Clueless in Gaza

The Daily Alert newsletter sent by the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations is quite predictable. The news sources it quotes are either the official statements of Israeli officials or media articles supportive of Israeli governmental policies. In the days after the Israeli interception of the Gaza flotilla, Daily Alert bombarded its subscribers with so-called ‘pro-Israel’ articles by pundits like Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Elliot Abrams, George W. Bush’s ‘Special Assistant…on Arab/Israel relations,’ and Sean Hannity, talk radio host and self-styled expert on Middle Eastern affairs.

American politicians from across the political spectrum are widely quoted in this daily report. That Joe Leiberman wrote that “Israel exercised her legitimate right of self-defense,” is not terribly surprising; that Joe Biden said that “Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest,” is perhaps a bit more so.

Or is it? For a steady diet of DA supports a worldview in which it is inconceivable that Israel’s military, diplomatic, and political situation is the result of its own actions. Rather, Israel seems to exist in a parallel dimension—one in which its actions are always justified, no matter what the actual circumstances are. While this worldview may make sense to those who consider Israel a ‘miracle’ it makes little sense to most others; especially to those Israelis, Arab and Jew, who dissent from their government’s policies. Twenty percent of Israel’s citizenry is Arab, and the dissenting voices among them are heard in the United States even less frequently than those of their Jewish fellow-citizens.

Reading DA every day, one would get no sense that there are other Israeli voices, some of them highly critical of their government’s actions. Here I am not speaking of Israelis who are anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, but rather of loyal Israeli citizens who feel that the policies of their government endanger the welfare of the state. A rich tradition of such loyal dissent has been part of the fabric of Israeli life since the 1948 establishment of the state, but one would be hard pressed to learn this in the United States.

One reason might be that we in the United States don’t have as strong a tradition of public intellectual dissent as do other, older societies. Within Israel, a younger state, there is a tradition of political engagement that its European founders brought with them to Palestine. As in Europe and Latin America, Israel’s most prominent writers are also public intellectuals, and some of them have voiced passionate objection to their government’s actions; most recently against the attack on the flotilla. But the main reason we don’t hear dissident Israeli voices is that there are many powerful forces who don’t want us to. Among them are Israel’s friends on the American Christian Right, friends who consider the terms ‘secular Israeli’ or ‘leftist Israeli’ unfortunate locutions used to describe troublesome meddlers in God’s affairs.

Among those ‘meddlers’ is Israeli novelist David Grossman. In an article published in the Guardian, Grossman wrote:

How insecure, confused, and panicky a country must be, to act as Israel acted. With a combination of excessive military force, and a fatal failure to anticipate the intensity of the reaction of those aboard the ship, it killed and wounded civilians, and did so—as if it were a band of pirates—outside its territorial waters. This assessment does not imply agreement with the motives, overt or hidden, and often malicious, of some participants in the Gaza flotilla. Not all its people are peace-loving humanitarians, and the declarations of some of them regarding the destruction of the state of Israel are criminal. But these facts are simply not relevant at the moment: such opinions do not deserve the death penalty.

Israel’s actions are but the natural continuation of the shameful, ongoing closure of Gaza, which in turn is the perpetuation of the heavy-handed and condescending approach of the Israeli government, which is prepared to embitter the lives of a million and a half innocent people in the Gaza Strip, in order to obtain the release of one imprisoned soldier, precious and beloved though he may be; and this closure is the all-too-natural consequence of a clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, at every decisive juncture, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead.

Why then haven’t we in the United States heard more about these oppositional voices? Because the reporting from Israel is highly selective. And when oppositional voices are quoted they are often summarily dismissed. I have already heard Grossman’s article disregarded because the Guardian is ‘anti-Israel.’ In an even more outrageous argument, I have heard it said that the fact that David Grossman’s son was killed in the Second Lebanon War has embittered him against the state.

