Friday, December 28, 2007

Do Not Try This At Home

Last Thursday, an IDF helicopter gunship raid killed Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad, another in a very long string of young men no Israeli civilian ever thought to fear, or had even heard of, until his death by assassination was reported in the morning newspaper. Presumably, IDF intelligence had heard of him. And this was a highly professional hit, which apparently killed no Palestinian civilians this time, but did kill two of his “operatives.”

Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad was, according to IDF sources, “the head of rocket and explosive manufacturing for Islamic Jihad in Gaza.” I have no reason to doubt that he was, or that he has been involved in raining missiles on the Negev town of Shderot, or that if he wasn’t involved, he would have wanted to be, or that he thinks Jews are the children of Satan who will be ultimately scattered like the Crusaders, or that he used what high technology he could without appreciating the liberties and scientific doubt that produce high technology, or that he would have beaten his sister for petting with his friend, or that if he had had a teeny Iranian nuclear weapon to strap on, he would have tried to incinerate Tel-Aviv.

Nor do I doubt our need for professionals. A short walk from my home in the German Colony is Café Hillel, which was bombed in September 2003. (The blast gently pushed open my step-daughter’s bedroom door.) Across the 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 main street’s rise, near Terra Sancta in the Rehavia quarter, another café, Moment, was bombed in 2002. Walk another half mile 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 radius around the outermost of these neighborhood landmarks, I can remember five bus bombings in the area, each kicking off a new round of sirens, days of mourning. My wife’s cafeteria at the Hebrew University was bombed. Yet there have been no bombings for a good many months.

I do not doubt that I owed my walk down Emeq Refaim this morning to people who make their living, or do their national service, by defending me. For all I know, the person who fired the missile that killed Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad, avenging the missiles on Shderot, was a relative of mine, or the child of a friend, or a former student, who came home for a Sabbath dinner last night and watched an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But then, I also do not doubt that this young man will sleep less easily in the months ahead. The son of a couple once very dear to me became an undercover assassin in Gaza. The couple, his father and mother, had been killed when a Palestinian terrorist blew up their flight. The son, then three, now himself a father in his thirties, started a professional drumming ensemble a few years after leaving his service, to heighten spiritual consciousness. He wears white linen frocks and forelocks and preaches the Prophets. He thinks I am lost.

WHAT I DO doubt, alas, is that the killing of Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad means that there will now be no more “head of rocket and explosive manufacturing for Islamic Jihad in Gaza.” There may now be two or three such operatives. His replacements, whose names we will doubtless learn in a few weeks or months, are probably already at their posts, or will be when the funerals have dispersed. For Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad likely had brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. All you need, after all, is love.

My own friend, the University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym, carefully studied all 138 suicide bombings between September 2000 and mid-July 2005. He concluded that, in the vast majority of cases, the bombers themselves—whatever their “ideological” predispositions, or the groups that claimed responsibility—had lost a friend or close relative to Israeli fire. They acted, he wrote, mainly out of revenge. How many Hamlets can Israel cope with before our professionals run out of Guildensterns to inform on them?

DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak, Israel’s ultimate defense professional, who among his other remarkable feats led the 1973 raid on the PLO in Beirut, killing Abu Youssef, allegedly responsible for the Munich massacre (along with Youssef's wife, two of his fighters, an Italian bystander and two Lebanese policemen), is reported to believe that the “military and economic pressure on Hamas could lead the organization to ask for a cease-fire and pledge to halt rocket fire by smaller factions.”

Except that spokespeople for the defense establishment routinely declare that any cease-fire will only be used by the militant factions to consolidate their power and prepare for the next round, so that targeted assassinations will have to continue against ticking bombs, which is what people like Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad are by definition. During the last hudna with Hamas, in the summer of 2003, these preemptive attacks against ticking bombs never stopped and, indeed, Hamas emerged from it strengthened.

Funny, when Barak led the raid on Beirut, the city had not yet experienced civil war, there were perhaps 15,000 settlers in the West Bank, which Israelis crisscrossed more or less freely, and Mohammed Abdallah Abu Murshad was eight years old. When Barak had the chance as prime minister to change the environment of vendetta, he seized it, but then retreated in the face of domestic opposition, including 200,000 settlers, hoping to force the Palestinians at Camp David to swallow a deal nobody would ask them to swallow today, warning that he would isolate and weaken the Palestinians “if they refused to yield. All of which leads you to wonder, does it not?, whether defense professionals can ever get us out of this, or even be trusted to know what makes young men tick.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Connect The Dots #1: Wonderful Life

Last night, since Bethlehem is pretty much closed to Israeli Jerusalemites, I observed Christmas eve watching Frank Capra’s movie again. I won’t say how often I’ve seen it, but I noticed this time that George Bailey’s name, engraved on the suitcase Mr. Gower unexpectedly presented him, is written entirely in upper case. Anyway, I woke up this morning with that pleasant post-cathartic feeling, relieved that love endures, matter matters, and decency does not go unrewarded—in short, morning in America. Then I opened Haaretz to page one and reached for the Italian roast. I read:

  • a headline report that the prime minister has approved the hiring of more religious court judges—that is, Orthodox rabbis—by the state, to speed the mass conversion to Judaism of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. (About 300,000 Russian, Ukrainian, etc. newcomers from the 1990s were not Jews or even—as Jonathan Miller put it—Jewish, but were able to come to Israel under the Law of Return because they could prove that at least one grandparent was a Jew);
  • right next to it, a column about Mike Huckabee’s rise, noting laconically (but with obvious concern), that he is a Baptist minister, speaks of Christ at Christmastime—something that upset “not a few liberal commentators” (read, American Jews), nervous about the blurring of religion and state; and worse, that his foreign policy is a departure from an otherwise reassuring Republican consensus on Iran, because he is “calling for bringing to the table non-military options,” something ostensibly unwelcome to “Israeli observers”;
  • between the two, a teaser for an article inside the paper, “Your Wiki Entry Counts,” suggesting how Israelis should actively correct any anti-Israel bias on Wikipedia, by getting involved in its open editing process. (An example of the problem? “The entry on Israel mentions the word ‘occupation’ nine times, whereas the entry on the Palestinian People mentions ‘terror’ only once.”)

