Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gilad Shalit

I have avoided writing about Gilad Shalit for some time, mostly because my thoughts about his situation are jumbled.  However, thanks to the urging and support of some friends, here are these thoughts in all their gory glory.

Before we get started, a little background information. Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was captured on June 25, 2006 on Israeli soil and has been held in Gaza by Hamas since then.  He was 20 years old upon his capture and is now 23.

Hamas has not allowed international aid groups to visit him although they did release a video of Shalit this October in exchange for 20 female Palestinian detainees.  Recent negotiations may result in the release of as many as 1,000 Palestinian detainees in exchange for Shalit's release.

The internal Israeli debate over the merits of the potential exchange is intense and incredibly emotional.  This is one aspect of the conflict that is, in my opinion, not fully understood in the US.  Then again, I am not sure it is possible for Americans to truly understand the emotional complexity of these issues since we lack direct experience.

For example, the US has a firm policy regarding terrorism; we do not negotiate with terrorists.  Every American knows this if only from movies and TV shows.  In a vacuum, this is the optimal policy.  As one can see, paying ransoms, whether in the form of prisoners or money, simply begets more kidnapping.  However, American military service is not analogous to Israeli military service because the US has a volunteer army and Israel does not.

The moral and morale calculus radically shifts when a nation's soldiers are not volunteers.  American soldiers all signed up for service knowing that the US would not negotiate with, say, al Qaeda for their release if they were captured.  However, Israeli soldiers are drafted.  There are real, tangible negative consequences if one refuses military service and, consequently, benefits if one does serve.

There are good reasons why Israel chooses to use the coercive power of the state to push people toward military service.  But the fact remains that coercion is necessary.  The state has, by extension, greater responsibility to ensure their safety.

Everyone in Israel agrees that Gilad Shalit must return home.  The argument is about the cost.  Hundreds of the 1,000 Palestinian detainees named in the exchange already have Israeli blood on their hands.  They have directly participated in killing Israelis either through planning or violent action.  Thus, some have concluded that the release of such people would only lead to the death and/or capture of even more Israelis, making the entire exchange a colossal risk with no upside and a huge downside.  In their eyes, the cost is too great.

But Gilad Shalit is more than a single Israeli soldier.  He is not merely the son of Mr. and Mrs. Shalit.  He is, in a way, everyone's son.  All Israeli parents know that he could be their child.  And if you were Gilad Shalit's parents, wouldn't you give up anything to get him back?

In purely pragmatic terms, it may also be important to troop morale for the IDF to secure Shalit's freedom.  There are many Israeli soldiers who serve out of a sense of duty or obligation and nothing more.  If given a choice, they certainly would not be soldiers.  In exchange for this service, the IDF promises that it will do anything possible to make sure no soldier is left behind.

If the IDF reneges on this promise, then morale may be compromised.  Non-service, already a problem, may increase.  So to prevent further erosion of popular support and troop morale, any price is worth paying.

To be honest, I did not understand the visceral nature of this dilemma until very recently.  It seemed like a fairly obvious decision from my detached American point of view.  No negotiating with terrorists, period, end of story.  1,000 detainees for one guy?  Um, are you kidding?

But as I heard Israelis debate the issue, my certainty gave way to doubt and, as I write, a sense of tearing, of being torn in two directions.  It is not necessarily a separation of heart and mind.  My mind and heart are truthfully divided neatly in two, with half of my heart siding with one side of my mind against the other halves.  Do you let a young man go through a certain future of captivity and pain, or do you potentially condemn others to die in his place?

In some situations, distance gives perspective.  But such decisions are not made by objective observers, blessed with emotional distance.  They are made by those in the swirl, buffeted by tides of pain and passion and fear and love.  It is so easy for those with little lose to give sage advice preaching patience and fortitude and calm resolve, to warn against giving in to anger.  But it is far harder to follow that path when it is you who could lose everything.

This is why I have avoided writing about Gilad Shalit.  My thoughts are drowned out by my frustration.  Frustration that we live in a world where such choices must be made.  Frustration that so few outside of Israel understand how difficult these decisions truly are.  Frustration that I can be nothing more than frustrated.

So there you go.  I hope this sparks some conversation in the United States and perhaps, help some of you understand this situation a little better.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Magic: The Gathering, Baseball, and the Dynamics of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

One of my passions is gaming, a hobby that is useless at first glance.  But as I've gotten older (and perhaps more delusional), some of the ideas found within games apply to greater issues.  This particular post is going to deal with a couple truisms, the first oft-repeated in Magic: The Gathering circles.  It goes like this: "There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers."

For those who don't know what Magic: The Gathering is, it is a collectible card game (CCG) in which two or more players are magicians fighting for dominance.  They use decks of spells to fight each other, with the goal of either exhausting the other player's deck completely or, more commonly, reducing the opponent's life total to zero.

There are many ways to achieve this goal, but only two apply to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The first is an aggressive strategy, where a player normally uses cheap spells to overwhelm the opponent's defenses and win before slower decks can establish dominance.  The second is a control strategy, where a player tries to answer the opponent's early threats to get to the late game, when the control player normally has a few powerful but expensive spells that end the game.

Right now, I would classify Israel as the control player and the Arab actors as the aggressive player.  Israel is a nation-state that has been fighting for its existence since its inception.  Its stance is overwhelming defensive; Israel tries to identify threats and neutralize them while essentially eschewing truly aggressive strategies.

The Arab actors thrust themselves into the aggressive role with the invasion of Israel in 1947 and have continued to present new threats.  These threats ranged from the conventional (1967 War) to the unconventional (suicide bombings).  Most recently, they have launched public relations salvos aimed to erode Israel's standing in the world community and thus, the legitimacy of its ability to bring military force to bear.

Israel has, to this point, found the right answers to the existential threats presented.  The IDF is one of the strongest, most resilient fighting forces in the world and has delivered a string of decisive military victories against superior forces.

However, to bring in another of my favorite sayings, this time from baseball, "Past performance is no guarantee of future success."  The IDF is fantastically well-equipped to deal with conventional military conflicts.  On the way back from a trip to the north this week, we drove by a tank exercise.  Dozens of tanks stood in formation on a field.  It was an intimidating sight and not something any conventional army would want to see across the battlefield.

But this only highlights that the threat profile has changed and formerly effective answers may no longer be relevant.  Few, if any, of the battles Israel will face in the next ten years will take place on an open field.  Tanks, while wonderful blunt force instruments, are little use in urban settings where civilian casualties must be minimized.  Those tanks may serve as a deterrent to aggression by Israel's neighbors but do little to stop rocket fire coming from Gaza.

