+972 Magazine » +972 Blog http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Sun, 29 May 2016 14:58:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 What neoconservatives get wrong about U.S. Jews’ relationship with Israel http://972mag.com/what-neoconservatives-get-wrong-about-u-s-jews-relationship-with-israel/119642/ http://972mag.com/what-neoconservatives-get-wrong-about-u-s-jews-relationship-with-israel/119642/#comments Sat, 28 May 2016 13:37:27 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119642 As much as it chagrins the likes of Elliott Abrams, the increasing difficulty they are having with defending Israel’s policies is due to the policies they are working to defend. The longer the occupation continues, the less support it will find among Jews in the United States.

By Mitchell Plitnick

Elliott Abrams (Photo by Miller Center / CC 2.0, cropped)

Neoconservative pundit Elliott Abrams (Photo by Miller Center / CC 2.0, cropped)

Over the past few years, there has been a good deal of consternation in Israel and in the American Jewish community about the relationship between the two. That concern has grown as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consistently works to please his right flank with ever more controversial statements and actions amid a petrified peace process.

Neoconservative pundit Elliott Abrams reviewed two new books that document this phenomenon and try to explain it. Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel by Dov Waxman of Northeastern University and The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews by Michael Barnett of George Washington University both look at shifts in Israeli policy over the years and examine the effects of those policy shifts on Jews in the United States. Abrams sees both books as blaming Israel for the growing divide with the U.S. Jewish community, and he feels compelled to respond by laying the blame instead on Jews in the United States.


Waxman’s book focuses on the divided reaction of Jews in the United States to Israel’s nearly 50-year old occupation and the Netanyahu government’s policies that entrench and maintain it. Barnett examines the tension between the more tribalistic and nationalistic Israeli Jewish society and the liberal, cosmopolitan U.S. one. In both cases, the authors make the case that the differences between the Israeli and American Jewish communities are driving a wedge between them and pushing Jews in the United States farther away from Israel, politically and communally.

Channeling Kristol

Abrams’ review carries loud echoes of the neoconservative icon, Irving Kristol. Like Kristol, Abrams believes strongly that Israel and the Diaspora Jewish communities are inextricably linked and that Jewish survival in the long term depends on those Diaspora communities, especially in the United States, supporting Israel absolutely. Kristol did not believe that Diaspora Jews had to back all of Israel’s policies blindly. Indeed, most of Kristol’s work was written at a time when Israeli political discourse was far more liberal than it is today. He believed, therefore, that it was “tremendously important to translate the classics of Western political conservatism into Hebrew,” so that Israelis could benefit from the “genuine political wisdom” of the West.

It was important to Kristol, and still is to Abrams, to root out the liberal and universalist trends that had become the hallmarks of the American Jewish community (and were once, particularly in the 1990s, rapidly growing trends in Israel). These trends, both men correctly understood, are completely at odds with the sort of narrow, tribalistic, self-interested, and nationalistic politics that they believed to be the only political path to long-term Jewish security, in Israel as well as the Diaspora. As a result, Abrams is ideologically committed to opposing the very values that Waxman and Barnett contend are causing discomfort with Israel for Jews in the United States.

Abrams begins by dismissing Waxman’s contention that “American Jews … have ‘greater knowledge’ about Israel today than did their parents or grandparents.” He sarcastically asks, “Why would that be, and where did they acquire their balanced and penetrating insights—by reading the New York Times?” The comment implies a casual dismissal of the massive difference between the information that people around the world have access to today than in the past.

To begin with, for the past 25 years or so, people all over the world have had easy access to historical research that, even if one only reads Israeli, Jewish, and Zionist authors, tells a much more nuanced story of Israel’s history than was commonly available previously. Israeli writers such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, and others caused a stir with their books in the 1980s and 1990s. More than that, they forced less controversial historians to broaden their own scopes in order to be academically credible. That discursive context was established just before the Internet age permanently altered the accessibility of news and analysis everywhere.

Clearly, The New York Times, whatever its value, is far from the only source of information people have about Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian people. Israeli news sources, as well as European, Arab, and other global sources, provide a far fuller picture of life for Palestinians, as well as the effects of nearly 50 years of occupation have had on Israel. In the past, Israeli peace and human rights groups, to the extent they existed, rarely tried to disseminate their materials in the United States and often did not even bother translating them to English. Now, human rights and other progressive groups in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and around the world report on conditions under Israeli occupation as well as the increasing ethnic tensions within Israel itself.

The advent of video on social media has also served to open the eyes of many to the inevitable nature of any military occupation, especially one that has gone on for so long. Surely, Abrams is well aware of all of this. But he inexplicably, and without substantiation, dismisses the notion that people today are better informed about Israel than they were in the past.

The views of liberal Jews

Participants in the Open Hillel Conference, Harvard University. (photo: Gili Getz)

Participants in the Open Hillel Conference, Harvard University. (photo: Gili Getz)

The thrust of Abrams’ point is that more assimilated and intermarried Jews, as Jews in the U.S. increasingly are, cannot have the required passionate attachment to Israel that will lead them to support it. Jews in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, he says, “tend to cast their votes for the political party that supports Israel, having switched allegiance in recent decades to help elect Australia’s Liberal party as well as leaders like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Stephen Harper in Canada.” By contrast, Jews in the United States vote for more progressive candidates, prioritizing domestic issues over Israel.

In other words, for Abrams, the problem is that Jews in the United States do not vote based on their connection to Israel but rather based on domestic concerns. Although true, it doesn’t follow that this means that Israel is not very important to Jews. The widespread political engagement on the issue is an obvious marker of Jewish attachment to the issue of Israel, but the numbers also don’t support Abrams’ view.

The few data points Abrams uses are not conclusive. In the recent election in Canada, for example, the Conservatives did not win a majority of the Jewish vote, as they had in 2011, despite Prime Minister Harper’s clear dedication to supporting Israeli policies. And, aside from the United States, the Jewish community outside of Israel is small and not particularly influential. Their size makes them more vulnerable to anti-Semitism, an issue which has been much more in the forefront in places like England and France. They also tend to be relatively affluent, which many observers note is at least as big a factor in the community’s shift toward more conservative voting.

And if Abrams is correct, how can he explain the rise of Jewish groups critical of Israel’s policies like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)? To be sure, some Jewish groups of the past, such as New Jewish Agenda and Breira, have always objected to Israeli policies. But the widespread appeal, political influence, and sheer size of J Street and JVP are unprecedented.

Even staunchly pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are boasting much greater numbers at their annual conferences and a larger membership than they have in the past. It’s impossible to reconcile this level of engagement with Abrams’ statement that, “The American Jewish community is more distant from Israel than in past generations because it is changing, is in significant ways growing weaker, and is less inclined and indeed less able to feel and express solidarity with other Jews here and abroad.” Abrams is, of course, correct in saying that Jews in the United States are less connected to synagogues and Jewish communities in general than in the past. But are they less connected to Israel? A 2013 Pew poll found that 69 percent of American Jews were “very attached” or “somewhat attached” to Israel. That’s the same number as in a 2000-2001 poll that Pew conducted.

Moreover, Abrams bemoans the fact that “only about 40 percent of American Jews have bothered to visit (Israel) at all.” He might be surprised to learn that, according to a 1994 paper (presumably a time before U.S. Jews “abandoned” Israel in Abrams’ view, or at least before the problem was as pronounced as he would see it today) less than 30 percent of American Jews aged 26-64 had ever visited Israel. And, given the fact that tourism to Israel gradually rose from 1948-1995, when it experienced a huge leap, Jews were certainly not visiting Israel, a country that costs a great deal of money to visit, more frequently in the past.