Note to Israeli Wiki-bias-correctors: you may find it easier to earn your wings by cutting out any links to page one of Haaretz.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Transnational Constitution? Stay Calm, Stay Tuned

Adalah Legal Center is the closest thing Israeli Arabs have to a mainstream think-tank. It is staffed by civil rights attorneys, mostly Israeli trained, who’ve been seasoned by (at times, successful) efforts to turn Israel’s courts against the structural discrimination of the state apparatus. Although formally nonpartisan, many of its activists have been close to Israel’s Balad Party, founded by the former MK, Azmi Bishara. More recently, Adalah has been morphing from a lawyerly non-profit, aiming at piecemeal legal reforms, into a center of political activism, engaging the Israeli public as a whole with public drafts of a new constitution. It is trying (what George H.W. Bush called) "the vision thing."

Bishara, whom I interviewed at length for my forthcoming book, has become a fugitive from the Israeli secret service, who’ve accused him of abetting Hezbollah during the last Lebanon war. When I spoke with him in 2005, he was still promoting the idea of Israeli Arabs as a national minority deserving of special status, something like radical Quebecers in Canada. Last year, Adalah brought out what it called a multi-cultural constitution for Israel, which pretty much put into legal terms Bishara’s peculiar political demands. Israel, it implied, should become binational, but in an awkward way that would give extraordinary privileges to the elected leadership of the Israeli Arab community, which would be recognized as a nation apart, though not quite part of a future Palestinian state.

Bishara had told me that, for its Palestinian Arab citizens, the real tragedy of Israel’s founding was the destruction of their elite bourgeoisie, which had been on a more or less equal footing with the Jews before the 1948 War. (Like most people who use the term bourgeoisie in this approving way, Bishara is a former Marxist.) The point of Adalah’s constitution, not coincidentally, was to reconstitute that elite by means of a kind of affirmative action. If Palestinians could not have an independent middle-class equal to the Jews, they would at least wield a bureaucratic and legislative power in the state apparatus equal to Jews.

Thus, although Israeli Arabs are one-fifth of the population, virtually any legislation impinging on Arab citizens would be subject to a kind of veto of Arab legislators. Lands confiscated from Arab citizens in 1948 would be returned. Arab towns would be reestablished. State symbols should be approved by a committee, half of whom would be Arab. Arabic should be an official language with statue equal to Hebrew. Yet Arab schools should be autonomous. The only thing missing is the British Mandate.

Would Israeli Arab elites (I asked Bishara) really want to stay in their township-like villages, and develop their own political economic infrastructure—not move to Tel-Aviv, or turn their villages into commercial suburbs of this global metropolis? There is, based on the votes of feet, room for doubt. To its credit, the Adalah constitution tried to move Israel to separate religion and state, and argued that public discussion should get beyond who is a Jew and get to what is a citizen. But instead of looking forward, Adalah seemed stuck in the past, internalizing the most tribal notions of nation, wanting an apology for 1948, and implying changes for Israel that were unnecessarily provocative and, in any case, impractical.

Until Friday. In a remarkable break (which he has not exactly acknowledged), Adalah’s chairman Hassan Jabareen has begun speaking about a larger federation of Israel and Palestine into which the Israeli Arab community would be subsumed. The model would be the new Europe, including the European Convention on Human Rights. The jurisdiction of a transnational entity would regulate our rights in both Israel and Palestine: it would celebrate culturally distinct nations in different states, sharing what needs to be shared in the context of a Europe-like framework.

It will be fascinating to follow how the Adalah scheme plays out. I shall follow it closely from now on. Many Israeli Jews will see yet another threat, no doubt. But Jabareen's logic suggests how the positive forces of globalization can help nations win without making others lose; it implies how to bring both Israel and Palestine up to code. Anyway, one can see how important Israeli Arabs will be to setting a framework for a workable solution between two states and, simultaneously, Israel's majority and minority. Like European Jews in 1848, Israeli Arab intellectuals have everything to gain from the virtues of federation and the pleasures of civil society. Which is why they have much to teach.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Way

Rodney Dangerfield once heard Sinatra’s inescapable version of “My Way” once too often. “I did it my way, I did it my way,” Dangerfield googled at us. “I didn’t know there were that many ways to do it.”

The Israeli government and the Fatah leaders provisionally running the Palestinian Authority are, according to inescapable reports, conducting negotiations within the Annapolis framework, and most believe there is also a back channel bargaining in secret. They are doing it their way.

Or are they? In 2001, I argued (not alone) that the deal was essentially cut, and the real challenge was creating an international diplomacy, including international forces, to take the power of thwarting progress out of the hands of terrorists, ideological fanatics, settlers, and rogue officers. Again, a little while back, Sam Bahour and I noted that—from Clinton’s parameters to Geneva’s “Initiative”—a way has been found, and that what (mainly) silent majorities on both sides need is a great power fiat to fear and trust.

