Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kaplan on Zionism

I am preparing material for a primer course on Reconstructionism to be given at my synagogue, and I was truck by some material in the essay "Reflections on Kaplan's Zionism" in the book "The American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan." Rabbi Kaplan, of course, was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and one of the seminal thinkers of Judaism in the 20th century. It can be fairly said that his central ideas have de-facto won over the majority of Diaspora Jewry.

Not so, however, his understanding of Zionism and the role of Israel in Jewish life. Too bad.

Rabbi Jack Cohen, a disciple of Kaplan, writing from Jerusalem shortly after Kaplan's death in 1982, writes:
When [Kaplan] appealed for a Jewish nationalism that would foster a humane and humanizing way of life, he was putting forth a claim that the natural right [of the Jewish People] to survive must not be construed as an end in itself. Life is meaningless without moral and spiritual purpose ... Kaplan maintained that without naturalistic religion Zionism would produce only another power-ridden society. Without the check upon moral and spiritual arrogance that only an intellectually honest theology calls forth, the Jewish religion would give rise to a coercive and chauvinistic state.
In other words the raison d'etre of the Israel cannot be Jewish survival alone. But rather moral progress. A state (and a religion) based primarily on national/ethnic survival will become fascist.

Later Cohen explains:
... [Kaplan believed that] as a democracy [note: NOT a Jewish Democracy - sn] the State of Israel will have to nourish pluralism, and in the course of time, produce a new Israeli nation - with Jews as its most influential element, but one that also includes Arabs, Druse, and other ethnic and religious groups. Jews in Israel would have to live in two civilizations as they do elsewhere ...
Sounds like "a state for all its citizens" to me.

And in a less theoretical vein:
[Kaplan's] concern for [relationships between Jews and Arabs] is evident in his journals, where he indicates his conviction that success of the Zionist effort would rest upon its resolution. Kaplan followed the tradition of Ahad Ha-Am and A. D. Gordon in urging Zionists to give more and fairer attention to the Arab presence. He criticized discrimination against Arab workers and called upon the yishuv to treat Arabs as partners in the revivication of the land.

"Jews should have realized," he wrote in 1939, " that they have to live with the Arabs, and should not have written into the statutes of the Jewish National Fund the prohibition of Arab labor. No effort should have been spared in devising ways or means of effecting a modus vivendi that would have been satisfactory to all who have an interest in the land."
The latter remarks are particularly ironic given the JNF's current aggressive role in "Judaizing" (i.e. ethnically cleansing) large areas of Israel/Palestine. More about that in a subsequent post.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Netanyahu Admits to Destroying the Oslo Accords

In this video - filmed mostly (starting at about 2:50) when Prime Minister Netanyahu thought the cameras were off - he admits to sabotaging the Oslo accords in his first term as Prime Minister in the late 1990s. He also boast that he deceived the US president at the time, Bill Clinton, into believing he was actually helping implement the Oslo accords. And he dismisses the US as "easily moved in the right direction."

He also suggests that, far from being defensive, Israel’s harsh military repression of the Palestinian uprising was designed chiefly to crush the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat so that it could be made more pliable to Israeli interests.

His whole performance is as one who believes that there is no chance of peace with the Palestinians ever, and that lawyerly tricks, delays and obfuscations are all part of the game Israel must play to keep as much of the occupied territories as possible.

Personally, I don't see any reason to believe Netanyahu has changed.

Moreover, the fact that this video - released on Israeli T.V. last week - has caused so little fuss in Israel, forces one to assume that the average Israeli now agrees with Netanyahu's basic approach. It confirms that a once proud principled and idealistic people have become completely cynical. When everyone expects leaders to be devious and lie, democracy cannot be in a very good state.

What is surprising however, is that no American commentators have picked this up. It is not everyday that a foreign Prime Minister is caught on tape boasting about having America wrapped around his little finger, and about lying to an American President.

For more on this story you can read Gideon Levy in Haaretz.

Mourning the Destruction of Our Temple - Mother Earth

In 1954 Mordecai Kaplan the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism suggest that the Jews of New York mark Tisha B'av - the day Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of the Temple - by donning sack cloth and ashes, and fasting in front of the U.N. as a protest against nuclear proliferation and in support of nuclear dis-armament.

Continuing in this spirit, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Centre, spoke this year on Tisha B'av at a rally in Washington urging congress to finally do something to reduce fossil fuel emissions, and break the trend to global warming. And in truth, despite my own obsession with Israel/Palestine issues, the number one threat to both the Jewish People and the Palestinian People today, is not the conflict in the Middle East - but global warming. If the worst case scenarios are allowed to play out, in 100 years Israel/Palestine, like many places on Earth, will become virtually unlivable.

Rabbi Waskow's speech is at 1:51 of the video above.

Lets hope someone on Capitol Hill was listening. Let hope Jews in the U.S. begin to use some of their considerable influence to push this issue as much as they do re Israel/Palestine.

18 Months for "Rape By Fraud"

It seems to me that this story points out how far anti-Arab racism has seeped into every day Israeli society. According to the Hebrew daily Maariv:

Sabar Kashour, a young man from East Jerusalem , was sentenced [Monday July 19] to 18 months in prison after having defrauded and thereby raped and committed indecent acts upon a Jewish young woman, who only yielded to him because she thought he was a Jew. ...

The prosecution representative, Adv. Daniel Vittman, argued that Kashour had indeed carried out his plot without the use of force, but that he had dissipated her ability to object to his actions by means of the false representation about his personal situation – [claiming that he was] a Jewish bachelor interested in a significant romantic relationship. In this way he abused her desire for a deep emotional relationship, which was the only reason that she agreed to have sexual relations with him. ...

