Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Matter of Faith

15 July 2006
Millburn, New Jersey

This morning I was awakened by the radio playing an interview with Elie Wiesel. In Night, Wiesel declared that he had lost his faith in G-d but not his belief in G-d. He is a person who has spent his entire life trying to get us all past the beliefs and the collaborations that result in things like the Holocaust or Darfur or Rwanda. And he includes on his personal list of suffering that must cease, the suffering of the Palestinians.

But at the same time, Wiesel says that we cannot give in to terror. In Dawn, Wiesel describes Jews who decided to become terrorists in order to drive the British out of Palestine. The argument is that the time had come for Jews to cease being the only people to receive and accept the Mitzvot (in particular the one about not killing) and act like all the other nations. That by killing they could throw off the oppressors and become people again. The terrorists have perverted the role of the martyr. In Jewish and Christian history, martyrs are willing to die for faith but are not willing to kill for faith. The Islamists have managed to turn this on its head and use martyrdom as a weapon; as a career aspiration, as a rallying point for liberation.

Wiesel rejects this pathway. He notes that the very next commandments after the first ten are prohibitions against owning slaves and against returning escaped slaves to their masters. Thus, he feels the obligation to alleviate suffering by ending oppression and rejecting violence. Elie Wiesel would have us work to establish two states in which Arabs and Jews could live as neighbors in peace. But, at the same time, he would not give in to terror, as that puts us all on the slippery slope back to Auschwitz.

Which brings us to the subject of today's spam. In the Middle East, an optimist believes that things can get worse. A pessimist knows that they will. Personally I take it as a sign that we are almost hitting rock bottom when I turn on the radio and Bibi Netanyahu sounds good.What we are staring at today is a combination of the inevitable results of violence and the unintended consequences of using violence as a political tool. It’s just one big dysfunctional family repeating the same mutually destructive patterns of behavior. Why? Because no one in the family knows any other way to behave. Everyone has a rationale for why they are right and everyone else is wrong. You can say that your side is justified because what is done in your name is clearly self defense, to which you have a right. You can readily cite historical events which prove that the other side started it and all you have ever done is respond. Hey, it gives you something to talk about while you watch the funeral of someone else's child on CNN.

A few days ago, I sat waiting for the inevitable moment when both sides concede by their actions that they really can't get anything done without each other (repeat after me, you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends). As part of the cycle, the usual suspects work out the deal that everyone can deny having agreed to. Corporal Shalit goes home to his parents and the Qassam firings either stop or are limited to a few token firings that conveniently do not hit anyone or anything. Israel announces its objectives have been achieved and withdraws from Gaza, allows Rafah to reopen and, a couple of months from now, as a unilateral good will gesture, lets a group of women, minors and old men out on parole.

But then the unintended consequences started to set in. In the West Bank and Gaza, Israel gave Hamas and Fatah a way to avoid a pending civil war and achieve a sort of unity. True, they have not signed the "Prisoners' Statement" but they did manage to work out wording acceptable to both factions.

Hezbollah, who everyone (even the UN) recognizes as a terrorist front for Syria and Iran, seizes the opportunity to attack Israel across most of what everyone (even the UN) recognizes as an international border between Israel and Lebanon. Israel proceeds to shut down Lebanon and now we have daily hails of missiles (that Hezbollah has been positioning in southern Lebanon for just such an occasion) upon just about every part of Israel north of a line from Haifa to Tiberias. Hezbollah and Hamas, two groups that have a history of either ignoring or competing against one another, are now holding unity rallies.

And, of course, things can always get worse. If you agree that much of what is happening is being directed, encouraged and/or supported financially by Iran and Syria ($76 a barrel oil buys a lot of munitions), then you have to ask when, not if, Israel will decide to hit targets in Damascus and Teheran. Or, if you prefer, Syria (which was very careful today to stress that an Israeli missile attack on a border crossing did not invade Syrian space) makes the same mistake Jordan made in 1967 and decides that they are going to join the war for the sake of Arab unity. Or Iran decides that it is time to defend Lebanon, liberate Palestine and, everyone's all time favorite, kill more Jews. Of course, perhaps Israel will show restraint yet again in the face of extreme provocation while the Arabs abandon not only the Palestinians (who are generally left to twist slowly in the wind except when their fate can serve some larger regional purpose) but also Hezbollah. After all, the Israel-Syria cease fire of 1973 has, according to both sides, never been violated. And maybe Iran only (for now) wants the world to forget about its nuclear program without having to find out if Israel really does have nuclear weapons. Well, maybe.

