Thanks for all the Gefilte Fish

I’ve recently accepted a part-time position as Vermont Coordinator at J Street’s Northeastern office. I’ll be working to expand the organization’s local presence in the state of Vermont. If you know any liberal, Vermont Jews who might like to get involved, send them my way.

Unfortunately, this new position also means I won’t be able to blog for a while. Expect to hear back from me around May, when my time at J Street ends. In the mean time, look for excellent news and commentary at Haaretz and 972 Mag, among other places.

 

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A Win in Maryland

Recently, J Street PAC helped Representative Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat, combat a challenge from within her own party. Glenn Ivey, Edwards’ opponent, sought to unseat her by criticizing her progressive record on Israel and playing up his own hardline views. He recently dropped out of the race after admitting he could not raise enough money to win.

This is a small victory, but I think it bodes well for things to come. We need people to do the hard work of supporting our candidates. It’s great to “broaden the dialogue” and “change the debate,” but it’s also key to support incremental change by raising money for progressive representatives. More aesthetically pleasing tactics – direct action, education, and well-reasoned argument – will bring people into the movement. But thanks to J Street and groups like it, we already have a movement with some power. Now it’s time to get our candidates elected.

On the other hand, this story shows just how much work we have to do. This is one win in one election in a progressive district where Israel is not a particularly divisive issue. Yet Edwards’ victory is still news. It will be bigger news when candidates don’t consider Israel an automatic way to defeat their progressive rivals. Ivey was disappointed in this respect, and J Street PAC will ensure future disappointments for those who use this strategy. Someday soon, candidates might hold moderate views on Israel during elections without superhuman bravery. Props to J Street for getting us one step closer.

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Conflict vs. Occupation

Recent events have reminded me that the term “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is inadequate to describe what really happens in those territories. Of course, there is violent conflict, though lately it’s limited to rockets from Gaza and (often disproportionate) Israeli reprisals. These violent exchanges are deplorable, and they deserve scrutiny from Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community. But few people realize that the death toll from the conflict has plummeted under the Netanyahu government.

The real problem is not conflict but occupation. Just a few days ago, the Jerusalem police detained a seven-year-old boy for throwing stones, interrogating him for hours without allowing his parents to see him. Whatever the legal “rules,” there is nothing anyone can do. Palestinians in the occupied territories simply do not win court cases. When the evidence is so bad that the army cannot rely on the 99.74% conviction rate for Palestinians, it resorts to “administrative measures” (can you imagine a more Orwellian term?). In human language, it forces people to move away from their families, changes their residence status, and uses secret evidence against them. And of course, nonviolent resistance is effectively banned; the army treats any gathering of Palestinians as a threat and disperses it accordingly. B’Tselem’s heartbreaking 2011 summary video captures the vulnerability of life under occupation. If you click on no other link in this article, watch this video.

Netanyahu has not started any wars, but his administration has entrenched the occupation system. It no longer makes sense to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as though we face a war between equals with unfortunate excesses on each side. The real problem today is the Israeli government and its routine violations of Palestinians’ human rights. This may seem obvious for those who follow the issue closely. But, despite the creative and admirable efforts of nonviolent activists, Palestinian rights are simply not discussed in mainstream America.

In the past few years, groups like J Street (who I support) have attempted to make it acceptable in American politics to criticize Israel, or at least the Israeli right. But they have framed their positions as pro-Israel, arguing that the occupation must end for Israel’s sake. They are right of course, but this is far from the whole story. Yet to gain even tenuous acceptance in American politics, voices on the left have had to ignore Palestinian rights. Let’s pause for a moment and recognize how distorted our politics are: we must ignore the Palestinian experience in order to fight against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

People on the right argue that it’s naïve to press for Palestinian rights without offering a political solution. Ultimately, they say, occupation and conflict are directly connected; if we did not occupy them, they would kill us. But this does not quite ring true. When the PLO wanted to murder people, it found a way, regardless of Israeli security measures. Now its leaders favor nonviolence, and so the violence from the West Bank has largely stopped. Of course, Israeli security is not meaningless, but the Abbas administration, not Israel, has effectively stopped terrorist attacks.

