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Today, January 27, 2016, is Multicultural Children's Book Day, a celebration of diversity in kidlit. Check out multiculturalchildrensbookday.com to find diversity booklists for kids and a Linky where you can suggest resources yourself (perhaps Jewish resources). And be sure to Google #ReadYourWorld to find links to multicultural children's book reviews and reading suggestions. In the spirit of the Day's hashtag, #ReadYourWorld, I'm posting my interview with Laura Gehl about the picture book Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel, a story that showcases the diversity of Israel's geography and people (including anthropomorphic animals among humans), and imagines a world in which friendliness prevails. I met Laura at the 2015 Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Silver Spring, MD.
Sometimes, especially in humankind's most urgent matters of life and death, truth may emerge through paradox. In this connection, one may usefully recall the illuminating work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one of his most ingenious parables, the often mystical Argentine writer, who once wished openly that he had been born a Jew, examines the bewildering calculations of a condemned man.
In world politics, preserving order has an understandably sacramental function. The reason is plain. Without minimum public order, planetary relations would descend rapidly and perhaps irremediably into a "profane" disharmony.
It may be premature to completely write off the recent round of the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The talks faltered earlier this month when Israel failed to release a batch of prisoners, part of the initial basis for holding the negotiations launched last July. The rapidly disintegrating diplomacy may yet be salvaged. But the three main actors have already made it known they will pursue their own initiatives.
They each may think that their actions will allow them to accumulate more leverage, maybe help position themselves in anticipation of a resumption of bilateral negotiations which, for over twenty years now, has been directed towards establishing a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. But it is also possible that the steps the parties take will instead deepen the despair of a two state framework ever coming to fruition.
The United States will focus their attention to other pressing issues, such as securing a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Progress on this front may encourage, perhaps even empower, the Obama administration to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations later in its term. But the chances of their success will depend less on yet another intense round of shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and more on whether a distracted Obama presidency will be prepared to pressure Israel to end its occupation. True, Obama enjoys the freedom of a second term presidency (unconcerned about the prospects of re-election). So far however he hasn’t appeared at all inclined to challenge Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As for Israel, the Netanyahu government will take steps to make life even harder for Palestinians under occupation, and no doubt further entrench its settlement infrastructure in the West Bank, the territory on which Palestinians want to build their own state. Netanyahu, now one of the longest serving prime ministers in Israeli history, has provided very few indications that he is willing to enable the Palestinians to build a viable and contiguous state. He appears confident that the status quo is tenable, and that occupation and settlement of the West Bank can continue to violate international law without facing any serious repercussions. The more likely outcome of such complacency, however, is the irrevocable damage inflicted on the prospects of a two state solution and the harm done to Israel’s security, possibly subjecting it to a wide ranging international boycott movement.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian government, led by Mahmoud Abbas, will desperately strive to ensure that the breakdown of talks not lead to the collapse of his Palestinian Authority. Abbas may seek to use this opportunity to lessen the overall reliance on US sponsorship and achieve Palestinian rights in international bodies such as the UN and the International Court of Justice. This move may placate the growing number of Palestinians who until now have angrily dismissed Abbas’ participation in American-sponsored bilateral negotiations as doing little more than provide political cover to the on-going Israeli occupation, begun almost 50 years ago. But the majority of Palestinians will continue to disparage of how the pursuit of their national project has been paralysed by the weakness and corruption of their leaders and the absence of a unified government and coherent strategy.
Though no side wants to be blamed for the collapse of negotiations, it is easy to see how a cycle of action and recrimination could scupper all attempts to revitalize them. More to the point, however, is to ask whether the steps taken will end up burying the very prospects of a two-states solution to the century long conflict which the negotiations are supposed to achieve.
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Image credits: (1) Benjamin Netanyahu. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; (2) Mahmoud Abbas. By World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland (AbuMazem). CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
It’s admittedly sh%tty that it takes a horrific and ongoing event in a region to make me finally pick up a book about it. But the ever-escalating Israel–Palestine conflict finally made me move Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I Shall Not Hate from the black hole that is the to-be-read-at-some-stage list to the I-need-to-read-this-right-now one.
Like Desert Flower, which I blogged about a few weeks ago and which was also plucked from a similar almost-never-read fate, I Shall Not Hate both gripped me from its opening paragraphs and had me rueing that I had taken so long to get round to reading it.
Izzeldin (I think this is his first name, but I’m breaking with convention to follow the book’s style and refer to him that way—methinks it was a deliberate decision to humanise him and I have to confess I like it) is a Palestinian doctor who works to help patients of all backgrounds and creeds. He for a long time worked in an Israeli hospital, making time-consuming, humiliating daily and weekly trips to travel from his home in Gaza to his workplace.
He is the first Palestinian to have accomplished such things, with even his residency requiring special permission for him to cross the border to do his research. It also meant someone had to cover for him if he was prevented from crossing the border for some arbitrary security reason.
A pragmatic optimist who believes medicine can bridge the seemingly insurmountable divide between Israelis and Palestinians, his thesis is that healthcare is one of the few things that transcend ideological differences and fighting.
By treating Jewish patients as a Palestinian Arab, he’s simply showing care and concern for human beings. This, despite experiencing a horror at the hands of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) that would make it understandable that he could hate Jewish people: Three of his daughters and his niece were killed by an IDF bomb aimed directly at their family home.