If this were a game of Magic: The Gathering, Israel would have already won.  They found the answers to their opponents' early threats, established a dominant position, and have the overwhelming force necessary to destroy their opposition (for the Magic players out there, a few quick swings by a Morphling or Baneslayer Angel would be an appropriate analogue).  If this were a baseball game, it would 25-0 and the fans would already be heading for the exits.

But this isn't a game where the goal is to kill your enemy at all costs, morality and consequences be damned, or one that ends after a set number of innings.  Israel cannot, for a variety of good reasons, commit genocide to ensure its safety, nor can it simply hold on until it gets 27 outs.  Instead, Israel must try to maintain its position while dealing with the new threats its opponent poses.  Israel spends a huge amount of human and economic capital on maintaining control, costs that take their toll on Israeli society.  Yet these costs must be paid because the next threat, the one they cannot answer, may destroy everything for which they have worked.

By comparison, organizations like Hamas have little to lose.  If one threat fails, they find another.  And if that fails, well, they just keep plugging away.  All of these threats are relatively cheap and force their opponent to spend a large amount of resources to find solutions.  One example I mentioned in a previous post is the Qassam rocket fire aimed at Sderot.  Each Qassam is easy to make, sometimes composed from aid materials and thus incredibly cheap, and capable of inflicting fear and death.  To deal with this persistent threat, Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on bomb shelters while incurring economic losses due to mental health issues and infrastructure damage, to name a few.

I do admit that I find Israeli paranoia problematic, especially since it complicates the peace process and leads to the occasional police harassment I have encountered.  However, this paranoia stems, in part, from a gut understanding of two old truisms: There are no wrong threats, only wrong answers, and past performance is no guarantee of future success.  Just because Israel has always found the answers before does not mean they will always do so in the future.  And one stumble could lead to the end.

Or, to stretch my metaphors to the absolute edge of breaking, they are stuck in a baseball game that does not end until both teams decide to call it a day.  And we all know how that turns out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Hiking in Ein Gedi

Last Shabbat was the best two days I've had in Israel so far.  Shira, Anna, Ross, and I took a hiking trip to Ein Gedi or the area just west of the Dead Sea.  We left Friday morning, hopped on a bus, and arrived in the middle of the desert.  We had a vague idea of what we wanted to do but like all trips, things changed once we got there. Our original plan of camping in the mountains was impossible due to the winter's early nightfall and our inability to read (or desire to pay for) a topographical.  So we decided to hike to the Hidden Spring and sleep on a beach on the shores of the Dead Sea.

On our way to the first hike, we ran across an abandoned building.  It looked like a ruined school but now was the home to a group of hyrax.  I had never seen a hyrax before; apparently, they are related to elephants and manatees, and do a lot of eating and pooping.

Then, before starting our hike, we ate a snack.


Bellies full, we started on our hike.  Pictures describe the hike better than I can with words, so thanks to Shira for these wonderful pictures!

Our day ended with a calm evening on the shore of the Dead Sea.  Night came around 5:30 PM, so we relaxed a little in the darkness and then took a well deserved rest (although Ross spent some time listening to the dulcet tones of techno playing from a neighboring group of campers).

The next morning, we rose at sunrise and hiked to Ein Gedi Spring, which is mentioned in the Bible.  Along the way, we saw a group of ibex munching on a tree.  It was only upon closer inspection that we noticed that some of the ibex were actually climbing in the tree to get to the good leaves.  They are more graceful than they look!

It was incredibly hot and the hike was uphill (only one way, thankfully).  But it was worth it once we got to the top and saw a tranquil pool shaded by an old tree.  It was a welcome sight for us and we had only been hiking for a short time.  I'm sure that there is some untold story in which a traveler dying of thirst stumbled across this spring and discovered the true meaning of joy.  We got only a small approximation but even that small amount was lovely.

Thanks to Shabbat, no buses were running for hours.  Fortunately, we managed to catch a cab back to Jerusalem and ate a huge dinner that night (goose breast kabobs are awesome!).

But lest things in Israel seem too calm, the IDF bombed Gaza later that evening.  Oh well...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Know Your (Fr)enemy

Frank Rich's excellent op-ed in today's New York Times highlights the contradictions in the conservative response to the Fort Hood shooting.  If "There is a powerful case to be made that Islamic extremism is not some fringe phenomenon but part of the mainstream of Islamic life around the world," as Jonah Goldberg argues, then how, exactly, are we going to work with the Muslim populations in Afghanistan and Iraq?  Goldberg himself recognizes that treating Islam like the problem guarantees "that Islam will become the problem" yet this admission does little to soften the accusation in the earlier sentence.

Rich then points out the fallacy at the center of the conservative hawks' call for more troops in Afghanistan.  "If, as the right has it, our Army cannot be trusted to recognize a Hasan in its own ranks, then how will it figure out who the “good” Muslims will be as we try to build a “stable” state (whatever “stable” means) in a country that has never had a functioning central government? If our troops can’t be protected from seemingly friendly Muslim American brethren in Killeen, Tex., what are the odds of survival for the 40,000 more troops the hawks want to deploy to Kabul and sinkholes beyond?"

We must, as iterated and reiterated since 2003, win the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Afghanis.  Yet the biggest supporters of the wars, the conservative hawks, do not trust or understand Arab Muslims.  It is arrogance at its finest; they must learn to love us even while we gaze down on them with suspicion and disdain.

I wish I could say things were better in Israel but they are, probably because of close proximity, possibly worse.  It is difficult to describe how some Israelis utter the word "Arab."  The closest analogue is the way some racists say a word I refuse to say or type, but it rhymes with "bigger."  That is not to say all Israelis are anti-Arab, far from it.  But buried in much Israeli rhetoric is the implication that if only the Arabs were reasonable human beings, if they could put aside their petty grievances, the conflict would end.

Then again, many Arab and Persian Muslims are truly convinced that Jews control the world, Jews drink the blood of Muslim babies, and other such fanciful notions.  There is always enough ignorance to go around.  If only the same could be said of understanding.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Haredim Hate Microchips

Today's post is is yet another in my ongoing series, "Religious Jews in Israel are Crazy."  Today, a crowd of Haredim protested outside an Intel plant in Jerusalem because it is open on Saturdays.  They are angry because this violates the Sabbath.  Never mind that no one is forcing them to work there and all workers are employed at will.  Yet again, the Haredim are consumed by the fear that someone, somewhere, is sinning.
An Intel spokesperson threatened that "If there are continued protests or delays in manufacturing at the Jerusalem plant, the company will be forced to close it and may also decide to leave Israel in the end."  This would hurt many Israelis and set a terrible precedent.  But the Haredim don't really care because A) this wouldn't negatively impact them at all and B) their religious beliefs outweigh economic concerns, especially the economic concerns of others.  At least they aren't protesting because public parking lots are open on Saturdays.  I guess they decided to skip a week and choose a different target.

