Candid, constructive commentary on Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, America’s Middle East policies and their domestic political context. 

How extremist Israeli settlers celebrate the harvest festival

Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that marks the fall harvest festival and also commemorates 40 years of wandering by ancient Jews in the desert, commences at sundown on Wednesday. Jews throughout the world are building their local Sukkah, a temporary shelter that usually takes the form of a tent. So how are extremist Israeli Jewish settlers celebrating this holiday? By ruining the harvests of Palestinian farmers.

Here is an infuriating summary from News Nosh, (which is, btw, a great new source of news from Israel presented by Americans for Peace Now –get it for free by emailing newsnosh@peacenow.org.)

Olive picking season has arrived, meaning extremist settlers have new targets. Sunday was already a big day…Farmers from Farata village, southwest of Nablus, found their olives stolen. Soldiers were meant to coordinate a safe passage from settler attacks for villagers to pick olives but canceled due to a shortage in numbers, an official said. Meanwhile in [the] Yanun village, southeast of Nablus near Itamar, dozens of settlers attacked farmers and blocked them from their lands to harvest olives. Israeli army coordination to protect farmers has been postponed until Oct. 21. To the east of Nablus, settlers from Elon Moreh cut down 45 olives trees in Deir al-Hatab village. South of Nablus, dozens of Itamar settlers threw rocks at farmers who were trying to pick olives near the village of Awarta and stole harvest equipment. These clashes were reported in the Israeli press because the land – which lies inside the fence of Itamar settlement belongs to the extended Awwad family, two of whose members murdered the Fogel family six months ago. At least three Palestinians were injured.


These attacks are not necessarily related to the “price tag” campaign that has been launched by extremist settlers trying to demonstrate that any attempts to dismantle settlements will be met with violence. The annual festival of harassing Palestinians during olive season–as well as other seasons–has been going on for years in the West Bank. Here is one documented by B’Tselem in 2002. Here is another in 2006.

To their credit, like Israeli officials, mainstream American Jewish leaders condemned the price tag vigilantes after the widely publicized defacement of a mosque in Israel proper last week. But I don’t recall anyone in the American Jewish establishment condemning the routine, vicious harassment of Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. Doing so during this holiday week of Succot would be a powerful signal that the American Jewish community –my community–is not wandering around in a moral desert.

Topics: American Jews, Americans for Peace Now, Israel, Israeli settlements, Palestinians | 19 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | October 10, 2011

Defiant dreamers of Arab-Jewish co-existence

Is it remotely possible to close the gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel?

62% of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel believe that Israeli Jews “are foreigners who do not fit in this region, and they will eventually leave the country,” according to a recently released poll by Haifa University’s Jewish-Arab Center. A similar proportion opposes Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish Zionist state.

Meanwhile, 68.1% of Israeli Jews told the pollsters that they oppose public commemorations of what Arabs call the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that occured when Palestinian refugees fled or were expelled in 1948. 53 percent say the state has the right to encourage Arab citizens to emigrate, and 62 percent say as long as the conflict continues, Arab voters should have no say in Israeli foreign policy, according to another poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Gaps in the narratives are matched by disparities in income and educational achievement as well as systemic discrimination against Israeli Arabs. How in the world can these people ever live together?

That is the kind of Big Question that Nasi Masrawa, the mayor of the Arab Israeli town of Kfar Kara, and Haim Gaash, the mayor of the nearby Jewish town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, refuse to answer. Instead, last Tuesday evening at Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City, they described a project that appears to be less ambitious but is in fact extraordinarily difficult: their townspeople are working together to solve the concrete, day-to-day problems shared by both communities. It is an initiative of Givat Haviva, an Israeli institute that works to promote coexistence and equality between all Israeli citizens.

Until recently, few people from Pardes Hanna-Karkur and Kfar Kara had anything to do with each other, although these towns in Israel’s Wadi Ara region northeast of Hadera are ten minutes apart. But thanks to the “Shared Communities” program, groups of women, teenagers and elderly men from each town have been meeting to choose and then plan joint projects that will help improve daily lives.

Maswara votes for Hadash, the left wing Arab-Jewish party, and said, “I cannot sing Hatikva.” Gaash votes for the centrist Kadima party. “We will never agree on the history, or on politics,” according to Masrawa. If their constituents had started talking about politics and The Situation in the occupied territories when they first met, there would have been “a big fight…But they can work together to make small changes.”

Both display a modesty that is almost defiant, a message that is the antithesis of spin. “We don’t use the word `co-existence.’ That’s a word from the `peace industry,’” said Gaash. He used to be part of that industry, the civil society groups that strive to find grand diplomatic solutions. He was the executive in charge of building grassroots support for an agreement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached by Sari Nusseibah, a moderate Palestinian nationalist academic, and Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s internal security services. He gave up and became a small town mayor. ”We are just trying to help people get to know each other and improve their communities.”

