapses in two sentences: “Whether this war will bring about lasting change, or just provide another breather before the next battle, depends to a very large degree on the Free World. A successful Israeli campaign—in which Hamas is eliminated as the controlling force in Gaza—will bring an unprecedented opportunity for Western leaders to change the rules of the game when it comes to Palestinian civilians.”

The problem? Simple. No matter what Israel does, Hamas cannot be eliminated as the controlling force in Gaza, not militarily, not in any meaningful, long-term way. Hamas’ success is based on an ideology, and that ideology is bolstered by external circumstances that appear to make it’s view of the world seem real, accurate, and engaging to a specific group of people. And just like with any other ideology (e.g., neo-Nazism, or even Zionism) it cannot be eliminated through brute force. In fact, often brute force provides the compelling raison d’etre needed to sustain an ideology that might otherwise collapse.

3. To this same point: on Monday, The New York Times ran an article that quoted a Hamas leader named Mahmoud Zahar as saying “The Israeli enemy in its aggression has written its next chapter in the world, which will have no place for them. They shelled everyone in Gaza. They shelled children and hospitals and mosques, and in doing so, they gave us legitimacy to strike them in the same way.”

This idiocy—on the part of Hamas, and on the part of Israel—is an unsatisfactory repetition of eye-for-an-eye kind of justice. The only people well-served by this are those with the most outrageous ideologies.

4. Read Leonard Fein’s piece in The Forward, “‘There Is No Alternative’ Is No Answer.”

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