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In Jewish tradition, Dershowitz hunting down 'heretical' Jews

Harvard Professor Alan Dershowtiz has made a name for himself by hunting down those Jews he believes are beyond the pale of what is admissible in discourse about Israel and trying to ‘excommunicate’ them. His latest target: MJ Rosenberg of Media Matters.

By Jeremiah Haber

Theater J, which operates out of the DC Jewish Community Center, is currently producing David Ives’ play,  New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza. This is a reimagining and dramatization of Spinoza’s interrogation for which there are no records. Over four hundred years later, we still don’t know why Spinoza was “excommunicated,” or to be precise, ostracized by the Spanish-Portuguese community of Amsterdam. We do have the writ of excommunication, which speaks of  “wrong opinions,” “horrible heresies,” and “monstrous actions.”  Scholars have speculated that some of the more controversial doctrines taught in his Theological-Political Treatise, written years after the event, may have been responsible. They include the denial of the Mosaic origin of the Torah, the naturalistic interpretation of miracles, and the claim that scripture is not a repository of philosophical wisdom.

Spinoza was not the only person to be excommunicated by the Spanish-Portuguese community of Amsterdam but he may have been one of only a handful ostracized for his heterodoxical opinions.

Whenever I teach Spinoza, I  call his excommunication a  win for both sides. The Jewish community got rid of a heretic; and the heretic, free of  communal pressures, flourished as a philosopher. But it would not have been a win for Spinoza had he wanted to remain a Jew. Fortunately for him, he did not. There is no indication that Spinoza was terribly stung by his excommunication. Before he was booted out he was little more than a perfunctory member of the community; in fact, he was in arrears in paying his dues.  Nothing in his subsequent writings and correspondence suggest that he still considered himself a Jew after he left the community  (The notion that Spinoza was “the first secular Jew” is an offense against Spinoza and secular Jews.)

We are told by his early biographers that he prepared a defense. Why, if he didn’t care about his standing in the community, did he do that? I think that he believed  that what he taught was not harmful for religion per se, but only for a certain kind of religion,  the religion of the theologians, who had subordinated philosophy and rational inquiry to religion.  I can imagine that he wished to convince the Amsterdam rabbis, who were well-versed in philosophy, that what he taught was actually good for promoting piety among the non-philosophical.

How far we have come since then! When once rabbis pronounced the ban of excommunication, now we have Prof. Alan Dershowitz, the heresy hunter from Harvard, who not only decides what is admissible and what is beyond the pale in discourse about Israel, but also quite literally hounds his Jewish opponents with the zeal of a Torquemada.  Look at the man’s attacks on Norman Finkelstein, Rachel Giora, Anat Matar, Shlomo Sand, and Richard Goldstone (and these are only the Jews I know about; readers are invited to remind me of others.) Finkelstein, to be sure, had accused Dershowitz of plagiarism, which would naturally arouse the anger of any professor. But instead of merely rebutting the charges,  Dershowitz went after Finkelstein at every opportunity, including on the decision to publish his book and regarding Finkelstein’s tenure. In the case of Giora, Matar, and Sand, none of whom had gone after him, Dershowitz “accused them of hurting students and harming the resilience of the State of Israel,” according to a letter of protest signed by Tel-Aviv university faculty members.

As for Judge Richard Goldstone –  well, read what I  have written here and here, and weep for Harvard.

I want to make something absolutely clear. Alan Dershowitz is not only allowed his free speech and academic freedom; he has the moral obligation to speak the truth as he sees it. But whereas others speak truth to power, Dershowitz seems to go after  people who lack real power and standing in the organized Jewish community. He doesn’t just speak out against his weaker opponents; he tries to destroy them – especially if he feels personally affronted.

His latest target is M. J. Rosenberg of Media Matters. Dershowitz was offended by M. J.’s use of the term “Israel-Firster,” and by some of his tweets. So he had the right to make his views known in the public domain, even in a forceful manner. But that is not the way of Prof. Dershowitz:

Not only will [the Media Matters controversy] be an election matter, I will personally make it an election matter…I will speak to every Jewish group that invites me, and I think it’s fair to say I speak to more Jewish groups than probably any other person in the world. I spoke to over a million Jews over the years,,,You know, just last Thursday I spoke to 1,200;  just in the next weeks alone I’ll be speaking — and in the past weeks — to thousands of American Jews. And believe me, I will not let them ignore this issue.