So, although more Jews are intermarrying and disassociating themselves from the mainstream Jewish community in the United States, engagement with Israel has demonstrably not declined. In fact, a 2010 study from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University showed a slow and gradual rise in the attachment of American Jews to Israel since 1986.

The salience of Israeli policies

Israeli Border Police officers man a checkpoint for Palestinians leaving the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, October 15, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli Border Police officers man a checkpoint at one of the only entry and exit points to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, October 15, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

What has changed is the nature of that engagement. Politically conservative Jews may be able to find common cause with an increasingly right-wing Israel. But the vast and liberal majority of American Jews, faced with the realities of Israel holding millions of people under military occupation for five decades and of the increasing and increasingly violent hatred of Arabs and fellow progressive Jews in Israel, have been forced to choose between supporting an Israel that doesn’t reflect their universalist values or speaking out in favor of those values.

Jews in the United States, like Jews everywhere, overwhelmingly support Israel’s existence. But many cannot ignore an Israel that has repeatedly killed and injured many civilians in Gaza, intentionally or otherwise, destroying the infrastructure there and causing massive poverty and misery. They can’t ignore the settlement expansion that cannot be reconciled with a two-state solution. They can’t ignore an Israeli government that brings out voters with racist scare tactics and that includes prominent figures who support annexing major parts of the West Bank. And they certainly can’t ignore an Israeli prime minister who blatantly interferes in U.S. politics in order to block an international agreement that Israel’s military leaders, and many others, uniformly agree would, and has, scored a huge victory in pushing back Iran’s potential for acquiring a nuclear weapon.

As much as it chagrins Abrams and other neoconservatives, the increasing difficulty they are having with defending Israel’s policies is due to the policies they are working to defend. The longer the occupation continues, the less support it will find among Jews in the United States.

That is not due to Abrams being wrong about the source of that reality. He’s actually quite correct. Occupation, the siege of Gaza, and the increasing violence against Israel’s Palestinian citizens are thoroughly incompatible with universalist, liberal values. A more tribal, nationalistic political outlook can accept or at the very least tolerate such things.

Indeed, what’s truly remarkable is how many otherwise liberal Jews have been, and still are, able to excuse the occupation. But until now, Jews who opposed the occupation had no voice. Now, with J Street on one end of the anti-occupation spectrum and Jewish Voice for Peace on the other, and a good number of groups in between, Jews who believe that Palestinians must have the same basic rights as Israelis have a voice. And, yes, this is an outgrowth of the long-held acceptance of universalist, liberal values among Jews. That trend shows no sign of slowing, much less being reversed. As a result, we can all, left and right, look forward to growing Jewish opposition to the occupation.

Mitchell Plitnick is the vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @MJPlitnick. This article was first published on LobeLog. It is reproduced here with permission. 

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Labor must take the security narrative back from Netanyahu http://972mag.com/labor-must-take-the-security-narrative-back-from-netanyahu/119635/ http://972mag.com/labor-must-take-the-security-narrative-back-from-netanyahu/119635/#comments Sat, 28 May 2016 10:55:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119635 The first step is to replace party leader Isaac Herzog, who has adopted the prime minister’s approach to the Palestinians and was willing to join his government.

By Nathan Hersh and Abe Silberstein

Labor chairman Isaac Herzog (Photo by Activestills.org)

Isaac Herzog, whose days as head of the Labor party are surely limited, recently adopted Netanyahu’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Activestills.org)

When Netanyahu abandoned the possibility of forming a coalition with Zionist Union by appointing Avigdor Liberman as defense minister, many on the Israeli center-left, including Labor chairman Isaac Herzog and liberal columnist Ari Shavit, were quick to self-flagellate. The truth is there was no missed opportunity, unless one is speaking of the chance to commit political suicide by linking up with a prime minister who had no intention of moderating his policies.


Herzog, whose days as head of the party are surely limited, will suffer the most from this turn of events. While his performance during the last election did much to bring the Labor party back to relevance, his leadership since then has backtracked on much of the progress made.

Since 2001, Labor party leaders have done little to confront the security narrative of the ruling Likud party and its partners. Indeed, as Edo Konrad wrote in these pages in February, it was Labor prime minister Ehud Barak’s team who, by pushing the dubious storyline of “no partner,” planted the seeds for the enfeebling of the peace camp. Subsequent Labor leaders have either offered unilateral alternatives to bilateral talks or attempted to shift the political agenda, always unsuccessfully, to kitchen table issues.

Still, Herzog’s January address to a Tel Aviv think tank — in which he adopted Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that peace is impossible at the moment, and calling for the completion of the security barrier around the settlement blocs — represented a particularly upsetting low.

If there was ever a time for the center-left to truly expose the Right’s absurd notion of security, it is now that one of the least experienced defense ministers in Israeli history assumes office. Liberman is taking the helm at the Defense Ministry just when the government’s rift with the defense establishment is at its widest, and his positions on some of the most divisive issues contributing to that rift will certainly not advance any reconciliation. Several former leaders in the defense establishment have been vocally critical of this government’s West Bank policies recently, and Netanyahu’s choice of Liberman can be read as a decision to double down on his position.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and presumptive defense minister Avigdor Liberman sign new coalition agreement, May 25, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Avigdor Liberman sign new coalition agreement in which Liberman is expected to become defense minister, May 25, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

One of the Right’s most common arguments against the evacuation of West Bank settlements is the idea that they protect Israel. This is not just an example of empty political pandering, it is also a dangerous and backward suggestion: civilian communities over the Green Line are most exposed to terror attacks; the porousness of the border to accommodate settlers’ travel between Israel and the West Bank is a threat in itself; and the most extreme settlers, emboldened by the government, often instigate violence against Palestinians. This is to say nothing of the duplicitous avoidance of final status negotiations at all costs, most recently evidenced by the government’s lonely opposition to the French peace initiative.

Unfortunately, Herzog tried to sell Netanyahu’s creeping annexation as his own, apparently without realizing that much of his own constituency does not envision annexation as a desirable endpoint. This approach — reaching into Netanyahu’s “pragmatic” center-right base — was the most pathetic attempt to achieve wider popularity in recent memory.

The political goal of the center-left should be to bolster alternatives to the prime minister, not emulate him. As Likud becomes increasingly populated by the most ideological of rightists, only the center-left will be able to provide an alternative to Netanyahu, one that can attract the centrist support necessary to build a coalition. To this end, there are three processes the next leader of the Labor Party should set in motion immediately.

First, begin talks with the left-wing Meretz party to create a single center-left list for the next election. This was an idea floated last year by Uri Avnery and should be seriously revisited given the current balance of political forces in Israel. A center-left list holding between 20 and 25 Knesset seats would be in a strong position to set the agenda of a centrist coalition. This is an eminently achievable goal.

Next, build relationships with political and diplomatic figures overseas. The recent saga of Herzog chasing fig leaf status contains one positive element: the Labor leadership was engaged in a complex effort that involved former Quartet representative Tony Blair and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Cultivating these relationships among the opposition will not only make a center-left list the most attractive choice for a coalition partner, it will also send a signal to those international partners that the era of “managing the conflict” ends with Netanyahu, and that a serious effort toward a two-state solution is worth investing time in.