There used to be more interaction between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens. But since 2000, when the intifadeh begun by West Bank Palestinians sparked riots and turmoil in the areas of Israel proper where many Arabs reside, the mutual isolation has deepened. Nearly 68% of Israeli Jews told the Haifa University pollsters that they avoided driving through Arab towns and villages. By encouraging contact and joint projects, both Gaash and Misrawa hope they can reduce tensions and slowly develop a sense of a shared future.

Thus far, aided by facilitators from Givat Haviva, the women’s group has decided to bring professionals into both communities to deal with a range of problems confronting female children, from eating disorders to parental conflicts. They will also create a joint cookbook. Needing productive after-school activities, the teenagers will start a joint theater group. The retirees are working on finding recreational activities for elderly men. They decided to encourage joint games of pétanque, a French game that resembles bocci..

But the tensions are so profound that even those seemingly simple activities have met with resistance in both towns. “Many people don’t want us to try,” said Masrawa, a lawyer. And that is why, he said, “we dare not fail.”

The resistance and skepticism comes not only from local people. In recent years, some NGOs in Israel as well as American Jewish donors concerned about the plight of Israel’s Arabs have grown very skeptical of dialogue and co-existence programs. Getting people together to chat and sing “Kumbaya,” I have heard them say, does not address the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs. More systemic change, more economic opportunity and political empowerment for Arabs, is necessary.

Of course it is. But it’s also true that if these two peoples have no contact and no common language to address everyday challenges, and if they assume that their dramatically different narratives make it impossible to share their country, and if nothing is done to dispel tension and fear and hatred, “it will just take one match to make a big explosion,” Gaash told me.

Givat Haviva has been doing the seemingly old-fashioned work of Arab-Jewish dialogue—among other things–for decades, and now it is more important than ever. Already, mayors from six other neighboring towns –three Jewish, and three Arab—have asked it to start similar programs. Riad Kabha, the former mayor of the Arab town of Ba’arta who runs the organization’s Arab-Jewish Peace Center, hopes this is the beginning of a “grassroots movement” of collaborative problem-solving that will expand to many other divided communities.

Masrawa bristles at the idea that the program involves dialogue for the sake of dialogue. In an interview, he was a bit more ambitious than he had been in public. He said discrimination against Israeli Arabs was terrible and beyond his ken to address. But if he and others could show Israeli Jews that it was possible to work productively with their Arab neighbors, that Arabs were responsible citizens, it might wear away stereotypes. And that, in turn, might make political support for far reaching, systemic change more likely.

Meanwhile, politicians, academics and activists keep proposing more comprehensive solutions. Some Israeli Knesset members and NGOs insist that Israel should be defined as a state for all of its citizens, not a Jewish state. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman favors the ugly idea of transferring Israeli territory with Arab residents –including part of the Wadi Ara region—to a Palestinian state. In the latest Forward, Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman offer some sensible policy suggestions, such as aggressive affirmative action to help Israel’s Arabs, ensuring that Arab institutions are included in “the state’s decision-making processes” and recognizing the Arab community “as a national minority with collective rights.”

It is hard to believe any of these will be implemented in the near future. But no matter what happens, these two peoples need to figure out how to live together. Maybe, just maybe, tangible change could start from the grassroots, from ordinary people willing to ignore their differences, from shared community programs insistently spreading throughout the country, defying the extremists who despise co-existence and the cynics who mock it.

Topics: Arabs, Israel, Israeli Arabs | 104 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | June 20, 2011

Two mayors, two communities, two peoples

If you are in New York City on Tuesday evening, June 14th, this event, “Two Mayors, Two Communities, Two Peoples: Building Bridges in the Middle East” is worth checking out. It is at Ansche Chesed, 251 West 100th Street, at 7:30 PM.

Nazia Masrawa is the mayor of the Arab Israeli town of Kfar Qara. Chaim Gaash is the mayor of the nearby Jewish Israeli town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur. Until recently, the two communities had little to do with each other. Now, thanks to a program started by Givat Haviva, they are putting aside their differences and working together on a host of shared problems.

It is co-sponsored by the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, Congregation Ansche Chesed, the Interfaith Center of New York and the Advent Lutheran Church.

Topics: Israel | 4 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | June 3, 2011

Obama’s gutsy, principled Middle East speech

Everyone agrees President Obama made a gutsy political call when he ordered the Navy Seals team to take out Osama bin Laden. There would have been a fierce backlash if the mission had failed. But he’s not getting credit for demonstrating even more political courage by calling for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement based on Israel’s borders before the 1967 war, with agreed-upon land swaps.

