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Omar

Omar

Saw this last October. I should have written about it then, or perhaps last month, when it opened in the US and was in the running for the best foreign language film Oscar (it lost out to ‘The Great Beauty’, which is not surprising, as it was a long shot to begin with; it’s hard to imagine the Academy awarding an Oscar to a film regarded—incorrectly in my view—as being so anti-Israel). When I first saw Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘Omar’ I pronounced it a chef d’œuvre and the best Palestinian film ever. Period. Even better than Abu-Assad’s 2005 ‘Paradise Now‘. I’ve since had the opportunity to see ‘Omar’ a second time and, while still giving it the thumbs way up, will reserve judgment on it being the best ever Pal pic until I give ‘Paradise Now’ another look (re Elia Suleiman’s œuvre—which is favored by certain friends—, I find his films interesting but quirky; not masterpieces IMO). As for the reviews of ‘Omar’ by mainstream professional critics—very good in France, mostly good in the US—I’ve paid little attention to them. When it comes to films with such a heavy political content and on subjects I know well—e.g. Israel-Palestine, Algeria—I tend to ignore the regular film critics and look instead for the views of those with specialized knowledge (academics, journalists, political actors, etc) or who have a particular interest in the issue (activists, etc)—and with whom I may or may not agree. And on ‘Omar’, I find myself not entirely on the same page with the viewpoints on the film that I’ve come across (an exception being David Shulman’s fine review a week ago on the NYR blog). Those familiar with ‘Omar’ and the film’s politics will know that it is considered pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, which is perhaps normal given the identity of the director, the fact that it was entirely Palestinian-funded, and with all Palestinian actors (that some may be citizens of Israel—including director Abu-Assad—and that much of the film was shot in Israel—Nazareth and Beit She’an—is irrelevant; it’s a Palestinian film, period). And, of course, the manner in which it depicts the occupation and the question of collaboration. On this, the film has been praised by pro-Palestinian activists. One is the engagé Nazareth-based journalist and writer Jonathan Cook, who reviewed the film last September on The Electronic Intifada website. Cook thus describes the mechanisms of collaboration

The reality…is that collaboration is Israel’s chief tool for maintaining what is effectively an occupation for Palestinians inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It makes organizing resistance, or even struggling for basic rights, all but impossible. Over decades, Israel’s gatekeepers have devised a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring ordinary Palestinians. Once caught, as a fellow prisoner warns Omar, escape is impossible. And sure enough, Omar soon finds himself trapped by a seemingly harmless remark. (…) The film fearlessly dissects how this system of control works and why Palestinians, like Omar himself, are mostly powerless to evade or subvert it. Abu Assad’s decision to put the problem of collaboration at the heart of his film is therefore a bold one indeed. It is also vitally important because, until Palestinians confront the issue openly and honestly, they have little power to break Israel’s stranglehold on their lives.The film’s message is more hopeful than this synopsis may imply. Real awareness is possible, Abu Assad concludes in the final scenes, and with it comes the only hope for personal and social transformation.

Writing on his blog last month, the très engagé Richard Falk—UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the past six years (a post from which he will soon be retiring الحمد لله)‎—pronounced ‘Omar’ superior to ‘Paradise Now’ in a number of respects. In addition to examining the film’s treatment of collaboration, Falk did likewise with question of Palestinian violence targeted at Israelis

The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation… (…) [F]rom the Palestinian side, nothing is worse than becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave.

Pro-Israel reviewers liked the film rather less. E.g. Village Voice film critic Nick Schager, in a review last October, wrote that

A screed is a screed no matter its superficial genre trappings, as evidenced by Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, whose thriller machinations are merely a vehicle to deliver narrow-minded political preaching. (…) While Omar and his Palestinian loved ones are presented as uniformly funny, romantic and likable, Israelis are depicted as unjustifiably cruel and devious, be they the soldiers who harass Omar for no reason, the officers who torture him after he’s rightly arrested for the soldier’s death, or agent Rami…who tricks Omar into confessing and then blackmails him into becoming an informant. Throughout, Abu-Assad paints in such stark black-and-white terms that there’s no complexity to the ensuing saga, in which Omar is tasked with ratting out his friends if he ever wants to be with Nadia, only to discover that she may not be untrustworthy. With its deck so stacked that it plays out like a crude anti-Israeli sermon, the film – which ultimately determines that deception, betrayal and cold-blooded murder are acceptable if committed against Israelis (or by women), but not if done by Israelis – proves one-dimensional as both a political argument and a drama.

Tom Tugend of the Jewish Journal also thought ‘Omar’ demonized Israelis

As was the case in Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists in “Paradise Now” do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis; nevertheless, the latter are portrayed as recognizable human beings, not merely sadistic oppressors… However, in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.

In a lengthy review essay in the March issue of The Tower, conservative writer and blogger Rich Richman—quoting the work of Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, among others—likewise shredded ‘Omar’, labeling it propaganda and expressing indignation that it received an Oscar nomination over Yuval Adler’s ‘Bethlehem’, which was Israel’s Oscar submission and strikingly similar to ‘Omar’ (though is much more of a “genre film”; I saw it recently and will post on separately). And then there’s a review, which I stumbled across quite by accident, by a wacky right-wing blogger—and film critic à ses heures—named Debbie Schlussel, who called ‘Omar’ a “slow, boring, poorly-written Palestinian propaganda film” that shows how “Palestinians are lying, conniving pieces of crap who cannot be trusted…” Quelle conne.

People—myself included—read all sorts of things into movies. Palestinians on the West Bank have had mixed feelings about ‘Omar’, so I hear (seeing it, entre autres, as being destined mainly for Western audiences in the way it depicts the protag Omar). Hany Abu-Assad, for his part, said, in a Jerusalem Post interview, that “the heart of the film is the tragic love story” between Omar and Nadia. “[T]he pic’s romantic plot is the key component,” he insists: it’s “a love story, not a war story.” S’il le dit…

I have five general comments to make about the film—and in reaction to the reviews cited above, which are wide of the mark on several counts IMO. First, the depiction of the occupation is dead on accurate, notably the deleterious effects of the separation barrier on the daily lives of Palestinians—symbolized in the scenes of Omar scaling the wall at peril to his life to see his sweetheart Nadia—and of the behavior of Israeli soldiers toward the Palestinians more generally, and particularly young Palestinian men. The scene of the soldiers arbitrarily ordering Omar to stand on the rock—for no other reason than to humiliate him—happens everyday in some form or another somewhere in the Palestinian territories. It is utterly banal (as is the rifle-butting Omar received when he talked back to the soldiers). The aforecited pro-Israel reviewers may call the scenes in question propaganda but they cannot credibly claim that these distort reality. If the film made the Israeli soldiers look bad, it is because they indeed behave badly in such instances (and which is how Palestinians under occupation experience them). That said, it is inexact to say that the film demonizes Israelis. Israelis hardly figure in the film, in fact: of the ones whose faces we see—and apart from the soldiers who stop Omar next to the wall—there is only the Shabak agent Rami, who is not negatively portrayed. He is not an antipathetic character. He’s a professional doing his job and, as Omar’s handler, plays good cop more often than not.

As for the torture scene, it actually wasn’t clear to me at first that it was even the Israelis who were doing the dirty work. I assumed it was a joint PA-Israeli operation and with Pals inflicting the actual torture, mainly because of the manner in which it was carried out (bludgeoning, blow torches, stringing up from the ceiling…). Not that I don’t put it past the Israelis to behave brutally but, subsequent to the 1999 supreme court ruling, they’ve ceased these kinds of interrogation methods, and particularly methods that leave physical marks. Or so I assumed. To clarify the matter, I ran the question by persons-in-the-know—at NGOs that work on IP—, the response to which was that enhanced interrogation methods, if you will, are still practiced but not systematically and take forms other than what was depicted in the film (e.g. sleep deprivation, loud music, denial of medical treatment—i.e. not methods that draw blood and/or scar the skin). If one wants to be charitable here, one may say that Abu-Assad was taking artistic license in portraying Israelis employing torture techniques à l’arabe. Artistic license was likewise at work in the two chase scenes (the first of which I initially assumed involved PA cops), as the Shabak no longer stages hot pursuit daytime raids in the heart of the Nablus casbah… As so much of the film was metaphorical—e.g. it wasn’t explicitly set in any particular locale in Palestine—and accurately depicts the way Palestinians experience the occupation, I’ll give Abu-Assad a pass on this.

Second comment: the film effectively depicts the vise in which the Israelis have the Palestinians, “a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring” them, to quote Jonathan Cook. When it comes to “organizing resistance,” the Palestinians are fucked, completely and totally, and through institutional mechanisms and methods that, as David Shulman notes, the Israelis have been honing since the Mandate era. But the Palestinians, with their patriarchal codes of honor and penchant for internecine violence—which is on full display in ‘Omar’ (e.g. Tariq willing to kill his best buddies over transgressions, i.e. sex, with his sister Nadia; it is not the case that the film portrays Palestinians as “uniformly funny” and “likable”)—, have greatly simplified the Israelis’ task, not to mention the manner in which the Pals’ “resistance” has been conceived. Resistance may take civil and armed forms—peaceful or violent—, and the Palestinians have almost always privileged the latter (even during the first Intifada, during which practically no demo did not involve mass stone-throwing; I doubt Gandhi or M.L.King would have approved). But the use of violence by the Palestinians has always been doomed to failure and which most of them have long been fully aware. Even during the 1960s to early ’80s heyday of the PLO and its fedayeen incursions into Israel, the constituents of the PLO all knew that they had no hope of posing even a modest military challenge to Israel, let alone defeating it. Their aim was to provoke a war between Israel and the Arab states—i.e. Egypt and Syria—, with the latter liberating Palestine and sending the Zionists packing. But that dream came to end with Sinai II and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. And if some Palestinian groups thought that kamikaze attacks on civilians could maybe provoke an exodus of Jews, that was put paid to by the catastrophic Palestinian defeat in the second Intifada and the erecting of the separation barrier.

Which leads to the third comment, on the shooting of the soldier by Omar and his pals (with ringleader Tariq pulling the trigger), which is the central event in the film. Given the vise of occupation and the futility of armed struggle, one has to ask WTF were Omar, Tariq, and Amjad thinking when they decided to kill the soldier? What was the strategic logic of the act? And did they really imagine that the Israelis—with their dense network of informers and mania over protecting the lives of every last one of their (Jewish) citizens—would not eventually find them?  Now it is indeed the case that many such killings in these kinds of conflicts lack a clear strategic goal, at least vis-à-vis the enemy. Men commit the acts to impress their comrades, prove themselves to superiors, or simply to wreak vengeance (e.g. vengeance was a central motivation in the FLN’s terrorist campaign during the 1956-57 Battle of Algiers). Richard Falk suggests in the quote above that Palestinians—presented as eternal victims—commit such acts to maintain their “dignity” and make the enemy—whom they have no chance whatever of defeating militarily—feel “vulnerable,” even though the momentary restoration of dignity will most certainly land one in prison—and with all the humiliations that entails—and only reinforce the enemy’s military vise. Fabulous. If this is the finality of the Palestinian “resistance,” then one can only conclude that the Palestinians have the stupidest resistance movement in history. If one grades resistance or liberation movements on their ability to set clearly defined objectives and then elaborate a strategy to attain them, then the Palestinian “resistance” movement—present and past—gets an F!