Finally, the next Labor head must advocate for leaders in the defense establishment to determine the best course for security, and speak against the heavy-handedness of Netanyahu’s leadership. He or she must work toward ending the rift between the political establishment and the military by earning the defense establishment’s support early on. It is clear that Netanyahu’s approach to national security is different from that of many military and intelligence leaders; unless Labor can prove that own its national security goals are in sync with those of leaders in the field, Netanyahu will continue to maintain a monopoly over security in the eyes of the electorate.

New leadership and blood at the top of the opposition offers an opportunity to redefine the center-left’s place in Israeli politics. Just as Herzog was able to reverse the fortunes of a Labor party after two underwhelming election results, so too can new leadership revitalize the party now. It will be the task of Labor’s next leader to chart a different path. Whoever the next Labor leader is, he or she must challenge the current government’s position on the future of the territories.

Nathan Hersh served in a combat unit of the IDF from 2009 to 2011 and has an MA in Conflict Resolution from Tel Aviv University. Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and US-Israel relations from New York.

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When your own Jewish father calls you a Nazi http://972mag.com/when-your-own-jewish-father-calls-you-a-nazi/119627/ http://972mag.com/when-your-own-jewish-father-calls-you-a-nazi/119627/#comments Fri, 27 May 2016 15:44:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119627 Once upon a time you could vote for Netanyahu or Meretz and move on with your life. Today even a conversation about the occupation can end relationships between loved ones.

By Su*

Like the very best of internet trolls, today my father banished me to Berlin with the non-Jewish son I never had. In the middle of Tel Aviv’s popular Azrieli Mall, on the second floor, at the cafe where the tables are placed too close to one another. Yarmulka-wearing Israelis sat behind us, while at the next table over two women with Zara shopping bags who ate salads tried their best to pretend they weren’t listening to what was happening at our table.


Once upon a time one was able to make a distinction between conversations about politics and conversations about life. Once, that was 10 years ago. Today the tension can be felt in the air. One can no longer make the distinction. Once upon a time you could vote for Netanyahu or Meretz, the left-wing party, to vote and go on with your life. Once upon a time you could live in the West Bank settlement Ariel and vote for Labor. Strange, perhaps, but it only seems strange today, looking back. Back then it was a matter of political opinion, life itself was what mattered, when one’s character wasn’t determined by the occupation.

What happened over the years that turn these definitions into rigid, violent, and influential? Maybe I just grew up and it was always like this? Maybe, but I look around, even at those older than me, and I just don’t think that’s it. A good friend of mine went on a date a few months ago, she said he was wonderful, funny, good looking. “But?” I asked. “But he votes for Liberman.” That summed up the conversation. There was no need to ask if they continued to meet.

Did Facebook, the press, and the media radicalize the people, or was it the opposite way around? What caused us to turn our political beliefs into unbending self-definitions? For years I told people, “I’m not a leftist, I am sane.”

More than that, even today I know it does not matter how we define ourselves — what side of the political spectrum we are on — everyone wants peace, everyone was quiet, no one wants to endanger more children.

But the fear. Today I saw it more than ever. In my father’s eyes, telling me that everyone wants to kill me. Everyone. The German people who must disappear because of what they did; that there is no Palestinian people; “one state, one nation” is a great motto. And it all came from fear, everything was filtered through headlines — they want to harm us, it doesn’t matter who they are — whoever isn’t us. My father has become more extreme throughout his life, or perhaps throughout the conversation, to the point that he almost never travels abroad. Life is good at home, no one wants to kill me here.

And our argument? It started from a totally different subject, about life. About work and apartments and mortgages. About flying abroad for the summer. It has been two years, I said, there will be another war, there is no other way, people are beginning to forget to be afraid. And at the end, as we were yelling at each other, all I tried to do was to get him to admit that there is an occupation. It doesn’t matter if he believes that it is good or bad for us, or that without it we would be annihilated. Just say it, Dad. Say that there is an occupation, that we’re controlling another nation. Say that 18 year-olds are being sent into the heart of a civilian population to face horrible situations. No. There is no such thing! He yelled at me with his eyes wide, banging on the table. “You are talking like the Nazis. You want to annihilate us. There is no occupation and there never was.”

I was left speechless, the gulf that emerged between us at that very moment caught me off guard. His opinions were always far from mine, but we always loved each other, like father and daughter. And today I felt that a different hand, foreign and violent, encroached on our tiny space and succeeded in destroying another piece of land that doesn’t belong to it.

I got up, placing the bag of lemons that he picked for me in the moshav on the table. I left. At the parking lot two floors underground I sent my father a text message: “Are you still at the mall? I don’t want to fight.” He didn’t respond.

*Su is a pseudonym. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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Israelis’ heartwarming response to shocking police brutality http://972mag.com/israelis-heartwarming-response-to-shocking-police-brutality/119588/ http://972mag.com/israelis-heartwarming-response-to-shocking-police-brutality/119588/#comments Wed, 25 May 2016 19:13:49 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119588 The brutal police beating of a young Bedouin man outside his Tel Aviv workplace, where he was working to save money for university tuition, leads hundreds of Israelis to pitch in and pay his tuition. (Update: the crowdfunding campaign has reached 200 percent of its original goal.)

By Michal Rotem

Mayasem Abu Alqian, a 19-year-old Bedouin citizen from the southern town of Hura, was attacked on Sunday by a group of Israeli Border Police officers near Rabin Square in the middle of Tel Aviv. Two plainclothes policemen approached Abu Alqian on the street outside his work, demanding that he produce an ID. Abu Alqian, not willing to identify himself to just anyone, demanded a uniformed police officer.


Within a matter of seconds, more policemen arrived at the scene and, according to eyewitnesses, started brutally attacking him. Abu Alqian was arrested and taken to the police station. Only hours later he was brought to a hospital for medical treatment (he is seriously bruised on his head and neck and suffered damage to his cornea). Following an appeal to the district court, he was released to house arrest in the middle of the night.

Abu Alqian moved to Tel Aviv a couple of months ago from the southern Bedouin town of Hura in order to save some money before starting to study psychology later this year. He was working two jobs, at Burger King and in a supermarket, approximately 20 hours a day, he says. The attack by the police officers threw a wrench in that plan — he says he no longer wants to return to Tel Aviv — and that is exactly where a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign stepped in.

Tuesday morning, the Negev Coexistence Forum (where I work) launched a crowdfunding campaign for Abu Alqian. The goal was to raise NIS 40,000 (just over $10,000) to fund his psychology studies. That bar was met within less than 12 hours, as hundreds of Israelis donated to support Abu Alqian.

Mayasem Abu Alqian at his home in Hura, May 25, 2017. (Michal Rotem)

Mayasem Abu Alqian at his home in Hura, May 25, 2017. (Michal Rotem)

Overwhelmed by the success, the NCF decided to try and double the goal, in order to raise some funds to cover Abu Alqian’s legal defense costs. By the time of writing, over 200 percent of the original goal’s sum had already been raised.

While the struggle against police violence in Israel is only in its infancy , this tiny project served as proof for many Arabs and Jews that there is hope out there. It gave Israelis a way to directly support a victim of police brutality, in a very constructive way.

Among the comments made by supporters, people wrote “I would be happy to show Mayasem that there are different people, people who seek peace”; “Mayasem, good luck with your studies”; “Thank you for the opportunity to support Mayasem”; “I am so ashamed, hope we will be able to fix this”. More than 800 Israelis already supported the project.