Just before Obama’s speech on the Middle East yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu had angrily “demanded” that the “reference to the 1967 borders be cut,” the New York Times reported. So Obama must have known that he was inviting a firestorm. Yet he decided that America’s interest in Middle East peace and stability trumped the short-term political gain he could have derived from saying nothing, doing nothing, and avoiding the wrath of right-wing American Jews and the politicians who pander to them.

Obama must have known that Republicans like Mitt Romney would accuse him of throwing Israel “under the bus.” He must have been aware that he was going to tangle with an Israeli Prime Minister who has never hidden his willingness to use American domestic politics as a tool to undermine U.S. Presidents. Netanyahu quickly criticized Obama right after the speech, calling the 1967 borders “indefensible,” even though Obama clearly was not calling for Israel to withdraw all the way back to those borders. When Bibi speaks to AIPAC on Sunday and Congress on Monday, although he probably won’t openly denounce Obama, he may well find ways to throw the American president under the bus, given his past behavior.

When Bibi was the Israeli opposition leader in the mid-1990s, he and his Likud operatives openly lobbied Congress to block the Clinton administration’s efforts to aid the Oslo peace process. In September, 1998, before he went to the White House during his first official visit to Washington as the newly elected Prime Minister, Netanyahu conspicuously met with Bill Clinton’s avowed political enemies: Jerry Falwell, Newt Gingrich and an adoring rally of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a far-right Christian evangelical group. As the New York Jewish Week week reported at the time, “`[Bibi] was blatant about the fact that this trip had less to do with diplomacy than public relations,” said a 20-year veteran of the pro-Israel wars. `For him to meet with Gingrich and Falwell before he met with the president — and for him to choose to make his initial speech to a group that continues to bitterly attack Clinton — was a virtual declaration of war.’”

Yet Obama decided he would risk such a war and articulate a policy that, he believed, was in the interest of Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and the entire world. Now, cool heads might prevail in the American and Israeli governments and American Jewish community, and a direct confrontation could be avoided. The last thing AIPAC wants is a public battle between the Israeli and American governments; its primary goal is to solidify U.S.-Israel relations. It’s also quite possible that, if the current squabbling does continue, Obama won’t pay the steep domestic political price that some are predicting. American Jewish voters are solidly behind Obama, and only a small minority of them make Israel their first priority when assessing political candidates. The rise of J Street, a promising alternative to the conventional Israel lobby, has provided at least some political wiggle room for Obama to take stances on Israel that are supported by the liberal American Jewish majority –as he did in his recent speech.

But Democrats are very worried about diminished Jewish political donations and they don’t want Israel to be a wedge issue in the Congressional races. Obama decided to put those worries aside and did what he thought was right for America, Israel and the rest of the Middle East. The far left and much of the Arab media, predictably, did not think Obama’s speech was tough enough on Israel. But they don’t pay any attention to either Israel’s security needs or American political realities. I wish he had been bolder, and laid out the parameters of a settlement a bit more clearly. But coming on the heels of his order to take out bin Laden, Obama has given convincing answers to those who say he lacks the intestinal fortitude and temperament needed to make painfully difficult, principled foreign policy decisions.

Topics: American foreign policy, Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel, Israeli occupation | 46 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | May 20, 2011

On the Hamas-Fatah pact, which “experts” should we believe?

JJ Goldberg reported, via Israel’s Channel 10, that Prime Minister Netanyahu “has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement [announced last week and signed today in Cairo]…The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right: Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.”

Apparently Netanyahu’s attempts to demolish government-sanctioned hope didn’t work. Haaretz reported that:

An internal, confidential Foreign Ministry report advises that the creation of a Fatah-Hamas unity government in the Palestinian Authority would offer Israel a strategic opportunity. The views expressed in the paper are clearly counter to those expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…

“The Palestinian move is not only a security threat but also a strategic opportunity to create genuine change in the Palestinian context,” the report states. “Such change may serve the long-term interests of Israel…”

And here is another expert who harbors hope, via Bloomberg:

“Participation in the Palestinian government and the holding of elections will also create more serious pressure on Hamas to work for quiet in the Gaza Strip, which in turn can help advance the diplomatic process,” Shlomo Brom, head of the program on Israel-Palestinian relations at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said in a paper he circulated by e-mail on the agreement.

They might be wrong. Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief who for years has been urging talks with Hamas, might also be wrong. But the same thing is true of the naysayers who are predicting disastrous consequences from this accord. It is a mistake to accept on faith any assertions of any so-called experts on the Middle East, including Israeli officials. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the only certainty in the Middle East is uncertainty.

None of the Middle East experts anticipated the sudden reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas. Even Mahmoud Abbas was surprised. None of the experts –including reportedly, the Mossad– anticipated the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. None of them –including pollsters and Hamas leaders –predicted the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

So why accept all the confident assertions that nothing positive could possibly develop from this agreement? There is, of course, a very strong case to be made for pessimism. Shimon Peres might have been right when he called the Hamas-Fatah agreement “a fatal mistake…Signing this agreement that will result in elections in another year is liable to allow a terrorist group to control [not only] Gaza [but also] Judea and Samaria… Hamas is not changing its spots…It is not ceasing to be a terrorist group that serves Iran and smuggles weapons.”