In a New York Times op-ed, Israeli novelist Amos Oz was also critical of the attack, writing that:

For 2,000 years, the Jews knew the force of force only in the form of lashes to our own backs. For several decades now, we have been able to wield force ourselves—and this power has, again and again, intoxicated us.

Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and Monday’s violent interception of civilian vessels carrying humanitarian aid there are the rank products of this mantra that what can’t be done by force can be done with even greater force. This view originates in the mistaken assumption that Hamas’ control of Gaza can be ended by force of arms or, in more general terms, that the Palestinian problem can be crushed instead of solved.

Israeli criticism of government policy is an old story, not a new one. And the attempts by American organizations to suppress that criticism is an equally old story. What is new here is that to a very large extent the American efforts are succeeding despite the so-called ‘information revolution.’ Particularly among the opinion makers in the ‘official’ Jewish establishment criticism of Israel is considered an attempt to ‘deligitimize’ the state.

Oz’s critique of force as the commonly applied ‘solution’ to the political aspirations of the Palestinians hearkens back to the writings of Israel’s most trenchant critic of the occupation, Professor Y. Leibowitz of the Hebrew University. In the aftermath of the 1967 War, Leibowitz’s was one of the few voices that called for a pragmatic approach to the Palestinian issue. Here he angered many Israelis and many American Jews for whom the Israeli military victories had transformative political and or religious significance.

In the 1970s Leibowitz wrote that:

Israeli policy in the occupied territories is one of self-destruction of the Jewish state, and of relations with the Arabs based on perpetual terror. There is no way out of this situation except withdrawal from the territories.

The Israeli philosopher saw two processes that would harm Israel. One would occur within the West Bank and Gaza:

The colonizing situation will lead to the establishment of a political structure combining the horrors of Lebanon with those of Rhodesia—the state of a people possessing a common national heritage will turn into a system of imposed rule over two peoples, one ruling and the other ruled.

The second process was the worsening of Jewish-Arab relations within the borders of the State of Israel:

The occupation in the West Bank and Gaza will bring about solidarity of the half a million Israeli Arab citizens with their brothers in the occupied territories. This will lead to a radical change in their state of mind. Inevitably, they will no longer regard themselves as Arab citizens of the state of Israel, but rather as members of a people exploited by that state. In such a situation, one must expect the constant incidence of terror and counter-terror.

While Leibowitz could be dismissed by American Jewish leaders as a mere ivory-tower liberal with no political or military experience, it was much more difficult (though ultimately not impossible) to dismiss the message conveyed in the mid 1980s by General Yehoshafat Harkabi, former head of Israeli military intelligence.

General Harkabi’s books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially his 1972 work, Arab Attitudes Towards Israel, were sourcebooks on the seemingly implacable Arab hostility to the Jewish State. The books were often quoted in Israeli government pronouncements, and by extension in American Jewish publications. To this day, any suggestion that Israel might share responsibility for the political-military situation it is in is met by this rejoinder: Haven’t you read Harkabi’s books? Don’t you know that the Arabs hate Israel? There is nothing Israel can do but harshly control them, and if necessary, fight them and defeat them. The news that Harkabi’s research of the ’70s and ’80s had led to a revision of his central thesis was not publicized in the United States.

According to Harkabi, in the 1980s “Arab attitudes,” as expressed in the aftermath of the 1967 War, were changing, and were far from monolithic. If a settlement of the conflict was to take place, Israel’s attitudes and actions would determine it. In 1986, Harkabi spoke critically of the Jewish settlers in the territories:

Some of the settlers will exploit Palestinian hostility to them to bring into being a system of extreme repression. The greater the repression, the greater the Arab rebellion will be… We won’t be able to turn the Arabs’ lives into hell without our own lives turning into hell. The harm to us will be both internal and external. The international community will condemn us.

The First Intifada broke out a year later.

