November 19, 2014

Adding intellectual insult to physical carnage

There are no new debates and no new lessons to be learned from yesterday's wrenching, horrific, disgusting and barbaric attack in Jerusalem. I stopped being surprised a long time ago. The problems and the solutions are neither easy nor mysterious, and suggesting otherwise adds to the difficulty. May the families and the entire community find the comfort and courage to move forward in every way.

In the car yesterday morning, I listened to BBC's coverage of the synagogue attack, via our much-maligned public radio network, including an extensive chillingly vivid account by an Israeli first responder who literally jumped right into the unfolding carnage. I found his account, and the entire BBC report, to be deeply meaningful and illuminating, and couldn't have imagined a more appropriate or objectively sympathetic frame for the immediate aftermath of such an unthinkable tragedy. 

Right or left, the wasted time and effort pillorying the news media (and trumpeting every graveyard-shift breaking-news error) for supposedly biased coverage is a distraction from the real tragedy and from the real dilemmas facing Israel and the region, and the Jewish people. "All hands on deck" is a call for discipline, ingenuity and clarity of purpose, not recitations of talking points and easy answers, running around in circles, or blaming each other as our ship nears the reef.

The persistent effort to discredit open discussion and dissent within the Jewish community is beyond wasteful -- it's destructive to the very mission and purpose of the sacred enterprise. It advances the very goal of such awful but strategically irrelevant attacks, which -- beyond provoking the sort of retaliation which further alienates Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in Israel proper -- is to break the Jewish spirit and open discourse. Those who respond to external attacks by attacking other Jews are no less "self-hating" than those whose Judaism they impugn.

As I mentioned above, this is all a play that's been repeated too many times, and despite a few heroic attempts we have yet to see either progress or a dramatic shift from the same thinking. 

September 14, 2014

My Tony Auth original

As I learned this evening from veteran foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin, sadly the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth has passed away. Growing up in Philly, I regularly saw and was impacted by his work (as by Trudy's!).

Some years back, I had occasion to meet Mr. Auth, at shiva for the late and beloved Chaim Potok with whom he had collaborated. When he introduced himself and offered his business card, I had two immediate responses: first awe, and then surprise that such a visual person could have a card with only text on it. He grabbed it back from me, pulled out a pen to doodle a few lines, and handed it back -- self-portrait complete.

No doubt his trademark selfie was widely repeated, but I don't know how many of his biz cards merited the same logo. I'm glad I asked.

Rest in peace.

August 27, 2014

You say 'Chamas' and I say 'Hamas'...why it matters

Language and politics have always been linked, and today there remain many examples, no less in the Middle East and the War on Terror.

Peter Beinart recently asked why Israelis insist on pronouncing Hamas using the Hebrew "chet" sound, approximated by the Spanish "J", as in Guadalajara, or the "ch" in bleccchhhh. In Arabic, "Hamas" is spelled and pronounced with the more challenging throatiness of the letter 'Haa. The Hebrew Chet is still pronounced that way by some Jews of Mideastern origin, but standardization of modern Hebrew has largely eliminated that. So, there's one easy explanation. 

On a more complicated level, though, this also fits an Israeli and Western optic, where "we" get to define others on our terms. Hence, some of my colleagues in the pro-Israel community still use the antiquated "Moslem" to refer to Muslims, akin to calling Beijing by its erstwhile, anglicized form of Peking. Like the duck. 

When I see someone of this century referring to "Moslems", I immediately sense a lack of understanding or sympathy for a religion and culture of one billion souls, spanning dozens of countries. It's almost as quaint as Thomas Jefferson's vintage reference to "Mussulmans". Unlike "Hamas", the Arabic "Muslim" easily lends itself to correct pronunciation by English-speakers. At least, for those who care.

Saying "Hamas" with a simple English-style hard "H" sounds more accurate, since it leaves out the guttural -- and completely wrong -- "kh" as in Guadalajara. Knowingly or not, pronouncing "Hamas" as a modern Hebrew term, rather than the Arabic of its origin, takes ownership of that group's narrative. It really displaces the broader Palestinian narrative, as well. In fact, most Israelis still refer to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as "Israeli Arabs".