Makes sense. But he can’t be certain. No one, except perhaps for the leaders of Hamas, can be certain of what they are going to do and how they are going to act, and I am not sure that they know.

If I were coerced into betting, I would probably bet on more gloom and bloodshed. I would bet, for example, that the relatively successful, joint security apparatus established by the Palestinian Authority and Israel will collapse.

But it makes no sense to bet on anything yet.

Jeroen Gunning claims that there is “a constituency within Hamas which considers compromise on one core goal (liberating all of Palestine) acceptable, if this means Hamas is in a better position to fulfil its other core goals of making Palestinian society more Islamic, increasing social justice and eradicating corruption.”

Isn’t there at least a slim chance that he is right?

Isn’t there at least a chance that, under the auspices of new and obviously ambitious Egyptian interlocuters, the new Palestinian unity government will find a way to free Gilad Shalit? Or that Hamas-Fatah will surprise the world by tamping down on terrorists and rocketeers? Or that, if Palestinian elections do take place, Abbas, Salaam Fayyad and Fatah will win? Or that –before or after the elections–, for the sake of its own political survival, Hamas will decide to give Abbas the leeway to enter into serious negotiations with Israel, in either a bilateral or multilateral framework? Or that Hamas will agree to accept the results of a referendum on any agreement Abbas reaches with Israel?

Of course the odds against anything good resulting from a Palestinian unity government are very big. But so were the odds against toppling Mubarak, or, for that matter, creating the Jewish state. Shouldn’t the Hamas-Fatah accord at least be given a chance, a careful and cautious test? And if the answer is no, then what is the alternative?

Topics: Arab-Israeli conflict, Fatah, Hamas, Israel, Mahmoud Abbas | 35 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | May 4, 2011

Thank you for putting J Street on trial

Last Wednesday, a Knesset Committee met in order to determine whether J Street had the right to call itself “pro-Israel.” The Knesset Member who called for the hearing, Otneil Schneller, “told the Forward that being pro-Israel can only mean defending the policy and conduct of the elected government, whatever one’s personal opinions.” Therefore, J Street did not pass his litmus test. While my friends and fellow travellers on the American Jewish left denounced the hearing –as did some centrist groups–, I found it edifying and thought-provoking, and was inspired to write the following letter.

Dear Mr. Schneller:

Thank you for helping to orchestrate the hearing on J Street. Even before the proceedings, you had obviously concluded that J Street was not pro-Israel, because you explained to the Jerusalem Post: “American Jewish groups, right or left, should understand that they should maintain full solidarity with Israel overseas –and when [Kadima opposition leader] Tzipi Livni or [leftwing Meretz MK] Haim Oron become prime ministers. I will demand the same loyalty from right-wing groups.”

Your definition of pro-Israel is not new. But by using an official setting to proclaim that J Street is not Israel’s friend, you’ve provided an opportunity to delve more deeply into what some Israelis “demand” from American Jews, and to receive instructions on exactly how you would like us to behave.

“The code that was broken is more serious than the content” of J Street’s positions, you said. So let us now try to define that code more precisely, shall we? It’s a code I’ve been asked to follow all my life, but because you and others who advocate it have never fully defined the rules, I’ve always found it a bit confusing. Please help me out here. If I understand you correctly, you believe American Jews are pro-Israel only if we:

1) Have no principles, no values of our own. Instead, we must be amoral ventriloquists’ dummies, giving voice to whatever the Israeli government says at any given moment. Did I get that right?

Apparently you believe there can be no exceptions to the requirement that we publicly agree with each and every Israeli policy. J Street recently mobilized many hundreds of people to lobby Congress for aid to Israel (and the Palestinian Authority), including the American defense package that will help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge. After initially objecting to sanctions against Iran for various reasons, it eventually threw its weight behind sanctions, a high priority of the Israeli government. But that was not enough for you. You told the J Streeters, ”You are not Zionist and you don’t look out for Israel’s interests,” and your colleague Danny Danon called them “pro-Palestinian” because they took some stances neither of you liked.

The Zionist Organization of America routinely criticizes the current Israel government and it openly lobbied Congress against the peace policies of Labor-led governments. So, can I assume you believe that it, too, should be banished from the pro-Israel tent? Or do you first need to convene another hearing and grill ZOA President Morton Klein? Will there be a third hearing on American Jews who quietly fund illegal settlement outposts? I would be eager to hear Mr. Danon, an advocate for the settlers, explain to them why they are his enemies, too.

