Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tombs and heritage

"We have to appeal to the Christians throughout the world. They know the Bible, they know that our Fathers and Mothers are really buried at the Cave of the Machpela in Hebron" was how Minister Gilad Arden of the Likud Party put it in a radio interview yesterday.

Indeed, the story in the Book of Genesis is well-known to anybody who reads the Bible. The death of Sarah, the wife of the Patriarch Abraham, and how he bought a piece of land in which to bury – all the while treating the inhabitants of Hebron in his time with great respect and courtesy (in marked contrast to the behavior of present-day Israeli settlers in Hebron, who daily invoke Abraham's name).

Is this story a historical fact? And even if it is, does the grave which Abraham dug for his wife truly lie under the structure in the Palestinian city of Hebron, called "The Cave of the Machpela" by Jews "The Ibrahimi Mosque" by Muslims? And is Abraham's son Isaac the one who is buried there at his side – the ancestor of the Jews according to Jewish tradition? Or is it Abraham's son Ismael, ancestor of the Arabs and the Muslims according to Arab and Muslim tradition? Or were completely different people buried there, hundreds or thousands of years later?

Perhaps, once upon a time historians and archaeologists would be able to provide a reliable and authoritative answer. In fact, it does not really matter. Traditions and myths, religious or nationalist, have their own power, only very loosely connected with objective facts.

There is no doubt that for centuries the Cave of the Machpela in Hebron (as well as Rachel's Tomb in Bethelehem) constituted part of a genuine Jewish heritage, which was passed on from generation to generation. There was no need of a cabinet determining a "List of National Heritage Sites" nor of an army of occupation to conquer the Hertiatage Sites and control them and fortify them. That was a long time ago.

During forty two years of occupation, the Cave of the Machpela has become the "heritage" of rampaging settlers, the very symbol and emblem of wild nationalism and national insanity. On Februay 25, 1996 – exactly sixteen years ago – settler Baruch Goldstein turned the Cave of the Machpela into a field of carnage. Many of the Hebron settlers regard Goldstein as a hero whose act deserves respect and admiration – and also emulation.

During forty two years of occupation, the Cave of the Machpela has become a place which only the settlers and their friends have any wish of visiting. Ordinary Israelis would much rather board a plane and reach within a few hours the tourist sites in Thailand and South America.

Tombs and heritage (2)

The story of Jakob and Rachel is one of the oldest love stories known to human culture. The story of how they had to wait fourteen years before being able to consummate their love, and of how Rachel died in childbirth and was buried at the roadside, is touching and poignant – regardless of whether or not it really happened and if Rachel is truly buried under the structure in the city of Bethlehem which bears the name "Rachel's Tomb".

When the picture of Rachel's Tomb appeared on stamps published by the British Mandate, nobody opposed it and nobody protested. On the contrary, the British chose this picture especially in order to have a site acceptable to all of His Majesty's subjects in this country, Jews and Arabs alike. Rachel's Tomb had been, for hundreds of years, one of this country's symbols, part of the heritage of all its inhabitants. Some people still remember the days when Jewish and Arab women alike went on pilgrimage to Rachel's Tomb and prayed there, side by side.

Rachel's Tomb, that beautiful and modest structure which appeared on stamps and also in various naïve and romantic paintings, no longer exists. Under the rule of the State of Israel it was replaced by an enormous concrete fortification, guarded day and night by a large military force – a threatening enclave penetrating into Palestinian Bethlehem.

It is this location, as well as the Cave of the Machpela, that the government of Israel proclaimed to be "National Heritage Sites", which are to be "rebuilt" and "reconstructed" at considerable expense for the state treasury. PM Netanyahu utterly fails to understand why this decision precipitated such a big storm of protests: "We just wanted to connect the young Israeli generation to their historical roots in the soil of this country" he said. "The campaign conducted by the Palestinians in response to the cabinet decision is a hypocritical lie. The State of Israel is committed to freedom of religious worship for members of all religious denominations in all holy sites".

The Prime Minster has apparently not heard that soldiers guarding Rachel's Tomb were instructed not to admit any Palestinian into the compound, none whatsover. Even an attempt to approach the entrance, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, would involve a very real life danger for an inhabitant of Bethlehem.

