Thursday, June 22, 2006

First Posting from the TAU Workshop

Today our workshop visited the Kenesset, the Israeli parliament, and we were introduced to two very interesting MKs: Menahem Ben-Sasson of Kadima and Natan Sharansky of Likud. Ben-Sasson is a noted Hebrew University academic, a historian of Jews in medieval Arab lands, and a personal friend of Ehud Olmert. It was charming to hear from an “outsider” academic one month into his career as an Israeli parliamentarian. Over the decades there has been a small trickle of academics who find their way into the ranks of the Kenesset and most have been insignificant presences. I wonder if Ben-Sasson will have a different fate.

Sharansky was another matter – an ideologue who has very fixed ideas about the world and the region, not a stupid man in the least, and disarming in his own understated yet pompous way. One point that Sharansky jokingly made with his friend Ben-Sasson is that Kadima as of now remains a party without an ideology. On this I would agree. One of the influential thinkers behind the neo-con plan for Middle East “democracy,” Sharansky understands the appeal of HAMAS yet decries the possibility of democracy for the Arabs. Once I had breakfast with a certain Jewish Studies professor who was then teaching at Brown University; afterwards a participant to the breakfast said it was like sitting with an extremely civilized and knowledgeable madman. I had the same feeling sitting with Sharansky.

Yesterday our group of Middle East studies professors took a small side-trip on our way to Jerusalem to stop at the site of the Dir Yassin massacre, which took place on April 9, 1948, and still reverberates to this day. Today it is an unmarked spot in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul, and is now the site of a mental institution and a bus storage terminal. But 58 year ago it was an Arab village which was overrun by Lehi and Etzel forces, and where 100-110 unarmed villagers – men, women, and children – were killed in what has become the most notorious atrocity committed by Jewish forces during the War of Independence. One of our group is carrying with him Benny Morris’ definitive history Righteous Victims, and I was able to skim the 2½ pages of the book devoted to the massacre while sitting in our tour bus as it lingered over the site. I won’t go into the controversy here (Morris’s version is as condemning as any you’ll find) – you can Google or Wiki the name and find all the relevant debates which occupy pages of virtual space. We then proceeded over to the Shaykh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to the scene of the ambush on a Jewish hospital convoy which occurred four days later and left more than 80 doctors and nurses dead. These two interlinked events – and much more – are part of the litany of memory to which both sides cling as they reconstruct their respective narratives of independence and catastrophe. It is worth noting that one site bears a somber marker and the other goes unmarked. You can guess which site is which in Jewish “unified” Jerusalem.

We also stopped at Har Adar, a Jewish community in the West Bank which abuts the security fence – though at this site it is really only a fence and not a wall – and saw how the fence’s route snakes around the Arab village of Bayt Ai’anan, cutting through some of the attached farmland and incorporating another part, all determined by the Israeli Supreme Court after the international effort to have the fence better conform to the economic interests of Palestinian farmers.

Yesterday for the third straight day Israel attempted a botched air attack in Gaza to stem the wave of Qassam missile launches of recent days: yesterday it was 3 children killed; today it was a mother in her home in Khan Yunis. Israeli TV led with the story and showed many minutes of mournful wailing from the Khan Yunis hospital. In the last week the IAF has killed 13 innocent civilians in collateral damage incidents – and I wonder how long these deaths will go unanswered. There is usually a price to pay by innocent Israelis, whether Israeli missiles are accurate or not. There can be no other reason for Israeli state television to dwell on the images of outrage and mourning from Gaza than to prepare the population for the inevitable HAMAS or Islamic Jihad “response.” It is silly to think that Palestinian terror is unleashed as a tit-for-tat response to Israeli attacks – the effort to penetrate Israel’s security cordon is constant and unremitting – but you can be sure that the rhetoric of revenge for the innocents will certainly be employed.

Yesterday we had some fireworks in our workshop when a Jewish professor from Bar Ilan and an Arab professor from Haifa University made presentations. As usual, the two learned men pretended to speak to each other but were actually functioning in different universes, in fact talking across each other. It was sad but very typical.

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