The IDF apparently has pinpoint-accurate technology that presumably enables them to, well, not make bombing target mistakes. So it remains unclear how—and no one’s accepted responsibility for—the house of a Palestinian doctor widely known to be working to help both Jewish and Palestinian people, came to be blown up. What’s clear is that Izzeldin lost three daughters and a niece without warning and for no valid reason, and just months after the family had lost their mother, Izzeldin’s wife, to leukaemia.
His words on the matter are gracious and humbling: ‘If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I could accept it.’ I can’t help but wonder how he must be feeling during this latest round of fighting.
My understanding of the region’s contentious history is hazy at best, and I worry I’ve used wrong titles and terminology in this blog post (apologies if I have, and please feel free to let me know), but I feel that Izzeldin affords me insight into a deeply troubling experience.
Izzeldin has a way of expressing the issues that is both matter of fact and beautiful: ‘Gaza is a human time bomb in the process of imploding,’ he writes. And later:
The primitive and cheap Qassam is actually the most expensive rocket in the world when you consider the consequences—the life-altering repercussions it has created on both sides of the divide and on the Palestinians in particular.
Of the region’s sabra plant he says:
It’s a cactuslike succulent that has been used for thousands of years as a hedge to mark the borders of Palestinian farmlands. The prickly exterior hides a sweet fruit; the rubbery leaves are beautiful in their way, each one unique, with protrusions like stubby toes. For sixty years the land has been bulldozed, reassigned, and developed as if to scrub out any vestige of the Palestinians who lived, worked, and thrived here. But the enduring sabra plant remains like an invincible sentry, silently sending the message ‘We are here, and there, and down by the river and over near those woods and across that field. This land is where we were.’
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder, once said of how Palestinians would cope with the loss of their land that ‘the old will die and the new generations will forget’. That’s a ruthlessly naïve and stupid thing to say, and it clearly hasn’t happened. Izzeldin advocates not forgetting or glossing over the past, but instead trying to forge a future that has both sides working together. His overriding belief is that, extremist leaders on both sides aside, people at the grassroots on both sides simply want to live in peace. He writes:
We know that military ways are futile, for both sides. We say that words are stronger than bullets, but the bullets continue to find their targets. My philosophy is simple, it’s the advice parents give to children: stop quarrelling with your brother and make friends—you’ll both be better off.
It’s difficult not to be incensed by the circumstances and occurrences Izzeldin describes in the book, including how then leader Ariel Sharon was concerned roads weren’t wide enough for his tanks, so he bulldozed people’s homes to obtain that room. Or the numerous examples he outlines of power-abusing tedium to stall and deny him and other Palestinians travel, both into Israel and overseas.
There’s also the time he accidentally left his briefcase behind at a border crossing and the guards, despite knowing him and seeing him cross the border weekly for work, blew the briefcase up. They saw him as a potential terrorist. He justifiably felt they should have seen him as a man who simply forgot his suitcase.
New York columnist Mona Elthaway wrote of him: ‘He seems to be the only person left in this small slice of the Middle East with its supersized servings of “us” and “them” who refuses to hate’. I consider that an incredibly, insightfully apt description.
There are no winners in the current conflict. Reading or watching anything and everything about the region—or the world more broadly, right now—makes my chest tight with despair. Yet Izzeldin’s book—and the man and his approach to life—offer me small hopes and enormous admiration and gratitude. I’m not imploring you to pick the book up at this moment in time, because that would be timely-ly sh%tty. But at the same time, I am.
Before they were evicted from their homes and forcibly removed from their communities by the Israeli government in 2005, Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip warned that their removal would only make things worse. They warned that the front line of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would move closer to those Israelis who lived inside the Green Line. They claimed their presence provided a buffer. They said God promised this Land to the Jewish people and that they should not abandon it. They said Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, unlike many other places inside Israel, did not involve the destruction of Palestinian communities or the displacement of Palestinians. Israeli Jews living in Gaza predicted that life would become more dangerous for other Israelis if the government pulled out.
Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. In the southern part of Israel, previously quiet communities have found themselves at the forefront of violent conflict since the 2005 disengagement when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its soldiers and citizens. Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, once aimed at the settlements in Gaza, have since turned to the communities inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Now, missiles are fired from Gaza into the southern towns of the Israeli periphery. While it might seem strange, this has also had some benefits for those communities. In support of those who live on the front lines, the government has reduced taxes in those towns. The train ride from some peripheral areas is now provided free of charge. People began purchasing inexpensive real estate and were able to easily commute to their jobs in center of the country. Towns like Sederot became targets of missile fire, but also began to prosper in ways they had not before. More recently, Palestinian missile fire has increased in number and in range, disrupting life for Israelis throughout the country.
The settlers might not have made public predictions about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, but surely their situation has become markedly worse since the 2005 disengagement. So far, there have been three major military campaigns and intermittent exchanges of fire resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The number of casualties and deaths, and the destruction of property has only increased for Gazans since the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. This might seem strange, but it was probably entirely predictable.
Such might have been the prediction of James Ron in Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel, for example, who compares state violence in Israel and Serbia. When a minority is contained within a nation-state, he explains, they may be subject to extensive policing, as has been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, which he describes as similar to a “ghetto”, or what we might think of as a reservation, or a camp. The ghetto, he says, implies subordination and incorporation, and ghettos are policed but not destroyed.