Tombs and heritage (3)

"In the Galilee, in Tel Hai/Trumpeldor had fallen
For out country, for our people/Yosef the Hero had fallen"

"Everyewhere, at any moment/Shall you remember me
For I did fight and I did fall/For the sake of my country"

In fact, the original intention of Netahyhau and his ministers was to focus on a myth from the nearer past – just ninety years, to be exact. In this case, there is no doubt, at least about the basic historical facts. The Battle of Tel Hai, between a Zionist pioneer militia headed by Yosef Trumpeldor and the inhabitants of the surrounding Arab villages, did take place. A rather small affair, in comparison with the battles and wars which followed, but it was the first battle in the conflict, and it left behind an impressive myth, highly influential for generations afterwards.

During the 1960's, at my elementary school in Tel Aviv, I learned by heart the heroic Tel Hai songs, and I heard a lot of Yosef Trumpeldor and his famous last words "No matter, it is good to die for our country". Years later, the iconoclasts would assert that in fact his last words were a very pungent expression in Russian, his mother tongue (in fact, since Trumpeldor lay dying for several hours, he had time enough for both).

New generations arose, young people who thought that, rather than dying (and killing) for your country it might be preferable to live for its sake, achieve peace for its sake and that of its neighbors too. The Trumpeldor Myth was increasingly forgotten. Netanyahu now seems determined to take the myth out of its glass case in the museum, brush off the dust and present it with all its glory to the young generation of Israelis.

Can this work, even with the considerable government budgets earmarked for the purpose? Myths of this kind of myth are especially strong and effective among oppressed peoples, who still have no independent state of their own, who dream of liberty and struggle for it. Not so much for those who have a state for sixty years already, and spent most of it being occupiers.

Something to hide?

The government of Syria announced that it would not allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect again the site which was three years ago bombed by unidentified planes coming from the general direction of the Israeli border.

"This is very suspicious. What are the Syrians building there? It seems they have something to hide?" cried ministers Uzi Landau and Yossi Peled, and got several precious minutes of radio air time.

Why did the Syrians have to get themselves into trouble? They could have just done what David Ben Gurion did in 1959, after building the Dimona Nuclear Pile, and declare throughout the world that this istallation in north Syria is just a textile factory. Who would demand to inspect a textile factory?

The other Labour Party

The Dutch cabinet had fallen. The Labour Party (the Dutch one) had departed from the governing coalition, headed by a right-wing politician, because it has had enough of seeing Dutch soldiers shed their blood in the futile war in Afghanistan.

Of course, the leader of the Dutch Labour Party had not taken this step solely due to abstract principles. Like all politicians, they can read opinion polls, and the polls indicate that 76% of the Dutch public are opposed to the idea of "reinforcing" the units of their country's army posted to Afghanistan. Elections are due there in the near future, and there are some grounds for assuming that a more dovish posture might be rewarded by the voters.

A pity Ehud Barak does not read Dutch.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The stench of occupation

I was there myself last Friday in Bil'in, but rather then competing with Roy Wagner I recommend you read his concise tongue in cheek report.

A complex logistics operation brought over 300 people from Israel to Bil'in's 5th anniversary demonstration. Despite several attempts, the army managed to prevent only a small number of cars from entering the village. The demonstrators joined radical clowns, a Palestinian prime minister, the Ka/Ya-Samba percussionists, representatives of various Palestinian parties,

The Palestinian Struggle Youth Union marching band, one mayor from Geneva, dozens of journalists and supporters from all over Palestine and other parts of the world to express solidarity with the local wo/men of Bil'in in their struggle against the evils of the Israeli occupation.

After a string of speeches in various languages and a jam session of the Palestinian marching band and the percussionists residing between the wall and the Mediterranean, over 1,000 people marched to the wall. The soldiers stood behind their usual post, and so the demonstrators broke forward, crossed the gate, bent the fence, crossed it, and marched over the soldiers' front post.

After a few minutes of ecstasy, while dignitaries were still making their way forward, the army's foul water cannon known as "The Skunk" made a surprise guest appearance, and managed to push the demonstrators back behind the fence. In a typical expression of oppression, after the demonstrators backed away from the smelly water, the army used its special "gas machine gun" fire simultaneous dozens of gas canisters - not into the few demonstrators at the front, but rather into the hundreds retreating or standing peacefully behind.