He invited her to accompany him to a building on Hillel Street. When they came to the top floor, Kashour undressed the young woman and had intercourse with her, with her consent, that had been fraudulently achieved, as stated above. After having carried out his scheme, he departed from the building and left her naked, on the top floor of that building.

The prosecution first claimed that the complainant actively and significantly objected to the events, but in the course of the trial the young woman testified that she had agreed to the action because she had thought that the person in question was a Jew. In light of that the indictment was amended, and the defendant was accused of rape and indecent actions by way of fraud.

...Justice Segal [said] ... “Indeed, ... we do not have before us a ‘classic’ case of rape – by force – and the indictment initially filed, which had indicated significant objection by the complainant to the actions by the defendant, had been amended further in the proceedings, after hearing her testimony, when it became clear that the actions were indeed carried out with her consent, but that it had been fraudulently obtained, relying on false representation. Had she not been of the opinion that he was a Jewish bachelor interested in a significant relationship [she would not have consented.]

The judge stated that “the Court must protect the public interest against sophisticated criminals with a smooth tongue and sweet talking, who can lead astray innocent victims at the unbearable price of the sanctity of their bodies and souls.”

He stated that “when the foundation of trust between people falls away, especially in matters so sensitive, intimate, and fateful, the Court must stand firm on the side of the victims – actual and potential – to protect their well-being. Otherwise they will be abused, manipulated, cheated, and the cost will be a tolerable, token penalty.”

If every man who lied to get sex was put in prison, there wouldn't be enough jails to hold them all. Kashour is no angel to be sure. In fact he is a cad. But his crime was not in his lying about his romantic feelings, but in his mis-representing his ethnic identity. And Judge Segal seems to be giving voice to the fear, common in so many racist societies, about "their" men violating "our" women.

Monday, July 12, 2010

If It Walks Like a Duck

On July 6th the Toronto Star published an article by regular columnist Martin Regg Cohn, titled Not All Apartheid Is Created Equal. Cohn's article is an a attack on Queers Against Israeli Apartheid who finally, after much controversy, where allowed to march in the Toronto Gay Pride Parade. Cohn's article drips with derision and dismissiveness. He sarcastically, suggests that QuAIA try sell their message in Gaza, and see how much tolerance there is there for gays. He also defend Israel's policies towards Palestinians claiming that there is no serious discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, and that, in any case, discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon is much worse.

On Saturday July 10th the Star published 6 letters to the editor in response. Four where critical of Mr Cohn's article - and of Israelis treatment of Palestinians - and two where supportive. I thought it was interesting that they printed so many responses to a single article, and that the majority (albeit by one letter) were critical.

What I didn't know is that this was the tip of an iceberg.

It turns out that in their online pages that morning there where 20 letters: 18 critical of Israel and Mr Cohn and only 2 supportive. These where the same two supportive letters that appeared in the print edition.

If this is really the complete list, or a truly representative sample, of the letters received in response to Mr Cohn's piece, than some sort of tide has turned in Canadian public opinion. ... Or, maybe it was just a fluke.

In any case, below is the complete list of these letters from the Star's web site (thanks to IJV). I have rearranged the order, putting my own letter own first.

July 10, 2010 00:07:00

Re: Not all apartheid is created equal, Opinion July 6

Martin Regg Cohn excuses Israel’s racist policies with the flippant comment
“occupation is not racial segregation.” He further accuses civil rights activists of “attempts to conflate Israel proper with the West Bank and Gaza when using the apartheid label.”

But it is Israel itself that has conflated the West Bank with Israel proper. It did so by introducing 300,000 Jewish settlers. This in addition to the 250,000 Israeli Jews it has settled in occupied East Jerusalem. And it is Israel that insists on calling the West Bank “disputed” rather than “occupied” territory. It is Israel that has extended Israeli law into the West Bank — but only for Israeli Jews. The local Palestinian population is still subject to Israeli military authority.

Thus Israel has created a system where Israeli Jews can buy property wherever they want, but local Palestinians cannot even rent in Jewish towns and neighbourhoods. There is a system of separate roads. Of separate water systems. Of separate government services. Public infrastructure changes dramatically from one kilometer to the next, and back again, depending on whether the neighbourhood is designated as Jewish/Israeli or Palestinian.

And all this has gone on for 42 years. Hardly a temporary state of affairs, as the term “occupation” usually implies.

It is time that we all woke up and realize that Israel has already effectively absorbed the West Bank. It is just its Palestinian residents that it wishes would disappear, and who it refuses to treat as citizens with equal rights.

If Israel wants to keep the West Bank it should extend citizenship to all its residents. If it does not, it should dismantle the settlements and get out. It can’t have it both ways.

As to the charge of Israeli apartheid, if it walks like a duck . . .
-Sydney Nestel, Toronto

Mr. Cohn’s sophistry completely ignores reality. The Palestinians in Lebanon are indeed treated as second-class citizens, but they are refugees in a host country and the host country, an already fragile mosaic of no less than 15religious groups, has no responsibility to absorb the demographic burden.

Furthermore the Palestinians in camps in Lebanon want to return to theirland, not become Lebanese, as it is their right to under international law.

In May, 2009, the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) issued a report that states explicitly, “Israel has introduced a system of apartheid in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territory].” The refugee camps in the West Bank and Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Jewish-only roads, checkpoints and settlements, the application of two different sets of laws for Jews and non-Jews, the segregation wall and selective policing, are all very similar to apartheid in South Africa, Israel’s ally at the time.
-Barnabe Geisweiller, Toronto

There is no denying that the Arab world is rife with hypocrisy when it comes to the Palestinian plight. But that is hardly the issue. We shouldn’t lose
sight of the root cause of the Palestinian suffering — their dispute with Israel over the occupied lands, which has haunted the Middle East for 60 years.

