Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Peace Evolves Into a Four Letter Word

When did peace become such a vile word in Israel? Peace, defined as a state of harmony, the absence of hostility, undoubtedly seems like a desirable state of affairs. But the mere mention of the word has been expunged from public discourse. Growing up as a teenager in the shadow of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, I still recall going to massive protests that expounded the demand for peace. The protests were always within in the context of some ongoing bi-national dialogue, but the underlying message in the protests was that Israel demands a resolution that will ultimately bear peace with our neighbors. No one was so naïve as to believe that a secure and just peace could easily be achieved but at least there was an ambition to improve the status quo of mutual bloodshed and fear. Nowadays in Israel, it seems that the ambition to change things has shriveled in apathetic impotence. Following the implosion of dialogues marked by the insurrection of the second Palestinian intifida and the ascent of Ariel Sharon to power, the noble desire for peace was replaced by the pragmatic demand for security. Now, as Israel languishes in a vacuum of competent leadership, even security is forgotten and the public only asks for a bit of stability. Alas, our inept leaders offer us just that, by refusing to acknowledge diplomatic overtures by Syria and refusing to sincerely discuss the future of the peace process with moderate Arab leaders, the politicians are promising us the stable state of preparation for the next fight. Accomplishing peace is a complex and arduous process but it is apparent that Israel has simply given up on trying. History shows us that it took Europe centuries to realize that there might be an alternative to solving their bickering on the battlefields and so too here it will be an exhausting process. I believe that if we really want to expedite this process, we must first internalize that Israel is not a blip on the radar of history and realize that peace is the only way to reverse our collective decay. I hope not to sound like a self-righteous utopian fart, I understand that ponderings about peace seem pretentious but only by considering today how we want this country to be tomorrow, regardless of the sacrifices, then can we look forward to true stability, security and, yes, even peace. To sum it up in the words of John Lennon, which seem more relevant today then ever: “If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace.”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Should Democracy Be Afraid Of The Internet

To state the obvious – the internet has been a paramount contribution to democracy. By allowing anybody with the ability of clicking a platform to express their views, regardless of status, education or political inclination, the internet is the essence of popular democracy. Accessing the tapestry of opinions by examining reader comments on online media sources enables us to monitor the pulse of the public. Reader comments to news topics in a small country like Israel offer viable microcosms of the national mood. Ironically, this mechanism of democracy has illuminated the grave threat that democratic institutions are always facing.

News agencies recently released this footage of a reserve IDF solider assaulting a left wing activist, after the latter attempted to remove a military barrier. Although it is not pleasant to witness Israeli soldiers manhandle Israeli citizens, it hardly qualifies as a scandal. Israel is too embroiled in a deeper ethical quagmire following 40 years of systematic occupation to grow incensed over violence towards protesters in a military zone. But the outpouring of solidarity with the soldier in the reader response unabashedly crossed the line between display of approval to a dangerous cry of undemocratic vengeance. Responses from the readership included truly revolting opinions of hate towards the leftist protesters: "It's a shame the soldiers didn't open fire on those terrorists" – "IDF did not beat those punks enough" -- "Send all the left wingers to Gaza" etc. etc.

Unfortunately, violence is the tool that a soldier is trained to utilize. I do not know if the measure of violence used against the protesters was legitimate in light of their violations. Violence was exercised against protesters violating military orders during settlement evacuations and I will give the benefit of the doubt that a certain degree of violence was necessary to restrain the protesters. But the online responses which categorized the left wing as traitors deserving a beating and encouraging IDF to inflict further pain on the "terrorists" is disconcerting and frankly, it reeks of fascism. The majority of the public has already decreed all Palestinians are deserving of their misery and the military wrath. If this reaction is an indication of public opinion, then the increasingly marginalized left might be next to sow its own destruction by actively opposing occupation policy. Is Israeli democracy strong enough to fight such loathsome hatred of those unwilling to reconcile with the consensus?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Enemy Within

An overwhelming cloud of desperation lingers over Israel in recent days. Although this nation is experienced in overcoming personal and national adversity, the current mood of the state is rooted in wholly different circumstances. The citizens of Israel could always prevail in the face of ongoing war, terrorism, economic hardships because it was possible to console ourselves that we are not responsible for creating these difficulties. An enemy always stood to blame for our difficulties – the Palestinians, the Egyptians, Arabs in general. The omnipresence of a collective enemy also facilitated our ability to unite in solidarity and defiantly march on. A public outcry of frustration has become resonant following the publication of the Winograd report, which basically labeled all levels of government (and most levels of military) incompetent in leading the nation into a doomed war. The distress following the realization of Israel fallibility is compounded by the continual unveiling of public corruption, absolute mistrust of government, the decimation of the welfare state, widening social gaps, predictions of a looming war. All this is accompanied with a general state of apathy in all sectors of society. Mired in turmoil Israelis looking for the collective enemy to bond them together will discover only a mirror, reflecting our weary society, standing before them.

