Monday, May 31, 2010

More on the Flotilla Fiasco

As more information comes in, it is clear that there were some armed activists on the main ship that was raided by Israeli commandos today. There are reports that not only were the soldiers attacked with clubs, sticks and knives, they were also fired at. A few soldiers are in the hospital with gunshot wounds, and others with broken bones. One soldier was tossed off a deck and somehow survived.

Some people on the "Free Gaza" flotilla were true, albeit naive, peace activists. Some, on the other hand, were "provocation activists" and terrorists. I do believe that most of the peace activists didn't know that the provocation activists were armed, and I feel sorry for the real peaceniks who were killed or injured. I don't feel sorry for anyone who shot at the soldiers. If they were truly peaceful, they should have used passive resistance, as they had announed they would do.

There were reports that all armed activists were Arabs. It wouldn't surprise me if they were all Hamas militants who joined the flotilla for a chance to shoot Israeli soldiers, rather than to raise awareness or bring aid to Gaza.

Earlier today, I talked to an Arab Israeli friend and was surprised by how shocked he was by today's incident. Jewish Israelis are dismayed and worried about the implications of the high death toll, but his feelings seemed to go beyond that. He saw this as the end of any glimmer of hope for peace, which seems to me like quite an overreaction. Yes, the death toll is horrible, but it is just one incident, and most of the dead (and perhaps none - we don't know yet) aren't even Palestinians. I think that part of his reaction stemmed from reports that are now known to be false, that Sheikh Ra'ed Salah, the head of the Northern faction of the Islamic Movement was either critically injured or dead. Turns out Salah, one of the most radical leaders of the Arab citizens of Israel (he has called for an Intifadah within Israel to protect Al-Aqsa), is alive and well and ready for more anti-Israel provocations. I hope the fact he's still around will make Arabs in Israel feel a little less anxious.

The Flotilla Fiasco

What exactly happened when Israeli commandos took over the Pro-Gaza activists' boats is still murky. It is now clear that there are some deaths, though the number is quite uncertain, as reports range from 2 to 16. Israeli reports say the soldiers were attacked with clubs and knives and some activists tried to take over the soldiers' guns. That definitely contributed to the death toll.

Nobody is blameless in this fiasco. Israel's policy on the matter was ill advised from the beginning. The navy should have just allowed the boats to reach Gaza after an inspection of the cargo for weapons, though right now I'm not sure whether or not the provocation-seeking activists would have peacefully let the navy on board for such inspections.

The activists, on their part, wanted to make Israel look bad more than they wanted to bring aid to Gazans or to "break the siege". They claimed they come in peace and that they would not violently resist, but resist they did. Pictures coming via Turkish television show activists attacking soldiers with clubs. They didn't actually think they could win, repell the Israelis and then reach their destination. At least some of the activists, if not most of them, wanted there to be a riot to make Israel look as bad as possible.

If anything good will come of this terrible situation it will be that nobody but crazy people with suicidal tendencies will want to come on these publicity stunt boat rides, bringing aid that, for the most part, comes in via the Israel-Gaza border anyway.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Role of the Anti-Defamation League

Following Peter Beinart's article in the New York Review of Books about the American Jewish establishment's blind support for Israeli governments (which I previously blogged about here), the NYRB has published an exchange between Beinart and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. I have to say that most of it isn't very interesting, because Foxman repeats the same thing we've heard time and time again, and Beinart repeats what he wrote in his article, what he said in his Bloggingheads debate with Eli Lake and his answers in today's Haaretz Q&A feature (which, for some reason, I could only find in Hebrew).

However, I did find the last two paragraphs of Beinart's response to Foxman noteworthy:
The ADL was founded “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” What I have always admired about that statement is its suggestion that to truly defend Jewish dignity, one must also defend the dignity of other vulnerable groups. At home, the ADL still honors that mission, working valiantly, for instance, against racial profiling in Arizona. But how can an organization that is so vigilant in opposing bigotry in the US be so complacent about a government shaped by men like Lieberman, Effi Eitam, and Ovadia Yosef? How can it not take its rightful place in the struggle on behalf of Palestinians evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah?