While the Israeli public seems to still be shocked by Sunday’s events, according to some reports by Israeli media, the Department of Internal Police Investigations had already finished its inquiry and is about to close the case against the alleged attackers. While Mayasem was still on house arrest until Thursday and banned from Tel Aviv for another week, all the involved policemen are free.

Abu Alqian went on the radio Wednesday and thanked all his supporters, stating that it gave him a bit of relief and that he was overwhelmed by the warm embrace he received from so many people. And still, he says he has no intentions to ever come back to Tel Aviv.

Michal Rotem, based in Be’er Sheva, works for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality and is a Hebrew-language blogger on Local Call.

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Working toward a nuclear weapons free Mideast http://972mag.com/working-toward-a-nuclear-weapons-free-mideast/119585/ http://972mag.com/working-toward-a-nuclear-weapons-free-mideast/119585/#comments Wed, 25 May 2016 14:01:09 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119585 Can temporary or sub-regional agreements lay the trust and groundwork necessary for building off the momentum of the Iran JCPOA? Can Israel be convinced? A Track 2 initiative tries to figure it out.

By Shemuel Meir

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz Stand With Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and Vice President of Iran for Atomic Energy Salehi Before Meeting in Switzerland, March 16, 2015. (State Dept. photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz Stand With Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and Vice President of Iran for Atomic Energy Salehi Before Meeting in Switzerland, March 16, 2015. (State Dept. photo)

Earlier this month, I attended an international conference in Berlin which brought together diplomats, former military officers, academic researchers and think tank analysts from the Middle East and Europe. The conference took place within the framework of the “Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East” of the Peace Research Institute Franfkfurt (PRIF).


The “orchestra” is composed of experts on the Middle East, from within and outside the region, who meet to discuss ideas and parameters for promoting the diplomatic process in the Middle East in parallel to the official communications and meetings between the countries concerned in a classical Track 2 initiative. When the official meetings between the countries of the region are as tension filled as those of our region are stuck and on the brink of collapse – Track 2 meetings are the only game in town.

And indeed, the meeting in Berlin was intended to discuss ideas and to create a new momentum for preventing the proliferation of weapons on mass destruction in the Middle East following the failure of the NPT Review Conference in May 2015, which concluded in a dead end without reaching a common agreement because of the inability of the U.S. to bridge the gaps between Egypt and Israel regarding the establishment of a zone in the Middle East that would be free of weapons of mass destruction (ME – WMD Free Zone) with an emphasis on the nuclear. Since the 1995 renewal of the NPT, unlimited in time, the issue of a Middle East nuclear free zone has formed a central pillar of the Treaty alongside the pillars on non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful nuclear energy. The U.S., which in the spring of 2015 set as a high priority the achievement of the Iranian nuclear agreement, preferred at that time not to enter into a collision course with Israel on the nuclear issue. The failure of the U.S. mediation effort between Egypt and Israel (in spite of the secret mission of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State) prevented the achievement of a non-proliferation common action plan and ended, for the time being, the efforts to convene the conference on a Middle East WMD Free Zone (the Helsinki process led by the Finns) which had been decided on at the previous Review Conference in 2010.

It is possible that Israel breathed a sigh of relief following the pause in the Helsinki process. But this pause is likely to be short lived. The international community is already preparing for the next Review Conference which will take place in 2020 and will be celebratory in nature since it marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT. Preparatory NPT conferences are planned to begin in the spring of 2017. The Berlin conference was intended to launch Track 2 in anticipation of the preparatory meetings and to serve as platform for ideas and plans for exiting the dead end.

The point of departure for our discussion was to try to understand exactly what happened at the May 2015 Review Conference and the reasons for the failure in reaching a common agreement (a difficult task since the discussions between the U.S. and the sides took place in closed rooms), to identify the mistakes of the Helsinki process for a Middle East nuclear free zone and whether it is possible to formulate ideas and draw conclusions from similar processes in other parts of the world.

The success in reaching the JCPOA on the Iranian nuclear program in Vienna in July 2015 was a milestone in international non-proliferation diplomacy. The agreement blocked the potential tracks for a nuclear weapon equipped Iran. So the question is whether it is possible to build on the JCPOA’s positive momentum and to adopt some of the limitations and prohibitions imposed on Iran as well as the intrusive monitoring system in other parts of the world. It is worth noting in this regard the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s public invitation in The Guardian to the P5+1 on the day following the agreement: “Iran has signed a historic nuclear deal – now it is Israel’s turn.” The Iranians appear to see this as a process that will take years and not a demand for an immediate symmetry.

One of the ideas that was examined in this context at the Berlin conference was an attempt to promote a Middle East nuclear free zone in stages through the establishment of sub regional nuclear free zone that would include the Gulf States and Iran. The establishment of a sub-regional nuclear free zone in the Persian Gulf could act as a pilot to be later expanded to include the Middle East (the Arab League countries plus Iran and Israel). The idea would be to create an interim stage in the establishment of a Middle East NWFZ in which Egypt and the North African countries would be under the umbrella of the Pelindaba Treaty for an African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (bordering Israel up to the Rafah – Eilat line) and in the Arab East (without Syria and Iraq at this stage) in the framework of a Gulf WMD Free Zone.

In spite of the distrust and hostility between the Saudis and the Iranians, it is worth discussing this sub zonal concept. From the Saudi and Gulf country point of view, the agreement with Iran put an end to the domino theory of Middle East nuclearization. One of the Iran deal’s important achievements is the prevention of the appearance of new nuclear states in the Middle East and the cessation of the nuclear arms race in the region which could have developed following a nuclear weapons equipped Iran. From the Iranian point of view, the JCPOA showed its willingness to become part of the international non-proliferation efforts to the extent that it signed an agreement outside the framework of the NPT. Iran also proclaimed the importance that it sees in the improvement of its relations with its neighbors in the Gulf. From this point of view, a Gulf MWD Free Zone could serve as a confidence building measure.

It would appear that at this early stage, Iran and Egypt are not enthusiastic about the idea of the Gulf as a sub region. Egypt in particular who would point to the absence of Israel and ask what the point of the zone would be when all the Arab countries and Iran are signatories of the NPT and under IAEA supervision – comparable to looking for the proverbial penny under the lamplight. Egypt is also likely to see a sub-regional Gulf zone as an additional attempt to “downgrade” its leading position in the nuclear free zone issue in favor of the new player, Iran.

An additional idea discussed for getting out of the dead end was the establishment of a zone that would prohibit nuclear tests in the Middle East as a first step and confidence building measure for a NWFZ. Israel, Iran and Egypt are among the eight countries required to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in order for the Treaty to enter into force. But already as countries that have signed the Treaty, they are obliged to carry out in good faith the Treaty requirements and not carry out nuclear tests. In this context, the ratification of the CTBT by Iran, Israel and Egypt could standardize once and for all and in an obligatory manner the ban on nuclear testing in their borders. The ratification by the countries in the region and the establishment of a Middle East “Nuclear Test Free zone” would be preferable to the proposal to declare a regional moratorium on nuclear testing. The ratification of the CTBT by the three countries would also strengthen the region’s monitoring and verification system.