This police surveillance tape recording of a motorcyclist lying in the middle of a junction, as over thirty vehicles swerve to avoid the body, seems to be emblematic of the ills of our society. It reflects the crack in our national character that has kept us united for so long. Yes, we Israelis are abrasive, impatient, verbally violent, morally flexible and lack table manners but we take comfort that an underlying sympathy of joint struggle ties us together. This explicit display of disregard serves as a gruesome warning of the path this state is wandering down. The cardinal virtue of the founding ideology of Zionism – to protect and shelter any Jew from harm – has been shunned. We have evolved into an atypical modern nation, embracing individualism and competition. Rampant privatization and de-regulation are an inevitable consequence when our primary ally (don't forget Micronesia) is the U.S. However, these very same "modernizations" of Israeli economy unwillingly dismantled our idealistic basis. In a system where capital measures the individual's ability to prosper, refuge for every Jew is impractical. It does not matter if a Jew lives in poverty in the diaspora or in Israel (as over a third does).
Conflicting virtues of individual competition and Jewish collectivism are colliding. It should not surprise us that the ramifications of this collision are greedy politicians, fortification of an oligarchy devouring profits ultimately the birth of an utterly apathetic populace. No longer can we discard our burdens as creations of external entities, the enemy lies within.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Torture? It's the Occupation... Stupid!

A recent B'tselem report released claims that Israel (Shin Bet) employs "exceptional interrogation methods and physical pressure against Palestinian detainees" with alarming regularity. I do not want to minimize the significance of the study, but... No Shit! This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Has there ever been a viable method of repressing an occupied population that did not entail subjecting them to violence? Occupation does not succeed when you tickle the other side into submission with a feather. What do people surprised by this report reckon has been going on here for the last forty years, a bi-national pyjama party? Both the Israeli right and left need to recognize the abhorrent tools necassary to maintain an occupation. Each side must then rationalize his morality in order to establish that the ends justify the means.

Here is the link to the report: Utterly Forbidden: The Torture And Ill-Treatment Of Palestinian Detainees

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Don't Fret Over Iran! Get Your Emergency Passport

Last week I found myself desperately trying to find my grandfather's birth certificate among all the paperwork he has accumulated during the 83 years of his life. This wasn't a journey too explore my family heritage, this was quest to find a ticket; a ticket out of Israel and into the EU. My grandfather was allegedly born in Hamburg. An original copy of his birth certificate would grant me eligibility for German citizenship (following exhausting and expensive legal procedures). Why would a native born Israeli, relatively content in his personal and financial status, spend his weekend rummaging through decades worth of paperwork to find a piece of German bureaucracy? Because every smart Jew knows you need insurance, bub'ale!


The great scramble for foreign passports began a few years in Israel. The Israeli Pollacks broke out the kneidelach soup in celebration when Poland was admitted to the European Union in 2004. The descendents of Romanian grandparents are getting restless in anticipation for 2008. And third generation Israelis of German ancestry have ironically been standing in line for the most coveted of European passport for years. It is very fashionable among young Israelis to reap the benefits of hereditary immigration laws in European countries their grandparents fled from only 60 years ago. It seems that virtually every Ashkenazi 'in the know' already has his back up citizenship ready. Israeli Turks! Keep your fingers (and butt cheeks) crossed. The unfortunate Israelis, whose ancestors were not “chilling” in the shtetls, are counting on population-needy Western nations as a Plan B option: i.e.Canada, Australia, etc.

How much has changed in Israel in the last couple of decades. There used to be a time when Jews actually aspired to move to Israel and expatriates were considered traitors. When that fad slowly began waning in the eighties, the Jewish agency orchestrated Operation Solomon in 1991, to resolutely show Zionist skeptics: "See! Jews in the Diaspora still need Israel." Honestly, if I was starving shepherd in Ethiopia, I would live in a meat freezer if I was allowed to lick the carcasses. Nowadays, you can't read the newspaper without being enticed by immigration law firms offering free consultations regarding possibilities of becoming a citizen of (fill in the affluent country of your choice here).

