US-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition Emboldens Iran and Alienates Allies

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with more than 20 foreign defense chiefs to discuss the coalition efforts in the ongoing campaign against ISIL at Joint Base Andrews in Washington (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque).

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations on September 29, he had a number of concerns on his mind, but one stood out above the rest. He feared that President Obama was downgrading the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. “To defeat [the Islamic State] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” Netanyahu said in the most quotable line of his speech, “is to win the battle and lose the war.”

Netanyahu had good reason to sound the alarm. An examination of Obama’s recent moves in the Middle East reveals that he has exploited the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in order to increase cooperation with Iran in matters of regional security. Of course, administration officials dismiss any suggestion that they are “coordinating” with the Iranians militarily. In their next breath, however, they grudgingly concede otherwise—acknowledging, for example, that we provided advance notice to Tehran of the anti-IS coalition’s bombing plans in Syria. They also acknowledge opening “a quiet backchannel” to Tehran in order to “de-conflict” Iranian and American operations in Iraq.

Indeed, “de-conflict” is the favored euphemism of the moment. “No, we’re not going to coordinate,” Secretary of State Kerry said in reference to Iran’s client Bashar Assad and the military campaign against IS. “We will certainly want to de-conflict, . . . but we’re not going to coordinate.”

Too clever by half, this distinction is hardly lost on America’s traditional allies in the region, all of whom regard the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria and Hizballah, as their primary enemy. Middle East media are replete with stories of backroom deals between Washington and Tehran. Given the enormous gap between what the Americans are claiming in public about Iran and what they are seen to be doing in private, even the false reports carry an air of plausibility.

Khamenei the Silent Partner

No less a personage than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently joked about the hypocrisy. Emerging from a hospital stay for surgery, he said he’d amused himself during his convalescence by keeping track of the lies of American officials who, while disclaiming any appeals for Iranian assistance, were privately begging for help. Even John Kerry, he delighted in adding, had approached the Iranian foreign minister with cap in hand—the very same Kerry who had piously announced “in front of the whole world, ‘We will not request help from Iran.’”

According to Khamenei, Iran has rejected all of the American requests. But Tehran has indeed permitted operational coordination—sorry, “de-confliction”—with the United States. In effect, Khamenei has set Iran up as America’s silent partner in the Middle East, and Kerry himself, at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, testified to the value the administration places on this partnership. Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio about glaring deficiencies in the American strategy against IS, Kerry offered a stunning defense. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on [IS],” he lectured Rubio. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”

Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States. This line of reasoning has a long history, as one can detect by reading between the lines of Leon Panetta’s new memoir, Worthy Fights. Panetta, who served Obama both as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, recounts how he and his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) fought with the president over the American endgame in Iraq. Urged by the NSC to reach an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for American troops to remain in the country, the president refused. Why? Obama, Panetta explained in a recent interview, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on” the role of stabilizing Iraq.

Which others? Panetta did not specify, but Obama undoubtedly assumed that Iran, the obvious candidate, would see Iraqi stability as in its own self-interest. It was a severe miscalculation. The precipitous departure of the American forces, Panetta argues in his book, removed the United States as a bulwark against Shiite sectarianism and led ineluctably to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis—developments that (as Panetta omits to point out) took place under the sheltering umbrella of Iranian power.

Obama Alienating Regional Allies

Later, when civil war broke out in Syria, Obama’s policy was similarly deferential to Tehran, and with similar consequences. In 2012, he rejected another unanimous recommendation of the NSC: this time, to aid the Syrian rebels. It was the same advice he’d received from America’s allies in the Middle East, who grew ever more insistent as it became clear that Iranian intervention was giving Bashar Assad the upper hand. But Obama held his ground and, in doing so, effectively recognized Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest and hence inviolate.

Of course, Obama has never described his calculus in such terms. But he has hinted at it—by, for example, expressing his opposition to American participation in a Sunni-Shiite “proxy war,” which is nothing if not a synonym for a war against Iran.

Impolitic recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden testify further to the astounding bias in the Obama administration against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East. Discussing the Syrian civil war, Biden developed at length the theme that “our biggest problem is our allies”—even as, on the ground in Syria, coalition military operations against IS are indirectly strengthening those allies’ enemies, starting with Assad. In the words of an American official quoted in the New York Times, “It would be silly for [Assad’s forces] not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes. . . . Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”

In the past, to assuage America’s allies who were angry at the pro-Iranian bias in U.S. policy, Obama pledged to build up the anti-Assad rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he never really followed through on his pledge. Now he is playing the same tattered card in order to enhance the coalition against IS. But General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, has made the insincerity transparent by stating that training and equipping the FSA “could take years”—in other words, until after Obama has left office.

What would it take for Obama to change course? Here, Turkey has assumed the lead. If the American leader wants Turkey as a full-fledged ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted, then he must agree to oust Syria’s Assad. This demand places Obama in a difficult bind. If he fails to gain Turkey as a true partner, the coalition against IS will be hollow at its core. But he has explicitly dedicated himself to avoiding the kind of large-scale war that Turkey requires of him.

More to the point, meeting Turkey’s demand would also entail scuttling the administration’s silent partnership with Iran in Syria—a move that Tehran, for its part, would not take sitting down and might counter by, for instance, bringing Israel under attack. Indeed, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently revealed, Tehran has directly warned that efforts by the U.S. or its allies to topple Bashar Assad would place Israel at risk. Hizballah’s October 7 attack on Israeli forces, its first declared such operation since 2006, proves the seriousness of the threat.

