Thursday, February 27, 2014

Not an Apartheid State? Bennett will take care of it.

The Batsheva Dance Company went to New Zealand, for a performance reflecting the decades long artistic work of its director, the well known choreographer  Ohad Naharin. But even there, on the other side of the world, the dancers could not escape the political problems of this country. Outside the St. James Theatre in Wellington were waiting for them dozens of angry protesters, who accused Bat Sheva of “whitewashing”, of presenting a nice  face for the State of Israel, hiding the violation of the Human Rights of Palestinians.

The protest organizer was John Minto, known from the struggle against the South Africa apartheid regime - when he and his fellows disrupted rugby matches where South African teams came to play in New Zealand. In this week's demonstration Minto claimed that Israel, too, is an apartheid state, since "Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship are not regarded as nationals of Israel. To be a national of Israel, you have to be Jewish, and so you have a whole network of laws that follow through from that and which actually discriminate against Arab Israelis.''

A counter-demonstration was held by members of the local Jewish community. Community representative David Schwartz objected to Minto’s words, saying that "Israel is a democratic state where all the citizens have equal rights under the law”, firmly asserting that there are no laws discriminating against Arab Israelis and even making the accusation that Minto and his fellows were themselves motivated by racism in voicing their accusations of Israel.

From Jerusalem, capital of Israel, Minister Naftali Bennett added his voice on that same day to the fierce debate taking place in Wellington, capital of New Zealand. The voice of Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party and a senior minister in the Netanyahu cabinet, was loud and clear: "We must show zero tolerance to the national aspirations of Israeli Arabs. We must mark out the Jewish character of the state, enact a law which will set out firmly the identity of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Israel has numerous laws defending all kind of rights”, continued the minister, “but there is no law on the basic identity of the state itself. Some people here dream of making us into something like Sweden, but we are not Sweden.”   The Economy Minister  especially attacked former  Supreme  Court President  Aharon Barak, accusing him and his fellow judges of  “consistently striving to overturn the balance and strip the State of its Jewish significance” and of “enacting a Civic Revolution at the expense of our Jewishness”.  In his view, such landmark verdicts as the Ka’adan Ruling should be overturned, Judaization should no longer be the obscene concept into which the  Supreme Court turned it. Rather, Judaization should be elevated and enshrined as a supreme constitutional principle of the Jewish state.

It may be worthwhile recapitulating the Supreme Court’s Ka’adan Ruling - for the sake of those who don’t remember. More than twenty years ago, Adel and Iman Ka'adan, a successful young couple residing in Baka al-Garbiya, sought to build a house for themselves and their children in Katzir, a new community being established nearby where they could expect a higher quality of life which is not available in crowded and impoverished Baka al-Garbiya. But their request to purchase a plot of land at Katzir was rejected out of hand. The reasons were stated quite clearly and explicitly: the Ka’adan are Arabs, while the community or Katzir was being built on land which the State of Israel had allocated to the Jewish Agency which – being a purely Jewish national organization - was involved with interests of Jews  and engaged in creating communities open to Jews only.

The Ka'adans contacted ACRI (Civil Rights Association) and with its help appealed to the Supreme Court . In the course of principled deliberations, lasting some five years, officials of the State and the Jewish Agency expressly informed the court that establishment of communities intended for Jews only was inherent in the implementation of Zionism, and so it has been since the first Zionist pioneers arrived here. Chief Justice Aharon Barak made ​​great efforts to avoid a conclusive judicial ruling on the fundamental issue, and provide a personal solution to the Ka'adans’ problem by finding them a plot of land "outside the fence" , i.e. outside the land designated for the community of  Katzir. However, all attempts to find a compromise failed, and in March 2000 the counrt rendered a principled ruling. .

Chief Justice Barak wrote that the decision to accept the Ka'adans ' appeal had been the hardest decision of his life, but there was no escaping it. "Precisely because the state of Israel is a Jewish state, it must uphold equality as a supreme moral value. Allowing a community for Jews only is a clear violation of the law. The principle of Israel being a Jewish and democratic state does in no way suggest that the State may effect discrimination between its citizens.”

