Wednesday, February 05, 2014

BDS and One Confused Jew

I think I need to clarify, if only for myself - a self-described liberal diaspora Jew who believes that Jewish nationalism is a convincing proposition - what I believe when it comes to BDS ("boycott, divestment, and sanctions") of Israel in the age of King Bibi. So here goes:

1. I am opposed to academic boycotts, and oppose specifically a boycott of Israeli institutes of higher education (with one exception, see #2). There are numerous reasons that lead me to a complete rejection of academic and cultural boycotts, including the anti-Semitic outcome of this particular boycott.
2. Until there is a resolution of borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, I will continue to observe a boycott of refrain from interacting with Ariel University. I think the existence of Ariel University in the West Bank monstros-city of Ariel is wrong, and I oppose the government of Israel wasting millions of dollars to support its existence at the expense of other Israeli institutions of higher learning, as reported today in Calcalist. All my public opposition to an academic boycott of Israeli institutes of higher education does not apply to Ariel University. If in a final disposition of the border, Ariel falls inside Israel, I will revisit this boycott self-imposed herem.
3. Many years ago I reached the conclusion that the entire Jewish settlement project of the past 40+ years is a disaster for both Palestinians and Israelis, and decided to not use my consumer purse to support it. When in Israel or not, I do my very best to not purchase settlement-based products. There is no Sodastream device in my kitchen, and I would only consider Sodastream if in a final disposition of borders, the factory of Sodastream ends up inside Israel. I do not "visit" West Bank Jewish settlements, and I regard - until a final disposition is carried out - the old Green Line as the demarcation between Israel and Palestine. When I do cross the Green Line, I try to do so at the invitation of Palestinians (and not Israeli Jews), or as a tourist/scholar. I don't exactly know how to carry out this policy while in Jerusalem, but I try to spend as little time in metro Jerusalem as possible. Roughly, I am hewing to what Peter Beinart called "Zionist BDS."
4. I believe that the present government of Israel is completely out of control in matters domestic and foreign, and in matters of style and conduct. It does not have my support. Until it changes, or changes its approach, I will not lend an effort on its behalf. I will not oppose an economic boycott of the current government of Israel with the same zeal I oppose an academic boycott. In the not too distant future, I think Israel will be a better and healthier place without US foreign aid. 
5. So much for what I won't do - here is what I will do: I will donate my time, my philanthropic money, and my limited influence as a public figure, to causes and organizations of my choosing which further the aim of ending the settlement project and the occupation, and advance the concept of bi-national coexistence. I will do what very little I can as a non-Israeli Jew to promote the constitution of an Israeli government which is serious about resolving the conflict fairly. That will keep me plenty busy and productive.
6. I do not feel aligned with either AIPAC (certainly) or JStreet (for different reasons, just as certainly), and will join up with them on a rare case-by-case basis.
7. One last point - none of these musings mean for even a single second that I hold Israel principally responsible for the lack of a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. BDS advocates put the onus on Israel. I don't buy that proposition. BDS advocates seem to fall into 2 camps: the Israel-be-goners (and I include in this category the disingenuous self-styled "agnostics") and the end-of-occupation activists. Either way, they blame Israel alone and its settlements exclusively for the stalemate. That is also a proposition no reasonable student of the conflict could accept.
I am prepared to refine this list or modify these points as I think about these questions more. Let me know what you think, and how you resolve these competing impulses.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Obama's Hanukkah Gift, 2013

The first time I took up the issue of Iran's nuclear aspirations and the threat of Israeli military response in this blog was in February 2012, after an Israeli journalist published a 7500-word piece in The New York Times Magazine that 2012 would be the year Israel attacks Iran. I predicted that no such thing would occur.

It did not matter that the Israeli Prime Minister drew pictures from the podium of the UN General Assembly in September of 2012 - it was all preposterous bluster from a weakened Israeli leader with no credible plan of attack. I admittedly worried and fretted in November and December of 2012, and talked myself into believing that Operation Pillar of Cloud was a cover to mobilize the Israeli Air Force, but by January of 2013 when I returned to the issue I correctly interpreted the results of the Israeli election held that month: "there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2013."

It is now fair to conclude that there will be no Israeli airborne attack on Iranian nuclear facilities for at least the next 6 months. So this ridiculous guessing game has been going on for nearly a decade - it's time to stop worrying about what Israel might do. Israel isn't going to do anything. Not in 2013 - now almost over - and not in 2014.

There has now emerged, for the first time in a decade, a much better way to handle the problem. Instead of "bomb, bomb, bomb - bomb, bomb Iran" (thank you John McCain for that little ditty from April 2007), instead of Stuxnet viruses and targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, we now have a diplomatically negotiated path to stabilize the confrontation and bring this matter to a logical and peaceful conclusion. President Obama in 2013 has given the Jewish state an early and not particularly welcome Hanukkah gift. The meaning of the recently concluded interim Joint Plan of Action is either a true alternative to madness, or a Trojan horse of betrayal.