Nuclear Negotiations

And Iran has other means of retaliation as well, for instance by adopting an even more recalcitrant position in the current negotiations over its nuclear program. By all accounts, those negotiations are failing. With no agreement expected before November 24, the expiration date of last year’s interim deal, Khamenei can contemplate several possible courses of action. He might, for example, extend the interim deal in return for a reward in the form of further relief from sanctions. That would at least allow Obama to buy time. But what if Khamenei were instead to demand an even more exorbitant reward, or threaten to abandon negotiations altogether?

Either of those choices would deeply complicate Obama’s life, precisely at the moment when the war against IS grows ever more burdensome. Whatever Khamenei chooses, it is he, not Obama, who now holds the initiative.

In brief, our silent partnership with Tehran has simultaneously emboldened Tehran and other enemies and alienated our allies: the very same allies who are vital to subduing IS. In the meantime, that silent partnership not only has done nothing for us, it has considerably weakened our hand—and that of its main proponent, Barack Obama. Yet he shows no sign of considering alternative strategies. No wonder Netanyahu sounded the alarm in New York.

Editor's Note: This article by Michael Doran was originally published on Mosaic Magazine under the headline “The Silent Partnership,” on Wednesday, October 15, 2014.


Image Source: © Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Academic institutions that violate academic freedom deserve to be boycotted


In an otherwise excellent recent article exploring the various ways that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) violated the law in rescinding its offer to Dr. Steven Salaita for his impassioned Twitter posts opposing Israel’s latest Gaza War, Law Professor Michael C. Dorf writes:

The case is rich in irony and apparent hypocrisy on both sides. Less than a year ago, Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise reaffirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom as a “core principle” in touting “the critical importance of the ability of faculty to pursue learning, discovery and engagement without regard to political considerations.” That statement was issued to explain why the university opposed an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. Salaita, for his part, has been an outspoken supporter of that boycott.

Nonetheless, Salaita’s case is—or should be—relatively easy. Academic freedom and freedom of speech protect all viewpoints, even those that are hostile to academic freedom or freedom of speech.

The argument, oft repeated, is that Dr. Salaita’s writings in support of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions violate the very principles of academic freedom, which he now seeks to invoke to defend himself.

This argument fundamentally misunderstands the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. In fact, all you have to do to realize this, is to take a look at the ongoing response of academics across disciplines to UIUC’s unjust, unwarranted, and probably illegal firing of Dr. Salaita.

As of this writing, over 5000 scholars have committed not to give lectures, participate in conferences, or visit UIUC until they reverse their decision to fire Dr. Salaita. As explained in the largest of these statements, the boycott of UIUC is motivated by the principle that:

academic freedom and the protection of First Amendment rights to free speech, and a commitment to fairness and transparency in all academic procedures and practices, including faculty hires and other labor practices, form the foundations of the American public higher educational system

The logic here is simple. Academic freedom is a bedrock principle that must be honored by any university as part of its mission of furthering research and education. If an academic institution should violate this sacred trust, scholars will respond by refusing to participate in the life of the university. Put otherwise: the firing of Dr. Salaita is not business as usual and we will not conduct business as usual with UIUC until they repair this basic social wrong.

As with all boycotts, UIUC will suffer as a result. Students and faculty at UIUC, although they are not personally subject to the boycott, will have fewer opportunities to interact with world-class scholars, participate in the free exchange of ideas, and participate in the sorts of conferences which are the lifeblood of great universities. These consequences, unfortunate though they may be, are not just the collateral cost of any successful boycott. They are the means by which individual scholars can exert pressure on institutions and policies. Refusing to collaborate with UIUC while it blatantly violates First Amendment rights and principles of shared governance is therefore not a violation of academic freedom. It is the logical response by those committed to this basic ethical principle.

The academic boycott of Israeli universities follows a similar logic. The boycott was launched by a group of Palestinian intellectuals and scholars in 2004. It is one component of the larger call from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations to boycott, divest from, and enact sanctions against Israel in response to its repeated violations of Palestinians basic human rights. The academic boycott asks scholars not to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions, though they remain free to collaborate on research and writing projects with individual Israeli scholars, so long as they do not represent the state of Israel or a complicit organization. (PACBI’s recently revised guidelines can be viewed here).

An academic boycott, responding to the call from Palestinian civil society groups, targets Israeli universities for their direct complicity in the ongoing occupation of Palestine and their active contributions in violating the basic human rights. Israeli institutions are complicit in at least three ways:

First, Israeli academic institutions participate directly in the occupation. Some, like Ariel University and parts of Hebrew University in Jerusalem are built directly upon occupied Palestinian lands. Others, like Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University, or the Technion develop the technological capacities and military doctrines that are used in the occupied Palestinian territories. Finally, some institutions – most notably the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya – have set up programs where students gain course credit for defending the state’s wars and policies to an increasingly skeptical public. Amongst the targets of these doctrines and technologies are Palestinian universities, which have been regularly targeted by the Israeli state.

Second, Israeli academic institutions actively discriminate against their own Palestinian students. All Israeli universities provide preferential admissions, scholarship, and even housing to those who have served in the army. Because the vast majority of Palestinians do not do military service for the self-avowed “Jewish State,” they are de facto discriminated against at all educational levels.

Finally – and most relevant when comparing the academic boycott of Israel to that of UIUC – Israeli universities regularly retaliate against those who express dissenting viewpoints. To give one recent example: During the latest Gaza War, Ariel University (located in an illegal settlement) fired Dr. Amir Hetsroni, immediately after he published an op-ed in Haaretz criticizing Israeli universities for retaliating against those who did not support the war. At the same Bar-Ilan University took no disciplinary action against Prof. Mordechai Kedar who argued that Palestinian “terrorists” would be deterred is if their mothers and sisters were raped.

