Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jewish State Treats Gazans "Like Animals"

Visiting the unreconstructable ruins of Gaza on Wednesday, former President Jimmy Carter said that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were being treated "more like animals than human beings" by Israeli rules that limit travel, ban the import of all but basic goods and prevented rebuilding since a three-week war ended earlier this year. "Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself," he said. Carter called the situation "a terrible human rights crime," and demanded that this "abuse must cease. The crimes must be investigated. The wall must be brought down, and the basic right of freedom must come to you," he said to Palestinians at a United Nations school during a visit to Gaza.

Carter's has been one of the few American voices of sanity for years on the deplorable situation in Palestine. His most recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, paralleled the oppression of Palestinians by Israelis with the years of white occupation of blacks in South Africa. In the 2006 book he wrote, "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land." He could have added that this instability has poured fuel on the conflict between Muslims and the West. He was, of course, accused of anti-Semitism. In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed column, Carter wrote: "The ultimate purpose of my book is to present facts about the Middle East that are largely unknown in America, to precipitate discussion and to help restart peace talks that can lead to permanent peace for Israel and its neighbors. Another hope is that Jews and other Americans who share this same goal might be motivated to express their views, even publicly, and perhaps in concert." Obama's recent speech in Cairo, however, raised fears that the Israeli tail continues to wag the American dog. While he urged a "freeze" on current settlements and reiterated the U.S. call for a "two-state solution," voiced even by George W. Bush, he did not explain how a viable Palestinian state could ever be constructed in the West Bank if numerous Israeli settlements and the wall took up much of their land.

Obama's feeble suggestions were answered with a resounding "No!" by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He rejected demands for a settlement freeze and declared a Palestinian state would only be acceptable if it were "demilitarized" and recognized Israel as a "Jewish state." Calling this his "vision of peace," Netanyahu referred repeatedly to the West Bank, the territory presumed to comprise the bulk of a future Palestinian state, by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria, declaring it “the land of our forefathers.” He rejected the Palestinian demand for a right of return for refugees of the 1948 war and for their millions of descendants, and insisted that Jerusalem remain capital of a Jewish state (although an estimated 20 percent of the population of Israel are not Jews). The chief Palestinian negotiator argued that Netanyahu did not really accept a Palestinian state. "Instead, he announced a series of conditions and qualifications that render a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state impossible,” according to Saeb Erekat. He"left us with nothing to negotiate as he systematically took nearly every permanent status issue off the table.”

Will the Obama administration fall for this (Muslims are already charging that his Cairo speech lacked the support of any concrete actions)? The White House reacted positively to what it called “the important step forward” of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Huh? Just because he used the words "two states" is meaningless if the definition he uses continues to maintain the apartheid of an occupied people who are denied the basic necessities of existence by a cruel overlord. And the the illegal settlements in the West Bank must be dismantled rather than frozen as countless United Nations resolutions have demanded. Anything less makes Netanyahu's "vision" of two peoples living "freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect" hypocritical nonsense that only successive U.S governments have thought realistic. Watch Obama very closely in the coming week to see if he can take his eye off Iran long enough to call Netanyahu's bluff.

Obama's host, Egyptian President Hosnu Mubarak, whose country signed a peace treaty with Israel three decades ago, says Netanyahu's demand for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state "aborts" any possible peace agreement. The Arab League, which endorsed a 2002 initiative seeking land in exchange for peace with Israel, criticized the Prime Minister for imposing what it described as “impossible” conditions on the Palestinians. Neither Egypt nor Jordan, the only Arab states with full diplomatic ties with Israel, were required to recognize it as a Jewish state before signing treaties. A newspaper in Lebanon said the Israeli leader’s remarks were more “like a declaration of war than an offer to negotiate.”

Recently an old friend told me it was unacceptable to call Israelis "Jews." It is true that the population includes Arab Christians and Muslims but it is not at all clear to me that they have equal rights with Jews. However, Neltanyahu's assertion of the Jewish character of Israel makes that argument moot. I believe that nations defined by the religion or ethnicity of its dominant residents is a luxury the world, with it's limited land, cannot afford. Benedict Anderson famously calld nations "imagined communities." There are two dangers: the tyranny of the minority, and the suppression of minority views by the majority. Israel can maintain its Jewish character only by denying the rights of return of Palestinians forceably expelled during the country's bloody establishment after World War Two. Western nations eased their guilt over denying refuge to Jews persecuted by Hitler by giving them land occupied for centuries by Muslims, Christians and Jews. Zionist terrorists (by any definition of the word) did their best to ethnically cleanse the land they say was promised them by God (a dubious claim). Homes and olive groves were plowed under and the new residents "made the desert bloom."

A lifelong student of religion and spirituality, I hold many Jewish scriptures and wisdom texts (including the mysticism developed in 12th century Spain) in high regard. What the Christians called the Old Testament, however, is rife with ugly passages where God's favored brutalized the residents of the "promised land." Bede Griffiths was forced to edit the Psalms for his ashram in India to remove obnoxious passages. Of course all religious scriptures smuggle in ugly cultural views and need to be interpreted carefully.

The irony is that many Jews in Israel (most?) are secular rather than religious. They identify as Jews (just as some New Yorkers identify as Yankee fans) based on beliefs about the continuity of ethnicity handed down by their ancestors. They imagine their community. Nothing unusual about this; it is the way human beings socialize (there are no real universal or earth citizens). Unlike gays, however, Jews have no physical basis for their unity. Despite hateful tracts, Jewish blood is no different than Christian (or Muslim) blood. Biologically, we are the same. But just as Native Americans and Hawaiians try to justify their rights by reference to "blood quanta," as if biological descent can confer privilege, Jews determine their identity through matriarchal descent. I know some Jews, though, who hang onto their identity through a father that married a gentile mother. Even though criticism of Jews is usually called anti-semitism, Jews do not identify with their fellow Semites, the Arabs. Which just goes to show that all ethnic or religious identity is ultimately political.

My guiding principle, or morality if you will, is to oppose injustice wherever I find it. There's plenty to go around in the world. The injustice to the Palestinians is particularly blatant. And because U.S. policy for too many years has supported and enabled the Israeli oppression, I consider this case one of the most important of our times.


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Surely the very first step towards peace is for the Palestian representatives to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist?

For as long as you have one side denying the very legitimacy of the other (and prepared to act on that denial with terrorism), I don't see how peace can ever come about.


Dr. Will said...

Don't you think this is a strange demand? Must Iran (or even France) acknowledge the right of America to exist? It's symbolic, and it hides other demands (no right of Palestinian return, Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Arab meekness in the face of U.S.-financed destruction of public property (hospitals, schools). Anyway, Arafat told them what they wanted and it didn't help him.

Anonymous said...

"Don't you think this is a strange demand? Must Iran (or even France) acknowledge the right of America to exist?"

Has Iran (or even France) sent over 8000 rockets into America aimed at American civilians?