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An unqualified defense of Helen Thomas

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

UPDATE: Thomas has announced her retirement.

Her comments [telling Israelis to leave Palestine and “go home” to Europe] do not reflect a desire to see Israel/Palestine judenrein, but rather an ominous sense of what a dangerous place Israel has become, and will only increasingly be, for its people.

But the more important point is that the cries of “historical ignorance” by the Zionists only reflect their own. It was the Zionists, with a mighty assist from Stalin, who stood in the way of the surviving Jews of Europe being able to return to the only homes they ever knew. The anti-Zionists of that time, most notably the great Lessing Rosenwald, passionately and rightly argued that the suggestion that the Jews should not simply cast down their buckets but be transferred en masse to Palestine was an insult to all that the war against Hitler had been fought to achieve.

Along with his friends in the Reform rabbinate, Rosenwald had also not been shy about calling out the proposition that there existed a Jewish “nation” for what it was – a fundamental and dangerous concession to the doctrine of Hitler. Indeed, per Helen Thomas, there could be no happier consequence of the fall of Zionism than the rebirth of Judaism in Poland that we have already seen in Germany.

Jack Ross is author of a forthcoming book on the American Council for Judaism and Rabbi Elmer Berger.

What 1967, and 1948, tell us about today

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

“Secure the children first. I want you all to know where to hide when the bombs fall,” my grandmother instructed us. It was June 1967, and I was 11, during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs. The victorious Israeli army was advancing. Soldiers from the fleeing Palestine Liberation Army filled our street. Vanquished, they were trying to figure out what to do, and how to get back to their families.

My grandmother earned her family leadership position from experience. She was one of the victims of the 1948 war, the war Palestinians call al-Nakba, the catastrophe. “They made me leave Haifa,” she said, eyes flashing determination, “and I am not leaving this time!” She stayed in Birzeit on the West Bank raising my two sisters, my brother and me until she died in 1974. I left for America in 1975 at 19.

In May, as Israel celebrates its 62nd anniversary, I commemorate my grandmother’s expulsion from Haifa. In June, I remember her determination to stay resolutely in place in the West Bank despite the danger of 1967. Her experiences—the painful uncertainty before the 1948 war, her subsequent uprooting by Israel and the tremendous hardship that followed—are all vivid in my mind. I can remember the intimate details of her stories, her silent grief and resigned helplessness at losing her home. Even her physical injuries—the scar left by shell fragments on her left thigh—still come immediately to mind.

As Americans are barraged with the romanticized story of Israel’s establishment, they are getting only the Israeli version, the victor’s version — much as they are today with the deadly Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. What is missing are first-hand accounts from participants and indigenous accounts like my grandmother’s. Many cold winter nights, sitting around a glowing fire, she would pour out her memories, embedding them in mine.

Observing the Mideast peace process and its proponents’ determination to strip away the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands, I feel much as my grandmother felt in 1948. Another Palestinian generation, mine, is in danger of being dispossessed.

All her life, my grandmother watched Palestine slipping away. “They are not going to stop until they have all the land,” her infuriated father would tell her. Palestinians today fear that Israel’s expansion through its settlement network and roads dedicated to Jewish settlers, on which Palestinian drivers living under occupation are prohibited, will not stop until all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is gone. The Palestine I knew looks like Swiss cheese.

My grandmother believed that negotiating with Israel “would be a trap.” And she believed that the United States was incapable of being an honest broker. “America will always back up Israel no matter what,” she would say. Even President Obama has sadly proven her right.

When the peace process started in 1992, I tried to believe that, maybe, my grandmother was wrong about Israel. It is clear, however, that even as it pretends to want to negotiate, Israel continues to apply to the Palestinians the very policies that dispossessed my grandmother and much of her generation in 1948.

“Israel wants it all,” she lamented. Israel’s Jerusalem policies best exemplify this goal. Not only does Israel malign the city’s significance to Muslims and Christians, but it expropriates Palestinian land, demolishes Palestinian homes, and confiscates Palestinian identity cards, forcing many Palestinians out in a relentless attempt at ethnic cleansing. “We would have no problem living with them if only they would share the land,” was my grandmother’s formula for peace. It still holds today.