When pro-Israel activists in the States hear an Israeli expert refer to "Chamas" (or "Khamas"), they may assign more authority to the analysis and arguments, since few Americans can pronounce that sound, either. Of course, that same word in Hebrew, with the Chet, translates as criminal violence, so there's also that.

We are admonished to call evil by its name, but if we insist on pronouncing it our own way, how does that help the fight? The world, and sometimes our own neighbors, don't operate according to our fears and expectations.

May 14, 2014

The political cost of "price tag" attacks

Right-wing settlers and supporters have a very big stake in prosecuting and delegitimizing the so-called "price tag" attackers, who vandalize and destroy Palestinian property in indirect retaliation for Palestinian terrorism. The use of violence against non-Jews, including Israeli citizens, reinforces an image of racist settlers seeking to dominate and persecute Palestinians on both sides of the 1949 Green Line. 

Settler voices should be the loudest in calling for full investigations and harsh penalties: They have a moral obligation since it's being done in their name, and they have a political imperative because they stand to further erode the Jewish Israeli base of tolerance or support for their enterprise. Rather than calling for the arrest of Israeli writer Amos Oz, who labeled the perpetrators "neo-Nazis", they should be demanding extra resources so the police can bring the price-taggers to justice. Piling on against Oz amplifies his message, while also creating the impression of defending the attacks.  

Settlements are enough of an economic and security burden to the average Israeli, without the added stigma of abiding racism. If settler leaders truly seek to maximize the territory and infrastructure Israel holds into the future, they'll need to reassure average Israelis that this is about fulfilling the Biblical, Zionist dream. In the settler narrative, the Palestinians are anti-Semitic terrorists who attack Israelis. If settlers are seen as condoning similar tactics against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, their whole premise will collapse, along with the pro-annexation meme that a bi-national state can somehow uphold Jewish and democratic values simultaneously. 

American Jewish groups have been speaking out strongly against "price tag" attacks, because they oppose criminal violence and because they would otherwise have no credibility in defending official Israeli actions when they need to. 

Even though it undercuts their argument that Palestinians cannot be trusted, settlers have an interest in showing that Jewish settlers and Palestinians can live harmoniously together without the need for a Palestinian state or evacuation of Jewish families. It's not an argument I accept, but it's the best case the settlers can make. 

April 29, 2014

Questions for Congress on Mideast peace

As usual, Congress is full of complaints, questions and demands -- especially regarding the Middle East peace process. Here are some questions Congress might try to answer this week:

1. How would Congress resolve the paradox of Palestinian representation? Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, expedited with U.S. support, making it the rightful representative of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli leaders, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, have repeatedly questioned Abbas’ legitimacy by pointing out that – even on a good day – he speaks for only half the Palestinians. If he is somehow able to cobble together a functional joint effort with Hamas support (if not outright “participation”) and/or if Hamas improbably accepts the conditions of the Mideast Quartet (the PA must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and accept all prior agreements), Israel might truly have the credible negotiating partner it has long sought. Until September 1993, Israel banned all contact with the PLO, seen as a terrorist organization.

2. If a final resolution is vital to Israel’s long-term security and stability, how far will Congress go to back an Administration that’s seeking a workable outcome? Netanyahu, Abbas and most Members of Congress are publicly committed to achieving a two-state solution, using the 1949 Green Line (a.k.a. “’67 lines”) as a starting point for negotiations. Other terms are fairly well known, as are sticking points like the status of Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, and the final borders of Israel and a Palestinian state

3. Can Congress develop creative channels for supporting programs, possibly outside the official scope of the PA, in order to keep efforts moving on the ground?

4. Is Congress committed to legitimizing risk-takers for peace in the Middle East? Will Congress convene hearings on functional strategies toward peace, to flesh out and publicly empower change agents and those taking risks for peace? It should be possible to do so without undermining Israel’s interest, especially since such endeavors enhance Israel’s standing.

April 23, 2014

If Israel has a Plan B, let's hear it.

Many Israelis seem pleased that the second shoe has now dropped on the unlikely U.S.-led effort to bridge old and new gaps between Israelis and Palestinians. Now, Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even mocked Mahmoud Abbas' threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. 