The parallels with recent events in southern Illinois are so striking that Dr. Juan Cole (a professor of history at University of Michigan and the author of a popular blog) has dubbed Dr. Hetsroni “the Israeli version of Steven Salaita”. But in the Israeli case, the response of the university has been even more despicable. Following his firing, the Chancellor of Ariel University did not hide behind the “civility defense,” as his counterpart at UIUC did. Instead, he simply declared that any and all students or faculty who participate in his university must “confirm [their] loyalty to the state.” At Ariel University, academic freedom is granted only to those who can pass this McCarthyism test.

This is no isolated incident: During the Gaza war, universities suspended students and withdrew scholarships from those who criticized the state on their own Facebook pages. Nor is this a particularly recent phenomenon. In the past, Israeli universities have canceled student events, arrested peaceful student demonstrations, and prevented scholars from participating in conferences all due to their dissenting political views. Politicians even came close to shutting down the entire Department of Government and Politics at Ben Gurion University over the political views of its professors. The department narrowly avoided this fate, but only after it agreed to alter its curriculum and hire “state friendly” researchers to mollify its critics. It is no exaggeration to say that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Salaitas in Israel today. Thus, while some Israeli scholars have been strong critics of Israel, universities have repeatedly moved to censure and discipline dissent.

A boycott of Israeli institutions is not the sort of action that we call for lightly. Yet the participation of Israeli universities in violating the basic human, educational, and academic rights of Palestinians and their allies leaves us no other choice. The consistency and gravity of these offenses require an immediate and effective response. We can and should work with the few individual Israeli academics who oppose their universities’ and their state’s ongoing crimes.  For example, see this recent statement by Israeli anthropologists who also defend the right of other anthropologists to discuss an academic boycott. Some Israeli scholars have also publically supported an academic boycott. But formally collaborating with these institutions can only serve to legitimize their illegitimate actions and policies. Until those policies change, we cannot allow ourselves to conduct business as usual. Whether in Urbana-Champaign or in Palestine-Israel, academic freedom must extend to all, regardless of their ethnicity or political beliefs.

Opponents of the academic boycott like to pretend that BDS supporters target Israeli universities for crimes that are beyond their control. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As long as Israeli academic institutions participate in the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, discriminate against Palestinian students, and punish those who would dissent, they too must be boycotted. Academic freedom must apply to all. When an institution – be it UIUC or the Israeli university system – blatantly violates this principle, it is not only our right but it is the duty of all who believe in academic freedom to pressure these institutions to uphold the basic ethics of any scholarly institution. Doing so is a defense of, not an attack on, academic freedom.

The ice floe


Almost invariably when I go into an organized Jewish space consisting of people my generation and older I run away with despair. I see that the critique of Jewish nationalism-and-return that is gaining urgency among Jewish youth is not taking place here. The American awakening to Palestinian rights that I follow with such breathless anticipation isn’t registering here. The organized Jewish community is reactionary on a central human rights issue of our time, they might as well be leading white southerners in the 1950s. Criticism of Israel is a criticism of their decisions and life work, so they dismiss it.

That was my experience on Sunday when I went to a screening hosted by two local bodies, the Beacon Hebrew Alliance and the Philipstown Reform Synagogue in the Hudson valley, of a documentary called My So-Called Enemy about a dialogue project between Palestinian and Israeli Jewish girls that unfolds over 7 or 8 years beginning in 2002.

The best thing about the film is that it demonstrates the pointlessness of dialogue projects. The Israeli girls get to emote a lot about the wrongness of the separation wall but sure enough they are in uniform at the end and one is smiling at her adolescent career as “radical leftist.” The Palestinian girls are still under occupation and watching Cast Lead in fear or standing at checkpoints or emigrating to Jordan or the U.S. Nothing has changed. The only thing the dialogue does is make the dialogue project leader Melodye Feldman and the Israelis feel that they’ve done something to end the conflict when they’ve done nothing. Though the Israeli girls do have the exquisite sensitivity to take off their uniforms when they are having a reunion with the good Palestinian girls. (The bad ones aren’t interested in the charade; and the film portrays one of them as hateful and religiously fundamentalist).

After the film, we had a chiefly inter-Jewish dialogue led by Rabbi Brent Spodek, who is formerly of B’nai Jeshurun and is active in Encounter, an American Zionist group that seeks to educate American Jews about Palestine so that they can “absorb” the Palestinian narrative. Spodek had us read aloud a sheet called a “covenant for communicating” that urged us not to interrupt or slander but respect difference of opinion and that surely reflects apprehension about battles that have raged inside Jewish congregations over the conflict. But at our little Hudson River gathering there was no division to speak of, beside my rising upset. Everyone seemed to agree this is the answer, dialogue. One woman said she had had a dream 50 years ago that everyone really didn’t hate each other over there! Someone said she really didn’t understand what a Palestinian was till she had seen the film, now she knows that they “feel” the land was theirs. One man said the girls were courageous and someone else said that Gal and Rezam and Rayan are in our hearts now and the rabbi said that it was like a misunderstanding between a married couple. Two older men said the film demonstrated the importance of having a Jewish state because of the anti-Semitism out there, because Jews in France feel unsafe and are leaving. There was one statement I found moving. A man who said he was the chief health officer for the county and whose parents were in concentration camps said that his son in the US Embassy in Israel had married a Palestinian and he’d been against it, “emphatically,” but now he recognized how wrong he was, as his daughter-in-law stroked his back affectionately. The only way to end the conflict is for the two sides to mingle, he said.

But no one made a political statement about Israel and Palestine, because politics involves assessments of power and ours was an entitled group that does not want to see itself as responsible for suffering. Spodek prodded the group to say why the conflict matters in the lovely place we live; but no one pointed out that the Palestinians regard a Jewish state as obnoxious to exactly the degree that every Jew in the room would oppose a Christian state here. No one said a word about an occupation in which millions of Palestinians have no rights. No one mentioned Jewish and Arab “nationality” on i.d. cards. The man whose son married a Palestinian didn’t say that two people from different religions cannot marry in Israel. No one pointed out that as the film ends with Cast Lead, when hundreds of Palestinian children were killed so that Israel could mow the lawn in Gaza, we just emerged from Operation Protective Edge, when hundreds of Palestinians children were killed so that Israel could mow the lawn in Gaza.