 “The State is the State of the Jews; the regime which exists in it is an enlightened democracy, which grants equal rights to all citizens, Jews and non –Jews alike. There is therefore no contradiction between the principle ​​of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and the absolute equality among all its citizens. On the contrary: equal rights for everybody in Israel, whatever their religion or ethnicity, is directly from the basic moral values ​​of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

End of the story ? Not precisely. The Supreme Court referred the Ka'adans to the admissions committee of the Katzir community and forbade it to use their being Arabs as a direct or indirect criterion for rejection. Whereupon the admissions committee promptly rejected them again, this time not because they were Arabs but just because they “did not fit ." ACRI lodged a second Supreme Court appeal, and in 2004 the government’s Lands Administration announced that Katzir has grown in size and no longer needed an Admissions Committee, and therefore the Ka'adans would be assigned a family plot.

In August 2007, over ten years after they had embarked on their struggle, the Ka'adans at last could start building their home in Katzir. But the path opened with such effort did not long remain open for the use of others. In March 2011, the Knesset passed the Admissions Committee Law, which allows the government to allocate land for the establishment of "Community Locations", where people can come to live only if approved by an Admissions Committee – and such Admissions Committees are empowered to reject any applicant which in their judgement “does not fit the community’s social fabric”.

For Minister Naftali Bennett this is not enough. He wants to turn the clock back to the period before the Ka’adan Ruling. His Israel will not be like Sweden, nor like any other democratic country in Europe or North America (or in New Zealand) . In the State of Israel envisioned by Naftali Bennett, the statutory basic constitutional principle would state that it is permissible and appropriate for the state authorities to establish communities for Jews only, in order to  promote the Judaization of the Galilee and the Judaization of the Negev and the Judaization of the entire country. And what about an Arab who dares to raise his voice in protest? The minister made it clear: zero tolerance .

Meanwhile, United States Secretary of State John Kerry is working hard to overcome the problem of the recognition of a Jewish state, which has become a major stumbling block in the ongoing negotiations. Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a sine qua non for any agreement , while the Palestinians so far refused outright to grant any such recognition .

According to media leaks last week, some compromise solution might be found. For example, the Palestinians might agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state if they are categorically assured that this would in no way compromise the civil rights of Israeli Arabs. Perhaps, the Palestinians would eventually be able to live with such a formula. But could Bennett?

Friday, February 14, 2014

From Canaan to Spain

A week ago, the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat startled his Israeli interlocutors by  stating that his ancestors had been among the Canaanites who had lived in the city of Jericho three thousand years ago, before the conquering Children of Israel arrived there under Joshua’s leadership.

It was not made clear what Erekat’s remark was a reaction to. Whatever it has been, Tzipi Livni, in charge of the negotiations on behalf of Israel, decided "not to argue with Erekat on historical narratives, but rather concentrate on building a future of peace”. That aroused against her the great wrath of Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party.

Bennet was quick to set out the Zionist historical narrative in all its length and breadth and glory - the Bible and the Divine Promise and the Land of Israel being Our Patrimony for 3800 (sic) years and 2000 Years of Yearning and all the rest of it. In the print media and on the net, dozens of furious rightists took up the cudgel and strove with all their might to extol the sole and exclusive rights of the Jews and smash to smithereens any claims of Erekat and the Palestinians. (Not much later, the zealous Bennett called Martin Schulz a liar to his face; Schulz , President of the European Parliament, spoke in the Knesset and dared to mention the more mundane problem of the water inequality between Israelis and occupied Palestinians.)

Does Saeb Erekat keep in his pocket the detailed lineage which links him with the Canaanites of three thousand years ago ? Probably not. On the other hand , does Naftali Bennett’s pocket contain a lineage culminating with Joshua’s bloodthirsty warriors? That, too, is rather in doubt . Incidentally, the name "Bennett ", common in the English-speaking world, is specifically related to another set of conquerors, the Normans who conquered England in 1066 and brought the name with them from France . (Even in this direction, it is not sure that Naftali Bennett has a clear lineage...)

The Bible, the Economy Minister’s favorite book, includes a detailed description of what  the Children of Israel (Bennett 's ancestors ?) did to the Canaanites (Erekat 's ancestors?)  three thousand years ago:

" And the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city [Jericho]. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”  And later the Children of Israel under the leadership of Joshua moved on to  Ai : "And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword.And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai." And then on to Makkedah: "And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof/ He utterly destroyed them, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain”. 