As in 1948 and 1967, America again today has ignored the aspirations of the Palestinian people. President Obama’s failure to stand up to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has bogged down the peace process, endangered humanitarian aid to Gazans, and reduced the conflict to a discussion of freezing the settlements in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the occupation, land confiscation, and Palestinian suffering continue unabated.

My grandmother’s instinctive reaction to the 1967 war was not to leave Birzeit as she had Haifa. She did not want us to become homeless refugees, as she had. “Secure the children first,” I can hear her still. I wish President Obama could hear her, too.

Michel Shehadeh is the Executive Director of the Arab Film Festival. He is the former West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and a member of the landmark Los Angeles Eight Case, the Palestinian Deportation Case. He holds a BA in Journalism and a Master’s degree in Public Policy Administration from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).

O’Keefe: Gandhi would have defended the ‘Mavi Marmara’

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

“All I saw in Israel was cowards with guns.” These are the words of Ken O’Keefe, a former US Marine who was just deported from Israel after surviving the Mavi Marmara massacre.

In 2002, O’Keefe initiated what some would regard as a quixotic endeavor: an effort to prevent the war in Iraq by positioning Western volunteers as human shields at strategic sites in Iraq. The Truth Justice Peace action failed, but O’Keefe’s passion to follow the dictates of his own conscience has continued unabated.

This is part of a statement O’Keefe made upon arriving in Istanbul on Friday after his expulsion from Israel:

I remember being asked during the TJP Human Shield Action to Iraq if I was a pacifist, I responded with a quote from Gandhi by saying I am not a passive anything. To the contrary I believe in action, and I also believe in self-defence, 100%, without reservation. I would be incapable of standing by while a tyrant murders my family, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara was like an attack on my Palestinian family. I am proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with those who refused to let a rogue Israeli military exert their will without a fight. And yes, we fought.

When I was asked, in the event of an Israeli attack on the Mavi Mamara, would I use the camera, or would I defend the ship? I enthusiastically committed to defence of the ship. Although I am also a huge supporter of non-violence, in fact I believe non-violence must always be the first option. Nonetheless I joined the defence of the Mavi Mamara understanding that violence could be used against us and that we may very well be compelled to use violence in self-defence.

I said this straight to Israeli agents, probably of Mossad or Shin Bet, and I say it again now, on the morning of the attack I was directly involved in the disarming of two Israeli Commandos. This was a forcible, non-negotiable, separation of weapons from commandos who had already murdered two brothers that I had seen that day. One brother with a bullet entering dead center in his forehead, in what appeared to be an execution.

I knew the commandos were murdering when I removed a 9mm pistol from one of them. I had that gun in my hands and as an ex-US Marine with training in the use of guns it was completely within my power to use that gun on the commando who may have been the murderer of one of my brothers. But that is not what I, nor any other defender of the ship did.

I took that weapon away, removed the bullets, proper lead bullets, separated them from the weapon and hid the gun. I did this in the hopes that we would repel the attack and submit this weapon as evidence in a criminal trial against Israeli authorities for mass murder.

I also helped to physically separate one commando from his assault rifle, which another brother apparently threw into the sea. I and hundreds of others know the truth that makes a mockery of the brave and moral Israeli military. We had in our full possession, three completely disarmed and helpless commandos.

These boys were at our mercy, they were out of reach of their fellow murderers, inside the ship and surrounded by 100 or more men. I looked into the eyes of all three of these boys and I can tell you they had the fear of God in them. They looked at us as if we were them, and I have no doubt they did not believe there was any way they would survive that day. They looked like frightened children in the face of an abusive father.

But they did not face an enemy as ruthless as they. Instead the woman provided basic first aid, and ultimately they were released, battered and bruised for sure, but alive. Able to live another day. Able to feel the sun over head and the embrace of loved ones. Unlike those they murdered. Despite mourning the loss of our brothers, feeling rage towards these boys, we let them go.