When it comes to Israel, the ADL too often ignores the interconnectedness of Jewish and non-Jewish dignity. After all, the same sort of settler fanatics who burn Palestinian olive groves also assassinated an Israeli prime minister. The same ultra-Orthodox hooligans who burn Christian holy books also attack Jewish women trying to pray at the Western Wall. And the same Israeli government that demonizes Israeli Arabs also demonizes Israeli human rights groups. To be for ourselves, we must also be for others. I hope the ADL will live that ethic again.
Of all the organizations in the so-called "Israel Lobby", the ADL is probably the most problematic, in my opinion. As Beinart points out, its official purpose is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” However, it also acts as a pro-Israel organization. Now, both roles are not only legitimate, but important. Fighting anti-Semitism is a worthy cause that can never end as long as anti-Jewish racism exists. Advocating for Israel, the state and its people rather than the government, is also important. The problem is that those two missions should not be undertaken by the same organization, because that would suggest that being anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, or even sometimes just an opponent of the current Israeli government, is equal to being anti-Semitic, and that isn't the case.

You might say that I'm unfairly singling out the ADL, since other Jewish organizations also blend fighting anti-Semitism with being pro-Israel. I'd say there's a big difference. The ADL's main purpose is defending Jews from discrimination and anti-Semitism. Other organizations, on the other hand, focus more on the internal workings of the Jewish community, rather than anti-Semitism. That makes them less problematic than the Anti-Defamation League, but of course it doesn't make Beinart's criticism of them any less relevant.

Friday, May 28, 2010

American Zionism and Israeli Democracy

There's an interesting Bloggingheads debate between Peter Beinart and Eli Lake, in which they debate a few aspects of Israel-U.S. relations. I found two parts of it particularly compelling. First, they discuss the growing gulf between American Jews, especially young ones, and Israel. Beinart recently wrote an excellent article on the subject in the New York Review of Books, where he explains that young liberal Jewish Americans don't see Israel as a liberal country and so don't identify with it, while most of the young people in the States who still feel a strong connection with the Jewish State are illiberal Orthodox Jews. He says that part of the problem is that the major Jewish organizations support anything Israel does, and so young Jews don't see that they can be both liberal and Zionist at the same time. I think his analysis of the situation is spot on.

The other part I found interesting was the question of whether Israel is becoming more and more illiberal and undemocratic. Here, again, I think Beinart is right that there are alarming signs, but I also believe Israeli democracy is still strong.

Eli Lake keeps saying to Beinart that he (Beinart) just isn't capable of reading Israeli politics. First of all, it is kind of rude to dismiss these arguments by basically saying "you're an idiot". Secondly, I'm an Israeli, meaning I'm probably better at understanding Israeli politics than Lake himself, and I agree with most of what Beinart says. Lake seems like such a douchebag (I love that word).

On a related note, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy agrees with me about our democracy. He thinks our main problem is "small politicians".

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Let Pro-Gaza Activists Through

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has announced that the hundreds of activists on the eight pro-Gaza ships headed towards the Strip will not be allowed to reach their destination. Instead, they will be rerouted to Ashdod, where the activists will be arrested and deported, while the aid itself will be inspected and then sent to Gaza through the UN.

Why do this? The fact that the materials will reach their destination will be drowned out by the pictures of hundreds of international activists being arrested. The activists will have gotten exactly what they wish - to make Israel look bad, which seems to be equally or more important to them than helping the Palestinians (otherwise, they'd take Noam Shalit up on his offer to support them and mediate with the government on their behalf in exchange for them delivering a letter and a package to his son Gilad, as reported by Ha'aretz).

I'd say the Israeli Navy should inspect the ships' cargo out at sea, and as long as there's no weaponry on board, allow the ships and activists to reach Gaza. That way, Israel avoids a PR disaster. Also, not detaining and deporting hundreds of people would save our treasury a fortune.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Umberto Eco Opposes the Boycott of Israel

Italian author Umberto Eco came out against the boycott of Israel in L'espresso. A full Hebrew translation is available here. I couldn't find a full English translation, but parts of it were published in the English edition of Ha'aretz:

"A brochure circulated in Turin by the Italian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel claims that most Israeli universities, academics and intellectuals have supported and are supporting their governments ... and that Israeli universities are used for the most important weapons development research programs, centered on nanotechnology and on technological and psychological means for subjugating and controlling the civilian population," Eco wrote in L'espresso magazine last weekend. "I don't remotely agree with the policy of the Israeli government ... but I find the claim that most Israeli academics are actively supportive of their governments to be deceitful."