The foundation will be the boundaries from before the 1967 war, and Israel will compensate Palestine with land for agreed-upon border modifications; Jerusalem will be capital to both states, and its Old City will be open, free of checkpoints and restricted areas; international forces will help keep the peace, especially where jurisdictions are shared; the bulk of Palestinian refugees will exercise their right of return by settling in the new state of Palestine and accepting financial compensation, though a certain number will be allowed to return to Israel proper; and, finally, all Arab states simultaneously will recognize Israel.

Now, Haim Ramon, Ehud Olmert’s old pal and Vice Premier, has begun to tell us about their way. On borders, there should be a land swap. On Jerusalem, sovereignty should map to the composition of neighborhoods. Soon, no doubt, we will hear about their novel way to handle the problem of refugees.

Maybe our problem is simply that we are importing the wrong sad songs. Yesterday, at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, supporters of the New Israel Fund assembled to award its (new) annual prize to advocates of coexistence. A choir of Israeli high-school students, Jews and Arabs, sang “Imagine” in Arabic, Hebrew and English. I looked at Shimon Peres’ eyes when we got to the transcendence of country, religion and possessions. Not his way, I suppose, and not exactly mine. But we were all teared up anyway.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Offside, Behind The Lines

Last night, at Jerusalem’s municipal stadium, Beitar Jerusalem beat Hapoel Tel-Aviv 1-0. I was there. I was not welcome. It was fun.

The team names will mean little to people not acquainted with Israeli soccer or Zionist intellectual history. For Israeli sports teams grew out of the social clubs and youth groups associated with big, pre-state political movements, which were split, at times viciously, along ideological lines. Imagine a showdown between Kulaku Moscow and Proletario St. Petersburg or, for that matter, Evangelist Houston and Newdealer Chicago. These are powerful traditions that the 20,000 Beitar fans were half-consciously carrying into the stadium along with their team scarves and flags—even fans (perhaps, especially fans) under 30, who tend to think of Jabotinsky as an exit and Ben-Gurion as an airport.

HAPOEL (“THE WORKER”) was the cultural wing of mainstream Labor Zionism, the movement that carried the main burden of Zionist colonial settlement between 1905 and 1949. Its people were Eastern European immigrant revolutionaries; they gave us the kibbutzim, Histadrut labor federation and the Haganah defense force; their parties took shape in the 1920s and 30s, dominating a largely socialist economy through the 1950s and 60s. In those days, the Histadrut and state, run by Labor parties, together owned about 70% of the economy. So you got a job in the Haifa port if you had had a cousin who worked in the Histadrut sick fund, whose wife was a second cousin once-removed of the chief copy editor of Davar, the daily that told us what Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party was going to decide about just about everything. Famously, an Israeli WASP in the 1960s was a white, Ashkenazi sabra with protekzia. This was not amusing if you were a new immigrant from North Africa, about which more in a moment.

Beitar, for its part, was the youth movement of the (eventual) Revisionist Zionist movement, founded in Riga in 1923 by the Russian esthete and warrior, Vladimir Jabotinsky. He was, by all accounts, a charismatic writer and activist who steeped himself, among other things, in Italian art and history, and then modeled himself on Garibaldi; he could never quite decide if Mussolini’s fascism was more threat to Jews than inspiration; Beitar was the last stand of the Bar-Kochba revolt against Mussolini’s favorite Romans, ironically, in 135 AD.

Jabotinsky clashed early with the socialist Zionists whose hegemony he detested, fearing that their centralized control of industry and entry permits would discourage the immigration of especially middle class Polish Jews. He hated Marxism, but (sooner than most) also saw that Polish Jews would be annihilated by Hitler. He died in 1940, but his heir, Menachem Begin (whom Jabotinsky also detested), came to Palestine and led the Irgun in the early 1940s, and then led the opposition to Labor’s socialism from the Knesset and in the streets during the 1950s and 60s. This was when most of the North African Jews arrived.

The latter had no more cultural understanding of Begin’s roots than they did of Ben-Gurion’s, but they resonated with Begin’s call for economic freedom, Jewish religiosity, suspicion of the goy (read, Arab), sexual modesty and expansion into “greater” Israel. Begin told them, not altogether demagogically, that a labor aristocracy had got to Israel first and was, in effect, screwing them. They added—not in Begin’s company—Ashkenazi aristocracy.

Today a great many of Jerusalem’s self-defined, hard core “Mizrahim”—not well educated vegetable peddlers, contractors, drivers—vote Shas, a kind of Jewish Hezbollah, a party with Rabbinic vetoes, soup kitchens, and state subsidized orthodox schools. It is threatening to leave Olmert’s coalition if Jerusalem is negotiated. It easily makes common cause with the ultraOrthodox parties and settlers.

WHICH BRINGS ME to last night’s game. Hapoel fans are the people Beitar fans most love to hate. They are allegedly (like Olmert’s friends, if not Olmert himself) the people of North Tel-Aviv, the people with the MBAs and medical patents; with gefilte fish, mutual funds and Mahler. They have, the caricature continues, Audis to visit relatives in the Jezreel Valley and laptops with “high bandwidth”—Arab-loving, Oslo-processing, Boston-visiting, “pretty souls” (yefai nefesh) who buy the villas you are, if you are lucky, doing the plumbing for. Israeli Jews of North African origin earn, on the whole, about half of what people of European origin earn. The former are daunted by globalization, which is passing Jerusalem by. “They are rich, we are poor,” so goes the argument behind the cheering and jeering; “Everybody with money is a ‘mafianer’ taking, or giving the Arabs, what we should have.”