And lest you think Rosenberg will escape his ire, Dershowitz says:

I don’t know whether President Obama has any idea that Media Matters has turned the corner against Israel in this way…I can tell you this, he will know very shortly because I am beginning a serious campaign on this issue and I will not let it drop until and unless Rosenberg is fired from Media Matters, or Media Matters changes its policy or the White House disassociates itself from Media Matters.

For years I have been waiting for Alan Dershowitz to meet his Edward R. Murrow, and I believe that he has met him in M. J. Let me tell you something about M. J. Rosenberg – to call him “anti-Israel” is as absurd as calling the New Israel Fund, J Street, the Meretz party, B’Tselem, anti-Israel – which, of course, is done everyday by the New Zealots, those self-appointed guardians of the Jewish state.  M. J has is a life-long liberal Zionist and supporter of the State of Israel, even when – especially when — he has criticized its government.

MJ accused AIPAC of being an Israel-firster organization, and that aroused the ire of Dershowitz? M. J. worked for AIPAC for years, and he knows whereof he speaks. I can tell you that many  AIPAC people I know, including relatives and friends, not only place Israel’s interests above American’s interest, they delude themselves into thinking that Israel’s interests are by definition identical with America’s interests.

MJ allegedly tweeted in response to Dershowitz’s threats that he can go to hell. Dershowitz has responded by going nuclear.  Because of his fury at Rosenberg, he is willing to attempt to cost Obama the election if the White House doesn’t publicly distance itself from Media Matters, or if Media Matters doesn’t fire Rosenberg, such is his fervor of the heresy hunter scorned. This time he has set the bar high, and, optimist that I am, I trust that he will fail.

Liberal Zionists, I am talking to you! Stand up for MJ and you are standing up for your own against the like of those who delude themselves into thinking they are liberal Zionists. Otherwise you will end up by saying:

I was silent when Dershowitz went after Norman Finkelstein because I am not Norman Finkelstein. I was silent when he came for Matar, Giora, and Sand because, well, I had never heard of them. I was silent when he came for a liberal Zionist like M. J. Rosenberg because I don’t tweet. Then when he went after me, nobody was there to help me….

[Update, March 8:  Perhaps the Forward’s J. J. Goldberg’s heard this call, but whether he did or not, he has written a beautiful defense of MJ here.]

Perhaps there is a ray of light in all this. The Israeli Reut Institute last year outlined an Israel advocacy  strategy of driving a wedge between the liberal Zionist and the extreme left in Israel and abroad. For the most part, it hasn’t worked.  There is indeed a gap, but it is between the real liberal Zionists like M.J., Peter Beinart, Naomi Chazan, Larry Derfner, Michael Lerner, Leibel Fein, David Grossman, Amos Oz, as well as the activist groups in Israel like B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence, on the one hand, and the faux liberal Zionists like Dershowitz, Abe Foxman, Benny Morris, Ari Shavit, and all those members of the so-called “disappointed left” in Israel, on the other.

How do you distinguish between the genuine and the fake liberal Zionist? After all, both kinds say that they are for two states, oppose settlements and settlers, support  territorial compromise, etc. It’s very simple: if they publicly criticize Israel’s human rights violations; if they support groups that expose such violations; if they call out Israel’s elected leaders on matters of policy and morality –  in short, if they adopt the stance of moral critic because that is deep in their Jewish and mentshlich soul – then they are true liberal Zionists. All the others are deluded into thinking they are.