Unless this problem is not resolved, the Western powers cannot deal with the Middle East’s other troubles effectively. Sooner or later, Israel will have to acknowledge its responsibility and start a serious dialogue with the Palestinians that will lead to a meaningful settlement.

Whether Israel is less discriminatory than the Arabs on the issue of gay rights is irrelevant to the six decades of the Palestinian dilemma in the hands of Israelis.
-Ali Orang, Richmond Hill

A nice article by Mr. Cohn, highlighting the plight of the Palestinian people. Would Mr. Cohn write his next article explaining why the Palestinian people ended up in their current situation.
-Atiyyah Tilly, Scarborough

Mr. Cohn appears to have taken a very paternalistic approach to the issue of Israeli apartheid. I am not gay but I did march in solidarity with QuAIA at the PRIDE parade — in support of their message — to end Israeli apartheid.

I agree with Mr. Cohn that policies of apartheid exist in many areas of the world, not just in the Middle East. However, to suggest that those of us who are advocates for Palestinian justice refocus our efforts appears as a blatant attempt to deflect attention away from Israeli policies.

I believe that to be effective, those of us who advocate for peace with justice for the Palestinians must remain focused. I hope that my efforts to end Israeli apartheid policies will stay steadfast until that goal is achieved.

It took years and the effort of the world to bring an end to South African apartheid; the Palestinian people deserve nothing less.
-Carol Rawson, Toronto

Martin Regg Cohn may be correct in many points but he seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens do not have full citizenship. Israel certainly has racially motivated policies like the construction of Israeli-only roads, the apartheid wall and the ill-treatment of Palestinians by the Jewish settler population. House demolitions and rules as to who can build what and where are most certainly not fair.

The only advantage is that gays and lesbians are not persecuted in Israel and that it is possible to get a job. This article argues that the Israeli occupation is clearly the lesser of two evils for the Palestinians. He adds that the state deserves no criticism simply because other countries also commit injustices. That is surely no marker of morality and justice!
-Christine Johnston, Victoria, B.C.

I have no problem with criticism of Lebanon’s treatment of its Palestinian population, but injustice committed by one country is not an argument for the injustice committed by another.

If we take Mr. Cohn’s argument seriously, then Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories should be happy to have Israel ruling over them rather than Lebanon. This lesser-of-two-evils argument is weak. By that logic, Turkey’s Kurdish population should have been happy to have been oppressed by the Turkish government because Saddam Hussein treated the Kurds worse in Iraq. Oppression is still oppression no matter who inflicts it.

Also, I don’t recall Queers Against Israeli Apartheid exalting Lebanon for its commitment to democracy and gay rights. But our government and media routinely heap praise on Israel despite its human rights record.
-Colin Ellis, Toronto

Martin Regg Cohn fails to mention that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
arrived there after having been driven and frightened from their ancestral homes in Palestine by Zionist forces in 1948. This is a glaring omission in any discussion of the subject. It is also important to note that Israel continues to defy international law as embodied in UN resolutions by failing to permit the refugees to return home.

Cohn is right to point out that the Palestinians who still live in Israel proper are not subject to apartheid practices. However for the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank it is a different matter. They are barred from using roads that interconnect illegal Jewish colonies. They endure crippling pass laws and roadblocks.

Those who are resident outside East Jerusalem, the main city of the West Bank, require special permission to enter. And Israeli occupation forces are pushing West Bank Palestinians into small fragments of their original land similar to the bantustans that once characterized apartheid South Africa.
-David White, Toronto

Columnist Martin Cohn, objecting to the term “Israeli apartheid,” makes the claim that “occupation is not racial segregation, despite the superficial similarities.” I wonder what he makes of the Jewish-only settlements and Jewish-only roads built on disputed lands and protected by the Israeli military — not to mention the massive barrier in the West Bank. How is this not racial segregation?

Cohn also commits a logical fallacy when he tries to excuse Israel’s treatment of Palestine by pointing out that Palestine is also poorly treated by some Arab nations. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

But more than that, Israeli enjoys enormous political and material support from Canada and our ally, the U.S. Since we are sanctioning Israeli policy with our support, it is only right that we hold Israel to a higher standard of conduct and legitimacy.
-Kevin Farmer, Toronto

Martin Regg Cohn must surely know that sophistry does not an argument make; after all, that seems to be the main point of his article. Yet he consistently resorts to distracting semantic wordplay to sidestep the issue at stake, which is Israel’s continuing policy of racial segregation, as evidenced by the construction of Jewish-only roads, the apartheid wall and the ill-treatment of Palestinians by the Jewish settler population.

To further insinuate that criticism of Israel’s policies amounts to blind support for all Arab regimes and their policies is an insult to the intelligence of the public, which is just as capable of noting the difference (or the lack thereof, in this case) between occupation and racial segregation as it is the difference between an argument and empty rhetoric.
-Gayatri Kumar, Montreal

Martin Regg Cohn has written an important excellent insightful article that should be widely read. We hope members of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid
especially will learn where their anger should be directed.
-Simma and Harvey Shaul, Toronto

I agree with Mr. Cohn that the Lebanese treatment of Palestinian refugees is immoral and should be criticized. However, Mr. Cohn’s column obfuscates the real issue which (in addition to the intransigence of successive Israeli governments) has prevented the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and which activists such as QAIA are validly protesting.

There have been Palestinian refugees languishing in camps in Lebanon and other Arab states since 1948 because they were (as documented by Israeli historians Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris) forced to flee their homes and land primarily due to attacks or threats of attack by Jewish terrorist groups such as the Haganah and the Irgun.