In fact, among modern historians this description is doubted, and considered an exaggeration by a writer a bit later among our ancestors – presumably someone with a particularly morbid imagination. But in order to hear such skeptical thoughts one needs to get to university. Pupils in Israeli schools are taught to regard the wars and massacres of Joshua as undisputed facts, and as acts committed under the direct command of God Himself.

Thanks to Christianity adopting the Old Testament as part of its own Scriptures, the story of Joshua’s bloody campaign was translated into all languages ​​of the world, and for centuries served as a source of inspiration and legitimacy to many who sought to conquer somebody else’s land and settle there. For example, those who conquered the land of Indians in North America and of Blacks in South Africa. By the way, Islam which adopted many Biblical figures as its own Prophets had the good taste not to include Joshua among them.

Still, who are we and who were our ancestors? Who are the Palestinians and who were their ancestors? Looked at soberly, the most likely answer is that the Jews now living in Israel and in many other countries do have ancestors who lived in this country two thousand years ago - and they also have other ancestors who lived in various other places. My own personal grandmother had very Mongolian cheekbones, which seems to indicate that some of my own ancestors came to Eastern Europe from the Far East rather than from the Middle East... The same, probably, is true for the Palestinians - some of them are descendants of people who lived here two thousand or three thousand years ago, or perhaps even more, who throughout the generations remained in the same village and used the same farming methods, while others of the Palestinians’ ancestors probably came at various later times.

In 1918, the Zionist leaders David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi published a book called "The Land of Israel, Past and Present". Arab inhabitants of Palestine - especially in the countryside – were shown to be descendants of Jews who lived there during the Roman period. Evidence was brought up to substantiate this theory, in particular that the Arab dialect of the country’s peasants was full of Hebrew and Aramaic words. The research found that some 10,000 names of villages, rivers, springs , mountains, valleys, and hills all over the country in fact preserved the ancient Hebrew names in the Arabs’ usage.

At the time Ben Gurion and Ben-Zvi, future PM and President of Israel, entertained some hope that if the Arab inhabitants would be shown that their  ancestors had been  Jews, they might want to be Jewish in the present time and to cast their lot with Zionism. This hope was dashed soon. Especially since the Zionist movement was striving very hard to buy land all over the country and establish on it Kibbutzim and Moshavim – very Socialist Zionist communities, in which there was no place whatsoever for Arabs, Jewish ancestry or not...

The narrative of the Palestinians’ Jewish origin was consigned to a dusty shelf, and its place was taken by a completely opposite idea, Far from the Palestinians having lived here for two thousand years and maintaining remnants of a Jewish ancestral heritage, they had not been here at all. The land was empty and deserted, when the Zionist pioneers arrived in the late Nineteenth Century. The Palestinians - recent immigrants, migrant workers who came here because the Zionists have developed the country and created jobs which attracted them. It was this narrative was set out at great length by Nadav Shragai, a veteran columnist of the Israeli right-wing, in reaction to Saeb Erekat’s Canaanite origin.  In an article which covered three pages in the weekend edition of "Israel Today" (nicknamed “The Bibinews")  Shragai gleefully listed surnames common among Palestinians, which prove that they have come here from other countries. For example, those called " El Masri " are of Egyptian origin, and those called " Mughrabi " have come here all the way from Morocco. Shragai forgot, however, to mention that this last name exists also among Israeli Jews…

A few days later came the exiting news of the Spanish Government 's intention to grant Spanish citizenship to all who could show that their ancestors were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. There are quite a few Israelis whose surnames indicate the city in Spain where their ancestors lived, Toledano and Cordovero and Saragusti and Valenci and Murciano. Many of them plan to go to the Spanish Consulate in Tel Aviv as soon as the law is finally enacted by the parliament in Madrid. "Now, the Ashkenazis will no longer be the only ones to have place to flee to" one of them told a Yediot Aharonot reporter.  

Friday, February 7, 2014

Negotiating with a gun to the head

In the latest offensive of Israeli ministers against  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, worldwide  attention was given to the words of Yuval Steinitz,  the man who came down from the ivory tower of the Haifa University  Philosophy Department and is at the moment the ‘Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs’. " It is unacceptable to force Israel to negotiate with a gun to the head, with the Palestinians hearing that in case of failure of the talks The State of Israel would be hit by an international boycott."  