The fourth comment—and which further bears out the stupidity of the Palestinian “resistance”—has to do with collaboration and the Palestinian psychosis over this, which is the central theme of ‘Omar’. “Collaboration” is, in fact, a misnomer in the Palestinian case, as this implies active support offered willingly to the occupier, for ideological reasons—e.g. Frenchmen who collaborated with the German occupation during WWII—or financial or other non-political considerations—e.g. harkis during the 1954-62 Algerian war. Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza who “collaborate” with the Shabak do not do so willingly; they are coerced or pressured into informing; they are made offers they can’t refuse. They’re informers under duress, not collaborators. Palestinians all know this; they know that those in their midst—e.g. Omar in the film—whom they suspect of being informers have been coerced into it and that such could happen to any one of them. The last thing Omar wanted to do was rat on Tariq to Shabak agent Rami. He was not a traitor. But he was nonetheless socially ostracized following mere rumors that he’d been turned by the Israelis and risked execution by his comrades—his best friends from childhood—if the suspicions were even halfway confirmed. The Palestinian armed groups, instead of trying to turn the problem of informers to their advantage—to make them double-agents, or adopt an approach that saves all their skins, or something—, murder their own. They make it so easy for the Israelis. Again, as far as resistance movements go and in view of the utter futility of engaging Israel in armed struggle, the Palestinians are just so fucking stupid.

Fifth comment. One sees no sign of the Palestinian Authority in the film. It’s as if the Palestinians have no (para-)state authority and are on their own in their interface with the Israelis—but which is, in fact, not the case for the majority of the inhabitants of the West Bank, and particularly in urban areas (where the film takes place). And while Tariq and his pals are presumably in a cell of an armed group and with a hierarchical superior, one does not see this. Cf. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers‘, which focuses on the FLN’s operation in the Casbah—initiated by Yacef Saadi, who, in the larger FLN organization, counted for nothing outside the city of Algiers—but makes sure to show the higher political leadership. In ‘Omar’, as in other Palestinian films, the Palestinians are depicted as leaderless, and with the “resistance” comprised of freelancing armed gangs. If this is what the Palestinian “resistance” is about, then it had might as well hang it up now, as it is utterly doomed.

As for the aesthetic/cinema side of ‘Omar’, it’s first-rate: excellent acting—particularly Adam Bakri as Omar and Waleed Zuaiter as Rami—, good dialogue, well-directed, gripping, and with an ending that knocked the wind out of me… Great movie!

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Ariel Sharon

David Silverman Getty Images

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below]

I should say R.I.P. but can’t, as I despised and loathed him for way too long, from his invasion of Lebanon through the second Intifada. Along with countless others—including many Israelis—I simply couldn’t stand the man. I could barely even stand to look at his tronche on television and was thoroughly appalled when he was elected PM in 2001. After all he had done, I could hardly believe that he would attain such a position (though I suppose we should thank Yasser Arafat for that). But whereas others will continue to viscerally hate public figures for decades, indeed a lifetime, my detestations are rarely eternal. From 2004 or so onward, I became increasingly indifferent toward him and, I will readily admit, was favorably surprised by the Gaza evacuation. Okay, he may have done it for his own reasons and with no coordination with the PA—which was an error—but he still did it, and ejected 8,000 settlers in the process. No other Israeli politician could have or would have carried out such an operation. But he didn’t get too much credit from his pro-Pal detractors for that. And his death on Saturday brought forth the expected torrent of vitriol and hate from the usual quarters on my Facebook news feed, rivaled only by that accorded to Margaret Thatcher when she passed away last April. On this I adhere to the sentiments of MENA specialist Bill Lawrence—recent North Africa director at the ICG, now with POMED—, which he posted yesterday on FB

All of the Sharon-bashing today on facebook rubbed me the wrong way. I understand why those who Sharon-bashed did it–it is cathartic, among other things. And done right it can be educational and serve to counterbalance misinformation coming out. But it was mostly happening in echo chambers where everyone knows the score. To speak ill of someone on the day they die, no matter who it is, and with so much vitriol, does not make us better. (I am guilty of this bashing the dead myself as well, so I am not trying to be holier than thou here. I’m just trying to process.) Any death is a death for all of us, whether of Sharon, of a victim of Sharon, or a victim of a victim of Sharon. There is no complete justice in this life, and certainly not from killing for revenge, nor from speaking ill of those who just died. I increasingly feel we should use the occasion of any death to try to love each other a bit more, and not hate each other more. Better to bite one’s tongue than to bite another with one’s tongue and teeth. And I say this with full knowledge of man’s inhumanity to man on a daily basis including from my country. I am not calling for silence, or ostrich-like ignorance, just for thoughtfulness on all accounts. May the victims of Sharon rest in peace and may all those who lost their lives today, in Syria, in Libya, in the Central African Republic, elsewhere in Africa, in the Gulf, in Palestine and yes in Israel rest in peace, and may we all learn the lessons of this life and love each other and all humanity more.

The Sharon derangement syndrome—with which I had been afflicted—had become such that even people who should have known better—e.g. MENA academic specialists—were mouthing all kinds of nonsense about him. E.g. a petition that circulated among US MENA and other lefty academics in 2003 or ’04—and that was signed by dozens, including several I knew personally—warned of Sharon’s apparent desire to expel the Palestinian population from the West Bank, to transfer it across the Jordan river, or somewhere. This was preposterous, as Sharon had never evoked such a prospect. He had never even hinted at it indirectly. Ever. Not a single time. And he was never associated at any moment in his career with the sectors of the Israeli extreme right that advocated this (even MENA specialists seemed to forget that Sharon’s early political orientation was more toward the Labor party than the Herut or other right-wing movements).  As for the Gaza disengagement, it went almost without saying on the left and pro-Palestinian camp that it would not be repeated on the West Bank, that Gaza was evacuated precisely to reinforce Israel’s hold on the WB. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We’ll never know. On this—as on Sharon more generally—, Shlomo Avineri had an op-ed in the January 11th Haaretz on “Ariel Sharon: The leader who was almost de Gaulle“:

The life of Ariel Sharon reflects, to a great extent, the various upheavals the State of Israel has undergone. Just as the young member of the Haganah (prestate underground army) from Kfar Malal became a glorified military commander, the driving force behind the settlement enterprise, and a symbol of Israeli power-orientation – manifested in the decision to launch the first Lebanon War in 1982 – Israel also went from being a David facing Goliath to a regional military power. At some point, Sharon – like the rest of Israel – came to understand the limits of power and its inherent dangers.

When Sharon shocked his Likud comrades on the eve of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza by saying that the ongoing Israeli control of the territories was bad not just for the Arabs but also for the Jews, it was clear that realism and sobriety had overcome not just the settlement ideology but the intoxication with power that had characterized post-1967 Israel.

It emerged that the cruel dialectic of politics allows those affiliated with the right to carry out what the left wants to do but cannot. There is a great similarity here to Charles de Gaulle. While the French socialists wanted to withdraw from Algeria, they could never muster the required majority for the move. It was de Gaulle – who came to power through a military coup (something that could never happen in Israel) under the slogan “Long live French Algeria” – who put an end to 130 years of French control of the north African state, resulting in the displacement of more than a million French settlers.

From Sharon’s perspective, the disengagement constituted only the first chapter of a process that was to go much further in the West Bank, with his new party, Kadima, providing the necessary public support. The difference between the two, of course, lies in the fact that de Gaulle succeeded in implementing his policies, while Sharon’s effort was abruptly halted midstream.

What caused Sharon to change direction? First, even though he had initiated the forming of Likud, his origins were not in the Revisionist movement but in the Labor movement. Sharon was a hawk, but a security hawk, not an ideological one – even though at times he felt the need to use “Greater Land of Israel” language. Therefore, when he was convinced that an Israeli presence in Gaza was not a strategic asset but a burden, he had the emotional and moral wherewithal to make the tough decision to withdraw from the Strip and uproot the Jewish communities there, even though they had been established, in no small measure, at his initiative.

One needs considerable intellectual honesty combined with determination – if not brutality – to make such a decision.

In a deeper sense, though, a more fundamental insight lay behind the decision to go forward with the disengagement. Sharon, whose political career was almost destroyed following the first Lebanon war, learned lessons from that experience that many others failed to learn, and this was manifest in his words and deeds.

For starters, he began to understand the limits of Israeli power. Though Israel is the strongest military power in the region, it does not have the power to eliminate the Palestinian movement or force the Palestinians to accept Israeli control over the territories.

Second, given the way that the Lebanon war polarized the country, Sharon understood that, in the future, when Israel would face a choice of making war or making peace, it was necessary to make every effort to keep the Labor Party in the government. He did this after he was elected prime minister in 2001, giving the foreign affairs portfolio to Shimon Peres and the defense ministry to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. His forming of Kadima also expressed his desire to establish a central force on the political map that could attract moderates from both the left and right.

Sharon’s eulogizers will spend a lot of time discussing his legacy. It’s a complicated one; the settlement enterprise in the West Bank is certainly making the negotiating process more difficult. But the Gaza withdrawal points to the only process that seemingly has a chance – painful unilateral steps that, even without an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel can take in order to reduce its control over them, even as it preserves its security and survival as a Jewish state.

(A minor quibble: de Gaulle did not precisely come to power in a military coup; there was a sort of coup in May 1958 but he was invested in power legally by the parliamentary regime. But the point is well-taken: Israel is not the French Fourth Republic in its dying days, even though there is a similarity or two.)

À propos of Avineri’s obit, Barak Ravid has a most interesting piece in today’s Haaretz: “Sharon was planning diplomatic moves beyond Gaza, leaked documents reveal.” The lede: U.S. cables, Palestinian papers quote then-Israeli prime minister eyeing negotiated withdrawals from West Bank.

Other worthwhile remembrances I’ve read over the past couple of days:

Aaron David Miller, “Warrior, Farmer, Leader: Reflections on the flawed-but-unmatched legacy of Israel’s Ariel Sharon,” in Foreign Policy.

Times of Israel analyst Avi Isaacharof, “Sharon was reviled by Arabs, but that’s not the whole story.”

J.J. Goldberg, “How we recollect Sharon: good, bad, ugly, human,” in The Jewish Daily Forward.

UPDATE: An elaboration of what I said above on becoming increasingly indifferent toward Sharon (instead of merely hating him). At some point during the second Intifada it began to dawn on me that Israel was not the only party to the I-P conflict that was responsible for the conflict, i.e. the Israelis weren’t the only ones who did horrible things and worsened an already bad situation. It has been observed for a decade now that the wave of kamikaze terrorist attacks during the second Intifada dealt a mortal blow to the Israeli peace movement and hardened the Israeli population toward the Palestinians. Pro-Palestinians scoff at this notion, when they don’t angrily reject it, but it’s true. It really is. Personally speaking, the turning point was the March 2002 bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya. For me, there was a before and an after with this event, even if the evolution in viewpoint did not occur overnight. The kamikaze bombers were sent into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza by organizations—Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade et al—and with the full knowledge and benediction of Yasser Arafat. And it was a calculated strategy, not spontaneous revenge attacks of the weak. I told people—those who would listen—a decade ago that the Palestinians were going to pay a severe price for the strategy pursued during the second Intifada. And I wasn’t wrong. Ariel Sharon may have been an SOB but there have been many SOBs in this conflict, and on all sides. The policies of Sharon during his five years as PM would have been pursued by any other Israeli in his position.

2nd UPDATE: Gershom Gorenberg has a column in TAP on “The damage [Sharon] did.” The lede: Ariel Sharon’s long death watch makes it possible to see what he left behind.