But state violence increases when those considered outsiders or enemies of the nation are separated and on the “frontier” of the state. In the American West, for example, when the frontier was open and indigenous populations were unincorporated into the United States, they were targeted for dispossession and massacre. And, he explains, when Western powers recognized Bosnian independence in 1992, that helped transform Bosnia into a frontier, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.
We might ask ourselves if the disengagement set up Gaza as such a frontier. If so, we might have anticipated the extreme violence that has since ensued. Then we are also left to wonder if the settlers were right. What if dismantling Jewish settlements is more dangerous for Palestinians than for Israelis?
Many of those who support the rights of Palestinians have been calling for an end to Israeli settlement and for dismantling existing settlements in Israeli Occupied Territories, in preparation for the establishment of two states for two peoples, side by side.
But what is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation? This was Hannah Arendt’s warning about the danger inherent in the nation-state formation that makes life precarious for those who are not considered part of the national group that has sovereignty. As Judith Butler so eloquently explains in Who Sings the Nation-State?: “The category of the stateless is reproduced not simply by the nation-state but by a certain operation of power that seeks to forcibly align nation with state, one that takes the hyphen, as it were, as a chain.”
If the danger lies in that hyphen as chain, then removing Jewish settlers, like demolishing Palestinian homes, is also part of a larger process of separation, a power that seeks to forcibly align a people with a territory. That separation might seem liberating; a stage on the way to independence. But partition does not necessarily lead to peace. In the case of Gaza, removing Israeli citizens might just have made it possible for increased violence. If it is true that war is only politics by other means, or politics only war, then we have to think further. The political terrain of Israel has changed. If, prior to the 2005 disengagement, there was a vibrant Left Wing opposed to settlement in the Occupied Territories, those voices have faded.
The political terrain has changed, but the foundations of the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine have not. Those foundations lie in the normative episteme of nations and states that form the basis for international relations and liberal peacemaking. If Israel/Palestine is a struggle between two national groups for one piece of territory, then fighting for that hyphen as chain will continue and the violence, death and destruction will only increase. As evidenced in Patrick Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. Writing Past Colonialism, if Israel/Palestine is a settler colonial polity, then the forces of separation required for two states should be understood as part of a foundational structure that requires elimination of the natives (Wolfe 1999). It matters little if one believes that Jews have a right to sovereignty in their homeland or if one believes the Palestinian struggle for liberation is justified. If liberation relies on the ethnic purification of territory there can be no winners.
The story that most Jewish children learn about the holiday of Chanukah is that it commemorates the Jews’ victory over foreign invaders and their sullying cultural influences. Around 200 B.C.E., Judea was the rope in a tug of war between two stronger powers: the Ptolemic dynasty of Egypt and the Seleucid Empire of Syria. The Seleucids, led by the kings Antiochus III & IV, won when Antiochus invaded Judea in 175 B.C.E. But in 170 B.C.E. the Jews who favored Egypt took control from the camp that favored Syria. According to the Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Antiochus IV invaded Judea a second time, and not only slaughtered many Jews but also defiled the Temple in Jerusalem, offering swine as sacrifice to pagan gods on its altar.
Cue the heroes: the Maccabees (whose name means “Hammer”), the original Mattisyahu, and his seven sons, including Judah. Together they defeated the forces of King Antiochus and cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem of all of its Seleucid-introduced impurities. A small amount of oil that was enough to last for a single day lasted for eight instead, and with this somewhat pedestrian miracle the festival of Chanukah was born.
It was a miracle whose veracity has been questioned since the Middle Ages, and contemporary scholars have complicated the story quite a bit. The real struggle, they tell us, was not so much between Jews and foreign invaders, but a civil war between the Jews who followed Greek ways and those Maccabean Jews who opposed them.
In other words, the story of Chanukah at its heart is a story of a struggle of a small people torn between stronger nations with powerful cultures. We focus on the symbolic act of purification and cleansing, but we tend to obfuscate the larger cultural terrain. Ancient Jews were fighting not just against foreigners but amongst themselves over whose culture to adapt and to what degree. Cultural adaptations came from within, not just from without.
There may have been a military victory over Syria’s army and the Hellenizing Jews, but the Jews of ancient Palestine were already deeply and inextricably linked to the nations and the cultures of their region. That is, they were not just multicultural (of many discrete cultures) or transcultural (crossing cultural borders); they were polycultural. Their cultural diversity already was internalized and they patched their cultures together based on overlapping similarities, not just warring differences.
So too with today’s Black Israelites, people who believe that the ancient Israelites were Black and that contemporary Black people are their descendants. People of many different faiths have been Black Israelites. In the 1890s there was a wave of Black Israelite churches that came out of the Holiness movement. At the turn of the twentieth century, Anglo-Israelite beliefs helped inspire the Pentecostal movement, the most numerous new religious movement of the twentieth century. During the Harlem Renaissance, Black Israelite beliefs became popular among some who practiced forms of rabbinic Judaism, and the following decade the belief took root in Black Islam and in Jamaican Rastafarianism. During the organizing and militancy of the long 1960s the ideology found supporters among patriarchal and macho advocates of Hebrew Israelite faiths. A tiny fragment of the Hebrew Israelites will yell at passersby on New York street corners to this day, and yell at each other in attempts to purify their practice from any of the contamination of rabbinic Judaism.