The Prevention of Infiltration Law, passed by the Israeli Knesset in the early 1950s prevents indigenous Palestinians from entering or “infiltrating” Israel and authorizes their “expulsion” should they successfully infiltrate the country. (Incidentally, the law also prohibits “internal refugees” — i.e. Palestinians who were declared absent from their own villages but inside Palestine at the time Israel was created-were from returning to their villages.)

The Absentees Property Law, passed by the Knesset in 1950, authorizes the expropriation of land, owned by any Palestinian who fled Palestine following the 1948 partition or who remained within Israel but fled his “usual place of residence,” by the Israeli state. Moreover, the Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return, enshrined in international law and repeatedly affirmed by successive United Nations resolutions, has been characterized as a “non-starter” and dismissed by Israel in any peace initiative from the first Camp David to the less auspicious Roadmap for Peace. Mr. Cohn’s column should be read with this contextual framework in mind.
-Iram Khan, Toronto

Let’s pretend that your comparison between the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon and Palestinians in Israel is valid and that Israel was really as gay friendly as you claim.

Let’s just focus on the situation of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem: There is the catastrophic siege in Gaza after a military assault by Israel, the home evictions and illegal deportations in East Jerusalem and the illegal annexation wall and settlements, the virtual imprisonment, de-development of the economy, nightly arrests of teenagers, political prisoners in the thousands . . . the list continues. Israeli prisoners in Palestinian hands: 1; Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails: up to 11,000.

Israeli politicians have repeatedly stated that Israel’s ethnocracy is built on absolute domination, militarily and economically. As long as there is only a Jewish state in Palestine, Israel will remain an apartheid state that justifies the continuous and brutal violation of Palestinian rights with the necessity to uphold the “Jewish” character of Israel.

I agree with you that all colonial settler states show elements of apartheid. What countries other than Israel have been successful with is the public acknowledgment of guilt about the history of ethnic cleansing, genocide and discrimination.

Israeli historians have documented that there was systematic ethnic cleansing in 1947/1948 in Palestine. But some historians and most politicians agree that ethnic cleansing was a necessary measure to create a “Jewish” state and therefore justified.

And that’s the crucial difference between Israel and other Western countries. We see past and present discrimination as a violation of inherent human rights and try to make amends. In Israel, the humiliating and brutal treatment of Palestinians is a “tool” to maintain territorial, economic and military superiority. In Israel, apartheid is a way of life, nothing to be ashamed of.
-Martina Lauer, Chesterville

Mr. Cohn again tries to divert our attention from the unsavory actions of the state of Israel, which the group, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, terms a regime equal to if not worse than South African “apartheid.” Instead he distracts us to the equally obnoxious behaviour of neighbouring Arab nations toward their displaced Palestinian populations.

But, curiously, he avoids discussing just why there actually is a Palestinian diaspora throughout the Middle East. But then, the record shows that Israel made that widespread Palestinian displacement possible.

Also, why does he so enthusiastically challenge the queer critics of Israel here in Toronto? Perhaps because the critique of “apartheid” is the most trenchant and accurate condemnation of Israel today and he and many mediaand political folk work for its accuracy to be blunted.
-Lawrence Pushee, Toronto

In the midst of what appears to be an unending flow of Israel bashing, it is so refreshing to bask in the wit and truth of Martin Cohn’s piece on “Queers
Against Israeli Apartheid.” Not usually at a loss for words, I found nothing missing in Cohn’s comments to better describe the sheer hatefulness and hypocrisy demonstrated by the group that managed to hijack what should have been a colourful and non-political parade.

The only point Cohn did not reiterate enough was the failure of the same QuAIA to request a permit for plans to demonstrate in virtually any Arab country, where their very presence would have resulted in imprisonment — or worse. As Cohn notes, while running for their lives from an attempted demonstration in downtown Tehran or Cairo, the QuAIA may have sought shelter in the hands of the very gay-friendly Israel they are so bent on vilifying.
-Neil Henderson, Thornhill

We expect more from Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza than we do from Arab countries’ treatment of their Palestinian populations. The criticism of Israeli government Palestinian policy finds echoes in debates among Jewish people in Canada and in Israel itself. It would appear that significant numbers of Jewish people in many countries, and a sizable segment of Israeli citizens, expect more from this present Israeli government.

It is not enough, and demeans Israel itself, to join the common throng in devaluing Palestinian rights and dignity.
-Philip Conklin, Grimsby

The author first of all ignores that the Palestinian refugee problem was created by Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. Although Lebanon has a long way to go to improve Palestinian refugees conditions (which is also governed by UN, UNRWA organization, by the way), the author ignores Israeli apartheid policies such as “Jewish-only” segregated neighborhoods (kibbutz), Israeli-only roads, the apartheid wall, the ill-treatment of Palestinians by the Jewish settlers, and the discrimination of jobs based on military service (Palestinian not allowed to serve in the army).

The QuAIA has all the right to protest Israeli apartheid that is not justified, and it is irrelevant if other countries like Lebanon is practicing a form of apartheid against Israel’s “ethnic-cleansed” people, the Palestinians.
-Raji Saad, Toronto

Martin Regg Cohn loftily dismisses the essential point being made by the
Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (namely, that Israel has placed Israeli
Palestinians under an apartheid regime) as selective morality with the
plaint why is Israel being criticized rather than others. He suggests the
QuAIA is wrong-headed, quirky and hypocritical.

I think Mr. Cohn has things turned around. To my mind, the critical question, to quote Jacqueline Rose in her book *The Question of Zion*, is “[w]hy is criticism of everyone else a precondition of criticizing Israel?”