More importantly, when you look at what really happens under occupation, it is hard to see the relevance of security. Does anyone really believe that the indefinite detention of seven-year-olds is the key to preventing terrorist attacks? If it does somehow help at the margin, do we really think it’s worth it? In our own society, we have decided that some things are more important than security.  But Palestinians have not had the chance to make this decision. In reality, the occupation is like all unchecked systems of power. It has developed a self-perpetuating logic unrelated to its original purpose. A political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems distant.  But we can restore many Palestinian human rights today. First we have to talk about them.

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Good Reads (and Some Snark)

It’s been way too long since my last post, but I’m starting up again slowly, with some good links:

Even Jeffrey Goldberg wonders if the two state solution is dead (though Chandler’s apocalyptic vision of bi-nationalism might be a bit overdone).

I’m more worried about a classic ethnic conflict, fueled by wealthy diaspora patrons and violent extremists outside the control of any government. But that’s not a problem here, right?

On a more nostalgic note, remember those little blue Tzedakah boxes? Remember Plant a Tree for Israel? Like so many things in Israel-Palestine, the reality is not quite what most American Jews believe.

B’Tselem succinctly rebuts one of the supposed dilemmas of asymmetric conflict. Turns out, it’s possible for both Hamas and Israel to violate human rights. At the very same time.

Stay tuned for more…

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A Whole Bunch of Prominent People Criticize Israel

Several prominent Israel supporters and American leaders have had strong words for Israel in the past two weeks:

Clinton criticizes restrictions on women’s rights and human rights NGO’s
Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL, on the same proposed NGO restrictions
Thomas Friedman tells Likud to do something

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tells Israel to “get to the damn table.”

I don’t agree with every word they said, but hopefully these comments indicate a healthy trend of increasingly open dialogue on the issue.

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On (Anti/Post/Non/Liberal) Zionism

The folks at +972 are having a very interesting debate on liberal Zionism (a term I won’t presume to define). Their articles provide a welcome reminder that the Jewish community used to debate these questions openly. Zionism used to mean lots of different things, many of them having little to do with a nation-state. Israel’s supporters constantly demand that the world recognize the state’s “right to exist,” but it’s important to question what this term actually means.

Check out the articles:
Larry Derfner on Liberal Zionism
Abir Kopty on anti-Zionism
Jerry Haber’s especially interesting take on Liberal Zionism

For further history on these debates, Wrestling with Zion has some fascinating essays by the likes of Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt. These are some pretty smart people not covered in a typical history of Zionism.

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In Celebration of Higher Scrutiny for Israel

Israel hawks often argue that the world holds Israel to higher scrutiny than other countries, focusing disproportionately on its actions while ignoring those of far worse offenders. The reason for this undue attention? Anti-Semitism, of course.

I have so many responses to this accusation that I barely know where to begin. But I think it is sometimes most powerful to simply agree. As a Jew, I do expect Israel to behave in an exceptionally moral way. I believe my community should lead the world in holding it to account for its actions.

In years of Jewish education, my parents and teachers taught me that I had inherited a special legacy of social justice activism. My Sunday School teachers drew lessons from the Holocaust, emphasizing the need to fight racism and speak out for one’s beliefs, especially the unpopular ones.  We learned about the legacy of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement and a rich tradition of empathy for the downtrodden going back to Maimonides. My grandparents told me stories about the pogroms and isolation my ancestors had endured in Eastern Europe. The Jewish people’s history of persecution, they all said, gave me a unique responsibility to fight injustice wherever I saw it.  My experiences were not special; most American Jews grew up hearing the same things.

Now, young Jews like me must remind our parents and grandparents of all they have taught us. We must remind them that the Jewish people can transcend narrow tribalism. We can stop demonizing Palestinians and Arabs. We can build a state that guarantees human rights for all. We can welcome discussion about Israel, as we welcome vigorous debate on all topics. We can be better. We can try harder.

It is more difficult to hold your own to account – whether a family, a synagogue, or an entire state. But Israel’s best defense against its critics will be proving them wrong. As a Jew, I will do all I can to give Israel the disproportionate attention that worries the American Jewish establishment. When accused of holding Israel to a higher standard, I will respond with a firm, “hell yeah.”

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