If the leaders of Israel's governing coalition truly appreciated the degree to which a credible and sustainable Palestinian entity is in their national interest, as they often acknowledge at least rhetorically, they might be less triumphant and superior at this moment, or at any moment. And they would be more concerned with how to bolster Abbas, rather than forcing Washington to drag them kicking and screaming at each turn.

Whatever positive steps Israel has taken of late, much energy has also been spent in ways that obviously undermine Abbas and boost his Hamas rivals. Over the past few years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued expansion and proliferation of West Bank settlements, even into areas generally accepted as part of a future Palestinian state. He has negotiated truces with Hamas and released hundreds of Hamas fighters without complaining to Washington.

Netanyahu alternately denies that Abbas has the legitimacy or capacity to deliver on any agreements -- because after all, Hamas and not Abbas controls Gaza -- and condemns Abbas whenever he makes an effort to coordinate with Hamas and forge a unified Palestinian front. 

If Abbas leaves the scene, with or without the Palestinian Authority, Israel will have to invent one. And it is unlikely to get as good an interlocutor as it has right now. 

If Israelis, and Netanyahu, are OK with this state of affairs, then so be it. But the notion of a tangible, sustainable peace WITHOUT a reliable Palestinian partner, or of waiting for a BETTER Palestinian partner to emerge someday -- as though any kind of real status quo could possibly hold in the meantime -- seems absurd.

If there is an alternative to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, let's hear it (of course, several other options were tried before). Deriving political benefit and scoring rhetorical points off the flaws and failings of Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Palestinian leaders is no way to build or maintain the possibility for an eventual peace. And yet, this is what Netanyahu's government has been doing all along. Or do they expect two million-plus Palestinians to just ride off into the sunset?

April 1, 2014

A deal, with or without Pollard?

Once again, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are locked in the endgame of...whether to continue talks. The Obama administration seems increasingly inclined to release the convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, to help incentivize Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's release of yet more Palestinian prisoners (to help Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas keep surviving politically) and to take a few demonstrable actions to hold down new settlement construction.

Reportedly, Pollard -- in federal custody since 1986 - has renounced any such deal, saying he doesn't want to be released as an inducement to Israel releasing convicted terrorists (many of them serving as long as himself). Will Pollard refuse to leave his Federal Correctional Facility at the appointed time?

More broadly, Pollard has actively promoted his own release as a cause celebre in Israel and within the organized American Jewish community. This has come at a cost to Israel's national security, by reminding the defense and intelligence community of his (and Israel's) past offenses, and even expressing pride on occasion. If Israel continues to rely on military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, to keep the Jewish state safe from terrorists and other threats, then Pollard has already let his case compromise the safety and security of Israelis.

I wouldn't blame Pollard, but I would also expect him to withhold his own sanctimony about this deal, which is no more or less perverse than the rest of the campaign for his release. Does he honestly believe his own legitimate fight for freedom hasn't come at a cost to Israel?

Many observers believe Pollard was unfairly sentenced to life and so far denied parole (but has he ever applied?). But unlike Gilad Shalit and other Israeli prisoners, he has not been denied due process or visitation, or review under the rule of law. And unlike Gilad Shalit, he will arrive in Israel with a well-developed agenda for Israel and for U.S.-Israel relations. And he won't be satisfied with writing on sports...

As for Netanyahu and Abbas, it's unrealistic to think either of them sees any chance of a substantive, final deal emerging from the current process. Each of them must now be focused on avoiding blame if/when the process collapses, and walking away with as many tangible and political deliverables as possible.

March 5, 2014

"I am AIPAC," and I have something to say.

I was fortunate to attend the main events at this week's annual AIPAC Policy Conference. One old-time friend was thrilled to see me, then asked why I'm "going after AIPAC". He was referring to my recent op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, anticipating the Policy Conference and its traditional grassroots mobilization on Capitol Hill. I had admonished AIPAC and other mainstream organizations to take some substantive steps to advance Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-peace rhetoric, which so far seem to be in short supply.

Why didn't I open my op-ed with this year's Policy Conference slogan, "I am AIPAC"? So, here it is: I am AIPAC. And I should be more careful to make this evident in all that I publish on Israeli politics. 