2) Lobby against the U.S. government’s positions whenever Israel disagrees with them, even if we believe our government is acting in the best interests of our own country as well as Israel. For years, we’ve been hearing that unless we live and vote in Israel, unless we serve in your army, we have no right to publicly disagree with official Israeli policies. Now, Israelis who don’t live here and don’t vote here are instructing us on how to participate in America’s political process, what to say to our own President and Congressional reps. Is that correct?

3) Ignore the steady drift of young people from the American Jewish community. One reason they are leaving is that they cannot defend what they consider to be morally indefensible, like the fact that your government permits the rousting of Palestinians out of their houses in East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlers. Many young American Jews want a home where they can call themselves pro-Israel and feel pride in being Jewish without sacrificing universal moral values. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu and like-minded groups try to provide that home.

But you would like us to ignore the challenge completely and deny them that home, right? I am committed to Israel’s future because I am committed to the Jewish people and its survival, but you don’t have the slightest bit of concern about the survival of our community here, do you? In fact, you openly demeaned it, comparing “the mentality of exile with that of redemption.” Is your ultimate goal to dramatically shrink the number of American Jews who care about Israel and the Jewish people? That is a truly revolutionary approach to Israel-Diaspora relations and to securing Israel’s future. In fact, I am going to urge my local Federation to convene a hearing and invite you to expound upon this idea.

4) Accept the proposition that as American citizens we have the right to publicly object to the policies and behavior of countries throughout the world, but the one country we are forbidden to criticize is Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, whose actions are taken in our name.

During his testimony at your star chamber…I mean, your hearing, J Street Board Chair Davidi Gilo said, “I shall finish with a quotation from the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at a conference of `Taglit’ Jewish young adults in 2003: `I want you to know that Israel is not just an Israeli project. Israel is a Jewish universal project. It is yours no less than it is ours and you share the responsibility for what will happen here. No, you don’t have to carry the whole burden upon your shoulders, but it is your responsibility, because whatever will happen in the future in the state of Israel, will influence the lives of Jews the world over.'”

I do not believe you responded to that quote, or to that concept. Do you agree with it? Or do you think Israel is the universal Jewish project but we should not say a word when we believe the project has gone awry, just continue to keep our mouths shut and our checkbooks open?

I look forward to your clarifications. I want to be “pro-Israel,” I really do, but I need more guidance from Israelis like you who have obviously thought deeply about the nuances and complexities of life in the Diaspora.

Dan Fleshler

Topics: Ameinu, American Jews, Americans for Peace Now, Israel, Israeli settlements, J Street | 82 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | March 29, 2011

When pro-Israel American Jews say, “This is wrong!”

More than 2,000 American Jews attended the national J Street conference last weekend in DC, determined to do something to change the discourse within the Jewish community and affect American policy. I’ve waited a week to write about this because I wanted to gauge others’ reactions and sort out what I experienced at the conference.

Predictably, right-wing Jewish bloggers like David Horowitz and Jennifer Rubin objected when many attendees enthusiastically applauded vehement criticisms of the occupation and the Israeli government, depicting a cabal of malevolent Israel-haters who thought the Jewish state was solely responsible for scuttling the peace process with the Palestinians.

Indeed, there was no shortage of people who were angry at the plight of the Palestinians and Israel’s contributions to the current diplomatic impasse. But the very boisterous left wingers at the conference, people who were much more comfortable hanging out with radical Israeli human rights activists than with Kadima and Labor Party MKs, were not as numerous as media reports contend. Many attendees were more centrist, including savvy Democratic Party activists and donors, as well as the likes of Ken Bob, the President of Ameinu, who spoke out forcefully against BDS during a panel discussion.

That said, it is certainly true that the left wing of J Street is loud and energetic. And that creates a challenge for an organization that needs to appeal to at least some in the mainstream American Jewish community in order to achieve its political goal, which is to give the Obama Administration and Congress more leeway to disagree with Israel from time to time. Check out Bruce Levine’s comments to my previous post for the reactions of a liberal American Jew who clearly wanted to support J Street but has become alienated (See comments 40 and 41). J Street needs him, and needs to figure out a way to bring him back.

As the Forward’s Nathan Guttman puts it, “J Street faces a sometimes difficult balancing act in appealing to those in Washington and in the organized Jewish community while also meeting the expectations of the left-leaning activists who make up its base.”

James Besser asks, “Can J Street keep its core members happy while working to reassure members of Congress who may be inclined to support it that it won’t get them in political hot water?”

That is a very good question. But it isn’t the only question, and it might not be the most important one.

The activists on J Street’s left wing don’t pose a challenge only to the organization’s leaders. They, and the many Jews who agree with them, also pose a relatively new challenge to the mainstream, organized American Jewish community, which hasn’t a clue about how to deal with them.