Is the treatment accorded Palestinians by Lebanon or Syria relevant to the issue of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians never mind that the Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria are first and foremost refugees from Israel? It seems to me that Mr. Cohn presumes Israel is entitled to separate standards under cover of the argument that Israel is being unfairly singled out by the QuAIA? What standard would Mr. Cohn chose by which to judge Israel?

International law? Israel has committed many violations of international law and refuses to abide by the decisions of international bodies. Liberal democracy? Israel dispossesses, displaces and discriminates against its Palestinian citizens. Running short of agreeable standards, I can only suppose that Mr. Cohn believes that, like South Africa under Apartheid, Israel should be judged against its own special standards. This is typically referred to as a double standard. Hypocrisy indeed!

Perhaps Mr. Cohn is loathe to see Israel judged at all but there are very good reasons for doing so. In 1948, Israel drove almost a million Palestinians out of their homes and ever after has refused to allow them to return thereby creating the refugee camps that exist today around the borders of Israel. In 1967, Israel began building settlements with connecting roads throughout the newly conquered West Bank dividing the tiny segment of Palestine remaining to the Palestinians into a multitude of isolated pockets.

More recently, Israel has invaded and blockaded its neighbours using disproportionate force and, in the judgment of reports commissioned by the international community, committing war crimes in the process, including massacres in Sabra, Chatila and Jenin refugee camps. By its actions, Israel has created a human catastrophe for which it does not accept any responsibility.

Instead, frozen in denial, it has created the most powerful military force in the Middle East — a force that includes nuclear weapons — with which to defend itself behind an impenetrable wall against the people it has displaced. It does not take a genius to see that denial on this scale will only lead to another and perhaps greater catastrophe. Meanwhile, anyone who raises objections is labelled “quirky.” Free speech indeed!

My entire 40-year professional career has been spent in addressing the relationship between aboriginal peoples and the larger Canadian society, first as a researcher and teacher and then as a policy advisor and land claim negotiator. I learned that in order to resolve issues it is necessary first to understand and accept that wrongs have been committed that need to be redressed as best they can in the modern day.

Denial only serves to perpetuate the misery and injustice of the status quo that, in itself, enjoins resistance. It is important to note that enlightened states have acknowledged their accountability for past wrongs. Canada has joined with Australia in apologizing for its more egregious acts in regard to aboriginal peoples. Germany has apologized for the horror of the Holocaust.

The superior and dismissive tone of Mr. Cohn’s column leads me to suspect that he is in full denial about Israel’s banishment of Palestinians from the landscape of Israel. Denial bespeaks fear.

One could ask sarcastically, with all the cement and weaponry available to Israel, what could there possibly be to fear? Then again, all the cement and weaponry are surely evidence of that Israel is, indeed, seized by a great fear.

We must remember that South Africa was once in denial and armed to the teeth but was able to take the courageous step to end apartheid. The Berlin Wall was torn down and the republics set free. We must believe that Israel can similarly see the dead end that lies before it and find the will to take the path that leads out of denial to reconciliation.

But, like South Africa and the U.S.S.R., it needs to be prodded with the truth about itself if it is to see the shoals and change its course in time. Hurray for the QuAIA!
-W.M. Smith, Toronto

The Palestinians are in Lebanon not because Lebanon had stolen their lands and created an apartheid on it, but because the Israelis did.

In Lebanon and some other Arab countries Palestinians are not granted the right of citizenship primarily because they must always strive to return to their original country and, Mr. Cohn, contrary to your belief “they will never see Haifa,” I believe that they necessarily will.

History thought us that walls will never be a solution, but as long as there is a child demanding to go back to his stolen land, he will necessarily return.
-Ziad Akl, St-Laurent, Que.

Progressive Jews like myself believe there is a case to be made for Israel’s distinctive apartheid. It is not only the conditions of the brutally
oppressed Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, but also harsh discrimination that 450,000 black Jews from Ethiopia face in Israel. Unlike privileged white Jews, the black Jews, who are not Zionists, were brought in to do menial work and to be conscripted into the army, suffering disproportionate casualties. We are opposed to the discriminatory policies of Israel because we believe in the prime Torah commandments to pursue justice and love our enemies.
-Abe Goldberg, Toronto

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Was Moses a War Criminal?

Below is the text a dvar Torah I gave today in my synagogue.