Two days before the philosopher-minister protested against the intolerable conditions under which the government of Israel is required to negotiate, IDF soldiers, accompanied by bulldozers arrived at the tiny village of Ein ​​al Hilweh in the northern Jordan Valley, and in a single hour razed it to the ground. Ein El Hilweh had been destroyed several times before, but this time it seems that policymakers are determined that it will not be rebuilt. The Red Cross was explicitly forbidden to provide tents to the sixty-six villagers who were left homeless, among them thirty-six children, and the military made clear that any tent found on the ground would be immediately confiscated. One villager asked the soldiers the desperate question "But where shall we go?" A soldier pointed toward the town of Tubas, one of the Palestinian enclaves defined under the Oslo Agreements, not part of the Jordan Valley which is to remain under long term Israeli control.

This was not the first or only case of its kind. For many years, the State of Israel has an policy to prevent the entry of Palestinians into the Jordan Valley if they don’t live there, and to destroy the homes of those who do live there. When the Jordan Valley became a major bone of contention in the  ongoing negotiations, the pace of Palestinian home demolitions in the same region greatly increased. 172 Palestinian structures were demolished in 2012, 390 in 2013, and since the new year began 92 were already destroyed in one month alone. Such are the conditions under which Palestinians are required to conduct negotiations on the future of the Jordan Valley .

Palestinians had more than once complained that they were required to negotiate with a gun to their heads, but this did not gain much attention in any media. As is well known, the media looks for man-bite- dog and not vice versa. In the endless rounds of negotiations spanning over twenty years, the Palestinians faced across the negotiating table an interlocutor maintaining full control on the ground and in no hurry to give it up, an interlocutor whose fleet of bulldozers is tirelessly engaged in the demolition of Palestinian homes and in preparing the ground for the expansion of Israeli settlements. In each round the Palestinians are presented with a choice:  to accept what is offered to them - or to face the prospect that the occupation which had already lasted for decades will go on for further decades.

On several occasions of this kind, Palestinians opted for the path of armed resistance. But then they were exposed to the blows of the most powerful army in the Middle East, and in the international public opinion they were presented as terrorists who reject peace. In other cases the Palestinians tried again to proceed through negotiations, and once again found that "Israel is conducting negotiations on the future of the pizza while eating it", in the words of veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat,

Since the days of Kissinger,  the United States had been the sole and exclusive mediator between Israel and the Arabs, and the other partners in the “Middle East Diplomatic Quartet” - Europe, Russia and the UN - were relegated to little more than a decoration .

Even when the rest of the world supported the Palestinians, the Government of Israel could afford to ignore it as long as it had the solid support of America. When the Secretary of State voiced too many complains and demands, it was worthwhile to check if the President truly backs the Secretary.  (Remember Colin Powell and George W.) And if the President  fully backed the Secretary of State, there was still AIPAC to provide a majority in the Senate and the House with standing ovations for any visiting Israeli Prime Minister. And the United States holds elections every two years, and candidates always need the support of the lobby, and campaigning lasts for nearly a year, so that an Israeli government just needs to get through the year between elections. Thus the four years of Barack Obama’s first term passed with nothing changed on the ground except for a significant increase in the number of Israeli settlers.

But "the bastards changed the rules."  At some point in the last year, the Europeans  ceased to be a decoration and became key players. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders quietly paved a bypass road around AIPAC, and Netanyahu is suddenly facing difficult pressures even in an American elections year. At the Munich Security Conference,  Kerry warned that “The status quo between Israel and the Palestinians cannot go on. While there is prosperity and momentary security in Israel, it is an illusion that is bound to change if talks flounder. The risks are very high for Israel. People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure. We all have a strong interest in this conflict resolution."

Is the United States going to impose a boycott? Is the United States putting pressure? God forbid: America is very much opposed to boycott. It is the Europeans who do the pressing and threatening. Talk to them, listen to them , Mr. Netanyahu , they are your country’s biggest trade partner. “The Third Intifada had begun. It started in the Europen Union” wrote the influential commentator Thomas Friedman.

The opinion poll published this morning by the Sofhashavua weekly indicated that some 70% of Israel's citizens no longer regard the U.S. as an honest broker. (Probably even now, there would be a higher percentage among Palestinians...) And, 67% of Israelis citizens are concerned that a European economic boycott might directly hurt them and their families.