Including the ban on nuclear testing in the Middle East in the discussion of a nuclear free zone in a Helsinki format could help to break the deadlock on the NWFZ discussion. Most importantly, it would enable a temporary circumvention of one of the preconditions (an Arab demand that Israel sign the NPT) and to give the sides a framework to open professional and practical discussions. In addition, it would introduce substantial strategic content in a real step-by-step process which is often perceived in a negative manner and as a delaying tactic and means to deflect attention from essential issues.

These ideas were combined with a proposal to learn from the multilateral framework to promote regional security and arms control in the Middle East (ACRS). This was the working group for regional security that was active in the 1990s as part of the Israeli-Arab peace process. But this time, there would be necessary to adapt such an effort to the new regional strategic environment. The idea would be to create a broad framework for regional dialogue on proliferation and arms control which would include as many countries of the region as possible. Parallel working groups would discuss regional issues (for example, confidence building measures with military significance and monitoring and verification systems lessons drawn from the Tlatelolco model for the de-nuclearization of Latin America which combined regional and international inspection and verification) and on global agreements on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. One of the reasons for the failure of ACRS (in addition to the collapse of the peace process) was Israel’s insistence not to discuss nuclear arms control and non-proliferation anchored in global agreements. When it comes to nuclear proliferation, the regional and global are intertwined.

Finally, many tend to attribute the inability to advance Middle East nuclear non-proliferation processes to the absence of trust between the sides. My lesson from the Iran agreement is that it is possible to hold discussions and contacts between hostile countries such as the US and Iran even in the absence of trust and mutual affection on condition that the final product is anchored in a tight and intrusive monitoring and verification system of the highest degree.

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz.

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What we left behind in Egypt: Mizrahi thoughts on Israel http://972mag.com/what-we-left-behind-in-egypt-mizrahi-thoughts-on-israel/119490/ http://972mag.com/what-we-left-behind-in-egypt-mizrahi-thoughts-on-israel/119490/#comments Tue, 24 May 2016 13:29:18 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119490 Even when they had reached the borders of the Promised Land, after 40 years in the desert, all the Children of Israel wanted was to go back to Egypt. In Erez Biton’s poem, the immigrant from Algeria and his son fail to build a home in Israel. Independence Day is also the tale of the rift in our identity, created by immigrating here.

By Mati Shemoelof

Footprints in the sand in the Sinai desert. (Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock.com)

Footprints in the sand in the Sinai desert. (Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock.com)

“And the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” [Exodus 16:3]

“…And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!;

And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’;
And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.’” [Numbers Chapter 14 2-4]

Before we discuss the Mizrahi present in Israel, let us examine the trauma as it is reflected in the desire of the Israelites to return to Egypt and postpone the narrative of redemption in the Promised Land. Looking back at this theological question is important for a psychological understanding of the modern perception of identity, and the impossibility of achieving inner autonomy within Zionism and its holidays and Independence Day in particular.


At the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, and at the end of it after 40 years, the Israelites ask to return to Egypt. Both requests are impossible, as Egypt is already impossible. They are in a never-where, in the desert, which is neither the Promised Land nor Egypt. But in both cases they do not speak to God or to Moses and Aaron, and if they do, all they ask for is life and death in the land of Egypt, which still seems like a safe place to them. How could Egypt be a safe place for them, after having left it with such sturm und drang? How could they ask to return to Egypt, having drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds? And how dare they ask to return to Egypt, a moment after the Song of the Sea, and all the miracles the Lord has performed for them?

It can be understood when they are still Egyptian slaves at heart, and so the moment there is hunger, and they are in the desert, they are afraid and want to go back. But after 40 years, during which they have received the Ten Commandments, Moses as a prophet and Aaron as his right-hand man, received the greatest technology there is, acquired monotheism, which no nation around them had. And with all these wonders, they still want to go back to Egypt. How does this happen?

Yearning for the cut-off hand

I wish to argue that Egypt in this context is not the Egypt of an enemy. Egypt is their identity. Egypt is their mother tongue. Egypt is the first memory. Egypt is the frame of reference, the context in which they live. When they say that they want to return to Egypt, it is like saying that they wish to return to their mother, to the womb. They are Egyptian slaves who following the awakening of a new identity have been thrown on a journey.

And they reject the terms of the journey. This is perhaps the context in which we may understand the golden calf. At Mount Sinai of all places, a moment before the theophany, they are Egyptians, and as such they speak with Egypt, even if at present Egypt is the land of the enemy, is the perfect other, is the one that wanted to put them to hard labor, to annihilate them.

Thus, a moment before entering the Promised Land, after 40 years, and also a moment after the escape, they discover Egypt as a place of love, a place where they’d rather die than live hungry in the desert, or fighting wars in the Promised Land against large nations, and huge kings such as Ogg King of Bashan, and the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Hivites and the other local peoples. They want Egypt, even though Egypt is impossible. They hold a dialogue with Egypt, and we may re-read Pharaoh’s reluctance to give them up also as Pharaoh’s reluctance to give up the Jewish-Arab aspect of his Hebrew-Egyptian subject. Suddenly the Israelites’ hyphenated identity, as Hebrew-Egyptians, and the Egyptian identity of Moses, as the grandson of the previous Pharaoh, and as a leader opposed to the current Pharaoh – all these do not seem so far fetched.

The Israelites’ cry is to bring Egyptian-ness into their world. In the crisis of hunger and threat of war, of all moments, they go back to speaking with Egypt, in Egyptian, and give up the spiritual guidance of their prophet, who comes from a different class, and is already speaking with God face to face. This is a class-based rejection, directed at an elite that no longer understands their daily life problems.

They wish to replace Moses and Aaron, to effect a revolution. They wish to die with full bellies sitting on the fleshpots of Egypt. In both cases, the first and the last, they reject the Lord’s leadership, despite all the wonders and the miracles, all the parting of the sea, Mount Sinai, water from the rock, manna from heaven, the pillar of cloud going before the camp, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and other super-natural moments.

Their call to return is almost childish, infantile, but could be considered as a desire to unite aspects of their identity that are irreconcilable in modern Jewish thought. Their wish to be Egypt is a wish to be with the dead parent, with the hand that was cut off. But in today’s thought there is no way to heal the trauma and to make peace with it. Especially not on Independence Day, because of its absence in the public sphere, within all the exclusion from the culture in general in Israel.

“Scaffolding,” By Erez Bitton (translated by Tsipi Keller)

On the threshold of half a house in the Land of Israel
my father stood
pointing to the sides and saying:
Upon these ruins
one day we will build a kitchen
to cook in it a Leviathan’s tail
and a wild bull,
upon these ruins
we will build a corner for prayer
to make room
for a bit of holiness.
My father remained on the threshold
and I, my entire life,
have been erecting scaffolding
reaching up to the sky.

Erez Biton in his poetry does not deny the darkness, the night and gloom – the trauma – entailed in immigration. He has no moment of redemption, he does not come to Independence Day with flag in hand. On the contrary. The father holds on to hope, as he moves from Algeria to Israel. But the father does not enter the Promised Land and has not a shred of Zionism’s redemptionist concept of itself, as celebrated on Independence Day. Biton’s father remains on the threshold. Belief in the Messiah will yet awaken, the father promises, with the Leviathan’s tail and the wild bull. He will yet build.

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

It is he, with the faith, who believes he will yet enter the Promised Land, but fails to do so. There is no kitchen, no temple. The son is busy with just erecting scaffolding to the sky. What does erecting scaffolds to the sky mean? Is it asking God to make his promise come true? You build the scaffolds, He’ll build the rest. Is it defiance? Like the Tower of Babylon? This is the internal Mizrahi state, which is hard to understand. Even if we wave the flag, that doesn’t mean the psychic trauma has been healed.