I hate to admit this, but tea party protests seem relatively sane in comparison.  The Haredim protest nearly every weekend because of ostensible violations of the Sabbath.  Apparently, flipping a light switch or driving a car is forbidden on Saturday because it's work of some sort but spending hours fighting with police and throwing rocks is totally fine.  Sheesh.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Health Care, Religion, and Secularism

Despite living on a different continent, I still keep up with American news and politics.  It is remarkably different than Israeli politics, both on a systemic and personal level.  However, there are some similarities.  One depressing similarity is the influence of religion on politics.

Religious influence on Israeli politics is obvious.  Religious, fundamentalist Jews of various stripes make up a growing portion of the populace.  They have significant control over important facets of life such as marriage and immigration.  Here in Jerusalem, they are ubiquitous and influential.  The struggle between secular and fundamentalist Jews for control is a huge part of Israeli politics now and for the foreseeable future.

Americans shouldn't feel smug or superior, though, for we are far from a secular society.  I am saddened by the inclusion of the Stupak amendment to the House health care reform bill.  What bothers me most is not that Republicans and evangelical Christians backed it; what bothers me is that the Catholic Church put significant pressure on Democratic leaders to back it as well.

It has been fairly obvious for some time that the Evangelical movement doesn't care at all about the separation of church and state; to them, the government is a tool to force their religious views on the rest of American society.  Luckily, President Bush and other Republicans did not have the capacity and/or desire to reform American society in the Evangelical image.  But it is truly troubling when Democrats have allowed religion to influence important bills impacting the lives of all Americans, religious and irreligious.  If the Democratic Party cannot stand up for secularism, for the separation of church and state as the Founding Fathers intended, then who will?

Israel is not a secular society.  It was founded as Jewish state.  The debate here is not about whether or not religious views should inform policy but whose religious views win out.  America was designed to be a truly secular society.  It was not founded as a Christian nation despite what some want you to believe, but as a secular nation.  Yet somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of this ideal.  There are secular reasons to oppose abortion but these are not the reasons advanced by anti-abortion activists.  The Democrats did not bow to secular anti-abortion arguments but to political pressure by the religiously motivated.

The religious nature of Israel certainly annoys me but at least they are being true to the intent of their nation.  If only Americans could be so true to the intent of ours.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

That's Israel...

"That's Israel," my friend Sarah said while we were walking to the salon.  I don't remember what she was referring to but that phrase is a staple of our lives here.  So I'd like to dedicate the following list to all of the WUJS members who have experienced, seen, or heard something silly, rolled their eyes, and said "That's Israel."  Because this country is wonderful but also really, really weird.

1) Bank times: The banks here are open at ridiculously weird hours.  For example, today at 3 PM, the bank was closed.  But it's not because of business hours because some days, they are open at 3 PM.  So good luck finding any kind of rhyme or reason to their schedules.  This also applies to the post-office but I don't really mail anything.

2) Fun protests for stupid reasons: While there were riots a couple days ago at al-Aqsa (yes, more riots), the Hasidim staged their own protest during Shabbat.  They clashed with police, prayed, and wore their furry hats. Why? Because people had the audacity to drive cars during Shabbat.  To rephrase H.L. Mencken, Hasidic Judaism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be living in the 21st century.

3) Screw lines: The line (or queue for the Brits out there) is a staple of Western life.  We do it all the time, whether while getting movie tickets or crossing the street.  One of the biggest adjustments is that the line ceases to exist here in Israel.  If you're waiting for movie ticket, expect someone to push you aside, walk up to the ticket counter, and buy their tickets first.  Or as I experienced while waiting for the walk signal, and old man to push you to the left and stand directly in front of you all to wait for the walk signal as well.  He may have had a white beard, but he had sharp elbows.

4) Incredibly expensive pasta: This probably is good for my waistline but it is still incredibly annoying.  Still, paying 10-12 shekel ($2.50-3.00) for a box of pasta sucks.  Feeding lots of people cheaply with home made pasta sauce and Barilla used to be a staple of my cooking.  Now, I get my carb fix by making latkes with Shira.  They're great but it's not the same.

5) Racism against Asians: I know I've written about this before but it's a significant part of Israeli culture.  There isn't a lot of overt racism against Asians in the US, and most I've encountered is the "I bet you're good at math and science and bad with women" kind which is easily shrugged off (mostly because the first two are fine and the last obviously isn't true).  But here, I encounter the "You're a low class migrant worker" type of racism and it's not fun.  It does make me more sympathetic to the plight of Latin immigrants to the US.

Obviously, this is an incomplete list that I will be expanding while I'm here.  And while I'm posting away, here's a promise for yet another one (serious this time) tomorrow!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur, now with riots!

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when Jews around the world fast, pray, and repent their sins.  It is, ideally, calm and full of spiritual reflection.  Unfortunately, this year's 2009 will be remembered not for its spiritual significance but for yet another conflict between Israelis and Palestinians

There are differing accounts of the clash, partially due to Israel's media blackout during Yom Kippur, but the general outline of events are as follows:

A few non-Muslims tried to enter the al-Aqsa mosque or Temple Mount sometime Sunday morning, in violation of agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians.  Israeli authorities claim they were tourists, the Palestinians claim they were Israelis.  Palestinians nearby responded with violence, throwing stones and other nearby objects.  Israeli police intervened, dispersing the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades, with a few minor injuries sustained by both police and Palestinians.  They also arrested a few Palestinians.

Conflict continued throughout the day, with Palestinians throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at police throughout East Jerusalem.  Palestinian leaders blasted Israel for "deliberately escalating tensions" to prevent progress during upcoming peace negotiations.

We'll know more once Yom Kippur ends and official reports emerge.  It's still sad that, even on the holiest day of the year, peace moved a little farther away.

Ok, not entirely Bush...

I want to clarify my point in the last post.  The Bush administration held a hard line against Iran and tried to bring pressure from many different angles.  However, they did so clumsily and failed to win significant international support, particularly from China and Russia, two of Iran's key economic partners.  While nothing is certain, the Obama administration efforts have garnered significant international support including spoken support from Russia.

So sanctions may be possible and effective given a united, sustained effort.  This is where the Bush administration consistently failed.  Its outright rejection of multi-nationalism and insistence on unilaterism made international support impossible on any number of issues where the US could not achieve its objectives alone.  This was an ideological blindness that Obama obviously does not share.