Negotiations never take place in a vacuum. Developments around the table always reflect the military, political and economic balance of forces, the two parties’ ability to threaten each other and hurt each other. History has known two types of negotiations which mark the end of wars and conflicts. When only one party is required to negotiate with a gun to its head, it is negotiating terms of surrender. Only if both parties to the negotiations feel threatened, it might  be possible to eventually reach an agreement whereby both parties gradually lower the gun aimed at the other’s head and gradually build peaceful relations.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Not reading the map – Scarlett and the bubbles

Photos in which the film star looks at her best appeared prominently on Yediot  Aharonot’s front pages, under the title “Scarlett for Israel”: Supporting Israel has become a real professional risk to the world’s artists, writes Tzippy Shmilovitz. Anyone daring to come here or even say a good word about Israel is subject to great pressure and intimidation and most of them fold up. Not, however, Scarlett Johansson. She had to choose between old position as goodwill ambassador for the anti-poverty organization Oxfam, which is doing humanitarian work worldwide, and her new contract to act as “a global brand ambassador” for the SodaStream company, which produces domestic soda machines  in a West Bank settlement, she bravely chose for the latter, concludes Shmilovitz.

In the same vein Minister Naftali Bennet, leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, displayed Scarlett Johansson’s photo on his Facebook page with the caption “she is as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.”

Among the praise heaped on Scarlett Johansson for her bravery, there was scarce mention of the fact that her work with Oxfam had been charity, while SodaStream paid her handsomely for appearing in the ad due to be broadcast to the enormous TV audience who are glued to their screens on the occasion of  the American Super Bowl. She had already gotten quite a bit of income from advertising various commercial commodities, among them Calvin Klein, L'Oréal, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana. Breaking an advertising contract with SodaStream could have gotten her in legal problems and certainly jeopardized her chance of getting further such contracts.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson’s politics are not precisely the same as those of her Israeli admirers. Bennet and his settler friends are not especially fond of John Kerry and Barack Obama, both of whom got endorsements from Scarlett Johansson  during their presidential campaigns in  2004 and 2008 respectively.

Indeed, Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream, very proud of his famous acquisition, is striving mightily to distance himself from the outspokenly nationalist settlers of Bennet’s ilk and establish credentials as a “non political settler”. Indeed, Birnbaum has on several occasions presented himself as the new apostle of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, daily building up bridges of peace on his factory floor “without waiting for the politicians and diplomats.”

Birnbaum’s ace in the hole are the hundreds of Palestinian workers at the SodaStream factory. Well made video footage spread by the company show Palestinian workers m highly satisfied with their jobs, their salaries and working conditions, and on terms of perfect amity with Jewish co-workers, though they prefer to lunch separately.  

Until a few years ago, Israeli employers at the settlements grossly discriminated and exploited Palestinian workers, cynically citing the fact that they operate outside Israeli sovereign territory and therefore Israeli laws on minimum salary do not apply to them. Following appeals to the Supreme Court, it was ruled some years ago that in settlements – which are in effect Israeli enclaves within a non-Israeli territory – laws on minimum salary and other labor laws do apply, and Palestinian workers should gat the same pay as Israeli ones. Not all Israeli employers in the settlements did actually comply with the court’s ruling. It might be that  SodaStream did – if only to have a watertight alibi to present internationally.

In line with Birnbaum, Scarlett Johansson  explained that she “supports economic cooperation between a democratic Israel and Palestine." But where exactly would the democratic Palestine be located? Where would be its border with the democratic Israel? Would it have a territorial continuity, or be broken up into a series of disconnected enclaves?

It is doubtful that the  famous Holywood star had even seen a detailed map of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and their location in relation to the Palestinian towns and village, such as are published by various Israeli and Palestinian groups. Such a map would clearly show that Israeli government planners had placed the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim so as to drive a deep wedge into Palestinian territory, cutting off the northern part of the West Bank from its south, and that Mishor Adumim, the settlement’s industrial zone, is located at the cutting edge of that wedge into Palestine. And right there, at that cutting edge, is located the SodaStream factory, surrounded by an ugly concrete wall topped with barbed wire.

Of course, the many millions of American viewers who will watch the Super Bowl tomorrow night will see and hear nothing of that. They will only see  Scarlett Johansson’s smiling face.