And no one is more deluded into thinking he is a liberal Zionist than Alan Dershowitz, who never ceases to remind his readers that  he opposes the settlements and supports the two-state solution. Sorry, Professor, that is not enough to qualify. You also have to support harsh measures against the state if the settlements continue. You can’t be a liberal Zionist and support Binyamin Netanyahu, the arch-enemy of liberal Zionists. If you care about Israel as Jewish and democratic, to borrow the language of the liberal Zionists, you will – like M. J. and the others – have to fight against those Israeli government policies that are destroying the democratic nature of the state. You will join hands with human right activists, Jewish and Palestinian, who are fighting for justice. You will support, like M.J., Peter Beinart, David Grossman, and Amos Oz, boycotts against the settlers and the settlements. You will support pressure from the Americans and the European states to stop Israel’s slide into a Putin-style democracy,

If, Prof. Dershowitz, you are all about carrots but refuse to use  sticks – no, even twigs – in dealings with Israel, then your “liberal Zionism” is humbug and self-delusion that is designed for one thing – to allow you to face yourself in the mirror next time you read of some outrage in Haaretz, and say,

‘Hey, I’m a liberal Zionist. I am against the Occupation.”

The bullying has to stop.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US.

This was originally published on the Magnes Zionist blog on March 5, 2012.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. GR

      The historical analogy between Dersh and Spinoza is a little thin. Spinoza was excommunicated by the christian authorities not Jewish ones. Yes the Jewish community would take less heat with him gone, but it was not their imperative to throw him out. That’s a pretty fundamental difference

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    2. Jazzy

      If M.J. had a case to make that AIPAC’s platform was contrary to U.S. interests, he wouldn’t need to incite against American Jews, which is what he’s doing. Considering that President Obama has very clearly explained why a nuclear Iran is contrary to US interests, its very hard to see how anyone like M.J. could so confidently conclude, based on evidence, that AIPAC’s position on the matter is so undeniably treacherous that it justifies deploying a term as obviously inflammatory as “Israel Firster.” The much much more likely explanation is that he’s lashing out like a malicious baby. The author seems to believe, mistakenly, that this is about Israelis. Its not – its about American Jews. So even if you’re prepared to so something as ridiculous as comparing M.J. Rosenberg to SPINOZA (comparison to a fraud like Shlomo Sand is more apt), please don’t pretend like anything M.J. says is going to influence U.S. policy towards Israel. This entire scrap is about showing contempt for American Jews. And such behavior should cost people jobs in organizations that are connected to the White House.

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    3. Harvey Iceman

      Two thumbs Up! When I recently heard Sarah Palin quoting Alan Dershowitz about Media Matters I knew the world must be truly upside down!!

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    4. Jazzy

      PS: Derfner already wrote on +972 that he disagrees with what M.J. said.

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    5. aristeides

      It’s interesting to see Jazzy campaigning to have American Jews blackballed and thrown out of their jobs.

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    6. Peter H

      Jazzy, please show us evidence that MJ has “incited against American Jews.” Actually, Rosenberg has repeatedly empasized that the term “Israel-Firster” applies to a few select individuals & organizations (both Jewish & non-Jewish), and doesn’t apply to the vast majority of American Jews.

      And given that Obama’s speech came (1) in an election year (2) before a key source of votes & donors, it’s hardly definitive proof that AIPAC doesn’t have isn’t conflating Israel’s interests with America’s interests.

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    7. Bill Pearlman

      The Magnes Zionist blog is about has zionist has the Iranian parliament. He is for a one state solution and the “right of return”. Which spells the end of Israel. Most Jews come down the other way.

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    8. Judith Gelman

      Alan Dershowitz also attacked South African Judge Dennis Davis for defending Archbishop Desmond Tutu after Dershowitz called for the rescinding of Archbishop Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize after in 1989 the Archbishop stated that he saw the plight of the Palestinians as analogous to the plight of the Blacks under Apartheid and called for international divestment in Israel. It is my understanding that Judge Davis did not support The Archbishop’s opinions on Israel but took the position that the campaign against The Archbishop by the international Jewish community was unfair and that The Archbishop had every right to his opinions on the Israel-Palestine question.

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    9. Bill Pearlman

      Tutu would have fit right in when the Vatican was running Nazi war criminals to South America through the rat line. He has the clerical collar already.

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    10. aristeides

      Pearlman, you vile ignoramus, Archbishop Tutu isn’t even a Catholic.

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    11. Steve

      MJ Rosenberg promotes every “destroy Israel via the one-state solution” maniac on the internet. Rosenberg is a disgusting hatemonger who pretends to want peace.

