Israel

Netanyahu heads to New York to ‘refute all the lies’ and praise ‘the most moral army in the world’

9/28/14

Although some friends will receive him at the United Nations General Assembly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows he will be in hot water tomorrow. When he left with wife for New York this morning for his speech on Monday, he gave a bitter farewell:

“In my address to the UN General Assembly,” he said on the tarmac, “I will refute all of the lies being directed at us and I will tell the truth about our state and about the heroic soldiers of the IDF, the most moral army in the world.”

Already Netanyahu was fulminating yesterday over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s newfound harshness delivered at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Friday. Netanyahu called Abbas “inciteful,” and promised, “In my UN General Assembly speech and in all of my meetings I will represent the citizens of Israel and will – on their behalf – refute the slander and lies directed at our country.”

Netanyahu will be backed into a corner on Monday defending Israel and his country’s military. “I think the UN would do itself a great favor if instead of the automatic Israel bashing, they actually turn their attention and their investigative committees against these terrorists,” he said earlier this month, responding to indications that the U.N. might not investigate Hamas for alleged violations of international law. In the backdrop of Netanyahu’s talk, he is facing a war crimes investigation from the United Nations Human Rights Council over his “most moral army in the world” and their summer war in Gaza. And already Israel is known inside of the United Nations as the violator of the most UNGA resolutions.

And Netanyahu’s speech is slated to take place days before the UNGA releases another annual round of censures against Israel for violations of international laws over the past twelve months.

Netanyahu’s abrasive tone comes on the heels of Abbas’s call for a United Nations Security Council Resolution to put an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—and East Jerusalem—within a specific time frame vis-à-vis an immediate return to negotiations. It was a scaled down J’accuse moment in which Abbas characterized Israel in his strongest language yet, but ultimately his proposal lacked ambition. Abbas said Israel conducted “genocidal” policies in Gaza, constructed an “Apartheid” state, and he spoke readily of Israel’s “racist settlers.”

Expectations were running high for Palestinian leaders to announce they are joining the International Criminal Court so they can charge Israeli leaders for crimes against humanity, with a specific focus on how the army engaged in Gaza. Yet Abbas has not moved on submitting his signed copy of the Rome Statute to the United Nations and instead again has set his sights on yet another stream of talks with Israel. And while this time the parameters are predicated upon reaching an agreement on borders within a specific deadline, when exactly that deadline will be remains unknown, perhaps even unknown to Abbas himself.

When Rouhani says blaming ISIS on Islam is Islamophobic, is anyone listening?

9/28/14

As you surely know, anti-Semitism is in the news. The New York Times did a big piece on anti-Semitism in Europe, saying that even if you don’t like Israel you can’t blame Jews and Judaism for Israel’s actions. You have to separate the two: “as European criticism of Israel… [has] hardened, many Jews describe a blurring of distinctions between being anti-Israel and being anti-Jew.”

OK, point taken. There’s no excuse for hating Jews, even if Israel just massacred 500 Palestinian children.

But then where’s the big piece on the scourge of Islamophobia? Yesterday I heard Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s excellent speech from Sept. 25 to the UN General Assembly on CSPAN. Rouhani said that when the western media blame Al Qaeda’s terrorism or ISIS’s beheadings on “radical Islam,” it’s smearing Islam. Islam has nothing to do with this violence. It’s anti-western violence, reflecting a history of colonialism and continued western meddling and slaughter in the region.

If you’re going to say that Judaism has nothing to do with Israel’s massacres, then for God’s sake, our press should be covering Rouhani’s argument against Islamophobia!

Thanks to the Times of Israel, here’s Rouhani’s text. Bear in mind he is a Muslim cleric and a constitutional lawyer. The relevant portions:

[The extremists] have a single goal: the destruction of civilization, giving rise to Islamophobia and creating a fertile ground for further intervention of foreign forces in our region….

Today’s anti-Westernism is the offspring of yesterday’s colonialism. Today’s anti-Westernism is a reaction to yesterday’s racism…

To fight the underlying causes of terrorism, one must know its roots and dry its source fountains. Terrorism germinates in poverty, unemployment, discrimination, humiliation and injustice. And it grows with the culture of violence. To uproot extremism, we must spread justice and development and disallow the distortion of divine teachings to justify brutality and cruelty. The pain is made greater when these terrorists spill blood in the name of religion and behead in the name of Islam. They seek to keep hidden this incontrovertible truth of history that on the basis of the teachings of all divine prophets, from Abraham and Moses and Jesus to Mohammed, taking the life of a single innocent life is akin to killing the whole humanity. I am astonished that these murderous groups call themselves an Islamic group. What is more astonishing is that the Western media, in line with them, repeats this false claim, which provokes the hatred of all Muslims. Muslim people who everyday recall their God as merciful and compassionate and have learned lessons of kindness and empathy from their Prophet, see this defamation as part of an Islamophobic project.

Of course if you follow Rouhani’s logic out, you’d see that the mirror of the extremists who speak in Islam’s name are the extremists who speak in Judaism’s name. It’s not likely we’ll see meditations on Israel’s racism and extremist violence in the western press. But at the very least we ought to read stories about the rise of anti-Palestinian racism and violence in Israel.

(Rouhani is as high-minded as Chomsky: they do not see this as a religious conflict but a clash between imperialists and subject nations. Myself I regard this as a conflict that has a religious component on both sides: violent extremists use religion to justify their actions. And just as ISIS is fostering Islamophobia in Rouhani’s view (and Obama’s too), Israel and its lobby help to foster anti-Semitism because they call themselves Jewish and insist on blurring the line between Israel and Jewry. Item: Benjamin Netanyahu says that the Jewish people had a rough summer because of the attacks on “our country.” Item: Jeffrey Goldberg refers to the Israel lobby group AIPAC as a “Jewish organization.” It’s actually a Zionist organization, but the confusion is intentional.)