The hatred is real, you see. Konrad Lorenz called it militant enthusiasm. Let’s call it familiar. Hapoel fans have to sit in their own section of Beitar’s stadium (named, as if to rub it in, after Labor’s Teddy Kolleck), separated by fences and a squad of policemen. The team managers are conducting a very public discussion about whether, in addition to a Ghanaian striker and Croatian goal keeper, the team might employ even one Israeli Arab player. Several weeks ago, when the crowd was asked to stand in silence to mark the anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination, the crowd shrieked and whistled. A few weeks before that, people in the front rows were crushed against a fence when fans tried to storm the field. I was told explicitly not to wear anything red, since harassment of interlopers is no joke (luckily, my ski jacket is gold).

A good time was had by all last night, but what I saw has serious political implications. Jerusalem is not just the most sensitive “core issue” to be settled with the Palestinians, it is home to these Jews: a hotbed not only of orthodoxy, but also of poor angry gangs who think the peace makers are just new versions of condescending insiders who are not to be trusted. If Israel tried to withdraw from settlements around Jerusalem, a great many of these fans could be instantly mobilized, the way a subset were at the time of the evacuation of Gaza. Then, most trusted Ariel Sharon. Who do they trust now?

That is also a sobering thought. Beitar is now leading the league by a comfortable margin. Its owner-benefactor, who has been pumping tens of millions of dollars into the team, is Arcadi Gaydamak, the closest thing in Jerusalem to a Russian oligarch, who made his billion selling arms to Angola, and is now buying votes for a new “reform” party he has formed. His politics are a little woolly, since he is also buying Bedouin votes; but mostly he likes to court the hard right. He may well become the next mayor of Jerusalem.

I shall not, then, be welcome either. I doubt it will be fun.

Friday, December 14, 2007


My pal Chris Lydon, who podcasts and blogs at Open Source Radio, did something remarkable recently. He remembered that five years ago, just before the impending Iraq invasion—on September 26, 2002—a group of American foreign relations specialists took out an ad in the New York Times to argue bluntly against war. (The Times would not run their argument as an op-ed.) The ad predicted the grim consequences of the war more or less exactly. So Chris interviewed a number of the signatories—Barry Posen and Steve Van Evera at MIT, Michael Desch at the University of Kentucky, Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland among others—to ask how the letter came about and perhaps why others didn’t see what they did. (I, in Jerusalem, did not.) Then he asked each in turn a deceptively simple question. “America is a famously pragmatic country,” Chris said; “Did anyone ever thank you for being right?” Each laughed in his own way and said no.

The profound question Chris implied was why there seems to have been no particular penalty for being so terribly wrong. Which raises the question of what we really mean by right, as in right vs. left? Okay, certain famous men with Pentagon responsibilities and neoconservative connections have become foils for popular dismay. But what of the dozens of columnists, officials, and politicians who underestimated the nemesis of military violence in varying degrees but are still turned to for their expertise? (We know who we are.)

There is an Israeli version of this. The broad consequences groups like Peace Now have been warning about since 1978 have all come out pretty much as predicted. This is why Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni are now saying what they criticized the so-called left for saying while they were leaders of the Likud, now abandoned to Bibi Netanyahu. Likud leaders were wrong about post-67 settlements redeeming Zionism, wrong about settlements as a security advantage, wrong about the West’s adjustment to the occupation, wrong about preemptive war, wrong about peace having nothing to do with prosperity, wrong about forcing Fatah to try overpowering Hamas, wrong about pandering to Republican evangelicals (and alienating Democratic liberals), and really wrong about Israeli Arabs accepting second-class citizenship in return for a higher standard of living. Yet Netanyahu would win any election that were held today. Everyone remembers that Netanyahu warned against a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But who remembers that peace process champion Yossi Beilin did, for different, smarter reasons?

It seems pretty clear that the secret of the right’s success—and here America and Israel are not so different—is something other than prescience. The right’s realism always boiled down to warning us about our enemies and warning our enemies about our elbows. But ordinary people, by which I mean people pressed for time, do not take such warnings to mean a prediction about what works. Rather, they assume that warnings of this kind are an exhortation to something like a group-hug: an implied appeal for loyalty, for common identity, for solidarity in the face of the unknown. Nobody remembers if you were right. Everybody remembers if you cared. To be right about Iraq, Chris’s letter writers required an analytical (if not ironic) distance from the very people they were trying to save. That made them right too soon, or left—you get the idea.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Not Too Late For Two (City-) States

Economically, can you have a sustainable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, that is, on just 22% of historic Palestine? If not, isn’t the whole Annapolis process a waste of time?

A couple of weeks ago, on November 25th., a group of writers and critics
met in London to advance what they call the “one-state” solution—decent people, some of whom I have known personally over the years, who in any case need no grades from me regarding their application of democratic standards: Omar Barghouti, Haim Bresheeth, Ilan Pappe, Nadeem Rouhana, Nur Masalha, Joel Kovel, and others. Their ideas have prompted a vexed (if not exactly new) debate on whether it’s too late for two states. The historian and former Jerusalem deputy-mayor Meron Benvenisti has been warning about this since the early 1980s, and he’s been refining his position ever since.

I’ll not join the debate here: I have written often about the need for any two eventual states (three, if you include Jordan) to work out shared sovereignty where jurisdictions cannot be split: water, telecom, a currency, and so forth. None of this mitigates the need to get things started with two states, Israel and Palestine, centers of gravity for two distinct cultures and, for now, very unequal economies. The dean of peace advocates, Uri Avnery, raised common sense objections to a unitary state back in 2004, and his check-list is worth revisiting.