Dvar Torah – Mattot, July 10, 2010

Shabbat Shalom.
Today’s Parsha is the double portion Mattot/Ma’asei. And in keeping with today’s service’ alternate format, I would like to make this dvar more of a discussion than a lecture. Nevertheless I will begin with some opening remarks- to set the background and to express some of my own views on the matter at hand.
And the matter at hand is the slaughter of the Midianites as recounted in Bamidbar chapter 31.
Let me read condensed version of verse 1 - 18.
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
2. Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites; afterwards shall you be gathered to your people.
3. And Moses spoke to the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves for the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and do the Lord’s vengeance in Midian.
7. And they warred against the Midianites ...; and they slew all the males.
9. And the people of Israel took captive all the women of Midian, and their little ones, ...
10. And they burned all their cities where they lived, and all their encampments, with fire.
11. And they took all the booty, and all the plunder, both of men and of beasts.
12. And they brought the captives, and the booty, and the plunder, to Moses, ... to the camp in the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan near Jericho.
14. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, ...
15. And Moses said to them, Have you kept all the women alive?
16. Behold, these caused the people of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
17. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him.
18. But all the young women, who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive and take for yourselves.
There are three questions I would like us to consider today.
· First, is this moral?
· Second, is Moses a war criminal?
· Third, what are we, as Reconstructionist Jews, to make of this story?
* * *
First, is it moral? Personally I have to say no. And I am not alone among Jewish commentators.
The staunchly Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Zvi Hertz, chief Rabbi of the British Empire, writing in the 1930s, in his commentary on this incident says:
The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties. We are no longer acquainted with the circumstances that justified the ruthlessness with which it was waged, and therefore cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised in that connection. Perhaps the recollection of what took place after the Indian Mutiny, when Great Britain was of the same temper, may throw some light on the question. The soldiers then, bent on punishing the cruelty and lust of the rebels, partly in patriotism, and partly in revenge, set all mercy aside.
His best explanation is that Britain had been similarly cruel in a bloody war back in 1857. (Though to be fair to the British, no female prisoners were executed in that war.) Hertz thus raises the moral problem, but answers, or not, by falling back on a common empirical truism: “War is hell. Soldiers are often cruel.”
Similarly Guntar Plaut, in his commentary, writes:
This report [of the war against Midian] contains historical and moral problems of the highest order.
He then goes on to point out that this account is likely a-historical. But as Plaut goes on to say:
... this [a-historicism only] exacerbates the moral question. For if the extermination of the Midianites did not in fact take place ... what would move the authors of the Torah to include it? How can the slaughters of so many prisoners be reconciled with the humanitarian ideals ... of the Torah.
But, ultimately, Plaut too falls back on historical analogy, not moral justification, to explain this text. ‘Everyone acted badly in those days’, is his claim though in truth, as far as I can tell, this is just wishful thinking on Plaut’s part. It was actually quite rare in ancient times to kill all the captured women and children. They were simply too valuable on the slave market.
Plaut then takes comfort from the fact that the Israelite soldiers were ordered to make a ritual atonement. Frankly, IMO, this is no justification at all, and reminds me, more than anything, of Golda Meir’s remark that she could never forgive the Arabs for forcing nice Jewish boys to kill them.
Plaut seems to realize these are weak arguments.
So, finally, in attempt to save the good name of God from the damning evidence of the text, Plaut decides to throw Moses under the bus. Referencing a remarkable text from Midrash Sifre Bamidbar, he states:
A midrash attempts to relieve God of the responsibility [for the massacre,] and comments that Moses’ anger brought him to sin, implying that it was not God, but Moses, who issued the fatal command...
Thus we have evidence that as early as the second century CE, rabbinic Judaism had a serious problem with the behaviour ascribed to the Israelites in this chapter, and where willing to label it as the work of a “rogue agent” - Moses in his dotage, embittered at his fate. To accuse Moses of a sin, is no small thing for the Mishna Rabbis, so we see that, some of them at least also, saw this incident as inconsistent with moral behaviour – even under the duress of war.
* * *
Let us turn to the second question. Is Moses a war criminal?
This is a tricky question. Crime – as opposed to moral offence – is dependent on the law of the land in force at the time. Homosexual relations, or l’havdil, flogging a horse to death, may or may not have been moral offences in 1870s Canada; but one was certainly a crime and the other certainly legal at that time while today the legal status of these two acts is reversed.
So let me say right off that Moses was not a War Criminal, in his time and place. There were simply no Jewish laws of war laid down in the Bible prior to this incident. But just a few weeks after this incident, by the Bibles own chronology, that is no longer true, and Moses may have been guilty of War Crimes by the standards of those new laws.
In Deuteronomy 20:10 Moses himself, in the name of God, tells the people:
When you approach a city to do battle with it, you should offer it peace. And if they respond in peace and they open the city to you, then all the people in the city shall pay taxes to you and obey you. But if they do not make peace with you, only then shall you wage war with them...
The Talmudic Rabbis understood this to be a great and general principal. Rabbi Josse Hagalili is quoted as stating
"How meritorious is peace? Even in a time of war one must initiate all hostile activities with a request for peace.”
One must always try negotiations before going to war. Before the seeking of peace, battle is prohibited.
Moses did not offer peace to the Midianites under any conditions. His purpose was their death: pure and simple revenge. And therefore he would seem to have been guilty of a War Crime based the Law as it was in effective only a few weeks after this massacre
Rashi, writing in the 11th century, says that is not so. He limits the obligation to seek peace prior to entering battle to voluntary wars (Milchemott Reshut), not commanded wars Milcehmot Mitzvah) and God did command Moses to attack the Midianites. Thus, according to Rashi, Moses would have been off the hook even had this law been in effect at the time.
Maimonides, however, disagrees with Rashi. He states:
One does not wage war with anyone in the world until one seeks peace with him. This is true both of voluntary and obligatory wars, as it says [in the Bible] "when you approach a city to wage war, you must first call out for peace." If they respond positively and accept the seven Noachide commandments, one may not kill any of them ...
But more than that: the obligation to seek peace as explained above, applies to battle between armies where no civilian population is involved. However, according to Maimoinides, Jewish law requires an additional series of overtures for peace and surrender in situations where the military activity involves attacking cities populated by civilians. Maimonides writes:
Joshua, before he entered the land of Israel sent three letters to its inhabitants. The first one said that those that wish to flee [the oncoming army] should flee. The second one said that those that wish to make peace should make peace. The third letter said that those that want to fight a war should prepare to fight a war.
Nor was the general obligation to warn the civilian population enough to fulfill the mitzvoth: Maimonides codifies a number of very specific rules of military ethics, based on Biblical and Talmudic sources. He writes:
When one surrounds a city to lay siege to it, it is prohibited to surround it from four sides; only three sides are permissible. One must leave a place for inhabitants to flee for all those who wish to abscond to save their life.
Nachmanides, a later medieval Rabbi, elaborating on this commandment states:
It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion - even with our enemies and even at time of war;
Of course Moses obeyed none of these strictures in the war against Midian.
But, you might say, none of this addresses the brutality of the war after it had started – and that is what really bothers us today.
That too is addressed by Maimonides. According to his interpretation of another verse in Deuteronomy 20 – the prohibition to destroy fruit trees in time of war – it is forbidden to do any wanton destruction that is not an absolutely militarily necessary. This is part of the general principle of Bal Tashchit. Maimonides tells us that it is prohibited to induce deliberate suffering, famine, or unnecessary waste or damage in the enemy camp. Maimonides, in his book of commandments, (in Negative Commandment #57 to be precise) explicitly links the prohibition against destroying fruit trees, to the deliberate intention to expose the enemy to any undue suffering.
Thus not only would Moses have been guilty of
  • failing to have offered peace prior to the war,
  • failing to allow civilians to separate themselves from the military and thus save themselves,
  • and failing to offer the enemy an escape route;
his murder of the non combatant prisoners and the destruction of the Midianite cities can both be classified as wanton destruction and a violation of the principal of Bal Tashchit.
Maimonides recognizes that his understanding of the Deuteronomy’s Laws of War would find Moses to be a War Criminal. He excuses Moses only by the fact that those Laws had not been given at the time of the Midianite War.
If Moses could have been judged a War Criminal by the Deuteronomy’s standards, by Talmudic standards, and by Maimonides standards - how much more so by current secular legal standards? The Geneva convections of 1949 – as updated in 1977 - specifically disallow the following acts, all of which Moses – and the Israelites it must be said – engaged in, in this Parsha:
  • Deliberate killing of non-combatants during war
  • Killing of prisoners of war under your power
  • Killing of protected persons under your power
  • Failing to protect women and children
  • Collective punishment
  • Punishment of non-combatants under your power without due legal process.
  • Moving of conquered people from their land
  • Moving of the conquering nations citizens into the conquered peoples lands
However, even a modern day War Crimes Tribunal, conducted under the Geneva conventions would have found Moses innocent. The Geneva conventions are not retroactive. Had they been, not only would Germans and Japanese have been found guilty, but also many allied soldiers, commanders, and politicians.
* * *
This brings me to the third point I want us to consider. What should all this mean to us – as Reconstructions Jews?
Let me offer just a few thoughts before we open this up for discussion.
First, the Torah is not, and it should not be, the be all and end all of our moral and legal thinking. Our concepts of right and wrong evolve. What was OK for Moses was not OK for Joshua, and many an ancient Jewish leader would have been condemned had he stood trial under Maimonides rules. In war in particular, it is often the very excesses of war that cause humanity to update its rules. Just as what Moses did to Midianites was outlawed only a few weeks after he did it, so too many common World War I & II practices where outlawed by the Geneva convections of 1949.
Second, in war, as in other things, our ethics should not be based on Jewish law alone – or even primarily on Jewish law. The same Maimonides, whom I quoted as a man with a kinder gentler view of war, declares that rape in time of war, though limited,
is allowed! He stands on firm Talmudic precedent in this. Yet I am sure none of us in this room would condone this common but vile war time practice. It took the 1949 Geneva conventions to explicitly declare rape by soldiers a War Crime.
Third, I bring these points up, not just to have an intellectual discussion about nature of evolving law, and the need to incorporate both secular and Jewish sources into our moral and legal thinking. I bring them up because these are pressing issues for the Jewish people today – particularly in Israel.
Two examples if I may.
First, in response to the Goldstone Committee’s findings of possible War Crimes by Israeli Forces in the 2008/2009 Gaza War – in particular for alleged deliberate targeting of civilians in time of war, and in failing to adequately protect civilians, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that the allies had done much worse in WW II. He cited the fire-bombing of Dresden as one example. In response, Judge Goldstone pointed out that Dresden would be illegal under the current Laws of War as codified in the 1949 Geneva conventions. The world was so horrified by the total-war ethos of WW II that it sought to outlaw similar behavious in all future conflicts. Armies must now, even if it puts their own soldiers at some risk, go out of their way to protect civilians.
Second, at this very moment as I speak to you this Shabbat, in Israel, the Ministry of Justice is sponsoring a conference at the Park Hotel in Upper Nazareth. The title of the conference Hebrew Law - The Land of Israel: Vision and Realization”. Session topics include (and remember this is the Israeli Ministry of Justice, not some Yeshiva, sponsoring and this conference):
· The centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish law
· “And you shall inherit it and you shall reside therein” The commandment of settling the Land of Israel according to Nahmanides.
· The obligation to risk lives to settle the Land of Israel
· “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity” (Leviticus 25:23)