 

The name games

9/28/14

The Name Games are on in Israel. On the eve of the 5775 Jewish New Year the Israeli Population, Immigration and Border Authority announced the winning first name most commonly given to a newborn boy in Israel in the preceding year as Youssef, which is used by both Arabs and Jews. The spokesperson neglected to mention that what the Authority had in mind was names among Jews only. When questioned the woman hid behind explanations of who her regular customers demanding the statistics were. Of course, her motives were pure and egalitarian.

You can’t really blame this one branch of government. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, an institute reputed for its precision and comprehensiveness, would have done the same. After all, everyone knows that Israel is the state of the Jews and that the negligible Arab minority of over 20% is only that, a minority, a mere impurity and a blemish on the wholesomeness of the state’s exclusive ethnicity. The CBS, like other branches of the system in the state of the Jews, has always labored hard at actualizing the dream of ethnic purity with all the means at its disposal: It has always kept its statistics for the minuscule minority split by religion: Moslem, Christian and Druze. On occasion it throws in other random lines of division such as Bedouin versus settled non-Jews. It is not long now before we will have Aramean Christians. Anything but the ‘A’ word because that would imply the presence within our borders, holy and inviolable even if still undetermined, of a non-Jewish contaminant of the same ethnic substance like the sea of undesirables surrounding us on all sides (except, of course, for our Mediterranean escape route to our former cradle of civilized bliss for which we have never stopped longing.)

Then one unprincipled Haaretz correspondent (Ilan Lior, September 22) insisted on toppling the applecart, right on the eve of the holiday when apples are so much in demand: He looked closely at the statistics and as a misinformed non-statistician discovered that the actual winner should have been Muhammad. Oy-ve!! as we say in Yiddish. What the hell!! What that means is that the 16-or-so% Muslims in Israel use the name Muhammad more than six times as often as its Jews use Youssef. Boy! That is fidelity all right! But I could have told you that without the bother of statistics. My three oldest brothers, may they rest in piece, were named after the prophet. And there are dozens of families in our village with multiple children named after the prophet.

Back in my younger days I taught school in the neighboring village of Sakhnin. We lacked textbooks and I spent a lot of time writing on the blackboard. Whenever the class got too noisy I would shout without turning around: “Muhammad and his neighbor, stop talking.” And for a minute or two you could hear a pin drop. And in the British Mandate days, before Israel elevated our individualistic consciousness with its numbered ID cards, the name Muhammad and its derivatives wreaked havoc with our subsistence farming in the fertile Battouf Valley. You see, Bedouins had the nasty habit of letting their cattle feed on the crops in our land at the peak of its productivity. When a farmer took a Bedouin to court the latter would produce a verifiable alibi proving that the accused, Muhammad the son of Ahmad the son of Mahmoud Mrisat, was in Jordan that day. There simply were ten Bedouins with the same string of the prophet’s alternate names.

Which reminds me: The correspondent of Haaretz also discovered that among the ten top-ranking names Ahmad actually came in at number nine. This is the place to divulge a closely guarded secret of our community. Endearing nicknames, derived from twisting the actual name around to a catchy and playful-sounding shortened version, are a relatively recent phenomenon in our community, an Israeli fad if I am not mistaken. Anxious to maintain our lead position in the Name Game, our leaders have come up with the trickiest of tricks. All three forms of the interrelated prophet’s names, Muhammad, Ahmad and Mahmoud are given the cutie nickname of ‘Hammoudi.’ Now let your flaky ‘Yossi’ compete with that! Muhammad alone beat the s… out of your lead name.

But you try, I know. I just read that the administrators in Safad (I know, you call it Tzfat) College have appointed a student council, the only unelected one in the country, to preempt, I presume, the likelihood of a Mohammad being elected by the 70%-Arab student body.

Recently, in one of his op-ed pieces, Oudeh Bsharat related a personal incident with his son to illustrate a point. His son wanted to know the meaning of ‘mumis,’ a high Arabic term for a sex worker. He hummed and hawed and couldn’t come up with an appropriate explanation. A while later the child came back shouting ‘sharmouta!’ the vulgarity of the same meaning used colloquially as a cuss word.

Well, let me tell you: regardless who asks for what and who supplies the statistics to whom, It is a fucking sharmouta! Shameless apartheid, denial and exclusion of the other.

A catalog of impunity

9/28/14

Omar Robert Hamilton compiled a list of Israel’s actions since the Gaza ceasefire at the LRB blog two weeks ago. The catalog has obviously gotten much longer in the interim, but this list is a poetic reminder of the power imbalance in a conflict that is treated so often in the U.S. as mutual. I excerpt about half of Hamilton’s catalog. Full list at the link:

On 26 August a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was agreed, bringing a fragile end to a war that killed 2150 Palestinians (mostly civilians) and 73 Israelis (mostly soldiers). Since then Hamas has not fired a single rocket, attacked an Israeli target, or done anything to break the terms of the ceasefire. Israel has done the following:

1. Annexed another 1500 acres of West Bank land
2. Seized $56 million of PA tax revenue…
6. Killed a 22-year-old, Issa al Qatari, a week before his wedding
7. Killed 16-year-old Mohammed Sinokrot with a rubber bullet to the head
8. Tortured a prisoner to the point of hospitalisation
9. Refused 13 members of the European Parliament entry into Gaza
10. Detained at least 127 people across the West Bank, including a seven-year-old boy in Hebron and two children, aged seven and eight, taken from the courtyard of their house in Silwad – and tear-gassed their mother
11. Continued to hold 33 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council in prison
12. Continued to hold 500 prisoners in administrative detention without charge or trial…
22. Continued building a vast tunnel network under Jerusalem
23. Stormed the al Aqsa mosque compound with a group of far right settlers
24. Assisted hundreds of settlers in storming Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus
25. Prevented students from entering al Quds University, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets at those who tried to go in
26. Earned unknown millions on reconstruction materials for Gaza, where 100,000 people need their destroyed homes rebuilt. The total bill is estimated at $7.8 billion

The summer of small Jewish thinking

9/28/14

Like children returning to school, I thought I’d write some short reflections about the things I learnt during the holidays.