The Israeli prostitutes of propaganda can spew all of their disgusting bile all they wish, the commandos are the murders, we are the defenders, and yet we fought. We fought not just for our lives, not just for our cargo, not just for the people of Palestine, we fought in the name of justice and humanity. We were right to do so, in every way.

While in Israeli custody I, along with everyone else was subjected to endless abuse and flagrant acts of disrespect. Women and elderly were physically and mentally assaulted. Access to food and water and toilets was denied. Dogs were used against us, we ourselves were treated like dogs. We were exposed to direct sun in stress positions while hand cuffed to the point of losing circulation of blood in our hands. We were lied to incessantly, in fact I am awed at the routineness and comfort in their ability to lie, it is remarkable really. We were abused in just about every way imaginable and I myself was beaten and choked to the point of blacking out… and I was beaten again while in my cell.

In all this what I saw more than anything else were cowards… and yet I also see my brothers. Because no matter how vile and wrong the Israeli agents and government are, they are still my brothers and sisters and for now I only have pity for them. Because they are relinquishing the most precious thing a human being has, their humanity.

In conclusion; I would like to challenge every endorser of Gandhi, every person who thinks they understand him, who acknowledges him as one of the great souls of our time (which is just about every western leader), I challenge you in the form of a question. Please explain how we, the defenders of the Mavi Marmara, are not the modern example of Gandhi’s essence? But first read the words of Gandhi himself.

“I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence…. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.” – Gandhi

And lastly I have one more challenge. I challenge any critic of merit, publicly, to debate me on a large stage over our actions that day. I would especially love to debate with any Israeli leader who accuses us of wrongdoing, it would be my tremendous pleasure to face off with you. All I saw in Israel was cowards with guns, so I am ripe to see you in a new context. I want to debate with you on the largest stage possible. Take that as an open challenge and let us see just how brave Israeli leaders are.

I doubt that there is a single Israeli official who would have the guts to take up O’Keefe’s challenge. Instead, the IDF has issued a laughable claim:

Ken O’Keefe (Born 1969), an American and British citizen, is a radical anti-Israel activist and operative of the Hamas Terror organization. He attempted to enter the Gaza Strip in order to form and train a commando unit for the Palestinian terror organization.

The IDF spelled his name correctly and the year he was born — thereafter, the errors and deceptions follow. O’Keefe renounced his US citizenship in March 2001. He is now an Irish and Palestinian citizen, though describes himself as “in truth a world citizen.”

If the IDF had a shred of evidence that O’Keefe was heading to Gaza to train a commando unit for Hamas, I guarantee he would not now be in Istanbul. He would be in an Israeli jail awaiting trial. (In an interview with Al Jazeera he does indeed dismiss Israel’s claims.)

But when O’Keefe says that all he saw in Israel was “cowards with guns” he points to a fundamental truth that reveals the character of the Jewish state.

As a nation that revels in its willingness to crush its opponents, Israel operates with the mindset of every bully: it only feels convinced of its strength when facing a weak opponent.

Lacking the courage to hold its own among equals, Israel operates in a world defined by dominance and oppression.

(This is cross-posted at Woodward’s site, War in Context, where an Al Jazeera interview and one of O’Keefe’s video diaries can be viewed.)

Inhumane siege is fueling international outrage (inc’g American poets)

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

On Saturday, the Irish Times ran this poem by Richard Tillinghast, an American poet living in Ireland, called “What Is Not Allowed”:

No tinned meat is allowed, no tomato paste,

no clothing, no shoes, no notebooks.

These will be stored in our warehouses at Kerem Shalom

until further notice.

Bananas, apples, and persimmons are allowed into Gaza,

peaches and dates, and now macaroni

(after the American Senator’s visit).

These are vital for daily sustenance.

But no apricots, no plums, no grapes, no avocados, no jam.

These are luxuries and are not allowed.

Paper for textbooks is not allowed.

The terrorists could use it to print seditious material.

And why do you need textbooks

now that your schools are rubble?

No steel is allowed, no building supplies, no plastic pipe.

These the terrorists could use to launch rockets

against us.

Pumpkins and carrots you may have,

but no delicacies,

no cherries, no pomegranates, no watermelon, no onions,

no chocolate.