One idea discussed in a great conversation with my parents last night was the possibility that there was a bit of quid pro quo with Russia concerning the missile defense shield and Iran's nuclear program.  Obama conceded some ground to Russia by realigning American missile defense priorities to the Middle East and out of Eastern Europe.  I don't think anyone realistically thinks Russia is going to launch nukes anytime soon so strategically it makes sense.  Plus, it puts further pressure on Iran by showing that the US takes the Iranian threat seriously and will take steps to counter Iranian missiles.

If Obama does get Russia's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear program and possible sanctions, then he will have won a huge diplomatic victory crucial to achieving non-proliferation.  It goes to show that toughness isn't everything; sometimes, you have to be smooth as well.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iran, nukes, sanctions, and Israel

During Thursday's "Arab-Israeli Conflict" class, Professor Sheldon asked us how we thought the dialogue between Ahmadinejad and Obama would go at their meeting on October 1st.  A few ventured various guesses, usually along the lines of "Here is what we want you to stop doing and here's why" or "We respect you and the great nation of Iran.  We have these complaints, we're sure you have complaints as well, how can we find common ground?"  The first is essentially the Bush administration's stance and the second is the Carter administration's stance, albeit with a bit more teeth.

Professor Sheldon's criticism of the Obama administration's stance toward Iran was that it was Carter redux.  However, the Obama administration has taken a harder line toward Iran in recent weeks, particularly with the exposure of a secret Iranian nuclear installation.  In fact, they are now demanding that Iran open the facility to inspectors within weeks or face tougher sanctions.

While previous pressure on the Iranian government may have proved fruitless, circumstances have changed drastically in recent months in light of the last Iranian election and subsequent demonstrations.  The Iranian regime lost any vestiges of legitimacy it may have had domestically and is arguably at its weakest since its inception in 1979.  Many demonstrators were discontent with the focus on foreign affairs over economic and domestic concerns.  Or in other words, why should Iranians be funding Hamas and Hezbollah when there are not enough jobs in Tehran?

The Iranian system is designed to give the semblance of representation where none exists.  His bluster aside, Ahmadinejad is nothing more than a figurehead.  Real policy is made by the Supreme Leader, Khameini, and the Guardian Council, a body of twelve clerics which controls the laws and potential candidates for president and parliament.

But as Khameini and Ahmadinejad have discovered, an educated, affluent middle class demands a government sensitive to its needs and will use whatever semblance of representation it has to force such sensitivity.  Iranians want more control over their national politics; they want true representation, a desire that has been only inflamed by oppression.  And once such a movement starts, it is nearly impossible to quash without further underscoring the illegitimacy of the repressive regime.

So Obama is faced with an Iranian government that is both strong and weak at the same time; strong because its principle regional rival, Iraq, no longer is a threat, and weak because it is illegitimate in the eyes of its own people.  Obama cannot take the Carter approach lest he give cover to a repressive regime and show weakness.  Oddly enough, circumstances suggest that it may be most fruitful to pursue the Bush approach in hopes of isolating and destabilizing the Iranian government enough to set the stage for a revolution.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

We're EVERYWHERE...seriously

There are certain recurring themes in conversations I've had with American Jews here in Israel; Israeli falafel is outstanding, "Don't Mess with the Zohan" is right about the ubiquity of hummus, peace with the Palestinians would be really nice, and, most importantly, it's weird being around Jews all the time.

38% of all Jews worldwide live in the United States yet we only comprise 2.2% of the total US population.  There are possibly more Jews living in America than in Israel yet we're a minority there and the majority here in Israel.  American Jewish communities tend to be clustered in specific areas such as the New York metro area and Hollywood; entire swaths of the US are essentially Jew-free zones.  So there is a certain connection among American Jews, especially when traversing the gentile regions of the States.

My friend Anna mentioned the other night that she still looks around and thinks "Wow, there are a lot of Jewish looking guys here" before catching herself.  The minority outlook is deeply ingrained and does not vanish quickly.  Some find a level of comfort in being different and discover that being the majority, and thus no longer "special," is strange.  Others revel in finally being part of the majority, which is why many say they make aliyah.

I've had a different reaction, partly from my childhood in a very Jewish area of New York and partly from being Korean.  Hanging out with Jews all the time is nothing new and is actually quite normal and comfortable.  However, I can't vanish into the crowd here any more than I can in the US.

For example, Shira and I went to the shuk before Rosh Hashanah for groceries.  We split up for a bit and went wandering off for sundry foodstuffs.  As I went to buy some vegetables, I passed a couple Israeli teenage boys who yelled "China!" at me as I walked past.  There was no malice or threat involved; I actually can't figure out why they said it, to be honest.  It was just a bit jarring.

So even if I am here surrounded by Jews, I'll still be different.  I'll still be a minority.  I'm sure it would be the same in Korea, since I am American and Jewish.  But this is ok because, in my expert opinion, weird is the new normal.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Or more precisely, shana tova!  This weekend, Jews around the world are celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Between the Korean New Year, American New Year, and Jewish New Year, I'm swimming in temporal ambiguity.  Which year to choose?

While I'm struggling to find my place in the vasty deep of time, here are a few links worth reading:

- The UN released the report from its fact finding mission into Operation Cast Lead a few days ago and, needless to say, Israel was not happy with the results.  Richard Goldstone, former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former
Yugoslavia and Rwanda, headed the mission.  Mr. Goldstone published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining the mission's results.

There is a lot to parse here but there is one quote that strikes me as an odd moral equivalence:

"Unfortunately, both Israel and Hamas have dismal records of investigating their own forces. I am unaware of any case where a Hamas fighter was punished for deliberately shooting a rocket into a civilian area in Israel — on the contrary, Hamas leaders repeatedly praise such acts. While Israel has begun investigations into alleged violations by its forces in the Gaza conflict, they are unlikely to be serious and objective."

There is a significant difference between actively praising someone for killing civilians and failing to investigate violations thoroughly.  While Israel at least acknowledges civilian deaths as regrettable and takes steps to prevent them, Hamas desires civilian deaths including those of Palestinians.  Hamas deliberately places its fighters in civilian structures and uses human shields while firing rockets at Israeli civilian targets.  Israel dropped leaflets and placed phone calls to areas about to be attacked and also diverted or aborted attacks when the risk of civilian casualties was deemed too great.  There are legitimate complaints to be made about the effectiveness and thoroughness of these efforts.  But the Israeli military's failings are not, morally or legally, the same as Hamas' desire to kill civilians.