As the region slides down the slippery slope to total chaos, we might ask whether the key players have lost their minds. I think not. I think that what is happening is the logical end result of a belief that violence can (a) create security for Israel, (b) achieve political goals for Arabs, or (c) is the only viable alternative that any of the players has. After all, in the Middle East, anyone who does the right thing is viewed as weak (e.g., Barak gets out of Lebanon, Carter chooses not to start World War III over the embassy seizure, Abu Mazen tries to broker a cease fire by and among terrorist groups) while those who use violence get respect (e.g., Iraq, Al Queda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the IDF). But you have to be asking yourself the question, and perhaps Ehud Olmert and the rest of his government could ask themselves the question: Is Israel safer now than it was 40 years ago? If you think the answer is "Yes", I have a bridge or two I'd like to sell you to finance my apartment in Tel Aviv. If you think the answer is "No" then you have to ask: What is to be done?

There is no easy answer. But, with 40 years of evidence that violence and occupation do not work we ought to at least consider an alternative. Which brings us to a really good Thai restaurant in Greenwich Village. Liz and I got to have a conversation with our friends Dan and Iros Rabinowitz. Dan is an anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University and a fervent post-Zionist. He was very patient, answering Liz' questions and putting up with my speeches. If born in the USA instead of Haifa, Dan would most certainly have spent his youth in High School SNCC, SDS and similar ventures. Most importantly, Dan is Gal's Dad and I am Becky's Dad, which is how we met and became friends.

Dan is among a hopefully growing number of Israelis (as usual, the peacenik-integration crowd is mostly academics and artists; does this sound familiar?) who think the time for ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is long overdue and that the ending of discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel is essential for Israel to survive as any kind of place you'd want to live (unless your idea of a fun time is pre-Mandela South Africa). This will require either ending or radically transforming the Zionist project or redefining Zionism to make room for Arabs, Druze, Christians, Bedouins and long term migrant workers to live as full citizens. At risk of sounding like Michael Lerner, Israel needs to embrace its minority populations rather than try to put them in cages or drive them out.

Why talk about this now? How does any of this eliminate the threat of Hezbollah? And, most importantly, what would cause an Israeli government and a majority of Israelis to change some very ingrained behaviors when it comes to Arabs and the like? I submit that unless behavioral changes can be made by all concerned, the dysfunctional cycles of violence will simply continue. Put another way, if enough people get truly sick to death of watching children get killed they just might be willing to try a behavior pattern that could lead somewhere other than back to the next war.

We have to recognize that over the past 40 or 50 years a nation dedicated to a perverse version of martyrdom has been created. The citizens of Palestine have consistently rejected the Partition of 1947 and have now elected a government pledged to implement their collective dream of reversing the Nakbah. Martyrdom is seen as a legitimate weapon in The Struggle. The Arabs' continued rejection of a Jewish presence generally and the 1947 Partition in particular, coupled with Zionism's tendency to impose hegemonic control over Greater Israel, are the main driving forces of the conflict. So, unless you are prepared to live with an eternal cycle of violence followed by shaky cease fires followed by more violence, you have to at least consider some course of action that might break the pathological behavioral patterns that pass for daily life in Israel and Palestine.

So, just what should be done? In November of 2000, following the killing of 13 Israeli Arabs who were demonstrating in support of the second Intifada (shortly after Sharon's famous visit to the Temple Mount), a group of Israeli academics submitted an unsolicited report to then Prime Minister Barak which outlined the areas in which Israel could and should change its treatment of its own citizens. The report, titled After The Rift: New Directions for Government Policy Towards the Arab Population in Israel, outlines those areas that cry out for change and suggests ways to go about it. I am attaching it to this blog. Non-Jews generally and Israeli Arabs in particular currently suffer discrimination in areas of education, welfare, land use, employment, law, local governance and civic/cultural inclusion that even the Roberts/Scalia/Thomas/Alito court would find unacceptable. The economic and political fallout from such discrimination is a threat to Israel's internal stability and undercuts Israel's credibility in any serious effort to make peace. Crude self interest, if nothing else, should drive a change toward democracy. Integration of non-Jews into a democratic State of Israel could be the catalyst that breaks the behavioral cycle.