3rd UPDATE: Alain Gresh has an obit of sorts on his Le Monde Diplo blog, detailing all the bad things Sharon did: “Ariel Sharon, la fin d’un criminel de guerre.” Couldn’t put it more subtly than that, I suppose…

4th UPDATE: Raja Shehadeh, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Ramallah some five years back, offers an assessment,  on The New Yorker website, of “Ariel Sharon’s corrosive legacy.

5th UPDATE: Writing in Tablet this time, Gershom Gorenberg says “Let’s remember the dark side of Ariel Sharon’s legacy—and bury ‘Sharonism’ with him.” The lede: As defense minister, he presided over disaster in Beirut, and as prime minister, over disengagement, not peacemaking.

6th UPDATE: Avishai Margalit has a personal remembrance, “In the shadow of Sharon,” in the February 20 2014 NYRB. It is well worth reading.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

This is an extended Tweet. No deep analysis for the moment. I just read Bernard Avishai’s New Yorker post from yesterday, “The Jewish state in question,” in which he discusses the NYT article on Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” or as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” and that this has become a sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Those who bring this up seem to miss the point as to what’s going on here. Pour mémoire, the Israelis pulled this demand out of a hat in the last decade. There was no mention in the Oslo accords of a formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state nor did such come up during the negotiations in the 1990s. Now the Israelis know full well that the Palestinians will never agree to this. The Pals just won’t, period. So the Israeli position can only be interpreted in one of two ways: (a) either the Israelis will hold fast to their demand, which means that they’re not serious about coming to an agreement with the Palestinians, that they prefer to live with the status quo indefinitely, or (b) that they’ll drop the demand but only in exchange for the Palestinians renouncing the “right of return,” for the Palestinians taking the latter off the table. It’s kind of obvious IMO. I think the Israeli strategy is (b). On verra.

UPDATE: Amira Hass has a column in Haaretz (January 20th) on “The slippery slope of recognizing Israel as the Jewish state.” The lede: “The demand to recognize Israel’s Jewish character has never before been included in peace talks, says a former Palestinian negotiator. So why is it now a major issue?” The negotiator in question in Nabil Shaath, who rails on against the Israeli Jewish state demand. Toward the end of the column Hass says this

As has been explained in the media, the demand for the recognition of Israel’s Jewishness entails the demand that the Palestinians cede the right of return. But at the January 2001 Taba talks, said Shaath, the Israeli side recognized the right of return as part of the principles of a future accord (based on UN Resolution 194).

What Shaath says about Taba is self-serving, as the Taba talks were sans lendemain—nothing came of them—, nothing in particular was formally agreed to, and no formal document on what was discussed was issued (all that we have to go on are the handwritten notes of the European special representative who was present at the meetings). The Israeli side to the talks, which was an Israeli peace camp’s dream team—including Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin, and Shimon Peres—, reportedly made a generous-sounding offer on the refugee question—though not to a “right of return”—but, given that the talks ended inconclusively, there was no formal commitment on this. And whatever was informally assented to at Taba in no way bound future Israeli governments (or Palestinian, for that matter). Taba is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. It might as well have never happened.

2nd UPDATE: Hussein Ibish has an excellent analysis in NOW (March 11th) on “The real impact of Israel’s ‘Jewish state’ demand.” The lede: The main impact of Israel’s new “Jewish state” demand is to effectively negate the Palestinian recognition of Israel in 1993.

3rd UPDATE: Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, has an op-ed worth reading in The Times of Israel (March 11th), “A Jewish state: It’s our problem, not theirs.”

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Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

Al Zaatri refugee camp, Mafraq, Jordan, February 25 2013 (Muhammed Hamed/Reuters)

[update below]

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have had numerous articles and other links of late on the catastrophic situation of Syrian refugees. I can hardly bear to read about this, as I find it so painful and heart-rending. And particularly as we know that the situation will only get worse, with the oncoming winter, the ongoing collapse of the Syrian state, and likelihood that the civil war will continue for years to come. There is already starvation, with a dispatch last week by Patrick Cockburn calling it “[t]he biggest emergency in the UN’s history.” Cockburn concludes with this

In rebel-held areas the situation is much worse. Food is in short supply and government salaries and pensions, however inadequate, are not being paid. A recent graduate from the University of Damascus, writing for IRIN, the UN news agency, said that there are few doctors in the besieged town of al-Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus – and those that remain say that mothers are too undernourished to produce breast milk for babies and there is no powdered milk available.

One doctor said adults “are getting by on small amounts of seasonal stocked traditional Syrian foods like olives, thyme and marmalade – and in some cases cats and dogs”. He expected adults to start dying of starvation in the near future.

Dying of starvation in Syria…

And then there’s the effect of the war on education, with “Syrian children…suffer[ing] the ‘sharpest and most rapid’ decline in education standards in the history of the region,” according to a report released on December 13th by UNICEF, the UNHCR, World Vision, and Save the Children.

And, pour mémoire, there is the massive rape crisis afflicting Syrian women in the refugee camps, which I had a post on earlier this year

This post on the CNN website lists NGOs and their US 800 numbers for those wondering “[h]ow to help Syrian refugees.” And this video clip by Amnesty International cleverly publicizes the issue, skewering the leaders of the European Union, “The Apathetics,” in the process for their pathetic offer to resettle a whopping 0.5% of Syrian refugees within their borders.

On the question of resettling refugees from the Syrian war, there is a particular urgency for Syria’s half-million-odd Palestinians (e.g. here and here; my photos here), who have been there since 1948 but do not have Syrian citizenship, thus rendering them stateless. Syria treated the Palestinians better than any other Arab state, even more than Jordan. But at least Jordan gave the Palestinians citizenship—albeit second class—and thus a passport. Being stateless—not having a passport issued by a recognized state—is a disaster for those in that situation. As I have learned in recent years from Palestinian-Syrians who carry the Syrian issued Palestinian refugee travel document (below), most of the world is closed to them. It is almost impossible for Palestinians from Syria to obtain visas for any Arab state. Any. The Arab world  (plus Turkey) is, in effect, off limits, even for short visits. E.g. the brother of a Palestinian-Syrian friend works as an engineer in the oil sector in Algeria but it took him years to obtain a visa to enter that lovely country to take up his job with a US company there. And my friend, from a well-to-do family in Damascus and who worked herself for a European company in the city—so no money problems—, has never been able to get a visa from the Algerians to visit him. To comprehend how full of shit the Arabs are when it comes to the Palestinians, one may look no further than here: of their refusal to grant citizenship to even those who were born and raised in their countries and to refuse entry to Palestinians from elsewhere. The Egyptian MB government did open the doors to Syrian Pals but then treated them like dirt (e.g. here), and now they’re being pushed out. The countries that Syrian Palestinians may visit—that do not discriminate against them when it comes to visas—are the EU Schengen area (the UK, which is not in Schengen, is difficult), the USA, Canada, Mexico, and various Latin American states. The US is particularly generous toward the Syrian Palestinians, so I have been reliably informed.

In view of the disastrous situation of stateless Syrian Palestinians, it would behoove the European Union, US, Canada, Latin American states, Australia, and whoever else to simply decide to absorb the entire Syrian Palestinian population, to settle all of them within their borders and with a fast track to citizenship, and with those with family ties in any of these states going to where they have those ties. The situation is urgent and it would be almost unconscionable to do otherwise. Convene an international conference and just do it. With that, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

UPDATE: William R. Polk has an exceptional article, dated December 10th, on The Atlantic website, “Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad.” The lede: How drought, foreign meddling, and long-festering religious tensions created the tragically splintered Syria we know today.

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The Israeli Zionist left

Peace Now activists Jerusalem May 15 2010 Photo Tomer Appelbaum

[mise à jour en français ci-dessous]

The Boston Review has a very interesting article on its website by Susie Linfield of NYU, entitled “Letter from Israel: Leftists on Zionism’s Past, Present, and Future.” Among the left-wing Zionist intellectuals Linfield interviewed are Zeev Sternhell, Gershom Gorenberg, Ilan Greilsammer, and Shlomo Sand (whose views expressed here will likely disappoint some of his admirers outside Israel who have uncritically bought into the controversial arguments of his recent books). Needless to say, this is the part of the Israeli intellectual-political spectrum I would find myself in if I were a citizen of that country. The piece, at some 5,500 words, is long but well worth the read.

MISE À JOUR: L’article de Susie Linfield, “Israël: la gauche et le sionisme passé, présent et futur,” a été traduit en français par la revue Contreligne (nº de décembre 2013).

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A Death in Jenin

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Adam Shatz’s long awaited article on “The Life and Death of Juliano Mer-Khamis” is finally out, in the latest issue of the LRB. I say “finally out” as I’ve been discussing the subject with Adam for a long time now and read the first draft of the article last month, which was over 18,000 words. The published one is a little over half that, though Adam assures me that nothing significant was lost in the editing. (If one does not know who Juliano Mer-Khamis was, see my blog post here, which I wrote the day after his murder 2½ years ago; also see here and here). In addition to being a brilliant, exceptionally well-written article—as one has come to expect from Adam—, it is one of the most important investigative reports on Israel-Palestine that I’ve read in years. One takes as a given that the Israelis are a**holes in the Palestinian territories—that their occupation is loathsome and despicable—, and nothing that Adam writes alters that given. What is important in his article is what the militant engagement of Juliano Mer-Khamis with the Palestinians and his murder in Jenin says about Palestinian political culture and future prospects of coexistence between the two peoples. The picture is complex but anyone who still dreams of peace and maybe eventual harmony in I-P will not find cause for optimism in Adam’s article. I’ll come back to the subject in more depth soon but, in the meantime, do read the article.

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This is a 3½+ hour, four-part documentary on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations—from the 7th century to the present—by French filmmaker Karim Miské. Parts 1 and 2 aired on ARTE last night and may be watched here (for one week at least). The documentary is quite good and with an impressive number of francophone and anglophone academic and other specialists interviewed. I noted in the credits that the film received the support of the cultural services of the US embassy in Paris. Parts 3 and 4 will air next Tuesday (and which will be on ARTE’s website linked to above).

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Two-State Illusion

Jerusalem, May 8 2013 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Jerusalem, May 8 2013 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below] [9th update below]

This is the title of an op-ed by Ian Lustick in the NYT Sunday Review, the subject of which is—what else?—the Israel-Palestine conflict and the apparent near impossibility that the I-P negotiating process—such as it is—will culminate in the creation of a Palestinian state. The two-state solution is an “illusion,” so it is asserted—dead, for all intents and purposes —, and with

the fantasy that there is a two-state solution keep[ing] everyone from taking action toward something that might work.

The “something that might work” is suggested in passing: “one mixed state,” i.e. the one-state solution. Now this argument, which I consider to be asinine, stupid, and a waste of time to even discuss, has been made countless times over the years by gauchiste activists and other tiersmondistes, engagé academics who teach at places like Columbia University, pundits who don’t know what they’re talking about, and liberal Zionists—ex and/or current—who have thrown up their arms in despair at the right-wing lurch of Israeli politics—and lost their heads in the process (isn’t it striking how the subject of Israel makes people crazy and on all sides of the issue?)—and the impasse in the peace process (as if Israel alone is responsible for this).