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    12. Steve

      MJ Rosenberg’s goal is to promote the idea that everyone who cares about Israel a bit too much is to blame for EVERYTHING. His goal appears to be to make everyone blame “Israel-firsters” for every single thing that goes wrong. He drags “blame Israel” into every discussion. He’s sick.

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    13. directrob

      GR, your interpretation of things seems highly dubious.

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    14. Jazzy is right – I did write against Rosenberg’s use of the term “Israel-firster.” But I made it very clear that I thought he was mistaken, not, by any means, anti-Semitic. I have a ton of respect for him, our political views seem almost identical, and I think that Dershowitz’s attempt to get him fired, and to use this as a club against Obama, is a billion times worse than anything Rosenberg has ever said – and Dershowitz isn’t making a mistake, he is being deliberately malicious.

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    15. Joe

      I don’t understand why anyone serious listens to Dr/Professor Dershowitz. It seems like whatever he says is actually the exact opposite of the truth.

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    16. Jazzy

      Larry: Where you argue that M.J. was not being anti-Semitic, I think there is a gap in your reasoning. You argue correctly, in your short +972 piece on the subject, that M.J. should have realized that the term sounds, objectively, like an accusation against American Jews generally, not just political operators. Fine. But even if M.J. meant to direct his animus against a small group of politicos, the power of the term “Israel-firster” derives from the threatening possibility that non-Jews would turn on the accused. Its a threat to deploy antisemitism against Jews. Its as if M.J. was saying “oh yeah? Well, I’ll get all the gentiles to think you’re traitors – let’s see how you like that!” Maybe you can offer an alternative characterization, but I don’t see one. Using the term “Israel-firster” isn’t only an act of bad faith in terms of pretending the target is limited to a few people, its also malicious in this way. What if someone threatened to ‘out’ a gay man in a homophobic environment? What if someone threatened to accuse a Muslim American of being an Al Qaeda sympathizer? These aren’t perfect analogies, but they demonstrate that threatening someone with the wrath of bigots is bigotry itself. And I think the vast majority of American Jews would agree that its very frightening – not something to be tolerated as civil discourse.

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    17. Jazzy, I’ve written that the Israel lobby is trying to drive the Obama admin to war, that it intimidates Congress and the White House, that it buys politicians with money. Those are all classic anti-Semitic themes that can be used by anti-Semites against Israel lobbyists. Does that mean I want them to? Does writing it make me an anti-Semite? I’m not sure what Rosenberg’s motives are in using “Israel-firster,” but I’d bet anything it’s not to threaten his targets with the wrath of anti-Semites. Although it may be to threaten them with the rejection of gentiles and liberal Jews, which isn’t the same thing.

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    18. Jazzy

      Larry: The specific accusations you’re making against the Israel lobby are more substantive, and more precise, than the blunt object of incitement that is the phrase “Israel-firster.” Aren’t you flip flopping here? Before you conceded the term had antisemitic connotations, and now you’re saying “it may be to threaten them with the rejection of gentiles and liberal Jews, which isn’t the same thing.” You’re finessing the ugly truth here – let’s be honest. “Rejection”? This is pretty obvious euphemism. I think we basically agree. Look, I guess M.J. is your friend and everything, but this defense just isn’t holding up.

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    19. Jazzy

      Larry: I think what’s happened here, is that you basically agreed that M.J. was being antisemitic, but you didn’t think anything would come of it. Now that he’s having to answer for it to Dershowitz, you’re afraid for his career and reputation and you don’t want him to suffer. If that’s your argument – that he should be forgiven – make that argument. But don’t backtrack on the antisemitism question.

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    20. No, Jazzy, I wrote in my original post that I was 100% sure Rosenberg was NOT acting out of anti-Semitic intent. (BTW, I’ve never met nor talked w/him.) I think he’s misusing a term, it achieves nothing good, so the risk involved – that it will be used by anti-Semites. – isn’t worth taking. Rosenberg thinks differently. But his intent is in no way anti-Semitic – that’s not him. Read what J.J. Goldberg wrote about him in the Forward.