"I would understand," Eco continued, "if the physics department at the University of Rome or at Oxford decided not to cooperate with their colleagues in the same departments at universities in Tehran or Pyongyang if it turned out that the latter were involved in developing a nuclear bomb. But I would still find it difficult to understand why these universities should also sever ties with the departments of Korean art history or classical Persian literature."

The Idiocy of the Chomsky Affair

Prof. Noam Chomsky should have been let into the West Bank. Yes, he's a harsh critic of Israel and yes, he has met with terrorists such as Hizbullah head Hassan Nassrallah, but he isn't a terrorist himself. During his visit to Birzeit University, there's no chance he'd do anything to aid Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other violent group.

My main objection to Chomsky's denial of entry is on the grounds of freedom of speech, but those who don't care about silly things like rights should think about this: Not allowing someone into the Palestinian territories only because of the criticism of Israel he'd voice while there is ridiculous, since many of the locals say much worse things about Israel than he does. Not allowing a person into Israel proper (which wasn't the case with Chomsky, who was planning on visiting the West Bank only) is equally as dumb, since we have so many left wing professors saying terrible things about Israel at Israeli universities every day. Another reason that this is dumb is that a person denied entry like this usually gets more attention than a person who goes in.

Sometimes, denying someone entry is alright. Norman Finkelstein, who is much more extreme than Chomsky and seems committed to the destruction of Israel, was barred from entering Israel a few months ago and I think that in that case it was the correct decision. He's quite the rabble-rouser who could have actually incited Palestinians to act violently against Israel (and he's not against violence). Noam Chomsky ain't no rabble-rouser, and probably neither is the Spanish clown, Ivan Prado, who was denied entry at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.

U.S. Judicial Appointments: An Israeli Columnist's Take

Ze'ev Segal, Ha'aretz's legal affairs expert, wrote a column I whole heartedly agree with. Here it is in Hebrew, and here it is in English (see below as well).

Appointing a friend

By Ze'ev Segal, Ha'aretz, May 17, 2010

Last Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared before the American people and announced that he was nominating his friend, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, as a supreme court justice. The caveat against "appointing your friends," which applies in Israel regarding the appointment of judges, seems foreign to American ears.

Obama met Kagan in the early 1990s when the two taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. He appointed her solicitor general about a year ago. If the Senate confirms her nomination, Kagan, who is 50 years old and Jewish, will join what Richard Nixon called the most powerful institution in America. It was a court ruling in the Watergate case that led to his resignation. Kagan studied law at Harvard Law School, where Obama also got a degree. The two, both outstanding students, were editors at different times of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Editors of the journal have gone on to greatness in American jurisprudence and politics.

Before her appointment as solicitor general, Kagan was for six years dean of Harvard Law School, the first woman in the position. The American press is currently full of profiles of Kagan, which have mentioned her popularity among students at Harvard and how she argued with the rabbi at her bat mitzvah about the nature of the ceremony. (They came to an understanding.)

When Obama presented her to the nation, he spoke about her deep understanding of the law and about how she viewed the law not as an "intellectual exercise" but as a highly influential force in people's lives. In her remarks, Kagan spoke about how the law "protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms" and is "the foundation of our democracy." During the confirmation process in the Senate, her stance on ideological issues will become public, including her views on the right to an abortion, the legitimate means for fighting terrorism, the limits on freedom of expression and freedom of information, and the president's authority vis-a-vis other branches of government.

Kagan has not spoken much on issues the public is divided over, and her academic writings are few. She is known for not having a firm agenda and for being open to a range of views. At the same time, Obama expects that she will tip the balance in favor of democratic values. His stance in advocating limits on corporate contributions to political parties and candidates was rejected by the Supreme Court in January by a vote of five to four. A majority of justices rejected the position taken by the solicitor general, Elena Kagan.