1. Tapestry

I was never much good at arts and crafts. I only do words. But this summer I learnt something about cross stitch tapestry.

Around 260 women, were killed in Gaza during July and August, mostly as a result of Israeli aerial bombing and ground artillery. I know some people like to blame Hamas for all the deaths during the Gaza assault (‘they started it’ etc) but I don’t subscribe to that twisted piece of moral sophistry. If you fire the weapons the deaths are your responsibility. The same goes for Hamas rockets.

In amongst the daily death count of the summer, one loss spoke to me and brought me close to tears on my train journey home one evening.

On July 20th Samar Al-Hallaq was killed in Gaza when an Israeli shell blew-up the residential building she and her family had fled to for shelter in the suburbs of Gaza City. Samar was 29 years old and part of the Palestinian History Tapestry Project. The Project is a charity that has set out to record Palestinian history through the creation of embroidered panels. Each panel is sewn with traditional Palestinian cross stitch and illustrates the life and times of the Palestinian people.

Samar, who had been taught to embroider as a child by the older women in her family, became interested and began to contribute.

Something about Samar’s death broke through to me that evening and made all of the other deaths I was reading about meaningful. Samar’s two sons, 6-year-old Kenan, and 4-year-old Saji, and five other members of her family were also killed. Samar was eight months pregnant. Her husband, Hussan, who recently completed a Master degree of Science in eBusiness, survived.

I wondered what the rest of Hussan’s life would be like.

2. Mosques

I didn’t think I would be so moved by the destruction of buildings. But the photographs of whole neighbourhoods reduced to rubble showed how disingenuous was the claim that the IDF was only targeting terrorists. It was an impossible aim to begin with and the Israeli government would have known that from the start. When I looked at the pictures from, just for example, Rafah, near the Egyptian border, I thought these are family homes, children were raised there, memories were created in those ruins. Israel (like any other state) has the right to defend itself. But how could that defence possibly look like this when Israeli civilian casualties, after 50 days, were just half a dozen people.

And then there are Mosques. Seventy-three were destroyed in Gaza over the summer. In an article in the New Statesman magazine by Donald Macintyre, I read about the Mahkamah Mosque which had stood since 1455 in a side road off a main street in the Gaza City district of Shejaiya. It was considered a jewel of Malmuk architecture and was testament to an Islamic culture and civilisation just as indigenous to the Holy Land as Judaism and Christianity. It had been in continuous use for three centuries. Three centuries of prayers and learning. Three centuries of a community gathering together to worship God. In the early morning of July 24th it was flattened by an Israeli bomb. It wasn’t necessary to imagine this being a synagogue or a church to understand what this must have meant to that community. You can imagine the outcry in the West though if 73 synagogues or churches had been destroyed.

So I learnt that buildings are casualties too.

3. Soldiers

Sixty-four Israeli soldiers were killed by the time the truce was agreed at the end of August. Investigations are underway, by Israel itself, to establish if any were killed by their own side in an attempt to avoid hostages being taken by Palestinian fighters. But let’s assume for the moment that they were all killed by Palestinians. These soldiers’ deaths made me angry and upset too.

What was the point of their sacrifice? Was ‘Protective Edge’ really a necessary and unavoidable operation? Could Israel have chosen to start talking to the fledgling Fatah led Unity government, as the American’s urged it to, earlier in the summer? The case for yet another assault on Gaza was never convincingly made. And after it’s all over, Hamas remain a political and military force, with far greater support today, in both Gaza and in the West Bank, than they had in June. Just like the 2,100 plus Palestinian deaths, these Israeli conscripts should not have lost their lives just to make the whole situation even worse than it was before.

4. Rabbis

Some Rabbis are better than others.

I wrote a post called ‘Standing on one leg for Israel-Palestine‘ and received strong criticism from a liberal Rabbi on Facebook for failing to mention the three murdered Israeli teenagers abducted on the West Bank in June. I pointed out that I had written about the boys in my previous post ‘The true meaning of Brother’s Keeper‘ which the new piece linked back to. In a private message via Facebook I invited the Rabbi to meet with me to talk about our different points of view since we work in the same city. I’ve had no reply so far. The offer is still open.

I wrote an open letter in July to Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK, asking that she take a bolder position than just offering prayer and empathy for the Palestinians under fire in Gaza. The letter was published on the Jews for Justice for Palestinians website where it received more than seven hundred Facebook ‘Likes’. So I must have been saying something that resonated with a great many other British Jews. Rabbi Laura wrote back to me the same day that I sent her my letter and we had a respectful and warm exchange of emails. Like I said, some Rabbis are better than others.

5. Vitriol

People who don’t know me from Adam are more than happy to be hateful about me personally.

Here’s one email I had to my blog over the summer:

“Ho hum, another so-called Jew more moral than all the rest of us Jews that support Israel. In fact, your kind are so moral, you have to boycott Jews. You think the Jihadists care what kind of self-proclaimed good Jew you are? As an a Israeli, I piss on ghetto Jews like you. We will survive and thrive long after shit like you is maggot food.”

I’ve learnt to be resilient about this kind of correspondence. I hope it is not typical of Israeli attitudes towards Jews critical of Israel.

In contrast, some people are very generous. In the same week as the above message I was sent this from a retired Anglican Bishop:

“I read your Micah’s Paradigm Shift with great interest every time it arrives in my Inbox. Thank you for all you write. I see myself as a true friend of Israel, as indeed you are.”

Should the Jewish Israeli’s view or the Bishop’s carry more weight? You decide.