· “Show no mercy unto them” (Deuteronomy 20:16)
One of the invited lecturers at this conference is Professor Rabbi Dov Lior, who in the middle of the Gaza War, publicly supported the killing of Palestinian saying: “There is no term in the Halacha that states one must consider innocents during war. “
More recently, Professor Lior endorsed a book entitled Torat HaMelech (The King’s Torah), written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, which explains when it is, and is not, permissible to kill non-Jews.
The book argues that one may kill non-Jews and their children if their presence is dangerous to the Jewish people and if one is reasonably certain that the children will grow up and harm Jews. Rabbis Shapira and Elitzur site Moses’ slaughter of the Midianite women and children, in today’s Parsha, as one of the sources for their ruling.
* * *
It seems to me that there is no point in arguing Biblical exegesis, or the finer points of Jewish law against this kind of thinking. Sometimes, we should just admit that the Torah’s morality has been superseded by better ideas. In any case, as Reconstructionists, we read Torah, not to be told what to believe or do, - but, rather to learn what our ancestors thought, - and to start, not to end, a discussion of ethics, meaning, and the human condition. The Bible is a beginning, not a destination. True Torah is a journey.
I look forward to hearing your comments. -- Shabbat Shalom

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Government Throws Turkel a Bone

The Israeli Government has thrown the Turkel Committee a bone.