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    21. Jazzy

      Larry:
      (1) I read J.J. Goldberg’s piece, which is basically a personal defense of M.J – it doesn’t address the substantive question we’re debating here. So, as an aside, I agree that M.J. has a long pro-Israel record, but people change. Publishing piece after piece on Al Jazeera, blaming Israel alone for war mongering when PLENTY of Gulf States have been on Obama’s ass about Iran suggests a change of heart if you ask me.
      (2) I think you’re applying a different standard to M.J. than is generally applied to public figures who express bigotry. What does it mean to ‘be’ antisemitic? Does it mean to use certain language with subjective, malicious intent? (this seems to be your narrow standard) Or does it mean using language that has some objectively offensive quality? Usually its the latter – when Don Imus flies off the handle, people aren’t asking whether deep down in his heart he means this or that – in such situations, intent is IMPUTED because people SHOULD know what the words they use mean.
      (3) All of this ‘Dershowitz is a bully’ stuff is hypocrisy. Is Haber really trying to argue that M.J. accusing people of TREASON isn’t an attempt to destroy them? Isn’t an attempt undermine their careers? Of course it is. All of this ‘M.J. is Spinoza’ martyr stuff is pure crap. He made it personal, and if the hawks want to play the game he started, well so be it. That’s what happens when you make it personal.

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    22. blink

      If Dershowitz is against it, I embrace it.

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    23. Danaa

      The amazing thing to some of us is that harvard has not yet kicked out The dersh for abusing not just the most nominal academic standards but the very concept of human intelligence. I have yet to read a single word that Dersch wrote that would justify him holding an academic position not just at harvard but at Podank College, anytown, USA. How did he get that job? who would even think of bothering to take a ‘class” from him? why hasn’t he been brought up in front of the bar for casting all attorneys in extremely bad light?

      Many people maintain (I am one of them) that the huge totally disproportionate share of jewish professors (and students) at harvard and other similar “Ivy” league colleges is the result of much that is other than merit. Derschowitz is the living proof of it. Perhaps there does need to be a quota of some sort, after all.

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    24. Having read this piece, and its comments; and the piece by J.J. Goldberg and its comments; I am now much more aware of the intra-Jewish dialogue, in particular about the state of Israel, than ever before; makes me wonder how much love and kindness most of the commenters feel toward anyone.

      I just have one question for all. Do you have a concise and coherent definition of an authentic free country? And give it, does Israel apply?

      My definition is that God gave all humans certain human rights; each one the freedom to pursue what that person inwardly desires that is beneficial, uplifting and feels great. And that an authentically free country is one whose laws and judicial system ensure that EVERY resident of that country is free to implement all her rights. It is obvious that Israel didn’t intend to implement such behavior from the very beginning of its founding in Zionism in the late 1800′s, and the longer it has existed the less it has manifested such behaviors. Just because you like a place doesn’t mean that place is civilized and deserves to exist.

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    25. Piotr Berman

      Danaa,

      Derschowitz is a professor in Law School. In an American university you have Sciences where you impart exact truth (and you try to learn it). Then you have Arts where you impart knowledge. Knowledge can be subjective, dependent on a value system etc. Then you have professional schools like Law.

      A lawyer is supposed to win cases for the clients (or “the people”) given all the irrationalities of the legal system. Forget about an idea of interpreting the law correctly, or at least, consistently. Who can trust lawyer with a client? Hopefully, the client. Everybody else should be on guard. And this is what you should teach.

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    26. XYZ

      Jazzy-
      I became aware of MJ Rosenberg’s writings about 5 years ago. From what I read of his, he hates Israel and he hates Jews. He is not the only Jew who calls himself a “Zionist” who hates Israel and hates Jews. Interestingly enough, George Orwell considered the Zionists he met (he was anti-Zionist) to be “self-hating Jews” because they were always deprecating the other Jews and saying “we are not like those other disgusting Jews”. MJ is the same. When you assume that to support Israel is to AUTOMATICALLY oppose the “best interests” of the US, you are showing extreme bias and ignorance. MJ also knows very little about Israel and Judaism .
      All I can say then is “right on Dersh!”

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    27. Steve

      MJ Rosenberg writing about Israel is like the KKK writing about black people.