One reason for J Street’s impressive growth has gone largely unnoticed. More and more American Jews who feel committed to Israel’s safety and survival are angry at Israel and are willing to say so. And they are willing to assert publicly, in no uncertain terms, that some Israeli behavior is just plain wrong. For quite some time, in all kinds of American Jewish settings, it has been perfectly acceptable to claim that Israel’s settlement policies jeopardize its security or its future as a Jewish democracy. But to say that Israel and Israelis sometimes violate moral and ethical values is quite different, and still quite daring.

More and more human rights organizations in Israel are doing so. Their values are shared by a broad swath of American Jews who are most definitely not anti-Zionists or haters of Israel. They infuriate the far left as well as the far right. They are emotionally connected to the Jewish state and care about its well-being. My impression is that the vast majority of them understand that the current situation is not all Israel’s fault, and that Palestinians and their leaders are also culpable. But they no longer want to keep their mouths shut about what is rotten in the Palestinian territories, such as the abuses by Israeli soldiers reported by Breaking the Silence, the collective deprivations caused by the seige of Gaza, the rousting of Palestinians out of their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

What are American synagogues and traditional Jewish community groups going to do about these people? These institutions have had a hard enough time giving podiums to official representatives from J Street and Americans for Peace Now, who have not been allowed to speak in some synagogues and shouted down in others. Now the institutions are faced with an even tougher challenge. What are they going to do about all the unofficial, spirited grassroots activists who insist that they are pro-Israel, who get fired up and angered by human rights abuses, and who are motivated to speak out mainly because Israel is becoming a country that does not conform to their core values, their decidedly Jewish values? Will any part of the American Jewish mainstream even try to find a place for them in the communal tent? Or will the Jewish establishment just ignore them, try to wish them away?

Right now, in my community, except in a small minority of synagogues and meetings of left-leaning American Jewish groups, one is simply not allowed to talk about the moral cost of ruling over another people. If that taboo is not broken, an entire generation of young, articulate people who should have a place somewhere in the traditional Jewish community will look elsewhere for a home.

I have a recurring, probably crazy dream: somehow, in the forums of the organized Jewish world, at least in many more Reform and Conservative synagogues, some room will be made for a vocabulary of right and wrong when discussion turns to the occupation. A more inclusive protocol will let into the conversation the conference attendees–many of them college kids–who eagerly applauded when Daniel Levy told them, “You can’t be a friend of Arab freedom and be on the wrong side of Palestinian freedom.” Those very same people also lobbied Congress for aid to Israel (and the Palestinian Authority). Watch and listen to the testimonies of conference attendees on this web site. All of them want to help Israel. Call them misguided if you want, but make room for them!

Topics: American Jews, Israel, Israeli occupation, Israeli settlements, J Street, Palestinians, Zionism | 16 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | March 5, 2011

Why the Jewish right is terrified by J Street’s conference

J Street, the political arm of the American Jewish pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, will convene its second national conference on Saturday night. There will be an enormous turnout. An organizer told me that about 2100 people are pre-registered (at their last conference, only 850 people were pre-registered but 1500 people showed up). There will be about 500 students from 100 campuses.

Why are all of these people converging? There are many reasons. They are desperate to find hope in what often seems like a hopeless mess in Israel and the territories. They want answers to troubling questions, like, “Is the 2-state solution dead?” and “What, in God’s name. can the U.S. do to help?” They want community. They want inspiration. They crave ideas for mobilizing somnolent American Jews and cowardly U.S. politicians. I’m going, and I want all of those things.

This won’t be quite as large as AIPAC’s legendary policy conferences, but AIPAC has had more than 50 years to build momentum; J Street is only three year old.

So what is the reaction from the American Jewish and Israeli right? Abject terror.

There is no other way to explain the panicky screeds on the right-wing Judeo blogosphere. Check out these widely-publicized riffs from Noah Pollak of the Emergency Committee for Israel and the permanently truculent folks at Front Page magazine. I won’t dignify all their arguments and character assassinations by conveying them here, but one of their objections to the conference is that some of the speakers are, gasp, Arabs who are unhappy with Israel!

American Jews, you see, are not supposed to listen to Arabs who are unhappy with Israel, people with different narratives and perspectives than those of the pro-Israel community, people like James Zogby or Mustafa Barghouti. Spend three minutes reading about Barghouti here, and you will learn about the kind of impassioned, articulate Palestinian nationalist that not all Israelis like very much. But surely all Israelis need to figure out how to live with a neighbor like Mustafa Barghouti.

But Americans Jews, you see, are not allowed to hear him speak. Perish the thought! And, of course, if an organization gives him a podium, that automatically means the organization endorses each and every one of his views. That is an enduring principle of the Jewish thought police. He will be speaking at a panel on Hamas, summarized as follows: “Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, armed and opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. What is the best way to counter the threat posed by Hamas? Is reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah a prerequisite to peace, or would it make peace more difficult to achieve? Can Hamas be neutralized by undermining its popular support among Palestinians or splitting its moderate elements from its militants?” It would make perfect sense to exclude Palestinians from the ground who actually know what they are talking about from such a panel, wouldn’t it?