I normally wouldn’t bother writing a whole post on such an op-ed were it not for the identity of the author of this particular one. If one doesn’t know it, Ian Lustick is a professor of political science (with endowed chair) at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of Penn’s Middle East Center, one of the leading specialists of Israel in American political science since the 1970s—he’s a founder and past president of the Association for Israel Studies—, and is a first-rate social scientist all around. Professor Lustick is a major scholar and with a record of academic achievements and publications considerably longer than mine will ever be. Which is why I am stunned that he has written such a breathtaking piece of bullshit—and published it in the NYT no less, where it will be read by millions. Professor Lustick is manifestly one of those (ex-)liberal Zionists referred to above, though, given his stature as a top flight political scientist, has no business writing such nonsense and on his subject of specialization to boot. And this political scientist will not let him get away with it.

Allow me to cite and discuss some of the problematic passages in his piece (for the whole thing, go here)

True believers in the two-state solution see absolutely no hope elsewhere. With no alternative in mind,

There is no “alternative in mind” for the simple reason that there is no alternative to the two-state solution. Not one that can be negotiated in any case.

 and unwilling or unable to rethink their basic assumptions, they are forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.

Advocates of the two-state solution admit to a man or woman that getting there will be arduous, and many (myself among them) are not too optimistic, but none—not to my knowledge, at least—are portraying it as implausible or no longer possible. And as the parties to the negotiations—Israel, Palestinian Authority, the US—are formally committed to the two-state objective—however unlikely this may seem in the foreseeable future—, one simply cannot pronounce it dead and buried. An analogous issue is Turkey joining the European Union. No one will bet a kuruş on this happening anytime soon—and certainly not in this decade (and absolutely not if the current Turkish prime minister still holds executive power)—but so long as the accession negotiations continue in Brussels, albeit at a snail’s pace, and neither party is about to put an end to them, one cannot foreclose the prospect of eventual Turkish EU membership.

In re to the “peace process,” so long as this continues, however fitfully, and the two-state solution is the only one on the table, then that solution necessarily remains within the realm of the possible.

It’s like 1975 all over again, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco fell into a coma. The news media began a long death watch, announcing each night that Generalissimo Franco was still not dead. This desperate allegiance to the departed echoes in every speech, policy brief and op-ed about the two-state solution today.

What a peculiar analogy. Franco was going to die sooner or later. This was a 100% certainty. Franco was a human being. Human beings die. The two-state solution will (or will not) come about as part of a process, and processes only die when the parties to them decide to let that happen. And none of the aforementioned parties to the I-P process is seriously considering allowing that process to die.

True, some comas miraculously end. Great surprises sometimes happen. The problem is that the changes required to achieve the vision of robust Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side are now considerably less likely than other less familiar but more plausible outcomes that demand high-level attention but aren’t receiving it.

What precisely are these “plausible outcomes”? The “one mixed state”? But what on earth makes this outcome—which is, objectively speaking, utterly implausible—more likely than the “changes required” to bring about a two-state solution? Professor Lustick simply asserts this, after which he moves on to this pearl:

Strong Islamist trends make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government.

I don’t get the bit here about a “small state.” Is Professor Lustick suggesting that a fundamentalist Palestine is more likely than a secular one only if the latter is “small”—presumably limited to the West Bank and maybe Gaza—or that a fundamentalist Palestine is more likely tout court? As for strong Islamist trends, it is odd that Professor Lustick would write this in September 2013, with all that’s happened in Egypt this summer, Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in Syria (for the time being, at least), and the Tunisian Ennahda on the defensive, entre autres. Now it should be said that if an entirely free-and-fair election had taken place on the West Bank these past few years, one would have confidently predicted a Hamas victory over the corrupt, sclerotic Fatah—though it should also be said that there is not the slightest chance of Hamas contesting any election on the West Bank (or of Hamas allowing Fatah to do so in Gaza), now or in the foreseeable future. But in the hypothetical event that such an election were to be organized, say, next week, one would predict a Hamas victory with far less confidence; again, due to the new situation in Egypt, the fiasco of Morsi’s presidency, and the fact that Gaza, thanks to the Egyptian military regime, really is an open air prison now. Hamas is thoroughly isolated and no one is going to come to its rescue—not Tayyip Erdoğan, Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim, or anyone. Khaled Mashal will not be setting foot in Palestine anytime soon. Nor in Syria or Egypt. And if Hamas tries to break out of its isolation by provoking another little war with Israel, the Israelis will kick the shit out them yet again, as in 2008-09 and 2012, and with the total support of the US, tacit support of Europe, acquiescence of the Russians, and benevolence of Arab regimes. There will be the usual demos and incendiary op-eds and blog posts, but Israel will pay no price for it. And when it’s over the world will forget about Gaza as it did after the last flare-ups there, and with Hamas as isolated as ever. Pace Professor Lustick, the predicament of the Gazawis and experience of Islamists in power during the “Arab spring” thus do not augur well for a brilliant Islamist future in Palestine.

The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible as the evacuation of enough of the half-million Israelis living across the 1967 border, or Green Line, to allow a real Palestinian state to exist.

I can hardly believe that a specialist of Israel would commit such rubbish to the written word. The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project? Insofar as the existence of Israel is inseparable from the Zionist project, this signifies the disappearance of Israel tout court. But how does a fully constituted nation and state disappear short of its inhabitants being exterminated? Perhaps Professor Lustick thinks the Jews will simply all depart en masse, emigrate to America and Australia, or just wander the earth, or something. Is there any precedent in modern history of a nation closing up shop, voluntarily winding up its existence, and its inhabitants dispersing to the four winds? Pour mémoire, Israel is a state with a GDP of $250 billion—greater than that of neighboring Egypt, with ten times the population—, per capita GDP at PPP of $31,000—just a shade below the EU 28 mean—, an economic growth rate of 3.5%, the highest percentage of engineers in the world by far, et j’en passe. How does a state with an economy of this order—and which shows few signs of major structural weakness—cease to be?

On the question of war, the only entities with which Israel could possibly wage this are Hamas, Hizbullah, and Iran. On a war with Hamas, see above. Hizbullah: the instant Hizb rockets hit an Israeli city and kill lots of people and/or any Hizbullahis cross the international border, the Israelis will turn large parts of Lebanon into a parking lot. There is no chance—none whatever—that Hizbullah will come out of such a conflagration a winner. And it is unlikely it will end in a draw as in 2006. As for Iran, let’s not talk about that (as, among other things, a war initiated by Iran would possibly bring about the nuclear destruction of that country, which no mentally sane person could possibly wish for). Cultural exhaustion? What on earth is this supposed to mean?! When it comes to the cultural form I know the best—cinema—, Israel is one of the more dynamic countries in the world. And in literature too (as it happens, I am currently reading David Grossman’s To the End of the Land). Demographic momentum? Israel does indeed have it, with all those ultra-Orthodox breeding like rabbits. Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCIs) are also having lots of babies, though that fertility rate is beginning to drop. The widespread notion that Israeli Jews will be demographically overwhelmed by Palestinians within its 1967 borders is without foundation (I do not include the West Bank-Gaza here, as there is no reason to; Israel will never—and I repeat, never—reoccupy Gaza or West Bank area A, assume responsibility for its population, and incorporate it into the state; not even the far-right Naftali Bennett and his party advocate this).

As for evacuating enough West Bank settlers to allow a Palestinian state to exist, it’s pretty much understood on all sides that the great majority of settlers will stay where they are, with the big blocs annexed to Israel, lands swaps, etc. Professor Lustick knows this.

While the vision of thriving Israeli and Palestinian states has slipped from the plausible to the barely possible, one mixed state emerging from prolonged and violent struggles over democratic rights is no longer inconceivable.

This is an amazing statement. Absolutely incredible. How does Professor Lustick envisage these “prolonged and violent struggles”? Violence normally involves people getting killed. Will the Palestinians wage this violent struggle the way they always have, i.e. with asymmetric warfare (e.g. rockets fired into populated areas, shooting up crowded buses, kamikaze bombers blowing themselves up in pizzerias and discotheques, that sort of thing)? But the Palestinians have already tried this strategy at so many points in their modern history and have met with utter defeat, indeed catastrophe. Each time they did it, the Israelis smashed them. When embarking on “violent struggles” the Palestinians have experienced nothing but defeat in the end. So why would such a losing strategy become a winning one in the future? And what Palestinians is Professor Lustick talking about? There is not a snowball’s chance in hell the PCIs will go down the violence road (and which Professor Lustick knows full well; the PCIs were the subject of his doctoral dissertation after all, so he is fully informed on them). As for West Bank Pals, they’re somewhat hemmed in by that “apartheid wall” (which was one outcome of the last Intifada). And it’s dicey for Gazawis to get within even a kilometer of the Israeli border, lest nervous IDF soldiers open fire on them. So one wonders where the legions of Palestinians will come from to participate in these “prolonged and violent struggles.”

As for the “democratic rights” over which they would be struggling, what is Professor Lustick talking about here? I have no idea. And on the “one mixed state”: when confronted with this cockamamie notion I always ask (e.g. here) the person advocating it the same question, which is to provide a credible scenario as to how such a state could come about in the foreseeable future, i.e. before we’re all dead. If the said state were to be born through violent struggle, i.e. war, please explain how Israel will lose this war (see above). If the mythic one-state is the fruit of a political process, then how does one see the Knesset passing it—which political parties will vote aye?—and then it being ratified by the Israeli electorate (and with the inevitable qualified majority)? Needless to say, I have never gotten an answer to any of this from a one-stater, as they don’t have the answers. And I don’t expect them from Professor Lustick.

All sides have reasons to cling to [the two-state] illusion. The Palestinian Authority needs its people to believe that progress is being made toward a two-state solution so it can continue to get the economic aid and diplomatic support that subsidize the lifestyles of its leaders, the jobs of tens of thousands of soldiers, spies, police officers and civil servants, and the authority’s prominence in a Palestinian society that views it as corrupt and incompetent.

True. Does the PA have an alternative?

Israeli governments cling to the two-state notion because it seems to reflect the sentiments of the Jewish Israeli majority and it shields the country from international opprobrium, even as it camouflages relentless efforts to expand Israel’s territory into the West Bank.

Also true. And as Professor Lustick acknowledges, Israel’s Jewish majority does indeed want that peace process, thus indicating that it favors a two-state solution (provided that it brings real peace and ends the conflict). As for settlement expansion being camouflaged, come off it. This is way out there in the open. Israeli governments couldn’t camouflage it even if they tried (and why would they want to, given that settlement expansion pleases certain domestic constituencies?).

American politicians need the two-state slogan to show they are working toward a diplomatic solution, to keep the pro-Israel lobby from turning against them and to disguise their humiliating inability to allow any daylight between Washington and the Israeli government.

Nonsense. American administrations (not “politicians”) want the I-P process to continue because this is a cornerstone of American foreign policy in the region, and under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It has nothing to do with lobbies or disguising humiliations.

Finally, the “peace process” industry — with its legions of consultants, pundits, academics and journalists — needs a steady supply of readers, listeners and funders who are either desperately worried that this latest round of talks will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, or that it will not.

This sentence lacks clarity. I don’t get it. If the latest round of talks leads to the establishment of a Pal state, the legions of consultants et al will still have many services to render, as the state will be sous perfusion internationale for a long time to come.

But many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable. The State of Israel has been established, not its permanence. The most common phrase in Israeli political discourse is some variation of “If X happens (or doesn’t), the state will not survive!”

“Many Israelis”? How many is many? Certainly some Israelis see their future demise. Collectively speaking, Jews—for reasons having to do with history (and maybe some collective Jewish psyche, I don’t know)—have existential fears, but fear of demise in no way signifies that demise is in the actual realm of the possible. As for the State of Israel’s permanence, see above.