6. Charters

Over the summer I read the Hamas charter written in 1988. It’s shot full of extreme religious nationalism, blatant anti-Semitism and crack-pot history. It’s a textbook exercise in how NOT to write an inspiring, uplifting tract calling for the liberation of your land and its people. The quality of the English translation probably doesn’t help it much. It’s definitely an embarrassment for anyone in solidarity with the Palestinians or sympathetic to their right to use armed resistance against an occupation.

The odd thing is, Hamas seem to ignore their charter while the rest of the world obsess about it. It’s become a handy way to insist that there is ‘no partner for peace’ even though Hamas has consistently offered peace based on ’67 borders and the lifting of the blockade. I suggest that Hamas negotiate their charter out of existence as part of a settlement, should Israel ever agree to talk to them.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, has a charter too, from 1999, and I read that as well. It’s also full of extreme religious nationalism and dodgy history but the Islamophobia is only in the sub text. It refuses to accept that ‘Judea and Samaria’ (aka the West Bank) can be anything other than part of Israel, it says Settlements are an unassailable right of the Jewish people, and it sees Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital city of the Jewish State. Hopefully, Bibi will ignore his charter too. The rest of the world don’t seem too bothered about it.

7. ‘Terror Tunnels’

In wartime people are always prepared to believe the worst about their enemy. It’s a necessary part of the process of dehumanising them so when the killing starts it is easier to deal with it both politically and emotionally.

Even though the existence of ‘terror tunnels’ dug from Gaza into Israel for the express purpose of killing Israelis had not been a part of the initial justification for Operation Protective Edge, it soon became so. The image of Hamas fighters or suicide bombers suddenly emerging through the floor of a kibbutz kindergarten gripped the Israeli public’s imagination. A rumour that there were plans to commit mass murder and kidnapping around the Jewish New Year, with 200 Hamas terrorists dressed in IDF uniforms, gained credence without the slightest credible intelligence. The possibility was enough. Who needed evidence.

So far no tunnels have been found that reached anywhere near civilian centres. The purpose of the tunnels was certainly military and aimed at getting behind IDF lines to kill or kidnap soldiers near the Gaza border. It’s called asymmetric warfare. You can read a helpful article at + 972 magazine.

8. Balance

People are getting very good at creating infographics. The dead and injured become neatly lined up stick people, anonymously conveying the asymmetry of the suffering on a tidy chart in bold colours.

The latest one I’ve seen tells me that apart from the 2,100 plus fatalities (including more than 500 children) there were also:

  • 3,438 children injured
  • 10,080 homes destroyed
  • 450,000 people internally displaced

This is what allegedly ‘targeted precision bombing’ ends up producing in a densely populated strip of land the size of the Isle of White.

I’m glad Israel’s rocket defence system, the Iron Dome, exists. It meant that only a six Israeli citizens were killed during the summer. In fact Hamas may have killed more of its own people than it did Israelis, with rockets that fell short of their targets. That didn’t stop Israel and its supporters presenting the conflict as though they, rather than the Palestinians, were facing a truly existential threat. But there is a big difference between sirens sounding in Tel Aviv and whole neighbourhoods disappearing in Gaza City.

Members of my family wanted me to convey ‘more balance’ in my writing. Which I think means putting Israel’s side of the story. I keep saying there is no balance. Look at the stick people! And after all, isn’t what happens to the Palestinians part of Israel’s story too? Okay, I say, if the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies attempt some balance, then I will try harder as well.

9. Boycotts

Boycotts are the real ‘terror tunnels’ into the hearts of the Jewish community.

In the UK this summer the focus has been on a cosmetics shop in Kings Street in Manchester that sells products sourced from the Dead Sea, most of which is within the West Bank. So the issue has been that minerals acquired through an illegal occupation are generating profits for Israeli businesses.

The boycott Israel campaign makes most Jews in the UK feel angry, fearful, confused, personally threatened and extremely defensive. Attempting to present it as a legitimate non-violent protest against the policies of the State of Israel and in support of Palestinian rights just does not work for most of the Jewish community.

From the mainstream Jewish perspective, BDS is simply a return to the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And, as I was asked over the summer, why pick on Israel for such actions? Why not organise boycotts of Syria, or ISIS or Russia? “Surely this disproportionate focus on Israel is a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”I’ve tried to explain that BDS against Israel is a workable tactic for change against a country that relies on international trade. I’ve also made the point that it’s the Palestinians that have called for this action. I’ve said that there are plenty of government led sanctions already in place against Syria and Russia and how on earth do you boycott ISIS?

But I suspect none of this cuts through. That’s because the whole issue has deep emotional implications linked to religion, history and personal identity that a purely rational argument does not begin to address for most Jewish ears.

10. Big Thinking v Small Thinking

I believe there exists such a thing as Jewish values and ethics that are worth upholding and that have meaning that Jews can take pride in. Call it Jewish Big Thinking. There also exists a tradition of Jewish myopia and Small Thinking, of which Zionism, particularly in its religious nationalist vein, has done much to contribute to. Both the Big Thinking and the Small Thinking are equally part of Jewish history. By the way, the same distinctions can been seen in Christianity and Islam.

The Jewish Small Thinking was well represented over the summer. These were the people from the Jewish community who still think Israel-Palestine is just a problem of presentation (“If only people could understand what Israel is up against” etc).

More than a thousand people attended a ‘Town Hall’ meeting on August 13th in North London organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to discuss the situation in Israel and Gaza and its impact on the UK Jewish community. The media reports of the event told me a great deal about those who have the loudest voices in the Jewish community. At the meeting there were no cries for justice, no calls for reconciliation, no suggestion of establishing a friendly critique of Israel’s actions. Nobody was in despair at the death of hundreds of children at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces.

Instead, those speaking from the floor called for bigger London rallies in support of Israel, more effective lobbying of the British parliament and better PR on behalf of the Israeli government.