The father comes to half a house, to ruins. We know that Erez Biton grew up in Lod. Does he mean the ruins of the Palestinian city of Lod, or does he mean metaphorically, the ruin into which the Arab-Jews are thrown under the Ashkenazi-Zionist regime?

When we connect Biton’s poem to the theological part with which I began, we may see the perception of the impossible part of identity, which one wishes to unite. Therefore we see the dialogue between the father and the son: the father leaves behind hope, but remains outside. What does remaining outside mean? Can we compare this to the Israelites who remained outside of Egypt? Even stayed in Egypt at heart, despite arriving at the threshold of the Land of Israel, unable to enter the Promised Land? The Promised Land is the Independence Day celebration. As if the sovereign status of the State of Israel can cure the psychological problem of Mizrahim in Israel.

Did Moses die in the desert because he sinned, or because he was an Egyptian through and through, who could not have entered the Promised Land? This threshold is precisely the point of immigration, a point between here and there, between there and here. A point at which it is impossible to enter a culture that does not accept or contain the different parts of your identity. It leaves those parts outside, and so you remain outside as well. The father in Biton’s poem is full of hope that he might be able to go in, with a kitchen and a temple, in half a house, in the ruins; but the son discovers the truth, that the father’s promise has remained as scaffolding to the sky, remained outside.

Is Erez Biton’s “Scaffolding” the desire to build a Jewish-Arab culture within a state that has set it as its purpose to erase the Arab parts in its inhabitants identity? Do we think that with bestowing the Israel Prize the process of accepting Erez Biton and the Jewish-Arab poetry has been completed? Even if so, the trauma still stands, with the son looking at the father, and the grandson looking at his father, who is still looking at the grandfather, who still remains outside. The memory of exclusion passes as a collective viewpoint, a lamentation of parts excluded, leaving entire communities outside.

Mati Shemoelof is a poet, editor and author who lives in Berlin. Join him on his FB page, website. And Twitter. This essay was originally part of a sermon delivered in Fraenkelufer Synagogue

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Facing down Breaking the Silence, Israel tries to play the underdog http://972mag.com/facing-down-breaking-the-silence-israel-tries-to-play-the-underdog/119547/ http://972mag.com/facing-down-breaking-the-silence-israel-tries-to-play-the-underdog/119547/#comments Tue, 24 May 2016 10:17:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119547 The state prosecutor stages a refined production in which it pretends to be the weaker party facing down a massive organization. The state wants Breaking the Silence to reveal the identity of a soldier it suspects of committing crimes during the Gaza war.

By Alma Biblash

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

An Israeli Magistrate’s Court this week heard a challenge by anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence against a warrant ordering it to reveal the identity of a soldier who provided it with testimony about alleged crimes committed during the 2014 Gaza war.

Breaking the Silence is an organization of former Israeli soldiers that collects, verifies, and publishes first-person testimonies about Israel’s occupation and military control over Palestinians.


In court Sunday the state objected to a request by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) to join as amicus curiae, arguing that prosecution was unfamiliar with its legal opinion and needed to prepare. In the meantime the court delayed making a decision, yet allowed Attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing Breaking the Silence, to reference ACRI’s legal brief in court.

Sfard argued that Breaking the Silence is not only a human rights organization, but also a journalistic initiative, and that removing its journalistic immunity would harm the public interest — far more than any delay in a criminal investigation into the former soldier or even closing that probe. The judge gave the state until July 18 to submit its response.

The feeble state

During the hearing, the state put on a refined production of what the prosecution has turned into an art form: two attorneys representing the prosecution, women, young lawyers without much experience, sent to face Atty. Michael Sfard — a sharp, veteran litigator backed up by a courtroom packed with around 50 Breaking the Silence supporters. Not a single person came to support the prosecution, save for a spokesperson for far-right-wing group “Im Tirtzu.”

The state attorneys asked to delay the hearing. In response to most of the judge’s questions they responded that they did not know, were not sure, or claimed to not have the authority to answer. Only a small portion of their arguments and objections were even defensive: “it is hurtful when they say the prosecution is affected by political influences and the public atmosphere,” and, “it’s insulting and not nice when they laugh.” The latter came in response to laughter among the crowd after Atty. Sfard brought up the state’s motivations in the case. (The quotes are from memory and may not be exact.)

The optical illusion that was created in the courtroom made it seem as if Breaking the Silence was a powerful, experienced, and publicly supported organization, facing down a feeble, lonely State of Israel that is just trying to survive with whatever means it has.

Reality is the exact opposite. When the state places these attorneys in impossible situations it helps sell the illusion that Breaking the Silence isn’t a small organization being persecuted by the establishment — from the lowest levels until top levels of government including the prime minister — and as if 50 supporters are representative of the Israeli public at large. It is trying to give the impressing that the state is only interested in exposing criminals and putting them on trial, and there is nothing but the heartless members of Breaking the Silence standing in its way.

It is hard for me to believe that anyone who believes this is the state’s honest attempt at getting to the bottom of the most violent episodes of the Gaza war, as opposed to yet another attempt to put an end to Breaking the Silence, which continues to effectively expose the horrifying significance of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Then comes the most moral army in the world. On the face of it, the state’s stated desire to investigate cases of alleged crimes by security forces is praiseworthy. But let’s admit the truth: those who called for dropping bombs on entire neighborhoods in Gaza, which led to the deaths of hundreds of children, are seeking to clear the IDF of any immorality by putting a lowly soldier on trial?

Alma Biblash is a feminist and human rights activist based in Jaffa and blogger on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call, where a version of this article was first published.

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Why I’m not afraid of Avigdor Liberman http://972mag.com/why-im-not-afraid-of-avigdor-liberman/119474/ http://972mag.com/why-im-not-afraid-of-avigdor-liberman/119474/#comments Sat, 21 May 2016 07:24:42 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119474 My dear leftists, there’s really no reason to ask the last person to leave Israel to turn out the lights, as many of you have done over the last 48 hours. Most chances are that things will remain just as bad as they are – which is, in itself, hardly a reason to rejoice.

By Gilad Halpern

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Photo by Activestills.org)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Photo by Activestills.org)

The pioneering 1970s rock band Kaveret (Hebrew for beehive) was groundbreaking in many respects. Other than their huge musical contribution, the band’s repertoire included comical, sometimes nonsensical songs that stood in stark contrast to the earnest, stuffy folk songs that had hitherto characterized Israeli music.

One famous example is a song called “The Grocery Store,” where an unnamed man expresses his love for a fellow shopper, whom he sees between the aisles searching for semolina and caraway bread. In Kaveret’s hugely successful concerts, the song was preceded by a sketch (the band members, especially Gidi Gov and Danny Sanderson, were also talented comedians) about a downtrodden boy, Yudokolis Lifshitz, who experiences an epiphany and realizes that opening a grocery store would be an apt redress for his plight.

Yudokolis’ despair was so great, that even as a young boy his parents tried to encourage him, unsuccessfully: “They told him: ‘Cheer up, son. Things could be a lot worse.’” And then the narrator adds: “So he did cheer up, and things indeed got a lot worse.”

Many Israeli leftists on Thursday, when Avigdor Liberman’s appointment as defense minister was confirmed, felt they were in Yudokolis’ shoes. Their general feeling was that the only thing missing in the hawkish, illiberal and flagrantly populist motley crew that is Netanyahu’s government was a cynical, authoritarian and divisive figure like Liberman, holding the most senior portfolio – second only to the PM – no less.