We have a list of three dozen items that are allowed,

but we are not obliged to disclose its contents.

This is the decision arrived at

by Colonel Levi, Colonel Rosenzweig, and Colonel Segal.

Our motto:

‘No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.’

You may fish in the Mediterranean,

but only as far as three km from shore.

Beyond that and we open fire.

It is a great pity the waters are polluted –

twenty million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the sea every day

is the figure given.

Our rockets struck the sewage treatments plants,

and at this point spare parts to repair them are not allowed.

As long as Hamas threatens us,

no cement is allowed, no glass, no medical equipment.

We are watching you from our pilotless drones

as you cook your sparse meals over open fires

and bed down

in the ruins of houses destroyed by tank shells.

And if your children can’t sleep,

missing the ones who were killed in our incursion,

or cry out in the night, or wet their beds

in your makeshift refugee tents,

or scream, feeling pain in their amputated limbs –

that’s the price you pay for harbouring terrorists.

God gave us this land.

A land without a people for a people without a land.

Richard Tillinghast is an American poet who lives in Co Tipperary. He is the author of eight books of poetry, the latest of which is Selected Poems (Dedalus Press, 2010 ), as well as several works of non-fiction

In fairness to CFR

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

I spent the weekend bashing the Council on Foreign Relations for its party line. I missed this: Mohamad Bazzi is at the Council on Foreign Relations and has called for lifting the blockade. (Thanks to Sean Lee).

Headline says it all

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

Haaretz:

Turkey to Israel: If you have nothing to hide, accept international probe.

The pressure is mounting on Israel to allow an international investigation of the flotilla raid. This is the other shoe dropping. The first was Goldstone.

Netanyahu’s psyche

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

On Netanyahu and the Entebbe motive [for the flotilla raid]: psychoanalytic explanation was a reflex of our parents’ time. It is now is too little used. Netanyahu is the emotionally tunneled sibling of a martyr brother, son of a big man, great man, man-mountain of scholarship (the highest calling for an Israeli).

Benzion, now 100 and still enjoying mental ascendancy over Binyamin, besides his massive erudition, was a Zionist of the founding generation. It doesn’t get more overdetermined than that. Young Netanyahu’s intransigence is not shakable by realities; it is the indelible, memorized practice of the docile offspring of that great house. Even if the American neoconservatives and Lieberman his former chief of staff  (whom he may respect and fear half as much as his father) weren’t hammering at him day and night, he would be obedient to instructions from the family attic.

A Jew explains why he is leading flotilla protest

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

This afternoon at 5 in Middletown, Orange County, New York, a demonstration will be held to oppose the attack on the Gaza flotilla. Details below. One of the organizers is Goshen, N.Y., lawyer and activist Michael Sussman, who sent out this letter:

friends:

since we commenced organizing this protest, some have called me and warned me that my political career is over for co-sponsoring this rally and forum and that I am associating with anti-semites, etc. i wanted to address those issues briefly. from an early age, my vision of Judaism was a vision replete with social commitment and activism. the rabbis who influenced me were active in the civil rights movement and deeply involved every day in promoting social justice.

my own inspiration comes not merely from my own family, but from these individuals. as a jew, I cannot accept the notion that “my people” have superior rights to others and “my state,” Israel, can act in any manner it wishes, contrary to international law.

When Malcolm X was asked what white people could do to help move civil rights, he sagely suggested that we work in our own communities, tell the truth to power and try to stand against the racism we confronted daily, whether in jokes or snickers or more serious expression.

The same is true for Jews today – we cannot simply tolerate oppression because “our own” commit it. Indeed, in light of our lofty ideals, Jews must take the lead in opposing brutality, oppression and senseless killing. That others may do the same is no excuse for us to act in senseless, brutal manners. 

Today, I will proudly moderate the panel discussion and walk from the Galleria to Town Hall because I know that doing so is right and necessary. We may not be able to change the world, but we can try to live principled lives as public citizens, not sheep. 

The rallywill be held at the intersection of Rt. 211 and North Galleria Drive. At 7 p.m. the demonstrators will march a half-mile to the Wallkill Town Hall at 99 Tower Drive for a
7:30 p.m. meeting.