The need of large sections of the Jewish community to feel totally blameless and to maintain a self and public perception of victimhood is incredibly strong. So, at best, we say we are desperately longing for ‘peace’ while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the slightest culpability for ‘war’. And by ‘peace’ we do not mean ‘peace and justice’ but rather ‘peace and quiet’.

And in the meantime, the State that claims to act in our interests (mine included), has created another generation of orphaned, maimed and bereaved children who will struggle to give Israel the benefit of the doubt when they are asked to accept them as genuine partners for peace.

Still, if you live in Siderot or Ashkelon, at least it’s quiet again.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Israel is becoming a pariah state and Jews are threatened and attacked on the streets. But not because they are Jews but because our spiritual and communal leadership and a great many individual Jews too, have chosen to make no distinction between Judaism and Zionism.So, these are the things I learnt during the summer that’s just past.

As we enter the autumn and the days of annual Jewish repentance and spiritual renewal, there is a great deal to reflect upon.

This post first appeared on Robert Cohen’s site, Micah’s Paradigm Shift. 

Why is the United Nations doing business with G4S, notorious prison supplier?

9/27/14

In early September, I accompanied an Iraqi friend to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Amman, Jordan to help register him officially as a refugee. It was a bittersweet day: my friend had reached safety, but he was now registering as a stateless person. I trusted in the United Nations, particularly because of its solid stance against the occupation of Palestine and other human rights abuses, to protect the basic rights of my friend, a journalist, and his family: his young wife and their two delightful children.

Then I noticed something strange: there was a G4S logo on the gate attendant’s shirt. Because of my research on G4S for Friends of Sabeel—North America, I went on alert. I counted still more of the logos on the security cameras. With amazement, I began to realize that G4S was not only offering security for the United Nations office– G4S was also offering an usher-like service, moving people through lines, asking them to show IDs, and operating the entire interface between the UNHCR and the outside world.

G4S guards in Amman, Jordan at UNHCR location

G4S guards in Amman, Jordan at UNHCR location

Later, when I was walking to my home in another neighborhood of Amman, I saw two G4S security guards chatting in front of a nondescript building.

“What is this building?” I asked the guards. “UNDP” was the reply–the United Nations Development Program.

I soon asked a friend working in the United Nations what was going on, and was told that G4S does security at the Syrian refugee camps in Zaatari and Asraq, in Jordan, as well.

 I’m shocked that the United Nations has contracts(pdf)with G4S services.

For those who don’t know, G4S is a British-based multinational security company notorious for supplying Israeli prisons with services and equipment, most notably prisons like Ofer that hold Palestinian children under military detention, often without charge and for lengthy periods.

It is a major contradiction– and frankly and embarrassment– that the United Nations, with its solid stance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the generally commendable work the UN does, would contract with a company participating in violating the very protections the UN offers all people.

The terror and abuse suffered by Palestinian children in Israeli prisons has been well documented (pdf) by numerous organizations working for their protection. They do not receive the same rights as Israeli children. They may be held in solitary confinement, kicked, punched, stripped naked and forced to sign “confessions” for throwing stones at armored vehicles that are invading the children’s own land. They may be held without charge for long periods. They are political prisoners trained at a young age to fear the occupying power and to remain cowed by it.

Recently, G4S itself announced that it will end its Israeli prison contracts, mainly due to pressure from human rights groups.

But promises by multinational corporations are often empty ones. More importantly, the United Nations has a major contract with G4S now, this very moment. And now, this very moment, G4S also has a contract with Israel that makes it complicit in human rights violations against Palestinian children and their parents.

In order to sustain its reputation and moral authority, it is urgent that the United Nations cooperate with the international human rights movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine by agreeing not to renew any contracts with G4S.  Now, this very moment.

Champaign-Urbana holds Rosh Hashanah service for Professor Salaita

9/27/14

CHAMPAIGN – A group of students, faculty and community members from Champaign-Urbana gathered Thursday to observe the Jewish ritual of Tashlich. Tashlich takes place during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and involves a symbolic casting off of sins through the tossing of pebbles or bread crumbs into a natural body of water. In this particular Tashlich service, event leaders used an adapted script from Jewish Voice for Peace that took as its focus the casting off of both personal and collective sins, particularly those of the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the recent firing of Professor Steven Salaita.

The group of roughly 30 participants gathered on a bridge over Boneyard Creek on UIUC’s campus at sundown. Most wore stickers of the sideways letter “I” over their mouths, as in previous protests of the Salaita firing, to symbolize censorship at the university. The stickers used at the Tashlich service, however, contained an image of the Israeli flag inside the sideways “I”, symbolizing the particularly harsh censorship of dissenting views on Israel in particular.

With the reading of each collective sin, the participants tossed a pebble into the creek while responding in unison, “We take responsibility and we will work to make it stop.” The list of sins read aloud were as follows:

1. Allowing the attack, starvation and strangulation of Gaza and allowing the claim to be made that it is no longer occupied.

2. Allowing fear, instead of compassion, to dictate our actions.

3. Becoming pessimistic about the ability of lasting peace and justice to be built in Palestine.

4. Allowing violence against Palestinians to be committed in our name as Jews and as Americans.

5. Not speaking out against anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.

6. Not learning about the diverse experiences of Palestinian peoples.

7. Not fighting for the rights of Israeli Palestinians.

8. Elevating Anti-Semitism above other oppressions and refusing to see its interconnectedness with racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia and xenophobia in our communities.

9. Forgetting that Jews come from many cultural traditions

10. Making invisible and marginalizing Jews of color around the world, including Israel where they are the majority of the population.

11. Being afraid to speak because of stigmatization in our communities.

12. Distancing ourselves from religious practice or religiously observant Jews due to assumptions about what they stand for.