Unfortunately, when the question of culpability emerges, Mr.Goldstone only addresses one party:

"Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law. Western governments in particular face a challenge because they have pushed for accountability in places like Darfur, but now must do the same with Israel, an ally and a democratic state."

And nowhere does he push for accountability for Hamas and the states that support it.

- David Landau, the former editor in chief of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, criticizes the UN report in another op-ed in the New York Times.  He criticizes the mission for asserting that "Israel intentionally went after civilians in Gaza — and wrapped its intention in lies."  In doing so, the mission failed to address the true issue, one that deserves open and fair-minded debate:

"Israelis believe that their army did not deliberately kill the hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including children, who died during “Operation Cast Lead.” They believe, therefore, that Israel is not culpable, morally or criminally, for these civilian deaths, which were collateral to the true aim of the operation — killing Hamas gunmen.

It is, some would argue, a form of self-deception.

When does negligence become recklessness, and when does recklessness slip into wanton callousness, and then into deliberate disregard for innocent human life?"

I agree with Mr. Landau.  The fact finding mission wasted its mandate on what essentially became Israel bashing, further solidifying the Israeli mindset that the world will never give them a fair hearing and that the sins of Hamas and others will always be forgiven because, in the end, no one really cares if Jews die.

- On a potentially happier note, President Obama will host meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.   I'm not expecting too much right away but we have to start somewhere.

- Lastly, on a completely different note, Britan's Telegraph published a noteworthy piece on Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences.  Having worked at a bookstore during the heyday of The Da Vinci Code, I took this article to heart.  Mr. Brown is one of the most spectacularly untalented authors I have ever read.  However, he recently lost his position as the official butcher of the English language to Stephenie Meyer, the stupendously ungifted author of the Twilight series.  My favorite Twilight line?

"What if I’m not the superhero? What if I’m the bad guy?”

Holy let's-hit-people-over-the-head-with-the-emo-hammer Batman!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Street fair, now with frog man

Last night, I went to a street fair on Emek Refaim, a hip street near the Merkaz, the arts center where the WUJS Arts students have our class.  It was incredibly crowded and fantastically fun; after the customary search at the entrance, we were greeted by the pulsating beats of an electro-funk-dance band whose name I do not know.  I do know that its drummer is pretty insane.  They were still setting up like most of the bands and were not yet in full flight.

As we walked through the packed street, we saw food, jewelry, crafts of all kinds, and circus freaks.  My favorite was probably the frog man on top of a bus stop, playing a stringed instrument (my thanks to Adina for the pictures!).

The crown hints that he is at least a prince among frog men.  However, the tough economy must have hit the frog man economy hard if even their prince is trying to make a little extra cash playing street festivals.

By the way, no one in the US should ever complain about rudeness in a crowd.  In Israel, even old women don't say "excuse me" or "pardon me" when moving through a crowd.  Everyone just pushes.  What passes as polite or impolite here has taken some adjustment.  Or as one Israeli told us, telling a server "Give me falafel!" is polite.  Most Israelis just say "falafel!" and turn back to their cell phones.

All this walking, gawking, and talking was thirsty work so I bought fresh strawberry lemonade at a stand.  This wasn't strawberry flavored lemonade; it was freshly squeezed strawberry juice mixed with lemonade.  It was also delicious and quite refreshing.  Adina was distracted by shinies, Alex enjoyed his last cigar, Rock ate his precious schwarma, and we headed back home.

However, the band from the beginning was playing a full set, using the oh-so typical layout of drums, bass, keyboard, female rapper, and didgeridoo.  The crowd ate it up and danced alongside a fire twirler.

Honestly, it could have been a street festival in any interesting city in America, albeit with more Jews, schwarma, and ventilation system cleaning robots on stilts.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I'm back! (and another speaker analysis)

First, I must apologize for the break between posts.  We finally received internet access in our apartments a few days ago; apparently, our building was still living in the 1980s and lacked internet wiring.  Thankfully that situation has been rectified and the blog can resume with some assistance from Amy since she provided a copy of the Fellowship's itinerary.  Onward!

After leaving Sderot, we had a wonderful BBQ on the beach and tried to finally jettison all of our jet lag.  The next morning was still a bit dazed but it was certainly better than the reality collapse of the first couple days.

Our day started with a "60 Minutes" segment called "Is Peace Out of Reach?" In it, Bob Simon talks to various Israelis and Palestinians about the peace process, generally outlines the shape of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and visits the West Bank.  There are many problems with this piece, particularly Simon's "analysis" of demography and Israel's options in keeping a Jewish majority in the face of a rapidly growing Palestinian minority.  The quote speaks for itself:

"Demographers predict that within ten years Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Without a separate Palestinian state the Israelis would have three options, none of them good. They could try ethnic cleansing, drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank, or they could give the Palestinians the vote. That would be the democratic option but it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Or they could try apartheid - have the minority Israelis rule the majority Palestinians, but apartheid regimes don’t have a very long life."

This is a ridiculously short, absurd, and incomplete list of Israel's options.  My biggest issue is that the demography is incorrect.  As of 2008, Israel proper's Arab citizenry comprised about 20% of the nation's total population, and about 12% of the Arab population considers itself Israeli before Arab.  It should be pretty clear that Arabs will not be the majority within a single decade, let alone two or three.  Therefore, there is a lot of time before any of these "options" become necessary.  This kind of demographic fear-mongering is currently popular in Israel and in the US, where racists worry about whites only being the plurality but hardly reflects the reality on the ground.  More importantly, this list of options does not illuminate or explain the current situation in any way.  All it does is inflame and antagonize.

Israel isn't going to try ethnic cleansing.  This "option" has been available through Israel's entire history and after the 1948 War, there hasn't been any movement in that direction.  Giving Palestinians the vote would not necessarily mean the end of the Jewish state, particularly if it is coupled with a two state solution, or at least a stabilization of the West Bank.  Continued Jewish immigration from outside Israel and the natural growth of Israel's population should render discussions of an apartheid state moot until we are actually at that point decades from now.  As an added bonus, Simon fails to mention the state in which Palestinians truly live under an apartheid regime - Jordan, with its ruling Hashemite minority and subjugated Palestinian majority.

If you truly believe that mainstream Israelis would support ethnic cleansing (hint: they wouldn't, and the crazy settlers don't count as mainstream, Bob), then there's not much to talk about.  The Israeli settler Simon speaks to early on in the piece represents the far right fringe of the settler movement, which should key you in on how crazy she is.  Then, in a neat bit of "balance," Simon finds the most moderate, least representative Palestinian he could find and tries to portray his position as the Palestinian mainstream.  I could continue to tear into Simon's superficial and, honestly, unbalanced portrayal of the situation but the bias is evident from that one quote alone.  And as those who know me well can attest, I am sick to death of whining about media bias against Israel but it is so obvious here that it cannot be overlooked.