Has the idealized 'stick to your guns' image of the Israeli withered away? Maybe prosperous economies merely lure us away solely because a salesperson in America earns more during Christmas then a teacher would make here in over a year? It's probably a little of both – individualist ideals dominate Israeli psyche, as the economy is receding away from the public sector. In turn, the sense of collective community and solidarity is decreasing. The citizen's indifference to the political and social spheres of society becomes more evident. The unbearable corruption and boorishness of government only aggravates the sense of alienation from the state. Combine the national state of comatose apathy with the magnetic appeal of a respectable pay in exchange for labor and you get “Exodus II - The Round Trip”. And as opposed to 'brain drains' recognized throughout history, any Israeli with a Hungarian grandmother can make claims for citizenship, not just the highly qualified professionals. If the ideological foundations holding Israel together on a thread continue to be ravaged by policies of unequal distribution and political corruption, then you might find masses of disenchanted Israelis standing in front of the German embassy once the situation becomes impossible to ignore.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Holy Hebron - A State of Mind

For any visitor to the Jewish settlement in the Palestinian city of Hebron, the first encounter with the local Jewish residents takes place through the screen of a digital camcorder. As soon as a group of visitors with assumingly critical views on the settlement movement arrives to the gates of the Jewish quarter of Hebron, a local resident rushes up to the group. As he films he proclaims that when the Jewish revolution is complete his footage will serve as evidence to convict the group of treason. Within moments of arriving in Hebron, you quickly understand that in spite of being a 40 minute drive from Jerusalem, you have reached an utterly distinct reality.

Hebron is the second largest Palestinian city in the West Bank with an Arab population of 150,000. It has a rich and extensive Jewish history dating back to Biblical times when the Patriarch Abraham purchased a field and a cave within the confines of the city as a burial place. According to the beliefs of all three monotheistic religions, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried in the cave. Later, King David was anointed in Hebron and reined some time in the city. Thus, Hebron is one of the four holy cities of Judaism and recognized by Islam as a holy place and the burial spot of its forefather Ibrahim (Abraham). However, despite the religious significance of Hebron, the void of God can never be felt more so then throughout a tour of the hallowed Jewish quarters.

Hebron has continuously harbored a Jewish population until a massacre of its residents perpetrated by Arab nationalists in 1929 and the annexation of the city by Jordan following the Israeli war of independence in 1948. Jewish settlement in the city underwent a resurgence following the occupation of the West Bank during the Six-Day-War in 1967. Today approximately 500 Jewish settlers have made Hebron their home and an additional 6,000 Jews reside in the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Due to the existence of a Jewish minority in Hebron, governing authority was not transferred to the Palestinians within the framework of the Oslo agreements and Israel did not withdraw forces. In 1997 the Hebron Protocol was implemented which decreed the withdrawal of Israel from 80% of the city and divided the city into two areas: H-1, the larger part of the city, which contains most of the Palestinian population, was transferred to Palestinian authority. H-2, approximately 20% of the city remained under Israeli military control. This area is currently home to 500 Jewish settlers and a dwindling Palestinian population of 35,000. Consequently, the concentration of a Jewish settlement within an urban Palestinian center has ignited tension since the Jews started aspiring to make this patch of earth a homeland. These conflicts have been confounded in recent years by the outbreak of the incessant Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. The Intifada triggered a wave of mutual violence between Hebron settlers and the Palestinian residents. In an effort to quell the violence IDF, in conjunction with the Israeli government, took measures to contain the spreading fire of perennial conflict between settlers driven by uncompromising expansionist ideals and a resentful Palestinian populace. These measures have left the H-2 section of Hebron a comatose ghost town.

In an attempt to break the circle of violence between the rivaling divisions in the city IDF has implemented an extended curfew on the Palestinians residents of H-2, prohibiting Palestinians to evacuate their homes for extended periods of time. Some curfews have last for months, in which residents have been unable to go to work, attend school or refurbish existential supplies. In addition to prolonged periods of being shut in, Arab residents of H-2 freedom of movement is impeded further as certain roads, notably the main road intersecting the town, have been proclaimed “off-limits”. In the military lexicon the aforementioned roads are referred to as being “sterilized”. These restrictions on the Palestinians, especially those living within the areas with larger numbers of Jewish residents, have had catastrophic implications. According to independent research by B’tselem, an Israeli information center for humans rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2,000-2,500 businesses have been shut down or abandoned, most businesses were concentrated in a central area that previously flourished as a marketplace. Economic activity in Hebron has dropped by as much as 50% following the regulations implemented after 2000. A lack of hope for development and restriction of movement has led to an exodus of Palestinians from their homes to the autonomous section of town.