However, one claim of the one-staters particularly rankles with me, and you hear it all the time, even from people who do not share their edgy political goal. It is that, as their declaration states, the two-state solution “entrenches and formalizes a policy of unequal separation on a land that has become ever more integrated territorially and economically.” Leave aside the question of whether economic integration is a bad thing. (It isn’t, not when wealth comes from know-how, but let it go.) Is there really an “unequal separation" of land? This is where you normally hear about the 22%. Presumably, Israel has 78% and the disparity is the difference between viability and non-viability.

PERHAPS THE BEST way to think this through is to recall the 2005 RAND Corporation study on the future of Palestine, which captured the imaginations of most educated Palestinians and Middle East experts around the world. Its policy suggestions (on security, health, water, etc.,) were unexceptional. What catapulted its lead authors, Steven N. Simon and C. Ross Anthony, into a momentary spotlight was their vivid idea of the “arc.”

According to the study, major towns and cities of Palestine—including Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Gaza City—would be linked by a high speed train—an arc of rails and overpasses, making it possible to travel from southern Gaza to the northern West Bank in less than 90 minutes. “Each rail station, located several miles from existing historic urban cores,” the study said, “would create a focal point for new development and would connect to a historic core via a new boulevard and an advanced form of rapid bus transit.”

Along the path of the train new commercial and residential neighborhoods would be developed, to accommodate population growth—as many 6.6 million Palestinians by 2020, assuming natural population growth and immigration. The transportation arc would “pump economic activity into the historic centers of Palestinian cities” and assure their preservation and revitalization, creating “a ladder of linear cities along the defining mountain ridge of the West Bank, and preserving open land for agriculture, forests, parks and nature reserves.”

THE RAND PLAN was lovely. What almost nobody seemed to notice, however, was that the Palestine envisioned by the plan was actually an almost perfect mirror image of contemporary Israel within the Green Line. Israel, too, is “a ladder” of linear cities and suburbs, wired to the global economy, settled along the coastal plain—a growing megalopolis, from Beer Sheba to Haifa, swinging around to the Valley of Jezreel and the Galilee, and tied together by a bend of rail and roads.

Indeed, if you superimposed the geometry and area of the wretched Gaza Strip on coastal Israel, from the north of Bat Yam to Netanya, you’d pretty much include the entirety of Tel-Aviv, Ramat Gan, Herzliya, etc., where something more than half the Jewish population of the country live—and by far the greatest part of its GDP is produced.

The very word “country” seems something of an exaggeration in this context. Israel’s coastal plain has a small hinterland, some very pretty mountains in the Galilee, where Jews and Arabs are about equal in number, and breathtaking desert ranges in the Negev, inhabited mainly by Bedouins. Israel, it is true, also includes the corridor to Ben-Gurion airport and up to Jerusalem and back, as Palestine has a corridor to Amman. But such East-West movement is more anomalous than natural.

The fact is, Israelis live on not much more of the historic territory than Palestinians do. The Jewish arc faces an Arab one. Both are city-states: they absorb populations with elevators. And if they want to survive as independent states, both Israel and Palestine will have to integrate into something bigger. Israel is already incorporated into global markets and, like Turkey, should aspire to a place in the European Union. In any case, both Israel and Palestine will immediately need incorporation into larger regional markets, from the Gulf to booming Amman. Israeli Arabs, for their part, will shuttle between both arc lengths, creating a cultural and economic bridge.

A border will of course be necessary, to establish residency for taxes and voting. In the early years, perhaps even a wall will be necessary. But with peace, and in time, how many will care where the border is? I hasten to add that Hebrew culture will not be endangered by the prospect of mingling populations. Like Singapore Chinese, the Hebrew entrepreneurs, technologists, scholars, artists, designers, etc., will establish the region’s liveliest political economy. They will create cultural forces to be reckoned with. Who cares how many square miles Singapore is?

Utopian? Hardly. But even if it were, one thing is clear. It is possible to hold one-big conference where peace advocates gather, enjoy hotel rooms of equal comfort, and speak a nicely accented English to one another. One big state is another matter.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Prisoner Of Zion

“Though I knew my human rights activities could lead to my arrest,” Natan Sharansky said recently, “I also was convinced that the free world would stand by my side.” And as it happens the first public speech I ever gave was in his defense—in 1971, a graduate student warming-up an audience of thousands for Claude Ryan, the open-spirited editor of Montreal’s liberal daily, Le Devoir.

But since coming to Israel in 1986, and riding his refusenik celebrity to political power, Sharansky has stood for transcendent Jewish sovereignty in Greater Israel and particularly over Greater Jerusalem. He’s made common cause with theocrats, settlers, and people who believe Israel’s Arab citizens should be disenfranchised, if not expelled. He has justified the abuses of occupation—land grabs, house demolitions, preemptive fatal force, etc.—warning of an apocalyptic struggle against terror. He has never stood up for a single Palestinian protesting abuses of his human rights.

"Above all, Jerusalem is the base of our identity," Sharansky said more recently, giving a whole new meaning to the term, prisoner of Zion. He is now leading efforts to foil the Annapolis process. He offers more than 300,000 Palestinians, residents of the eastern parts of the city, nothing of citizenship; his lectures on democracy to Americans never quite get to the consent of the governed. "The problem is that there are many people who want to get rid of their identity," Sharansky added. He should know.

It is adolescent, no doubt, to be angered by hypocrisy. But then, I was pretty much an adolescent when I admired him.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Merry Little Chanukah?