After this somewhat dismal foray into American media, we heard from a representative of Palestinian Media Watch, an ostensible "self portrait of Palestinian society" (quote taken from their old website).  PMW analyzes Palestinian society through its media, such as television, academic papers, and maps.  The PMW representative (whose name I cannot recall, although she seemed very nice and earnest) showed clips including children's shows from Hamas' state television station and statements from Fatah, PLO, and Hamas leaders.

The bits from children's shows had the most effect on our group; several people audibly responded when the Hamas mascot, modeled after Mickey Mouse, was questioned and murdered by an "Israeli soldier" (an actor, obviously) on live air with a Palestinian child providing commentary.  These shows also include game shows in which Palestinian children answer questions like "What is the size of Palestine?" (answer: 27,000 sq. km., the size of all of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza).  Combined with excerpts from Palestinian textbooks, the PMW representative argued that the Palestinians were creating a fictional world without Israel for their children, with the goal of eventually wiping Israel off the map for real.

To further convince us of Fatah and Hamas' true goal of destroying Israel, she continued with clips from various leaders who either rejected Israel's legitimacy, swore to wipe Israel from the map, or drive all the Jews into the sea.  This, she said, showed that even at the highest levels of Palestinian leadership, the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of Jews remained the true goal.

I remain skeptical of these assertions.  It is common practice for politicians in the Middle East to make all sorts of wild claims (see also: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) that they cannot enforce and/or do not actually believe.  All such declarations must be taken with mountains of salt.  Plus, in some negotiations, the weaker your position, the more absurd your demands.  Hamas and Fatah do not and will not have the capacity to overcome the IDF and wipe Israel off the map in any conceivable scenario.  Once you view all public declarations of Israel's impending doom as simply the strongest position available, they make more sense.

Also, analyzing any political situation through state-controlled media is intrinsically problematic.  North Korean media is a great example since it is also state-controlled and borderline insane.  While Palestinian officials claim that they're going to destroy Israel, North Korea issues posters like this (source:

Translation: "When provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the USA!"
While Fatah puts out music videos claiming that Palestine encompasses cities within Israel:
North Korea puts out music videos accusing the US of a variety of crimes and culminates in the Statue of Liberty blowing up:

Obviously, neither reflects reality nor do they reflect what the political leaders actually believe will happen.  Kim Jong Il (or his successor) no more believes that North Korea can destroy the US than Mahmoud Abbas believes the Palestinians can destroy Israel.  This should be fairly obvious by the actions of such leaders, with North Korea constantly approaching and retreating from the negotiating table and Fatah working with Israel in the West Bank and against Hamas.  It's actually in Abbas' best interest for Israel to remain strong or else Hamas would likely destroy Fatah, execute Abbas, and take over the West Bank, a disastrous outcome all around, particularly for Abbas and his family.

It is true that some Palestinian children read hate-filled textbooks, watch hate-filled television, and grow up to be terrorists.  But this hardly precludes peace and does not truly change the goals and tactics of Palestinian leadership.  We have to pay less attention to the kabuki theater of political posturing and more to the actions and interests of the parties involved.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sorry for the delay...

...I've been a bit busy getting ready for the move to Jerusalem and the start of WUJS.  There will be new posts when I get a chance to finish editing them.  Please bear with me over the next couple of days; once I get to the apartment in Jerusalem, updates should be regular again.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A little help please!

The good part of traveling is that you get to see new places, meet new people, and eat new things.  The bad part of traveling is that you lose stuff.  Sometimes, you lose really important stuff you need to write your blog.

In this particular case, I lost my Israel Diplomatic Fellowship schedule.  Since I did not commit our itinerary to memory, I am now unable to continue speaker analysis.  If anyone saved a copy and could scan it and email it to me, I would be most grateful!

And yes, I feel like an idiot.  In the meantime, a couple other personal updates to come.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Sderot is a small city located less than a mile east of the northern border of Gaza.  The story of Sderot is relatively unknown in the United States although the city's recent history should be famous.  Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Sderot has suffered continuous rocket fire.  As of January 2008, over 8,000 rockets have landed in Sderot, an average of about 2.4 a day.

At the end of 2006, Sderot's population was about 19,300.  Aid organizations estimate that by the end of 2008, about 15-25% of the population left because of the incessant rocket fire.  We visited the town after lunch at the Air Force base.

It is difficult to write about Sderot without becoming overly maudlin or over-correcting into dryness.  I will try my best to stick to the facts without injecting too much of my emotions into the picture.

At first glance, Sderot seems like any normal Israeli city.  However, the sameness evaporates the moment you see a fortified bus stop or a house with a bomb shelter added on like an extra garage.  After our bus wound its way through the narrow streets and finally stopped, we saw a presentation from a group dedicated to showing the world the truth about life in Sderot.  We saw footage of a man levering the remains of a Qassam rocket from the ground only a few meters away from a school.  We learned about the warning system which gives citizens an average of 15 seconds to find shelter before a rocket lands.  We learned that Hamas has fired over 200 rockets at Sderot since the end of Operation Cast Lead and during an ostensible cease-fire period.  Then, we went to the police station and saw the remains of Qassam rockets.

The rockets are generally built out of readily available materials such as welded pieces of scrap metal and pipes.  Some of these materials actually come from aid packages sent into Gaza.  Like the IEDs used in Iraq, the rockets are filled with explosives and small bits of metal.  When the rocket hits something and explodes, the bits of metal are expelled outwards with great force, becoming shrapnel.  Any unprotected person within a few dozen yards of the explosion will suffer significant, possibly deadly injuries.

Upon close inspection, I was able to make out the markings on the rockets.  Most were green, the color of Hamas.  A few were yellow, however, the color of Fatah.  The welding was often crude and some appeared shoddily made.  Still, such rockets have killed 25 Israelis and injured over 700 more.

The Israeli government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fortifying Sderot.  The schools all have bomb shelters including rooftop barriers designed to withstand a direct hit.  They are still trying to find enough money to complete these shelters but their efforts have helped keep casualties down.

The most emotional part of the trip came when we got back in the bus and drove past a playground.  This is what we saw:

(Thanks to Dave Fuchs for posting these on Facebook; they're much better than my iPhone pictures.)

As you've probably guessed, the caterpillars are bomb shelters for children.  When the alarm sounds, the children have an easily accessible and, hopefully, psychologically comforting place to hide until the rocket attack ends.  Post-traumatic stress disorders are fairly common among children in Sderot although, as our guide mentioned, the "post" doesn't apply since rockets and mortars continue to fall.