Liberman, who in the past threatened to bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam and fire indiscriminately at Gaza until the Hamas government collapses, has now been given the authority to shape Israel’s security policy. All of this is pending the cabinet’s approval, of course – but that’s hardly grounds for reassurance, given that the other decision-makers are the equally belligerent far-right settler leader Naftali Bennett and the deeply suspicious and vulnerable Netanyahu, who knows full well that Liberman holds the key to the survival of his government.

However, similar things were said in 2009, when Liberman’s party clinched 15 seats (as opposed to the mere six he has today) that made it the third largest faction in the Knesset – bigger even than Labor. In fact, similar things were said in 1977, after the election victory of Likud’s Menachem Begin, a prime minister leftists today look back on wistfully – but that’s beside the point.

And the sky didn’t fall. Liberman’s shock victory ushered him into the Foreign Ministry, as a senior member of Netanyahu’s second government, a position he went on to hold for six years. During that time, he did mostly nothing. He was a persona non grata in most Western capitals, where Defense Minister Ehud Barak and later Justice Minister Tzipi Livni did most of Netanyahu’s bidding, while Liberman was left to nurture Israel’s relations with leaders of former Soviet countries, especially Vladimir Putin whom he has done his utmost to emulate. And most importantly, as Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker has shown, he didn’t follow up on a single pledge to his voters, confining himself to inflammatory rhetoric, the thing he does best.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the only moderate centrist in Israel’s far-right government, came under fire for welcoming Liberman’s appointment, saying that he “will be judged by his actions.” Kahlon’s message is actually reassuring: If that is the case, there’s really no cause for alarm.

My dear leftists, there’s really no reason to ask the last person to leave Israel to turn out the lights, as many of you have done on Twitter over the last 48 hours. Most chances are that things will remain just as bad as they are – which is, in itself, hardly a reason to rejoice.

Already in 1849, the French essayist Alphonse Karr set the thumb rule of Israeli politics: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more it changes, the more it remains the same. Forget Herzl – he knew what the Jewish state would be all about.

Gilad Halpern is a journalist and broadcaster, host of “The Tel Aviv Review – Ideas from Israel” podcast on TLV1 Radio.

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Naftali Bennett’s vision: Equality through Jewish supremacy http://972mag.com/naftali-bennets-vision-equality-through-jewish-supremacy/119466/ http://972mag.com/naftali-bennets-vision-equality-through-jewish-supremacy/119466/#comments Fri, 20 May 2016 11:38:09 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119466 Behind all the pretty words, Bennett’s speech at the Israel Prize ceremony reveals exactly what he’s after: a Jewish nationalist theocracy. 

By Gil Gertel

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at Yedioth Ahronoth's Stop BDS conference, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at Yedioth Ahronoth’s Stop BDS conference, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

During last Thursday’s annual Israel Prize ceremony, Education Minister Naftali Bennett gave a speech laying out his vision. He called for the establishment of a national, Jewish state, and in order to justify his outlook he used a history that doesn’t even exist in the bible, scorned diaspora Jews, and promised equality for all through Jewish supremacy. “This is the only way,” he summarized his speech in support of Jewish theocracy, to the applause of those in attendance.

Bennett’s vision

First let us summarize Bennett’s speech, which opened with a question: “What is the next stage of Zionism?” Bennett then responded to himself: “To enrich Judaism and lift it up”; later on he would expand on the idea: “To grant an equal opportunity to every child in the State of Israel, regardless of origin, skin color, tendency, or place of residence.”

From there Bennett went on to look into the necessary conditions for reaching that “next stage.” This required an interrogation of history, in which the education minister established: “Throughout ancient history Judaism contributed to the world three big ideas that changed the face of humanity.” According to Bennett, those three ideas are: monotheism, according to which every human was born in the Image of God, and thus are equal; Sabbath, according to which rest from labor is a right accorded even to the weak; education and erudition, according to which knowledge and wisdom belong to everyone.


Then came the heart of Bennett’s argument: “Back then, when we were a sovereign power in our land — there was a Jewish state here — Judaism contributed to entire world. But when there was no Jewish state, when we weren’t sovereigns, Judaism did not contribute to humanity.” Bennett’s conclusion is that we must adopt the national-religious outlook: “Only a combination between Judaism, nationalism, and universalism will lift up our people toward our goal […] this way, and only this way, will we be able to be a light unto the entire world.”

Inventing a new history

Bennett’s speech is based on an imaginary history. Even those who have as simplistic a reading of the bible as Bennett, there is no connection between his three “big” ideas and the concept of a Jewish state. Monotheism, according to tradition, was adopted by Abraham. No connection to sovereignty there. The Sabbath was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, as part of the Ten Commandments. Nothing having to do with sovereignty. If by erudition Bennett means the learning that took place in the Beit Midrash (ancient houses of Jewish study), well that began in the first century, following the destruction of the Holy Temple. No connection to sovereignty.

Those who are willing to read the bible with an open mind, as well as to read into the history of other nations — even a cursory glance through Wikipedia — will discover that monotheism developed in Ancient Egypt, and the idea of the Sabbath has its origins in Babylon. Both these ideas were adopted by Judaism, that is, they helped create Judaism rather than the other way around. As for education, Bennett would likely be interested to find out that education began in pre-historic societies, even before the development of writing and reading.

Negating the diaspora — to the point of anti-Semitism

The second part of Bennett’s main claim is disturbing: “When there was no Jewish state, when we weren’t sovereigns, Judaism did not contribute to humanity.” Has Bennett heard of the Mishnah? What about the Toseftah? The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha? The Jerusalem Talmud? The Babylonian Talmud? The Golden Age? Rambam? Rashi? None of these contributed to Judaism?

The peak of Jewish creation was not set by the Zealots (a political movement in 1st century Second Temple Judaism that sought to incite the people of Judaea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land), but after they were suppressed by the empire. But Bennett cannot stand pragmatists such as Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai or Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. In order to convince us of of the significance of sovereign Judaism, Bennett must erase all those who proved that Judaism can flourish alongside members of other cultures. Bennett is not the first to negate the Jewish diaspora — this has been the modus operandi of secular Zionism since its founding. We often accuse the world of anti-Semitism; Bennett’s argument is itself based in the very same kind of anti-Semitic thinking.

Only nationalist Jews count

Bennett is mixing up his terms, and not by accident. He gave his speech during the Israel Prize ceremony on Independence Day. But why must we “enrich Judaism and lift it up?” For many Israeli citizens, such as the ultra-Orthodox, Judaism is much more than Zionism. For others, secular Israelis for example, Zionism is more than just Judaism. And there are many Israeli citizens, in whose name the Israel Prize ceremony is held, who are neither Jewish nor Zionists. And let’s not forget the millions of people living under Israeli military rule — they are not citizens, Jews, or Zionists.

Israel’s education minister does not recognize these people. Only nationalist Jews such as himself count. And all this is taking place during a speech on equality.

Equality through Jewish supremacy

At a certain point, Bennett’s entire idea begins collapsing into itself. He claims that he is the supreme nation, since we brought equality to the world. Supremacy or equality? In the name of equality, we must establish a Jewish state that privileges Jews at the expense of non-Jews. And the next goal of Zionism is to lift up the principle of equality, through strengthening Jewish sovereignty (Jewish, not Israeli) — that is, stark separation between Jews and non-Jews.