The wind coming down the path combined with the panic of inexperienced demonstrators led to many injuries from gas inhalation, impact and falling. After the initial dispersal some demonstrators remained to absorb, for the sake of the struggle, exceptionally large amounts of gas. As has become customary lately, when the last demonstrators were on their way to the village, a few soldiers invaded the village, but due to the massive presence of supporters, they settled for one more round of gas, returning to bask in their own stench. (So far Wagner.)

Yesterday, the Israeli government convened a special meeting in Tel Hai, to decide on a series of national heritage sites which should receive special government funds for preserving and cultivating them. According to Prime Minister Netanyahu, it is important that the citizens of Israel visit these sites to better understand our relationship with the Land of Israel.

Maybe worthwhile to include the Skunk in the heritage list, too, so all citizens can see with their eyes, and smell with their noses, authentic evidence as to the nature of the relationship of the State of Israel with the territories under its control and the people living there.

As an eye- or rather, nose-witness I can indeed confirm that the Skunk spreads a smell reminiscent of a field on which organic fertilizer was spread. Those who suffer a direct hit have to wash their clothes several times and wash them thoroughly, and even then the stench of occupation isn't gone.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How dare they?

"Here in the Hyatt Hotel it happened. The Palestinian terrorists entered the hotel by stealth and killed Rehav'am Ze'evi, a war hero and Israeli government minister. There is no forgiveness for such an act. The man who masterminded it is now in Israeli custody, and there he will stay as long as I am the Prime Minister!". So did Benyamin Netanyhau declare this morning.

The nerve of these Palestinians! Don’t they know that the method of sending assassins to liquidate the enemy in a hotel is a registered Israeli trade secret? We should sue them for breach of copyright.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Left behind in the snow

Nathan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, is worried about Israel's deteriorating position on the campuses of American universities. In an interview to Israeli radio (Feb. 12, 2010) Sharansky recounted how shocked he had been to hear American Jewish students sharply criticizing Israel's acts and saying "because of Israel, we are ashamed to be Jewish".

When asked: "Perhaps in order to improve Israel's image, we should change our policy towards the Palestinians in the Territories?" Sharansky was very surprised at the very question: No, he said, there is no connection whatsoever. These students just don’t understand that criticism of Israel is the new form of anti-Semitism. Maybe, we should increase the number of Zionist emissaries to the universities, to tell the students to stop listening to antisemites.

A long time ago, when he lived in the Soviet Union, Sharansky became renowned as a dissident, who campaigned for human rights and was not broken by many years behind bars. This concern for human rights he left behind, in the Russian snow.

People in Blue

Last week the inhabitants of Bil'in Village gained media attention by painting themselves blue and emulating the exterrestrials of the tridimensional film "Avatar".

Media editors are still able to take some interest in the creatures of another planet. But just run of the mill Palestinian villagers, protesting for the thousandth time that Israel had stolen their land? Where is the news in that?

A bit late

In September 2007 the Supreme Court of the State of Israel ordered the army to change the route of the "Separation Fence" near the village of Bil'in and thus restore to the villagers part (not all) the land which was taken away from them.

The army was in no hurry to implement the court's ruling. The fence remained where it was, and the villagers continued to hold protest demonstrations every week. On April 17, 2009, soldiers shot and killed Bil'in activist Bassem Abu Rahme, who was demonstrating near the fence, together with his Israeli and Palestinian friends.

Last week, two and a half years after the court rendered its ruling, the army at last announced the beginning of preliminary work on moving the fence in Bil'in. For Bassem Abu Rahme, this is too late. . .

A suspicious silence

When Prime Minister Netayahu announced what he called "the settlement construction freeze", there ensued weeks of highly reported riots, and the army's construction inspectors were confronted with rampaging settlers calling them "Nazis".

This is long past. We no longer hear of settlers protesting. A rather suspicious silence. Is it because they have become reconciled to the freeze of construction in their settlements, or because there is no real freeze?

Even before we saw yesterday on Channel 2 TV the construction on 29 settlements going on full steam, the answer was never in any real doubt.

It’s the same, isn’t it?

The Ministerial Legislative Committee decided this week on a bill which would make funding for commemorating Rahavam Ze'evi equal to what is spent on the commemoration of Yitzchak Rabin.

Rabin and Ze'evi - both military men, involved for much of their lives in Israel's wars and politics, and both ending from an assassin’s bullet. So far the comparison goes.