We took a brief bathroom break and walked up a hill overlooking Gaza.  Late in the afternoon, Gaza is hazy; it was difficult to see very far due to the smoke and pollution rising from the buildings.  It reminded me of a painting I used as a computer desktop for years called  "Desolation."  It is dusky blue, the ruined landscape of a city decimated by war.  The husk of something that used to be beautiful.

Most journalism focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict talks about the physical damage done to people and places.  It deals with body counts, homes demolished, and rockets fired.  Through this lens, Gaza is a perfect example of Palestinian suffering; its inhabitants are poor, the buildings crumbling, and the body count high.  The story of Sderot is hard to tell because it doesn't fit this narrative.  The town is seemingly nice, the buildings well maintained, and the people relatively well off.

It is the caterpillars that tell the story of Israeli suffering over these past years.  The people of Sderot don't die in large numbers or fire rockets or do much of anything other than try to live normal, simple lives.  But they can't live peacefully because rockets fall on their homes, their synagogues, their schools, and their playgrounds.  Sometimes the rockets don't come for days or weeks or months at a time.  Sometimes over a dozen fall in a single day.  But you never know when the next one is going to fall.  You don't know if you really have 15 seconds to get to shelter, or 10, or 5.  All you can do is run and hope that you make it in time, and that your friends and family do the same.

That is the face of Israeli suffering.  It is the silent suffering of those who cannot be safe because others do not want them to be safe.  It is the suffering of those whose mere existence is enough to trigger murderous hatred in others.  Hamas cannot overcome the IDF and kill the citizens of Sderot.  But Hamas can induce fear.  Deep, corrosive fear.  Fear that causes adults to build bomb shelters in playgrounds.  Fear that causes intense trauma in children that manifests itself as bed-wetting, agoraphobia, and slowed mental development.  That is the goal of terrorism.  And that is another reason why such attacks must stop.

One last note: While we were looking at the Qassam rockets, a car alarm went off for a split second before the vehicle's owner turned it off.  Our guide, a former American who made aliyah just over a year ago, reacted instantly; he flinched, ducked down, and looked for cover instinctively.  Only a few of us noticed because he straightened quickly and continued informing us about the rockets.  Most of us didn't even remember hearing the alarm and didn't react at all.  But our guide did.  And he had only lived there for a year.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Criminal Kimchi?

There have been few times in my American life when I felt singled out because of my race.  These moments dot my memory but are spaced pretty far apart.  I've been in Israel for seventeen days and have already had two of these moments.

The first actually occurred at JFK Airport at the El Al security screening.  El Al employees question non-Israelis entering and exiting Israel, employing difficult questions such as "What is your father's name?" and "Where are you from?"  In my case, the second question immediately preceded, "Where are you originally from?"

This isn't usually a big deal.  Before my Birthright flight, I explained to them my origins, from birth in South Korea to adoption in the United States.  All went well.  This time, however, El Al felt compelled to hold my carry on luggage and separate me and four others from the main group.  Once they finished examining our carry on luggage, they walked us to the gate, making sure we stayed within their sight lines at all times.

I am sure they had many legitimate reasons to hold me (including my notoriously sneaky Korean appearance) and would profess to a random selection process.  Unfortunately, an event this morning increased my discomfort with looking different in Israel.

Erica left this morning, sadly, and is making her way back to Chicago as I type.  This left me without a traveling buddy and, more importantly, without a plug adapter for my computer.  Fortunately, a cell phone store nearby has these adapters so I walked a couple blocks to the store.

On the way there, a couple Israeli men with walkie-talkies stopped me and two other Asian tourists and asked for our passports.  We complied and they waved on the other two.  When it was my turn, they asked me where I was from.  Chicago, I replied.  They talked to each other in Hebrew and flipped through my passport.  When did I get here, they asked.  A couple weeks ago, I answered.  They pointed at the stamp on my passport.  Is this the last time you entered the country?  Yes, I said, starting to get annoyed.  They conferred with one another, then with the walkie-talkie.

After a few seconds, they waved me on.  Have a nice day, one said, already walking away.  During the entire exchange, they never looked at or stopped anyone who was not Asian.

I understand the need for security.  I understand that Israel must be vigilant to remain safe.  However, security and safety come at a price.  That price is my sense of belonging here, my sense of inclusion.  This country will never really accept me for who I am because of the color of my skin.  I will always be, in the eyes of many Israelis, an outsider, someone to distrust, question, and suspect because I am different.  I will always be part of the excluded.

I suspect there will be more evidence of this in the coming months.  In any case, the Sderot post should be done by this evening.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Israel Diplomatic Fellowship in Ha'aretz (and I'm quoted!)

There is an article in Ha'aretz, one of Israel's newspapers, today about the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship and it includes a quote from yours truly.  I may come off a bit strong in the quotes since they largely left out many of the positive things I said, but the sentiment is true.  Hopefully, we will see some discussion of historical narratives in future Fellowship programs and perhaps a few more speakers representing leftist positions.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Air Force Base

After the Pinchas speech, we trundled onto the bus and left for and Israeli Air Force base.  Pictures were not allowed unfortunately.  It is one of the largest air bases in Israel, I believe, and we met with four pilots and officers who fought in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.  They were extremely proud of their jobs and derived great satisfaction from serving their country.  All had signed on for more than the 3 year minimum for men or 2 year minimum for women so they were a non-representational sample.

They spoke in general terms about their jobs but eventually latched onto a recurring theme in Israeli discourse: media bias.  All believed that the IDF took great care to avoid civilian casualties and even aborted certain missions if the risk of civilian casualties was too high.  They repeatedly accused mainstream world media outlets of bias since these outlets did not, in their view, fairly represent these efforts.  The emphasis on gross casualty numbers over the causes of those casualties, such as Hamas using human shields, skewed reports toward Hamas and did not reflect the overall reality, they argued.

There is truth to this assertion and I will explore the legal aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a later post regarding Daniel Taub, a legal adviser to the Israeli government.  However, there is little sympathy for Israel in this regard and constant complaint about media bias does nothing to change public sentiment.  Israel can no longer realistically claim the victim role when they have a huge military and economic advantage over Hamas, Fatah, and the PLO.  So even if the claim is true and the media is biased against Israel, repeating it does not help Israel's cause.