Those who assume that Israel will always exist as a Zionist project should consider how quickly the Soviet, Pahlavi Iranian, apartheid South African, Baathist Iraqi and Yugoslavian states unraveled, and how little warning even sharp-eyed observers had that such transformations were imminent.

Professor Lustick: pour mémoire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were multinational states that broke up into their constituent national components (constituent nations that had always had, on paper at least, the constitutional right of secession). And Pahlavi Iran, Baathist Iraq, and apartheid South Africa were political orders and which gave way to new orders. Israel is not a political order; it is a nation. And nations do not disappear or give way to other nations. Independent nations may lose their national independence for a stretch or entirely vanish from the map (e.g. Poland 1795-1918), but the flame of nationhood remains. Iran, Iraq, and South Africa are still there, as are Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Estonia, etc etc. If the Israeli nation goes, it’s gone forever. Extinguished. And with its people dispersed (or exterminated). Bad analogies, Professor Lustick.

In all these cases, presumptions about what was “impossible” helped protect brittle institutions by limiting political imagination. And when objective realities began to diverge dramatically from official common sense, immense pressures accumulated.

JUST as a balloon filled gradually with air bursts when the limit of its tensile strength is passed, there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics. When those thresholds are crossed, the impossible suddenly becomes probable, with revolutionary implications for governments and nations. As we see vividly across the Middle East, when forces for change and new ideas are stifled as completely and for as long as they have been in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, sudden and jagged change becomes increasingly likely.

The bursting balloon here is the hot air from this passage. Don’t they have editors at the NYT Opinion page?

History offers many such lessons. Britain ruled Ireland for centuries, annexing it in 1801. By the mid-19th century the entire British political class treated Ireland’s permanent incorporation as a fact of life. But bottled-up Irish fury produced repeated revolts. By the 1880s, the Irish question was the greatest issue facing the country; it led to mutiny in the army and near civil war before World War I. Once the war ended, it took only a few years until the establishment of an independent Ireland. What was inconceivable became a fact.

Yes, the Irish Question: Britain occupied Ireland, incorporated it into the UK, and oppressed the Irish people; the Irish people struggled for their independence and, in the end, won it. The Irish Question was resolved with the two-state solution.

The prospect of a Palestinian state on the West Bank-Gaza was inconceivable in Israel 25 years ago. Outside the Israeli hard right, it is universally admitted today.

France ruled Algeria for 130 years and never questioned the future of Algeria as an integral part of France. But enormous pressures accumulated, exploding into a revolution that left hundreds of thousands dead. Despite France’s military victory over the rebels in 1959 [sic], Algeria soon became independent, and Europeans were evacuated from the country.

Ditto. For the French, Algeria was an integral part of France. But Algerians were not Frenchmen and did not want to be. They struggled for their independence and won it. The two-state solution.

Algeria’s Europeans were not evacuated, BTW. They fled or departed voluntarily. And though the great majority of them (over 80%) were born in Algeria, were deeply attached to the country—it was their home—, and had never set foot anywhere else, there was no right of return for those who fled in 1962. Some tried to go back in the months following Algerian independence but it was impossible. Independent Algeria said no. And they lost all their property and assets, and with no compensation. It was a terrible tragedy for them but that’s the way the historical cookie crumbled. Just sayin’.

One another thing. The Irish Sinn Fein never laid claim to any part of England, Scotland, or Wales. And the Algerian FLN never had irredentist claims on metropolitan France. The borders of the Irish and Algerian nations were clearly, explicitly fixed by those two movements and accepted by the colonial powers (Ulster was a stickler but that was dealt with), rendering independence and their two-state solutions relatively unproblematic. For the Palestinians and the state of the Israel, it’s another matter altogether.

THE assumptions necessary to preserve the two-state slogan have blinded us to more likely scenarios. With a status but no role, what remains of the Palestinian Authority will disappear. Israel will face the stark challenge of controlling economic and political activity and all land and water resources from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The stage will be set for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel. And faced with growing outrage, America will no longer be able to offer unconditional support for Israel. Once the illusion of a neat and palatable solution to the conflict disappears, Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.

Professor Lustick is speaking in the future tense here, looking into the crystal ball and assuring us of what it is nigh certain to happen years from now, of the calamities that will befall Israel, the Palestinians, etc. Professor Lustick, who is a smart political scientist, knows better than to do this.

Fresh thinking could then begin about Israel’s place in a rapidly changing region. There could be generous compensation for lost property. Negotiating with Arabs and Palestinians based on satisfying their key political requirements, rather than on maximizing Israeli prerogatives, might yield more security and legitimacy. Perhaps publicly acknowledging Israeli mistakes and responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians would enable the Arab side to accept less than what it imagines as full justice. And perhaps Israel’s potent but essentially unusable nuclear weapons arsenal could be sacrificed for a verified and strictly enforced W.M.D.-free zone in the Middle East.

Now he’s wistfully speaking in the conditional (could, might). Allez

In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.

This passage almost leaves me speechless. I can hardly believe that a political science I-P specialist could write it. It reads like a 1970s Trotskyist tract from my college days (of the revolutionary potential of an alliance of class forces that objectively shares the same class interests through its relationship to the means of production blah blah). So Israeli IT entrepreneurs—who work all the time and party in Tel Aviv’s bars when they’re not—are going to reach out to their entrepreneurial counterparts in Ramallah… And Sri Lankan and Nepali domestic workers will link up with their Palestinian sisters on the other side of the “apartheid wall” (and ally with their entrepreneurial Tel Aviv employers while they’re at it, with whom they naturally share objective interests)…  And Haredi settlers in Beitar Illit will break bread with Salafists in Hebron…. And the grandsons and granddaughters of 1950s Iraqi and Moroccan immigrants will discover their Arab roots during their military service, while manning checkpoints or participating in night raids in West Bank villages… And then there are Tel Aviv’s gays—whom Professor Lustick forgot to mention—, who will propose organizing joint Israeli-Palestinian LGBT parades in Nablus and Gaza…

Professor Lustick, what mind-altering substances did you consume before writing your op-ed?

Professor Lustick mentions “Israel’s place in a rapidly changing region” and “a radically new environment,” which presumably means the “Arab spring.” One thing I have been struck by is the lack of reflection by those in the pro-Palestinian camp of the consequences of what has happened across the Arab world since January 2011 on the whole Israel-Palestine question. In addition to the electoral victories of forces particularly hostile to Israel, i.e. Islamists, one has witnessed the region descending into total chaos: the future of Egypt, which is in a downward spiral, is bleak; the catastrophic situation in Syria will no doubt get worse (and with any outcome, no matter what, bad news for Israel: a reinforcement of Iranian influence or Islamists in power in Damascus); Lebanon—which is not a nation, never has been and never will be—could descend into internecine bloodletting (Shia vs. Sunni) in turn; Jordan is looking increasingly unstable; Iraq is in an open-ended civil war; who knows what’s going to happen in Saudi Arabia…

In other words, the Arab world is going to hell in a handbasket. And if the Palestinians had their own fully sovereign WB-Gaza state, there is no reason to think that it would not follow in the path of its neighbors (with Fatah and Hamas tearing each other apart). The two-state solution remains in the ultimate interest of all parties to the conflict but, with the “Arab spring,” there is no way that even a Labor-led Israeli government will allow for the creation of a Palestinian state that doesn’t carry ironclad security guarantees for Israel (and which will likely involve an IDF presence on the West Bank over a long transitional period). A Palestinian state is almost certain to see considerable limitations on its sovereignty. Not great for the Pals but if they really want a state—which is an open question—, that is sure to be the price.

One may get the impression from all this that I’m pro-Israel. Not at all. I just call it the way I see it.

UPDATE: I just read the commentary on Ian Lustick’s op-ed by Philip Weiss (here), on his sort of eponymous blog Mondoweiss. Weiss does the same thing as I, quoting Lustick and then commenting. I will leave it up to others to decide if Weiss is a stupid idiot or not. (September 17)

2nd UPDATE: Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar succinctly skewer Lustick’s piece (here) in TDB’s Open Zion blog. (September 17)

3rd UPDATE: Journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner dismantles Lustick (here) in The Jewish Journal. (September 18)

4th UPDATE: University of Houston prof David Mikics takes Lustick apart (here) in Tablet. Among other things, he cites a 2010 piece by Lustick in Forbes, on Israel and Hamas, that is prompting me to question the praise I heaped on him as social scientist. I need to think about this one. (September 18)

5th UPDATE: Journalist and editor Noam Sheizaf, addressing Lustick’s op-ed, has an excellent commentary in +972 magazine (here) arguing that the “Two state vs. one state debate is a waste of time [and] political energy.” Sheizaf is a sharp analyst. I linked to and discussed a similar article he wrote in +972 in March 2012 (here). (September 20)

6th UPDATE: Martin Kramer, writing in Commentary, takes Lustick to the woodshed (here). (September 24)

7th UPDATE: Yitzhak Laor of Haaretz has a column on “The left’s one-state colonialism,” in which Lustick’s op-ed is mentioned. The lede: “If there is a place where the left – its ranks who support the one-state solution – converges with the right, it is not in the image of a single state, but in the colonialist disregard of the Palestinian right to self-determination.” (September 30)

8th UPDATE: Engagé academics Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon—who are co-founders of the progressive Israeli think tank Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy—methodically rubbish Lustick’s piece on TDB’s Open Zion blog (here). Lustick responds to it and other Open Zion critiques here. Among other things, Lustick demonstrates once again that he does not understand the Franco-Algerian case. (October 2)

9th UPDATE: Emeritus professor Jerome Slater, writing on his ‘On the US and Israel’ blog, politely deconstructs Lustick’s piece (here). (October 8)

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out-in-the-dark

Following from my previous post on I-P, I want to mention this Israeli film seen recently (titre en France: ‘Alata’), that I would rate even higher than ‘The Attack‘. As it has a gay theme and is aimed at an LGBT audience, it hasn’t received as much attention as it should, which is too bad (it has only played at one cinema in Paris, in the gay friendly Marais). The film is centered on the relationship between a yuppie Tel Aviv lawyer, Roy (actor Michael Aloni), and a Palestinian M.A. student (in psychology) from Ramallah, Nimr, who is at Bir Zeit but has special authorization to pursue his studies at Tel Aviv U. (Nimr is played by the non-professional, previously unknown actor Nicholas Jacob, who is an Israeli-Palestinian/Italian from Haifa; I thought at first that his name was a pseudonym but it’s apparently for real). Jewish-Palestinian gay love is not an original theme (e.g. ‘The Bubble‘) and one I don’t find too interesting in itself, but the politics in the film are subtle and sophisticated. First, the homophobia and taboos in Palestinian society, causing gays there to flee to Tel Aviv, where they find acceptance in the city’s vibrant gay subculture but live in legal limbo, are coerced into informing for the Shit Bet, and can be deported illico—and to near certain violent death once back in the Palestinian territories—on the whim of the Shit Bet officer who has total power over their fate (and who does not risk being overruled by any political or judicial authority). There is no “pinkwashing” here, as director Michael Mayer explained in this YouTube interview (and which has excerpts of the pic). The cynicism and cruelty of the Israeli security apparatus is starkly on display in the film, as is that of the armed Palestinian gangs in the territories (such as depicted in the film)—and with the two perversely colluding when it comes to gays (and no doubt on other things as well). Secondly, the film starkly portrays the impossible situation in which Palestinian outcasts find themselves, be they Israeli collaborators—invariably coerced into it by the Shin Bet—or those who have violated prevailing cultural norms and/or sullied the family honor. There is no possible existence for them in their own society but they can’t live in Israel, where legal residence is almost never granted and they are not wanted in any case (the sequence where Roy takes Nimr to meet his otherwise liberal parents is right out of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’). And not having a state—and thus no universally recognized passport—, the option of emigration is complicated, when not impossible (holders of PA or refugee documents are invariably refused visas to most countries in the world, including the entire Arab world plus Turkey; the Schengen zone, the US, Canada, and Latin American states are their only hope). This is one of the better films I’ve seen in the way it depicts the tragedy of the I-P conflict as it affects Palestinians as individuals. Reviews were merely okay on the whole—this one was positive—, though the almost always reliable audience rating on Allociné gave it the thumbs way up (and when there’s a discrepancy between the critics and Allocine.fr audiences, always go with the latter). And the final scene will cause one to quietly shout out ‘Vive la France!’