13. Hardening our hearts instead of remembering what it means to be oppressed and dispossessed.

14. Allowing the absence of a Jewish counterweight to Zionism in C-U and UIUC.

15. Feeling powerless in the face of the theft of Palestinian land, the destruction of Palestinian homes and the silencing of Palestinian voices, like that of Professor Steven Salaita.

 

Screen shot 2014-09-26 at 9.15.36 AMThe service, according to its primary organizers, myself and Zack Poppel, represented the beginning of a new, progressive, non-Zionist Jewish group in Champaign-Urbana. The group initially coalesced over the signing of the Jewish Community of UIUC Letter in Support of Our Professor Steven Salaita, in an effort to create a “Jewish front” in the battle to reinstate Steven Salaita.

At the heart of the Salaita controversy lie questions of anti-Semitism and Zionism. The founding members of this group therefore see a very important role for Jewish voices in the conversation over Salaita’s firing. Their letter reads:  “By pointing to anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in an attempt to obscure politically and financially-motivated University actions, you minimize the Jewish voices of those who have resisted real and violent anti-Semitism. By conflating pointed and justified critique of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism, your administration is effectively disregarding a large and growing number of Jewish perspectives that oppose Israeli military occupation, settler expansion, and the assault on Palestine. We did not survive ethnic cleansing and carry on the legacy of our people to have our existence used to justify the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, or their unethical treatment when they speak out against the murder, violence, and displacement of their own people.”

Last night’s service was ultimately a collective commitment by a segment of the the Jewish community in Champaign-Urbana to provide what Poppel called a “Jewish counterweight to Zionism in Champaign-Urbana and at UIUC.” In addition, the group’s formation will provide a previously missing Jewish space for those whose views on Israel don’t align with institutions like Hillel or Chabad.

Jade Bettine, one of the group’s founding members, said of last night’s service, “I really appreciated the opportunity to do something again that I didn’t think would be part of my life any more (Jewish rituals/sing the songs/celebrate the holiday) with a wonderful group of people who are aligned with what I believe and interested in change.”

To get involved in the Champaign-Urbana Progressive Jewish Group (name is provisional), please feel free to join the Google group by e-mailing:CUJewishVoiceForPeaceatgooglegroups [dot] com.

When does ‘Unsustainable’ become ‘Unconscionable’?

9/27/14

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

When does the now approved international mantra that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the stranglehold on Gaza is unsustainable become unconscionable?

Politically. Religiously.

“Unsustainable.” At the United Nations where President Obama invoked it. As we approach Yom Kippur where some Jews, including rabbis, struggle with it.

For too many, the question of Israel – and Gaza – remains “unsustainable” – in theory. For the people of Gaza whose lives are filled with the debris of war, “unsustainable” in translation means death by air – and by sea.

The Malta refugee shipwreck which occurred earlier this month and claimed perhaps 500 lives, several hundred of them Palestinians from Gaza, haunts “unsustainable.” Those attempting to escape Gaza call forth a deeper awareness.

Our political statements and Yom Kippur confessions have to enter these dark waters.

The initial reports of the ships sinking should have been enough to cause people everywhere to sit up and take notice. The war in Gaza continues to claim Palestinian victims. But the reports keep flowing.  The horror deepens.

Below are two excerpts as culled from the testimony of survivors. They aren’t easy to read. But then politics and confession when attentive to history is rarely easy.

On his third day at sea near the coast of Malta, Shukri al-Assouli began to hallucinate. He saw streets, houses and his mother, who greeted him with a smile back at home in the Gaza Strip. He wore the life vest of a man who had drowned and clung to an empty metal container. He then started to lose his strength. Exposure to the salt water had discolored his skin, his arms and legs had grown numb from the cold water and his fight to keep from drowning. Finally, a freighter ship saw them and pulled Assouli and five other survivors from the water. He thought it was a hallucination. “I had already figured I was going to die,” he says.

Assouli was flown by helicopter to the port city of Chania in Crete, where he spent five days in the hospital. He makes his way down the clinic hallway with unsteady footsteps, his eyes are reddened and the wrinkles on his forehead are furrowed. Although he’s been saved, he has also lost everything. He buries his head in his hands and cries. “How could the Europeans allow a crime like that to happen?” he asks. “Where is my wife? Where are my children?”

In all likelihood, his wife and children are now dead. It is a fate shared by almost all of the passengers who boarded the boat in Damietta, Egypt, which then capsized off the coast of Malta four days later on Sept. 6. Most were from the Palestinian territories, but passengers also hailed from Egypt, Syria and Sudan. They were pulled into the water, carried off by the current and sucked into the Mediterranean. By Friday, only 10 survivors had been found. Two were taken to Sicily, two to Malta and six to Crete…

Continuing:

After he paid, Shukri al-Assouli, his wife and their children were taken to Alexandria, Egypt. Their smugglers locked them in an apartment where they had to wait for several days. Then they were picked up in a minivan and passengers were taken in groups of 20 in a rubber dinghy to the ship, which was anchored at the waterfront. Al-Assouli says the cutter, which was overcrowded, wasn’t even 20 meters long. He says there were many women and around a hundred children on board. It was so cramped he couldn’t even stretch out his legs. As the ship began to move, it swayed and al-Assouli became seasick. His daughter cried and said, “I want to go back to my grandma.” He tried to comfort his children. “Don’t be afraid, we’ll soon be in Europe,” he said.

After four days at sea, another ship showed up that was also carrying smugglers. The men evidently needed the cutter and wanted to transport the refugees for the final miles of the journey in a smaller boat. The passengers refused. In response, the smugglers rammed the cutter without any warning, Assouli says. “We didn’t have any time to react.” A hole quickly developed in the side of the ship and the cutter filled with water within minutes. The 300 people who had been below decks had no time to escape and drown immediately. Assouli called out to his wife and children but couldn’t find them.