This also speaks to a certain breed of exceptionalism that permeates Israeli society.  They are, as they often repeat, a Jewish state, the only Jewish state in the world.  Thus, they are unique.  Like American exceptionalists, they often claim that scenarios and solutions found elsewhere do not apply to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They may be correct but as we have found in the US healthcare debate, bits and pieces of solutions used elsewhere can be adapted and applied if there is the political will to do so.  Israeli exceptionalism may also contribute to Israeli PR's inability to resonate outside of Israel and the most invested segments of diaspora Jewish society.  It is very hard to understand and connect with the other when one believes oneself to be wholly unique.

That's enough for now; I'll get to Sderot later tonight or tomorrow.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A few replies and the first speaker analysis (Pinchas Inbari)

To reply to Shalom: The ethnic cleansing I speak of consists of a massacre of over 100 Arabs at Deir Yassin during Plan Dalet along with various other events.  Haganah, Palmach, and Irgun conquered several cities including Haifa and Acre, with the result of over 250,000 displaced Arabs.  There were also instances of Jewish terrorism, including the December 30th bombing in Haifa in which Irgun members threw two bombs into a crowd of Arab workers, killing 6 and injuring 42.  Of course, this part of a larger scenario of attacks and reprisals by both sides, often against civilian targets.  Neither the Palestinians (a term I am using here for simplicity, although your point is well taken) nor the Israelis are blameless since both sides targeted and killed civilians.  You already did a good job of noting Arab violence against Jews during that period so I'll leave others to read your comments :)

Anyway, on to the speaker analysis.  After we arrived in Israel, we had a short stop at the Tomb of Samuel (Nebe Samuel) where we got to know each other and ate a small snack.  Summer in Israel is much different than winter; while the weather during my Birthright trip this February was occasionally hot, summer heat is stifling.  We checked into our somewhat grubby hotel in Jerusalem and tried to sleep off our jet lag.

The next morning, we woke early, ate breakfast, then took a bus to our first speaker, Pinchas Inbari, a journalist and Palestinian affairs analyst..  This talk was titled "Palestinian Political Culture" and it generally lived up to its name.  Mr. Inbari was obviously very knowledge; unfortunately, his English was not strong which did not work well with his tendency to ramble.  He did manage to give a decent if fragmented account of the histories of Fatah, Hamas, and the PLO (for more background on this, Wikipedia is a decent source.  Really.).

In his view, Fatah is willing to negotiate for peace despite its continued non-recognition of Israel and terror attacks.  Unfortunately, a willingness to negotiate is not enough.  Any Palestinian political entity worth negotiating with must be able to enforce any agreements reached.  Right now, none exists since Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah controls the West Bank.  Even if peace could be achieved with Fatah, Hamas would not recognize it, thus perpetuating the violence.

Mr. Inbari also highlighted the fact that Israel presented generous offers at Camp David and later, Taba, all of which were rejected.  There is significant contention over exactly how good these offers were when all of the details were taken into account but it does show that reasonable negotiations are possible.  Unfortunately, those talks fell apart although the exact reason (either Palestinian refusal to negotiate in good faith or unreasonable Israeli demands depending on your POV) is still disputed.  Mr. Pinchas also emphasized that most Israelis and Palestinians today do want peace; the conflict is over the shape of that peace.  This is important to keep in mind as the analysis moves forward.

On a sidenote, there were points were our group's leader, Yitzhak Sokoloff, took over the lecture and provided his own thoughts on the topic.  At first, I thought this was likely an isolated incident arising from Mr. Pinchas' halting, rambling English.  However, Yitzhak overstepped his bounds at several other points during the trip.  I will talk more about that at the end of the speaker analysis section but it is something to remember when I mention the bias toward the Israeli right inherent in the trip and its selection of speakers.

Sleep Deprivation and Historical Narratives

Before I start the section on speaker analysis, a few housekeeping notes are in order.  First, we were on an extremely tight schedule during the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship 2009 trip.  This arose from a combination of over-scheduling, difficulty counting off (how hard is it to pay attention and count to 49?  Seriously?), and socializing.  The first two were outside of my control while the last was certainly within my control.  Regardless, everyone on the trip was horrendously sleep deprived.  Thus, I was a bit more irritable than normal so some of my observations may be phrased in harsher terms than I would normally use.  Now that I am slowly catching up on sleep, I'll try to couch things in, ahem, diplomatic language when possible.

More importantly, we did not speak about historical narratives.  I probably repeated this a million times during the trip but the point bears repeating.  The Israelis and Palestinians have entirely different historical narratives and thus disagree about the meanings and implications of events even when they agree on the temporal order and existence of those events.  All of our speakers, with a couple exceptions, spoke with the truthfulness of the Israeli historical narrative as a given.  This wasn't surprising but it was disappointing.  Any program ostensibly aimed at improving "diplomatic" relationships between Arabs and Israelis needs to represent both sides fairly.

Since we lacked any significant alternative to the Israeli narrative, we squandered countless opportunities to discuss difficult issues in a constructive manner.  For example, speakers routinely portrayed the 1948 War, or in Israeli nomenclature, the Independence War, as a war of self-defense against Arab aggression following the failure of the Palestinians to ratify the 1947 UN Partition Plan.  However, before Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon invaded, both Jews and Palestinians engaged in what would now be considered ethnic cleansing, with the Israelis finding more success due to their superior training and armament.  It is possible to view the invasion as Arab intervention to protect the Palestinian population and prevent the Jews from forcing a rejected agreement upon the Palestinians.

Both sides have their merit and an objective observer can readily identify the flaws in each side's logic.  However, it is impossible to address the core claim of the Palestinian national movement without recognizing the historical basis for their rejection of Israel's legitimacy.  In their eyes, Israel's seizure of territory in 1947-48 was illegal since the UN plan was not ratified by both parties.  In Israel's eyes, the UN's passage of the partition plan gave them the legal right to form a state.  The recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel by the international community, albeit with a few notable exceptions, further bolsters this claim.  It is fairly obvious that these historical narratives are fundamentally at odds with one another.  Viewing later events through one lens or the other leads one to different positions, with each being entirely reasonable given the assumptions with which one is working.

Many members of the Fellowship stated that they felt like they are better able to advocate on Israel's behalf.  But without understanding the Palestinian historical narrative, to whom can they advocate other than to those who already accept Israel's version of history?  Aren't we supposed to do more than preach to the choir?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shalom from Israel!

Hey everyone!  This blog is dedicated to observation, reflection, and analysis of my travels in Israel during the past couple weeks and the following months.  I already completed the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship 2009 trip and will begin my posts with a speaker by speaker analysis of that trip, along with tidbits about the non-academic aspects of our over programmed lives.

Feel free to leave questions and thoughts in the comments sections of each post!  I'll try my best to address all comments so we can have a great dialogue.