Of Sharon’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, Harkabi said that “the settlements are an obstacle to peace, and they are a military liability, not an asset.” For Harkabi, self-criticism, not territorial expansion, was the key to Israel’s political and military survival: “Of course we are not wholly responsible for the worsening of our political-military situation,” he wrote,

But self-criticism is essential if we are to overcome a tendency to self-righteousness, a tendency which results from Jewish approaches to history, from our historical experience, and from the ‘ethos’ of self-righteousness as promoted by Prime Minister Begin. In my opinion, there is no greater threat to our survival than this ethos of self-righteousness. It renders us blind and unable to understand our situation—and it gives legitimacy to bad national leadership.

Both Harkabi and Leibowitz died in 1994. Toward the ends of their lives, each spoke in prophetic terms about Israel’s political-military future, which they saw as bleak unless some “fateful decisions” (Harkabi’s term) were made. Among these decisions were the removal of the settler population from the West Bank and Gaza and the normalization of the political status of the Arab citizens of the Israel—and of the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza.

Thus we can see that in the understanding of many of its best minds Israel’s fixation on military force and the application of that force to the civilian populations of the West Bank and Gaza has turned Israel into a garrison state and an international pariah. Millions of words about this have appeared in Israeli books, magazines, and Web sites—and all of it has been summarily dismissed by the leaders of the American Jewish establishment—the great majority of whom can’t read the Hebrew in which these books and articles were written.

Media watchers throughout a good part of the the world are aware of this selective reporting from Israel; Americans less so. This widespread American ignorance of the variety of political opinion within Israel is the result of a sustained decades-long campaign on the part of organizations represented in the Conference, a campaign which reflects the acute unease that dissident Israeli opinion generates in the United States.

One of the prime ‘offenders’ in the eyes of the self-appointed Jewish establishment is the Israeli newspaper of record, Haaretz. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Haaretz was consistently critical of the settler movement and its supporters in the government, it was the target of much sniping from the movement’s considerable US constituency. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, prominent intellectual, Columbia University lecturer, and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books quipped at the time that “if Haaretz was published in New York City, the local Jewish organizations would burn down the building in which it was published.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary to burn any buildings. As organized Jewish life became more focused on an idealized Israel—an Israel with no flaws and which had to be portrayed as a victim whatever the circumstances. Dissident Israeli opinion was discounted, marginalized, and eventually vilified. Israeli politicians on the right were acutely aware of this American tendency to idealize Israel in ways few Israelis could, and none more so than Ariel Sharon.

In 1982, after the architect of Israel’s War in Lebanon was forced to resign his post as Minister of Defense, he was welcomed as a hero by his American supporters. On his return to Tel Aviv, Sharon was ‘greeted’ by angry demonstrators, among them parents of the over 500 Israeli soldiers who died in the Lebanon War. Asked by a journalist from Haaretz whether he was bothered by the demonstration, Sharon said, “It doesn’t matter what they say in Tel Aviv; what matters is what they say in Forest Hills.” Sharon wasn’t referring to the fans at the US Open tennis tournament, but to his legion of supporters in the Queens neighborhood in which many supporters of the Israeli Right live.

Do most Israeli Jews agree with these critiques of their own government? Most definitely not. Israeli opinion polls show that most support their government’s actions—though many wish that the interception of the flotilla would have been carried out more effectively and that civilians would not have been killed. The Israeli print and electronic media is almost unanimous in condemning the heavy-handed way the Netanyahu government has acted. Do we in the United States need to know about these critiques and give them serious consideration—absolutely. 

There are some American Jewish intellectuals, among them some rabbis, who are deeply disturbed by the latest Israeli actions and they’ve been disturbed about similar actions for a long time. Many of them, along with their Israeli counterparts, have taken to heart Harkabi’s 1986 warning that “self-criticism is essential if we are to overcome a tendency to self-righteousness.”

Along with other activists they will be holding a memorial for the flotilla victims in front of the White House on Sunday June 13. Don’t expect to read about it in Daily Alert