At the end Rabbi Spodek described leading frightening tours of Hebron with Melissa Weintraub of Encounter, but he did not say that there’s apartheid in Hebron. He only said that maybe Jews need to let go of some of our security concerns, and the trust will be returned. I was going to shout about apartheid at that moment, or about the laws against civil marriage, or the religious “nationality” that we would find so offensive; but it would have violated the rule against interruption.

Also I found that I did not respect the group. Our country is now well into an education process on the issue; but the organized Jewish community cut a deal with Zionism long ago and is stuck in that understanding. This group I’d visited was a liberal one. They’re not rightwing Zionists. But really what is the difference? They know nothing about the conflict except that we Jews have the right to a just-in-case state halfway round the world. They insulate themselves from criticism with cultural mechanisms of self-validation that verge on paranoia. They are generally incurious about Palestinian experience. They have hardened themselves to the killings of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza through empty political slogans about Islam and security that if Christians were mouthing them they would brand as fascist.

It is a waste of time to organize in that community. A Jew who cares about these things must stand on the street with Jews Say No or stand with the critical Jews of JVP and Open Hillel. These folks are on an ice floe that is wandering into the mists of delusion and emptiness and the best you can hope is that some jump back into history while they can. They reflect the Israeli paralysis. As Nathan Thrall showed in his piece on Ari Shavit in the London Review of Books, there’s not really much diversity inside the Israeli establishment, it has turned right and hardline and finds a “liberal” explainer in Shavit. Once you say that you are for Israel as a Jewish state you find yourself in a coalition with people who defend ethnic cleansing and are unsure about the wisdom of withdrawing from the territories. That’s the broad center of Israeli society now. You can take that on but you have to oppositional. You can’t do it from the heart of Israeli society and you can’t do it from the heart of Jewish life. They’re not interested.

Junot Díaz comes out in support of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel

(Image: Mondoweiss)

(Image: Mondoweiss)

One month ago Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz made headlines when he called on the Brooklyn Book Festival to reject sponsorship from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Two weeks later he expanded on this during a lecture at Clark University where he commented on the pressure scholars feel who speak out for Palestine, and shared how his personal history brings him to supper the Palestinian people. Now Díaz has come out in support of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel sent out the following press release today saying that Díaz joins Chuck D and Boots Riley as prominent artists who have recently endorsed the boycott:

Leading U.S. intellectuals, writers, and hip hop artists have recently added their voices in support of the Palestinian civil society call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in protest of Israel’s systematic abuses of Palestinian human rights and violations of international law.

This week, New York Times best-selling author Junot Díaz, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and won the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant,” endorsed the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

In a statement to USACBI, Díaz said, “If there exists a moral arc to the universe, then Palestine will eventually be free. But that promised day will never arrive unless we, the justice-minded peoples of our world, fight to end the cruel blight of the Israeli occupation. Our political, religious and economic leaders have always been awesome at leading our world into conflict, only we the people alone with little else but our courage and our solidarities and our invincible hope can lead our world into peace.” Díaz now becomes one of the most visible and decorated American writers to support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Hip hop superstar Chuck D, of the groundbreaking group Public Enemy, also recently signaled his endorsement of USACBI. In July, he joined a number of prominent global activists, including Angela Davis and Roger Waters, appearing in a video titled “Standing Up for Palestinian Rights.” Additionally, another star from the orbit of politically progressive African American music, Boots Riley, has endorsed the academic and cultural boycott call. Riley’s band The Coup is known for lyrics linking the oppression of African Americans and Palestinians, as in the song “The Shipment.”

The endorsements of the academic and cultural boycott call by prominent African American artists and activists comes at an important moment of Black/Palestinian solidarity in the U.S. Last weekend in Ferguson, Palestinians and allies marched alongside thousands of activists from across the country, including radical theologian and activist Cornel West, to protest the killing of Mike Brown and stand against police brutality.

These recent endorsements help bring the number of cultural workers who have signed the petition for cultural boycott of Israel to more than 370. The petition is sponsored by USACBI and can be accessed here. In addition, more than 1,200 academics have signed the USACBI call to boycott Israeli universities. Half a dozen academic professional organizations in the past year, including the Association of Asian American Studies, American Studies Association, and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, have also formally endorsed the academic boycott.


‘Another Jew!’ Speakers at ‘Klinghoffer’ rally blame Jews for promoting anti-Semitism


Last night about 300 pro-Israel protesters gathered on Broadway opposite the Metropolitan Opera in New York to denounce the opening of the opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which deals with the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jew, in 1985 by Palestinian militants.

Three speakers at the rally blamed Jews for fostering anti-Semitism by producing the opera. Though these speakers were themselves Jewish, they ascribed a new wave of anti-Semitism to American Jews. Another speaker, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, rose to deplore this theme, saying that it was itself anti-Semitic. But two of the speakers ignored him, as they followed him to the microphone with statements blaming Jews.

Let’s hear their words.

First, Leonard Weiss, a former patron of the Metropolitan Opera who helped fund the demonstration, singled out the Jewishness of some of those supporting the production, which he said was blatantly anti-Semitic:

I could not believe that [Met general manager] Peter Gelb himself a Jew would have chosen that opera to appear at the Met… I assume the Met’s Music Director James Levine, another Jew, approved this decision, although Levine has been strangely silent about this choice.