Another Israeli film seen in recent months—also about love, sort of—was ‘Fill the Void’ (en France: ‘Le Cœur a ses raisons’), which is yet another cinematic portrayal of the us et coutumes of the ultra-Orthodox world (there have been several good ones over the years, e.g. ‘Kadosh‘, ‘My Father My Lord‘, ‘Eyes Wide Open‘, ‘God’s Neighbors‘). This one is particularly interesting in that the director, Rama Burshtein, is herself a Haredi convert, so knows the community from the inside. The film is almost an ethnography. I’ll let Haaretz journalist Vered Kellner describe it

Ha’aretz
‘Fill the Void’: A film that speaks Haredi, but with a secular accent

At long last Rama Burshtein’s movie provides an authentic picture of ultra-Orthodox society but it’s the director’s secular past, and not Haredi society’s silencing of women, which pushes her to express herself.

By Vered Kellner | Jun.03, 2013

While watching Rama Burshtein’s film “Fill the Void,” I thought of nothing. I just cried. I cried, I was startled, I was galvanized.

But only a few minutes after walking out of the film, which opened in New York theaters last weekend, a troubling thought occurred to me. Could the first film to come from deep within the ultra-Orthodox world, aspiring to be an authentic response to all the embarrassing and folkloristic portrayals of Haredim on the big screen, have come from anyone who hadn’t become observant as an adult, like director Rama Burshtein, but by a filmmaker who had been born and raised within the Haredi ghetto?

For those who may have missed the first incarnations of this saga, the most successful Israeli film of 2012, “Fill the Void” tells the story of Shira, a Haredi girl of 18, for whom it has come time to find a yeshiva student to marry who will be suited to her status and temperament. The plans get disrupted, however, when her sister dies in childbirth with her firstborn son, leaving behind a young widower and their baby.

Shira’s environment expects her to step into her late sister’s shoes and marry her brother-in-law, which throws her into the epicenter of an emotional and familial storm. This might sound a classic story for an uninhibited telenovella, but because it is taking place in the Haredi world, the audience is invited to dive into a sea of restrained emotions, beneath which effervesce impressive depths.

Among other things, this film’s achievement is that it provides us with an inside look at the Haredi world. There is none of the judgment or romanticizing that one usually finds in movies with Haredi characters, but observations born of honesty and complexity. And it works. Although the movie is full of love for its characters, plies us with Hassidic music and the modest Haredi aesthetic, and portrays the community’s solidarity admiringly, it doesn’t flee from dealing with the challenges posed by the Haredi way of life – for example, finding mates via matchmakers or the attitude toward older singles.

But even if the film provides a look from within, most of its audience is observing from without. And as one of those observers, it was hard for me not to wonder about the dissonance that exists in a movie written and directed by a woman that describes a society in which women’s voices are silenced. In the movie there are a few scenes in which the men are seen singing around a table or at a wedding (and they sing very melodiously), while the women are in an adjoining room or on the other side of the divider, looking on in silence. Behind the silence is a diluted memory of longing, restrained by years of being educated to be voiceless.

This is particularly obvious during a moving scene of Shira playing the accordion to help her nephew fall asleep, while his father listens. She’s forbidden to sing, but she can play. Her voice may be considered lewd, but her fingers on the accordion keys speak for her in a way that circumvents the restrictions of halacha, Jewish law. Perhaps, in the same way, directing this film was a halachic bypass road for Burshtein. She does not appear in the film, nor would she have, even if she was inclined to acting. Such a role would not be considered modest, according to her community. But her voice is heard via her instruments: The secular actors who are free to publicly express themselves.

Perhaps Burshtein can live peacefully with the silence that is imposed on Haredi women, because she has found a way to express herself, between the lines and within the limits. But is this mode of expression also available to women who are Haredi from birth? Would Burshtein have succeeded in harnessing all the necessary emotional strength to make a film if she hadn’t grown up in the secular world that pushed her to express herself? To create? Is it coincidence that the best films about Haredi society have been made by latecomers to observance (like Burshtein and Shuli Rand, who made “Ushpizin”), or by those who have abandoned observance, like David Volach (“My Father My Lord”)?

Kibbutz society has been caught up in a similar dissonance. For years it was nourished by revolutionaries who had abandoned the old world in which they’d grown up, and chose a life with sharp ideological boundaries. These new members had bountiful creativity and inspiration (for example, writers Natan Shaham and Amos Oz, or artist Moshe Kupferman), not least because they arrived at the kibbutz saturated with a rich culture that they chose to alienate themselves from.

But did something from their freedom of choice trickle down to the next generations, those who were born and matured under the indoctrination? Is it coincidental that the bursts of kibbutz creativity came from those who joined the kibbutz out of choice, or those who left it in anger or simply lack of interest (like Meir Ariel, Ayin Hillel, and Matti Caspi)?

It seems as if what spurs significant creative work in closed societies is the tension and friction between them and the outside world. Whether it’s by those who recently entered, or by those who have recently left, the road to serious creativity seems to pass through the space between the two worlds. The essence of inspiration is derived from this tension.

That’s what Burshtein has done in “Fill the Void.” That is its power. And what it means is that the first movie to speak “Haredi” fluently, the film that finally provides audiences with an authentic picture of Haredi society, is in fact a bilingual film – or one that speaks with one fused voice – Haredi and secular at the same time. It draws from both worlds, merging secular sensibilities together with a Haredi viewpoint more accustomed to condemning that secular world’s frames of reference.

US reviews are very positive, French reviews generally so. A highbrow, hard-to-please stateside cinephile friend thought it excellent. I was a little less bowled over but will definitely give it the thumbs up. If you’re looking for an ethnography of the Israeli Haredim, this is it.

למלא_את_החלל

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Image Credit: David Klein

Image Credit: David Klein

Italian Middle East scholar Lorenzo Kamel has a good, on target commentary by this title in Al-Monitor. Absolutely worth reading. He begins it with mention of his meeting three years ago with Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian Authority’s new Prime Minister, who

appeared to me as a statesman with a clear vision and a strong sense of purpose…. While fully supporting the self-determination of his people, Hamdallah stressed that discussing the one or two-states solution is risky, because it can de-focus the attention from the real priority: Palestinian rights and equality of treatment. Furthermore, the then-president of An-Najah University pointed out that a sustainable peace could not be achieved without deliberately engaging local women: This, he claimed, was the reason why most of their students (56% in 2010) were women. Finally, Hamdallah noted that only a nonviolent grass-roots struggle had the potential to achieve change instead of only shaking the status quo: A standpoint that mirrors Erich Fromm’s approach. Human beings, the German social psychologist wrote, have “continued to evolve by acts of disobedience.”

After that meeting I further realized that the endless debate over what Tony Judt defined as “the only real alternative” — a single, binational state — to the two-state solution was (and is) an empty and counterproductive exercise.

Très bien. I entirely agree.

Kamel, pour l’info, is a visiting fellow at Harvard, has an M.A. from the Hebrew University in Israel studies, and has been a visiting fellow at Birzeit. So he knows all sides of the question. Among his other articles is one from Nov. ’11 in +972, “Colonizing the West Bank in the name of security and religion.”

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Richard Falk

I just came across this interview that Richard Falk, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories—and Princeton emeritus professor of international law—, gave this past May 31st to 9/11 Truther and anti-Semite Kevin Barrett, host of “Truth Jihad Radio,” which appears to be a program on a flaky, obscure network called American Freedom Radio. I’ve already said it once on this blog and will say it again: Professor Falk is a nutcase and a whack job whose UNHRC position discredits the already discredited UNHRC. This interview with the crackpot Kevin Barrett—a man with whom Falk is manifestly on the same political wavelength—, discredits Falk even further (if such is possible). Let me state it categorically: Falk needs to be fired from the UNHRC. Immediately! Ambassador-to-be Samantha Power will do well to make an issue of this upon assuming her responsibilities.

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The Attack

lattentat

[update below] [2nd update below]

Following from my previous post, on ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, I need to mention this film I saw ten days ago. It was the indirect subject of my post early last month on an idiot Lebanese blogger in California who trashed the film, directed by his compatriot Ziad Doueiri, though without having seen it. Quel con. I said that I’d see it on the day it opened in France (which I did) and would write about right away (which I didn’t). It’s good. Riveting, complex, well-acted and, while not totally flawless, well-done overall. The film is based on Yasmina Khadra’s 2005 novel L’Attentat, about a prominent, highly regarded Palestinian surgeon in Tel Aviv, Amin Jaafari (played by Ali Suliman), whose wife blows herself up in a Tel Aviv restaurant, killing several people, children included. Jaafari suspected nothing of his wife, refused to believe she had anything to do with the attack at first, but had to face the incontrovertible facts. Losing his Jewish friends and status at work, he set out to find out what happened, of how his wife, who had given no hint of such militancy, could do such a thing, and which took him to his family’s home in Nablus, where he hadn’t been in years (the Muslim-Christian thing got a little confused here, as he was Muslim but his wife Christian, and who was supposed to be from Nazareth). I wasn’t entirely convinced by the idyll of the way he depicted his relationship with her but thought the politics of the film were good, in terms of the way the reactions of the Jews and Palestinians were portrayed after the terror attack. And shooting everything on location—in Tel Aviv and Nablus—was effective.

As for the brouhaha over the film—of its banning in Lebanon and condemnation by the Arab League for violating the Israel boycott—, it was much ado about nothing IMO, as I can’t imagine that any cinema in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world would touch it with a ten foot pole, official ukase or no. Doueiri may be Lebanese—though with an American passport, enabling him to travel to Israel—but it has the feel of an Israeli film: with Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian actors and mainly in Hebrew. And IMO, the Palestinians, politically speaking, come across rather less well than do the Israelis. If I were 100% committed to the Palestinian position, the film would make me uncomfortable I would think. In an interview in Le Monde, Doueiri—who called the making of the film “la plus grosse galère de ma vie” (the biggest pain in the ass of my life)—said that the Qatari minister of tourism, in explaining why the Qatari producers did not want to be mentioned in the credits, told him

“Ton film place sur un pied d’égalité le point de vue des Arabes et des Israéliens. Cela nous pose un problème. Nos faits et gestes sont scrutés par Al-Jazira. Nous sommes impliqués dans toutes les révolutions arabes. Ici même, au Qatar, les islamistes guettent. Tu vois l’arbre, nous voyons la forêt.”

But then, a couple of Lebanese and Syrian FB friends in Paris—who do not exactly have tender feelings toward Israel—said that they liked it. So this looks to be one of those films that may be interpreted in varying ways. I’ll look forward to more reactions from people from the region—who really should see it and form their own judgment.