But what goes unnoticed is that each of these religions continue to this day. Moreover, each of them change, just as the individuals within them change in their religious practice, growing more or less observant, or moving from one group to the other. It helps to think of these religious waves not as groups or sects but as movements — constantly in the process of becoming. Religious changes also happen inter-generationally, not just within the life of individuals. Many of the children of Black Jews have become more, not less religious. Gradually, over time, Black Jews have become more, not less halachic. The followers of the biggest portion of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, one of the original Holiness groups, now believe that their founding prophet only used the word “Christ” as a necessary expedient, and practice their own unique form of Judaism. Their music has been passed down “mouth to ear” for over a century, and is some of the most beautiful choral music not just among American Jews, but in American music, period.
Black Israelites teach us that cultures are really polycultural. They are formed not by heated battles between warring binaries, but by acts of collage that emphasize overlapping similarities between dozens of inputs, many of which are already internalized within. This is a more helpful view than picturing cultural formation as the resolution of antagonism between holistic and hostile camps coming from without.
Returning to the story of Chanukah, we can understand history better by focusing not on the moment of conquest and purification but on all the cultures that Jews of Josephus’ day shared with their neighbors, just as we can understand American culture today and in the past by understanding how continuous cultural flows have created polycultures and defied efforts to categorize, rank, or purify. I like it that way.
“Defensive warfare does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen. We must wait only if it brings us visible and decisive advantages. That calm before the storm, when the aggressor is gathering new forces for a great blow, is most dangerous for the defender.”
–Carl von Clausewitz, Principles of War (1812)
For Israel, long beleaguered on many fronts, Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood are progressing at approximately the same pace. Although this simultaneous emergence is proceeding without any coordinated intent, the combined security impact on Israel will still be considerable. Indeed, this synergistic impact could quickly become intolerable, but only if the Jewish State insists upon maintaining its current form of “defensive warfare.”
Iran and Palestine are not separate or unrelated hazards to Israel. Rather, they represent intersecting, mutually reinforcing, and potentially existential perils. It follows that Jerusalem must do whatever it can to reduce the expected dangers, synergistically, on both fronts. Operationally, defense must still have its proper place. Among other things, Israel will need to continually enhance its multilayered active defenses. Once facing Iranian nuclear missiles, a core component of the synergistic threat, Israel’s “Arrow” ballistic missile defense system would require a fully 100% reliability of interception.
There is an obvious problem. Any such needed level of reliability would be unattainable. Now, Israeli defense planners must look instead toward conceptualizing and managing long-term deterrence.
Even in the best of all possible strategic environments, establishing stable deterrence will present considerable policy challenges. The intellectual and doctrinal hurdles are substantially numerous and complex; they could quite possibly become rapidly overwhelming. Nonetheless, because of the expectedly synergistic interactions between Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian independence, Israel will soon need to update and further refine its overall strategy of deterrence.
Following the defined meaning of synergy, intersecting risks from two seemingly discrete “battle fronts,” or separate theatres of conflict, would actually be greater than the simple sum of their respective parts.
One reason for better understanding this audacious calculation has to do with expected enemy rationality. More precisely, Israel’s leaders will have to accept that certain more-or-less identifiable leaders of prospectively overlapping enemies might not always be able to satisfy usual standards of rational behavior.
With such complex considerations in mind, Israel must plan a deliberate and systematic move beyond the country’s traditionally defensive posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. By preparing to shift toward more prudentially selective and partial kinds of nuclear disclosure, Israel might better ensure that its still-rational enemies would remain subject to Israeli nuclear deterrence. Over time, such careful preparations could even prove indispensable.
Israeli planners will also need to understand that the efficacy or credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrence posture could vary inversely with enemy judgments of Israeli nuclear destructiveness. In these circumstances, however ironic, enemy perceptions of a too-large or too-destructive Israeli nuclear deterrent force, or of an Israeli force that is plainly vulnerable to first-strike attacks, could undermine this posture.
Israel’s adversaries, Iran especially, must consistently recognize the Jewish State’s nuclear retaliatory forces as penetration capable. A new state of Palestine would be non-nuclear itself, but could still present an indirect nuclear danger to Israel.
Israel does need to strengthen its assorted active defenses, but Jerusalem must also do everything possible to improve its core deterrence posture. In part, the Israeli task will require a steadily expanding role for advanced cyber-defense and cyber-war.
Above all, Israeli strategic planners should only approach the impending enemy threats from Iran and Palestine as emergently synergistic. Thereafter, it would become apparent that any combined threat from these two sources will be more substantial than the mere arithmetic addition of its two components. Nuanced and inter-penetrating, this prospectively combined threat needs to be assessed more holistically as a complex adversarial unity. Only then could Jerusalem truly understand the full range of existential harms now lying latent in Iran and Palestine.
Armed with such a suitably enhanced understanding, Israel could meaningfully hope to grapple with these unprecedented perils. Operationally, inter alia, this would mean taking much more seriously Carl von Clausewitz’s early warnings on “waiting idly for things to happen.” Interestingly, long before the Prussian military theorist, ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had observed in The Art of War, “Those who excel at defense bury themselves away below the lowest depths of the earth. Those who excel at offense move from above the greatest heights of Heaven. Thus, they are able to preserve themselves and attain complete victory.”