Weiss also slammed the opera’s librettist Alice Goodman, “an apostate Jew, who has been viciously anti-semitic and anti-Israel.”

Though Weiss did not mention their Jewishness directly, his roll of shame included: the Sulzberger family, owners of The New York Times, who “have a history going back to World War II of ignoring anti-semitic activities worldwide, including the Holocaust” and whose new corporate headquarters is reminiscent of the “Goebbels and Stalin propaganda ministries;” and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who Weiss said has forgotten that his organization was set up to “prevent defamation of Jews in all times and all places.”

Soon after that, Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier of the Fifth avenue synagogue came to the stage and began his remarks by objecting to what Leonard Weiss had said:

Since I’m standing here, I feel an obligation to say that highlighting the Jewishness of individuals whose misdeeds have nothing to do with their Judaism is something that antisemites do. I think that we should refrain from doing so at this rally, as well.

But after him, Lauri Regan, a leader of EMET, the Endowment for Middle East Truth, spoke, and she hopped right back on blaming Jews:

We are also mourning the death of the saying Never again, for when Peter Gelb, a Jew, chooses to produce an opera in the city with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel…  we should all mourn the sad state of our people.

Regan said that Gelb was no different from Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas in glorifying terrorists who murder Jews, and that “Israel is demonized the world over by anti-Semitism couched as anti-Zionism” and that this represents a physical threat to American Jews. “Peter Gelb,” she said, “is no different from pre-World War 2 German Jews who enjoyed attending concerts listening to the anti-Semitic Wagner,” whose influence led to murderous anti-Semitism pervading the arts.

And Regan related that when her son wrote a paper in 8th grade denouncing Palestinian terrorists, “his teacher Mr Friedman circled the word terrorist.”

He said, “Be careful with your word choice, one country’s terrorist is another country’s heroes.” This is what our children are being taught by fellow Jews.

The lesson? Anti-Semitism wasn’t just a problem in the Mid East and Europe, “it is being mainstreamed, it is flourishing” — because of the actions of American Jews.

Librettist Alice Goodman

Librettist Alice Goodman

Regan was soon followed by Beth Gilinsky of the Jewish Action Alliance. She called on the demonstrators to shame Abe Foxman and Peter Gelb as “arrogant” men. Gelb, she said, knows how dangerous the world is. She also singled out Alice Goodman, librettist, who was born Jewish but is now a rector in the Church of England.

I’m talking about the so called librettist that freak Alice Goodman. She’s a Jewish girl from Minnesota, she became a cleric from England now… This class act will probably arrive tonight maybe in her clerical collar… whatever will get her the most attention…Mazel tov, Alice Goodman, you became famous glorifying the murder of an elderly disabled Jewish man, … carelessly concealing your seething contempt of Israel by putting your hatred into the mouths of characters on stage…

Killers of Jews, Gilinsky said, are indebted to Goodman “for all you have done for the cause.”

Indian Summer: An Open Letter to Sayed Kashua on the occasion of his piece in the New Yorker


Dear Sayed,

Congratulations! You have made the pages of the New Yorker. That is major. I think it is a first for a contemporary Palestinian voice, even if it is originally in Hebrew and in the company of a ‘real’ Israeli writer.

Though we have never met in person, I am a fellow countryman and a big fan of yours. I have read all your three translated books in English and every article I have run across in the English issue of Haaretz. Once or twice I have even taken the unusual step of watching “Arab Labor” though I had stopped seeing Israeli TV. Long before you I had given up and defected to the American side even if physically I have stayed on my little plot of land in my Galilee village, Arrabeh. It is a matter of fidelity to my inheritance.

Let me hasten to add that, like you, I am a half-breed, an Arab struggling to make sense of our conundrum to speakers of a foreign language, English in my case. But I enlisted for the cause late in the game, in retirement. In the introduction to her English poetry collection, My Voice Sought The Wind, Susan Abulhawa says she feels phantom pains deep in her heart where her Arabic once dwelled. Does estrangement from Hebrew hurt at such a deep level? I am curious if it did send such roots in your soul? To this day English hasn’t in mine.

As to your friend, Etgar Keret, we have never met before in person or on the page. I guess one local cynic is enough for me. But let me be frank and register my discomfort with his first name “Challenge.” What parents want to burden their child with such a load of Chutzpah from birth! Still, Just for your sake, I will read his short story collection before I decide if he is allowed in my living room or is to join my list of boycotted Israeli authors, the likes of Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. No liberal Zionists on my father’s piece of land, I have long decided.

Now let me address the central point I want to communicate to you regarding your published correspondence with Keret in the New Yorker: Stick with Haaretz my friend! They know the facts on the ground a little better though I often catch them cheating a little on those facts especially when I compare the full original Hebrew with the contracted English version. It all is relative, I guess. But let us stay away from conspiracy theories and look closely at their editors’ note about your exchange of letters with Keret:

On July 19th, just days after Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua published a piece in the Guardian, titled “Why I Have to Leave Israel.”

Well, well! To the folks it was just “a ground invasion.” What about air raids and bombardment from the sea? Had the editors placed their empathetic conscience where your thoughts and heart had been in those days, Mr. Kashua, they would have stated it a little more realistically. It was the heaviest testing run of modern weaponry from air land and sea. What about drones, smart bombs, Apaches and F-16s? Readers are left high and dry, thirsting for a taste of Gaza’s bitter reality, the physical and mental suffering that lasted an eternity of over seven weeks. They deserve a little more telling line than just “a ground invasion.” It is like referring to the Vietnam War as America’s South East Asian skirmish. It feels insulting to all involved especially to the memory of those targeted kids on the beach.

Or take the following innocent-sounding neutral piece of information.