Yitchak Rabin, as Prime Minister, tried to achieve peace with the Palestinians, went further than any other Israeli leader before or after, and continued even when unpopular steps were needed. He was assassinated by an extreme rightist who sought to destroy all that Rabin tried to build (and to a considerable degree succeeded).

Rahavam Ze'evi, as minister of Tourism, worked for the "Transfer" of millions of people from their homes and land and making Greater Israel Araberrein. This inhumane stance built for him a rather successful political career – until the day he was killed by one of those he had planned to expel.

Vive la petite difference.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The turtle and the hare

Once upon a time there were two friends, a hare and turtle, and they both joined the Jerusalem Police.

The swift hare was kept very busy in the police, all the time running here, there and everywhere. He was in Sheikh Jarah, helping to expel Palestinian families and let settlers take over their homes and beating up any demonstrator who dared protest. And he went running to Shuafat, raiding and arresting in the late hours of the night and during the day confronting youths on the streets and spraying them with tear gas. A very very busy life he had, the swift police hare.

His friend the police turtle was given an important task: to approach the settlers in that illegal seven-floor house erected in the middle of Silwan, of telling them that they must at last obey the Supreme Court's ruling and get out of there. The turtle was given the eviction order, and he duly set out for Silwan – at a snail's pace, naturally. And get there he will. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next year, who can tell? You can’t hurry up a turtle!

Is this education?

General Gabi Askenazi, the Army Chief-if-Staff, is very much ashamed of his alma mater, the “Gymnasia Herzlia” in Tel Aviv. This fine old highschool, with its proud traditions, has fallen upon evil days indeed. It has fallen into the claws of that horrible principal, Dr. Zeev Dagani. A man who actually believes that teachers are more qualified to teach than the fine decorated officers which the army and education ministry send to his school. And heresy of heresies, he actually dared say on the radio that it would be better to evaluate a school by how well its graduates do in the university, rather than by how many of them join combat units in the army.
This is really insufferable. With our children abandoned into the care of the Daganis, where will we get for the next war soldiers who obey every order and kill and ask no questions?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Fitting Punishment

White Phosphorous bombs are inhumane weapons. White Phosphorous fragments burn with an unquenchable fire, sink deeper and deeper into the living flesh in all directions, causing terrible pain which often ends in a cruel death. Such was the lot of quite some inhabitants in the Gaza Strip, exactly a year ago.

Shooting White Phosphorous bombs into populated areas is an act strictly forbidden by International Law. A war crime, pure and simple.

The Israel defense forces, the most moral army in the world, found a fitting punishment for those who ordered this act to be committed: writing a note. Yes, writing down a note in a file which will thereupon be filed and forgotten in an army archive.

Such is Israel's response to the Goldstone Report. The rest of the world – except for Alan Dershowitz and Silvio Berlusconi – will fail to even laugh at the joke.

A real Israeli does not shirk

"A real Israeli does not shirk!" proclaim advertisement signs throughout the country, placed by someone with quite a lot of money (the money of donors from Israel, or from abroad?).

Quite right, too. A real Israeli indeed does not shirk doing his or her civic and moral duty. Even if it is hard and unpleasant and unpopular and at some times also downright dangerous.

A real Israeli does not shirk protesting against oppression and injustice. A real Israeli does not shirk even when the soldiers shoot tear gas at Bil'in and the police with their clubs are ready to drag Sheikh Jarah protesters to the detention cells.

Real Israelis do not shirk raising the voices when the country's army commits war crimes. And when the state authorities do shirk their duty to seriously investigate the war crimes (and seriously punish their perpetrators), a real Israeli does not shirk the duty of testifying before those who do investigate.

The Human Rights activists are real Israelis. And also those of the New Israel Fund.

Playing with fire

A foreign minister is a country' number one diplomat. It is a Foreign Minister's job to speak calmly and politely, to smooth things and calm down tensions, to try as much as possible to present a sane and moderate image even when the minister's country's is not truly such.

A Foreign Minister is certainly not supposed to be the most aggressive of provocateurs, to rattle swords and make bald threats of war. But then, nobody ever had any illusion that Avigdor Lieberman is qualified to be a Foreign Minister.

A person who enjoys playing with fire and who every day sets alight a match or two in a sensitive spot is bound to eventually start a great conflagration.

And he who appoints a pyromaniac to command the fire brigade ... the words fail me.