Breaking a behavioral cycle depends upon a key family member refusing to play the old games. Other family members may not want to change but can't keep the cycle going without the cooperation of the dissenter. Why start change with the Jews and not the Arabs? Well, it’s my own prejudice that most Jews (regrettably not all Jews) really do want to live in peace and are really willing to give up dreams of Greater Israel to get there. I would like to be wrong about this but I see little evidence that Arabs are willing to take at least a fair share of the responsibility for what has happened and what could happen in Israel and Palestine. But, perhaps more importantly, Israeli Jews have hegemonic control over all of Israel and a good chunk of Palestine plus, recent events notwithstanding, military dominance over the rest. Thus, any material change in Jewish Israeli behavior will have far reaching consequences upon the entire populations of Israel and Palestine. Incorporating non-Jewish citizens of Israel as full citizens of a democratic state can change the tone of life in the region. Such change could raise the level of trust to the point where Palestinians who would like to try achieving statehood without homicide bombings start to come into the ascendance. Lowering the propensity toward violence would, in turn, encourage Israel to get back on the trail toward disengagement, though perhaps this time in the context of a negotiated settlement. This, in turn, might allow the West Bank to reunite (its now in four zones kept separate by the IDF). Lowering the potential for violence could get Palestine a means of transit between Gaza and the West Bank, an airport or two and a commercial port. Once empowered in serious ways that improve their quality of life, Palestinian Arabs may cease to see violence as a career path.

If Israel makes changes, will the Palestinians reciprocate? Maybe not. Will Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Iran, Syria and all the other projectionists stop undercutting every Palestinian effort at compromise? Probably not. So it could all come to naught as rockets continue to fall on Israel. But then again, where would the failure to institute change leave Israel? It would leave Israel exactly where it is today: fighting a two front war and worrying about whether the war will expand to a regional conflict (which Israel gets to fight on at least five fronts). Of course, it would also leave Israel with easier to defend borders, with 20% of its population not ready to join the other side, and the moral high ground (not much use on the front lines but very useful in the propaganda wars and international diplomacy). In other words, Israel may have nothing to lose and much to gain.

Any discussion of alternatives has to be held in the harsh light of a reality in which neither side is yet prepared to stomp on its own extremists. Take it from a guy who used to earn a living doing this stuff, the hardest part of any negotiation comes when you have to go back to your own people and explain why the other guy is right. In the Middle East, the parties have probably moved beyond the point where talking or economic bribery is going to do the trick. Unless Arabs are prepared to kill Arabs (that's what it would take for Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah or Palestine to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade and the rest of the terrorists) and Israel is prepared to come down equally hard on the folks who perpetrate almost daily violence against Palestinians (clearing out places like Skali Farms and returning a demolished Modi’in Illit to its rightful owners would be good starts), its unlikely that any alternative to eternal rounds of violence will take hold. That's the real peace deal. Each side stomps hard on its own crazies, which isn't going to happen this week or, unfortunately, any time soon.

The other harsh reality is that Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Queda, Syria and the other rejectionists have nothing to gain from peace between Israel and Palestine. The creation of a democratic Palestinian state remains anathema to most of the Arab world. Without the Palestinian cause, the rest of the Arab world might start looking inward and that spells nothing but trouble for the ruling classes. Without Palestinians to do the suffering, other Arabs may have to feel some real pain for a change. So I have no illusion that Hezbollah's and Hamas' masters or our dear friends the Saudis or any of the others (except perhaps for Jordan and Egypt) would sit back and allow Palestinians to resolve their differences with Israel. As a Jew I know we cannot trust the "international community" to step in and do the right thing. (That's why there has to be a State of Israel in the first place.) So trying to break the cycle might be a waste of time. But it strikes me as a project that has more upside potential than merely rearming for the next war.

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