If Judaism truly did contribute the message of equality to the world, how is it that even today, in a country such as Israel (and in the words of Bennett himself) there is a “connection between a child’s place of residence and his parents’ level of income and between his ability to choose his future and succeed?”

Time to rise up

Bennett’s response is that we will have equal opportunity after establishing a Jewish state. Jewish-only, that is. He even says that we mustn’t worry: “As if Jewish contradicts democratic.” Not in his opinion, at least.

Let’s be clear: Bennett’s vision is one of Jewish theocratic-nationalism. For this end he invents a history, draws baseless conclusions, scorns the Jewish diaspora, ignores the existence of non-Jewish or non-nationalist citizens, all while decorating his racism in false promises of equal opportunity.

Bennett received a round of applause at the end of his speech. I truly hope that among the hundreds invited to the ceremony there were a few who moved uncomfortably in their seats. We must rise up against our education minister’s lack of culture and education. Fearlessly.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.

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For Washington Post, cheap labor is key to Mideast peace http://972mag.com/for-washington-post-cheap-labor-is-key-to-mideast-peace/119453/ http://972mag.com/for-washington-post-cheap-labor-is-key-to-mideast-peace/119453/#comments Thu, 19 May 2016 16:17:12 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119453 A recent article in ‘The Washington Post’ praises efforts by the Israeli government to bring in cheap labor from Jordan as a sign of growing peace. The problem? It all comes at the expense of Palestinian workers.

By Hagar Shezaf

Palestinians workers walk next to the Wall and an Israeli military tower to cross very early the Eyal Israeli military checkpoint into Israel in order to reach their workplace, Qalqiliya, West Bank, 22.11.2011. Thousands of Palestinians are passing this checkpoint every morning, some coming as early as 4am. (Photo by: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Palestinian laborers line up to cross into Israel via the Eyal military checkpoint, Qalqiliya, West Bank, 22.11.2011. Thousands of Palestinians pass this checkpoint every morning, some coming as early as 4 a.m. (Photo by: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Washington Post article published earlier this week praised a new pilot project between the governments of Jordan and Israel as a “little peace” in the Middle East. To support the argument, the article applauded the fact that room cleaners named Ahmad and dishwashers named Mohammad are being brought in from Jordan to work in Israel’s southern city of Eilat.


Yet this vision of a new, peaceful Middle East is a non-story and far from being a sign of peace.

The truth is that the number of employees entering Israel from Jordan is relatively small. In fact, Jordanian laborers are necessary only as a result of Israel’s absolute ban on Palestinians entering Eilat. Around 115,200 West Bank Palestinians are employed in Israel, yet they are all banned from the country’s most southern city. While Israeli officials have refrained from providing an official explanation for the ban, it is widely assumed that it stems from Eilat’s distance from the West Bank, which prevents Palestinian day laborers from going home after a day of work. This, along with Israel’s crackdown on the asylum seeker community — asylum seekers partly replaced Palestinian workers in the years following the Second Intifada — has created a shortage in workers for Eilat’s hotels industry. That’s where the Jordanians come in.

When SodaStream, one of the BDS movement’s main targets in the past few years, moved its factory from the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim to the Negev desert, hundreds of Palestinian workers were left behind after not being granted permits to work in Israel. SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum launched a national campaign following the decision, condemning both the BDS campaign as well as the Israeli government, which declined his request to issue permits to his long-time employees. In response the laid off employees launched a Facebook page called “The Peace Intifada” and took part in a heartfelt video where they gathered together to form a giant peace sign. The message was clear: SodaStream is a peaceful oasis in the heart of a violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Members of the Chicago SodaStream Boycott Coalition take part of the Earth Day March in Down Town Chicago, IL on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. The rally was part of the international Earth Day held world wide in support for environmental protection. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Members of the Chicago SodaStream Boycott Coalition take part of the Earth Day March in Down Town Chicago, IL on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. The rally was part of the international Earth Day held world wide in support for environmental protection. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

The case of SodaStream is interesting, since much like the Washington Post piece, it presented Palestinian employment as a symbol of peace between people. Yet while economic ties between countries may signal warming relations and coordination between governments, they are ultimately driven more by the demand for cheap and readily available labor than by actual political change. Moreover, the story of Jordanian workers in Eilat shows how Israel turns to Jordan only when the cheapest, most easily exploited labor force — Palestinians — is not available.

Like every developed country, Israel relies on migrants to do jobs that Israelis are no longer willing to do. That is why more than 600 factories in Israeli settlements rely on Palestinian workers; in 2014, Palestinians comprised 15.3 percent of all construction workers in Israel, where the daily wage is more than twice as high as the daily wage in the West Bank. Unemployment in the West Bank currently stands at 18.7 percent, while 11 percent of all working people in the West Bank are currently employed in Israel.

The situation in the West Bank is unique when compared to other countries that export workers, considering the fact that the territory is not a sovereign, independent country and that its economy is entirely captive to that of Israel as a result of the economic arrangements in the Oslo Accords. In order to work in Israel, Palestinians are subjected to a highly complex and nebulous bureaucratic system, sometimes referred to as the “permit regime.” Permits are only granted to Palestinians if the request comes from an Israeli employer. Given the security situation — along with other considerations that are not always disclosed — permits can be revoked overnight. According to Haaretz, hundreds of Palestinians have recently complained that they found, while on their way to work, their entry permits had been revoked without any prior notice.

In November the Israeli military imposed a closure on Hebron after a Palestinian worker from the area stabbed two people to death in an attack in Tel Aviv. The attack was followed by calls from Israeli politicians, including opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, to freeze work permits of all West Bank Palestinians. However, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quick to dismiss their demands, arguing that a closure would only push Palestinians toward violence fueled by unemployment. This same approach has guided other heads of Israel’s defense establishment, who recently recommended the government approve an additional 30,000 entry permit for Palestinians. In fact, Ya’alon’s last political move before being ousted as defense minister was to declare a NIS 300 million plan to ease the pressure on checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, in order to “expand the number of Palestinian workers” in Israel.

“Imposing a closure on the West Bank is a political action that allows the army to ease or make tougher the situation in the West Bank”, says Yael Berda, Israeli scholar and the author of The Bureaucracy of Occupation: The Permit Regime in the West Bank 2000–2006. “It’s another way to manage a conflict — to show both how bad and how good the army can be.”

The World Bank has time and again mentioned Israeli restrictions on movement as one of the main reasons for the dire situation of the Palestinian economy. According to the Palestinian Bureau for Statistics, wages of Palestinian workers in Israel make up approximately 13 percent of the West Bank’s GDP. A 2014 Bank of Israel report showed that a Palestinian worker is likely to earn NIS 198 a day for construction work in Israel, while earning only NIS 91 for a similar job in the West Bank. When unemployment in the West Bank decreased in the first quarter of 2015, the International Monetary Fund attributed it solely to the rising number of permits Israel grants West Bank Palestinians.

The Washington Post’s decision to publish an article that almost entirely ignores the context of foreign labor in Israel is problematic not only due to the gap in knowledge that it creates, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it romanticizes importing one type of cheap labor over another. More than that, however, it romanticizes the balance of power in the Middle East, and Israel’s ability to use the current political situation, in no way a peaceful one, for its own economic benefit.

Hagar Shezaf is a journalist based in Jaffa.

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