Outsiders observing the way federal judges are appointed in the United States can't help but be both impressed and put off. The process is absolutely political. Translated into the Israeli context, it would involve nomination by the prime minister and confirmation by a majority in the Knesset - this seems inappropriate without any question. In Israel, the suggestion to increase politicians' influence in selecting judges was rejected by a broad consensus. The current system for selecting judges by a committee of two government ministers, two MKs, three supreme court justices and two members of the Israel Bar Association seems attractive compared to the United States.

On the other hand, the American system provides appropriate transparency that reaches a climax with the public questioning of candidates for the bench by the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the hearings, candidates are asked about their views on matters of principle such as judicial activism, balancing fundamental rights and limitations on oversight of the executive branch.

In Israel, the process is hidden from public view. Taking into consideration the fact that the Supreme Court decides controversial questions of principle, it is appropriate at least that members of the selection committee have a deep knowledge of the candidates' stance on fundamental ideological issues, as in the United States. These include the appropriate scope of judicial review over the constitutionality of laws, and judicial discretion in sentencing. One might also more seriously consider a public process before justices are selected for the Israeli Supreme Court, such as providing detailed background about the candidates' lives.

The promise that the Supreme Court will reflect the makeup of Israeli society is essential to strengthen public trust in the court, which despite an erosion of its status, is still at the top of the charts when it comes to faith in government institutions. This must be preserved.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Lost": Thoughts and Theories About "Across the Sea"

The "Lost" finale is just nine days away. I watched "Across the Sea" last night and I have some spoilery stuff to say about it, so if you haven't seen it, don't read the rest of this post.

The SCOTUS Bat Mitzvah Syndrome

I started writing a post about the differences between the methods used in Israel and the United States to select Supreme Court justices, and how I'd take some elements from each. Then, after I had already written a paragraph, I decided to see if I've ever written about the subject. Turns out I already did, back in 2005 when Justice Alito was confirmed.

Okay, so I have something to add to what I wrote back then. One of the few things that are better in the American confirmation process than in the Israeli method is that the public in the States (at least the part of it that follows politics and/or legal news) knows a lot more about its justices than Israelis do. However, this sometimes goes too far. I call this the SCOTUS Bat Mitzvah Syndrome, named after an article in the New York Times about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's Bat-Mitzvah. Do we really need to know that she was the first girl to ask to have a Bat Mitzvah at her Orthodox synagogue almost 40 years ago?

I like that in the States, people know a lot about the nominees' judicial philosophies and their approach to the law. On the other hand, I don't think I need to know all kinds of personal details like what kind of student she was in second grade or how nice she was to her staff of student reporters when she worked as a college newspaper editor.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The May 2010 War and Peace Index

There are some very interesting results in the latest War and Peace Index poll (Hebrew/English). Israelis see the crisis between Israel and the United States as over, and blame Barack Obama for it ever happening more than they blame Benjamin Netanyahu. Oddly, 56% of those polled said Netanyahu was handling relations with the US well or very well. So what if he hasn't shown any signs of budging on the Palestinian issue, which is at the center of US-Israel relations right now? My fellow Israelis still think he's doing swell.

Israelis aren't crazy about Obama, but don't hate him either. 43% think he's neutral towards Israel, which is similar to a previous poll. By comparison, a majority of Israelis found George W. Bush and Bill Clinton favorable towards Israel. Also in today's poll, 55% said Obama is favorable or very favorable toward the Arab world. I'd say that to many Israelis, if not most of them, being favorable toward the Arabs is not a very positive thing.

Also of interest is the fact that 73% of Israelis think Israel will continue to be criticized no matter what it does. The poll says a majority among all of Israel's parties says so, with the lowest percentage coming from Meretz, 55%. Does this mean that voters for Chadash (the Arab-Jewish Communist party) and other Arab parties have an even higher percentage than 55% thinking that Israel will always be criticized, or were the pollsters only referring to the Jewish parties?

Anyway, this vast majority isn't surprising. I, too, think that Israel will be criticized even when it does the right thing. Even when the two-state solution will be implemented, we'll still be criticized, but a lot less.