Kashua, who was born in the predominantly Arab town of Tira, spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

“Predominantly” as in ‘one hundred percent.’ An essential element of truth is missing here that doesn’t even occur to the American reader. The smoke screen is so heavy one doesn’t even know it is there. You and I know better. I am a regular reader of the New Yorker. For the sake of maintaining my one-sided love affair with the iconic weekly I will blame this on pure ignorance. The reader is left with the impression that Arabs and Jews in Israel mix at will in their residential choices. But Mr. Keret, you and I know that Arabs and Jews in Israel live in segregated communities. And the racial exclusion mechanism on the Jewish side has just been given the blessing of the Supreme Court of Israel. In so-called mixed cities like Lod and Ramla, Arab slums are separated from Jewish neighborhoods by concrete walls and barbed wire. And Tira, if it has any Jews at all, has only the errant Jewish women who had married Arabs and had so far escaped the outreach of Lehava, the NGO dedicated to saving their souls and to returning them, by force if need be, to the warm bosom of their tribe. Correct me if I am wrong Mr. Kashua, but I am wagering that members of the said genre in Tira do not exceed the fingers of one hand. In Arrabeh we had five at one time. Only two have not returned to the fold.

Then the editors drop another silent smoke bomb. They casually use “Jerusalem” without any comment, reservation or explanation as if it were the most normal of places. Did you actually live in West or East Jerusalem? Within the original city boundaries or within the massively expanded borders nibbling at the edges of Ramallah? Within or outside the wall? The Old fortress wall or the new apartheid one?

Then this:

He devoted his weekly column in Haaretz to telling “the Palestinian story,” and he is the creator of “Arab Labor,” a popular sitcom that is a sendup of problems experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens.

I don’t object to this characterization of your literary contribution. But it lacks the needed emphasis on the one nuance that I consistently find in your writing: mocking the image of the Arab as seen by Jews in Israel. That tongue-in-cheek flare is what endears your style to my heart. That, my friend, would be the greatest gift I would emphasize for your American and international readers.

For whatever it is worth, here are a few comments about your exchange of letters, starting with the most objectionable:

You and your friend, Mr. Challenge, seem to feel at liberty to grab all the Mid-West prairies, fold them neatly and lug them away in your luggage. How many Native Americans have you consulted before deciding on that? Have you even met any members of the indigenous Illinois tribe? They had given their name and color to the physical space you so covet. They are the Azazmi, the Turshan and the Jahaleen of the Midwest. Haven’t you yourself been at the losing end of land theft practices? Now you turn around and want to do unto others what you don’t want done unto you! For shame’s sake, Sayed! I am going to tell on you! I will go to Tira and tell your parents. And, while at it, I will find out how many Jews live in your “predominantly Arab” town.

Now, about those kernels of corn you worry Obama might spill on your balcony: You have every reason to object. I have it on good authority that he is a neat and careful person. His parents and I attended the same university at the same time and I was aware of their presence on campus, especially Hussein’s. I spoke to a good friend who remembers pushing little Barak in his stroller around the lush campus of the University of Hawaii. She assured me that, contrary to the impression the wild flare of his ears gave the toddler, he was not messy. So any kernels he drops are intentional and targeted. Look around you from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria!

In your second letter to your friend you go off the deep end to discuss such trivia as ISIS, Israel’s legitimacy and the setting of its borders and apartheid and distinguishing the system from the people behind it. Believe me that all is sick.

But take it from a health professional and an intrepid practitioner of the art of psychic fencing: Your wife is wrong. You are not “a coward with a paranoid-personality disorder.” You are just another serial survivor adept at walking between raindrops and at interpreting the new looks in the eyes of kindhearted neighbors. We all develop the acute wariness and sensibility. How else did Keret’s father know that he needed to take a coat?

That little story about him having “survived because he took a coat,” is a true gem. I am going to take your advice and invest in coats for all the members of the Kanaaneh clan. It is getting so chilly for us here in Israel that we may freeze on the way to the mall. Pray for warmer weather. In America they call it Indian summer.

ASA: Israeli scholars welcomed to attend annual conference but association has not changed stance on academic boycott


The American Studies Association released the following statement today:

American Studies Association Responds to False Accusations of Discrimination at Upcoming Conference

In recent days, several erroneous reports have circulated claiming that the American Studies Association (ASA), the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, will bar Israeli academics from participating at our upcoming annual conference in Los Angeles, November 6-9. This allegation is false. There will not be discrimination of any sort against anyone. We welcome Israeli academics to attend, and in fact several are already scheduled to participate in the conference program (see here for more information on the program).

Subsequent reports also stated, erroneously, that the ASA had changed our policy regarding support for the academic boycott. We have not. Last year, after careful consideration by its membership, the ASA overwhelmingly endorsed an academic boycott to call attention to the violations of academic freedoms and human rights of Palestinian scholars and students by Israel. This limited action means simply that the ASA on an institutional level will not engage in collaborative projects with Israeli research institutions, and will not speak at Israeli academic institutions.

The ASA has a longstanding commitment to social justice and believes in the power of nonviolent strategies, such as boycotts and divestment movements, as a tool to effect political, social and economic change. The United States Supreme Court has upheld boycotts against human rights violations to be constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.

“We recognize that the boycott issue has been controversial, even among our own members, and in the spirit of openness and transparency, we have scheduled a panel discussion on precisely this topic,” said ASA President Lisa Duggan. “However, the ASA annual conference is a broad and inclusive event. It’s an opportunity to explore and celebrate the diversity of issues, views and scholarship that falls under the umbrella of American Studies. We look forward to the upcoming participation of our members, invited guests and registered attendees in Los Angeles.”