Soul by soul and stone by stone, the town of Hebron is being “re-claimed” into greater Israel. The extreme settler ideology dictates that Hebron is a city for Jews and aspires to expand the settlement. As a means of realizing the ambition of expansion settler leaders utilize methods of illegal squatting, generally by minors in order to evade severe punishment, in abandoned structures thus fixating their hold of another centimeter of land. Testimonials also show that settlers use methods of organized intimidation and harassment of Palestinians as a means of expediting the transfer of non-Jews. Recent cases have portrayed that military police have been unable or unwilling to enforce the law on the settlers, who roam the forsaken streets of Hebron like cowboys of Judea. Victims are dissuaded from filing complaints with Israeli police and complaints are infamous for “getting lost within the bureaucracy.”

Traveling sullenly down the narrow street leading to the entrance of the old city quarters of Hebron, scenes of a contested city play before a visitor's eyes: A Palestinian laborer presenting his ID card to a wary Israeli solider, A Jewish settler boy rides in circles around the tour group incessantly ringing his bell and sporadically yelling "Death to Arabs". Political graffiti and posters calling for Arab expulsion litter every vacant wall across this part of the city. In Hebron, one is standing in the junction of the Israeli occupation and a battleground over modern definition of the Zionist ideology.

The bottom line of any explanation given by settlers for the hardship for all sides due to the situation is that Hebron is ours and any other explanation is redundant. That simplistic answer explains why Hebron is the silent struggle for modern meaning of Zionism. Most Israelis are raised to believe that they are always moral, always ethic, enlightened occupiers. Yet if Israel as a country is willing to sacrifice those values most of its people hold dear as an enlightened society for the sake of land, regardless of history or theology, then somewhere along the line the ideals upon which the country was founded have been tarnished. David Ben-Gurion. Israel's founding prime minister, read during the proclamation of independence: "We extend the hand of peace and good-neighborliness to all the States around us and to their people, and we call upon them to cooperate in mutual helpfulness with the independent Jewish nation in its Land. The State of Israel is prepared to make its contribution in a concerted effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East."

Somewhere during the journey the state of Israel has taken through its short history, the hand of peace that Ben-Gurion mentioned was hi-jacked by a blind eye to the suffering of others. Since Israel was founded as an island of enlightenment and democracy in the stormy Middle East, and much of its outside support rests on these pillars, it cannot afford any longer to trade the humanistic values of Zionism against the value of the land, as holy as it may be.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Following the shaky truce in the Middle East, Israel will try to collect the pieces of reality and return to normalcy. We will slowly climb out of the bomb shelters, wipe the tears from our face and try to continue as if nothing happened – again. Israeli society is a tree that has grown from the roots of a violent war for its establishment. Every war since has contributed another sturdy branch which further entrenches our minds in a macho military condition. Israeli culture is dictated by the mutual experience of graduating years of obligatory military service that almost every Israeli endures.

Our everyday language is a montage of military terminology. Generals attain the status of semi-celebrities in mainstream media and their transition into the highest levels of politics is all but promised. We proudly identify with our army unit until we are discharged from reserve duty at the ripe age of 45 and we never dare question the authority or legitimacy of the omnipresent Defense Forces. Israel is a nation mentally clad in the IDF uniform, intermediately wearing civilian clothes but perennially thinking like the soldiers we were produced to be.

This mentality, which nurtures Israel to perceive the army as our collective mother, inevitably breeds a shoot first, talk later approach to all our conflicts. This mentality, which diminishes the individual's right to reflect his actions, has created an immense wall that purposes the greatest obstacle to breaking the circle of violence. If every Israeli is a social product of the military manufacturing line and the business of the military is to wage war, then the probability of citizen's supporting a resolution that does not rely on military means remains discouraging.

The tragic paradox which embodies Israeli reality is that the subtle indoctrination of the military cannot be broken until general enlistment for the entire populace is not longer required, which will only arrive when peace is established, which in turn requires a mental switch. Israeli society is condemned to this cycle, which has become more impenetrable, as another war enshrines the glory of the army. This war has laid birth to another branch, stained with the blood of soldiers and civilians, to our national tree, which serves to fortify the cycle of conflict in this region.

Just like a tree, it is nearly impossible to uproot the foundations of a society. It is my dream that one day a political leader will be able to unite the people without relying on the symbols and rhetoric of war but of peace. A leader who will be courageous and persistent enough to address our problems in a constructive, and not destructive, manner. Regretfully, the wounds in the Israeli psyche are still fresh and the courageous leader I am hoping for seems to be missing in action.