Unwittingly, Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu have left timely messages for Israel. Facing complex and potentially synergistic enemies in Iran and Palestine, Jerusalem will ultimately need to take appropriate military initiatives toward these foes. More or less audacious, depending upon what area strategic developments should dictate, these progressive initiatives may not propel Israel “above the greatest heights of Heaven,” but they could still represent Israel’s very best remaining path to long-term survival.
After two years of negotiations, Israel throwing whatever they can against any possible agreement, and the Republicans in the US Congress doing what they can to scuttle the deal, we finally have a framework for an agreement between Iran and its negotiating partners. It is not a perfect deal, but it is likely the best the West can get and given the other options, it is literally the only hope standing between a rational dialogue with Iran and outright conflict.
In the literature on language death and language renewal, two cases come up again and again: Irish and Hebrew. Mention of the former language is usually attended by a whiff of disapproval. It was abandoned relatively recently by a majority of the Irish people in favour of English, and hence is quoted as an example of a people rejecting their heritage. Hebrew, on the other hand, is presented as a model of linguistic good behaviour: not only was it not rejected by its own people, it was even revived after being dead for more than two thousand years, and is now thriving.
Today, Israel’s leadership, continuing to more or less disregard the nation’s special history, still acts in ways that are neither tragic nor heroic. Unwilling to accept the almost certain future of protracted war and terror, one deluded prime minister after another has sought to deny Israel’s special situation in the world. Hence, he or she has always been ready to embrace, unwittingly, then-currently-fashionable codifications of collective suicide.
In Washington, President Barack Obama is consciously shaping these particular codifications, not with any ill will, we may hope, but rather with all of the usual diplomatic substitutions of rhetoric for an authentic intellectual understanding. For this president, still sustained by an utterly cliched “wisdom,” peace in the Middle East is just another routine challenge for an assumed universal reasonableness and clever presidential speechwriting.
Human freedom is an ongoing theme in Judaism, but this sacred freedom can never countenance a “right” of collective disintegration. Individually and nationally, there is always a binding Jewish obligation to choose life. Faced with the “blessing and the curse,” both the solitary Jew, and the ingathered Jewish state, must always come down in favor of the former.
Today, Israel, after Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement,” Ehud Olmert’s “realignment,” Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes for “Palestinian demilitarization,” and U.S. President Barack Obama’s “New Middle East,” may await, at best, a tragic fate. At worst, resembling the stark and minimalist poetics of Samuel Beckett, Israel’s ultimate fate could be preposterous.
True tragedy contains calamity, but it must also reveal greatness in trying to overcome misfortune.
For the most part, Jews have always accepted the obligation to ward off disaster as best they can.
For the most part, Jews generally do understand that we humans have “free will.” Saadia Gaon included freedom of the will among the most central teachings of Judaism, and Maimonides affirmed that all human beings must stand alone in the world “to know what is good and what is evil, with none to prevent him from either doing good or evil.”
For Israel, free will must always be oriented toward life, to the blessing, not to the curse. Israel’s binding charge must always be to strive in the obligatory direction of individual and collective self-preservation, by using intelligence, and by exercising disciplined acts of national will. In those circumstances where such striving would still be consciously rejected, the outcome, however catastrophic, can never rise to the dignifying level of tragedy.
The ancient vision of authentically “High Tragedy” has its origins in Fifth Century BCE Athens. Here, there is always clarity on one overriding point: The victim is one whom “the gods kill for their sport, as wanton boys do flies.” This wantonness, this caprice, is precisely what makes tragedy unendurable.
With “disengagement,” with “realignment,” with “Palestinian demilitarization,” with both Oslo, and the Road Map, Israel’s corollary misfortunes remain largely self-inflicted. The continuing drama of a Middle East Peace Process is, at best, a surreal page torn from Ionesco, or even from Kafka. Here, there is nary a hint of tragedy; not even a satisfyingly cathartic element that might have been drawn from Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. At worst, and this is the more plausible characterization, Israel’s unhappy fate has been ripped directly from the utterly demeaning pages of irony and farce.
In a rousing speech before Congress on May 24, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected peace talks with the newly unified Palestinian government because it now includes — on paper at least — officials from the terrorist (or, in its own eyes, “resistance”) group Hamas. In a striking moment, Netanyahu defiantly declared, “Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda,” a statement greeted with resounding applause from the assembled members of Congress.
But hold on a minute. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, is an Islamist group that uses terrorism as a strategic tool to achieve political aims. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, rejects Israel and has opposed the peace talks that moderate Palestinians have tried to move forward. And sure, the Hamas charter uses language that parallels the worst anti-Semitism of al Qaeda, enjoining believers to fight Jews wherever they may be found and accusing Jews of numerous conspiracies against Muslims, ranging from the drug trade to creating “sabotage” groups like, apparently, violent versions of Rotary and Lions clubs.
But the differences between Hamas and al Qaeda often outweigh the similarities. And ignoring these differences underestimates Hamas’s power and influence — and risks missing opportunities to push Hamas into accepting a peace deal.
While Congress was quick to applaud Bibi’s fiery analogy, U.S. counterterrorism officials know that one of the biggest differences is that Hamas has a regional focus, while al Qaeda’s is global. Hamas bears no love for the United States, but it has not deliberately targeted Americans. Al Qaeda, of course, sees the United States as its primary enemy, and it doesn’t stop there. European countries, supposed enemies of Islam such as Russia and India, and Arab regimes of all stripes are on their hit list. Other components of the “Salafi-jihadist” movement (of which al Qaeda is a part) focus operations on killing Shiite Muslims, whom they view as apostates. Hamas, in contrast, does not call for the overthrow of Arab regimes and works with Shiite Iran and the Alawite-dominated secular regime in Damascus, pragmatically preferring weapons, money, and assistance in training to ideological consistency.