According to today's Haaretz:
The government unanimously voted Sunday to expand the authority of the Turkel Commission investigating Israel's raid of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.
According to a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office, new powers will allow the commission, headed by Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, to subpoena witnesses and receive sworn testimony. The decision excludes Israel Defense Force soldiers.
Well of course that last sentence undercuts the demands made by so many - including Judge Turkel himself - to give this committee some teeth. In addition the government refused to broaden the committees mandate, to look into more than the legal issues and the behavior of the Turkish flotilla organizers. You can read why an expanded mandate and powers were needed here, as well as my previous blog entries on the issue.

This bone is just that: a bone with no meat. It shouldn't fool anyone. The committee, as is, is a joke and a smokescreen, designed to get world opinion off Netanyahu's back while confirming the Israeli government's pre-existing position: we were right, they were wrong.

Boycott Backfire?

Boycotts and sanctions often, maybe even usually, backfire when applied to states. That is the main point of a thought provoking article in today's Haaretz by Zvi Bar'el.

Bar'el uses the opportunity to argue against Israel's official blockade of Gaza, Israelis unofficial boycott of Turkey, and the growing general BDS campaign against the Israel.
Anywhere sanctions are imposed - from Iraq to Iran, from Gaza to Pakistan - nationalist and radical forces actually have become stronger. Even the intellectuals who oppose the regimes have found themselves forced to defend them from outside intervention. Nationalism, or more correctly, extreme nationalism, rejoices.
Even in the much lauded South African example of a "successful" boycott, Bar'el points out that, to the extent the boycott was a critical factor in the fall of apartheid, it took decades to do its work. More relevant was the fall of the Soviet Union (which undercut the Communists in the ANC and removed white's fears of losing their economic privilege) and the simultaneous rise of two conciliatory and powerful leaders: De Klerk and Mandella.

In regard to the probable effectiveness of BDS on Israel, Bar'el writes:
... the call is motivated by the same logic that guides [Israeli] government policy in Gaza, and it is just as mistaken. After all, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Israeli government or the public will behave differently than Gazans or Iranians.

The fact that Israel is a democracy is no guarantee. Proof of this lies in the collective behavior in the face of Turkey's attack (sic!) on Israel and the threat of military sanctions. Cancelling vacations in Antalya, protests and boycotting Turkish goods have become symbols of the "just struggle" against the bad guys.

If Israeli scholars are banned by universities in London, that's not so terrible. They can still go to Pennsylvania, and if they are banned there, they can still correspond and publish online; what's more important is that foreigners don't dictate policy "to us." If now, even before a boycott, lecturers have to think twice about what they say lest extreme nationalists mark them, then under sanctions, some elected officials may ensure such academics are immediately fired. In any case, people waiting for an academic uprising amidst a boycott should have their heads examined.
Bar'el may be right.

But that is no reason not to boycott goods and services from Israeli settlements. The settlements are an unmitigated evil, and the root of the current impasse, and most of the injustices in Israel/Palestine affairs. And, because boycotting the settlements does not target all Israelis, it drives (or at least may drive) a wedge between the settlers and the rest of the Israeli population. And that can only be good for prospects for peace and justice.

Oddly enough - or maybe not, given the wizardry of targeted ads on the Internet - the very page that displays Bar'el's article (see image above) also displays an ad for Ahava cosmetics - one of the most high profile settlement products sold world wide.

Ahava should be boycotted. It is produced by Mitzpeh Shalem a settlement in the West Bank. It uses as its ingredients, Dead Sea salts - extracted from the occupied territories in an area confiscated by the Israeli government and given to the settlers. And access to the Dead Sea is denied to Palestinians, even though approximately 25% of its shoreline is in the West Bank.

So pass it on: Boycott Ahava. And boycott other products of the occupied territories. This includes many of "Israel's" wines; you will need to read the label carefully to see which wines are made where. A partial list of settlements and their products can be found here.

And you won't be alone. The Palestinian Authority has called for a targeted boycott of settlement products. (It pointedly did not call for a boycott of all Israeli goods.) And the Methodist Church in England just today decided to boycott products from settlements.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Teach Your Children Well

This is why some American Jews think the Palestinians are greedy, uncompromising, and unreasonable. It our land after all.

It is also why so many other American Jews don't want anything to do with the organized Jewish community.

The photo above appeared in the Forward online edition, in an article about Jewish camping. The photo was supplied by the Foundation For Jewish Camp.

Apparently no one, at either the Forward (America's premier "Liberal" Jewish newspaper or the Foundation), noticed, or if they noticed they were not bothered by, the "map" the young girl is climbing. It shows an undivided "Greater Israel". There is no Green Line: no delineation of the West Bank or Gaza. Hebron, in this map, is as Israeli as Arad; Gaza as Ashdod. It is all shown as part of the State of Israel. (And yet the organized Jewish Community complains bitterly about Palestinian school children being taught from maps of Palestine that show only one country, do not delineate Israel, and with all the place names in Arabic.)

And while the camp operators haven't even acknowledged Israel's withdrawal from Gaza (echoing the right wing opposition in Israel that wants Gaza taken back), the young girl seems to get at least that (if only subconsciously.) She has just taken her boot of of Gaza, but she is still clinging firmly to Hebron.