After the ship sank, around 80 survivors had to fend for themselves in the cold sea. The few survivors who were actually wearing life vests formed a circle and tried to help the others stay afloat. On the third day at sea, the weather grew inclement and the waves swelled until they were meters high.

“Each hour we lost another person to the sea,” says Abdelmazid Alhila, 24, another survivor. His arms are sunburned and his face full of scars. On the boat he met Mohamed Raad, 25. Neither had brought anything with them to eat, but they did have life vests. On the open sea, they clenched on to one another. Raad began hallucinating and almost took his life vest off. They urinated into bottles and drank from them. They also had to look on as one refugee after the other drowned and as mothers let their babies slide into the water when they ran out of energy. Alhila claims that four ships passed by but none stopped. “They just left us to die.” Both men had fled Gaza after their homes had been destroyed in bombing attacks. They knew the journey would be dangerous, but they didn’t anticipate just how bad it would be.

“Each hour we lost another person to the sea” – perhaps this should be the UN basis for their sessions and the Jewish refrain for the High Holidays.

Lost to sea because of a variety of circumstances and corruptions it is true. Misery attracts corrupt company.

But where did this ship’s fateful voyage actually begin? Did it begin with the Israeli invasion of Gaza this summer? The Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2012? The Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009? Israel’s decades-long occupation/blockade of Gaza? The Arab-Israeli war in 1967? The 1948 war when Gaza became overwhelmingly populated by refugees from Israel’s creation?

You see the creation of Israel and the destruction of Palestine has been “unsustainable” from the outset. So it remains and will continue. Until it becomes unconscionable.

Will the world act then or will “unconscionable” become yet another excuse for inaction?

Palestinian problem is central to region but Israelis control U.S. policy — Brahimi

9/27/14

In The Nation, Barbara Crossette interviews Lakhdar Brahimi, 80, the Algerian who served as a leading diplomat for the United Nations over a couple of decades, including as the lead Syrian negotiator. Brahimi makes it clear that the U.S. Palestinian policy is at the heart of our problems in the Middle East. He refers to the Israel lobby as a “formidable machine” that will overcome U.S. efforts to be fair; he watched it foil Obama and Kerry’s efforts. Obama was supposed to be the world’s president, but Israel controls U.S. policy re Palestinians.

To add to the skepticism, despair and alienation across the region, Brahimi says, is the corrosive, unconditional American support of Israel despite its unending land grabs and military assaults on Palestinians, most recently in the attacks on Gaza this summer. It was outrageous that the reaction in Congress and from President Obama to the most recent carnage and death was prefaced with the time-worn expression “Israel has the right to defend itself,” Brahimi said, adding that the lack of sensitivity to the hugely imbalanced casualty figures—more than 2,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza compared with sixty-eight Israelis, almost all of them soldiers, according to United Nations figures—seemed to imply that “Gazans are not human.”

“I generally don’t like to speak about countries,” said Brahimi, usually a consummate diplomat who was Algeria’s foreign minister from 1991–93, “but [Obama] is not the president of the United States only. He’s a kind of president of the world. I still remember his Cairo speech in 2009. That was an inspired and inspiring speech. So looking back at that speech, definitely we are disappointed.”

Brahimi, now 80, speaking in an interview from his home in Paris, said that, like it or not, “the Palestinian issue is still important for all of us in this region. This is a very, very big part of the story. Anything on the Palestinian issue is decided by the Israelis. It is a mistake to go to the Americans: Please come and help us with this problem. They cannot. They are not allowed to. We need Americans. They have a huge role to play. But they cannot be an honest broker.” Not that there have never been laudable American efforts to find solutions, he said.

“I had an opportunity to hear [Secretary of State] John Kerry speak of what he was trying to do to help solve that [Palestinian] problem,” Brahimi said. “That was just over one year ago. I was profoundly impressed at how much work he had put into the exercise, how he was genuinely trying to be fair and impartial. But I had no illusions: the present Israeli Government and the formidable machine supporting them in the US. shall not allow him to succeed. That is why I say the US cannot be an honest broker.” He recalls the day when Condoleezza Rice, as secretary of state, was forced to veto a resolution on the Middle East that she had personally negotiated in the Security Council after Washington got a call from Israel opposing the measure.

Condoleezza Rice told the story about that come-down in her memoir, No Higher Honor. It was an abstention, not a veto, of  a resolution she had written. Elliott Abrams writes in his memoir that he found Rice’s resolution “shameful,” and Abrams carried the day at the White House even as Rice railed. “What’s wrong with this language, she asked; she did not see what [Ehud] Olmert was screaming about.” So an Israeli P.M. had more power than our secretary of state.

This piece is a challenge to David Remnick, who joked years ago that if only the I/P situation were fixed, Osama bin Laden would go back into the family construction business. Why not try and fix it and see what good would flow?

Thanks to James North, who writes about petroleum dictatorships for The Nation this week.

Burke and Lincoln would have hated the special relationship

9/27/14

In the last few days three stories have broken that make the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel appear more insidious and threatening than ever.

First was the report that Edward Snowden had flown the coop in some measure because of the special relationship between the countries, the fact that “the N.S.A. was routinely passing along the private communications of Americans to a large and very secretive Israeli military organization.” Some of this private data was apparently used to blackmail Palestinians to collaborate with Israel; though Scott Horton suggested when he was interviewing reporter James Bamford that Israel could also use the information against American politicians. We can only guess.

Second was the disclosure that the son of David Brooks, the neoconservative New York Times columnist who pushed the Iraq war, is serving in the Israeli army; and in an interview with the Jewish Journal, Brooks speaks of himself as an Israeli: “every Israeli parent understands this is what the circumstances require.” As I reported, Brooks is now the third writer at the NYT to have a son in the Israeli army.