Hamas, like its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, also devotes much of its attention to education, health care, and social services. Like it or not, by caring for the poor and teaching the next generation of Muslims about its view of the world, Hamas is fundamentally reshaping Palestinian society. Thus, many Palestinians who do not share Hamas’s worldview nonetheless respect it; in part because the Palestinian moderates so beloved of the West have often failed to deliver on basic government functions. The old Arab nationalist visions of the 1950s and 1960s that animated the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas and his mentor Yasir Arafat have less appeal to Palestinians today.
One of the greatest differences today, as the Arab spring raises the hope that democracy will take seed across the Middle East, is that Hamas accepts elections (and, in fact, took power in Gaza in part because of them) while al Qaeda vehemently rejects them. For Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin’s deputy and presumed heir-apparent, elections put man’s (and, even worse, woman’s) wishes above God’s. A democratic government could allow the sale of alcohol, cooperate militarily with the United States, permit women to dress immodestly, or a condone a host of other practices that extremists see as for
Wherever You Go is a finely interwoven novel of three American lives and the unexpected ways they touch each other in the landscape of Israel. I recorded this interview with author Joan Leegant when she visited Boca Raton, Florida for a Jewish Book Network event at the Levis JCC.
The United States, preemption, and international law
By Professor Louis René Beres
Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney
General Thomas G. McInerney
For now, the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath still occupy center-stage in the Middle East and North Africa. Nonetheless, from a regional and perhaps even global security perspective, the genuinely core threat to peace and stability remains Iran. Whatever else might determinably shape ongoing transformations of power and authority in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, it is apt to pale in urgency beside the steadily expanding prospect of a nuclear Iran.
Enter international law. Designed, inter alia, to ensure the survival of states in a persistently anarchic world – a world originally fashioned after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – this law includes the “inherent” right of national self-defense. Such right may be exercised not only after an attack has already been suffered, but, sometimes, also, in advance of an expected attack.
What can now be done, lawfully, about relentless Iranian nuclear weapons development? Do individual states, especially those in greatest prospective danger from any expressions of Iranian nuclear aggression, have a legal right to strike first defensively? In short, could such a preemption ever be permissible under international law?
For the United States, preemption remains a part of codified American military doctrine. But is this national doctrine necessarily consistent with the legal and complex international expectations of anticipatory self-defense?
To begin, international law derives from multiple authoritative sources, including international custom. Although written law of the UN Charter (treaty law) reserves the right of self-defense only to those states that have already suffered an attack (Article 51), equally valid customary law still permits a first use of force if the particular danger posed is “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.” Stemming from an 1837 event in jurisprudential history known as the Caroline, which concerned the unsuccessful rebellion in Upper Canada against British rule, this doctrine builds purposefully upon a seventeenth-century formulation of Hugo Grotius.
Self-defense, says the classical Dutch scholar in, The Law of War and Peace (1625), may be permitted “not only after an attack has already been suffered, but also in advance, where the deed may be anticipated.” In his later text of 1758, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel affirmed: “A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.”
Article 51 of the UN Charter, limiting self-defense to circumstances following an attack, does not override the customary right of anticipatory self-defense. Interestingly, especially for Americans, the works of Grotius and Vattel were favorite readings of Thomas Jefferson, who relied heavily upon them for crafting the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
We should also recall Article VI of the USConstitution, and assorted US Supreme Court decisions. These proclaim, straightforwardly, that international law is necessarily part of the law of the United States.
The Caroline notes an implicit distinction between preventive war (which is never legal), and preemptive war. The latter is not permitted merely to protect oneself against an emerging threat, but only when the danger posed is “instant” and
On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat made an historic speech before Israel’s Knesset, or Parliament, becoming the first leader of an Arab nation to speak there. He was also the first of Israel’s Arab neighbors to publicly say anything like these words: “Today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.”
By 1977, Israel and the nearby Arab states had fought four wars in less than 30 years. Sadat himself had been a principal architect of the most recent conflict, the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That conflict ended when Egypt, Syria, and Israel accepted a United Nations–imposed cease-fire. This time, though, the uneasy peace was not followed by yet another war. Sadat failed in peace talks to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied in 1967. To break the deadlock, on November 9, 1977, he stunned the world by telling Egypt’s Parliament that he was willing to travel to Israel to negotiate peace. No Arab state had ever recognized Israel’s existence, let alone sent a leader to the Jewish state. Israel quickly accepted his offer, and arrangements for the historic visit were made.
Sadat’s bold move set in course discussions that resulted in the Camp David Accords the following September, and a peace treaty in early 1979—the first treaty signed by Israel and an Arab nation. Both Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin received Nobel Peace Prizes for their historic agreement. While Sadat was hailed across the world, he was less well received in the Arab world, however. The Arab League denounced Egypt in September of 1978, and Sadat was assassinated in his homeland by radical Islamists because of his overtures to Israel and the western world.
By Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain (USAF/ret.)
In world politics, irrational does not mean “crazy.” It does mean valuing certain goals or objectives even more highly than national survival. In such rare but not unprecedented circumstances, the irrational country leadership may still maintain a distinct rank-order of preferences. Unlike trying to influence a “crazy” state, therefore, it is possible to effectively deter an irrational adversary.