‘Increasingly vocal’ Jewish left is taking over the American Jewish ’street’

Posted: 07 Jun 2010

I try and keep up on the shift within the Jewish establishment, the “seismic shift” that a year or so back MJ Rosenberg predicted was coming, and that Peter Beinart’s piece was the best evidence of. Well, the “Fundermentalist”, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s blog about philanthropy, written by Jacob Berkman, sent out an email to subscribers today (including our friend Jeff Blankfort) that included excellent reporting on American Jewish organizational response to the flotilla raid. Berkman describes the propaganda effort, but warns Jewish leadership to watch out:

it should probably come as no surprise that the… Jewish Federations of North America, immediately jumped to Israel’s defense in the aftermath of the flotilla confrontation.

Within hours of the incident, the JFNA had distributed talking points to its 157 member local federations, more than 400 independent communities and its broader mailing list . The emphasis was on how the federations and their supporters could combat the quickly rising swell of condemnation of Israel.

Within 24 hours, the JFNA had given Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, a forum with more than 700 Jewish community officials to make his case for why Israel was not in the wrong and about how its actions were justified because the NGO behind the flotilla was nothing more than a proxy for Iran.

Fundermentalist’s take: It was not surprising to see the JFNA and the federation system jump to Israel’s defense. But in doing so in this case, JFNA opened itself up to criticism from some increasingly vocal segments of the Jewish community on the left.

Public relations for Israel has always in a sense been a key part of the federations’ mission. .. But when the federations took up the PR mantle, they ran a major risk. Yes, the federations must stand by Israel. But in defending its actions and justifying them so ardently before all of the facts of the flotilla fiasco were fully known, in effect they were placing a huge wager that they would not alienate a North American Jewish street that was quite conflicted on the flotilla. And while for federation veterans placing all of the system’s chips on Israel seems fairly safe — and morally required — it comes at a time when the movement is struggling to figure out how to reach out to Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s, for whom Israel is a more complicated topic.

Could lining up so forcefully and quickly for Israel end up further disenfranchising the very demographic that federations are most concerned about targeting?

Daniel Sokatch, the former exec of the federation in San Francisco and now the president of the New Israel Fund, offered some criticism along these lines.

“It is distressing to see the American Jewish community immediately go into spin mode without finding out what happened,” said Sokatch, whose organization has aggressively been positioning itself as taking the lead in fighting to turn back what it describes as Israel’s undemocratic shift in recent years. “You damage your credibility when you are wrong.

“But the longer-term dangers are twofold. You run the risk of enabling destructive behavior on the part of the Israeli government that is ultimately not in the interest of Israel. And the second long-term risk you run is that the vast majority of American Jews are deeply conflicted and deeply ambivalent about this situation. They are asking questions.

When the spin is Israel had no choice and is a victim, and all the dead guys are on the other side, you run the risk of further alienating them and making more and more pronounced the gap between American Jews and Israel. That is a huge concern for me and it should be for all of us.”

The JFNA’s CEO, Jerry Silverman, strongly rejected the notion that the federations were simply carrying Israel’s PR water. [blah blah]

Israeli discourse on Gaza flotilla makes our press look poodle

Posted: 06 Jun 2010

I haven’t seen anything like this in the Times or the Washington Post. Uri Avnery’s column likening raid to the raid on the Exodus in ’47 ran in Israel’s second largest paper:

[Gaza flotilla disaster] is Chapter 2 of “Cast Lead”. Then we aroused most countries in the world against us, shocked our few friends and gladdened our enemies. Now we have done it again, and perhaps with even greater success. World public opinion is turning against us.

This is a slow process. It resembles the accumulation of water behind a dam. The water rises slowly, quietly, and the change is hardly noticeable. But when it reaches a critical level, the dam bursts and the disaster is upon us. We are steadily approaching this point.

Update. Robert Mackey at the Times did run the Exodus comparison in his superb lede blog. I’m talking about the frank diagnoses of Israel’s crisis of the soul that Avnery is able to express.

See: www.mondoweiss.net

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