American Jews are not supposed to hear from Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the physician and friend to many Israeli moderates whose daughters were tragically killed by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead. Perish the thought! We must not hear about his experiences or his lovely, lost daughters because, Front Page asserts, he denounced the Israelis but not Hamas. We must run the other way if we see him coming.

Front Page sums up the other principal objection: “Any illusion that J Street has included these speakers merely to give insight into “the other side” is dispelled by the roster of Jewish speakers scheduled to speak at `Giving Voice to Your Values.’ All are leftists, and most are even more radically anti-Israel than the Islamists who will appear.” There are certainly a lot of leftists, and it is not hard to show that they are, in fact, pro-Israel. But what scares these righties more than anything, I think, is all of the thoroughly mainstream, centrist speakers who are also gracing J Street with their presence: Knesset Members from Kadima; Dennis Ross; Kenneth Pollack of Brookings; Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace; Tom Dine, who used to run AIPAC; Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Rabbi David Sapirstein, head of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement–the largest synagogue movement in the US.

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself,” wrote Justice Potter Stewart. And that is what is going on here. We are listening to the sputterings of an insecure right wing that has no answers. They have no suggestions about the Israeli-Palestinian situation other than grim, bloody “conflict management,” which should really be called “nightmare management.” They have no notion of how to preserve the democratic Jewish state. They don’t know how to stop the steady drift of young people out of the American Jewish community because what is happening to the Palestinians cannot be reconciled with either Jewish or universal values.

And they are panicking. They want us to put our hands over our ears, like the haredim who don’t want to hear women’s voices singing, or the fanatics who want to burn down the offices of newspapers that print cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. Sorry folks. It won’t work. Thousands of American Jews and others will show up in DC this weekend, eager to hear complicated truths and nuanced arguments, instead of the useless pablum of those who cling to a horrific status quo.

Topics: AIPAC, American Jews, Arab-Israeli conflict, Dan Fleshler, Front Page, Israel, J Street, Noah Pollak, Palestinians | 42 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | February 25, 2011

Chilling video from Tahrir Square…and chilling rationalizations

Check out the video posted below, from Tahrir Square yesterday. They are chanting “To Jerusalem we are heading, martyrs in the millions.”

Then check out the responses to the same video from the gang at Mondo Weiss. A coterie of commentators who think of themselves as proponents of human rights and universal values fall over themselves trying to justify and rationalize the same scene. I don’t know which is more chilling–the video, or their reactions.

Topics: anti-Zionism, Egypt, Far left, Israel, MondoWeiss, Tahrir Square | 48 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | February 19, 2011

Mubarak and the alternate universe of Israel’s vicious critics

Events in Egypt have reinforced my sense of living in a different universe than the one inhabited by Israel’s most vicious critics (let’s call them IMVCs) in the blogosphere. Oh, we have a few things in common. Like them, I am inspired by the Egyptian crowds demanding the overthrow of a tyrant. Like them, I am appalled by the continuing Israeli occupation and settlement expansion and the sufferings of the Palestinian people. But they still appear to reside in a kind of alternate reality, harboring assumptions that do not apply to the universe I know. Here are two of those assumptions:

1-The Israel lobby in the U.S. is the only reason America has propped up Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt regime for so long. This assumption derives from a longtime, reflexive habit of blaming JEWS for what it is wrong with the world.

Early on, when the Egyptian tumult was first getting televised and the U.S. was struggling to formulate a public stance, the increasingly influential Philip Weiss weighed in on MondoWeiss (and then Salon):

Barack Obama’s failure to honor the Egyptian protesters in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and Joe Biden’s cold negativity toward them last night (they’re not up against a dictator, we can’t encourage them, this is not the awakening of eastern Europe) reveal the unwavering influence of the Israel lobby in our public life, and how conservative that influence is.

The administration’s statements reveal that it prefers stability in Egypt, no matter the cost to civil rights and human rights there, to freedom for Arab people. And why? Because Egyptian stability preserves the Israeli status quo, in which Israel gets to imprison West Bank protesters without a peep from the U.S. government and gets to destroy civilians in Gaza again without a peep from the alleged change-agent in the White House.

Weiss jumped the gun. The night after that post, Obama warned Mubarak to avoid violence and stop censoring digital media, sending at least some encouraging signals to the Egyptian protestors. Obama could have given them more, but if the Mubarak-loving Israel lobby were so powerful, surely he would have kept his mouth shut.