Iran is not a “crazy,” or wholly unpredictable, state. Although it is conceivable that Iran’s political and clerical leaders could sometime welcome the Shiite apocalypse more highly than avoiding military destruction, they could also remain subject to alternative deterrent threats. Faced with such circumstances, Israel could plan on basing stable and long-term deterrence of an already-nuclear Iran upon various unorthodox threats of reprisal or punishment. Israel’s only other fully rational option could be a prompt and still-purposeful preemption.
At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 20,000 feet above Hiroshima while smoke from the burst of the first atomic bomb had spread over 10,000 feet on the target at the base of the rising column (6 August 1945).
Today, a nuclear Iran appears almost a fait accompli. For Israel, soon to be deprived of any cost-effective preemption options, this means forging a strategy to coexist or “live with” a nuclear Iran. Such an essential strategy of nuclear deterrence would call for reduced ambiguity about certain of its strategic forces; enhanced and partially disclosed nuclear targeting options; substantial and partially disclosed programs for active defenses; recognizable steps to ensure the survivability of its nuclear retaliatory forces; and, to bring all of these elements together in a coherent mission plan, a comprehensive strategic doctrine.
Additionally, because of the prospect of Iranian irrationality, Israel’s military planners will have to identify suitable ways of ensuring that even a nuclear “suicide state” could be deterred. Such a perilous threat may be very small, but, with Iran’s particular Shiite eschatology, it might not be negligible. And while the probability of having to face such an irrational enemy state would probably be very low, the disutility or expected harm of any single deterrence failure could be very high.
Israel needs to maintain and strengthen its plans for ballistic missile defense, both the Arrow system, and also Iron Dome, a lower-altitude interceptor designed to guard against shorter-range rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza. These systems, including Magic Wand, which is still in the development phase, will inevitably have leakage. It follows that their principal benefit would ultimately lie in enhanced deterrence, rather than in any added physical protection.
A newly-nuclear Iran, if still rational, would need steadily increasing numbers of offensive missiles in order to achieve a sufficiently destructive first-strike capability against Israel. There could come a time, however, when Iran would be able to deploy more than a small number of nuclear-tipped missiles. Should that happen, Arrow, Iron Dome and, potentially, Magic Wand, could cease being critical enhancements of Israeli nuclear de
I've waxed enthusiastic on here before about Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret's sharply funny new story collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. Between tour stops in California and Chicago, the very busy Keret kindly paid a visit to our Seattle offices to chat about storytelling, moviemaking, cake baking, serial killers, and trusting your instincts.
He also humored our request to read a piece aloud from the collection—look for the video at the end of this interview, and prepare to be charmed by his accent (warning for delicate ears: a couple of four-letter words are used).
Mia Lipman: You just came from the L.A. Times Book Festival. Were short-story writers well represented there?
Etgar Keret: Yeah, in my panel. It was very much like an AA meeting. “My name is this and this, and I write short stories. I don’t care! They tell me to write a novel, but I like writing short stories!” Then we all hug.
[Laughing] I didn’t mean stuck in a bad way, I meant that you’ve stayed with stories.
If your boyfriend would have said, “I’m stuck with you, but not in a bad way. In a nice kind of way…”
I love short stories, I’m a champion of them around here. Why does the short form work so well for you? What are you drawn to in that length?
When I sit down and I write something, I don’t say, “I want to write a short story” or “I want to write a three-page story”—I want to write something that is on my mind. Many times when I begin writing a story, I say to myself, “This is going to be my first novel.” And I think about the protagonist meeting his grandchildren in the park. And while I do that, a truck comes and runs him over after two pages. So it’s not intentional. For me, it’s very strange when people say, “Why don’t you write longer stuff?” The bottom line: You have something that you want to say or you want to write. And when it ends, it ends.
You’re also a filmmaker. Do you have a different creative approach to making films than you do to writing fiction? Is it a different state of mind?
I beg more when I make films. [Laughs.] Filmmaking is a collaborative project...when you write a screenplay, you should be able to know exactly what you’re doing, to be able to defend it, to be able to explain it to people. Because if a story is a cake, then a screenplay is just a recipe for a cake. If I make a cake and I don’t know exactly what ingredients I put in, but it comes out tasty, it’s OK. But if I have to write it on a page and somebody else has to make this cake, I have to be much more conscious.
So there is something about screenplay writing—it’s more conscious effort, more rational effort. I feel like I need another scene here, I need to establish that. But when I write [fiction], I really just sit down and write. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, and it’s completely an act of letting go and losing control.
Short stories are a famously hard sell for publishers and, I’d say, for the average reader. Do you think that’
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Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design students Boaz Balachsan and Dima Tretyakov recorded Israeli children giving their opinions about God and faith and interpreted their thoughts through animation. The idea recalls the Irish animated series Give Up Yer Aul Sins, which was based on 1960s recordings of children telling Bible stories, but Balachsan and Tretyakov add a quirky mixed media style and clever visual/audio transitions. See development art from God is Kidding on the film’s blog.