It should be evident that unapologetically pushing for proactive leadership in the cause of peace will advance U.S.-Israel relations and enhance Israel's long-term security. It should be evident that welcoming President Obama's very promising and tangible opening with Iran will advance the best chance for averting a nuclear-backed frenzy across the Middle East, as opposed to feeding a paranoid frenzy on Capitol Hill and throughout the Jewish community about the need for new sanctions added conditions, just as negotiations are bearing fruit.

It should be evident that full-blooded cheering and applause for attacks on the Administration are poor vehicles to advance AIPAC's brand, that allowing AIPAC to serve a platform for greater distance between the White House and Congress will not make Israel safer or AIPAC more effective.

I am very grateful that AIPAC exists, and I like to think I can have some input into the conversations. I do believe AIPAC and the organized Jewish community have missed some opportunities and made missteps over the past few years, and so do many of my professional colleagues across the Jewish community. I know many lay leaders are skeptical as well, but generally they have too much to lose personally to bother speaking up especially when it appears the final script has already been approved. 

While being at AIPAC makes me feel like the most liberal Zionist who still belongs in that room, I have never felt unwelcome, I have never felt like I was in the wrong place.

Some months ago, I blogged:

"For many years, I did my best to reiterate and promote the official policies of the Israeli Government, but then I realized that so many champions of Israel -- on the right and the left -- were using the Jewish State to advance their own ideological agenda in Israel and to score partisan points in U.S. politics. When I found myself free to speak my mind, thanks to politicized personnel decisions, I decided to seize the moment for as long as I could."

As I said at the time, "I don't especially like or dislike Prime Minister Netanyahu, though I would always give him my best advice with the goal of helping him make the most of whatever situation he chooses to seek for himself and for Israel. In the meantime, I will continue to speak my mind and try to listen to other views along the way."

AIPAC has always felt like home to me, its staff are true friends, and I have always respected what they do and they do it. If right-wing groups can attack AIPAC's very legitimacy and still be considered defenders of Brand Israel, I should be able to register my limited critiques, against a wall of apparent uniformity, without being considered outside the tent. And at AIPAC, this has always been the case. 

I should have reiterated my affinity for AIPAC's mission and people up front. It's that very affinity which drives my compulsion to advance my views.

It is unfortunate that many AIPAC supporters see any critique or dissension as an attack on the pro-Israel lobby and even on the State of Israel. More tragically, many of those critics who might otherwise be joining me inside AIPAC's tent now accept that as fact.

February 4, 2014

Has Iran answered Netanyahu on nuclear deal?

Israel and Iran may have just broached a new rapprochement, and it shouldn't matter if each side has ulterior motives.

It would be hard for anyone to know all the reasons and ramifications regarding Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's decision to remain in the hall when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif delivered his presentation. But there's certainly room to calculate the stakes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of his cabinet maintain that Secretary of State John Kerry's current negotiations with Iran are a "historic mistake". Staying to listen during the annual Munich Security Conference - which tends to be more about military cooperation than political grandstanding - seems like a good place to push the envelope and show some nuance. 

For Ya'alon, who rather publicly dismissed Kerry's framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace, this was also an opportunity to show that 1) he is not averse to all diplomacy; 2) he doesn't need any American prodding to act like an adult; 3) even one of Israel's most forceful opponents of diplomacy may be ready to play for the right price; 4) Israel faces more pressing existential threats than the Palestinians, namely Iran. 

January 13, 2014

R.I.P., Ariel Sharon - Israel's last visionary leader?

Ariel Sharon's passing is opening a flood of memories back to 1973, including a time when it seemed Israel had options, because its leaders were willing to think big and take risks - and not just for peace. That spirit, which Sharon embodied, still abounds among Israelis, but it seems to me (granted, from a distance) that it's been a while (say, eight years) since the leaders have channeled it. Sharon was the last of that breed.

(Israeli President Shimon Peres is a master visionary, but he serves in a figurehead capacity and will be retiring at the end of his current term.)