Family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir continues to wait for justice as Israeli court again postpones trial for his killers


Four months after the grisly slaying of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, his killers faced Jerusalem district court judges today to enter their pleas. Instead of responding to the charges, Yosef Haim Ben-David, the 29-year old settler from the Adam settlement and ringleader of the abduction, and two 16-year-old Israeli accomplices were all granted continuances. The trial was set to begin over the summer, however it was pushed back after defendants switched representation.

Today, lawyers for the three accused each presented their own arguments to stymie the court again.

Ben-David’s legal advocate asked for more time to order a mental health workup. Though Ben-David confessed to the crime in great detail including pre-meditation, he asserted that he may not be liable due to mental illness. His advocate requested an additional five-months from the three-judge panel. They granted him three weeks. The other two defendants sought procedural delays.

The lawyer for one of the teenage defendants said he was hired days ago by his client and was not briefed. The second youth’s attorney said while he was prepared to enter a plea, because the others were withholding pleas, he too would wait in the chance that their answers to jurists would influence his.

“Until now they are in jail, but is doesn’t mean they are going to stay in jail,” said the state’s attorney Uri Korv of the three defendants remand during the hearing. Korv is seeking a maximum sentence for Ben-David and a harsh conviction for the minors.

“I do not hope for anything from the Israeli court because it is a racist court,” said the deceased’s father Hussein Abu Khdeir, continuing, “It judges for the Israelis, not the Arabs.”

After his son’s killing, the elder Abu Khdeir’s life has been turned upside down. Israeli border police are perched outside of his house nightly. Until now, clashes continue disrupting the semblance of a quiet home life they once enjoyed in their leafy East Jerusalem suburb. Dozens of youngsters from the family have been arrested on charges of stone throwing. And to the family whose tragedy became intertwined with the war in Gaza, the court’s delay in moving past pre-trial signifies another let down.

“It is getting worse every day since Mohamed was kidnapped and killed,” said Hussein Abu Khdeir. His grief stricken wife, Suha Abu Khdeir called for the homes of the three killers to be demolished like those of Palestinians who commit crimes against Israel.

Until this past summer punitive home demolitions had been a retired policy of deterrence for the Israeli Defense Forces operating in the West Bank. But around the time of Abu Khdeir’s killing the policy was reinstated. It, however, has only been used against Palestinians as a punishment for the murder of Israelis.

“If they do it to the Arabs, I want the same thing,” said Suha Abu Khdeir leaving court distressed, “I want the rights of my son,” she continued.

Under police escort, while in the court’s corridors the two teens lifted their loose tee shirts overhead. Ben-David exited the trial room first, wearing a black and white tracksuit with sunny yellow sandals, and thick socks. His hair and beard were unkempt. He looked straight on to network cameras. This time Ben-David was silent. The last time he was before media at the arraignment he declared that he was “the messiah,” leading to questions whether spectators witnessed a performance or an actual display of insanity.

The two minors in the case have not yet been named because a gag has been placed on disclosing the identities of arrested youths. In court, they were simply each called “the defendant.”

Chomsky at 85


This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss.

In our post-Gaza malaise – or is it rather our post-Gaza back-to-business-as-usual? – last week’s passage of a divestment resolution by 400 delegates at the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ (CTUCC) and Noam Chomsky’s appearance at the United Nations seem to be opposite sides of the spectrum.

The UCC and the churches in general are belatedly coming face to face with the future of Israel-Palestine. Chomsky at 85 years of age is, at least partly, dwelling in the past.

Clearly Chomsky is aging and though his mind and memory remain sharp, his physical appearance tells another story. At some point, the second major pillar of the Israel-Palestine narrative – the Jewish complement to the Palestinian Edward Said – will be departing the scene.

At least privately, some critics on the Left think Chomsky is passé. But with Gaza’s – and Palestine’s – future still-born, Chomsky’s aging visage is worth reconsidering. Here I’m thinking less of Chomsky’s controversial stance on BDS which he reiterated in his UN appearance, than his overall narrative sensibilities which were in full play.

When most people think of Chomsky, they think intellect and perseverance. But like Said’s Palestinian sensibility, Avram Noam Chomsky can’t be understood outside his Jewishness. Chomsky’s Jewishness was at play at the UN when he responded to a question about the charges of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hate leveled at critics of Israeli policy. Usually adverse to employing Jewish symbolism, Chomsky unexpectedly employed the Biblical story of the Prophet Elijah’s confrontation with King Ahab. Viewing Ahab as the “epitome of evil” in the Hebrew Bible, Chomsky recalled Ahab’s baiting of Elijah with the epitaph “hater of Israel.” For Chomsky the choice was clear. As a Jew, he would rather be identified with Elijah than Ahab.

Chomsky may have been dipping into his quite extensive Jewish upbringing for a simple and easily understood response to the issue at hand. Yet his venue was the UN not a synagogue or a church. Could Chomsky’s response have been a heretofore unannounced summing up of his life-long stance as a Jew of Conscience with his obvious standing in direct relation to the Jewish prophetic tradition?

As with Said, whose general philosophical and deconstructive identity-centered narrative was legendary, Chomsky’s universalist narrative structure concentrating on the critique of American imperial power is known throughout the world. Like Said in his later years, Chomsky is by now entirely and productively predictable. One listens knowingly, anticipating his political analysis, intonations, often employed examples and dry and penetrating wit.

Like Said in his later years, Chomsky has his critics on the Left. Chomsky has been around for so long, remains so prolific – in short, Chomsky takes up narrative space other interpreters seek. Some think that not only has his time passed, Chomsky may, especially with reference to the “next-step” BDS, be a brake on the progress of Israel-Palestine activist movements.