As for the reax in Paris, both critics and Allociné spectators have given it the thumbs way up.

UPDATE: NYT Magazine staff writer Robert F. Worth discusses ‘The Attack’ in an article just up (June 14), in which he asks “Can we imagine the life of a terrorist?

2nd UPDATE: Also in the NYT Magazine is an article on “The effort to stop ‘The Attack’” (from being screened in Lebanon and the Arab world).

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Gellhorn42-single-BGv1

Related to my previous post, I was looking at the website of the engagé Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook, who does not have warm sentiments toward Israel or the Zionist enterprise, to put it mildly. One learns on the site, entre autres, that Cook was the happy laureate of The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2011. Martha Gellhorn was one of the great war correspondents of the 20th century—and quite certainly the greatest female one—, was an all-around exceptional woman and who had an exceptional life (so much so that she has been the subject of some six biographies). For a journalist to receive the prize that carries her name thus signifies real recognition of his or her work.

Looking at the names of other Gellhorn prize laureates, one sees those of various Arab journalists, plus the venerable Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, all of whom are known or presumptive supporters of the Palestinian cause—and some (like Cook) ardently so. I find this interesting and ironic, as I wonder if they are aware—no, they must be—that Martha Gellhorn was a strong supporter of Israel and “felt no blanket empathy for the Palestinian refugees” (her words). In the October 1961 Atlantic Monthly, Gellhorn published a lengthy article (17,500 words) on “The Arabs of Palestine,” following a reporting trip to Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and Israel,

to see the ‘Palestinian Refugee Problem’ in terms of real life, real people…[to report on] how the Arab refugees and the Arab Israelis live, and what they say about themselves, their past and their future.

It’s quite a reportage (I read it several years ago). As suggested above, Gellhorn came away from the experience—during which she visited a number of UNRWA camps—with a severe assessment of the Palestinians on the political level. Among other things, she considered those in the UNRWA camps to be rather well off given the circumstances. In this, Gellhorn was no doubt comparing their situation to that of the refugees and displaced persons in Europe at the end of WWII, to which she had been a witness. Compared to the Holocaust, to the plight of the 12 million German Vertriebenen (expellees), and the privations of life in general for the populations of immediate postwar Europe, what happened to the Palestinians three years later—though tragic for individuals, but in a conflict in which, politically speaking, they were not passive victims—was simply not that major of an affair in the larger scheme of things (and, pour mémoire, the 1948 war followed by less than a year the partition of India, which displaced over 12 million people and with up to a million losing their lives). And the Palestinian refugees were prise en charge by the United Nations to a considerably greater extent that were the WWII refugees and DPs (and there was no international help at all for the refugees in the Asian subcontinent).

That was Gellhorn’s implicit comparative framework. Given what she had seen in the course of her reporting career, one can understand it.  In any case, her Atlantic Monthly report makes for interesting reading even 52 years after its publication. I’m curious to know what J.Cook and other Gellhorn prize winners make of it (assuming they’ve read it). Just asking.

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090927-unrwa-logo

JPost commentator Yoni Dayan has an op-ed on Ynet on UNRWA and the disproportionate amount of aid that has been given to Palestinians compared to refugees from elsewhere over the past six-plus decades. Dayan considers the relatively privileged position of Palestinian refugees—and now descendants of refugees, which is what the vast majority are—to be an anomaly and that should not continue. He makes a number of sensible proposals to modify the situation, one being the dismantling of UNRWA and merging its functions with the UNHCR. I largely agree with what he has to say and challenge anyone who disagrees to explicitly state why.

Dayan’s op-ed does contain one error, where he writes that “the United Nations split the existing global refugee agency to create a special organization tasked with caring only for Palestinian refugees.” UNRWA’s creation in fact preceded that of the UNHCR and at a time when the emerging international refugee regime only concerned refugees in Europe. So a specialized agency for the Palestinians was logical at that historical moment. As to whether it remained logical after—and particularly to this day—is another matter.

If UNRWA is to be phased out and with its functions taken over by the UNHCR—and which should happen—there will need to be a lengthy transition period—of maybe ten years—, to give time for the resolution of some delicate issues, notably of the Palestinians in Lebanon (who are in an impossible, inextricable situation). But as the Palestinian refugee problem, such as it is posited today, is insoluble and destined to continue for generations to come, one cannot expect the member states of the UN to continue funding such an agency indefinitely. Sooner or later the US Congress will make an issue of it and take the matter in hand, one may bet on that.

unwra-ref-camps2003

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Photo credit: David Bachar

Photo credit: David Bachar

[mise à jour en français ci-dessous]

A.B. Yehoshua has a useful op-ed in Haaretz on defining Zionism (I already know what it is but many out there do not, including those who freely toss the word around). The lede:

Given the ways in which the word ‘Zionism’ is thrown around both in Israel and outside of it, and the vast permutations it’s gone through over the past decades, perhaps it’s time we try to define it realistically.

Voilà the full text, with key passages highlighted by me

“Zionist” is a concept that’s basically simple, clear, easy to define and understand, and there should be no difficulty defending its definition. But over the past 20 to 30 years, this simple concept has turned into one of the most confused and complicated notions of identity, and its overuse has made it impossible to agree on what it means.

The right likes to use it as a type of whipped cream to improve the taste of dubious dishes, while the left treats it with fear, as if it were a mine liable to explode in its hands − which is why it always feels the need to neutralize it with (more…)

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Naftali Bennett

In September ’11 I had a post on hecklers, in which I expressed my loathing of them. I hate hecklers. Except in certain circumstances, when I like them. À propos, The Times of Israel has an op-ed by Joshua Leifer, a late teen American on a gap year in Israel, explaining why he interrupted—in effect, heckled—a speech by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s up-and-coming far right politician and cabinet member. As Leifer explains

I interrupted Naftali Bennett’s speech because I could not allow him to pass off his fully fleshed-out plan for apartheid as a seemingly benign blueprint for stability. I could not sit idly while MASA Israel hid his insidious intentions to disenfranchise millions [of Palestinians] behind the smiling apolitical façade of the end of the year event. I could not watch as the organizers of the event portrayed his colonialist, jingoistic, and racist ideology as a mainstream political position.

The event was not a public talk but an event organized by MASA Israel for young non-Israeli Jews in the country

MASA Israel, without providing an alternative voice or giving context to Bennett’s role in the continuing occupation, shamelessly promoted Bennett as the event’s central speaker. His time as Director of the Yesha Council was listed on the invitation, which was sent out to thousands of diaspora Jews on gap years and study abroad programs, without any mention that the Yesha Council is the organization of settlements in the West Bank. He was introduced as leader of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) political party without any allusion to its political orientation. MASA Israel had planned for Bennett to simply ascend to the stage as any other leader, without any mention of the nature of his political commitments.

Bennett represents a dangerous combination of the entrepreneurial, problem-solving ethos of neoliberalism with a totalitarian disregard for civil rights. Failing to bring this to the attention of the hundreds if not thousands of MASA participants who attended the event would have constituted a moral failure. And as someone deeply concerned with the ethical character of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, I felt obligated to speak out in any way I could – not just to voice my opinion, but to finally get the conversation going.

The heckling could be justified here, as this was not a public event for adults but one targeted at a young, presumably impressionable audience, with an extremist politician—likely unknown to most of those attending—receiving top billing and no one there to contradict him. So good job, Joshua!

BTW, I’ve given talks to gap students—American kids just graduated from high school, and who have been admitted to top universities—on several occasions at one of the places I teach. They’re the brightest, most impressive group of 18-19 year-olds one will meet. Joshua Leifer would definitely be among them (take a look at his blog). Students like these make teaching a pleasure.

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rockbakasba

This is a new Israeli film, set in Gaza during the first Intifada (precisely in 1989) and depicting the interface between a fireteam of four IDF soldiers and the local population in a densely populated neighborhood. On the odd title (as there is no casbah in Gaza), it indeed comes from The Clash’s hit song, which the soldiers hear on the radio and adopt as their motto. I did not have high expectations for the pic in view of some of the reviews: Le Monde panned it and the Hollywood press was hardly less tender, saying that we’ve seen it all before—of Israeli soldiers amidst hostile Palestinians, that the soldiers were stock characters seen in countless war movies, etc etc. All true. But… I thought that it was not a bad film for what it was and that its reenacting the dynamics of occupation on the ground at the time (and after)—and of the utter futility of the occupation more generally—was dead on accurate (what a masterstroke Oslo was for the Israelis, allowing them to continue the occupation but leaving the policing of the urban population to the PA). On films on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I am particularly vigilant in detecting goofs, clichés, implausibilities, factual errors, and other distortions. But there weren’t problems in this one (the pic was shot in Arab locales in Israel, mainly in coastal Jisr al-Zarqa). And I was sufficiently involved in the story. So it gets the thumbs up. And it did win an award at the Berlin Film Festival in February, so I’m not alone in my positive assessment.

The pic’s director, Yariv Horowitz, got caught up in an incident in France a couple of months ago that set Israeli and right-wing Jewish websites on fire for 48 hours, and that I reported on. The incident was labeled as “anti-Semitic” but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Such has happened on numerous occasions in France over the past decade. There’s been a lot of wolf crying over anti-Semitism in regards to this country. And do the wolf criers ever apologize or acknowledge their error when it is revealed that the incident they cried about had nothing to do with anti-Semitism? Hah!

I’ve seen a couple of other films of late on the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One was the ‘Inch’Allah’ (French spelling of inshallah)—again, odd title—, by the Canadian (Quebec) director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, about a young Québécoise medical doctor, played by Evelyne Brochu, who works in a clinic in Ramallah but lives in West Jerusalem, thus finding herself figuratively caught in the middle between the two conflicting parties. This one also won a prize at the Berlinale in February, though I thought it wasn’t too original a film. My reaction at the end of it was bof. This review gets it about right. The lead blogger at the PAC (Palestinian Amen Corner) website Mondoweiss, however, had a post on the pic with the banner headline “Wrenching drama about the occupation, ‘Inch’Allah,’ has been consigned to ‘film festival purgatory’,” in which he linked to a piece by Scott McConnell of Patrick Buchanan’s TAC, who, calling it “a gripping movie”, asserted that

More than any movie I’ve seen, “Inch’Allah” conveys the something of the feel of Palestinian life, sarcastic and bitter in the younger generations, old-fashioned in the older ones, trying cope under a system of domination and control far more sophisticated than anything South Africans could dream up.

Oh please. All I can say is that neither of these guys has seen many films on the I-P conflict.