Third is Glenn Greenwald’s revelation about a neoconservative U.S. lobbying firm “composed of former high-ranking Treasury officials from both parties… working hand in hand with neocon journalists to publicly trash a new enemy of Israel,” Qatar. “This is the bizarre neocon/Israel/Gulf-dictator coalition now driving not only U.S. policy but, increasingly, U.S. discourse as well.” Greenwald uses the word neoconservative, not Zionist, but this is a story about Zionist ideology: it would appear that three principals of the lobbying firm who worked at Treasury are Jewish Zionists, and two of them formerly worked with Steve Emerson, the Muslim-bashing Zionist.

What these stories all say is that American and Israeli political cultures are commingled in a way that Walt and Mearsheimer only scratched the surface of when they wrote their book on the Israel lobby seven years ago. For some officials, there is a thorough confusion of national interests. The boundary between the U.S. and Israel has been erased by our own officials– the same erasure that allowed Israel to restock its ammunition from American suppliers during the Gaza massacre without the approval of the White House.

In the Brooks case, we have one of the most thoughtful columnists in the U.S., who styles himself a Burkean conservative, but who has made such a thorough migration to Israeli consciousness that he speaks of himself as an Israeli parent. This is precisely the self-definition asked of Jews everywhere by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

David Brooks is actually interested in the question of how to lead a meaningful life. He really owes it to his readers to explain why he has made this personal migration, and what it says about Jewish life in America and the dual loyalty charge against Zionism that his son is fighting for a foreign country and not in the wars that Brooks has prescribed for his own country.

The larger crisis these stories suggest is that we have reached a pass where some segment of the American power structure truly cannot distinguish between our country’s concerns and Israel’s, and as a result is incapable of sorting out Israel’s war with its neighbors from U.S. interests. Our politicians routinely go over there on the Israel lobby’s dime and come back praising murderers. A bloc at Treasury merged the two countries’ pathways, surely with a religious nationalist understanding, just as a bloc of neocon ideologues that had served Netanyahu showed up at the Pentagon to push the Iraq war. Just as Stuart Levey, who extolled the “Zionist dream,” pursued Israel’s enemies at Treasury under Bush and was reappointed by Obama.

Rep Steve Israel: "Inspecting an Israeli M48 tank with [Nassau County executive Ed Mangano] @ Museum For American Armor in Old Bethpage."

Rep Steve Israel: “Inspecting an Israeli M48 tank with [Nassau County executive Ed Mangano] @ Museum For American Armor in Old Bethpage.”

Burke and Lincoln would hate the special relationship. Lately I’ve been reading David Bromwich’s book of essays, Moral Imagination. Bromwich is a Yale scholar of Lincoln and Burke and he quotes two passages from those writers that are about the corruption brought about in a society when people become too familiar with a debased foreign institution.

Lincoln spoke of the way that slavery ruins good people, in a speech at Kalamazoo, August 27, 1856:

We will suppose that there are ten men who go into Kansas to settle. Nine of these are opposed to slavery. One has ten slaves. The slaveholder is a good man in other respects; he is a good neighbor and being a wealthy man, he is enabled to do the others many neighborly kindnesses. They like the man, though they don’t like the system by which he holds his fellow-men in bondage. And here let me say, that in intellectual and physical structure, our Southern brethren do not differ from us. They are, like us, subject to passions, and it is only their odious institution of slavery, that makes the breach between us. These ten men of whom I was speaking, live together three or four years; they intermarry; their family ties are strengthened. And who wonders that in time, the people learn to look upon slavery with complacency? This is the way in which slavery is planted, and gains so firm a foothold.

The same is true of the U.S. relationship with Israel, an occupier and persecutor (which enslaves another people). When your schools are filled with Israel Studies Departments, when your progressive mayor and governor are kissing the behinds of Israelis, when an Israeli university and an American one are building a new campus together in NYC, when your leading newspaper has three of its reporters’ sons fighting for that country, when a leading senator is bellowing at a leading capitalist to support Israel — the U.S. learns to look upon Palestinian slavery with complacency.

The second passage is even more to the point. In the 1780s it was understood that the government of India was corrupt due to the operations of the British East India Company. A member of Parliament, Burke first opposed interfering in the company’s business as an “intrusion on a corporate charter,” but changed his mind and took the “radical step” of seeking to place the company under government control because it was corrupting England, Bromwich writes.

Burke gave a famous speech on the matter in 1783 in which he lamented the many ways that England was socially welcoming men who were persecuting people in India:

Arrived in England, the destroyers of the nobility and gentry of a whole kingdom will find the best company in this nation, at a board of elegance and hospitality. Here the manufacturer and husbandman will bless the just and punctual hand that in India has torn the cloth from the loom, or wrested the scanty portion of rice and salt from the peasant of Bengal, or wrung from him the very opium in which he forgot his oppressions and his oppressor. They marry into your families; they enter into your senate; they ease your estates by loans; they raise their value by demand; they cherish and protect your relations which lie heavy on your patronage; and there is scarcely a house in the kingdom that does not feel some concern and interest, that makes all reform of our eastern government appear officious and disgusting; and, on the whole, a most discouraging attempt. In such an attempt you hurt those who are able to return kindness, or to resent injury. If you succeed, you save those who cannot so much as give you thanks. All these things show the difficulty of the work we have on hand; but they show its necessity too. Our Indian government is in its best state a grievance. It is necessary that the corrective should be uncommonly vigorous; and the work of men, sanguine, warm, and even impassioned in the cause. But it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.

Israeli government is at best a “grievance” for Palestinians. But Israel has thoroughly penetrated the American public sphere; and all attempts at reform seem disgusting, because they would involve hurting those we know and helping the strangers over there.

These passages both leave me dispirited. We’ve come further than the non-slave-owners of Kansas or the hosts of the Indian despots in England. Those of us in Palestinian solidarity know that it’s an arduous thing to plead against abuses of power originating from our own country. But what choice do we have?