It is not a simple matter to be a Jew in America this time of year. Not in Jerusalem either, a few miles from Bethlehem. Christmas, as John Updike writes, is Christianity "at its sweetest." Many have written, some with an air of sweet resignation, about the yearning Jews feel as the days darken: to share in the melodies, the hearth, the love of the child.

It was only a matter of time—was it not?—that we would start finding ways to be absorbed into the spirit of the moment. So we exchange presents, greet the "season," tease out of the ancient Chanukah story our own celebration of light and grace—God bless, eight days, not just one! And we leave behind, in mildly embarrassed obscurity, the tale of Maccabean guerrilla war against Greek occupiers around 165 BC—a mythical victory that had been so much solace for medieval rabbis, forced into ghettos, and more recently, for outnumbered Zionists.

But when you give a second thought to the Chanukah behind the candles, you do feel at odds with the spirit of the time, and not really because the ancient heroics of Judeans seem out of step with Pickwickian fellowship. The fact is, Chanukah is Judaism at its gravest: a radical attack on all forms of idol-worship, including the worship of the love of the child.

When the Maccabees reconsecrated the ancient Temple (Chanukah means "reconsecration") they emptied it of all images—in this case, the Hellenistic statues celebrating the "gods," who personified familiar human virtues—warriors for justice, masters of the natural world, protecting fathers, fecund mothers. There may well have been images of fleshy, innocent children, too.

No wonder, as the Book of Maccabees reveals, a great many residents of ancient Jerusalem loved these statues. One could have had a "season" with them. Nevertheless, Maccabean zealots determined to make a terribly abstract point, even to kill and be killed for it: God is nameless, God is fugitive, God is silent. A kind of Jewish Taliban. True, the Maccabees were defending the God of Torah and Law. But what is law if not an expression of the silenced God?

And so Christmas is for love, Chanukah for awe. While Christmas brings God down to earth, Chanukah dispatches earthly versions of God to the rubble pile. They need God to feel immanent, nearly material like a Greek deity, while we need God to be thought ineffable and mysterious.

Or do they? And do we?

THE DISPARITY here is one of timing, I think, not of spiritual insight. Actually, both religious traditions affirm both spontaneous needs. And how could they not? Our common Bible says we are created in God's image. But can we hope to create, like that God, outside the realm of sensuous experience? That's why we say things like, God is like a king, or a teacher, or a way. The danger, people as different as Maimonides and Pascal wrote, comes when we forget how our perceptions are, in a way, also our own creations. We are stuck with mystery and also with metaphor.

Nor do Christianity or Judaism have a monopoly on either. Later on, when spring comes, it is Christians who cope with the awful mystery of living on an earth in which the divine is gone, indeed, has been banished by human willfulness; while Jews celebrate a God who is like "an outstretched arm" come down to earth to take our ancestors out of Egypt. Then, it is their turn to contend with the disquieting precondition of freedom, while we feel gratitude for the power that underlies, not freedom, but surrender, the relief of being cared for.

Even the Judeans at the time of the Maccabean revolt could not be immune. The culminating last book of Maccabees is not at all about national liberation—it is certainly not about a miracle of burning oil—but is a painstaking disquisition on how Jewish law establishes the supremacy of reason over appetite. A (somewhat self-satisfied) Jewish riff on a Greek problem. And who if not Greeks made holidays of military victories? It seems the world of law and idol breaking needed something of the Greeks' materialism, too.

THERE IS SOMETHING sublime about this tension, I think. Both Jews and Christians struggle with it: We simply choose different times of the year to try to feel one or another side of it. Then again, nobody can really feel just one side at a time—at least, not for long.

That is precisely why so many grown-up Jews envy Christians their capacity to re-enter the mental atmosphere of children as Christmas approaches—why they get down on the floor and play dreidel with children, why they sing that "big miracles" (like children) can happen.

And that is why, after all, so many Christians report feeling despondent on Christmas Day, because they know in their bones that they have been carried away by an unreasonable—dare we say, childish?—notion. They feel the embrace. Intuitively, they also want to acknowledge that they are on their own.

The point is, maybe we can help each other, Jews and Christians, during this time of year. Maybe we have something to teach each other. God is a mystery, yet we are blessed. Break the idols. Hear the Good News.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The 38% Solution

“The danger,” Ehud Olmert told me (in an interview during February 2007), “is that we move from an Algerian situation to a South African one.” Presumably, one can withdraw from Algeria. But leave things as they are, Olmert said, and people around the world, including most Jews (if not most Jewish leaders), will start calling for one-person, one-vote in Israel/Palestine. Which will be the end of Israel as we know it.

There is a demographic problem—so Olmert and most others in the Israeli “center” say—by which they mean that Arab citizens of Israel, combined with the Palestinian residents in the territories, will be the majority between the Jordan River and the sea, if they are not already. What would happen if they made common cause? Besides, Israel is a globalized state. Can it have an economy that depends on reciprocity with the democratic world if it fails the most elementary democratic tests?

The prime minister is now telling this to everyone, inadvertently stepping on Jimmy Carter’s mine, looking for support among Israeli citizens as he enters into desultory final status negotiations within the Annapolis process. And it is hard to see who will not find his logic compelling, particularly since the arguable Iranian threat inarguably calls for a tacit alliance with the major Arab states that attended the conference. Recent polls suggest that Olmert’s policy could command between 50-60% of Israeli Jewish voters. Will his support not grow now?