Maggie Steele, the storybook heroine who vaults over the moon, has been attracting thousands of visitors from around the world. So many visitors, in fact, that she’s using a time zone map to keep track of them all.* People are … Continue reading →
Nowadays, chaotic disintegration seems widely evident in world politics, especially in the visibly-fragmenting Middle East. What does it mean to live with a constant and unavoidable awareness of such fracturing? This vital question should be asked everywhere on earth, but most urgently in Israel.
For the Jewish State, an expanding shroud of anarchy may portend a special sort of vulnerability. Inevitably, Israel, the individual Jew in macrocosm, could become the world’s principal victim of any further deterioration and disorder. Given the natural interrelatedness of world politics, even the precipitating events of war, terror, and genocide could occur elsewhere.
Ultimately, bombs may fly conspicuously over Syria and Iran, but the most severe consequences could be experienced not in Damascus or Tehran, but in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem.
Chaos, however, can be instructive. In a strange and paradoxical symmetry, even sorely palpable disintegrations can reveal determinable sense and form. Spawned by carefully rehearsed explosions of large-scale conflict and related crimes against humanity, the diminution of any residual world authority processes could display a discernible shape. How exactly should this eccentric geometry of chaos be correctly deciphered by Israel, and also by its generally reluctant allies in Washington?
Always the world, like the many individual countries that comprise it, is best understood as a system. It follows that what happens in any one part of this world, must affect, differentially, of course, what happens in all or several of the other parts. When a particular deterioration is marked, the corollary effects can undermine regional and global stability. When a deterioration is sudden and catastrophic, the perilously unraveling effects could be immediate and overwhelming.
Recognizing that any rapid and far-reaching collapse of order could occasion a substantial or even complete return to “everyone for himself” dynamics in world politics — what the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, had called a “war of all against all” — Israel’s leaders must consider how they would best respond to imperiled national life in a crumbling “state of nature.”
As we are well aware, especially from urgent current news coming out of the Middle East, any such consideration is prima facie reasonable. It is all the more critical, to the extent that a decisive triggering mechanism of collapse could originate from certain direct attacks upon Israel. These potent aggressions could be chemical, biological, or ultimately nuclear. Moreover, pertinent prohibitions of international law would likely be of little protective benefit.
The flea market in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Photo by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST, via Wikimedia Commons.
Any chaotic disintegration of the larger international system, whether slow and incremental, or sudden and catastrophic, will impact the Israeli system. In the most obvious manifestation of this predictable impact, Israel will have to orient its core strategic planning to a nuanced variety of worst-case scenarios. Analytic focus would be more on the entire range of conceivable self-help security options than on any more traditionally-favored kinds of alliance guarantees.
Diplomatic processes premised on assumptions of reason and rationality will soon have to be reconsidered, and reimagined. Israel’s judgments about any “Peace Process” or “Road Map” expectations will not become less important, but they will need to be made in evident consequence of anticipated world-system changes. From the standpoint of Israel’s overall security, any such reorientation of planning, from anticipations of largely separate and unrelated threats, to presumptions of interrelated or “synergistic” dangers, would provide a badly-needed framework for strategic decision. Should Israel’s leaders react to a presumptively unstoppable anarchy in world affairs, by hardening their commitment to national self-reliance, including certain preemptive military force, Israel’s enemies could surely respond, individually or collectively, in similarly “self-reliant” ways.
There are crucial and tangibly complex feedback implications of this “creation in reverse.” By likening both the world as a whole, and their beleaguered state in particular, to the concept of system, Israel’s leadership could finally learn, before it is too late, that states can die for different reasons. Following a long-neglected but still-promising Spenglerian paradigm of civilizational decline, these states can fall apart and disappear not only because of any direct, mortal blow, but also in combined consequence of distinctly less than mortal blows. Minor insults and impediments can incrementally prove fatal, either by affecting the organism’s overall will to live, or by making it possible for a more corrosively major insult to take effect.
Taken individually, Israel’s past and future surrenders of land, its understandable reluctance to accept certain life-saving preemption options, and its still-misdirected negotiation of peace agreements, may not bring about the end. Taken together, however, these insults occurring within a substantially wider pattern of chaos and anarchy could have a weakening effect on the Israeli organism. Whether the principal effect would be one that impairs the Jewish State’s will to endure, or one that could actually open Israel up to a devastating missile attack, or to a calamitous act of terror, remains plainly unclear.
Israel must ask itself the following authentically basic question. What is the true form and meaning of chaos in world politics, and how should this shifting geometry of disintegration affect our national survival strategy? The answers, assuredly, will come from imaginative efforts at a self-consciously deeper understanding of small state power obligations, especially in a worsening condition of Nature.
In the final analysis, such existential obligations will be reducible to various improved methods of national self-reliance, including assorted preparations for deterrence, preemption, and absolutely every identifiable form of war-fighting. For Israel, among other things, this will mean steady enhancements of ballistic missile defense, and also recognizable movements away from the country’s increasingly antiquated posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
For Israel, in particular, further chaotic disintegration in world politics could soon offer a profoundly serious challenge. If this challenge is correctly accepted in Jerusalem, as an intellectual rather than political effort, the beleaguered country’s necessary strategies of national survival will stand a better chance of achieving success.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Read his previous articles for the OUPblog.
If you are interested in the subject of world politics, you may be interested in Rethinking World Politics: A Theory of Transnational Neopluralism by Philip G. Cerny. Cerny explains that contemporary world politics is subject to similar pressures from a wide variety of sub- and supra-national actors, many of which are organized transnationally rather than nationally.
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