What is revealing here is Weiss’ eagerness to believe that Israel and its support base in the U.S. was the SOLE explanation for American policies, instead of a very important explanation. Apparently he could not imagine any other reason for U.S. support of Mubarak. There was no mention of the perceived need for stability in order to free up the Suez Canal, which is the conduit for billions of dollars worth of oil and American military vessels. There was nothing about the perceived American need to fight al-Qaeda and violent Islamic extremists (who would exist without Israel), and the plain fact that Mubarak’s regime helps in this regard. There was nothing about growing investments from America’s private sector in the region. The actual, complex calculus employed by American foreign policy decision makers is inconvenient to Weiss, as it is mitigating evidence against the inherent evil of Zionist influence.

Now, it is one thing to claim that the perceived benefits of supporting stability in Egypt –including the preservation of its cold peace with Israel– do not warrant the coddling of a brutal autocrat. Of course they don’t. The U.S. clearly should have pressed Mubarak much more forcefully on human rights and democratic freedoms.

But it is both simplistic and dangerous to assert that Israel and the Israel lobby are the only drivers of America’s Egyptian policy. Yet that is a common assertion by IMVCs. Check out this interview with Alison Weir (“If Americans Only Knew”). In the comment threads, the alleged power of the JEWS sometimes extends to controlling Egypt itself, as noted in this insight by someone named Art Allm:

Yes, it seems that Mubarak and his regime are controlled by the Israel Lobby. That is the reason why he is called a “democrat” (speak “good dictator”). The democratic movement in Egypt will be called “anti-democratic”, that is so predictable. Who controls the language, also controls the outcome of any discussion.

Mr, Allm, here’s a tip from the inner circle of the Elders of Zion: we also control the air traffic control system, and the weather, so you should never fly again.

2—There was and is something inherently wrong with the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. I’ve been tangling with America’s conventional Israel lobby and the mainstream Jewish community for much of my adult life. But I share that community’s fond memories of extraordinary moments in 1978, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s limousine rumbled through the streets of Jerusalem, as Israeli throngs applauded and wept, grateful that an Arab leader was, for the first time, offering a hand of peace instead of inveterate hostility. As HDS Greenway recalls, “the joy in the streets of Cairo was no less when Israel’s Menachem Begin made his reciprocal visit to Egypt. Egyptian cab drivers refused to take fares from visiting Israelis, some of whom had not been there since the days of the British Palestine Mandate.”

It is manifestly true and tragic that Sadat’s deal(s) with Begin did nothing for the Palestinians. It was reprehensible that Israel did not take advantage of a historic opportunity to foster Palestinian self-determination and end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But none of that detracts from the fact that the Israeli-Egyptian peace has also saved untold numbers of lives on both sides of the border. In the IMVC universe, those lives do not seem to have any significance. Here, for example, is Alex Kane:

The Mubarak dictatorship is a core pillar of the U.S./Israeli order in the Middle East, an order that completely ignores the wishes and aspirations of people on the ground. The U.S. and Israel are scared of the new order that is to come.

As As’ad Abu Khalil notes at his blog, “the Israeli strategy in the Middle East has been firmly set on the continuity of the Sadat-Mubarak dictatorship.” Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 removed a military threat to Israel and secured millions of U.S. dollars and military support for the Egyptian dictatorship. The Mubarak regime got carte blanche for its repressive rule.

Everything Kane says is true, but, based on what he omits in this and other posts, he appears to believe that saving lives and stopping war is of little consequence. Yes, Israel made and then sustained a peace deal with a despotic government, because that was the government Israel had to deal with. It had no choice. Imagine what Kane and his ilk would have said about “Zionist hegemony” if Israel had encouraged the overthrow of Mubarak and called for free elections. One gets the impression that Kane and Weiss feel that, as long as Palestinians are suffering, there is something untoward about Israelis wanting to live without a major military power threatening them from the southwest. In the universe I live in, peace, even peace with dictators, is better than war.

Yes, the Israelis are, as Kane notes, “scared of the new order that is to come.” They are scared of what could happen if the sophisticated arms Egypt has been receiving from the U.S. all these years are in the hands of a regime that is overtly hostile to the Jewish state. The Israelis who are scared include post-Zionists, anti-Zionist supporters of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, and other activists against the occupation. They include many people who empathize with the Egyptian people’s struggle and strongly support democratic values and democratic reform. But they must deal with the universe as it is. There, a deeply flawed arrangement with Egypt has left the Palestinian people in the lurch. It has helped to prop up a dictatorship. But it has probably prevented a major military conflagration that would have slaughtered Arabs and Jews alike. That may be a devil’s bargain, but it is better than no bargain at all.

Update: For a perceptive piece on Israelis’ reaction, check out the latest from Noam Sheizaf. It is entitled “Israelis are not hostile to the Egyptian revolution, simply anxious.”

Topics: Arab-Israeli conflict, Begin, Egypt, Israel, Mubarak, Palestinians, Sadat | 20 Comments »

By Dan Fleshler | January 30, 2011

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