Not much. The same polls say that 38% of the Jewish public is firmly against negotiating for the return of any territory or for even debating the so-called core issues of the conflict: Jerusalem, the 1967 borders, and so forth. Presumably, these are people who either do not believe that Palestinians are serious about peace or that moderate Palestinians can deliver Islamist insurgents; their minds can be changed. But look again at their number. Slightly older polls show that 38% are for a state governed by Jewish law over democratic law. Another recent poll shows 38% are for pardoning Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir. Something like 38% elect parties of the extreme right: Shas, Haredi parties, National Union, Lieberman’s Russian bloc. Do you see a pattern here?

One of the hardest things for people not living in Israel to grasp is that the people of Israel's hard right are not just embattled middle-class folk, reflexively moved by the fear of terrorist violence or insults to patriotism—like the people in Manchester, New Hampshire, say, who’ll be voting for Rudy Giuliani in the primary, but could be persuaded to vote for a Democrat in the general if Iraq deteriorates further, or their jets simply cool. (Israelis have voters like that. They mostly vote Likud and Kadima.)

Rather, the 38% that we see here are people living in more or less hermetic worlds, and their political opinions are passed on pretty much intact to their children, like their Sabbath observances: ultraOrthodox living in secluded neighborhoods; scripture-hawk settlers living across the green line; poor and barely educated Mizrahi Jews, living in development towns and nursing old grievances against Arabs and the Ashkenazi rich; new-immigrant Russians reading their own press and looking for an Israeli Putin.

I wrote about Israel’s five tribes some time ago and again before the last Israeli election, so I won’t belabor the point. The thing to keep in mind is that, the Russians aside, these people are having many more children than the national average, much like Israeli Arabs. In fact, if you look at first graders, a quarter are ultraOrthodox, and a quarter are Arab. In Jerusalem, 45% of schoolchildren are ultra-Orthodox, 30% are Arab, 15% are national-orthodox settler types, and only about 15% are secular.

So Israel has a demographic problem, alright, but it is not exactly the one we are accustomed to hearing about. The more tragic reality is that the Israeli right is growing fast because it is reproducing fast—even faster than the Israeli Arab community. The centrist elite Olmert represents is getting squeezed between, on the one hand, forces that would welcome a kind of Jewish Pakistan, and, on the other hand, forces that want a binational state.

Which means that this could well be the last chance at peace, but not—as the argument goes—because of Arab birthrates, Hamas rejectionism, and Oxford's debating union. If the Olmert government leaves office in 2010 or 2011 without having achieved a final status agreement—if the parties of the right take power within a coalition organized by Benjamin Netanyahu—what will Israel look like, and how violent will it be, at the end of another five years of stalemate? How many of the elite's sons and daughters will stick around to find out? Anyway, you don’t have to be a prophet to see where the children of Israel are heading.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Annapolis: The Place (And Time) To Launch

My friend David Grossman once told me that he writes about politics not so much when he feels he has something original to say but when he simply can't stand to hear the way others put things--not their arguments exactly, but the turns of phrase that determine the direction of arguments. Think of demographic problem or one-state solution, historic right or national self-determination. Think of rebuilding deterrence. You hear such phrases and you guess (and may even vaguely agree) with the drift of the argument. But you catch yourself drifting and realize that the phrases have meaning only within a world you do not recognize or want nothing to do with.

If this blog does its job, it will make writing about Israel (and perhaps some other things,) that much more difficult. It will keep an ear out for published formulations that get in the way, verge on demagogy, or just rationalize surmountable fears. The launch of the Annapolis process seems the right time to get things started, though the intellectual junk associated with the “peace process” has been scattered for over forty years. A deal is easily imaginable, what with Taba, and Geneva, and other negotiations. But getting to its adoption or implementation will require that we finally exchange meaningful words. A prime example follows.

How Democratic Can A Jewish State Get?

The Israeli government has insisted that Palestinian negotiators recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinians have said no. They recognize Israel, they said, but not a permanently degraded status for Israel’s Arab citizens. The elephant in the room just moved. Which is the cue for Israelis to start talking past each other.

Former education minister Shulamit Aloni knows an opening when she sees one. A long time advocate for both a peace process and reform of Israeli democracy, Aloni understands that these may be one problem. “The government of Israel, with all due respect, does not represent the Jewish people but rather the citizens of the State of Israel who elected it,” she writes; to declare Israel Jewish is tantamount to declaring “that any citizen whose mother is not Jewish or who did not convert with our strict Orthodox rabbis is a second-rate citizen, and his rights as a human being and a citizen are not ensured.”

Is it really so hard to grasp, she implies but does not quite say, that the state is not a family, or tribe, or kibbutz, or congregation? Shall we go back to class to learn the difference between a state, which establishes and enforces laws applicable to all citizens, and civil society, in which citizens, acting with state protection, pursue interests and identities in ways that are inherently voluntary—that identities await novelists, not legislators? “Let the cabinet ministers feel at home as Jews as much as they want, let them raise their voices in prayer and let them lay tefillin—but they must remember that they serve the government of Israel, which still represents itself as being democratic.”

One class to avoid might be Professor Ruth Gavison’s, the eminent legal scholar, who is often spoken of for a High Court appointment. She seems ready to fail Aloni, publicly rebuking her for fine distinctions which though obvious in Western countries might be interpreted--so she warns--as condescension toward Judaism. “The basic principle of the conflict,” she writes, “is that of self-determination of nations - the basic unit of nationality. A nation-state is not a state of all its citizens, but rather a state of the majority nation or of the national collective living within it.”