History is littered with foolish leaders who were so fearful of warfare that they appeased madmen and merely delayed the inevitable bloodshed, oftentimes at the expense of innocents who died undefended at the hands of implacable evildoers. History is also dotted with insightful leaders who were so fearful of warfare that they negotiated tangible and realistic patchworks of viable political compromise. No one can know at this early stage which scenario will unfold from the P5+1 - Iran deal worked out in November 2013. We will have a much better idea what this all might mean by May 2014.

Many people won't like how this all ends. Iran will eventually be relieved of the sanctions and will have as much or as little nuclear freedom as it chooses. This will all take place under an umbrella of international engagement and reintegration into the civilized nations of mankind. We will all have to learn to survive in a world where Iran has nuclear capacity, and quite likely nuclear weaponry.

We have learned to live with nuclear North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. We will learn to live with nuclear Iran.

Or we won't.

Monday, October 07, 2013

40 Years Ago: The Yom Kippur War Begins

It was for me my junior year abroad from the University of Minnesota. All summer I had been in the Hebrew University ulpan trying to get my Hebrew up to snuff. As foreign American college students, we had purchased cheap high holiday tickets at the Hillel House in the neighborhood of Rehavia. As the morning services ended, we could walk in the middle of the street without fear of blocking automobile traffic. But 2 things occurred on the walk home that - had I been a Jerusalemite - might have given me pause. One was an army jeep with 2 soldiers on board that came barreling down the street. I thought that if any vehicle was going to interrupt the Yom Kippur calm, it would be an army vehicle. That seemed to make sense. The I heard a sonic boom. These too were a near daily occurrence, so it meant nothing to me at the moment.

Desiring to rest from the services and the fast, we returned to our apartment. The air raid sirens went off at 2:15 in the afternoon. I turned to my roommate, also from Minnesota, and said in utter naïveté: "I don't believe it - a tornado in Jerusalem?" The sky was only partly cloudy. I just couldn't process at first that I was suddenly in a war zone.

When the air raid sirens went off, I literally tried to figure out where the southwest corner of the basement apartment was - so completely acclimated to tornado-preparation was I. But when I opened the front door to my apartment I saw clouds in the blue Mediterranean sky which did not portend trouble. And suddenly a young girl - couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 - came running down our alley screaming in Hebrew: "War on all the borders! War on all the borders!" In those days I was working at being an observant Jew - "shomer shabbes" as Walter from the Big Lebowski would say - and this became the moment I will never forget and never regret. I needed to know if I was going to soon die. So - expecting in my 19-year-old simplistic theology that lightning would strike me on the spot - I turned on a radio. God didn't strike me dead; this millisecond would be the beginning of a long process that ultimately led me to the secular agnosticism I live with today. But in those days, Israeli radio - even the Army Radio - went purposely silent for this sacred day. All I could get was an AM broadcast of BBC, and they only had a report from Syria, that Syrian and Egyptian forces were attacking Israel. It would be 5 or 6 hours before Israeli domestic radio got back on the air, with a speech by a clearly rattled but nevertheless resolute Golda Meir.

About an hour after the air raid sirens, I ventured out on the streets of downtown Jerusalem. I remember that across the street from me was a synagogue, and I watched two uniformed soldiers enter the synagogue and leave, a group of the congregation hastily departing within minutes. I remember seeing public buses lining up at certain prearranged locations, and watching young men arrive by car to board the buses. I saw something I will never see again - on the holiest day of the Jewish ceremonial year, I saw an ultra-Orthodox bearded Jew in his High Holiday finery driving a car! Whether, as in the case of the synagogue across the street, people were being delivered with a specific Order Eight call up command, or people were simply responding with a prearranged protocol, the process of marrying up manpower to equipment had begun. 

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Syria, AIPAC, and J Street

Things might change later this week, but I couldn't help but notice the delicious irony that has confronted the two opposing US pro-Israel advocacy groups as they come to terms with President Barack Obama's bumbling approach to a proposed military operation against Bashar "Breaking Bad" al-Assad.

Ever since J Street emerged in the 2008 election cycle, I've had a theory that always seemed to be re-verified: the true purpose of the fake movement J Street was to provide progressive pro-Obama American Jews a sense of belonging. In my theory, J Street could care less about the two state solution, or the plight of the Palestinians, or the corrosive moral rot of the occupation - all that was blather, a smokescreen to hide its true purpose. In my theory, the real reason for the existence of J Street was to galvanize progressive American Jews who "cared" about the future of Israel into a political force that would support the Obama administration's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, whatever it was, and keep those Jews in line. J Street was an ethnic brick in the Obama coalition.