I remember, over a span of mere months, from July 1976 to early 1977, Israel liberated the Entebbe hostages and Maccabi Tel-Aviv defeated the Soviet Red Army basketball team, on its way to winning the European cup - a defining moment. 

Menachem Begin's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor was a bold stroke, and even the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon was audacious. As Defense Minister, Sharon had sought to decapitate the PLO in exile, in the hope that local West Bank leaders would somehow emerge to negotiate Palestinian acquiescence to permanent Israeli control.

There were subsequent moments as well, including Anwar Sadat's dramatic 1978 visit to Jerusalem, at the behest of Menachem Begin which culminated in the Camp David talks and the 1979 peace treaty, and of course Oslo in 1993 and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, led by Yitzhak Rabin. For anyone who remembers 1973, it's still difficult to absorb how much changed in just five years' time.

Sharon, like Rabin before him, was a general whose strategic vision eventually applied itself to securing Israel's survival off the battlefield and far into the future.

Improbably, especially in light of 1982, Sharon reclaimed the activist's mantle just a decade ago, as Prime Minister. He saw that Gaza was lost as an Israeli stronghold, a small piece of beach with well over one million Palestinians. Back then, the half-hearted U.S. peace efforts were actually lagging behind the Israelis and Palestinians, and besides, Sharon didn't see Mahmoud Abbas being able to deliver his side of a bilateral agreement. As Rabin did before him, Sharon realized that - if Israelis and Palestinians can't live together peacefully, then it's better to live separately, beginning with Gaza.

Around Sharon's funeral, numerous and interlocking calculations were being made. The official statements from the White House and State Department seemed careful not to underplay Sharon's significance, as a positive message to Israel's current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nor to shower so much praise that Netanyahu feels slighted by contrast. In his eulogy at the funeral, Netanyahu replayed his own mantras about the Holocaust and Iran. U.S. Vice President Biden, leading the U.S. delegation, extolled Sharon's bravery in evacuating Gaza and reiterated President Obama's unwavering commitment to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

In itself, the fact that Biden was there, eight years after Sharon left the scene under a massive stroke, underscored the abiding value and honor Washington attaches to Israeli leaders who are willing to take control of their destiny. At the end, it was Sharon's private secretary and a war buddy who evoked his personal tenderness and devotion in a way that truly transcended official protocol and convention. 

My biggest regret today was the ring of truth to Biden's closing quote from Shakespeare: We "shall not look upon his like again."

January 9, 2014

How political can Hillel be and still fulfill its mission?

Hillel’s warning that its Swarthmore College chapter must enforce a pro-Israel standard for speakers and events threatens to undermine its 90-year-old mission of cultivating Jewish life on campus.

Last year's Pew study on American Jews was just the latest snooze alarm on what has been obvious for decades. To highlight one perennial finding, we have failed to translate program spending into a sustainable sense of community among those Jews who would now be old enough to be full participants. Too many young adult Jews feel either negative or indifferent about their Jewish heritage and the community which seeks to represent and minister to them.

Hillel has long been the established vehicle for nurturing Jewish souls on campus, and - despite various newcomers, and a vibrant Chabad presence - so it remains. But the strength Hillel derives from its conformity with the priorities of the mainstream American Jewish community is also in danger of limiting and even undermining its core mission.
Israel advocacy is a proven tool to boost Jewish identity, Hillel's Israel on Campus Coalition has been competing and collaborating with AIPAC on campus. But in decades past, we alienated those who were critical or concerned about Israel's actions, and by alienating them from Hillel we probably undermined their Jewish affinity overall. A larger group of Jewish students was just oblivious to the whole pro-Israel tempest, and these unaffiliated Jews might have been reached by shifting funds back to traditional Jewish content and programming.

Between Israel advocacy and birthright-style "non-political" programs, the campus community has seen a substantive and symbolic emphasis on Israel as the premise and fulcrum for Jewish identity.

Out in Philadephia's liberal Main Line suburbs, where Swarthmore holds court, establishing a Hillel presence has been a long-running challenge, and not just because of dissonance over Israeli politics and policies. Israel has been as much a hindrance as a silver bullet for broader Jewish participation, and this is likely the case in other progressive enclaves across America. Are these really the young Jews we're prepared to alienate or miss entirely?