Any negotiation with Palestinians will be over establishing two nation-states, Gavison writes, where Israel is the state of the Jewish nation and Jewish religion is braided into the national life. Aloni, she adds, seeks to establish “an Israeli civic collective that lacks roots and culture.” Worse, “Aloni brings to the heart of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict the argument usually sounded in the internal-Jewish context…by Jews wishing to distance themselves from what they see as the unjustified wickedness of the Jewish religion and its institutions.” Nor, in Gavison’s view, does Aloni understand Realpolitik. She forgot that democracies have majorities, and majorities have powers. Israel, Gavison writes, does not need to “privatize all the non-civic identities of its inhabitants and assimilate them within citizenship.”

Translation: because Israel has a Jewish majority, and is thus a Jewish nation-state, it therefore has the right to turn its laws into instruments of privilege for the Jewish nation, and thus for the Jewish religion that anchors it. Who says? “International decisions”—presumably the United Nations partition resolution—“Zionism,” and, crucially, Israel’s own Arab citizens, whose leaders, it is true, have insist on being recognized formally as a national minority with rights in the region like Zionist Israel. You see, we only want what Israel’s own Arab intellectuals are demanding. Gavison did not argue here for actually granting Israeli Arabs this national status in Israel, nor is it clear that Israeli democracy should grant such things to, in effect, township-suburbs of Tel-Aviv and Haifa. But their demand presumably seals her point. This is what reasonable people, affiliated to groups, want. Too bad Israeli Arabs don’t have the power to have it but Jews, presumably, do. Aloni should not undermine this power with her democratic radicalism.

ALONI AND GAVISON are clearly speaking about two different things. Gavison agrees with Aloni that citizenship is necessarily a realm of private rights, and Aloni agrees with Gavison that nationality, unlike citizenship, suggests some common, historic group affiliation. But Aloni wants Israeli society to protect what should be voluntary and abolish legal discrimination, while Gavison wants Israeli society to have a Jewish national character, something Aloni would not reject. Is there anything the state can do to protect the necessary realms of freedom but make the Jewish character of Israel more or less mandatory?

Of course there is. Most important, it can mandate that the state’s official language is Hebrew. By teaching Hebrew, the state discriminates in favor of—actually, engenders—the Jewish nation. It is the repository (and instrument) of Jewish culture. Anyone--immigrants, minorities, our own newborn children--can learn it. Hebrew is really why most around the world, including potential Jewish immigrants, will call Israel a Jewish state, much the way France is considered a French state for privileging French. Aloni reasonably implies that there is nothing stopping Israeli Jews of whatever past, ethnicity or religious tradition from living their full lives as Jews, voluntarily, in Israeli civil society. My Israeli Arab friends unselfconsciously use phrases from the Hebrew bible, the way American Jews use phrases from the King James.

But beyond mandating Hebrew, the state must recognize what is voluntary and private. Out of consideration for the Jews’ past, etc., Israeli state law may, for example, turn holidays like Passover into legally recognized days off. It may put the Star of David on the flag. It may not prevent individuals from working, or insist that we show (or even honor) any state symbol. For national identity, like Hebrew itself, is not a finished thing. Compare the cultural laboratories of Tel-Aviv to the workers’ colonies of the old Yishuv, let alone to the religious orthodoxies of the shtetl. Indeed, the only way to think the Jewish nation as more or less finished is to see it as wedded to Halakha.

HERE IS PRECISELY where Gavison tips over into a danger zone. She refuses to clarify whether Jewish national affiliation, unlike historic Jewish peoplehood, begins in (and can be acquired by), the experience of speaking the Jews’ historic language. Does the cultural distinction of the Jewish nation not begin in the Hebrew language, which anybody can learn? Or is it a kind of exclusive religious practice and bloodline, as Halakha implies?

This is not a small elision, especially since Gavison has tried to depict Jewish nationality as rooted in Jewish religion. More important, Gavison lives in a country where the state apparatus privileges much more than the Jewish nation’s linguistic culture. It privileges individual Jews and Judaism over other people and religions—discrimination in land rights, in gaining citizenship, and ways of bending state power for rabbinic hierarchies and educational institutions. These go far beyond anything the French state might enact as a member of the European Union, and a signatory of its charter of human rights.

Indeed, such forms of discrimination are more than anything French Jews (one of whom is president, another foreign minister) would accept. So why would we expect Palestinian negotiators to accept them and show themselves cavalier about the rights of Israeli Arab citizens?

PERHAPS THIS DEBATE is over a distraction: everybody knows that the government insisted on Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state because it wanted to preempt the possibility of Palestinians demanding that their right of return be exercised within the Green Line. But if that is what the government wants, it should have just said so; Taba, the Geneva Initiative, and other understandings have already worked out a plan on refugees acceptable to the Palestinian side.

Anyway, there is something bigger going on in this debate, and its implications are unavoidable. For like so many others in Israeli professional elites--its center--Gavison is advancing a conception of Jewish statehood that cannot work with the global system Israelis otherwise excel in. In a time of renewed violence, it could lead to ethnic cleansing and repression of dissent.

Imagine, for example, that Annapolis negotiations fails and we find ourselves mired in a new Intifada. When we hear phrases like Jewish self-determination, wedded to misty ideas about nationality deriving from religion, just whose Jewish self is likely to determine national life here. A Hebron settler’s? Ronald Lauder’s? Rabbi Scheerson’s ? Probably not Kafka’s.

Which brings me to Gavison’s final elision. She is right, of course, that the United Nation’s openly designated space in Palestine for a Jewish state. What she neglects to tell us is that the same partition resolution guaranteed to all persons “equal and non-discriminatory rights in civil, political, economic and religious matters and the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion, language, speech and publication, education, assembly and association.” Why don’t we make endorsement of those guarantees, instead of fatuous declarations about the affiliations of groups, a condition of negotiation at Annapolis? Are we afraid that Palestinians will accept them?