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    28. Steve

      You are the company that you keep.
      And MJ Rosenberg constantly retweets/promotes Israel-hating Max Blumenthal, Israel-hating Electronic Intifada, and every other Israel-hater on the internet. It’s a sick group of people and it’s disgusting that a few major websites actually print MJ Rosenberg’s opinions.

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    29. Jazzy, M.J. Rosenberg didn’t start this – the right-wing Zionists who accuse even the likes of J Street of being anti-Israel, of being Jewish traitors, are the ones who started it – a long time ago. This, as I wrote in my post, in what I think is motivating MJR and others to use term “Israel-firster” – a natural, completely justifiable need to get off the defensive and go on the offensive. I wish they’d use a different term, when you say MJR is just reaping what he sowed, I think Dershowitz et al are the main sowers while MJR is the main reaper. Don’t forget who has more power in this exchange.

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    30. GR,read a wiki about Spinoza. Your comment was truly bizarre. I didn’t think there was an educated person on the planet who did’t know that Spinoza was put in herem by the Spanish-Jewish authorities in Amsterdam.

      Bill Perlman, I don’t support a two-state solution or a one-state solution. I support justice, self-determination, and liberty for Israelis and Palestinians. To me that is much more important than a State of Palestine or a State of Israel.

      Israel now has a one-state solution. It is a state in which millions of people are under its direct or indirect control, without citizenship rights (West Bank) or as second class citizens (Israel.) It also controls the Palestinian refugees in as much as it does not allow them to return to Palestine.

      Whatever the solution, there has to be parity — if Israel has an army that can control Palestine, Palestine must have an army that con control Israel.

      No “two-state” solution on the table, including the Geneva Initiative, provides the Palestinians with the sort of secure, stable, and independent state that Israel does.

      Peace is not, nor ever has been, the issue. The Jews didn’t go to Palestine to live in peace. They went to be a free people in their homeland. The Palestinians deserve nothing less.

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    31. Jazzy

      Larry: there’s a categorical difference between in-group shaming and calling someone a traitor to the whole nation. Where does M.J. go after he’s called a traitor? Anywhere but AIPAC. Where do American Jews go when they’ve become traitors to the United States? Hmmm…that’s right, the place that M.J. wouldn’t mind placing in the cross hairs of Iranian nukes. I think we both know that adopting Neo-Nazi language to use against Jewish hawks is significantly upping the ante here. There are different degrees of name calling, and M.J. was the first one to cross the threshold from nasty to threatening. Steve’s right – someone who promotes the malicious adolescent cretin Max Blumenthal is far beyond the pale – he needs to go live in the antisemitic blogosphere and stay very very far away from Washington.

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    32. Jazzy

      Jeremiah: “It also controls the Palestinian refugees in as much as it does not allow them to return to Palestine.”
      I think this registers sufficiently high on the stupidity meter to place you under suspicion as part of Bibi’s undercover team of false flag blog posters.

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    33. directrob

      Jazzy, You might not agree with Jeremiah Haber but to dismiss his position as stupid is not convincing, given that the return of refugees and return of properties is part of international law.
      .
      You cleverly use words like “think” and “suspicion” to protect yourself but than come with an insulting and slanderous remark. It all sounds a bit hollow. I do not think you do your cause much good.

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    34. Steve

      If Adolf Hitler was alive today, he’d want to buy MJ Rosenberg a nice dinner.

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    35. Steve

      Haha, DirectRob is still trying to promote the idea that millions of Palestinians will flood into Israel and become citizens, thus making Jews a minority in Israel, thus ending Israel’s existence and turning it into Palestine. Pathetic.

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    36. Bill Pearlman

      Max Blumenthal is a walking advertisement for abortion.

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    37. directrob

      Steve that are your words, Israel can also “financially compensate” refugees. It would also help to witdraw from all occupied territories.

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    38. Leonid Levin

      I think there is a certain misunderstanding about the terms American interests and Israel’s interests. I’d say the interests of the US and Israeli ruling elites are pretty much the same: retain power, control the Middle East and profit from this control. This is quite contrary to the fundamental interests of the American and Israeli people, which are definitely the same: live in peace and solidarity with the rest of the world.

      Reply to Comment
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