It isn’t just Chomsky’s controversial views on BDS. Chomsky remains a qualified two-state advocate when many question the viability or desirability of such a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Having opened Chomsky to critique and with commentators passing over him in silence as a more or less irrelevant figure for the future, think of what is left. Surely, narrative structures without activism are empty philosophical luxuries. But activism without an overall narrative can be illusory. In this narrative vacuum, forward movement may occur but a future without an articulated destination is hard to mobilize around or draw others into a mobilization that isn’t only about fulfilling immediate self-interest. Without relying on or overemphasizing deep structures of meaning, which without active struggle are empty, narrative in the service of achievable justice is important.

Since Edward Said’s death activism on the Palestinian issue has increased dramatically. Nonetheless, without Said, an overall Palestinian sensibility is yet to be articulated. Likewise as Chomsky has ceased to be on the cutting edge of the Israel-Palestine discussion, Jewish activism has increased dramatically. In some ways, however, this exploding activism has both Said and Chomsky as their progenitors. As time passes and no one takes their place, and with the situation in Israel-Palestine continuing to worsen, the question remains as to whether activism may become misdirected or, losing a framework for hope, languish.

Today, democracy and the one-state solution are the cutting edge of Israel-Palestine activism. In some ways they are fitting extensions of both Said’s and Chomsky’s legacy, even if neither thinker went there completely. But these are long range hopes rather than grand narratives. Palestinians and Jews have histories that encompass and also transcend ways of organizing their cultural and political life in Israel-Palestine.

Listening to Chomsky at 85, we are reaching – have we already reached? – another end. Is this end also a new beginning?

NYT takes on Europe’s recognition of a Palestinian state


The question of Palestine, or rather the question of Palestinian statehood is plaguing the Israeli government and now the pages of the New York Times. In a round table of op-eds Nadia Hijab, Avital Leibovich, Efraim Halevy, Nathan Thrall, Caroline B. Glick, Richard Ottaway, and Omar Barghouti, weigh in on the domino effect of declarations of sovereignty over the occupied territories from the past month. Sweden recognized the state of Palestine, which was followed in a week’s time by the symbolic vote of the British House of Commons and an unexpected nod of approval from France. Indeed while “Palestine” was announced by the governing body of Palestinians, the P.L.O. (Palestinian Liberation Organization) back in 1988, this is Western Europe’s first major foray into sizing up the future of Israel/Palestine since Britain’s drafting of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

While the impact of recognizing a Palestinian state has not caused any sharp or meaningful changes on the ground, and bears no authority to alter the status of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, it is raising questions and puncturing holes into the long-standing, Oslo-initiative two-state framework. In the pages of the Times, for example, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rights experts both shrug over the usefulness of recognizing the state of Palestine.

For the pro-Israel commentators, recognizing Palestine is “premature” and detracts from Israel’s longstanding position of only allowing for a Palestinian state as the fruit of a negotiated agreement. Leibovich, formally the Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson and presently with the American Jewish Committee, thinks recognizing Palestine is preemption,

“Any nation wishing to declare independence should meet three essential elements: a strong central government, control of defined territory and security.”

Leibovich goes on to explain Palestinian efforts are better-spent state-building and addressing Israeli security concerns. But, because “the Palestinian Authority does not yet meet any of them,” she finds them ill-prepared for self-government. Of course prepared or not for emancipation, this line of reasoning is moot as Leibovich herself noted the recognitions were “nonbinding.”

Paternalism aside, Leibovich then outlined a sort of doomsday scenario where the rockets from Hamas could spill over into attacks from the West Bank—and nipping that in the bud takes precedent over any call to statehood, she wrote. The other pro-Israel voices more or less concured. Efraim HaLevy, former Mossad chief wrote,

“There is a distinct possibility that the new ‘state,’ devoid of effective organs, will fail to function and the entire edifice of the Fatah-led ‘government’ will collapse.”

And Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post played it fast and loose and stated, inaccurately that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has never recognized Israel. Therefore, she claimed, he is undeserving of recognition himself.

However, since the P.L.O.’s 1988 declaration of statehood, their official position is for two states, meaning an acceptance of the state of Israel for an out of touch Glick. This position has been re-stated on numerous occasions, in a multitude of mediums.

After publication, the Times made a correction to Glick, The newest version reads, “Mahmoud Abbas has pledged, repeatedly, over decades that he will never, ever recognize Israel as the Jewish state, meaning he will never recognize Israel.” They post-scripted her article with the following note: “An earlier version said Abbas had pledged never to recognize Israel itself.”

While the most convincing argument mustered against Europe’s recognition trend is that Palestine should only come into fruition vis-à-vis negotiations, the argument in favor of statehood is no more convincing. This is because the pro-Palestinian rights analysts are not too keen on recognition of statehood either.

“The problem lies in how Palestinian rights are defined and who is doing the defining,” wrote Nadia Hijab as she notes that while Europe is pledging support to Palestinians on one hand, in the other, “Britain and Sweden’s trade with Israel is on the rise.” Although ultimately she concludes “European recognition of a Palestinian state could well pressure Israel to behave in accordance with international law.”

“If it is the first step toward recognizing the irrefutable right of the Palestinian people to self determination, then it would be a positive contribution,” wrote Omar Barghouti taking a more critical line,

“But, if it is, as implied, solely meant to resuscitate the comatose version of the ‘two state solution’ which, as dictated by Israel, omits basic Palestinian rights, then it would be yet another act of British complicity in bestowing legitimacy on Israel’s unjust order.”

And herein lies the complication of Europe’s recognition of Palestinian statehood. No one is quite sure just what type of state is being recognized. Is it the one based on international law, which guarantees Jerusalem as part of this state and a just outcome for refugees based on return and compensation? Or is it the state of Bantustans threaded together by a convoluted double lane highway system and country roads that run underneath settlements?

However, what is clear is that recognizing Palestine is seen as a strike against Israel. And perhaps it’s not as much about a future independent Palestine as it is Europe’s reprimand for Israel’s summer war in Gaza.