One film that may be avoided is Eran Riklis’s ‘Zaytoun’ (the Hebrew title translates as “to stay alive”). One would have normally had high hopes for this in view of Riklis’s absolutely excellent 2004 ‘The Syrian Bride’ and 2008 ‘Lemon Tree’. Now Riklis has been on a downward slide since these two but one would still not expect a navet from him. But that is precisely what this one is. The story: set in May 1982 an IDF pilot overflying Beirut in his F-16 or whatever is shot down by a small firearm from a Palestinian fighter in the Shatila refugee camp, parachutes out and lands precisely in the camp, where he is taken prisoner. While in his cell—where he is guarded by teenagers and even children (no joke)—the pilot, oddly played by the not-too-good American actor Stephen Dorff, manages to coax his 13 year-old guardian—played by Israeli Palestinian actor Abdallah El Akal (who’s also in ‘Rock the Casbah’)—, to release him from the cell, so he can make his way back to Israel. The boy—whose parents are dead—does so, as he wants to accompany him, to return to Palestine and his family home from 1948, whose every square inch he knows from family lore. So the two make their way together through south Lebanon—on taxi, truck, and foot—, running the gauntlet of Syrian and PLO checkpoints and while being hotly pursued, but miraculously making it to the safety of the UN base on the border, and just as the June ’82 invasion is beginning. Along the way they naturally forge a bond, with the pilot developing paternal sentiments for the boy. Once in Israel, the pilot decides to take the boy to his ancestral home in the upper Galilee. Arriving in the general area of now the extinct village the pilot doesn’t know where to go but the boy, who knows it like the back of his hand—even though he’s never been there—, directs him. And they of course find it, with the empty home intact, the key in its hiding place—the boy naturally knows where to look—, and all. The Palestinian narrative.

I won’t say what happens after (no spoilers) except that the whole thing was just so preposterous and ridiculous, unlikely and not credible, poorly acted, and drenched in bons sentiments. In other words, the film was a dud, from the opening scene—of Sabra-Shatila kids strolling back and forth across the Beirut Green Line (yeah, sure)—to the tear-jerking end. French reviews were mixed, with Le Monde panning it. On this one, Le Monde got it right.

Inch-Allah-affiche

להישאר בחיים

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israel-palestine

It’s a ridiculous, nonsensical notion, as the grand old man of the Israeli left reminds us—and not for the first time—in his latest column (I addressed the issue myself here a couple of years ago). The lede

“THE TWO-STATE solution is dead!” This mantra has been repeated so often lately, by so many authoritative commentators, that it must be true.

Well, it ain‘t.

And he explains why. Along the way he addresses the inevitable South Africa parallel

THE ONE-STATERS like to base themselves on the South African experience. For them, Israel is an apartheid state, like the former South Africa, and therefore the solution must be South African-like.
The situation in the occupied territories, and to some extent in Israel proper, does indeed strongly resemble the apartheid regime. The apartheid example may be justly cited in political debate. But in reality, there is very little deeper resemblance – if any – between the two countries.

David Ben-Gurion once gave the South African leaders a piece of advice: partition. Concentrate the white population in the south, in the Cape region, and cede the other parts of the country to the blacks. Both sides in South Africa rejected this idea furiously, because both sides believed in a single, united country.

They largely spoke the same languages, adhered to the same religion, were integrated in the same economy. The fight was about the master-slave relationship, with a small minority lording it over a massive majority.

Nothing of this is true in our country. Here we have two different nations, two populations of nearly equal size, two languages, two (or rather, three) religions, two cultures, two totally different economies.

He makes one obvious point that BDSers tend to ignore

A false proposition leads to false conclusions. One of them is that Israel, like Apartheid South Africa, can be brought to its knees by an international boycott. About South Africa, this is a patronizing imperialist illusion. The boycott, moral and important as it was, did not do the job. It was the Africans themselves, aided by some local white idealists, who did it by their courageous strikes and uprisings.

I have more to say about the BDS movement, which will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Avnery concludes with a series of rhetorical questions

ASSUMING FOR a moment that the one-state solution would really come about, how would it function?

Will Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs serve in the same army, pay the same taxes, obey the same laws, work together in the same political parties? Will there be social intercourse between them? Or will the state sink into an interminable civil war?

And makes an obvious point

Other peoples have found it impossible to live together in one state. Take the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia. Serbia. Czechoslovakia. Cyprus. Sudan. The Scots want to secede from the United Kingdom. So do the Basques and the Catalans from Spain. The French in Canada and the Flemish in Belgium are uneasy. As far as I know, nowhere in the entire world have two different peoples agreed to form a joint state for decades.

NO, THE two-state solution is not dead. It cannot die, because it is the only solution there is.

Obviously. Read the whole piece here.

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stephen hawking

My FB newsfeed has been inundated over the past couple of days with links and commentary—almost all of it favorable—of renowned scientist Stephen Hawking’s announced participation in the academic boycott of Israel. In response, Israeli academician Carlo Strenger has written, on his Haaretz blog, “An open letter to Stephen Hawking“. Here it is

Dear Professor Hawking,

There are many reasons why you are considered one of the world’s leading scientists. As you know very well, one reason for your achievement is the ability to keep a mind of your own and to refuse caving in to pressure by the mainstream. Innovation is only possible if you are immune to such pressure.

Given my respect for your achievement I am surprised and saddened by your decision, reported today by The Guardian that you have cancelled your participation at this year’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, and that you have joined those who call for an academic boycott of Israel. I would have expected a man of your standing and achievement not to be influenced by the pressure that was reportedly exerted on you to cancel your visit in Israel.

Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.

This being said, I have always found it morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible that many British academics have been calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This call is based on a moral double standard that I would not expect from a community whose mission it is to maintain intellectual integrity.

Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.

But let me go one step further: Israel is accused of detaining Palestinians without trial for years. So is the USA, which, as you very well know, to this day has not closed Guantanamo Bay. Israel is accused of targeted killings of Palestinians suspected or known to be involved in terrorist acts. As is reported worldwide, the United States has been practicing targeted assassinations of terror suspects in many countries for years.

The question whether these detentions and targeted assassinations can be justified is weighty, and there are no simple answers. Personally I think that even in a war against terror democracies must make every conceivable effort to maintain the rule of law and avoid human rights violations.

Yet let us not forget that both Israel and the United States are in difficult situations. Israel was on the verge of a peace agreement with the Palestinian people when the second Intifada broke out. Daily Israelis were shredded into pieces by suicide bombings, and it is very difficult for Israeli politicians to convince Israelis to take risks for peace. The U.S. is still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. It has occupied two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade since. I happen to think that it was wrong to attack Iraq, in the same way that I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is wrong.

Professor Hawking: how can you and your colleagues who argue for an academic boycott of Israel justify your double standard by singling out Israel? You are simply denying that Israel has been under existential threat for most of its existence. To this day Hamas, one of the two major parties in Palestine, calls for Israel’s destruction, and its charter employs the vilest anti-Semitic language. To this day hardly a week goes by in which Iran and its proxy Hezbollah do not threaten to obliterate Israel, even though they have no direct conflict with Israel about anything.

Singling Israel out for academic boycott is, I believe, a case of profound hypocrisy. It is a way to ventilate outrage about the world’s injustices where the cost is low. I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.

In addition to the hypocrisy, singling out Israel’s academia is pragmatically unwise, to put it mildly. Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook, and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades. But once again, British academics choose the easiest target to vent their rage in a way that does not contribute anything constructive to the Palestinian cause they support.

Israel, like any other country, can be criticized. But such criticism should not be based on shrill moralism and simplistic binary thinking – something I do not expect from academics. The real world is, unfortunately a messy, difficult place. Novelist Ian McEwan is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It’s not great if everyone stops talking” when he was criticized for coming to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011.

He certainly has a point. Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.

Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.

If your cancelation was indeed a function of pressures and not from health reasons, as stated by your university following The Guardian’s report, I would respect it if you were to reconsider your decision and come to the President’s Conference.

Sincerely,

Carlo Strenger

Very good. With some light editing here and there I could have signed it myself.

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angryarab1

I just read something that put me in a bad mood, indeed almost made me angry—though not as angry as the idiot who has put me in the bad mood. France 24 reporter (and personal friend) Leela Jacinto has a blog post on Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s new film, ‘The Attack’, which has been banned in Lebanon, as Doueiri—who holds a French passport—shot part of it in Israel. In her post, Leela discreetly hyperlinked to a critique of Doueiri’s film, which I happened to click on, and which turned out to be from a blog well-known in the academic MENA milieu. The blogger in question is an idiot, so much of one that I will not sully AWAV by mentioning his name, except to say that he is a fellow academic political scientist, hails from south Lebanon, did his studies at AUB and Georgetown, and teaches in the California State University system (for his tronche, see above image). Here is what he wrote about Doueiri’s film on his blog the other day

Ziad Doueiri: prostration at the feet of Zionists

This Lebanese filmmaker (I have not seen any of his films and won’t see any of his films) has a new silly film about a silly love story based on a silly plot by Yasmina Khadra (the latter told Haaretz in an interview that both Arabs and Israelis are mere victims and that the only culprit is the US and its love for Israel, which is bad for Israel).  He shot the film in Israel and used Israeli actors.  The dumb filmmaker (he really is very dumb, please see any of his interviews on youtube) said that he could not hire Arabs to play Israelis because that would not be proper.  The dumb filmmaker does not know that we know that he worked on the silly Showtime series, Sleeper Cell (which contained the typical stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims and where the only good Muslim is an FBI agent, while the rest are all terrorists) hired an Israeli actor to play the main Arab (terrorist of course) role in the series.  He had no objection at the time.  It is shameful that the Lebanese state did not apply the law against Doueiri who is now rushing to Zionist media to claim that he is a victim of anti-Israel repression in Arab society.  That claim always leads to awards in the West, especially for those without talent.  Hell, any Arab or Muslim in the West can write a silly story about love between an Arab and an Israeli, and he/she would surely win Oscars, Nobel, and Pulitzer at the same time.  And since this silly director is obsessed with awards and represents all that I mock about Lebanonese [sic] culture (he in fact claimed in an interview with BBC Arabic that “the president of Oscars” called him and told him to apply and told him that he has a good shot at winning.  Kid you not), he should get the award for prostration before Zionists.  You now can figure out what type of a person we are talking about.   Look what he told this Israeli paper:  ““I hated Israel’s guts during the 1982 war and the 2006 war, but I have done my questioning too. I’ve changed.””  So this buffoon has changed although Israel has not changed.  He is willing to change some more in return for more Western awards from the Zionist white man.

What idiotic drivel. This idiot blogger, pour mémoire, has a Ph.D. in political science from a major American university. For someone with such credentials to engage in such asinine commentary on a film he has not seen—and by a director he refuses to see (and for what possible reason?)—is intellectually beneath contempt. He is intellectually depraved—though the intellectual depravity of the academic blogger in question has been known for many years, demonstrated daily on his delirious, unhinged blog. To get an idea of what a nutbag crackpot idiot he is, just take a look at the blog (no link, as it is well known; better known than mine, that’s for sure; though its regular readers, judging by the comments thread—which I followed a number of years ago—, are not academics, loin s’en faut).

Now the nutbag crackpot blogger is not stupid. He is actually rather smart. Really: one may be both smart and insane. As it happens, we both published chapters in an edited book two decades ago, and which the editor of the book told me at the time were the book’s best chapters. Anecdote: a fellow (Israeli) MENA academic recounted to me that he once participated in a Washington conference with the nutbag crackpot, who was flown to DC to give a talk. There were DOS and CIA people in attendance—and Israelis too—, whom the crackpot blogger academic regards as the enemy. But he was oh so polite, soft spoken, and serious (he was being paid for his services, of course, and is no doubt bien élevé on the personal level). Sort of like the schizophrenic drunks in Bryant Park in the pre-Giuliani era, who would rant and rave in public but, upon entering the NY Public Library next door to use the facilities, knew to behave themselves. Once back in the California central valley, one may assume the crackpot idiot academic blogger recommenced his ranting-and-raving against the DOS, CIA, and, of course, Israel. Voilà l’intégrité intellectuel! At the risk of sounding like a nutbag myself, I will end this here. One gets the idea.

In any case, ‘The Attack’ opens in Paris on May 29th. I will see it that day and review it illico.

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