So now, 5 years later, comes the moment of truth: Obama wants to bomb al-Assad, but in a surprising turn, wants to have the American political system back him before he strikes. And as the dust settles on that stunning development, American Jewish policy organizations have one after another been forced to take a stand. The much larger and more successful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has decided to go "all-in" on behalf of a president it oftentimes disdains & distrusts. Published reports tell of a decision within AIPAC to send a flood of advocates to Congress this coming week on behalf of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

But so far, J Street is like a deer caught in the headlights. As late as September 6, Buzzfeed reported that J Street is in the midst of intense internal discussions of just how to proceed.

One can expect that the currently "undecided" J Street operators are agonizing with the throes of a classic conundrum. Their champion is advocating military action which most American Jews support, and which Israelis of all stripes overwhelmingly want. I suspect that many of J Street's supporters are at best conflicted, and quite possibly opposed to military action in Syria, because progressives in American politics are opposed to further American intervention in the Middle East. The fact that more than a week has gone by since Obama's "road to Damascus" conversion and J Street hasn't been able to muster anything more than a toothless UN-style condemnation of the use of chemical weapons speaks volumes as to the organizations ultimate irrelevancy.

Eventually the poor deers of J Street will have to chime in one way or the other. If they ultimately come out in favor of the President, it will be a half-hearted leap. If they choose to oppose their beloved commander-in-chief and his wannabe predecessor John Kerry, it will be equally meek. For someone who has always doubted J Street's sincerity and commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace, I feel nothing but schadenfreude for the hapless souls of this progressively pointless organization.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Operation Chemical Shmemical

Who knows how it will all turn out? It's quite possible that after a dignified and serious congressional debate and vote, the United States will act accordingly, whatever "accordingly" might be. Maybe some Tea Party wing-nut will attach a rider to the Authorization for Use of United States Forces affirming the sanctity of life of the unborn. Maybe the Authorization will stall over the debate to raise the debt ceiling. Maybe Rand Paul will become our next President. Anything can happen.

For a President who had garnered the sobriquet "No Drama Obama," Saturday's 30-minute delayed proclamation that he, the President, had concluded that military action is required...BUT that congressional approval should be sought, has got to be one of the most spectacular developments in the history of American foreign policy. In a Friday evening saunter on the White House grounds, the conflicted Commander-in-Chief came to a realization. He decided to turn to Congress, "a step that none of the four congressional leaders had asked for and none of his national security advisers had recommended" (Bloomberg News).

I understand the dilemma. There are no good options when it comes to Syria. The Onion said it best in an op-ed piece published this week in the name of Bashar al-Assad entitled "So, What's It Going to Be?":

Well, here we are. It’s been two years of fighting, over 100,000 people are dead, there are no signs of this war ending, and a week ago I used chemical weapons on my own people. If you don’t do anything about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you’re on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it.
So, it’s your move, America. What’s it going to be?
I’ve looked at your options, and I’m going to be honest here, I feel for you. Not exactly an embarrassment of riches you’ve got to choose from, strategy-wise. I mean, my God, there are just so many variables to consider, so many possible paths to choose, each fraught with incredible peril, and each leading back to the very real, very likely possibility that no matter what you do it’s going to backfire in a big, big way. It’s a good old-fashioned mess, is what this is! And now, you have to make some sort of decision that you can live with...
So, all in all, quite the pickle you’re in, isn’t it? I have to say, I do not envy you here. Really curious to see where you go with this one.

But then we must confront the strange twists and turns of the week after the chemical attack in Ghouta. Destroyers rush to the eastern Mediterranean. David Cameron gets flummoxed by Ed Miliband, even as The Economist screamed "Hit Him Hard." It all ends with Obama turning to 535 preening assholes, 535 armchair Secretaries of State and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. Let the Sunday morning talk shows begin!

Obama, forever the ponderous academic and junior Senator from Illinois, has decided that Syria is a teachable moment. It's the kind of decision a bad college president would make.

Oh sure, the opponents of American military action, and advocates of a less imperial presidency, are altogether elated with this road to Damascus conversion of St. Barack. In one fell swoop, he has reversed a trajectory that began in the Gulf of Tonkin and has led to one misadventure after another. I can understand the tempting, seemingly smart prospect of getting an unwilling Congress and American public opinion to have it all aired out.

Advocates of a military response to the horrific carnage of Syria are now themselves horrified. They claim that Obama has weakened America's reputation throughout the world.

I don't care what jihadis will think. I don't care what Bashar al-Assad will conclude. I don't care if Bibi Netanyahu is now beside himself with anxiety. But think for a moment about what Vladimir Putin and Li Keqiang might conclude about their global counterpart. It can't be anything good.

Now we have President Spock, a man so taken by his own native intelligence and sophistication that he imagines himself the President who will bring a warring Congress and a distracted nation along his Vulcan path of kolinahr.